Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

Author: keithbroomfield Page 1 of 4

Mountain hares are the soul of our uplands

I trod carefully across the boulder field on this high plateau in the southern Cairngorms, scanning the ground for life.

To the north, the high Cairngorm massif was etched against the horizon and I reeled off the names of their summits in my head; such familiar tops and each one the source of happy memories from the past in search of eagles, dotterel, ptarmigan, and snow buntings.

Then, a long-eared head popped up before me, followed by another – mountain hares!  They watched me warily, and I was unsure whether they would permit me to approach close or would instead lollop away under the power of their incredibly long hind legs. Individual mountain hares have different personalities, some are confiding and sit tight, others are skittish and flee at the slightest hint of danger.

I unslung my camera from my shoulder and managed a quick couple of shots, before the hares decided that caution was the better part of valour and took flight. Mountain hares are such special animals and these ones looked magnificent in their smoky-blue coats. When winter takes hold, their fur will moult to white, providing seamless camouflage in the snowy expanses of the Cairngorms.

As they bounded away, I pondered how such beautiful animals could be the source of so much controversy. Until this year, up to 25,000 hares were thought to have been shot annually by grouse moor managers on the grounds they carry ticks and  diseases which harm red grouse, and because they may damage tree saplings.

But to me this was no more than mindless mass-slaughter of one Scotland’s iconic animals, for they are part of the very soul of the mountain environment. Recent research has indicated that hare numbers have plummeted  since the 1950s due to this large-scale unregulated culling, and as such, recent legislation to ban the unlicensed killing of mountain hares and make them a protected species is to be welcomed. A healthy landscape needs a natural balance between predators and prey, not an unnatural one controlled solely by the hand of humankind.

 

Hoverfly marvels

Relaxing in the garden and enjoying the sun is a great way of getting close to nature, as I so discovered when lying on our lawn on a sun mat. Ahead of me the grass stretched like an expansive green sea but it was the abundance of tiny invertebrates that really caught the eye.

The daisies in particular were attracting a number of pollinating insects but the stars were undoubtedly the multitude of small dark hoverflies. Less than a centimetre long, these wee hoverflies were like mini-helicopters, moving forwards in a surge, before hovering for a second or two by a daisy, and then suddenly zipping off sideways to inspect another flower.

Their manner of flight was almost robotic and always in a straight line, with angular changes in direction rather than being executed in a smooth turn.  Soon, I saw a different type of hoverfly advance towards me, but still in this strange and controlled linear flying pattern. This hoverfly was slightly larger than the other ones I had been watching and had paler markings on its abdomen.

There are more than 250 species of hoverfly in the British Isles and many types can be mighty tricky to identify because they are so similar to each other. Using a specialist insect reference book, I tried to identify the small dark hoverflies that abounded in our garden, but in the end could only narrow it down to several different possibilities.

As an amateur naturalist, I find this most frustrating because knowing what things are is a keystone of my being. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end, for hoverflies are such a joy to watch and so very important to our environment. They are also little marvels of natural engineering being able to beat their wings several hundred times per second when hovering by flowers on the search for pollen and nectar.

Hoverflies are sun-loving insects and play an incredibly important role in pollination. The larvae of many species feast upon aphids, making them the gardener’s friend. Larvae of other types may eat plant matter, rotting wood and fungi, or are scavengers. Some are even aquatic.

One species that is relatively easy to identify is the marmalade hoverfly, which sports an orange body with thick and thin black bands across it. These hoverflies just love dandelions but will feed upon the nectar and pollen of a wide range of other plants too. Hoverflies are harmless, but many are patterned to mimic a stinging wasp or bee – a most useful ploy for deterring would be predators.

Another hoverfly worth seeking out is the Heineken fly, often found along hedgerows, in our gardens and by woodland edges. It has a distinctive long orangey-brown snout that enables it to probe deeply into long flower-heads.

And why called the Heineken fly?  Well, for those who can remember the old beer adverts, it is because they can reach the nectar which other hoverflies can’t reach!

Just a puddle – but so full of life

It was a puddle, no more than that; a water-filled wheel rut on an upland forestry track in Perthshire, yet this little pool surged with life.

It was the palmate newts that first drew my eye, five of them lying on the muddy bottom.  One of the creatures was an unusual limey-green in colour.  I’ve never seen a palmate newt of such hue before and perhaps the shallowness of the water had caused the skin to match the shades of the surrounding algae.

As I watched the newts, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a real photographic opportunity here. So I returned the next day with my underwater camera, knelt by the puddle and with the lens submerged, snapped away to my heart’s content.

Unfortunately, the results weren’t great, the water being a bit murky and it was difficult to get the right focus. But I was pleased enough with one or two of the photographs. I also found a lone newt hiding in the surrounding vegetation and the pictures I took of it turned out reasonably sharp.

These newts had gathered to mate and the males inhabiting the puddle were resplendent in their breeding finery of heavily spotted tails.  I’m not sure why they had chosen this watery wheel rut to breed, as it will almost certainly dry-out in the months to come, thus spelling trouble for their tadpoles.

Newts are certainly most intriguing creatures. Indeed, for many of us, their mysterious nature is best remembered in the famous incantation of the three witches stirring the boiling cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where along with “wool of bat” and “tongue of dog”, the ingredients included “eye of newt”.

I suspect newts hold such bewitching qualities because of their ability to regrow toes, or even complete legs that have become lost or damaged.

Having finished photographing the newts, I sat by the puddle for a while longer. A tiny dervish of a creature whizzed across the surface in a haphazard manner. It was a whirligig beetle, the crazy dog of the insect world, which likes nothing better than to gyrate about in the most bizarre fashion. Where does it get all that energy from?

But there is reason for such frenzied activity as these wee water beasties are scouring the water for tiny invertebrates to feast upon. I don’t think there is any considered pattern in their foraging, it more being a case of sweeping the water surface randomly in the hope of finding food by chance.

Two other small creatures scooted across the water, sporting little orangey marks down their centres. They were pirate wolf spiders, which actively seek out small prey by hunting them down.  If I hadn’t stopped by the puddle to look at the newts, I could so easily have missed seeing these energetic water spiders. But as ever with nature, the more you look, the more you see.

Flying on a wing and a prayer

Like a piece of wind-blown confetti, the orange butterfly whirled and danced in the air, and most frustratingly, wouldn’t come to rest so I could identify it.

Its rapidly beating wings flashed brightly as it zipped along the woodland ride and then rose steeply over a small stand of young pines and was gone.  How annoying was that, and what kind of butterfly was it?

I found out shortly afterwards when another orange butterfly flitted across the path and alighted in a patch of rosebay willowherb. This was a mighty flighty creature, so rather than approaching too close, I focused on it through my binoculars.

Goodness me, it was a small pearl-bordered fritillary – and what a stunner – a real jewel of a butterfly with its orange, intricately patterned wings. Small pearl-bordered fritillaries are uncommon and I had never seen one before in this part of the Ochils. I watched it for a while longer, before it suddenly took to the air again and disappeared. Boy, these butterflies can sure fly fast.

This is an excellent time of year to spot butterflies and only the day before I had come across several common blues by the edge of a nearby hill track. The azure blue on the wings of the male is as vibrant as the clear summer sky above; a wonderful soothing colour that makes your heart sing with joy. Its Latin species name, Icarus, could well be a reflection of this blueness matching that of the summer heavens.

Like the small pearl-bordered fritillary, and despite the name, common blues are scarce butterflies, but are loyal to particular areas where they can be seen year after year. It is, however, strange how they are mysteriously absent from nearby localities, which look identical habitat-wise. Perhaps common blues are weak fliers and not adept at colonising new areas.

On these same walks in our flower-filled hills, I have also enjoyed seeing small heath butterflies. Not nearly as showy as the fritillary or common blue, these small tawny butterflies are nonetheless exquisite in their own under-stated way.  They are well suited to our hillsides, not least because their caterpillars happily feed upon a variety of grasses.

Down by the river, the commonest butterfly at the moment is the ringlet. As a child, I don’t recall ringlets as being particularly frequent, but nowadays they seem more so. From a distance the males can appear very dark, almost black. But examine one close-up and that sprinkling of tiny false eyes on the wings soon becomes apparent.

The ecological balances required for our butterflies to thrive are as inherently fragile as their delicate wings. In a nutshell, they need lots of wild flowers and suitable food plants for their caterpillars. And in this era of perpetual habitat loss, the reason why so many of our varieties are literally flying on a wing and a prayer.

Duckling

Mother care

By Keith Broomfield

The mother mallard with her ducklings had seen me approach along the riverbank from some distance away, but I had already spotted her, so the advantage lay with me.

I was too far away to hear, but presumably she uttered some kind of soft call to alert the ducklings of imminent danger. Immediately, all seven of the wee fluffy bundles gathered together, and purposefully, but with great care to ensure there was no tell-tale ripple from their water wakes, sidled into the far bank and crammed themselves under some tree roots.

There was no room for the mother in this bankside recess, so instead she lay frozen and prostrate nearby upon the water’s edge – half her body on the muddy bank and her head pointing downwards into the river with her bill partially submerged, so that she could just breathe.

In effect, she was imitating a small log that was half-in and half-out the water, the body outline totally broken-up by merging herself between river and land.

It was a remarkable piece of camouflage, a flamboyant exhibition of guile to protect her precious ducklings. After all, this is her raison d’etre; to keep the mallard generations going, or to be more precise, to pass on her own genetic lineage.

Which leads to the obvious question; how did she know to do that, to duck and to dive, if you pardon the pun, to instinctively use such trickery to conceal herself and her brood from potential threat?

Had she seen her own mother react in the same way when she herself was a duckling and learnt from that – or is such behaviour genetic and pre-programmed.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect it is all wired into the genes, although there are probably also some learning elements involved, possibly to fine-tune such tactics.

The urge to protect the family is one of the strongest in nature and all kinds of clever ruses are utilised to confuse a predator. One of the most compelling is the broken wing act, which I’ve seen mallards employ, as well as wading birds such as oystercatchers.

Here, on the approach of a fox or other predator, the mother limps along the ground dragging one wing as if injured, deliberately drawing the pursuer away from her chicks. Quite amazing. Equally intriguing is why hasn’t the fox evolved to become wise to such a ploy? Perhaps the instinct to chase a weak animal is more important to survival than working out whether some deception is at work.

And, of course, a vixen is as equally protective of her offspring as any mallard. I’ve learnt over the years to be careful when visiting fox dens, because if the mother has the slightest inclination that its location has been compromised, she will quickly move the cubs to a new site.

Motherly care – it is the keystone of nature, and, of course, the bedrock of humankind, too.

River reflections

A spring dawn-frosted morning on the River Devon just a couple of days before the coronavirus lockdown; still air, azure sky and sunbeams brimming over the rolling horizon, spilling forth a myriad of sparkling rays.

Nature is so inspiring, life-giving and powerful in every way, and here by the river it was unfurling its beauty in such a spell-binding manner that tears welled-up in my eyes. Of course, my emotions were partly stirred by the challenges we are all facing, but in a strange way that was a positive, focusing the mind on what a wonderful world we live in.

It also brought thoughts swirling across my consciousness on how my perception of the natural world has changed over time. When I was younger my brain was more scientific in manner; nature being something to research and study. Why does a fox do this, or a lizard that? Such an approach is, of course, important, because the more we know about nature, then the better we can protect it.  But as the years have passed, my mind has also become more reflective; rather than knowing why, for me, much better to enjoy.

I wandered down to my favourite part of the river. There were signs of spring everywhere: singing birds, frog spawn in a nearby frozen-mirrored pool, and silver-furred catkins adorning the riverside willows. On the top of a high alder, a song thrush, with his pale-speckled breast catching the soft sunlight, sang his little heart out, a sweet melody of ringing notes, so true and sweet. Not to be outdone, down in among the tangled roots of a riverside alder, a diminutive wren shivered in the sheer passion of delivering his magical music.

In the distance by the flood meadow, the wonderful liquid trilling of a curlew drifted across the breeze – such a beautiful and haunting sound. Nature was busy at work, and it felt good.

Then, something remarkable happened. It was just a glimmer, a chance discovery and no more than that: a smooth mossy dome in the fork of an elder. I could have walked past it a thousand times and not seen it, such was the way it seamlessly blended with the branches. This domed marvel was the nest of a long-tailed tit – an intricate engineering masterpiece woven from moss, lichen and cobwebs, and lined with hundreds of feathers to keep it snug.

Inside, a female long tailed tit, with her tail kinked over her back, was incubating her clutch of eggs, safely cocooned in her near-invisible nest. Nearby, and out of sight in bramble thickets and hedgerow tangles, blackbirds, song thrushes and other birds would also be sitting on their own nests, nurturing and providing warmth for their fragile eggs.

Such imagery was wonderfully heart-lifting; a whole new generation was on the cusp of hatching, bringing new vibrancy and wonder to our everyday lives.

Opportunity knocks

It’s all about finding the right opportunity – and this pair of red-breasted mergansers fishing close to the shore at St Cyrus had certainly found that.

Despite the air being still, rolling breakers were crashing into the shore with some ferocity. But the power of the surge had created a small protective sand bar a short distance further out, which in turn provided a calm channel close to the beach.

It was here the mergansers fished, a good spot for catching small flounders, and where gulls had also gathered close to the water’s edge. I’m not a regular enough visitor to St Cyrus to know whether this narrow channel is always there, but I suspect not, for the coast here is such a dynamic environment, constantly scoured by the tidal currents, wave-topped seas and the outpourings from the nearby River North Esk.

I was here bright and early, the sun just having risen above the far horizon and there was not a soul about. The mergansers fished for several more minutes, the pair frequently diving together in unison. I wondered if there was teamwork going on here, with both sweeping the shallow channel in a broad front so as to flush out flatfish buried in the sand.

On the distant cliffs, fulmars prospected their nesting ledges and a short while later a stonechat alighted on the branch of a washed-up tree trunk right in front of me, before flitting away across the sand-dunes.  This was wildness at its best, but it was time to go, for I was keen to explore nearby Johnshaven.

Bur shortly after drawing away from the St Cyrus nature reserve visitor centre, I brought my car to a juddering halt. A grassy field adjacent to the lane was full of curlews, their long-curved bills silhouetted against the low winter sun. It had been a while since I had seen so many of these wonderful birds together at one time, content in the company of their own kind as they busily probed for worms.

Curlew numbers are in freefall, resulting in the bird being described as ‘the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK’, and as I drove away once more, I pondered for how much longer it would still be possible to witness such large groups as this.

Just as how the mergansers had found opportunity at St Cyrus, then so too had a pair of turnstones I discovered  soon after on the quay at Johnshaven. Turnstones adore fishing harbour quaysides, presumably because there is shellfish detritus left behind by fishers after landing their catch.

These attractive little waders breed in the Arctic, and are clearly opportunists too, seeking out good places to forage in winter before embarking upon their daunting migration back north. But then again, many creatures are opportunists in their own way, but as the plight of the curlew shows, that doesn’t always ensure survival in a rapidly changing natural world.

Blending into nature

Sitting still with hardly a flicker of a muscle, until you blend seamlessly into the landscape and become part of nature is such a productive way for seeking out wildlife; and so it proved in this little strip of woodland by the edge of the Ochils.

I had found a mossy tree stump to rest upon and observe, a time to bond with wildness itself. Of course, nature isn’t just about the birds and the bees and other creatures that move, but it is the plants and the trees, and the fungi, lichens and mosses too. A small fern clung to the low bough of a tree, water gurgled in the burn below and little nodules of early-sprouting butterbur, which will soon turn into white flower-spikes, scattered the woodland floor.

A fluttering caught the corner of my eye. It was a treecreeper, a wee mouse of a bird that had appeared from nowhere and was rapidly crawling up the narrow trunk of a birch.

On reaching the top, it flitted down to the base of the next tree and then spiralled jerkily up that one too. In some ways it was behaving a bit like a woodpecker, but rather than hammering at a trunk to dig out invertebrates, the treecreeper is more subtle, using its long curved slender bill to nimbly pick out tiny creatures from crevices in the bark.

Precision is everything, and I recall once seeing treecreeper extract a miniscule spider from a crack in an apple tree, using its bill like a pair of tweezers and deftly removing it with all the sureness of a surgeon.

I watched the treecreeper undulate across to another tree, but it was soon gone from view and everything was quiet once more, save for the sway of the branches in the gentle breeze.

There is a fox den nearby, so I decided to investigate and determine whether there had been any early digging going on in preparation for cubs being born in March. The den is challenging to reach, a scramble up a steep slope that is tangled with trees tumbled by a storm several years ago.

Much of the slope is muddy, but on one stretch there is a seam of softer, sandier soil, which foxes find ideal for digging their den into, which comprises a large tunnel with a spoil heap outside from their excavations.

On puffing breath, I clamber up to the site and there is indeed some fresh soil by the entrance, indicating recent activity, although they might not ultimately use this one for cubbing, for there are another two dens nearby and foxes have a habit of switching between them.

The air on this remote wooded slope was cold and bitter, but the freshly dug earth was a sure sign of an approaching spring, and with that happy thought, I slithered back down the slope on my rear-end and headed for home.

A wildlife conundrum

I was walking by a wooded edge near my home when the air was broken by a crackling of twigs and the gentle thump of pattering hooves. It was a roe deer and it had picked up my scent. Although wary, it couldn’t see me because a tangle of hawthorn bushes lay between us.

So, I paused, and it paused too, as roes are forever curious and always keen to get a glimpse of any potential threat. But the advantage lay with me, because I had spotted a small gap in the hawthorns. I took one step to the side, which provided a clean view through the space, and quickly snapped the photo shown here. In a flash the roe was gone, realising it had been rumbled.

It was a good sighting, and reflective of their abundance at the moment, with this year’s youngsters complementing the adult population. I continued on my way, and not long after, a black-and-white bird undulated through the trees ahead of me – a great-spotted woodpecker. They are normally shy birds and hard to approach, but this one bucked the trend, and happily spiralled up a tree trunk in search of invertebrates without giving me a second glance. Although these woodpeckers are resident birds, numbers are augmented in autumn by migrants from Scandinavia.

Down by my feet, an old tumbled tree trunk adorned with fungi caught my eye. Fungi can be notoriously difficult to identify because there are so many different types, but this decomposing trunk held two of our more easily recognised species – olive oysterling and turkeytail. Both are stunning in their own unique way, and a reminder of the sheer diversity of live that thrives within our countryside.

Indeed, the sight of the woodpecker in the tree and the fungi by my feet had delivered a tricky dilemma – would I spot more nature by looking upwards, or was it best to keep my eyes planted firmly to the ground? It was a conundrum for which I had no answer.

The guile of the heron

Dusk is falling upon Strathdevon; the ground is hard from the cold autumn chill and as I make my way along the riverbank a steady flow of rooks and jackdaws swirl above me on tumbling wings as they head to their night-time roost on the wooded ridge.

I stop for a while as I’m addicted to this winter gloaming. There is an almost primeval feel about it, the skeletal outline of the trees against the fading pastel sky and the gentle skim of mist settling upon river pools. But it is the smell I like most; the air hanging with the heavy aroma of moss and fallen leaves.

I move on and a twig cracks from under my feet and nature takes notice. A previously unseen grey heron takes to the air from a shingle bank in a slow lumbering flight and a blackbird calls in alarm. A dipper whirrs away upriver on stumpy wings.

I’ve lost sight of the heron, but it then swoops back into view above the alders, uttering a harsh ‘kerr-ack’ before it is gone, leaving in its wake the burble of the river.

Herons are typically shy birds, so I was not surprised that this one had taken flight so easily. But not all behave this way. One I came upon recently had no intention of flying away, despite my close approach, thus providing an opportunity to study it in detail. It was indeed an impressive bird with its yellow dagger-like bill and pendant crest combined with dark markings down the front and neck.

Herons are wily creatures too. One of our local birds uses the illumination from street lights by the burn that runs through our village as an aid for hunting fish at night.  It wouldn’t surprise me if other herons similarly utilise the soft white glow of the full moon for nocturnal forays in areas away from our towns and villages.

They also quickly learn the best fishing spots, often at the top of a riffle in a river where they can snap-up tiring trout as they move upstream. They are adaptable too and in spring will feast upon newly emerging frogs.

There is much folklore that promotes the notion that herons have some special attraction to fish. It was said, for example, that the marrow from the thigh-bone of a heron when applied to a baited hook would help anglers boost their catches.

Others believed that certain oils extracted from dead herons were similarly effective in luring fish. The truth, of course, is that rather than relying upon inherent bodily attractants, it is stealth and guile which makes the heron such an efficient fish catcher.

But the most engaging tale is surely the delightful image conjured by the long-held belief that the floor of a heron’s nest has two strategically placed holes to enable the long legs to dangle through when it is incubating eggs.

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