Hello folks, how are you getting on under lockdown? While there are some aspects of it I enjoy (having time to have hobbies, unlike normal), it has brought home to me that I am not cut out for a desk job and I’m desperate to go other places that aren’t the shops or within a walk of my house. And I can’t really complain, I live in the country, it’s the folk in towns I feel sorriest for. But, while we are not going places, the natural world is ticking along as normal and many amazing journeys are taking place all around us … a huge amount of bird life is on the move.
At this time of year, we are thinking of birds arriving from the south, to take advantage of our long summer days, mild climate and plentiful food. While we always bill the swallow as the herald of summer, its smaller cousins the sand martins are usually the first migrant birds to arrive, any time from mid-March onwards. My first view of them is usually flying over one of the lochs, hawking for insects.
It’s then usually a toss -up as to what our next arrival will be. Some years, it’s swallows, with a vit-vit-vit, k-chee, k-chee call stopping you in your tracks, searching the skies for one of these stunning birds, newly returned from Africa.
Or some years it’s an osprey, hovering over the loch while there is still snow on the hills. I wonder how cold a plunge into a Scottish loch feels after the west African sunshine?
Or maybe a willow warbler, with their wistful descant song, seeming far too delicate to migrate anywhere. But they do, from Scotland to sub-Saharan Africa, every year and they only weight 8-9 grams. If you put two spoons of sugar in your tea or coffee, that’s probably about the same weight as these birds in sugar.
By mid-May, most of the migrant birds coming to Muir of Dinnet will have arrived. As well as the ones described above, we get redstart, the fireflirt, probably one of our most stunning birds. We’ll also see tree pipits, close relatives of our ubiquitous meadow pipits…but much better singers. Swifts, the most aerial of all birds, scream over the reserve as they hunt insects, while cuckoos ‘cuckoo’ from the ruin or powerlines by Old Kinord. House martins sculpt mud nests on farm buildings and cottages and even spotted flycatchers sometimes choose human company- we have had one nest on the visitor centre for several years!
Meanwhile, down on the coast, you really see the passage of migrant birds. Many of the migrants you see here won’t be stopping to breed, they’ll merely be dropping in for a rest and refuel on their way somewhere else. In the north-east of Scotland, we’re well placed to be a staging post to Scandinavia and, in May, a steady trickle of wading birds are making their way north. At our sister reserve, Forvie, the beach and mudflats are service stations on the great sky roads to the north and the waders we see here may be carrying on all the way to the Arctic circle. When they get there, their first meal may well be of frozen insects, casualties of the first frosts of the previous year, and frozen into the snow all winter.
Coastal sites are also more likely to pick up rare migrants, lost birds that overshoot their normal breeding grounds or get blown onto the wrong side of the North Sea. This great white egret and red-backed shrike are both ‘overshoots’, which should have stopped a few hundred of miles south of Forvie, where these pictures were taken (not this year, I hasten to add, what with the lockdown and all).
Or this bluethroat, which was probably aiming for Norway but found itself on the west of the North Sea, not the east!
But many thousands of birds do make a planned North Sea or North Atlantic crossing, in both summer and winter. Most obvious of these are the geese, scribbling great ‘V’s in the sky as they race south, honking, ahead of the oncoming winter.
Or the whooper swans, from Iceland. These wild swans are known as ‘singing swans’ in several European languages after their whooping, bugling call.
But, to my mind the most remarkable North Sea crossing is made by our smallest bird, the goldcrest. Weighing in at a (healthy) weight of just 6 grammes, that’s about the same as a 20p coin, these tiny birds cross the North Sea in their thousands in October. They often arrive, bedraggled, exhausted and desperate for rest and shelter. They can be really approachable at this time and are heart-achingly gorgeous…how does something so tiny and fragile make it across all that sea?
But the prize for the greatest bird migrant of all goes to the Arctic tern. They breed here in Scotland and all the way up into the Arctic Circle but think nothing of migrating to the southern hemisphere for the winter. Recently, trackers attached to these terns have revealed that they can fly 43,000 miles on migration and some even take a wee detour via New Zealand. A dead bird picked up at Forvie NNR was 30 years old, so had likely clocked up over a million miles of flying during its lifetime. That’s the equivalent of to the moon and back- twice. Definitely the migration champions!