IT IS the time of year when sales of haggis, neeps and whisky soar and the nation celebrates the birth of Robert Burns with a round of convivial suppers, speeches, recitations and songs.
One of the key themes, running through much of the work of Burns, is his love of the natural world. The BBC website lists 118 of his works with a theme of nature, and the list is far from complete. For example, missing from that list is one of the first poems he wrote, when aged 16 and studying mathematics. It is called ‘Now Westlin Winds’ and is probably best known as a song.
In the poem Burns regrets the coming of the shooting season but soon moves on to reflect on the pleasures of autumnal evening walks with his “lovely charmer.” The “charmer” in this case being a young girl, Margaret Thompson, who lived next door to the school and who “overset my Trigonometry, and set me off at a tangent from the sphere of my studies.”
Burns manages to get the names of seven birds (partridge, plover, woodcock, heron, pigeon, thrush and linnet) into the eight short lines of poetry which form the second verse.
The paitrick lo’es the fruitfu fells,
The plover lo’es the mountains;
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells,
The soaring hern the fountains:
Thro lofty groves the cushat roves,
The path o man to shun it;
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush,
The spreading thorn the linnet.
While it is true that all of these birds can be found in the habitats listed by Burns, there is no need to travel to the fells, mountains and lonely dells. All seven species can be found on the SWT Reserve at Montrose Basin. However, some of them will be much easier to find than others.
Although the SWT visitor centre is open only at weekends during the winter, the hides remain open every day throughout the year. There are pleasant walks to the hides at the west end of Montrose Basin, starting from the car park at Mains of Dun. With luck, on the walk you might see all the species mentioned in the verse, with the exception of the woodcock which is rarely active in daytime.
The weekend of January 28 and 29 sees the return of the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This event has grown in popularity since it started over 30 years ago and is now thought to be the world’s largest public participation wildlife event. Last year 609,000 participants counted 10.2 million birds in over 300,000 locations.
It only requires an hour of your time and if you do not have a garden, then records from local parks or similar public spaces are extremely valuable. The extraordinary scale of the event means that the data submitted provides an excellent snapshot of what is happening to many of our common species and helps considerably with conservation.
Full details are available on the RSPB website and elsewhere. It is an excellent family activity which not only provides helpful information but is also a lot of fun. You do not have to be an expert, so if you have not joined in previously, give it a try this year.