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 18.10.17

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These have not been prosperous times for savers with interest rates so low that savings grow only at a snail's pace. However, the concept of saving is probably entirely alien to those families struggling to survive on low incomes, but nature's savers do not have a choice. Indeed, the very raison d'etre for their assiduous hoarding at this time of the year is to survive the rigours of forthcoming winter. For instance, the squirrels discussed last week, busy themselves by collecting nature's harvest and stashing the fruits of the season away, burying vast quantities of food or secreting it away in cracks in the bark of trees.

Those squirrels are among the most assiduous of savers. However, there are many other animals that follow their example. Not surprisingly, foxes also develop caches of food - saving their hard won prey for that rainy day. The fox cub I reared from the tender age of three days old some years ago - she remained with us until she died, aged thirteen - was an inveterate saver. I suppose that anyway, compared with her wild cousins, she always lived a life of luxury, well fed with hardly a care in the world and of course, sublimely free from persecution.

Nevertheless, she obeyed her instincts and regularly buried surplus food. In particular, she loved hen eggs. It is incredible just how gentle foxes can be. She would accept the egg with much care so as not to crack it and then she would go off and find some soft soil in her run, dig a hole, place the egg in it and then cover it, using her nose to ensure a neat finish! She was, I suppose, a comparatively 'fat cat', compared with neighbouring wild foxes.

And, you may be surprised to know that moles are also obsessive savers too. Moles, of course, have voracious appetites, their main source of food worms, which they pursue with remarkable zeal. There was, during the nineteenth century, much argument about a theory that moles established worm banks by disabling and then storing them. Now it is acknowledged that that is exactly what moles do. They don't kill their victims but disable them by biting their heads off in order to isolate them from their primitive brains and thus paralysing them. It is their way of putting them in cold storage to ensure they don't go off!

This ensures that when the ground becomes frozen solid in exceptionally cold conditions, the moles still have access to fresh food supplies. Curiously enough, any worms that survive the winter can eventually re-grow their heads and thus their brains, before escaping! Wood mice also busy themselves at this time of the year gathering a harvest of food and storing it in shallow soil or underground, for instance in drains.

Surprisingly, there are birds, which also store food, stashing away surplus food for those shorter and life-threatening days of winter. Coal tits are perhaps one of the birds that are most vulnerable and susceptible in hard winters. Indeed, coal tits are amongst the birds that will sometimes roost together in confined places - old nest-boxes for instance - snuggling together for warmth. Although they do come to bird-tables they also resort to collecting and storing seeds when they are abundant, for later consumption when food is otherwise scarce.

I believe coal tits are the only small birds that make such provision but many readers will I'm sure not be surprised to know that the other birds that are clever enough to stash surplus food away for consumption during the harsher winter months are member sof the crow family. But as I have often remarked, the crow clan is surely the intelligentsia of the avian community. Magpies for instance, are shrewd enough to collect food when it is abundant and bury it as an insurance against shortages during winter.

However, the most unlikely saver is perhaps the colourful jay. The white flash of a jay's rump seen the other day reminded me that jays are indeed among our most colourful birds and in that respect are very different from other crows in which black is so dominant. Jays are, of course, notoriously disliked by gamekeepers, perhaps partially because they are indeed paid up members of that hated crow clan but also because in springtime they are apt to raid small bird nests for their young. However, jays are largely vegetarian and perhaps on analysis, they are in fact, not such pests after all but surprisingly, ardent conservationists.

The jays themselves seem to be well aware of their unpopularity for at the appearance of people, they are usually swift to beat a hasty retreat. Yet in retreat they are also discreet, seldom flying together but singly, one after the other, always a fair distance apart, thus making themselves more difficult targets. They are not necessarily so discreet vocally for their raucous screeching is certainly a familiar sound to woodland walkers! Indeed the Gaelic for jay, 'Schreachag choille', translates as 'screamer of the woods'! Their pink, black, brown, white and grey plumage, embellished with vivid flashes of azure blue on each wing, makes this one of our most colourful resident birds.

