The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 1.3.17

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In the English bard's Twelfth Night he writes, "If music be the food of love, play on ..." Thus I conclude that love is indeed in the air for the avian chorus, despite the notoriously capricious nature of the weather as March makes its entrance, is reflecting universally, a swelling of romantic emotions. The sound of music, now accompanied by the plaintiff bleating of newly born lambs, is increasing in volume by the day, chief songster among them here, the mavis, which is literally giving voice from dawn to dusk ... any beyond! But beware; March when it came was more lion than lamb-like!

"That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, lest you should think he never could recapture the first fine careless rapture .. " is another verse, also from the pen of an English poet, in this case, Robert Browning. Both exhibited an admiration for the vocal versatility of the song thrush - our bard's oft quoted mavis. However, in recent years, this once widespread bird seems to have become noticeably scarcer and in some parts of these islands, virtually absent. It is therefore with some delight that I can report that last year there was an equally noticeable resurgence in this airt at least. Thus, that trade-mark song, the phrases in my experience at least repeated not twice, as Browning had it but thrice and sometimes four times, was very much to the fore!

There are plenty of thrushes around just now with the remaining rampaging 'Viking' fieldfares and redwings still augmenting populations of the more sedentary but more musically vocal, native son and mistle thrushes. Indeed, the latter is well known for its assertive vocalisation during stormy weather, enjoying as it does, the soubriquet of 'storm cock', due to its habit of defiantly singing when the wind blows and the rain lashes. In similar fashion to those Scandinavian winter invaders, mistle thrushes always seem to exert further defiance by breasting the fiercest of winds in vigorous fight just as trawlers might breast the restless waves, as they literally hurtle into the teeth of gales.

The music of the larger mistle thrush lacks the repetitive rhythm of its smaller song-thrush cousin but is appropriately assertive and cheerfully melodic, if sometimes descending into a coarser, less musical rattle. And, in line with its challenging singing, the mistle thrush is also big and bold enough to show naked aggression towards potential predators, usually to pretty good effect. They share with fieldfares a flash of white under the wings which seems to serve as a warning to other birds. Indeed, these assertive thrushes also defend with determination good berry-bearing shrubs and trees, which they claim and defend as their own exclusive feeding territory.

My resident song thrush is now really belting out the music, from first light until well beyond sunset, which seems also to act as inspiration to the growing quarrel of house sparrows which also chatter testily away until it is almost completely dark. Either these are particularly badly behaved sparrows or perhaps and more likely, they too have been completely overtaken by the rise of their emotional temperatures as spring advances and days lengthen.

All this comes as I spot my first frog-spawn of the year, which offers further confirmation of spring's advance. So it comes as no surprise that some members of my local rook community, as is the well-documented tradition, have failed to wait until St David's Day - March 1st and jumped the gun to begin their annual spring clean. Some were already gathering at the rookery in mid-February and are now beginning to busily add sticks to those nests that have withstood the winter's storms, or in the cases of those that have been wrecked, beginning to lay new foundations.

But I must say that if the 'music' the rooks are making does not somehow seem to match that of my tuneful song thrush, it must nevertheless be the 'food of love' as far as these decidedly amorous rooks are concerned. Our ears are perhaps tuned to admire what we interpret as sweet music without considering that rooks for instance may hear sweet music in the raucous calling of their colleagues. It may not seem musical to us but presumably to courting rooks it is indeed, as yet another English poet John Keats wrote, "Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too."

Like the chattering, quarrelsome sparrows, rooks also believe firmly in corporate life, feeding, moving and nesting together as communities. And if sparrows have always lived cheek by jowl with human communities, rooks have to all intents and purposes, remained that little bit more aloof ... except that nowadays they are increasingly exploiting the profligacy of the modern day supermarket shopper, by loitering in the car parks of these mega-stores. Along with screaming gulls, they exploit our carelessness relentlessly and eagerly.

But rooks are among the intelligentsia of the avian world, adept at for instance, in manufacturing tools in order to extract difficult to obtain morsels of food and able to use other items, such as stones in order to trigger apparatus which again allows them to obtain food. Oddly enough, there is a suggestion that captive rooks are more adept in this respect compared with wild birds, which suggests they have an impressive capacity to learn.

