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Berries and Fruits – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

bramblesIf you think of berries and fruits such as brambles (blackberries), rowans, hips,  raspberries  and sloes,  then you may think of the ways we utilise these under the host of recipes that have been used. However, at this time of the year they are, and will be, becoming increasingly important for wildlife.  For example it will not be long before the redwings and fieldfares descend on the  countryside  hoping that the rowan berries will be abundant.  How many of these attractive  thrushes migrate to us depends on the food available, including  rowan berries  in Scandinavia  where most of them come from.   At the moment the crop in the Highlands is patchy although abundant in some areas.  Even if it is a  good crop they will not last long and the thrushes will have to move on to find more berries to last them the winter months.  A few pairs of both species stay to breed but in very small numbers compared with the winter flocks.  Between 40 and 80 pairs of redwings nest in the Highlands  most years but the fieldfares are rare at only around five pairs. However, before the redwings and fieldfare arrive the resident birds, blackbirds, mistle thrushes and song thrushes will tackle the rowan berries and will even take them before they are fully ripened.

Hips are the berries of the hawthorn and the  birds that take to these the  most are the blackbirds closely  followed by song thrushes, mistle thrushes and, interestingly, robins.   One interesting piece of behaviour is with the mistle thrushes,  perhaps because they are larger than the others,  even the blackbirds.  As a family group the mistle thrushes will defend a rowan tree, particularly if it is an isolated tree, against all incomers.  They will even defend such trees when the immigrant redwings and fieldfares come in but will eventually succumb to the sheer numbers of the  immigrants.

Sloes are the berries of the blackthorn and this year the crop seems to be very poor.   I looked at some blackthorn bushes close to my house last week and could find very few berries and those that I did find still had a very long time to go before they would reach full size.    Song thrushes are very partial to them, so much so that they are the commonest bird to take them.    However, birds seem, for some reason,  to find difficulty in tackling them and do not take them until the winter starts. There is the theory  that it takes the first hard  frost to soften the dark berries before the birds in general will take them and then they  do with apparent relish.

In contrast to the sloes the wild raspberries seem to have had a good season and I have already picked  a few that have been ripe enough to eat on the spot.   Not many birds seem to take these luscious looking, to us, berries, but one intriguing one is the blackcap.   Last, but not least, are the ubiquitous brambles, some call them blackberries.    Perhaps above all these are the berries that  we tend to use the most for a wide variety  of recipes.   A quick look at these bushes last weekend seem to confirm they will be late with few of the luscious dark  berries ready  and a high percentage of the red, unripe berries present as in the photograph.  The usual thrushes will take them but one unusual  bird is the starling that just love them.

The best book on the subject of birds, wild berries and fruits is “Birds and Berries” by Barbara and David Snow published in 1988 in the famous  T & A D Poyser series of natural history books.

Next time will look at the way we ourselves utilise the berries and fruits of the Highland countryside, as a  pastime of using wild food that has declined drastically in recent years.

Bluebells – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Friday, June 19th, 2015

bluebellsMany of us tend to just accept bluebells when we see them on the roadside verges or carpeting a woodland floor. Amongst other attributes it posed a problem for the organisation Plantlife as, in 2002, they launched a nationwide campaign for people to choose their County Flower. So many counties throughout the UK voted for the bluebell they had to take it off their lists and instead gave it the prestige title of the emblem for the whole of the UK. Interestingly these country flowers included Scots primrose for Caithness, bearberry for Aberdeenshire, spring cinquefoil for Cromarty and twinflower for Inverness-shire. So it appears that the bluebell has always been a very popular flower and who has not kept their eyes open for a white specimen shown here in the photograph I took at North Kessock? However, the common bluebell is in trouble by yet another alien that is now spreading, even into the Highlands in a number of places. It is the infamous Spanish bluebell that is sold in many garden centres. To tell the difference our native bluebell has a rather dangling stem whereas the Spanish bluebell has a more erect stem and is a paler hue. The problem is that the Spanish bluebell has inevitably spread into the wild and now freely interbreeds with the native bluebell.

As regards what is happening in the Highlands I can only go by the latest distribution maps I have which is in the much acclaimed “New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora” published in 2002. There is an amusing story behind this massive volume as it was very late being published after its supposed date. I heard a rumour that it was on the proverbial “slow boat to China”. I looked on this as a joke but later found it had indeed been printed in China so it would indeed have been on a slow boat getting here! This flora indicates the Spanish bluebell is indeed in the Highlands and spreading and it is hybridising with the native bluebell. I wonder how many readers have unconsciously assisted this problem, by buying the Spanish bluebells? Ironically you can now see adverts saying “native bluebells for sale” which just shows how people capitalise on the problem.

There are very few wildflowers that have such a chequered history as the bluebell either in myths, folk-lore or even magic. One intriguing aspect is that bluebells are said to indicate ancient woodland. So if you are wandering through woodland whose floor is bedecked with masses of delicate scented bluebells, the woodland may well be hundreds of years old. What impresses many people, including myself, is that they are the harbingers of spring as much as the primroses, snowdrops and cuckoo flowers and a welcome sight after the long winter months. Bluebells seem to have it all as it was dominant in medicine and yet had the reputation of being poisonous. They were known for curing leprosy and tuberculosis and even a cure for snake bite. Even today the alkaloids in bluebells may be used to develop a medicine in the fight against cancer and HIV. However, there have been many other uses and one intriguing one was the glue obtained from bluebell sap. This was used as a glue to attach “feather flights” onto arrows and later for book binding.

To many people the consequence of the hybridisation between the native bluebell and the Spanish bluebell may seem of little consequence. What puts it into perspective is the amazing fact that we often overlook. Almost a third of the native bluebells in the entire world grow in the British Isles which is an important fact to bear in mind.

Garden Birds and a Fieldfare – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

fieldfareAt first light the small birds such as great, blue and coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches,  were already at the various garden feeders.  An added bonus was the long-tailed tits, chattering away as they always do, as they tackled the suet balls. No blackbirds I thought as I topped up the various feeders and liberally scattered the mixed grain on the four bird tables.  Then, last, out went the sliced apples and before I had reached the back door the blackbirds were at them.  A while later I glanced out and there were eight blackbirds and, as always, I was intrigued by the variation in the birds’  plumage.  Some were adult males, black feathers almost gleaming and contrasting with the bright yellow beaks.  In contrast, presumably adult females or juvenile birds from last year, were the brown speckled blackbirds.

Then, suddenly, there was a different, larger bird with them but tearing into  an apple in the same enthusiastic way as the blackbirds  – a fieldfare.   There was only one of them and, as always, I wondered why a single bird would come into gardens.  After all they migrate from Scandinavia to winter with us in large flocks  and will mingle with large numbers of redwings.  Yet suddenly a single bird takes it on itself to invade a garden and feed on its own as far as other fieldfares are concerned.    Fieldfares are large, plump thrushes with rather  long tails and have grey heads with dark streaks on the crown.   They have   long pale grey rumps, chestnut backs and black tails and flight feathers.  One conspicuous feature is the yellow-orange breast that is heavily spotted.  One characteristic in flight is the sudden flash of white from the underwings and this is very conspicuous  and can be seen from some distance away especially when a number of birds take flight.

Fieldfares have a wide variety of Scots names such as Feltie, Grey Thrush, Screech Bird or Hill Bird. There are two Gaelic names with commoner one Uiseag sneachda meaning Lark of the Snow.  Most of these names refer to the fieldfare’s colours or to its harsh call “chack-chack-chack”.  When the flocks first descend from Scandinavia they generally attack  the crop of rowan berries which has been particularly heavy in the last two years.  After the rowan berries they will go for other berries, such as holly, but eventually the berries of any sort are depleted and the birds then have to move on, both south and east, to find food for the winter months.   The largest numbers arrive between mid-October to mid-November and then  normally depart between March and May.  The fieldfare is one of Scotland’s rarest breeding birds with not more than five pairs attempting to breed in most years.  In marked contrast,  the total wintering numbers are remarkable and are estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 but on passage it can reach a staggering 1.5 million fieldfares.

With “my” bird in the garden I reached for the camera, a Canon digital with a  100 to 400 mm lens although the make does not matter.  Enthusiastic photographers will be aghast that I photographed the bird through a window of the house but the result satisfied me.   What was interesting was the antics of the bird as it was completely unaware of my presence but almost seemed to pose for the camera.   The fieldfare stayed for only two days and was then  gone as suddenly as it had appeared, perhaps to join its fellow migrants moving south or east.