Nightjar’s Return

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Steeped in lamlac and pecked apart by furious broody hens, I decided to finish a long day with a moment’s pleasure. Walking uphill beneath a veil of fresh larch needles, I knew precisely where to sit for the performance, which began at precisely 10pm on the verge of falling darkness. Within a moment or two of my arrival, something like a two-stroke engine cranked into action; a whirring drone which sapped up from the heather beyond the brow of the hill. This is thick, lonely country on the edge of the open hill, and I was jostling for space in a crowd of scrubby trees and ankle-high fiddleheads. The drone tried a few gears before it found one it liked, then settled into a casual, breathless hum.

Nightjars are scarce in this part of Galloway, but this bird is as reliable as clockwork – he calls from the same perch throughout the summer. Some miraculous quirk of skill or instinct has spirited this creature back from the Dark Continent yet again, and this was the first time that stirring call had filled this lonely corner of the forest in 2017. A fug of fresh blossom gave the stillness a treacly sweetness, and midges worked earnestly to dismantle my ears. A late cuckoo chimed, and a grasshopper warbler reeled away in the midst of the myrtle. The air was thick was moths and the dull commute of mechanical beetles.

Out in the long grass amongst a half-seen web of brambles and honeysuckle, a barn owl was hunting. Long, rasping calls slipped up through the larch trees and onto my lap. After a very slow start, summer has finally arrived.

A Headless Dipper

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Decapitated dipper

Spring rushes past in a blur, but there has been the occasional moment to find my feet at the new house as tradesmen come and go and the smell of emulsion reeks out over the fields.

I found the dismembered remains of a young bird in the long grass on Saturday, and puzzled over its identity for some time before recognising it as a dipper. Dippers have a nest in the bridge below the house, and it has been fun to watch the adults buzz up and down the bubbling water with their beaks full of grubs. This unfortunate fledgeling must have been caught napping by a sparrowhawk’s ambush, and it’s interesting to note that the body was found more than five hundred yards away from where it must have been caught. The little dipper was really nothing more than a scrap of flesh so perhaps it’s unsurprising that it could be carried over a long distance, but I am interested to see that after all that effort, the hunter simply ate off the head and left the rest of the carcass untouched.

I’ve been keeping a tally of the bird species I’ve encountered at the new place, and this has reached thirty five yesterday morning to the cheery tune of a yellowhammer. I have a feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Working for Waders

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How sustainable is “farmland wildlife”?

There was plenty of food for thought at the “Working for Waders” workshop in Edinburgh on Thursday. This project is building on the idea established by previous projects to develop progress from a blend of science and social consensus, and it’s interesting to see this approach delivered at first hand.

I’d like to write more about this in due course, but the Working For Waders workshop adopted a “question and answer” structure in which small groups were asked to report back to the whole after a period of conversation and interview. The first question we were asked to consider was:

“Should we attempt to reverse declines in wader populations?” 

Of course, the whole room answered with a resounding (but not unanimous) YES, and in a series of sub-groups, we were asked to explain why. Common themes emerged, including the central idea that waders are part of our culture and heritage – they should be preserved because they belong to our landscape, and for many their personal significance is impossible to overstate.

Playing devil’s advocate, we were then asked to imagine counter arguments – ie. why we should not attempt to reverse declines in wader populations. The most interesting thread here was the idea that wader distribution is almost entirely a human construct. We created a landscape which suited waders and they simply populated it without any active assistance. We often hear of “shifting baselines”, by which each generation adopts a very subjective understanding of how things “should” be. The current generation of land managers grew up in a countryside full of lapwings and curlews, and the decline of these birds is being marked with great sorrow and regret – of course we want to right the wrongs which have taken place on our watch, but how much does this wander into subjectivity?

If traditional farming created a countryside which suited waders, modern farming does not. The same agricultural economy which once made lapwings super-abundant is now making them extremely scarce. I absolutely believe that we should conserve waders and integrate their conservation into modern farming, but human beings have enjoyed these birds at zero cost or effort for centuries – We are the first generation to plough significant amounts of money, research and labour into keeping waders on farmland, and this is a good moment to think about why we feel this is justified.

Much of what is now being written of curlews and lapwings reflects a general feeling that these birds are evocative of rural landscapes – that their loss would come at a shocking emotional, spiritual cost to the countryside. I can absolutely sympathise with this attitude, and I am partly motivated to conserve waders because they are a living, breathing part of the landscape to which I belong. But at the risk of labouring my love of corncrakes, it’s worth remembering that the corncrake’s call was once cited as a true sound of summer by country folk across Britain. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wrote that the sound of corncrakes in his native Worcestershire was “one of the enduring symbols of rural England”, but less than a Century later, corncrakes are little more than a distant memory. Their loss was mourned by those humans who lived through it, but the birds are now just a bizarre, vaguely ridiculous footnote.

Our memories are short and time soon heals scars of loss. Most people in modern Britain have never heard of a corncrake. No sensible conservationist would seriously argue for the birds to be reinstated across their former range because they require a habitat which is incompatible with modern grassland and arable farming. But wait a minute – why should we bend over backwards to accommodate lapwings in a hostile modern world and yet ignore the idea of restoring corncrakes? Is it simply because we remember lapwings more vividly?

Science increasingly allows us to build birds back into our working landscapes, but why do we still choose waders to live on our farms? Is it just to satisfy some cultural memory? It’s possible to massage the design of an arable field so that it can provide some kind of habitat for almost any bird or mammal, so why should we choose lapwings, hares and curlews? – Traditional farming has changed, so can we really expect traditional farm wildlife to stay the same?

Decisions based on instinct, guts and whimsical ideas of culture are often why “re-wilders” look down their noses at mainstream conservation. They see it as a kind of pickling process which refuses to accept change and cherry-picks species for their cultural or emotional significance rather than their literal ecological value. The most ardent re-wilders would consider the collapse of curlews as a simple re-balancing of natural systems. I believe there are strong arguments to resist this approach and wader conservation is one of the most pressing conservation issues we now face, but this was an interesting exercise “tae see oorselves as ithers see us”

A Dry Hill

 

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The view from the tent door at 4:30am

The hill has withered to a crisp. Spring usually unfolds in a systematic pattern, but those rhythms have been parched into jolting chaos. The wind has been stuck in the north for more than a month, and the drying breeze has reduced the moss into a desert. The desiccated grass crunches underfoot like an ocean of cornflakes, and the colourful blare of sphagnum and milkwort is just a dusty pastel cushion. I wrote in early April about the late arrival of breeding curlews on the hill, noting how subdued the snipe were as the month went on. I was momentarily relieved when the curlews finally arrived, but their return was confused and uncomfortable. Many left again after a few days, and their absence has struck a hollow chord in this fiercely dry, cracked landscape.

Keen to find out exactly what impact this dry weather was having, I decided to spend a night on the hill. Packing up my tent and my stove, I headed out into the gloaming on Wednesday evening with several questions to answer. I certainly picked a good night; the hill was breathlessly still beneath a silver full moon. Lying in my tent with the door open, I could peer out over forty miles of southwest Scotland as the last few shreds of sunset melted into the gloom.

It is a fine feature of Galloway that I could look out over such an extraordinarily vast spread of countryside and yet see no sign of human habitation whatsoever. The landscape rolled away to the distance in blue velveteen folds, and despite a concerted search, I was unable to find even the slightest pinprick of electric light. There was a beautifully prehistoric feel to the landscape as the sun died somewhere behind Carsphairn. Down in the clearfelled forestry below me, a roe deer began to bark furiously. Some eddy in the breeze was blowing the scent of my car onto him from where it was parked half a mile away. He would bark intermittently until morning, joined now and then by the formless skirling wail of a vixen.

A snipe began to drum behind me as the stars came out. The single bird looped round and round for ten minutes before faltering into a standstill. After that single display, the night closed in with a cavernous, astonishing silence. There was hardly a breath of air. I woke occasionally from a light doze, astonished that I wasn’t in my own bed at home. The moon climbed higher and a barn owl began to snore asthmatically from the crumbling old sheds a mile away.

I was staggered by the death of it all, which rang in stunning contrast to previous nights beneath the May full moon when the stars ring to the almost constant buzz of waders. I slept for a time and finally woke to the sound of larks. The songs had merged into my dreams, but they swarmed into focus with a roar that made my head swim – the sound came from every conceivable angle across the moss – a million complex voices chattering at once. I had fallen asleep with the tent door open and my feet jutting out onto the moss, and it was surprising to find that my boots were coated in a fuzz of frost. As I came to, a chorus of cuckoos belled in stereo from the forest – I counted nine individuals, then lost the tally and started again. More birds tuned in to join them until I was sure of more than twelve, and the constant see-saw song hummed beneath the gales of larks – an echo from the Congolese rainforest miraculously transported to frosted Galloway. There was an occasional distant bleat of blackcock beneath this transmission, but so distant as to be half imagined.

I was utterly dumbfounded by the accumulative roar of birdsong, but rose up from the clammy tent to find the wind was bitterly cold. It was 4:30am, and the pre-dawn glow revealed a landscape patched with blue frost. A single snipe drummed again over the moss behind me – this was almost certainly the same bird I had heard in the darkness, but one bird is a mockery of the many which usually haunt this hill. Over the horizon, a single curlew wailed some long, trailing notes, but this was the only contact I had with these birds all morning. I was soon distracted by the strange, crackling displays of a wheatear on the dyke nearby, and the frost paled into non-existence while my back was turned.

The night’s trip had merely confirmed my suspicions – the hill has blown so dry that the waders have abandoned it. Curlews have long lives and can afford a degree of circumspection when it comes to breeding. They can alter their plans if the weather is not suitable, and their ability to see the “long game” should mean that this silent spring is just a blip. At the same time, snipe cannot afford to be so laid back. Assuming that they will not return to the hill in 2017, it will be interesting to see how they bounce back when they return in February.

 

A Place for Grasshopper Warblers

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A commemorative painting – 

I can hardly resist a brief and triumphant note about one of my little woods which I planted on the Chayne in 2010. The trees have struggled to get a foothold in this soggy little corner, but the undergrowth has risen up into a dense cage and the scrubby outline of the place has become much more interesting as it now enters its seventh summer without any grazing. I am particularly pleased to see flag iris invading the wetter areas, and there are signs that this half-acre experiment is very much “on the move”

So imagine my delight to find that the little wood has been adopted by a grasshopper warbler. One of those bizarre little birds has been singing in there for the last three nights, and I like to think that the thick, low cover will suit his purposes admirably. If you haven’t heard it before, listen HERE to a recording of their song – it’s an extraordinary sound for a bird to make, and can last in a continuous “reel” for minutes on end. As a “tasting note”, it is best enjoyed as an accompaniment to the sound of a roding woodcock.

Grasshopper warblers are quite common around the Chayne, particularly in scrubby corners of old forestry where grazing is light. They may be some of the most obscure birds it is possible to imagine, but it is extremely satisfying to find that my work has created some usable habitat for them. Perhaps if nothing else, this is a useful case study to show that all nature needs is a chance – I didn’t design the wood for these birds, but as soon as we took our foot off the agricultural pedal, interesting new things began to happen.

I produced this little vignette of a grasshopper warbler (above) in 2013 – the day after I finally realized what was making that extraordinary sound – the accompanying blog article provides some context for that strange discovery.

Breeding Owls

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A dodgy photograph, but there is no doubting the identity of this visitor at 22:33 last night

Delighted to report that my much-talked-of owl box does actually seem to be occupied by a breeding pair of barn owls. I recently wrote about having captured a single photograph of an owl visiting the box, and wondered whether the lack of any other evidence could be down to a faulty camera sensor. To settle the matter, I returned again with the camera on its finest possible setting last night and managed to get over a dozen photographs of owls coming to and from the box between 10:30pm and 3:20am. This is a seriously good sign, and I am thrilled to think that there is genuine value in something I built with my own clumsy hands.

More owl boxes (and perhaps a better camera) are on the way.

Curlew Conclusions

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Full of promise, but filled a fox

I recently spent a good deal of time writing about a curlew’s nest in a field of silage. I agonised over all the various angles of habitat management, and I ended up trying to imagine an agricultural landscape that is more varied and balanced to benefit all farmland wildlife. It ended up being a long article – longer than the limits I usually place on Working for Grouse articles, but I cut so much out of it that those 900 words were the bare bones of all I’ve thought and read on the subject. And so there is a certain bitter irony that all this desk-bound hand-wringing has been cast to the wind by the arrival of a fox.

I passed the nest yesterday and found it unoccupied. The sitting birds were visible from the road, so it had been possible to check on them without causing too much disturbance. When I returned two hours later from checking my traps, there was still no sign of an adult. With a sinking feeling, I quickly jumped the dyke and ran in to find that the nest had been emptied.

Of course careful habitat management is a crucial part of the curlew’s future. It’s absolutely right that we focus on bottlenecks in the curlew’s lifecycle and examine the ways in which waders are being pressed out of this very human landscape. But at the same time, predator control has to be a core theme of any viable way forward.

We can design and finance the most beautiful habitats for curlews, but they will lie empty unless we grasp the nettle on predators. After twenty years of black grouse conservation projects in the Southern Uplands, Galloway has some of the finest habitat for black grouse that it is possible to imagine. It has been hand-crafted by leading specialists, and the work has been funded by taxpayers, grants and subsidies from every level – but a refusal to engage with predator control means that most of it has come too late and it now lies empty. I occasionally find mouldy old signs which read “black grouse project funded by SNH/HLF/RSPB/FCS etc” lying in the midst of pristine habitat and feel a pang of disappointment that there aren’t any birds for miles in any direction.

As curlews decline, there is a tremendous outpouring of love and sorrow for the loss of such charismatic birds. This energy is extraordinarily positive, but it lacks a direct means of action. There are calls to raise money, sign petitions and lobby government officials – this is all constructive, progressive stuff, but it needs to be coherently marshalled into meaningful change. That’s a subject for another blog article, but for now this silage field nest can be ticked off as the fifth one I’ve seen emptied by predators so far this spring.