It’s fair to say that most birds, at most times of year, lead quiet and unassuming lives as far as their interactions with people are concerned.
Birds don’t seek us out. They don’t come looking for trouble.
– Unless they happen to be one of the notorious Oban Bay Herring Gulls, which barely blink at the prospect of terrorising you for your six-quid seafood sandwich.
Arguably, one of the most majestic (and accurate) bird memes on the internet!
In spring, everything changes.
The pretty tweets, twitters and warbles that we enjoy so much are (in all likelihood) a back-to-back barrage of sexy come-ons and/or birdie expletives.
It’s probably not the U-Certified listening experience that your grandmother thinks it is.
Birds display to attract a mate, to demonstrate their occupancy of a territory and to discourage competitors from attempting to usurp them.
The complexity, quality and frequency of this display (both vocally and physically) are assessed by the opposite sex to gauge the presence of desirable traits for breeding.
These qualities also help birds to decide how strong a competitor is, and whether a take-down is on the cards.
Come nesting time, many of our demure little ground nesters suddenly become airborne vigilantes.
Nothing and no one is exempt:
This poor girl made the grave mistake of going into a Black-headed Gull colony for a rural wee. They were NOT amused.
Stray too close to their eggs or young, and you can look forward to a barrage of verbal abuse, head-pecking, vomiting and poo splattering.
This manifesto of avian resolve varies depending on species (terns are especially revolting, for all their pretty looks).
But rest assured: If you’re too close, the message will be delivered.
…quite possibly down the back of your neck.
So why are our ground nesters getting so up-tight?
This is the most important time of year for them. It is the culmination of the daily struggles and triumphs that they have faced since the previous breeding season.
When you really strip it down, everything that a bird does is geared towards its ability to produce offspring and to succeed in passing on genetic material to the next generation. They invest enormous amounts of hard-won energy into this process. When they believe that their investment is under threat, they will rally to defend it.
To you and me, this represents something of an inconvenience – it can place limitations on our enjoyment of the countryside.
So why should we be sympathetic?
Well, here’s the thing: Britain’s farmland and coastal ground nesters are disappearing.
Over just a few human generations, an insidious quiet has swept through our countryside. The ranks of Angry Birds are thinning at an alarming rate.
For example: Northern Lapwings.
One of my all time favourites, the Northern Lapwing. Around 1,500 pairs breed on Tiree.
Dressed in bottle green and purple spandex, these funky little birds fizz with synth-pop chic.
Strolling between more decorous waders, Lapwings look like they’ve just tipped out of an all-night rave at the Haçienda.
They’re also game for a good scrap. Indeed, the presence of breeding Lapwing is thought to improve reproductive success for other nearby ground nesters like Redshank; such is their fondness for annoying potential predators until they finally give up and go away.
Across the UK, our Lapwing population declined by 63% between 1970 and 2014. They are now a Red Listed species.
Curlew – those aristocratic upland beauties – have declined by a horrifying 64% between 1970 and 2014 (though they don’t actually breed here on Tiree). Curlew are also Red Listed.
Skylark declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014. Boom. Red Listed.
Like the Lapwing, Skylarks have a special perch reserved in my heart.
Frankly, I don’t want to live in a Britain where you can’t close your eyes on a summer’s day and be lifted like Icarus by their soaring declarations.
Redshank declined by 39% between 1995 and 2014. Oystercatcher by 19% and Golden Plover by 16% in the same period.
I could go on – but I find it deeply saddening to contemplate these losses.
If you wish to read the full 2016 BTO report and digest these numbers for yourself, please see here.
It’s worth saying that some fabulous success stories are also detailed within this document; reflecting the hard work and dedication of many who seek to conserve our birdlife.
Birds have brought me joy above all else: Listening as the fields of my childhood fall silent is painful.
Tiree is a blinking light in a gloomy sea of decline. Somehow, I have washed up in one of the ever fewer places where you can still raise your face to the sky and be drenched in the loveliness of birds.
That said, I wouldn’t try this next to a tern breeding colony – or you might find yourself drenched in something rather different.
Our abundance of avian life is largely due to the traditional, low impact crofting practices that still prevail here. The jauntily fenced fields and common grazings – alive with wildflowers and the industry of insects – are a fragrant nursery.
The start of the Machair display on Tiree, featuring Daisy and Buttercup flowers.
Further, there are few ground predators here; aside from a steady population of introduced Hedgehogs, which are partial to tasty eggs and young when available.
At appropriate grazing densities, cattle are excellent for maintaining good floral diversity! They are an important part of crofting culture on Tiree.
I implore you: Spare a thought for the Angry Birds as you enjoy our countryside. It can be inconvenient at times, but your assistance will help to secure the future of these populations.
Avoid walking or driving over grassland away from clearly designated areas.
The eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds are often so well concealed, there is little hope of seeing them before it’s too late. It’s also possible for pets to hoover them up before you realise what has happened.
Don’t allow pets to wander freely between May and the end of July (and never close to livestock). They should either remain on their lead, or be kept under close control at all times.
Chicks often stray onto our roads from the longer vegetation at field margins. They can’t fly yet, so are vulnerable to being squished!
It’s worth slowing down if you can see adults sneaking about close to the road edge.
Keep an eye on the behaviour of adult birds. If they seem unusually close or start to swoop at you, they probably have chicks. Some species will even mimic a broken wing to try and draw you away from their eggs or offspring.
If you feel like birds have started to give you the stink-eye, it’s important to leave the area promptly. If you’re worried that you’ve accidentally entered a breeding colony, turn back rather than continuing through.
When enjoying time on the beach between May and the end of July, stay below the high watermark to avoid disturbing species such as Ringed Plover. These birds like to nest in sparsely vegetated or finely pebbled areas along the upper shore.
Though many birds feed and roost close to the water’s edge, they won’t lay eggs where there is a risk of the tide covering them.
The picture below shows a Lapwing chick. You’ll see them tootling about all over the island – but please enjoy them from a respectful distance and don’t try to approach.
A charming sight that sadly, has become increasingly uncommon in Britain.
I’ll leave you with a little something on Lapwings from my favourite poet, John Clare.
This is from a piece called “Birds In Alarm” – a very interesting account of how different species behave around their nests:
The pewit hollos ‘chewrit’ as she flies
And flops about the shepherd where he lies;
But when her nest is found she stops her song
And cocks her coppled crown and runs along.