Swans (in winter)

I went to RSPB Baron’s Haugh on Tuesday on the hunt for Lapwings. The reserve page recommends late summer/autumn for finding them in large numbers but I had seen them from the Causeway hide on a winter day when the wetland was frozen so I fancied my chances. Everything was frozen hard – the wetland and all the surrounding vegetation. The causeway to the hide was under water, vegetation and ice and I did not fancy wet feet, but I didn’t miss anything from the hide. All the birds were right in the middle of the wetland, about as far as they could be from any vantage points. So while I enjoyed the beautiful light,  and the explosive sounds of the ice cracking, I thought about another frozen place where the birds were easier to see and photograph.

Frozen water can be hazardous for swans. We were at Hogganfield Loch on January 3rd, 2021 when a swan rescue took place – it attracted many onlookers and the ice cream van did a roaring trade. Most of the images in this post were taken at the Loch on cold mornings in happier times, before the current outbreak of avian ‘flu, with the swans making some beautiful shapes.

The Loch is shallow and very weedy and it sustains a wide range of species. The Mutes and Whoopers get well fed on a regular basis, mostly with bread. When they’re not inundated with “Orange Warbies” (one of the great fishing baits, though many anglers prefer the blue version), swans are hugely inefficient processers of aquatic vegetation and inadvertent consumers of small creatures which get dragged up with the plants. Mark Nicolaides’ Swanlife website (which has some wonderful images) tells me that: “It has been suggested that for a Mute Swan feeding off wet vegetation, it could eat in excess of 3.5kg per day – which equates to about 30 to 35% of its body mass.”

A study (Li et al., PloS ONE 2022, 17(2): e0264528) of a population of Whooper Swans on a migration site on the Yellow River wetland in China, found that the birds derived a significant proportion of their energy intake from corn remaining on flooded unharvested farmland. A large team looked at both ends of the pipe; food material was burnt in calorimeters to allow accurate measurement of the energy yield of the various plant species available for the birds to graze. The researchers drawing the short straw (as it were), collected swan crap, dried it, suspended the residue in water and not only identified leaves and seeds using optical microscopy, but quantified the proportions of the different species in the matrix. OMG. The smarter research students probably offered bribes to ensure that they were assigned the former task.

When the birds couldn’t get corn, much of their food value came from the Common Reed (Phragmites australis). If they were Mute swans on the Forth and Clyde Canal, they would probably be munching Canadian Pond Weed (Elodea canadensis) though in insufficient quantities – the weed renders the waterway unfishable throughout most of the year (at least on the City Branch). I also have photographs from two Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves; I visited Martin Mere in Lancashire in 2018 and Caerlaverock in Dumfries and Galloway on a dark January day in 2019. The peaceful Whoopers (above) are from the former site, while the mass feeding is from the latter (the punters behind the glass look transported). The mass feeding in Glasgow (below) was photographed on a glittering winter day.

I will revisit Mute swans in a different season when they offer something quite different. By then, the Whooper family groups will be back in Iceland if they have survived the ‘flu and packed on enough fat to sustain them on the journey.

Swans seem to bring out the worst in poets and Greek mythology involving swans is very dangerous ground, but I am aware of one restrained treatment. In The Death of Cygnus, Ted Hughes describes the slaughter of the son of Neptune by Achilles outside the walls of Troy. Five pages of ultra-violence takes us to the finale:

In those moments
Neptune’s words had breathed in off the ocean
And carried away Cygnus
On white wings, their each wingstroke
Yelping strangely – a bird with a long
Undulating neck and a bruised beak
Aimed at a land far beyond the horizon.

Form, sound and purpose elegantly brought to mind.

Stonechats

There’s a walk we used to do when my wife worked in Cardiff; it started at Llantwit Major station and followed the Nash Brook down to Cwm Nash, emerging onto the beach through a huge notch in the cliffs. There was a café there – a couple of leathery surfers wouldn’t look out of place lounging by it. The first image represents the view to the left.

The limestone pavement and cliffs run all the way to Nash Point, where there is a lighthouse and a foghorn to warn mariners of the considerable perils of Bristol Channel. I was a strict manual camera user then, shooting only slide film, probably Kodachrome 64 in this case. The image is scanned from a slide so it’s grainy but the point of the image is the grandeur of the beachscape.

A path rises up the cliff from Cwm Nash and takes you along the top with spectacular views and when we visited, Choughs, corkscrewing and calling up and down the sheer faces, red talons extended and red bills agape. I wish I had tried to photograph them but I was all set up for landscape and thought success most unlikely. The landscape by Nash Point was crossed by old stone walls and studded with gorse bushes, and it resounded with sharp and insistent percussion. Wrens perhaps? Not quite the right sound. And then we were able to see a small bird, and then a pair of them, perching and dipping, then making short swooping flights to another perch nearby. As we advanced, they would work around us and follow us back into their territory. Stonechats of course, unmistakeable with hindsight and a good look at the book.

Stevenston is a good place for them closer to home and that’s where most of my pictures come from. There’s rough ground all along the top of the beach with a great range of perches and, or so I would imagine, a lot of insect habitats. We’ve also seen them regularly on the way up the Kilpatrick Hills. Even with up to a year between the visits, the Stonechats are never far from where we saw them first.

I had assumed from these regular-as-clockwork sightings that Stonechats were sedentary but Callion (British Birds, 2015, 108, 648-659) shows otherwise in a rigorous study of a Cumbrian population in which there was considerable mobility between breeding and wintering territories, and further afield.

Small birds which eat mostly insects are very vulnerable in hard winters. Stephen Moss wrote a nice piece about them in the Guardian in 2013 (though with a truly awful illustration) and there is an interesting account of their wintering behaviour in Cheshire and on the Wirral, based on work carried out by the BTO and using ringing data. The executive summary involves a combination of shocking levels of Stonechat mortality, mitigated by southerly migration followed by furious levels of breeding activity to restore numbers.

Stonechats always command a vantage point; no skulking in the lower branches for them. Naturally, a Stonechat would find the highest point of a rose bush for a perch (a female this time, above), all the better if it’s atop some prettily coloured rosehips for that extra inch or two, or – below – on the most slender stalks in the parched grassland with the best view of the surrounding microforest.

Once seen, never forgotten and always a most cheering sight. Some more poised and nicely posed Stonechats follow in the gallery.

Sanderlings

A visit to a a very cold Stevenston on Saturday last afforded a sighting of a small flock of Sanderlings. There were close to fifty individuals in repose on the old pipeline which runs out into the sea next to the point. They look tawnier than they should in the photograph because of the golden hour light of a very sunny winter morning.

The tide had turned and was falling and soon, it seemed that the right kind of shore had been revealed and the Sanderlings took to the wing to reach it, landing elegantly and beginning their sprints along the sea’s edge.

The beach wasn’t busy and the Sanderlings seemed relaxed – I kept my distance (so there is some unwanted pixellation in most of these images). My RSPB book tells me that Sanderlings should not be disturbed while feeding in winter. They’ve a lot of fuelling up to do, increasing their body masses by up to 60% to get them to northern Greenland or north east Canada. Some fly non-stop, others put down in Iceland for a day or two. Reneerkens et al. (Wader Study Group Bulletin, 2009, 116, 2-20) reviewed the (then) current knowledge in 2009.

There was another occasion on the east coast when the Sanderlings came to me. It was during a visit to North Berwick on a very cold November day. I was aware of a white procession in the distance at the water’s edge and I lay on the sand in preparation; in time, they passed by quite close to me. I had a much shorter photographic reach at the time but the proximity of the birds and the brightness of the day was really helpful.

I’ve never tried to video them but there is excellent resource on YouTube; I particularly liked this BTO Bird ID video which captures their frenetic activity really effectively.  I think the sequence around 0:45-1:00 must be an optical illusion. I mean, is it me or are they going backwards at speed? Presumably not but it really looks like it. I also liked Sergey Shkarupo’s video of juvenile Sanderlings (of which more later).

This level of activity raises questions about energy accounting – or the benefit versus cost of feeding in this way. I can’t do the physics but I did discover something about Sanderling prey species. Reneerkens et al. have some useful information about diet, some of the information obtained the hard way by prising apart Sanderling pellets and analysing the contents. A wildlife project based in Oregon gave me this (my italics): “Because their quarry is small and all but indistinguishable beneath the sand, sanderlings must make several probes with each dash….They tweeze the just-wetted beach because it is softer, and because the invertebrates themselves come up to feed in the wavebreak. The window of opportunity is narrow, indeed—a mere wave’s breadth of time. Sanderlings appear frenetic in their feeding simply because it is the only way to get enough to eat.”

A bit more detail came from animalia.bio : “Sanderlings feed on invertebrate prey buried in the sand in the upper intertidal zone. In North America, this diet largely consists of the isopods Excirolana linguifrons, Excirolana kincaidii, and the mole crab, Emerita analoga. When the tide is out, these crustaceans live in burrows some way beneath the surface. When the tide comes in, they move into the upper layers of sand and feed on the plankton and detritus that washes over them with each wave. They then burrow rapidly down again as the water retreats. They leave no marks on the surface, so the sanderlings hunt for them by plunging their beaks into the sand at random, consuming whatever they find. Their bills can penetrate only 2 or 3 cm (0.79 or 1.18 in) and as the water swirls around and retreats, the sand is softer; this makes it easier for the birds’ beaks to penetrate further. In the spring, when much breeding activity is taking place in the benthic community, there may be as many as 4000 invertebrates per square metre, but their average size is smaller than later in the year. The birds appear to rush madly around at the edge of the surf, but in reality they are maximising their chances of catching as many prey animals as possible when they are at their most vulnerable near the surface.”

Benthic in this context refers to the uppermost layer of seabed, irrespective of the depth of water which covers it. UK waters host different species of isopods (species very similar to wood lice), for example Eurydice pulchra (Speckled Sea Louse). Haustorius arenarius and Corophium volutator (European Mud Scud) (which look more like shrimps) are also small (sub-centimetre long) burrowers in the sand. The British Marine Invertebrates Group tell me that Eurydice is similar to the Excirolana species.

In trying to find something out about these species, I’d first headed to the bookshelf; my copy of The Young Specialist Looks At Seashore (Burke, London, 1963) gave me Corophium volutator but not the other two species and I was puzzled, but then I noticed that the text had been adapted from Was find ich am Strande? (Keller, Stuttgart, 1961). I’m prepared to believe that there may be some species variations between Atlantic and Baltic coasts, and I much prefer the directness of the German title.

My only sight of Sanderlings in summer plumage came in Shetland, fleetingly. The pure white is still there but the brown and russet spangling on the upper part of the body is delightful.

Juveniles have very dark spangling on the upper body; I’m lying in the wet again for this one, with the young bird probing away in the soft sand of Aberlady Bay.

It was with me for quite a long time before it flew away – how long and graceful the wings look. I think these are my best foot shots too – Sanderlings are the only sandpiper lacking a backward-pointing fourth toe, which isn’t easy to see in the field. I was very happy to have the opportunity.

Dunnocks

‘”Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the Dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate,with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.’ With these carefully chosen words, the Reverend F. O. Morris (1856) encouraged his parishioners to emulate the humble life of the Dunnock Prunella modularis. His recommendation turns out to be unfortunate. We now know that the Dunnock belies its dull appearance, having extraordinary sexual behaviour and an extremely variable mating system. The result of the Reverend Morris’s advice would have made the relationships on current television soap operas appear dull by comparison.”

N. B. Davies, British Birds, 1987, 80, 604-624

Professor Nick Davies FRS started his 1987 paper with a bang – what a great introduction. I think I can honestly say that writing about sigmatropic rearrangements or ring-closing metathesis reactions (as I did) provided no opportunities of this kind and I suspect that even had I been able to write one, reviewers would have done away with an opening paragraph of this level of impact out of sheer jealousy. Alas. The rest of the Morris (F. O. Morris, A History of British Birds,  London, 1856, 4, 8-13.) is quite engaging; I was able to download the relevant volume from archive.org.

Here is the line drawing from the Morris. I couldn’t do any better myself but it certainly has its limitations.

Davies studied a colour-ringed population of Dunnocks in the Cambridge Botanic Garden. It must have been demanding work keeping track of these tiny birds as they foraged on the ground and disappeared into the undergrowth. The diagram summarises the key features of the “extremely variable mating system” from the paper.

Davies recorded and quantified instances of all four arrangements, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages accruing to the two sexes.

Dunnocks are familiar in urban and suburban environments. A pair were regulars in my mother’s garden, in and out of an old rose on the fence, and sweeping the space of lawn and herbaceous border beneath a bird feeder. In Glasgow, I see them way below me on the ground in the back close quite often.  I see them hopping under cars in the local streets foraging for the tiny things they eat – Dunnocks specialise in prey items so small that other species see their pursuit as unprofitable. The individual I photographed by Maryhill Locks is clearly overfaced by the enormous potential meal before it.

Davies stresses their sedentary nature which means that they don’t range far; the individuals I see regularly will be within metres of their usual pitches. There is a house near to Cardross marked as Murrays on the OS map; without wishing to be unkind, you might decribe it as a project house. I saw the wing-flicking courtship behaviour for the first time on the rustic driveway to the house.

At first, I thought that the bird was injured and I regretted the photograph. I’m glad I was wrong. The bird hopped up onto a rock and started calling surprisingly loudly.

There always seem to be Dunnocks at Murrays, and many perches for them there. On our last visit, the landside was frozen really hard and the Dunnocks and Robins were foraging on the shore which had thawed a bit in winter sunlight, presumably releasing some tiny creatures for the foragers. The better images came from the perchers. Though the overall appearance of the birds doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, the better images reveal a glorious range of textures.

Davies spoke about his work on The Life Scientific on Radio 4. He retained his interest in Dunnocks, watching a smaller population in the garden of his Cambridge house closely. In 2021, he published a short coda to his earlier work entitled “Male Dunnock kills the other male in a mating trio” as a Note in British Birds. He describes an almost cartoonish level of violence, reminiscent of the Joe Pesci characters in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas and Casino films and perhaps surprising in a small bird.

I will continue to watch Dunnocks, enjoy their precise quartering of their territories, and worry about them going under cars.

The last word goes to poet Tony Lopez (A Handbook of British Birds, Pig Press, Durham, 1982):

If its slumbers are disturbed, the Dunnock wakes with a snatch of melody. I have heard it sing when startled by the light of a passing cycle-lamp.

As well you might in Cambridge, where I was given my copy of the Handbook.

Eiders

I’m resisting the seasonal temptation to do a post about Robins. The BBC Your pictures of Scotland page has a couple of nice Robin images and we’ve some lovely Robin cards, but I’m going to keep my stock back for a future occasion. Instead, I’d like to look back in this short post to images made in May, a warmer time of year, even on the west coast. The winter connection arises from my first sightings of Eiders or I should say, hearings. The breeding call of the male Eider, commonly rendered as yar-oooo, begins to be sounded in the winter – once heard, never forgotten.

But my best sightings and photographic opportunities have occurred in the spring and summer months when the birds are close to the shore with young. I’m posting images from Troon (May), Cardross (June) and Stevenston (June). Ducklings in general are such a worry but the Eiders seem to make very promising crèching arrangements with good numbers of adult birds around the young ones. A walk from Ardmore Point to Cardross disturbed one of these groups (four young, three females and three males) which moved smoothly away from the tideline across a mussel bed.

My shallow dives into the literature tell me that there can be conflict between commercial shellfish producers and Eiders (great consumers of mussels). I’ve one image (from Montrose) of a female about to swallow a large shelled mollusc whole. The avian gizzard is a thing of mystery and wonder.

At Troon, the family group or crèche was extremely close inshore, near the old Lido; I lay on top of the sea wall in sniper position, shooting away while the young practised their Eider repertoire. I don’t think these images require much comment from me apart from an expression of my enthusiasm for their spectacular plumage.

Both sexes are beautifully marked and I can’t think of any other species which displays that strange shade of green found on the back of the drake’s neck. I think I’ve got the colour right but I prefer a dark print because the texture in the white feathers becomes visible. The water droplets also look more interesting when the image is slightly underexposed – there is a gradient of tone across them which I like. I found some really nice images at Birdfact and I think we have the same shade of green.

The image from Stevenston seems to contain a group of females but I thought there were significant differences in the sizes of the individuals, and in the patterns of white on the wing feathers. This suggests that some of them might have been juveniles; could there have been time for a brood to have grown to such a size? Perhaps someone will put me right. It seems that male Eiders take a few years to develop their spectacular formal dress.

Eiders seem to be very well studied by ecologists – I would definitely pick something big and easy to see and count if I was interested in populations (so definitely not little brown jobs). I found Vital rate estimates for the common eider Somateria mollissima, a data-rich exemplar of the seaduck tribe and I attempted to read it only to be confounded by the statistical nature of the analysis (I failed statistics in my first year at university, just can’t do it). I was hoping it would tell me how many young Eiders need to be produced every year per breeding pair to ensure a healthy population but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, alas. Eiders are monogamous and long-lived. Once the trains start up again, I’ll be back to the seaside listening out for yar-oooo…

Curlews

We went to Cardross last Saturday morning to see what was about and came across a good number of Curlews in a familiar place. They were all tucked in against the cold so we stayed well away and they stayed put. There are so many Curlews on the Clyde in the winter that it is hard to think of them as endangered – I consider myself very fortunate that I live near the RSPB Inner Clyde reserve. It’s not a great place to photograph them, though a herd of a hundred or so Curlews standing above the tide is a great sight through the bird scope. It’s also really joyous to see them flying up and down the river in numbers, which I guess they do daily, or several times a day between feeding and roosting sites.

Individuals foraging can be much more obliging for the camera. The banner across the top of the website was taken in one long blast from the walkway across the creek at the entrance to Aberlady LNR. It wasn’t the brightest afternoon ever and I was disappointed with the resolution in the individual frames but I started experimenting with several frames stitched together in Microsoft Paint and ended up with the nine images together as the bird moved past and probed for food. In the middle of the run past, the bird turned its head to the side into what looked like quite an awkward posture.

Thinking about it later while viewing the images, I thought that if you were trying to pull a very slim cylinder (of mobile and slippery invertebrate flesh) from the mud with a pair of tweezers, you would arrange both tweezer points in the plane of the mud rather than orthogonal to it, to get a much better grip. I assume that’s what the Curlew is up to. I think it was evaded by the marine worm this time and moved on, probing as it went. I always thought of Curlew feeding as a movement like that of a sewing machine needle through its fabric. More repertoire was revealed recently on a trip to Troon when we saw crabs plucked from weedy hiding places and swallowed whole.

I really don’t like disturbing Curlews – they feed at the edge of the sea where people like to exercise their dogs and they seem to end up being chased from pillar to post. Once at Barassie, we came across a very relaxed looking bird which was probing the sand in good light until an equestrienne on a large horse came surging down the beach with a couple of dogs in tow. The Curlew glanced over its shoulder and set off, and who could blame it.

There are many ways to celebrate birds besides photography. I looked for some writing about Curlews, feeling that there would be a bit about. High up the search list, I found the Homepage of Curlew Action This concerned me slightly – could it be a site for exquisitely niche adult tastes? I clicked and was very pleased to find a site dedicated to Curlew conservation with some great photographs. I also found a reference to Curlew Moon (Harper Collins, 2019, ISBN: 9780008241070) by Mary Colwell, the organisation’s founder, an account of a 500 mile walk across the UK between important Curlew sites which I think I should be reading sometime soon.

On the Clyde, there seem to be new pressures. The sawmill at Cardoss grew markedly in the last few years; it is busier and noisier now. The Burn is culverted and there is usually a sheen of oil at the top of the beach. When I take the train to Cardross, I am whisked past Dunglass Castle where an enormous development is taking place. It seems to be right next to Dumbuck Perch, part of the Inner Clyde reserve. I often see a lot of waders standing there and I’ve looked at them from across the river at Longhaugh Point. My research into the nature of the development yields no insights – a situation I am really quite unfamiliar with. My academic training has always allowed me to find what I am looking for, so I’m just going to have to find my way around quite new sources of information.

On the Curlew Action website, I found the poem Extinction by Alastair MacIntosh from the collection Love and Revolution (Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2006 ISBN 1-905222-58-0):

Extinction

Have you heard the cry of the curlew?
I tell you –
I would rather we lost
the entire contents
of every art gallery
in the whole world
than lose
forever
the cry of the curlew

Aye, I’m good for that, on balance. I think we now really have to start to conserve the right things and take hard choices about growth versus conservation, and interrogate properly words like “renewal” and “regeneration”, often used by council officials and officers of development bodies to propagate the interests of big capital, rather than the environment in its most inclusive sense.

I’m not sure how we go about that. Organisations like Extinction Rebellion show the way in respect of the very big picture of melting glaciers and submerging islands but closer to home, I guess we have to hope that the RSPB and other conservation bodies will be able to continue to create enclaves where we (and the dogs) can’t go, and which private or municipal capital cannot trespass and destroy in the name of growth. We watch the Attenborough spectaculars but closer to home, all sorts of massive and intrusive projects seem to just happen. Aren’t the local environments the ones that we have to begin appreciate and value, so that we can locally find ways to stop Mr Muskerbergezos et al. from burning it all to a crisp?

Goosanders

The Goosanders were a surprise. I can’t remember the first time we saw them on the Kelvin but I suspect it was by the Botanic Gardens bridge because my earliest image was taken there.

What was this bird? I knew about Red-breasted Mergansers in principle but had never seen one. It didn’t take long with the book to sort this chap out as a Goosander but, can these really be on our doorstep? Well yes, they are. The quality is ordinary but I’m very fond of this image. The bird is relaxed but there is so much potential energy in the image. The ripples in the water seem to speak of imminent action; the drake’s neck looks compressed like a spring, there is intent. The rosy flush of the breast feathers is nearly there – maybe too yellow rather than how it should be – as if touched by the pink light of a winter sunrise.

Some years are better than others for Goosanders on the Kelvin – I don’t think 2022 was good, but 2020 and 2021 were quite different, with many birds on the river and on the Forth and Clyde Canal. As Goosanders are quite large, the autofocus works well and I have a lot of images I like, so I am posting quite a big gallery and threading quite a few images through the text. There are (or were) places were I expected to see them – around Belmont Bridge and immediately downstream was good, as was the area near InnDeep and below Eusebi.

I used to be lucky from Maryhill Locks along to Stockingfield Junction (though I suspect the rather extraordinary Star Trek bridge development at the junction has shifted them, and everything else, off to somewhere else).

I remember seeing Goosanders on Speirs Wharf, catching chunky Perch under the Stop Lock Bridge, and evading the robbing gulls –  a brief and violent scene which evaded the camera. We also had a good morning watching them on a part-frozen Hogganfield Loch – the ice forced them in close in numbers.

The chicks were really quite surprising. We were walking up the Kelvin earlyish one Sunday morning and there was a sort of fizzing in the water over by the far edge. We looked – at first, it was hard to take in what we were looking at, but nine Goosander chicks gradually became clear. One had a fish and the others wanted it.

Up the river they went, led by the duck, coming to rest on a half-submerged log below the Queen Margaret Drive bridge.

Somewhat later in the same season, there were groups of fresh birds up on the Summit Pound and I’d like to think that that group of nine chicks had escaped the predators and were heading for maturity.

My RSPB book tells me that Goosanders are persecuted by fishery owners and angling concerns because they really are quite good at catching fish. I’m an angler and I’m not allowed to fish the Kelvin because I don’t do the posher kind of fishing licensed on the river; given half a chance and a shoal of silvers in front of me, I can catch fish at about ten times the rate that a Goosander could manage.

I really doubt that the Kelvin Angling Association is having Goosanders culled, but I do wonder how the Goosanders  are getting on with all the dogs that Westenders seem to be flinging in the river these days. Whenever I see a relaxed-looking Goosander now, it is usually down the Partick end of the Kelvin where any hurled-in dogs are likely to be unretrievable.

I find it very difficult not to photograph them because they seem to offer almost endless possibilities of attitude and texture. The ducks remind me of Katherine Hepburn for some reason. PS. Three Goosanders on the water this morning – two drakes and a duck – just by the bridge which takes Ruchill Avenue over the canal. I was very pleased to see them.

Turnstones

I first came across Turnstones about forty years ago on a trip to the Northumberland coast with my mother. It was August and the tail end of a hurricane had made its way across the country. We stayed in Rothbury, which flooded, and sat in the car at Seahouses while the rain lashed the windows and the sea surged into the small stone harbour. By the time we made it to Bamburgh, the rain had stopped and we had the huge sweep of beach to ourselves. The wind had already dried off the top layer of the strand, and was blowing rivulets of sand along the beach. As we approached the long fingers of weed-clad rocks which ran out into the water, small groups of birds would lift in rapid flight, showing black and white kite patterns as they headed back into cover.

I think they were probably the first shorebirds I had looked at properly and the sight sparked a longstanding interest in waders. Now, I see them at Cardross on the Clyde from time to time, and more often and in greater numbers along the North Ayrshire coast, at Irvine (the point by the Pilot House), Saltcoats Old Harbour, Stevenston Point or Troon South Beach.

The banks of heaped weed close to the sea wall at Troon and Saltcoats often seethe with Turnstones circling as they forage. Their camouflage is entirely successful and they are very easy to overlook when roosting at the water’s edge at high tide.

The Wildlife Trusts tell us that ” Turnstones – so-named for their habit of flipping over large stones – feed on a wide variety of prey from bird’s eggs to chips and even corpses!”

Other sources add coconut and bars of soap to this eclectic menu, on which invertebrates are the staple. There must be any number of food sources to go at after a wild weekend in Ayrshire. Carol Farrelly, a Glasgow author, writes of the birds in her story Turnstones.

A small flock of Turnstones, driven inland by a freak storm, breaks into a library within one of our longer established universities and takes it for themselves, much to the joy of her protagonist Jo, another trespasser (or so she is made to feel) in her institution. Jo retells a story told to her by her father, in which the birds dine particularly well: “‘He thought it was the click-clack-click of turnstones, foraging among the pebbles.’ She repeated her father’s words. ‘The sea had been a right squall that day, but come night-time it was calm. A dark skein of silk. The man thought the water’s shivery lullaby must have called the turnstones, just like it had called him. But no. The turnstones smelled meat. The salt of fresh wreckage. A shipwreck. So, they crept through the tidewrack, digging and flipping stones and flotsam, prodding at whatever lay underneath. Sometimes they hunched their wings, if the pebble or driftwood was too heavy, and then they’d huff and puff. Their click-clack-click grew more and more frenetic. Insects and crabs weren’t good enough that night. The air was so ripe with iron and malt. They knew there was a better feast…The walking man stared as the birds crawled the length of the corpse, like ants mobbing a sugar cane. They pulled strings of flesh from his neck and cheeks – and they trilled.’’

I just had to find the original sources describing the catholic tastes of these birds and thanks to the Wash Wader Ringing Group, I did – British Birds in the 1970s. R. E. Jones (British Birds, 1975, 68, 339-341) heroically teased apart the 37 small and irregularly shaped pellets left by a roosting flock of Turnstones and identified barnacles, crabs and a range of shells. However, in a journal Note published earlier that year, (ibid, 1975, 59, 306-309), A. J. Mercer had described a grisly scene (vide supra) witnessed on an Anglesey beach prompting the editors to write, rather elegantly in my view, “In recent years we have published records of Turnstones feeding on animal remains, ranging from the carcases [sic] of birds and a Wolf Canis lupus in arctic Canada…to those of a sheep and a probable cat in Britain…The above rather gruesome account seems to be the ultimate in necrophagous behaviour, however, and we think that it is now sufficiently established that Turnstones will probably turn to any animal carrion when the opportunity occurs.”

Dippers

“Dippers are birds of fast-flowing upland streams and rivers. ‘Young streams’ as this steep, plunging stage of a river’s life is termed, where there is sufficient gradient for coaxing rapids and hollowing shallow pools.”

James Macdonald Lockhart, Archipelago, 2:1, Ed. by Andrew McNeillie, Clutag Press, Thame, 2022.

Indeed they are – I’m often told as much when I’m out on the Kelvin photographing them. There were a number of points along the river’s course as it winds its way through the West End of Glasgow down towards the Clyde where a Dipper sighting could be almost guaranteed. There is a viewpoint where the walkway crosses the river just before Kelvinbridge. Inn Deep have annexed it now for use as a beer garden but I used to be able to stand by the railing and watch one or sometimes two Dippers. I think this was the last time that I was told about the birds’ predilections for places and water wilder than those I was looking upon. The camera was firing away while a chap was telling me that “I wouldn’t see a Dipper around here.”

My first sightings of Dippers in Glasgow were on a little scrape of gravel which protrudes into the river under the Skaethorn Road bridge. The stone bridge into Dawsholme Park was another good vantage point; Dippers would feed in the rapids just downstream. A pair nested under the bridge in 2021 – could this be the pair we saw investigating an old outlet pipe by the weir half-a-mile further downstream?

The stretch by the old Flint Mill down to the Belmont Bridge was reliable too – there are stone slabs on the far side where chicks would stand and be fed. One walk along the Kelvin would often yield multiple sightings, suggesting that there were several occupied territories, with successful breeders in each one.

That Dippers sing was a surprise, first realised in New Lanark. We were standing by the river as it runs through the factory and listening to a peal of song, quite unlike that of a Robin or Wren, and looking at a Dipper a few yards away. The bird was clearly singing, and delightfully. The books told us that Dippers were indeed singers, and then we had our ears in, and heard them on the Kelvin. I’m yet to get a good recording.  I took the presence of these birds in an urban setting as proof of their adaptability – I was excited to think that the Kelvin could sustain so many very special birds. Between 1975 and 2018 numbers of Dippers declined by 30% according to DEFRA’s 2019 update of Wild Bird Populations in the UK. The summary of this trend is “weak decline” – I guess I’m just not used to looking at the numbers . I thought our local population was thriving but I’m not so sure now because I don’t see them as regularly in the old stances.

Has anything changed on the Kelvin? More dogs go in the river now, because there are so many more dogs than there were a year or two ago. The Smart Canal Project has also been realised; there are compelling reasons to improve the drainage in North Glasgow as more houses cover the landscape but using the Kelvin as a storm drain seemed reckless to me. Scottish Water has worked extensively in the West End, upgrading or installing new drainage outlets which empty into the river. I have no way of quantifying the implications of all this work on the levels or speed of flow of the river, or assessing the effects on species which feed in its waters. I hope the Dippers have simply relocated and are still doing well. I strongly recommend James Macdonald Lockhart’s delightful article “The Blacksmith of the Stream”.

Goldeneye

“Many observers agree that the behaviour of animals is in part made up of stereotyped movements. The displays of birds are frequently cited as outstanding examples, and many students of bird behaviour have been able to dissect observed activities into stereotyped, component actions.”

 The form and duration of the display actions of the Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Dane, B.; Walcott, C. and Drury, W. H., Behaviour, 1959, 14, 265-281.

I think we first saw Goldeneye from the shore at Cardross on a high tide. Having got used to the Wigeon there in the winter, we were surprised to see small black and white ducks in the distance, notice their rather extraordinary head movements, and hear their calls.

Once we saw the cheek spot, there was no difficulty in identifying them but getting pictures was a different game – they stayed a long way out. They turned up on the Garnock in Irvine, putting on a good show but always drifting further and further out of camera range. When Hogganfield Loch froze almost completely in the winter of 2020/2021, the Goldeneye were forced quite close to shore to feed and carry out their displays. I had some great opportunities for shots as they threaded their way in and out of the melée of Mute and Whooper swans, Coots and Goosanders.

They went through quite a repertoire – the head thrown back, the stretch out to forty-five degrees and the snaking along the surface in pursuit of a rival. The females can be easy to overlook in the midst of all this hormonally charged contrasty glamour, and yes, most of my images are of the drakes but I do have one image which shows the beautifully textured flank of the duck.

I find the green sheen of the drake’s head quite tricky to get right in processing (I’ve had similar problems with Black guillemots and Goosander drakes). In some lights, you just get black and in others, a hint of unwanted purple shows up. I guess a green patch or highlight is about right.

The shape of the drake’s head seems to be quite variable – I thought that maybe it was to do with the vocalisation. When he stretches forward into the forty-five degree pose, mass seems to relocate from the equator of the head to give him what I can only describe as jowls. It’s a rather odd silhouette for a duck.

A brief dig in the literature revealed much – he’s just puffed his cheek feathers out. The scientific literature is truly enormous and it is usually the case that the question you wish to ask has been answered (at least in part) long before you got anywhere close to it. As I used to tell research students in professional life, a week in the laboratory saves twenty minutes in the library…

To gain the results upon which their Goldeneye article cited at the top of the blog is based, Dane et al., all Harvard scholars, painstakingly analysed hundreds of feet of black and white motion picture footage of groups of Goldeneye on saltwater in North America. They described and named seventeen distinct and stereotypical actions in flock displays and eleven pre-copulatory actions; I think I managed to photograph two – the Bowsprit (my forty-five degree pose) and the Simple Head-throw (the image at the top of the blog) – so I’ve a way to go. I look forward to trying to find and photograph Dipping, Drinking, Flicking and Nodding inter alia with the help of Dane et al., and some of the YouTube videos of Goldeneye.

With great regret, a sombre PS. Shortly after drafting this post on 15th November 2022, I read of the suspected arrival of Avian influenza at Hogganfield Loch in Glasgow. I suspect that Kathleen Jamie’s piece in the London Review of Books of 18th August 2022 entitled “Stay alive! Stay alive!” will have summarised the fears and hopes of all of us who marvel at the natural world and fear for its fragility.