Eurasian Siskin – April

©Nick Sidle – Full Screen Image

Eurasian Siskin driving off a larger European Greenfinch which had pushed it aside on an approach perch to a feeding site. Siskins don’t like queue jumpers. Yesterday was significantly colder than the normal for late April with snow lying on the ground overnight. As a result smaller birds in particular were desperate for food, that does not excuse abandoning all manners though. There is of course always pressure for resources between small birds and competition is often fierce but some recognition of who got there first can still apply. On a purely anecdotal basis from my own time spent watching them there does actually appear to be some difference in this between species. Greenfinches seem particularly ready to push any other bird aside and, although far from guaranteed, Siskins do seem to be the most ready to wait a turn especially with other Siskins. They also genuinely seem the most put out if they are queue jumped and react most strongly to it, even if the usurper is much bigger than they are. Perhaps there is a study waiting to be done; ‘Manners in foraging birds, a differentiation of etiquette between species’.

Nick

Glen Convinth,
Inverness-shire,
Highland Scotland

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Glen Convinth

Eurasian Siskin – Carduelis spinus

European Greenfinch – Carduelis carduelis

European Otter – April

©Nick Sidle – Full Screen Image

Out of the sea for a short time, whilst hunting along the coast on a rising tide, just after dawn at North Kessock on The Black Isle in Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland.

Otters are shy and elusive animals and difficult to see but patience and getting up early can be rewarded. There are many stories about them, including the one recorded by J Wentworth Day writing in 1937, who described a belief on the West Coast that there were ‘Otter Altars’, flat rocks by the sea worn flat by centuries of use as dining tables by Otters on migration. Scientifically this is dubious, Otters do not really migrate and even for a well used rock, their numbers would be unlikely to erode the surface till it was flat. This is almost certainly a case of confusing cause and effect and association. Otters do not start by using pointed rocks and make them flat. They do however like to come out of the water to eat, often do this at preferred sites and convenient, already flat, rocks are very likely to be used again and again.

This otter is on the East side of Highlands and was found this morning in the traditional territories of Clan Mackenzie.

Nick

Gallery – Scotland’s Clans and Families

Gallery – Clan Mackenzie

Gallery – Black Isle

Gallery – Scotland’s Mammals

European Otter – Lutra lutra

Capercaillie – April

©Nick Sidle – Full Screen Image

The Capercaillie is a very large Grouse like bird long associated with the native woodlands of Scotland. Over hunting and habitat loss meant it ceased to be found in the country by the late 1700’s but later reintroductions from Sweden have meant that it is once again part of the wild backdrop to the Scottish landscape.

The name Capercaillie appears with various spellings but all seem to stem from the Gaelic, although there is more than one possible root there as well. The most widely quoted is Capall coille meaning Horse of the Woods, believed to refer to the sheer size of the bird and the calls of the male in spring which, with a little imagination, could be said to sound like a horse, and a phrase in its more routine song, which can be described as ‘tik-up’, resembling the sound of a horse’s hooves. An alternative Gaelic base is Gabhar-coille, The Goat of the Wood, possibly coming from the male’s goat-like beard and, especially this time of the year, belligerence. Males display and compete ferociously with each other for females but have been known to show aggression to people and even vehicles that stray into what they see as their part of the forest in spring.

Capercaillie are declining in numbers again and great efforts are being made to keep them as part of the Scottish wild forest. This one is in part of the Cairngorms National Park, which put it in the traditional lands of the Macpherson clan but all the great Scottish families would have been familiar with this majestic bird in their ancestral homelands in past centuries.

Gallery – Scotland’s Clans and Families

Gallery – Clan Macpherson

Gallery – Cairngorms National Park

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Nick

Western Capercaillie – Tetrao urogallus

Glen Garry – April

©Nick Sidle – Full screen image

Loch Poulary and Beinn Bheag, Glen Garry, Inverness-shire, Highland Scotland.

Glen Garry is the ancestral land of the MacDonnell of Glen Garry Clan. Many were displaced in the Highland clearances and later depopulation and found themselves in Canada where, because of them, there is now a Glengarry County and Loch Garry in Ontario.

Gallery – Scotland’s Clans and Families

Gallery – Clan MacDonnell

A Rare Visitor

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Full Screen Image – Hawfinch, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The Hawfinch is the largest of the finches found in Scotland and the rest of Britain. Size though does not mean that it is seen very often, a combination of being rare, unfortunately in significant decline and having a rather shy temperament which has even been described as ‘self-effacing’, all mean that glimpses of them are few and far between and I was very lucky to see this one in an area of Highland Scotland where they are almost never recorded, the last sighting was in 2010 and that was tens of miles South on the other side of Loch Ness. There are local small breeding populations known much further South in Scotland at Scone Palace near Perth.

This individual is almost certainly a migrant on the move and there have been several sightings of these last week in Scotland, including on the islands, but none on the mainland in this region till now. The Gaelic name for the Hawfinch is the Gobach which translates as ‘Beaky’ which, although not exactly romantic or poetic, is highly appropriate not just because the Hawfinch beak is as large as it is but also because studies have shown it can exert huge pressures in excess of 95 lbs (48 kg) in order to crack things like cherry stones which it feeds on. In Yorkshire, the bird is actually known as the Cherry Finch because of its fondness for the fruit but further South in Europe it is also known for its selection of Olives, the stones of which require over 160 lbs pressure to break them as fast as the Hawfinch is on record as doing with apparent ease. Yes, the muscles for the beak are very well developed. Put simply, the Hawfinch can deliver a crushing pressure with its beak well over 1000 times its own weight. If human beings could do that, we would be looking at forces measured in tens of tons. The noise of the stones breaking can sometimes be the way of finding Hawfinches when they are feeding but it was not the case for my encounter. Cherries are a bit thin on the ground here and olives – don’t even ask. I was just lucky enough to see a bird that was not one of the usual I see and then, after a moment’s doubt, realise what I had found.

Thanks to Susan Haysom at Scottish Natural Heritage and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) for their information on the status of the Hawfinch and recorded sightings.

If anyone else is fortunate enough to spot a Hawfinch in North Scotland the BTO would be very interested to have the records and these can be reported through their website

British Trust for Ornithology

Nick

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Glen Convinth

 

Hawfinch – Coccothraustes coccothraustes

Valentine’s Day is coming. If music be the food of love and you are a mouse do you need to go to school?

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Full Screen Image – Wood Mouse, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The achievements and abilities of mice have been greatly underestimated by people throughout the ages. Yet another entry on that list is that most people are completely unaware that mice are accomplished singers, although since they choose to perform using a frequency way above the sounds detectable to human hearing, perhaps this is not our fault, perhaps the mice wanted to keep it private. One reason could be that, in the best Mediterranean romantic tradition, one major use of song by mice is to win the heart of another mouse they have fallen for. Whether this includes performances under balconies or a mouse equivalent of balconies is not, as far as I know, yet recorded.

Once you have caught up with the choral skills of mice, there is then an immediate question, are they born with a repertoire of songs that they can use or do they have to learn them from other mice? How much they have to rehearse before another mouse wants to listen to them is a different issue on which, like the balconies, I am again not aware if there is any research. The same is true for the issue of if for mice, like people, there are some of us whose abilities in musical performance are such that the best way to show we care about someone else is to stay silent and fall back on the alternatives like red roses, chocolates and candle lit dinners. If there are mice who would be best advised to skip the singing, then I hope that in their society they have different ways to show they care as well.

To return to the main question of whether mice are born with their songs or have to go to school, the answer, like so much in the natural world, is not that simple or, to put it more simply, looks like a bit of both. Two studies have identified both paths as being active for mice who aspire to be the next sensation on the mouse music scene. One set of researchers at Northeastern Ohio Universities found evidence of substantial learning taking place:

Development of Social Vocalizations in Mice

whilst another based in Japan showed an innate ability in mice to know the songs since they found that sibling mice raised by different foster parents had the same repertoire of songs as their own biological parents and each other:

Cross Fostering Experiments Suggest That Mice Songs Are Innate

So, to make it in the music business as a mouse you need just the same as we do. You need instinct, innate ability and talent, a lot of hard work, possibly some help and even then probably still just a bit of luck. So I wish all mice and people with romance on their mind and a hint of love in the air all the luck they need on February 14th and let’s hope that everyone, and every mouse who wants to, finds the happiness and futures they seek together for however long it can last.

Nick

Gallery – Glen Convinth

Gallery – Scotland’s Mammals

 

Wood Mouse – Apodemus sylvaticus

 

Hair, Ice, Fungus – Which?

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Full Screen Image – Hair Ice, Battan Forest, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The answer is actually all three. This rare phenomenon is called hair ice and is made up of tiny filaments of ice crystals formed on and exuding from dead wood when the conditions are right, it is the infrequent occurrence of the perfect conditions that means it is so rarely seen. It arises from the pores in the wood structure where the bark has been lost. What is required is a very cold temperature below freezing, for the dead wood to be saturated with water and very wet and for the right humidity in the surrounding air which must be high. After that, this particular type of frost can form as hairs about 0.01mm in diameter so it is no surprise that if you touch it, it melts. Now comes the fungal bit. For hair ice to form, what is also required is the presence of a fungus, Exidiopsis effusa, in the wood – an association reported by a team of scientists from Switzerland and Germany and reported in the journal Biogeosciences.

Evidence for biological shaping of hair ice

Hair ice was first recognised and studied in 1918 by Alfred Wegener, perhaps better known for his work on the slightly larger in scale question of tectonic plates. He suggested an association with fungus but it is only the recent work that has finally revealed what that is. In the absence of the fungus, ice forms on the surface of the wood as an encrusting layer, only if the fungus is present then the hairs form and, subject to the temperature staying below freezing, grow. The researchers hypothesis is that the hair ice structures are stabilised by a recrystallization inhibitor that comes from the Exidiopsis effusa. The team showed the presence of complex organic compounds, lignin and tannin, in the ice and identify these as the substances preventing the formation of larger ice crystals on the surface of the wood. Lignin and tannin are metabolic products of fungal activity and Exidiopsis effusa appears to have been the organism to provide all the right conditions.

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Full Screen Image – Hair Ice ©Nick Sidle

For someone thinking as a scientist, this sort of discovery makes a beautiful natural phenomenon, even more a wonder of the forests. If for you complex organic compounds get in the way of appreciating a fleeting, unusual and exquisite event in the wild, then there is still the alternative name of ‘Snow Fairy’.

Nick

Gallery – Glen Convinth

 

Fungus – Exidiopsis effusa

Wishing you a very merry and fade free Christmas

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Full Screen Image – European Robin, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The question where do birds’ feathers get their colours is not an entirely simple one but we are now one step closer to understanding some of the mechanisms involved. A study based in Sheffield and published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’ shows that for some birds, including the Robin, their colours are not the results of pigments that could fade but are the product of the actual structure of the feathers. We are though looking at very small structures, they needed the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble to do the research and that just happens to be one of the most powerful microscopes ever built, a very large step up from your basic table top model.

Spatially modulated structural colour in bird feathers

A significant part of the work was based on looking at the Eurasian Jay, known for its varied plumage including a brilliant blue, and found that variations in the feathers at a nano structural level determined the reflection of light and so the colours that we see.

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Jay ©Nick Sidle

Science is using technologies like the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility to look at a number of questions that have evaded a complete answer till now, including the issue of how Geckos can manage to run up vertical surfaces and across ceilings and then how these biological marvels can be adapted to use in human engineering. The whole field is has been called biomimetics and could, in the future, lead to some incredible breakthroughs and not just fade free colours. Till more is known though, please don’t try this at home or anywhere else for that matter. Geckos can do it, people can’t, now and at least for the foreseeable future.

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Full Screen Image – Yellow-bellied House Gecko, Thanjavur, South India ©Nick Sidle (Later to become the inspiration for the ‘Hotel Room Lizard’ in the second book of ‘The Heartstone Odyssey’ trilogy)

Nick

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Tamil Nadu, South India

 

European Robin – Erithacus rubecula

Eurasian Jay – Garrulus glandarius

Yellow-bellied House Gecko – Hemidactylus flaviviridis

Losing friends is easy……

We’ve all done it and by far the most common reason is by what we do not do. Yes, friendships can end in a dramatic falling out but quite often real friends find a way of making up even after one of those. Most friendships that end are because of drifting apart when leaving somewhere or moving on in life, most end through not doing enough, not by doing something easily recognised as terribly wrong.

So a puzzle, spot the odd two out in the gallery below.

Long-tailed Duck

Full Screen Image – Long-tailed Duck, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Atlantic Puffin, Fowlsheugh, Kincardineshire, Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – African Lions, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania ©Nick Sidle

Common Pochard

Full Screen Image – Pochard, Moray Firth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Common Pochard

Full Screen Image – Pochard, Richmond, London, England ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – African Elephants, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Slavonian Grebe, Loch Ruthven, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Yes, you could be right by saying the Lion and the Elephant, both were in the Serengeti and neither can be found wild in Scotland whereas the Puffin, Slavonian Grebe, Pochard and Long-tailed Duck certainly are but, as you have probably guessed, that would be too easy. In fact, I’m now going to apologise for a trick question but it is a very sad trick question, the answer I was thinking of is none of them. All now share the unfortunate distinction of being on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species under the heading ‘Vulnerable to Extinction” which means that whilst they are still in the wild in significant numbers, their populations are falling at a worrying rate and all it would take would be for that to continue and you can predict that they will and even when they might become extinct. The Atlantic Puffin, Slavonian Grebe and Pochard have only just been added to the list, things are not going in the right direction.

BBC News – Four UK bird species including puffins ‘face extinction’

Like most things, their stories are complicated. Changes in climate feature prominently, for example rising sea temperatures are attributed with having greatly reduced the number of Sandeels, a staple food of Puffins and other seabirds, with serious negative effects on breeding success in their colonies.

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Full Screen Image – Sandeels, Porthminster Reef, St Ives Bay, Cornwall, England ©Nick Sidle

Pressures on habitat and disturbance from people are also recurring themes. If we want to keep seeing these animals and birds, we all need to contribute to doing something, we all need to care a bit more. They are all important but Puffins and Elephants frequently feature very high up on lists of favourite species, the majority of us think of them in some way as friends and so that is why what we all need to take very seriously is that taking things for granted, neglect and not doing enough really are the most common ways that friends are lost.

I would like to end on an upbeat note but perhaps there is something more important that still has to be shared. Work your way though the photographs of birds that follow. With a bit of patience and effort, you can see all of them in Scotland, just get out into the wild in the right habitats and they are all there. Why have I included them? Well take a good hard look. All these species, some of which are not thought of in any way as rare, appear on the next category down from ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’, which is ‘Near Threatened’. All of these birds, which it is so easy to take for granted, are waiting in the wings to take their place with the Puffin, Slavonian Grebe, Pochard and Long-tailed Duck. All we have to do is look the other way, forget and change nothing.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Full Screen Image – Bar-tailed Godwit, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Oystercatcher, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Northern Lapwing

Full Screen Image – Northern Lapwings, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Razorbill

Full Screen Image – Razorbills, Fowlsheugh, Kincardineshire, Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Meadow Pipit, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Red Knot

Full Screen Image – Red Knot, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Black-tailed Godwit, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Red Kite, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Curlew, Lochinver, Sutherland, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Eider, Newhall Point, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Redwing, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

There never are easy answers in conservation and those responsible always have to weigh competing priorities and claims but it is up to all of us who care to make our voices heard so that those in power and who determine and lead policy and opinion always remember what is at stake and that there are some of us, enough of us, who really would like to make the effort to keep all the friends we can.

Nick

Scotland’s Birds Gallery

British Isles Marine gallery

Tanzania Land and Wildlife gallery

 

Long-tailed Duck – Clangula hyemalis

Atlantic Puffin – Fratercula arctica

African Lion – Panthera leo

Pochard – Aythya ferina

African Elephant – Loxodonta africana

Slavonian Grebe – Podiceps auritus

Sandeel – Ammodytes tobianus

Bar-tailed Godwit – Limosa lapponica

Eurasian Oystercatcher – Haemotopus ostralegus

Northern Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus

Razorbill – Alca torda

Meadow Pipit – Anthus pratensis

Red Knot – Calidris canutus

Black-tailed Godwit – Limosa limosa

Red Kite – Milvus milvus

Eurasian Curlew – Numenius arquata

Eider – Somateria mollissima

Redwing – Turdus iliacus

Romance lives!

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Full Screen Image – Great Tit, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Great Tits are birds that form strong pair bonds that may last for far more than just one breeding season. Starting from this, a team from Oxford University set out to look at competing priorities in the birds’ behaviour, specifically if a male has to choose between staying with his mate or getting to a food source, which comes first? Their results have been published in the journal Current Biology

Experimental Evidence that Social Relationships Determine Individual Foraging Behaviour

and show that it is the relationship that comes first or, as it is put more eloquently on the Oxford University web site, that “birds choose love over food”

Oxford University – Wild birds choose love over food

So the age of romance is not entirely gone and, however valid an explanation of which strategy offers the best survival and evolutionary advantages may be, ultimately all that is saying is that love is worth it.

Nick

Scotland’s Birds gallery

Glen Convinth

Great Tit – Parus major