These blue flashes are presumably why in some parts of central Scotland they are known as 'blue jays'. They also rejoice in many parts of Scotland in the nickname of 'gae' perhaps a misspelling of their proper name, 'jay piet' and 'oak jackdaw'. The latter name I suspect, because of firstly, their relationship with other crows and secondly for their obsession with acorns.

And this is indeed why they may claim to be conservationists, for they are amongst the most assiduous of hoarders, collecting at this time of the year, vast numbers of acorns, which they bury. These are their means of surviving the shortages of food apparent during the winter months. However, although they seem to have exceptionally good memories for re-locating such riches, they bury far more than they are ever going to need and as a consequence, other creatures exploit these stores and the rest simply sprout! From little acorns come big oaks and it is said of jays that they are responsible for the expansion of many of our precious oak woodlands.

Such is the energy of jays during the autumn that some observers have estimated that each jay may collect and bury as many as five thousand acorns during the autumn. One student of jay-lifestyle went so far as to suggest that if every day, making up an estimated British population of 170,000 pairs, was so assiduous, the result might be that 1,700,000,000 acorns could be buried each and every year by jays alone! Extraordinary! Such planting zeal probably puts the likes of Forestry Commission in the shade!

Jays usually sound raucous but especially in the breeding season, they are known as skilled mimics, imitating for instance, the calls of buzzards and owls and when threatened, the alarm calls of other woodland dwellers such as blackbirds. Perhaps therefore, we should regard them as the true guardians of our wildlife-rich oak woodlands as well as earnest savers and conservationists?

Country View 13.10.17

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This week, I have been seeing red! However, the red I have been seeing is not reflecting any sense of anger but is currently being clearly manifested in the trees, birds and animals which are certainly now very much in autumnal mood. As the year plunges towards its end, the landscape is transformed. This green and pleasant landscape now draws a breath. The leaves surrender to the inevitable passage of time and fall, yet they provide the nutrients for next spring. In death, they breathe new life.

Red has been especially noticeable lately in the blazing, dying foliage of the horse chestnuts And with advancing autumn days bathing the landscape with a golden sheen, the colours are accordingly strengthening, so that yellow, gold and red and rapidly taking over from green. Indeed, I have even been conscious of vague hints of forthcoming winter beginning to pervade the air. If the swallows are gone, there is plenty of evidence of new winter arrivals.

Belatedly perhaps, massed ranks of pink-feet have finally arrived, their loose skeins at times stretching far and wide across our skies and the haunting sound of their voices echoing across the vale. That cacophony of high pitched gabbling is a stark reminder that even if Mr Frost has yet to put in a serious appearance, he may indeed soon respond to the voices of those thousands of geese and come a-visiting! As we wander towards November, those hints will gradually take more definite shape!

And, from suggestions of pink to more full-blown red or russet, when I encountered a lone red kite patrolling nearby fields, dancing, pirouetting and floating on the air as only kites can. It prescribed wide circles as its incredibly sharp eyes focussed on the ground below in its search for a meal. Within minutes I found myself able to strike an almost instant comparison between the delicate flight of the kite and that of a buzzard which typically prescribed rather more contained circles over an adjacent field on the other side of the track.

Whilst I have always been an admirer of buzzards - their tuneful mewing during these autumn months seems somehow to compliment the gabbling of the geese - there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that in comparison with the lissom kite, the buzzard suddenly seemed bulky and almost clumsy. Of course, the kite is so much more slender, a physical feature which somehow seems to accentuate its size especially in flight when the voluminous wings are at full stretch. There is, unquestionably, something so much more graceful about the more buoyant flight of the kite.

The circling kite has become an increasingly familiar sight all over Britain in recent years and although there are those - a minority I guess - who seem to find its presence not to their liking, I suspect most welcome it as a natural enhancement to our landscape. There are even those in the south, who now actively feed kites in their gardens. Yet despite the attributes of kites there are also people who do not like them simply because they have hooked beaks!

For some such folk, a bird possessed of a hooked beak is anathema and the cause of such hatred that is I suppose, inherent. The claim that kites - and buzzards for that matter - are apt to take young game birds when the opportunity arises is not, I often think, justification for killing these truly beautiful birds, especially when you consider that every year some fifty million pheasants are released into the British countryside. Surely the impact of kites and buzzards, both mainly scavengers, is infinitesimal!

