Early- to mid-May is the time for young birds around here. Though I haven’t seen any yet, we’ve had regular reports of young Moorhens in the area, so I’ve decided to post some old stock from previous seasons, all of it taken on the Forth and Clyde Canal between Speirs Wharf and Maryhill Locks. I run on this section of towpath giving me good opportunities to recce possible birdwatching sites. I can usually guarantee a Moorhen or two and they’re a cheering sight. Despite their size and ubiquity, I’ve found that my photographs are often disappointing; unless the birds have a very good reason to be still, they seem to be in perpetual and erratic motion and I rarely get the crispness I want in an image. I like this one – the colours seem true to life and the orange garter at the top of the leg is visible. There is a hint of blue sheen towards the base of the neck.

The WWT tells me that: “The orange-red bill with a bright yellow tip is actually coded so other moorhens can tell how healthy an individual is – much as flamingos do. Scientists have shown the different colours on the bird’s bill are actually health indicators. The red seems to be related to low levels of bacterial infection, and the yellow to blood parameters such as resistance to infection. The brighter the colours, the more attractive the bird is deemed.” One source for this is a paper by Fenoglio et al. (Bird Study, 2002, 49, 89–92). The authors endorse the yellow colour at the tip as a health indicator. I couldn’t find a source for the reference to the red colour. The colours arise from the presence of carotenoids – violet to green light is being absorbed hence the red to yellow coloration.

As usual, the BTO have interesting material on their website including this: “Moorhen courtship and territoriality has been well studied owing to their abundance in and around University towns.” I haven’t seen the delicate courtship or the rather spectacular fighting when I’ve had the camera in hand, alas.

I have seen pairs nest building; the bird doing the leg work gets to make trip after trip across and up and down the canal. It’s tiring work and you can see how errors might creep in with growing fatigue. After what looks like a good start, this bird has gone wrong and started bringing items which need a good cut down. My copy of “The British Ornithologists Guide to Bird Life” (Blandford Press, Poole, 1980, ISBN 0 7137 0996 0) tells me that “The male builds the nest, the female helping by collecting nesting materials” which is not what I expected.

More successful construction projects will culminate in the pair taking turns to incubate five to seven eggs for up to twenty-one days. More than one female may lay eggs in a nest according to my RSPB book.

We had watched a nest being built on the canal by The Whisky Bond. This part of the  canal has the first reedy margins on offer after the stone banks of Speirs Wharf. The nest was tucked in right under the towpath making it quite difficult to see, unless you were looking for it. I followed up our weekend viewing with a run during the week; things had moved on, with a bird incubating eggs. I kept checking the nest and we timed a weekend walk to give us a chance of some chicks. We were blessed with sunshine and this sight.

May I stress that I am at quite a distance from the nest, using all the reach of my zoom lens so as not to loom? This piece in The Guardian writes nicely about the bird and describes chicks in a threatening situation.

I took quite a lot of pictures and have posted some extras in a gallery at the end. I will limit myself to a few of the most appealing here in the main post.

It really is amazing that any of these tiny creatures survive beyond a few days, given the number of potential threats, yet some do. The parents must move them away from nest sites pretty quickly and if I’m paying attention, I’ll hear them peeping away in the margins. Close inspection may then reveal them but they are usually very well concealed. The birds in the next images are much further on developmentally, and quite competent. I found them much closer to Maryhill on a stretch where the vegetation stretched from bank-to-bank (it has since been cleared). The individual in the third image must be pretty well fed because it is ignoring two large snails which are grazing on the lily pads. Had I realised the snails were there when I took the photograph, I would have tried a bit harder and perhaps managed to secure an image which I could have used to identify them.

This Moorhen looks well grown and may be part of the breeding population by now.

I always try to look for a work from visual or literary culture based on my species of the week. I thought a good countryman like John Clare might help me out with something charming about Moorhens but I was relying on Ecosia to find it. Ecosia appeared to have turned up some Burns but “The Bonie Moor-Hen” is clearly a grouse, even without the BBC’s helpful reference to “The Glorious 12th”. The giveaway is this couplet: “But still as the fairest she sat in their sight, Then, whirr! she was over, a mile at a flight.”

Moorhen flight is somewhat laboured and their take-off definitely not to be confused with a grouse exploding from the heather. British Moorhens are highly sedentary, but are joined in winter by migrants from continental Europe, especially the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The BTO have provided ringing data which confirms this result. I’m really surprised that they cover such distances.

I can live with not seeing any freshly-hatched  Moorhens this year; if I’m not seeing them, neither are the gulls or corvids and that’s definitely a good thing. I’m hoping to catch up with some slightly older birds a bit later in the season when they’re safer from harm and not such a worry.

Carrion Crows

I was waiting for the Avanti on Wigan North Western station early yesterday morning. I saw a Buzzard circle in the distance and turned when I heard an unfamiliar rattling to the South. The only birds visible were a pair of crows perched on lighting stands, one by the northbound line into platform 5 and one across the way by platform 4. The latter bird flew across after another rattle and began what I can only describe as a curtsey to the former. The 08:38 to Glasgow Central swept in and I had to leave the crows behind. I found a similar sound around 1:20 on this clip from the Audubon Society.

On some mornings, I wake up with a start at a noise overhead – it’s a crow bouncing ever so slightly sideways across our flat roof. In the vagueness of waking, it sounds a bit like the security services about to storm the flat, or ninja burglars. Sometimes the crows add the vocals. On one rather grey morning last June, a proper murder of crows settled on the rooftops of Woodlands Terrace – I’d never seen it before and they haven’t been back in these numbers (I counted over fifty) but there is a small subgroup which regularly plays a King of the Castle game on the TV aerials up there.

I like crows; I look at them and they look right back at me. I think they’re sizing me up, a bit like the way I look at a potential fishing place. One way or another, I’m a potential food source for them. I might well hand some out, or I might just be some in due course. The eyeballs first as an amuse bouche, and then something fleshier when it’s softened up a bit, an earlobe, then a cheek perhaps to start? Plenty of time for the larger muscle groups when they’re a bit gamey. I wanted some contrasty crow pictures and I took matters into my own hands in the Kelvingrove Park one snowy day. I thought the crows would be starving  and incautious – I’d forgotten about the profligacy of the coffee cup generations (just go home and put the kettle on, eh?).

I had a small bag of sunflower hearts and pancetta and my fishing catapult; the plan was to treat the crows like the silvers I fish for, pinging a bit of bait at them and photographing them when they bounced into range. Massive crow fail! They either didn’t notice the offerings, or flew off if I dropped the food on their heads. A bit of loose feeding from the hand at close range was more effective and this chap came in close.

So I just drifted about, getting cold feet, and and I enjoyed a fair bit of what looks like play fighting.

This image is a bit grainy and it probably looks better as this “digital print”.

Crows can be solitary or they can occupy social groups  and there seems to be quite a bit of published work on Open Access. The term coalitionary aggression turns up – where a dominant individual recruits other members of a social group to attack (and perhaps kill) another individual, possibly as a way of manipulating a social group. The Kelvingrove Park population seems to at least contain one large group and certain individuals seem to play at attacking each other – no actual blows are exchanged in these encounters.

I also found a paper which discussed kin-based cooperative breeding. This involves grown offspring delaying natal dispersal and helping their parents to rear new young. The offspring of non-cooperative carrion crows from Switzerland were taken to Spain and raised in a cooperative population. Five out of six transplanted juveniles delayed dispersal, and two of those became helpers in the following breeding season, suggesting that the behaviour was learned in the new environment, rather than simply ancestral.

I enjoyed hearing about corvids in general on Radio 3 recently – Nicola Clayton described the raising of her pet Rook. I had thought of trying to make friends with some of the Park crows but lacked the commitment to make very frequent visits to them. I may well read Mark Cocker’s Crow Country in due course (it was mentioned in the broadcast and sounded interesting).

This autumnal crow had a good shout at me from the parapet of the bridge over the Kelvin into the Botanic Gardens. The picture dates from the days before the council decided to refurbish the bridge and paint it up like a public convenience (white and a remaindered shade of blue, like the Brighton and Hove Albion FC home kit). I like the distressed paintwork and the way it echoes the chap’s wonderfully leathery feet.

Seaside crows are always good value, indefatigably turning the seaweed. Are they eating insects or just speculating that a better morsel lurks under those piles of rotting vegetation? In Crow and the Birds, Ted Hughes has it as:

Crow spraddled head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream

No ice cream on these Ayrshire beaches, away with your English indulgences. My collected poems doesn’t tell me where  Crow and the Birds comes from (really annoyingly) but it seems to be from Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow from 1970.

The differences in scale between crows and the smaller birds are striking and if I were a Dunnock or a Robin, I would give them a wide berth.

However handsome crows may be, I would not like this to be the last thing I saw.

Glenarn Garden

On May 1st, we visited Glenarn Garden in Rhu. Our previous visit was in 2021, two years before and almost to the day.

The garden occupies a hillside site and offers a range of environments which seem to favour, amongst other genera, Acers and Rhododendrons. If you take the West Highland Line north from Glasgow Queen Street, you’ll see Rhododendron ponticum everywhere so it looks that this damp, sheltered and mossy land should be a good place to grow species from mountain foothills. The big stars of this garden are the Rhododendrons, many of which are hybrids raised in the garden by previous owners. There are some huge plants but these major specimens were resting in 2023 after a bounteous display in the previous season. We bumped into Mrs Thornley who somehow manages to maintain this enormous project; she was holding a stem of large blooms from a scarlet-flowered species, gathered in reconnaissance for the local Rhododendron show, and told us that we were visiting in a quiet year. No matter – there was still much to see. The collection clearly blooms over an extended period with some species over and others in bud at the time of our visit.

I have no Rhododendron expertise at all. I could find you a Rhododendron luteum with my eyes shut – the fragrance is intoxicating – but I’m struggling after that. I think this one is the Himalayan species R. barbatum.

I can read tags though – these are R. Avalanche and R. Brocade Plus, both real performers.

In the absence of identifications, this post looks a bit like a plant catalogue without the useful text pages but I hope you can enjoy the opulence and range of form and colour offered by these plants.

Scots featured prominently amongst the Victorian plant hunters and the estates of Argyll and Bute benefited from their searches. The Ardkinglass Woodland Garden near Cairndow boasts some champion trees (and Red Squirrels). The late Beatrice Colin set her final novel The Glass House on a local estate; the pursuit of the elusive Snow Tree (a Rhododendron, surely?) is woven through the narrative.

A set piece garden like Glenarn can offer quiet corners in which a different aesthetic prevails. The Erythroniums and Triliums (I’m very fond of both) are still a formal planting but mark a transition into a more modest range of colours and forms.

And then there are the serendipities where the gardener might be intending to clear some self-sets (but hasn’t got there yet) or has decided to let a wild thing prosper, or where a heavy dew or a shower has transformed a leaf into a bejewelled spectacle. I’ve seen a leaf like this before – I think it might be Meconopsis betonicifolia, a big favourite.

I like this “interplanting” of Alchemilla mollis and (an unknown) Primula –  I’m told that the former plant “is valued for the appearance of its leaves in wet weather. Water beads on the leaves due to their dewetting (the process of retraction of a fluid from a non-wettable surface it was forced to cover) properties. These beads of water were considered by alchemists to be the purest form of water. They used this water in their quest to turn base metal into gold, hence the name Alchemilla. The Latin specific epithet mollis means “soft”, referring to the hairs on the leaves.” Imagine being the alchemist’s lab assistant and collecting those beads of water by the litre.

Nearby, I found this perfect hart’s-tongue fern reaching slowly for the light.

Glenarn has some excellent trees. I really enjoyed this Whitebeam starting to open its leaves, and the early Acer foliage.

I do have a name for this Acer – pensylvanicum, what a beauty.

We’ve seen few visitors on either of our visits and the main sounds have been of birdsong. I made this short recording while Faye fired up the Cornell Merlin Bird ID app. We’ve a Robin and a Blackcap according to the app and then, rather surprisingly, a Peregrine falcon (which did the decent thing and flew over our heads to put the matter beyond any doubt).

Glenarn Garden is a very special place – next year may be one for the really big Rhododendrons following their rest. I wish Mr and Mrs Thornley many more happy years of cultivation.

Black-headed Gulls

One of my images (the one of the Troon day boat) from the Ringed Plover post  got me thinking back to one of the most analysed utterances ever made by a professional footballer – one Eric Cantona – who said, in 1995, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Cantona’s quip came at a 1995 press conference after a court appearance following his two-footed lunge at a spectator during a Manchester United match against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. In the years that followed a glittering career on the pitch, Cantona strode into the world of acting, decorating Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film Elizabeth in his role as French Ambassador, unforgettable.

So Cantona’s bon mot got me thinking about gulls working around human activity, and back to childhood and seeing tractors climbing the local fields around Rainford with a clamour of Black-headed Gulls behind them. I would see clouds of Lapwings rise from these fields too, but that’s another story entirely. The BHGs were looking for nematodes and ground-dwelling beetles as the plough turned the land over.   Evidently the late C. F. Tunnicliffe RA had seen similar sights – his Black Headed Gulls Following The Plough sold at Christies in 1996.

These BHGs have lost their breeding plumage, not unreasonably as this work cannot represent a summer scene. In Tunnicliffe’s woodcut on the same theme, there is a single distinctive black head to be seen amidst the throng of bigger birds.

I always see BHGs when I run along the Clyde in winter; they are lively presences and they seem to glitter in certain lights.

The Clyde was partly frozen on this day and open water was at a premium.

I remembered seeing a large group on the wing near North Berwick and went back a few years and found the image. I think there are a few plovers in the background – the image was taken just after a Merlin flew over the rim of the dunes towards some Sanderlings and I think all the birds were on high alert.

I had another group feeding near Aberlady.

I like the way that four birds seem to be queueing or following each other through a sequence in this image. It’s a crop out of something bigger so a little grainy, alas.

This is my best image of the non-breeding plumage, taken at Irvine Harbour in the winter.

I read Esther Wolfson’s Field Notes From a Hidden City some years ago. She’s quite keen on gulls, and generally speaking, I’m not. I remembered that she’d mostly written about Herring Gulls. Looking at her writing for August 11th again (it is mostly about Herring Gulls), I found that she had raised the ideas of philopatry (the tendency of an organism to stay in or habitually return to a particular area), nest site tenacity and mate fidelity. Far from being no more than urban anarchist shredders of bin bags, it seems that Herring Gulls are very socially organised.

I hadn’t really thought about BHGs in this context until our visit to Belfast WOW. The reserve has large rafts which the BHGs use early in the season. Arctic and Common Terns follow them later in the year.

The rafts were a source of constant activity and clamour and it was very hard to follow individual behaviours. However, there were many pairs much closer to the hides and some of them were going through rather stately dances with remarkable posturing.

I haven’t been able been able to find much comment about this in the literature. I found a few moves in this YouTube video but not the whole business.

The posturing behaviour was widely reproduced, suggesting strongly that there was a degree of social organisation, and I found this article which discusses philopatry, nest site tenacity and mate fidelity. BHGs test high for all three. The study did report the odd breeding threesome.

Our final visit of the Belfast trip took us to WWT Castle Espie in the sunshine and I was pleased to find some birds posing in excellent light. I love the crispness of the fanned tail, its whiteness emphasised by the blackness of the crossed wingtips. The lifted wings are so elegant and the five colours work beautifully together.

The typical lifespan of this numerous species is around 10 years, with the oldest individuals living for 30 years. Despite their breeding taking place in large colonies, their reproduction in Scotland seems to be slightly fraught. I quote from this article: “Productivity is affected by mammal predation, especially by American mink Neovison vison at west coast colonies. Comparisons of productivity at colonies where American mink were controlled against those with no control, or where control was unsuccessful, found that on average, between 1997 and 2011, American mink lowered success from 0.79 to 0.32 chicks fledged per pair – an estimated 59% reduction. However, from 2012 to 2014, success at colonies where American mink were controlled (0.06, 0.44 and 0.00 in each year, respectively) was actually lower than at colonies with no, or unsuccessful, control (0.44, 0.65 and 0.69 in each year, respectively), suggesting other factors (e.g. predation by large gulls, predation by otters Lutra lutra, or due to inclement weather) were impacting on productivity.” On the whole, anything approaching a gull colony on the ground gets a good slapping but I guess there are limits to the effectiveness of their communal defence.

I’ll be paying more attention to BHGs in future, whether they’re on the Clyde or at Stevenston.

Backwoodsman will post again on Saturday 13th May, all being well.


There is no specific seasonal trigger for me to post about this species; a couple of relatively recent opportunities to gather some images made me decide to commit.

Our first sight of Shovelers was at WWT Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway. We took the train from Glasgow to Dumfries and eventually managed to summon a taxi to take us to Caerlaverock. It was a dark day and there wasn’t a huge amount about on the reserve. We were hoping for a goose spectacular – the reserve is on the Solway Firth which is an important wintering ground, particularly for Barnacle Geese from Svalbard. There were none to be seen which probably means that we’d picked the wrong season.Before a very fraught taxi pick up and ride back to the station against the clock, we did manage to see some Teal, followed by some Shovelers.

When you first set eyes on Shovelers, there really isn’t much else they can be, they are so well named. I have some rotten images from that day and I won’t trouble you with those. However, more recent visits to WWT Slimbridge and Belfast WOW delivered some better stuff, mostly due to our visits being made on brighter days (though there are still some sensitivity issues), and the availability of well-situated hides. At Caerlaverock, the Shovelers had simply cruised past into a reedbed but they went through some repertoire at Slimbridge and Belfast.

Apart from the glorious colour palette (which reminds me of Shelduck, another big favourite), it’s all about the bill with Shovelers. I had not found this site before but it had some useful stuff – for example: “The Jimmy Durante of ducks, the northern shoveler, has perhaps the most unique bill of all waterfowl. Its wide, shovel-like bill with well-developed lamellae functions as a large scoop and sieve for skimming invertebrates and seeds from the water’s surface. It is not uncommon to see groups of shovelers foraging together like pelicans.” I’m thinking that Avocets and Spoonbills are pretty unusual too but we’ll let that drift with the tide. I saw males feeding in close mutual proximity – does this count as social feeding? This was February and most of the birds seemed to be paired up for mating.

The same site also had: “Lamellae are another fascinating adaptation of the waterfowl bill. These small, comb-like structures along the inside of the bill act like sieves and look like teeth, even though ducks and geese don’t chew food. When ducks are searching for food, nonfood items such as mud and water can be expelled while seeds, bugs, or other food items are retained by the lamellae. The top part of the waterfowl bill is called the upper mandible, and the bottom part, the lower mandible. The upper mandible is affixed to the skull, but the lower mandible can move up and down… Shovelers have about 220 lamellae on their lower mandible and 180 lamellae on their upper mandible.”

I examined my photographs with more interest and found one (above) which shows the set quite well (but I’m going to struggle to count so many lamellae) – it’s a small piece of the image blown up quite big so there is a bit of grain. When I saw this cropped image, I thought of Baleen. I also include the uncropped image (below) which shows the glorious disarray of  feathers as the bird preens – so many colours and textures to enjoy here.

The BTO told me that: “The Shoveler is a rather specialized feeder, as its broad bill might suggest, feeding on zooplankton. One consequence of this is that Shoveler tend to favour more ephemeral waterbodies where potential competitors (e.g. fish) cannot survive.” I also found an image which shows (if you zoom up) the lamellae on the upper mandible giving an idea of the length of the individual structures.

I assume these are keratin bristles (as in Baleen). You may have heard Roma Agrawal on Radio 4’s Start the Week talking about the seven basic building blocks of everything in the built or made environment – string being one of the seven. I found her discussion of string, threads and cables engaging and it made me think of the structural proteins collagen and keratin – of course nature got there first, it always does.

Apart from the hardware, Shovelers have also evolved behaviour which involves agency, opportunism and cooperativity: “A Northern Shoveler feeds mainly by drawing water into its bill and then pumping it out through the sides with their tongue, filtering out minute food particles with long comb-like lamellae that line the edge of the bill. The particles mainly consist of tiny crustaceans, molluscs, insects, and their larvae as well as seeds and pieces of leaves and stems of plants. In addition to the food particles they also eat water beetles, small minnows, and snails. Social feeding is common. The shovelers are drawn to feeding areas by other birds feeding in an area. Shovelers take advantage of the food particles churned to the surface by the other birds swimming or wading in the area. Single birds may swim in a tight circle to create a whirlpool to cause food to come to the surface.” [My italics]

At Slimbridge, I watched a pair making a tight clockwise circle for long time. The wind was ripping in over the Severn and the hides facing into the wind weren’t too popular, funnily enough. I was pleased to see the head shaking movements which emphasised the scale of the bill.

This video shows some of the  feeding and courtship behaviour. I’m rotten at photographing birds in flight but I found a very nice image of a pair on the wing at a site called Saltlane. I haven’t seen this site before – I think they have some really high quality images, generally better than mine. Credit where credit’s due.

I feel a bit sorry for Shovelers. I don’t think that they are either sufficiently well known or ubiquitous for authors to seize upon them as motifs for aspects of human aspiration or suffering (The Wild Duck, Wild Geese, etc.)  so I’m not even looking for poetry or other forms of artistic writing about them. Where is the innate poetry in having a huge bill and shaking your head about a lot? I imagine they get shot quite often too – the females are coloured like Mallard and the green head of the drake might look perilously familiar and potentially tasty across a gun sight. I tend to shoot first (with the camera) and worry about it later – mind you, a lot of the people I worked with would probably say that summed up my professional life too. Anyway, let’s celebrate these rather marvellously adapted creatures, ninety percent duck, ten percent whale.

Ringed Plovers

Time for buckets and spades again because the North Ayrshire coast is our place for Ringed Plovers. I’m very fond of this species. They’re such an endearing shape, with great colours, and the wing feathers have that wonderful scaly quality which is (to me) one of the most appealing features of waders. They turn up along the usual Troon-Stevenston-Saltcoats stretch. One cold day several winters ago, we saw hundreds standing on the remains of the Lido at Saltcoats, waiting out the high tide. No camera, alas. I often see them with Sanderlings but what a contrast in terms of general level of animation. They usually seem to be standing about and not doing too much of anything.

The Lido was quite a thing back in the day attracting thousands of visitors daily. This piece in The Scotsman (as it carries The Court Circular, I assume it is the Torygraph in disguise) speculates on a possible future refurbishment, given the current enthusiasm for Wild Swimming (or swimming outside as it used to be known). The wind fair rips across that stretch of Firth of Clyde and I do associate being in Saltcoats with being quite cold (while being quite happy). I imagine generations of Scottish children gradually turning blue in that water before being dragged in a frenzy of reluctance back to boarding house or caravan.

In Troon, there is a stretch of shingle in the shadow of the Harbour Master’s Portakabin. On one visit, we’d looked around the harbour and I’d taken a picture or two; we were met by the Harbour Master who was clearly wondering why someone was taking pictures of his boats. Our local fish man gets most of his stuff from the Troon day boats.

 I imagine there used to be some sensitivity about comings and goings (of shady characters, money, guns, and drugs) to the smaller west coast Scottish harbours before the Good Friday Agreement. Anyway, I indicated our interest in birds and the Harbour Master invited us up to his office to get the view down onto some Ringed Plovers. I guess he decided we were harmless. This isn’t a great image but it shows that it’s quite easy to lose birds in repose against the shingle.

I’m interested in how the eye is confused in a situation like this. The distinctive white collars seem to help the birds to blend in better rather than making them stand out. I remember watching a BBC documentary (which I cannot now find) which said that Peregrine Falcons have about an order of magnitude more digital resolution than humans. It seems that there is a complex interplay of factors which determine how well raptors can see. It might be that raptors are going to struggle in a situation like this where there is a very complex pattern of pixellation and little colour contrast, unless they flush the birds and can then hit them in flight.

How do birds work out where to stand? We’ve noticed a similar thing with Golden Plovers and their choice of rocks (I hope to post about this beautiful species in the future). A crawl along the shingle afforded some slightly better images in profile without disturbing the birds, but my best natural habitat stuff comes from The Ballast Bank, slightly to the south. Against a green background, these birds look much more vulnerable

I also have one zoo picture from the Waterscapes Aviary at WWT Slimbridge. This is a such a useful space for image capture; the birds are relatively used to people and cannot escape across the Severn. They don’t even seem to notice old blokes looming with large cameras. There was one Ringed Plover in the collection and I hope it wasn’t lonely. There were Redshanks, Ruff and Avocets for it to roost with so fingers crossed.

The BTO has its usual very useful pages on the species, including this: “When nesting, individuals will feign a broken-wing to draw predators away from the chicks. The chicks are perfectly camouflaged against their sandy substrate, so will sit and ‘hide’ if they can as they are near impossible to spot.” I found a short video on YouTube showing this distraction behaviour beautifully.

I don’t imagine this feigned broken-wing jazz gets them anywhere with the Hedgehogs introduced (rewilded? Hmm) to the  Outer Hebrides, which are apparently eating plover eggs and having a big impact on breeding success. Doesn’t Mummy have some plover’s eggs sent to the young Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited? Bless. I’d rather a Hedgehog had them any day.

The breeding population seems to be quite small (ca. 5000 pairs) with of the order of 40000 pairs visiting in winter. The species is now red listed. The Troon group higher up the post which was shot in September clearly contains a mixture of young (paler) and mature (more coloured) birds, so either they are managing to breed on this coast, or they are incoming for the winter. I think my favourite images are of this young bird on the shore at Aberlady Bay.  I am getting wet in the sand for this one and the bird is pottering towards me and feeding.

Which brings me to the Scottish Seabird Centre just along the coast from Aberlady in North Berwick – they are involved in a drive to raise funds under a matching scheme with Aviva. If anyone is interested in supporting their work, you can find the details here.

I will also mention the Flamingo Land Mark III proposal at Balloch – some of you may have seen the earlier versions of the proposal. Scottish Greens are taking the lead in opposing this very large intrusion on the Trossachs National Park.

There is a confusion species – the Little Ringed Plover – and they’re gradually spreading north. I see nothing in my images to lead me to think that I’m seeing them but I live in hope that some will turn up in Ayrshire and in front of the camera.

Urban Spring

Spring is our favourite season. Recently Faye asked me when I thought it began and at first, I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I thought about it. The blooming of the Snowdrops is a prelude but the beginning of the main movement is marked (for me) by the arrival of a couple of species from their winter quarters, and the flowering of the trees. A run early last week revealed that the Sand Martins and Chiffchaffs were back and a Good Friday walk around North Glasgow in bright sunshine provided an opportunity to photograph the former species and record the latter. The Sand Martins use an old wall at the end of Speirs Wharf as a nesting site. I think that the wall is made of blonde sandstone blocks and there must be soft sandy material between some of the blocks which has eroded and washed out, providing the Martins with tunnels and nesting chambers.

I find photographing Martins hard because of their speed and agility on the wing. My strategy is simple; find a place to stand where I won’t upset them, then find a hole they seem to be using. Stay tight on that and blast away when I think birds are coming and going and I might get an outcome. My location in cover is behind a massive steel link fence – I’m resting the camera on that and hoping that the separation between the plane of the fence and the focal plane is sufficient for my image not to be affected. I was lucky in that a bird spent a lot of time perching at a tunnel entrance. I’m sure it’s watching me looming behind my fence but I am a long way from it and my outline must be masked by my cover.

From time to time other birds would approach and there would be an opportunity to see beautiful wing shapes. I’d need much better images to do a Sand Martin post but these are a good symbol of the season and the optimism which it brings.

The Chiffchaff was calling in the Claypits, or to give it the full title The Hamiltonhill Claypits LNR. The website says “Hamiltonhill Claypits is a local nature reserve located on rewilded post-industrial site close to the city centre along the Forth and Clyde Canal” which is partly true. The Claypits site was a wild area of mature trees and scrub close to the city centre along the Forth and Clyde Canal. It now has large cleared areas, an artist-in-residence (a dog warden would be more use), and a lot of recently planted whips, some of which are doing quite well. There are some gravel paths which are great for running; therefore, it is considerably less wild than it was. Some of the older trees remain, as do the industrial legacy pigeon lofts which are still in use.  There is a team of people working hard to keep the litter down on the site, which is great. I’ve been surprised by Roe deer there on winter mornings and I can usually find Long-tailed tits and Bullfinches. I think there were at least two Chiffchaffs calling on Friday –  you may also hear the calls of Easter egg hunters.

We found Bird Cherry just coming into bud and Norway Maple and Rowans coming out.

As we left the Claypits, Faye noticed some activity around the eaves of the Scottish Canals building by Applecross Basin and we stopped to look closely. There were Long-tailed tits flying under and back out from under the eaves, not foraging but collecting insulating material to add to a growing nest. You can see the cup shape of the nest, into which the bird’s tail really will not fit. The top layer of moss is starting to disappear under insulating material and it’s looking a bit of a mess but I hope that it will be warm for the incubation and that they succeed in fledging some young. Because of the difficult angle, my camera lens is on Faye’s shoulder at this point – “A good tripod!” as a passer-by interjected.

After the Claypits, we had a cup of tea from a Thermos by The Whisky Bond while admiring Frodrik’s piece. It’s been there for ages and no-one has ever tagged it, clearly a sign of respect from the youth. The Council were out recently cleaning lesser works off the flanking walls but maybe they just though better of removing this work. The Marsh Marigold was in full bloom on the canal.

We left the canal, moving towards Glasgow Angling Centre at Saracen Point down Applecross Street, hoping to admire the European Plum tree but we’d pretty much missed it – it seems very early this year.

We headed on towards Pinkston Basin which lies below the North Bridge development on the site of what used to be Sighthill Park, now flattened and gone. The site is enormous, stretching east towards Springburn, with nothing to break the horizon bar the top of a huge Tesco sign. The bit they’ve finished boasts the Sighthill Community Campus and the new bridge over the M8, both featuring attractive deployments of COR-Ten steel, so beloved of Grand Designs. What glorious colours in this spring light! I’ve been watching the bridge take shape for ages now and I am pleased to see the rather sinuous end product. There are plantings of white-barked Birches on the site.

At the canal edge, we found Goat Willow, Grey Alder and Wild Pear. I used to fish under the Pears.

On the way home, there was Flowering Quince, Alder and Blackthorn.

A short detour was made through the Park to take in the emerging Horse Chestnut and the double cherries up by the house (a panoramic image, hence the curvature).

The Chestnut buds are a photographic challenge because of their size – this image has been made using Zerene Stacker software (the good bit is the cluster in the middle of the frame – I’m sorry there isn’t a natural crop to do on this image).

It’s tripod work. You start out-of-focus in front of the object and use the focus ring to step through the image emerging out of the back, or vice versa. The images which contain something in focus are then “stacked” in the software using some sort of miraculous minimisation routine to prioritise sharpness over fuzz and beat the depth-of-field problem.

We were treated to a marvellous St Matthew Passion by the Dundedin Consort on Friday evening, enjoyed a walk up the Stoneymollan Road on Saturday and I’m now trying not to eat chocolate in a wanton manner. If you’ve read Chocolat by Joanne Harris – in Chapter 38 (5.55 am onwards), the  wee troubled curate voices my natural instincts rather well. I wish you a Happy Easter.


My mother was with us for Christmas; I was cutting things up in the kitchen one dark afternoon with a bit of sleet coming down, and from further back in the room, she asked me “what’s that bird on your feeder?” I stepped back cautiously to get the angle and there was a male Bullfinch, looking a bit uncertain. Off he went. I was astonished. We’d seen them where the Kelvin Way rises towards the Wyndford Flats. One very cold day, there were five in an Alder tree, eating buds. They didn’t seem to mind us at all and we watched them for quite a long time before one of them became uneasy, gave a call and off they went. This short row of Alders (not pictured, it’s a Birch) became a reliable place to see them – they’d be in the trees, on the ground beneath or in the undergrowth down the bank towards the river. But to get them at the window was amazing.

Time passes and suddenly, we had three males and two females coming to see us regularly on the Squirrel Buster. In one remarkable year, three males would sit on the bracket which supports the feeder and I was reminded of “The Three Tenors”. The bullfinches were better looking. There were five chicks in that year. Now we are back to a pair, with an extra male sometimes.

I haven’t heard our Bullfinches sing – there is a quiet call which alerts to their presence, usually followed by a flash of white as they fly away. My RSPB book describes the song as a “creaking, piping warble, seldom heard.” In The Reticence of Lady Anne, Saki’s tale of terminal domestic torpor, a virtuoso Bullfinch can render an air from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. That is until it is slaughtered by a rotten cat.

They are very bossy on the feeder, prising the goldfinches and chaffinches away with a lunge or a hop to the next feeding window. I was very interested to see that the feeder hierarchy reported here didn’t include Bullfinches. They are units, and they don’t have to try too hard –  what looks like an aggressive lunge may even be something to do with the way they ingest food when chick rearing. I read that they have a pouch which they stuff with extra food when they are feeding young and I wonder if the stretched posture which they often adopt is related to the habitual filling of the pouch, rather than aggression.

I don’t have good images from the feeder, which is hilarious given the number of times they come to see us, but it’s to do with focal planes. Our birds make the window filthy, with endless scatterings and impacts of hydrocarbon-rich husks. Even if I focus manually on the birds on the feeder, there is a disagreeable cataract of out-of-focus glazing over the image, so the ones I fancy are from the outdoors. The best locations have been by the canal, either on Speirs Wharf, or at Cadder. At Cadder, we found a male Bullfinch showing off his agility, possibly for the benefit of the nearby female who was throwing a few shapes of her own.

I found a pair in the Botanic Gardens –one sat behind the other on a dull day so we have a classic sensitivity versus depth-of-field problem, alas.

I like this urban chap on the barbed wire on the canal by TWB at Speirs Wharf. Birds like a bit of urban tangle and decay – what our government may think of as derelict land and tries to sell off to developers for “regeneration” can often be pretty good songbird habitat.

The chicks turned up in 2020 – I heard a peeping and I peered very cautiously onto the sill and there was our first young visitor. Others followed and as they grew more capable, they would sit in the Birch sapling just outside. We didn’t see any chicks in 2021 or 2022 but we hope that the established pair will succeed this season.

I do hope you enjoy the colours of these birds. The breast colour of the male is a feast for the eye but shades of the plumage on the female are exquisite. The blacker-than-black cap sets everything off beautifully, and there are textures too, much to enjoy. One day, I will photograph one on the wing to have an image of the pure white rump.


My searches for this post about Oystercatchers turned up a useful piece in the (Irish) Independent from 2022. I quote:

“Oystercatchers, once seen in great flocks, especially along the western seaboard, may not be as plentiful as in the past but they maintain their link with the tradition of St Brigid, whose feast day is nigh and for whom a national holiday is planned from next year.

In Connacht they were, and are, called Giolla Bríd, the page or messenger of the saint, an indication of her time for them and the beginning of spring and the agricultural year — a practice, according to some sources, which has evolved from pre-Christian times. Larks and linnets were also favourites of St Brigid. They are supposed to be heard singing now but are a rare sight even among coastal dunes because of intrusion from people and animals, particularly dogs off-leash. Oystercatchers also used to be a more commonplace seashore sight over the winter months, when thousands of birds would arrive from Scotland and Iceland to settle along estuaries. These flocks once made impressive sights, especially in Wales in the 1970s when there was an official cull of about 10,000 in the Burry inlet in Llanelli because shellfish harvesters claimed their livelihoods were affected. Oystercatchers, with their chisel-like beaks, were digging up to 500 cockles each a day. Mussel gatherers, on the other hand, didn’t complain as the birds provided a service in thinning and reducing density in the clumps of shells, allowing more healthy growth in the main crop.”

Oystercatchers are the third bird in the Cardross trinity, the others being Curlews and Redshanks. Hundreds can be seen there in the winter, with thousands probably elsewhere on the estuarine Clyde. The big roost just by Murrays starts with the Oystercatchers, with the Curlews a bit further along the shore in the direction of Bullens crossing.

Once the Oystercatchers spot you and call, the Curlews will know about it very soon and then the whole roost takes to the wing. The birds really cannot afford the calorific effort in the cold weather. I’m very careful how far I proceed past Murrays – I don’t usually bother if I see a mass of black and white on the shore. Smaller groups of Oystercatchers in repose will stand, affecting sleep, and submit to photography. Large groups often fly from upriver, and they are a marvellous sight on the wing and landing.

They settle on the shore at Cardross which can offer them an abundance of mussels. The foreshore is studded with rocks which are covered with the bivalves; above the high water line is a nacreous and blue carpet of half shells. I assume that the barnacle-encrusted shells attached to the rocks, and the discards, are all of the same species. I would guess that the huge Pillar Bank which sits out in the river and Cockle Bank which lies just off Port Glasgow also offer food in abundance for the Oystercatchers. Some individuals prefer to stoat about in front of the sawmill when the tide falls.

I hadn’t realised that there was quite a lot of variation in bill size and tip shape, the latter leading to different feeding preferences. These summer birds were photographed on Loch Scridain on Mull – the warm light is good to their colours, and differences in bill shape are clear.

A recent trip to Belfast Lough revealed behaviour I hadn’t seen before. A path just above the edge of the Lough  at Holywood Banks on a falling tide was flanked by a long line of watchful Oystercatchers, perched on weedy rocks. As we passed by, birds began to march into the gentle surf, each returning with a cockle grasped in the open bill. The cockle was placed on a rock and levered open, and the contents were consumed.

The old name for Oystercatcher is Sea-pie. In An Aran Keening (The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2002, ISBN 1 901866 80 7), his story of eleven months on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, Andrew McNeillie discusses the relative merits of Curlew and Oystercatcher for eating. In an opportunist moment and desparate for meat, he eats a bird shot by another. Earlier in the story, he writes “Seabirds and waders are as nocturnal as they are diurnal and fill the night air with their ghosting flight and piping. Their noise is a kind of aural starlight. They flicker along the breaking waves.” The next time I stay overnight close to the shore, I will try and share this experience. These sentinel birds were photographed on a rather larger island – Shetland mainland – at Sumburgh Head.

I’ve been waiting to post on Oystercatchers for a while because of reservations over image quality. Many of the ensemble images were captured from long range with the obvious limitations this imposes on clarity. Even when I have managed to find a bird at closer range, my images have lacked the crispness I’ve sought and managed to get from other wader species. I’m beginning to think this issue arises in part from the blackness of the plumage, and perhaps its smoothness too. I wonder if this lack of texture defeats the autofocus – I’ve had similar problems with some corvids and cormorants. This final image shows the limits of what I seem to be able to do with this species.

The sensitivity on the camera (500 ASA) is set quite low and the shutter speed at 1/640th should freeze some of the movement of the bird (and I hope, most of mine). The herl around the top of the legs isn’t bad, there is a nice spiralling cascade of water around the right leg of bird, and there are some pleasing little droplets of water against the black (I’m talking about the sharpness of these parts of the image), but there is quite a bit of pixellation error on the body of the bird. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit too fussy, and should just enjoy these dramatic birds, but you get like this when you feel you might not be realising the potential of the kit fully. I hope you like the images.


A visit to Bridge of Orchy on March 8th brought (in the first instance) disappointment, and then delight. The weather forecasts were heavy with snow and challenging winter conditions; the reality was a pale and parched landscape with a mere garnish of snow on the top 100m.

I’d hoped for much more in the way of spectacle, but it was very cold and had been for a while – if you can’t have snow, there can be ice in crafty places.

The West Highland Way, our route for a short walk down to Tyndrum and the mid-afternoon train home, is crossed by many a burn, usually culverted under the track. There are miniature cataracts above the path, and falls below, and after a long cold spell, there is magic. Ice is just a nuisance in the city; unless you can stay on gritted streets, you can skate about perilously for a good while until a thaw sets in. But in a wilder place where there is falling water and a long cold, ice is fleeting sculpture and captured starlight. The sun gets to it quickly and it is gone, but sometimes the thaw is more beautiful still than the solidity.

I thought of writing this because John, my father-in-law, showed me a nice photograph of my brother-in-law Ian, then a schoolboy, sporting one of those enormous crystals of copper sulphate pentahydrate which can be grown by suspension. I used to grow crystals – it was one of the best things about working in the laboratory. Organic chemists often need a hard proof of the way the atoms are connected in the molecules they’ve made, and much can be had from a good crystal structure.  Crystallographers like a small, clear and regular crystal (“a cube or rhombus or prism or…, about 0.5 mm of side, please, if it’s bigger, I’ll have to cut it…”) to mount in their X-ray diffractometers – needles are less popular, flaws and defects even less so. There are special methods for growing small but very regular crystals to keep your crystallographer happy. It is hard to imagine anything less useful than an icicle for three-dimensional structure solution, particularly when they have ribs from freeze/thaw events.

But what a sight they are when the meltwater filming their surfaces, and their internal flaws, catch and scatter the sunlight. The ice features found in the wild testify to changing temperatures. Wild ice is often templated by vegetation – even a single strand of grass will sustain an epic of freeze and thaw. Bigger leaves make for impressive structures.

Bulk crystallisation is maybe the best way of purifying something you’ve made – and it is of enormous importance to the big economy. Pharma companies need to purify metric tonnes of gear as they bring their compounds to the pharmacy. The process is broadly the same if you’re doing the odd gramme in the lab or 100 Kg in a big stirred tank  in a factory, and I know a lot more about the former process. At the end of your reaction and the pre-purification (probably some column chromatography), you might be left with an oil or syrup, and you’d be thinking that there might be a crystalline solid in there somewhere. So you’d find out what your stuff dissolved in (the solvent), and what it didn’t (the precipitant). You’d try “scratching it” which meant literally scratching the inside of the flask which contained your stuff with a glass rod (carefully), the idea being that microparticles of glass detach and nucleate the crystallisation of your compound. If you couldn’t get a result doing this, you’d dissolve your stuff in hot solvent and then let the solution cool down slowly – I’d wrap my flasks in cotton wool to try and slow the cooling. Whichever method you used, there would be a a moment when some clear stuff in a flask would start to flash and glitter as crystals emerged, and then you’d have a slush of beautiful crystals and you’d plunge the lot in an ice bath to get the extra few percent on your yield, usually a moment of triumph. If all of that failed, there were mixed solvent methods to be tried when you would use the precipitant to control solubility. The really good bit was the emergence from solution  into solid phase – ice usually forms too slowly for anyone to see it but in the flask, there are extraordinary seconds when you feel you are witnessing all the forces that order the universe. These images remind me of those moments. I can’t easily walk away from wild ice when I have the camera to hand and there is some good daylight. I hope you enjoy this selection almost as much as I enjoyed recording the images. They were all taken in the West Highlands in the months of January, February and March with a hand-held camera, apart from the very last image which was recorded from a tripod with a very slow shutter.