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Great Spotted Woodpeckers – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Monday, 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

Thursday, 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.

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

Tuesday, 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.