Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter three - A Border Landscape
HAWICK - April 1950
One of my friends lived in the Scottish Border Country near Hawick, in a delightful house set among young forestry plantations. I visited Pat’s home on several occasions, but the most memorable was undoubtedly the first. I stayed for nearly a week and grew very fond of this strange and unique countryside. As soon as one penetrates into the country proper it becomes a land of steep, strangely rounded hills which roll into the distance. Perhaps roll is the wrong word, as they fall so steeply into the valleys they give the impression of sticking up like pebbles on a beach, with no soft gradations into the next. Among these hills are found many small, fast flowing streams and rivers, and one or two large and famous ones like the Tweed, noted for its salmon and trout. It is remarkable for large and small Lochs, the smaller known as dubh lochans. As can be imagined, the scope and variety of bird life is fantastic, for not only is it wild and remote, but the human population is small. Much of the land is farmed for sheep, and the rest for forestry purposes; neither of these occupations requires a great deal of people.
The Borders can be a desolate area when the winter snows close all the roads, but when I went there in April I saw them at their very best. During that week, the weather was mainly dry, with a nip in the morning and evening. During the day it wasn't cold enough to worry, as long as you kept on the move.
SATURDAY: I arrived desperately early in the morning, and was met off the train by Pat, who drove me home for a wonderful Scottish breakfast, complete with Baps and marmalade. After this, I felt extremely lethargic, but this was rapidly dragged out of me by Pat taking me for a walk in the hills over to a nearby loch - at least he told me it was nearby. I don't know if I agreed with him after a couple of hour's walk. It was very bracing and I soon woke up as we marched across the moors, disturbing dozens of Curlew as we went. The steep hillsides seemed to echo their mournful calls until we felt we were surrounded by bubbling, trilling shadows.
Eventually, we saw the loch and crept up over the skyline, trying hard not to disturb the peace, but in vain. Still more Curlew rose in masses in front, while at least three pairs of Redshank did their best to warn everyone of the intruders. The Redshank is a bird of which I am particularly fond, but I could have murdered the lot, as 1 felt sure they would ruin my first sight of the loch. However, we were lucky; we did not seem to have disturbed anything out on the water. Nearby, a couple of Coot and a pair of Moorhens floated idly on the surface, apparently too lazy to even dive for their food. Further out, I spotted a duck which seemed familiar in shape, yet different. After much concentrated observation through the telescope, and consulting books we had brought with us, we agreed it was definitely a duck Goldeneye. At first glance, the bird it most resembled was a Wigeon drake, but there were very definite identification points when looked at closely, and many of these were confirmed later in flight. She had a prominent pale eye in a brown head, which looked almost black in certain angles of the light. The white collar beneath the head was not at all noticeable until we saw her in flight, when it became clear.
The most obvious difference between Wigeon and this bird was the fact that she swam, as all diving ducks do, with her tail flush with the water, whereas a Wigeon would have swum with it high in the air - characteristic of surface feeders. When she got up in the water and shook herself, I saw she had a largish tail, slightly reminiscent of a pintail, and her legs were yellow. In silhouette, against the light, the bird was incredibly similar to a Wigeon, especially in the sideways slope of the head. When seen from in front, the head is wide; in contrast to the Wigeon's narrow frontal view. In flight, the bird looked very black and white, while there was a prominent white patch on the trailing edge of the wing. She was remarkably tame - when we stood up she just flew over to the other side of the water, where we again approached fairly closely, before she changed places once again.
We also saw a very elusive pair of Teal feeding in the reeds. Whenever we tried to get near, they just disappeared, only to pop out unexpectedly further down. Much to my surprise, they did not take to flight. Normally, Teal are the most excitable of all duck, and leap into the air like bullets at the slightest provocation. For us two, the thought of lunch now surmounted everything and we left in a turmoil of hunger for our long tramp back.
I must have been tough in those days, for in the afternoon we were back at the loch once more; this time to launch a punt kept in the reeds at one end. The Goldeneye was still there and, as if to make our identification certain, she had a Wigeon drake swimming alongside her. As we drifted downwind, we had a wonderful opportunity to compare the two. The Goldeneye appeared the heavier bird, while the yellow forehead of the Wigeon was most prominent in the sunlight. When we came closer, they flew off together and we noticed the white wing patches were in different positions. The Wigeon's head flashed very red, whereas that of the Goldeneye appeared the colour of boot-polish, set off admirably by the white collar. The only other bird was a snipe which jinked and twisted away at great speed.
SUNDAY: This was supposed to be quiet, to recover from our efforts of the day before. In the morning we pottered round the garden and I spent some time trying to paint a Mistle thrush and a Tree pipit; the latter looking remarkably like a miniature edition of the thrush. In the afternoon we went off to the opening of a fete in a big house close by. Afterwards, we wandered round the large and deserted woods nearby, eventually appearing near a little hillock surrounded by stagnant water. There was a tremendous commotion and a Mallard duck shot ten feet vertically up and disappeared into the middle distance, quacking her protests. We searched round and found her nest, with eleven beautiful pale greeny-buff eggs lying in a bed of down. The nest was domed over with Sitka-spruce branches which obviously had been placed there by keepers to protect it.
On the way back home, we motored along the banks of the Ettrick and saw a whitish duck with a dark, almost black head fly off at great speed. Pat, who had the best view, said it was a Goosander, common in these parts. However, the crowning moment of the day came when we stopped the car and strolled over to Alemoor Loch. We casually glanced at a party of swans in the middle, and then looked again carefully: there was something different about them, even to the naked eye. Through the binoculars, the difference was obvious. The head and beak ran in one smooth line, with no conspicuous knob as on the Mute swan, while the long beak was yellow with a black tip. It was a party of six Whooper swans; four adults and two younger birds. These latter had brown necks and grey beaks. They swam with stiff, upright necks, very different to the curves of the Mute swan, but just as graceful in their own way. When we returned and mentioned our sighting to Pat's mother, she told us she had often seen them around, and had for some while suspected they nested on the loch.
MONDAY: Immediately after breakfast Pat and I went off to the loch, dressed up to the eyes in all the waterproof gear we could lay our hands on, for it was a really miserable day. The hills vanished into patches of driving drizzle, and the skies were dark with rain clouds; while heather and grasses were awash, colourless, quaking beneath our boots. There can be few places that look more uninviting than the Borders on a day when the fine, drenching drizzle has obviously settled in for the next few hours, if not days. The prospect is obvious to even the keenest bird-watcher - he will be drenched through and through, however carefully he wraps towels round his neck, or tucks his boots inside his oilskin trousers. We accepted the prospect, if not cheerfully, at least philosophically, and launched ourselves across the moors. My time in Scotland was limited and the weather might be like this for days, so enthusiasm prevailed over common-sense.
When we reached the Loch, we were, as expected, cold, soaked and half-blind in the rain, but still managed to enjoy a wonderful morning of bird-watching that made us forget our discomforts. I know of few other pastimes which have this habit of making one ignore physical discomfort, though sailing could be said to have the same effect. Looking back on many uncomfortable voyages in small boats, I feel that during the worst weather, the urge is nearly always to get down to the comfort of the cabin, or to reach round that headland to the pleasant harbour beyond. The joys of hard weather become more apparent to the yachtsman after the event - usually in the pub - whereas the ornithologist tends to accept weather as it comes – albeit with grumbles - for the birds may be easier to approach in the worst conditions.
That wet morning saw us looking at a little group of duck diving busily in the centre of the loch, obviously finding conditions just right for their feeding habits. They were Goldeneye; a drake, a duck, and two other browner versions of the duck, which must have been immature birds, for they had the same characteristic wing pattern. The drake was a magnificent, extremely handsome bird, with a glistening green-shot head, bearing the striking and distinctive white patch, just forward of, and below its eye. This eye was yellow and showed up clearly against the bottle-green head, indeed I was startled to see how clearly, as it is unusual to be able to spot eyes at any sort of distance. The effect was similar to seeing a pair of startling blue eyes in a deeply sunburned face, seeming to stand out in the centre of some crowded city square. The drake’s head had a most distinctive shape: it is surprising how each species in the duck world has such a distinctive silhouette. It distresses me to see bird paintings which portray the colouring perfectly, yet ignore the individual shapes of these birds. Any reasonably experienced ornithologist quickly learns to distinguish duck by their shape, which is invaluable at times when colours are indistinct.
The Goldeneye has a high forehead, which makes it appear as if the head feathers are bulkier than the skull beneath. It was noticeable that its habit was to swim with its head permanently sunk into its shoulders; whereas Wigeon, while doing this, always relieved it by stretching their necks every so often. On the far side of the water we spotted another duck Goldeneye on her own: while nearby was a fine Wigeon drake swimming slowly along by the side of his mate. Even in this bleak weather, the yellow of his forehead seemed to flash at us across the open; I never understand how this could be, as a look at a dead bird shows that this yellow appears rather inconspicuous.
We spent some while observing these birds, and I drew numerous damp and smudgy sketches under the shelter of my oilskin tails. Some of these were ruined, but a number were recognisable enough to be translated into rather better versions in the shelter of the house. The great value of a drawing done on the spot, is the freshness and movement in the line, the clarity of shape and the degree of priority given to recognition features. A book may state dogmatically that one particular point is the most noticeable; whereas the artist observes which feature is most apparent in every different situation and records it as such. Brilliant sketches are not required; in fact the cartoon-like approach of the less-skilled brings out the identification points more effectively. The afternoon was spent happily warming up in front of a huge fire while finishing off the sketches. Although it was still raining in the evening, we went for a stroll with the local gamekeeper, as he checked that all was well in some nearby fields. Peter is a most interesting man, with a fund of knowledge about the neighbourhood, the birds and the animals who live there.
The evening was made memorable by the sight and sound of a Common snipe drumming over a field of sheep. The sheep were bleating all round us, but although similar, the snipe had a more artificial note. The bird flew in a huge circle high overhead, then dived obliquely down, emitting this strange bleating sound. It took me back to our trips on the Norfolk Broads, where I had watched this strange performance while cooking the evening meal, looking over the broad expanses of water and golden-green reeds.
TUESDAY: After lunch Peter, the gamekeeper, came over to say he knew of a plover's nest on the other side of the River Ale. He was not certain to which type of plover it belonged, and asked whether we would like to come over and see what we made of it. We jumped at the opportunity of spending another period in his company and seeing the nest. Peter strode off across the moors at great speed, and I had to walk really hard to keep up; yet looking at the lazy, long-legged stride, it was difficult to see how he managed such a pace.
As we walked along in the golden afternoon sun, we disturbed a number of Red grouse which leapt off almost from under our feet, until at last, very hot and with aching legs, we finally reached the nest, which had two faintly warm eggs in it. Unfortunately there was no sign of the parents - indeed the whole moor seemed deserted. The eggs were heavily splodged with dark brown on a light buff-green background, and were just over two inches long: a rapid check through the books confirmed they belonged to a Golden plover, a medium-sized member of the family, which nevertheless lays the largest eggs of all. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring the camera, but I did make a few sketches and promised myself I would be back to take a photograph.
In the evening we went for a walk in the garden and this time saw a Woodcock, in place of yesterday's Snipe. I first noticed it when I heard a weird little squeak above us and looked up to see the bird flitting overhead on silent wings, like a huge bat. It flew over my head two or three times, making this strange squeak every five seconds or so, until the darkening evening lost it to sight and I heard no more.
WEDNESDAY: My last day in the Borders, and a very eventful one it proved to be. It was reasonably fine with frequent patches of sunshine, so Pat and I decided to have a go at photographing the plover's nest, as a start to a day-long expedition. We went off over the hills and down to the Ale, but first stopped high up on the hillside to have a long-distance look at the loch. The sun came out for a while and we lay in the blazing heat watching a pair of Wigeon feeding in the centre, while nearby there was the delightful sound of a snipe drumming over a hollow in the hillside.
It was absolutely still and calm, not a ripple on the calm waters, and the Wigeon appeared suspended in space, with an unbroken reflection beneath each bird. All this changed when a shadow appeared over the loch, and a Lesser black-backed gull sailed into sight. Immediately the sounds of small birds ceased, and at the same moment the sun vanished behind a cloud. The idyll burst like a balloon, showing the real, unsentimental world beyond the imaginations of a pair of dreamy bird-watchers. We looked at each other, shivered for a second and stood up, before tumbling down the hill to the Ale below. On our way down we disturbed a pair of birds that Peter had told us to look out for at this point: a fine pair of Ring-ouzels, which are usually to be found on this slope. As they flew away I could see the conspicuous white crescent of the cock bird, although I noticed it had not such clear-cut edges as various drawings I had seen. They flew with a low, slightly dipping flight, rather like that of a Mistle thrush. I was delighted to see these birds, as they are only found in certain restricted localities, at some height above sea-level. I do not go around habitually collecting 'rarities' but it does add a bit of spice to bird-watching, and enables one to widen the range of familiarity with all species.
After all our distractions we reached the nest again and found it now had three eggs in it, although they were once again only faintly warm to the touch. As we still did not see anything of the bird, I came to the conclusion it must have been one of those who lays her eggs at longish intervals until she has a full clutch, and then sits down to incubate them properly. We brought out the camera and, carefully setting it up on a tripod, took a couple of photographs before leaving the nest alone in the moors to await the parent bird.
After a quick sandwich on the banks of the Ale, we wandered down to Alemoor Loch. It was a lovely, very peaceful afternoon and the scenery was magnificent. The river was fairly wide, running fast in places, but there was plenty of cover for birds on, and under, its banks. The bird population was large, and we had to keep our eyes and ears really open not to miss anything on the way down. The first sighting was a female Whinchat sitting on a rock in the heather. She flirted her tail continuously, showing a conspicuous white ring, while her throat was flushed with a lovely shade of red. We sat and watched her for some while, for she was very tame, and thought that, although by all common description she might have been called plain, the delicacy of her colouring and subtly-traced plumage were delightful: while her vivaciousness added to her attraction.
While I felt I could have spent much longer watching the Whinchat, we realised that time was getting on so, reluctantly, sauntered on down stream. A Common sandpiper showed us the way down the stream, fluttering off to keep just ahead of us the whole time, frequently uttering its thin call, un-waderlike in its reedy quality. The sandpiper is a pretty little bird but, to my eyes, looks slightly out of place inland, as it is shaped so typically like one of the species seen on an estuary or mud bank.
Ahead, the sandpiper alarmed three pairs of duck, which rocketed off with tremendous power and whistles of alarm. The first pair were Teal, which in a flash were ten feet in the air, travelling like bullets out of a gun. The next two pairs were Wigeon, who gave rather more warning of their presence before taking off down towards the loch. We were climbing a dyke wall when we sensed a movement in the rushes and a bird staggered out into the open. At first we thought it was feigning injury, but it was real enough, and we soon caught and examined it. It was an adult Fieldfare with a slightly lame wing and a leg which hung half-uselessly. We looked to see if there was anything we could do, but decided it must already be getting better, as the injury was not new and the bird was in fine condition otherwise. After taking a few photographs, we let it go and it scuttled back into the reeds again.
After seeing a pair of Golden plover flying ahead of us, and literally melting into the background as they landed, we arrived at last on the banks of the Alemoor Loch. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Whooper swans, but there were a number of duck sitting in the middle of the water. Round the sides in the sparse reeds, we caught glimpses of other duck moving in and out of the clumps as they fed. In the middle of the loch, the main body was composed of Tufted duck, with four or five Goldeneye. The Goldeneye and tufties kept in two distinct groups, and did not appear to wish to mix at all. The tufties were most ornamental, looking like Chinese drawings of duck, with beautifully definite and distinct areas of shot purple-black and pure white, while their reflections danced and shimmered in the blue water. The two sets of drakes complimented each other superbly, with the dignified and unusual-looking Goldeneye swimming slowly a few yards away from the busy and slightly clownish tufties.
Then all was disturbed by some newcomers, who seemed to take all the limelight unto themselves. We were then privileged to watch the aerial courtship of the Wigeon. Two drakes and a duck flew in low over the moor and landed on the loch, but only for a second. All three took off again immediately and flashed off over the surface, twisting and turning as they went: making a strange noise like a comb being rubbed. All at once, a fourth bird, a female, joined the others and they all whirled up to a considerable height over the water. The ducks flew in a tight circle, while the drakes buffeted each other in full flight. We heard one drake hit the other with its wing, and saw them draw apart and come together with another clap. Finally, a pair broke away and flashed over the moor and out of sight, while the others circled and twisted exultantly high in the air before landing and disappearing into the reeds. The most amazing feature of all this was the strange sounds they made, so unlike their normal liquid whistles. None of the behaviour described above seems to be covered by anything I have read, but I am certain they were Wigeon, and I cannot see that this behaviour could have been anything but a courtship ceremony.
This made a fitting end to a most interesting holiday in delightful surroundings, and I walked back to the house feeling sad that I had to leave, yet thankful for the opportunities I had been given to see this unusual countryside.
SOME BIRDS IN THE BORDERS
Common sandpiper, Actitis hypoleucos
Common snipe, Gallinago gallinago
Coot, Fulica atra
Curlew, Numenius arquata
Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris
Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula
Golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria
Goosander, Mergus merganser
Lesser black-backed gull, Larus fuscus
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Mistle thrush, Turdus viscivorus
Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus
Red grouse, Lagopus lagopus scoticus
Redshank, Tringa totanus
Ring-ouzel, Turdus torquatus
Teal, Anas crecca
Tree pipit, Anthus trivialis
Tufted duck, Aythya fuligula
Whinchat, Saxicola rubetra
Whooper swan, Cygnus cygnus
Wigeon, Anas penelope
Woodcock, Scolopax rusticola
NEXT: Chapter 4. On the Norfolk Broads; a sailing holiday in 1950