Basin Notes

With both freezing temperatures and lots of rain, it’s pretty fair and accurate to say April 2012 hasn’t exactly been the most memorable or the most pleasant of months – either for us or in the natural world.

As a result of the prolonged, unwelcome and inclement conditions, it has proved rather more difficult to find interesting/different subject areas for my Basin Notes this time round.

However, a few weeks ago I did come across a pair of lapwings displaying to one another, quite close to a neat little “scrape” which will more than likely become their nest site. Once a very common breeding bird locally, (and still seen in good numbers on/near the Basin throughout the winter months) your chances of seeing this beautiful bird breeding near Montrose nowadays is sadly very much reduced.

Over the past 20-30 years, lapwings have declined in many areas of lowland Britain where farming techniques have dramatically changed and intensified. Often the rough fields which flooded in winter have been drained and converted from pasture to growing crops. Almost all our arable fields are now sown in the autumn and, even if the ground is open enough for eggs to be laid, by the time the chicks are ready to hatch the vegetation is too thick (and wet) for them to survive. And gone are the halcyon days when every cowpat provided a rich source of food for all sorts of invertebrates on which lapwings and other farmland birds could feed.

Recent data compiled by the RSPB, through their 10 years of running the annual “Volunteer & Farmer Alliance” project, strongly suggests that powerful chemicals in livestock wormers etc stop the development of dung beetles, worms and other small animals/creatures. It would appear rotational set-aside provides the one gleam of hope that these attractive plumed avian acrobats and iconic countryside birds may once again be successful on a large scale. Lets very much hope so.

As mentioned in previous Basin Notes, many of our migrant species have returned already or will be back very soon – first back are traditionally wheatear, sand martin and chiffchaff followed by sedge warblers, swallows, whitethroat and house martins. All advertise their return with vigorous songs.

The annual dawn chorus, which usually reaches its crescendo in late April and early May might be a little later in Angus this year (because of our recent weather) and could perhaps be more accurately described as more of a nationwide “shouting match” rather than a “song contest”.

For example, the birds are advertising their presence to hold their breeding territories against all comers, and to win a mate or maintain a pair bond. Loudness is not everything though, because it’s only the neighbours you really want/need to impress. It is sufficient that they know that it is you on site, and that you’re actually still there. This is one of the main reasons why most singing takes place at dawn – each bird is getting off to an early start.

For attracting a mate sheer volume may be an advantage, but with many species it’s the extravagance of the amount of time spent singing that matters – showing that you are a really efficient male able to waste lots of time singing rather than having to feed.

Finally, please also be aware that there are lots of other interesting events going on all around us at this special time of year. Woodland ferns sprout tightly rolled fronds, while local hawthorn trees are decked out in stunning white and pink blossoms just now. Cowslips are very much in evidence too, and it won’t be long before cow parsley fills our hedgerows and road verges. Male orange-tip butterflies will soon be on the wing (weather permitting) along with fast-flying noisy returning swifts, plus many other wonderful natural spectacles – so keep both your eyes and ears open.

Michael Craig