Bloomsbury Wildlife

Here are five things you may not know about hares

To the people of rural Britain, hares are deeply beloved, perhaps above all other animals. But how much do we know about these elusive creatures? Marianne Taylor, author of The Way of the Hare, illuminates some of their lesser known traits.

Super speeds

We all know that hares are famed for being speed demons. Running flat out, a brown hare can hit just over 70km/h, which makes it the fastest-running wild mammal in Britain. And to have a hope of ever catching one, humans had to selectively breed a super fast, long-legged dog – the greyhound. However, the hare’s top speed is only part of their success story: studies show hares can accelerate at 4.4m/s2! Even when he’s bursting out of the starting blocks, the fastest human on Earth, Usain Bolt, accelerates at a comparatively measly 2.92 m/s2. But that’s not all hares can do: they can also slow down even more rapidly than they can speed up. And it’s their ability to decelerate at an incredible 5.2m/s2 and then speed up again almost as quickly that allows them to make their famous lightning-fast changes in direction. This zigzag or ‘jinking’ escape trick can help hares escape the jaws of even the fastest greyhound.

Those crazily long legs look cumbersome when the hare is loping along, but they allow for extraordinary speed when it’s needed.

Super poo

If you’ve ever seen rabbit poo, you already have a fair idea of what hare poo looks like as it’s just a slightly larger version of those compact brown pellets you find lying around in fields where rabbits are plentiful. Both hare and rabbit poo is made of grass fibres wrung dry of all moisture, colour, and, presumably, useable nutrients. What an efficient gastrointestinal tract these animals must possess to deal so thoroughly with indigestible grass. Well, yes and no. To achieve this efficiency lagomorphs have to eat the grass twice because one trip through the gut isn’t enough. Yes, hares and rabbits eat their poo! During the night they produce special droppings called cecotropes, which are soft, moist and stuck together in lumps, and they eat them straight away, to give their guts a second go at absorbing nutrients. Only after a second journey through the intestines do those familiar dry pellets of poo come out.

That blade of grass has a long, complicated and rather startling journey ahead of it.

Superpower

Hares are linked in lore and legend with fertility and friskiness. One reason for this is that as they approach their ‘due date’, pregnant females seek out liaisons with any willing males (which is all of them). To be keen to mate at a moment when most female mammals are quite possibly wishing they’d never mated in the first place might seem unusual. But female hares have a superpower – they can get pregnant when they’re already pregnant. Ultrasounds of captive hares have confirmed that females that are about to give birth can also have a new set of fertilised ova waiting in the wings, as it were, for the first litter to be born. After the birth, the new set settles into the recently vacated uterus. Mind-bogglingly, this means that the sperm that fertilises litter two somehow finds its way through a uterus already full of well-developed young to reach the new eggs. This strategy shortens the breeding cycle by a few days each time, which may mean that the hare can squeeze in an extra litter per year before the summer’s end.

Competition with hoofed grazing mammals like the Fallow Deer is a real danger to hares around the world.

The danger of competition

For all their talents, hares and rabbits (the lagomorphs) have suffered for millennia at the hands – or rather hooves – of their larger, stronger, more efficient and at times even faster rivals. Deer, sheep, antelopes, goats and their allies represent evolution’s alternative system for making a mammal that can live on grass and it seems to be a success. These ruminant animals don’t need to eat their poo – their four-chambered stomach does the job of rinsing nutrients out of their grassy diet. That seems to be a better way since ruminants worldwide have long been doing much better than lagomorphs, which are slowly disappearing. For a microcosm of the global picture, let’s look at an example from Minorca five million years ago where an ancient lagomorph lived, while on neighbouring Mallorca there lived an early ruminant. Both dwelt quite happily on their respective islands until a sea level shift revealed a land bridge, linking the two islands. The ruminant spread to Minorca and got to work eating its way through the grasslands, and very soon it had outcompeted the lagomorph into extinction on both islands.

The moon and the hare

There are hares around much of the world – Europe, Asia, North America and Africa all have hares aplenty, of various species. Understandably, hare mythology spans the globe too and, in lots of cultures, the hare has a special connection with the moon, which is almost certainly because hares are best seen (and hunted) on moonlit nights. Another connection – real or imaginary – is the link between our moods and the moon’s phases, with madness and moonlight thought to go together as surely as madness and hares do. (Though hares’ have crazy chases and boxing bouts for very sensible reasons – they help female hares choose the best possible mates.) A third lunar connection is that the moon has its own hare: the shadowy shapes on its full face can be interpreted, with only a little imagination, as the image of a hare sitting almost upside-down sporting a pair of oversized ears.

Can you see the hare in the moon? Look for its ears…

Marianne Taylor is a birdwatcher, dragonfly-finder and mammal-seeker from Kent, England. She is the author of a number of books for Bloomsbury, including some of our best-selling RSPB titles, such as British Birds of Prey, Where to Discover Nature and Naturewatch. She is the recent author of The Way of the Hare.

Secrets and Robins

As spring turns slowly into summer and beautiful birdsong can be heard rising in the early hours, you’d be forgiven for imagining a bird’s life is somewhat idyllic. A bird’s life is often unusual and surprising, but it is also brief and much darker than you might think. In this extract from his new book Songs of Love and War, author Dominic Couzens takes a closer look at the Robin.

What better bird could there be to demonstrate the dark, realistic side of bird behaviour? One moment the robin is the fluffy, orange-breasted ball of feathers that delights us by its tameness; the next moment it launches into an unrestrained attack on a neighbour. With two default settings – ‘cute’ and ‘seething’ – the Robin is the quintessential lovable rogue as far as humanity is concerned. But what is the truth about Britain’s National Bird?

I went in search of the core of Robins, to examine what life might truly be like in their world. I have watched them myself over the years; I checked out the literature, and I sought out experts. I considered what people thought about them, and I wondered what aspects of their biology might be surprising. It turns out that their lives are an open book of research. The most important aspect of studying Robins was discovering just how complicated, as well as dark, the lives of birds can be.

So, what of the robin’s reputation for being feisty and belligerent – is this true, and is the Robin more violent than other birds? The witness for the prosecution will assert that Robins are routinely spotted being aggressive and that they sometimes kill other members of their own species. In one study conducted in a dense robin population in Cambridge, a truly extraordinary figure of 10 per cent of all adult males (the sample size was 98 birds) died as a result of injuries inflicted during conflicts over territory; the figure for females was only 3 per cent. So the answer to the colloquial question ‘who killed cock robin? ’ was cock robin.

This figure should be mitigated by the fact that, once neighbours settle down for more than a few days, serious fighting is very rare. The same thing applies to singing birds of many species. Nevertheless, for some days during territorial formation, robin society can be shockingly violent.

But are robins more aggressive than other birds? There isn’t much data available for most songbirds, but the overall picture suggests that Robins are unusual. Blackbirds are also extremely territorial, both in winter and during the establishment of territories in early spring. Fights are fairly common, but the impression is that they are less common than physical confrontations in Robins. Blackbirds do sometimes kill each other, but it is rare. On the balance of probability, it seems that Robins are more likely to kill their own species than other songbirds are.

Although the most violent fights between Robins are known to happen in the early spring, I have witnessed the worst confrontations in the autumn. Perhaps that is because Robins are so conspicuous then and you are more likely to catch them in the act. In September just about every other bird of the fields and hedgerows is silent, and the only real songsters are Robins – with the odd exclamatory burst from a wren. The leaves of the woodland trees turn red, the sorrels and other herbs become crimson, and the bushes are full of scarlet berries. You might say that it is the right time to see red.

 

From dawn until dusk, birds do things that are surprising and mystifying. Songs of Love and War: The Dark Heart of Bird Behaviour by Dominic Couzens delves into bird behaviour and uncovers its purpose and meaning.

The launch of the Arabic Birds of the Middle East

Richard Porter tells of how bee-eaters brings hope for wildlife

The jacket image for the Arabic version for Birds of the Middle East

Early March and we are on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, the strong sunlight sparkling on the khors, mangroves, deserts and Dubai’s dramatic skyline. I am at the annual Emirates Festival of Literature to talk about bird conservation in the Middle East, take a wildlife walk for children and, especially, to launch the Arabic Birds of the Middle East. With its cover of colourful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters – a widespread and familiar migrant in the Middle East – we hope it will encourage a new generation of Arabs to love birds.

Dubai’s skyline over the internationally important Ras al Khor where we saw over 10 globally threatened Greater Spotted Eagles.

This long awaited Arabic guide was born from Bloomsbury’s Birds of the Middle East and was welcomed at the Festival by an enthusiastic audience of many nationalities. Co-written with the late Simon Aspinall it was translated by Abdulrahman Al-Sirhan Alenezi of Kuwait, one of Arabia’s leading ornithologists. Such is his commitment to conservation, that he made the translation as a personal voluntary contribution to our understanding of birds. A translation of this magnitude with all the challenges of technical terms and Arab bird names is not for the feint-hearted and we owe a great debt of gratitude to Abdulrahman.

Bloomsbury generously made the rights freely available to the book’s publishers, BirdLife International and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East under the banner of Bloomsbury’s ‘Helm Field Guides’.

Sponsorship came from several organisations: OSME and RSPB, but also the journal British Birds, the Hima Fund and AviFauna. All were delighted to be part of a field guide that will promote an interest in birds and wildlife in a part of the world where good news is often rare.

After the launch a book signing attracted many young Arab wildlife enthusiasts.

As I have said before on a Bloomsbury blog, field guides to birds are only one cog in the conservation journey, enabling us to identify, quantify – and appreciate – the wonders of our natural world. For my generation these guides are books, but for the children of today it will increasingly be eBooks and Apps.

And an App is what OSME and BirdLife plan to produce next for the many Smartphone-carrying young Arabs who aspire to be the next generation of Middle East conservationists.

Birds of the Middle East is a completely revised second edition of the bestselling field guide to the birds of the Middle East, covering Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, the Arabian peninsula and Socotra.

 

 

 

 

 

Images provided by Richard Porter and Mark Smiles, do not reuse without permission.

Witness the greatest whale watching spectacle on Earth – save £750 on an exclusive holiday!

If you are looking for the holiday of a lifetime and an incredible offer, then we have the trip for you!

We have joined forces with Wildlife Worldwide, to offer our readers an exclusive charter around the Baja Peninsula – the world’s finest whale-watching location. Guadalupe Fur Seals, California Sea Lions, Elephant Seals, Loggerhead and Green Turtles, Coyotes and even Rattleless Rattlesnakes all occur here, but of course it’s the whales that steal the show. Close encounters with Grey Whales in their calving lagoons is an experience never to be forgotten, and many more species besides congregate in these rich and diverse waters. Whale watching here is like nothing on Earth – the whales come to you!

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Rounding the peninsula and heading into the deep waters of the Sea of Cortez, you enter perhaps the greatest concentration of cetaceans on earth. The real prize to be found here is the Blue Whale – the largest animal of all!

Ocean Giants of Baja California – SAVE £750 per person

Departs             7 Apr 2017
Duration           14 days
Price                   WAS £5,395 NOW £4,645 
Price includes   Return flights from the UK, 1 night in San Diego, 12 nights on board Searcher vessel, meals included while on board the vessel, plus the services of two naturalist leaders and a boat crew.

To claim this exclusive discount, just get in touch with the Natural Travel Collection here and quote the code: BloomsburyF17.

Mark Carwardine’s Guide to Whale Watching in North America is comprehensive, authoritative, and an indispensible companion for all intrepid whale seekers.

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Why We Should All Garden for Wildlife

By Adrian Thomas, author of Gardening for Wildlife.

The fact that you’ve clicked on this blog post probably means you have a good idea why you want to garden for wildlife – or indeed why you already do. But it is still worth reminding ourselves why it is such a good thing to do.

For some, it is about the sheer, simple joy of watching living things – connecting with nature, if you like – right on your doorstep. The lightning-speed precision of a Hummingbird Hawkmoth zipping from flower to flower; a House Martin constructing a dome from mud and saliva while hanging off the side of a house; watching a butterfly as it emerges from its pupa – there are endless jaw-dropping moments to be had with wildlife in a garden.

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For other people, it’s about the challenge of learning and perfecting the skills needed to be a ‘good host’ to our feathered and furry (and sometimes shiny and hairy) friends. How can I encourage the Robins in my garden to breed? Why has my frogspawn gone cloudy? How can I entice more bumblebees? These and a million other questions are there to be asked and answered. Gardening for wildlife is an art and a science mixed with a healthy dose of old-fashioned nurture.

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And then there are those who would like to do something good for the planet. I’m no prophet of doom, and I don’t think humankind has totally trashed this world (yet), but you can’t deny we’ve been having quite a wild party. In our gardens, however, we can ensure conservation starts at home. After all, we might like to think of our backyards as private property, but they are part of everyone’s world. The air over your garden is directly connected to the air over the poles and the rainforests; and there are migrating birds that pass through your garden that, a few weeks later, will be feeding next to lions and elephants. By gardening with wildlife in mind, we can ensure our own little ‘space’ makes a positive contribution to the global environment.

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At its very best, gardening for wildlife is all three of these reasons combined. Oh, and it’s pretty good fun. I love it, and I hope you will too!

All photographs are courtesy of Adrian Thomas. Do not reuse without permission.

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RSPB Gardening for Wildlife: New Edition by Adrian Thomas.

How to Make Mackerel Paté by The Ethical Carnivore

By louise Gray, author of The Ethical Carnivore

For the last two years, I have been only eating animals I killed myself. It seems an extreme position. But really it was all about compassion. The idea was to find out how meat is sourced and educate people about where their food comes from.

Mostly, I was vegetarian except for a small number of mammals including rabbit, deer and a pig. Overall I ate far less meat than your average British omnivore.

I also ate a lot of fish.

The fish I ate most in my year was mackerel. The ‘tigers of the sea’ are plentiful around the coast of Britain in the summer months and even a complete amateur can catch one. I hauled up 24 in one afternoon off Arbroath in North East Scotland.

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I wanted to make them into canapes for my book launch at Bloomsbury and so I took them to the Belhaven Smokehouse to be smoked and then made a job lot of mackerel pate at the Knowes Farm Shop.

Below is the recipe, for more Ethical Carnivore adventures please look out the book.

4 x smoked mackerel fillets (equivalent to two whole fish)
1 tsp grated horseradish or 2 tsp horseradish sauce
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp crème fraiche
½ lemon juiced
100g unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

Take the skin off the mackerel and mix with the horseradish, mustard, lemon and crème fraiche. Blend in a food processor or with a hand blender. Add the butter and blend to a paste.

Serve on oatcakes with a parsley garnish to a literary crowd.

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Birds and Weather – Marianne Taylor

An article by Marianne Taylor, author of Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend

For those of us lucky enough to live and work in sturdy, heated buildings, finding out what the weather is going to do is merely a matter of interest. But for our ancestors, and for plenty of modern cultures as well, accurate weather prediction could mean the difference between life and death. Humanity has a very long tradition of using natural phenomena, including bird behavior, to try to forecast the weather, and this is reflected in folklore from around the world.

Fishermen and merchants risking their lives at sea to deliver goods or bring home a catch have a particularly pressing need to understand the weather. Who better to help them than the seabirds that spend virtually their whole lives out over the waters, coping with whatever the elements throw at them? The European Storm-petrel is one of the smallest of all seabirds but one of the toughest too, able to ride the wildest seas. Its English name reflects a widespread British belief that its arrival predicts – or perhaps even causes – sea storms. Another old British name for the species, ‘Mother Carey’s Chicken’, references mater cara, the Virgin Mary, to whom sailors pray for safety at sea. The storm-petrels’ big brothers, the albatrosses, are also said to bring bad weather if they linger too long close to a boat, but a brief sighting means good luck and fair weather for seafarers.

Singing in the rain

Several Britsh birds are said to call or sing in advance of a rainstorm. One is the Green Woodpecker, also nicknamed ‘yaffle’ because of its laughing voice, and ‘rain bird’ because that laughter supposedly heralds rain (the bird is laughing at the sun). The Red-throated Diver has the local name ‘rain goose’ in Orkney and Shetland where it breeds, because its drawn-out wailing call means imminent rain – while a different, more witches’-cackle version of the call is a sign of that the clouds will clear. In Africa, the mighty Southern Ground Hornbill’s booming call is another predictor of precipitation, as are the yells of black cockatoos in Australia.

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Its laughing call is said to herald rain, but the Green Woodpecker enjoys sunshine as much as anyone else.

Fact or fable?

Gulls turning up inland is often cited as a warning of bad weather at sea, but in truth many species of gulls have long nested and foraged inland.

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Common Gulls are (probably) so called because they often feed on ‘common-land’, and can be seen inland regardless of the weather.

The idea that Rooks nest higher in treetops in years that are to have long sunny summers is also misguided, as Rooks habitually use the same nests year after year. In fact, the idea that birds can predict long-term weather patterns is rather suspect all round. When many Waxwings turn up in Britain in autumn, this is often considered to be a sign that the winter to follow will be severe, but in fact is related to past rather than future events. If it was a bad summer for berry-bearing trees and shrubs in Russia and Scandinavia, more Waxwings will be forced to move south and west to find food.

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It is a shortage of food rather than a premonition of freezing weather that sends Waxwings from north-east Europe to Britain.

However, birds really do have some ability to predict weather in the short-term. A structure in the avian inner ear (the Vitali or paratympanic organ) is highly sensitive to changes in air pressure, which as all budding meteorologists know is the key to changes in the weather. This can give birds a day or more’s warning of advancing bad weather, triggering them to indulge in feeding frenzies (as noted in Blue Jays and other species in the Blue Ridge mountains, USA), or even brief migrations to safer areas (observed in Golden-winged Warblers in Florida). Snow Geese in North America seem to be able to dodge extratropical storms on their southbound migration, by varying their route and timing of departure.

 

It is very tempting to ascribe mystical powers to wild creatures. And birds certainly have more natural, innate ability to predict weather changes than we humans do. But of much more importance is their ability, honed by millennia of natural selection, to contend with bad weather, by sheltering or fleeing or simply enduring it. Or, in some cases, embracing it. It’s worth going outside on a wild-weather day to watch Ravens soaring and tumbling like windblown ashes on a blustery day, or pigeons rain-bathing with all the apparent delight of actors in power-shower commercials. Such sights are part of the joy of wildlife-watching and a joy that inspired our ancestors just as much as it does us today.

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For confident fliers like this Raven and Carrion Crow, windy days mean aerial playtime.

Read more about how historical accounts, scientific literature and superstitions have shaped our understanding of bird behaviour in Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend by Marianne Taylor.

 

 

 

 

 

Take Part in The RSPB Big Wild Sleepout!

This month the RSPB are encouraging us all to swap our comfortable homes for nature’s home for a night and discover a secret world of wildlife by taking part in their Big Wild Sleepout between 29th and 31st July. By venturing outside to kip under the stars, you’ll get to know more about wildlife at night, spotting nocturnal animals going about their lives under cover of darkness.

To help you make the most of the evening, we’ve put together some fantastic ideas from Hattie Garlick’s Born to be Wild about how to have fun under the stars

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MAKE SHADOW PUPPETS

  1. Draw the basic outlines of some nocturnal creatures onto a piece of card. Before it gets dark, or else by torchlight, cut them out.
  1. Find some sticks and Sellotape them to the backs of the animals.
  1. Hold them up against a tree trunk, wall, fence or the ground, and shine a torch on them to project shadows onto the surface.
  1. Make the puppets hop around, play together, fight, adventure, nibble on leaves… whatever theatrics your imagination dictates.

TELL A STORY BY TORCHLIGHT

Clearly this is more authentically and cosily undertaken by firelight. You can’t, after all, toast marshmallows on a battery-operated torch. If you are good at building fires and have, to hand, the space in which to do so and the materials with which to do so, I applaud you. If you’re like me, use a torch and eat chocolate instead. Reading aloud in the outdoors is pretty magical whatever the light source.

  1. Find a sheltered space in which to make yourself comfortable. This could be a bench, a fallen tree, a log, some garden chairs or a cushion on a balcony.
  1. Sit down with friends or family, warm clothes, sustenance, a torch and either a book or a story in someone’s head.
  1. Nominate someone to tell the story. They get the torch, of course, with which to read and gesture.

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Note You can also pass a book around the circle, so that everybody reads a page, or make up a story together, so that each person adds a sentence in turn.

LOOK FOR NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

There is a whole other world, right under our noses, whose inhabitants walk the same streets, sniff around the bins we use every day, and stretch out and play in the same gardens and parks in which we stretch and play ourselves. All you have to do to access this universe is come out after dark. Keep quiet, keep still and keep warm, and you’ll see this other world come alive around you.

Don’t use a torch or make lots of noise. You’ll scare them off.

Do wrap up really warmly and listen carefully – you might well hear animals that you can’t see.

Note You don’t even, necessarily, need to go outside. If you turn off the lights in your sitting room and sit still you might get lucky.

What to look for

  • Badgers
  • Hedgehogs
  • Foxes
  • Mice
  • Voles
  • Bats
  • Moths
  • Owls
  • Deer (yep, even in some urban and
  • suburban areas)

GO STARGAZING

Ideally, you need a clear, dark sky, somewhere far away from street lights, strip-lit shop fronts and office buildings that beam brutally into the nightscape. But for the small astronauts who dream of rocket trips from the fifteenth floor of a concrete jungle or the safety of their suburban semi, there is still plenty of hope. In the winter, when it gets dark earlier than in the summer, the possibilities to explore the night sky are endless. All you need is a clear night, this book, an outside space (a garden, park or even a balcony will do), warm clothes, hot drinks, imagination and sparkling eyes. Done? Okay, now can you spot any of the following?

  • The Plough (or Big Dipper)
  • Gemini
  • Orion
  • Cassiopeia
  • Pisces
  • the Pole Star n Venus

Note The night sky looks different depending on where you are in the world, but you can always find guides online. Wherever you stargaze, don’t forget to look for shooting stars and other planets, too, and notice what phase the moon is in.

Discover more nocturnal activities in the rest of the book – Born to be Wild by Hattie Garlick

Our Favourite Facts from the RSPB Spotlight Series!

Our gorgeous RSPB Spotlight series of paperbacks introduces readers to Britain’s best-loved animals. This month we’re very excited to add two new titles to our growing list of Spotlight subjects: RSPB Spotlight: Badgers , and RSPB Spotlight: Eagles.

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To celebrate, we’ve collected together a few favourite facts gleaned from our RSPB Spotlight books released so far, covering badgers, eagles, robins, foxes, otters and puffins!

We’re also offering you the chance to win the whole series. Simply respond on Twitter @chiffchat telling us which RSPB Spotlight animal is your favourite, and why.

Did You Know…?

Despite their reputation as being ‘the strong and silent type’, Badgers do communicate… through their droppings! Badgers use latrines − which comprise collections of shallow hollows called dung pits − as message boards. Many latrines lie beneath trees, perhaps to protect the contents (and their ‘press release’) from being washed away by rain. Most latrines are located either close to the main sett, along the territory boundary or where Badger paths cross. This indicates that one purpose of poo clues is to emphasise ownership of the territory. Strikingly, however, neighbouring Badgers share latrines along territory borders. This suggests that Badgers use latrines to exchange information about who is in their gang, rather than to simply erect a ‘no entry’ sign.

A flying Golden Eagle can reach speeds of up to 190km/h (118 mph), and when accelerating into a dive can even pick up speeds of 240-320 km/h (150-200mph)! The sudden braking of the bird by spreading its wings at the point of impact can create a tearing sound audible for some distance. ‘Like a thunderbolt it falls’ said Tennyson, and he was not far wrong.

Robins might hold the key to understanding a mysterious ‘sixth sense’ observed in many birds – Magnetoreception, the ability to sense magnetic fields. This skill is down to the presence of crystals of the iron oxide magnetite within receptor cells in the skin of their bills. These cells send messages to a particular part of the brain in response to magnetic fields, but this ‘compass’ system also requires a certain level of light to work properly. The combination of seasonal changes to light levels and the Robin’s ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field, allows it to orient itself correctly for migration.

Foxes have an incredibly varied diet and differing hunting techniques adapted to this. When hunting worms, for example, a fox will grip the slithery morsel in its incisors, but instead of tugging violently, which would break the worm, it pauses until the worm relaxes, then pulls gently and steadily so as to extract the whole animal, unbroken, from the ground. Parents teach their cubs this technique by example.

Have you ever wondered what Otters keep in their pockets? The Sea Otter is one of few mammals that have learned to use tools to access food. It will search for and pick up a rock from the ocean floor, along with hard-shelled sea species such as clams and mussels, and pop these into its pockets- deep rolls of skin that form pouches under each foreleg. On surfacing, the Sea Otter places the rock on its stomach and, holding the hard-shelled morsel between its forepaws, will smash it against the rock until it can get to the soft meat inside. Particularly good rocks are then often put back in its pockets, for use another time!

While the general rule in birds is that smaller birds have a shorter life expectancy, and larger birds longer ones, the Puffin seems to be an exception to this. The oldest puffin ever found in Europe was 41 years old, on the Norwegian Island of RØst. Long-term studies of Puffins in the UK have revealed survivors not far behind the Norwegian bird, with a 39 year-old bird- ringed in 1974- spotted again in 2008. Were it not for the evidence of ringing, it would be impossible to pick out the senior citizens in a Puffin colony as- unlike us humans- Puffins show no outward signs of old age.

For more information about the Spotlight Series, visit www.bloomsbury.com 

A MOUNTAIN BY THE SEA

By Michael Scott, author of Mountain Flowers

One of the earliest decisions I took in writing my Mountain Flowers book (to be published by Bloomsbury in August) was that I would have to omit Ireland from its scope. This was mostly because I was worried about keeping the length to the required 416 pages with so much ground to cover, but I was also conscious that I had never properly botanised on the island. I was particularly ashamed never to have visited The Burren, one of the most special botanical sites in the whole of the British Isles. What better way, therefore, to celebrate finally sending the book to the printers than to head across to The Burren in early May this year?

Superb display of Gentiana verna, PoulsallaghSpring Gentian flowers as abundantly on The Burren as anywhere I’ve seen it in the Alps.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury

I wasn’t disappointed. The Burren, on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare, is a wonderful site for botanising with an intriguing mix of arctic-alpine species that we would normally expect to find in mountains and southern species more typical of Mediterranean climates. On the limestone pavement at Poulsallagh, I found the vivid blue flowers of Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) more abundantly than I have seen it anywhere else, even in its heartland in the Alps, alongside displays of Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) to rival any I have seen in the Arctic. The pale yellow flowers of Hoary Rockrose (Helianthemum oelandicum), a species I know otherwise only in Upper Teesdale, were everywhere – and much else besides. I’m still glad I excluded The Burren from the book. It would have merited a long chapter to itself, even without the other Irish sites, and what would I have had to omit from my coverage of England, Wales and Scotland to find this space? However, it reminded me again of the resilience and adaptability of the flowering plants we associate with the mountains; the arctic-alpine species in The Burren were telling me this was a mountain, yet I had climbed no higher than 150 metres above sea-level.

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Irish Saxifrage in magnificent flower on Inis Oírr (or Inisheer) island.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury

There was one plant I especially wanted to see. Irish Saxifrage (Saxifraga rosacea) features briefly in the book, but is a species I had never seen. I searched hard for it at Poulsallagh but failed. There was one more opportunity: I knew it was recorded at the eastern end of Inis Oírr, so we took the ferry across to the island with several hours to explore. We stopped at one scenic spot and noticed white flowers on a grassy bank. I scrambled up to them and immediately recognised how similar the plant looked to the more widespread montane species Mossy Saxifrage (S. hypnoides). However, its flowers had broader petals and its leaves were much more densely tufted, with subtle differences in their shape. It was Irish Saxifrage, and I had almost forgotten the exhilarating thrill of seeing a ‘new’ species for the first time. We continued onto a large expanse of limestone pavement, just beyond, and it seemed to be covered with large tussocks of the saxifrage in wonderfully abundant, showy flower. In fact, it reminded me of flowery plants sold in garden centres as Mossy Saxifrage which I have always dismissed as much too showy to be that species!

Display of Saxifraga rosaceae on Inis Oirr10Irish Saxifrage in its limestone pavement habitat amidst the distinctive landscape of Inis Oírr.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury

The Burren is well known as a site for Irish Saxifrage, which is also found in central Germany, the Jura mountains and elsewhere in central Europe. However, as with so many mountain plants I discuss in the book, there is a mystery about it too. Irish Saxifrage was recorded as growing in Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia in 1796, although it has not been seen there since 1978. There are herbarium specimens of it from elsewhere in Snowdonia too, and one labelled from Glen Dole, presumably Glen Doll in Angus, another classic site that I write about in the book. I always assumed that Irish and Mossy saxifrages were so similar that these records might have arisen from confusion, but the overall ‘jizz’ of the plants I saw on Inis Oírr was very different from the Mossy Saxifrage I know in the British mountains. So does Irish Saxifrage still lurk, unrecognised and overlooked, somewhere in Snowdonia, Angus or elsewhere in the mountains of Britain? That is precisely why I wanted to write my Mountain Flowers book: to encourage more botanists to take to the hills, and more hillwalkers to look at the wild flowers beside their boots, in the hope that we can answer this and many other botanical mysteries that still persist, even in the well-tramped mountains of Britain.

Michael Scott, 18th May 2016