Progress Report

The advent of wing feathers

Interesting to provide a quick update on the progress of the single curlew chick which has come on in leaps and bounds since it was last photographed properly 12 days ago. In the intervening period, the two adult birds have taken their charge a long way from the road and in so doing have kept the chick’s progress a secret. I’ve had the occasional glimpse through the grass, but at three hundred yards or more, these passing encounters have been pretty joyless. I have often had to content myself with simply spotting the adult birds, knowing that their ongoing presence is bona fide evidence that the chick is still alive, even if it is invisible.

When I came past this morning, the chick was almost on the roadside verge, and the sound of the car drawing up caused it to dash on long blue stilts into the longer grass. This is an enormous improvement on previous encounters when this chick’s idle idiocy has raised horrible fears for its longevity. For their first few days, curlew chicks are ridiculously vulnerable, calling noisily and ignoring every possible warning from their vocal parents. Even when the shadows of hunting crows and buzzards raced between them, they blithely stumbled through the short grass as if they were blind and deaf. No wonder their mortality rates are appalling during their first week of life, and it’s hard to imagine why their mechanism of self-preservation is so slow to develop. Even my clumsy ears could hear them mewling at a distance of sixty yards, so I shudder to think how easily found they are by any fox with half a brain.

Measure the contrast with the bird I found today – it has grown gangly and hesitant, but it has been switched “on”. It eyeballed me cautiously and ran out of sight two or three times when I moved, warily keeping a distance of perhaps twenty five yards. It is also fascinating to see the progress in plumage – this bird now has observable wings and the beginnings of a mohican of contour feathers down the centre of its head. Its beak is beginning to bend, and the overall cast of solemnity and caution finally makes a recognisable link between parent and offspring.

I have moaned on this blog about the loss of this chick’s three siblings and the gloomy prospects of the survivor, but as the vegetation continues to rise and this bird lurks in the ever-deepening bracken, my hopes are really starting to grow that it may fledge after all. My fingers have been crossed for so long that they ache.

Nightjar Surveys

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.43.45Interesting to spend an evening helping with an RSPB and Forestry Commission nightjar survey in the woods below the house. Nightjars were a common sight down there for many years but have recently tailed off to such an extent that surveys have been abandoned. After discovering two calling males on the hill behind my house, the decision was taken to resurvey this old stronghold, and we all gathered in the gathering twilight beneath a furious onslaught of midges.

If buzzards and bluetits represent “entry level” birdwatching, then nightjars are surely the equivalent of a black belt. They are small, shy and effectively invisible. If they didn’t have such a distinctive call, we might never have discovered them. Additional difficulties are posed by the birds’ scarcity and the inaccessibility of their habitat in Scotland. As I understand it, the South coast of England is home to dozens of nightjars, all easily presented in a mild, midge-free environment. That sounds like child’s play.

If you want a real challenge, come and look for nightjars in Galloway, where brambles rake your legs in the darkness and and jagged gorse lurks behind every obstacle. A nightjar is often a single (albeit noisy) needle in a five hundred acre haystack of rank heather, bracken and blackthorn scrub. Midges are ubiquitous; worse, they are in your ears and drowning in your eyes. Without a midge net, you wouldn’t stand a chance. Even in broad daylight, looking for nightjars would be almost impossible.

Woodcock were roding overhead as the darkness came on. Several passed by on their slow, patient loops, groaning and squeaking with the last muttered phrases from the song thrush. A barn owl drifted down the track at head height, fixing me with a black-eyed stare from a few feet away. Midges whined in a dark column over my head, and as the bats began to crackle out from the willows, I imagined one sweeping into the pall with its mouth open like a blue whale into a ball of krill – time it right and the bat wouldn’t have to eat again for weeks.

And then, at 10:48, there was a nightjar. At first it was a half-heard whirr on the edge of silence, then grew into a full-blown hum. For two or three minutes, the evening was wholly complete. No matter that this bird was not part of our survey and the evening would otherwise draw a total blank – like a corncrake’s grating call, this sound is burnt into our brains at some genetic level. You don’t need to have heard them before – we’ve known that sound for so many human generations that it is instantly familiar; it’s on the tip of our tongues.

Nightjars are a mystery. They are strange, reluctant heroes, operating without gloss or PR. They belong to a distant, half-forgotten age of myth and obscurity, and some of the old crazily inaccurate Victorian nightjar paintings provide a more useful depiction of their true character than modern HD photographs. It’s hard to explain why they are so fascinating by the cold light of day, but the bird is a great deal more than the sum of its parts.

The Perfect Summer?

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Front row seats

The past few weeks have been spent in close pursuit of a brood of curlew chicks. These tiny birds appeared as if from nowhere in a thoroughly unexpected spot below my house where intensive silage fields meet a ramshackle sliver of moss and boggy ground. The farmer has been forced to downsize his operations this year as a result of illness, so this whole area is not being grazed at all until the autumn. Undisturbed and grazed only lightly in previous years, it simply could not be in better condition as a diverse meadow. The variety of plant species competing in the moss is enough to make Tiree or North Uist envious. There are plantains, orchids, buttercups and cinquefoils, stirred in with lolling bog cotton, docks and tongues of jolly redshank. Day by day the meadowsweet climbs out of the wet ground, and the myrtle reeks at dusk and dawn.

Quite apart from the mix of plant species, the vegetation is also structurally perfect for small birds, being patchy enough to allow easy access for little feet and yet dense enough to become a fortress in times of need. I’ve looked at this ground many times and hungrily hoped to find a greyhen in there with a trail of chicks behind her, as I can hardly imagine a better piece of so-called “brood rearing habitat” in Galloway. I was totally delighted by the discovery of four curlew chicks in this little oasis almost a fortnight ago, and was fascinated by what would become of them if only the weather would hold.

And of course, the weather did hold. We’ve had the warmest, loveliest spring I can ever remember. I’ve worn shorts almost every day for a month, and the chicks have swelled in the sunshine. During all the countless hours I’ve watched them, I’ve never seen them brooded by the adults during daylight hours; they haven’t needed any help whatsoever, and when they fancy a rest, they simply plop down into the grass and go to sleep.

But (and it’s a monstrous “but”), the nearest gamekeeper is probably seven miles away. Stalkers shoot a few foxes here and there, but nobody traps crows within a four mile radius. As a result, foxes, crows and magpies are all a common sight, not to mention the ubiquitous background noise of buzzards, badgers and a nest of sparrowhawks within 200 yards of where I first found the chicks.

At first, this seemed to refute the widely publicised belief that nothing prospers without predator control. I was staggered by the curlew’s ability to bring off a clutch of four eggs under such hostile conditions, and having been brought up on the doctrine that gamekeepers are a requisite part of wader conservation, I dared to hope that habitat and favourable weather would pull off a miracle.

Sure enough, the chicks grew like weeds. I photographed them every day and filled two notebooks with observations on their various strengths and vulnerabilities, their cohesion (or lack of it) and their complex communications with mission control (their parents). The mechanism by which adults detected and dispelled intruders was fascinating, and I began to have hopes that these chicks were not just a flash in the pan like so many that had gone before them in Galloway.

It was a sublime and totally unexpected window into the world of a bird that has become something of an enigma in my home county, and my work foundered as I watched over the chicks in a state of electrified delight from 3:45 in the morning to 10 o’clock at night.

But on Friday last week, there were suddenly only two chicks. On Sunday, there was one. There is still a single chick on the moss – I was watching it this morning, impressed at its growth and by the advent of its first primary feathers, but I can’t help wringing my hands at its chances of fledging after the demise of its peers.

I would love to be able to pinpoint a specific culprit for the disappearance of the three chicks. In fact, I would love to be able to prove that a predator was responsible, as without this evidence of the obvious, some will dismiss the whole observation as anecdotal hokum. Buzzards have certainly been a sticking point for the adults and there was a farm cat hunting up the road nearby the night before the first two chicks went missing. I don’t know what happened and the story is still not complete, but it’s a fair enough moment to set down an early conclusion at this stage.

We’ve had exceptional rearing weather this spring – it has been a once-in-a-decade season, and all kinds of birds have produced bumper crops of chicks. These curlews have enjoyed the double bonus of the farmer’s partial withdrawal from these acres, leaving the habitat to grow into something really special. What a coincidence; you could call it a “once-in-a-curlew’s-thirty-year-lifetime” opportunity.

With luck so heavily balanced in their favour, it is tempting to think that if this pair cannot fledge youngsters this year, they will never do it.

It has been a revelation to see what a tremendous difference A1 habitat and sunshine can make to a species that so rarely gets out of the starting blocks when it comes to breeding. But all that is for nothing without predator control.

Like all over-simplified “debates”, discussions around predation are easily polarised and made ridiculous. Some argue that predator control is unnecessary where the habitat is correct. Some argue that the cycles of weather result in natural booms and busts in wader productivity. I’m now more convinced than ever by the value of habitat and weather, but it’s increasingly clear that neither matter without predator control. When all three align, there is no reason why those four youngsters could not have fledged this year – it would have been exceptional, but this is an exceptional year. I don’t expect every wader to convert 100% of its eggs into fledged youngsters every year, but if the summer passes and these two devoted parents head back to the Solway on their own, it will be a bitter, bitter disappointment and a damning condemnation of our collective approach to conservation.


Summer Absence

The first kid of 2016

This blog has been surprisingly quiet over the last few weeks. You could interpret this silence as a lack of inspiration, but in fact the opposite is true – so much has happened that I simply don’t have time to sit down and write about it all. Curlew chicks, nesting nightjars and the first young grouse have combined to strike a synchronised blow to my working day, and I’m spending a great deal more time painting and drawing as torrents of inspiration come drifting in through the open windows.

This blog represents the distilled essence of far more detailed notes which I have kept for over two years. I record everything I see and do on the hill, and the combined total set down since May 8th 2014 amounts to almost half a million words – it’s reaching the stage at which the cost of printing is prohibitive.

So just because the blog has been silent says nothing about the countless hours sitting, watching and learning in the heart of the Galloway Hills over the last month – it’s a constant motto of this blog for me to say “more on this to come”, and almost invariably time does not allow for the promised “more”, but I will try and convert some of the observations material for public consumption in the next week or two.

But for now, I’m very pleased to share this picture of a roe with her kid – the first I have seen this year. I think that the kids were dropped around ten days or a fortnight ago, but I could only judge this on the condition of the does. This little rascal provided the first physical evidence of his generation’s arrival this morning shortly before 5am – what a cracker, and hopefully the first of many more I’ll see in the next few days.