Am Bratach No. 315
January 2018

Natures call
by Andy Summers

A 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 south.

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.

CLICK to buy a postal subscription online

Go back to Home Page