A change in the air

Stirling Observer - - INTIMATIONS - With Keith Gra­ham

One day this week myr­i­ads of swal­lows were buzzing around me the way only swal­lows can, zipping low across the ground and show­ing off their re­mark­able aerial tal­ents.

The next day they were gone. Noth­ing ex­presses the mood of our sum­mer days more glo­ri­ously than swal­lows. In their con­stant search for fly­ing in­sect life they swoop, sw­erve, duck and dive like no other crea­ture. They bring such fan­tas­tic verve to sum­mer days and now that they are leav­ing us our lives will surely be the poorer with­out them. As they go they seem to take our sum­mer with them.

We may yet see a few more swal­lows as more waves of them come and go dur­ing these short­en­ing au­tum­nal days. Birds that have been sta­tioned fur­ther to the north for the sum­mer months may pass through as they join the swelling southerly ex­o­dus that char­ac­terises this time of the year.

As mi­grat­ing swal­lows hurry on their way south they are con­stantly re­fu­elling, re­plen­ish­ing their en­ergy banks. At night­fall they may seek out reed beds in which to roost dur­ing the hours of dark­ness. At first light they are on the move again.

So are we about to wit­ness a brief and un­likely meet­ing of the later-leav­ing em­i­grant birds head­ing to­wards trop­i­cal Africa and those re­cently de­parted denizens of the icy Arc­tic? This could be the day that such meet­ings oc­cur for Septem­ber 15 is the date upon which Old Tommy al­ways reck­oned that the first win­ter­ing geese would pitch up in this airt. Fur­ther­more, he was very of­ten right.

With the ar­rival of those first skeins of pink-footed geese the mood of the land­scape most cer­tainly changes. If the ath­letic move­ment of swal­lows is sym­bolic of sum­mer the honk­ing of geese is surely the sound of au­tumn and in­deed of forth­com­ing win­ter. Their loud gab­bling is to me es­sen­tially rem­i­nis­cent of the wild Arc­tic tun­dra they have just va­cated.

These first skeins, whether they ar­rive to­day or not, are largely non-breed­ers. They rep­re­sent the van­guard of much big­ger, fam­ily-ori­en­tated skeins which usu­ally ar­rive a lit­tle later in Oc­to­ber, when our skies are sud­denly filled with mi­grant birds ar­riv­ing from places to the north and east of us. The ar­rival of geese is one of the more ob­vi­ous signs of a sur­pris­ingly large-scale in­ward move­ment of birds, largely mak­ing land­fall along our east­ern seaboard dur­ing the au­tumn.

How­ever, the pink-feet come to us from Ice­land and east­ern Green­land, Ice­land be­ing where they gather be­fore tak­ing on the per­ilous, 1000-mile cross­ing of the North At­lantic.

Next month that same hos­tile stretch of wa­ter will be crossed by the rather more stately skeins of whooper swans, as well as the bulk of the pink-feet and the Green­land white-fronted geese which will be ar­riv­ing in due course on the wa­ters of Loch Lomond. I’m sure that the high-fly­ing swans will be keep­ing a wary eye out for what is left of the pro­ces­sion of hur­ri­canes that have been gath­er­ing around the Cape Verde Is­lands off the west coast of Africa.

As the men from the Met tell us, from rel­a­tively small be­gin­nings these storms gather en­ergy and vigour as they travel west­ward across the warm­ing ocean. That en­ergy ex­plodes when land­fall is made, caus­ing ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion.

Although these storms moder­ate once they have vented their spleen on such places, they of­ten con­tinue across the north­ern wa­ters of that great ocean, to­wards us.

If the pres­ence of the geese is loudly sig­nalled the ar­rival of most of the other in­com­ers is some­what more sur­rep­ti­tious. In­deed, few ob­servers no­tice the likes of short-eared owls and mi­nus­cule gold­crests flood­ing in from Scan­di­navia. They are iden­ti­cal to res­i­dent owls and gold­crests and so can­not ob­vi­ously be picked out as res­i­dent or non-res­i­dent once they have moved in­land.

Nor can the in­com­ing hordes of woodcock be dis­tin­guished from the woodcock that we play host to all the year round.

Woodcock are, with­out ques­tion, mys­te­ri­ous birds, some might even say ghostly birds. My own ex­pe­ri­ences of see­ing woodcock – or rather not see­ing them against the back­drop of the au­tum­nal wood­land floor – could, I sup­pose, be in­ter­preted as ghost-like.

A bird sud­denly takes off from al­most un­der my feet, flits silently away for a few dozen yards and then be­come ut­terly ob­fus­cated again when it re­turns to the leaf-lit­tered floor – be­fore my very eyes. Those of a more ner­vous dis­po­si­tion might in­deed be­lieve that they are see­ing ghosts in such cir­cum­stances.

But some of the tra­di­tions at­tached to these long-billed waders are even stranger than fic­tion. As re­cently as the mid-18th cen­tury, be­fore the con­cept of mi­gra­tion was un­der­stood, it was firmly be­lieved that woodcock spring, ac­tu­ally sum­mered on the Moon. The fol­low­ing verse penned by Alexan­der Pope tells the story:

One ‘ex­pert’ claimed that the birds took two months to reach their lu­nar des­ti­na­tion and two months to re­turn. Woodcock, well known to shoot­ers for their fast, er­ratic flight, are also largely silent dur­ing the sum­mer, save for their strange evening rod­ing flight in which they croak and squeak in a rather ghostly fash­ion.

Mind you, there were those who be­lieved that the geese leav­ing here in spring­time were also em­i­grat­ing to the Moon.

How­ever, the pink-footed geese I ex­pect to ar­rive dur­ing these mid-Septem­ber days cer­tainly won’t have trav­elled here from the Moon but from Ice­land and Green­land. In fact, apart from a small pop­u­la­tion which breeds in Western Sval­bard, these are the only places where pink-feet breed in the world. While many of the geese from Sval­bard win­ter in the Low Coun­tries, the rest of the world’s pop­u­la­tion win­ters in Bri­tain and Ire­land.

An es­ti­mated 360,000 birds cur­rently win­ter in these ar­eas an­nu­ally. Over the space of the last 30 years or so pink-foot pop­u­la­tions have more than dou­bled, buck­ing a trend in which most bird pop­u­la­tions are de­clin­ing.

Pink-feet are grey geese, rather more lightly built than the much bulkier but sim­i­lar grey­lag geese. Their quite darkly coloured necks are shorter than those of most other geese and their pink and black beaks slightly stub­bier. Their voices too are pitched a lit­tle higher than most other geese, the sound they make of­ten in­ter­preted as ‘wink, wink’.

That we are day by day slip­ping in­ex­orably to­wards au­tumn and win­ter there can be no doubt. The V-shaped skeins pat­tern­ing our skies, to­gether with the far-car­ry­ing, echo­ing calls of flight­ing geese,has­ten us on our au­tum­nal jour­ney.

Due any day Pink-foot goose

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