Heather Beaton, RSPB Scotland's Warden on North Uist shares the stories of our spring arrivals and departures, reminding us how although everything is changing, comfort can be found in familiar yearly patterns.
Migrations and moving forward
The whooper swans left with great fanfare. Over the previous week, a large group had gathered in the sheltered inlets of Loch Bì, close to my home office. When they took off, we ran outside – the noise of their strong wings equal to the celebratory whooping, anticipation high within both us and them. They had contained their restlessness over the previous fortnight, although they’d often been seen with necks craned upwards as if tasting the wind for good fortune.
The lochs seem slightly bereft without them, although the mute swans are still here. The whoopers are different though: elegant and lighter-framed, they epitomise winter to me and I celebrate their arrival while their departure is tinged with sadness.
We humans are not the only ones to be able to feel spring in the changing air, and to act accordingly. While we fling open our windows and dust off the cobwebs, so many of our beloved over-wintering birds leave us towards their breeding grounds. A gloomy farewell. This gloominess, however, cannot last long, as every departure is offset by an arrival.
Upright and proud, the first wheatears to arrive are justifiably pleased with having completed their journey. We eagerly await our first sighting, and then suddenly they’re adorning every rock and outcrop: bright, curious eyes watching the world pass by.
Warmer days bring more and more movement. The sanderling on the sea shore become twitchier, although due to lockdown, I am missing watching them this month, I know that the numbers will swell before their disappearance: the incomers that have overwintered further south than Uist will stop off and have a break prior to the long journey north which provides no further respite. Their darting, silver light will be missed on our shores, but they’ll be back later on this year.
Cuckoo, Credit: Cliff Reddick
After the wheatears the islands fall silent as collectively we all listen for the next arrival. “Cuckoo, cuckoo”! Local social media shares the delight as people talk about their first cuckoo of the year. Meadow pipits turn more watchful once the cuckoo calls, and the moorland becomes a battleground of the most secretive. “Cuckoo, cuckoo”, the sound is the echo of a thousand, eternally-changing years.
The first tern of the year needs a second, third and fourth glance. Tears spring into the eyes. Like puppets dancing in the air, there’s no elegance in their warning call, but the lightness of the wing is something to behold. They stay just long enough to fledge their chicks and then they’re away again – the most temporary of our visitors, but from the tiny little tern, to the aggressive arctic tern, all are a delight to see and watch.
Little tern, Credit: Cliff Reddick
Some birds do not move far at all, some unexpected ones do – did you know that some of the pied wagtails currently dancing on the rocks, are passing through on migrations? They are heading north after overwintering in milder southern climates, swelling our resident numbers for a short few weeks. Of the species we miss through the summer – the purple sandpiper, the redwing, the snow bunting and the barnacle geese, thinking of them in their breeding grounds, in the pale summer warmth of the tundra really does help soften their absence. For after their departure, our woodlands will soon come alive with the song of the willow warbler, the blackcap and the whitethroat. Our ears await the first corncrake, and suddenly the isles seem like a noisier place: nights change to become full of sound, the machair birds calling and always watchful.
Singing corncrake, Credit: Cliff Reddick
It’s a balance whereby all works out in the end, but this movement, this wonderful, exciting, anticipatory movement of species through our islands helps us remember that no moment lasts forever, for just like the migrants that we delight to see, we keep moving forward. Always.
Lovely article, makes me long to revisit the Outer Hebrides, but that will have to wait for now. Meanwhile blackcaps and chiffchaff are here in Edinburgh in good numbers and I’m sure I heard my first willow warbler of the year on Monday.
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