Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 26th March 2021

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A Spring Nature Watch from our Archives  

The heron had gone fishing, but it was unlikely to catch any fish! It was standing next to a large pool of rainwater in a field so certainly no fish to be plundered there.

However, the bird’s vigil was not necessarily entirely doomed for there was a possibility that migrating frogs might have taken refuge in this new if temporary water feature. Herons clearly don’t rely entirely upon fish. They are adept at ambushing frogs when they are migrating and indeed are known to consume small mammals such as short-tailed field voles and water voles. They also have a penchant for snatching the odd duckling, given half the chance!

An appetite for voles was demonstrated to me on one occasion, when I witnessed the bizarre sight of three herons marching abreast across a field. From time to time any one of the three would break ranks to dart forward and snatch an unsuspecting vole from the rank grass they were almost wading through. On another occasion – a spring day - I watched a heron busily intercepting frogs freshly emerged from hibernation on a very wide bit of roadside verge.

Herons may already be sitting on eggs for these are early entrants in the race to produce a new generation. Mostly they nest in the tree-tops, often favouring Scots Pine plantations. There is an element of ungainliness about them as they come in to land at their high rise colonies. In song we often hear about ‘the lonely heron’ yet by and large they choose to nest in colonies and I have often observed their communal style of living where young are cared for in crèches.

Yet for all that perceived clumsiness, herons are real killing machines even if they sometimes give the impression of lethargy especially when standing beside or even in the water, shoulders hunched, giving a good impression of being half asleep! But don’t be fooled by the statuesque heron. Believe me, it is wide-awake and completely programmed to act in a flash when prey comes within striking range. When it does, the sleeping beauty is transmogrified into a fast reacting predator, neck now cocked back to strike with the speed of a snake, those piercing yellow eyes utterly focussed, the long, dagger-like beak the deadly killing weapon.

The only time a heron appears to lose its composure is when it strikes and drags an eel from the water. Eels don’t give up their lives readily and may wrap themselves around that long beak in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Now the heron only has recourse to finding a rock against which to beat the offending eel into submission before, once it is comatose, it can at last be ushered down that long neck. Mind you as I have said before, I once saw a heron’s composure completely shattered when out of a clear blue sky hurtled an angry osprey. Herons in flight can be remarkably sedate. On that occasion any such illusion was quickly dispelled as the poor heron was downed into the loch although it did eventually make its way to the shore.

Ospreys – the first of them are already back from their winter sojourn in West Africa – do not of course eat herons, their food requirement is exclusively fish. However, Roy Dennis, that doyen of the restoration of ospreys to this country during those years in the latter part of the last century when they started to return, once asserted that he had seen an osprey catch a rabbit. This was probably the one and only recorded occasion that the ‘fish only’ diet was broken – the only exception to that otherwise strict rule!

Sometimes we can be surprised at what some creatures eat. For example, and contrary to what some folks claim, foxes do not live exclusively upon lambs and domestic poultry. Indeed, the diet of foxes can on occasions be remarkably diverse. For instance you might be surprised how many worms foxes consume, not to mention their appetite for small mammals. Furthermore, later in the year there are more surprises in the enthusiastic consumption of hedgerow fruits, especially brambles.

In this respect they are not alone. Much of the average badger’s food comprises of worms and beetles, which may explain why they can often be found turning over cow pats. They are in fact looking for the likes of beetles, which of course are always interested in such excrement. My own badger watching days were often enhanced by the provision of a scattering of peanuts and of course badgers will enthusiastically plunder wild bee nests.

In recent days there has been a good deal of local pine marten activity - to the detriment of my now much-lamented late flock of hens! Here too there are many misconceptions. Some for instance, might have you believe that pine martens live entirely upon the eggs and chicks of songbirds not to mention hens! Just as is the case with regard to foxes, young lambs are only generally vulnerable for a short period during the spring. So also, the eggs and young of birds are only really vulnerable whilst they are on the nest. Like foxes, pine marten also enjoy the taste of wayside fruits.

They also enjoy the odd hen’s egg! Some years ago, a pine marten discovered a gap in a roof behind which she decided, was the ideal place in the roof-space of a house belonging to a friend in which to make a nest. That summer, we were treated to extensive views of a pine marten collecting food from our friend’s conservatory roof and later to the even more intriguing sight of her two youngsters also enjoying the food willingly provided by an exceptionally generous human!

Another acquaintance, who once lived in an isolated cottage deep in a Highland forest, entertained pine marten regularly in his kitchen – the attraction being of all things strawberry jam sandwiches! Another alternative favourite are peanut butter sandwiches! Pine marten have also been in the news of late because some Scottish born pine marten have been translocated to the Forest of Dean.

There has been a complete turnaround in pine marten fortunes in recent years. Once, of course, they were vigorously hunted almost to extinction. But since coming under the protection of the law in 1978, the rump of them that was left in some remoter parts of the Highlands, has grown out of all recognition and re-colonised territories from which they were expelled long ago.

Since their arrival here several years ago, they have certainly seen-off the grey squirrels, which have happily been replaced by our native red squirrels. If they manage to accomplish a similar feat in the Forest of Dean, one suspects they will be more than welcome and certainly more welcome than the wild boar now apparently roaming that said forest in their hundreds.

It may take time to re-establish martens there because they are not prolific breeders having just one litter a year with usually no more than two off-spring. However, the spread of pine marten throughout Scotland and their re-introduction to Wales is a real conservation success story to be seen alongside the return of the osprey and the re-introduction of the red kite. Furthermore if the martens can devastate the grey squirrel populations there as they have here, they will I’m sure, be doubly welcome!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods