Basin Notes

THE RECENT wild and stormy weather might have been quite frustrating and restrictive in terms of getting out and about but it did at least offer an ideal opportunity to catch-up on some recent discoveries, research, scientific papers and material.

For example, many farmers probably think that each year hordes of Woodpigeons invade our shores to ravage their crops. However, ringing has revealed that whilst some of our indigenous birds do indeed leave Scotland for England and France there are very few immigrants here compared to our immense local populations. The birds that they see in their fields and assume as coming from the Continent are in fact young birds that were bred here in the autumn and didn’t have time to moult into their resplendent adult plumage.

Woodpigeons usually find our winters hard (and this severe winter in particular) though farming methods and changing practices are helping them cope as more crops become available. In the past at this time of year farms used to concentrate on clover, but now many local farmers seem to prefer maize which has not been harvested, or overwintering rape crops.

Recent surveys have shown that there are probably up to 25 million Woodpigeons in Britain before each winter – though this number always drops by about two-thirds by the time the “proper” breeding season starts in earnest. It will be interesting to see how many survivors have made it in 2011.

Whilst heading to Brechin the other day I decided to pop-in past Sleepyhillock Cemetery, to view the fresh restoration work done to the war graves. Although always a place of solitude, peace and quiet, the whole place seemed to be “alive” with the incessant sounds, songs and calls of little Goldcrests!

Goldcrests are the smallest birds in our countryside, weighing between only five and six grams – that works out at roughly, five birds to the ounce. Ecologists and other interested observers have always wondered and marvelled at how they can possibly survive at all especially when temperatures plummet to below zero. But survive they do! When the weather is very bad their populations (like the Woodpigeons) naturally take a tumble but soon recover after a few milder winters. Many of these special, dainty little birds are constantly on the move throughout the winter months – again, we have ringing evidence and recoveries to show their exact movements within Britain of several hundred kilometres, which is astonishing given their tiny size.

Large numbers of our wintering population are from Scandinavia and the Baltic States who are seeking the milder conditions usually provided by the influence of the Gulf Stream on the far western edge of the European Continent.

Finally, isn’t it great to see all the usual annual tell-tale signs that spring is just around the corner? Snowdrops are evident everywhere now, crocuses are popping up in many local gardens and parks. It’s generally getting longer light daily and buds are appearing on lots of local trees and bushes etc. However, there are also less obvious signs – please remember to look and listen out for great spotted woodpeckers beginning to “drum” in the woods, frogs and toads returning to breed in ponds, mute swan pairs defending their territories, female hares “boxing” unwelcome suitors, fox cubs being born in their dens and all our common garden birds beginning to pair-up and build their new 2011 nests.