April’s Returns

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Three curlews against a landscape of sun and shade

Things have been so busy for the last few days that I’ve had almost no time to spend on the hill. This has hardly been a hardship as grey curtains of rain lash against the windows and spring shifts into reverse, but it was a real joy to head up this evening to finish planting some alder trees. The cold weather delayed the return of the wheatears and curlews to the hill, but both were on show for the first time as the car rumbled over the bridge and onto the farm. I was particularly pleased to see the wheatears; I find these unassuming little birds strangely fascinating, and the more I see of their complex lives, the more I find to admire.

I bumped a trio of curlews from the moss as I wandered through the cotton grass flowers, and for a moment they flew against the sunlit hills at the far end of the glen, calling as they turned in the gentle breeze. I was particularly thrilled to find piles of black grouse shit. I reported on similar discoveries last year which indicated that birds were using a new part of the hill for their displays, and I’m delighted to think that they might be returning to make use of the same ground this spring.

Black grouse range over huge distances throughout the year, and they focus in on seasonally available feeding across enormous areas. In March and early April, the best source of food on the hill is cottongrass flowers, which have now been spewing golden manes of pollen for the last ten days in Galloway. Our hill is wet enough to provide a dense crop of these nutritious heads, and it’s no wonder that birds should gravitate towards this bounty when the time is right. Fortunately for me, the flowering cottongrass also coincides with the start of the leks. Many of the birds I will see over the next few weeks are not really “mine” at all – they are just seasonal visitors making the best of a timely bonus. Blackcock might come several miles to reach this part of the hill, and I know that several will fly long distances “home” every morning after they’ve filled their crops and displayed for a while. This kind of vast, landscape-scale movement of birds is not well documented, but it explains why populations which become isolated or marginalised soon fall to pieces. For the next few months these birds will be honoured guests, and I look forward to seeing what transpires.

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