Not that rook life, once rookeries become more and more animated as spring advance, is necessarily all sweetness and light. Whilst rooks actually live in a highly structured society with senior members establishing themselves as the 'leaders', thus lording it over less important members of the group. They enjoy first choice of the best feeding, while the 'subsidiary' birds have to settle for less rich pickings. Yet, despite the presence of this hierarchy, there is no moral compass. In a rookery theft is commonplace and so too is infidelity, even if they mostly pair for life!

And whilst much has been written about rook courts or parliaments - events I have personally witnessed - the notion that such 'criminals' are thereafter punished may be fantasy. Indeed, it may be nearer to the truth to say that birds 'up before the beaks' are not necessarily felons but much more likely diseased birds and as such, considered 'by the court' to represent a danger to the rest of the colony. The sentence passed I'm afraid is either death or exile and the senior rooks are the executioners or the deporting agents.

Thus, the signs of early nuptials and the sound of love songs is surely a response to the hitherto benign nature of this winter, rather than a precocious urge to get out of the blocks indecently early. Winter is showing that it still has a sting in its tail but lengthening days tell us that March is the first proper month of spring whether coming in as a lion or a lamb. The rising volume of music, whether sweet or not, tells its own story.

Country View 22.2.17

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Defence mechanisms in the natural world, can be many and varied. Clearly, being particularly fleet footed, or in the avian world, capable of fast flight, offers a means of escape to the hunted, albeit that most predators succeed because they too are capable of rapid pursuit. Sparrowhawks for instance, can out-fly most of the birds they target, although I have also seen them out manoeuvred on occasions.

I once watched in amazement as such a hawk took off explosively in pursuit of a tree pipit only for it to be thwarted by the aerial gyrations of the said pipit which several times managed to dodge the pursuing raptor and evade its striking talons. Lacking a stomach or more accurately perhaps, the stamina for further aggression, the hawk peeled away, disconsolately returning to its perch.

I also have a clear memory of a pair of goldeneye which, similarly finding themselves being pursued by another such hawk, escaped by hitting the water of the loch and instantly plunging beneath its surface, leaving the hawk grasping at thin air! However, I suspect these were exceptions to the normal rule for I am sure that more often than not, sparrowhawks, like the legendary Canadian Mounties, 'always get their man'! Success is of course, not automatic and like spars, those other now well-known hunters of fish the ospreys, do not, as some would have it, succeed in grabbing a fish every time they dive.

However, there is much more to hunting than sheer speed. For instance, firstly the hunter must be able to see or hear its prey. Some predators even rely on their sense of touch as for instance in the case of an otter, which can sense the presence of prey through its whiskers. Thus, as a part of nature's defence mechanism, the remarkable process of evolution has equipped many insects, birds and animals with the most remarkable powers of obfuscation. In other words, they merge so perfectly with their background that they are to all intents and purposes, invisible. Through the work of dedicated and highly skilled cameramen and women through television programmes such as "Planet Earth", on a regular basis we see insects looking more like the twigs upon which they perch, rather than the twigs themselves!

There are many wonderful examples of camouflage throughout the natural world. Indeed, one of the most convincing is surely exhibited by ground roosting woodcock. I am sure that during strolls through woodland, I have many times, walked past roosting woodcock without even an inkling of their presence. Again, I have a clear memory of one occasion when I actually got so close as to put a previously unseen woodcock up from the well leaf-littered floor of an open piece of woodland. It flew no more than thirty feet before dropping back to the woodland floor where it disappeared again as it settled once more in the litter. It literally became immediately invisible again - before my very eyes!

On other occasions I have been lucky enough to spot such a bird, sometimes because the only feature giving away its presence was its glinting eye. The rest of it was, to all intents and purposes, so well integrated with its background that it was invisible. I wonder too how many of us have failed to identify a hare crouched in its form in a field which has been ploughed. As I usually have a dog with me on my walks, the presence of such a creature may not initially be obvious. There is however a distance at which what may look like s molehill realises that it is about to be discovered and transmogrifies into the running hare it really is!

