At Home with the Wheatears

Settling in
Settling in

Now that the wheatears are here, it was worth heading around to the back hill to spend an afternoon watching them last week. The sun was smarting hot on the short grass, and the blue horizon broken only its is steep monotony by snow wreaths on the highest corries and clints towards Carsphairn. Soon I had a pan of water boiling for lunch on a little twig fire, and the disturbance my arrival had caused was gently healing over again. The stamping blackies had returned to graze between the mole hills, and their crumping molars provided a welcome bass note to the wailing yells of their leicester cross lambs. Most of these youngsters lay comatose in the heat, holding their heads at a blissful pitch of delight as the sun visibly grew them like plants.

The only local resident to hold a grudge was a raven who had been pushed off her nest as I walked past along the track. She clacked her beak on the sycamore boughs and hung upside down like a monkey, snapping twigs and clocking in fury until her patience snapped and she went back to her young. A month ago, this terrible plinth of dripping, knuckled twigs seemed bleak and inhospitable, but in the sunshine with cracking buds and a chorus of chaffinches, hope sprang easily. Young ravens squalled as she returned to coddle them; a monotonous “ash-ash-ash-ash” which she smothered with her wings. These chicks are still young and will be hideous out of sight – featherless and wriggling like an old man’s elbows in the oily bilge of the nest.

Somewhere out in the trembling heat haze, a cuckoo started to swell, but the sound was nothing without the breeze and it died in the stillness. Only snatches came now and again over the crackle of the fire and the jolly pip of wagtails on the short grass. High up over my shoulder and behind me, curlews sometimes called in the deep rushes, but this corner is neither hill ground nor low ground. Once it was cleared and worked, but now it is an angular billiard table of short grass, fallen bracken and the wrecked scaffolding of last year’s thistles. There once were rabbits here in huge numbers, and I hunted them with manic enthusiasm as a teenager, but now they have gone and their holes have been scratched shut by sheep or quietly widened by foxes under the moon. The dykes are crumbled lines of crisping lichen, never more than eighteen inches tall, and the pastures have little to offer except wheatears in spring.

But they were shy. There are several pairs on the face, but I had been there for two hours before I saw the first birds in the distance, and they worked down towards me over the course of twenty minutes. Two pairs at first, then three in a small bowl of short grass. The cocks sang scratchily – the same little tune delivered with a trilling, starchy professionalism. One pair came nearer than most, and I watched the cock eyeballing a haze of backlit beasties which swarmed mindlessly up and down in the sunshine. Queen bumblebees came blaring by, and a ladybird landed on my cup of coffee – a surfeit of life in the sunshine.

The nearest cock began to sing, tight-lipped and quietly as his hen peered meekly into the hollow remains of an old rabbit warren. The hens have been prospecting for nest sites since they first arrived, and they seem to feel a kind of gravitational affinity to holes. For now, he was content to let her wander, and he lay on his side and stretched his black wings out over the hot stones, frying the feathers in the sunshine with his eyes closed.

As the day cooled an hour or two later, his enthusiasm surged and he began to bombard her with attention. Singing with a starling’s dexterous voice, he crackled and trilled to her, flattening himself out like a bathing adder so that the stripe of his wing ran in a briefly broken line from the tip of his primary to the end of his beak. He would dig up strands of leaves and ribbons of blow grass, tapping them so that they were neatly aligned in his beak, then he would chase after the hen with his tail half fanned in a white, shining flag. She watched him closely, skipping ahead and keeping away as he bounced round and round like a little dart. They paused for a moment as a peacock butterfly drifted past, then resumed again. The only indication she gave during his hole pursuit was a quiet song and some subtle buzzing in her wings, while he raged and stormed tirelessly behind her, still singing despite his grassy beakful.

The raven rose from her nest to maul a pair of pigeons which had landed too close to her, and the shadows started to lengthen. I watched two of roe deer emerge from the birches, and pairs of larks and pipits came down off the hill to bustle like mice through the longer grass beyond the fence. I headed for home as they bounced and browsed through the blue grass, which had lost its sheen in the shade. Wheatears choose a number of nest sites before the hen finally starts to lay, but I had a good idea of at least three potential sites beneath the stones or tucked away below the turf. Certainly something to keep an eye on.

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