Am Bratach No. 315
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by Andy Summers
sudden fall in the temperature can transform a grey, washed out January into
a scene of stark, crystalline beauty perfect for a winter walk. As long as
you are warmly wrapped in at least three layers of the best wicking
clothing, with colourful woolly hat and two pairs of gloves and extra
thermal fleece socks, it can be great.
But spare a thought for the
local wildlife. Imagine being a small wren trying to survive the winter
blast, trying to stay warm and find enough food to last the night. Have you
ever tried looking at the landscape through its eyes? See how many
hibernating caterpillars you can find in the heather or spiders hiding in
the crevice of a birch bark or insect eggs on a willow twig. It will not be
long before you are crying, “ I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!”
Yesterday I took a quiet walk through the deserted treescape of the Culag
woods. The tourists had gone, the dog walkers still in bed. The snow
remained thick under the old lichen-strewn hazel trees and all was
soundless, but I did see some signs of recent activity. Strips of bark and
bits of rotten wood lay accusingly in the snow beneath a rotten stump of a
spruce tree. A woodpecker had been busy.
A while ago, to see a great
spotted woodpecker in the North Highlands was something to write about, but
now their numbers have swollen. It is still something to marvel at as they
try to winkle out beetle larvae from behind the stubborn bark of an oak
tree. Some scientists believe the key factor in their increase is global
warming but also the fact they have learned a new trick — hanging on to fat
balls and peanuts on bird tables. There is even a suspicion that their
current increase in the UK is the result of a coincidental decline in
starlings, which compete with the woodpeckers for tree-holes as nest sites.
In my experience here, starlings are more likely to nest in chimney
pots than trees and I have yet to see a woodpecker on my chimney pot. But
one thing is for sure: the hydro are busier than normal replacing a number
of wooden power poles because woodpeckers have drilled a row of holes at the
top of many of the poles.
The other thing to look out for, when snow
is lying, are signs of feeding crossbills. They are messy eaters as they try
to prise out the seeds from a pine or larch cone. In Britain, common
crossbills feed and breed in Scots pine and larch but in Scandinavia they
rely on Norway spruce. If local crops are depleted, or fail, the birds head
In some years nomadic flocks from Scandinavia and Russia
invade Scotland, swelling our resident population and the similar but
related Scottish crossbill. Nine times out of ten you hear them before you
see them. Their flight call is a loud, far-carrying “jip-jip” with a
distinctive ringing quality. If you see them up close you will notice their
amazing cross-tip bills. The birds sidle along branches like mini parrots
and hang acrobatically from the cones like Christmas tree baubles. The adult
males are brick-red and the females are grey-green with lime-yellow rumps.
Altogether a stunning bird to watch!
On a still, frozen morning such
as this, it can be incredibly quiet. Behind the faint rumble of the distant
ocean and the occasional vehicle braving the treacherous roads, the silence
seems unnatural. I was reminded of a poem by Max Ehrmann, who exhorts us to
“walk placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may
be in silence”.
You do not have to go far into the hills and look
down on the croft houses nestled in the landscape to feel an incredible
sense of tranquillity. It is not just naturalists who will swear by the
power of nature to heal both body and mind: most of us have known the value
of getting outdoors and enjoying nature.
I have personally made a
new year’s resolution to escape the office often and see more wildlife. And
I encourage you to do the same. I might not be a celebrity, but please get
me out of this office!
Andy is a senior High Life Highland
ranger, based in Lochinver.