Brown hares have had a chequered history in this airt in recent decades. Forty years ago they were numerous enough for the then local keeper to organise regular hare shoots. But over a number of years, populations declined quite seriously. However in recent times, there has been a recovery in their numbers and they are now much more readily seen. Some readers may be surprised to know that the brown hare does not seem to have been a long-term resident of these islands and indeed may have been introduced by our distant ancestors. Thus it is said that our only real native hare is the mountain or blue hare, now mostly a resident of Highland mountainsides. And this hare has a pretty good, if very different obfuscation trick up its sleeve. When winter descends, it enters a moult - one of four it undergoes each year - and adopts a white coat.

This is a transformation, which is of course, shared by two other creatures in the Scottish landscape, the ptarmigan and the stoat. Again, I have a clear memory from many winters ago, of seeing three stoats in close proximity of one another on a single day, each one in a different phase of coat change. One of them had not undergone its expected transformation to ermine at all, having remained stubbornly brown. Another had reached a halfway house and thus resembled a skewbald horse decorated by patches of brown and white and the third had undergone the full monty, so that with the exception of the tip of its tail which had as ever, remained black, it was otherwise completely white. This is a really clever move on nature's part but only providing there is sufficient snowfall to ensure that the animal or bird concerned is thus appropriately camouflaged in a snowy landscape.

However, the advent in recent years, of mild winters - including this one - has meant that this clever plan has in a sense, backfired. Our mountain hares have it seems, been made much more vulnerable by the chronic lack of snow on the mountains where they dwell. This lack of snow cover has meant that they literally do stand out like sore thumbs and must therefore be much more susceptible to predation by for instance, 'eagle-eyed' golden eagles.

Unfortunately for them, the warming climate is unlikely to trigger any change in the normal pattern of moulting as it is apparent that it is the shortening length of daylight hours in the autumn and early winter that triggers such change, not falling temperatures as was previously thought. A good few years ago now, there was a population of mountain hares present on the mosses close to here, which are by their nature, rarely snow-covered. Indeed, I can remember squelching my way across that green, soggy landscape when almost from under my feet a white hare got up from behind a tussock and ran off. It was a bizarre sight and the very opposite of obfuscation! Those white hares are no longer to be seen in this environment and I have long wondered how they got there in the first place. Methinks a human hand had been at work!

During these next few weeks, there will be plenty of hare activity to observe as the brown hares begin to abandon their otherwise shy dispositions and instead become, 'mad March hares'! They could well become 'mad February hares' with spring seemingly coming progressively earlier. Usually, the mountain hares in their mountainous fastnesses, wait a little longer before they too cast aside their natural coyness and yet there are already reports of signs of courtship among them. It seems likely therefore that they may well be cavorting about their hillsides even now and may be expected perhaps to be in full cry before March gives way to April, if not before. And like the more Lowland based brown hares, they will throw aside their normal singular nature and come together in what can only be described as a madcap mixture of leaping and even boxing!

Country View 15.2.17

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Fickle February! Just as we were beginning to believe that spring was on the march, a bitter wind, the origins of which were probably somewhere in Siberia, hurtled in from the east. Flurries of snow were a further reminder that this month is indeed a child of winter! And yet, the days are stretching and there are certain signs that, even if it doesn't feel like it, the influence of spring is beginning to percolate.

The chattering of my neighbourhood sparrows intensifies by the day - their typically quarrelsome and precocious behaviour is increasingly to the fore. And, there have been unusual snatches of sweet song, noticeably brief in their nature, for they emanate from a little posse of starlings, which have decided to encamp here. As starlings always do, they prattle - rattling away like spinning jennies. Yet in between, there have also been heard some short excerpts of remarkably sweet song. Clearly they have been listening ... and as starlings are wont to do, copying. However starlings appear to resemble second rate actors, constantly forgetting their lines, because they never seen able to properly complete what they start!

Starlings are of course renowned for their mimicry and frequently copy fragments of the songs of other birds. In this modern day and age, they also use their talents to become dab hands at imitating perfectly, the sounds of both land and mobile phones, causing consternation as a result, to the owners of such gadgets. But starlings of course, are not alone in demonstrating an ability to copy a wide range of sounds. Members of the crow clan too are adept at imitating all kinds of bizarre noises. Jays for instance, may copy the calls of raptors to warn all and sundry that such a bird is around and posing a threat. Jackdaws too are great mimics and in captivity, readily copy the human voice.

It will come as little surprise that ravens are also versatile impressionists and accordingly on a day to day basis, may be heard reproducing the most amazing range of calls. They are of course, highly intelligent birds, which clearly possess a keen sense of humour as well as a real eagerness to get into the breeding season each year as quickly as possible. In recent days I have seen plenty of evidence of courtship among the increasing population hereabouts, openly defying the sudden reversion to winter. Ravens, even though most of them these days choose to live largely among the mountains, are nevertheless always quick off the mark when it comes to breeding ambitions and indeed, may often be found incubating eggs during February.

Their mountain-based avian colleagues, the golden eagles, are also in a sense, quick off the mark albeit that for them, the breeding season is an extremely prolonged process, often beginning with the choice of the year's nesting site, a selection which may often be made as the New Year begins. The whole procedure of incubation, hatching and rearing eaglets to the point of fledging and eventual self-sufficiency, literally goes on and on and on until the first hints of autumn gold are with us!

In these Lowland locations, eagles are a rare sight indeed. However, we do find ourselves watching 'the tourist's eagles', better known as buzzards, on a daily basis and here again, I have been aware of early courtship activity. One pair in particular, has been drifting above a local woodland, typically proscribing graceful circles with the visibly smaller cock bird following eagerly in the wake of his larger prospective mate.

Buzzards, unjustly perhaps, do not generally receive a particularly good press. Because of their propensity to exploit carrion, they are probably, along with the new generation of red kites, the most common victims of the illegal practice of setting poisoned baits, still I'm afraid a problem in some parts of the country. Our vision of both these raptors is that they spend a good deal of their time simply circling in the sky. Indeed, some observers even suggest that these circling motions point to a degree of idleness on the part of these birds. Noting could be farther from the truth. Both buzzards and kites have remarkably good 'telephoto' vision and their assumed aimlessness is in fact quite the opposite, for from their aerial stations they are in fact carefully scouring every inch of the ground below for feeding opportunities.

Buzzards are noticeably bulkier than the more slender kites and thus are not quite as masterful in flight. That said, I must say that in my view, there is a certain majesty about a gliding buzzard. And of course, buzzards are regularly confused with eagles by folk who are not particularly familiar with largish birds of prey. Their habit of regularly perching on telegraph poles might perhaps be taken as a suggestion of laziness. Yet, this is perhaps an alternative and a less energy consuming means of searching for potential food sources! The relatively slow moving, 'lazy' flight pattern of the buzzard, like that of the kite, doubtless made them easier targets for those intent on their destruction when such practice was commonplace.

It is historic fact that the destruction of any bird with a hooked beak, not to mention animals with a taste for the flesh of game birds, was precisely what occurred with the sudden rise in the development of 'sporting estates' back in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the universal assault upon easily targeted buzzards and kites reached such devastating proportions that the kite became extinct as a breeding bird in both Scotland and England, to be re-introduced of course, in much more recent times.

Despite such widespread slaughter, the more common buzzard survived. In this airt, the persecution seems to have been severe to such an extent that around Callander there was a mass slaughter of hundreds of them. The more reasoned attitude towards birds of prey which began to be promoted in the wake of the First World War, was not however, necessarily adopted by all. Legislation to enforce the protection of some birds such as the great crested grebe which hitherto had faced extinction due to the demand for its feathers, had begun to appear late in the nineteenth century and gradually, during the twentieth century, more legislation appeared on the statute book

There were and indeed are those however, who are still so intent upon protecting game birds such as pheasants and on the moors, grouse, who continue to flout the law. Consequently in some areas buzzard numbers continue to decline. However, the intensification of farming and a resulting dearth of suitable prey may also be contributory factors in the east. But here at least, the evidence is currently pointing to a gradual recovery. Thus the recently observed signs of courtship suggest that despite the recent return of winter, preparations for the breeding season seem well in hand.

There was also a moment of further confirmation of the mood in the shape of a pair of carrion crows clearly canoodling, engaging in what could only be described as bonding behaviour, affectionately contacting each other, beak to beak. Notwithstanding those cold easterlies, the birds at least are signalling the inevitable fact that spring is actually springing!

Country View 8.2.17

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We have, as ground hogging human beings, always envied the ability of birds to fly. By our very nature, we are of course, terrestrial beings, physically 'anchored' to terra firma. Unlike our distant primate cousins, we maintain an upright posture and thus progress essentially by the movement of our legs. Yet whilst we may have mastered the art of swimming, down the millennia, we have it seems, constantly harboured the ambition to somehow emulate the birds and take to the air. Even in Greek mythology, this desire was clearly uppermost in the minds of the creators of those legendary tales, most pertinently perhaps in the shapes of Daedalus and his rather more famous son, Icarus.

The story tells us that having been imprisoned on the island of Crete by King Minos, this father and son duo fashioned two pairs of wings from wax and feathers and made good their escape. Daedalus, the story continues, managed to navigate his way from Crete to Naples, whilst Icarus famously is said to have been so exhilarated by his new found freedom that he flew too close to the sun, the heat melting the wax, whereupon he plunged into the sea. Incidentally, the sea into which he is said to have dropped is still to this day called the 'Icarian Sea'. Some story!

Of course, such tales are essentially mythical - more imaginary than factual. Yet in modern times, there are those who in a sense, have succeeded where even the figures of those remarkable Greek legends merely imagined that they had somehow conquered the air. Indeed, there are those intrepid souls who have gone part way towards achieving flight through the use of a variety of gadgets and vehicles although none of them as far as I can tell are able to achieve what might be described as proper, animated or self-powered flight.

I have personally enjoyed the thrill of flight in a glider, which was certainly an uplifting experience! But others by using a variety of devices, have gone further, gliding across the sky dressed in specially designed, 'winged' suits, albeit usually on a progressively downward spiral! As recently mentioned, we have read the remarkable story of the lady who flew three thousand miles with migrating swans in what to all intents and purposes, was a motor powered kite!

In modern times, many devices have been created using motors yet the plain truth is that the full power of flight without such paraphernalia is beyond us. We are not built for such adventures, nor do we have the advantages enjoyed by birds with their virtually hollow bones, which of course, means they are much lighter. Furthermore, birds come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, all of which have evolved into an amazing variety of aerodynamic forms, depending on each bird's particular requirements

Yet down the ages, many people have continued to dedicate themselves to the ambition of mastering flight. Famously, there was a certain Father John Damian, who was so confident in his ability to fly, that in 1507, he strapped on wings and jumped from the battlements of Stirling's castle, only to crash onto the rocks below. My own view is that we should perhaps accept our terrestrial fate and therefore continue to admire the skills the avian classes are able to achieve, skills which we should perhaps accept we will never ever come even close to emulating.

The other day, watching yet again the flying skills of a mixed flock of humble rooks and jackdaws utterly defying the vagaries of the weather, notably a blustery wind and accordingly throwing themselves about the sky with gay abandon, that message was massively underlined. But is it those amazing powers of flight in its many forms I wonder, which has encouraged so many folks to follow an interest in birds in the first place?

The countless variations on a theme, we may be lucky enough to witness, are remarkable. Indeed, those variations sometimes seem to be utterly infinite. Take for instance the amazing gyrations of those masses of starlings we call murmurations, in which these amazing flocks - often numbering many thousands - of birds, sketch out the most unbelievable patterns across the sky without even a hint of collisions. These fluid, mass movements are living works of art; breathtaking kaleidoscopic spectacles. Then there is the high, soaring flight of eagles or the fast direct aeronautics of swifts and swallows, let alone the almost unbelievable, global migratory flights covering thousands of miles undertaken often by the tiniest of birds.

I will never tire of watching the delicious hovering flight of a kestrel, every nerve, every sinew, every muscle and every feather somehow working in harmony to keep the bird's head utterly stationary, as it seeks out its prey hidden below in the vegetation. Sadly, the number of kestrels seems these days to be diminishing alarmingly. Nor indeed will I ever be bored when watching the sensational dive of an osprey, ending with that mighty splash as it hits the water and grapples for a hold on its slippery prey. All these activities and many more amply demonstrate those countless variations on a theme.

