Weekly Nature Watch

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

Country View 2.1.15

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Proper winter at last arrived shortly after Christmas, with days of blue skies and sunshine, albeit that there was not much heat in evidence despite the brightness emanating from our life-giving star. Overnight, Jack Frost’s labours were there for all to see, with a thick rime of hoarfrost whitening the landscape and belatedly hinting therefore of that elusive and rare white Christmas. Underfoot the ground was rock hard and not surprisingly traffic around the bird-table has noticeably heightened. On the in-shore waters of the loch, thin skins of ice floated among the otherwise still waters, here and there breaking the glassy surface into irregular stripes and disrupting the otherwise upside down mirror-like reflections of the surrounding snow-capped hills and mountains. Pristine!

A solitary goldeneye paddled by, skirting past an apology for an ice flow before with a gentle plop, it arced under the waters in its search for morsels of invertebrate food. I mused on the likelihood that somewhere distant to the north or east of here, its homeland would inevitably be considerably less hospitable. In Arctic regions for instance, rather than thin skins of ice there are now probably thick slabs and no opportunity whatsoever to dive in search of food. That is why they come here in the first place of course, to escape the perma-frost that literally locks up all food sources for them.

The scattered wintering population of goldeneye are the relative few amongst the many, for in numbers at least, we are quietly inundated by considerable populations of winter migrating birds, seeking here in our Gulf Stream warmed islands, relief from the rigours of a winter they could not survive at home. In many ways, these winter visitors are relatively anonymous although the more obvious among them, such as the very vocal skeins of geese and the chattering classes of fieldfares and redwings, are always easy to identify. These Scandinavian thrushes seem unusually scarce this year. Have some of their wandering hordes by-passed us to travel beyond here to the south-western parts of the Continent I wonder? 

Among these temporary winter residents are woodcock, which depend on an ability to recover invertebrate food from deep underground which they probe for with their exceptionally long beaks. With the kind of below zero temperatures that are to be found in their more northerly homelands, the ground is clearly utterly unyielding and their only means of survival, like the goldeneye, is to up sticks and translocate. They say that ‘falls of woodcock’ occur along our eastern seaboard, often at All Hallows, when tradition tells us they all arrive as one. Other traditions claim that other migrating birds such as short-eared owls and goldcrests ‘pilot’ the woodcock here whilst even more unlikely is the old belief that woodcock migrate here from the moon!

The certainty is that once they get here, they disperse and indeed become even more anonymous than most of the other winter migrating birds. Few birds are quite as well camouflaged and so few are able to disappear before your very eyes in the manner of a woodcock when it settles among the fallen leaves of a woodland floor. And whilst native woodcock are well known for the ‘roding’ flight they perform at dusk on summer evenings, during which they croak and squeak, the immigrant winter birds remain demurely silent.

However on days such as these, when the frost effectively applies a kind of cement to the ground, life here suddenly becomes almost as difficult for them as it would in their native land. It is therefore in these conditions that we are more likely to see them and in particular, I frequently find them lurking beside roads, which have been treated with salt and grit. Happily for the woodcock, the roadside verges are also softened by the salt and provide a rare opportunity for the woodcock to explore them for invertebrate life when all other sources are sealed and impenetrable. However, such roadside sorties can put the birds at considerable risk from passing traffic. 

It was not passing traffic however that brought me into very close contact with a woodcock a day or two ago. A young neighbour turned up at my door with a bundle of feathers. It was a woodcock he had found, not near the road but instead in one of our local woods. Close examination revealed apparent problems with its beak, which implied that it had sustained some sort of impact. The upshot was that the bird seemed unable to eat. Whilst our concern was clearly for the welfare of the bird, its arrival provided a rare opportunity to examine the plumage which gives it such magnificent powers of obfuscation and at the same time better understand the physiology of the bird.

To those who enjoy field sports, woodcock are of course, among the most challenging of game birds with their fast and erratic flight pattern. This clearly is a bird that is very definitely hunted as opposed to a hunter, it eyes set literally on the side of its head to give it all round the compass vision, a feature which in tradition was taken to mean the bird to be unintelligent. Indeed in the past, the term woodcock was freely used as a description of someone thought to be a bit thick, the theory being there was little or no room for a brain between those wide set eyes! Sadly the woodcock, on close inspection, had sustained injuries to either its long beak or the tissues supporting it, which quickly proved fatal and. in the event, it really had no chance of survival.

The plumage of the woodcock is of course, especially delicately patterned, hence the remarkable ability to merge with its background. Significantly, the plumage of male and female is indistinguishable, whereas the male and female, drake and duck, of the goldeneye seen on the loch differs markedly. Indeed, the difference between the drake and its potential mate is considerable. The male is striking with its apparent black and white plumage, which on closer inspection is not quite as monochrome as it may appear. In fact, although his white body plumage at the bird’s waterline is indeed unmistakable, his head is really a dark, bottle green. Notably prominent is the white cheek spot, set on the side of what is a particularly blocky head and again closer inspection reveals the feature that gives the bird its name, the golden eyes. The female shares this feature as well as the blocky profile but otherwise she is very different with her russet head and wing-tips and grey body.

Already, preliminary courtship is being practised by the scattering of goldeneye which have chosen the local loch as their winter playground, with the drakes throwing their heads back and scrabbling away at the water with their feet. Such activity may seem somewhat premature at this moment in time, as it will be some months before these birds return to their northern breeding grounds. Yet with the slowly increasing hours of daylight, the day will eventually come when these wintering visitors are impelled by an urge to return to their native heaths, the goldeneye to its lonely northern forests and the unseen woodcock … to the moon?

Country View 18.12.14

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It is of course, that time of the year again, with vast amounts of energy being directed towards brightening up, homes, streets and shops with a variety of lighting shows only previously imaginable in a resort like Blackpool but now very much a part of the digital Christmas! And yet, at the heart of the festivities still, are the legions of greeting cards. They come tumbling through our letter-boxes and enable us to stay in contact with friends and relatives from whom we are perhaps distanced, in a way that somehow, electronic e-mails and other forms of ‘social media’ fail to fully achieve.

Times inevitably change, to which end I heard an interminable discussion on radio a few days ago about Christmas presents for children and was horrified to hear one contributor say that she did not intend to buy her little girl dolls as they were ‘a thing of the past’. ‘On line games that bring out the creative side of my child’, she continued, ‘are far more suitable and, of course, ‘up to date’!!’ What a shame!

I am perhaps, old fashioned but I remain convinced that our fast moving society scarcely gives children a chance to be children; more are they encouraged to become young adults … long before their time! I do recognise that the overwhelming advance of electronic and digital technology has changed not just the adult world but the world of children too. Frighteningly, most children of a remarkably young age take to the mastering of such technology as to the manner born, leaving me utterly bewildered – and not just by their grasp of such things but by my own frailties! Today’s children have I suppose, come into a world in which these are now the day to day accoutrements of modern life!

And thank goodness, there is still Santa! The image of a remarkable philanthropist, sometimes referred to as St Nicholas, dishing out gifts to the poor, is thankfully still with us. Traditions vaguely tell us he dwelt sometime in the past and, clad in his fur trimmed, red suit, charged across the world in a magical sleigh drawn by that galloping herd of reindeer – Dasher, Dancer et al, not forgetting the recent addition of Rudolph! Thankfully he still remains one of the key images in our Christmas.

However, apparently some of the reindeer brought here from Scandinavia to add that touch of ‘reality’ to the Christmas-tide image, do not necessarily enjoy their stay here! Conditions are apparently not really right for them. Whilst it is thought that reindeer were once native to these shores, their last recorded appearance, excepting the small herd introduced to the Cairngorms back in the 1950s, may have been as long ago as the twelfth century. Indeed it may well have been even further back in our history!

Reindeer are in reality, creatures of northerly latitudes, their consumption of lichens being of particular importance to them and made possible by the presence in their ruminant digestive system of an enzyme which converts the lichens into glucose. Whilst they also consume the leaves of birch and willow and some sedges and grasses, I was interested to hear that the owners of the herd in the Cairngorms are presently planting trees to encourage the presence of more lichens. 

There are from that time long ago in the twelfth century, legends, which tell us that herds of reindeer were enthusiastically pursued and hunted by the Earl of Orkney in the wilds of Caithness. However, there is real uncertainty as to whether the quarries of the galloping earl, were in fact reindeer. Some suggest they instead pursued red deer, for there is little evidence of reindeer even being resident in these islands at that time. Furthermore, having personally encountered the reindeer herd in the Cairngorms and having gained some knowledge of the activities of the Laplanders, it seems to me that reindeer, docile creatures very easily domesticated, would not really offer sufficient or appropriate challenges to proper, red blooded huntsmen!

However, down in deepest Staffordshire, there is I believe, an ancient custom enacted every September. A ‘horn dance’, performed by members of a group brandishing reindeer horns in mock battle, accompanied by two musicians is at the heart of this apparently ancient rite. Indeed, it is said to commemorate reindeer hunting in that part of England. Legends of course, can have a tendency to become slightly distorted as the years pass, yet I like to believe that at the heart of such traditions, is at least a grain of truth.

Even in our technological world, there are still folks who follow travelling herds of reindeer across the frozen northlands of Russia and Scandinavia and indeed eke out something of a living from them. Such herds are to be found in Greenland, in Russia and in Norway. Strict regulations in those countries give the deer some protection against wide-scale slaughter but famously Laplanders fashion some sort of living by selling skins and meat. Historically, threads made from the tough sinews of these animals, were used to sew boots together and were even used in the construction of ancient canoes. The fact that this tendon material apparently swells when immersed in water would make them especially useful in the making of watertight canoes.

North America is famous for its wandering herds of caribou, which are of course the self-same animals. Those far travelling deer are inextricably linked with wolves, packs of which follow the herds and of course, feed well off them. Some of course, advocate the return of the wolf to these shores. I do not believe the re-introduction of some animals formerly resident here, such as reindeer or indeed beavers is in any way counter productive. However, I’m not at all sure that the involuntary re-introduction of wild boar, which is happening on a surprisingly large scale and pretty universally across the UK, including locally, is necessarily a good idea. I certainly don’t believe that there is a legitimate argument for bringing the wolf back to islands, which it is increasingly being said by some, to be currently becoming overcrowded, especially by human migrants!

More universally welcome, will be very different immigrants, arriving a few nights hence. Santa and his merry band of sleigh pulling reindeer will next week, come charging about our chimney tops, bringing gifts and smiles to all, especially the children. Of course, ironically, it is a spectacle we’ll all fail to see! Meanwhile, much more visible, there may be other intriguing sights for us to see should we be visited by some of our more exotic avian migrants. Like Santa and the reindeer, waxwings too come from the far north. Let’s hope between them, they bring us all a Happy Christmas!

Country View 27.11.14

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The sight of television pictures of our American friends on the other side of what is euphemistically known as ‘the pond’ alias the North Atlantic, digging themselves out of eight-foot snow-drifts, came as a stark reminder that we in the Northern Hemisphere are now indubitably in winter mode. There were further reminders of that very basic fact of life, at the weekend. At last, temperatures took a sudden tumble, shaking us out of the apathy that has probably seized us all with roses still threatening to burst into flower and November thus far, offering a very gentle introduction to the winter season.

A glance at the Ben the other morning revealed a cloud cap covering its shapely summit. I have a notion that it won’t be long before that cloud cap is replaced by a rather less ethereal dusting – the first snows of the winter - for snow is sure to become a familiar decoration on the Highland’s higher peaks before very long. So, if we needed a reminder that days are indeed palpably getting noticeably shorter and that winter’s advance is inevitable, as so often is the case, America’s shivering may well be replicated here ‘ere long. 

The brief sighting of a stoat taking its life in its paws and flying across the road in front of me in a blur of fast moving legs and a veritable streak of reddish brown and cream, reminded me that here is a creature that uses obfuscation during the winter months, in an almost unique way. Like mountain hares and those high-flying members of the grouse family, ptarmigan, stoats, or at least some of them, change their brown and cream coats for white during the winter months. However, influenced by the phenomenon that is global warming, fewer of them are making that drastic change, especially among populations based in Lowland Britain.

In the case of mountain hares and ptarmigan I guess such a radical change is quite easy to understand as both are inclined to dwell in those higher places, where snow is likely to lie for much of the winter. Before science took an interest in such matters, it was widely believed that stoats effected such a change by literally eating snow! Now we are told, apparently on very good authority, that the shortening of daylight hours and to a limited degree, lowering temperatures, trigger this change. In other words, as we might expect, it is not self-induced! The clear advantage for ptarmigan, hares and stoats alike, is that by turning white they are given that extra key element of camouflage in snowy conditions. As is dutifully recorded, the tips of the mountain hare’s ears remain black when the rest of its body turns white as does, more famously perhaps, the tip of the stoat’s tail.

As students of the aristocracy and our judicial system will know, ermine, as the fur of winter white stoats is known, is a much-prized fur with which to decorate the robes of nobles and judges. The white fur of such robes is of course splashed by black spots, which I understand, are derived from those black tail tips! So, their noble lords are adorned with the fur of a very special little animal, for which presumably, the final sacrifice is involuntarily made!

Ptarmigan of course, go through four phases of plumage change each and every year, as befitting a creature, which is virtually exclusively a resident of the extremely high places, seldom seen at altitudes of less than two thousand feet. Their plumage changes with the seasons so that they may remain as anonymous as possible at all times of the year, a key element in their struggle for survival in landscapes frequently haunted by patrolling eagles. Mountain hares however, are little more ambiguous and in terms of range perhaps, a tad more ambitious.

Indeed, a good few years ago, I was startled, one winter’s day, to put up such an animal whilst walking across a nearby moss – a wilderness in many ways as wild as any mountain top but located at or around sea level! In that case, the advantage of turning white had been turned on its head for in its brilliant white coat, it stood out like a sore thumb in that soggy, green wilderness! This Lowland dwelling colony of mountain hares may seem to be particularly incongruous in an area where the snow seldom lies and their origins there seem to be something of a mystery. They may perhaps have been introduced to this marshy landscape although equally, they may somehow have found their way on to its heather strewn acres quite naturally, albeit that as far as I know, they have now disappeared from these Lowland acres altogether.

I observe that my sightings of stoats and their smaller cousins, weasels, have become increasingly rare, not quite surprisingly perhaps, for they have long been classified by gamekeepers as ‘vermin’ and as such are therefore shown little or no mercy, often shot on sight. Yet, fluctuations in populations of animals usually have an underlying cause. I have also noted in many places now, where once they were prevalent, the likes of kestrels and short-eared owls are now also extremely scarce.

I am therefore led to the conclusion that populations of small mammals, upon which not only stoats but owls and kestrels too rely, are in decline. There have been mutterings about the possible toxicity of modern seed dressings and as many rodents are eager consumers of seeds, they must naturally be very vulnerable to such contamination. However, in the case of stoats, the disappearance from this and many other areas, of rabbits may also have had a considerable effect. Stoats are renowned for their ruthless pursuit and slaughter of rabbits and theirs is a story therefore, that always tells of David overcoming Goliath!

If the effects of global warming are manifesting themselves through fewer stoats becoming ermine then the same can perhaps be said of the mountain or blue hare. I well remember seeing in this airt on a single day, an all-white stoat, a piebald animal and one with no vestiges of white fur at all. Mountain hares too vary to such an extent that once upon a time it was firmly believed that the British landscape supported three kinds of hare, the brown hare, the slightly smaller mountain hare and the ‘variable’ hare. The latter might of course, be likened to the aforementioned piebald stoat, an animal which had apparently stopped its transition halfway between its ‘blue’ summer coat and its new winter white pelage.

Perhaps, as our world gets progressively warmer, the ‘variable’ hare is about to make a re-appearance? 

Country View 19.11.14

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Conditions remain remarkably benign despite a distinctly autumnal feel to the weather and rolling banks of grey mist, which seem to roam this landscape like some giant predator intent on consuming everything in its path. From time to time, it rolls in to obliterate completely our contact with the surrounding landscape. Suddenly we are submerged, utterly enveloped by its cloying presence. The skeletal trees now become indistinct shadows before disappearing altogether as this creeping monster gorges itself, swallowing all but the closest remnants of familiar landmarks. But then, it moves on, silently drifting towards other surrounding landscapes, suddenly allowing the sun at last to briefly illuminate the wonderful autumn colours that make this the golden, ruddy season that it is. ‘Season of mists … indeed!

The muffling silence that comes with these wandering clouds, is broken as evening creeps across the landscape and great hordes of pink-footed geese rise from the vapours. At first there is no sight of such a spectacle, just the sound. It is reminiscent of a crowd in a distant football stadium, the cacophony of their collective voices rising steadily, as if their team is advancing on an opponent’s goal. At first, they shriek unseen but the sound advances until slowly they are revealed, their long, straggling skeins at last briefly materialising, as they fly directly overhead, before disappearing again into the ether. They must have scored (!) for in that moment, the full force of their voices is heard before, as they de-materialise, their gabbling becoming muffled as the mist reclaims them! And they are gone. Silence descends again.

It is perhaps these changing moods that add to the mystique of our autumn and I sometimes ponder, cause the frustrations that such obliteration brings. I know the colours out there are magnificent, yet the vision of them is denied as we are from time to time thus blind-folded, if only temporarily. There have been hints that Jack Frost is lurking close by yet the traffic, such as it is, at my bird feeders, tells it’s own tale. It is utterly dominated by the speugs. A few chaffinches potter and an occasional great or bluetit picks away at the nuts whereas in the main the sparrows swarm all over everything! Only during the last few days has there been a little flurry of goldfinch activity on the niger seed dispensers, and sometimes the nuts, so presumably the autumnal bonanza of seeds in the landscape is at last diminishing. Yet clearly there is as yet, plenty of natural food out there

In recent years I have certainly seen the local goldfinch population flourish. I have grown particularly fond of them for their little red faces and the flashes of gold and yellow on their wings, certainly brings those extra element of colour to proceedings on winter days when darkness or those creeping mists turn landscape colours into a kind of monochrome. And they are feisty little birds, often raucously arguing with each other over seats at ‘the table’; their rasping arguments a stark contrast to their otherwise sweet voices. In better moods their whispering conversations literally charm. Someone once described it as being reminiscent of the muted sound of Chinese bells. However, goldfinches in full voice, are of course, recognised as being amongst the sweetest choristers in our gardens. Collectively they are appropriately known as ‘charms of goldfinches’.

Indeed in days long gone, such was the attraction of goldfinches that millions of them were forced into captivity during that period in our history in the second half of the nineteenth century when Queen Victoria was on the throne. They were perceived to be good to look at with their red faces and golden barred wings as well as being very good to listen to. Catching and keeping cage birds was then a very popular pastime in many parts of the country before thankfully, the cruelty of such practices was at last recognised and legislation introduced to prevent it. At its height however, those millions of birds, with goldfinches among the most desired, were robbed of their freedom and forced to spend their entire lives in miserable little cages.

So popular was this pastime that considerable sums of money were wagered on captive birds that could really sing. It was common practice for bird fanciers to gather, most notably is some of the city drinking dens, in order to engage in competitions between rival birds. Worse still was a belief among some that their birds would sing sweeter if they had been blinded! 

I have often pondered on the strange dichotomies of Victorian life. There was palpably, a great surge in interest in all things natural, as expressed in both art and poetry, as well as in a veritable proliferation of serious literature on natural history, yet there was also a rise in the level of cruelty caused for instance, by the cage-bird collectors. And, curiously enough there was also a desire among the more affluent, to decorate their homes with dead birds and animals, suitably mounted of course and arrayed in glass cases! Such was the popularity of these accoutrements to Victorian life that there were those who made a good living out of killing such specimens. Thus perished for example, the last pair of breeding ospreys in Scotland early in the twentieth century.

I cannot tell if goldfinches were ever displayed in this way. They were on the other hand, a strong presence in devotional art, appearing in many paintings for instance, of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, especially those painted by French and Italian artists. They are always a collective presence, for goldfinches are extremely sociable birds, which seem to enjoy each other’s company. Their passage across the autumn landscape is always in unison, their little flocks characteristically progressing in undulating togetherness as they travel from one feeding station to another, their murmuring conversations always a charming accompaniment.

Their agility too is well documented as they swing athletically on the likes of thistles and nettles to carefully tweak out the precious, nourishing seeds. If there were avian ball games, goldfinches would, I am sure, be particularly adept at them for one of the sadder and more cruel aspects of the lives of those caged goud spinks, was the placement of water in a little container lowered on a string. To drink therefore, the poor birds had to demonstrate their foot to eye co-ordination by hauling the containers up when they wanted a drink! So how much more rewarding is it to watch them as they freely come and go to enjoy offerings of niger seed! And furthermore they are colourful enough to embellish even the most colourful of autumn days. 

Country View 11.11.14

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Many of our winter visitors slip in to this country beneath the radar and remain relatively anonymous most of the time. Many of them come to our eastern seaboard from the other side of the North Sea without much fuss; the likes of woodcock, goldcrests and short-eared owls apparently integrating with indigenous birds seamlessly, their presence largely passing without recognition by sight or sound. A few are more vocal, such as the ravening hordes of fieldfares and redwings which, like their human Viking predecessors, descend upon our landscape in droves. They arrive in a flurry on our fields with collective vigour and hungry ambition, stripping what remains of the berry crop, seeking out invertebrate life and putting themselves about in fast moving, straggling, noisy flocks, their rattling, harsh chacking always evident.

Most of our wintering geese have now arrived together with their new families, having departed the frozen north to add their clamour to the morning rush hour here. On recent mornings, there have indeed been great swirling masses of them rising noisily from the fields when disturbed before re-locating en masse. They re-connect again as dusk falls and they return to their watery night-time roost. It is a breathtaking sound when several thousand of them take to the air together. The massed ranks of pink-feet are unmistakable; their shrill gabbling filling the air, the sound of their restless passage now significant enough to drown out the more sonorous cackling of the resident and lumbering skeins of Canada geese. The massed ranks of pink-feet definitely bring echoes of the Arctic with them, if thankfully, not the temperatures … not yet anyway!

But now, sailing in more serenely and graciously, come the swans, completing their remarkable journey from Iceland. These are what I like to call, the true wild swans, whooper swans, slightly smaller, lighter and more athletic than the more familiar ‘tamer’ mute swans which are of course rather more sedentary by nature. The whoopers, when they arrive, seem to bring that extra dimension of sophistication with their stately passage when in flight. They somehow also create an atmosphere of serenity when sailing across our lochs and the softer fluting of their voices, offer a stark contrast with the coarser gabbling of the geese. Unlike the mute swans, whoopers when spending time on water, or indeed land, generally hold their long necks erect. Thus they may in some respects resemble flotillas of tall ships.

Among these immigrant swans of course are this year’s crop of youngsters. Their start to life is challenging in the extreme for at just a matter of a few months old, they are required to undertake a non-stop flight from Iceland, of some eight hundred miles across the wild North Atlantic to reach their winter quarters. Furthermore, to add considerably to that challenge, they may be led to astonishing altitudes during that long flight, for if hostile weather systems are encountered, they may find themselves being guided by the senior birds to heights approaching thirty thousand feet to over-fly them. In such elevated conditions they will be encountering temperatures of maybe minus 50 degrees at altitudes where oxygen is indeed a rare commodity!

Our ancestors were generally more influenced by ancient myths, legends and superstitions than present generations. Today we are perhaps, more inclined to subscribe to the febrile world of technology (much of it I’m afraid still a complete mystery to me!). Yet, wild swans have always had a very special place in folklore and legend, which may be so deep-seated that some suggest it could go back to Bronze Age times, several thousand years ago. Ireland, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the source of many of the more colourful legends but we may go back to the world of the Ancient Greeks to discover that wild swans drew Apollo’s sky-bound chariot, when he travelled north. Indeed, we are told that Zeus conceived Apollo and his twin Artemis in the guise of a swan!

Irish folklore tells us of the daughter and two sons of the King who were turned into swans by their ‘wicked stepmother’ and sentenced to live for nine hundred years on the Waters of the Moyle! Are they still there? This legend also tells us that the swans sang so wonderfully that anyone who heard them fell under the spell of it and other birds would flock around them to listen. Another myth suggests that anyone hearing this song would fall into an enchanted slumber for three days and three nights. An interesting cure for insomniacs perhaps?

These stories also raise the curious legend of the swans which, again as legend has it, allegedly sing before death, tales that seem to have absolutely no substance in reality. Yet such stories have been recounted since the time of those legendary Greeks. However, there have certainly been times when whooper swans have serenaded me early on winter mornings. There was a time when there was here a kind of ‘rush hour’, the first morning travellers being ranks and ranks of rooks and jackdaws, providing a raucous start to the day, quickly followed by skeins of geese their gabbling conversations only marginally less hoarse. The final contribution came from the swans, their lovely fluting voices, more soothing notes with which to start the day. 

The arrival of the whooper swans always seems to me to confirm the fact that we are now well and truly immersed in the winter months. They fly in almost as gigantic snow-flakes and leave us in no doubt that they are by nature, birds of the north. Indeed, Russia is home to many of them albeit that almost all our migrant whoopers come to us from Iceland. Their southward migration in the autumn takes Russian birds into Central Europe, whilst Icelandic birds head in our direction. Some have cottoned on to the fact that reserves such as Slimbridge in south west England where the very similar but slightly smaller Bewick’s swan are renowned arrivals, are good places to be due to the generous feeding they enjoy. 

However, whoopers generally remain true to their northern roots, preferring to station themselves in the more northerly parts of Scotland, Ireland and England during their winter sojourn here. During their stay they can sometimes be quite nomadic albeit that there are particular lochs to which they come on an annual basis. Their arrival on one such loch sent the resident mute cob into a real tizzy last year. On their arrival, he steamed off in hot pursuit intent it seemed on expelling them. On his arrival, the interlopers took off and flew to the other end of the loch. Whoopers take to the air much more easily and readily than mute swans, so he turned round to swim after them, seemingly in a real huff. Again on his arrival, they took off again and returned from whence they had come. He gave up! 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods