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.

Miscellany of nature and dogs

March 4th, 2017

DSC04115A SACK of Shakings is the title of a book of reminiscences by author Frank T. Bullen from the glory days of sailing ships. The expression refers to an assortment of odds and ends of rope and canvas accumulated during a sailing voyage which were the perquisites of the chief mate (second-in-command after the Master). I had a copy but, as is the fate of many books, I’ve lent it and forgotten who the borrower was.

I mention it because, with so much activity at this time of year, it’s hard to know what to write about and what to leave out, so this week’s contribution may turn out to be an assortment of odds and ends – a sack of shakings.

Not long ago I was bemoaning the absence of mistle thrushes from our local woods and gardens. With good reason – both mistle thrushes and song thrushes are on the RSPB Red List meaning there are conservation concerns about the future of both species.

But matters have improved in recent days. I’ve seen three mistle thrushes, one of which conveniently takes up post in the high branches of trees not a hundred yards from the front door and greets us when I take Inka out for his morning walk.

At first glance the two species are similar but the mistle thrush is larger than its shyer song thrush cousin, with a more distinctly spotted breast. Their contrasting songs is a giveaway in recognising which species is which.

The mistle thrush’s confident, ringing concerto cascades from the treetops. Song thrushes repeat most of the phrases in their song cycle two or three times, which also helps distinguish them from blackbirds whose similar mellow song is continuous rather than repetitive.

Walking along the built-up bank of the lake across the fields from the house, two brown heads broke the surface. I was in full view with no cover. Two brown bodies with long tails arched as the animals saw me and slid beneath the surface again. I watched them surfacing and diving as they headed out into the middle of the water.

I was fearfully excited thinking it was a pair of otters, but it took just a moment to realise they were too small and it was a pair of mink. Which is not good news for the fish and other wildlife living in and around the lake.

Mink are an invasive non-native semi-aquatic species which can have a very adverse impact on a wide range of native wildlife. Their diet includes water voles and other small mammals, ground nesting song birds and their eggs and chicks, domestic fowl, rabbits, game birds and – being strong swimmers – fish. Highly efficient predators and ferocious hunters they are like a fox in a chicken run, killing indiscriminately, far beyond their hunger needs. But it’s probably twenty years since I last saw one, let alone two.

I nearly didn’t notice the grey heron standing, motionless, on the verge of a woodland road – it’s not the sort of spot I expect to see one. I slowed down and the heron took flight, followed by a buzzard which had been hidden by undergrowth. I stopped to see what might have attracted them.

Buzzards are carrion eaters and herons might be, but I’m not aware of it. They both take various small mammals and it’s not uncommon to see them together following the plough for worms and beetles thrown up on the freshly turned earth.

There was no sign of carrion or of worms or beetles. Any small mammals had taken advantage of the lull in proceedings to make a fast getaway along their grassy tunnels, living to tell their grandchildren about their great escape.

I can’t offer any practical explanation why the buzzard and the heron met up on that quiet country road, but it is on such random observations that this column thrives.

Out walking I met a bouncy black dog much the same size as Inka, with a curly coat and a tuft of woolly hair at the end of his tail. I was unsure whether I’d seen the breed before and asked his walker if it was a Labradoodle – a cross between Labrador and a Standard Poodle.

It was a Portuguese water dog, a breed which hit the headlines when President Obama and his family acquired one as their White House family pet which they called Bo. The only other thing I remember from the publicity at the time is that the breed have webbed feet.

Irish water spaniels have dense, curly brown hair and a distinctive topknot and, because they are bred as water retrieving dogs, they also have webbed feet. From a distance you could confuse the two breeds although I remember the occasion a proud owner introduced his Irish water spaniel in amongst a bourach of Labradors and a wit in the company christened it the Electric Poodle.

And, good news, I’ve picked up another copy of Frank Bullen’s book on the internet and I’m saving it to read on my holidays.

Written on Saturday, March 4th, 2017 at 4:07 pm for Weekly.