It’s hard to imagine a worse spring for breeding birds. The enduring cold has doomed many early nests to failure, and the dry weather has forced the vast majority of waders to abandon their breeding grounds.
Up on the hill, our curlews were late to arrive but numbers were good until mid-April. Then cold weather returned and the birds vanished with it before they could settle and lay their eggs. I’m told that egg-laying is dependent upon body condition – birds will only lay if they have the nutritional budget to spend on making eggs. The terrible weather must have pushed them out sync, and there’s a fair chance that they have returned to the Solway to fatten up again. If the weather improves, they’ll be back – but there must be a cut-off point where they decide it’s too late to lay. I once watched a curlew chick fledge in the third week of September – which would suggest it came from a clutch of eggs laid in July. That’s late, but knowing that curlews usually choose to start nesting at the end of April, later nests feel like they’re second best.
Meanwhile, a single pair of curlews has remained to lay and display in the lowland marshes below my office. This lends credence to the idea that upland birds are browned off by the weather, but the impact has been less severe in the lowlands.
Snipe are often badly disturbed by dry years, and it’s obvious that the little birds should struggle to make do in bogs and ditches which are dried to a crisp. I’ve been impressed to hear a few birds drumming on the hill, but their calls have sounded strangely quiet when compared to the usual symphony of squeaking and swooping. I think they’re more likely than curlews to try again later in the season if the weather improves, and I have seen very small chicks on September 5th – suggesting that the birds can lay well into August.
Black grouse leks were very quiet to begin with, and they did not seem to hit their stride until around ten days ago. Perhaps that’s largely to do with body condition again, particularly for the greyhens which depend upon the moss crop to reach peak fertility. That crop has been bleached and blasted by icy winds over the last few weeks, so it’s no surprise that the lekking’s been lacking. When the cocks began, they seemed to do so with determined vigour and enthusiasm – I have seen more birds in the last week than the entirety of last season. I must admit that’s partly to do with my own effort; I’ve really put in the legwork recently, but it’s encouraging to have found birds in places where they had previously vanished. And it’s also worth keeping this “upsurge” in context. When we talk about black grouse in Galloway, we’re dealing with single figures here and there as part of a steady and desperate collapse.
Down on the low ground, the first batch of lapwings chicks will have hatched into a horrible icy wasteland. There’s hardly any vegetation to conceal the newly-born birds, and insects are few and far between. Their chances of success are almost zero, particularly on days when I’ve found it hard to remain outdoors for more than half an hour at a time. It’s bitterly cold; even without frequent snow-showers, it’d be clear that something is very wrong with the weather.
I’ve learned a great deal about lapwings this year thanks to the Working for Waders nest camera project, and this awful weather has given me a much broader understanding of wader productivity. I have always been inclined to think of predators as the driving force behind lapwing declines, but having my nose rubbed in field rollers, slurry spreaders and a bitterly cold north wind, it’s clear that predators are an ever diminishing part of the picture. I don’t question the value of predator control for one moment, but even the most ardent gamekeeper needs luck, collaboration and fair weather to succeed.
Perhaps the most astonishing and delightful story of all has come from the nest camera I have placed on a golden plover’s nest in the hills. I receive hourly updates from the birds via a 4G connection as they shuffle their eggs and switch over incubation duties. Having decried the horrific weather over the last few weeks, it’s been thrilling to watch these birds holding fast in the face of heavy snow which has lain so deeply that the entire camera has sometimes been buried beneath it. It’s truly humbling to observe the work and suffering they’ve endured on behalf of their eggs – I have some video footage of a plover coming up from beneath the snow after an extended period on the nest. It’s like some kind of alien birth; a pristine yellow bird emerging in a bleary white-out. Of all the wildlife stories I’ve followed over my life, this is hands-down the most thrilling.
So much more on these birds to come, and here’s hoping the weather will soften soon.