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First Signs of Spring – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

February 21st, 2017

Driving back over the Drummossie Moor just south of Inverness I suddenly decided I need another sign of spring.  Perhaps it was simply age or perhaps the gorse on the side of the road.   The gorse was interesting because as I left Inverness there was an abundance of its bright yellow flowers on the shrubs and the further I went over the moor the flowering decreased. On the south of the moor there were only odd patches of flowers.   The reason for this  change of flowering is that the nearer the coast you get the weather is  slightly  milder.  As for signs of spring, I had already seen snowdrops  and butterbur at Udale Bay on the Black Isle  near Cromarty this year.    Still no frogs though and there was also the fact that there was still some snow and ice about so all thoughts of bird migrants such as swallow and willow warbler faded rapidly.

However, as if to crystallise my thought about spring, across the road, fairly high up, flew a flock of 15 lapwings  with their characteristic odd flapping movement of their broad black and white wings.   They may not be typical bird migrants to many but to me they have always typified spring when they are inland in small groups.    The lapwing flying over the moor could well have spent the winter in Ireland or on the Continent in France, Spain or Portugal so they could well have been migrants,  although not from very far.  Certainly they were the first lapwings I had seen in the area since last summer when two or three pairs  were breeding on the part of the moor I was driving through.

Of all the waders breeding inland  the lapwing has fared the worst through the dramatic  changes in  agricultural techniques.  In the part of Strathnairn where we live we moved there 30 years ago and the breeding waders included  curlew, lapwing, redshank, common snipe and oystercatcher.  The first to go was the lapwing and only the curlew now lingers on as the rest have gone.    This decline is reflected in many other parts of the Highlands.     There may well be around 50,000 pairs still breeding in Scotland each year  that is a significant part of the UK breeding total but the numbers are still seriously declining.    Numbers have,  incredibly, halved since 1999.    One of the biggest problems of the ground nesting waders, including the lapwings, are the predators on the eggs, from  mammals to birds.     The hooded crows and carrion  crows are, perhaps, the worst  as one crow  will entice the pair off their nest while the other sneaks in and another  clutch of eggs is gone.  It is difficult to know just when this overall decline will ease as agriculture  seems to get more intensified as the years go by.

One local name of lapwings is “Flapper” after their wing beats  but the commonest local name is “Peesie” whilst the collective names, which I still do not understand, is “Deceit”  or “Desert”.   There is an abundance of Scots names, over 30, including “Tee Whip”, “Scochad” and “Wallop”.  The commonest of the three Gaelic names is “Curracag” meaning “With a bonnet”.   In the past the lapwing has been hated in Scotland, partly because it is alleged to have betrayed the Covenanters in the hills by its restless cries but also because these birds, which habitually called “Bewitched, bewitched”, are the spirits of the dead who cannot rest and have returned  to haunt the earth.

Snowdrops – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

February 16th, 2017

It was time to look down under the huge beech trees in the acre garden to see if there was any sign of the first wild flowers  of the spring appearing.   I was heading for the solitary elder tree that is around  four metres high and every time I see this elder it make me smile. The reason is that it was not until we had been this house for about ten years  that I realised that the  elder was there at all.   Even then I would not have seen it if I had not been looking for the first spring flowers, a colony of snowdrops.    So twenty years ago I had stood over the snowdrops and for some unknown reason I wondered what the shrub was growing over them   I thought it was an elder but as it was the end of January there were no leaves, not even buds, and so was not until later in the year that I realised it was an elder and the only one in the garden.

Elder is a small deciduous tree and native to the UK and it is thought  that the name elder is from the Anglo-saxon “aeld”, meaning fire, because its hollow stems were used as a bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire.  It often grows near rabbit warrens or badger setts, where the animals distribute the seed via their droppings.  Badgers love to use the grey brown, corky furrowed bark to sharpen their claws although there has never been any sign  of this on “our” elder although there is a badger sett not far away.  Elderberries are eaten by a wide variety of birds from blackbirds to robins and mammals  from wood mice to pine martens.   We also use  it for a variety of purposes such as elderflower wine and elder syrup from the berries.   It has been widely used in myths and folklore.  It was supposed to protect against witches and could ward off evil influences so they were widely planted  next to houses and cottages.   It  was traditionally the tree on which Judas hanged himself or the tree of the cross of Calvary, being supposed to be twisted and stunted ever since.

However, my original  thought of visiting the elder today was to see if the colony of snowdrops growing under the tree were flowering, a sure sign of spring and one of the first.    How pleasing to see that not only were the leaves of around forty plants well up but about half of them, if not more, were also in flower.   For some reason their vivid white petals  looked so important and significant against the otherwise drab looking trees and shrubs  from beech to ash and sycamore to rowan.  It is one of the earliest of spring flowers and even when there is snow on the ground the leaves will push through if it is not too deep.  No wonder then that one of the local names for the  snowdrop is “snow piercer”.  How the flowers manages this is because of a small leaflet like sheath that covers the top of the flowering stems so that they can force their way through the snow.   My favourite local  place to see snowdrops is on the roadside verges on the Black Isle between Udale  Bay and the Newhall Point just round the corner.   There you can find large numbers of snowdrops but also large numbers of butterbur and they are very impressive so why not go along this weekend and see for yourself –you will not be disappointed.

Nest Box Week – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

February 13th, 2017

Some people may have some romantic ideas about 14th February but to others is signals National Nest Box Week (14th– 21st February).  The fact that this scheme has now been running for 19 years shows just  how popular it has been.  It also indicates how valuable this has been to hole nesting birds, whether small such as for blue tits and robins, or large such as for  barn owls and kestrels.    The first question to ask if what birds do you want to breed  and to start with it is better to choose those birds that are already coming into the  garden such as for feeding.   Once you have chosen you could be ambitious and choose others that you would like to attract into the garden from birds that may feed elsewhere.  Then once you decide which birds  you would like to attract where do you get information about Nest Boxes from?

To get an idea of cost and which Nest Box for which bird you can simply go along to the nearest  large Garden Centre where there is often an almost bewildering display of types.   Another source of information is in many of the books on wildlife  gardening and one that has recently  come out is “Gardening for Wildlife” by Adrian Thomas published by Bloomsbury Natural History 2017.   It divides the Nest Boxes into “Nest boxes with round holes”, “Nest Boxes with an open front” and “Unusual Boxes”.  The latter include tree creeper, house martin and swift.   This very useful book also give measurements   which means  you can make your own Nest Boxes.   Making your own may seem  time consuming  but it gives great satisfaction to make a Nest Box from scratch and then to see it occupied and the young birds reared.

Once you have the Nest Box to hand then the siting is critical.   There is always the temptation to put a new Nest Box near where you encourage birds to feed such as feeders or bird tables.   This is  a mistake as birds trying to nest and others trying to feed see the others as in competition and there  is  disturbance to all the birds involved.  In any  case the siting of the Nest Boxes should be out of your sight as if you can see them so can predators.   So some cover is necessary especially with such open fronted boxes such as those for robins or spotted flycatchers.   Attaching the Nest Box to a fence or tree needs stressing.  Many of the Nest Boxes you can buy just give a piece of metal to attach it to the top of the Nest Box.  If this is the case bear in mind you will need another at the base of the box, which manufacturers seem to forget.  Otherwise in very windy weather the Nest Box may turn being pivoted only at the top.   Also be wary of the rounded nest hole as I prefer this to be 28mm. If it is smaller look elsewhere as it means none of the birds will manage to get in!.   One recent innovation is the use of miniature cameras so that you can see what is happened inside the Nest Box as the image  is relayed to your computer or television.  The photograph shows a blue tit feeding young inside a Nest Box.   The price of these, sometimes even with a Nest Box in the package,  is coming down all the time so look out for bargains.   One interesting point that is often raised is why we need to put up Nest Boxes?  The answer is simply that  natural holes, whether large or small, have been drastically reduced  as old woodland is felled or thinned.  New plantations take very many years before natural holes develop.    Once you have Nest Boxes for birds in the garden then why not get ambitious and look at the possibility of Nest Boxes for animals in the garden from hedgehogs to bats as we shall look at those next week.