Yet, those of us who encourage the birds into our gardens, also find ourselves equally fascinated by the dextrous agility so many of our smaller birds demonstrate as they seek to take advantage of the nuts, seed and other sources of nourishment we provide. Typically, those great entertainers, the bluetits, are renowned for such artistry. Equally, a similar degree of agility is shown by the goldfinches I see here on a daily basis, whether swinging on the said food containers or indeed upon thistles as they show off their acrobatic skills in the process of adroitly extracting the nourishing seeds. And in recent days, a single siskin has joined these 'trapeze artists'. These minuscule little birds don't usually put in an appearance in my garden until March so I guess I have to conclude that, 'one siskin does not a springtime make'!

The siskin is, in essence, a bird of conifer forests, which of course have become an increasingly familiar feature of our landscape in recent times, hence, their increasing numbers. Marginally bigger than the extremely weel kent bluetit, this is an attractive little character. The male, distinctively green and yellow, is also notable for two prominent yellow wing bars on each wing, a little black cap and a black bib, the female a little plainer, her plumage streaky but always offering that hint of green.

Apart from the single bird currently taking advantage of my food offerings, I recently enjoyed a close encounter with a little flock of them literally swarming through the branches of an alder tree on the edge of a sports ground. Their acrobatics were amazing as they filtered through the branches and with their very fine little beaks, adroitly teased out seeds from the tiny cones. They freely hung upside down as they worked the seeds free and demonstrated an agility of which any bluetit would have been proud. Alder seeds are a vital source of food for them and usually, only when these supplies diminish do they become more evident in gardens

Siskins are unusual in that male birds may be observed offering other males gifts of seeds. In most other bird populations, such offerings usually see the male birds giving seeds to their mates as a means of strengthening pair bonding. Siskin males feeding each other however, seems to be an acknowledgement of the established pecking order in which the lesser birds accept their status, with the weaker birds keeping the peace by offering food to their stronger, more dominant rivals.

Siskin flight is usually an expression of their very sociable nature. That single siskin in my garden is unusual in its singularity. However, they don't congregate in large numbers, preferring to remain in tightly formed little family groups as they bound from tree to tree. Entertaining little birds in every way!

Country View 1.2.17

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How I enjoyed a letter recently published in the Stirling Observer but written originally a hundred years ago by a "Mr and Mrs Blackbird". Even during the dark days of that 'war to end all wars', sentiments were clearly being expressed about the desirability of remembering the welfare of our garden brids. However, I think Mr and Mrs Blackbird should perhaps have had a chat with their dietician if such a person existed in those far off days. Such an expert would surely have advised that not any old crumbs would do. White bread scraps are awfully bad for birds.

The trouble is that once eaten, such materials swell, thus filling the birds' stomachs and restricting the amount of other food they can ingest. And, all birds must beware of the harder times to be expected during the treacherous month of February and remember that days, while just beginning to lenghten, are still short on hours of the daylight, during which the blackbirds of this world are able to forage. Moving on a century, this is why it remains vital to ensure that in order to survive during the coldest of nights, all birds need to pack in as much good food as possible ...of the right sort. It is incidentally vital to ensure they also have access to a supply of fresh, clean water!

I surely do not need to remind folk I'm sure, that keeping their little bodies warm on cold and frosty nights saps the energy of birds remarkably rapidly. They will use so much of it just to keep warm for wild birds of course, do not have the luxury of central heating. Mind you, few humans enjoyed that luxury a hundred years ago either! Furthermore remember that birds must find somewhere to bed down, which is by the very nature of their wild existence, exposed to what ever the weather may bring, hail rain or snow, especially as at this time of the year there isn't even shelter offered by the leaves. However, blackbirds do have the advantage of enjoying an omnivorous diet. So I would have encouraged Mr and Mrs Blackbird's new found human friends a hundred years ago, to put out not that white bread but maybe some containers containing hard fat, and lard for they would have provided maximum energy with which to fight off the cold.

However, if the blackbirds in our gardens are lucky and the frost stays away, they can continue to feast upon worms and other invertebrates. Mr and Mrs Blackbird's descendants, some located in my neck of the woods, are enjoying these avian dietary delights, especially on my lawn. But equally, and especially if the frost returns with a vengeance as it is wont to do in February, that source of food may be denied to them. So, those who these days so enthusiastically feed the birds should perhaps provide some fat balls, seeds, scraps of grated cheese, crushed peanuts and even sunflower hearts. We put out an old Christmas pudding and the birds love it!

