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 14.9.17

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One day this week, myriads of swallows were buzzing around me the way only swallows can, zipping low across the ground and showing off their remarkable aerial talents, the next day they were gone! Nothing surely expresses the mood of our summer days more gloriously than swallows. In their constant search for flying insect life, their sole source of food of course, they swoop, swerve, duck and dive like no other creature. They bring such fantastic verve to summer days and now that they are leaving us, our lives will surely be the poorer without them. As they go, they seem to take our summer with them!

We may yet see a few more swallows as more waves of them come and go during these next few shortening autumnal days. Birds that have been stationed further to the north for the summer months may pass through as they join the swelling southerly exodus that characterises this time of the year. Although migrating swallows may hurry on their way south as instinct drives them towards more insect ridden climes, they are constantly re-fuelling, replenishing their energy banks. As they progress, at nightfall they may seek out reed beds in which to roost during the hours of darkness. At first light they are on the move again.

So, I wonder, are we about to witness a brief and unlikely meeting of the later leaving emigrant birds heading inexorably towards tropical Africa and those recently departed denizens of the icy Arctic? Indeed, this could be the day that such meetings occur, for Friday, September 15 is the date upon which Old Tommy always reckoned that the first wintering geese would pitch up in this airt. Furthermore, he was very often right! And with the arrival of those first skeins of pink-footed geese, the mood of the landscape most certainly changes for if the athletic movement of swallows is symbolic of summer, the honking of geese is surely the sound of autumn and indeed of forthcoming winter. Their loud gabbling is to me, essentially reminiscent of the wild Arctic tundra they have just vacated.

These first skeins whether they arrive today, tomorrow or whenever during these next few days, are largely non-breeders. They represent the vanguard of much bigger family orientated skeins which usually arrive a little later in October, at a time when our skies are suddenly filled with migrant birds, not leaving these shores but arriving from places to the north and east of us. The arrival of geese is one of the more obvious signs of what is a surprisingly large-scale inward movement of birds largely making landfall along our eastern seaboard during the autumn. However, the pink-feet come to us from a slightly different direction - from Iceland and eastern Greenland, Iceland being where they gather before taking on the perilous, near thousand-mile crossing of the North Atlantic.

Next month, that same hostile stretch of water will be crossed by the rather more stately skeins of whooper swans as well as the bulk of the pink-feet and the Greenland white-fronted geese which will be arriving in due course on the waters of Loch Lomond. I'm sure that the high flying swans will, like the geese, be keeping a wary eye out for what is left of the procession of hurricanes that have been gathering around the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. As the men from the Met. tell us, from relatively small beginnings these storms as they rapidly travel westward across the warming ocean, gather energy and vigour on the way. That energy explodes when landfall is made causing utter devastation. But although these storms moderate once they have vented their spleen on such places, they often continue across the northern waters of that great ocean, towards us!

If the presence of the geese is loudly signalled, the arrival of most of the other in-comers is somewhat more surreptitious. Indeed, few observers notice the likes of short-eared owls and minuscule goldcrests flooding in from Scandinavia. They are of course, identical to resident owls of that genre and goldcrests and so cannot obviously be picked out as resident or non-resident once they have moved inland. Nor indeed, can the incoming hordes of woodcock be distinguished from the woodcock that we play host to all the year round.

Woodcock are, without question, mysterious birds, some might even say, ghostly birds! In the latter context, my own experiences of seeing woodcock - or rather not seeing them against the backdrop of the autumnal woodland floor - could, I suppose, be interpreted as ghost-like. A bird, of which hitherto I was completely unaware, suddenly takes off from almost under my feet, flits silently away for a few dozen yards and then becomes utterly obfuscated again when it returns to the leaf littered floor ... before my very eyes! The mystery deepens and those of a more nervous disposition might indeed believe that they are seeing ghosts in such circumstances.

But then some of the traditions attached to these long billed waders, are even stranger than fiction. As recently as the mid-eighteenth century, before the concept of migration was understood, it was firmly believed that woodcock, departing these shores in the spring, actually summered on the moon and that in the autumn, they made their return! The following verse penned by Alexander Pope tells the story:-

"A bird of passage gone as soon as found

Now in the moon perhaps, now underground."

One 'expert' claimed that the birds took two months to reach their lunar destination and two months to return! Woodcock, well known of course to shooters for their fast, erratic flight, are also largely silent during the summer, save for their strange evening 'roding' territorial flight in which they croak and squeak, dare I say, in a rather ghostly fashion!

Mind you, there were those who also believed that it was to the moon that the geese leaving here in springtime, were also emigrating! However, the pink-footed geese I expect to arrive during these mid-September days certainly won't have travelled here from the moon but from Iceland, and Greenland. In fact, apart from a small population which breeds in Western Svalbard, these are the only places where pink-feet breed in the world. And whilst many of the geese from Svalbard winter in the Low Countries, the rest of the world's population winters in Britain and Ireland. In total, an estimated 360,000 birds currently winter in these areas annually. Over the space of the last thirty years or so, Pink-foot populations have more than doubled, bucking a trend in which most bird populations are declining.

Pink-feet are grey geese, rather more lightly built than the much bulkier but similarly greylag geese. Their quite darkly coloured necks are shorter than those of most other geese and their pink and black beaks comparatively slightly stubbier. Their voices too are pitched a little higher than most other geese, the sound they make often interpreted as a 'wink, wink'. Their arrival here in mid-September undoubtedly imbues the landscape with a different character and, certainly in my mind at least, brings a distinct air of the wild and barren north.

That we are day by day, slipping inexorably towards autumn and winter there can be no doubt. The v-shaped skeins patterning our skies, together with the far-carrying, echoing calls of flighting geese, which we may expect to see and hear during these next few days, most certainly appears to hasten us on our autumnal journey.

Country View 6.9.17

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A touch of frost in some Highland glens during the past few days will surely have sent a clear message to all creatures great and small that autumn has arrived. Decision time is approaching for many of our migratory birds although already, there has been some traffic in the departure lounge with many migrant birds now well on their way to warmer climes. For instance, I suspect that most osprey parents will by now have packed their bags and gone! The rooftops are silent too, the swifts, long gone a good few weeks ago.

Our birds and animals use many diverse ways of facing the forthcoming winter. Migrant birds, most of them insect eaters, of course don't take on that challenge. Instead they choose the different option of taking their leave of us and head south to spend their winters in the insect rich environment of Africa. Such journeys are of course, by no means a walk in the park. Indeed they represent a massive challenge in themselves. The miracle that is migration is still an amazing phenomenon when you consider the distances these intrepid travellers will attempt to fly, many of them taking on this great adventure for the first time. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that many of them weigh in at literally no more than an ounce or two. Most are minuscule yet will attempt to fly thousands of miles.

The challenges of migration are met in part by the fact that most of these adult voyagers will have renewed their plumage during late summer and so in that respect are in prime condition. Therefore, they look forward in the knowledge that the responsibility of rearing new generations is behind them, enabling them to concentrate solely on the job of getting themselves into the best bodily condition possible. Whereas earlier in the summer, all their energies were concentrated on the raising of families, during these early autumn days they now have time to look after their own welfare and plan for the big exodus.

The key before they embark on their journey is to be well fuelled up. Thus they will seek to increase their body weight by taking on extra food prior to departure. Body fat is the fuel that will sustain them and it is equally vital that as they make their way south, that they should keep on re-fuelling. Therefore, throughout their journeys they must always seek out food sources in order to keep their fat levels as high as possible. If that is not enough, they also face major physical hazards, which may see these birds crossing towering mountain ranges, featureless stretches of sea and for many of them, the immense Sahara Desert. And of course, they may encounter hostile weather conditions to boot, not to mention a host of predators finely tuned to taking advantage of their passage.

Intuition will play its part. Our own natural awareness of the weather conditions that are to come are dulled by the comfort zones in which we live. We travel in air-conditioned or heated vehicles, live behind double and even triple glazing and thus are not as exposed to coping with constantly changing conditions as for instance, our forebears were. Our wild creatures are much more attuned to variations in weather ... because they have to be!

Of course, the option of migration is denied to our mammals. The island nature of Britain precludes this approach. For example, in large land masses such as Africa and the Americas, these options are entirely viable as witness the immense movements of wildebeest across the plains of Africa and the equally dramatic movement across North America of the likes of musk ox. Thus, our mammals approach winter in different ways. Hedgehogs and bats choose to tackle the onset of winter by first feasting avariciously and then entering a deep sleep, better known as hibernation.

The pre-hibernation feasting is particularly vital for hedgehogs. Both bats and hedgehogs slow down their metabolisms markedly as they sleep in order to conserve energy, their breathing rates and pulses dropping until they are only just perceptible. However, for hedgehogs it is vital that their feasting is such that they can accumulate lots of body fat of which there are two distinct kinds - brown and white - both of which are equally important.

In the lower temperatures of winter, the brown fat mostly accumulated around the shoulders and the neck and chest is gradually absorbed by the slowly ticking metabolism of the animal. However, if temperatures fall suddenly, threatening to freeze the creature's blood, the brown fat automatically provides an instant and life-saving source of body heat. Contrary to popular opinion, hedgehogs do not sleep continuously through the winter. Warm spells can cause them to wake up from time to time and it is then that their survival is even more dependent upon that brown fat, for there is usually not enough food around to sustain them.

The white fat accumulates under the skin and around the body organs. It is not as full of energy as the brown fat but it serves, in particular, to protect the vital organs. Waking during the heart of winter is not a good idea and I well remember coming across a hedgehog scuttling along frantically in a roadside gutter one January day. For its own good, I caught it, took it home and offered it some tinned dog food, which it scoffed as if there was no tomorrow. I ensconced it in a well insulated cardboard box in the coldest room in the house, the utility room, where it stayed until spring, sleeping most of the time but waking occasionally to consume more dog food!

Other mammals also employ the tactic of accumulating body fat, not so that they can hibernate but to sustain them during the winter period when food is harder to find. Badgers do not hibernate. I have frequently found badger tracks in the snow and they do put on the 'beef' in the form of body fat during the autumn months. Thus when winter descends and produces spells of severe weather, badgers will happily sleep through the worst days relying on that fat to sustain them.

Meanwhile, just as the grain harvest is coming in rather fitfully due to the vagaries of the weather, another harvest will be gathered. Squirrels are renowned for the collection of nuts and beech-mast during the autumn months. Indeed, their endeavours in this respect could justifiably lead to an accusation of collector-mania, for they seek out and bury huge caches of such material, far more than they need for themselves when food is otherwise scarce or locked up by severe frosts. Of course, there are always thieves eager to deplete these stores and small mammals such as mice, voles and rats may well seize the opportunity to exploit these 'secret' stores in the drive for their own survival!

Therefore, during these next few critical weeks, there will be much collecting and much secret stashing on the part of our happily growing population of red squirrels and of course, on the part of grey squirrels too where they still dominate. However, there is another, perhaps unexpected hoarder, which during forthcoming weeks, will also be burying stores for the winter. Surprisingly, the jay is one of the few avian creatures that ensures its winter survival in this way, accumulating vast stores of acorns.

Survival beyond those glorious autumn days is the ambition of all such creatures. Each has its very own approach to what each year is the biggest test they are likely to face. Others, such as foxes, pine marten, the raptors and the rest of the crow clan, will on the other hand, try to survive simply by their wits! But then that is how these versatile creatures survive at any time of the year!

Country View 5.9.17

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Suddenly, summer, such as it has been, is in retreat and autumn is taking steps to take over on this first week of September. Already, as mentioned last week, the trees are showing distinct signs of the waning summer. As ever, horse chestnuts are taking the lead with their crowns beginning to glow with prominent signs of red and the brambles too are turning from green to red. Indeed, some are even ripening and already I have seen bramble pickers exploring local hedgerows. Thus colours in the trees and shrubs with growing numbers of berries and haws evident, are intensifying albeit that it will probably be some weeks before we will be able to feast upon autumn's full, blazing glory and indeed feast avidly on bramble pie!

But colour in both shape and sonic form has suddenly become a feature here as a new kind of music is to be heard to challenge the voices of masters robin and wren. The new sound is akin to a whispered conversation between a substantial gathering of confiding characters, with which I am very familiar. They literally do charm us with their versatile voices and their remarkable colouration, which in some parts of the country has them rejoicing in the colloquial name, 'seven coloured linnets'! The new kids on the block are, of course, goldfinches.

Down the centuries, these delightful little birds have enjoyed something of a chequered history. Once upon a time they were lauded by European artists and as long ago as the thirteenth century the goldfinch appears in English art although it was the French and Italian artists who made a feature of goldfinches in devotional paintings. Indeed some three quarters of all devotional paintings produced in France and Italy during following centuries featured goldfinches, albeit perhaps surreptitiously. They were not the principal subjects of these works of art but almost by inference as a kind of trademark of such devotional art.

I can understand why the goldfinch attracted such attention. Apart from their remarkable colour combinations - the yellow or gold flashes on their wings and their prominent red faces in particular - goldfinches are confiding and vocal. Always pleasant to hear, whether whispering, as they are wont to do ... a tinkling sound sometimes said to be reminiscent of Chinese bells, or in full voice belting out strings of deliciously, mainly mellow notes - the sweetest of music. Curiously enough, whilst at present, I inevitably find myself coupling them with the very evident robins and wrens, I am not alone!

The ancient tradition that links the robin and the wren, goes back many centuries and even has them marrying. There is an old verse, 'the marriage of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren' in which the goldfinch also appears. Most folk will know that at all such ceremonies, the happy couple is always wished prosperity. For long years, the goldfinch represented and indeed, epitomised wealth in many minds and so it is not surprising that a nineteenth century verse reads - 'Who gives this maid away? I do say the goldfinch, and her fortune I will pay.'

However, in absolute contrast, there have also been times when the goldfinch has been treated abominably, especially during a period, predominantly in the nineteenth century, when the catching and then caging of wild birds was endemic. Naturally enough with their exceptionally colourful plumage and their wonderful singing voices, goldfinches were literally, top of the avian pops! Such was the popularity off this appalling pastime that it is said that as many as 132,000 goldfinches were caught and caged in a single parish in the year 1860!

Although twenty years later in 1880 the newly formed Society for the Protection of Birds (which later became the RSPB) succeeded in having a Protection of Birds Act passed, goldfinches continued to be caged in large numbers. Regular competitions were held with large amounts of prize money on offer for the most handsome birds and for the best songsters! Thankfully, the penny slowly dropped and whilst there are those who continue to show these birds, the vast majority these days are aviary bred.

In recent times, populations of truly wild goldfinches seem to be on the increase. One explanation for this may well be their popularity as garden birds and the availability of such favoured goldfinch foods as nyger seed and sunflower hearts. Perhaps, too, financial constraints upon Local Authorities contribute with more of the seed bearing plants such as rosebay willow-herb, thistles, knapweed burdock and nettles, all favourite sources of food for goldfinches, being left to stand on roadside verges and the like, rather than being cut down or sprayed.

Indeed, with such plants going to seed at this time of the year, goldfinches are enthusiastically beginning to gather their own very special harvests. And it is when they gather in their little 'charms' to reap their harvest that goldfinches show off their other attribute, that of supreme agility as they cling on to such plants in order to tease out the nourishing seeds. They may often be seen hanging upside down as they do this and in so doing, convey the image of highly adept acrobats.

The colourful nature of goldfinches makes them extremely attractive to watch, as many a garden bird-watcher would I'm sure confirm. And although perhaps our ancient ancestors did not have much time to sit and watch such things, the presence of goldfinches was nevertheless recognised as long ago as the eighth century as the Anglo Saxon words for the bird, 'thistletuige' and 'thistle-tweaker' demonstrate. There are still such names as 'thistle finch' and 'thistle warp' in everyday use in certain parts of Britain. Here of course, they are more likely to be referred to as 'goudspinks' although the traditional name for them in the Stirling area remains, 'thistle finch'! In the Gaelic it is 'las air choile' - the flame of the wood.

The re-emergence of goldfinch song seems almost like a celebration of that new suit of extra colourful clothes they have donned following the moult. Unlike the many migratory birds present here, our goldfinches are going nowhere and so do not have to turn their attention towards building themselves up for the challenge of a flight back to Africa. So instead, during these next few weeks they will be intent on reaping that harvest of seedsd. You may see them moving from one clump of weeds to the other, their tightly formed little flocks progressing in a deliciously undulating manner, their progress always accompanied by that delightful whispering music.

They readily charm us with both their appearance and their music. And now, as autumn begins its gradual advance, they will become increasingly obvious in our gardens, adding even more colour to a landscape of ever strengthening yellows, reds and golds and whispering deliciously and tunefully as they come and go. Time perhaps to buy those bags of nyger seed and sunflower hearts? It will be well worth it for these exceptional birrds are set to entertain us right through the winter! And the addition of their sweet voices to the otherwise muted autumnal chorus is an extra bonus!

Country View 23.8.17

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There is an inevitability about the way in which the summer season is beginning to decline ... at times it seems, with indecent haste, especially when fronts born of the remnants of a distant hurricane named Gerty came speeding in from the Atlantic at the beginning of this week to cast something of a wet blanket over the waning summer! Nights too are perceptibly drawing in and some leaves are even now beginning to lose their green hue and are slowly taking on a distinctly bronze tinge. Autumn it seems is clearly waiting eagerly in the wings, ready to burnish our landscape sooner rather than later and produce that blazingly colourful finale before many trees and bushes are stripped bare of their leaves as they shut down for their winter break!

And, a few days ago, I became aware of one of the pre-eminent sounds of autumn, when late on a fast darkening evening a solitary voice broke the silence. It was of course, the voice of robin redbreast. Most birds have turned off the music, the principal goal of the year, the production and nurturing of the next generation, now a rapidly receding memory for most. Some, like my warbling redbreast, must by now have completed their annual moult - robins complete it in around three short weeks. Others, especially some of our waterfowl, are only part way through it and indeed may have weeks to go before they are equipped with a completely new set of feathers.

So redbreast is clearly now sporting his pristine new suit, a smart brown back tinted with a hint of olive and of course, resplendent in that bright new red waistcoat. Furthermore, already he is clearly intent on establishing his winter territory. Hence, that lone, sweet voice piercing the gathering gloom. Robins and perhaps to a slightly lesser degree wrens, unlike most other birds, are almost as keen to establish and defend such a territory now and for the forthcoming winter months, as they are in the spring. However, the desire now is to establish a feeding territory and therefore, this sudden renewal of song has nothing to do with the spring inspired desire to find a mate and breed. Hence the bursts of song in an otherwise pretty silent landscape.

Poets down the ages have revered the redbreast. Several such scribes even describe him as a pious bird, said to cover the dead with leaves and moss, a tale which apparently features in many an old ballad and a theme carried through in the legendary story, "Babes in the Wood." And to add to that vision of piety, folklore down the ages contains mythical stories that offer explanations for the robin's red breast. One such tale tells us that the robin's red breast was acquired when he flew to deposit two drops of water on the fires of Hell in a futile effort to put them out. Tradition insists that he performed this duty on a daily basis until one day he flew too close and thus scorched his breast!

A better known story perhaps, tells us that at the crucifixion, redbreast, in a kindly attempt to remove a thorn from the brow of Jesus, stained his breast red with the blood of Christ. Thus, was the robin thereafter regarded as pious and sacred, a very special bird, well deserving the attention of equally pious poets!

And of course, there is a well-known verse - "Harm a robin or a wren, Ye'll never thrive again." Another tells us - "A robin in a cage, Sends all heaven in a rage". I'm sure the latter verse must have been written in the nineteenth century when the capture and caging of wild birds was endemic in Britain, especially in the south. The attractive and sweet singing robin would seem a likely candidate to be thus imprisoned, yet such was the strength of superstition connected with this revered bird, that it was seldom a victim of that cruel pastime. Indeed such is the confidence of redbreast that he is exceptionally bold and confiding when in the presence of people, even on occasions taking scraps of food from human hand.

One of the poetic gems, written by none other than Lakeland's William Wordsworth, tells us that when the poet's sister Dorothy was in her sick bed, robins entered her bedroom and fanned her fevered brow with their wings, in order to cool her. Could there have been in that verse I wonder, a trace of poetic licence?

Yet despite such adulation, in reality, the redbreast is not quite the angel it is otherwise made out to be. Indeed during a morning of sunshine and showers last weekend, I witnessed the other side of the robin's character. My evening songster is clearly in the process of establishing that winter territory so it came as no surprise when the following little scene was played out. Enter stage right another jaunty cock robin. Instantly, enter stage left, my very belligerent, resident cock robin, not now singing but instead laying down his kingdom's law ... in no uncertain terms. Robins, I should say have been known to literally fight to the death. Place a toy cloth robin in a robin's territory and you may well find it torn to pieces by your resident cock robin!

At the belligerent approach of the resident cock robin, the trespassing cock robin instantly lost his nerve and rapidly exited stage right, hotly pursued by reigning cock robin. The territorial boundary he has established - not I must confess, so clearly visible to me - is to robins however, as clearly marked as if it had a picket fence or indeed, a stone wall around it! As soon as invading robin had left that boundary behind him as he fled, the chase was over and the king returned in triumph to his realm to resume his rather erratic if very sweet 'national anthem'!

And then, during a brief spell of warm sunshine a couple of mornings later, more voices joined the chorus, loudest among them, jenny wren who seemed equally intent upon pronouncing his quick-fire claim to winter territory. This seemed to set off a small murmuration of starlings, which had been eagerly helping themselves to the rapidly dwindling crop of rowan berries here and now rested to digest their plunder.

From these berry raiders emanated some exceptionally sweet and mellow notes, together with some ridiculous scratchings and prattlings. I couldn't help but think of that famous television sketch featuring Eric Morecambe and Andre Previn, in which the comedian claimed to be playing the right notes on the piano but not necessarily in the right order! That somehow epitomises the music of starlings!

Meanwhile redbreast continued his soliloquy, the sweet notes tripping off his tongue as if he too was making it up as he went along! Like drops of liquid gold they simply tumble from his throat, again, in no particular order. It is like making music on the hoof, or in the case of the robin, on his spindly little legs. Yet his music, even though it may perhaps be a stark reminder of the ever shortening days and in due course, of falling temperatures that are to come, nevertheless offers a tuneful shattering of the otherwise relative silence.

And he, together with his 'other half' jenny wren, will I expect, fill the sonic void during the next two or three weeks, before the landscape hereabouts will begin to resound to the louder and even more autumnal voices of the vanguard skeins of pink-footed geese. This summer's not by any means yet, a memory, but these are, I'm afraid the sounds of the forthcoming autumn and winter! But hope springs eternal that as the world continues to warm, an Indian summer may yet be just around the corner. Meanwhile robin redbreast is on guard!

"They little thought that saw him come

That robbins were so quarrelsome." King.

Country View 16.8.17

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That sound of silence continues except for the twittering swallows and the melodic martins ... and one rather surprising voice in mid-August - that of a lone willow warbler. And there was no question, that sweet and gentle cadence down the scale, is unmistakable. On this occasion it was muted, a whispered, discreet little reminder of a song that had been so dominant in this and just about every other airt I visited, during this year's spring and early summer.

With the year's task of producing a new generation of willow warblers now fulfilled and a mute period called for whilst feather renewal is the order of the day, perhaps he has jumped the vocal gun prior to beginning preparations for his departure to his African winter home. Unlike other migrants, over the course of his sojourn there he will go through another much more prolonged moult over the winter months.

Whether this lone vocalist has come through the moult earlier than most and was thus letting the world know that he now has a pristine new coat of feathers I don't know. Perhaps it was just a 'feel good' moment? But I haven't heard him again. Perhaps that single, murmured phase was hinting at an earlier than usual departure, for instinct may already be influencing him to prepare for the mammoth journey he must inevitably take quite soon anyway.

Some birds have already departed these shores of course. Adult cuckoos abandoned their offspring to the care of their unwitting foster parents a week or two ago, to begin their southward migration before August was even on the calendar. I reckon town streets may fall silent during the next few days as the screaming swifts up sticks and follow the cuckoos to fly south ... rapidly!

Yet this year's crop of young ospreys is only just discovering the joys of flight, utterly unaware that they too will soon be drawn as if by magnets, to join the exodus. What they probably don't yet understand, is that their parents, thus far utterly devoted to their welfare, will, before the month is out, suddenly desert them and take off for Africa too, leaving their offspring to fend entirely for themselves.

It must be a very rude awakening for young ospreys. They will eventually and instinctively follow their parents but first they must properly hone the fishing skills by which they must survive during a forthcoming journey of some three thousand miles. It is only a few short weeks since they found themselves unceremoniously taken from their treetop eyries by tree-scaling humans, plunged into sacks, lowered to the ground, weighed, ringed and tagged, before being returned aloft. This procedure is routinely employed these days as a means of learning more about the lives of ospreys and their travels.

In recent years, many young ospreys have also been fitted with GPS tags so that they can be monitored throughout their journeys south. As anyone who has travelled to America will know, ospreys are endemic there. Indeed, in some parts of that vast country, they are extremely common and I well remember seeing eyries built upon man-made structures such as bridges, in Florida.

North American birds, as you might imagine, migrate each autumn to South America and a few years ago, a family of three youngsters was electronically tracked as they flew south. The biggest hazard these American birds encounter is the vast Gulf of Mexico. Two of the birds being tracked literally disappeared during that part of their epic flight, with only one of them surviving to pitch up in its South American wintering ground. Survival on such a hazardous journey is clearly a major challenge.

Whilst our ospreys do not have to cross such immense spans of ocean, they nevertheless also clearly face considerable challenges, especially as they receive absolutely no parental guidance and so have to rely entirely upon in-built instinct to navigate their journey successfully. I recall hearing a few years ago, of one young bird from this part of Scotland, which got its navigation wrong and ended up somewhere deep in the South Atlantic, rather than in West Africa.

Meanwhile, those newly fledged birds must in these next, crucial few weeks, watch and learn from their parents whilst they can. It is essential that initially, they watch their parents as they hunt and then try to emulate them. They must quickly sharpen their fishing skills in order to ensure that they are as practised in that art as possible before they eventually take the plunge and head for Africa themselves. Remember they will travel strictly as individual birds. It is indeed a daunting start in life for these birds but a challenge they cannot of course, resist.

The strong instinct to fly south, an instinct inherited by all our summer migratory birds, poses an interesting question. I have often been puzzled at reports I have read about James V1, when he became James 1 of England, which tell us that he deployed cormorants to fish on the Thames ... and surprisingly ospreys too. As ospreys, probably pretty common in those days, are such migratory birds, the drive to obey instinct and head southwards as the summer wanes must surely have been insurmountable. Did the king therefore, have to have ospreys re-trained each summer or did those birds perhaps simply perish in captivity?

Cormorants, sedentary birds of course, are still employed in this way, not of course, on the Thames but in the Far East, as many of you will know via the medium of television advertising. But I have found no information that suggests that ospreys are used as a means of catching fish for human consumption, anywhere in the world. I am sure that migratory instinct would always prevail if such a scheme were to be attempted with the likely demise of birds forced to remain in captivity.

Right now, this year's youngsters are cautiously finding their wings and making their first, probably most futile attempts at catching fish. Adult ospreys often have to make several attempts before successfully rising from the water with fish firmly clasped in talons, which are specifically adapted to configure in such a way so that two claws are back and two forward as opposed to three forward and one back as is the norm. This ensures a firmer grip on slippery prey. However, these young birds will inevitably be hard pressed to sustain themselves.

They must first learn to quarter the waters they are fishing, spot their scaly quarries near the surface, hover and then diver to hopefully grab their slippery prey before rising in triumph, pausing briefly to shake surplus water from their plumage. Thus, at first the youngsters are likely to find themselves very frustrated, failure more often than not being the norm. These August 'learning' weeks are therefore vital to their future survival.

While instinct will eventually kick in, the August training is nevertheless, for these newly fledged youngsters, literally, make or break! Should they complete their journey successfully, they will remain in the fish rich waters of West Africa for the first two or three years of their lives, honing those vital skills before returning here to the land of their birth.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods