Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A good place to live

FIVE ROE deer, two red squirrels and a great spotted woodpecker, not to mention the tits and finches waiting in the wings to start their own breakfast when the big boys finish feeding on the peanut nets - not a bad haul when I rolled up the kitchen window blind first thing in the morning. I can't always expect such numbers of interesting visitors but none of them are so unusual that it's a special event.

We're lucky living where we do, on the edge of woodland at the foot of a glen, beside a river and sufficiently far away from any major urban centres for there to be little light pollution of our skies either daytime or night time. It all means that wildlife treats are relatively commonplace.

It's the time of year for much bird activity. Some, such as the mistle thrush and robin, are nesting already. We've a good population of thrushes spread throughout the woods around the house. I can't miss them when out with the dogs - perched on the very topmost branches of the tall old beech and fir trees, their ringing song challenging the world. Because they nest so early, when there is no foliage on the trees to camouflage them, they can get pretty aggressive if they have to defend their nest. A pair nested in the fork of an exposed gean (Scottish wild cherry) tree scarcely six feet off the ground and if I or the dogs went too close they became very agitated and scolded us loud and long until we cleared off.

There's an interesting range of birds of prey. I've watched a merlin take a blackbird that was feeding off the scraps that fell from the bird table, and strip off the breast feathers in preparation for lunch. Buzzards are so commonplace now I hardly bother to mention them. I'm certain there are more sparrowhawks in the woods than ever I see. The bird table is a happy hunting ground for them and from time to time I'm aware of a flash of barred fury making a dash at some unsuspecting song bird which has been singled out for tea. They are by no means always successful and will fly on if their prey escapes, but on one occasion I watched a sparrowhawk fly twice round the bird table in vain pursuit of I'm not too sure what - it all happened at what seemed the speed of light, and by the time the action was finished there wasn't a bird to be seen.

But the most exciting sightings were last year, of a pair of red kites that nested a quarter of a mile from the house. I hope they return this year. And I have to travel only about a dozen miles to see an osprey fishing on our local loch.

A sure sign that the sap is rising and young love is not far round the corner is the tap-tapping of the green and great spotted woodpeckers. We have so many elderly trees of different species for neighbours and no two sound the same, so that when the birds are engaged in a lively woodpecker paradiddle it sounds like a primitive woody xylophone. Most mornings I hear the strange yaffle of the green woodpeckers - the name for their call which which sounds like manic, barking laughter.

We regularly see four red squirrels fighting over the three peanut feeding stations. They give us possibly more pleasure than any of our other woodland visitors. I can't think of a better way to waste time usefully than sitting at our kitchen window, nursing a cup of coffee, watching the bird tables.

It's easy to forget that the world doesn't grind to a halt when the lights have gone out. I take my dogs out every night last thing and as often as not there's something of interest to report to my wife when we get back. Oyster catchers are essentially coastal birds which have been attracted inland during the spring and summer months to feed and to breed. They are active throughout the whole twenty four hours and the night time walks are always accompanied by their sharp "kleep, kleep" cries.

It's excellent habitat too for tawny owls. One calls "hoo hoo hoo" and its mate replies "keewick, keewick". They're keeping an eye on the intruders and letting the wood know the state of play.

We live not far from the River North Esk which is one of Scotland's best salmon rivers. Soon the spring run of fish will be making their way upriver to the headwaters where they will spawn and provide future generations of the King of Fish. I'll see them leaping the falls in their instinctive, traditional journey. They are at the end of an extraordinary life cycle which has taken them from their mother river to the waters around the Faroe Islands and Greenland where they have matured. They then make another mighty migration back to their mother river, having moved from fresh water to sea water and back again to fresh water, in order to breed.

One of the most exciting sights of nature is to see the fish fighting the watery element, single-mindedly determined to overcome waterfalls, rushing currents, anglers, otters, ospreys (in the River Tay) and whatever else nature throws at them so that continuation of their species is assured. If they didn't taste so good on the plate we'd never give them a second thought. Nowadays wild salmon is something of a rare treat compared with the farmed version, and we're prepared to pay a premium to buy one for the table. A couple of hundred years ago they were so plentiful that agricultural workers complained if they were fed salmon more than twice a week.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Waking up at night

IT'S EASY to make the mistake, and I suspect that a lot of people do, of thinking that nature and the countryside are a daytime experience. It's like thinking of the sky as a daylight phenomenon only.

Another world comes alive when the sun goes down. There's a world of animals, birds, insects, plants - even human beings - for whom night time is their time of day. It's not as diverse a world as the daytime world, I grant you, but the countryside is a busy place when most of us have gone to bed.

I take my dogs out last thing before they settle down for the night and, as often as not, there's something to catch my interest. We live in a well-wooded area and with spring around the corner (provided there isn't any more snow!) tawny owls keep us company. They're warning each other about intruders, of course, but at this time of year if I stand at the back door in the dark for ten minutes and just listen, it's their courtship calls I hear. The females will be laying their eggs soon so the nuptials must be nearly complete.

A bird which is almost as active at night as in the daytime is the oyster catcher. From spring until the end of October the dogs and I hear their piping “kleep, kleep” calls on the night time walk. Some never seem to rest at all at night and if I wake up I listen for their sharp cries. Sometimes a small pack of them swoop over our rooftops all calling together and the noise is loud enough to wake me up.

They are really birds of the sea shore and cliff tops but have adapted their lifestyle, expanding inland into new breeding habitats. They feed in the soft mud of river banks and lochs and ponds, probing with their long orange beaks for worms and molluscs, and returning to the milder temperatures of the sea shore in winter when the prospect of frost means they can no longer forage in the frozen ground inland.

It's one of the few birds - ducks and geese are some of the others - that can be as active at night as they are during the day.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Don't muck about with words

My working world is encompassed by words - individual words and how we use them, linking words to make phrases and how this appears to change the inherent meaning of the constituent words, how time and day-to-day usage change words. I like words, I enjoy using them. I like puns - witty plays on words; and similes and metaphors which are figures of speech - indeed perhaps 'figure of speech' is a metaphor in itself. But this blog is about idioms, or about one idiom in particular -

A narrow squeak - It's an interesting concept. How narrow must a squeak be before it can truly be said to be narrow? For purposes of comparison is there a regular or standard squeak and a broad squeak – and if so how can you identify them? Are we so accustomed to narrow squeaks that we can no longer recognise the regular and broad varieties?

Where can we find a narrow squeak? Are they scattered about like dead leaves or do we need to poke about in dark places. The phrase means "a disaster only just avoided" but if the disaster had been really terribly easily avoided would it then be a broad squeak, or perhaps a diminished squeak.

You see, nobody teaches you these things in school. They cram your head full of figures of speech and think they've done a good job. In reality they've left you ill prepared for the wider problems - you see, there we go again - that you'll encounter in life. Now I'm going to worry myself sick about where I can find one of those thin problems.