Weekly Nature Watch

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

Weekly Nature Watch 29th January 2021

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Among the jumble of birds using my bird-table is a solitary sparrowhawk. I caught it the other day flying into the branches of the rowan tree in pursuit of small birds – almost certainly chaffinches.

It stretched out those long legs hoping to waylay one of those as it tried in vain to get past some of the branches that were obstructing it and, in the end, came away empty handed or should I say empty footed. Somehow the chaffinches had avoided the clutches of its far-reaching feet and it served to illustrate that on occasions, sparrow hawks do fail in their quest for small birds.

To further illustrate the point, some time ago in the summertime, I watched a sparrowhawk fail in its quest to nail a meadow pipit. The pipit flew past the tree in which the hawk had laid its ambush and immediately the hawk launched its attack. However, the pipit was not for catching and dodged this way and that to avoid the hawk. Time and time again, the hawk made a bee-line for the pipit but every time the pipit dodged each advance to such an extent that the hawk eventually tired of the chase and gave up, returning somewhat sheepishly to the tree where it had laid its ambush. It appears that sparrowhawks don’t have much stamina or resolve.

It got me thinking about the unsuccessful sorties birds of prey must periodically make. I’ve certainly watched ospreys dive and miss their targets, presumably when at the last moment a fish dives to avoid the mighty swoop of the bird. Only ospreys do dive deeply so a fish has to be pretty quick to sidestep that dramatic impact. However, it is a fact that ospreys by no means succeed with every dive they make.

The various methods of hunting are as many as there are different birds of prey. Each has its own particular technique. The kestrels I used to watch with such enthusiasm as a lad, either used their lovely hovering flight or occasionally would use a pole – a telegraph pole perhaps – as their aerial vantage point from which to spot a tiny mouse or vole way below them on the ground. However, the full hover is when these particular raptors are at their very best. There is in my view, nothing so beautiful as a hovering kestrel with its wings trembling, tail fanned, it is simply magnificent. However, I do not know whether a kestrel is more successful at the end of its dive than for example, a hawk!

I have often thought the goshawk to be the deadliest attacker amongst raptors. This opinion is gleaned from a single instant when I saw a goshawk launch a very final attack upon a hovering kestrel. It was a very brief attack and it lasted seconds. Wham-bam and that was it. A flurry of feathers drifting down to the ground – the kestrel gone! Goshawks are truly awesome raptors and absolutely lethal. Little wonder that keepers have a pretty jaundiced view of them.

Speed is what does it for peregrines. I well remember being high up in the hills when a peregrine took off from the cliff above me heading down the glen. It seemed miles away but far below me I could see a group of pigeons flying along the floor of the glen. The peregrine was clearly homing in on them and accelerating fast. They say peregrines can attain a speed in the stoop in excess of two hundred miles an hour and I guess this bird was edging towards that kind of speed when it caught up with the pigeons. It singled one out and struck it a mighty blow behind the head. Game, set and match! Magnificent!

I’ve watched hen harriers fly low over moorland – a magnificent sight.  We used to see them patrolling the hedges here during the window months. They flush out small birds from the hedgerows, heather or bracken reaching out for them with their exceptionally long legs. But the real joy of watching hen harriers is to see them in courtship when they become really high flyers and present-bearers. The pair will soar to great heights and the male will drop a ‘present of food’ to the female which she will catch, sometimes by turning upside down. Of course, hen harriers are among the most persecuted of raptors due to their predation upon grouse moors. Yet the presence of some predation surely produces stronger grouse.

Short-eared owls hunt in a similar way, flying low over open moorland, although voles as opposed to small birds, are their principal prey. This is, of course, an owl which unusually does its hunting in daylight hours. In my view, nothing quite looks as facially threatening as a short-eared owl. Somehow, short-eared owls always look very angry indeed, its eyes are simply melting! But then the large eyes of a long-eared owl bear the same kind of threat.

Buzzards, together with kites, are perhaps our most familiar birds of prey, which somehow adapt themselves to many different methods of procuring food.  Although they take a lot of carrion you may also see a buzzard hovering, kestrel-like, as they search for voles and mice. I have also seen a buzzard launch itself hawk-like at a rabbit albeit unsuccessfully, for the adult rabbit, although bowled over by the impact of the strike, survived to reach another day.  However, they do catch a lot of young rabbits. By and large I regard buzzards and kites as opportunistic. I once saw a buzzard seize a blackbird a-la-sparrowhawk. It just happened to be in the right place at the right time – flying past a hedgerow, doing nothing in particular, when a blackbird exploded from the hedge and landed literally in the talons of the buzzard.

Golden eagles rely quite heavily on speed to catch their prey, whilst sea eagles often literally scoop up fish from the surface although occasionally, they will commit themselves to a full-scale dive. Both are awesome predators and take a wide range of prey including mountain hares and ptarmigan. I remember well watching my first sea eagle take off from the shore and soar. Before long, it was no more that a dot in the sky so fast did it climb.

One raptor relies more on its fine-tuned sense of hearing than upon its eyesight. The barn owl has such a sensitive sense of hearing that it can very precisely locate exactly where its prey is and home in on it without seeing it. The juxta-position of the ears – one marginally higher on the head than the other, enables this very precise location. By turning its head, those ears locate exactly where the prey is.

The thread that runs through nature, is perhaps sometimes too much for us to understand, especially the interdependence that runs right through every stage of nature and the reliance that every facet has on the next phase of natural life. It is perfectly true to say that nature is indeed red in tooth and claw.

 

Weekly Nature Watch - Archived from Feb 2019

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There is so much wildlife that we seldom if ever see.

Most of our mammals, for instance, are likely to be about during the hours of darkness when I guess most of us are inclined to remain indoors, cosseted by modern central heating, our attention held by the magic eye of television. Some, I suppose, are glued to their mobile phones or tablets for I remain somewhat disturbed by the number of people who seem completely absorbed by such devices that the world at times appears to pass them by. Many seem utterly oblivious to what is going on around them!

Yet, once the blanket of darkness in the evening then the night descends, out there is a veritable hive of industry. Roe deer emerge from the cover afforded to them by woodland and forests, to graze the surrounding fields. Meanwhile, as alluded to last week, increasing numbers of red deer are seeking the shelter of lowland forests from which they also emerge at night time to exploit the succulent grazing now available to them.

And, new life is already about to come into the world as vixens bed down in their earths in preparation for the birth of this year’s litter of cubs. Many will come into the world in March thus they are initially unseen and indeed we are generally unaware of such moments. Our first sightings of fox cubs may not come until April or even May. Equally unseen are the badger cubs, often also born in March – also of course in their subterranean setts - but usually not glimpsing the wider world until May.

At this time of the year, both foxes and badgers spend a good deal of time in the darkness of the subterranean world below ground, out of sight and for most folk, out of mind. Indeed, badgers live a largely covert lifestyle except for the almost endless days of midsummer. Seldom do they expose themselves to the glare of sunlight. Only when midsummer stretches our days are they likely to be active above ground in broad daylight. Otherwise they remain secure in their underground world. The sett I used to watch, at one time on a nightly basis, many years ago was within a hundred yards or so of a cottage in which for eighty years a country gentleman had lived. Yet this otherwise observant chap had never during his long life ever seen a badger! As said, badgers are covert, night-time creatures!

There is however, another creature, which leaves plenty of evidence of its enduring presence in the fields and occasionally in gardens too but of which we are otherwise largely oblivious. We never even see a single hair of this little fellow, yet we certainly see plenty of evidence of its presence. I refer of course, to those eternal miners known by some folk as ‘mouldiwarps’, by others, especially those with Jacobite sympathies, as ‘the little gentlemen in the velvet coats’! The latter phrase was once a popular Jacobite toast due to the fact that King William – he of the Orange persuasion - was killed when his horse tripped over a molehill. In recent days of little frost and judging by the new lines of mole-hills, which seem currently to be appearing on a daily or perhaps nightly basis everywhere I look,  moles have been very active indeed.

Of course, agricultural man has waged war on moles probably ever since farming took root. Poisons and traps have been employed widely by generations of mole-catchers up and down the country and the grisly spectacle of the bodies of trapped moles hung in line on wire fences used to be commonplace. These days it seems modern day mole-catchers are more discreet and such gibbets seem now to have become a rarity. However, the war on moles has been going on officially for a long time. The legal persecution of moles goes back as far as 1566 when the first Act of Parliament allowing for their control was passed!

And, there was a time when mole pelts were extremely valuable and much sought after by the makers of hats and various forms of clothing. Of course, mole fur, unlike any other pelts, can famously be brushed either backwards or forwards. Indeed, moles can convey themselves through the tunnels they dig as easily forwards as they can backwards because of the ‘two-way’ nature of their fur. However, the phrase, “As Mad as a Hatter”, has more than a grain of truth about it. Regular wearers of hats made from moleskin were in danger of being affected by the chemicals, notably heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which were used in the process of curing moleskins. These substances could slowly be absorbed through the skin of the wearer … with unfortunate consequences! Hence the phrase!

Worms form the bulk of the diet of moles. And worms are of course, greatly valued as aerators of the soil by both gardeners and farmers. Moles are enormously energetic. Entirely unseen by us, they toil ceaselessly in their constant pursuit of worms and of course in the continual expansion of their tunnelled environment by the manic digging of ever more mole highways. Moreover in their constant search for food – a mole can comfortably eat at least three-quarters of its own body-weight in a day – they also devour lots of pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets. Furthermore, moles collect and store worms, which they disable by biting their heads off ensuring they remain fresh.

Thus, there may well be a counter-argument to those who condemn moles for the damage they do. Indeed, I well recall talking to a farmer in an Alpine meadow in Austria. He was busy spreading the soil from molehills with a cane-like stick and he sang the praises of the moles for excavating such splendid soil! However, if you have a manicured lawn, or a tennis court, bowling green or cricket pitch, apoplexy can result as a reaction to the energetic pursuit of worms conducted overnight by a mole or two!    

It is quite amazing, especially at this time of the year, just how energetic moles can be … underneath our very feet. But everything about them is full of energy. Those JCB-like front feet can move mountains of soil very quickly. But male moles can be aggressive, especially in the spring when they vie to mate with the females. It is when mini mole wars are going on underground that occasionally we may see a mole above ground. Usually it is a male that has just lost a battle and been put to flight. I once saw one such exile. It had been forced out of its tunnel close to a busy main road. At first it tried digging through the tarmac, obviously failing. Thereafter it scuttled across the road, miraculously avoiding the wheels of passing vehicles until it reached the verge. Its massive front claws were quickly put to good effect. Within seconds it had gone!

The evidence of their presence is everywhere to be seen. The war against them may continue relentlessly. Yet for all the efforts of the few mole-catchers that remain, moles continue to retain their reputation as indomitable creators of lunar-like landscapes. Those molehills just keep appearing. Down there in that underground world there is clearly at work an energetic population of dynamic earth-moving workaholics!

 

Weekly Nature Watch - From Archives (Jan 2019)

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The traffic at my bird-table has been busy enough of late with no surprises to speak of. So far I have had no sightings of anything unusual, no nuthatches for instance although I know they are about and only rare visits from great spotted woodpeckers.

In recent years these colourful characters have been regular visitors but not so this winter.  So I presume that with few really hard frosts to speak of to make access to the wee beasties upon which they by choice feed difficult, they must be finding enough natural food.

Thus the offerings I provide are being seized upon by the regular cast of feathered entertainers. There are the usual great tits, bluetits, a solitary coal tit, the inevitable and always argumentative house sparrows, red faced goldfinches, and a pair of collared doves, one of which now regularly manages to perch on one of the feeders in order to get at the sunflower hearts. There are also a couple of smartly speckled starlings which have mastered the art of clinging on to a fat holder in order to peck briskly away at the slab of fat despite being upside down!

A solitary greenfinch is a regular visitor. There used to be a plethora of them but they seem to have gone the way of so many farmland birds. However, if greenfinch numbers have plummeted, the one finch that appears to be comfortably holding its own is the chaffinch, for the ground below the bird-table is usually seething with them. They join the cheeky sparrows and the unobtrusive dunnocks below the bird-table, mopping up the scraps that descend from above from the more adventurous birds that clamber onto the feeders. The unassuming dunnocks are always typically at pains to avoid the melee on the ground, content to just quietly peck away at the scraps on the periphery.

I would guess that of all the birds that are regular visitors to bird-tables up and down the country – it is estimated that around 65 per cent of all British households actively feed birds in their gardens – the chaffinch is universally the most common. The word I used last week to describe mallards, ubiquitous, may perhaps equally be applied to chaffinches. So why are they so successful when so many other farmland birds are in decline?

In fact, chaffinches are perhaps rather more catholic when it comes to diet, compared at least to other finches and buntings, for whilst most finches are extremely dependent upon seeds as their main source of food, chaffinches have a much wider range that includes a surprising degree of insect life. In spring and summer especially, chaffinches feed extensively upon insect life and most particularly, they rely upon insects during the breeding season to a much greater degree than other finch-like birds.

Furthermore, longer wings and a longer tail, compared to other finch-like birds, enhance the flying ability of chaffinches to such an extent that they are even quite adept at catching insects in mid-air. In other words, they are that bit more athletic and versatile. It is not by accident that there is also a plethora of blackbirds currently apparent, another testament to the virtues of a more varied, omnivorous diet. Clearly, the chaffinch shares with the blackbird the benefits from such dietary versatility. These have become survivors whereas perhaps others have become over reliant on dwindling food resources.

One crocus-billed cock blackbird regularly takes up station among the teeming chaffinches, sparrows and dunnocks beneath my bird-table, snaffling as many of the scraps that descend as possible. He reminds me of Gulliver among swarms of Lilliputians! There is also plenty of blackbird activity on my lawn as witness the amount of worm hunting being conducted. They are testament to the ability of blackbirds to switch effortlessly between meat and veg!

Chaffinches also seem to adopt different tactics compared to other finches. Because they are more reliant upon insects than other finches and buntings, their summer territories are much more clearly defined.  This is simply because their more omnivorous feeding requirements means that large territories are unnecessary so are generally smaller than those needed by other finches. Relying more heavily on seed, most finches and buntings generally nest in what may be described as loose colonies simply because they must feed over a wider area. Therefore, they need to be more tolerant of one another and in a sense must share resources.

This tighter territorial integrity of the chaffinch is also reflected in the more positive nature of the chaffinch song. That song, when finally it rings out, is one of the most familiar in both town and country. It may not be one of the first we hear, for the likes of great tits especially are among the earliest of songsters. However, chaffinches are often to be heard quite early partially because with competition for good nesting sites likely to be very keen, they need to be thinking of claiming good potential locations as soon as possible each spring.

Indeed, that competitive edge is further demonstrated by the fact that when winter descends, and chaffinches surrender their individuality and come together in flocks, they mostly do so on a single-sex basis. Furthermore, the birds you are currently feeding in your garden are unlikely to be the birds you will hear when singing in earnest begins in the spring. Chaffinches do migrate albeit usually only over short distances. Meanwhile, the hen chaffinches coming together in their spinster flocks are rather more relaxed, delaying their return to their native heaths in the spring because they are not driven by the need to establish territories.

The chaffinch is as unquestionably one of our commonest birds. And of course, the cock birds are extremely attractive with their prominent pink cheeks and breasts, grey merging with rich brown on their backs, wings flecked with attractive yellow bars and attractive slate grey caps reaching round their necks to the napes of their necks. Their songs are cheery in the extreme, initially faltering as if they are not absolutely sure what follows the first phase – a clearing of the throat perhaps - before that final assertive flourish. Surprisingly, that cheerful little ditty however does not come naturally to maturing cock chaffinches for it is not a built-in part of their genetic make-up.

In other words, young chaffinches have to listen to the voices of other chaffinches and learn to copy them in order to become fully throated songsters. And the fact that they have to learn to sing means that up and down the country there are many variations on a theme with different dialects emerging wherever you go - subtle variations on the same theme - just as is the case with human vocalisation. There are therefore fascinating variations, which reflect the dialects that persist in different places, rather like our ‘fit like’ in Aberdeenshire or ‘ee bah gum’ in Northern England!

Chaffinches survive because, like blackbirds, they are able to exist on whatever foods are available. They congregate around bird-tables in the winter in order to maximise food choice and they have also very successfully adapted their lifestyles in order to carve out a good living from the human environment. They are extremely colourful additions to our gardens and when they start to sing as spring advances, they bring that extra element of pleasure with their cheery little ditties.  

 

  

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 25th December 2020

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Of white Christmases, I have not been dreaming!

There are those however, for which a white Christmas would not be a nuisance but instead perhaps, a life saver. White hares, which some readers may be surprised to know, are our only truly native hares, brown hares having long ago been imported, depend very heavily on the transmogrification of their fur from brown to white at this time of year. This dramatic change is triggered by the shortening of daylight hours and gives the hare essential anonymity by providing a defence of obfuscation once their native upland heaths succumb to winter snows.   It also provides a chance of eluding even the sharpest eyed eagle, which is their main predatory enemy of course.

However, mountain hares are not the only creatures afforded this change as a means of   protection from predators or in the case of the stoat, when it converts to a white pelage and becomes an ermine, concealment from those it pursues as much as from those which might pursue it. Curiously, when its change of coat occurs, the tip of the stoat’s tail stubbornly remains black! The trio of those creatures donning white clothes as winter descends is completed by the ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family seldom seen in terrain below the two thousand foot contour. However, this mysterious mountaineering bird goes through various phases of plumage, which it changes four times during the year.

Despite recent temperatures remaining somewhat unseasonably high and very wet, the image of a white Christmas persists on the Christmas cards that have come tumbling through my letterbox. This, the most significant of our Christian festivals has undergone considerable change since I waited breathlessly, and thankfully asleep, for the red-cloaked Santa to arrive on Christmas Eve. Today’s high tech Christmas with its galaxy of electronic gadgets, I suppose is not that far removed from the ones I remember and in particular, those in which an electric model railway was at the top of my list of great expectations! Mind you, the operation of that prized gift was simple enough even for my non-technical brain whereas the vast array of gismos now coveted by today’s more technologically adept youngsters defeats me!

At a glance, currently on my mantelpiece there are depictions of a variety of wintry scenes, some suitably sparkly, others picturing reindeer pulling sleighs over the snow or alternatively across the sky and deer lurking shyly among the trees.  There is the usual array of fir trees, holly and ivy, not to mention a handful of Dickensian Christmas images, all glinting in a landscape inevitably coated with snow. Yet significantly, there are also a number of robin redbreast images in this year’s gallery, so at least one tradition appears to be holding its own! Redbreast has probably been one of the most popular images for the designers of Christmas cards for the best part of a hundred and fifty years now.

As it happens, on recent days I have been entertained by a solitary caroller on the bird table. However, this is no surplice-clad choirboy but a tuneful and feathered, glowingly red-breasted chorister whose music is both sweet and warming. And of course, because he is alone as a songster during these shortening winter days, his music stands out amidst a blanket of silence save for the occasional and very much coarser yelling of passing skeins of pink-footed geese and the regular, chirped quarrels of the sparrows. By comparison these offerings, such as they are, represent a more raucous tone.  Redbreasts on the other hand, typically blurt out those little volleys of sweet notes, not necessarily in a melodic order, for I always have had the impression that robins never know quite which notes are coming next when they sing. Constructed, predetermined music is not their way!

He is a very welcome caroller however and as befits a bird which has been one of the images of the traditional Christmas for so long, his place on the mantelpiece is naturally, well deserved. He came to find himself cast in that image because of an association with the very first postmen back in the nineteenth century. Those postie’s wore a uniform, the most prominent feature of which was a vermillion coloured waistcoat. Inevitably they were instantly dubbed ‘robins’ and not surprisingly, the image of robins on some of the earliest of Christmas cards became endemic, often portrayed with little envelopes in their beaks. Such are the images which have earned these bold and attractive little birds their own place in Yuletide history. However, in the early days of Christianity, the robin had already been established as a very special bird when St Mungo, who founded Glasgow Cathedral, was a student and was said to have restored the tame robin belonging to his old master, St. Serf, to life after it had been killed by other students.

The apparent willingness of robins to live happily with human kind would appear to give them a very special place in British hearts although strangely, for some reason continental robins are much less confident. Here they regularly make their nests in such cast offs as old kettles or plant pots and are even known to build their nests in the likes of garden sheds. They can also be an eager presence in gardens, especially if someone is digging as they are always ready willing and able to dine upon the creepy crawlies thus unearthed by the spade.

But there is another, less complimentary side to the robin coin! Yes, he does sing on the dullest of winter days and is usually the only songster during the bleak mid-winter months but those little bursts of song, although sweet on the human ear, in reality are a distinctly threatening signal to other cock robins, a warning on pain of mortal combat and in some cases a fight to the death, not to enter the songster’s territory.

I guess that such behaviour is not exactly in the true spirit of Christmas as we see it. Behind the tinsel,  the sales blurb, all the electronic gadgets, the flashing lights, the ringing cash tills - or this year, the almost continuous delivery of on-line purchases - the true spirit of Christmas is surely a message of peace and love, a celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.  Sadly, Redbreast’s attitude is the very opposite, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own” is his Christmas message, unyielding and unforgiving, full of aggression and the very antithesis of that genre of peace and love.

And yet we nevertheless deeply love and admire that perpetrator of such sweet song, that caroller supreme …  and we adore that bright, distinguished and very audible, truly musical intervention that leaps from the red breast of this attractive bird, He further endears himself visually with those big, appealing, brown eyes. He may in truth be a doughty defender of his own very personal faith but beneath it all, surely his is a cheery celebration to be shared – his Christmas greeting to us all.

At the end of a very difficult year, perhaps above all this is a time for renewed hope of better things to come. My wish for all and everyone is a very Happy Christmas!

 

Weekly Nature Watch 18th December 2020

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A rare golden December afternoon sky ensures that the waters of the loch are also gilded for there is not even the slightest hint of a puff of air to ruffle them.

No breeze, perhaps, but plenty of movement to disturb that mirror image for the water's surface is reminiscent of a busy shipping lane. Often have I enjoyed the experience of flying over busy shipping lanes like the English Channel and seen the herring-bone patterns reaching far across the waters before gently subsiding as ships of every shape and size cleave their way through the waves.  The loch also resembles a shipping lane but here there are no ships, just busy clusters of waterfowl buzzing their way over that golden surface and diving beneath it.

In between the herring bone patterns and sometimes at the very apex of them, suddenly there is a plop followed by an expanding series of concentric circles as an exploration of the darker waters below the surface takes place. The considerable number and variety of ducks these waters support generally falls into two categories - those that dabble, feeding largely on surface material and those that dive to explore the hidden depths for a wider selection of food.  

Mallard ducks are the dabblers and groups can often be seen head dipping or completely upending in the water.  However, they rarely dive spending their time near the surface and dabbling for invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and a variety of plants. They also graze on land, feeding on grains and plants.

Thought to be the most abundant and wide ranging duck on earth and clearly the ancestors of many domestic ducks, they are a familiar sight to many people.  The drake is the more distinctive of the mallards. Its iconic green head sits atop a white neckband that sets off a chestnut-coloured chest and grey body.  Females are a mottled drab brown but have iridescent purple-blue wing feathers that are visible as a patch on their sides.

But today it is the diving ducks that catch the eye and there is also gold here for two of the most familiar of these submariners are characterised by their golden eyes. One is an all-year-round resident, the other a visitor from the far north - in some cases the very far north. The latter is, of course, the appropriately named ‘goldeneye’, a resident in summer of such faraway places as northern Scandinavia and Siberia and a duck which, perhaps surprisingly, chooses to nest in trees. Wintering birds arrive here from August to December and return north in February and March.  However, in recent decades, a handful of goldeneye has remained in Scotland for the summer, perhaps in some cases encouraged to remain and breed as a result of the provision of nest boxes although, in these parts such boxes appear to have attracted only tawny owls!

The goldeneye drake is a black and white bird with white predominating especially along the water line, but his most prominent features are the bold white cheek patches, the abnormally square head and high forehead and a golden eye. Although the impression of the bulbous head of the male is that it is black, in bright sunlight, it has a dark green sheen. In comparison, the duck is plainer, greyer, with a russet brown head rather than a black one but also has the same golden eye.  

Goldeneye are especially renowned for their ability to dive deeper than most other wildfowl and they may sometimes remain underwater for as much as a minute at a time.  In fact, at one time it was thought that the bird was able to do this because of the presence of air pockets within its large skull - a rather doubtful supposition, I fear. They seek food by turning over stones on the bed of the loch in the hope of finding small crustaceans or other forms of invertebrate life.

There is a precocity about goldeneye, typified by their exceptionally early courtship displays which often begin in the very depths of their winter sojourn here. The strange antics performed by the fervent drakes are mildly amusing to observe with the drake usually paddling round the female, his head feathers puffed out to make his head look even larger, his tail pointing skywards and his head and neck stretched forward. Often this is followed by a thrusting of the head backwards and at the same time a kicking up of water to the rear.  However, there are several variations on a theme and the drakes seem to get themselves into a real lather, while the ducks give the impression of complete indifference.

The other golden-eyed diver, one that is more universally familiar due to its lack of shyness and its often presence on urban located waters including park ponds, is the tufted duck which breeds throughout temperate and northern Eurasia. They are migratory and overwinter in the milder south and west of Europe and southern Asia but are present throughout the year in the British Isles.

Smaller than the mallard, the adult male is all black except for white flanks and a blue-grey bill with gold-yellow eyes, along with a thin crest on the back of its head and an obvious head tuft that gives the species its name. The adult female is brown with paler flanks, and is more easily confused with other diving ducks. It is hardly surprising that the tufted duck shares the colloquialism of ‘douker' with the goldeneye but this is an altogether less demonstrative bird compared with its more flamboyant fellow submariner. Indeed the tufty, sometimes called the ‘blue neb’ from the colour of its bill or the ‘magpie diver’ because of its black and white plumage, with black being the predominant colour in this case.

This is a much more sedentary creature altogether but it too is renowned for its diving ability. If not quite able to match the goldeneye for depth or duration of dive, it is not very far behind in the ratings, often staying underwater for as long as 50 seconds and also reaching the bed of the loch to turn over stones.  The tufted ducks feed mainly by diving, but they will regularly upend from the surface. Their food consists of molluscs, aquatic insects, plants etc., and the birds will sometimes feed at night.

Fittingly, it is not only much less ambitious when it comes to courtship displays but it is also much more conservative when it comes to nesting. Not for the tufted duck the ambition to nest high in a tree. They prefer to have both feet on the ground, generally close to water, the nest merely a hollow filled with grass. As a result, tufty ducklings are spared the indignity and potentially damaging exodus from their nest that is a fall of several feet either on to the ground or occasionally into water if they are lucky, experienced by goldeneye ducklings.

As the winter sun dips ever lower, so are the spreading circles created by these submariners each time they dive beneath the golden surface etched more starkly, blacker and blacker with each dive. Otherwise, the water and the eyes remain pure gold.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods