Weekly Nature Watch

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!

 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods