Going cuckoo

One of the benefits of the Covid-19 lockdown is the time it has provided to observe the local changes in the season as March segues into April and now May. 

Virtual meetings provide the opportunity for actual breaks. 

For the first time in perhaps three decades I can interrupt my writing or take breaks between (video)conferences.

There’s no longer a queue outside the door 🙂

Instead of being cooped up in a windowless meeting room, I can turn off the video 1 and watch the cloud shadows chase across the hillside over the loch …

Primroses

… or step outside to look at the primroses and check up on the tadpoles in the pool.

It’s a liberating experience and one I suspect will actually increase both productivity and home-working once the lockdown ends. You return to the desk (assuming you do return 😉 ) refreshed and revitalised.

How many employees will realise that the daily commute is not always necessary and there’s a better coffee machine at home?

How many companies will now realise they can reduce rented office space by 40% simply by allowing employees to work from home for two days a week?

Do we really need constant expansion of our transport network to move vast numbers of people there and back twice a day, every day?

When I started writing this post we were into our third week of good weather. It proved too much of a distraction and so I’m finishing it a month later at the end of a wonderful seven weeks of glorious west coast spring.

Ardnamurchan weather, mid-April 2020

Which means that I’ve had loads of opportunities to watch the spring unrolling.

Summer visitors

I’m an enthusiastic but rather amateur birder. It’s been a great pleasure watching the migrants arrive in dribs and drabs over the last few weeks. The trees and bushes (I can’t bring myself to write rhododendron as there’s still too much of it about) are now filled with singing willow warblers and chiffchaffs, where they were largely silent a couple of months ago.

Chiffchaff

To the untrained eye (i.e. mine) these two birds look nearly identical.

Willow warbler

However, their songs are very distinctive and provide an unambiguous clue to their identification.

Song and call identification

I’ve taken advantage of lockdown to (virtually) attend a British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) training course on bird identification. This was good value and emphasised the importance of song/call recognition.

If you want to know what’s about you don’t need to actually see it to recognise it.

There’s an excellent catalogue of bird songs and calls at xeno-canto.org with most common birds represented (at least) dozens of times. Some calls have geographic variations and it’s worth using the advanced search to restrict the area to near where you are located 2.

Here are the aforementioned willow warbler and chiffchaff songs – two visually similar birds that are aurally totally different.

Incoming!

I usually try and make a note of the approximate arrival dates of migrants. It’s a good indication of how well advanced, or otherwise, the spring is. This year was the first time I had a chance to do this on the west coast of Scotland 3

I know that both willow warblers and chiffchaffs had been around for several days before I properly became aware of them, so the dates for these two are a bit vague. Others are a little more certain, though seeing or hearing them depends upon being in the right place at the right time.

Cuckoos

Another bird with a really distinctive call. In 2020 I first heard a cuckoo calling on the 18th of April. The call carries a long distance and is completely unmistakable.

Since mid-April a number of birds have been calling in the area almost non-stop. You can hear them from first light until late into the evening. Despite the call being so distinctive and loud, the bird is wary and rather secretive.

Cuckoo

I’ve seen several birds along the Achateny road and they look remarkably like a sparrowhawk in size, shape and colouration. In particular the barred underparts are very hawk-like. However, in flight the wingbeat of the cuckoo is distinctive, with the wing rarely being raised above the horizontal, and the entire bird looking a bit more ‘pointed’.

Cuckoo mimicry and migration

The ‘mimicry’ of hawks by cuckoos was suggested to be an example of evolved mimicry by Alfred Russel Wallace in the late 19th Century. Essentially, cuckoos avoid predation by hawks because they look like hawks. The similarity may also influence host behaviour, for example by frightening or luring hosts away to facilitate egg laying.

Alternatively, it could be an example of convergent evolution i.e. both hawks and cuckoos have ended up looking alike to reduce the chances of detection by their victims, respectively, prey and hosts.

Many small birds, not just hosts for the cuckoo, respond in a similar way to both sparrowhawks and cuckoos 4 suggesting it’s not just birdwatchers who get confused by their appearance.

Cuckoo migration routes

The BTO have been tracking satellite-tagged cuckoos for several years. These studies show that the birds take easterly or westerly migration routes across the Mediterranean en route to sub-Saharan Africa. The westerly route, across Spain, is shorter but associated with higher mortality rates. This is possibly due to decreasing rainfall in Spain, with a concomitant drop in food availability.

The Scottish cuckoo population is thriving, with a 50% increase in numbers over the last decade. These birds take the easterly route to Africa down the spine of Italy. In contrast, the English cuckoo population has dropped about 27% over the same period (and 70% over the last 23 years) and the majority of these birds take the westerly route.

Blackcap

These small, rather attractive, warblers are widely resident in many more southern parts of the UK. There are reports of resident winter birds on Ardnamurchan but I haven’t seen them 5. However, the numbers increase significantly in spring – usually arriving in Scotland in late April – and the sort of scrubby woodland I’m surrounded by is now filled with singing males.

Blackcap

The blackcap is another bird that’s more often heard than seen. The poet John Clare termed the bird The March Nightingale reflecting the rich tones that characterise the end of a song that starts somewhat scratchily.

Wheatear

The wheatear is a bird of open moorland. As such, the earliest date I see them is dictated more by when I go out walking than anything else. Although the usual arrival time in Scotland is late March, I didn’t see one until the 17th of April while walking up the hill behind the house. 

The wheatear is an attractive and very distinctive bird. In flight the white rump and black bar across the tail are unmistakable. 

A couple of days later I was approaching Ben Laga and discovered this sad little pile of feathers on a mossy tussock. Included was one very distinctive black-tipped white tail feather.

Wheatear remains

This bird had flown all the way from sub-Saharan Africa to Ardnamurchan only to be eaten by a merlin 6 a few days after arrival.

Swallows, house martins and swifts

These are the classic summer migrants arriving in April and May.

House martins and swallows arrive in late April. Numbers appear to be lower this season, with very few in the immediate vicinity of the house. I saw both species for the first time on the 30th of April at Camas nan Gael, with more a couple of days later around the River Shiel.

Swifts don’t often get as far as Ardnamurchan and, if they do, they don’t breed here. In fact, they barely get past the Great Glen


Notes

Cuckoo

The word cuckoo is clearly onomatopoeic and is recognisable in Latin cucūlus, French coucou and Middle English, cucu or cuccu. The origin of the word meaning someone who is a bit crazy is not entirely clear. It probably dates back to the 16th Century and possibly originates from the endless repetition of the same phrase over and over.

If you are interested in the biology of the cuckoo, or cuckoos more generally, I thoroughly recommend Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies, published in 2015 by Bloomsbury. ISBN-10 1408856565.

Wordless Wednesday #13


Wordless Wednesday posts are images from Ardnamurchan and the surrounding regions – Sunart, Morvern, Ardgour, Moidart and the Rough Bounds. No description is necessary but further details may be provided with the linked full-size image. I will try and ensure they were photographed in the same month, but perhaps not the same year, that they appear online.

Social distancing

In the future I hope we’ll look back on the Covid-19 pandemic as the threat to global health and economics that could have been much worse.

Now, just over a week into a lockdown, we’re still several weeks away from the peak of infections in the UK and it’s beginning to feel like a dystopian dream.

Normal life is suspended for the moment. Everyone who can work from home is doing so. I spend large parts of my day on video conference calls.

There’s a suspicion that some taking part with ‘audio only’ may still be in their pyjamas 😉

Or they might just have a slow internet connection … who knows?

Putting the remote into remote working

I’m fortunate to have a job that means I can easily work from home. I’m also fortunate that it involves quite a bit of writing and thinking, not necessarily in that order.

We’re all keyboard warriors now

And you can write and think when the weather is bad, or during the night.

Which means I’m getting to see a whole lot more of this spring than I’ve seen of any spring for the past 30 years.

The lockdown came into force before the spring migrants arrive but after most of the winter migrants have departed. The fieldfares and redwings are long gone. The swallows and house martins are still a few days away.

But the local frogs have already spawned …

Frogspawn – early March 2020

… and the tadpoles that subsequently emerged completely ignored the recently introduced rules about social distancing.

However, once the remainder of the yolk sac had been eaten the individuals spread throughout the pond and followed the even stricter guidelines which now preclude more than two meeting.

This little pond wasn’t used by the frogs last year, possibly because it is transient and disappears unless there’s a reasonable amount of rain. According to the SEPA rainfall records from Tobermory (the closest recording station) both December and January were unusually wet, with about 150% the usual levels of precipitation.

Tobermory monthly rainfall records

But February was unusually dry (not something you often hear said about Ardnamurchan) and that’s when the frogs would have been congregating to spawn.

Whatever the reasons, there are hundreds of tadpoles in residence this spring. The pond is adjacent to an outside tap (fed from a burn up the hill) so, should it remain unseasonably dry, I’ll periodically top it up as I watch the froglets develop.

One period of exercise a day

As recently noted by Tom Bryson, with a population density of only about 4.5 people per square kilometre, social distancing is relatively easy on Ardnamurchan. The roads are even quieter than usual as there’s a near-complete absence of tourists.

I use my bike to get out and about. With one notable exception this is a perfect mode of transport on the peninsula. You can stop anywhere, for a minute or an hour, with no danger of blocking a passing place. There’s ample time to view the wonderful scenery and wildlife but you also cover a reasonable distance so get a wide variety of views as well.

The exception is the hills, of which there are several.

Kilchoan to Acharacle profile

An unexpected advantage of social distancing is the solitude it has brought … no one can see me wheezing up the gentle gradients at a snail’s pace, or gasping like a cod out of water on the steeper stuff.

But it’s worth it.

Maintain 2 metres distance from others

At the beginning of the lockdown there was an influx of caravans and camper vans as people ‘escaped’ the cities – either taking advantage of enforced time off work, or avoiding regions with high numbers of Covid-19 cases.

Covid-19 notice

Unsurprisingly this was discouraged. Sparse rural communities tend to lack the healthcare infrastructure needed for resilience and, being at the the end of supply and delivery chains, limited resources to support visitors 1.

There is another disadvantage of being on a bike. You see the rubbish discarded by others littering the ditches or in parking areas.

One thoughtless visitor decided to discard the contents of their portable barbeque in the parking area overlooking Camas nan Gael, together with some unwanted food, dumping it right next to the sign about protecting rural communities.

Leave nothing but footprints … and potatoes and charcoal.

Thanks a lot 🙁

Spring is sprung

One of the things you notice on a bike is the influence of local geography on the pace of seasonal change. The first primroses I saw were on very sheltered south-east facing banks over Camas Bàn. Soon they’ll be everywhere … not least because deer don’t eat them 2.

For the first time I also noticed that the slopes above these primroses hold old coppiced hazel woodland, very different from our usual birch, alder and oak. This is something I’d have never noticed speeding past in the car.

Coppiced hazel near Camas Bàn

As I write this the hazel catkins are still present and the leaf buds are just breaking. The deer – bless ’em – have yet to discover the hazel I’ve planted, but have already decimated some of the willow.

Alder buds are also close to breaking and the larch still have tightly packed clusters of needles looking like small green anemones along the branches.

With a bit more time I’ve also noticed differences in the Ardnamurchan birdlife. Siskins have reappeared again in good numbers. For a period they were absent, presumably because there were better food sources in cones on the conifers.

Siskins

The birds are carving up their territories and laying claim to nesting sites around the house and garden. Most of the nestboxes appear to have regular visits, but there’s little evidence of nest building activity quite yet.

Finally, I’ve noticed how the wind direction seems to influence the views I get of raptors. On days with southerly or south easterly winds I’ve seen good numbers of buzzards, sea eagles and ravens (which I consider an honorary raptor) passing, together with one stunning male hen harrier slip-sliding past at close range. In contrast, the more normal westerlies, give regular (but distant) views of golden or sea eagles over the Morvern hills. In late February I watched three pairs of golden eagles together over Beinn Ghormaig, a fantastic sight.

More of the same

It’s looking as though this lockdown will be in force for at least three months. After that there will probably be an extended period with variable restrictions in place. The outbreak-control modelling by Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College shows these may be needed for many months. There may also be geographic variation reflecting local flare-ups or pressure on healthcare services.

Whatever happens, it is likely to be a very strange and unsettling experience. One of the small benefits will be the increased time we have to appreciate the natural world around. This will carry on as it always has … we’ve just been too busy to notice it.

With fewer cars, visitors, planes, light pollution and noise we might even be able to see more of it. A friend in Edinburgh noted he’d heard the dawn chorus for the first time in two decades due to the reduction in traffic noise.

Western skunk cabbage, Glenborrodale, March 2020

These small pleasures are the silver lining accompanying the cloud we’re currently under.