Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

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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.

The racy sex life of the dunnock

I have been watching a pair of dunnocks in the garden and it is easy to see why this is a bird that many people overlook. It does, after all, have rather unremarkable brown-streaked plumage and a tendency to feed out of sight beneath shrubs and bushes.

But appearances can be deceptive; for the dunnock has a most racy sex life which if replicated amongst the good folk of a country parish would be deemed as quite scandalous.

The dunnock indulges in virtually every mating strategy possible. More than one male can be paired with the same female, or a male can be paired with more than one female. And two or more males may be with two or more females at the same time. But there are also some puritan birds who adopt the seemingly boring practice of monogamy.

Confused? Well it is all a game of adapting to the circumstances and trying to successfully pass on one’s genes to the next generation – or as one naturalist so aptly described dunnock breeding behaviour, a case of ‘every man for himself’.

In the scenario of one female and two males, the hen dunnock plays a very clever strategy. She will mate with one male, but then when the other male comes along he will peck at her rear which causes her to eject the sperm from the first suitor, before he too then mates with her. What all this means is that the two males think they are the fathers and will both therefore help to feed the young in the nest, dramatically increasing the chances of the brood being successfully raised.

If all this is not enough, at the peak of the courting season dunnocks may mate with each other up to 100 times a day. Furthermore, all this is happening right beneath your neatly trimmed berberis and cotoneaster bushes. Ooh-er missus, time for a lie down, me thinks.

This fascinating behaviour was only discovered in the 1990s and highlights how much we still have to learn about nature, even right on our own doorstep. Perhaps it also shows how we tend to take our more familiar creatures very much for granted and often pay them only cursory attention.

The dunnock illustrates this in other ways. Okay, so the bird does appear a bit drab at first glance. But look closer and the plumage is in fact rather intricate; a rufous brown with dark streaks and a lovely slate-grey head, throat and breast. It also has a most wonderful short and musical song at this time of year. One of my earliest memories as a child was finding a dunnock’s nest lodged in a moss-covered tree stump, the four eggs glistening like azure pebbles.

The most interesting life of the apparently unassuming dunnock should really serve as encouragement to us all to look that little bit closer at our everyday fauna and flora. In other words, the deeper you delve, the greater the surprises revealed. Sometimes quite shocking ones!

Our sleeping world

Tidying up the garden in preparation for winter, I came across three hibernating garden snails hidden beneath an ornamental rock. Huddled together, I was immediately struck by the attractive and intricate patterns inscribed upon their spiral shells.

One of the snails became dislodged from the underside of the stone, and as I turned it over I could see that the opening at the bottom of the shell had been totally closed off with a crust of hardened mucous so as to seal the animal safely inside and prevent it drying out. The heartbeat rate drops dramatically too so as to save vital energy. In effect, this trio of snails were as close to death as one can get without actually tipping over the edge.

The different strategies our invertebrates adopt to see them through the winter is an endless source of fascination for me. Beneath the soil, or in cracks and crevices in walls, or within a rotting tree stump, there is a whole multitude of life lying unseen. Many of these creatures don’t even exist in the adult form at all, but instead see through the winter months as eggs or larvae waiting to burst into life the following spring.

For the wasp, only the pregnant queens remain, holed up in some crevice in a wall or perhaps the attic of a house, waiting for the warmer weather and the chance to start up a new colony. Some adult butterflies too may be hibernating such as small tortoiseshells and peacocks and it is not unusual to find an individual in the corner of a garden shed or even in a bedroom cupboard. On warm days in March they will be among the first insects to emerge.

Other invertebrates, however, don’t need to hibernate and can often be seen during damp and mild spells. The clouds of winter gnats dancing over the garden lawn are always a sight that cheers the heart. And while garden snails go for the hibernation option, it is not unusual to see slugs out and about on a mild winter’s evening.

It seems rather perplexing why some types of slugs venture out in winter, whilst the related garden snail prefers to hibernate. Although it does appear that the garden snail is generally not very tolerant of the cold and in Scotland tends to be only found in the milder, coastal areas.

What is for certain is that both slugs and snails are important winter food our birds. It would be a veritable feast for a song thrush if one were to happen upon the three slumbering snails beneath my garden rock. Although many Scottish song thrushes head further south to spend the winter, there are usually a few that stay behind.

I like song thrushes, but these snails were appealing in their own way too, so I carefully placed the rock back again in its original position, making sure in particular that the animal I had accidentally dislodged was firmly out of sight from any predatory eyes.

Mauve Stinger

Why are there so many jellyfish in the Mediterranean this year?

I’ve been lucky enough to twice visit the Spanish island of Mallorca this year to engage in my passion for snorkelling.

The Mediterranean is such a diverse place for marine life and on almost every dive I come back having seen something new.

One feature this year has been the sheer abundance of jellyfish – most notably mauve stingers and compass jellyfish. But there were also comb jellies and ‘by-the-wind sailors’, the most unusual creature I think I have ever seen.

These jellyfish were especially numerous in the spring, but were still pretty prolific on my most recent visit in October.

In previous years when snorkelling in the Mediterranean I have only occasionally seen jellyfish – so what is going on?

It is an issue that is causing a bit of debate among marine scientists, with climate change, ocean acidification and pollution, and overfishing of predator species all being cited as possible reasons.

The mauve stinger (pictured) in particular is a most beautiful species, but let me tell you this; the sting is pretty nasty as I found to my cost in the spring. The Mediterranean is highly dependent on tourism, so it would be highly undesirable economically if this jellyfish abundance were to continue in future years.

Perhaps there is some unexplained natural phenomena going on – nature does tend to have boom and bust tendencies – and numbers will fall back in the future. But whatever the case, both scientists and tourism bosses will be monitoring the situation closely.

Wood pigeon

Why the humble woodpigeon is one of our most successful birds

I was out walking the dog through a stretch of thick pine plantation in Glen Devon when I stumbled upon the half eggshell from a woodpigeon lying by the path’s edge.

Once the eggs hatch in the nest, the mother woodpigeon will deposit the empty white eggshells some distance away. The remarkable thing about my discovery is that it happened right in the middle of autumn – and this in itself gives an insight into why the woodpigeon is such a successful and ubiquitous bird.

Virtually all our bird species breed in a relatively narrow timeframe in spring and early summer, but the woodpigeon is content to cast aside such hindrances and there have been records of breeding in Scotland in most months of the year. I imagine one reason they are able to extend their nesting season is by taking advantage of spilt grain in our fields after harvesting.

Even as I write this piece I can hear a male woodpigeon ardently cooing in the wood behind my house, keen to attract a mate. If he succeeds, then it could be early November before the young have fledged and are on the wing.

The pigeon family certainly does seem to have an inherent ability to adapt. Feral pigeons are, of course, common in our cities, but perhaps the most astonishing story lies in the expansion of the collared dove.

In what has been described as one of the most remarkable ornithological events of the 20th century, the collared dove didn’t even occur here until the mid-1950s when it then rapidly colonised the British Isles after spreading north-west from Turkey.

But it is not all plain sailing in the pigeon world, as highlighted by the passenger pigeon. A native of North America it made the tragic journey from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century. A lesson for us all.

River Devon

Autumn life on the River Devon

Down by the River Devon the first of the autumn leaves have started to swirl in the air whenever the wind blows, alighting gently onto the water’s surface before being carried downstream.

I like the autumn; the chilling of the air and the turning of the leaves. The Ochils too will soon change hue from tired shades of green to a blaze of ochre that has been fired up by the wilting grass and bracken.

It is a season that brings so much and out on the river dippers are uttering short bursts of soft song as they mark out their territories. Dippers thrive on the Devon and one only has to turn over a small stone plucked from the shallows to find the reason why. The underside of such pebbles will invariably be crawling with small insect larvae – an abundant source of protein for the dippers to feast upon.

I disturb a heron as I make my way along the bank. Herons often have favourite fishing stations and those on the Devon particularly like to position themselves at the top of shallow rapids. Trout are on the move to spawning areas at this time of year and present an easy target for the herons as they ascend these shallow, bubbling stretches of water.

Trout have other enemies here too. Only recently I came upon an inquisitive mink that eyeballed me from in among tangled tree roots on the bankside. It soon tired of this staring game and plopped into the water and disappeared from view. Mink are the most accomplished swimmers and trout are one of their principal prey items.

Although the mink is an undesirable alien species to these parts, there is no denying that they are rather attractive creatures in their own right, thick furred and lithesome. One must never forget that it is not their fault that they are here, and as such, deserve at least a modicum of our respect.

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