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Wildlife in the North

Nest Boxes – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Nest boxes for birds vary from the small design aimed at birds varying from great tits to redstarts to the much larger ones known as a chimney box.  The latter is designed mainly for tawny owls although  other bird will take advantage of such a ready made hole.   Nest boxes of any size are aimed at replacing natural holes  in trees that have become much rarer as older tree are felled or fall down.   In many woodlands or tall, thick hedges the food and shelter may be there for birds but if  nest holes are  not available then the birds have to look elsewhere when the breeding season comes around.   The standard nest box for tawny owls is very basic as there are four planks of wood, twenty inches long and ten inches wide and two small pieces for the top and bottom.  The entrance hole to be about  150 mm diameter.

One interesting aspect about tawny owls is their pattern of behaviour, especially at this time of the year.  They are now calling to pair up and to set up territory despite the fact that the eggs will not be laid until late February or March.   The call that can now be heard, some people call it a hoot,  is a male that will go “hooo-hoo-hooo”.  This claims his territory and is used extensively during courtship.   It tells other males to clear off and entices females into his area and the nest site.    Another  commonly heard call is “kee-wick” which is a contact call made by both male and female.     The female alone incubates the two to three eggs  and, unlike other birds, the incubation starts as soon as the first egg is laid.  This means that the eggs do not hatch together  and that the owlets vary in age and size.  This means that if there is a shortage of food the older chicks survive whilst the others will die from starvation.   Older chicks eating younger siblings is not unknown.    Owlets will leave their nest around 37 days and will hang around on nearby branches for another few days.   However, they are dependent on their parents for another three months.

During the day tawny owls roost in hollow trees but they will also seek other shelter such as in ivy or will just sit on a branch tight against the trunk of the tree where they are well camouflaged and difficult to see.   They may hunt from a perch or hover.  They are also renowned for defending their nest site and have been known to attack humans.  The famous bird photographer, Eric Hosking,  lost an eye to a tawny owl that he was photographing  the nest from a hide.   The commonest prey of this owl are small mammals, especially voles, mice and shrews.  It also takes a range of birds such as starlings, finches, thrushes and sparrows.  However, it also takes a range of other food from amphibians to earthworms and insects.  They have been known to eat fish although it is not clear how it gets them although one suggestion is that it snatches  them from the surface of the water.

If one of these nest boxes is not taken up by these owls  then later it attracts ducks such as mandarins, the photograph shows a drake peering out, goldeneye and another owl, the barn owl.  Starlings  and jackdaws will also take over such boxes.  The latest trend, and nobody knows the significance of this, is the pine marten that will rear their  kits in such boxes

Bird Baths & Garden Birds – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

treecreeperIf you go into any garden centre these days you will see a wide range of food, feeders and nest boxes for a  wide range of not only birds but also mammals such as hedgehogs and red squirrels.      However, one aspect that is often overlooked is the bird bath and yet, particularly in the winter months, this is essential for  birds.     We tend to think that bird baths are just for drinking such as the wren I watched in the  garden today.  The bird had been foraging at the base of a fruit tree and then, suddenly, it  darted to the bird bath.  It perched on the edge  and then leant over and it was  almost comical as it nearly overbalanced and fell in.    A few sips and it was off foraging again.    In contrast the next bird to drink was  a large, fat looking woodpigeon and it leant forward just like the wren.  However, the woodpigeon is very unusual  as they do not have to throw their heads back but can scoop  the water up like a siphon.   However, whilst drinking is important, the real purpose of the bird bath is, as the name rightly  suggests,   for the birds to bathe.   This enables them to keep their feathers, and plumage in general, in good condition  and this is essential to combat the frost and ice in the  winter months.     Some garden centres do stock bird baths but these are often of a fancy design and expensive.  Mine is large  black perspex tray about three inched deep and I put this on the ground rather than raised up.  What is essential with bird baths is that they vary in water depth so that different  sized birds can bathe.  I achieve this by putting two large flat stones in the water so varying the depth.

Cold winter nights can mean that, with a small bird such as a goldcrest that only weighs 5 gms,  it can lose a fifth of its body weight in just one night.  Such birds still persist in roosting alone as does the tree creeper illustrated here and the latter seeks out a crevice in bark and squeezes in for the hours of darkness.   Another bird that is normally solitary may adopt a different method if the nights are really cold and that is the wren.   Against all their normal behaviour of living alone they will gather and form a  roost to keep each other warm for the night.   The roosting site can vary from a hole in a tree to nest boxes and such communal roosts have been recorded  as containing 60 wrens or more although most  are much smaller.  The record  is 61 wrens in a nest box followed closely by 30 in a hole in  a tree.    In Strathnairn,  a few miles south of Inverness,   there is a regular winter roost of up to eight  wrens in an artificial nest box designed for  house martins.  Sadly if the cold persist the whole roost may die overnight and it a sad experience to see such a sight.

There is another way of combating the cold nights and that is chosen by long-tailed tits.   As many readers   will know by these delightful birds coming into the garden to feed they go around in flocks, sometimes up to a dozen birds or more.  At night they will huddle together  on a branch side by side.  Research has shown that the dominant birds are in the centre as by huddling up to the birds on either side they  extract warmth.  It must be a remarkable sight to see such a line of these tiny birds.

Yew Trees – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

yews at boleskineWith many of the leaves gone from the trees the yew  trees are now conspicuous and take on a grandeur of their own.  There are few trees in the Highlands that  are so mysterious and with a rich history of folk lore and myths.  They have attracted writers, artists and poets for centuries and so much so that a number of monographs have been written about them.  By far my favourite is “Yew – A History” by Fred Hageneder  as it covers so much of this ancient tree’s uses from the making of longbows to the poetry and the dating of old yews to a potential poison.  Another fine monograph is “The Eternal Yew” – how apt a title, by Trevor Baxter.    The age of yew trees has always been part of its mystery particularly as one yew – the Fortingale Yew in the grounds of the Kirk at Fortingale, a Perthshire village at the entrance to the romantic Glen Lyon, is reputed to be the oldest tree in Europe.  The estimates for the age of this famous yew are between 1500 and 3000 years and they are based on the girth of between  52 and 56 feet, but, unfortunately,  only fragments of the girth survived.

However, the Fortingale yew now has a rival as there is a yew in Wales, at Defynnog, that is reputed to be 5,000 years old.  However, you do not have to travel that far to see an old yew as in the  Highlands there  is one at  Dundonnel  south west of Ullapool although  compared  with others it is a mere, estimated, 2,000 years old.   The gardens are open for some days during the year and I well remember the last time I went there.  After paying the modest entrance fee I asked “where is the tree” and they  knew straight away which one I wanted to see.  It is a very impressive tree so why not visit it next summer when the garden is open again?   Closer to Inverness  is where I took the photograph of the superb looking yew trees in Bolingbroke Burial Ground near Foyers.  The shape of yew trees varies depending on their age as it is broadly conical when they are younger.  Then the older it gets the more columnar it becomes as the branches grow outward as quickly as the height grows.  That is why the Boleskine ones are that delightful columnar profile.    The added advantage of these yews is that the churchyard is on the side of Loch Ness so there is always  the chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster!

You cannot think about yew trees without thinking  about the famous longbows.   The best wood for the bows is, by far, the yew followed by wych elm. In the north, Including  the Highlands,  the alternatives that were used were the ash, hazel, fir or oak.   The advantage of the yew was that it could be cut so that it contained both sapwood, to give springiness, and heartwood, for the sheer strength.   The problem was that there were just not enough yew trees to meet the demand for archers in the UK.  So the problem  was overcome by importing very large quantities of timber from the continent , mainly from Spain.  There was an added bonus with using yew that is often overlooked but it was very important.  The seeds of yew yielded a deadly poison and it was use to tip  the arrowheads.