26 May 2020 by Ramblers Scotland president Lucy Wallace
In her latest Lockdown Diary, our president Lucy Wallace invites us to join her as she checks in on the communities of wildlife near her home – and guides us through some of the species we can all try to spot on our own #RoamSweetHome walks.
Lucy wildlife-watching in Lamlash
Nine weeks in to lockdown, and I admit, the days are trickling into each other. The most positive change for me is the amount of time that we are now able to spend outside exercising.
The unlimited exercise has allowed me to fully explore and enjoy the wildlife around the village.
We are now at the most intense phase of the breeding season, and our local birds are putting their hearts in to raising their families.
I awake each morning to the chuckling calls of jackdaws nesting amongst the chimney pots.
I’m a heavy sleeper, and can snore blissfully through the early shift of songbirds, but like me, the jackdaws rise late, and they are noisy neighbours. The volume and tone of their conversation varies with the quality of the weather.
Before I open my eyes I can tell if the sun is shining by their happy squeaks.
By the time I’m upright and sipping coffee, the birds in my garden have been working hard for hours. It’s a soap opera of family life and I love to check in on them each day.
There’s a pair of wrens; tiny troglodytes, who have nested under the felted roof of my neighbour’s shed. Every two minutes, from dawn until dusk, a parent brings a beak laden with insects.
The food arrives so relentlessly and in such quantity I imagine that there must be a huge army of baby wrens inside the shed.
On leaving the nest, the male bird likes to give a triumphant trill, proclaiming his parenting skills to anyone who will listen.
Blackbird with a beak full of leatherjacket larvae.
The blackbirds are keeping their brood safe in a dense thicket of ivy. Mr Blackbird seems mostly concerned with defending his territory from other blackbirds, and quite sensibly from the carrion crows that roost in the tall ash tree; they would steal his offspring in a heartbeat.
He’s taken an intense dislike to me, and follows me around the garden clucking angrily with his tail flicking and his yellow eye fixed on my every move.
This is, I guess, understandable, but I feel offended because he tolerates my husband without a murmur.
A common goal in a rooftop nest
A troop of young robins has recently fledged, and they are now skulking about the undergrowth foraging for themselves under the watchful eyes of their parents.
Juvenile robins are earthy brown with scaly plumage and bulging eyes like little feathered reptiles.
They already have the boldness and curiosity that makes this bird a garden favourite, but lack common sense.
The youngsters will hop up to me until they are within touching distance, and look at me blankly, without fear or recognition.
I worry that some of this clan will fall prey to the neighbourhood cats.
Beyond my garden other daily dramas are unfolding. On the village green, a recent spell of rain after so much dryness has softened the earth and provided a bountiful supply of leatherjacket larvae.
Playgroups of baby starlings follow their parents as they probe the grass. Each chick opens its mouth expectantly as soon as mum or dad makes a catch.
Meanwhile, blackbirds hunt alone, filling their beaks with rows of grubs to take back to their nests like puffins with sandeels.
All this food on display is too tempting for the thuggish sparrows. They harry the blackbirds, and sometimes succeed in stealing their prey.
All along the shore there is activity, driven by the urgent need raise families against the clock.
Rock pipits skewer shrimps along the strand line.
Ringed plovers conceal stony nests amongst the beach cobbles.
A common gull has built hers out of grass upon the stone gatepost of a house. She sits, resigned and determined as council trucks thunder past her diminutive eyrie.
On the opposite side of the road, pregnant harbour seals haul themselves on to the rocks at low tide.
A badger footprint
The rain has left puddles for birds to wash in, and the soft ooze at the side of tracks helps me spot footprints left by nocturnal creatures.
Red deer avoid the village but they wander in the woodland and conifer plantations only a few hundred metres above my house.
The soft crescents of their hooves are pressed in to the fresh mud for me to find the morning after. If I’m lucky I can even spot the bearlike impressions of badger claws or the imprints of tiny rodents.
Meanwhile, the day shift in the woods is as busy as the village.
The trees are full of industrious tits and chaffinches, plucking insects from the bark, whilst cuckoos mock from the forest edges.
Cuckoos are masters of concealment, and mysteriously throw their voices, confusing the listener. They are hoping to attract a female who will then lay her eggs in the nests of gullible meadow pipits. A female cuckoo can lay up to two dozen eggs, each in a separate nest.
A harbour seal at rest
In the recently felled areas, buzzards hunt from standing dead wood, drawn up tall and motionless, eyes trained on the jumbled stumps and fireweed, they wait for their prey to scurry past.
Buzzards will eat anything from earthworms to rabbits, and are thriving in this mixed habitat. At the moment they also have young to feed, and the daily demand for food will only increase as the weeks roll onwards in to summer.
I look forward to the mewling calls and clumsy flight of the buzzard chicks when they fledge. I wonder how much our human world will have changed by then?
House sparrow and its young
Has nature become bolder, louder and more vibrant since lockdown? Or is it that we are making less noise, and have slowed down enough to pay attention to what has always been there in the margins?
As we adapt to our new reality, the shape of the next few months is uncertain, hopeful, and yes, worrying. The good news is that it seems we have found new powers of listening and exploring, and have learned just how essential a daily walk is for our wellbeing.
I feel optimistic that as our future unfolds, we will continue to make time and space for walking and for nature.
Lucy's top tips for watching local wildlife while you #RoamSweetHome:
- Do ensure that you are following the Scottish Government’s guidelines on physical distancing and exercise during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Look out for birds carrying beaks full of food or nest material.
- Check out muddy bits and sandy beaches for animal tracks.
- Remember to bring binoculars if you have them!
- Try standing still under trees and listening, woodland birds can be hard to spot at first, but their sounds give them away.
- Go for walks at the beginning or end of the day. Wildlife is more active at these times (and it is easier to be socially distant during the quiet times).
- It’s best to leave fledglings alone. Although they may look abandoned, the parents are probably nearby.
- Don’t disturb nesting birds, which are protected by law. Be especially careful on beaches and moorland where there may be ground nesting birds, and keep dogs on a lead.
- See the latest Ramblers coronavirus guidance here.
All photos by Lucy Wallace.
Our #RoamSweetHome campaign aims to inspire everyone to keep active safely during the coronavirus pandemic. We’re also urging walkers to keep safely connected – both with landscapes and each other - or everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing. Get involved at ramblers.org.uk/roamsweethome