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Signs of spring in the countryside are hard to miss

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Despite the long, cold winter, there is wildlife to be seen – and heard – across Caithness

Dunnet Head - puffin territory
Dunnet Head - puffin territory

Golden plovers have been gathering in hundreds. They’re one of my favourite birds, I know them from the high, remote moorland country where they nest in solitude.

The bird perches on a tussock near its nest, calling in a single, mournful note and sometimes taking off with a musical ‘tlui, tlui, tlui’ call.

So it seems strange to see large flocks wheeling over the fields, sunlight flashing on their white undersides, even flying right over the house with a rush of wings and a few calls just as you hear them on the moors.

One evening nearly a thousand must have gathered and as dusk fell they seemed especially unsettled, wheeling and swooping in big flocks. Every so often a group would break away and head due north overhead, calling goodbye as they went.

These birds are migrating, they will spread out over the uplands of Scandinavia. But later in the year you see smaller flocks feeding on the fields. These are local birds commuting from their remote nests in the flow country

The male and female work shifts, taking turns to sit on the nest and to fly off to fertile farmland to feed and bring back insects and worms.

Then the other sunny morning there was a new song in the wood, the willow warblers were back, calling from every clump of trees. I can never quite remember their call but once heard it is unmistakeable, a descending series of notes in a slightly minor key which starts a bit like a chaffinch.

Down at Castlehill, as I was getting the boat out, there was such a familiar chattering call that I didn’t even notice it at first, then suddenly realised – the terns were back!

Sea Birds near An Dun ( mostly kittiwakes)
Sea Birds near An Dun ( mostly kittiwakes)

And on the water, halfway between Castletown and Murkle, was the the first small group of puffins which have started coming into their nesting burrows on the clifftops in places such as Dunnet Head. Just a few days earlier the first two swallows were flying around the fish-shop at Thurso Harbour where they nest in the eaves. And if the swallows and terns are back, the cuckoo will not be long – unless this latest cold weather has sent it back to Africa…

It’s not that I’m a great birdwatcher, you simply can’t miss these signs of spring in the countryside. Like the blackbird which hilariously tries to pretend it isn’t feeding young, skulking in bushes and flying the other way if it sees you.

The birds lost their first, very early brood, to the cold snap at the beginning of April and are now trying again. Or the collared dove, cooing near its nest in a stunted lawson cypress. Not quite the gentle bird it’s made out to be, it declared war on jackdaws trying to occupy a nearby electricity pole and successfully drove them off. That is his (or her) pole now.

You still hear curlews and lapwings calling from the fields around our house but there are far less than there used to be. Farm improvements and a multitude of crows mean that few eggs are hatched and fewer chicks make it to adulthood, the current fashion for prairie farming in Caithness won’t help.

The fluty drumming of snipe can still sometimes be heard from our door on a fine, late evening but the birds have moved further away and there are less of them. They used to display right over the house.

Brave queen bumblebees have been out since the end of March. The biggest are the early and the buff-tailed, the white-tailed and now the carder bees are just a little smaller. Perhaps we’ll get the rare great yellow visiting our garden this year, last year we were lucky enough to see a nest near Keiss and watched emerging queens mating with waiting males.

But it is the repopulation of the cliffs with vast colonies of sea-birds that really epitomises spring here, snow showers or sunshine the tiers of rocky ledges are raucous with kittiwakes and guillemots.

Late on a sunny afternoon at low spring tide I was able to stand almost under the huge arch of An Dun, south of Dunbeath. The noise was literally deafening, ear-muffs might have been advised, the sheer spectacle of soaring cliffs and thousands of birds simply too much to fully appreciate on a short visit.

The huge arch of An Dun
The huge arch of An Dun

More practical concerns took over, the boat was rapidly getting coated in guano and it was time to move on.

Fortunately our native wildlife in the far north is well adapted to cold springs, young are raised and broods are fledged even though you’ve not yet realised we’re out of winter!

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