Sunday 8 May 2016

Sad song

My recent spell of tidying our garage was not just the result of a balmy Spring day. What I omitted to mention was the fact that Our Lass was in the process of completing an essay for some coursework, and I was actually staying out of the way. So, despite my productivity, I was aware that Herself had been forced to endure a gloriously sunny day sat staring at a computer screen.

To make amends for this unfortunate state of affairs, at the conclusion of the... er... Conclusion, we took advantage of an equally pleasant evening and wandered down to the shore for some quality nature time.

The route is almost all on a tarmac'd road, that passes between a mixture of pastures as it descends a low hill towards St Nicholas' Church. About a week ago, on a similar jaunt, we had stopped beside one particular wet pasture to marvel at the vocal gymnastics and gravity-defying aerobatics of some Lapwing (in Orkney, colloquially Teeick or Teeoo). As well as the 'pee wit' call that leads to scores of vernacular names for this member of the plover family, their display song is described (by Collins Bird Guide) as 'chae-whiddlewip, i-wip i-wip... cheee-o-wip', an approximation that I wasn't even going to attempt.

Back to the other evening, and as we approached the same spot, the scene was not much changed. If anything, the grass was looking a little lusher, lit by the low sun, and the green, bronze and magenta iridescence of the Lapwings' plumage was simply gorgeous. However, the atmosphere was very different. Gone was the ebullient, bubbling song, gone were the deft-winged dance moves, to be replaced by 'heartbreakingly shrill... pwaay-eech' alarm calls (Thanks again, Collins).

Our Lass and I exchanged knowing glances as we surmised that, perhaps, eggs had hatched and tiny fluffballs of wadery delight were running the gauntlet of a host of avian and mammalian predators. Keener-eyed for the detail, through her bins Our Lass spotted a chick scurrying away into some longer grass. Adult birds flew across the pasture towards us, a slower and more obvious flight with which to grab our attention, and all the while, that sad, mournful call.

We soon moved on, rather than cause more anguish, making our way down to the shore and along to the kirkyard. Here were several Pied Wagtails, a couple of Wheatears and a singing Blackbird, the latter's fluid notes oozing sweetly over the landscape like Golden Syrup flowing across freshly toasted bread. Behind the church, on fields still water-logged from Winter, several gull colonies (Common and Black-headed) provided a raucous backdrop, like edgy rappers at an Adele concert.

After sampling this sonisphere for a while, we retraced our steps up the hill, hoping not to disturb the Lapwings too much on our return. As we reached 'their' pasture, sure enough, a couple of adults took to the air but, just as the pleading cries began, there was an explosion of noise behind us. Turning around to look back towards the church, it seemed as though every gull and wader in Christendom was on the wing and calling in alarm.

There was a predator abroad somewhere.

A frantic search of the thronging (mainly) white mass of birds revealed the dark shape of a Bonxie (Great skua) gliding effortlessly through the pandemonium. It occasionally banked a little to the left or right to avoid the attentions of the panicked gulls, but pretty much stayed on its chosen route. In fact, it was headed straight towards us and soon its mobbing escort ceased to be gulls, becoming a couple of dozen Lapwings.

Whilst I silently cursed that I hadn't brought my camera, we watched in awe as the Bonxie (still suffering the close attentions of many irritated Lapwings) flew over our heads, banked slowly around and returned over the pasture. We could hear the low frequency, vibrating wing noises of the Lapwings as they pulled crazy turns to keep up a constant badgering of the predator, trying to be just enough of a problem to chase it away. Eventually, the Bonxie disappeared into the distance, everyone else (birds and humans) calmed down and we were left with the dispiriting thought that what we had witnessed was just a recce, a prelude to battles to come and probable sudden death to some poor Lapwing chick.

Nature, eh? It's a roller coaster ride of emotions.

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