Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

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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.

In tribute to the blackbird

It is late afternoon and I’m sitting on a garden chair soaking up the August sun; its bright warmth a soothing tonic that relaxes the very soul.

I sit so still that a male blackbird alights on the lawn only a few feet away and looks at me quizzically with a cocked head. He is unsure whether I pose a threat or not and flickers his wings nervously, uttering a couple of “tchook, tchooks”, the precursor to his full-blown alarm call.

But he soon settles and begins to forage on the mown grass, moving in a series quick hops, before pausing to examine the ground. Through such methodical searching, he begins to snap up an impressive number of worms and other small creatures; the eye so keen that the slightest hint of movement is detected, no matter how miniscule.

The rich pickings clearly make my garden lawn a good place for this blackbird to be. Indeed, the blackbird is one of those birds that thrive best in the presence of humankind and among our dwellings. If one was to create the blackbird version of utopia, then the final outcome would not be too far away from the patchwork of lawns, parks, bushes and trees found in suburbia.

Lawns are great places to find invertebrates because blackbirds are not hampered by long grass when foraging. Ornamental and native garden bushes offer safe nesting sites and provide berries in autumn to feast upon. In deep winter when the soil is frosted hard, blackbirds take advantage of windfall apples on the ground and food on garden bird tables.

It is a two-way benefit and it would be almost unthinkable to imagine our gardens without blackbirds because they bring so much, especially in spring and early summer when at dawn and dusk the melodic song of the handsome cock bird rings out all around.

The poet William Henley was certainly full of praise for the musical elegance of the blackbird’s song when he wrote: “The nightingale has a lyre of gold/The lark’s is a clarion call/And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute/But I love him best of all”.

A real dazzler of a moth

It was the white that stopped me in my tracks, not a shiny brilliant white but more a shimmering paleness that shone out from the grass and heather of this Perthshire moor.

At first I thought it may have been a flower but when I crouched down closer I realised it was a magpie moth; a real dazzler of an insect with a beauty to rival any butterfly. The pattern was quite dramatic – symmetrically arranged splashes of black and orange beautifully offset by its pallid wings.

It’s a shame that butterflies get all the plaudits when moths and so many other types of insect are as equally striking. And even those that are not top of the beauty league are no less fascinating for it. I admire these underdogs of the animal kingdom and make a point of seeking out such creatures whenever I can.

Magpie moths often occur on hill and moor but they are found in gardens too where their caterpillars are a pest on currant bushes. Birds tend to avoid them as they are toxic to eat and the caterpillar advertises this fact through its bold warning coloration.

As I examined the moth, I was aware of the continual and rather monotonous mewing seagull-like cries of a family of buzzards from a nearby forestry plantation. But in amongst the buzzard noise, I could hear a higher pitched chattering.

It was a kestrel family, a mother and two fledged youngsters working their way along the forest edge and passing right beneath the soaring buzzards. The young kestrels were incredibly noisy; right little livewires who were finding life so very exciting and which contrasted starkly with the mournful mews of the buzzards.

From being common 30 or 40 years ago, kestrels are now much less so. Conversely, buzzards have had a remarkable turnaround in fortunes and are currently our most abundant bird of prey having soared in numbers in recent decades.

I reckon there is a connection here in that the buzzard has displaced the kestrel by out-competing it for food. Rising populations of goshawks and peregrine falcons may also be adding to this pressure through direct predation, whereas in the past kestrels had a free rein and limited competition. So maybe there is a bit of a natural reset going on here.

But then again, things are seldom black and white in nature and most likely there are other factors at work too. The most obvious one is habitat loss, in particular areas of rough grassland, which has resulted in fewer voles and mice being around for kestrels to prey upon.

As I watched the kestrels disappear over the rim of a small hill, I wondered what the future holds for these wonderful little falcons. They are up against so many complex environmental challenges and I can’t see them returning to their former abundance any time soon.

Slow Worm

Slow worms can move pretty fast!

Okay, so I know this is a totally weird thing to say, but if there is one thing guaranteed to excite me when out for a country walk, it is finding a sheet of corrugated iron lying on the ground.

It is like coming upon a treasure trove, for the chances are there will be fascinating creatures sheltering beneath. The corrugations mean there is space for animals to move and the metal absorbs heat and forms a wonderful waterproof roof. What small beast wouldn’t find this a comfortable and cosy place to be?

Such thoughts were firmly on my mind when I stumbled upon such a sheet of metal by the bankside of a tumbling river. Field voles are perhaps the commonest find under such places, but I had high hopes for slow worms, one of our most unusual and rarely seen creatures.

With anticipation mounting, I firmly gripped a corner of the corrugated iron. One, two, three and up it went, and there they were, two coppery coloured slow worms. If ever there was a misnomer then this is it, for they are neither worms nor particularly slow.

Slow worms can move pretty fast if the inclination takes them. One of them did disappear rather quickly, but the other hung around long enough for me to take a few photographs. I have only ever seen slow worms on a handful of occasions in my life, mostly from lifting corrugated iron or plywood sheets.

I suspect slow worms are more common than we realise, but are seldom seen because they spend most of the day hidden under rocks or in crevices, only coming out at night to feed upon small invertebrates, especially when it is mild and wet.

While they look like snakes, slow worms are in fact legless lizards. Unlike snakes, they have eyelids and can blink. Slow worms can also shed the end of their tail like a lizard, a handy defence mechanism if seized by a predator.

Indeed, one of the slow worms under this piece of corrugated iron was tail-less. Perhaps a buzzard or fox had pounced upon it in the recent past, or the loss may have been the result of fighting with another slow worm. Males often squabble and square up to each other.

There was also a toad under the corrugated iron and a bustling ant nest. These were black garden ants and were engaged in frenetic activity, running this way and that, some carrying their larvae or pupae to safety after being so rudely disturbed. Worker ants feed the developing larvae in the nest on sugars and liquefied insects.

One of nature’s great sights is watching these ants swarm in summer, when the winged males and females suddenly erupt from the nest and take to the sky and mate, darkening the air like a swirling plume of black smoke.

In search of the blaeberry bumblebee

I’ve been trying to photograph blaeberry bumblebees but have not been having much luck as they are rather shy creatures that tend to buzz away just as I’m about to press the shutter button of my camera.

Indeed, it is somewhat fortuitous that no-one has stumbled upon my endeavours in the hills above Dunning in southern Perthshire, as it is not unusual for the odd expletive to let rip as yet another bee does a disappearing act. Ah, such is the calming effect of nature!

I’ve become a bit obsessed with blaeberry bumblebees in recent weeks, for I find them most attractive insects with their distinctive orange-furred abdomens and busy behaviour. They are rather small bees and seem particularly attracted to the yellow flowers of bird’s-foot trefoil, which grows in profusion by tracksides in this part of the eastern Ochils.

These delightful wee bees are so-named because while they’ll feed on a variety of wildflowers, they do prefer areas where there is at least some blaeberry around. As such, they tend to be rather scarce and localised in distribution, but in suitable habitat can range up to mountain tops over 3,000ft high.

Unlike honey bees that have nests holding many thousands of workers, the nest of the blaeberry bumblebee is a small affair, often hidden in a rodent burrow and frequently containing fewer than 50 individuals.

Crawling on my hands on knees by the edge of these hill tracks in search of bumblebees has also brought me right up close to a number of small hill flowers that normally go unnoticed. Heath bedstraw is one such find, a sprawling mat-forming plant with the most delicate dusting of white flowers. The tiny purple-blue blooms of milkwort are also frequent here; a plant that was once prescribed by medieval herbalists to nursing mothers for its supposed properties in enhancing the flow of milk.

‘There is a flower, the lesser celandine….’

This random yellow scattering of lesser celandines across the floor of my local wood have an irresistible appeal that draws me every April, especially since in among these sun-spangled flowers are drifts of pale-petalled wood anemones. It is a soothing tonic of yellow upon white; hope and promise in this season of renewal.

But the day needs to be sunny to see these spring flowers in their full glory; visit when it is rainy or cold and the outlook is one of contrasting dreariness, with the petals of the multitude of brilliant flowers having closed-up like a thousand clenched fists. Or as William Wordsworth observed: There is a flower, the lesser celandine/That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain/ And, the first moment the sun may shine/ Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

They do so for a purpose, dry pollen is much easier for insects to transfer and closing the petals helps prevent dampness within the flower. These spring flowers are so important for early-emerging bumblebees and other nectar loving insects.

I saw a leech last week when searching for palmate newts in a small hill pond. But rather than being a blood sucking leech, this was a horse leech, which feed on small creatures such as midge larvae, tadpoles and worms.

Horse leeches are common around still water and can grow quite large. Yuck, you might say, but they are a harmless creatures and an essential component of life in our ponds and ditches. I have a sneaky regard for these leeches because they encouraged my son and his friends to talk about nature. For youngsters, the more ghoulish the creature, then the greater the interest.

There is another mysterious aquatic creature that I’m most keen to see again, but haven’t done so for many years. It is the brook lamprey, a small and primitive eel-like fish that haunts our rivers. For the most part, they remain hidden as slowly developing juveniles within the silt of river beds where they filter feed upon tiny organisms.

But come April and May, the metamorphosed adults miraculously appear, and in squirming balls of togetherness, they spawn in the gravelly shallows before dying. The only time I’ve ever witnessed this dramatic event was in a river in Midlothian some 25 years ago. These writhing fish, each one no more than 12cm long, were so engaged in their spawning frenzy that I could dip my hands in amongst them without a flicker of fear on their part.

It was all about being in the right place at the right time, and for me, probably a once in a lifetime nature encounter. But each spring I keep on looking and keep on hoping.

Lamb’s tails adorn our woodland edges

Lamb’s-tails – what a wonderfully appropriate name for the hazel catkins that are now adorning our hedgerows and woodland edges.

More a bush than a tree, the hazel is a fundamental keystone of our countryside yet so often over-looked because for much of the year it is rather inconspicuous. But all this changes in early spring when their hanging lime-coloured catkins decorate the branches like shiny baubles on a Christmas tree. It is as much a sign of the new season of life as frog spawn or early-emerging daffodils.

These dangly catkins are the male flowers, but look closer at the branches and the tiny bud-like red female flowers can be seen too. Pollinated by the wind, these will develop by autumn into small hazelnut clusters. Although productivity never seems to be great and I often find hazels in autumn that are completely nutless. The trees that do bear nuts are a magnet for agile wood mice and bank voles, the neatly chiselled shells lying below testament to their nocturnal foraging activities.

The hazel is the classic tree for coppicing, its grey-barked rods having been used since the earliest of times for basket work and building. These pliable yet tough poles made the ideal material for creating the framework for houses and fences. A hazel rod was also said to protect against evil spirits and was pretty useful for water-divining too.

Alders are also beginning to produce catkins, although the male flowers lack the vibrancy of those found on hazel. But in saying that, the alder can bring colour in a rather more unusual way. One fell across a road near my home during a recent gale and was quickly put to the saw. Now, every time I drive past I see the most extraordinary reddish-orange hue from the freshly cut roundels by the roadside. At one time this striking feature of new-cut wood was thought to symbolise bleeding and as such the tree was shrouded in fearful superstition. Over time this deep colour fades to a paler brown, making the wood much sought after by furniture makers who, quick on the marketing uptake, brand it as ‘Scots mahogany’.

The alder is our quintessential riverside tree and copes well in such poor and waterlogged conditions by having the capability to absorb nitrogen from the air, which in turn enhances the surrounding soil fertility. In effect, it is a pioneering tree that can colonise areas of bog and over time create the right conditions for the succession of other types of vegetation.

Alders also help to prevent erosion of riverbanks and, like the hazel, is really a tree that should be revered as one of our shining stars of the countryside. In winter, I particularly enjoy watching the feeding flocks of siskins and redpolls that dance along the riverside alder tops in search of their small seed cones. These little finches twitter in enjoyed harmony and no matter how bitter the weather, the alders are always productive and willingly give-up their precious bounty.

Where have all the greenfinches gone?

Greenfinches are scarce visitors to our garden nowadays, which is a real loss because they always bring so much colour with their green plumage and bright yellow flashes on wing edges and tail.

When I was growing up in Edinburgh in the 1970s, greenfinches were amongst the commonest visitors to our garden peanut feeder; bold and brassy and always quick to shoo away other birds that came too close. In the early 1990s, I recall seeing a huge flock of around 300 greenfinches roaming farmland in Buchan in north-east Scotland.

But they certainly do not seem to be nearly so common now. I suspect the reason for this scarcity is down to avian trichomoniasis disease, which has taken its toll on the population over the last decade or so. It is a known affliction of pigeons and doves but which now seems to have made a transmission jump to finches.

Birds suffering from the disease often look lethargic and have trouble in feeding and breathing. In some parts of the country, greenfinch numbers have dropped by a third within a year of the disease emerging.

Ironically, bird feeding may have contributed to the spread of the disease due to greenfinches coming into close contact with each other around garden bird tables.

It is all very sad stuff, but perhaps also something that will sort itself out in time. Nature has a habit of doing that.

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