Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 1.11.16

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It is the starkest warning yet. Scientists have calculated that the world's wildlife has declined by a staggering 58 per cent over just less than half a century. If that isn't a very loud wake-up call, I don't know what is! The African elephant is apparently at the top of the hit-list with a massive slaughter currently being perpetrated by poachers which is putting their very existence in jeopardy. Of course, this killing spree is in pursuit of ivory, a much-vaunted material coveted by those who carve it into ornaments in China and other parts of Asia to be sold on for vast profits! It is a highly illegal trade of course but money talks...as usual. There are always those who are prepared to work outside the law in pursuit of wealth.

However, over-fishing, over-hunting and the wanton destruction of the natural habitats of so many creatures, again in the universal pursuit of money, plus the continuing escalation of the world's human population are all factors influencing these dramatic declines. The destruction of rain forests in Asia, Africa and South America continues to be a major cause for concern because such activities clearly reduce habitat and thus threaten the survival of creatures for which the rain forests are key. In addition the loss of millions of trees which play an important role in absorbing carbon, is also contributing in a major way to climate change. All of which seems to highlight our inability to halt a seemingly headlong charge towards self-destruction.

I was further shocked when I read reports which disclosed the quite amazing fact that Iceland, which happens to contain in the region of two hundred and seventy glaciers, imports almost all the ice it needs from Britain, Norway and America. The explanation for such a bizarre turn of events is that apparently they have calculated that it costs forty per cent more to produce their own ice as compared with importing it! But just think of the amount of energy required to maintain the ice at the necessary low temperature whilst it is in transit and of course the energy needed to transport it in the first place. Talk about 'coals to Newcastle', which incidentally did happen during a miner's strike, to the enormous profit of the merchant who despatched alternative supplies (from America!) and indeed the sand that was apparently sold to Saudi Arabia. What a strange world we live in!

On a cheerier note this week I found myself watching a mass of birds, some of which come from that icy island in the North Atlantic to winter in our allegedly more temperate landscape, birds which happily, actually buck the trend of declining populations. What I saw was a field absolutely blackened by a huge flock of pink-footed geese. Thanks to our greater awareness of the ethos of conservation and in no small measure to those who work in that sector, the annual migration of these birds not just from Iceland but from Greenland and Svalbard, has been steadily growing in number each and every year. The current wintering population in Britain is estimated to be in excess of 350,000, a huge growth from the estimated numbers of some 50,000 in the nineteen sixties. Each year, we see and hear these birds in this airt, with the first skeins of non-breeding birds usually arriving in mid-September and the bulk of them touching down in October.

The Solway Firth in the south-west and Montrose Basin on the east coast are major destinations for pinkfeet wintering in Scotland and in recent years increasing numbers have been descending upon Norfolk too. I have always thought that nothing is more redolent of the wild and bleak northern tundra where these birds breed, than the noisy passage of thousands of these birds in their well-ordered skeins, as the days shorten and the leaves begin to fall. Is there a wilder sound? I doubt it! Their shrill sounding contact calls just tell you that winter is on its way!

And what a start in life the approach of autumn signals for this year's crop of young birds. At barely three months of age and only a month after achieving lift-off for the first time in their short lives, they are suddenly uprooted from the tundra where they first came into the world and where they have been nurtured, to begin the flight of their young lives. In the case of those birds reared in eastern Greenland, there is a stop off in Iceland before they are launched on a flight of the best part of a thousand miles across the hostile waters of the North Atlantic.

They do of course, have the benefit of parental guidance and are imbued with the confidence and reassurance provided by the constant vocal contact they have with their parents and other members of the flock. There is always noticeably present when geese fly, that continuous vocal banter. This is provided by the familiar vee-shaped formation in which they fly - their skeins - which give the younger birds some shelter from the worst of the elements as they are always flying partly in the lee of those at the front.

Geese, whatever else they may or may not be, are organised and disciplined. Each skein is led by a succession of senior, experienced members of their flock, which take it in turns to head the vee and steer the best course. Nevertheless, that first sea crossing, which is of the essence non-stop, must be a daunting, exhausting experience for the youngsters. Each small skein represents a family group but many such groups may join up to form massive skeins containing hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds.

The year's crop of young birds produced by all migratory birds face similar challenges I suppose but those that have bred here, which head for Africa, I guess do not face the extreme hazards tackled by geese flying across nearly a thousand miles of unfriendly northern ocean. The greatest sea crossing facing the Africa bound hordes for instance, is likely to be the Mediterranean which is a mere hop, skip and a jump compared with that flight from Iceland. And, such is the organisation of geese that they are capable of ascending to surprisingly high altitudes, as a means of avoiding life-threatening weather systems, so common in those northern latitudes at this time of year.

The capacity to remain always aware of potential danger is constantly present among geese. For instance, you will find you can get closer to grazing geese if you are not carrying anything resembling a gun such as a walking stick. Posted round the edge of the flock as it grazes, are guards - they are the ones which always have their heads raised - which, at the slightest hint of danger loudly alert the flock. There follows a spectacular and extremely garrulous mass evacuation as the flock noisily takes to the air.

Even more engaging is the descent of geese on to suitable grazing ground, on which occasions; the uniformity of the skein is momentarily lost as they break ranks and 'waffle' down to earth like leaves tossing on the autumn breezes. The voices of pinkfeet are pleasantly and quite musically high-pitched compared for instance, with the coarser, deeper resonance of the rather less welcome Canada geese.

As I said, the pinkfeet buck the truly worrying trend of the serious depletion of so much of the world's wildlife. And, as it happens, around ninety per cent of the entire world population winters with us here in Britain. This suggests that therefore, we bear a considerable responsibility to ensure this population at least, continues to rise in contrast to what is happening to so many species on a universal basis. Does it matter? Well, yes it does, for if the world's wildlife populations are depleting at such an alarming rate, we could be next! We have been warned!

Country View 26.10.16

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It was not necessarily a welcome sight; at least as far as those who flay the waters with lines cunningly baited with artificial flies in their endeavour to lure the scaly occupants of the loch to their hooks. But there it was - a black cormorant lumbering low over the waters they fish - and I must admit a pretty menacing image it cast. There is a reptilian air about cormorants and indeed an almost supernatural aura too - their dark, seemingly black plumage naturally striking a sense of fear in some human breasts just as other 'black' birds, such as rooks, crows and especially ravens do. But there is also, just as clearly, a sinuous, almost sensuous ambience about them too! When one such bird arcs below the waves it does so in one smooth and serpentine movement...beautifully.

Yet is this in reality a black bird? The truth is that the cormorant's plumage, although based upon an underlying foundation of black, is more a mysterious and iridescent mix of dark green, blue and, on the wings, bronze, than solid black. Yet the overall impression is definitely that it looks black! Furthermore, its long beak, equipped at its tip with a pronounced, lethal looking hook and its piercing green eyes, which are distinctly baleful, most certainly add an extra dimension to a minatory bird that this is not exactly the top of any fisherman's top of the pops.

This is definitely not a bird anyone is likely to want to cuddle! Most fishermen are more likely to want to throttle it! And as Hallowe'en approaches, the cormorant definitely exudes hints of another kind of darkness. The sight of several cormorants perched on the branches of trees beside one of our local rivers, their wings typically held out as if it were in supplication, was indeed reminiscent of an imagined coven of witches!

Nature rarely gets designs wrong, yet for a bird which spends so much of its life in and indeed beneath the water, the fact is that the cormorant's system does not apparently contain a sufficient supply of oil in its system to repel water as effectively as it really should. Thus it has literally to hang out its wings to dry, suggesting that there is in effect, a small design flaw in this bird! This posture is of course, familiar around our coasts but also perhaps surprisingly, on many an inland waterway too. The cormorant, whatever else it may or may not be, is certainly an opportunist and will therefore station itself wherever there are fish stocks to plunder, as witness its presence on so many of our local freshwater lochs.

The notion that cormorants are sinister does not simmer just in the breasts of eager fishers. Such antipathy has been around for a long time. For instance, the poet Milton in his epic, "Paradise Lost" indeed likened the cormorant to the devil himself as he plotted the downfall of Adam and Eve.

".....on the Tree of Life,

The middle tree and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life

Thereby regained, but sat devising death."

Furthermore, the fifteenth century Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna, portrayed a cormorant (alias the devil again) staring down at Christ kneeling in prayer, in his painting, 'The Agony in the Garden'.

In modern times, as the sport of angling has grown beyond all bounds in popularity, the cormorant stands accused of taking vast quantities of fish from the most popular fishing rivers and lochs, giving it a reputation as a ravenous destroyer of fish stocks. No wonder perhaps, that way back in the sixteenth century, anyone with an insatiable appetite for food, was inevitably dubbed 'a cormorant', such was the avaricious reputation of this remarkable underwater predator.

Some Chinese fishermen use cormorants commercially to catch their fish, and thus presumably express somewhat kinder thoughts towards what to them is a bird not viewed with hatred but indeed one that is very much their ally. However, knowing full well that cormorants do enjoy very healthy appetites (they generally consume up to two pounds of fish a day) a constricting ring is placed round the birds' necks to ensure that the fishermen are able to collect what their cormorants catch. Interestingly, James I (James VI of Scotland) is reputed to have kept cormorants for the same purpose on the Thames. Bizarrely he is also said to have kept ospreys for the same purpose, a puzzling record for ospreys do have a strong migratory urge which I imagine would have made them unsuitable as captive fishers!

While cormorants are largely regarded as birds of the marine environment, as said there are places up and down Britain where they are seemingly as much at home on inland waterways. In south-west Scotland there has long been a healthy breeding colony on Loch Mochrum, a fresh-water loch in Wigtownshire. Their presence there over a long number of years, has given rise to them being called 'The Mochrum Elders'. The familiar sight of many cormorants standing on the loch shore, their wings held out to dry, has been likened to so many preachers, arms outstretched; sermonising in the manner of the covenanting zealots that once secretly populated the lonely nearby Galloway hills!

Curiously enough, the very name cormorant may be traced back to the old French, 'corp', meaning raven and 'marenc', meaning sea. The Latin 'corvus marinus' translates to 'sea raven' and indeed, it is often colloquially known by the name 'sea crow'. The raven because of its black plumage and its liking for carrion is another of those birds regarded as being on the darker side of life and therefore one that is naturally associated with Hallowe'en. This last day of October, or more pertinently the night, which in the Christian calendar, celebrates 'All Hallows Eve', actually owes its origins to pre-Christian times and the pagan festival of 'Samhain'. Thus long ago, was a celebration of the Celtic New Year, upon which evening in parts of Scotland, it was apparently traditional to dine upon another black bird, the capercaillie!

The elders of that zealous group, which gave their name to the Mochrum cormorants, would not I'm sure, have approved of the modern Hallowe'en celebrations (they didn't like Christmas either!). However, like many of the other festivals on our calendar, other influences are at work. We have absorbed many diverse elements like the pumpkin, now locally produced but the origins of which came across the Atlantic. Capercaillies are so rare nowadays that I trust no-one is likely to delve into the Celtic past and feast upon such a threatened bird. As for the sea crows and the ravens, well maybe they will once again conspire with the witches and haunt us when Hallowe'en dawns! Have a happy Celtic New Year...and a horrifying Hallowe'en!

Country View 12.10.16

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There's been a lot of talk recently about gender equality. Yet there are times when we fall into the trap of identifying some birds as males and others as females notwithstanding the fact that obviously, half of them instead of being males are females and likewise, half of those referred to as female are male! The little, blurted out phrases of bell-like music, emanating here on a daily basis from 'cock' robin were indeed clearly issued by a red blooded and red-breasted male as I am ever likely to encounter. Equally singular was the rat-tat-tat voluminous volley from a 'jenny' wren, as virile as the robin yet strangely referred to as distinctly feminine...hence that frequently used nomenclature of 'jenny'! There can be absolutely no doubt that those that send forth those incredible, resounding volleys of sound are very definitely male...to the core!

Even more curious is the historical fact that robin redbreast and jenny wren have long been associated with one another and regarded by many as a natural pairing. Indeed, there is even an old adage, which declares 'The robin and the wren are God Almighty's cock and hen'. These two familiar birds are further linked by another old verse that warns, 'Hunt a robin or a wren, Never prosper boy or man'. In essence then, these two popular garden birds are to be treated with extreme respect, never to be assaulted and both are highly regarded as 'good' birds! They are, of course, not a pair in the proper sense of the word!

As far as the robin is concerned, 'he' is of course, our Christmas bird, still the most familiar image on the Christmas card (which I note, are already on sale!), upon which seasonal decoration he has probably now been present for night on a hundred and fifty years! But that is not all! Ancient Christian folklore tells us that a robin plucked a thorn from the brow of Jesus as he languished on the Cross, earning a blessing in the process and staining his breast red with the blood of Christ. Furthermore, the robin has a reputation for showing sympathy for the sick. William Wordsworth, in whose poetry the robin made regular appearances, told for instance, of the robin, which entered the bedroom of his sickly sister Dorothy, singing to her and indeed fanning its wings to keep her cool!

Adding to the robins' benign reputation, are tales of them covering the eyes of the dead with leaves or moss, an act recounted in the popular children's story of "The Babes in the Wood" in which, the following verse describes the fate of the children thus:-

"No burial this pretty pair

From any man receives

Till robin redbreast piously

Covers them with leaves."

The robin also puts in an appearance in the City of Glasgow's coat of arms. This elevated position emanated from an ancient account of St Kentigern, the eventual Bishop of Glasgow and founder of the city's cathedral in the sixth century, who as a much-favoured student - the 'teacher's pet' - of St Serf at Culross on the River Forth, thus incurred the jealousy of his fellow students. Kentigern apparently kept a tame robin, which in a fit of jealous rage, his colleagues killed. However, Kentigern promptly restored it back to life from whence it was honoured in that coat of arms as a 'robin proper'!

So this is the benign robin which, along with the wren, provides those much welcome bursts of cheerful and melodious song on what may otherwise be the silent and darkest of autumn and winter days. The cheery, sweet singing redbreast however, is not quite the benign little soul we may think him to be. 'He' may be regarded widely as the deliverer of good news, especially around the Festive Season, in his guise as a postman, a caricature gained because the early postmen were dressed in vermillion coloured waistcoats and were thus dubbed 'robins'. Indeed many Christmas card images actually depict the robin carrying an envelope in its beak a la postman. However the truth about the robin's lifestyle rather contradicts this highly favourable image.

I doubt if there is a bird, which defends its territory more doughtily. His sweet sounding bell-like voice, often uttered with a deceptively beguiling vehemence, is in fact a serious warning to any would-be rival cock robins. In essence those little blurted out phrases are saying, 'this is my territory - keep out...or else!' All birds proclaim territorial integrity during the spring - for that is essentially what birdsong is all about. But cock robin, along with 'jenny' wren, also proclaims winter feeding territory with almost as much vigour as when he announces his breeding territory in the spring. Furthermore, he really does mean what he says! Any trespasser is quickly engaged in physical conflict and that conflict can literally be fought to the death of one of the protagonists. Cock robins are certainly not shrinking violets!

And to prove that cock robins are serious about the defence of a territory, try putting out an imitation robin in your local robin's patch. It is like the waving of a red rag to a bull, except that bulls do not see red for they are colour blind. The robin by contrast certainly sees red and will literally tear the red breasted imitation to shreds! And the same fate can befall a young cock robin when it attempts to establish a territory of its own on another, more senior robin's domain!

Currently I have two robins belling away in distinctly separate parts of my garden. Thus, there is an ever-present vocal competition between these two residents, although so far each has remained firmly 'at home'. The boundary between these two territories is, to them at least, clearly defined. Maybe a particular tree or some other landmark defines the strictly defined border between their respective territories...although it is to me an otherwise invisible line, but one which neither occupant can cross without dire consequence! I can only guess by virtue of the various stations from whence the music comes, which particular bit of my garden belongs to whom!

So, there is more to 'Bob Robin', as he is said traditionally to be called in this airt, than meets the eye. Jenny wren may give us a few flurries of his dynamic song from time to time yet despite his vocal power he never seems quite as assertive or persistent about his territorial integrity as his red-breasted 'mate'. Nor does he ever seem to express the level of belligerence that lurks within the breast of cock robin. Nevertheless our winter days would be the poorer for the absence of all this unbridled aggression. It is easy to cast aside the knowledge that those gorgeous little passages of bell-like music, so welcome to our ears on the dullest of winter days, are issued as a potent threat to other robins.

Let us therefore rejoice in the singular and accomplished songs of the robin, even if they seem to be blurted out randomly! Bob robin is our cheeriest and our most musical neighbour, always alert and apparently friendly, happy to live cheek by jowl with us...but very definitely not with other cock robins!

Country View 29.9.16

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It came as a shock to the system but it was inevitable that the sudden reversion to the autumnal temperatures we normally experience in late September were a particularly rude awakening, coming as they did, after an unusually warm spell which some might describe as an Indian Summer. The solution for us of course, is to add another layer of clothing and turn the central heating up a notch or two. But for the birds and animals, the downward slide of the mercury will, I'm sure, have reminded them that harder times are ahead.

Indeed the swallows and most of the martins decided this was the time to go albeit that early this week, there was a sudden flurry of swallow activity here with dozens of them zooming about snapping up extra fuel. I surmise that these were birds from further north on passage to warmer climes. Perhaps their sudden but brief presence was a demonstration that swallows have to feed en route during their migratory journeys. Meanwhile, the more sedentary birds and of course, the animals, which are going nowhere, will know that they now have to prepare themselves for the forthcoming winter.

It can't be said that migration is the easy option for those swallows and martins, along with all other migrants, for their journeys south are full of hazards with seas, mountain ranges and deserts to be navigated not to mention the predators, human and feathered, lying in wait. Some of the avian threats are posed by Eleonora's falcons. These raptors delay the production of their own young on the sea cliffs and islands of the Mediterranean coasts, until late summer so that they can be assured of good feeding courtesy of the many migrant birds they are programmed to intercept.

However, our more sedentary birds know full well that the option of staying put through the winter months is not easy either, particularly now that we have passed the autumn equinox, ensuring that the hours of darkness are now progressively exceeding those of daylight. Thus they have fewer and fewer daylight hours in which to pack as much food as possible into their bodies in order to survive. This of course, is where we come in with supplementary food on our bird-tables for them. As previously mentioned I have kept the feeding going throughout the summer months, especially with sunflower hearts, which during the past colder days have been disappearing like snow off a dyke!

There has accordingly and not surprisingly, been an increase in avian traffic during these past few days with the titmice joining the goldfinches and chaffinches on the feeders. Prominent are the great tits and blue-tits but much to my delight, a couple of coal tits have put in an appearance too. It is encouraging to see coal tits again because during the past two winters, these shy and retiring little birds had been noticeable by their absence.. Of course, I'm aware that these are perhaps among the more vulnerable birds during the winter months. All small-bodied birds lose heat more rapidly and are thus extra vulnerable in hostile weather conditions. In addition, coal tits find themselves very much at the foot of the titmouse pecking order, often bullied by the much larger great tits and even by the slightly larger blue-tits.

However, in general, coal tits have prospered from the increase in conifer forests in our landscape over the past number of decades. And indeed they are much more likely to occupy gardens, which sport ornamental conifers as opposed to lacking such adornments. The bullying nature of their compatriots does mean that coal tits are not inclined to linger long on feeders. Rather, do they nip in, collect what they can and nip out again. I have certainly noticed that to be the case during these past few days although being enterprising little birds they seem to nip in and out pretty frequently! The likelihood is also apparent that much of the fragments of food they collect are quickly stashed away, for consumption later.

What coal tits do not do however, is to establish long term stores for the worst of winter days. Instead, what they store, usually in little crevices in the bark of trees or often in clumps of moss or lichen, is more often than not consumed within forty-eight hours of it being hidden. Coal tits are clearly not long-term planners! Whilst they give the appearance of being loners, perhaps because of the bullying they are subjected to, they do join mixed, loose flocks of tits during the winter months.

And they are extremely agile, able easily to feed when clinging on upside down to a twig or of course, a feeder. However, if you have coal tits as regular visitors to your garden you may notice that they do not cling on for quite as long towards the end of the day. These is a simple explanation; after a day's intensive feeding, they have accumulated extra fat and thus, being that little bit heavier cannot hang on for quite as long!

But the coal tits were not the only tiny wee bundles of feathers to have made their presence known in my garden this week. Indeed, unusually, my morning rounds at the beginning of the week were suddenly accompanied by loud bursts of music, breaking the relative silence, which is the norm at this time of the year. It was not as many might think, a rendition of tinkling music from my resident redbreast but an explosive volley from a jenny wren, another minuscule bird of course, which like the coal tit is also known to suffer if the weather turns really cold for a prolonged period.

The robin and the wren are somehow inextricably linked in both folklore as well as in the fact that virtually alone amongst the avian classes, they vocalise during the winter months, when most other birds fall silent. Both are of course, enthusiastic and indeed assertive claimants of winter feeding territory although as far as I can tell, the wren does not quite match the robin in terms of belligerence. Nevertheless, there is considerable verve in that amazing volley of music and, I am reliably informed, fifty-six notes are delivered in the space of 5.2 seconds! I didn't do the counting of course - someone recorded it and then played it back in 'slo-mo'!

As said, wrens, like coal tits, being so small, lose body heat very quickly on long, cold nights. Their solution to this problem defies a reputation for what are seen to be otherwise, quite unsociable birds, for considerable numbers of them are known to cram themselves into small spaces and in doing so generate enough combined body heat to enable them to survive. One report tells of no fewer than sixty wrens being counted, emerging from a tit nesting box at dawn on a winter's morning!

This week's comings and goings then, indubitably confirm that small, if perhaps vulnerable on cold winter nights, is nevertheless beautiful both in sight and in voice!

Country View 21.9.16

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The mass movement of birds, north to south right across the globe is well under way. The likes of warblers left a few weeks ago but the swallows and house martins, in general, have held on doubtless profiting from the continuing warmth of September which must have maintained insect numbers very much to their benefit. Thus, the silence, so characteristic of summer's end has been broken only by the constant twittering of my trio of breeding pairs of swallows and the lone voice of a redbreast which in the last few days has been issuing musical claims to a winter territory. Although October is approaching rapidly, it is only now, as night temperatures have fallen quite sharply, that finally, the last of my resident swallows has responded by falling back on its natural instincts and departing on the first leg of its journey to Africa. That final parting imbues a sense of finality in my soul. Summer is well and truly over. The swallows are gone.

Yet I have had reports of martins departing on their south-bound journeys some weeks ago, unusually early. Others however, like my swallows, have lingered in order to get their last broods upwardly mobile before commencing what must be for that final brood of the season, the utterly daunting task of launching themselves on that immense migratory journey. For all these long distance migrants this journey, at a time when they can be threatened by storms that often mark the autumnal equinox, must be mind boggling but for the youngsters it must be doubly so.

We do know that whilst swallow numbers are by and large, holding up, house martins are in fairly serious decline. On the face of it, this is a puzzle, for both of these birds feed similarly on flying insects. To some extent in recent decades, it seems swallows have in part translocated in the UK, partially abandoning the east where there is much less in the way of livestock and a substantial increase in 'prairie' or large scale arable farming, leading perhaps to a reduction in insect life. Consequently swallows seem to have moved progressively north and west, where livestock farming continues. However, whilst a good deal is known about where swallows winter - generally in the Cape of Good Hope - surprisingly perhaps, very little is known about where house martins winter.

To this end, this issue is being addressed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Some serious research is being undertaken with the use of tiny radio transmitters attached to young martins, which it is hoped will throw much more light on the winter whereabouts of these delightful little birds. We may well find that the areas where they winter have been suffering from years of serious drought which may indeed be having a deleterious effect upon the insect life there and consequently upon martin populations. Some local observations here also indicate that there is a conflict between martins and house sparrows which in many instances has seen the sparrows take possession of martin nests before the martins arrived in the spring. The sparrows being more aggressive than the martins, once ensconced, are therefore usurping long standing martin haunts.

Swallows and martins are of course, amongst my favourite birds, so their respective fortunes are always of interest to me. During the past few days, the humid conditions have given way to a fresher feel which I am sure has hastened the remaining swallows on their journeys south. Theirs is however, an unhurried migration and whilst the parent birds, having made such travels before, are perhaps more direct, their youngsters, relying entirely on their instincts to head ever southwards, take their time and may linger longer in Central and Southern Europe depending on weather conditions. Their passage through Mediterranean skies is however quite dodgy because, despite campaigns to stop them, there are still too many residents of that region who delight in shooting just about any bird that comes within their sights!

Unlike ospreys, which have to find their way to Africa absolutely as individual birds, swallows generally stick together albeit that they do not fly in formation. It is of course, vital that they feed constantly during their journey and to do so of course, they need space to snatch whatever insect life they can. Consequently swallows advance as what may seem to be a rabble, with no discernible flight pattern. This of course, contrasts starkly with the disciplined flight of other birds currently moving north to south but which as opposed to leaving these shores like the swallows, are instead beginning to arrive here.

Whilst we wish our swallows and martins well as they head for a winter in Africa, we also offer a welcome to birds which have spent their summer on the tundra of the far north. As I write, I have yet to see or hear them but the first of the massed ranks of pink-footed geese are due to pattern our skies any day now. Indeed, hereabouts it is reckoned that the first vanguard of these vociferous geese, usually make their presence felt on or about the fifteenth of September. On that day for a fleeting moment, I fancied I heard them but quickly realised that I was listening to the much more sonorous voices of Canada geese, now I'm afraid a constant presence on local waters. The expected skeins of pinkfeet, sound more garrulous, their higher pitched voices somehow sounding that mite more cheerful and wild.

Indeed, the sound of incoming geese confirms all too readily that autumn is now rapidly replacing summer, although as yet thus far there have not been any hints of frost to hasten the advance of those stronger, more brilliant hues that area the hallmark of autumn. The 'Indian summer' that seems to have prolonged the summer season this year, has been noticeable for the persistence of long-lasting greenery. True, may of the trees look jaded now and some horse chestnuts as usual are pointing the way towards autumn with their red crowns. But the first immigrant geese, that essential ingredient of wildness, are so far missing here.

Thus it is the case that this massed global movement of birds across the Americas, Asia and here in Europe, signals clearly that despite the dire warnings of global warming, the seasons continue to maintain the inevitable rhythms that we in the Northern Hemisphere have always known. Days are shortening, temperatures are falling, if only modestly; the departing swallows have taken with them our summer and the geese bring autumn and eventually winter. The world is still working!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods