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 10.1.18

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A New Year and new dawns which, little by little, are coming that bit earlier each morning. The year, the worm has turned and although there may be plenty of winter weather to come, like us, some birds are already looking ahead to spring. Ringing out loud and clear, echoing across a white frost adorned winter landscape, a sole great tit is acknowledging that forthcoming transition. His voice, as he 'saws' away, drifts across the frozen fields, the two-syllable declaration sending a clear, unequivocal message to any eligible female great tits that may be listening - "I'm available ... !" The fact that the temperature is currently lingering below zero does not it seems, discourage him.

On a day of wall-to-wall blue sky reflected in an equally azure tinted loch surface now entirely covered by ice, which incidentally is already thick enough to bear the weight of hundreds of roosting geese, there is a distinct irony about this lone vocalist's message. It is, after all, early January! However, it is clear that today's low temperatures do not necessarily have an influence on his desire to begin the preliminaries of an as yet seemingly distant breeding season.

So what has triggered this sudden burst of enthusiasm? Gradually lengthening hours of daylight must be the key. 'Let there be light' ... and there will be a response. A cloudless sky, which of course, is a prelude to an ice ridden night, nevertheless extends the hours of daylight that little bit further, the hours of daylight.

And of course, the male great tit is always one to jump on to the bandwagon of opportunity to get into 'breeding season mode' at the earliest possible juncture if only to put down a marker! This particular fellow - the first I have heard this winter - having entered the spirit of things early, will without doubt, be in it for the long haul. He may well find that his early start will stimulate others to join the chorus. Such precocity does turn female heads and may well give him a head start.

However, as the season progresses, whilst his vocal prowess will tick boxes, he probably knows that there is indeed a long time to go before he is likely to fulfil his dreams. Indeed, there will also be much vigorous competition to ward off before he may expect to settle with a female, once she becomes the apple of his eye - or rather, he of hers! Even then, he cannot be sure of conquest. Female great tits are extremely demanding and brook no failures in their mates.

As a part of his courtship ritual, he will establish a territory in which, ultimately he must hope, he will induce a female to settle and nest with him. But even at that unreasonably advanced stage of their relationship, he cannot be sure that she will ultimately throw in her lot with him. She will need to be fully satisfied that the territory he commands is right for the vital job of raising a healthy family. Thus it must, as a matter of course, yield plenty of food gathering opportunities for the family when it finally comes along. And it must of course, include several good potential nest sites.

In assessing a territory's food potential, great tits must have a keen awareness of what moth activity, in particular, there is going on within the chosen patch. When eventually a family of little great tits hatches, it will require a supply of caterpillars, small to begin with and later larger to sustain them. That is where the moths come in! This vital supply and the great tits' ability to register exactly when the moths too are in breeding mode is clearly a crucial factor. Furthermore, should the chosen territory disappoint and fail to produce sufficient food, the poor old male may well find himself whistling to himself! Such a perceived food shortfall is likely to prompt his prospective mate to immediately seek a divorce and depart to find another mate who commands a more fully provisioned patch.

There is no sentiment about it, this is pragmatic decision making on the wing. It will not matter how well and vigorously a male great tit may sing. It will not matter how handsome he looks with his black chest band dominating his otherwise colourful plumage. If he doesn't command a territory that will provide for the family that the pair may hope to produce later in the spring, his cause is lost! As ever, such choice is ultimately made by the female. Repeating the bald fact that there is no sentiment involved, she, as the season advances, has but one aim ... to produce the next generation of great tits! Her choice of partner is entirely made on pragmatic grounds.

With so many different factors at play, it is clear that great tits must therefore be particularly astute and observant if they are to eventually succeed in rearing a new generation of their kind when spring finally takes over from winter. In essence, great tits are birds of woodland. However, as more households have taken to feeding wild birds on a regular basis, this is a bird that has adapted particularly well to the garden environment. In spring, it is very much an insectivore. It feeds its young exclusively on the said caterpillars, yet for the rest of the year it survives largely on the likes of seeds and nuts, some obtained from bird-tables, the rest from the woodland floor, where it is a constant and colourful presence.

Great tits, of course, take well to nest boxes and with the number of gizmos now widely available, many pairs and their youngsters now 'star' in the home-made movie business, their every move captured on film and relayed to the household occupants. However, in their more natural woodland habitat, they do broaden their diet to include a number of rather unexpected items. For instance, they occasionally prey on the young of other birds. They have also sometimes been seen feeding on small lizards and frogs but most surprisingly perhaps, they have been observed raiding bat roosts, with the tiny pipistrelle the main victim.

Great tits themselves, of course, often fall victim to sparrowhawks and whereas it might be thought that larger, more virile looking males might seem to be the most likely to attract females, in reality, smaller, more agile birds actually come out on top. The larger birds are apparently much more likely to be picked off by hawks. As a general rule, great tits have only one brood of youngsters each year, albeit that that brood may contain as many as a dozen young!

With winter maintaining its grip on the landscape, all that is very much in the future. Today's bold vocal statement is but a prelude to the excitement that will be generated as eventually winter surrenders to advancing spring and the competition really begins to hot up. However, it does seem to be a particularly early kick-off for one cock great tit, that's for sure.

Country View 5.1.18

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Last weekend, it was a winter's tale with snow - a few inches of it - ice, which literally seizes the land in its grip - and at times, mist verging on fog. And, as Donald Trump said about the snow currently pelting America's east, "What happened to global warming!" It was in some parts, a 'White Christmas' but not quite here. But how quickly things changed with some chaos on the roads and all too many flights cancelled as snow also enveloped various airports. Ours was a post white Christmas!

You could think, 'not a good time for wildlife', yet as might be expected, traffic at my bird-table was heavy. The birds certainly weren't grounded! In fact, snowfall is very revealing. It is easy to see exactly what animals are around by means of their tracks in the snow. The day before Hogmanay for instance, I saw a straight line of diamond-like prints. I knew that Tod was about! And there he or she was slipping under the fence of my paddock, across it and under the fence at the other side on into our neighbouring farmer's field. I was relieved that it didn't head towards us, for my motley flock of hens was out in the garden.

The sheep stopped, taking an inquisitive break from grazing and stood stock still, watching every step the fox took. Whilst the fox is not a danger to these adult sheep, foxes and sheep are nevertheless sworn enemies, conflict between them coming of course particularly at lambing time.

Foxes are also unpopular with gamekeepers. With pheasants being as popular at mealtimes - which to foxes can be anytime - as turkey is to us on Christmas Day, not surprisingly to most gamekeepers, Tod is regarded as public enemy number one. Actually a fox's diet is surprisingly varied and does not, as some would have it, consist merely of lambs and pheasants. Mind you, with an approximate 50 million pheasant released into the British countryside however, who can blame foxes for seeing the said pheasants as we might look through the food shelves of a supermarket - food a plenty!

But foxes also eat vast quantities of worms and other invertebrates, a source of feeding largely denied to them with the snow lying. There used to be plenty of rabbits here but in recent years they have become as rare as hen's teeth so that is another source of food that is missing. However, there are plenty of small rodents to keep the foxes busy, voles especially being pretty universally distributed.

I well remember a keeper in this part of Scotland bemoaning the arrival of myxomatosis. He complained that with rabbits gone, the local foxes would seek an alternative source of food - his pheasants! Sheep farmers of course, complain of fox predation on their lambs, especially those of them that farm the bleak Highlands and Uplands. However, lambs are only vulnerable in their early days. Thus the window of opportunity for foxes is short.

I acknowledge that foxes do sometimes kill lambs but I suspect that many of the lambs foxes take, especially on hill farms, are either dead or on the way to oblivion. Of course, these are easy pickings and with mortality among hill lambs notoriously high, especially after severe winters, for a short time the hill foxes make merry. The vogue for slaughtering foxes at every opportunity however, is not necessarily a good way of keeping numbers down.

Foxes are often regarded as 'loners' yet a dog fox will command a territory, which in the wilder landscapes may extend over several square miles, compared for instance with urban foxes which clearly operate in much smaller areas. And within that territory he may have three or four vixens. As the breeding season approaches, the vixens vie to be 'top bitch' and it is the winner of that contest with which the dog fox will mate when the time comes.

That 'loner' view is further diminished by the fact that when the dominant vixen produces her cubs, the other vixens - often related - are very willing to act as 'nannies', sharing maternal duties with the mother. So, in fact, there is something akin to a social order and community. It is only when the group is put under pressure by those who would willingly cull them, that the dog fox is likely to mate with another of the vixens thus multiplying the number of cubs born to compensate as it were, for other losses. I certainly know one hill farmer who will not have foxes killed on his land for he claims that having a stable population of them, means the threat to his sheep - or lambs - is reduced.

And, as with many mammals, should you eliminate the local fox population altogether thus emptying a territory, it will quickly be re-occupied by other foxes seeking territory. It is a clear case of opportunism and in a sense, re-cycling! Indeed, it might well be the case that the harder you hit foxes, the more they will breed and when territories are emptied, that more groups of foxes may claim and share that territory, increasing rather than decreasing the local population.

The sight of that lone fox crossing my paddock in that snowy landscape, reminded me of a nerve-jangling encounter I once had with a vixen. It was a winter's night of freezing, thick fog. Nevertheless, I decided to take my dog for a walk in the adjacent field. We were blundering along, even with a torch only able to see a couple of yards or so. As I shone the torch, it was as if we were trapped within impenetrable grey walls - yet grey walls that sparkled with frost.

But suddenly both my dog and I were halted abruptly in our tracks. From just a few yards behind us came without warning, the most diabolical of screams. For reasons best known to the perpetrator of that unearthly noise, a vixen was following us. I then heard her footsteps in the frosted grass as she moved in an anti-clockwise direction around us until she was level with us whereupon she stopped and screamed again. She continued to circumnavigate us and each time she stopped she repeated that scream. I swept around with my torch only to once again be met by what passed for a solid wall of sparkling fog.

Then I heard the barking of a dog fox some distance away. Instantly the footsteps could be heard receding as she now set off to investigate what was undoubtedly something of much greater interest to her than we had been! As abruptly as she had announced herself, so she departed leaving my dog and I to contemplate an extraordinary few moments ... in total, foggy isolation. The screams were so unnerving that I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck bristling. When I turned my torch on my dog, she too had raised her hackles. It was such a close encounter - yet I did not see a single hair of that screaming vixen.

Foxes, despite widespread persecution, are increasing every year. Hunting them on horseback with packs of hounds - now of course illegal although as we read in the papers it still goes on - is without doubt the least effective way of controlling them. At times in the past foxes were imported from the Continent to make sure there would be quarries for the hounds and indeed I have had personal knowledge of Masters of Hounds hand rearing young foxes to keep the numbers on their patches up! It could be argued, perhaps, that foxes should largely be left unmolested. Their population might then stabilise. However, I doubt if keepers would agree - after all they have those 50 million pheasants to protect for the guns!

Country View 29.12.17

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A lone voice echoed across an otherwise silent, frosted landscape - the quick-fire voice of jenny wren, surely producing a decibel level unmatched by any of the wee bird's avian compatriots. Ounce for ounce, gram for gram, the wren is probably the loudest songster of all. That the song is brief in the extreme can be judged by the fact that it is over in just over five seconds ... 5.2 seconds to be precise. Yet within those few seconds, no fewer than fifty-six different notes blurt forth! Not that anyone's ear is sufficiently tuned to count the notes. This remarkable statistic emerges only after tape recordings were made and slowed down!

The wren has a curious history in folklore across both Britain and Europe. The Irish believed the wren to be a magician or sorcerer, whilst the Druids believed the bird was a prophet. It was also frequently referred to as 'Our Lady's hen' or indeed 'God's bird'. Indeed, there was an old Scots verse, which promises dire consequences to anyone who should harm a wren. "Malaisons, malaisons mair than ten, that harry the Lady of Heaven's wren."

And yet, despite such warnings, the period between Christmas and Epiphany, might have at one juncture in our ancient history have been deemed the most dangerous in the life of any wren. Indeed, rather than singing to the world, there was a time when, at this time of the year, wrens would have been well advised to remain silent. This was a period during which everything was turned on its head - a complete reversal of the normal order of things when a Lord of Misrule would be appointed king for the time being and the most insignificant child in the community was accorded all the dignities of king!

Yet, revered though the wren was, again as the normal rules of life were overturned, the poor wren was unmercifully hunted and in many cases sacrificed. In Pembroke the wrens were luckier. Once captured, the wee bird would be paraded around the community in a cage carried by a boy dressed in ribbons proclaiming "Come and make your offering to the smallest yet the king." Happily for the Pembrokeshire wrens, the bird would then be released.

Elsewhere, the poor little wren was killed, yet here again, there were curious ceremonies, which like those days of Misrule, turned everything on its head. From distant Marseilles comes a tradition that the slaughtered wren was carried between two poles by four strong men, who pretended to labour under the weight of the dead wren. A similar scene was enacted in Devon where this time two men apparently struggled under the weight of the dead wren, singing a song about the immense weight of the bird as they went!

Of course, the best known story about the little wren comes from Greek mythology and tells the story of the wren becoming the king of birds when it concealed itself in the plumage of the eagle. The eagle soared the highest of all in order to claim the crown. However, when the eagle had reached its zenith, the wren revealed itself, flew those few feet higher and usurped the crown!

The wren hunts, once a common feature in the post Christmas period, appear to have reached Britain during the Bronze Age and have their origins in the Mediterranean region. Some experts believe that the wren hunts represented the death of the dark earth powers and the beginning of a new season of light and life. Curiously enough those ancestors of ours were probably more familiar with us with the rhythms of the earth. The solstices for instance, were probably automatically registered with them, whereas very few folk nowadays are even aware of such things.

The suggestion of course is that the wren hunts and all those traditions that went with them probably began, not after Christmas but at the winter solstice itself, which of course happens on December 21. That said there are still those, among them the druids, who gather to celebrate these events in the natural calendar. Such traditions persist and Stonehenge is a place noted for such gatherings.

For most of us, in our very artificial world, such events pass us by without as much as a glance, yet that winter solstice has its very own significance. For instance, I would suggest that New Year's Eve should actually take place on the night of December 20. After all, that is when the New Year really begins ,when at last, imperceptibly, instead of days shortening, at last they begin to lengthen. The birds and animals of our landscape are probably more aware of the subtle change that occurs, than are we.

However, I have seen one false dawn - a gorse bush in flower, a yellow oasis in an otherwise pretty grey landscape. However, gorse is a peculiar shrub for it is possible to see it in bloom somewhere literally in every month of the year. The Irish regard gorse as very special. They used it extensively as a hedge, its prickly nature helping to keep stock in and intruders out. Yet such were thought to be its powers that it was also seen to protect livestock from evil. It was also, curiously enough thought to be a good flea repellent!

Who but our friends from across the Irish Sea would add gorse flowers to both wine and whiskey, to improve its flavour but then according to another ancient myth, gorse actually belongs to the fairies who some believe invented whiskey in the first place! Along with hawthorn, blackthorn and blackberry, gorse was also believed by some to guard entrances to the other world!

As far as I can tell, my blazing gorse bush is not guarding the entrance to that other world. But it could well provide good shelter and when the time comes, nesting opportunities for the local wrens which like the gorse itself, seem somehow to be at the heart of so much myth and legend. I write this on Boxing Day - St Stephen's Day on the old calendar. Tradition has it that it was a wren that alerted guards to the escape of Saint Stephen. Perhaps that counts against it?

And of course, many of those wren hunts of yore were also held upon St Stephen's Day. The wren though is surely one of our resident birds that even on the bleakest of winter days, cheers us with that wonderful volley of music:

"The little woodland dwarf, the tiny wren

That from the root-springs trills her ditty clear,

Of stature most diminutive herself" ......Grahame

There they go again. 'Poor old 'Jenny' wren emasculated once more! It's him not her that sings!

Country View 22.12.17

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It was always the same! Every Christmas morning as soon as my eyes were open, I would leap to the foot of the bed and plunge into the pillowcase my parents (or was it really Santa?) used as the main container for my much awaited presents. Always, the first thing I sought would be a square parcel in which was concealed the latest edition of the Rupert Bear annual. Not especially exciting you might think, yet because it was there every year, it gave me great re-assurance. Soon I could be found enveloped in the fictional world of Nutwood and in particular to the activities of Rupert's bosom friend, Bill Badger.

I don't know what particularly sparked off an interest in Bill Badger but he was always my great hero. I also remember listening avidly to a radio serialisation of Kenneth Grahame's immortal "Wind in the Willows," put out on the BBC's splendid "Children's Hour" as I recall. My hero in that too was the avuncular badger, a kind of father figure, respected by all if perhaps sometimes known for his slightly truculent approach to life. Perhaps there was something in him, vaguely reminiscent of my own father?

Grahame, I always thought, was the master of anthromorphism, simply because he had clearly got to know the real characters of the creatures he would transmogrify into human characters. He didn't just stick human names on his animal characters and expect us to assume they were now human. It was all done with a subtlety, which somehow made the stories he told all the more believable.

Therefore, in my mind, the badger remained a friendly, benign character, rumbustious at times, yet wise, and when it seemed necessary, serious, always with the community's interests at heart. The only unsociable anthromorphism in terms of badgers, I can recall, was Tommy Brock, Beatrix Potter's creation and one, which of course, came from the pen of a farming landowner. Potter was always suspicious of natural predators anyway!

Long after Rupert Bear annuals had been swapped for meatier material, my enthusiasm for badgers remained high. Yet I had, throughout those early years of my life, never been in a position to see a live badger. Indeed, that was a treat I had to wait many years for in order to enjoy. Furthermore, that first encounter of a furred kind was in itself quite bizarre. It was a bright summer's day and remembering that by reputation, badgers are by nature, creatures of the night, seldom to be seen out and about in broad daylight, that first encounter initially at least, seemed possibly to be of a dead badger!

There he lay, in the middle of this field, utterly inert. Carefully approaching, I duly investigated its prone body, to realise that the badger, a substantial boar, was in fact having a very deep siesta, its sides heaving gently as he slept! I cautiously leaned down and touched the wiry fur on the animal's flank at which point, with a very loud grunt, he woke, sprung to his feet, looked around and then trundled off, presumably in high dudgeon at having his beauty sleep so rudely interrupted. He was probably gobsmacked. I certainly was! I must say that I later made up for the time lost to enjoy many a badger-watching evening, an experience which was both fulfilling and richly rewarding.

Indeed, I'm quite sure that to this day, badgers, remain fervently close to people's hearts, for it wasn't until 1971 when the dark clouds associated with one of the most virulent diseases around was first associated with badgers. Since then badger/bovine TB and the controversial question of badger culling have unfortunately made headlines on a regular basis. Until then it is likely that the attitude on the part of the farming community to most badgers was indeed entirely benign. However, 1971 proved to be a massive turning point - a watershed - which has seen the badger's popularity in the farming community wane rapidly and change from being a perfectly acceptable character to an absolute pariah ... now hated by most farmers, to some, the devil incarnate!

It was a situation which in my view, was grossly mishandled from the very beginning, the process of deadly, cross-fertilisation accelerated when some farmers chose the bizarre action of tipping slurry into badger setts. Since then, the authorities have fiffed and faffed with the result that now a cull is being carried out in various parts of the country, which, very predictably, so far has not produced a reduction of the incidence of the disease. All the evidence points towards the likelihood that the continuation of culling will instead probably stimulate extra badger movement - empty territories and other badgers will immediately begin the process of re-colonisation. No solution whatsoever!

A far better, more frequent testing regime and vaccination, as is being practised in Wales, would seem to be a much better proposition. All the scientific evidence suggests that this approach is working. I doubt if any single issue has ripped a much wider, bitter division in the rural community than the issue of badgers and bovine TB, especially when the topic of culling is introduced. There are many very active badger groups up and down the country, whose members are dedicated to the welfare of badgers clearly now bringing them into conflict with those who advocate culling.

I do not in any way downplay the enormous pressures bovine TB place upon the farming industry. It devastates; it bankrupts; it ruins lifetime's work. That is why I believe Government has let both farming and our badgers down; why there is such an animated divide between different parts of the rural community. Much more needs to be done. Much more must be done. At least, here in Scotland, we can, whilst remaining ever vigilant, be comforted by the fact that we are officially bovine TB free. There is thankfully no culling here.

That situation should remain providing the checking and movement of cattle remains really efficient. A recent outbreak of TB in Cumbria (a bit too close for comfort) caused some concern but the fact is that unless some infected badgers decide to take their holidays in Scotland, we are for the time being at least, safe from the scourge of this dreadful disease. More importantly, so too are our badgers. Badgers and farmers here at least, can live in harmony without the threats of culling or herd destruction hanging over them.

Thus does it seem entirely appropriate for me to kindly remember those favourite badgers from my childhood, Bill and of course, Badger himself, who set up all my early Christmases for me. So many of my Christmas mornings were shared with badgers and this despite the fact that in reality I had never had real contact with these characterful creatures. In more recent years I have shared many, many magic moments with badgers. In short, they have fulfilled those early Christmas promises. You may not be surprised, when I think back to my badger-ridden early Christmases, that I therefore long for rather more in the way of 'Goodwill to All' and sometime soon, a halt to all such culling. That would make a very happy Christmas! ... just as I wish all readers a very special Christmas!

Country View 13.12.17

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November, now of course consigned to history, I've always considered to be a grey month. Of course, it is a progressively darker month as hours of daylight continue to shrink, as indeed they do in December, perhaps another grey month? Yet, with temperatures also spiralling downwards, we have at least been able to enjoy quite lengthy spells of sunshine during those shorter days. I suppose however, we have the consolation that in just another week, we will have reached the moment when the shortening hours of daylight reach their nadir before at last, ever so slowly, days begin to lengthen. The winter solstice offers a vital turning point, although in all conscience there is plenty of winter yet to come!

Despite that all-pervading greyness, nevertheless there have been flashes of colour to enjoy. Goldfinches are thronging to the feeders now, their little red faces fairly blazing in the winter sunshine, their golden wing-bars, which give the bird its name, absolutely glowing. I love the little array of spots on the tail, which, in some parts of the country, give rise to the unusual pseudonym for goldfinches, of 'spotted dick'! Hereabouts, 'thistle finch' remains in common usage.

The sight of a couple of jays, crossing a woodland clearing in single file, with a fair distance between them, reminded me that these colourful members of the crow clan are very wary travellers. They always fly well apart, never in a gaggle, which suggests these canny birds are aware that for years some country folk have been wont to take pot shots at them. The crow connection is not easily forgotten I'm afraid and jays carry with them a reputation for raiding other birds' nests of their chicks in the spring. However, they do provide flashes of colour on the greyest of days, the white rump always visible, the pink body and those brilliant flashes of blue on each wing, very much the jay's hallmarks.

But there have been other flashes of blue, considerably more luminous than those jay wing flashes - more 'electric'! Normally kingfishers seldom give you much of a chance to study them. Most sightings are along riversides, many of mine indeed, from bridges, when the kingfishes have literally streaked under.

The poet, William Faber caught such a moment perfectly when he wrote:-

"There came

Swift as a meteor's shining flame

A kingfisher from out the brake

And almost seemed to leave a wake

Of brilliant hues behind."

This is of course, the 'Halcyon bird' of many a myth, perhaps the most famous telling us that the kingfisher broods her eggs on a raft of fish bones on a calm sea, more specifically in the middle of the Mediterranean! Indeed, the bird was even credited with a remarkable ability to calm the waters. Such stories emanate from Greek mythology yet from them come the 'Halcyon days' of Shakespeare and other writers.

Parts of the myth are just that ... myth, for in truth kingfishers nest not on the surface of the sea but in the banks of rivers and lochs, excavating a quite lengthy tunnel. However, with a kingfisher's diet entirely comprising of fish, the eggs may indeed be laid upon a mattress of fish-bones. There were other legends from the Greeks including one, which suggested that by hanging up the body of a dead kingfisher, lightning bolts sent by Zeus would be repelled! Once upon a time, kingfisher feathers might have been thought to be particularly useful in luring fish to the colourful artificial flies wielded by those seeking such piscatorial pleasures, except that when the bird is dead, so too almost immediately, is its plumage. Those brilliant colours, that electric blue and the bright orange of the breast, sadly fade fast when the bird is dead.

Those brief encounters, though in themselves memorable, are what one normally sees when encountering kingfishes, yet there are wonderful moments to enjoy if you manage to track down a kingfisher's beat and its nest. Then you may see the bird in its full glory. Usually kingfishers prefer to conduct their fishing plans from a branch overhanging the water of river or lake. From that perch it will study the water below intently, before launching itself in a fast dive, when a target is identified. Where there are no convenient branches, a kingfisher will often seek its prey during a brief hover over the water.

Everything a kingfisher does, it seems to do at breakneck speed. As quickly as it dives headlong into the water, it returns to the branch with a fish squirming in its dagger-like beak, before slamming its victim against the branch either to stun or kill it. Sticklebacks - a favourite prey - have a spiny back-fin, which is raised to prevent predators swallowing them. Stunning the fish thus, prevents it from raising the spines.

Incidentally, the male kingfisher in the breeding season has an all black bill whilst the female has a flash of red at the base. The plumage colours are enhanced by sunlight, an iridescent bright blue, sometimes going on greenish depending on how the light falls on the crown and wings, the breast a luminous reddish orange. The back and tail, also depending upon the way the sun is shining, can range from cobalt blue to azure. Strikingly, the kingfisher's head and indeed its beak are disproportionately large, compared with the rest of its body. Its tail on the other hand, is unusually short and stubby.

Although I have on occasions watched kingfishers a good few miles north of here, we are nevertheless quite close to the northern frontier of the bird's range. However, the phenomenon of global warming is having the effect of extending the territorial limits of a variety of birds ever northwards. In recent years we have seen several species extending their ranges with egrets for instance, now becoming increasingly common. It may well be therefore that kingfishers will extend their range into the northern half of Scotland.

Therefore, it is certainly a matter of some personal exceitement that they are now making their mark around our local loch. They will add those unique flashes of brilliant colour to become another very special bird to add to an already fascinating list! Thus the scaly occupants of those waters have little respite, no matter how small they may be. If the ospreys are currently plundering the waters of Africa, there are herons, cormorants, otters, goosanders and now kingfishers to ensure that fish of any and every size are pursued. At least there is relief for them just now from the tweed-clad fisher-flok who are currently taking a seasonal break! But it won't be for long!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods