Considering that birds are an integral part daily life at Ardivachar they rarely feature in my accounts of island life. After a lifetime of watching birds the fascination has not faded but I prefer to watch rather than be distracted by trying to capture their magic with a camera. They rarely inspire my literary muse and I hesitate to produce a catalogue of sightings which would bore all but the most nerdy, ornithological anoraks.
However, when Ian Butler (friend and wildlife photographer) just happened to mention that the photograph he took of sanderling on the beach by the cottage in September 2012 was in November issue of the BBC Wildlife Magazine, it presented the perfect opportunity to share this wonderful photograph and to write about the winter birds at Ardivachar.
The birds I see from my kitchen window or when working in the cottage garden are enough to make any birdwatcher, especially those with twitching tendencies, a little envious. I must be one of the select few who does participate in the annual RSPB Garden Birdwatch as the birds I see in my garden do not feature on the list; unless you include the 3000+ starlings which might be hanging around the croft on that particular day. There are usually lapwings feeding on the grass by the house, sometimes in the company of golden plovers and a curlew or two, with a flock of greylag geese on mowing duty nearby. A quick scan with the binoculars will often reveal a great northern diver fishing in the bay with the cormorants. Mallards (of dubious pedigree) appear from time to time, along with shelducks who strut majestically along the beach, but it is flashing wings of the male eiders which attract attention that is until a flock of elegant long-tailed ducks arrive for a little surfing.
Each month we count the gulls and wading birds at Ardivachar for the Wetland Bird Survey. We never quite know what we will find, will there be a handful or 900 sanderling running around along the tide edge, have the purple sandpipers arrived yet, will we be able to see the perfectly camouflaged turnstone as they delve among the seaweed, will there be ringed plovers and bar-tailed godwits? We are rarely disappointed and it doesn’t matter whether it is a rare American wader or the impossible task of trying to count 500 or more gulls of various species feeding, bathing sleeping or squabbling which tax our skills and delight the eye.
These wonderful birds are part of my daily life and although I don’t always stop to watch for more than a few minutes, I still marvel at the daily performances of our avian Cirque du Soleil. The daily programme varies and you never quite know what to expect. Will this be a matinée or a gala, will the prima donna arrive? The entertainment usually opens with a party of gulls transcribing circles as they wheel above the waves intensifying the winter sunlight with their pure white feathers. A conspiracy of ravens often provide a comedic interlude performing barrel rolls in tumbling towers with the careless skill of acrobats. On stormy days there may be a corps de ballet of diving gannets, sleek, arrow straight and performing with deadly accuracy or the stealth bird may appear as a manifestation of silent grace. The peregrine, the prima donna, does not always honour us with her presence, but when the sky is clear a distant figure will climb towards the horizon, effortlessly ascending the heavens, disappearing into the sun. Her wings gilded by Apollo, she appears in a blinding flash of light, a lightening stoop of speed and then she is gone. Just time for a finale before the light fades, a small brown sprite, quiet and agile, glides into view, hugging the contours of the coast. The merlin launches a surprise attack and with a touch of Celtic magic transforms a mundane, chattering, gabble of starlings into a twisting, turning, sinuous, dark cloud; birds moving as one in a sublime exposition of aerobatic synchronised flying. Predator avoidance behaviour or perhaps a “spontaneous symmetry breaking phenomenon, a sort of non-equilibrium counterpart of the well known Heisenberg model”, I prefer poetry in motion!