RSPB Scotland Loch Leven's Writer in Residence Anita John brings us the latest sightings from the reserve and writes: The dance of black and white wings high in the sky before plunging low to the water wetlands can mean only one thing at RSPB Scotland Loch Leven - lapwings! Above the sound of the wind through new leaves, the cry of the many black-headed gulls and the song of the skylark, the haunting pee-wit cry of these plovers can be heard right now as the adult birds work hard to protect their growing chicks from would-be predators. These come from both above and on land - black-backed gulls and stoats being the worst culprits!
The lapwings take flight time and time again in what can only be described as a beautiful but desperate choreographed battle of wings between themselves and lesser back-blacked gulls, the latter open to any opportunity to grab a quick snack.The determination and perseverence of the lapwing in its daily battle with its many predators is to be greatly admired. It's a wonder any of the chicks make it to adulthood!
I saw four chicks on my visit, ranging in age from around one to three weeks, all staying close to their guardians. From approximately three to four weeks the chicks are able to look after themselves - and they are growing rapidly so if you wish to see these charming creatures, get along to the reserve in the next couple of weeks. The best place to view them is from the Waterston Hide. But be patient! When the young cuppy down for a rest, they look like nothing more than mud patches! Until they move, that is and then you'll have the pleasure of seeing the downy white backs of their heads, and their oversized gangly legs, like miniature ostrich!
Other chicks sighted during my visit included many greylag goslings and two mute swan cygnets. In previous years there have been redshank chicks at the reserve. Two redshanks with at least one chick have been sighted recently between the Carden and Waterston Hide.
Redshanks are delicate, nervous birds and the many common names given to the species refer mostly to its persistent cry. "Yelper, warden and watchdog of the marshes," are some of the names it carries, but my favourite has to be the Orcadian name of "Watery Pleeps." (1) You can watch the nervy movements of this bird and hear its distinctive cry here (scroll to bottom of page). Both redshanks and lapwings have suffered from the widespread drainage of land for farming purposes over recent decades.
Out on the loch, the fretting of several crows alerted us to the presence of a bird of prey - marsh harrier! We watched with bated breath as this fearsome predator flew in over the loch to land in the reedbeds close to the Gilmore Hide. These birds of prey are wonderful fliers. During courtship they perform breath-taking displays combining wheeling, tumbling and the locking of talons mid-air, a video of which can be seen here (scroll to bottom of page).
Life out on the loch and the wetlands is a fine balance between predation and survival! Luckily, RSPB Scotland Loch Leven is a magnet for many species of birds and other wildlife and it was a pleasure to see so much activity on the water, including including two beautiful shelducks flying in.
Like humans, all species of birds have their own peculiarities and the shelducks' is its penchant for nesting in burrows - often disused rabbit burrows - or other such underground nest chambers. As a result, these ducks have to walk their chicks to water once they are old enough to do so!
Other birdlife seen at the reserve today included gadwalls, shovelers, tufted ducks, mallards, great-crested grebes, herons, coots, oystercatchers and black-headed gulls to name just a few. In the main courtyard the swallows are busy building their nests and a pied wagtail has taken up residence under one of the solar panels on the roof. (Ask a member of staff to point it out when you next visit.)
And just when you think you have seen everything, there is still more to be seen. Turning to leave the reserve I trained my binoculars on a buzzard high in the sky and felt my heart lift when two swifts zoomed into view. It is incredible to think that these birds spend almost the entirety of their adult lives on the wing - sleeping, eating, drinking, mating, preening and flying high above the land. Think swift and there you have it - the magic of nature and the power of RSPB Scotland Loch Leven to amaze time and time again! Go visit. Be amazed!
Photo credits: Lapwing, redshank, buzzard, shelduck - Alex Gilfillan Swift - Ben Andrew
Reference: (1) Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005
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