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Archive for March, 2011
As far as birds are concerned the month of April is the start of comings and goings as birds leave for their summer areas and others come back from their winter retreats. Some of the birds are sometimes associated with long distance movements that are spectacular. Who could fail to see the great skeins of geese, mainly greylag and pinkfeets, heading north? Their goal is the vast breeding grounds of the northern countries such as Iceland, Greenland and northern Scandinavia and beyond. In lesser numbers, but no less dramatic, are the whooper swans heading mainly for Iceland Some whoopers will have stayed in Scotland for the winter but others go further east to Ireland.
Some of the migrants are really long distance travellers such as one of the most epic adventurers, the arctic tern. These small seabirds pass along the Highland coastlines and whilst some may stay to breed the others are bound for northern breeding grounds as far as the Arctic. They may have over-wintered as far south as off the pack ice of the Antarctic. One of the first of the larger birds to come back from Africa is the osprey that is one of the most iconic birds in the Highlands and beyond. By the beginning of the month the first ospreys will be back at the famous site at Loch Garten. With so many ospreys ringed or marked in some way the individuals are often known and even given names and it adds that extra thrill of recording.
For me this time of year is epitomised by much smaller birds that are easily overlooked. There is always that magic at this time of the year to suddenly find that after their absence in the winter months the warblers appear. One day there is no sign of them and the next morning the willow warblers will be singing from the edge of woodland or even in larger gardens. What stories they could tell of their long annual flights to and from the wintering areas in West Africa. The weather is often against them and there are many predators but even so each spring they arrive back and things seem almost normal once again. The first week in the month is often marked by the sudden appearance of another small bird, the wheatear. It seems at home in open fields or rough ground but these early birds may not be all they appear at first sight. Some seem slightly larger and better marked than others and they hold a secret. They may well be what is called the Greenland wheatear because, as their name suggests, they will head even further north to breed.
To many birdwatchers, including myself, the epitome of these changing scenes are the members of the swallow family. The first of these is the sand martins and swallows and their need for a plentiful supply of insect food is a guide as to where the first birds to arrive back can be found. Whilst the warblers may seek insects on the first blossoms of willows the swallows resort to water where their insect food can be found even at this time of the year. Loch Flemington to the east of Inverness is one of first places I visit each spring. If not, then the loch on the side of the road and canal at Dochfour is a good place. The other member of the swallow family, the house martin, is often later than the other two and does not arrive until later in April. So now is the time to get out into the countryside and look for these first migrants and just enjoy them and wonder at what they have achieved.
Collared doves look like a streamlined version of the wood pigeon with a long tail and whilst we readily accept them in gardens and parks we tend to forget their remarkable history in the Highlands. This is a pale pinkish buff dove that looks delicate and vulnerable but its looks belies its life style. The back is plain and unmarked but the degree of brown colouring is very variable with some individuals looking more grey than brown. In flight the most obvious feature is the broad white band at the tip of the tail. Most birds have a thin line of black feathers on the sides and back of the neck but the length and width is variable. This black neck marking is absent in juvenile birds. In the last two years, for some unknown reason, one or two leucistic collared doves have been seen near Inverness. This is a colour abnormality in which there is a partial loss of pigment and the whole plumage looks washed out although the basic pattern remains so that the bird can be identified. One unusual feature is the length of moult as it starts in the spring, after March, and continues into the Autumn. Then the moult seems to halt and the flight feathers do not completely re-grow until the following February. With most birds the complete moult is over as quickly as possible but with the collared dove it can last for an incredible ten months.
The collared dove had spread from its original breeding areas in Asia to reach India and South East Europe by the sixteenth century. Then for some unknown reason the spread abruptly halted and it remained static until 1930. Then, again for some unknown reason, it suddenly started expanding westwards at a rate of a 1,000 miles every twenty years. It bred in England in 1955 and Scotland in 1957 at Covesea, Moray, where birdwatchers from all over Scotland travelled to see the birds. Various theories have been put forward for this success story but the most likely seems to be a genetic mutation which enabled the birds to tolerate colder climates. Those first breeding birds were kept a secret so that the public wouldn’t disturb them. Who could have thought how soon they would appear on the list of thirteen birds that can be shot by authorised persons under a General Licence. Now they can be seen throughout the Highlands and Islands although they are absent from most upland areas. Part of their success is not only the fact that they have been found breeding in every month of the year but also they adapt to varying food sources which is why so many gardens, large and small, have them at the bird feeders. There is some evidence that the collared dove is decreasing around Inverness as the maximum count in the area for 2010 was only nine. This may be because of under-recording as it is so common. In one strath just south of Inverness the numbers have not only dropped but the birds’ behaviour has changed. Flocks of between 15 and 20 were often seen but now there are smaller groups in twos and fours and they are very wary. It seems as though the local goshawks and female sparrowhawks have been busy as the collared doves are very skittish even on garden bird tables. Because the bird is such a recent coloniser it has no local names or for that matter no Scots names but it has a Gaelic one, Calman a chrios, meaning “A dove with the wages of a servant”.