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 – April 

Well April hasn’t turned out to be quite the month I expected it to be as far as returning migrant birds is concerned. And that’s an understatement! But still plenty to tell you about from a decidedly chilly past month.

Actually I delayed writing my monthly column until today, Sunday the 28th, as I thought doing so was bound to bring better news on returning migrants. That move has paid off a bit, and I even broke off from writing in the afternoon and headed into the forest close to our croft to see what migrant birds I could spot or hear. However, as I battled against gale force winds and with heavy sleet hitting my face horizontally, I became a tad pessimistic that my venture out would reveal any brave new migrant birds back from Africa. Then just as the sleet shower started to pass over and the biting wind reduced from gale force to whatever the meteorological level is below it, I heard a sound that lifted my spirits immensely: the call of a Cuckoo.

The Cuckoo is a relatively common breeding bird in the area we live in, and this will no doubt be due to the ideal habitat we have for them. This habitat includes large areas of heather moorland which, in turn, has abundant breeding Meadow Pipits on it – a favourite bird of the Cuckoo to target for what only Cuckoos do – plus areas of native woodland which will supply their principle food; caterpillars.

But the bird I’ve been waiting for is the Wheatear, and although I did see one a few days ago about a mile from where we live, none have arrived back on our land to breed as yet. Two years ago we had a pair which nested under some rocks just two metres from the house and outside my office window. The image above shows two of the young birds being fed by the adult male, and I took this snap through the glass as I was sat at my desk so as not to disturb them! So fingers crossed for more of the same in the season ahead.

Swallows and House Martins arrived back on the 20th April, though, as yet, none of the Swallows which have nested in our garage for the last two years. But still plenty of time for them, and hopefully I can report some good news on that front in my May column.

Of the two Osprey nests we have within 10 or so miles from where we live, at least one of the pairs has returned and I’m hopeful the other pair has as well – in truth I haven’t put in the time to go and observe them, but I will.

As for the migrants that have spent the winter with us in Scotland, all have now departed and the middle of April saw immense skeins of Greylag and  Pink-footed Geese heading back to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland. It’s a sight and sound which never fails to move me, as literally thousands of birds can fly over in irregular V formations and all keeping in continual contact with other with their distinctive calling. In fact I often heard them calling in the middle of the night as I lay in bed and they pass overhead (which is worth staying awake for…).

One interesting spectacle I had in the last week, and one I’ve never seen before, was an Oystercatcher frantically mobbing a Raven which was passing over our croft. We have several pairs of Oystercatcher which nest in the field margins, and the sight of the Raven was obviously too much for this one to bear as it quickly flew up and then dive-bombed the Raven. And made a lot of noise in the process with its piercing distress call – and Oystercatchers are very good at making a lot of noise.

So the last month has been unseasonably cold, and not just in the far north of Scotland where I am but in most areas of the UK. This has meant that invertebrates – so including insects and both flying and crawling – have not been at the numbers they should be, and this will have a direct bearing on the breeding success of many of our garden birds. So what can you do to help? Well this is a plea as much as it is an answer, and I really would urge you to order some live mealworms. And if you’ve never bought and put live mealworms out for your garden birds before and you don’t like the idea because, well, they’re wriggly little critters, then you just need to get over the fear! There really is nothing to it, and mealworms are clean and completely harmless. But anyway, the main point is that they’re the perfect food for adults to feed to their young when they’re in the nest and when they fledge, and by making the effort you’ll also be making a major contribution to the breeding success of the birds in your garden – in particular Robins, Blackbirds and House Sparrows. So gone on… get that order in now.