Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 23rd October 2020

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The distances some migrating birds fly are sometimes mind-blowing, Even the six-thousand-mile journey undertaken by our swallows, a journey that takes them right down to the southern tip of Africa, may pale into relative insignificance compared with the voyages of other travellers which journey quite amazing distances.

Indeed, I have recently been intrigued by reports of the record-breaking migratory flight of a bar-tailed godwit which flew from Alaska down to Auckland in New Zealand, a distance of some 7,500 miles or 12,000 km.  However, bear in mind that this was a journey which it completed in a mere 11 days and which took the bird non-stop right across the Pacific Ocean. This is apparently a record and my guess is that when it arrived in New Zealand, the bird would have been pretty tired! And come next March, it will re-trace its steps and go back the same way.

Among the birds that are regularly seen around Scotland’s coasts during the summer months, there are a number which, come the end of the summer, depart not so much to seek warmer climes but to cash in on food surpluses in the open sea. For example, once they leave us, those colourful comics, the puffins, head out across the Atlantic to feast in the fish-rich waters of St Lawrence Bay in Canada before dispersing elsewhere across that mighty ocean and remain at sea until next spring when they return to these shores.

Equally, those other plunderers of our seas, the mighty gannets, also leave these shores albeit that they seldom go further than 1800 kilometers from here, but again live their entire lives at sea when weather conditions must be at their most hostile. And those secretive summer residents of many of our off-shore islands, the shearwaters, also depart to fly across the same Atlantic Ocean to station themselves during our winter months off the coast of South America. The wild seas of winter clearly pose no threat whatsoever to these intrepid adventurers.

The distance undertaken by that bar-tailed godwit however, will take some beating for there are no halfway houses where it could have broken the journey that it made. This bird flew directly south on a route that saw it skirt Hawaii and Fiji as it swapped the Northern Hemisphere for the Southern. It must presumably have eaten itself silly prior to take-off, for although godwits are apparently highly aero-dynamic, they would need a fantastic reserve of energy to make such a trip in a single flight in which there would be no opportunities to top up en-route.

A month ago, I reported the arrival here of the first batch of pink-footed geese. These were the non-breeding birds, which arrive well ahead of the main flocks of these geese.  However, last week, the bulk of them - 84,000 - arrived at Montrose Basin on Scotland’s east coast after a 1,200km journey from Iceland. These birds, which were just six thousand short of last year’s record count of 90,000, have summered in Greenland and Iceland and once winter begins to close down these northern outposts, they migrate to our relatively temperate climate. Their annual arrival at Montrose presents a spectacular event as the noise made by 84,000 geese is absolutely amazing.

In due course, these mass ranks will begin to disperse and fly to other sites in both Scotland and England. Their journey may not match that epic trek of the bar-tailed godwit but they certainly present quite a spectacle when they arrive en-masse from Iceland.  This must be quite an adventure for the youngsters which, at a mere few months of age, are launched on that perilous journey across the often hostile north Atlantic. Of course, they are carefully piloted on this their first migratory flight by the attentive parents, the skeins always led by the senior, most experienced of birds. Goose society seems to be particularly well organized.

Across on Loch Lomond, the arrival of white fronted geese may also be anticipated. These birds also arrive from Greenland but the white fronted geese that arrive in the Solway come from Svalbord and are an entirely different population from those on Loch Lomond.

Meanwhile to the east, the Bewick’s swans are also winging their way south on an epic journey of some 7,000 km (4,500 miles) from northern Russia to the south of England. Many of them spend their winters at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre set up many years ago by Sir Peter Scott, where they are of course cosseted with a regular supply of food. Nevertheless, Bewick’s swan numbers are in serious decline for a variety of reasons that may include being shot and from the lead in shotgun pellets, which the swans may ingest when dabbling, the erection of pylons on their flight path not to mention the crop of windfarm turbines that are sprouting in the North Sea. Of course, these are the swans that the conservationist, Sacha Dench, piloting a para-glider so courageously followed two years ago crossing eleven different countries in the process.

We welcome the graceful whooper swans to Scotland. They fly to us from Iceland and so also, with their youngsters from this summer, make the dangerous crossing of the North Atlantic sometimes flying at remarkable altitudes – they have been spotted by airline pilots flying at heights of over 30,000ft - in order to fly over hostile weather systems.

A couple of hundred years ago, the record established by that bar-tailed godwit might have been open to challenge, for it was firmly believed that woodcock migrated to the moon for the summer months before returning to our woods during the autumn. That’s a distance of roughly a quarter of a million miles and were it true, would be the all-time record for a bird. 

Tradition has it that woodcock, returning from their summer on the moon, arrived overnight all together on a change of wind from the east some time close to Hallowe’en or All Hallows. However, because several other birds such as the tiny goldcrest and the short-eared-owl are also supposed by tradition to act as pilots for the woodcock, does one suppose that they too migrate to the moon for the summer? There are other traditions that suggest that the moon may also be the summer destination for some geese. Of course, the truth  is that these are birds which, when autumn arrives, vacate their territories in Scandinavia and northern Russia, cross the North Sea and seek winter solace on our shores. Indeed, there is a veritable flood of birds that follow this course.

The theory that woodcock spent their summers on the moon was still being promulgated well into the eighteenth century when the very concept of bird migration was first beginning to take root. Indeed, a sixteenth century writer, Olaus Magnus, even described how the birds took two whole months to get to the moon, the same to make the return trip, in between spending a further three months on the moon itself. Such was the strength of this belief that the poet Pope actually penned a verse which read:-

                        “A bird of passage, gone as soon as found

                          Now in the moon perhaps, now underground.”

The poet, Gay, also penned this verse in his poem ‘The Shepherd’s Week’ written in 1714:--

                        “He sung where woodcocks in the summer feed,

                          And in what climates they renew their breed:

                          Some think to northern coasts their flight they tend

                          Or, to the moon in midnight hours ascend.”

Those who thought that the woodcock … ‘flew to northern coasts’, were actually correct but the woodcock has always been a bird of mystery, especially because it is so perfectly camouflaged that it literally does melt into the woodland floor. How many times must I have walked past a woodcock without ever knowing it was there?

We may think of migratory birds as those that summer here and then fly south for the winter, yet the traffic traversing our skies during the autumn months is immense. Millions of birds seeking safety especially on these island shores …. but the exploits of that lone godwit will take some beating!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods