Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Nature is not sentimental

January 21st, 2017

DSC04019LIFE IS a series of firsts. A reader told me she was disturbed by a tremendous commotion of flapping wings outside her kitchen window. What was clearly a much larger bird than the regular songbirds that visit her bird table, appeared to be in difficulties.

On investigating, she found a sparrowhawk busily despatching a greater spotted woodpecker which had been feeding on peanuts. Having a gentle nature, and fond of her colourful woodpeckers, she tried to save the victim. But she only succeeded in chasing off the hunter which flew off with its breakfast in its talons.

I suggested that this is how birds of prey live. In nature it’s generally a matter of survival of the fittest. I pointed out that we humans eat lamb chops and give little, if any, thought to the lamb.

Having dealt with the philosophical aspect of our conversation I admitted that it was the first time I’d heard of a sparrowhawk, or indeed any bird of prey, taking a woodpecker. I’m sure other readers can tell similar stories of unexpected raptor kills but, for me, this was a first time.

It was as much the woodpecker’s bad luck as the hawk’s good fortune. The reality is that birds of prey don’t, by any means, succeed every time they attempt a kill, which can mean hard work when they have half a dozen growing chicks to feed.

Their prey’s instinctive sense of survival serves them well to escape their predators. On a number of occasions I have seen feeding birds scatter spontaneously in all directions into the cover and safety of nearby trees and bushes. A split second later a feathered bullet, such as a sparrowhawk, bursts onto the scene.

Sometimes the hunter is successful and makes a kill. Like other birds of prey, sparrowhawks rely on the element of surprise and their speed and agility serves them well too. If it fails to make a kill the hawk won’t wait around for a second try but flies on, looking for the next opportunity.

Evidence of a sparrowhawk kill is often quite distinctive and this past week I’ve come across two when out walking with Inka in the woods. Their prey is mainly small songbirds and mammals but the heavier hen bird is quite capable of bringing down prey as big as a pigeon.

A scattered circle of grey and white pigeon feathers amongst the undergrowth is almost bound to be a sparrowhawk victim. Sympathy for the pigeon is wasted – it’s just nature doing as nature does.

Quarrelsome robins
Robins are probably the most trusting of our small songbirds. Start digging the garden or, at this time of year, clearing up dead leaves and as often as not a robin will be practically under your feet ready to hoover up the worms and insects you disturb.

But for all their cuddly Christmas card appearance they are aggressive defenders of their territory. It’s all to do with protecting their food supply and they are quick to see off intruders.

A robin has taken over our front garden. He – or perhaps it is she, for they have the same plumage – keeps himself busy all day. When he’s not catching worms and insects he flies onto the fence, flicking his tail to keep his balance, and keeping an eye out for uninvited visitors.

Some years ago a distressed reader phoned to tell me she had just watched one robin fight, and kill, another. It’s not common, but robins will fight to the death to protect territory – it’s just nature doing as nature does.

In a fog
On Tuesday it was mid-afternoon before I could get out with Inka for a walk through woods to one of my ponds. The temperature was falling, the wind had dropped away and conditions were right for a radiation fog which occurs when the ground cools rapidly and chills the air above it.

I could have lost all sense of my surroundings as the fog rose from the ground like something out of a horror film, enveloping us in a white, chilly world – but it’s a familiar walk with plenty of waymarks to guide me.

Fog hung over the pond. I could hear, but couldn’t see, mallard duck calling on the water. In the wood, cock pheasants exchanged the day’s news as dusk began to fall and they sought out cosy roosts.

There’s a rookery on the far side of the pond where rooks and jackdaws, both very social birds, roost together in winter time. As they prepare to settle for the night they congregate in large numbers, swirling and twisting above the trees, calling constantly. At a signal recognised only by themselves, they drop into the roost with a final wild cacophony of caws – and fall silent.

As we walked back to the car, still blanketed in our white cocoon, there appeared to be large round bales of straw in the field ahead of us. We were quite close when I realised that it was half a dozen bullocks wondering what the spectral figures looming out of the mist were.

Written on Saturday, January 21st, 2017 at 5:49 pm for Weekly.