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North Highland Wildlife Diary for May

Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – May   

As with most areas of the UK, the last month or so has been unusually chilly here in the Northern Highlands and only on a few days has it really felt like spring. But even the most reluctant of migrant birds can only put their journey north off for so long, and even though most have been late arriving we now have our usual mix of species here. Well, other than one – the Wheatear. As I mentioned last month, the Wheatear is my favourite summer migrant and in past years they’ve nested on our land – in fact two years ago right outside my office window. But this year I haven’t seen a single bird close-by, which is both a disappointment and a worry. And like so many of our once-common song birds, Wheatears have been declining in recent decades and are currently on the ‘amber’ list. Of course one year’s local absence doesn’t represent a trend and it might be that I’ve just been unlucky, but if no Wheatears show-up next year then I really will be concerned.

On a brighter note, the Swallows arrived back the first week of May to again take up residence in our garage-come-workshop. I’m not sure if they’re the same adults or combination of adult and young from previous years, but for definite they’ll be one or the other. And I know this because of the determined and purposeful way the birds behaved when they arrived back, as the pair noisily circled outside the roller doors until I opened one of them and they immediately swooped in and took up residence on the rafters! I must say that even after many decades of observing birds, it never fails to knock my socks off when I consider the fact that a bird like a swallow can leave its nest late summer, fly to South Africa, then return the following Spring and not just to the general area it left some 7 months before, but the very exact spot. Just think for a moment how utterly amazing that is.

Staying with Hirundines (the family name for Swallows and Martins), I had to take a flight from Inverness to Bristol the week before last (as you do…) and was sitting in the restaurant area at Inverness airport and looking out to the runway and the odd plane sitting on the tarmac (as you might imagine, Inverness airport has rather less traffic than Heathrow), and quickly became aware of large numbers of House Martins flying close to the building. Watching their flight direction, I soon noticed that there were a number of their nests on the underside of the terminal building canopy. And then an Easyjet 737 pulled up right outside and the passengers flowed off it, with none of this sudden activity distracting the 20 or so House Martins that had made the place their home. So fly all the way from Africa for a summer at Inverness airport?  I think if I were a House Martin I’d rather pick a picturesque croft house on the west coast with some peace and tranquillity around it.

Returning to where I live, we still have large numbers of Siskins, Chaffinches and a few Redpolls coming to the garden to feed, and I’ve kept up the supply of sunflower hearts as I’m mindful that the relatively cold weather has restricted the supply of invertebrates. The siskins, and for some reason especially the males, have become incredibly tame and will literally land within a few feet of me hoping for food when I’m working in the garden.

I’ve also been watching the Oystercatchers who are nesting on the edge of a river meadow very close-by, and I imagine the female will be on eggs right now. Meadow Pipits are nesting on the moorland above our land, and we have at least two pairs of Willow Warblers in the woodland below us. And a regular feeder in the field my wife has her ponies in has been a rather aggressive Mistle Thrush who tolerates the presence of few other birds – including other Mistle Thrushes. So I’ve enjoyed watching this largest of our thrushes collect food for its young, and no question that the closely-cropped grass (which is pretty much guaranteed with hungry Shetland Ponies) is an ideal feeding ground for it.

In the month ahead I’m going to spend more time looking at our local pair of breeding Ospreys, so more about that in my June column.