Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 3.6.15

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In buildings, on buildings, in every conceivable nook and cranny, in bushes, in shrubs, in trees, in hedges, and just about everywhere you look there is a tide of productivity sweeping across the landscape.  Wherever it is possible to build or scrape a nest, birds have taken every opportunity to find for themselves little niches where they can lay their eggs, incubate them and eventually hatch their broods of youngsters. Thus, these are miraculous days.

Many of the usual culprits are evident, a plethora of different songs filling the air but most notable, perhaps, are three familiar denizens of our gardens and yards.  Inevitably, chief among them are the speugs.  It is said that our house sparrow population is in truly serious decline with numbers across the globe apparently disappearing like snow off a dyke. Yet no bird throughout history has had such a close relationship with man. Since time immemorial, wherever even small groups of people have settled, house sparrows have always been there too.   It may be assumed that the said sparrows are the beneficiaries of this arrangement, always more than happy to exploit the wastefulness of our species.

Quite naturally, we associate these ubiquitous birds with large concentrations of human populations.  In other words, we expect them to dominate our urban conurbations. But now it seems, for a variety of reasons, one of which may be a different approach to the construction of human dwellings, it is in these previous hotspots that the decline in most marked.

There do seem to be exceptions to the rule.  For instance, twenty years ago in this airt - dominated by farming activities - the house sparrow population was minimal but the situation during the past two decades has changed markedly and their numbers during that time have multiplied astonishingly. Believe me, here there is no sign of decline whatsoever.

Much more exotic and indeed considerably more flamboyant in every aspect of their daily lifestyle, are the swallows. Their presence in our buildings here each summer, certainly adds another dimension to bird-watching as they zoom in and out of the buildings In pursuit of the myriads of tiny flying insect that are their stock in trade. This year we’ve opened an extra building up for them and there is plenty of activity to ensure that the days are not boring!

If there is always that wild element present in just about everything swallows do - a careless unbridled sense of energy - it is a sobering thought that the vast majority of them rely very heavily upon people being around … or at least, they have come to a point where they are almost totally reliant upon the structures erected down the years by successive generations for the establishment of their own nesting sites. Early generations of swallows, we are told, nested either in caves or beneath cliff overhangs.

The third noticeable nester has been unusual in that, as far as I am aware, this bird has not been one of the regular nesting communities here. This year’s interloper is a starling.  “So what?” Nothing exotic about that! What was perhaps surprising was that the identification of this ‘new’ nesting bird came vocally. Starlings, above all, are famous for the extremely mixed vocal messages that characterises the quite remarkable range of noises they make.

Starlings, famously prattle! You may find starlings, or sometimes a single bird, typically perched on an overhead line, sitting, all huddled up prattling away – no structure, no tune, indeed, no apparent purpose. It is clearly a vocalisation that is not designed to attract a mate, or warn a rival. It just seems to be a rambling conversation which has no purpose.  Alternatively, starlings are famous for their mimicry. Out of nowhere will suddenly emerge a snatch of real, sweet music, worthy of a songster such as a blackbird.

However, starlings do not limit their mimicry exclusively to the sounds made by other birds, albeit that some seem to have perfected the calls of owls and hawks, presumably to cause their own version of mayhem. Even more annoying is the mimicry of car alarms and especially of telephones which as might be imagined, can cause much consternation …. answering a ringing phone, which, in the end, isn’t ringing at all! Some take it further by mimicking cats and crying babies. More mayhem!

I guess the size of vocal repertoire in many birds enhances their chances of winning a mate and in starling-speak, the addition of telephones, car alarms et al may well add to a reputation. However, there is one aspect of starling music I regard as pure starling and that is the reeling, almost greenfinch roll of notes. That more than any other of the many sounds starlings make, is, in my view, proper starling music!

But this is just typical of the enigma that is the starling. The entire lifestyle of starlings seems to me to be an incredible mix of lifestyles. This nesting pair is clearly just a single pair. Yet often starlings will nest in small groups, quietly taking over for instance, stretches of hedgerow. Suburban dwellers will be familiar with little groups of starlings descending on bird-tables, bullying all other visiting birds and commandeering the food – the bully boys of the bird-table.

And yet, starlings can live in a totally different dimension. Most of us are familiar with the spectacular ‘murmurations’ of starlings which, in various parts of the country, provide the most sensational aerial displays. These quite remarkable aerial displays, usually occurring in the evenings, are now regularly shown on television. In winter time I enjoy ‘mini murmurations’ in my garden, as prior to roosting the local flock of starlings dash hither and thither in a most spectacular series of fly pasts.

Meanwhile, such manoeuvres are not the priority. The priority just now is the nurturing and rearing of the next generation. The sparrows, the swallows and the one and only pair of starlings, have a job in hand and all other facets of their vastly varying lifestyles are for the moment, very much on the back burner.

Country View 20.5.15

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The eyes have it. If you want to understand the emotions, moods or feelings of anyone, it is the eyes that betray them. And, in my experience that can also be the case when it comes to our fellow creatures. I once for instance, went eyeball to eyeball with a tiger! It wasn’t as I’m sure you will have guessed, an encounter in the wild. It was in fact in a zoo, a very special zoo in Singapore where unexpectedly my eyes met with those of a tiger through glass – thick glass of course. I have never been met by such a withering expression and I’m quite sure the tiger recognised in my eyes, fear, for although separated from the beast by that glass, I nevertheless found the experience decidedly unnerving!

Over the years, having ministered to a multitude of waifs and strays – injured or orphaned animals and birds, I have been eyeballed by a remarkable range of such creatures. One of the first, and there were over the years, many others, was a young tawny owl duly christened Mohammed Owly (Ali was in his prime at the time). Young tawny owls are quite prone to tumbling from their nests. In the rush to be first in the queue when the parent owls fly in with food, enthusiasm often gets the better of the larger, marginally older members of a brood.

I cannot remember how many such owlets have passed through my hands. A lot! In general, unless they have ended up in a dangerous place, the best advice I can give to anyone finding such a waif and stray is to leave it where it is. The parent owls will respond to its calling and feed it on the ground. Furthermore, young tawny owls are remarkably good tree climbers and will sometimes scramble their way back into the nest. There was I recall, one exception,  a young tawny which I managed to get back into the tree where its nest was located, only to find it grounded again. Again I restored it to a lofty position, only to find it soon back on the ground. Subsequently, I realised that every time I restored it to its lofty perch, a grey squirrel simply came along and pushed it out of the tree!

Hostility might be the expected reaction from such a foundling, yet I guess the most important thing for them is to be recipients of food, at which point hostility vanishes. Instead they are soon pleading (with their eyes) for the said food. Mohammed and his successors took very readily to captivity, so long as there was a constant supply of food proffered in their direction. Indeed, so quickly did they adapt that it was soon possible to induce a kind of hypnotic trance by scratching them just above the beak. The eyes would close and the wee things seemed to descend into a state of ecstasy.

Experiences with two orphaned fox cubs tell another story. One arrived here with its eyes still closed and as we were the first living creatures it had encountered when its eyes opened, it never subsequently showed anything resembling fear and indeed was always happy to eyeball us without hesitation or fear, fully comfortable in our presence. Later, another young cub arrived. This was an animal probably found without being lost and taken ‘into custody’ by a well-meaning family who soon discovered it was no easy task to rear such an animal. It ended up as companion to the by now very well adjusted cub. Very much to the point this cub always looked wary and even though she would take food from the hand, her eyes always told me that we were never fully trusted. They were full of apprehension and even fear.

Several raptors have passed through my hands and surprisingly I have found very few traces of hatred crossing their eyes. Kestrels, with their dark eyes, always seem to convey a surprising degree of trust and little in the way of hostility, especially if they are given a constant supply of food! Sparrow hawks on the other hand, whilst in my experience always prone to the odd baleful glare, whilst never reflecting anything other than distaste at being placed in such a compromising position, providing they are well fed, seem to adjust reasonably well, albeit with their eyes always betraying feelings of latent aggression. However, I have handled a couple of short eared owls. Their eyes always seem to look straight through you. They burn!

All of which posed a question in my mind. Which pair of eyes have I found the most threatening, the tiger apart? I would probably opt for the green eyes of a cormorant which having collided with my car, was briefly comatose but which very soon came back to life. Those piercing green eyes were full of menace; it’s demeanour definitely unnerving and full of ‘evil belligerence’ and I took the precaution of maintaining a grip of the bird’s neck and keeping it at arm’s length. Clearly, once it came round, it was full of aggression and the lethal looking hooked beak was well worth avoiding!

But there is one bird with which I’ve had many a close encounter, which in my opinion, outdoes all others when it comes to the unblinking stare. Its large black and yellow eyes look right through you. One icy winter’s evening I found myself looking after a heron which had so damaged its long beak, presumably on the ice, that only one outcome was possible. The bird had to be put down, Again, when I handled it, despite that shattered beak, there was enough of it left to be very wary indeed. As with the cormorant I kept it at arm’s length, not wanting to be stabbed by what unsurprisingly, was a bird which definitely did not want to be where it was.

But I’ve had plenty of encounters with herons in the wild. Once, while watching wildfowl from the cover of some rushes, I found myself face to face with a heron which was stalking through the same rushes. I don’t know which of us was the more surprised but the heron didn’t hang about. It emitted a loud ‘quark’ and leapt into the air before flying away to another fishing beat. I’ve had many close encounters with herons and always I am struck by the by its fearsome, unblinking, penetrating stare. Of course, it is that stare that earns them a living. Somehow, herons, I understand, manage to cancel out refraction when they are seeking fish, so once those eyes are fixed, the denouement quickly follows with a lightning strike. But the eyes most certainly have it!

Country View 13.5.15

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The old ewe looked decidedly sickly. The farmer wondered if she would survive the night. She didn’t! As a new day’s light permeated and lit up the landscape, a scene of some devastation was revealed. The ewe had in all probability, simply faded away during the hours of darkness. I know of no creatures that are more susceptible to diseases of uncountable number, than sheep! But the late lamented ewe was not lying in a huddle; wool, bones and bloody remains were scattered all around. “Fox”, said the farmer. More like foxes, I thought.
 
Public enemy number one is an exceedingly resourceful animal. The cubs, by now probably two months old, are precocious in the extreme. Not for them languishing in their underground earth for weeks and weeks on end. They want to be up and about as soon as they are able. I have always thought that fox cubs comfortably outdo cats in the curiosity stakes. They want to learn …. quickly! I suppose that is why foxes are such great survivors. Despite the relentless hand of man being set constantly against them; despite the use of terriers, guns and snares … and, sad to say on rare occasions, the indiscriminate use of poisons against them, fox populations in the UK continue to grow.
 
Of course, the explosion of fox numbers in urban and suburban areas, where, perhaps, the hand of man is not quite as universally set against them, undoubtedly boosts this continuing expansion, yet everywhere, in spite of continual persecution, their progress it seems, cannot be halted. They are survivors supreme. But back to the scattered remains of the old ewe. The possibility that the devastation was caused by a single opportunistic fox, didn’t quite seem to fit. The scattering of her remains seemed too extensive. That posed the question as to whether this might have been the work of a vixen and her brood. It is perhaps, early days, even for fox cubs to be trailing around with their mother. Yet, as I have said, fox cubs are precocious in the extreme.
 
Thinking of this precocity, I found myself considering a comparison between fox and badger cubs. My mind drifted back to a May evening, quite a number of years ago, when I was witness to the emergence for the very first time in their young lives, of a family of badger cubs. Badger cubs, as I frequently discovered, are, once they become accustomed to the great outdoors, extremely boisterous, playing with the same degree of energy and enthusiasm as the seemingly more adventurous fox cubs. Yet they begin their lives extremely covertly. Fox cubs can’t wait to get out of the darkness of their den and begin their explorations of their immediate surroundings.
 
But badger cubs are considerably less ambitious. They are born into an underworld of utter darkness and for the first two months of their lives, that’s where they remain, tucked up safely in their sett, utterly unconscious of the wide, wide world out there. Indeed, whereas fox cubs cannot wait to get out into daylight and when they do, almost explode on their immediate environs, badger cubs are initially cautious in the extreme. Witnessing, those years ago, the first venture into the outside world of a family of cubs, I was struck by their reticence, their shyness and reluctance to expose themselves.
 
They were of course, preceded by their mother, the sow, who in customary fashion poked her nose out to check for alien scents, before emerging to give herself a thorough scratch, followed by a little casual explorations around her front door. But, before long, she was at the sett entrance, gently whickering. This was her initial attempt to encourage her cubs to join her. It took some time. At last, she backed off a step or two and there at the dark entrance, was a little black and white face. I presumed that this was the first time this first cub had need to use its eyes – a totally new experience for it I guess – a vital first use of an important sensory organ. Not that the eyesight of badgers’ is anything to write home about. Sense of smell and the hearing are its most important sensory tools in the badger’s armoury.
 
Badgers have throughout history, always had a rough ride. Perhaps that is why they are such nocturnal creatures. Perhaps that is also why the badger cubs delay their emergence into the big wide world until, as it were, the last minute. Long ago, badgers were hunted as vermin. That soubriquet takes a long time to die. Years ago, I watched the badgers in a sett I could, in five minutes, walk to. At times I became so enthused that my visits to that sett were during periods of intense activity, nightly. I got to know those badgers pretty well!
 
Less than eighty metres from that woodland edge sett, stands a cottage. In it dwelt an octogenarian, a man who had been born in that same cottage and thus been its resident for his entire life. Despite his proximity to the sett, he had, during his eighty odd years, never laid eyes on a badger. I wouldn’t have been surprised if on occasion the brocks visited the old man’s garden. He confessed to knowing not a thing about badgers, yet he freely referred to them as vermin. Old saws never seem to die!
 
Today’s attitude to badgers is different. Once it was realised that these were omnivorous creatures, mostly feeding on a diet of worms and other invertebrates and not the ravening hunters of game, previously thought, they more or less, came off  the ’hit list’. Of course, there is the highly controversial and in my mind the ludicrous, badly judged cull of badgers in South West England because of their association with bovine TB. Happily Scotland is declared a’ bovine TB – free zone.
 
Yet, the pressure remains on badgers here. I hear that incidences of badger baiting are on the increase in Scotland, so the manic fringe continues to exist! I can think of nothing more barbaric. It is of course immensely cruel to the targeted badgers and equally cruel to the dogs these pathetic criminals use. In spite of the horrendous fact that before the dogs are loosed on the badger, the creature is beaten and its jaw broken to make it a much less formidable opponent for the dogs. Personally, I would throw the book at the perpetrators of this evil practice. I would happily consign such people to a lifetime of perpetual darkness. They are, in my opinion, not even fit to be regarded as members of the human race!

Country View 6.5.15

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The trouble with hospital beds is that you wouldn’t expect to see much in the way of wildlife so it was a pleasant surprise to find myself stationed on the third floor, looking out over a forest. In the foreground it is glowing yellow, thanks to a nice, large area of gorse, whilst beyond are larches and further in still, the much darker spruces. That there is constant movement is evidenced by the wheeling blades of three wind turbines, not, as regular readers will know, amongst my favourite objects!
 
There is movement somewhat closer. Newly arrived swallows and martins fly sorties upwards, indicating I suppose, that the weather is such that the insects so necessary at this critical time of the year, are beginning to emerge big time. I must admit the sight of these my favourite birds, provided me with something of a tonic. And there were others. Because we are situated near the river where it is very tidal, there are plenty of what are universally called seagulls.
 
Most of them are black backed gulls, birds, which in the past forty years have undergone a complete change in habit. I recall that most, if not all black backed gulls, emigrated for the winter months, drifting southwards to the West Coast of Africa. Their nesting habits have also changed in that where once they bred in relatively high number – their eggs were much prized by some folk – they no longer build their nests and rear young in that area at all.
 
In recent years, black backed gulls have become entirely sedentary, abandoning their previous migration plans altogether. They seem too, to have gone forth and multiplied with something of a vengeance. However, the population explosion seems to have been universal among gulls. Many of our towns situated on the coast especially, have a considerable problem with the gatherings of gulls some of which perhaps, should issued with Asbos ! Some of them are so bold as to sweep down from the sky and help themselves to the likes of fish suppers, snatching them from the hands of those eating them.
 
But of course, gulls are by nature, opportunists. I often wonder what is running through the minds of the gulls, which seem to spend their time drifting aimlessly in the sky, from time to time, putting on the glitz and demonstrating their truly amazing flying skills. I have frequently stopped to watch gulls, on a stormy day put on shows of their skills, mocking the wind and waves in equal measure, dipping so that their wings almost seem to cleave the waves, ducking and diving as to the manner born.
 
Yes, I do believe that to gulls, flying is not just a talent that enables them to survive. It is in my view, impossible not to believe that they can and do get great enjoyment from these cavalier bouts of what can only be described as play with a touch of showing off thrown in cannot be anything other than enjoyable.Yet, being the opportunists they are, my suspicion is that they also, while performing their amazing gyrations, have one eye always open for business. And that business is scavenging for that is how gulls survive. It is also probably the reason that those black backs decided to stop migrating. And that s entirely our fault. We produce so much waste, much of it edible, that they began to feel it was unnecessary to travel a few thousand miles in order to survive the northern winter. Stay here and there’s plenty to eat!
 
The nearby forest revealed another secret. Despite the fact that it is a forest, along one side of which runs a motorway slip road, with the motorway the perimeter on the other side, late one evening as the sunset’s low shadows stretched across the part of the forest that has been clear felled, I spotted a movement, that of a roe doe.
 
It isn’t at all surprising of course to find roe living in such proximity to motorways, or indeed close to human settlement. On the fringes of some our major cities, roe are commonplace and in many cases, they have infiltrated virtually to the very centres. Cemeteries and parks are naturally an attraction, much I’m sure, to the consternation of those whose job is to tend such places. Roe incidentally, seem to have a craving for roses!
 
So, you may well find that there is something stirring in a wood near you. This is the critical time for roe for it is during this month that most of the does drop their kids. And of course, unlike their much larger cousins the red deer, roe more often than not, have multiple births. Twins are the norm but triplets, far from unusual. Furthermore the doe separates her young as a matter of security. So it will be number of weeks before twin will meet fellow twin and triplet, triplet.
 
One thing is utterly crucial. Should you accidentally come across a roe kid during a woodland walk, the one thin you must resist, is the stroke the wee animal. Roe kids are not programmed to run away if discovered. Instead, their instinct is to ‘freeze’. However, anyone even merely touching a kid, is I’m afraid literally condemning the creature to death. No scent is more alien to roe does than that of man and even a trace will cause her to abandon the kid which of course, is unable to fend for itself. Roe are our smallest native deer although some estates up and down the country, in their wisdom decided to introduce the likes of muntjac, the origins of which are in the Far East. Accordingly these alien deer have made themselves very much at home here. They breed freely and are thought to have reached the South of Scotland.
 
But this is the time of the roe. Does drop their kids but meanwhile roebuck are not in a paternal frame of mind. Instead, they are full of fire and brimstone for curiously, just as the new generation is coming into the world, their father is by now thinking ahead to the next generation and with a fire burning inside, intent on expelling any other male from his territory.

Country View 29.4.15

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They are the promise of summer. So why, one wonders, have they and we, been peppered by hailstones, sleet and even snow in the past few days? The hirundines, as they are officially known – swallows and martins – may bring us the flavour of a summer but it may well have come as a shock to their systems to find themselves confronted by winds which clearly have their origins near the North Pole! Swallows and martins are sunshine birds and indeed most of them are arriving here from the pleasantness of South Africa, where they have wintered in what we might describe, as luxury!

Perhaps it is the more intrepid among them that have already made it to their destinations here but I’m sure with the weather as it is those early arrivals, may struggle for food. Both swallows and martins of course, are essentially insect eaters and as their quite remarkable aerobatic show us, most, if not all, are caught on the air. The trouble is that dropping temperatures will seriously reduce the number of insects emerging.

And whilst the vanguard has got here, the bulk of migrants heading our way may, this week, have pressed the pause button and delayed further flight north to feed on the plentiful insect life in places like southern France. Generations of them have probably been following their instincts to fly north at this time of the year literally for thousands of years. The first summer migrants, amongst which I presume swallows and martins were a part, followed the ice as it retreat northwards at the end of the last Great Ice Age. They might well think another Ice Age is on the way!

But these, above any of the vast hordes of birds which annually cross mountain ranges, oceans and deserts to get here, to mention but a few of the hazards they may encounter, are nevertheless utterly symbolic of the summer months which hopefully lie ahead of us. No summer’s day is quite complete without the joy de vivre, the sheer magnificence of their fast flight the fantastic pace of everything they do. Swallows are of course, much the most athletic, swooping and soaring, dashing and darting in their constant quest for that insect food, even if martins too are dynamic flyers.

I watched a newly arrived swallow the other day as it battled skilfully with a stiff breeze to keep itself on target for whatever insect life it could see. Of course, I couldn’t see any! Alright, I could have gone to ………! Yet at times, flying at considerable speed, it kept altering its course and presumably found enough food to keep it on patrol. Martins of course, are versatile flyers, not perhaps displaying quite the panache of swallows but nevertheless cutting impressive swathes through our skies.

These were the birds which lit a fuse in a seven year old boy, more years ago than I care to remember. Plucked from the perceived danger of living in the suburbs of a city and safely ensconced in a country cottage at the beginning of hostilities in 1939, I discovered a new and for me a fascinating world. Outside my bedroom window, within touching distance, were dozens of house martin nests, all full of youngsters which of course, were kept going by a constant relay of dedicated parent birds. Everything was full of movement and sound, especially that curious mellow rattling as the parents approached before discharging their precious cargos of insects.

Even more thrilling was the presence of at least two swallow nests in one of the cottage outhouses. These too I watched intently as they zoomed in with their vital provender. So the martins I could watch from my bedroom, whereas I had to seek permission to watch the swallows. I think it was the athleticism of them all that first struck me, the sheer verve of their flight. But also the opportunity to watch nature in productive action at such close quarters, I considered to be a rare privilege.

And when such opportunities arise, I still do regard my observations as a privilege. One of the idiosyncrasies of swallow and martin life is that almost entirely; they nest on man-made structures, under the eaves in the case of martins and on beams and timber, sometimes these days, even on the metal structures of modern farm buildings. Incidentally, the ornithologists, perhaps appropriately, call the swallows ‘barn swallows. So, where did they nest before buildings were so universal? I guess most resorted to caves and crevices on cliffs or beneath cliff overhangs. Some, much the minority, still use such places.

And whilst we hail swallows and martins as the true heralds of summer, other cultures have, down through time, done much the same, When we say “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” we are merely repeating what people all over Europe say. Greek songs tell of the arrival of the first swallows. In many places the presence of nests is regarded as a good omen for that household, albeit that there is another side to that coin which tells us if swallows desert a nest and go and build elsewhere, bad luck is sure to follow!

Meanwhile, the martins, perceived perhaps of being rather less glamorous are actually known widely across Europe as swallows, often the ‘window swallow and frequently as the ‘house swallow’. However, they enjoy a more glamorous reputation, compared with their cousin sand martins. We are perhaps all guilty of placing these relatively dully coloured birds well down in third place in the hirundine clan. This slightly more anonymous bird is locally known as ‘the sandy swallow’. And indeed, because sand martins build their nests in sandy banks, burrowing into them, they are usually rather sandy looking.

If we don’t always notice sand martins, they are very much worth watching. If not perhaps quite   boasting the athleticism of their cousins, they are nonetheless, extremely capable flyers, catching their food in much the same way. They may be slightly less regular in their nesting, often using working sand pits as temporary homes. Luckily for them, most of those who work in such places regard their presence as a sign of good fortune!

Tradition of course, also regards these as special birds. Remember the old verse:

                                    The robin and the wren

                                    Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.

                                    The martin and the swallow

                                    Are God Almighty’s birds to hallow.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods