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Great Spotted Woodpeckers – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

March 13th, 2017

For the last two  weeks the great spotted woodpeckers have been “drumming” away in the birch/rowan woodland above and below the house.  Drumming means hammering  away at bark  with their short but powerful beaks,  either as a form of display or to find food.  My thoughts went to what sort of breeding season they might have this year as last year it was the worst that we can recall in the last 30 years we have been living in this strath.   I still had not worked out why last year was so bad for them but by chance I read a note from the British Trust for Ornithology about the decline in sparrowhawks last year.  Apparently the very poor season for small birds  came about  because of wet weather and poor insect supply.     This affected sparrowhawks because, particularly the smaller males, rely on such small birds for the bulk of their food.    So could this be the underlying cause of the woodpeckers problems last year?

Looking at my wildlife notebooks last year there were problems with the starlings in the doocot in the garden.   Normally what happens is that the first brood of chicks come off just in time for the woodpeckers to take all the chicks just  before they have fledged.  However the starlings have another brood that is normally successful.  This year it was almost as if the  starlings knew there would be food problems later  in the summer so they laid early and the first brood were off before the woodpeckers had fledged.  Then the starlings just gave up for this year.     On the small bird front the siskins had a very good year but they are early breeding birds and it was not long before their first  chicks had fledged and were eager to get at the nyger feeders.   Then it seemed as though the  number of small fledglings decreased compared with previous years.

But how reliant are great spotted woodpeckers on small birds?   Certainly they will freely take small birds out of nestboxes and any of us who have put up small boxes for titmice will know the values of putting a metal plate around the entrance  hole.  The woodpeckers are a lot cleverer than that as even if you put a plate on  the bird will register the chicks are in there and just hack their way in. However they do it  is in the same way as they find grubs of insects.    They hammer at the bark   or nestbox and whatever  is inside may make a slight noise and it is enough to alert the woodpecker.    So this formidable beak of the  woodpecker  has a number of purposes.  It can dig out food such as chicks  and  grubs, and it can be used  as display or contact calls.  A unique feature is that it can be used to make an anvil on which nuts etc. can be placed to break open.  As an indication of the  wide range of uses then just look at the garden.     Do you know of any other bird that will take such a wide variety of food?   They will freely tackle peanuts, mixed seed, bread and to see how they tackle suet balls is a revelation.  I remember the  amazement when I watched a woodpecker demolish a whole apple that had fallen onto the ground.  Its stiff tail may be advantageous  to climb bark but to see it used on the ground as a prop is  almost amusing.

Highland Migrants – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

March 9th, 2017

This is the time of the year when we look back through the records to see when we can expect the first bird migrants to arrive in the Highlands.   Fortunately, thanks to many recorders, the very large number of these records are summed up every year in the Highland Bird Reports.  These invaluable  Reports come out every year and are one of  the most important “birdy” events in the calendar as far as  I,  and many others, are concerned   Each year a single page in the Report sums up the early and late dates for migrants, most of which have spent the previous – in some cases winters –  winter in Africa.  Incidentally where does all this information where birds over–winter come from?  It is mainly from ringing and, the latest innovations, miniature reorders attached to the birds that send back signals.

So  I analysed the last five years records from the Reports and whilst you might expect the swallow and willow warbler to be the first birds back from Africa there were some surprises.   Two of the surprises are at opposite ends of the size scale the osprey ( seen on its nest in the photograph) and wheatear are amongst the first of the migrants.  Most of the early migrants in  March are the wheatears  of the “Greenland race” that do not linger long in the  Highlands as they head even further  north to their breeding grounds. Wheatears collect their main food, insects,  from open moorland but they will also  take berries from blackberry, rowan and elder.  One of the migrants at the opposite end of the size scale is the osprey that comes as early as mid-march. This magnificent bird of prey needs a regular supply of fish and will raid fish farms to get them.  The fish farm owners  take a varied view on these predators with some encouraging the ospreys in return for  spectacular  views of the fish being taken. Some of the owners will expect payment from people for this whilst others just  get rid of the ospreys!

There are a few other birds that arrive during the month of March and these include swallow, willow warbler and house martin.   All these rely heavily on insects as soon as they  arrive as they will be in need of food after such a long journey.   So where do you look for these early migrant?  For the swallows and sand martins the answer is to locate certain lochs that have widespread  vegetation to provide such food  in the spring and early summer.   My favourite places are Loch Flemington and Loch Ruthven,  The former is a few miles east of Inverness and soon you will be able to see masses of swallows and sand martins hawking over the surface.  If you look carefully at the swallows you can identify the males as they have much longer tail streamers than the females.   The vegetation that supports  so many insects is well spread over the loch.    Loch Ruthven is the famous RSPB Reserve a few miles south of Inverness and even if your visit is early some of the very rare breeding Slavonian grebes may well be back on the loch.  The hide is superb and the whole site is well worth a visit with a wide variety of bird possible.   Loch Ruthven also supports a range of willow trees and it is the early ones such as “pussy willow” that flowers early  and attract  the early migrant warblers.   If I had to choose between these two lochs to visit it would probably have to be Loch Ruthven.  Good hunting for those early migrants as they will soon be here.

Gorse – Ray Colliers – Wildlife in the North

February 28th, 2017

After the last few weeks of mentioning signs of spring flowers a few readers have asked me to give more information about gorse which is one of the most fascinating shrubs  in the Highlands.   In the past it has had widespread uses and has had a  role in myths and legends and a widespread use by man for food,  medicine and numerous other uses.    There are two old country sayings about the flowering of gorse ” While  the gorse is in flower Britain will never be conquered” and the other is “When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion.”   Patriots and lovers need not worry however because some blossoms of gorse can be found throughout the year.   For example  in January this year there were messes of gorse shrubs in flower at Fort George and, afterwards, as I drove inland  the amount of gorse in flower dropped.    This  decline in overall flowering of gorse is because the overall temperatures decrease as you go inland.

These days we get use to the idea of hay, straw and artificial feed being readily available for domestic stock and many other uses but it  has not always been the case and people have had  ingenious ways of coping.   Many people will know that, for example, heather has been used  as bedding, thatch and making ropes but perhaps fewer people will be aware that in the past gorse has had an important role for a variety of reasons.   However,  of all the uses the one the always intrigues me is that in the past gorse has been planted near  croft houses and other houses so that washing could be laid on it to dry.   With the very thorny branches of the gorse there was very little chance of the washing blowing away.     But gorse, sometimes  called whin of furze, can also cause  problems as it burns fiercely so that heathland fires can spread rapidly making them difficult to get under control.  However, there is another  side to this as this ability  to burn made it valuable as fuel when peat and wood was in short supply  before the development of the coal trade.  As it leaves very little ash it was also used in firing bricks, tile and lime kilns and also for fuelling bakers’ ovens.    In  contrast it has always been very useful as hedges or windbreaks for stock.

brown hareAnother economic use of gorse was as fodder for stock although only the young, tender and nutritious leaves could be used direct.   Thus tender greener leaves are much used by wild animals such as deer, rabbits and wild goats to the extent it looks like hand cut topiary.  Brown hares, pictured here, really go for gorse when there is snow on the ground  like last week.  Otherwise the gorse had to be cut and then pounded to crush the hard prickles and in Scotland special machines were developed called  whin bruisers and the more advanced whin mills.  These mills either used a roller or wheel to crush the chopped gorse as it was fed into a channel.   Gorse has also had a widespread use for ourselves such as a medicine made from the flowers that was supposed to cure jaundice and stones in the kidney.  In contrast, gorse wine made from the flowers is still very popular and the flowers have long been used for  flavouring whisky.    If you look at some of the large expanses of gorse, such as on the Drummossie Moor just south of Inverness, you will get an idea how important such areas of gorse is to a range of wildlife.    A wide range of birds breed here and a  notable one is the stonechat.