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Wild Life in the West Highlands

ALTHOUGH general interest in the study of ornithology has greatly increased of late, a large proportion of the public have but little exact knowledge of the subject, and do not realise how rich our country is in its bird-life. Mr. Howard Saunders gives 382 different species enumerated as recorded in our islands; and when we eliminate those rare visitors, of which fewer than six examples have been obtained, - some 74 in all, - there yet remain over 300 undoubted and distinct species; to which fall to be added those additional visitors that have been recorded during the last ten years. It may serve as some encouragement to those who are attracted by the charm which this study adds to country life or country holidays, to give shortly the results of observation and record during the last few years in a district on the shores of Loch Awe in Argyllshire.

The area in question, from its very varied natural features, is favourable to such observation. Lofty mountains, their foot-hills sloping to a great fresh-water loch, natural woods and copses, bleak moorlands with their streams and marshes, cultivated ground to some small extent, and here and there the tended grounds and gardens of modern civilisation, afford congenial surroundings for many diverse species; and, as might be expected, they are here in very considerable variety. Within the limits of a wide-spreading Highland parish, no less than 101 species have been observed; and of these 42 have been found within an area of only one acre and a half, while 19 different species have nested within this latter very limited space. Nor must this be taken as the sum of our feathered neighbours; others are almost certainly yet to be noted, although up to now they have eluded absolute identification.

To begin with the king of them all, the golden eagle,-known in Gaelic as `Fireun' `true bird,' that is ` the bird' par excellence,-still nests within our area, but not apparently in increasing numbers, although unmolested. One reason for this may be the marked diminution in the number of the blue hares, which seem to be yearly scarcer. His congener, the sea eagle, is, alas a 'vanished bird'; it is sad to think that in all probability but one pair of these noble birds nested in 1910 within Great Britain; in view of the rapacity of the egg-collector, it would be unwise even to hint at the locality. It is pleasant, however, to note that that miniature eagle, the buzzard (no longer rightly to be termed the 'common' buzzard), reared its brood with us, as has been its custom for years past; and not far off the peregrine, in like manner, nested undisturbed. The raven, too, in spite of all persecution, still holds its ground; while the grey or hooded crows receive each autumn such large additions from the far north that their numbers show no reduction.

Some years ago an instance occurred here of the pairing of a grey or hooded crow with a black or carrion crow; a similar case was noted by the writer many years ago in an adjacent district; and the like has frequently been recorded from localities where these two crows appear to meet. It seems to confirm the view that the two forms are to be regarded rather as racially than specifically distinct. Rooks have their colony just on the border of our area; and the jackdaw, here as everywhere, is increasing to a degree that almost threatens a plague.

Strangely enough, the magpie is entirely absent; but the discordant cry of his cousin, the jay, is still to be heard in one or two localities in the neighbourhood. It is surely a pity that so bright and cheerful an ornament of our woodlands as the jay should be ruthlessly persecuted. His penchant for the eggs of other birds must be admitted; but, as he confines himself almost entirely to wooded country, he is harmless to grouse and other game birds of the open; and wild-nesting pheasants are, in these days, really a negligible quantity. The starling here, as elsewhere, is a quickly increasing bird, and in reasonable numbers is to be regarded as beneficial from the quantity of noxious grubs and insects it consumes. One wonders whether these western starlings have spread to us from the immemorial colonies of the northern islands,-themselves most probably an over-spill from congested areas of Scandinavia,-or whether they are part of the invading armies of the south.

As the days lengthen on the approach of spring, the weird cries of the owls are nightly to be heard, answering each other, as it seems, across the loch. The tawny owl is here, as in most districts of Scotland, the commonest ; but the long-eared owl and the barn owl are also resident, the latter selecting the ruined walls of what was once a royal hunting-seat as a congenial nesting place. It is a strange peculiarity of the owls that they commence incubation with the laying of the first egg; so that we may find a half-clad fledgling, a newly-hatched owlet and a new-laid egg in the nest at the same time.

Of game birds we have, in more or less plenty, all the usual species; chiefly perhaps the red grouse, claimed to be peculiar to the British, Isles alone, but doubtless a very near relative of the Scandinavian willow grouse, if not indeed merely a varietal form ; one cannot but suspect a common ancestry. On the bleak tops of the highest hills the ptarmigan make their home-surely the hardiest of all our birds.

What is the explanation of the initial `p' in our writing of this word? The Gaelic name - Scottish and Irish - is `Tarmachan'; and the addition appears to be, in one sense of the word, impertinent.

The black grouse find entirely congenial surroundings in the birch-covered slopes and glens, and the giant of the tribe, the capercaillie, reappeared of late in the only locality where there are pine woods sufficient for his needs. This noble bird, as most people know, was at one time extinct in Scotland, having finally disappeared about 1760, but was reintroduced by the Lord Breadalbane of the day in 1837; a full account of this, and of its subsequent spreading over a large part of Scotland, is to be found in an interesting monograph' by J. A. Harvie-Brown. Partridges are naturally scarce in such surroundings, but a few find a scanty subsistence in the little plots of cultivated land.

As elsewhere throughout the country, the woodcock is here a resident nesting and increasing species. Half a century ago a woodcock's nest was a rarity to be chronicled as a notable find; to-day they nest throughout Scotland in hundreds. When disturbed, the parent birds remove their young; and if the intruder is fortunate enough to witness this, he will see that the chick is carried neither in the bill nor in the claws, but between the thighs of the parent. In the twilight hours of the long summer days the woodcocks may be seen and heard each evening as they fly past in somewhat owl-like flight, uttering at intervals two curious sounds, one a harsh croak, several times repeated, the other more of a sibilant and piping nature. This evening flight is termed their `roding.'

During these same warm summer nights another strange sound is often heard on our hill-sides, a curious, long drawn-out, whirring or jarring sound, difficult to describe, but very like the noise made by drawing out the line on a stiff fishing-reel, or, as some say, like the sound of a spinning wheel. This is the nightjar or fern owl, also foolishly called the goatsucker; needless to say that for this last name there is no ground whatever. It probably arose from the wide gape of the mouth, which, with its feathered fringe, is so admirably adapted for its purpose of catching moths and other night insects; yet, silly and misleading as is this name, it is surely extraordinary that it is still to-day its sole scientific designation- Capri-mulgus. The claw of the middle toe is curiously serrated, for what purpose seems doubtful; but as this bird invariably perches lengthwise on a bough, and not across, possibly the saw-like edges render the hold more secure. A simple hollow in the ground serves it for a nest; and as soon as the young are ready for the long voyage, they leave our inhospitable climate for Africa. It is to be hoped that in these more enlightened days few gamekeepers continue to gibbet the 'night hawk,' as they used to call this pretty, harmless bird, among the criminals of their 'vermin larder.'

A still harsher evening sound is that of the landrail or corncrake, another summer visitor from Africa, which extends its journeys as far as the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia. When one considers the weak, laboured flight of this short-winged bird, one is filled with wonder at a range extending from thence to Natal. One seems driven to accept the theory that some inborn instinct teaches our migrants to ascend until a permanent atmospheric current of great velocity is reached to bear them on their perilous journey ; a hint which is herewith gratuitously presented to those unfeathered bipeds who seek to emulate their flight. A near relative, the water-rail, also recorded in our area, is much less generally known, although widely distributed, occurring also in our Outer Islands. Its shy and skulking habits shield it from casual observation.

In the latter days of April the welcome call of the cuckoo is usually heard. The earliest date in the last fourteen years in this district was 21st April, 1898; the latest the 8th May, 1906. In 1909 they were first heard on 23rd April. As a rule, the cuckoo is very widely distributed all over the West Coast and the Islands. On two separate occasions the freshly killed remains of cuckoos have been found here on the hillside - that is, the feathers, legs and skulls - evidently the work of some bird of prey, most probably a sparrow-hawk, a somewhat rare bird with us; but an adult cuckoo is just about as large as a female sparrow-hawk. Amongst the earliest harbingers of spring is the curlew, whose wild, mournful cry is heard towards the end of March, when the first corners find their way from the nearer sea lochs to their solitary nesting-places on the foothills. Dry knolls and flats at some considerable elevation are generally selected, but they nest likewise in the larger islands of the loch, as Robert Gray tells us is also the case on Loch Lomond. With shortening days and scantier food supplies in autumn or early winter, they depart again to the sea coast.

Even more plaintive and mournful is the note of the golden plover, frequenting much the same localities. Those who are only acquainted with this beautiful bird in his winter dress will hardly recognise him when he has left the sea shore in his gay nuptial plumage. The sides of the head, the neck, breast and under parts, are all now black; the upper parts spangled with black, white and gold, and divided by a pure white line from the black beneath. After the breeding season all this glossy black disappears, the bird being mottled all over, except that the under parts are now white. No such wonderful transformation takes place with its relative, the lapwing or peewit, which breed here in peace, as no one dreams of robbing them of their eggs. There are few more beautiful or graceful birds than this, with his contrasts of black with metallic green and purple sheen, white and chestnut, and curved crest or horn. Gray tells us that in the Lowlands there still exists a strong dislike on the part of the moorland folk to these poor birds, dating from the 'killing' days, when the Covenanters in hiding were sometimes betrayed in their wanderings by the continuous cries of the peewits, as is their custom when disturbed.

The thrush, here as elsewhere, is one of the first to welcome the lengthening days with his clear notes, but few remain over the winter, finding more congenial quarters on the neighbouring seaboard. Its congener, the missel-thrush, is more sparsely represented. This is a courageous bird, the sitting mother sometimes permitting itself to be stroked with the hand; while intruding jackdaws or even cats are chased away with angry scolding. The blackbird is one of our commonest species; unlike the thrush they seem to receive considerable additions to their numbers in autumn.

Large flocks of fieldfares pass by on migration, arriving about the first week of November, passing again in spring to their northern breeding-places in Scandinavia and Russia, where, strangely enough, they nest in social colonies. There is, as yet, no record of their nesting in Great Britain, a somewhat remarkable fact, as they breed in many parts of Germany, of late in increasing numbers; so that quite possibly some may yet, sooner or later, remain here to nest. Some years ago I saw a large flock in Banffshire as late as the 6th of May. The redwing is a much less frequent visitor, and seems to be the very first to feel the pinch of cold and wintry weather. In the higher glens and straths the harsh 'chack-chack' of the ring ouzel is heard in April ; but early in autumn they leave for southern Europe and the north of Africa.

One of our commonest birds is the familiar robin, notable for its quarrelsome habits, and as being one of the very few birds that sing even in winter. His cousin, the gentle hedge-sparrow, is much less common, and is usually found in the vicinity of human habitation. The redstart-here as elsewhere throughout the country one of our rapidly-increasing birds -is surely also one of the handsomest. His pure white forehead, black throat and gorget, red breast and twinkling rusty tail-feathers, must catch the eye even of the least observant. Widespread over all Europe, it is found from Nubia and Senegal up to the Arctic Sea-with us, of course, a summer migrant. Another very beautiful bird, the stonechat, in whose nuptial plumage the same black, white and red are differently contrasted, is a resident species, but only sparsely distributed, as is also the case with its congener, the whinchat.

The wheatear is one of our earliest spring visitors, flitting along the roadsides with its familiar call-note. The natives of these parts believe that they winter in cairns or in the crevices of stone dykes ; and have been known to be somewhat indignant if any doubt were cast upon the assertion that they themselves had found them thus hibernating; but, after all, Gilbert White himself had a shrewd suspicion that the swallows slept away the winter in some unknown hiding-place.

First of its family to arrive in spring is the willow warbler; should the weather be bleak and cold it may be with us for days unnoticed, for under these conditions its song will not be heard. The white-throat finds its favourite nesting-place among the thick bramble-brakes and brackens, its loud, cheerful song continuing far into summer when most of our other birds are silent. The garden warbler is a recent addition to our local list, both it and the wood warbler having been identified by a trustworthy observer. The black cap has been but once recorded, and the chiff-chaff is reported as having been identified by its call-note ; but this latter requires more certain identification. Then, last of our warblers, comes the sedge warbler, whose cheerful song is often heard far into the summer night as it flits in spiral fashion from spray to spray of some alder-bush by the loch side, till, having perched on the topmost twig, it flutters singing upwards, and then drops to the foot again.

The tiny gold-crest, smallest of all our British birds, is often seen in little travelling flocks of various tits in spring and autumn; but some are always resident and nest with us, though sparsely. That such tiny mites can brave the storms and gales of the Northern seas and reach our coasts seems almost incredible, - but so it is. The graceful long-tailed tit is often their companion, and of these, too, a few pairs remain with us. The great tit, the coal tit, and the blue tit are among our commonest birds, the last being here the least plentiful. He or she who wishes to do a kindly act, and at the same time provide an unfailing source of pleasure and amusement, can do so by hanging a half-picked bone, or preferably a lump of suet, by a short string to some convenient branch or projection. To the tits these are a great attraction, and their quaint postures as they cling upside down to the food, or slide down, the string clasped in their little claws' never cease to interest and amuse. A few well designed and properly placed nesting-boxes will serve to attract and keep them.

Another tit, the marsh tit, has only once been recorded in this area as a stray autumn visitor. The water-ouzel frequents the hill burns and the loch side, and, like the robin, may be heard singing his cheerful little song in the ice and snow of winter. One pair chose an extraordinary nesting-place, building on the lower flange of an iron girder forming part of a culvert carrying the railway over a small burn. Here they sat and hatched their eggs within two feet of the rail on the upper side of the bridge over which a dozen noisy trains were passing daily. One would have thought that the vibration alone, to say nothing of the noise, would have deterred them. Within a dozen yards of this culvert a pair of blue tits hatched their young in a hollow cast-iron gate-post of the railway crossing, regardless of the constant swinging of the wicket gate by passers-by.

The wren is another of our birds that faces cheerfully our severest winters. Their well known habit of building several nests has led to the belief that many of these serve merely for winter shelters, and that those that are unlined with feathers belong to this category. Gray, however, mentions a series of six nests found by him which were all unlined with feathers, and yet all contained eggs. The wagtails, both the pied and grey, leave us in winter, the former being the first to return to the loch side in spring. The meadow-pipit, the familiar ` moss-cheeper,' is here as elsewhere doubtless the most common victim of the cuckoo's unwelcome attentions; a much rarer bird with us is the tree-pipit, a summer visitor that nests with us although but sparsely. The spotted fly-catcher too is only with us for a brief summer season; but the pretty little tree-creeper is content to stay, and may be seen in mid-winter creeping mouse-like in spirals up the stems of oak, birch and alder. The swift is naturally confined to those localities where there are buildings sufficiently lofty for its requirements ; the swallow, martin and sand martin are all common, flocks of the latter' being often to be seen hawking for insects far out in the centre of the loch.

Perhaps the commonest of all our birds is the chaffinch, especially in winter, when large flocks of strangers come to stay with us. The alleged separation of the sexes of these birds in winter is a vexed question. First named coelebs or 'bachelor' by Linnaeus, that great authority must surely have have had good warrant for so doing, at least so far as Sweden is concerned; but here with us there is no such division. Any day in winter flocks of sixty or more can be seen feeding under the windows, and at all times the sexes seem to be practically equally represented.

The greenfinch is a rare bird here, preferring more cultivated country ; but each winter has of late brought us flocks of bramblings, many of which pass on, but some remain all winter, chiefly on a large well-wooded island. The sparrow, like the poor, we have always with us, but, up to now, careful search has failed to distinguish the tree-sparrow. The pretty little lesser redpoll is a common visitor in spring and autumn, and almost certainly nests with us, although it must be admitted that the nest has not yet been found within our actual bounds. A large flock which stayed two days with us last autumn brought with them as companions some siskins, an interesting arrival as constituting what seems to be a first record for the faunal area. A charming resident which appears to be increasing with us is the bullfinch, although it is to be confessed that the gardeners have reason to give him a somewhat cold welcome. His Gaelic name is 'corcan-coille,' i.e. 'little bull of the wood,' corcan being the diminutive of corc, `a fairy bull, a water-bull,' Here we have again the same idea as in our English bull-rush, bullfrog, bull-trout, to name only a few examples.

On the moor edges we find the twite or mountain linnet, conspicuous with his yellow bill, and in more cultivated districts the corn bunting and the yellow hammer, both somewhat infrequent; while by water side and alder copse the black-headed bunting is easily distinguishable in sombre head-dress and white cravat.

Now and again a passing flock of cross-bills have visited us. Most people know the touching legend of how this bird acquired his red-stained breast and twisted beak in striving to withdraw the cruel nails from the Cross. The skylark sings to us on our little golf course as he does to more favoured mortals in the Lothians, Fife or Ayrshire; and the wood pigeon finds a safe asylum in the wooded islands of the loch.

Across the loch a wide-spreading bay, where a little wooded river flows in between gently sloping grassy banks, far from traffic or habitation, affords a pleasant spectacle on a fine spring day. Black, ugly cormorants will be there, lesser black-backed gulls with their harsh barking cry, common gulls in plenty, black-headed gulls, perhaps a herring-gull or two; one wonders that any trout remain at all. More rarely a heron may be seen, their nearest breeding-place an island in a far distant loch; but wild duck and wigeon one may expect to find; the last has now been ascertained to nest on the loch, thanks to the labours of an enthusiastic lady naturalist. In winter these are joined by pochard and goldeneye, the latter remaining often far into spring, and raising hopes that some day they too may remain to nest. Hollow trees, which form their favourite nesting-place, are at any rate here to hand. Pintail have been seen on a neighbouring hill-loch as late as June, and such hill-lochs are the favourites of the little teal. On the grassy shores the quaint red-beaked oystercatchers catch the eye by their bright colouring, the redshank rises with its plaintive note, and the sandpiper runs questing along the margin on the thickly-wooded islands the merganser hatches the brood which afterwards she leads down the river, to the destruction of numberless salmon smolts and the disgust of the patient fisherman, as she splashes like a noisy steam launch down his favourite pool.

Far off in the heart of the deer forest, safe from intrusion and disturbance, the black-throated diver has found a secure asylum.

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