Weekly Nature Watch

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

Weekly Nature Watch 15th May 2020

on .

I have been marveling at the athleticism of various monkeys during the ‘Primates’ series on TV. The way in which they climb trees is astonishing. They seem at times to take their lives in their hands yet never appear to make fatal mistakes. I have been watching tree climbers here too, with woodpeckers well to the fore and scaling trees with utter dexterity, using their almost prehensile tails to steady themselves and their well clawed feet to rush up and down the trunks.

As previously reported, we have two families of great spotted woodpeckers visiting us on a regular basis, one of them resident locally in our orchard, the other presumably living in nearby woodland. When I first came here many years ago, the area was dominated by green woodpeckers, their yaffling cries – like someone or something laughing – was to be heard in every quarter. However, since the great spotted woodpeckers arrived, there has been no yaffling. I had heard before that great spotted woodpeckers were not tolerant of the green woodpeckers and the silence seemed to confirm that.

However, the other day, there it was, loud and clear, the yaffling call of a green woodpecker. I had been aware of their presence locally but this one was in a location where I have not heard a green woodpecker in many long years. Perhaps they are re-colonising this area? I’m sure that the great spotted woodpeckers may have something to say about that. Curiously enough, the green woodpecker spends rather less time in trees than you may think and spends a lot of its time on the ground because it is said that nearly ninety per cent of its main source of food is ants. Indeed, a green woodpecker, when it sets up its territory, will certainly have small or large anthills within that area.

The two woodpeckers share one thing – the colour of red. In addition to its black and white body plumage, the great spotted variety has a bright red rump and in the case of the male, a prominent red flash on the nape of the neck. The young great spotted woodpeckers – known as redcaps – have red crowns and so their name is indeed appropriate. However, the green woodpecker shares the red tint by also having a prominent red cap but otherwise, as their name implies, the remainder of their plumage is green.

I have been amused by the antics of the great spotted woodpeckers. The last batch of nuts that I bought are split nuts and therefore a few of them come through the wire on the basket and end up on the floor. However, the woodpeckers are not averse to picking up these fallen nuts and flying off with them. They take them up into one of the damson trees in the orchard where there is a special, chosen place for them to hammer away at them and break them down. But on other occasions the woodpeckers fly in low and attach themselves – somewhat abruptly - to the bird-table pole.  Always remaining upright, they then proceed to climb the pole and are as adept at going up as going down.

The nuts falling from the feeder has also resulted in a pair of carrion crows sneaking in and very cautiously exploiting this easy to reach source of food.  The caution displayed by crows and their awareness that they are not universally very popular means that they sidle in to snatch the nuts and then hop rapidly away with their prize. Once at what they consider to be a safer distance, they set about the nuts with gusto, holding them down with their feet and shattering them into many pieces which are then devoured.

Meanwhile near-neighbours are entertaining nuthatches, birds, which during the past few years have been progressing further and further north no doubt in some way influenced by global warming. Like woodpeckers, nuthatches are very much at home in trees and spend a good deal of their time travelling head first down trees, the only birds in the world that do this. They manage this curious behaviour by relying on their comparatively large, well clawed feet and generally manoeuvre them in such a way as to ensure that one foot is above the other, the upper foot as a pivot and the lower one as a support.

Frustratingly, I have only once played host to a nuthatch, despite the generous offerings on my bird-table but my neighbours now seem to have them as regular visitors. When they nest, nuthatches use holes in deciduous trees and plaster mud around the edge just leaving room for entrance and exit. The mud sets really hard and even woodpeckers with their powerful beaks find nuthatch nests hard to access in their search for food in the shape of hatchlings. The nuthatches also line their nests with the bark of conifers.

One bird that I often do see and which in habit, at least, partially mimics the nuthatch, is the minuscule treecreeper.  This is a little nondescript brown bird, often also known as a tree mouse, that, like the nuthatch, spends its life exploring the bark of trees for insects. However, unlike the nuthatch you will not see the treecreeper heading head first down the tree. Rather do they start at the bottom and work their way up, round and round the tree exploring every nook and cranny of the tree bark as they progress.

The woodpeckers have a clear advantage in this respect however. The great spotted variety has an exceptionally long tongue which protrudes something like an inch and a half beyond the end of its beak. Furthermore, it is almost prehensile in its ability to explore tiny nooks and crannies for insect life. However, the green woodpecker goes one better. Its tongue reaches even further – as much as four inches - so it is able to explore all sorts of nooks and crannies for concealed ants.

The other day, we also had a flurry of swallows which ducked and dived like dancing dervishes where we normally see our own swallows zooming. But they were here one day and gone the next, and although a single one has arrived and sits on the overhead wires uttering that confiding conversation that certainly helps to endear swallows to me, we still await our own tribe of these delightful birds. A reader recently asked whether swallows, which have been denied access to old nests, will instead build elsewhere. The answer is yes.

The nuthatches and indeed the greater spotted woodpeckers, are locating themselves progressively further north as the years pass and I wonder if we might expect to see egrets in the not too distant future as they are also moving more northerly. The world is slowly changing with new and different birds turning up but one thing is constant. Elsewhere, the swifts have turned up and the ’devil screamers’ are suddenly muscling themselves bullishly around the chimney tops.  As, the poet, Ted Hughes, once wrote,

“They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working,

the Creation’s still waking refreshed, our summer’s still to come.”

 

Weekly Nature Watch 8th May 2020

on .

Knock on wood! That is exactly what the male great spotted woodpecker has been doing and furthermore, it has paid off.

A female has now joined him. Regular readers will recall that his mate of the last few years was taken by a sparrowhawk last year but as spring has progressed, his constant hammering out of the message that he is available, has earned a response. I therefore expect that as the year continues, we will once again be entertained by redcaps – young woodpeckers.

Let us hope that a sparrowhawk does not intervene again. As previously explained, we are visited by two families of woodpeckers and I assume that the new female is the offspring of the other pair which do not reside here in the garden but which fly in from a nearby woodland where presumably they are domiciled. They have also been increasing their visits to the feeding delights we offer - fat balls and peanuts.

The knocking on wood is the woodpecker’s version of sweet music, a resonant message that is a pronouncement that he is available and that he is claiming a territory in my orchard. Indeed, his message is loud and clear, as clear as the vocal message pronounced by a very loud wren also in the orchard and the sweet sound of a willow warbler that has set up home there. The world is buzzing with declarations and invitations as the birds prepare themselves for another breeding season.

The same message emanates from the throat of a cuckoo. That comic ‘cuc-koo’ call may defy the description of a song but that is exactly what it is, as much as the loud message of the wren or the silvery cadence of the willow warbler or indeed the rat-a-tat message of the woodpecker. Cuckoos are one of those birds which are suffering a serious decline but May is their time in this part of the world. They have travelled from Central Africa, which is where they winter, usually arriving here as May is blooming.  However, one has broken all known records by flying from its distant wintering ground to somewhere in Suffolk in a matter of just seven days.

Normally it is calculated that a cuckoo takes between two and three weeks to make that journey but this one, having taking advantage of following winds, is now a record breaker, its progress logged as the result of a tag that was fitted to it last year. The route, which takes it through Liberia and the Ivory Coast, carried it a distance of 4,677 miles which, in this case, was an astonishing daily mileage of nearly 700 miles a day!

The poets regularly regarded the cuckoo as the harbinger of spring and there are countless verses romanticizing it. William Wordsworth, in particular, wrote many epic verses on the subject, for example:

                                                Darling of the Spring:

                                                No bird, but an invisible thing –

                                                A voice, a mystery.

And further -                           

The cuckoo’s sovereign cry

                                                Fills all the hollows of the sky.

And yet everyone knows the cuckoo to be something of a villain, laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and paying no heed whatsoever to the nurturing of its young. When compared with the utter dedication of other birds in the rearing of their young, the cuckoo surely does not deserve Wordsworth’s accolade of ‘darling’! Throughout Europe, over a hundred different species of bird have been found to have been host to cuckoo eggs. However, the choice is more limited in each country. In Britain for instance, the hosts are generally limited to reed warblers, meadow pipits – the commonest host in Scotland – the dunnock and the robin.

Furthermore, the female cuckoo, which of course makes the choice of nests in which to lay her eggs, generally seeks out the same species as she herself was reared by as a youngster. The male – he of the curious voice – has absolutely no say in the matter! Thus once she has established herself after that long migratory journey, she will explore her territory for the nests of the birds she will use as hosts for her own eggs, noting the progress of her would-be foster parents so that she can select the right time when to deposit a single egg in each nest of her choice.

The cuckoo egg hatches before those of the host and the young cuckoo instinctively begins a further ‘dastardly’ action in tipping out the eggs of the host bird. The young cuckoo manoeuvres the eggs on to its hollowed out back and tips them overboard. Even the chicks, that manage to hatch are also tipped out in the same way.

The cuckoo is something of a figure of hate to many small birds and they will often mob a cuckoo when it flies nearby, at which point the cuckoo takes advantage of the situation and lays her egg in the now vacant nest.  The cuckoo has a further distraction up its wing in that its egg resembles that of the chosen host bird. In addition, the young cuckoo, now the only youngster in the nest, accordingly gets all the food brought by the host parents and grows and grows – like Topsy! I have often seen the spectacle of a huge young cuckoo, being fed by a minuscule foster parent with the foster parent perching on the youngster’s back in order to stuff caterpillars into the open gape of the young cuckoo’s mouth!

I have a clear memory of watching a starling, its beak full of wriggling insect life, hurtling towards the nest full of its own young, being almost hypnotized by the sight of a young cuckoo with its beak gaping open. The interior of young birds’ mouths is brightly coloured in order to encourage the parents to keep pushing food into it. The cuckoo’s mouth is particularly garish and on this occasion the starling was so drawn by that gape that it diverted from its original course and stuffed the food into the mouth of the young cuckoo.

Therefore, cuckoos are, to many small birds, not unlike coronavirus is to we humans – a deadly threat! Due to the regulations which now exist due to the virus, many of the usual activities at this time of the year, such as travel, are absolutely off the agenda. Travel, however, is very much on the cuckoo’s agenda for as soon as their dastardly deeds are done, they simply turn round and begin their four and a half thousand-mile return journey to Central Africa.  They certainly don’t wait to see if their progeny, reared by others, survive because they’ll be gone by the end of July.  Indeed, very much not the darling birds referred to by Wordsworth!

 

Weeky Nature Watch 1st May 2020

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The merry month of May is upon us and thus is it bluebell time again with that lovely hue carpeting our woodlands and the heady scent that goes with it. Sadly, I’m afraid it is something under the current lockdown that only a few will be able to experience but in the Highlands years ago, May Day would have been a signal that strange things were about to happen, as described in the following verse:-

The brock and the toad and the yellow yorling

Tak’ a drap of the devil’s blood ilka May morning.

For reasons best known to older generations of Highlanders, this was a signal for the persecution of the yellowhammer - the yellow yorling of the verse, sometimes also known as the yellow yite. Boys were encouraged to harass yellowhammers, to raid their nests, steal or destroy the eggs and generally act aggressively towards them. No specific reason was given for this particular hate campaign but apparently in the north of Scotland it was an act carried out with some enthusiasm.

It might well have been a practice here also although in much more recent times, for the cheery ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ refrain, once to be heard from just about every hedgerow in this airt, has now fallen totally silent in many parts. I blame the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides for the demise of the yellowhammer and another official report backs up what I am saying with the information that the world’s insect population is thought to have reduced by a quarter during the past three decades. A fact which, at worst, is surely an early warning of some kind of disaster. The causes thought to be the reason for this dramatic reduction are, habitat loss, pesticides, disease and climate change.

Such news should really be the cause of some considerable concern and may well account for the fall in farmland bird numbers, many of them depending upon insects and the seeds of weeds for their survival. We have developed a wide range of chemical weapons which are now arraigned against a whole range of ‘pests’ including the weeds upon which many birds, including the yellowhammer, feed extensively. As we develop and subject the natural world to various brands of chemical warfare, I sometimes think that too often we don’t stop to consider the consequences of our actions - short, medium or long term.

The antipathy in the north towards yellowhammers may well have emanated from the crazy scribbling markings on the eggs of the birds, which it appears were thought by some to be supernatural. It was believed that the name of a future lover could be deciphered from the scribblings! I’m hopeful that plans to plant wild flowers - many of them regarded as weeds - in various parts of our local countryside will soon be in hand and hopefully that will result in us being able to hear that familiar little ditty once again.

 Meanwhile, a spell of very acceptably dry and warm weather at least provided some relief from the dreaded coronavirus story. I was able to spend some time in my garden being serenaded by a whole host of birds and it made me think of people who do not enjoy the availability of a garden, let alone one which is very definitely the spring residence of so many birds.

The arrival of swallows in the vicinity is a further step towards summer and on the same day that their presence was confirmed, came the familiar down-the-scale cadence of a willow warbler. Indeed, one has settled in my garden and so I am being serenaded by this minuscule bird every morning, afternoon and evening. At one time, he was repeating that silvery verse five or six times every minute but occasionally he paused, presumably to change his perch and to feed on the insect life that clearly exists in my orchard.

From time to time, his little song was virtually eliminated by an even tinier bird, a jenny wren, whose volley of 56 notes issued in just over 5 seconds excludes almost everything else. The decibel count goes up every time this tiny bird sings but also prominent was a blackbird in full flow. Not many voices are sweeter and every passage evoked a response from another merle perched some yards away in a hedgerow which was particularly mellifluous. There were also a dunnock issuing his rapid, high pitched offering, greenfinches wheezing away, the stuttering songs of chaffinches and a goldfinch offering particularly sweet bursts of music. The ‘tea-cher’, ‘tea-cher’ call of a great tit was loudly pronounced and bluetits, by comparison with the great tit,  buzzed relatively quietly.

All the time, as a background of avian chatter, there were inevitably the interventions of house sparrows – ever present in this garden and as argumentative as ever, A short burst of the ‘cuck-coo-coo’ of a collared dove was marginally less tuneful as were the raucous cawing of a crow and the chuckling of a magpie. However so far, I have yet to hear the offerings of thrushes and the local robins are surprisingly silent. I suspect the female is already sitting on a clutch of eggs, for the male was certainly present picking up fragments of food from the lawn.

Of course May is a significant time for roe deer, for the month will at last see the production of this year’s next generation. Once the kids – usually twins but occasionally triplets - are dropped, the doe will visit each in turn in order to suckle and clean them and separated and well hidden in the vegetation, this is where those kids will stay for the first two weeks of their lives. It is during these two weeks that roe kids can be very vulnerable to people stumbling across them during woodland walks, although with people, by and large, staying at home due to the virus that danger should be lessened at this time.

Years ago, I received a call to say that a roe deer kid had been found and I went to see what I could do to help. The finders were a group of children, who had been so entranced by their discovery, that they had stroked the animal which instinctively would have frozen on the spot rather than run away. When I got there, she was in a cardboard box in someone’s kitchen! Having been stroked so enthusiastically she would, in any case, have been rejected by her mother so I reluctantly took her home and reared her. She stayed with us for some ten years and was utterly tame feasting on rich tea biscuits and strawberry jam sandwiches at any opportunity!

If you do manage to indulge in some woodland walking in these next few weeks and you should come across a young roe deer kid, it is vital that you do not touch it. Leaving a human scent on a roe kid is a death sentence, so please leave well alone! These are strange times in which we live. We have to deny ourselves the pleasure of strolling through woodland at a time when the bluebells provide a luscious carpet of blue not to mention that delicious perfume. Perhaps many of us will miss that May-time treat this year but if we all survive, it will be worth it at the end of the day. Keep safe.

The Windows update prank can easily trick someone when opened in full screen. It looks and acts like a real install page.

Weekly Nature Watch 24th April 2020

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Despite the fact that I have already seen my first swallow of the year, I know well enough that it is not summer … yet! The bird which has just completed that remarkable six-thousand-mile journey from South Africa, didn’t linger for long and was clearly not one of our local birds. It was perched on an overhead wire and at my approach returned to the air and very directly took off northwards. Last seen, it had disappeared over a distant wood and still heading inexorably north. Its summer home is clearly not here but further north.

The journey made each and every year by swallows is one of the miracles of bird migration, a miracle that the great naturalist of the eighteenth century from Sittingbourne, the Reverend Gilbert White, didn’t believe in. He thought the very concept of bird migration to be fanciful, yet on an analysis, his theory, which presumed that having fallen into a torpor, swallows hibernated either at the bottom of ponds or in the chimney pots, was even more fanciful! Now of course, we know that swallows do indeed make that six-thousand-mile journey, not just once but twice a year!

White was not alone in disbelieving that widescale migration was a fact of life. The Ancient Greeks at least had a notion that they flew off in the autumn and returned in the spring but they didn’t know where they went to. However, wise men, such as Aristotle and Pliny, were also convinced that swallows spent the winter in a kind of stupor tucked up in rock crevices. The theory of these and other birds falling into a trance-like state was given credence by observations of swallows huddling together in cold weather conditions as a way of saving energy and finding birds in this state during cold spells in May, doubtless added to the theory of hibernation.

The theory was further confused by the spectacle in the autumn of birds roosting overnight in reed beds before moving on before or at first light during migration. I suppose that the concept of birds flying thousands of miles on migratory flights would have seemed unlikely in the eighteenth or even the early nineteenth century when world-wide travel was a matter for explorers not ordinary people. In addition, fishermen periodically pulled up nets full of dead swallows when fishing, allegedly, also further proof that swallows hibernated at the bottom of the sea!

By later in the nineteenth century, travel across the world was at last becoming more widespread and travellers reported seeing masses of swallows off the coast of Western Africa. However, these birds were known not to breed in such places during the winter months and slowly but surely the reality of migration began to dawn.  In addition, there were reports of swallows having been seen making major sea crossings and Gilbert White’s own brother, living at the time in Andalusia, had witnessed swallows flying over the Straits of Gibraltar.

Even with such available evidence, the concept of birds, such as swallows and weighing just a few grams each, flying such vast distances was difficult to comprehend but confirmation of this began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century when bird ringing was first practiced. Now the miracle of bird migration was properly exposed and that miracle was suddenly realised to be true!

As may be understood, the greatest hazard migrating swallows encounter is the immense Sahara Desert, a stretch of approximately 1,200 miles. To tackle this crucial and daunting leg of their journey, swallows must feed and increase the amount of fat in their bodies by a third, packing in the maximum amount of energy prior to setting out on their marathon flight. Swallows moving north at this time of the year therefore feast upon the plentiful insect life of Central Africa but even so, many swallows fail to complete their trans-desert leg of the journey. I understand that more swallows than any other species perish in the desert. The crossing normally takes between two and three days, with few if any opportunities to feed during their challenging desert crossing.

However, almost as hazardous are mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees and the Alps, where they may encounter extremely hostile weather conditions – another energy sapping episode. Nothing saps the energy like a combination of wind, rain and snow. Especially as they feed exclusively on the wing and often at very low altitudes, swallows on migration much prefer to fly into headwinds or crosswinds but without the benefit of tail winds.  Eddies of a following wind can, at worst, cause them to stall.

Low temperatures can also be disastrous in terms of finding sufficient insect life on which to feed as they travel. Therefore, the hazards experienced on these journeys are considerable, so why do they do it? The answer lies in the plentiful insect life that is waiting for them in these islands and across Europe during spring and summer.  This migration probably dates back to the last Ice Age during which the world’s tilt altered to throw the Northern Hemisphere into a prolonged cold spell. At the end of this, insect life returned and although we imagine that Africa is throbbing with insect life there is, of course, plenty of competition for that resource, whilst further north, opportunity knocks.

I regard the swallow as our true summer bird. What would a summer day be without the athletic flight of swallows, darting hither and hither at breakneck speed? Indeed, swallows and their cousins, house martins were the birds that lit a vital flame in me when I was a young boy. I was electrified by the skimming flight of these charming birds, fascinated not only by their dynamic flight but also by the chuntering conversations of the male swallows. This is surely one of the really charming, confiding sounds of summer.

The arrival of swallows seems to be happening earlier and earlier. Apparently, in the nineteenth century it was often June before the swallows arrived but now, they are often here at the end of April or the beginning of May, doubtless something that can in some ways be associated with global warming. It may be presumed that when they arrived later in the year, they would restrict themselves to two broods of youngsters in a season. With the earlier arrival, three broods have probably now become the norm.

As I write I have not encountered further swallows. I hear that they are well and truly on the way but thus far do not seem to be apparent this far north. I can hardly wait for them to arrive in numbers in this airt. Then my summer will start properly, inspired by the fleet footed swallows, cutting their way through the summer air with such verve and athleticism. They are as welcome as the flowers in May.

Despite the fact that I have already seen my first swallow of the year, I know well enough that it is not summer … yet! The bird which has just completed that remarkable six-thousand-mile journey from South Africa, didn’t linger for long and was clearly not one of our local birds. It was perched on an overhead wire and at my approach returned to the air and very directly took off northwards. Last seen, it had disappeared over a distant wood and still heading inexorably north. Its summer home is clearly not here but further north.

The journey made each and every year by swallows is one of the miracles of bird migration, a miracle that the great naturalist of the eighteenth century from Sittingbourne, the Reverend Gilbert White, didn’t believe in. He thought the very concept of bird migration to be fanciful, yet on an analysis, his theory, which presumed that having fallen into a torpor, swallows hibernated either at the bottom of ponds or in the chimney pots, was even more fanciful! Now of course, we know that swallows do indeed make that six-thousand-mile journey, not just once but twice a year!

White was not alone in disbelieving that widescale migration was a fact of life. The Ancient Greeks at least had a notion that they flew off in the autumn and returned in the spring but they didn’t know where they went to. However, wise men, such as Aristotle and Pliny, were also convinced that swallows spent the winter in a kind of stupor tucked up in rock crevices. The theory of these and other birds falling into a trance-like state was given credence by observations of swallows huddling together in cold weather conditions as a way of saving energy and finding birds in this state during cold spells in May, doubtless added to the theory of hibernation.

The theory was further confused by the spectacle in the autumn of birds roosting overnight in reed beds before moving on before or at first light during migration. I suppose that the concept of birds flying thousands of miles on migratory flights would have seemed unlikely in the eighteenth or even the early nineteenth century when world-wide travel was a matter for explorers not ordinary people. In addition, fishermen periodically pulled up nets full of dead swallows when fishing, allegedly, also further proof that swallows hibernated at the bottom of the sea!

By later in the nineteenth century, travel across the world was at last becoming more widespread and travellers reported seeing masses of swallows off the coast of Western Africa. However, these birds were known not to breed in such places during the winter months and slowly but surely the reality of migration began to dawn.  In addition, there were reports of swallows having been seen making major sea crossings and Gilbert White’s own brother, living at the time in Andalusia, had witnessed swallows flying over the Straits of Gibraltar.

Even with such available evidence, the concept of birds, such as swallows and weighing just a few grams each, flying such vast distances was difficult to comprehend but confirmation of this began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century when bird ringing was first practiced. Now the miracle of bird migration was properly exposed and that miracle was suddenly realised to be true!

As may be understood, the greatest hazard migrating swallows encounter is the immense Sahara Desert, a stretch of approximately 1,200 miles. To tackle this crucial and daunting leg of their journey, swallows must feed and increase the amount of fat in their bodies by a third, packing in the maximum amount of energy prior to setting out on their marathon flight. Swallows moving north at this time of the year therefore feast upon the plentiful insect life of Central Africa but even so, many swallows fail to complete their trans-desert leg of the journey. I understand that more swallows than any other species perish in the desert. The crossing normally takes between two and three days, with few if any opportunities to feed during their challenging desert crossing.

However, almost as hazardous are mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees and the Alps, where they may encounter extremely hostile weather conditions – another energy sapping episode. Nothing saps the energy like a combination of wind, rain and snow. Especially as they feed exclusively on the wing and often at very low altitudes, swallows on migration much prefer to fly into headwinds or crosswinds but without the benefit of tail winds.  Eddies of a following wind can, at worst, cause them to stall.

Low temperatures can also be disastrous in terms of finding sufficient insect life on which to feed as they travel. Therefore, the hazards experienced on these journeys are considerable, so why do they do it? The answer lies in the plentiful insect life that is waiting for them in these islands and across Europe during spring and summer.  This migration probably dates back to the last Ice Age during which the world’s tilt altered to throw the Northern Hemisphere into a prolonged cold spell. At the end of this, insect life returned and although we imagine that Africa is throbbing with insect life there is, of course, plenty of competition for that resource, whilst further north, opportunity knocks.

I regard the swallow as our true summer bird. What would a summer day be without the athletic flight of swallows, darting hither and hither at breakneck speed? Indeed, swallows and their cousins, house martins were the birds that lit a vital flame in me when I was a young boy. I was electrified by the skimming flight of these charming birds, fascinated not only by their dynamic flight but also by the chuntering conversations of the male swallows. This is surely one of the really charming, confiding sounds of summer.

The arrival of swallows seems to be happening earlier and earlier. Apparently, in the nineteenth century it was often June before the swallows arrived but now, they are often here at the end of April or the beginning of May, doubtless something that can in some ways be associated with global warming. It may be presumed that when they arrived later in the year, they would restrict themselves to two broods of youngsters in a season. With the earlier arrival, three broods have probably now become the norm.

As I write I have not encountered further swallows. I hear that they are well and truly on the way but thus far do not seem to be apparent this far north. I can hardly wait for them to arrive in numbers in this airt. Then my summer will start properly, inspired by the fleet footed swallows, cutting their way through the summer air with such verve and athleticism. They are as welcome as the flowers in May.

Weekly Nature Watch 17th April 2020

on .

Empty streets, empty parks and empty seashores may reflect the enforced lethargy of the human population. We are all in lockdown, save for the few who do not seem to care a jot for their human compatriots and those defying the new rules should be made to pay for their selfishness. However,  opportunity knocks for some of our wildlife for during these next weeks or months, our absence is bound to create space and opportunity for wildlife, albeit that with so many sources of food closed for humans and consequently for wildlife too, the opportunity may not be as widespread as at first thought. Many an urban fox, not to mention members of the corvid clan and various species of gulls, profit greatly from human profligacy.
The closure of all those McDonald stores for example, means that there will be fewer remnants of half-eaten meals cast aside by human consumers for the likes of urban foxes to enjoy, although unemptied household waste bins may well contain more left overs for those same animals to pilfer and enjoy. But with folk off the streets such pickings will be much scarcer. Nevertheless, there have been some quite startling pictures in the press which illustrate how quickly wildlife adapts to new situations. The snap of a herd of red deer calmly resting on a patch of spare ground next to a housing scheme in Essex perhaps tops the list of surprises.

There were also numerous pictures of the feral goats taking to the streets of Llandudno in North Wales. The streets were bereft of human occupants, just full of goats! Wildlife very quickly adapts its habits to snatch opportunity when it arises. It is a fact that you are more likely to get a sighting of a fox in the city these days than ever you are in the countryside where poor old Tod id still pursued and slaughtered with enthusiasm.

Firstly, it will remain to be seen how long the current lockdown will last and secondly, how quick various kinds of wildlife seek to exploit the empty spaces where normally human presence dominates. Will beach-nesting birds reclaim those beaches usually the province of sunbathing humans and make them into nesting places again?

The improving weather meantime has marginally slowed the traffic at our bird feeders but two things occurred. Red bottom and red faces! The red bottom belongs to a great spotted woodpecker which in recent weeks we have been playing host to. Regular readers may remember me reporting previously on the sad demise of the female woodpecker which was, along with its mate and off-spring, a regular visitor until the intervention of a sparrowhawk.

The hawk killed it and ever since, the woodpeckers that were such a colourful attraction, have been conspicuous by their absence. Now the cock woodpecker has returned to action. He flies in at speed and usually thumps on to the pole supporting our bird-table, shinning up it with alacrity and then giving his full attention to either the fat balls or the peanuts. Sometimes he remains anchored to the pole for he can certainly reach the fat balls without leaving it, his rigid tail, almost like an extra limb, jammed in against the pole to support himself.

I’m fairly convinced that this particular bird nested in our orchard last year whilst another family that also regularly visited came from a totally different direction and from farther away across the fields. That pair also had a family and I am hoping that one of the young females it produced might act as a ready substitute for the previously slaughtered female. There have been a few resounding bursts of woodpecker speak – the rattling beating of the woodpecker hammering away at a branch of a tree – but thus far I have seen no response. Perhaps they will get together in due course!

The red faces belong to two goldfinches which are still feeding enthusiastically on our supply of sunflower hearts and the pheasant which I wrote about last week which picks away at the detritus beneath our bird-table and periodically raises himself on tip toes to assert himself and crow … very loudly! His facial wattle is fairly glowing bright red at the moment.

What we also have is a plethora of house sparrows and the other day I watched a substantial group of them acting, as sparrows always seem to do, in a quarrelsome manner. Whoever called a collection of sparrows a ‘quarrel’ got it spot on! The battle seemed to be between two cock sparrows which had collected around them a collection of other sparrows, all of them joining in the assertive and argumentative chirping but sitting the physical conflict out! Later they were at it again although this time a fair collection of birds seemed to be indulging in the physical combat.

As I’ve said before, the universal decline of sparrows widely reported doesn't appear to apply here for we probably entertain the overspill from a couple of farms and they are therefore a constant presence. If it wasn’t for the fact that sparrows are so common-place they might be better regarded for looked at in isolation they are quite attractive little birds, especially the cock birds with their chestnut topknots and that little bib below the chin. We used also to entertain tree sparrows with their prominent cheek spots, which I’m afraid are in even greater decline and these days they are not to be seen hereabouts.

The chaffinch population seems to have changed as many of the males appear to have moved out or on perhaps. The males do migrate during the winter to different areas from the females and I guess with spring advancing they are now eager to return to the areas where they will urgently need to secure breeding territories. I presume the females, of which there are plenty, are local birds.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to dominate the news and many of us are consequently housebound. It is amazing to see the sun-kissed miles of beaches around our coasts so utterly deserted and in the main, the ‘stay at home’ message does seem to be holding thank goodness. Never before have we had to deal with a situation like this but we simply have to make the best of it and watch in admiration as spring continues to blossom. At least we can be entertained by our feathered friends even if the trade at bird-tables is definitely declining as more natural food comes available.

Stay vigilant and stay safe.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods