Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

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.

The strange world of lichens

On one of my regular walking routes there is a patch of forest where the pine trees are heavily adorned with silvery grey lichens that hang from the branches like feathery tufts.

It is a most compelling place, especially on winter mornings when the atmosphere is damp and the trees shrouded in mist. The aura here is almost primeval; silent air and patterns of grey. I’m not sure why this part of the wood should have so many lichens when nearby areas do not. But the reason doesn’t really matter, for the ambience they create is addictive and I suspect delivers an unconscious draw that makes this one of my favourite walks

Lichens are a bit like moss, all around us yet seldom remarked upon. They are also one of our more fascinating lifeforms, for they actually consist of two (or more) organisms rather than one. It’s a concept I find difficult to get my head around, but in simple explanatory terms lichens are partnerships between algae and fungi. But they are so closely interwoven with each other that they appear as one.

It is a mutually beneficial relationship where the alga produces food through photosynthesis while the fungus uses its inherent properties to create structure and support, as well provide mineral nutrients and store water so as to prevent desiccation.

So, although the numerous types of lichens are classed as individual species, they are technically a combination of species. Lichens are incredibly successful and survive in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Climb to the top of the Cairngorms and there will be colourful lichens on the rocks. You’ll find them too on boulders by the seashore where some are tolerant of salt spray and even brief immersion in saltwater.

Indeed, once your mind-set moves into lichen mode, you start seeing them everywhere. Any decent-sized rock will hold lichens, as will stone walls and trees. They even occur on garden lawns. Their variety is immense and they come in a multitude of different forms, some just as creeping encrustings on a rock (often in colourful oranges and yellows), and others with fluffy tendrils like the ones in my wood. There are around 1,800 different types of lichen in the British Isles.

An intriguing one is the aptly named map lichen, a low-spreading lichen found on rocks by the coast and which does indeed look like a map with its black squiggly lines set against a green background.

Lichens are important ecologically, offering shelter for a host of tiny invertebrates such as insects, spiders and molluscs, which in turn provide food for small birds like treecreepers and tits. Research has shown that woodlands abundant in lichens hold a greater diversity of wildlife than those where they are scarce. Birds often use lichens as a source of material to make their nests.

Lichens are also excellent indicators of clean and unpolluted air – and for that reason alone it is always satisfying to discover them thriving in your home area.

Autumn down by the river

The floor of the small strip of woodland behind our house is thick with fallen leaves, a multi-coloured carpet that rustles and gives gently under the heavy pad of my footsteps.

I scoop my hands into an accumulation of leaves by the side of the path and already I can see that the process of decomposition has begun. In time, this little handful will transform into leaf mould that will return valuable nutrients back to the soil. And as I place the claggy clump back onto the ground I notice a couple of tiny millipedes wriggling on my fingers, another indication of the importance of fallen leaves, this time as shelter for invertebrates.

When the heavy frosts come, this leaf litter will act as an insulating blanket providing a haven for micro-creatures that may otherwise succumb if exposed to the full winter cold. Blackbirds will forage in such areas, turning over the leaves with quick flicks of the beak in search of the hidden bounty that lies below.

Jays have been busy collecting and hoarding beech mast and acorns from the woodlands around my home patch in Strathdevon. They can fly quite large distances in this quest, for on several occasions I’ve seen these wonderfully coloured birds flying across from one side of the strath to the other. Often their throats appear engorged, full of nuts ready to be buried and stored. This autumn’s nut harvest will then be retrieved at a later date when food is scarce.

Down by the river a new fish pass was created a few years ago to aid the passage of salmon to their spawning grounds further upstream. It certainly looks a lot easier to negotiate than the previous stepped concrete structure, which was rather narrow and didn’t seem to allow enough space for the fish to gain momentum as they ascended the falls.

I’ve noticed when fly-fishing on the river this year that young salmon, or parr, have been relatively scarce, a possible sign that the fish are not doing well at the moment. Hopefully, this new salmon pass will increase the chances of successful spawning. I’ve already seen one fish negotiate the weir, a flapping well-coloured grilse of three or four pounds in weight.

It is interesting to watch herons on the river at this time of year. They like to hang around by the shallow pebbly rapids as they know that migrating trout heading upstream will be at their most vulnerable in such places. I wonder if the herons intuitively hunt in these parts of the river, or do they learn from experience and by watching other herons?

Bird Club book sale

From this Saturday (1 September) and throughout the month of September, visitors to the headquarters of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) in Aberlady can take advantage of 50% off all second hand books.

The collection ranges from bird identification guides for the UK and overseas, handbooks of particular species or bird group, studies of bird behaviour and migration, and a host of other natural history publications. Collectable items include a selection of New Naturalist and Poyser titles in very good condition.

The Club’s history as a book trader stretches back to 1961 when it started selling new ornithological titles from the SOC’s original headquarters in Regent Terrace, Edinburgh. At that time, it was almost certainly the only specialist bird bookshop in Europe and probably the world. George Waterston (one of the founders of the SOC) and his wife, Irene, were the driving force at that time as they had built up so many contacts around the world. Eventually, whilst still at Regent Terrace, the Club sold all the new book stock and goodwill to St Anne’s Books as the organisation couldn’t afford to finance the required holding of stock and by then there were many other specialist bird book dealers. It was many years later that second hand books were sold in any quantity and the Club’s re-location to Aberlady can really be considered the start.

The majority of the books in the SOC shop are duplicates from the SOC’s extensive library (also housed at Aberlady). Any donations and bequests are used to augment or fill any gaps in the library first, with any duplicates or titles outwith the scope of the collection put out for general sale in the shop.

Susan Horne, SOC Librarian explained the reason for the sale: ‘As with many high street retailers these days, it is increasingly difficult to compete with online retailers. Where we are situated is very picturesque but there isn’t the level of footfall to keep up with the generous donations of books that we receive from our members and the general public. We really value these donations but we also have limited storage space. We hope that by having a big sale like this, the benefits will be many-fold: We’ll shift some stock, raise some funds and create a bit of a buzz among local natural history enthusiasts; there’s already some excitement among Club members who are keen to get along to the sale and pick up a bargain!

“At the end of the day, all money from sales of the books goes directly to the charity so it’s a win-win situation; the SOC has an educational remit so the more bird literature there is out in the community, the better. It’s not all about raising funds; raising awareness is equally important”.

The sale runs from Saturday 1st to Sunday 30th September, open daily 10am-4pm, Waterston House, Aberlady.

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