Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

Tag: Scottish wildlife

Mountain hares are the soul of our uplands

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hoverfly marvels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a puddle – but so full of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

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