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27 May 2021

Spring bird migration at Mar Lodge Estate

Written by Andrew Painting
A small bird perched on a bare branch of a tree. The bird, a redstart, has a darker head and a pale orange breast.
The redstart, a beautiful songbird that travels from Africa to breed in the Mar Lodge Estate woodlands
For the last 25 years, the team at Scotland’s largest National Nature Reserve have been charting the spring arrival of its avian inhabitants.

Every year, around 8 March, a pied wagtail appears in the snowy courtyard of the Mar Lodge Estate stable block. Every year I look forward to this event, because this charming little bird is the first herald of the beginning of the end of winter.

A small black and white bird stands on the ground.
Pied wagtail

Following the phenology of a landscape – the timings of the annual emergence and disappearance of different species – helps us to connect more fully with the rhythms of the places where we live. Phenology is noticing the first daffodil flowers on your lawn, the spontaneous appearance of frogspawn in the local pond, or the first bellow of a stag before the autumn rut in some lonely glen.

Since 1995, the team at Mar Lodge have been following these rhythms by noting down the first return dates of the birds that come to spend the summer with us. It’s thanks to this dataset that I can tell you that the pied wagtail usually returns to Mar Lodge around 8 March. This year it came a week early.

Spring comes late to the Cairngorms. Given the cold, long winter, it’s with a mixture of satisfaction and relief that the team welcome back the estate’s summer avian inhabitants. So, in March, things kick off with pied wagtails. They tend to arrive just as the redwings and fieldfares are making their way back up to Scandinavia to breed. Then, a few weeks after, come the waders – oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew and golden plover. About the same time the early songbirds return. Some, like meadow pipit and skylark (late March), have spent the winter in Britain, at the coast or in lower altitude farmland. Others like wheatear, sand martin and ring ouzel (first week in April) have come from as far away as north Africa. They tend to make an appearance at the same time as vast skeins of pink-footed geese head north over the Cairngorms on their way back to Iceland.

A small bird, with brown, grey and orange feathers, stands on a rock in a grassy field.

From late April the slow trickle of returning species turns into a torrent. Here come the long-distance migrant songbirds, like redstart, tree pipit, willow warbler, swallow and house martin. These birds have made it across the baking sands of the Sahara, funnelled through central Europe, and spread out across Scotland. Cuckoos are remarkably regular in their habits – they tend to arrive within a couple days of the 26 April. Swifts scream their return, around mid-May. Up on the high tops, dotterels return at some point in May, but given the remoteness of their haunts, it’s hard to say with any accuracy when exactly that might be.

And so all this movement and life comes together at some point in late May. After the birches have put on their first spurt of leaves, when you are awoken by the incessant calling of a cuckoo and the house martins are squabbling outside your window. The swallows are swooping over the meadows, with swifts are screaming high above, and willow warblers and tree pipits are singing in the newly regenerating woodlands. Redstarts and spotted flycatchers perch on the low branches of old pines and the rivers are bustling with sand martins. The moors host the calls of golden plovers and singing skylarks and wheatears, and ring ouzels are back in their remote corries. And you wonder whether the long dark days of winter were a dream after all.

A swallow in flight, with its wings stretched wide, seen against a clear blue sky. The distinctive wide prongs of its tail are clearly visible.

Following the phenology of a landscape allows a deeper understanding of the mechanics of the world. It’s a personal understanding too, as many of the birds which return to the estate will return to the same spot to breed over several years. Phenology reminds us that ‘our birds’ are global travellers, linking us with places like sub-Saharan Africa. But there’s also an important scientific reason for monitoring these occurrences.

Our long-term dataset is only small and has a few gaps in it, but it does seem to be suggesting that some birds are arriving back at Mar Lodge earlier now than in previous decades. Of course, this is only a snapshot (perhaps we’re just getting better at looking out for species as they arrive), but it tallies with what other people are finding across the country.

Is this a problem? In a word, yes. As climate change bites and weather patterns change, species are emerging and returning at different times. Like an orchestra playing the same music at different tempos, when migrating birds get out of sync with the rhythms of other species, the result can be dissonant and discordant. Dotterels, which come all the way from the Atlas Mountains, are struggling to arrive at the correct time to make the most of their cranefly prey. This is one of several interlinked reasons why the species is suffering dramatic declines across Scotland. Climate change is adding an extra layer of difficulty for migratory species, which are already struggling with habitat loss in both their summer and winter homes and illegal hunting in the Mediterranean.

For all that, Mar Lodge remains a haven. Our work to restore and increase the area of the Caledonian woodlands is good news for red- and amber-listed species like redstart, tree pipit and willow warbler. Our work to restore high-altitude woodland will help species like ring ouzel and wheatear, increasing the diversity and abundance of their insect food. Our peatland restoration work will help waders like golden plover and dunlin to cope with the increasing frequency of drought conditions, while our river systems create dynamic landscapes for our curlews and sand martins.

The spring orchestra of cuckoos, warblers and redstarts have now all returned for the year, filling the glens with birdsong. Studying these remarkable creatures brings the team a fascinating insight into our changing world, and no small amount of delight to the human visitors to Mar Lodge Estate.

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