Field Notes: Song of skylark and snipe

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett describes an early morning bird survey on the far north west corner of Scotland

Don o'driscoll j24 golden plover detail

Pausing at the top of gully, shadowed by crags on the north side of Quinag, I sit listening. It is very still, but as the ear tunes in the quietness fades.

I am in the middle of a bird survey, with clipboard in hand and GPS around my neck, following a line using coordinates. I walk 2km one way and then 500m upwards towards the crags and then 2km the other way.  I love coming out here early before anyone is awake and walking this ground. I was greeted when I arrived with the song of skylark and snipe. The weather is cool for the time of year and cloudy – not ideal, but I am running out of time and already late compared to last year.

I mark it on the map as I hear nearby the mouse-like squeak of meadow pipet. I hear something else not quite so familiar and pause a while until it sounds again. But it is quiet. I decide to sit on the crags and listen to make sure.

It has been an early start and I’m feeling thirsty. Steaming tea out of a flask never tasted so good. Sipping quietly leaning against a rock I can see all the way up the coastline to Handa island and the north. The sky is dulling over and it feels like rain. I don’t hear the sound again, but have an inkling what it was.

Spits of rain are starting as I gather together my things to move on. There it is again - the plaintive sound of a golden plover. This is one of my favourite birds, I think because it reminds me of the hills I walked as a child. I am really pleased to hear it, like an old friend. I scan the moorland but it is quiet again. It seems to have disappeared. I mark it in anyway as the sound is unmistakable.

Later in the year all the birds marked on the map will be entered on to a spreadsheet which can then be compared to previous years and it is also added to the Assynt Field Club’s data bank of sightings.

As I finish the survey a meadow pipet flushes up from under my feet. I look down and find a nest full of moving fluff. It is hard to describe how lovely it is. The chicks are disturbed by the sudden departure of their parent and are very young. I move quickly onwards so as not to distress the parents. In the distance I can see the car and head back over heather and bog.

Photo of a golden plover by Don O'Driscoll