Death in the morning

A little after eight this morning. I pad through, dressed, to the kitchen where the sun, already two-thirds of the way across its path between the turbines and the low hills to the south, is already fully up above the horizon. It’s one of the last times I see this before the hills obscure the sunrise until much later in the day, and I rejoice in the scene and its warmth. Slightly further north and east, a small rain shower casts down in long, thin, smears of dark grey as the sun, a full disc but nevertheless hazy, casts its warm glow into the kitchen, illuminating with a timeless orange light the surfaces and the walls. There is little wind and the rain, a brief interlude in what will be a warm, almost cloudless, balmy day, is soon gone.

Overhead, one of the headland’s flock of ravens floats down towards the bay, feet dangling below, but held so, in a straight line from which, given the lack of wind, it barely deviates. I imagine it, a few seconds ahead, landing on one of the rocks exposed by the retreating tide, to bask in the sun and, maybe, plan its day just as I am doing. Though it does, already, appear a little more purposeful.

It lands. Not on a rock, though. It has already planned its day and breakfast is its next item. It lands on top of something on the sand and immediately jabs downwards. Its target moves. It’s not dead. Shocked out of my slumber by the violence of the thrust and by the – clearly erroneous – belief that ravens prefer their food already matured as opposed to fresh, I grab my binoculars from the lounge window shelf. Its prey continues to struggle as its adversary continues its stabbing motions, irregularly and infrequently, long moments between, like each one was already the last.

The prey continues to move. It’s a bird, of some kind – though I can’t make out what, even with the binoculars. It staggers about in its own defence, under the weight of the raven on its back, looking like a young, unfledged chick, though it surely can’t be, not at this time of year. Then the raven flies off, landing ten yards or so to the left, its back turned nonchalantly on its prey, bored with the struggle or else regaining strength before returning to the affray. The target vainly continues to flap its wings, ineffectively, seeking to make progress in any direction and I’m reminded somehow of the lumbering efforts on land of a penguin. It seeks, slowly, to raise itself to a height, to convince its attackers that it is not injured, that it is proud and able to defend itself, and capable of doing so.

It does not convince, or make progress. For whatever reason (an earlier assault, most likely), it cannot fly away. A second raven joins the fight – except that this already uneven contest is not a fair fight. The two are not evenly matched in a struggle for supremacy, with death the honourable outcome for the loser. If it’s a murder of crows, then what is it of ravens, joining up in a tag team against something already weak and virtually defenceless?

The ravens do not compete. They work together. The second one also stabs away at the prey, infrequently and irregularly, surprised at having to make another attempt to subdue, until the first attacker rejoins it. They stand side-by-side, momentarily in converse about what to do next. It cannot get away. It will not. The second raven, too, flies away a short distance before the original bird resumes the attack. Steady, not frenzied. Determined and resolute, not panicky. Remorseless, and not giving up.

The prey continues to struggle, long wings flapping, lurching about, trying to martial something, anything, with which to respond to the onslaught it is under, the raven’s beak continuing, repeatedly but oddly irregularly, its stabbing motions, interspersed with periods of rest, as a fighter in between rounds. Gulls circle overhead – but they do not join in. A flock of fifteen or so dunlin edge closer across the sand in wedge formation, interested onlookers to the scene before them but perhaps, mostly, glad it’s not them. The prey is significantly larger than them and, as it moves, I see a longer bill and am reminded of a cormorant.

The bird spins, facing its attacker and, for a moment, I imagine that this is its best chance, to use its own bill in its own defence. Inwardly, I cheer it. Except that it has not spun round; it has been spun. And its beak is no match for that of a raven which, eventually, delivers some sort of coup de grace before, again, flying away some short distance to recuperate, to distance itself from the murder it has had to commit, to quieten its senses.

Called briefly away from the scene, I return some time later. The prey is now headless, its neck a bloody stump, its body slumped behind like the contents of a small sack. The ravens are long gone. With a white chest and black body, I think, after all, it was probably a guillemot. I’m reminded of how defenceless it appeared and cannot escape the thought that it was a chick. It would not be the first time this year that I have watched a predation, but this one has left me oddly and disturbingly moved. Most likely, the bird was already injured – in some way – and the ravens, opportunistic scavengers, have moved in to finish the job and, perhaps, have been surprised by how long it took them.

A surround of white feathers on the sand, lying so many and motionless in the lack of wind, bears testimony to its plucking and appear, in some way, in small tribute to its last stand. Not the white feathers of cowardice, these. Meanwhile, the gulls continue to fly overhead, not interested in the murder committed on the sands below them, or apparently in its product, before the rising tide eventually sweeps away the body, and the evidence, and the feathery tributes, out to sea and into the wider food chain, and all returns to peaceful normality.

Corncrake on a stomp

Captured tonight, through somewhat foggy windows as a result of a salt encrustation following today’s cool and misty weather (and not because I haven’t cleaned them in absolutely ages), a corncrake in rare disco mode.

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Interspersed with moments of more classical corncrake posery (still and erect, and with as haughty a demeanour as can be managed by a bird that is pure comedy to look at), this one was engaged in somewhat odd flurries of wing flapping, throwing itself around the grass and, well, dancing in the spotlight cast by the brief moments of early evening sun. What animals get up to when they think you’re not looking, eh?

I suspect this is, in reality, a young bird that is testing out its wing power as well as its energy levels – and for very good reason too with a flight to the African savannah ahead of it in just a few weeks. No short hop, that, from the north-west tip of South Uist for a bird that you’re not sure would actually make it across to the other side of the bay without wheezing, potentially falling apart without a Tuffers-style break of some kind.

But, ahead of all that, it’s nice to see that s/he is also a bit of a chip off the old block: inhabiting her/his father’s favourite north-east triangle of the garden and, crossing through the corncrake-sized gap in the fence repeatedly, showing the same healthy disrespect for border fences. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to style and comportment (see below, passim). Other corncrakes I’ve heard recently – but ours: not a peep in the last few months. One suspects one hasn’t needed to – ours has definitely got himself sorted.

As for the imaginary soundtrack for our new, young corncrake’s Sunday night fever, well – it could be anything from cajun fiddle- and ‘tit fer-led psycho hoedown mayhem to something a little more modern. But I can’t get past the Brothers Johnson’s mighty Stomp (Everybody make it to the top…) – any excuse to refresh this one is just fine by me.

(Nicely shows off my newly-repainted fence, too 🙂 )

And so it begins (again) …

Wandering around the side of the house this afternoon after the hail had melted away in the warmth of the sunshine, topping up the bird feeders as I went with additional sunflower seeds, I couldn’t help but notice this, just before I put my size 8s right on it:

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The dimensions – likely to be about 3cm, top to bottom, when whole – but more the pale blue colour without markings make me think this is a starling’s egg, carried away from the nest to avoid attracting the attentions of predators (though not too far away, I suspect). It looks as though our gang nesting in the walls of the old byre have a hatchling. Well sheltered it would therefore have been there, not least against today’s north-westerlies, but it’s been a cold week even before today’s hail.

Looking forward to the new member joining the gang in due course and, when old enough, being put to work on the usual lawn scarification duties – starling beaks probing the grass for leatherjackets and other tasty morsels are a great help in keeping the moss at bay!

Have also been seeing a lot of the male hen harrier these last few days; usually, it’s the female we see (and probably five days out of seven) but the male – presumably on breadwinning duties with the female on eggs or otherwise engaged – has recently been a daily visitor. Outside the breeding season, he seems to hunt elsewhere so it’s likely to be the prospect of an easy meal, with other mouths to feed, which have brought him hereabouts. In contrast to the female, which quarters the ground in a mazy flight from about 10′ up, twisting this way and that and looking largely for mice and voles rather than the local birdlife, the male’s tactic is to fly in low and very fast, scattering everything in an absolute panic, including a bunch of oystercatchers dozing in this evening’s sun in the shelter offered by the wee beach just down from the house, suddenly appearing, unseen and at pace, among them. He’s not interested in the oystercatchers – they’re far too big, for one thing – or indeed, it seems, in the rest of the wader population occupying our shore, but he does seem to enjoy waking up the neighbourhood. And so he ought.

UPDATE 11 May: walking around outside today, there were *a lot* more shells scattered on the grass and an unholy amount of high-pitched peeping screaming ‘feed me’ coming from the byre. Hoping therefore to get a lot more scarifying done this autumn!

Also saw the female hen harrier fly determinedly past about an hour ago, too – so it looks like the male’s doing a spot of house-keeping and -sitting tonight.

Where have all the eider gone?

Gone to eiderdowns, every one (it seems). (Apart from this one mature chap, obviously.)

IMG_0195aYet, despite looking so glitteringly handsome as he floated amidst the seaweed in the afternoon sun of Easter week (only the blush pink chest is not quite so evident in my picture here), he has no mate (or, at least, it’s not apparent that he does). And, actually, he’s the first eider I’ve seen in the bay all winter.

Last year’s breeding season wasn’t a great success: we had (at least) four pairs but only three chicks ever made it into the eider creche and at least one, and maybe more, of those didn’t survive: the rest of the eider, the males having already departed, were all gone early and none has returned all winter. In contrast, I can recall a couple of pairs lingering here for the whole of the previous winter before being joined by a couple of other couples. Although perhaps that, rather than this, was the exception.

Competition for scarce food sources is, as always, the most likely explanation for wildlife moving on in this way: this winter, the high tide, especially when driven in by a north wind, has brought a feeding frenzy of herring, common and black-headed gulls stabbing at the morsels drifting in on the tide and it’s likely that they’re snaffling much of what the sea has to offer. Here’s a small section of the water in the bay at high tide, taken on Friday evening last week, to show what I mean:

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Spot also the pair of oystercatchers watching on from the shore with a look of stoical bemusement. They tend to feed on buried shellfish patiently winkled out from the sand once the tide has started to retreat or on the early incoming tide, although oystercatchers usually feed a little lower than the high tide line and they can dig for worms on the machair – something denied to the eider whose diet is entirely sea-based. Similarly, eider – sea-going ducks – tend to dive for their food, which gulls tend not to do. Left entirely to its own devices, nature tends to look after itself, as we know from sparrowhawks and songbirds; and, more recently, from the tentative relationship between pine martens and red and grey squirrels.

So, it may not be just the scarcity of food which is keeping the eider away, although it may surely be one factor. And, after this all-too-brief show, this one eider’s away too. Perhaps they’re just hiding somewhere around the bay.

Apart from the colours of the male (and the variety: last year’s numbers included an eclipse version), eider make the most fantastic calls calling to mind a deeper, perhaps tenor, version of Kenneth Williams in full surprised mode. Colour and good humour all wrapped up in one package means that the prospect of not having them around the bay this spring, and replaced in the latter case by the manic, panicked screaming and mocking of gulls, would definitely be a loss.

UPDATE 15/4/18: Up a little earlier than usual this Sunday morning and my reward was the arrival, with no little ceremony, of a small armada of eider flying in close formation as they do, bulk notwithstanding, and landing in the bay. Closer inspection revealed five males and five females, with at least two pairs seeming to take a close interest in settling round-here-abouts.

UPDATE 19/4/18: A group of 7 males and six females cruised in on this morning’s receding tide to preen and sunbathe following the very rough southerly winds we’ve had these past few days, plus I spotted another pair drifting a little further away. So – record numbers. After all. 🙂

Here’s a group of 6 plus 6 😉 with the seventh somewhat stand-offish male omitted to focus a little better on the main group:

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Watching the tide roll away

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A small part of a flock of greenshank on Ardivachar beach, taken at quarter past six last night and just after sunset against a tide now well on the retreat.

Our own bay has seen a lot of greenshank this winter, and far more than I can remember last – mostly, these are likely to be Scandinavian birds coming here for their winter holidays, although there is an increasing resident population overwintering here too rather than heading off to south-western Ireland and the Med. As I write this morning, yesterday’s (and this early morning’s) blue swamped by a uniform, and increasingly chilly, grey, there is a large three-figure flock, recently swelled from the thirty or so birds we had a few months at the dark end of 2017, towards the far side of the bay busying themselves on the edge of an incoming tide.

Yesterday, with our bay also sparkling in the welcome sunshine that covered most of the UK, the flock was engaged in a kind of brief murmuration of some 200+ birds, twisting and turning in the sun, rising higher in a figure of eight pattern and taking their cues from a continually changing succession of invisible leaders, white bellies flashing in the sunshine against a sky the softest of blues as they did so, before settling again to feed and preen at the edge of the tide, all spread out and each settling back down into their own spot with the rarest of squabbles among them. There was no raptor obviously present among them, but greenshank, as easily disturbed as their smaller red cousins, often do this although rarely flying up more than a few feet above the water: food is still scarce and conserving energy remains a vital element of individual survival.

Talking of mumurations, this is a good excuse to link to this picture and report from earlier this year, but which crossed my Twitter feed for the first time also at the weekend. It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to see birds forming the shape of an even bigger bird to see off a predator, and thus we should resist the temptation to see anything in Daniel Biber’s terrific picture other than a great shot of a moment in, and apparently out of, time as well as a tribute to the lengths and the sheer hard work that photographers put in to capture meaning in a shot – although the collectivist in me so wants to see resistance to anthropomorphism, on this occasion, crumble!

A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.