Staff blog: Courtship singing and frenzied activity

Well into the season of monitoring and surveying birds on Trust ground, Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett reports on her findings

Img 9067 male wheatear raffin 31 3 16 (2) detail

Being out on Quinag, particularly at this time of year, is a pleasure - especially when carrying out the early morning bird surveys. All of the migrant bird species have arrived now.  

During winter most of our resident species only show around the fringes of Assynt or in the townships. The robin, chaffinch, wren, our four species of tits and a few others have kept us company throughout winter, but now the air is suddenly filled with courtship singing and frenzied activity.

The distances travelled by our migrant breeding birds, some of which only weigh a few grams, is staggering. They are so light and small. They travel so far; can produce several broods, and then fly hundreds, or thousands, of miles back to their wintering quarters. All this activity is driven by instinct and hormones as they are intrinsically wired to breed.

First the males arrive to establish and protect their territories by singing and, if necessary, aggression. It is fascinating walking from one territory to another trying to spot the willow warbler or song thrush that is in full song.

This year, for me, it was exciting to be aware of the male pied wagtails arriving earlier than the females - yes pied wagtails are migrant breeders in the north-west of Scotland. The sexes have similar plumages but the male’s is much bolder and striking.

It is a fine balance for birds arriving on territory: arrive too early and there is a risk they could perish due to cold weather or from a lack of food, arrive too late and the best territories are already occupied.

Buzzard and eagle relationships are already established, but they wheel around majestically in display flights to reaffirm their bond. After the cold weather fronts during mid to late April gave way to a strong southerly breeze, the wheatears returned in numbers from sub-Saharan Africa. Now they are everywhere, as are the shorter travelled skylarks and meadow pipits.

As the season progresses, more and more species return. Suddenly the uplands are sprinkled with well-hidden nests and so the parents’ feeding duties begin. Coming across a dead robin recently was a reminder of the fragility of our birds, that a bird’s brood may fail just as the Loch Garten ospreys did. This hormone fuelled feathered activity goes on all around us during our daily lives.

Comparing the results of our bird surveys over the years gives a good indication of the state of our upland birds and their population trends. Those species that are generally decreasing are of concern but, by working to provide suitable breeding habitat for birds such as greenshank and skylark, the John Muir Trust aims to support their continued survival.