Weekly Nature Watch

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

Weekly Nature Watch 2nd October 2020

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There was a time – when old Tommy was still about – that magpies locally were a rarity but how times have changed.

Now that there is no Tommy to pursue them, magpies hereabouts have become ten-a-penny. In fact, this summer, we had a brood of them, reared in a neighbour’s garden, which remain something of a legacy. There were four youngsters in that brood and together with their parents, the youngsters are still around. Accordingly, the cackling laughter of magpies has now become commonplace here.

If my sister-in-law was around, she would be greeting them every day, for there is an old tradition that she holds to which suggests that an encounter with a magpie requires us to treat the bird with respect and enquire as to the bird’s health, the health of its spouse and its family. My sister-in-law is one that subscribes to that particular fashion. I don’t, although I do have a certain regard for these black and white members of the corvid clan and admire them as particularly handsome birds, not just black and white but tinted with marvellous flecks of iridescent green and blue. And, like all members of the corvid clan, magpies are uncommonly intelligent to boot.

Of course, the world in general is set against all corvids. Crows in general, especially the dreaded hoodie, get a pretty bad press and magpies in recent times have also been getting it in the neck from bird-watchers in particular, openly blamed for the universal reduction in songbird numbers. There are friends of mine who spend quite a bit of their time trapping and dispatching magpies from their urban garden and I know of others who treat them in much the same way. Yet the experts, in the shape of the British Trust for Ornithology, say that there is absolutely no evidence that increasing numbers of magpies have had any influence on the songbird population, which is good enough for me.

I’ve never known just how such stories start but in Scotland there is an old saying that suggests magpies have a drop of the devil’s blood beneath their tongues. Thus, magpies in this part of the world are regarded with deep suspicion. Yet, all over Britain there are those who, like my sister-in-law, when they see a lone magpie, will salute it because they believe that failure to address the magpie in this way is likely to bring bad luck!

There are also any number of versions of a rhyme which seems more often than not, to begin, “One for sorrow, two for joy …”  followed by a variety of alternative verses which can number up to twelve! Whilst in many parts of the world, magpies in general are said to be harbingers of bad luck, in some far eastern countries such as South Korea and China, they are instead well regarded as good luck talismans. In Yorkshire however, magpies are closely associated with witches and indeed are said sometimes to be witches which have transmogrified themselves into magpies and hence, the sighting of a magpie is a bad omen. The suggestion that to see a single bird will bring bad luck, probably accounts for the way in which the various verses have evolved and why it has the more superstitious looking frantically around the sky for a second bird in the hope it may bring them the element of joy.  

As said, there are countless variations on a theme. One old nineteenth century magpie hunter, Mr. Speedy, had the following version:- “One’s sorrow, Two’s mirth, Three’s marriage, Four’s death, Five’s heaven, Six is hell, Seven’s the Devil’s Ain sel”.  It is suggested that Mr. Speedy was the author of this verse and seems to have spent much of his life pursuing and shooting them to oblivion. Nevertheless, despite his wholesale slaughter of them, surprisingly he still expressed considerable respect for magpies. “The magpie is one of the most expert, genteel and well-dressed of thieves, Few British birds possess such a rich glow of colour, the brilliancy of the plumage of the tail and wings being of metallic splendour, the bird being gay alike in nature and plumage”, he declared.

As tor that suggestion of thieving, there are those who allege that magpies are fascinated by shiny things such as jewelry, which they are apt to steal. Yet some experiments have been carried out by deliberately presenting hand-reared, tame magpies with various sparkly items, although apparently without promoting any reaction or interest on the part of the birds. Just as old Tommy was a successful adversary of magpies in his day, Mr. Speedy too was an effective controller of them. Indeed, magpies were common and plentiful up to the middle of the nineteenth century when an increasing interest in game shooting saw the magpie more persistently targeted and consequently their numbers were considerably reduced. Their numbers only started to recover in the wake of the Second World War. In recent times however, these have rocketed and between 1970 and 1990 their numbers trebled!

Among other members of the corvid clan, ravens, the largest and most spectacular of all the crows and many say, the most intelligent, are absolutely hated in parts of northern Scotland where they cause a good deal of trouble to sheep farmers, predating newly born lambs by pecking out their eyes and taking the lamb’s tongues. Ravens, like magpies, suffered once game shooting became popular during the nineteenth century, and all over Britain their populations fell until they were largely confined to remoter parts of these islands such as mountainous and fairly isolated areas of coastline. Hence their presence in the far north of Scotland, where they are such a problem.

However, like magpies, ravens are currently marching back and indeed there are even increasing instances of ravens returning to the more populous towns and cities. Of course, once ravens, together with red kites, were a common sight in our towns and cities where they did a good job in keeping the streets clean by feasting on human detritus. Whilst these days, we generally keep our streets cleaner than used to be the case, their presence will doubtless increase as the amount of litter grows. I find it depressing that we certainly appear to becoming increasingly prone to depositing litter in our city streets and furthermore, in recent times there has been no shortage of litter in our beauty spots either. The carelessness of people in littering our countryside really does upset me.

Ravens were once regarded as the ‘battlefield birds’ for they certainly gathered where warfare occurred. Indeed, they appeared to be able to predict where human conflict was likely to arise, stationing themselves on battlefields even before the fighting began. Of course, their reputation was well earned because their presence at such places was so that they could pick the bones of those who fell in battle! A pretty gory reputation for these kings of the crow family to be given but I understand a reputation which they well and truly earned in days of yore.

As for magpies, they now enjoy an even darker, modern-day reputation which they undoubtedly share with the rapacious sparrowhawks as the terrorists of our gardens, That magpies sometimes kill young birds or take their eggs there can be little doubt albeit that, as said previously, the amount of overall damage they do to populations may be insignificant.  The oft-hated sparrowhawk is perhaps a ‘cleaner’ killer than the magpie, stealing in almost unseen before making off with its prey in flash to be consumed away from where it was taken. Nature is, of course, red in tooth and claw leaving little room for sentimentality and that therefore is the way of things. Nevertheless, if you are of a superstitious character, no matter what the crimes of the magpie, tradition demands that you always need to show that bird respect … for you just never know!

Weekly Nature Watch 25th September 2020

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Nature’s harvest is coming in on time. The bramble bushes that line the lanes offer their luxurious, bulbous, black fruits to any who follow the natural harvest and enjoy the making of bramble jelly and the like.

Those fruits sparkle and shine in the sunshine which seemed at the weekend as if it was almost promising an Indian Summer. However, the forecast dashes such hopes and instead promises something entirely different, with wind and rain set to dominate as the week evolves.

 The goldfinches however, are making hay whilst the sun is shining, picking delicately away at the seeds of burdock just as they have been busy stripping the thistledown during recent weeks and giving themselves a good start to what the forecasters suggest is a rapidly advancing autumn – this week sees the passing of the autumn equinox. They busy away extracting those seeds - the ones you always find sticking stubbornly to your clothes - with absolute aplomb and at least are finding a different way of ensuring the spread of burdock, consuming them before depositing the seeds elsewhere.

The incredible sense of movement engendered during these past few days has been inescapable. I’ve watched swallows assembling on the overhead wires preparatory to launching themselves on incredible journeys which will involve them in crossing Europe, then the Mediterranean and the vast Sahara Desert on their way to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Swallows fly as much as an immense six thousand miles to escape our winter and will remain for the winter months is South Africa’s balmy clime. Most of the other summer migrants have already departed, generally on marginally shorter journeys which take them not as deeply into the Dark Continent and will already be winging their way towards Africa where the bulk of our summer migrants retreat to each winter.

However, bird migration is of course a two-way street. Just as these summer visitors have been bidding us farewell and heading off to Africa, so the first of our winter visitors are already announcing their arrival here. The other day, the air around here resounded to the ringing calls and cackling of the first geese to complete their journey from the Arctic where they have bred this summer. Whilst the swallows may seek solace in the warmth of Africa, the pink footed geese travel to these shores for the benefits our winter months, which our so-called temperate climate, promises.  During these forthcoming weeks and months, their homeland will be descending into deep winter when their habitat becomes utterly locked up by frost. Old Tommy used to say, “Listen for the first geese of the fifteenth day of September”. This year he was spot on, for the first time that gabbling was heard was indeed on that very day!

These are the first of the many winter migrants we receive, to make their presence felt and these first arrivals are probably the non-breeders making an early exit from their Arctic summer home. The bulk of their fellow pink-footed geese will eventually arrive in October when this year’s young goslings will be escorted by their parents during what is for the youngsters the first of their migratory flights across the North Atlantic from Iceland where they have gathered, many of them having begun their journeys in Greenland, Other geese will beat a similar course, some coming via Iceland, others travelling down the North Sea from Svalbard in their endeavour to find the kind of habitat that will provide plenty of grazing and sustain them through the short winter days that are on their way.

Other birds – multi-legions of them – will cross that same North Sea as they escape the winter conditions which for these next few weeks will be closing in on Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even Russia. Among them will be snipe, woodcock, short-eared owls and tiny goldcrests, which were said at one time to travel courtesy of the short-eared owls! There was a time when the woodcock that undertake this journey were thought to summer on the moon! Such were the imaginary ramifications of minds which tried to explain the then unfathomable mysteries of bird migration. When such notions were commonplace, the world was a much smaller place with global travel, as we know it now, not a daily feature of people’s lives.

Finally, probably in late October, will come the majestic whooper swans, also making their way from Iceland into Scotland, whilst the Bewick’s swans will descend upon England from the north-east, many of them from northern Russia, and many of them heading for places along the east coast of England and some for the reserve created by the late Sir Peter Scott at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. I wonder if they might have company again this year? A year or two ago, these Bewick’s swans were accompanied by an extremely courageous woman – a niece of Dame Judy Dench - who was flying a para-glider all the way from Russia to record their every movement en-route.

The pink-footed geese that have arrived together with the rest of the pink-feet when they make that crossing of the North Atlantic to arrive in October will certainly fill the Vale with their clamour, a noisier chorus than that which has marked the summer months which are of course filled with a vast variety of sweeter summer song. Suddenly there is an awareness that winter is a coming! Shortening days lie ahead and they will initially be illuminated by the winter sound of flighting geese before the pink-feet then begin to disperse, many of them moving to locations around the Solway where conditions for them are excellent. Those that remain in this airt will seek out what grazing they may find which ensures that they will remain typically always restless during their winter sojourn here.

Right across the world, similar movements are occurring as birds, which have bred at the top of the world, fly south to escape advancing winter in the more inhospitable northern outposts. Thus, millions of birds migrate to escape the hostile conditions inexorably rapidly changing the nature of their breeding territories, just as those that have left here for their African wintering grounds make such journeys to ensure there is plenty of insect life to keep them well fed during those months when insect life here is dormant.

However, one bird still sings. His sweet tones echo across a landscape, which apart from the gabbling geese, is otherwise largely silent where a few short weeks ago could be heard merle and mavis, willow warbler and garden warbler. That new emptiness accentuates his song even more. As he sings, Redbreast still retains territorial ambitions however, this time around, it isn’t breeding territory he seeks to establish as he sings merrily away but feeding territory. No matter, he will defend that territory as doughtily as if it were for breeding. The one thing you can be sure about robin redbreast is that he is always up for it!  His voice tells us of the declining year without doubt.

Weekly Nature Watch 18th September 2020

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At the moment, the word on lots of lips is extinction. Quite rightly, there is universal concern at the number of insects, birds and animals we are losing.

Extinction is a real threat and it is a phenomenon that exists on every continent across the world. Perhaps the most worrying factor in this drama is the volume of rain forest we are losing in Africa, Asia and in the Americas where the massive Amazon forest is sadly becoming less and less by the day. Anyone who watched Sir David Attenborough’s TV programme on the topic this week could not help but be both concerned and alarmed at the litany of failures at the hand of man to ensure that the world as we know it remains unchanged.

And the fact is that we in Scotland are not immune to this catastrophe. I’m sure that there even now people  reading this article who, for instance, will identify with the loss of the Scottish wildcat which may even now be on the brink of extinction. The problem has been caused by the existence of feral cats, perhaps former farmyard animals that have forsaken the comfort of farmyard meals and simply gone wild. Unfortunately wildcats have bred with these feral cats producing a hybrid strain and consequently diluting the purity of the true indigenous cat.

The news that captive wildcats housed at the Highland Wildlife Park have recently produced four kittens is indeed welcome, for these four youngsters may well at some time in their lives be returned to the wild and themselves breed and save the wildcat from total extinction. In some parts of the Highlands there has also been a project launched to neuter feral cats and thus restrict their ability to breed. Let’s hope that this scheme is successful and that as a consequence, the cross- breeding of wild animals with feral ones will come to an end.

Habitat loss is another problem and the destruction of the rain forests for beef farming or to make way for growing soya for use in animal feeds, further degrades the habitat of thousands of creatures. In other parts of the world, rain forests are also making way for vast palm plantations for the production of oil which rob further legions of animals, insects and birds of their natural habitat. Pictures of pathetic orangutans held in miserable captive conditions rightly appalls us all and in Africa, resorting to the production of what is called ‘bush meat’ results in the slaughter of our nearest animal relative, the gorilla, amongst other animals.  

However, I must also voice my personal concern that the Movement now holding protests such as the recent blockade of printing presses as a result threatens the freedom of speech that we currently enjoy. My fear is that other people with very different causes at heart are threatening to take over from the true believers. The Extinction Movement should be extremely watchful of the fanatics who are simply using the movement as a cover for other less worthy causes. I cannot believe that painting graffiti on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has anything to do with the extinction movement.

And, whilst these protests are being made, in England it has just been announced that seven new areas have been identified for the further control of badgers by culling. Bovine TB is a dreadful disease but surely the badger, which is after all protected under an Act of Parliament, deserves better.  Culling continues to defy the best scientific knowledge that the alternative – vaccination – would solve the problem without this brutal intervention.  Opponents of the cull have previously criticized the practice as “ineffective and inhumane”.  

I’m sure that some voice the opinion that losing such animals as rhinos, gorillas, orangutans and badgers doesn’t really matter and there are those who believe that whatever we do, the planet will somehow recover.  However, I suspect that in the long term, our existence as inhabitants of this planet may also eventually lead to the extinction of the human race. We are very much at the end of that line and we ignore at our peril, the nefarious activities of those who attempt to scrape some sort of a living by slaughtering gorillas, without recognizing that the poverty that exists across the world is the driver of such happenings.

And we also ignore climate change at our peril. The world is heating up and if it continues at the current rate, the threat of total extinction is very real. Recent scientific research has revealed that 55 million years ago, huge volcanic eruptions may have caused deep-sea mass extinction by warming up sea temperatures. It is thought that the eruptions took place in an area around what is now Iceland and sent huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which was then absorbed by the oceans over thousands of years consequently increasing the temperatures. As a result, many marine species were killed or impaired but those same scientists are warning that the current effects of human-generated pollution are far worse than during that event all those millions of years ago. Yet the Presidents of the United States and Brazil simply don’t believe these facts so the first thing we must do is to persuade politicians that the course we are currently steering can only end in disaster for generations as yet unborn. It is a global problem that requires our politicians to act now, not tomorrow or the day after. They must start thinking outside the box of ‘profit at any cost’ and instead think of those future generations and the long term prospects for us and our planet.

It isn’t that here in Scotland, we have not experienced the extinction of various birds and animals. The osprey disappeared after a so-called naturalist shot the last breeding pair on Speyside. The sea eagle and the red kite went the same way. Both were exterminated during a period in our history when war was waged on all raptors. The polecat was also destroyed in Scotland and long before that of course, the wolf, the lynx and the Brown bear. There are those who want to restore some of these creatures to the Scottish landscape. However, the landscape has changed vastly since the days of the wolf, bear and lynx. And extensive livestock farming, particularly with regard to sheep, covers large areas of the Highlands. Indeed, the economy of Highland Scotland is still dependent upon these factors, albeit that the re-introduction of beavers – less contentious perhaps – has restored these one-time residents to the Scottish landscape.

The recent proposal that lynx should be released in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park has unsurprisingly caused much concern in the farming community who strongly resist the proposal. Surely, the fact is that we need to look after what we have got rather than introduce more animals and doubtless light another fire of disquiet and conflict.

By using large amounts of pesticide and herbicide we are also doing further damage by killing insects, the pollinators that drive the entire eco-system. The reduction in farmland birds in this country is perhaps explained by our manic obsession to get rid of anything that is not productive such as insects and weeds, the very things that many farmland birds depend upon.

Man’s capacity for destruction seems to know no bounds. It’s about time we started to think much more constructively about our future and about the future generations.

Weekly Nature Watch 11th September 2020

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A crucial time is approaching for our red deer. Stags, currently divesting themselves of the velvet that has covered their newly grown antlers, are increasingly aware that their hormones are telling them that once again it is that time of the year.

Something inside them is beginning to stir, making them feel that bit more tetchy. As September advances towards October, that tetchiness will give way to downright temper and passion as the sap rises and they are seized by the season of the rut. Mind you, even when that day dawns, not all of them will gain fulfilment. The privilege of siring the next generation of red deer is restricted to the master stags – those which have established a place at the head of the herd, albeit that as the rut approaches there are battles to be fought to finally determine pecking orders. 

The forthcoming battles will finally determine the future of those that have real ambition. There will be many challenges laid down and battled over before that is finally achieved as older stags find that they are past their best and younger animals seek to replace them. Life for the ‘has beens’ in red deer society can sometimes seem cruel. There is no peaceful pensioner-class among red deer stags and those whose duty it is to control numbers of red deer will know just which of the animals in their care have passed their zenith and are likely to suffer the consequences. Life for ‘the monarchs of the glen’ as they once were, can indeed be cruel.

The day of reckoning for old stags may come any time before October 20th.  The increase in the number of deer in the Scottish countryside means that competition for food sources is keen.  Indeed, it may be said that the biggest enemy of each deer is another deer and in recent times it has been noted that many culled deer have been quite badly emaciated.

However, it is the red deer hinds and female roe deer which have become the target of those who are determined to reduce the numbers of deer at large in Scotland which it is estimated now heads towards a million animals.  The problems of having so many deer in our landscapes relates especially to the planting of new forests. The Scottish Government is dedicated to growing more and more timber and the presence of so many deer is seen as a threat to that ambition. Deer can make a big impact on newly planted forests, damaging young trees to such an extent as to make the difference between profit and loss.

It has just been revealed that authorization has been given for staff and contractors of Forest and Land Scotland, formerly the Forestry Commission, to shoot the female animals during the closed season while they have youngsters running at foot which are still reliant upon their mothers for sustenance in the form of milk. However, the suggestion that hinds or does with calves or kids running at foot, should now be shot out of season thus leaving their off-spring to go hungry and  in all probability starve to death has horrified keepers and stalkers universally.  The Scottish Game Keepers Association (SGA) believes that the policy is ethically wrong and contravenes animal welfare.

Well-known and respected expert on red deer and head stalker for the SGA Deer Group, Lea MacNally, has condemned it as a national disgrace and says that he finds it hard to understand how the Scottish Government, backed by the Green Party in Parliament, can on the one hand ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares, yet allow a situation that will undoubtedly lead to many young deer dying of starvation.  “It shows little or no respect of our deer,” he said.

His reference to the culling of mountain hares relates to the management of grouse moors. Mountain hares are blamed for spreading ticks among grouse, hence the culling programmes regularly carried out in parts of Highland Scotland. Now, as a result, populations of mountain hares are believed to be under threat once more putting those who manage grouse moors at odds with conservationists. However, there is some good news in relation to grouse moors which is extremely heartening. It has been announced that hen harriers, now our rarest birds of prey have had a bumper season by producing no fewer than sixty fledglings across Britain this year.

The continuing persecution of hen harriers down the years has seen their populations fluctuate alarmingly with those who run grouse moors all too often blamed for their demise across considerable swathes of the country. Grouse, especially young birds, are certainly on the menu of these magnificent birds of prey but the persecution is not by any means confined to harriers. There are repeated incidents involving the killing of eagles, peregrines, buzzards and kites which always seem to occur close to or on grouse moors. As a result, there are those who suggest that grouse moors should be in some way licensed depending upon the management of wildlife, simply because of the continuing slaughter that has been happening in these upland areas for many years in the past.

Hen harriers are very much moorland birds. The male bird is grey in colour with prominent black wing tips. By contrast, the females known as ringtails, are brown, their ringed tails the reason for the nomenclature. Both male and female birds also boast a prominent white flash above the tail. Harriers generally fly low over the moorland in their search for small birds and voles but often, given the chance, will take young red grouse as well. The reason for their success this year is said to be down to the fact that this has been a particularly good vole year. By contrast, harriers when courting soar to considerable heights and make dramatic food passes from male to female.

Voles are the staple diet of so many animals and birds but the population of voles varies from one year to the next. Good vole years benefit many creatures including for example, the short-eared owl, a diurnal hunter which inhabits those same open moorlands as the harrier. In fact, so many creatures depend for their living upon voles that the fluctuations of vole numbers influence many aspects of wildlife.

The slaughter of wildlife in many of our upland areas is all too often associated with grouse moors which of course, compete with one another by means of the annual bags of grouse killed. It strikes me that in an age when the conservation of wildlife species is such a popular aim, the grouse moor managers have to clean up their act. I’m not using the blame game to get at the managers of such resources. I just think we have to guard our precious wildlife resources when so many species, including the likes of hen harriers are under threat. We need to care more for the planet rather than destroy it.  As for the culling of red deer hinds and roe deer does when they are still suckling, I suggest the Scottish Government should think again.




Weekly Nature Watch 4th Sept 2020

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Territory is a material necessity for most creatures albeit that the evidence for establishing, declaring territorial integrity and if necessary, defending it, is more apparent during the spring than at any other time of the year.

For example, to define territorial integrity is why the birds sing in springtime. They have staked out a claim and they are telling the world, especially the avian world, that through their singing they are staking a claim for the lordship of a particular piece of territory. At the same time, they are announcing to the females of their kind that they are available and therefore through their song are advertising for a mate.

However, once autumn and winter descend, most such claims become history which is why bird-song is largely absent until January when the claimants pipe up again. Generally, the first such signals emanate from great tits, their ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’ strident calls echoing across an otherwise silent landscape but there is an exception to this rule as we may become aware of in forthcoming months. This exception is, of course, cock robin for which the establishment of winter territory seems almost as important as its establishment in spring and summer.

That is why we easily recognize the sweet tones of the robin’s song throughout autumn and winter. These bursts of music – and they emerge very much as bursts almost as if sung involuntarily – lighten the short winter days and issue promises for next spring. And of course, they stand out because there is little or no competition except from the wintering geese and the cawing of rooks. However, the song of robins may be sweet but that sweetness certainly doesn’t reflect the nature of the bird. When competing for territory, be it in spring or autumn, robins do not spare themselves and are so committed to the cause that they will fight as fiercely as any bird for their rights. Robins will, and sometimes do, fight literally to the death when their quest is to establish that territorial integrity.

Even among the packed cliffs, where colonies of seabirds seem to dwell literally cheek by jowl, there is territory at stake and even in such close company, scuffles and fights frequently break out between birds which seem barely a few inches apart. No matter how miniscule they may be, such territories are still fought over and woe betides any neighbour that steps over into another’s territory!

Having said that, competition for territory may seem to die once spring and summer have passed however here, there is still competition between two families of great spotted woodpeckers. Throughout the summer, we have been entertaining two distinct families of these birds and now of course, it is the year’s progeny we are mainly seeing - the redcap youngsters - as each family clearly produced a brood. Even they, however, are not fully prepared to tolerate the presence of the redcaps from the other family, albeit that they do not approach the ‘enemy’ with as much vitriol as the adult birds which actually chase each other off.

Frequently, we see one redcap ensconced on the peanuts and another will arrive, initially clamping itself to the central pole of the bird-table and shinning up it towards the baskets. Indeed, in the case of adults that would mean an immediate exit but when redcaps are involved the animosity is not as obvious.  In that situation, the newly arrived youngster often reaches out from that central pole to pilfer a few fragments of nuts rather than the usual ‘cling on’ method in which they hang upside down on the feeder while pecking vigorously away at the contents. If occasionally feeding together, the redcaps appear to be slightly more tolerant of the other family of redcaps, not yet having learnt the antagonism that is otherwise on display by their parents, the adults certainly won’t even tolerate a rival adult’s presence and immediately the chase is on!

And then at last, we had another scaler of that bird-table central pole in the form of a nuthatch. As reported earlier in the year, I have been aware of the presence of them in the vicinity but apart from one fleeting visit, I have never had the pleasure of entertaining these newcomers from the south. Now, suddenly I am seeing them on a regular basis so I may now claim to be hosting this highly attractive bird at my bird-table. The gradual spread of nuthatches into Scotland has been occurring for some years now and may be yet another manifestation of global warming. Slowly, birds once restricted to more southern climes are spreading gradually farther and farther north and the nuthatch is now becoming quite common in areas once bereft of them. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that my now regular visitor will establish a territory near here, remain as one of the regular visitors and may indeed find a mate.

It is interesting to see the nuthatch traverse that central pole of the bird-table for unlike the woodpeckers, not only are they able to climb it skillfully, they are able to travel up and down it by turning and descending head first, being the only birds in the world able to do this.  On the other hand, the woodpeckers, when descending, do so upright, always with the head up top!  Like woodpeckers, nuthatches often nest in deciduous trees where they may find a hollow or hole. But, the nuthatches are very defensively minded and use mud to reduce the size of the entrance hole by building up a layer of mud that sets very hard. This is their way of ensuring that larger birds such as starlings cannot gain entry and usurp the nest. Smaller birds such as tits they can more easily get rid of.

Funnily enough, the nuthatches, currently sharing the peanuts with the woodpeckers, can be severely threatened by woodpecker neighbours and so the re-enforcements to the entrance hole of their nest has to also withstand investigation and assault from the woodpeckers which, given the chance, are likely to feast upon both nuthatch eggs and chicks. That mud therefore, has to really set hard to deter their unwelcome attention.

Like other birds, nuthatches are territorial yet sometimes if confronted by a wandering flock of other nuthatches may somehow seem to be impelled to join the flock as if drawn by some invisible magnet. However, as soon as this flock moves out of their territory, the pair returns to their own patch. The other peculiarity of a nuthatch nest, by the way, is that the birds line it with conifer bark, again the only birds that use this kind of lining. Thus, the ideal territory is one that offers both deciduous and coniferous trees.

With evenings now drawing in, the priority is to find as much food as possible. For those about to set out on perilous journeys south with Africa the main destination for most migrants, that food will act as the energy filled fuel that will carry them on their amazing journeys. Those that are destined to stay here must also have an eye open for every feeding opportunity for as winter closes is as surely it will, food will become scarce and with fewer daylight hours in which to source food, finding sufficient on which to survive  is of course the priority.

And of course, as those food sources begin to diminish, it is surely our responsibility to bridge the gap and begin to offer food on our bird-tables. It may yet seem a good way off but winter is inexorably approaching. And who knows, you may already have nuthatches on your bird-table. If not maybe there’s a nuthatch preparing to visit you soon!



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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods