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 29.11.16

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It was as if the seasons had suddenly got muddled up. There, serenely drifting across a mirror-like loch was the slender figure of a great crested grebe, seen here very much like a summertime bird. Just a few feet away from the solitary grebe, a little flurry of goldeneye were exploring the depths of the loch and then bobbing back to the surface. This, of course, unlike the more sedentary grebe, is a visitor from Arctic regions, a deep, deep diver of a bird, which breeds in the faraway northern forests. Regular attempts are made to encourage them to breed here with nest boxes erected near suitable Highland lochs but minimal success has been achieved, albeit that the first goldeneye known to have bred in Scotland, were recorded in 1970.

That solitary grebe will surely de-camp this airt any day now to spend the next few months in relatively sheltered in-shore waters off our eastern coast, perhaps in estuaries such as the Forth. I was a little surprised to see it still happily cruising across these inland waters in late November as they're usually gone from here by now. But of course, for birds that dive for their food, as do both the grebe and the goldeneye, unless the loch freezes it will, I guess, find conditions underwater if colder, otherwise unaffected by weather!

The loch has fallen relatively silent with the final lines cast and boats now hauled up for the winter. Therefore, the fish are in theory, given a respite as the tweed-clad wielders of rod and line have at last bedded down for their annual hibernation. The ospreys are long gone too, hopefully now ensconced in African climes where they may fish warmer waters. However, the statue-like presence of a heron stationed beside those still waters was a reminder that fish choosing to stray into the shallows are by no means safe from this awesome fisher.

I have much admiration for herons. They are patient beyond belief, prepared it seems to stand stock still almost for ever, waiting, waiting for the next meal to come swimming innocently by. Then the statue slowly and stealthily comes alive, those large yellow and black eyes unerringly trained upon the unfortunate victim, neck slowly drawn back like the string on a bow. Then like a striking serpent, that dagger like beak brings for the fish the denouement as it stabs decisively forward and grabs its scaly quarry adeptly before turning it and swallowing it whole. Then, hunger temporarily satisfied, the bird may continue to stand beside the water, its neck lowered, shoulders seemingly hunched, and eyes now apparently closed. Time for a snooze?

Sometimes the bird will stalk its prey, picking its way carefully through the shallows, each step so gingerly placed so as not to alarm the fish, neck held forward eyes always on the alert, the bird ever ready to revisit that cobra-like strike. Or, suddenly the bird is off to some other familiar fishing beat, its great wings unfurling, those long legs pushing for take-off. In an instant it is in the air, rhythmic but steady wing-beats propelling it away at a very respectable but apparently unhurried speed. Those voluminous wings - the wingspan of a heron is an impressive six feet plus - bear it majestically away.

Long ago, when falconry was literally the sport of kings, the heron was a much-prized quarry, admired for its ability to gain height quickly and thus evade the stooping falcon. Indeed, the heron became the subject of one of England's earliest bird protection laws when the venerable Henry - he of the six wives - decreed them protected from all assault in order that his falcons would always have challenging prey to pursue. It wasn't, I suppose, quite the same as today's legislative powers which by and large are drawn up for the benefit of the birds themselves. Henry's laws were framed very much for the benefit of the hunters rather than the hunted!

Mind you, whereas the reputation of the heron in conflict with the jessed peregrines of this world, is so good, my personal experience of watching a heron attempting to avoid the attentions of an osprey some years ago, certainly did not enhance the heron's reputation for escaping conflict. The said bird, complacently flying low over the loch, suddenly found itself pursued by an angry osprey, not as fast as a peregrine perhaps but maybe more versatile. Such was the ferocity of the osprey's assault that over the course of the next five minutes, the startled heron was 'shot down' three times, on each occasion managing to struggle free of the water, only to be downed again. Finally it struggled to the shore where it stood in bedraggled, abject misery trying to dry off. Furthermore, the osprey, apparently with a real bee in its bonnet, kept up the attack, repeatedly diving at the sodden heron and making it instinctively duck at each threatening pass, before eventually tiring of the game and sloping off, presumably leaving a paranoid heron to recover its composure.

However, herons are not entirely dependent upon fish as their main source of sustenance. In springtime for instance, the young of waterfowl, should they stray within the reach of a lurking heron, will readily be taken. And, watch out in springtime for herons, well away from water, ambushing migrating frogs and toads, emerging from hibernation. Small rodents may also sometimes be sought. I have seen a heron stalking on a roadside verge, looking for voles. Indeed, I have a clear memory of a trio of herons advancing in line across a field like so many wild-west characters seeking a shoot out with rivals. Every now and then one of the birds would break ranks and dart aside to stab with its beak and capture a vole...another denouement!

Herons are gangling birds, all leg, neck and beak. When they fly they fold their necks over their backs. Their long legs trail behind but that great area of wing can propel at a very steady rate of knots what are, by comparison with overall size, surprisingly light birds. Herons, despite perhaps being seen as solitary birds are actually very community orientated. They nest in high rise colonies often in pine woods and indeed my own early contacts with herons was through a colony which was located close enough to where I lived to be noisily evident right through each night especially during the month of May. The continuous noise made by the newly hatched youngsters, as they kept up a battery of pleas for more food, was amazing! Herons also organise creches when their young are first fledged. Thus herons are not as lonely as is often made out!

Those hibernating fishers may harbour dreams throughout the winter months, of landing handsome and of course, large trout. But by and large it will be the smaller fry, which may be threatened by herons and by the other feathered fishers such as the saw-bill goosanders. Otters are not so choosy but come next spring there will doubtless be plenty of trout ready to take the amazing diversity of made-up flies presented to them by the legions of rejuvenated enthusiasts!

Country View 18.11.16

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Yet again, we have witnessed more serious divisions in human society - we live in exceptionally divisive times - and all this at a time when in absolute contrast many avian communities are actually intent on coming together. As winter looms, this is the time for many avian communities are actually intent on coming together. As winter looms, this is the time for many birds to set aside individual interests and instead become a part of larger communities, for instance, in the case of the familiar chaffinches, joining the gathering finches which are growing by the day.

These flocks offer many benefits. Firstly many pairs of eyes, working in co-ordination in the constant search for food sources, secondly a moving mass of birds is confusing and a deterrent to predators such as hawks and falcons. Therefore, raptors intent on snatching a meal find themselves confined to trying to pick off only stragglers rather than mounting full frontal attacks on the massed ranks of the flocks.

So a shared sense of security becomes the order of the winter's day, together with that advantage of collective food finding. Yet there are plenty of birds for which community living is a part of everyday life anyway. The skeins of geese currently patterning our skies demonstrate a corporate style of life, in their case, in a very ordered, almost regimented existence as they maintain their v-shaped formations. By contrast, the gatherings - sometimes in enormous numbers - of rooks, whilst also confirming the corporate lives of these members of the crow clan, could hardly be more apparently disordered! However, from time to time there are examples of this flock mentality, which go far beyond such basic requirements.

Thus, such can be the impact of sometimes millions or even billions of insects or thousands of birds, that the fantastic murmurations of starlings which decorate our winter skies utterly baffle us by the nature and complexity of their amazing movement. We therefore find ourselves utterly nonplussed by the mercurial qualities of movement, let alone the scale of gatherings of such huge numbers of birds. Hence this amazing phenomenon has been the focus of much scientific study.

Such are the amazing gyrations of these flocks that scientists all over the world have delved deeply into what has always seemed to me to be the mysterious subject of physics, in their endeavours to explain what is surely, one of the wonders of the natural world. And yet starlings are surely, utterly enigmatic. They demonstrate beautifully, an extreme discipline, vastly superior even to that shown by the amazing Red Arrows on the one hand with their truly amazing sense of flock navigation which brings absolute wonder to winter skies, whilst at the same time as individuals, displaying utter anarchy when they visit bird-tables!

In recent days a little posse of starlings ha for instance, been cavorting around my bird-table in an utterly disorderly fashion. Perhaps they are merely a small breakaway group of birds, which from time to time, leaves the modest flock that roosts in my conifer hedge each night. The surrendering of individual integrity which must come when they rejoin the flock and the adoption of the philosophy of 'all for one, one for all', begins to influence many birds as days begin to shorten. The rivalries of summer are put on hold as birds now come together in common cause as a safer way of surviving the winter months.

My own winter starling spectacular is, by comparison with flocks pictured in the press in recent days, a mere fragment of a flock. But the amazing gyrations of massed ranks of starlings, which have become so much of a source of wonder in many parts of the world, have made the humble starling a centre of attraction. However, reactions to starlings can be rather variable! In America, they are apparently, according to recent polls, the most hated of all the country's birds. Of course, starlings are not native to America. They were I understand, introduced to that continent, by a New York pharmacist by the name of Eugene Schieffelin during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Mr Schieffelin was apparently a devotee of the works of Shakespeare and was obsessively determined to introduce to America each of the 45 birds mentioned in the bard's work, of which the starling was one. And that may, perhaps in current political conditions, be the rub! The starling is in short, an immigrant!

How ironic that at roughly the same time as the grey squirrel was introduced to these shores from America, the starling was introduced to America from British stock! To say that America suited starlings may turn out to be one of the understatements of the century! Even to a greater extent than the grey squirrel has prospered here, starling numbers have literally exploded across the pond! Some flocks over there number into the millions! A wall will not solve that problem!

But whilst starling numbers in America are burgeoning, here in Europe, they are declining alarmingly. Some might be oblivious to the rapid decline of a bird, which many might regard as the rag, tag and bobtail of the avian world. In fact, starlings seen as individual birds are actually quite attractive and indeed, apart from their amazing aerobatics, they are also surprisingly versatile songsters. Just a day or two ago, I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of music. It wasn't one of the usual winter songsters, a robin or a wren, so what was it I wondered? And there, sitting on an overhead wire prattling away, was an exceptionally tuneful starling with an impressive repertoire.

Even Mozart was aware of the amazing vocal versatility of starlings. He kept a tame starling and actually managed to teach it several bars of his music. Yet I always gain the impression that when it copies other birds, a starling is prone to forget its lines halfway through! It is however, my understanding that the vocal range of your average starling may include parts of the signature tunes of as many as twenty other birds. Additionally, in different forms of light, the starling's iridescent plumage may reflect delicious hints of green, blue and purple. It is visually very attractive if at times inclined to verge on the comical. Therefore, a decline of in the region of eighty to ninety per cent of their numbers in Europe, over the course of the last thirty years, is unquestionably a cause for serious concern.

Its success in America has often been compared with that of the native passenger pigeon, a bird, which knew such success that they used to assemble in flock numbering not thousands, not even millions but billions. Worryingly, passenger pigeons are now I understand, extinct in America! That is surely a very serious message for us to take on board. Again, we have been warned!

And there they are again, my little flock of 'black arrows' hurtling through the gloaming, dashing hither and thither, this way and that and always somehow keeping some sort of formation albeit that it is constantly re-forming as it goes. There is no leader conducting these fluid comings and goings; no permanent shape, yet no evidence of collisions despite the fact that every bird is literally just inches from its neighbours to the side, ahead, behind, above and below.

One scientific conclusion asserts that each member of that fast moving collection of birds can relate to but seven of its nearest neighbours which enables it to respond instantly to every variation of the movement those seven birds make. Do a multitude of groups of seven birds therefore become self-controlling? Nah! Surely there's a single brain controlling them all - isn't there?

Country View 1.11.16

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It is the starkest warning yet. Scientists have calculated that the world's wildlife has declined by a staggering 58 per cent over just less than half a century. If that isn't a very loud wake-up call, I don't know what is! The African elephant is apparently at the top of the hit-list with a massive slaughter currently being perpetrated by poachers which is putting their very existence in jeopardy. Of course, this killing spree is in pursuit of ivory, a much-vaunted material coveted by those who carve it into ornaments in China and other parts of Asia to be sold on for vast profits! It is a highly illegal trade of course but money talks...as usual. There are always those who are prepared to work outside the law in pursuit of wealth.

However, over-fishing, over-hunting and the wanton destruction of the natural habitats of so many creatures, again in the universal pursuit of money, plus the continuing escalation of the world's human population are all factors influencing these dramatic declines. The destruction of rain forests in Asia, Africa and South America continues to be a major cause for concern because such activities clearly reduce habitat and thus threaten the survival of creatures for which the rain forests are key. In addition the loss of millions of trees which play an important role in absorbing carbon, is also contributing in a major way to climate change. All of which seems to highlight our inability to halt a seemingly headlong charge towards self-destruction.

I was further shocked when I read reports which disclosed the quite amazing fact that Iceland, which happens to contain in the region of two hundred and seventy glaciers, imports almost all the ice it needs from Britain, Norway and America. The explanation for such a bizarre turn of events is that apparently they have calculated that it costs forty per cent more to produce their own ice as compared with importing it! But just think of the amount of energy required to maintain the ice at the necessary low temperature whilst it is in transit and of course the energy needed to transport it in the first place. Talk about 'coals to Newcastle', which incidentally did happen during a miner's strike, to the enormous profit of the merchant who despatched alternative supplies (from America!) and indeed the sand that was apparently sold to Saudi Arabia. What a strange world we live in!

On a cheerier note this week I found myself watching a mass of birds, some of which come from that icy island in the North Atlantic to winter in our allegedly more temperate landscape, birds which happily, actually buck the trend of declining populations. What I saw was a field absolutely blackened by a huge flock of pink-footed geese. Thanks to our greater awareness of the ethos of conservation and in no small measure to those who work in that sector, the annual migration of these birds not just from Iceland but from Greenland and Svalbard, has been steadily growing in number each and every year. The current wintering population in Britain is estimated to be in excess of 350,000, a huge growth from the estimated numbers of some 50,000 in the nineteen sixties. Each year, we see and hear these birds in this airt, with the first skeins of non-breeding birds usually arriving in mid-September and the bulk of them touching down in October.

The Solway Firth in the south-west and Montrose Basin on the east coast are major destinations for pinkfeet wintering in Scotland and in recent years increasing numbers have been descending upon Norfolk too. I have always thought that nothing is more redolent of the wild and bleak northern tundra where these birds breed, than the noisy passage of thousands of these birds in their well-ordered skeins, as the days shorten and the leaves begin to fall. Is there a wilder sound? I doubt it! Their shrill sounding contact calls just tell you that winter is on its way!

And what a start in life the approach of autumn signals for this year's crop of young birds. At barely three months of age and only a month after achieving lift-off for the first time in their short lives, they are suddenly uprooted from the tundra where they first came into the world and where they have been nurtured, to begin the flight of their young lives. In the case of those birds reared in eastern Greenland, there is a stop off in Iceland before they are launched on a flight of the best part of a thousand miles across the hostile waters of the North Atlantic.

They do of course, have the benefit of parental guidance and are imbued with the confidence and reassurance provided by the constant vocal contact they have with their parents and other members of the flock. There is always noticeably present when geese fly, that continuous vocal banter. This is provided by the familiar vee-shaped formation in which they fly - their skeins - which give the younger birds some shelter from the worst of the elements as they are always flying partly in the lee of those at the front.

Geese, whatever else they may or may not be, are organised and disciplined. Each skein is led by a succession of senior, experienced members of their flock, which take it in turns to head the vee and steer the best course. Nevertheless, that first sea crossing, which is of the essence non-stop, must be a daunting, exhausting experience for the youngsters. Each small skein represents a family group but many such groups may join up to form massive skeins containing hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds.

The year's crop of young birds produced by all migratory birds face similar challenges I suppose but those that have bred here, which head for Africa, I guess do not face the extreme hazards tackled by geese flying across nearly a thousand miles of unfriendly northern ocean. The greatest sea crossing facing the Africa bound hordes for instance, is likely to be the Mediterranean which is a mere hop, skip and a jump compared with that flight from Iceland. And, such is the organisation of geese that they are capable of ascending to surprisingly high altitudes, as a means of avoiding life-threatening weather systems, so common in those northern latitudes at this time of year.

The capacity to remain always aware of potential danger is constantly present among geese. For instance, you will find you can get closer to grazing geese if you are not carrying anything resembling a gun such as a walking stick. Posted round the edge of the flock as it grazes, are guards - they are the ones which always have their heads raised - which, at the slightest hint of danger loudly alert the flock. There follows a spectacular and extremely garrulous mass evacuation as the flock noisily takes to the air.

Even more engaging is the descent of geese on to suitable grazing ground, on which occasions; the uniformity of the skein is momentarily lost as they break ranks and 'waffle' down to earth like leaves tossing on the autumn breezes. The voices of pinkfeet are pleasantly and quite musically high-pitched compared for instance, with the coarser, deeper resonance of the rather less welcome Canada geese.

As I said, the pinkfeet buck the truly worrying trend of the serious depletion of so much of the world's wildlife. And, as it happens, around ninety per cent of the entire world population winters with us here in Britain. This suggests that therefore, we bear a considerable responsibility to ensure this population at least, continues to rise in contrast to what is happening to so many species on a universal basis. Does it matter? Well, yes it does, for if the world's wildlife populations are depleting at such an alarming rate, we could be next! We have been warned!

Country View 26.10.16

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It was not necessarily a welcome sight; at least as far as those who flay the waters with lines cunningly baited with artificial flies in their endeavour to lure the scaly occupants of the loch to their hooks. But there it was - a black cormorant lumbering low over the waters they fish - and I must admit a pretty menacing image it cast. There is a reptilian air about cormorants and indeed an almost supernatural aura too - their dark, seemingly black plumage naturally striking a sense of fear in some human breasts just as other 'black' birds, such as rooks, crows and especially ravens do. But there is also, just as clearly, a sinuous, almost sensuous ambience about them too! When one such bird arcs below the waves it does so in one smooth and serpentine movement...beautifully.

Yet is this in reality a black bird? The truth is that the cormorant's plumage, although based upon an underlying foundation of black, is more a mysterious and iridescent mix of dark green, blue and, on the wings, bronze, than solid black. Yet the overall impression is definitely that it looks black! Furthermore, its long beak, equipped at its tip with a pronounced, lethal looking hook and its piercing green eyes, which are distinctly baleful, most certainly add an extra dimension to a minatory bird that this is not exactly the top of any fisherman's top of the pops.

This is definitely not a bird anyone is likely to want to cuddle! Most fishermen are more likely to want to throttle it! And as Hallowe'en approaches, the cormorant definitely exudes hints of another kind of darkness. The sight of several cormorants perched on the branches of trees beside one of our local rivers, their wings typically held out as if it were in supplication, was indeed reminiscent of an imagined coven of witches!

Nature rarely gets designs wrong, yet for a bird which spends so much of its life in and indeed beneath the water, the fact is that the cormorant's system does not apparently contain a sufficient supply of oil in its system to repel water as effectively as it really should. Thus it has literally to hang out its wings to dry, suggesting that there is in effect, a small design flaw in this bird! This posture is of course, familiar around our coasts but also perhaps surprisingly, on many an inland waterway too. The cormorant, whatever else it may or may not be, is certainly an opportunist and will therefore station itself wherever there are fish stocks to plunder, as witness its presence on so many of our local freshwater lochs.

The notion that cormorants are sinister does not simmer just in the breasts of eager fishers. Such antipathy has been around for a long time. For instance, the poet Milton in his epic, "Paradise Lost" indeed likened the cormorant to the devil himself as he plotted the downfall of Adam and Eve.

".....on the Tree of Life,

The middle tree and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life

Thereby regained, but sat devising death."

Furthermore, the fifteenth century Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna, portrayed a cormorant (alias the devil again) staring down at Christ kneeling in prayer, in his painting, 'The Agony in the Garden'.

In modern times, as the sport of angling has grown beyond all bounds in popularity, the cormorant stands accused of taking vast quantities of fish from the most popular fishing rivers and lochs, giving it a reputation as a ravenous destroyer of fish stocks. No wonder perhaps, that way back in the sixteenth century, anyone with an insatiable appetite for food, was inevitably dubbed 'a cormorant', such was the avaricious reputation of this remarkable underwater predator.

Some Chinese fishermen use cormorants commercially to catch their fish, and thus presumably express somewhat kinder thoughts towards what to them is a bird not viewed with hatred but indeed one that is very much their ally. However, knowing full well that cormorants do enjoy very healthy appetites (they generally consume up to two pounds of fish a day) a constricting ring is placed round the birds' necks to ensure that the fishermen are able to collect what their cormorants catch. Interestingly, James I (James VI of Scotland) is reputed to have kept cormorants for the same purpose on the Thames. Bizarrely he is also said to have kept ospreys for the same purpose, a puzzling record for ospreys do have a strong migratory urge which I imagine would have made them unsuitable as captive fishers!

While cormorants are largely regarded as birds of the marine environment, as said there are places up and down Britain where they are seemingly as much at home on inland waterways. In south-west Scotland there has long been a healthy breeding colony on Loch Mochrum, a fresh-water loch in Wigtownshire. Their presence there over a long number of years, has given rise to them being called 'The Mochrum Elders'. The familiar sight of many cormorants standing on the loch shore, their wings held out to dry, has been likened to so many preachers, arms outstretched; sermonising in the manner of the covenanting zealots that once secretly populated the lonely nearby Galloway hills!

Curiously enough, the very name cormorant may be traced back to the old French, 'corp', meaning raven and 'marenc', meaning sea. The Latin 'corvus marinus' translates to 'sea raven' and indeed, it is often colloquially known by the name 'sea crow'. The raven because of its black plumage and its liking for carrion is another of those birds regarded as being on the darker side of life and therefore one that is naturally associated with Hallowe'en. This last day of October, or more pertinently the night, which in the Christian calendar, celebrates 'All Hallows Eve', actually owes its origins to pre-Christian times and the pagan festival of 'Samhain'. Thus long ago, was a celebration of the Celtic New Year, upon which evening in parts of Scotland, it was apparently traditional to dine upon another black bird, the capercaillie!

The elders of that zealous group, which gave their name to the Mochrum cormorants, would not I'm sure, have approved of the modern Hallowe'en celebrations (they didn't like Christmas either!). However, like many of the other festivals on our calendar, other influences are at work. We have absorbed many diverse elements like the pumpkin, now locally produced but the origins of which came across the Atlantic. Capercaillies are so rare nowadays that I trust no-one is likely to delve into the Celtic past and feast upon such a threatened bird. As for the sea crows and the ravens, well maybe they will once again conspire with the witches and haunt us when Hallowe'en dawns! Have a happy Celtic New Year...and a horrifying Hallowe'en!

Country View 12.10.16

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There's been a lot of talk recently about gender equality. Yet there are times when we fall into the trap of identifying some birds as males and others as females notwithstanding the fact that obviously, half of them instead of being males are females and likewise, half of those referred to as female are male! The little, blurted out phrases of bell-like music, emanating here on a daily basis from 'cock' robin were indeed clearly issued by a red blooded and red-breasted male as I am ever likely to encounter. Equally singular was the rat-tat-tat voluminous volley from a 'jenny' wren, as virile as the robin yet strangely referred to as distinctly feminine...hence that frequently used nomenclature of 'jenny'! There can be absolutely no doubt that those that send forth those incredible, resounding volleys of sound are very definitely male...to the core!

Even more curious is the historical fact that robin redbreast and jenny wren have long been associated with one another and regarded by many as a natural pairing. Indeed, there is even an old adage, which declares 'The robin and the wren are God Almighty's cock and hen'. These two familiar birds are further linked by another old verse that warns, 'Hunt a robin or a wren, Never prosper boy or man'. In essence then, these two popular garden birds are to be treated with extreme respect, never to be assaulted and both are highly regarded as 'good' birds! They are, of course, not a pair in the proper sense of the word!

As far as the robin is concerned, 'he' is of course, our Christmas bird, still the most familiar image on the Christmas card (which I note, are already on sale!), upon which seasonal decoration he has probably now been present for night on a hundred and fifty years! But that is not all! Ancient Christian folklore tells us that a robin plucked a thorn from the brow of Jesus as he languished on the Cross, earning a blessing in the process and staining his breast red with the blood of Christ. Furthermore, the robin has a reputation for showing sympathy for the sick. William Wordsworth, in whose poetry the robin made regular appearances, told for instance, of the robin, which entered the bedroom of his sickly sister Dorothy, singing to her and indeed fanning its wings to keep her cool!

Adding to the robins' benign reputation, are tales of them covering the eyes of the dead with leaves or moss, an act recounted in the popular children's story of "The Babes in the Wood" in which, the following verse describes the fate of the children thus:-

"No burial this pretty pair

From any man receives

Till robin redbreast piously

Covers them with leaves."

The robin also puts in an appearance in the City of Glasgow's coat of arms. This elevated position emanated from an ancient account of St Kentigern, the eventual Bishop of Glasgow and founder of the city's cathedral in the sixth century, who as a much-favoured student - the 'teacher's pet' - of St Serf at Culross on the River Forth, thus incurred the jealousy of his fellow students. Kentigern apparently kept a tame robin, which in a fit of jealous rage, his colleagues killed. However, Kentigern promptly restored it back to life from whence it was honoured in that coat of arms as a 'robin proper'!

So this is the benign robin which, along with the wren, provides those much welcome bursts of cheerful and melodious song on what may otherwise be the silent and darkest of autumn and winter days. The cheery, sweet singing redbreast however, is not quite the benign little soul we may think him to be. 'He' may be regarded widely as the deliverer of good news, especially around the Festive Season, in his guise as a postman, a caricature gained because the early postmen were dressed in vermillion coloured waistcoats and were thus dubbed 'robins'. Indeed many Christmas card images actually depict the robin carrying an envelope in its beak a la postman. However the truth about the robin's lifestyle rather contradicts this highly favourable image.

I doubt if there is a bird, which defends its territory more doughtily. His sweet sounding bell-like voice, often uttered with a deceptively beguiling vehemence, is in fact a serious warning to any would-be rival cock robins. In essence those little blurted out phrases are saying, 'this is my territory - keep out...or else!' All birds proclaim territorial integrity during the spring - for that is essentially what birdsong is all about. But cock robin, along with 'jenny' wren, also proclaims winter feeding territory with almost as much vigour as when he announces his breeding territory in the spring. Furthermore, he really does mean what he says! Any trespasser is quickly engaged in physical conflict and that conflict can literally be fought to the death of one of the protagonists. Cock robins are certainly not shrinking violets!

And to prove that cock robins are serious about the defence of a territory, try putting out an imitation robin in your local robin's patch. It is like the waving of a red rag to a bull, except that bulls do not see red for they are colour blind. The robin by contrast certainly sees red and will literally tear the red breasted imitation to shreds! And the same fate can befall a young cock robin when it attempts to establish a territory of its own on another, more senior robin's domain!

Currently I have two robins belling away in distinctly separate parts of my garden. Thus, there is an ever-present vocal competition between these two residents, although so far each has remained firmly 'at home'. The boundary between these two territories is, to them at least, clearly defined. Maybe a particular tree or some other landmark defines the strictly defined border between their respective territories...although it is to me an otherwise invisible line, but one which neither occupant can cross without dire consequence! I can only guess by virtue of the various stations from whence the music comes, which particular bit of my garden belongs to whom!

So, there is more to 'Bob Robin', as he is said traditionally to be called in this airt, than meets the eye. Jenny wren may give us a few flurries of his dynamic song from time to time yet despite his vocal power he never seems quite as assertive or persistent about his territorial integrity as his red-breasted 'mate'. Nor does he ever seem to express the level of belligerence that lurks within the breast of cock robin. Nevertheless our winter days would be the poorer for the absence of all this unbridled aggression. It is easy to cast aside the knowledge that those gorgeous little passages of bell-like music, so welcome to our ears on the dullest of winter days, are issued as a potent threat to other robins.

Let us therefore rejoice in the singular and accomplished songs of the robin, even if they seem to be blurted out randomly! Bob robin is our cheeriest and our most musical neighbour, always alert and apparently friendly, happy to live cheek by jowl with us...but very definitely not with other cock robins!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods