Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 22.9.15

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There will be no fractious encounters with border guards, no razor wire fences to negotiate, no trains to scramble aboard and in all probability, for these migrants, few people who will even monitor their eventual arrival, thousands of miles across the globe. Furthermore, these migrants are travelling south across Europe rather than north and they will make their way across continents and seas, entirely under their own steam. However, in a similar vein to the sad fortunes of so many of those masses of displaced people currently ‘swarming’ into Europe, many of them will fail to complete their journey and will instead surrender their lives to the vicissitudes of the weather.

No more than a week ago, hordes of them were swarming across our skies, snatching frantically, beaks full of insect life, as they fuelled up for their marathon journeys, pausing to perch in rows upon the overhead wires, roosting in their hundreds and thousands in reed beds, perhaps gathering their strength or waiting for the word, the signal, to which instinctively they must respond. “It is time to move!” One day they were there in their serried ranks, the next, they were gone, heading south, responding to natural urges and perhaps to the collective instinct that will drive them on their headlong and hazardous journey south across Europe and thence to Africa from where ironically, hail some of those human travellers.

Just days ago, a visit on my part to the shed in which this summer one pair of swallows have produced two broods of youngsters, provoked extremely angry vocal responses from the parent birds, their ‘pink, pink, pink’ protestations, ringing in my ears, demonstrating just how protective of their young parent swallows are. Now my entry is marked by silence.

Swallows are I suppose, ‘economic migrants’ as they make that perilous journey twice every year of their lives, northwards in the spring, southwards in the autumn,  journeys I guess, countless generations of their kind have been undertaking for thousands of years, ever since the ice that once enveloped this landscape, retreated. They make their amazing journeys in part to capitalise upon the insect life that is literally the stuff of life for the swallows of this world, which flourish here during the summer months. Because of our northern latitude, they also have eons of daylight in which to hunt down those flying beasties in order to nourish successive broods of young.

For the last of those broods, the challenge they are suddenly obliged to face as summer fades and hints of autumn begin to pervade a cooling landscape, are immense, as Instincts impel them to journey south. The last of this year’s crop of youngsters have only been flying for a matter of a few short weeks, even days perhaps. Now they must, if they are to stand any chance of surviving, launch themselves on that journey into the unknown. Initially, it is not too hazardous as they make their way through England towards the English Channel, the first of the physical hazards they will encounter.

Some, instinctively, will cross that first stretch of water at its narrowest point, a crossing of a mere twenty miles. Despite its relative shortness, high winds – this of course, is the time of the autumn equinox – can make this crossing a daunting prospect and is perhaps the first real threat to their very existence. Some may therefore baulk at the crossing of such a body of water and attempt a rapid return to terra firma. But eventually, they must grasp that nettle and cross the channel to continue their journey into France.    

Carefully staging this early part of their journey means that they are able to maintain body condition by continuing to feast upon the still relatively abundant insect life. However, worsening weather may well reduce the availability of flying insects. Thus, weight loss can be critical. Having crossed that first obstacle, the Channel, an overland flight across France follows. On average it takes between three and five days for them to travel the length of France. Especially for birds following a westerly rout however, the Pyrenees mountain range represents their next significant challenge. Mountainous terrain, as we know only too well can offer extreme weather conditions and in particular, thunderstorms can exacerbate the risks to life and fragile limb.

For birds following a more central or easterly route, another significant hazard awaits them. The risks currently being run by some of the human migrants in making the sea crossing across the Mediterranean are dreadful to say the least. For the travelling masses of birds however, there still exists in the human settlements around the Mediterranean, a legacy of killing, in which folk literally shoot as many migrant birds out of the sky as they can. It is an old tradition and one which apparently, dies hard!

And of course, the Mediterranean is the next substantial hurdle to be crossed. Those staying on a westerly course, have only an eight mile crossing to negotiate at the western mouth of the Med at Gibraltar, to reach North Africa. Further east however, much more substantial trans-sea crossings face them with as much as three hundred miles of sea to cross.

Having made landfall, the survivors of the journey now find they face another considerable hazard in the shape of Eleonora’s Falcons, raptors which are especially programmed to take advantage of the vast numbers of migrant birds making this crossing. These fast flying raptors even delay their breeding season until the autumn in order to capitalise on the autumn migration, especially of swallows.

Otherwise, the migrants now find themselves in a land of relative plenty with abundant insect life available. However, this short lived bonanza is merely a prelude to what is the biggest obstacle of all, the vast and uncompromising Sahara Desert, all one thousand miles of it and sadly the graveyard of so many such travellers.

Those that successfully negotiate the Sahara, are able to enjoy a relatively hazard free passage through the savannah immediately south of the unforgiving sands, a landscape of semi-desert and open woodland, before then having to contend with the stormy rainforests of tropical Africa. Many now veer eastwards in order to avoid this hazardous area which is subject to violent tropical storms. And so the survivors of this amazing and extremely perilous journey, finally arrive in South Arica, having survived an odyssey extending to some six thousand miles. For those members of the later broods, what an introduction to life as a swallow this will have been!

And within a few short months, instinct will drive them to repeat this madcap adventure again in reverse! Survival rates can be poor, especially in late broods. Statistically, only one of a brood can expect to make a successful return and only one of the parent birds too, In the case of say two broods in a season therefore, only three birds out of say twelve can expect to complete that cycle!

There are still swallows around but by and large our skies are rapidly emptying. The dashing, athletic summer birds are all but gone and we are surely the poorer for their absence. And yet, as they stream south towards Africa, there are those, also set on a southerly course, which will in a way, with their cackling voices and ordered skeins, fill the void. As the swallows depart, so the first of the immigrant pink-footed geese signal their arrival from the Arctic. But that is another story! 

Country View 15.9.15

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With each passing day now, green is inevitably destined to be the ultimate loser, except of course among the evergreens. The serried ranks of spruces will retain their green hues in coming months, whereas as each day now confirms,  yellows, golds  and reds are becoming a steadily growing influence as the summer, such as it has been, declines and autumn, perhaps subtly, asserts itself. Slowly, the colour balances are changing but so too are the moods of nature shifting, as preparation for approaching winter becomes the priority and the notion that survival will soon be the primary objective becomes increasingly evident.

Not that everything in the natural world is in the process of shutting down. The monarchs of the glen may even now be preparing to strut their stuff as for them at least, the sap is yet to rise as the time of the rut, the main event of their year, fast approaches. As the year declines so the climax of their annual life cycle, perhaps peaking in another month’s time, will put fire in the bellies of the main protagonists. The heat generated by that event will, inevitably reach boiling point in the hearts of the master stags as the time of passion overtakes them.

And, where they continue to prosper, the rabbits of this world, with their notorious appetite for procreation, may not yet be done either! I saw a rabbit the other day! These days such a sighting in this neck of the woods, is a notable event. Their presence here at least, is currently a real rarity. Once upon a time, rabbits were an un-missable everyday presence, a fact then duly amplified by the regular presence of their carcases on our local roads. Over the last few years however, they have, as they say, disappeared ‘like snow off a dyke’! I can only surmise that the legacy of that pernicious disease of rabbits, myxamotosis, still lingers enough, to seriously supress numbers here.

Over the last sixty years or so, our landscape has certainly been transmogrified by this plague, carried of course, by the rabbit flea. Living in large, close knit communities as rabbits are wont to do, such close quarter living provides the fleas with an ideal environment in which to flourish and as a result, the rapid spread of ‘myxi’ has naturally been guaranteed, leading in many places, to the mass extermination of a creature which although not native to these shores, has been here long enough perhaps to be counted as one of our own.

Prior to the deliberate introduction of this pernicious disease, I believe from South America, in the mid nineteen fifties, rabbits for many years, literally swarmed over Britain’s landscape, much to the advantage of many creatures for which rabbit became a daily dietary item, foxes and buzzards perhaps, in particular. I guess country-folk too were beneficiaries albeit that in a period of our history when the law was perhaps administered rather too savagely, there were those who were transported to the other end of the world - to the Antipodes - just for trapping a few rabbits in order to supplement their families’ meagre diets.

Although the Roman legions as they marched through the Iberian Peninsula,  discovered this Spanish based creature and quickly took a liking to it as a more than useful supplement to their meat rations, it was not, as I understand it, Caesar’s soldiers, who are to be blamed for the rabbit’s arrival on these shores.

Indeed, the rabbit’s arrival here seems to have come several hundred years after the departure of the last of the soldiers of Rome. If we want to blame anyone, then the finger should instead be pointed at another invading army, that of the Normans, who habitually kept rabbits captive in artificial warrens, under the supervision of course, of their ‘warreners’. Again, food was the reason behind this practice and to a lesser degree perhaps, the availability of the fur that rabbits also provided.

As all good Scots know, the Norman invasion was a southern British event. There was no such invasion here albeit that the Normans did nevertheless inveigle themselves very firmly into Scottish society. And as most of Britain was then covered by woodland and heath, those rabbits which inevitably managed to escape from their carefully guarded warrens did not necessarily go forth and multiply with the enthusiasm we normally expect of this fecund animal.

Indeed, the breeding ambitions of rabbits were only really stirred with the transformation, centuries later, of Britain’s countryside, as the Agricultural Revolution began effectively to tame much of Lowland Britain’s landscape. With the subsequent wide scale availability of crops of deliciously succulent food, the rabbits of this world quickly got to work. With this sudden stimulus now indeed did they begin to go forth and multiply!

From that point onwards, they needed no further encouragement! Indeed the fast growing and by the start of the last war, a burgeoning rabbit population, was costing our farming industry, it was estimated, millions of pounds. Thus, when war broke out (for the second time in the twentieth century) such losses at a time of food shortages were critical and government was soon encouraging the destruction of rabbit populations, with rather mixed success it must be said, for Brer Rabbit had by now got the breeding bit well and truly between his teeth!

By the time ‘myxi’ arrived rabbits were swarming. Older readers will remember vividly, the pathetic sight of diseased, blinded rabbits crawling around helplessly as the disease cut great swathes through their numbers. Rabbit had become a very popular source of extra meat during the difficult war years, with its rationing. My recollection is that because my father knew a man who knew a man who was by all accounts a renowned poacher, we enjoyed the luxury of a couple of rabbits a week! But when a few years later, myxomatosis struck, the British public was it seems, put off by the very notion of consuming diseased animals and thus the notion of eating rabbit.

So here, as in many parts of these islands, where once rabbits abounded, they are now extremely scarce. Yet there is it seems, out in the Western Isles, a throw-back to those days when rabbits veritably teemed. Such is the growing population of these creatures, perhaps first introduced to those remoter parts of the kingdom as a more than useful supplement to a diet perhaps otherwise largely comprising of mutton and fish, that they are now seriously disrupting the already fragile economy of crofting to such an extent that there are widespread calls for a serious cull to be undertaken.

Foxes are largely absent from the Western Isles although I don’t doubt that the new generation of sea eagles, together with golden eagles, doubtless make their contributions towards the control of rabbits. Therefore it is may perhaps be down to mankind to effect some control if they are getting so out of hand. After all, we put them there in the first place, or at least our distant ancestors did!

Country View 9.9.15

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Cowboys and Indians was a game we played when I was a lad! I suppose that was what we were fed on during our visits to the cinema. Such films were all the rage and Dr Who had not yet been invented! I was always on the side of the Indians! Maybe I was naturally drawn to the role of those who always seemed to be struggling against the odds or maybe I just took a shine to the Indians. Our games were of course innocently set against a stark reality that America’s native people, were, in fact, during past centuries, very badly treated by the newly arriving waves of immigrant people, mostly from Europe, then in the process of writing America’s history. The rugged determination of those early pioneers to carve out new lives for themselves, was, as we know, ruthlessly pursued, very much to the detriment of those native American people.

The response of those then finding the lands of their ancestors claimed by these interlopers was to meet violence with violence, a situation, which unsurprisingly fomented hatred between the two communities. According to many accounts, the only ‘good injun’ was a ‘dead injun’ in the minds of most of the incomers. Thus, a recent trip out west – not to Wyoming but to Wester Ross – perhaps echoed the same kind of sentiment, only the ‘injuns’ I spotted, were not Scottish native people, they were the equally universally hated hooded crows. I doubt if any creature, with historically perhaps, the exception of the wolf, has engendered quite so much vitriol. Many’s the shepherd I’m sure, for whom the only ‘good hoodie’, is a ‘dead one’!

Coincidentally, during that period when the first pioneering pilgrims were pushing west across the vast plains of America, an invasion was happening here too with the arrival in the Highlands especially, of sheep – thousands upon thousands of them. Therefore it may have been the case that as those early immigrants to America were first coming into conflict with natives, so was a conflict developing here too as the new breed of shepherds found themselves waging warfare against hoodies, not to mention foxes!

The hooded crow is a close relative of the carrion crow but much more of a highlander in disposition and habit. It is distinguished from its all black cousin, a bird more familiar to Lowland dwellers, by its two-tone plumage of black and grey, its body largely grey; its head, wings and chest black. Crows are pretty universally disliked but the hoodie is perhaps, the avian world’s prime villain of the piece, especially of those for whom sheep are a life’s work. Hill sheep are notoriously hardy but the conditions that often prevail in many parts of Highland Scotland can be brutal and it is thus often the case that a ewe giving birth to twin lambs, is only capable of sustaining one of her offspring. Thus the weaker lamb is often abandoned, quickly becoming the victim of the likes of hoodie crows.

Another comparison now struck me. In recent times, thousands of sheep have been removed from the hills. As a result there are now vast areas of open Highland hill, which, not so long ago, would have been generously populated by hill sheep but which are now empty. The effect of the arrival in vast areas of Highland Scotland of sheep, a transformation largely manifested during the latter half of the eighteenth century onwards, was the main reason behind the baring of our hills and mountains and the stripping of woodland cover. The Gaelic poet, Duncan ban McIntyre penned a verse which began, “My blessings with the foxes dwell, for that they hunt the sheep so well ….”. He clearly lamented the effects so many sheep were having on the landscape he loved, in particular his beloved Ben Doran, denuding it of its natural vegetation.

Another comparison occurred. Now the sheep are disappearing, the hoodie population may struggle to maintain numbers, a sequence of events not dissimilar to the rapid disappearance of buffalo in America in those distant times, staple to the lifestyle of the native Americans but slaughtered wholesale by the ‘new Americans’. Who knows? With so many sheep being taken off the hills, warfare on hoodies may in the future become less earnest! But whilst I was musing thus and watching a pair of hoodies, my attention was diverted by the persistent ‘cuck-cuck-coo’ of what has turned out to be the most successful immigrant in avian terms, we have ever seen in these parts.

Collared doves are surely familiar to everyone these days. Their story of translocation during the twentieth century is no less amazing than the story of mass human migration to America if at present it is being mirrored by another human migration of epic proportions which ironically, is following a similar pattern to that pioneered by the doves! The larger part of the avalanche of human migrants currently arriving in Europe is apparently coming from Asia and the Middle East, albeit that many too have their origins in Africa. Many are fleeing war but others are travelling purely for economic reasons. The remarkable advance of the collared dove from Asian roots is unprecedented in avian terms, although the current advance of human migrants perhaps threatens to comfortably surpass it.

In an advance which was also presumably for ‘economic reasons’ in that the collared doves went presumably where the feeding was more freely available, this bird spread from its eastern base, into the Balkans in the late nineteen twenties and to Central Europe by the fifties. It was first seen in Britain in 1955. Now it is to be found throughout Britain and astonishingly has gone from zero to 14 million pairs in Europe in less than seventy years. And beware America! Having been introduced there, it is again on the march, rapidly colonising the States, just as those human migrants colonised America centuries ago and as we are currently seeing in Europe right now! Here, collared doves have even colonised remote St Kilda, long since abandoned by the human race.

Two vastly different birds thus caught my eye during my short sojourn in the wild north-west. The hoodie may perhaps face an uncertain future in its Highland domain albeit that a bird renowned for its intelligence (they say crows can even count!) and for its ability to discover new ways to survive, will surely adapt to new circumstances. Perhaps it only has to take a leaf out of the collared dove’s notebook and travel!

Country View 28.8.15

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Survival is perhaps, the most basic of instincts. The human race’s alleged sophistication and advancement however, implies a rather different interpretation of the word, compared with that understood by our fellow creatures. We perhaps look well beyond the basic laws of survival that govern the lives of most birds and animals. However, the recent acquisition of a much unwanted bug, perhaps brought me personally back to the reality of the kind of basic survival which is so much a part of the mindset of most of most wild creatures. My immediate goal became quickly pared down to the very basic desire and indeed, goal to survive! But when we talk of survival in the human context, in general we are talking in a slightly different language; financial survival for instance, which has become a major driving force in human society and an ongoing tussle for many in recent times. Money may indeed be the root of all evil!

And indeed, as we approach the final few weeks of what we may laughingly call the summer, the tenet of that basic desire to survive, will become an increasing driving force for most of our wildlife. Soon, there will be a time of plenty with the advent of nature’s harvest. This is an event which many birds and animals must exploit to the maximum if they are to improve their chances of surviving winter, for as the days really shorten so too does the supply of natural food, rapidly diminish. Some birds of course, escape the need to make such provision, by simply taking leave of us and decamping to warmer climes where the living, by comparison, is relatively easy and food abundant. Yet, in preparing themselves for epic trans–continental voyages, even the bands of travellers must fuel up. This is for them, a time for eating!

There has been plenty of evidence that already, some are preparing themselves for imminent departure. The presence of an estimated hundred or so swallows, perched like so many quavers and crotchets on the overhead wires the other day, confirmed that such plans are already in the making. On the same ‘musical score’ were more notes! Only slightly removed from these far distance travellers, sat an equally impressive murmuration of starlings. The latter group were typically, conversing noisily, the other chatting more quietly; one lot perhaps discussing the best routes to follow and the most advisable time of departure, the other probably making acquaintance with birds with which they will probably be bonding for the duration of the forthcoming winter.

Coming together in ever-larger groups serves both travellers and non-travellers in equal measure. This year’s crop of swallows possess the basic instincts to know that they must, as day’s shorten and food supplies in the shape of flying insect life diminish, fly south. Indeed, although they are equipped with in-built compasses in order to navigate their way across large slices of the globe, there can be little doubt that the experience of older, more experienced birds, which have made the trek before, is also vital.

It is of course, absolutely essential that migrating birds are extremely well prepared for what for many will be a ‘first-time’ experience and probably the biggest challenge of their short lives. Thus must they pack their little bodies with food – the fuel they will need to negotiate their way over thousands of miles of unknown territory.  So, for one and all, autumn, as it approaches, is a time for eating … and eating … and eating! Weight must be watched – but as an increasing rather than a decreasing factor.

Squirrels famously exploit the autumn’s harvest frenetically, collecting and caching vast quantities of nuts in the process. Contrary to some popular opinion, squirrels do not hibernate. They may curl up in their dreys for days on end if and when the weather is especially inclement but otherwise they will survive by remembering where their stashes of food are! Badgers too, again contrary to some popular opinion, don’t hibernate either. However they do not store food in the manner of squirrels. Instead they simply pack food in, putting on the pounds so that they have the body reserves to carry them through those bad spells when, like the squirrels, they hunker down, deep in their underground setts.

So most creatures need reserves in one form or another, in order to survive the bleaker months of winter. But most creatures are also cute enough to exploit every possible opportunity to snatch a meal when those harsher times come round. Thankfully, the human race these days makes life a good deal easier for many garden birds by providing various forms of food in their gardens – as a means of attracting them of course – in order that they may get good, close-up views of nature in action.

Furthermore, many of the birds, which keep themselves very much to themselves and indeed defend their patches with vigour during the breeding season, surrender than individuality and instead become one of a crowd. Such changes of heart are essentially pragmatic. Being part of a large flock reduces the chances of falling victim to predators. Furthermore being a paid up member of a large flock also exploits the advantage of many pairs of eyes searching for food.

However, there is one bird that adopts the ‘squirrel’ method! During coming weeks, watch out for increasing activity among the most colourful members of the crow clan, our woodland based jays, as they frantically seek out acorns. Jays collect enormous caches of oak fruits during the late summer and autumn, burying them ‘a la squirrel’, in vast quantities. And like squirrels, they also turn out to be quite absent minded, not necessarily remembering exactly where they have so carefully stored many of their precious winter reserves. Whilst jays are remarkably omnivorous, devouring plant and animal food with equal enthusiasm, consuming insect life with great zeal in the spring and, as many a keeper hostile towards jays will tell you, plenty of young birds during spring and summer, acorns are staple during the winter months

If the consumption of young birds is perhaps seen as a down side of jay lifestyle, their delectation for acorns has a highly beneficial consequence. Their ‘collector-mania’ in relation to acorns plays a major role in the re-generation of oak woodland, a highly valuable resource, which benefits all manner of wildlife.  Just to quantify their endeavours, each individual jay is thought to collect around three thousand acorns during the autumn. Such is the capacity of a jay to transport acorns thus that they are able to pack as many as nine at a time in their beaks. By the nature of such statistics, it will be evident that of the three thousand acorns collected, such hoards are well dispersed, enhancing the further spread of oak woods.

Jays are very colourful with their largely pink bodies, striking black and white plumage on the wings, which are further adorned by a prominent blue patch with black bars on the upper wings. The familiar black moustache adds to the character of jays, their brightly coloured plumage setting them well apart from their other crow clan cousins. They are also known as ‘guardians of woodlands’, for the racket they make when their territory is invaded, screeching loudly especially as people approach their domain.

It now seems that not only do fellow jays respond to these warnings but many other birds and even squirrels also recognise such alarms and accordingly take evasive action. Jays may not necessarily be popular for their theft of eggs and chicks from other bird’s nests, including incidentally, those of other jays, but on the other side of the coin, they earn their corn as progenitors of oak woods and for their activities as woodland wardens! 

Country View 26.8.15

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The purest and most thoughtful minds,” so John Ruskin said, “are those that love colour the most.” Well, the time is fast approaching when such predictions may be fulfilled. Summer, such as it has been, is waning. Colour constantly charts the seasons from the relatively bleak winter days when so much of our landscape is decked in muted pastel shades, bereft of strong colour, the trees skeletal and thus largely black and white, to spring, when those delicious elements of fresh green give great hope of renewal. Now, as summer slides towards autumn, a new selection of colours changes the landscape yet again. Pinks, purples and yellows dominate roadside verges as ranks of rosebay willowherb and foxgloves offer a kind of requiem to the fast fading season.

The delicate nodding blue heads of ‘Scotch bluebells’, better known perhaps as harebells, arch their stems to adorn the sheep walks, offering a gentle contrast to the tiny, bright sparkling yellow tormentil that carpets those same hillsides. Tree greenery is now not as fresh as in spring but has become slightly jaded and in some cases is already giving way to the stronger hues of autumn. Typically, horse chestnuts are hinting at the departure of summer, their crowns mimicking punk rockers as they become bronzed, now more than hinting at forthcoming red. Green vegetation is taking on an increasingly yellow tint.

There is certainly strong colour emerging in the rowans as the clusters of berries now glow red, a colour now quite familiar here. A male woodpecker, his flanks as bright red as those rapidly ripening berries and as prominent as that red flash on the nape of his neck, hammers away at the peanuts. He and his offspring, which of course, bring those extra flashes of red with their bright red skull caps, together with his mate, are the sole reason I keep the peanut supply going through summer. Soon I’ll be proffering nyjer seed to add more colour to the gathering gloom of autumn as the goldfinches home in. There’ll be plenty of red there too!

The peanuts are not, as you might expect, the sole preserve of the woodpeckers. They come and go like mini exocet missiles, hurtling in and scattering all other would be diners to command exclusivity at the dispensers. They’re bully-boys really! In between, a plethora of house sparrows, occasionally joined by an odd tree sparrow, swarm over the nuts, typically falling out with one another in the process – these are indeed, ‘quarrels’ of speugs! Chaffinches too exploit this un-seasonal food source, the cock birds in particular, fairly glowing in their brand new suits of clothing, pink breasts fairly blazing forth, confirming that their main moult of the year and that new suit of clothes is indeed complete. Bluetits and great tits are also eager to exploit this extra source of food. Most of them are also resplendent in new sets of feathers!

But the real exploitation is happening where those bright red clusters of rowan berries hang lush and plentiful. At first there was a trickle of blackbirds feasting on them; now there is a regular train of them. Whole families are descending en-masse and tearing into the berries as if there were no tomorrow. It is at this point in time, difficult to assess how well or indeed how badly the breeding season has gone for most birds in what has been a fairly dismal summer with higher than usual rainfall and temperatures rarely allowing us to bask in ‘the summer sun’. But the evidence at present, indicates that blackbirds at least, have done very well indeed, judging by the number of youngsters, readily recognised through their brown plumage, currently accessing the rowans.

This is perhaps one of our most familiar birds, a garden regular, an inhabitant of parks and of course, hedgerows and woodlands, as familiar perhaps in town as in country. Clearly, this is a highly successful species, a success perhaps attributable to its very wide-ranging choice of food. Now perhaps we are entering the ‘fruit phase’ of the merle’s annual cycle but this is a bird as happy consuming worms and other invertebrates as it is in plucking berries from the trees. Indeed, the sight of one or more blackbirds exploring lawns for worms is extremely familiar.

To our untrained eyes, such exploits may seem to be conducted in an entirely amicable atmosphere. But the truth is that, when two or more birds are competing for such food riches in close proximity, carefully scouring the ground visually for clues as to the presence of such food and indeed, even listening for the tell tale movement of such culinary delights, tensions are always present. Indeed, although such rivalry may not seem evident to us, in truth, such competitors actually spend rather a lot of their time observing the movement of other feeding blackbirds, the feeding rate of each may consequently in reality drop considerably.  Occasionally, aggression, otherwise seemingly lurking without intent just below the surface, may suddenly peak and one of the birds may launch a full frontal attack. Seldom do such spats come to much but often such assaults are signalled by the familiar ‘chink’ chink’ chink’, alarm call uttered by the bird being chased!

That alarm call too is familiar, sometimes, when there is apparently no cause for real panic, uttered with due decorum, more a chuckle than a real alarm call, at other times uttered loudly and thus ringing across the landscape.  However, the blackbird, is rightly most renowned for its luxuriant song. Many poets have been moved to composition by the full-throated phrasing of the yellow-billed cock blackbird. Its voice is often the first to be heard in springtime. Indeed, the more ambitious among cock blackbirds can often be heard long before the first hints of spring are evident as I witnessed one Christmas Eve some years ago.

Of course, there are those who say that a bumper crop of rowans is a sure sign of a hard winter to come, a prediction I don’t go along with. A good crop of berries is in my view, more likely to reflect the kind of spring and summer that preceded it! Well it may not have been a great summer but conditions do seem to have favoured a good growing season for the said berries. Such riches are of course, a valuable autumn and winter source of food for the likes of fieldfares and redwings, those Viking raiders from Scandinavia which flee the Arctic winter to settle here for the winter months, generally in October time and of course, the ‘irruptions’ of waxwings that descend upon us from time to time.

Judging by the enthusiasm of the considerable population of local merles for the emerging crop of berries, those incomers might not even get a look in when they finally arrive! The cupboard will likely be bare!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods