Am Bratach No. 307
May 2017

Nature’s call
By Donald Mitchell

The “nature’s call” article for May is a good one to write, as most of the inspiration arises as you are composing it in April, when ideas fly into your mind like hundreds of migrating birds. Spring life is returning once more and the circulation of the seasons is quite literally inspiring.

This last weekend saw many hundreds of redwings appearing on the crofts, an invading avian army hopping across the boggy ground en masse, devouring unsuspecting worms and grubs as they move. The skies were laced with skeins of geese, mostly pinkfeet heading north to their breeding grounds. The Durness column of Greenland barnacle geese was still here however, enjoying the new growth of grass on Eilean Hoan, possibly awaiting a change of wind to blow them home.

For many of us in the north I think the return of the wheatears to the moor is one of the real harbingers of spring. We see them flitting cheerfully from mound to mound chasing whatever insects they can find in this still cold environment, or, more obviously and dangerously, performing their near suicidal flights across the road in front of our vehicles — often when we first notice them.

I found a dead redwing on the road last night, or rather the dog did, nosing it and sniffing loudly. I took it from him and tossed it into the bushes, immediately disturbing dozens of concealed redwings already roosting there, making us both startle in the process.

As birds arrive and depart the “local” ones begin to contemplate nesting; indeed, a few will already be doing so. For instance the hoodie crows which nest in the pines a few doors away from us will have young as they are presently very frequent visitors to our garden. Anything we put out, really for the wee birdies, seems to be eminently desirable food for hoodies.

I hung out fat balls for the tits and starlings; unfortunately they had disappeared by morning. So I made a cage to put the fat balls in but they ended up on the ground in bits — I was blaming badgers. The next step was to wire it to the bird table but that didn’t work either: in fact, the whole wire cage disappeared — pesky badgers! I tried the same again. This time we saw the culprits, two hoodies, craftily working together to undo the wire and dismantle the cage. I didn’t bother after that.

We did recently put out some left over pasta. I thought the gulls would appreciate it but the hoodies were first to arrive, taking huge beak-fulls of the congealed mass and flying off with long white beards of pasta. They didn’t actually go directly back to the nest — they are much smarter than that. They went to the edge of the garden, stuffed the pasta down a hole by the fence and covered it up, then returned for more.

Many may not like hoodie crows but you have to admit they are crafty and smart. I have observed them working at the edge of the Kyle of Durness close to where the road borders the estuary, picking mussels from the shore, flying high above the road and then dropping the mussels onto the road where they crack open or are fortuitously split open by a passing car.
Is it possible they actually await the approach of a car? I couldn’t be certain. If anyone wonders why the edge of the road there is lined with broken mussel shells, ask the crows.

A long time ago I used to have a pet carrion crow: he was called Crawlin and came from a gamekeeper who had rescued him from below a nest but then became weary of looking after him. Crawlin, like the entire crow family, was also clever and quite affectionate as he sat on my shoulder gently nibbling an ear. I didn’t deliberately release him because I thought that he might not cope on his own but he mysteriously escaped his aviary, staying around flying free for months. I could call him over and he would land on my arm or head demanding food for his loyalty.

He disappeared eventually and I assumed that he had met his end. I was wrong, as some months later Crawlin’s picture appeared in a local paper, happily sitting on a girl’s shoulder. It seems that he had adopted a village as his new home where many children were now spoiling him.

Clever birds, corvids!

Donald is a Highland Council ranger, based at Durness. 

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