A Perthshire tale of life and nature

A Perthshire tale of life and nature

by Charles Harris
article from Friday 22, September, 2017

DEAR READERS,

This weekend I would like to concentrate on nature again, as I believe everybody should seek an opportunity for regular encounters in whatever form, to help cherish and remind us of how important our understanding and working with nature is for human life, especially when even the smallest consideration and regard for nature has profound benefits for our reality.

While the encounter I am about to describe occurred quite unexpectedly and is of no great significance from a world perspective, it revealed the subtle complexity of nature and our relationships that are frequently unseen. It is in stark contrast to Modernism and its cold abstract ideas that, like modern art, has no interest in anything beyond its own immediate criteria. So I do hope you will find this story helps your own thoughts and relationship with nature.

The Oyster-Catchers

Each year a small group of Oyster-Catchers along with pairs of Curlew, return to the open fields below the Craig Lee to nest. They spread out along the slopes, perhaps twenty pairs in total. Last year circumstances for these birds had become more difficult on this occasion. There had been a lot of rain and cold weather early in the season while a new farmer was in charge of the fields that were rolled and fertilised. The large flocks of sheep that graze these fields were switched more regularly from field to field, and a forest up above Craig Lee was cleared bringing predators down to these lower meadows. These included Stoats and Foxes, a pair of Owls and perhaps with bad timing, the re-introduction of several pairs of Red Kites in the woods down below.

It was Spring and I had noted whilst running, the return of these seabirds, along with a particular male bird that I recognised. I had seen this male several times, as he walked with a pronounced limp, and stood for long periods on one foot. In the past, he had always shown a female bird across the lawns. It was a colourful sight. He regularly paraded first, then pecked at the grass, stopping to allow her to examine every metre; carefully showing her the benefits of my shortcut grass and probably early morning worms. For presumably, this was all potentially very good feeding, an abundance of insects and relative safety, if you just ignored our presence; as they always did until you got too close.

This had been an unfortunate year for me, I had experienced a bad fall, broken my hip and needed an operation. I then faced a twelve week period of recovery. So unable to do much and of course unable to drive, I became a full-time observer. It became my pleasure to sit outside in the sunshine and watch these birds, especially the Oyster-Catchers, soaring high up from the fields below in flashes of white, their orange beaks aglow in the light.

This practice continued until about three weeks after I returned from the hospital, when a terrible row occurred in the field directly in front of the house. Several young lambs had been ‘playing follow my leader’ and one by chance stepped very close to a patch of grass where two seabirds were nesting on the ground. Outside, standing to look properly on crutches, I watched a pair of Oyster-Catchers take to the air screaming and circling with rage and indignation. This noise also caused another pair of nearby birds to join in screaming. The lamb, baffled and bewildered, called out bleating in shock and surprise. Immediately, from across the large field came the bellow of several ewes responding to these shrill tiny bleats. From behind a mound or dip in the grass, three mothers then rushed across this space for a closer word. This was all too much for those nesting birds, who all took to the air, calling louder in further indignation.

The next day I lost sight of that pair of birds in the group. A week later I thought they had gone for good, with no sight of them on their patch of ground, just right in the middle of my picture window. So that following weekend, I was outside in the grounds on my crutches, with a local lad from the village a mile and a half away, who came up to cut my grass. As I was showing him around several places with dodgy bumps and some partially exposed rock, to our surprise, we startled a large female bird sitting in the cold remains of a small bonfire. I had previously used this spot to burn paper in the Winter and had not yet cleared the remains away. It was about two feet in diameter and a third of the way into the grass to the left of my tree. 

I had set that fire on an old spot of stone and concrete, that hasn’t totally grassed over since I had reclaimed more than half of this land for grass several years earlier. And there, lying in the ashes, were two large oval green brown eggs, all covered in tiny black spots. Once again there was noise as both adult birds screamed in the air, or dived low dragging their wings along the ground, trying to distract us. Nevertheless, the grass needed cutting and the job was done.

Yet, after the grass was cut, along came our female bird and quickly sat again on the eggs. After that encounter, as the days went past, she quickly learned to ignore this person with bright shiny sticks, who moved slowly about the grounds. Naturally, from that moment onwards, I enjoyed watching her sitting in that same spot. She seldom moved, despite any heat, wind or rain. She sat day after day, while the male bird only appeared last thing in the evening. 

This bird watching had now become the centre of attention at home. It was a pleasure for me to watch the pair during the daytime whilst I sat outside writing alone, as painting had proved too difficult. In the evening, I faithfully reported the day's events with these birds, as they soon became a regular feature at the end of most telephone conversations with friends and very quickly became a part of the household.

Then one Tuesday evening, with growing familiarity, I showed Craig’s grandfather this nest. He had kindly taken over the grass cutting duties for Craig was now too busy with Sport. Following me with my sticks, we had slowly crossed the space from the house. The female bird was nearby, but as I reached the spot there were no eggs to be seen. I thought, shame! Something has taken them, when all a sudden, tiny movements occurred in the ashes. And there were two scruffy dark chicks. They were a dirty black and grey in hue, with an irregular speckle of white, and were the exact colour of the ashes.

 Surprised, we both moved away and back came the female bird. We both thought it seemed extraordinary that these could actually be the chicks and offspring of such a smooth sophisticated bird; with its grand white and blue-black plumage, elegant head and bright orange beak. I guess it was not what I had really expected, this version of the ‘ugly duckling,’ but nature is full of surprises.

Throughout the rest of that week, it rained heavily and she sat as usual unmoving, the chicks sheltering warm under her wings. Then gloriously on Friday, in bright sunlight, both parent birds and their chicks were all happily walking about all over the grass ignoring us.

My friends and guests all developed a strong attachment for these birds. We would all sit on the seat benches outside, drink tea and be amazed by the antics of these young growing birds. They both regularly ignored all calls from the parent birds, who were constantly obliged to round them up. While the parents were so heroic too and faced a host of unexpected adversaries. For unlike the fields with their fences, the house was open to the road and it was often busy with hikers and dog walkers alike, especially at the weekends.

Unfortunately, the parent birds were very conspicuous with their bright white colours against the bright green of the lawns and showed clearly on the shortcut grass. So we put up several notices, either side of the stone wall saying , ‘CARE PLEASE, SEABIRDS NESTING’. People were mostly considerate,  but on one occasion a big dog came bounding across the grass barking frantically. Both birds spread their wings and advanced towards the dog. We both shouted, although I was unable to move at any speed to assist. The owner, standing red-faced beside the sign on the corner of the wall, and apparently unhappy we were shouting, also called the dog which reluctantly returned to him. Dogs often ran across the grass, let loose by their owners and then pooed on the lawns, much to our general annoyance. On this occasion, however, all was well.

Yet these parents faced other dangers.  I watched the female see off a Stoat on several occasions, wings outspread and with the deadly threat of her beak, while the male guarded the growing chicks. Both birds rose up to prevent the buzzards or the red kites from approaching the lawns on every occasion and we were all impressed with the aerial tactics they adopted. One of my neighbors was a head gamekeeper and he dealt with the foxes as they were also a danger to the lambs, but the birds dealt with the rest. We also spoke the farmer, who kindly agreed to not 'Make hay' and cut the meadows until the very last moment, as all the nesting birds down below were late with their broods too. The Swallows had not yet left, although they were now gathering daily upon the telephone wires.

So the big question now, was were the chicks big enough and large enough to fly? Then one the morning none of our birds were to be seen. Instead, rabbits played near the nesting spot. I did make a quick pass of the grounds but there is no sign of them. Obviously, I hoped they had made it safely away somewhere, but at lunchtime, I decided upon a more serious search. Unfortunately, I found the female bird behind the stone wall partially eaten. Then quite unexpectedly, I saw the male bird across the lawns with the youngsters hiding under my large working van, where it was parked beside the little access road.

Shortly after Jock, the assistant gamekeeper came up the road and stopped to speak with me. It naturally brought them all out, and the youngsters ran up the little road. We both watched in shock as an owl flew past us in bright daylight towards the young birds. The Swallows on the telephone wires all lifted into the air in fright.

The male bird, however, had taken to the air and swiftly caught up with owl before it had reached the youngsters and another aerial dogfight begun. The Oyster-Catcher drove this bird away and then had the difficult task of rounding up the youngsters, who had instinctively used their wings to glide down into escarpment behind the house.

The weather had been growing colder and the sky was strange and spectacular that evening with burning red clouds when I last saw him that day, way down in the escarpment making his way along beside the burn, with both young birds in tow. The next morning was different. I immediately noticed the Swallows and all the other pairs of Oyster-Catchers and the Curlews had left their places from below in the fields out front. I then searched for our birds all around the house and grounds several times that day. I looked in the fields out front and down in the escarpment behind, but could not see them anywhere, despite using binoculars. It was sad to see they had gone and we hoped they had successfully flown away with all the others.

Two days later I saw the male bird, slowly limping near the nesting patch alone. I never saw this bird again. A month later, after I had begun to be able to walk some distance without the crutches, I found on the little road, the remains of a number of partially eaten birds lying in the now empty fields below. The white colors of the Oyster-Catchers were distinctive, as were the mottled browns of the Curlews. Sadly the year had been a disaster. I imagined some beach where the birds would have returned for the Winter, now almost empty.

This Spring, only two pairs of Oyster-Catchers along with a handful of Curlew returned to the hill and those lower nesting places. I could not bear to watch them again and thought instead of how fine a hidden line exists for the success or failure of so many creatures.

Today, for the first time this Autumn, a white grass frost covers the lawn outside and I wonder what we can all do to help Nature? For I suspect much can be done by simply speaking out against callousness and those unnecessary changes to our environment that could be avoided.

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