Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 18.5.16

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Out of a clear blue sky they came … like exocet missiles! As the late Ted Hughes wrote, “They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s still waking refreshed, our summer’s still to come …” Suddenly, for that is the way with swifts, there they were, hurtling among the chimney tops like demented dervishes, their wild screeching echoing across the village.

These scimitar-winged guided missiles, deliciously described by poet Edward Thomas, “As if the bow had flown off with the arrow!” seemingly all black but in reality dark brown, in some ways I suppose, complete the set of summer migrants. They are last to come, at least as a group, for unlike most other migrants, swifts make their journey from Africa, always at the same time, directly, rapidly and en masse. However, their stay here is surprisingly short – never more than about sixteen weeks. So along with adult cuckoos which, once their dastardly deeds are done, depart these shores in late July, swifts, arriving in May are gone again by early August.

Those clear blue skies, matched increasingly by the glorious, aromatic blue woodland carpets of bluebells – our world now both blue topped and bottomed - together with weather which has, we are told, emanated from the warmer climes of the Mediterranean, has helped many northbound migrants on their way. Everywhere I have been in the countryside during the past few days, seems especially to echo to the notably sweet sounds of willow warblers, their down the scale cadence a much welcome sound that surely spells … summer, just as much as that raucous screaming delivered by the hard flying swifts!

It isn’t that all the migrants have by now completed their journeys. Each day, brings more of them, warblers, cuckoos (far fewer than there used to be), ospreys and many more. Most of them make their way here at a relatively leisurely pace but the all-action swifts come in fast flying squadrons, usually arriving on virtually the same day every year. Swifts do not hide their lights under bushels, they proclaim their presence almost violently. As Hughes put it: “Shrapnel-scatter terror, international mobsters … Jockeying across each other - On their switchback wheel of death ….”

These are of course, the ultimate flying machines, so much so that most of them will have led an existence entirely on the wing since they abruptly left these shores last August. Swifts only touch-down when they nest and those too young to pair up will continue that airy existence throughout the summer… and beyond, through next winter ... and on and on! They feed, drink, and sleep (little more than cat naps I expect) sometimes at exceptional altitudes – as high as six thousand feet or more. One theory reckons that only one half of the brain sleeps, whilst the other half maintains alertness, rather in the manner apparently of dolphins! They therefore also rest and even mate on the wing. Indeed, they have little option for their legs are puny and pretty powerless.

However, life with hardly any form of terrestrial existence perhaps makes swifts much less vulnerable to predation for they are exceptionally long lived birds, with some known to have topped a lifespan of twenty years and most swifts averaging a life of around ten years.

A grounded swift is a stranded swift unless it can find a vertical surface to climb - although its legs are weak its feet are equipped with long claws - from which it can re-launch itself into the air. Hence, my encounter with a young swift some years ago stranded on somebody’s lawn and so thought to be mortally injured. Quick examination revealed no injuries and so I threw it into the air and it flew away! Aristotle by the way, called swifts ‘footless’ an observation which is still present in today’s scientific name for the bird, ‘apus apus’, which I understand translates from ‘a’, ‘without’. and ‘pous’, meaning ‘foot’.

Not surprisingly, swifts are, and indeed always have been, confused with swallows and martins. Although they earn their livings in much the same way – catching insects in flight with beaks gaping open, swifts are not closely related to either swallows or martins. The confusion is illustrated by some of the local names by which swifts are known; ‘black martin’, ‘brown swallow’ and ‘crane swallow’.  By virtue of their loud screaming, they also rejoice in appropriate pseudonyms such as ‘devil bird’, ‘screech martin’, devil swallow’ and ’devil shrieker’, amongst many others!

These days, since coal fires and the like have been banned in most large towns and cities, there are present above such places, many more insects than used to be the case. Thus there is for the most part a plentiful food source for swifts in urban areas. And as swifts do not bother with the chore of building much of a nest to speak of, they often make their home by creeping through little cracks in masonry and thus setting up their apology for a nest, largely on or in man-made structures, notably roofs. The only material you are likely to find in a swift’s nest is bits of flotsam and the odd feather or two, all of course, garnered from the air albeit that you are also liable to find a few large and unpleasant looking parasites there too! 

Swifts need good weather (don’t we all?). Incessant wet weather depresses insect populations, the swifts’ only source of food, but being such strong flyers, they are prepared to travel substantial distances to find places where insect life abounds, for instance in the wake of depressions where the insects are prone to gather in vast numbers. Swifts have been recorded making round trips of over a thousand miles to exploit such bounties. Consequently young, nestling swifts, in the event of bad weather, can descend into a kind of trance – a torpor – in which their whole metabolism slows down. In this state, they can survive without food for some forty eight hours or more.

Swifts are indeed high flyers. It has been estimated that a swift generally flies on average, at least five hundred miles on every day of its life, which probably means a total lifetime distance of way over a million miles! One from a farmhouse in Gloucestershire is known to have clocked up over three million! And as swifts are generally not thought to breed until they are four years old, the youngsters produced in local nests this summer may well get close to notching up a million miles before they next feel terra firma beneath their puny little feet again!

Swift by name and very definitely swift by nature … but not on the ground!

Country View 11.5.16

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A golden glaze blazes across the hillsides and hedgerows, as the gorse, whin or furze – call it what you will – blazes forth a message that the entire landscape is truly stirring into glorious life. The welcome warmth of the sun, so evident at the start of a week which promised so much, was turned down a notch or two as over the course of a few short days, winds turned from a southerly direction, round a hundred and eighty degrees until they had transmogrified into northerlies. Mediterranean south was swapped for Arctic north again reminding us very firmly, not to cast a clout! May is certainly not out just yet!

But those warmer days, besides turning our thoughts optimistically towards the lazy summer days which hopefully lie ahead, almost at the proverbial drop of a hat began the process of transforming the fast greening local woodland floors to blue. That stunning carpet of blue and of course the delicious scent that emanates from what we might call wild hyacinths but which more universally are known as bluebells, is as the song says, the very epitome of ‘flowers in May’.

We are currently in a particularly dry spell after a prolonged spell of wet weather, which stretched from last summer and through the winter, when a seemingly never ending sequence of storms roared in from the Atlantic. That is I guess, the natural pattern of our weather and it is that susceptibility to wet weather that makes our landscape so naturally green. And yet, if we in Britain have an obsession with weather in general, we can be thankful for the presence of that ocean and the prevailing winds, especially when viewing the horrific television pictures from Canada. There I’m afraid, the golden glaze of the landscape is all too real, destructive … and hot!

Our hearts go out to those folk whose entire lives have been destroyed by the fearsome blazes. Furthermore, the toll on Canada’s rich wildlife must also be immense. So far no-one seems to know how these fires started and yet fire is so much a part of nature’s inevitable sequences of events, always has been and presumably always will. Not only is nature red in tooth and claw, it also from time to time as we have seen, destroys on what seems to us, a massive scale. Yet from such destruction, it is amazing how quickly new life can spring. After fire, the phoenix that is new life, soon naturally and miraculously rises. Nature knows that such events are the norm but human-kind perhaps, finds such events beyond understanding. Wildlife accepts such tragedies and simply, if slowly, restores itself. It is I suppose nature’s re-cycling process.

Indeed, the whole structure of natural life is based on of the inevitability of life following death as a means of continuity and survival. I was reminded of that brutal fact on the inspection of a clump of feathers in my garden. They were the few scattered remains of what had been a collared dove the life of which had been brought to a summary end by a sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks are not well liked! Gamekeepers don’t like them for they do sometimes take game birds. Conveniently forgotten is the ludicrous number of pheasants, which in truth are aliens here (their origins lie in Asia), annually released into our countryside, which clearly creates an imbalance.

Even birdwatchers get hot under the collar when sparrowhawks strike to catch those attractive wee birds on which we spend inordinate amounts of money to attract to our gardens. Indeed, sparrowhawks have colonised many suburban areas throughout Britain to ‘cash in’ on the abundance of suitable prey that congregates in large numbers in bird friendly gardens. Thus ironically, are some birdwatchers among the ‘too many’ brigade which bewail the number of hawks currently patrolling gardens.

However, the plain fact is that if there were ‘too many’ hawks, there would inevitably soon be ‘too few’ small birds which are in any case already under pressure from changes in farming practises, the heavy use of pesticides and the continuing advancing tide of urbanisation. Those who glibly protest that there are too many of this or that species should understand that nature is far, far better than us at achieving proper balances. In fact, we are rather bad at that.

The hawk of course, labours under the handicap of being a particularly skilful, some might say brutal killer of those popular wee birds. Indeed here is a raptor which seems sometimes to employ ‘low cunning’ in its manner of hunting. It also has the effrontery to enter our ‘territory’ to do its ‘dirty work’ … before our very eyes! A close up view of a sparrowhawk further underlines the impression of a ‘hardened killer’. If the explosion of gorse gives the impression of fire, just take a look at the smouldering golden eyes of a sparrowhawk. Few birds can melt you so instantly with that stare; indeed the only comparable piercing glare I can cite is that of the even more fearsome and rarer goshawk.

The late lamented collared dove had been nailed by a vigorous wee male spar. Grey of back, chest barred, the male disports striking ruffous colouration on his underparts. He is substantially smaller than his mate, currently I’m sure, ensconced upon a clutch of eggs somewhere in a nest largely built by her and stationed securely in a suitable tree. Hawks sometimes lurk unobtrusively under the cover of vegetation before unleashing all the power and speed at their command in a sprint to run down a victim. Sparrowhawks are not marathon runners; they are sprinters. I once watched such a hawk explode like a bullet from a tree in pursuit of a meadow pipit. Often such a victim hardly knows what has hit it and the denouement is swift and final.

But this pipit had just enough time to see its attacker coming and took evasive action, dodging this way and that as the hawk struck. Twice the hawk made a run and twice the pipit dodged the lunging talons, at which point, the hawk gave up and returned swiftly to the tree from whence it had come where presumably it would re-charge its batteries and prepare itself for its next encounter of a feathered kind.  The ‘wham, bam’ approach to the essence of survival – killing to feed and therefore exist and flourish – is the way of the hawk. It can at one and the same time be both overt and covert.

Often you may spot a hawk flying low along a hedgerow in the hope of taking roosting birds by surprise and spooking them to leave their cover and make a run for it, Then the hawk will ‘hedge-hop’ and seize its panic stricken victim. I suppose its technique may be interpreted as brutal and somewhat savage compared with say the hovering kestrel which in time will drop on its furry prey. The fact that the kestrel largely kills the ‘not so nice’ wee furry creatures as opposed usually to the ‘nice wee’ birds, lets it off the hook. Sadly the kestrel is in serious decline but believe me there aren’t too many hawks!

Country View 4.5.16

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Across Britain, there is, they say, a plague of deer. There are two native deer, the red, in many minds, ‘Monarch of the glen’, our largest deer of course and synonymous with the Highlands. However, if you are familiar with the south west of England, the stags of Exmoor and Dartmoor perhaps also spring to mind. And even if your home is the ‘smoke’ of London, there are parkland based red deer there too. The other truly native deer is of course the roe, an animal almost exclusively to be found in woodland albeit that these days they seem almost equally at home in city cemeteries!

The problem, according to some, is that there are effectively no longer any natural predators roaming the British landscape to control the currently rapidly growing populations of deer, which nowadays are further swollen by the introduction over the years of different types of deer from other parts of the world. Of these, the longest established is the fallow deer, said to have been first brought here by the Romans but there are also sika deer and the tiny muntjacs, both brought here as decorative additions to the parklands of some of our grander houses and both originating on the other side of the world in the Far East. They all, by the way, share one passion … for roses!

Hence, there is a growing clamour for ‘re-wilding’ with lynx and wolves currently being advocated for re-introduction. The lynx disappeared from Britain in the region of a thousand years ago whilst the wolf survived until sometime around three hundred years ago. The advocates of such re-introductions of course cite the recent release of beavers in Argyll (a ‘controlled’ release, and thus carefully monitored) but some of them without the authorisation of officialdom in Perthshire and therefore definitely not monitored, as well as another well watched group in south west England.

As many will know, there is already controversy raging in Perthshire with some farmers and landowners resorting to the gun to ‘control’ these ‘unwanted’ animals.  But the main arguments are that deer numbers must be brought under control in order to protect our woodlands. This week I read that the Woodland Trust plans to begin a nation-wide scheme to augment current tree stocks with the planting over a period of time, of a further sixty four million trees – one for each UK citizen. Scotland, indeed Britain, is a very different place from when wolves and especially lynx were present in our landscape, a fact very publicly recognised by none other than Sir David Attenborough who has firmly come out against such re-wilding.

Britain, in the wake of the last Great Ice Age, was quickly colonised by trees and was in effect largely covered by natural forest. Then, along came our distant ancestors, including the first Neolithic farmers, who of course, as a means of utilising their newly developed husbandry skills, immediately began to clear trees to grow crops and graze their livestock. Of course, those early settlers made little impact and the deer, including incidentally, those Monarchs of the Glen, prospered in such a friendly, wooded environment, despite the predation of the said wolves and lynx.

The gradual disappearance of our natural woodlands had initially a slow, almost imperceptible impact but improving knowledge and technology as the centuries passed, accelerated the process. By the nineteenth century, driven by a combination of successive wars and the rapid development of all consuming industry, followed by the ‘sheepification’ of the uplands, those natural forests had all but disappeared. Our two native deer coped in entirely different ways to the disappearance of their natural habitat. Red deer relocated to the hills and glens – they are incidentally far smaller and lighter than their European cousins still located in forests - but roe found such a transition beyond them and they accordingly, came perilously close to dying out altogether.

The saving grace for roe was the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919 which began a programme of woodland planting albeit largely of non-native trees. These new forests however, proved ideal for roe and their numbers immediately began to recover until almost a hundred years on, they have reportedly reached those so-called plague proportions.

Roe deer are not large animals, an individual standing little more than two feet high at the shoulder. They are wonderfully athletic, capable of clearing quite high fences, fleet of foot and extremely alert. Our sightings of roe often amount to little more than fleeting glimpses of fast retreating, bobbing white posteriors. But, roe deer are unquestionably extremely attractive animals, often referred to as ‘the gentle roe’. And May is of course, a big month for them. Most roe deer kids come into the world during this ‘merry month’. And roe deer kids – they usually come in twos – are the absolute epitome of ‘Bambi’, tiny, spotted and well, simply adorable. However, be warned; should you stumble across one during a woodland walk, please do not touch it!  Your scent upon that tiny creature may cause it to be abandoned and thus, condemned to an early death.

But there is another side to the ‘gentle roe’ for during May the buck displays hardly any awareness, let alone a sense of care or responsibility towards his newly born progeny. Instead, he is fast becoming the very antithesis of gentle for the sap is rising within his veins as he seeks to establish or re-establish his territory and prepares if necessary to do battle to that end. I came across one such buck a day or two ago. His quite recently ‘cleaned’ antlers fairly gleamed in the sun as he quite deliberately, if from a respectable distance, investigated my presence. No bobbing white posterior here … at least till he was satisfied that I posed no problem to his territorial integrity. Foresters get quite peeved with roebuck because they can do serious damage to trees at this time of the year as they thrash them with their antlers to leave their mark for other bucks to see and smell. “This is my patch, invade at your own risk!” is the message conveyed.

I have frequently heard the coarse barking of competing bucks, emanating from somewhere deep in our nearby forests and several times have witnessed the sheer terror of a fleeing buck, expelled from a wood by a stronger rival. If initially there is face to face confrontation, it isn’t usually long before the psychological advantage held by the ‘master’ buck, cracks the fighting spirit of a weaker rival. Panic instantly sets in and then oh boy, the loser is certainly put to flight in no uncertain terms. Not gentle then!

The dander that infests a roebuck simmers from now until August by which time territorial integrity is established and the culmination of the whole process comes with mating. Roe are not herding animals like their larger red cousins. They usually can be seen in small family groups yet occasionally you do see surprisingly large gatherings. A week or so ago, on the very edge of the city almost below the castle walls, a dozen or so roe could be seen browsing, apparently with utter indifference to the nearby traffic!

As one who has had the privilege of rearing a roe kid to adulthood, I have always been thankful she was a doe for I have heard disturbing tales of hand reared roebuck, when the sap has risen in May, turning on their carers with a vengeance. With those sharp little antlers at that height, they can literally ‘gralloch’ such a person. So is ‘gentle’ roe appropriate? For the most part, and randy bucks apart … yes!

Country View 26.4.16

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Confusion reigns! Last week’s benign conditions during which spring definitely seemed to be springing, have given way to a sharp downturn of temperatures to those more closely associated with February rather than April. The cause? Apparently this sudden drop is due to the juxtaposition of high and low pressure areas respectively to the west and east of us, which are drawing air down from the Arctic. The sun may continue to shine but that northerly wind reminds us that we are, after all, situated in the northern hemisphere not that far distant from the Arctic Circle.

As a result my supplies, especially of nyjer seed and sunflower hearts are fast diminishing as the flashing colours of the goldfinches and siskins continue to dominate. But also constantly present, hovering up the resulting detritus, are pink breasted cock chaffinches. Chaffinches like many other small birds, surrender their singularity for the security of the flock during the winter months but they do so on a strictly gender based single sex structure. Significantly, although the air is definitely filling with the cheerful chattering of cock chaffinches, all the birds currently feasting under my bird-table, are also cock birds, perhaps reluctant to cast off their winter mind-set whilst the north wind blows.

On the one hand therefore, the cold Arctic blast is persuading these birds to remain for the present together in winter format, yet their hormones are telling them that the breeding season is indeed imminent, for there are spats occurring constantly as an instinctively competitive edge of rivalry infects them. There is also likely to be confusion among those migrants already arrived, A day or so ago, I watched at exceptionally close quarters, a pair of house martins, inspecting with great enthusiasm the nest which presumably they used last year.

Although the ospreys have been back with us for a week or two now and in the past few days I have heard the first, sweet, down-the-scale incantations of a willow warbler, I’m not at all sure what they may be making of the cold conditions. For the ospreys there will not be much of an issue. There are, after all, plenty of fish not necessarily in the sea but in our fresh water lochs, largely as far as I know, unaffected by temperatures. But for the more adventurous swallows now turning up, that willow warbler and the house martins, insect life is the key issue and the cold conditions will inevitably restrict their availability.

Ever since I was a boy, maps have fascinated me. It will come as no surprise therefore that I do not have, nor do I wish to have, Sat Nav! Our increasing reliance upon technology prompts the question whether future generations will be able to read standard maps at all! From what I hear, this new technology can sometimes cause utter confusion too. For instance, living in a rural environment, our post code naturally covers not a few houses in one street but several square miles. As a result delivery van drivers sometimes have great difficulty in finding us. And of course there are tales of lorries getting stuck in narrow lanes, their drivers led into such ‘traps’ by the same Sat Nav and indeed reports of users finding themselves in fields or indeed rivers and even the sea!

All of which, set me thinking about the newly arrived martins which, after navigating their way over several thousand miles from darkest Africa, crossing deserts, seas and mountain ranges, found their way not just to Britain but to Scotland and even to a tiny village and a nest on a building which they probably last saw around six months ago when they departed these shores. Now that really is navigating … and without the said Sat Nav albeit that even if they are unable to tune in to our technology, they are nevertheless, amply equipped with a technology of their own – an in-built Sat Nav if you like!

These days of course, house martins nest almost exclusively on man-made structures, most popularly under the eaves of our houses. However, it is a fair bet that countless generations of these attractive little birds, so full of verve and athleticism, have been coming here since the ice sheet retreated. Then doubtless, they would have nested largely in caves and below overhanging cliff edges. Some still choose such locations although the vast majority now use buildings of one form or another. This is of course, why they are called ‘house’ martins, a nomenclature they share exclusively in the avian world, with ‘house’ sparrows.

This week, the 400thanniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday was celebrated. Well the English bard was certainly a keen observer of things natural and in his ‘Scottish play’, he certainly has martins nesting on the walls of Cawdor Castle; “This guest of summer, The temple haunting martlet …. Hath made his pendant nest and procreant cradle …”. Castles and churches are also renowned as places where martins build their nests.

This is perhaps why we have a special relationship with martins and why in times past they were, together with their close cousins, the swallows,  referred to as “God Almighty’s birds to hallow” - in some versions – “God Almighty’s mate and marrow”. However, martins are, curiously enough, also shrouded in mystery, for there is utter confusion as to exactly where they winter. Although down the years, thousands of British breeding martins have been ringed, as far as I know only two have ever been recovered in Africa, one in Nigeria and one in Senegal. The long and the short of it is that no-one knows where martins go in the winter. If sub-Saharan Africa is the known general destination of these fast flying migrants, detail of exactly where they go is a complete mystery. It is well to remember that Africa is large – the second largest Continent on earth.

Ironically, sophisticated technology is about to solve this problem. The British Trust for Ornithology is to use satellite technology in the shape of shirt button sized transmitters which are to be fitted to some martin’s legs. These mini computers will transmit signals which will at last identify exactly where these birds go during the winter months. Currently, it is conjectured that they spend most of their time there on the wing, high above Africa’s huge forests, gorging on the prolific insect life to be found there. Being places where very few humans live, these birds, if they are there, are therefore, seldom seen. Now a form of Sat Nav will help unravel their whereabouts next winter.

Such knowledge is important because it is known that house martin populations are currently in quite serious decline. The more information we can gather the more likely are we to find reasons for this decline, so that measures can be taken which hopefully may reverse this sad trend.

Hopefully, with the merry month of May just around the corner, the winds will soon begin to blow from warmer points of the compass and our intrepid, returning martins will survive to entertain us with their wonderfully buoyant flight as they pursue those pesky flying insects which are their means of survival and in many cases the cause of so much of our itching! After all swallows and martins are in our minds, the very essence of our summer.

Country View 20.4.16

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One single swallow does not of course, mean that summer’s here! The first one, seen not by me but by my farming neighbour, was described as sitting on a wire, shoulders hunched, braving the icy Arctic wind. I conjectured that it might even have been contemplating a rapid return to Africa! The second swallow, although perhaps also not necessarily signifying that summer has after all shown its face, was seen on the first day upon which the sun shone and the mercury veritably soared. Yet even two do not a summer make!

It probably will be days, perhaps weeks, before I am likely to witness the febrile chatterings of courting male swallows. Amongst the strange assembly of notes that issue from the short but inordinately wide bill of a ‘singing’ swallow, are some distinctly mellow and musical ones, yet as a whole, the swallow’s courtship song meanders, at times feverishly but seldom predictably. It is a strange, seemingly random series of notes. However it clearly works and certainly captivates the females of the species!

With sun splitting the sky, there has been an obviously audible response by the birds. Very noticeably there has been a considerable resurgence in the song thrush population and my resident mavis is fairly banging the music out. However, I suspect there is locally at least, a shortage of females, otherwise by now, his music might have been modified. Once thrushes are paired, the singing becomes slightly less clamorous. Thus far there has been no letting up at all!

There’s been plenty of colour too with a host of multi coloured but very red faced goldfinches and greenish yellow siskins swarming over the sunflower hearts and the nyjer seed. There is greening too in the trees and indeed on the ground although my farming friends are still waiting for the grass to grow sufficiently for their beasts to get the chance to stretch their legs and after a cramped winter indoors, at last get the chance to chomp away at the grass. In this airt at least, cattle do get to go out of doors. Not, as far as I’m aware, for local farmers, the concept of yarded cattle, never to tread the grass!

There has I believe, been another significant resurgence. Almost everywhere I go, there are jenny wrens (incongruously named ‘jenny’ despite the songsters being very much all-male) rattling out their amazingly loud volleys of song. The volume achieved by this minuscule bird has surely to be ounce for ounce and decibel for decibel, the most loudly audible of all bird pronouncements. When two rival cock birds get into a vocal competition in which one responds to the vocalisation of the other, the volume gets really ratcheted up!

And cock wrens are not just phenomenal belters out of loud music, they are also amazingly ingenious and frantically energetic house-builders! As an important part of the courtship ritual, the aspiring cock bird will construct a number of nests none of which are necessarily completed, for the benefit of the female, who will inspect this selection of potential nests before settling on the one she likes best. When she has made her decision, she may enter her preferred choice, - the male is of course on hand as she makes her inspections – at which point the bond is sealed and the pairing cemented. Thereafter the two birds will together share the provision of the finishing touches.

The nest is a delightful, domed structure, made of mosses augmented with strands of straw or grass, lined with feathers, lichen and even spider’s silk, with a little entrance hole for access, high up on the dome. The male may build on average, six to eight such nests for her to make her selection, although some particularly energetic birds have been known to build as many as thirty! At first glance, the making of so many nests, albeit in unfinished mode, may seem an unnecessary endeavour, not to say an energy sapping procedure. Well, in truth, these labours do not necessarily go to waste, for once bonding is secured, the little cock wren may well go about advertising for another mate! “Nests available!” is presumably included in his vociferous little jingle! Wrens are often polygamous!

Most nests are sited deep in low vegetation but wrens are nothing if not full of ingenuity. Nests may be built in for instance, in the pockets of old coats or even in hats hung in sheds. Last year’s nest, made entirely of moss and sited in one of my sheds, has already this winter, disintegrated … on my head! There are records of wren nests on the running boards of old lorries and even apparently in a human skull(!) And as wrens, although rather sedentary birds are distributed over such a wide range of habitats from coasts to surprisingly high up our hills, their versatility in finding suitable nest sites is presumably, constantly challenged. However, the proper name for this versatile bird, troglodytes troglodytes, meaning ‘cave dweller’, probably indicates that they were here long before us and our dwellings!

Indeed, the St Kilda wren is thought to have been resident on that far away outpost for some five thousand years. The human population of those remote islands only lasted about a thousand years! And because they are not strong flyers – they seem to fly in the way of some insects, slow and somewhat ponderous – where they have set up home in relative isolation, they have developed in slightly different ways. I certainly remember listening carefully to wrens on almost equally isolated Fair Isle and noting variations in song compared with that of mainland cousins. These wrens, evolving in isolation also vary in size.

Such variations have been noted elsewhere, for instance in Shetland and the Outer Isles. Wrens, being so small, are extremely vulnerable in cold winters. In 1963’s prolonged and exceptionally cold winter, it is thought that the wren population was reduced by some eighty per cent. During the following winter however, this little character exhibited amazing resilience by increasing its numbers tenfold. Because of this vulnerability, wrens often pack themselves in small spaces during cold winter nights, their combined body heat spelling survival. These little examples of what in my young days used to be called ‘sardines’ are the wrens’ means of survival. Again some amazing numbers of wrens, all huddled together in tiny spaces emerge – 30 or more in an old house martin nest, 10 in a single coconut shell and seventeen in an old squirrel drey, among them.

Judging by the hullabaloo of wren song currently echoing across the local landscape – wren voices certainly carry amazing distances – last winter’s benign character has been very much to the advantage of our wren population. These little piping marvels certainly prove that small is indeed beautiful. And somehow, that tiny, cocked tail, gives them that extra bit of character.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods