I see raptors most days. As I walk the length of our croft in a village on the northwest coast of the Isle of Lewis, I regularly see soaring White-tailed Eagle, Golden Eagle, Buzzard, the occasional Merlin, and just recently Hen Harrier that have been expanding their territories northwards. We are fortunate here to have coastal habitats juxtaposed to land worked for crofting, and those areas adjacent to one of the most extensive areas of unspoiled blanket bog in Europe, so this enables a great avian diversity. Throughout the year, an intimate familiarity with this landscape enables me to signpost where I will see Skylark and Stonechat, Wheatear and Bonxie. Shorebirds abound: Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, and the ubiquitous Shag. There is a buzz of activity when migrating flocks of Redwing pass through, and the year can be punctuated by the arrival and departure of species in a memorable sequence. It delights me when Golden Plover reappear to signal their presence by their characteristic single-note piping, and the mellifluous calls of the nesting Curlew are like a phone call from a very old friend to say ‘Hi, I’m back in the island’.
In contrast to the old proverb that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, I find that increasing familiarity encourages wonder. When Golden Plover and Curlew move away at the end of their nesting season, it is always a joy to rediscover their Scandinavian equivalents arriving for a few months of the winter. Attention to timing reveals surprises too; why did all the shorebirds leave early this year? One weekend they were suddenly gone, but Lesser Black-backed Gull seemed to hang around for longer than usual. Greylag Geese that used to be seasonal visitors are now an expanding population of residents, but why did the Pink-footed Geese arrive in the island a week or so earlier than the mainland flocks this year? From my study window, I frequently get a ringside seat to watch an immature Golden Eagle of the season being taught to hunt by a parent bird. Every day is a school day!
Patterns start to become important. The patchwork biodiversity of the crofting landscape encourages a varied mix of constantly changing bird populations, which I describe as ‘a metropolis of birds’ in my recent book, The Changing Hebrides. Understanding the land use and the human ecology of our interaction with the natural environment allows us to develop a cipher to anticipate which birds might be found in this landscape, but there is also a strong element of chance involved. Being in a certain location at exactly the same time as a bird of interest flies past is difficult enough (the north Lewis moor, uninhabited and largely without roads, has a footprint significantly larger than the area of Glasgow, or Manchester, or Dublin). Having the ability to spot a rarity, recognise the species, and log a credible record, requires a rapidly diminishing level of probability, and there are undoubtedly many interesting avian visitors that arrive and depart without our awareness.
I am not a twitcher; the ecology of a bird intrigues me much more than simple recognition. However, there is one ‘tick’ that I like to get every year; hearing the first Corncrake is the Hebridean equivalent of the first Cuckoo or Swallow further south. Although it’s likely not to be the same calling bird that you heard crecking from that same clump of irises last year, there is somehow a comforting continuity in the cycle. During the lockdown of the COVID19 pandemic, I allowed myself the luxury of freeing up some time for writing. I have been interested in the Corncrake for most of my life, listening to its primitive call, reading about it, and watching it whenever a chance observation permitted. Now, working exclusively from home, I devoted my usual commuting time to pulling together years of notebooks, journal articles, and supporting ecological details to write the first full-length book on Corncrake ecology. What began as an intellectual distraction became almost a story of detection, as I pieced together the millions of words in hundreds of papers, each of which often dealt with only one aspect of the bird, in isolation from its wider ecological attributes. Slowly, a species that I thought that I knew pretty well took on a more complex and iconic dimension.
Now I look at the landscape around me with deeper, almost reverential curiosity. The return of a Curlew to nest in almost the same clump of grass, and the avoidance by Merlins of what (to me, at least) is apparently identical and perfectly good nesting environment, is a subject of mystification. There is no magic in the behaviours, but there is a compulsion to try to better understand the mystique. So many questions remain, but thankfully I am fortunate to live in and among my laboratory of the living crofting landscape, and in due course, hopefully, other avian enigmas will become better understood. The term ‘deep ecology’ has taken on a very personal interpretation.
Photos © Frank Rennie
The Changing Outer Hebrides won the 2020 Highland Book Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Research Book of the Year in the National Book Awards, and is available from Acair.
The Corncrake: An ecology of an enigma. (2022) Whittles Books