Wilderness Cottages Self Catering Holiday Cottages in Scotland

Posts Tagged ‘ highland birds ’

Swallows – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

swallowsMany people are attracted to the first migrants of the summer and welcome back the cuckoo or the willow warbler let alone the swallow and osprey.   These are summarised in the annual reports of the Highland Bird Report where there is always  a page that  covers the first dates back for such migrants.  There is a sprinkling of birds in March each year such as the osprey, ring ouzel and wheatear followed by a number of birds in April such as cuckoo, chiffchaff and redstart. Some birds delay their arrival in the Highlands until May such as the swift, garden warbler and spotted flycatcher.     Each year I try to match these dates with my own observations but my dates are always much later than the ones given in the Report.  This is despite the fact that I often make early visits to suitable places such as the coast, woodland, moorland  and lochs.

This year I have made a point of looking at the last dates in the report for migrants rather than the first, and,  particularly, looking for swifts, sand martins, house martins and swallows.   The swift is the odd one out because the adults will leave early.  The last dates for swifts to leave for Africa is around 5th September  and they leave fledged chicks behind that are independent as soon as they  leave the nest and make their own way to Africa.  What is remarkable is that the young  swifts I saw leave  early in September will not land again until they are looking for nest sites 23 or more months later.   They eat, drink and sleep on the wing.

The swallows arrive around 12th April in the Highlands and if it is a good year for insects they can have two  broods even this far north.  The photograph shows what is almost certainly a second brood although this  year,  with the insects  so low in numbers, it was the exception.  In some years in the Highlands the last dates for swallows are into November.  It makes one wonder  whether, in the future, some swallows will over winter up here as each year there are scattered records down in southern England for the whole of the winter.   Swallows and sand martins will often flock up just before they migrate south and in reed beds huge numbers may gather to roost overnight.

Sand martins leave around 12th September after joining the swallows in their communal roost that may number in their hundreds.    They have an annual threat to their choice   of breeding sites as they nest in colonies in the sandy banks of rivers and wide burns.  The problem is when the rivers and burns experience a spate if the water rises too quickly over too short a time.  The time of such spates is  critical as if the young sand martins are still in their breeding holes and cannot fly they  may well be drowned  or just washed out when the water rise above the colony of holes.     There seems to be a trend for sand martins to change to colonies away from the water although  still within a  short  flying distance of water where their main food, insects, will gather in high numbers.  I now know of at least three colonies in such a situation.  Fortunately this year the spates after heavy rain  did not materialise and the large colony below  our house went unscathed and had a good breeding season.  They will now be well on their way to  Africa.

Crows – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

hooded crowOf all the predators in the Highlands, the ones that do more  damage to small prey across a wide range of wildlife are the crows.   This means the carrion  crow and the hooded crow that occupy   different ranges in the Highlands.  The hooded crow is essentially  a western bird and that includes the Western and the Northern Isles.     It has a black head, wings and tail with a pinkish grey body.   In contrast the carrion crow is found to the east and they are all black with  a very slightly bluish sheen.   What is interesting is that in   a line from just north of Inverness and south down the Great Glen there is a hybrid zone where both hooded  and carrion crow interbreed.  The offspring are fertile and this gives rise to varying amounts  of grey feathers on some birds.  In some cases there are just a few patches of grey feathers and the bird looks rather incongruous.

Part of the reputation of these crows is how cautious and clever they are.   For example, if you want to use a hide to photograph   them the normal routine just does not work.  With other birds the photographer  will take a companion  to the hide, slip inside and then one person goes off whilst the photographer  stays inside to take the  photographs.  The bird is fooled into thinking the danger has past.  With both the hooded crow and the carrion crow you need to take three people to the hide and two walk away  before the bird will accept that the danger has gone.

Both the crows will take a very wide range of prey and one of their specialties is the eggs or chicks of ground nesting birds such as the waders and smaller birds.  Lapwings, oystercatchers, snipe, redshank and even the larger curlew will fall prey of them.  They have developed a routine to take this prey as one bird will distract a sitting bird away from the nest, then the other bird slips in and helps itself  to the eggs or chicks.      The camouflage of the eggs does not fool them and not even the camouflage of the chicks when they have left the nest.  The chick camouflage is clever as it relies on the birds just looking like two pebbles.  This is achieved by wader chicks having dark feathers all over  but with a pale line of feathers around the neck.  These light feathers means the two parts of the chick, the head and the body look like two separate pebbles so that most predators are fooled – but not the carrion and hooded crows!

The very wide range of food that both these birds will take is also part of their success.  They will scavenge along the seashore and such was the case last week with a pair I saw on Nairn harbour/beach.  They were two typical hooded crows and had spent some time along the shore picking at various dead prey from crabs to limpets.  Then they came to rest on the seawall where I took the photograph from a distance of about six yards and they were completely unconcerned.  Typical hooded crows with the  pinkish grey feathers very conspicuous.  In contrast they will patrol the high tops of the Cairngorms searching  for ptarmigan eggs or  chicks or they will pick at a dead salmon along riversides.   Watching them scavenge along roadsides for casualties is almost an art form.   One worrying aspect is that they are now invading gardens, even small ones, and they can do a great of harm   to nesting birds and their eggs/chicks.   These crows produce emotive thoughts from such people as  farmers and gamekeepers and yet despite the constant “war” against them they continue to flourish and their future seems more than assured.

The Robin – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

robinThe photograph of a juvenile robin I  took in the garden last week gives an idea of how  successful some birds were in nesting this year.    This robin is from the second brood this summer and it was feeding with a young bird of the first brood that had  already moulted and had a red breast.    The first nest would have been built in early spring and only the female does the building using leaves, moss and grass.  It is  an open nest but well hidden in a hollow in a bank, a tree stump or a hole in a wall.  They will also nest inside sheds and outhouses if  we are obliging enough to leave the door open. They will readily take to what are called open fronted nestboxes where instead of a hole the top half of the front part is open.   The 4 or 5 eggs are incubated by the female for about 15 days but the male helps to feed the chicks  in the nest and for a short time when they fledge.   However, if the female starts a second brood the male will continue feeding the chicks on his own.  The young start to be independent after 16-24 days.

The juvenile birds soon start to be as friendly to humans as the adults so little wonder that in the national ballot in 2015 to find Britain’s National bird the robin came out on top.  This was with a staggering 75,623 votes.   It was little wonder that the robin won this   competition as for many years people had presumed it was the National bird.  However, the final list threw up some surprises and nobody would have guessed that with 26,191 votes the  barn owl would come in second.  The blackbird was expected to be high on the list as it is another  friendly garden bird and it came in third.   The wren was next which was no surprise particularly as it is the most numerous and widespread bird in Britain.  The blue tit at eight was surprisingly   low on the list with only the hen harrier and puffin below.  Red kite, kingfisher and mute swan completed the eventual list.

If you think of birds in myths, lore and legend there can be few birds that match the robin. Surprisingly  this is not the case in Europe as a whole and this is because there the robin is not the confiding bird it is in Britain.  Whilst we may be used  to a robin sitting on the garden fence or spade and even  waiting for a worm to be thrown to it this is not the case in  Europe.  There  robins will even go around in small groups, unheard of in Britain, and they are much more of a woodland bird.   So this is why so much of the myths, lore and legend emanates from Britain.   The conspicuous red breast of the robin is a good example of how these myths came about.    One is that the robin brought down fire from the heavens for the people to keep warm and was singed in the process.  Another is that the robin tried to fan the fire to bring it back to life to keep the baby Jesus warm.   In contrast we are not far away from the time of the year when the robin is most popular as it is so commonly used  on Christmas cards.  Postmen in the  19th century  were called “redbreasts “, after their red uniform,  and so the robin became commonly used on Christmas cards and this persists to today.