If, as is the fashion these days, the gardens that today's blackbirds patrol, contain decorative berry bearing shrubs and trees and they haven't been got at by either their fellow thrushes, the visiting waxwings or hungry starlings, they can be a big dietary bonus. Again, this illustrates the omnivorous nature of our blackbirds.

I'm afraid however that any goodies enthusiasts may provide will have to be made accessible, perhaps on or close to the ground. I am well aware that unlike titmice, goldfinches, other finches and even common or garden sparrows, the blackbird clan has not yet mastered the art of clinging on to suspended baskets. As blackbirds obtain most of their food from terra firma, that's where it should be placed for them.

Of course, I am sure that whatever the weather, blackbirds will also be exploring the local woods, using their beaks to turn over the carpets of dead leaves in the hope of finding the odd juicy morsel. Mind you, that activity is extremely energy sapping. Blackbirds very vocally vent their displeasure at the ill-timed arrival in their patch, of wood-walking humans. On such occasions they will follow a deeply ingrained instinct and remove themselves loudly with those familiar proclamations of indignity - 'tick, tick, tick' - the merle's very own unique and very vocal alarm system.

And they may indeed use the same noisy protestation should they feel threatened by a predator such as a roosting owl or perhaps a hawk, not to mention a patrolling fox. Often this obvious outcry is also a warning to other birds and animals that danger may be at hand. Blackbirds, always alert, thus often provide a very special early warning system that all creatures great and small can heed.

And had I been around a hundred years ago this January or February, my advice to Mr and Mrs Blackbird would have been not to be lulled by mild conditions into building a nest just yet. Some precocious blackbirds do get carried away and even lay eggs before January is out. Such ventures more often than not fail, for Mr Blackbird, upon whom his partner would have relied for food whilst incubating eggs, may not have been able to find enough at that time of the year. So Mrs Blackbird may have found herself having to go and find her own, during which expeditions her eggs would have chilled and come to nought.

However, Mr Blackbird was and is the one that sings, a process which is all about trying to encourage a Mrs Blackbird to join him and indeed to establish and maintain a prime, food filled territory of which she too can be proud. Happily, that music also entertains us humans. Thus would I have encouraged Mr Blackbird to do some of his singing where people too can hear it. There are and always have been plenty of folk who have and still do rejoice in the mellow voices and the flowing melodies produced by these delightful garden birds. Indeed there are those among us who rate his as the finest of all voices in the avian choir. I also know that some serenading blackbirds are inclined to break into song especially early in the year, so many of us do keep our ears open in the hope of hearing those first assertive musical offerings.

However, suburban blackbirds, of which there are these days many, must beware of gardens where cats roam. I have a cat but he is far too lazy to bother chasing about after birds but there are plenty of cats which by their very nature can be a real threat to blackbird survival. So, it is vital that they must always keep a very wary eye open for that crafty moggy. Even the most cosseted cat can be very cunning, very elusive, stealthy and lethal. Vigilance is the key and that rattling, peppering volley that is so much a part of that early warning system of the blackbird will also alert other birds to a cat's presence and keep them out of harm's way.

I do admire the blackbird's bustling flight. They never seem to go anywhere slowly. There always seems to be about them, a sense of urgency. They breast the air, cleaving it in the same way as a yacht in full sail, parts the waves. I also admire Mr Blackbird's beautiful crocus-coloured beak and those lovely golden rings around his eyes. And although Mrs Blackbird is less well endowed in this way, perhaps that illustrates how well Mother Nature has worked things out, for she needs to be less conspicuous, especially when eventually being ensconced for weeks on end in the nest incubating her eggs. Anonymity then is one of the keys to her survival.

But as Mr and Mrs Blackbird wrote a hundred years ago, those avian conscious human benefactors should be encouraged to put out plenty of food albeit without that white bread please. February days can be tricky. But all birds must ignore weight watching and eat as heartily as possible! That's the way to survive. So I say good luck to the blackbirds of this world, the descendants of those remarkable correspondents of a hundred years ago, Mr and Mrs Blackbird!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods