Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

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.

An alien encounter

Sometimes the strangest things happen. I was making my way along the banks of the River Devon by the edge of the Ochils, accompanied by Lottie, our spirited Welsh springer, who trotted ahead, sniffing every nook and cranny as spaniels are so wired to do.

Suddenly, Lottie stirs a commotion by the waterside, and a dark furred animal, about the size of a ferret, scoots up a bankside alder and perches on a 15ft high branch where it peers down at us nervously.  It was a mink, and truth be told, I never realised they were such good climbers.

Indeed, I was surprised this mink hadn’t taken to the water instead, for they are extremely proficient swimmers, but perhaps Lottie had inadvertently cut-off that escape route. The mink continued to look down, its claws gripping the bark so tenaciously that it obviously had no intention of descending until certain we were long gone.

As I examined the creature through my camera lens, there was no denying that this animal was rather attractive with its cute weaselly face, little white chin and thick-furred body. Of course, the flip-side is that mink are not native to our shores – they hail from North America – and are descended from fur farm escapees from several decades ago.

As such, mink are universally detested by river managers and conservationists because of the havoc they wreak upon native wildlife. They will take waterfowl and their chicks and eggs, prey upon trout, and are more than capable of destroying vulnerable sand martin colonies.

Mink are also the villains when it comes to the demise of our water vole populations, which have plummeted by more than 90% in recent times. And, as I had just discovered, mink are also adept climbers, so there is every possibility they plunder the tree nests of birds, too.

But it is not their fault they are here, it is entirely ours, and just one example of many that illustrates our inherent capacity to interfere with the natural way of things to the detriment of the environment. Indeed, as Lottie and I left the mink in peace and continued on our walk, there were many other signs of alien species along the riverbank.

Himalayan balsam was prolific by several parts of the path, which grows tall and can shade out native plants.  On shingle banks in the river, there was an abundance of monkey-flower, a more benign North American invader, perhaps, and certainly appealing to the eye with its vibrant yellow flowers. The list goes on, non-natives are all around us, whether by river, hill, forest, or sea.

At least mink don’t seem to be as abundant on the River Devon as they were a decade or so ago, possibly because otters, which are larger, are doing well and out-competing them. If this is the case, then it does show that at least some of our natives are capable of biting back.

The magic of moths

Oh, what wonderful names – early thorn, nut-tree tussock, flame carpet and scalloped hazel, it is almost as if a poet had conjured their creation.

They are, of course, the names of some of our moth species, and all which I have caught in my light-trap in recent weeks. My favourite just has to be the early thorn; such an intricately patterned orangey-beige moth that holds its wings upright like a butterfly.

I don’t recall ever coming across early thorn moths on country walks and they are obviously expert at staying well-hidden during the day, their serrated wing edges helping to break up their outline when resting in thick vegetation.

The flame carpet exhibits wonderful scribblings and subtle colour, whilst the nut-tree tussock has pale furry front legs and two little ‘eye’ marks on its wings. What incredible insects; what beauty and what colour.

There is a tendency to regard moths as drab, night-flying relatives of butterflies, but nothing could be further from the truth. Many species are as colourful as butterflies and they come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes.

Although most are night flying, not all are, and there are many species of moth that are active by day. One of the most compelling day-fliers is the aptly named chimney sweeper, which is small and sooty coloured.

Moths are important ecologically, with both caterpillars and adults being crucial sources of food for many creatures. Bats in particular are reliant upon moths and birds will even time the hatching of their eggs to coincide with peak abundance of moth caterpillars to feed their young. Moths are also prodigious pollinators.

Moths have the capacity to charm and enthral, and my light-trap has become an Aladdin’s cave, which I seek out eagerly each morning to enjoy the treasures that lie within. As I carefully extract these little jewels, it is like unveiling a hidden tapestry of nature; each moth so fragile and precious, and each one so important to the wellbeing of our environment.

 

Fox-cam catches cubs on film

My fox-cam came up trumps at the start of May with video footage of the vixen coaxing two of her cubs out the den for one of their first forays into the outside world.

There are four cubs in this den and over the next few weeks they will grow rapidly and soon outgrow their den and start lying up on the surface, hidden in amongst the vegetation. Click on the play button below to view the video.

Beefly

Meet the bee-fly – cuteness personified

Is there such a thing as a cute insect? Well, yes, there most definitely is because I saw one last week – a bee-fly; a little rotund ‘furry’ beast with an impossibly long proboscis.

My garden is a fine place for spotting wildlife – not because it is especially rich in creatures, but more because I spend a lot of my time there, sitting and observing. And thus, so was my bee-fly encounter; one of those unforgettable garden nature moments.

The sun was shining when I noticed this most peculiar looking insect hovering in the air right above my garden chair. It hung for a second or two, then suddenly zipped upwards, before returning to its original hovering station; a process repeated several times. It was the long snout that really stood out, which is used as a probe for sipping nectar, a bit like a hummingbird’s long bill.

They are fascinating creatures and despite their attractive appearance have a rather gruesome life cycle where the female lays her eggs in the nests of solitary bees, wasps and beetles. Or to be more accurate, she flicks her eggs into their burrows. The eggs hatch and the bee-fly larvae crawl further into the nest where they attack the host bee or wasp larvae, feeding upon their bodily fluids and eventually killing them.

Bumblebees, too, are showing in good numbers now as the weather gets warmer and I find it almost hypnotic watching their busy endeavours as they buzz around the garden. They are amongst our most absorbing insects with their haphazard flight lending an almost comical appearance.

There is still much to learn about the natural history of bumblebees but what we do know is that all is not well with our populations and already two species in the UK have become extinct in the last 70 years and others have declined dramatically. The main reasons are thought to be habitat loss and agricultural intensification.

There are 19 different species in Scotland but in most areas only six are common and widespread – the white-tailed, buff-tailed, early, garden, common carder, and red-tailed bumblebees. All are attractive, but the red-tailed bumblebee is my favourite by a country mile because of the striking contrast between the red on the tip of the abdomen and the shiny blackness of the rest of the body. Another fascinating one is the common carder bee, so named because it knits grass and moss together to make its nest on the ground.

They also tend to live most interesting lives, with most bumblebees having a similar social system to honey bees incorporating workers, drones and a queen. However, instead of the many thousands of individuals found in a typical honey bee hive, bumblebee colonies usually only comprise of a few hundred individuals at most. Another key difference is that each colony exists for less than a year and dies out in autumn, with only the young mated queens surviving over the winter in readiness for starting a new colony the following spring, which is often sited underground in a mouse hole or other crevice.

But behind the benign façade of busy bees bumbling amongst the flowerbeds it is all too convenient to forget just what important creatures they are to the overall health of our environment. Many of our plants rely upon their prolific pollinating activities, and of course animals depend upon plants, either directly or indirectly, for their survival too.
So, if there are no bumblebees around, then everything goes to pot, including agricultural production to feed ourselves.

Or to put it into other words, our very existence depends upon them.

Snowdrop

‘Snow piercers’ come into bloom

“The grass is spangled with thy silver drops,” wrote the 18th century poet Charlotte Turner Smith in a tribute to the snowdrop while another contemporary described this wonderful winter flower as “a beauteous gem” that springs forth “amid the bare and chilling gloom”.

The snowdrop is a wild plant that has inspired writers and poets for generations, a shining light against the dark barren winter soil. It is a flower with a white virginal purity that sings and dances; a marker that spring is on its way and that other flowers will soon burst into bloom.

But despite the fragile beauty of the petals, the snowdrop is an incredibly tough little plant able to withstand the hardest of frosts and being buried in the snow for days on end. Indeed, William Wordsworth noted the battering that snowdrops so frequently endure from winter storms, “…smitten by the wing of many a furious whirlblast sweeping by”.

In some parts of the country the snowdrop is known as the “snow-piercer” because of the way it pushes its emerging spear through the snow, aided by a protective sheath that covers the tip of the flowering stem.

Down by the river, my local snowdrops on the bankside often have to endure surging floods, but the crushed flowers and bent stems usually revive themselves into at least a passing resemblance of their former glory once the waters have receded. No doubt, these flash floods will also dislodge bulbs and carry them to new growing sites further downstream.

There is some uncertainty amongst botanists whether the snowdrop is native to the British Isles, but most likely it is an introduced species from mainland Europe, probably first arriving here a few centuries ago for planting in gardens and then becoming widely naturalised. Certainly, the snowdrop is commonly found by human settlements and isolated roadside colonies often mark the sites of demolished cottages.

Badgers will shortly be giving birth to cubs – most are born by the end of February or early March – and one of my local setts has undergone an extensive spring clean with much evidence of new digging activity. The spoil heap outside one the entrances was impressively large, and intriguingly, scattered across the earthy mound were several clay balls.

I had read about clay balls before but this was the first time I had ever encountered any. Half way in size between a golf and a tennis ball, they are most likely created during digging when the animal tries to clean soil stuck to its claws, the rolling action of the paws creating these earthy little spheres.

The bedding in the sett will also have been changed in preparation for the impending arrival of the cubs, but it won’t be until April before the youngsters emerge above ground for the first time. It is a good time of year to go badger watching, but you need to pick your vantage point carefully, for the adults have an excellent sense of smell.

Ghoulish screams of the night

It is like something out of a horror movie, a long drawn out scream that breaks the still January air. It is so sudden and so ghoulish that it’s enough to send shivers down the spine; a shriek that spins the mind into hallucinatory overdrive. What kind of hideous creature is out there in the dark void?

And there it goes again. It is almost as if someone is being strangled, a piercing scream with a husky hoarseness towards it faltering end. But this is no beast or brutal murder scene, it is fox mating season and in vulpine-speak this is a vixen saying to a dog fox, ‘come and get me, I’m ready to mate’.

Dog foxes also scream and have a range of other vocalisations, making this an incredibly noisy time in the fox calendar as the males and females communicate with each other. The vixen is only receptive to mate for a few days each year and there is no room for error; miss the copulating opportunity, then there will be another year to wait.

The actual nitty-gritty of the mating process can be rather unedifying too with the dog fox and vixen sometimes becoming inadvertently ‘locked’ together for an hour or more – an unfortunate mishappening that can result in even more screaming.

But with most vixens pregnant by early February, the night air soon falls silent again; a new generation of foxes is on its way. Indeed, with the new year upon us, there are new generations of all kinds of creatures on their way.

The lifecyles of many of our insects and other invertebrates are particularly intriguing because at the moment there no adults around at all; the next generation simply consisting of eggs or larvae biding their time and only emerging as adults once the weather begins to warm.

But some insects delay this larval stage until well into winter. On a recent mild December evening I set my live moth trap in the garden to see what flying creatures could be lured towards its glowing attractant light. When I checked the trap the following morning there were two mottled umber moths inside.

They are rather attractive early winter-flying moths, with buff coloured wings gently inscribed with dark lines and varying shades of brown. It is only the males that fly – the spider-like female moths are wingless. After hatching from her cocoon in the ground, the female will crawl onto a tree trunk or branch where she will waft a heady cocktail of pheromones in the hope of attracting a passing male to mate with.

She will then lay her eggs in a tree crevice and soon all the adults will have perished, the next generation consisting of eggs that will hatch into caterpillars in the spring. In late March and April, these little caterpillars will be like gold dust for small song birds such as blue tits, which will feed avidly upon them just as their own nesting season is getting underway.

The diversity of seaweeds on our shores

The mass of tangled kelp along the strandline of this East Neuk beach was at least a foot deep in places, a mix of yellow-brown flattened fronds and thick tubular stalks.

At the base of each stem were intricate stubby tendrils that would have attached the seaweed to rocks just below the low tide mark. Normally these would provide tenacious grip, but such has been the ferocity of recent storms that the kelp had been plucked with ease from their holdfasts by the crashing waves and surging currents.

I was at Cambo Sands by Kingsbarns, a few miles south-east of St Andrews, and the prolific amount of washed-up kelp along the beach was testament to the sheer power of the ocean – and also the resilience of our coastal wildlife. Seaweeds such as kelp are incredibly important for a wide range of marine life, creating shelter and safe places to forage.

When snorkelling on the Scottish west coast I constantly marvel at the abundance of goldsinny, corkwing and rock cook wrasse found in these kelp forests. Juvenile coley and pollack also thrive within their thick embrace, as do colourful two-spotted gobies.

Seaweeds are algae and a vast array of species typically occurs in the intertidal area. Each type tends to be especially adapted for a particular zone on the seashore and to differing degrees of exposure to the air or inundation by the tide. It is the stuff of biology class at school; channel wrack is found on the upper part of the shore, bladder wrack in the middle zone and serrated wrack on the lower shore.

The remains of many molluscs had been washed up on this beach too – in particular surf clams, their attractive half-shells littering the sand. Ranging from cream to rusty brown in colour, they display a series of concentric lines that match the gentle semi-circular curve of the smooth leading edge of the shell. Surf clams, or trough shells as they are often known, live buried in the sand on the lower shore and poke their short siphons just above the seabed to filter food from the plankton-rich water.

An occupational hazard for these clams is having their siphons nibbled off by flatfish such as flounders and dabs. But all is not lost, for the damaged tip is able to regenerate.

In a large shallow pool on the lower edge of the shore, a few wigeon dabbled in the shallows. They are delightful little ducks that love to feed on eelgrass. Eelgrass might look a bit like seaweed but it is actually a most unusual flowering plant that can handle being submerged by seawater.

But this part of the coast looked too exposed for eelgrass and these wigeon were almost certainly feeding on something else – but what, I was unable to tell.

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