White Wagtail © Mark Lewis

Back in April it was suggested that we looked out for the first Common Terns of the year. Well, in early May,it’s time to start thinking about their very similar cousin, the Arctic Tern. This is a much more exclusively coastal bird (unless you’re based in Shetland and Orkney, where they will nest pretty much anywhere), so a trip to the seaside might be in order! It’s incredible to think of the journeys that these birds have made, from the icy waters of the Antarctic to our coasts and islands. People often talk about the distances they cover during their migration, but consider this. They hardly get a rest once they settle to breed. On returning, they will feed up to get themselves into good condition, then once the eggs hatch, they will need to spend every waking hour defending the young or foraging for food for the chick. These foraging trips must clock up a huge distance over the breeding season, and then when it’s all over again, they only have to go and migrate 10,000 miles again! I’m pretty glad I’m not a tern….

Slightly more exotic but no less iconic - why not look out for Dotterel? Yes, they’ll be up on the high tops soon and once they settle onto nests, extremely hard to see – but before then, well, they’ve got to get here haven’t they. It’s from early May that (if we are pretty lucky!) we may bump into a small group of Dotterel feeding or resting in a ploughed field. Eastern and coastal areas tend to be better but in theory they could turn up anywhere really. Ploughed fields are well worth checking for other things at this time of year too – White Wagtails, Wheatears, Golden Plover, and maybe other waders could all be found using this habitat while on migration. 

And finally, baby birds! By early May we might start to see our first young birds of the year. Recording these is really important, as each time you do so you’re recording a successful breeding attempt. Birders are pretty good at recording what birds they’ve seen, and even counting them, but one thing we might be less good at is recording some of the really useful extra details such as breeding evidence. Recording fledged young is one of the best (and easiest) ways you can record breeding evidence, so look out for juvenile ducks, waders, Coots and Moorhens, Blackbirds and Robins (and many more) from now on.

Strathspey has a range of goodies on offer (Capercaillie, Crested Tit, Crossbills of all manner of persuasions, Slavonian grebes, I could go on….) but I’m going to focus on some of the slightly less glamorous species, that could be found more widely across Scotland that you could see in mid May.

Woodcock breed in woodlands all over Scotland and spring evenings are a great time to catch their ‘roding’ display flights. These flights play a similar role to leks carried out by some grouse species, with male Woodcocks seeking to dominate the airspace, and those that do will get to mate with multiple females. The high pitched squeak part of the call is more easily heard than the grunt, so keep your ears peeled for that and look up when you hear it – roding takes place above the treetops! You can hear both elements of the call in this recording – but the grunts are barely discernable compared to the squeeks – listen out for them at around 10 to 12 seconds into the recording If you’repottering around in the dark, also listen out for Grasshopper Warblers and anything else that feels like it ought to make its presence known at that time of the night. Perhaps a Tawny Owl or two?

Perhaps not quite over the treetops, but sat right in them, you could hope to find some singing Common Redstarts. Perhaps the only thing better than hearing a Redstart is getting a nice look at the male. These birds will not long be back from Africa and will probably still be intent on proclaiming territory in early May, so they should still be singing very actively at this time of year. When they sing, they tend to perch high up and on display in the treetops. Here’s hoping for a gap in the canopy!

Something else that needs a gap in the canopy is the Tree Pipit. It’s a bird of woodlands, but it needs a bit of open space so that it can ‘parachute’ down to the ground as part of its display flight – you can see it doing this (and hear its distinctive song too) on this video. Again, these will have returned back from Africa by early May, and will hopefully be in fine voice. Both the Tree Pipit and the Redstart can be found widely across Scotland, mainly in lower to middle elevation woodlands, although the Tree Pipit prefers much more open areas. They are both species that occur at reasonably low densities, so records of either, and also of roding Woodcock, would be welcomed by your local bird recorder.

May can be one of the best months of the birding calendar for finding something a little bit different. It’s not quite up there with the autumn in terms of the number and diversity of rarities on offer, but if the weather is helpful, and you’re feeling a little lucky, May can certainly deliver. We’re going to look at something that could turn up on the east side, something for the west, and something that could turn up anywhere, including right in the middle. Also, we’re going to leave the mega rarities to one side and focus on things that could actually happen!

First up, one of the classic drift migrants. In mid May, on the east coast and with a decent south easterly wind, there’s every chance a Bluethroat could turn up. These stunning little chats are found (usually) hopping around on the ground under coastal bushes or sycamores – watch out for something like a Robin that looks like it has a lot of orangey red in the tail when it flies away from you (a bit like a Redstart). When it lands, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the whacking great supercilium as it turns its head, and then BLAM, it turns around and that electric blue throat hits you in the eyes. Even those who’ve found loads of much rarer birds than Bluethroats can’t help going a little weak at the knees when that happens.

Over to the west now, where skuas might be migrating. Great and Arctic Skuas may be mostly back onto their breeding grounds by now, but some of the jazzier ones will still be on the move. In the middle of May, large numbers of Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas can be seen moving northward towards their high arctic breeding grounds. The Outer Hebrides tend to be the best bet to witness this spectacle (and it really can be a spectacle on some days, with thousands of birds noted when weather co-operates) although anywhere on the Atlantic seaboard will be worth a look. Some skuas will also take a wee short cut over land too, passing over mountains and glens at great height from the west, and dropping back down to sea level when they reach the other side. Could there be any more bizarre a sighting than seeing a flock of Long-tailed Skuas travelling along theGreat Glen?

And finally, something that could turn up anywhere. One of the smallest waders you’re ever likely to see is the Temminck’s Stint. If you don’t know what they look like, imagine a pocket Common Sandpiper – appreciably smaller than a Dunlin. These birds, like all of the others that will be passing through Scotland this late in the year, will be heading to the wilds of the far north – a real wilderness species. So, what habitat might a real wilderness species use while it stops off in Scotland? Well, anything wet with fresh water really! Any loch or pool with a muddy shore could do the trick, and they are quite partial to a flooded field too. Just the sort of place a Garganey might turn up as well, if you’re feeling particularly lucky….

By late May the Swifts, Spotted Flycatcher and other late migrants are well in and will be settling down to get on with breeding. Some species however are already getting to the end of their first breeding attempts, and the signs of that may be quite obvious! Ducks such as Mallard will have young already and it may soon be time for more interesting species to fledge as well. Your Local Bird Recorder would be delighted to receive records of any species of ducks with young birds – but especially things that are rarer or decreasing (such as Pochard) or things that might not get reported such as broods of Tufted duck. Scanning around well vegetated edges of ponds and lochs might give you the best chance, and who knows what you might find? Breeding Teal surely fly under the radar and at larger or more remote bodies of water, you might get lucky with a brood of Wigeon, Gadwall or Goldeneye?

The Quail belongs to a little band of loosely related birds that can be quite easy to hear but pretty hard to actually see. Some years see lots of Quail arriving in this country, and during these times they can be quite easy to bump into – or at least their calls can be. In other years they can be less easy to come by, but there are no years when Quail records are not interesting. They like to sing from tallish crops and can sometimes be heard singing as they fly around at night – the following recording was made in SW France and features a migrating Quail giving its distinctive ‘wet me-lips’ song- please excuse the excessive insect noise!

Spring is an exciting time for birders because there is a suite of nice juicy scarce birds that inevitably turn up. A lot of them have their own temporal niches (e.g. Bluethroats arriving in mid-May), and by late May we’re getting into the period of spring where we need to keep our ears peeled for mimicry. Two of our dullest, drabbest but best sounding rare birds turn up around now – the Marsh Warbler and the Blyth’s Reed Warbler. One of the features of both species songs (and especially the Marsh Warbler) is that they are rich in mimicry, and one of the joys of hearing one of these sing is the mixing of familiar sounds like Linnet and Swallow with more exotic Bee-eaters and other tropical sounds. In this 18 minute recording you can hear a Marsh Warbler mimicking 27 different species of European birds and several more African species that have not been confidently identified. Listen out for songs like this from thick vegetation and don’t worry if you can’t see the bird – the song is by far its best feature! It’s likely that records of Marsh or Blyth’s Reed Warbler will need to be verified by your local records committee, so do try to get a recording with your mobile phone if you’re lucky enough to stumble into something like this. The longer the better!