Friday, 26 April 2013


It was just a five mile stroll with friends up the moors to the inn at the end of the road. It might be just three miles east of Dunblane but it feels more remote: Sheriffmuir Wood hides the slope down to the upper reaches of the Forth valley sprawl; the horizon on north and south sides is moorland and to the east, Blairdenon Hill is the bare-backed lump hiding the rest of the Ochils. Its mood is usually bleak but it was a hot and hazy evening, the finest day of the year so far and the first of the cider days. Skylarks hung in the sky, singing; a sky faded to pale blue from the haze of the heat, and Curlew song rippled languidly from the moors. We took the quiet road that winds its way past rusting, crumbling shielings and conifer plantations, the Larch still brown after the long hard winter. Colt’s-foot lined the burn that runs under the quaint bridge sitting in a scar that seems to me too grand to be the burn’s own work. Two Sand Martins flit downstream into the slowly setting sun. Yellow, like the Colt’s-foot.

The evenings here are long. They start early and end late and normally catch me by surprise. Today it wasn’t so much the evening as its sepia brown accomplice that caught me out. As we strolled up the final slope to our waiting pints, the grass turns to heather and across the road swept a Short-eared Owl. With some fat, unfortunate rodent in its bill, it flew low and fast down the line between the heather and the grass. It dropped to the ground and stared, cross-eyed, back along the moor, before vanishing behind a veil of grass. My pint completely forgotten about.

Nature is best unexpected.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Personal Phenology

‘One Swallow does not a summer make’ is the one bit of Aristotle that every naturalist knows. It felt as if one Swallow would make a spring though, and bring some promise of summery weather to come. It has been a slow and silent spring, the first ever in which I hadn’t seen a migrant bird by the end of March. When the occasional sunny afternoons were spent walking through the woods, the only sounds were from the crashing Woodpigeons and Blackbirds rustling through the leaf litter.
Everything is two to three weeks late currently. The huge front of cold air that trapped winter here has kept the birds behind too. Swallows are not the first migrants, but they’re not far off. The Chiffchaff has the shortest flight back and is the first to ring spring in, with its joyful two-note song. Then the Sand Martins aren’t far behind. It’s a race between them and Swallows and they usually win, but by a matter of minutes over the last two springs in Stirling. It tends to be a few days back in Suffolk. We greet the arrival of Swallows with more fanfare though, despite both species having made it back from tropical Africa. They’re engrained in our cultural knowledge, whereas Sand Martins are much more of a birder’s bird. I can’t really explain why Swallows remind me so much of a pastoral innocence that never existed, but they do.

Nature always finds a way of confounding expectation. You could feel the gradual shift into spring: the overcast and rainy days weren’t so uncomfortably cold, the swans were building their nests and the insects had hatched in small clouds around the loch. I picked my day according to the forecast – a beautiful day – and walked around the loch, expecting the flash of brilliant, glossy blue and chattering calls that mean the Swallows are back. But no, nothing. Not a hint of a migrant, not even the Chiffchaffs of the previous days were singing. Then the next day it happened as I was leaving the university. A Swallow skimming the grass, flying into the teeth of a particularly aggressive headwind, in a break between showers. No grandeur, no expectation, just the beauty of life.
Thanks to Martin Goodey for letting me use his fantastic photo. See his twitter, Flickr.
I punched the very public air at seeing it. For a species in which we live in relatively close contact with, there is something joyous about the arrival of Swallows. As if they signify spring, as if they will somehow dispel the wintery weather that they seem too fragile, too delicate for.  For me it’s what Edward Thomas was referring to when he wrote:

            ‘Who seeks through Winter’s ruins
            Something to pay Winter’s debt.’
                                    (But These Things Also, Edward Thomas)

And the day after, as I hurried across the bridge over the loch in the wind and rain, for a bus I was late for, Swallows and Sand Martins were in their own large cloud over the loch, like a hatch of Hirundinidae.
From last August

Monday, 15 April 2013

14,969 words later and my dissertation is done, and I can emerge from underneath its weight like a woodlouse from a log. I've even timed it perfectly for spring: the day after I finished the conclusion I heard my first Chiffchaff of the year (three weeks late), a singing Jay and had what was most likely an Osprey drift overhead. Today I actually handed it in and went for a spontaneous stroll, the sort of stroll that after two miles turns upwards and into the moors, regardless of the rain. In a sort of miracle, as the track wound up into the Ochils, the wind and rain died down and the sun shone brilliantly on the golden-brown ground against the backdrop of glowering clouds. The moors here are never brilliant for birds, but calling Red Grouse, bubbling Curlew and a discordant flock of Fieldfare provided the accompaniment as the clouds dissipated into sky blue.

It feels good to be outside again. It feels good to be alive.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Surfin' Bird. Apparently.

It’s a duck with more front than the hurricane that helped it here but it was just a speck in my ‘scope. A black speck on the horizon with white in the right places. This, said birders with better than ‘scopes than me, was the Port Seton Surf Scoter. Only it seemed more accurate to say the Longniddry Surf Scoter, given its distance, floating at the far end of Gosford Bay. It was as disappointing as I’d always imagined an English one to be. Scotland is spoilt for scoters. Velvet as well as Common, and ones you can see well enough to actually make out identifying detail on. Not the normal case of guess the floating black flock and hope they’re all common. In Scotland, Velvet Scoters show well enough to make out the curve of the powerful mussel-munching bill and the white comma over the eye.

From Port Seton esplanade a few Velvet Scoters were floating in the Firth of Forth close enough for detailed study. It’s a really lovely, eye-catching duck if you take the time to watch its jet-black body against the sky blue Forth. The industrial orange of its bill seems almost shocking. Yet the rest of the flock – a significantly sized flock – was spread across the horizon, mostly beyond my range. A mixed haywire of scoters, mergansers, eiders and the odd Long-tailed Duck. No Wigeon though. The only one of those was floating past the shore, looking a bit lost with the company of Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Turnstones. A Shag shone bottle green, its Morrissey quiff quivering in the breeze.

Apparently I should’ve been here an hour earlier. They had good views then, and a Glaucous Gull too. After half an hour of staring at dots another birder gets excited. He’d discerned enough detail to make out the white patch on the back of the head and the novelty oversized bill. I swung my ‘scope around and took directions off of Fife and a handily situated merganser. I could make out a string of four Velvet Scoters and one big-headed scoter with white in all the right places.

It disappeared soon after and for several hours nothing much happened. Birders, birds and the sun all came and went. Then another birder finds it at the limits of human visibility. It’s frustrating for the first I’ve ever seen to show so poorly, yet it ends my barren run of twitching American ducks and not seeing them. I’ll settle for that. It means the next one can only get better.