For the sheer beauty they display I personally roundly applaud the decision to restore red kites to our landscape. Over a hundred years ago, previous generations of kites might well have over-flown those self-same fields. But when all raptors suddenly became the 'enemy', along with a number of carnivores too, and war was waged against anything that threatened game, the kite, an easy target because of the slow and graceful nature of flight, was quickly driven to extinction in both Scotland and England. They managed somehow to hold on in mid-Wales but only in minimal numbers.

Thus, when the decision was made to re-introduce them, the young birds needed to re-establish them here had to be brought in from Eastern Europe, where they are plentiful. And my, how they have prospered. In several places in the UK there are sites now set up, where kites can be viewed from hides by the general public. One such viewing place has of course, been established locally on the Argaty estate. Anyone who is interested in wildlife and wants to see kites at their best really should take the opportunity to visit Argaty. The sight of dozens of kites coming in to feed is truly spectacular and breathtaking.

There was another flash of russet red, albeit a few weeks ago, when I delighted in watching a single, grey headed male kestrel flaunting his fantastic hovering skills high above a field margin. It is a matter of great sadness to me that these days, such a sighting is a rarity compared with the situation just a few years ago. In a sense, I was brought out on kestrels. For instance, I could occasionally watching one from my childhood bedroom window and even better, if I went down to 'my secret field' I could lay on my back and watch them endlessly. What has happened to our kestrels? I long to see that shade of red on a more regular basis again.

And then, a day or two ago, another flash of red excited me when a red squirrel scampered across the road in front of me, disappearing through a hedge into a neighbourhood garden. Twenty years ago the colour of any squirrel sighted there would have been grey, not red. The transformation over recent years has been remarkable. The spread of pine marten, hitherto restricted to remote parts of the Highlands, has had a remarkable impact on grey squirrel numbers in many parts of Scotland. Happily, the vacuum created by marten predation upon these aliens, is slowly being filled by red squirrels.

I daresay that the decision to introduce grey squirrels to the British landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an act perpetrated by both private landowners and local authorities, would have been made without any concept of the consequences their actions might have on our native red squirrels. In short, the aggressive nature of the larger grey squirrels in competing for food, has, over a period of just over a hundred years, seen red squirrel populations plummet, their places taken by the greys.

The progress made by pine marten as they have broken out from the Highlands and extended their range into Lowland Scotland, has seen them target the greys which, because they are heavier and thus far less agile than reds, are consequently much easier to catch. In recent times, there have also been campaigns launched to cull grey squirrels, so thanks to this but more especially due to marten activity, the balance is slowly changing in favour of the reds.

However, there is an irony here because red squirrels have enjoyed very mixed fortunes down the years. They were thought to have become extinct during the early nineteenth century and were subsequently re-introduced to Perthshire from Scandinavia. The irony was compounded when the rising population of red squirrels was such that squirrel clubs were formed in order to control their numbers because of the damage they were causing to trees in the new forests of the time! Now, in direct contrast, everything is being done to restore them to areas where once they were common. Seeing red more often as is the case now, is therefore really good news!

Country View 5.10.17

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Territorial integrity is fundamental, not just to animals and birds but indeed to us too. Whether in relation to a multi-roomed mansion or castle or a one-roomed flat perhaps more reminiscent of a shoe-box than a house, we psychologically need the security such a dwelling provides "An Englishman's home is his castle," is a well-worn phrase. A Scotsman's, perhaps, is his bothy! It perhaps boils down to our need to belong ... somewhere!

Animals and birds have precisely the same needs, albeit that territory for them, serves more than one purpose; on the one hand, a breeding territory. However, many of the small birds, which are especially vulnerable to attacks by predators, surrender their territorial sovereignty when they are unencumbered by the drive to procreate and their lifestyles are changed by the shortening days of winter.

Indeed, as winter approaches, territorial integrity as a means to a breeding end, ceases to be such a driving force for most birds. Instead, the mentality now switches more vitally to the harsh reality of survival and that goal is more readily achieved by surrendering all such notions and individual status to come together in flocks. Thus, during the next few weeks many small birds in particular will cast aside their individuality - not absolutely perhaps but to a substantial degree - and instead become members of a community of fellow birds.

I'm sure that those of you, who derive pleasure from feeding birds during the autumn and winter months, will have noticed that occasionally, the cock birds taking advantage of your generosity, do have little spats with one another. I suppose that the spirit of competition still lurks deeply within the breasts of many males of various species. However, for the duration of the winter they try their best to suppress their antagonism to other rival males, in the rather more important pursuit of food.

Yet things are not always as we may expect them to be. Much to my surprise the other day, I was suddenly aware of a cock great tit, suddenly bursting into song. His, strident 'tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher' proclamation is not something I would normally expect to hear until January at least. I therefore wondered if this solitary songster had been inspired by the resident robins and wrens here, which as mentioned a week or two ago, remain in musical mood throughout the winter months, as they put down their vocal markers in establishing winter feeding territories.

They, the redbreasts and jenny wrens, are perhaps egotistical enough to resist the temptation to adopt corporate life and instead fiercely resist any notion of togetherness. But, that said, wrens can sometimes surrender their individuality too, in especially cold weather, coming together for the warmth generated in a communal roost. Often dozens of them will squeeze themselves into small spaces such as nesting boxes, where they generate sufficient heat to get them through the night.

Located in my garden, there are four cock robins, each occupying and prepared to defend a distinct and separate territory. For robins it seems that winter territory is just as important as breeding territory in the springtime ... and as intensely defended, although that defence is more often than not reflected in song - each occupant responding to the challenge and songs of the others. For me, the result is extremely pleasant for their vocal proclamations of territorial integrity provide a remarkable oasis of sweet song against a background, save for the rattling wrens and that lone great tit, of relative silence.

Nevertheless, as autumn advances and natural foods begin to dwindle, most other small birds will indeed ditch that singularity and come together in large communities. It is all about improving their chances of surviving those harsh winter months. Corporately, so many pairs of eyes will be better able to source food and also, they are similarly useful in spotting and warding off predators. For instance, the likes of sparrowhawks are literally repelled by a swirling mass of birds, put off and confused by them and prevented from selecting single birds as victims. All those raptors can hope for is to pick off stragglers - usually birds which are not perhaps as fit as they should be.

And, if recent reports from the British Trust for Ornithology are universally correct, some of those flocks might just be that much bigger this winter. Research shows that most small birds have had a very bountiful year. Indeed, figures suggest that 2017 has been their most productive breeding year since 1992. These figures, therefore, point towards a short-term reversal to the trend, which in recent years has suggested an alarming decline in many small bird populations.

Cock great tits can be very assertive but as garden bird feeders will be well aware, they do, during the winter months, tolerate (more or less) the corporate presence of other great tits, male and female. And whilst that surprising and strident little burst of song is typical of these feisty little birds, more often heard perhaps in the spring, great tits are more versatile than you may have cause to think. Experts tell me that a male great tit may have as many as forty different songs in his repertoire.

Such a range of songs is of course a substantial advantage when, next spring, it comes to the selection of a mate. Although the male may seem to be the one that leads that process, in reality, the choice of mate is definitely made by the female. However, as with many other small birds, there is a coming together for the common good during the winter months, but the greater his range of song, the better his chances of being selected as a mate.

The origin of these flocks may well have their beginnings during the late summer, when juvenile birds, having ceased to be reliant upon their parents, first face the need to learn the art of survival. Again, the reason for this togetherness is entirely pragmatic for these newcomers will have a much better chance of survival as a group than as individuals. And as autumn and then winter comes along and food becomes harder to find, other tits may join these wandering bands. Again, it is all about self-interest!

As observers will know only too well, great tits are not only versatile vocalists they are also very omnivorous when it comes to choices of food. This is perhaps why they are relatively successful. Close observation has for instance, identified that great tits consume invertebrates from an astonishing range of up to 135 different species, ranging from months and butterflies to beetles, bugs, flies, wasps and spiders.

Clearly such things become very scarce in the winter, hence the eager presence of great tits at garden bird-tables and their liking for peanuts and fat. However, beech-mast and other tree sees are important sources of food during the winter months. But, there is entertainment of a highly visual quality provided by all those birds, especially those great tits, when they flock to our bird-tables during these shorter days of winter. And while robin and wren may regularly break the silence, you might just hear the odd great tit too! Feeding time approaches, which means here are rich rewards and much entertainment to be enjoyed.

Country View 27.9.17

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The pink-feet have called my bluff, or rather Tommy's bluff. At the time of writing and despite my prediction of their arrival, there has been absolutely neither sight nor sound of them. Mind you, I have heard geese but it has been the sonorous honking of Canada geese, not the shrill calls of pink-feet, emanating mainly from the waters of the loch. There, these alien geese are so numerous now that when they gather in one great squadron, as they are wont to do at this time of the year, they resemble a veritable armada, their long necks, when seen swimming together, somehow resembling the masts of an invading fleet of galleons.

Although these imported black and white geese may be handsome birds, somehow they do seem to me to be utterly alien, even though there have been 'wild' or rather feral Canada geese here for several centuries, if mainly south of the Border. It may have seemed a good idea to introduce all manner of wildfowl including the Canadas, when pioneering landscape architects were beginning to make their plans for the decoration of newly enriched estates several centuries ago. The centre-pieces of many of their lavish plans were often the sparkling new lakes which they went on to further decorate with an array of exotic wildfowl! Perhaps now, it does not seem to have been such a good idea at all, especially in relation to those Canada geese!

Whilst many of the introductions of plants and animals to these shores were perpetrated by enthusiastic collectors from the Victorian age, for several long centuries, many plants from all over the world have been transplanted into the British landscape. Several of them have taken so well to our climate and environment that they are the subject of strenuous efforts on the part of the authorities, to exterminate what are now regarded as undesirable and invasive plants. Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and giant hogweed spring immediately to mind, although rhododendrons have also long been favourites for 'bashing' as far as conservationists are concerned.

If the introduction of alien animals and birds was not practised with quite as much zeal as in the case of plants, there are, nonetheless, several well-known examples of animals and birds, which have been introduced, later to become undesirables! Some, you may actually be surprised to learn of as 'non-native' species! For instance, in recent times the ruddy duck, introduced by Sir Peter Scott to his Slimbridge Wildfowl centre in 1948, which like the Canada goose is a North American bird, has enjoyed extremely mixed fortunes. Previously and perhaps following in the footsteps of those landscape architects of yore, attempts had been made to introduce ruddy ducks to Britain in the nineteen thirties and forties.

Inevitably, birds escaped from the likes of Slimbridge and in 1952 they were first recorded breeding successfully in the wild. Clearly the environment here suited them for by the turn of the millennium, it was estimated there were some six thousand or so of them living out their lives across Britain. I well remember seeing one at a Scottish Nature Reserve, back in the 1990s. I also recall that such a sighting was at that time regarded as quite a rarity. Ironically, whilst their numbers here were on the increase, in their natural habitat of North America, by the 1970s the ruddy duck population had plummeted from an estimated 100,000 to a mere 10,000, largely due to the activities of trigger-happy hunters.

Meanwhile the expansion of populations here had resulted in ruddy ducks spreading into Europe. There, lo and behold, it was discovered that a similarly 'stiff-tailed' duck, the white-headed duck had gone into serious decline through cross breeding with the newly arrived and extremely invasive ruddy ducks, its future apparently therefore endangered. Suddenly, the ruddy duck had gone from being a rare sighting enthusiastically recorded by twitchers, to an unwanted alien, which now even had a price placed on its head! I can almost envision the poster: "Wanted - Ruddy Duck - dead, not alive - REWARD!"

In 2003, a Europe-wide eradication programme began. In Britain, that cull has been uniquely successful with now only a handful of ruddy ducks remaining at large. Some might say that it is a pity that such a similar approach to the problem of other introduced species could not have been enacted years ago. However, others suggest that such culling opens up a very large can of worms! However, you may be surprised at just how long we have been 'welcoming' such introductions.

The brown hare, for instance, is not really a British native. It is thought the Romans were responsible for their introduction here ... nearly two thousand years ago! And those other invading forces, the Normans, are credited with the introduction here of the rabbit around a thousand years ago! However, much later in the 1950s, the deliberate importation of the disease myxomatosis to counter the twentieth century population explosion of rabbits was the cause of a universal sense of disgust at the sight of diseased rabbits, emaciated and blind, helplessly crawling around. Thereafter, the deliberate introduction of the disease was banned.

And perhaps most famously, there was the introduction of grey squirrels, another North American import, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If at first grey squirrels were greeted with excitement - cute little creatures endangering people in public parks and the like - there was initially little understanding of the damage these American squirrels could inflict on our native reds. In fact, the larger, more aggressive grey squirrel soon had our native 'squirrel nutkin' in rapid retreat. And as we now know, the alien grey carries a virus to which it is immune but which is deadly to the red. There have, therefore, been concerted efforts to cull these grey squirrels and indeed, perhaps due to the welcome intervention of growing numbers of pine marten, red squirrels are now, we are told, very much on the advance at the expense of the greys in many parts of the country.

Also from across the Atlantic, in the 1930s came mink. Although farmed and therefore caged, inevitably some escaped and became established as breeding animals in the British countryside. Worse followed when in more recent years, in protest against the very ethos of fur farming, over-zealous and unthinking enthusiasts deliberately released thousands of them into the landscape. What followed was mayhem. We quickly became aware of the catastrophic effects of these releases in this airt as hundreds of mink released from a nearby fur farm decimated ground nesting birds over the next few years, especially around the loch. Culling remains an on-going task.

The latest invader, however, comes from a very different direction. Ring necked parakeets are on the march in the south-east of England. These, too, are escapees but are now congregating in growing numbers all over that part of the UK. Inevitably they are beginning to turn up in other parts of England and are spreading north. These are birds, which although originating in Africa and India, have become increasingly well established here, the only members of the parrot family to take up residence in Britain!

I'm sure there are those who might cite wild boar as another accidentally introduced animal, again perhaps, because they too have escaped into many parts of the British countryside from captivity. Ironically of course, they were once native here. Have we, therefore, come full circle? What next?

Country View 20.9.17

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Nights are really drawing in now as we drift into autumn and the year dips towards its grand finale of blazing colour. The lengthening hours of darkness, which may perhaps have us fostering thoughts of more evenings spent in front of the fire, are nevertheless when the creatures of the night properly come into their own. Compared with most of them, we are extremely limited when it comes to finding our way about in the dark. Our reliance upon electricity in modern times has perhaps dulled our senses!

There is of course, no dulling of the senses in the case of the creatures of the night. Many of our mammals are much more active under the cover of darkness. Foxes, for instance, tend to lie up during daylight hours and generally spend most of their nights hunting. And where they are still relatively common, one of the fox's favourite sources of food, the rabbit is also especially active at night, as are most of our roe deer. And of course badgers are almost exclusively out and about during the hours of darkness.

However, the real epitome of night-time living is surely the owl. Indeed, the screeching of an owl during recent nights has reminded me that as autumn progresses, so too do our owls become more vocal. This is especially true of our commonest owl, the tawny. And it is one such owl that has been screeching so plaintively here. The reason for this vocalisation is that this year's youngsters now find themselves in a situation in which they are no longer tolerated in their parents' territory and so must go out into the big wide world and establish territories for themselves.

However, for them it is a tough and demanding quest, as good territories are inevitably at a premium. A good territory, of course, is one that yields plenty of suitable rodent prey and so naturally, well-established adult owls are at pains to defend such established territories and give the shortest possible shrift to territory seeking, vagrant young owls. In addition, tawny owls seem particularly eager to make vocal contact with other tawny owls during this dispersal, presumably especially with their own siblings. However, some of the calling may indeed take the form of warnings to those territory-seeking youngsters that they are trespassing!

Humankind appears to be fascinated by owls. Indeed when it comes to owl-like knick-knacks, whether they are soft toys or ornaments made from pottery, wood or metals such as bronze, they literally fill many a craft shop shelf. And it isn't just us who are thus fascinated for owls are prominent in many cultures around the globe. Come to think of it, owls also figure in many of the books I read as a child.

And owls, we are told almost from our infancy, are wise, an assumption which perhaps is supposed because in many ways, owls resemble us. Their round heads, large, front-facing eyes, curved beaks, which have a likeness to the human nose, and the facial disc, give them a human-like persona. In addition, owls have blocky little bodies with distinctly square shoulders. So, the resemblance to the human figure is inescapable.

Most of us have probably sauntered through woods in daylight hours, utterly unaware of the presence of roosting tawny owls for they can so easily melt into the background due to their heavily mottled plumage and their ability to freeze. Indeed, the hitherto unknown presence of a roosting owl in woodland is often given away by the racket created by other small birds noisily mobbing it. Such small woodland birds definitely regard owls as enemies to be harried. Thus, if a roosting owl is discovered, all sorts of birds may gang together and mob it so ferociously that its easiest option is simply to re-locate.

However, continuing the theme of anthropomorphism, it is perhaps the large, round eyes of tawny owls that most attract our attention and indeed which attribute these particular birds with a reputation for sagacity. Those eyes are dark brown and do seem particularly deep, further conveying the image of wisdom. However, that said, because they are so nocturnal, the fact is that not many people actually see owls frequently. Much more often they are likely to hear them. The familiar 'too-wit-too-woo' is, I suppose, a rather haunting sound and indeed may induce in the mind of the listener a suspicion of a presence of wandering spirits. However, the loud, screeching 'kee-wick' heard unexpectedly and close by on a dark night can, I'm sure, seem bloodcurdling and may well be a cause of hairs on the back of the neck suddenly prickling!

Tawny owls, essentially woodland birds, have nevertheless taken well to our towns and cities, especially to those that are especially green! Not only are they able to find suitable nesting sites in mature parkland or even garden trees but there are of course plenty of rodents present in the shape of mice and rats, to keep them busy, not to mention the likes of roosting sparrows. To many folks, the silent presence of an owl, its lightly coloured underparts caught in the glow of street lighting, can be a slightly unnerving sight.

Apart from their ability to see well in low lighting conditions, due to the excessive size of their eyes, tawny owls have another vital weapon in their armouries. A soft fringing of feathers on the edges of their wings means that they fly so silently that their victims literally do not hear an attacking owl coming. Wham, bam and you're dead! Add to that a remarkably well-tuned sense of hearing and a set of lethal talons and you have an exceptionally well armoured predator.

There are two quite distinct variations on a colour theme in the tawny owl population, known as the grey and brown phases. Tawnies are comfortably our commonest owls. Long-eared owls, even more nocturnal by nature, are also even more anonymous, generally favouring relatively isolated woodland in which to dwell, their voices low and some would say, moaning. On the other hand, short-eared owls are surprisingly perhaps, more active during daylight hours, usually favouring open moorland or coastal habitats where they hunt for voles. Their eyes are  a piercing yellow. As recently said, their numbers here will soon be augmented by birds arriving from Scandinavia.

Sadly, what might be argued to be the most beautiful of our owls, the barn owl, is in quite serious decline due perhaps, to the destruction of suitable habitat as farming methods change. Its plumage is often conservatively described as buff and grey with white underparts. I much prefer to describe their lustrous plumage as gold and silver, offset by those starkly white underparts! With varying degrees of success, many organisations are trying their best to help a barn owl recovery by erecting nest boxes. There are few sights to match that of a hunting barn owl at dusk or dawn, as it floats ghoulishly through the gloaming ... all aglow!

There is one other British owl, the little owl, which is no bigger than a song thrush, was introduced to southern areas of Britain from Europe in the nineteenth century. Little owls have colonised much of England and in recent years have established themselves in southern Scotland too. A few years ago, I was awakened one autumn night by the calling of a little owl here but have not heard one since.

You might possibly hear owls - most likely tawny owls - during these autumnal nights. Fear not, they are just communicating with other owls!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods