After a three year absence, we suddenly have lapwings. I spent an hour watching two birds courting on the hill this afternoon beneath rushing windows of clear blue sunlight, marvelling at some breathtaking displays. Shrill, determined little voices carried through the breeze in snatches between the drowsy trill of larks, and spring felt possible.
It’s been ten years since the lapwings last fledged a chick in this glen. When I came to pay attention in 2010, a single bird displayed on his own for a few days in early March before drifting off into the blue. No others followed, but I see from my notes that brief displays were again attempted without success in 2012 and 2014. The average lifespan of a lapwing is between four and five years old, so while it’s tempting to interpret these attempts as the determined efforts of a single bird, it more unlikely to be the work of a few. These lone lapwings never managed to find a mate, and I had simply caught the final gasps of a dying population. Any optimism I might have drawn from those thin, reedy calls was balanced by thoughts of decline, loss and failure.
In the same way, oystercatchers finally gave up trying to breed on the hill almost eight years ago. These birds live much longer than lapwings (even to forty years and beyond!), and they still pass through from time to time on flying visits. They make all the noises to imply that they’re about to breed, then vanish again by April. Lamping foxes at night, I often hear oystercatchers exploring the far reaches of the hill in places where they would once have prospered. Now they’re just a disembodied sound beneath the stars.
The unprecedented return of this pair is an extraordinary boon, but I would be astonished if they were still on their current stance by mid April and would put six month’s wages against them fledging any youngsters. These aberrant birds provide short-term glimpses of hope, but in reality they are almost certainly doomed. Lapwings thrive where they can interact with others in a community, and lone pairs are vastly more vulnerable to predation and failure.
As I understand it, most waders are extremely conservative in their choice of breeding sites. If they don’t return to the same farm to breed, they usually pick the same parish. This is partly why it is so hard to restore populations of waders which have vanished or fallen below a viable threshold – without a returning flow of young breeders, the old birds simply wither and die.
But this theory does not explain how wader populations grew in the first place until they were abundant in every corner of the country. While the majority of birds return to their place of birth, a few wanderers must settle in new places, otherwise species would never expand their ranges. On the face of it, you could imagine this colonisation as a slow process of trial and error, but the reality is perhaps much more radical. A Century ago, oystercatchers were strictly a bird of the seaside, but now they are common in all kinds of inland habitats, even excelling with nest sites on flat roofs and roundabouts. They’ve simply stumbled upon an extremely profitable niche which they are uniquely suited to exploit, but this wouldn’t have happened if waders were as conservative as they are widely held to be. Maybe “my” lapwings are simply attempting to colonise “new” breeding grounds. Unfortunately, they almost certainly will fail for the same reasons that saw off their predecessors in the glen.
As I watched them, the two birds broke off their displays to forage in the rutted grass where cattle have been out wintered. This was further confirmation of my belief in the value of hill cattle, but if this seasonal food source is not tied in to a continuous network of available forage, cover and brood rearing habitat, this “ticked box” is meaningless.