Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 14.12.16

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Joey was a real character, a foundling that had been reared as a chick by a young boy. Whether or not he was simply found or perhaps more questionably, taken from the nest, I know not. However, the boy's mother eventually had had enough of Joey's persistent mischief making and misdemeanours. As a result, she instructed her son to 'get rid of it!' Meanwhile, Joey had discovered a nearby roadside cafe - food, not necessarily for thought but food if you were clever enough, for free - available throughout the day from customers' plates and thus not exactly to the pleasure of the cafe's proprietor, or indeed his clients. What was at first an amusement soon became a thorough nuisance.

All members of the corvid clan somehow attract varying degrees of hostility and Joey, being a jackdaw, was no exception. However, his regular presence at the cafe became such a nuisance that I was asked to intercede. As he was so tame, he readily perched upon my shoulder and so I was able easily to take him in hand and take him home. Joey settled in very well but we soon discovered that it was necessary for us to keep all windows closed for he turned out to be an expert jewel thief! All jackdaws are known to find sparkly objects particularly fascinating and Joey had an especially keen eye for such things and given the chance, would seize such prizes and hide them away.

Crows in general, as I've said many times before, are exceptionally intelligent and again Joey was no exception. He was also very sociable and soon began to pay visits to our neighbours...uninvited. On the occasion of one flying visit, he decided to inspect the inner reaches of a neighbour's car, finding a convenient perch on one of the headrests. The owner, utterly unaware of Joey's presence, jumped in, started the engine, put the car into gear, looked in her mirror, saw Joey and immediately jumped out! Happily someone was on hand to bring the vehicle to a halt before any damage was well and truly done! In addition, another neighbour, hearing a curious hammering sound emanating from her utility room, on investigation, discovered Joey pecking furiously at a de-frosting loaf!

As a result of such unwanted visitations, Joey had sadly to be incarcerated and consigned to life in an aviary. But even then, he maintained his sense of mischief. A neighbour's dog was in the habit of visiting our garden and every time it did, Joey yelled out "Joey" several times. The dog, not aware of any human presence and not knowing from whence the voice was coming, always quickly turned tail and fled! However, Joey's was a limited vocabulary yet now I began to gain increasing respect for a bird, which might have been quite a linguist, given the chance! Although in the early days he often made a nuisance of himself, he was nevertheless, a mighty intelligent bird.

Jackdaws are the smallest members of the crow family, noted for a handsome greying of the head plumage at the nape of the neck and for their grey or in the case of young birds, blue eyes. That jackdaws clearly have an appetite for pleasurable activity was well demonstrated to me the other day. The wind had got up and suddenly the sky was filled with a mass of jackdaws. Their loud 'chacking' or 'jacking' echoed across the landscape before suddenly, this horde of birds began to fling itself about the sky like so many dancing dervishes.

Their gyrations were simply mind boggling as birds raced down the wind, soaring upwards before with a flick of their wings, they were all hurtling towards the ground at breakneck speed. Jackdaws, by the way, have been recorded flying down the wind at over eighty miles an hour! Despite their death defying antics there is never even the slightest suggestion of any bird losing control. Indeed, some of them, as they hurled themselves across the sky, seemed to be playing a gigantic game of tag. Yet perceptibly, many of the participants in this wind-defying game were clearly playing in pairs.

On other calmer days, I have of late been watching jackdaws flying from building to building in two of our local villages...always in pairs. Often they descended to street level to explore the tossed away remnants of a sandwich or perhaps resort to inspecting the litter-bins in the hope of finding something like the remains of fish suppers! During both winter and summer, they always seem to operate in pairs, for jackdaws are among the most constant and faithful of birds, pairing for life, the bond between 'husband and wife' strengthening with each passing year.

Jackdaws live in highly structured societies, with a kind of caste system dictating the place of each bird in the community. As is often the case in human society, those deemed to be inferior birds are sometimes bullied by their superiors, which of course, also always enjoy the best feeding. However, when a previously persecuted female pairs up with one of the 'upper class' males, she often, in company with her partner, aggressively seeks retribution against the birds that previously bullied her. 'Marrying' above her station quickly lifts her into the higher ranks!

Most flocks of jackdaws have a clearly distinguished 'head' bird leading the flock. Surprisingly perhaps, this chieftain seems to take a benevolent view of his underlings, whilst at the same time always keeping them in their place. This hierarchy seems to work well and even more surprisingly, should disputes in the flock arise, the 'boss' will usually take the side of the 'underdog' and thus quickly resolve the quarrel!

Because jackdaws are so easy to tame, those who study the foibles of avian life are naturally and more easily, able to study these birds very closely indeed. In addition, they also quickly bond with their 'owners'. Hence we probably know more about them than we do about most other avian species. Whatever the purpose of such studies, I am sure that those scientists not only learn about the jackdaw's lifestyle but also derive much pleasure from their research. To my mind, jackdaws are birds which enjoy life and exude an air of comedy. They always bring a smile to my face. Not only do they leave us open-mouthed at their amazing aerobatics - their sheer flying versatility - but they also bring, when they come down to ground a 'Chaplainesque' air whilst strutting their stuff among the madding crowds.

However, one downside of having jackdaws as neighbours is that they rather fancy chimneys as nesting sites. I know of a number of such incidents - they largely build their nests from sticks - and on more than one occasion have been known to fill a chimney so thoroughly with twigs that their nests eventually went from chimney top all the way down to the ground floor! And of course, because of their community orientated way of life, where one pair of jackdaws chooses a nesting site, others will not be far away - in other adjacent chimneys perchance? Jackdaws can frequently be seen around chimney pots, so look up!

Watch out then for jackdaws on those windy winter days. You will I'm sure, be amazed by their aerial dexterity. You may also quite legitimately interpret their 'jacking' as laughter! They are without doubt, fun loving birds!

Country View 7.12.16

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There are those who might quite legitimately argue that the instinct to hunt other creatures is at the very heart of man's evolution and survival. Indeed, it is surely true that our survival has in large part, been sustained by our ability to chase, catch and slaughter our fellow creatures. Thus, our ancestors fed themselves and indeed clothed themselves, courtesy of the creatures they were able to kill. Some remote human populations do still survive in this way and I guess our fellow northern Europeans, the Sami people of Lapland, continue to sustain a way of life which has existed for countless centuries, a tribute to their determination to maintain such a unique lifestyle.

However, it isn't as if those Sami people are necessarily stuck in the past or somehow mired in a primitive mind set, oblivious to the technology of the twenty-first century. Whilst apparently remaining in that 'time warp' they have also taken to such things as the internet, like ducks to water. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if their connectivity in that respect is considerably better than ours! The simple fact is that they choose to live their lives in this way, maintaining tradition and accordingly facing the challenges that a nomadic lifestyle in those bleak northern latitudes demand but at the same time embracing the added bonus of access to the electronic world!

Thus, they are still heavily reliant upon reindeer meat and indeed skins too. This is perhaps in stark contrast to the 'needs' of those who continue to hunt in these islands. Hunting here has nothing to do with survival; instead it is all to do with enjoyment pure and simple. That such pursuits have always been a source of enjoyment, there can be little doubt. Tales of the hunting exploits of the ancient Kings and Queens of Scotland are legion. Great hunting parties would rampage across the landscape, their principal quarries deer which, at the end of the chase would eventually be corralled into areas from which they could not escape and where therefore, they were slaughtered on the spot. Not perhaps particularly sporting but effective!

Predictably, there followed great feasts, during which, with all the fare resulting from the chase, all manner of game and other imported varieties of food, would have tables groaning. The said feasts could last for days! And I daresay that those minions hired in order to make such events ever grander, would themselves have dined well off the scraps. No need for food banks there I guess! However, it is worth pointing out that most of what was hunted on such occasions was edible! The 'Big Five' as they used to be known, were the hart, the hind, the hare, the boar and the wolf. The wolf apart, all could be eaten. But as far as the wolf was concerned, it was universally more simply regarded as public enemy number one!

All over the world, the wolf has always been seen as man's main competitor for wild food. Worse, it has also been regarded as a major threat to human life itself. There are countless legends about wolves, one of the most familiar to us of course, the one that had the wolf's beady eyes trained upon Little Red Riding Hood! Yet there are those who insist that the wolf is nothing like the threat that history suggests. Nevertheless, the destruction of the wolf seems to have been a pre-occupation of Scottish monarchs over a considerable period of time with edicts frequently issued ordering their destruction.

However, the biggest problem created by the presence of wolves, seems to have been among the dead rather than among the live! Such was the instance of wolves digging up the bodies of the recently interred that, during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, islands were increasingly chosen for burials in order to thwart the grave robbing activities of wolves. There are of course, countless local legends, which tell of the fate of many a traveller in the wilds of Scotland, falling victim to the prowling packs of ravenous wolves.

In the mid-eighteenth century the 'final solution' appears to have been reached and the wolf finally disappeared. A certain Mr McQueen is said to have claimed the life of the last Scottish wolf in Atholl in 1743. However, there are perhaps, as many sites claimed for that final act as there are places where wolves entered folklore for an equally speculative range of other activities!

So, once the wolf had gone, what to chase now? The nearest British based relative of the wolf, the red fox, suddenly found itself to be in the hunting spotlight. And yet it wasn't until 1793 that the then Prince of Wales established the first pack of foxhounds in England. We are told that fox-hunting was developed as a necessary means of exterminating 'vermin' (i.e. Foxes). Yet such was the paucity of foxes to hunt that markets, at which foxes, imported from Continental Europe were sold in considerable numbers, were set up in the south of England in order that the newly established hunts had something to hunt! For a short time early in my adult life, I lived in rural Leicestershire, known for its addiction to the hunt. I soon learned that local hunts used to regularly rear litters of foxes a means of ensuring there would be foxes to hunt!

Hunts are perhaps, less to do with controlling foxes - this probably is the least efficient means of achieving that aim - that with the social occasion. The advent of large-scale sheep farming in Scotland upped the ante. Now, newly born lambs conveniently added a fresh source of food for wild foxes, often in areas where other prey would have been in short supply. Later, the rise of the sporting estate increased the flow of food with game and especially, a growing supply of succulent pheasants constantly added to the menu. We keep ushering into our countryside, more and more food for foxes...and other carnivores...and raptors and then complain when they strike to avail themselves of such culinary riches!

Some years ago, members of the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments, voted to outlaw fox hunting in so far as once a fox had been flushed by dogs, it had to be shot, not killed by the hounds. Yet in recent weeks, evidence has emerged that such conditions are not being applied. The lust in human beings to kill is something that I personally find hard to understand. However, I do understand that these days the fox has replaced the wolf as public enemy number one. It is all-out war, man versus fox. And while we continue to saturate the landscape with the likes of pheasants - the real numbers seem irrelevant; 35 million, 40 million, even 50 million at the latest count and far more than there are for instance, sparrows in the UK - the fox continues to win. With each passing year, the UK fox population increases remorselessly despite man's hand being set so firmly against it.

Successful breeding results from being well provisioned. So long as we keep putting more and more fox friendly food into our landscape, we should not be surprised that foxes are accordingly prospering. Even in our towns and cities and despite the introduction of allegedly fox-proof wheelie bins, the fox is doing very well indeed, thank you very much! It is obvious that we are wasting a lot of time and money to absolutely no avail!

Country View 1.12.16

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In recent weeks, there has been much owl 'conversation'. I am usually aware of such conversations during the month of October but this year, much of the vocalisation began as November hove into view. Of course, this is a crucial time for the relatively familiar tawny owl, the brown owl of children's stories. Indeed, in many respects this is the make or break time for the past year's crop of young tawnies as they try to find their way in an increasingly hostile world.

The challenge is brutal but simple - it is the battle for survival! It is not an easy challenge to meet as winter gradually seizes the landscape, for the first part of that challenge to these newcomers, is the establishment of a good feeding territory. The problem for the young birds is that such territories are mostly already occupied by adult owls, which as you might imagine, do not readily surrender their hard won territorial integrity. By and large, young tawnies are not feisty enough to unseat well-established adults and may therefore find themselves moved from pillar to post, finally having to settle in territories where food is perhaps scarce.

There have been times in which poor breeding years in communities of small rodents, the main source of food for tawny owls, has been poor. In years like that, the mortality rate of young owls can be alarmingly high, in some instances as high as eighty per cent. I certainly remember winters in which young tawny owls had to resort to seeking out road casualties such as pheasants and where they were still prevalent, rabbits, in order to survive. Unfortunately, tawny owls, equipped with eyes, which can see in very poor light conditions, are utterly dazzled by car headlights and thus all too often end up as casualties themselves.

However, there are some compensations to be enjoyed by re-locating 'town owls'. In short, in suburban and even urban areas where there are well-established human communities, the availability of the food - we are somewhat profligate with our waste food which as a consequence, encourages the presence of rodents. Indeed, it is often said that most of those folk who dwell in urban communities are never more than a few feet away from colonies of rats and house mice, whether they are aware of their presence or not! Neither of these pests is native to Britain but have made their way here courtesy of trade shipping. And, as winter sets in many such rodents seek shelter and succour indoors! That is precisely why many tawny owls have chosen to inhabit built up areas and why their hooting and screeching are commonplace sounds these days in towns and even in cities. the abundance of mature trees these days in both parks and gardens provides excellent nesting sites for such owls.

And of course, as the authors of children's books have long been aware, a tawny owl especially, is unusually humanoid in appearance with a round, blocky head, two large, forward facing eyes, which give it binocular vision and enables it to focus upon prey and judge distances accurately. The humanoid picture is completed by a hittle hooked beak that doubles for a nose and the prominent facial disc. Some might even regard them as cuddly. They are not! Indeed, tawny owls are doughty defenders of their young and the well-known bird photographer, Eric Hosking, certainly testified to that. He lost an eye when trying to photograph a tawny owl nest in which there was a family of young owlets. As far as the parent owls were concerned, he got too close and as a result one of them attacked him...with dire consequences!

If a tawny owl's eyesight is phenomenal in fading light, then consider the real size of its eyes. True, they look large but remove the bird's head plumage and compare their size with the bird's actual skull and they assume truly huge proportions. Were our eyes as large in proportion to the size of our skulls, as those of a tawny owl, they would be as large as tennis balls. Yet sight is just one of the major assets of this impressive predator. Add to those remarkable powers, the amazing hearing these owls have, enhanced by the bird's ears being offset, one marginally higher than the other, which enables it, even in total darkness, to pinpoint its potential victims very precisely.

And if the supreme eyesight and powers of hearing were not enough, the fine fringe of feathers on the edges of the tawny's wings, enable it to fly utterly silently. This then is a remarkably well equipped raptor. As winter sets in, despite this catalogue of hunting resources, the battle for survival is now joined by young owls, literally booted out of their parents' territory and forced to live entirely by their own wits.

Yet, tawny owls are among the great survivors, a description that certainly does not apply to what I consider to be our most beautiful owl. This week I snatched a glimpse - no more than that - of a barn owl, a white, almost ghoulish apparition, perched in a small local woodland. Sadly, this was a rare sighting. There was a time when barn owls were regularly seen hunting nearby rough grassland, typically at dusk. A hunting barn owl somehow bounces through the gloaming, its white underparts making it an easy bird to spot. But sadly, changing farming patterns appear to have undermined the barn owl's standing.

The barn owl's upper plumage is generally described as buff coloured, a description which I believe does little justice to this regal bird. In truth, the description of this element of the bird's plumage might just as justifiably be instead explained as 'gold and silver' such is the beauty of this enigmatic bird. With evidence pointing to a decline in barn owl numbers, once more, I have to question the heavy use of pesticides in the agricultural industry. I do not take issue with farmers on this but with the authorities who, it seems to me blithely give the nod to the widespread use of chemicals which I believe are putting at risk the entire ecosystem. Pollination is the vital key to the entire sequence of events from which emerge our crops and every element of our countryside.

It may well be therefore, that we are actually poisoning the very landscape from which we derive most of our food. Nature provides key messages, for instance, the widespread of DDT in the post war years, caused problems to many raptors with decreasing fertility occurring. The warning was heeded, the use of DDT was banned and the raptors breeding ability soon began to recover. In the natural chain of life, we are next in succession to the likes of raptors. So Nature provides warnings. The alarming reduction in so many species of our birds is surely in itself, a strong warning that all is not well.

Barn owl populations have been in decline all over Western Europe as agriculture has become ever more reliant upon such technologies. The rarity and the serious decline in even common bird populations across Britain is, I believe, a warning to us and the declining status of the barn owl in particular is a worrying part of this alarming trend. Their rarity also, incidentally, robs us of sightings of one of our most beautiful of all our native creatures.

Country View 29.11.16

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It was as if the seasons had suddenly got muddled up. There, serenely drifting across a mirror-like loch was the slender figure of a great crested grebe, seen here very much like a summertime bird. Just a few feet away from the solitary grebe, a little flurry of goldeneye were exploring the depths of the loch and then bobbing back to the surface. This, of course, unlike the more sedentary grebe, is a visitor from Arctic regions, a deep, deep diver of a bird, which breeds in the faraway northern forests. Regular attempts are made to encourage them to breed here with nest boxes erected near suitable Highland lochs but minimal success has been achieved, albeit that the first goldeneye known to have bred in Scotland, were recorded in 1970.

That solitary grebe will surely de-camp this airt any day now to spend the next few months in relatively sheltered in-shore waters off our eastern coast, perhaps in estuaries such as the Forth. I was a little surprised to see it still happily cruising across these inland waters in late November as they're usually gone from here by now. But of course, for birds that dive for their food, as do both the grebe and the goldeneye, unless the loch freezes it will, I guess, find conditions underwater if colder, otherwise unaffected by weather!

The loch has fallen relatively silent with the final lines cast and boats now hauled up for the winter. Therefore, the fish are in theory, given a respite as the tweed-clad wielders of rod and line have at last bedded down for their annual hibernation. The ospreys are long gone too, hopefully now ensconced in African climes where they may fish warmer waters. However, the statue-like presence of a heron stationed beside those still waters was a reminder that fish choosing to stray into the shallows are by no means safe from this awesome fisher.

I have much admiration for herons. They are patient beyond belief, prepared it seems to stand stock still almost for ever, waiting, waiting for the next meal to come swimming innocently by. Then the statue slowly and stealthily comes alive, those large yellow and black eyes unerringly trained upon the unfortunate victim, neck slowly drawn back like the string on a bow. Then like a striking serpent, that dagger like beak brings for the fish the denouement as it stabs decisively forward and grabs its scaly quarry adeptly before turning it and swallowing it whole. Then, hunger temporarily satisfied, the bird may continue to stand beside the water, its neck lowered, shoulders seemingly hunched, and eyes now apparently closed. Time for a snooze?

Sometimes the bird will stalk its prey, picking its way carefully through the shallows, each step so gingerly placed so as not to alarm the fish, neck held forward eyes always on the alert, the bird ever ready to revisit that cobra-like strike. Or, suddenly the bird is off to some other familiar fishing beat, its great wings unfurling, those long legs pushing for take-off. In an instant it is in the air, rhythmic but steady wing-beats propelling it away at a very respectable but apparently unhurried speed. Those voluminous wings - the wingspan of a heron is an impressive six feet plus - bear it majestically away.

Long ago, when falconry was literally the sport of kings, the heron was a much-prized quarry, admired for its ability to gain height quickly and thus evade the stooping falcon. Indeed, the heron became the subject of one of England's earliest bird protection laws when the venerable Henry - he of the six wives - decreed them protected from all assault in order that his falcons would always have challenging prey to pursue. It wasn't, I suppose, quite the same as today's legislative powers which by and large are drawn up for the benefit of the birds themselves. Henry's laws were framed very much for the benefit of the hunters rather than the hunted!

Mind you, whereas the reputation of the heron in conflict with the jessed peregrines of this world, is so good, my personal experience of watching a heron attempting to avoid the attentions of an osprey some years ago, certainly did not enhance the heron's reputation for escaping conflict. The said bird, complacently flying low over the loch, suddenly found itself pursued by an angry osprey, not as fast as a peregrine perhaps but maybe more versatile. Such was the ferocity of the osprey's assault that over the course of the next five minutes, the startled heron was 'shot down' three times, on each occasion managing to struggle free of the water, only to be downed again. Finally it struggled to the shore where it stood in bedraggled, abject misery trying to dry off. Furthermore, the osprey, apparently with a real bee in its bonnet, kept up the attack, repeatedly diving at the sodden heron and making it instinctively duck at each threatening pass, before eventually tiring of the game and sloping off, presumably leaving a paranoid heron to recover its composure.

However, herons are not entirely dependent upon fish as their main source of sustenance. In springtime for instance, the young of waterfowl, should they stray within the reach of a lurking heron, will readily be taken. And, watch out in springtime for herons, well away from water, ambushing migrating frogs and toads, emerging from hibernation. Small rodents may also sometimes be sought. I have seen a heron stalking on a roadside verge, looking for voles. Indeed, I have a clear memory of a trio of herons advancing in line across a field like so many wild-west characters seeking a shoot out with rivals. Every now and then one of the birds would break ranks and dart aside to stab with its beak and capture a vole...another denouement!

Herons are gangling birds, all leg, neck and beak. When they fly they fold their necks over their backs. Their long legs trail behind but that great area of wing can propel at a very steady rate of knots what are, by comparison with overall size, surprisingly light birds. Herons, despite perhaps being seen as solitary birds are actually very community orientated. They nest in high rise colonies often in pine woods and indeed my own early contacts with herons was through a colony which was located close enough to where I lived to be noisily evident right through each night especially during the month of May. The continuous noise made by the newly hatched youngsters, as they kept up a battery of pleas for more food, was amazing! Herons also organise creches when their young are first fledged. Thus herons are not as lonely as is often made out!

Those hibernating fishers may harbour dreams throughout the winter months, of landing handsome and of course, large trout. But by and large it will be the smaller fry, which may be threatened by herons and by the other feathered fishers such as the saw-bill goosanders. Otters are not so choosy but come next spring there will doubtless be plenty of trout ready to take the amazing diversity of made-up flies presented to them by the legions of rejuvenated enthusiasts!

Country View 18.11.16

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Yet again, we have witnessed more serious divisions in human society - we live in exceptionally divisive times - and all this at a time when in absolute contrast many avian communities are actually intent on coming together. As winter looms, this is the time for many avian communities are actually intent on coming together. As winter looms, this is the time for many birds to set aside individual interests and instead become a part of larger communities, for instance, in the case of the familiar chaffinches, joining the gathering finches which are growing by the day.

These flocks offer many benefits. Firstly many pairs of eyes, working in co-ordination in the constant search for food sources, secondly a moving mass of birds is confusing and a deterrent to predators such as hawks and falcons. Therefore, raptors intent on snatching a meal find themselves confined to trying to pick off only stragglers rather than mounting full frontal attacks on the massed ranks of the flocks.

So a shared sense of security becomes the order of the winter's day, together with that advantage of collective food finding. Yet there are plenty of birds for which community living is a part of everyday life anyway. The skeins of geese currently patterning our skies demonstrate a corporate style of life, in their case, in a very ordered, almost regimented existence as they maintain their v-shaped formations. By contrast, the gatherings - sometimes in enormous numbers - of rooks, whilst also confirming the corporate lives of these members of the crow clan, could hardly be more apparently disordered! However, from time to time there are examples of this flock mentality, which go far beyond such basic requirements.

Thus, such can be the impact of sometimes millions or even billions of insects or thousands of birds, that the fantastic murmurations of starlings which decorate our winter skies utterly baffle us by the nature and complexity of their amazing movement. We therefore find ourselves utterly nonplussed by the mercurial qualities of movement, let alone the scale of gatherings of such huge numbers of birds. Hence this amazing phenomenon has been the focus of much scientific study.

Such are the amazing gyrations of these flocks that scientists all over the world have delved deeply into what has always seemed to me to be the mysterious subject of physics, in their endeavours to explain what is surely, one of the wonders of the natural world. And yet starlings are surely, utterly enigmatic. They demonstrate beautifully, an extreme discipline, vastly superior even to that shown by the amazing Red Arrows on the one hand with their truly amazing sense of flock navigation which brings absolute wonder to winter skies, whilst at the same time as individuals, displaying utter anarchy when they visit bird-tables!

In recent days a little posse of starlings ha for instance, been cavorting around my bird-table in an utterly disorderly fashion. Perhaps they are merely a small breakaway group of birds, which from time to time, leaves the modest flock that roosts in my conifer hedge each night. The surrendering of individual integrity which must come when they rejoin the flock and the adoption of the philosophy of 'all for one, one for all', begins to influence many birds as days begin to shorten. The rivalries of summer are put on hold as birds now come together in common cause as a safer way of surviving the winter months.

My own winter starling spectacular is, by comparison with flocks pictured in the press in recent days, a mere fragment of a flock. But the amazing gyrations of massed ranks of starlings, which have become so much of a source of wonder in many parts of the world, have made the humble starling a centre of attraction. However, reactions to starlings can be rather variable! In America, they are apparently, according to recent polls, the most hated of all the country's birds. Of course, starlings are not native to America. They were I understand, introduced to that continent, by a New York pharmacist by the name of Eugene Schieffelin during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Mr Schieffelin was apparently a devotee of the works of Shakespeare and was obsessively determined to introduce to America each of the 45 birds mentioned in the bard's work, of which the starling was one. And that may, perhaps in current political conditions, be the rub! The starling is in short, an immigrant!

How ironic that at roughly the same time as the grey squirrel was introduced to these shores from America, the starling was introduced to America from British stock! To say that America suited starlings may turn out to be one of the understatements of the century! Even to a greater extent than the grey squirrel has prospered here, starling numbers have literally exploded across the pond! Some flocks over there number into the millions! A wall will not solve that problem!

But whilst starling numbers in America are burgeoning, here in Europe, they are declining alarmingly. Some might be oblivious to the rapid decline of a bird, which many might regard as the rag, tag and bobtail of the avian world. In fact, starlings seen as individual birds are actually quite attractive and indeed, apart from their amazing aerobatics, they are also surprisingly versatile songsters. Just a day or two ago, I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of music. It wasn't one of the usual winter songsters, a robin or a wren, so what was it I wondered? And there, sitting on an overhead wire prattling away, was an exceptionally tuneful starling with an impressive repertoire.

Even Mozart was aware of the amazing vocal versatility of starlings. He kept a tame starling and actually managed to teach it several bars of his music. Yet I always gain the impression that when it copies other birds, a starling is prone to forget its lines halfway through! It is however, my understanding that the vocal range of your average starling may include parts of the signature tunes of as many as twenty other birds. Additionally, in different forms of light, the starling's iridescent plumage may reflect delicious hints of green, blue and purple. It is visually very attractive if at times inclined to verge on the comical. Therefore, a decline of in the region of eighty to ninety per cent of their numbers in Europe, over the course of the last thirty years, is unquestionably a cause for serious concern.

Its success in America has often been compared with that of the native passenger pigeon, a bird, which knew such success that they used to assemble in flock numbering not thousands, not even millions but billions. Worryingly, passenger pigeons are now I understand, extinct in America! That is surely a very serious message for us to take on board. Again, we have been warned!

And there they are again, my little flock of 'black arrows' hurtling through the gloaming, dashing hither and thither, this way and that and always somehow keeping some sort of formation albeit that it is constantly re-forming as it goes. There is no leader conducting these fluid comings and goings; no permanent shape, yet no evidence of collisions despite the fact that every bird is literally just inches from its neighbours to the side, ahead, behind, above and below.

One scientific conclusion asserts that each member of that fast moving collection of birds can relate to but seven of its nearest neighbours which enables it to respond instantly to every variation of the movement those seven birds make. Do a multitude of groups of seven birds therefore become self-controlling? Nah! Surely there's a single brain controlling them all - isn't there?

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods