Basin Notes

LAST Sunday, I heard a familiar song that I haven’t heard for quite some time – and I’m not talking about some classic hit on the radio/tv by a well-known rock or pop band either!

Now is actually a good time to learn a subtle but distinctive characteristic of one of our most common and iconic little birds. During this month, the last spotty juvenile robins usually get their full adult plumage and start singing. They do this to defend their local territories, which are essential, if they are to survive the winter. The autumn/winter song is, however, a bit more ‘watery’, somewhat diluted and relatively ‘thin’ compared with the spring/summer one, which is only sung by the male. It’s crucial for all robins to find and establish good winter territories – with ample food and shelter. These are often near human habitation and include our own parks and gardens. These vitally important areas are not normally suitable for breeding in though, and that’s why this much-loved favourite seems to ‘disappear’ in springtime.

As mentioned in the previous Basin Notes, by Denis, It’s always a very sad moment in August when I suddenly realise that our local swifts have gone - although, as I write, there are still a few zooming and screaming around! Warblers, like whitethroats, sedge and willow warblers and blackcaps, are among our other summer visitors now preparing to leave the area. When they first arrive and whilst raising their broods, they are almost exclusively insect-feeders, but now they switch and supplement their diets to high-energy fruits such as elderberry and bramble – for that much-needed extra boost before their long and perilous flights south.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of beautiful and colourful flowers around at the moment and these noticeable ‘feeding stations’, whether they are in the garden or growing wild, continue to supply/support a vast multitude of insect life with nectar. Buddleia, common knapweed, ragwort, goldenrod, dandelion and numerous species of thistle are all eagerly plundered/raided firm-favourites – especially with butterflies. Keep your eyes open and watch out for painted ladies, peacocks, meadow browns, small heaths, red admirals and small tortoiseshells etc. All are relatively easy to spot, widespread and locally abundant, at the moment – especially, on those rare occasions, when the sun does actually manage to come out!

Whilst carrying out a recent butterfly transect, I came across and witnessed some extraordinary behaviour exhibited by a small copper butterfly. This is a tiny, stunning, colourful, orange/brown butterfly. The forewings are mainly copper-coloured, edged with brown and with scattered, dark spots; the hind wings are brown with a wavy orange band around the edges. It’s a very fast flying species which doesn’t tend to fly too high, often seen near hawkweeds, buttercups, red clover, daisies and yarrow – definitely seems to love basking on the ground or low-growing vegetation, with its wings spread out, as it absorbs the sun’s rays, and favours roosting head down, on grass stems.

Curiously, it was its interaction with other, nearby, butterflies, that caught my attention/eye – I actually witnessed one, badly damaged and in a sorry physical state, repeatedly ‘attacking’ both a much larger meadow brown and a large white butterfly, until they got the message to move on! When I got home, I decided to investigate this fascinating behaviour further and discovered that the individual I’d seen must have been a male.

Apparently, they are very territorial and establish small territories, which explains why I normally see them in the same few places. Most colonies in Scotland are localised and fairly small, with just a few adults seen on the wing at any time. They think nothing of flying up to challenge any unsuspecting insect, however unwittingly, entering their ‘patch’. This is not to fight with them per se or to deliberately frighten them off, but mainly in the vain hope of intercepting and securing the affections of a passing, interested, and willing female!

Depending on the weather, these little beauties should still be on the wing for the next month or so. Something tells me that it won’t just be our small coppers that are hoping for an Indian summer though.

Michael Craig