I’m sitting outside the bothy in late July, the wonderful cacophony of birdsong in spring and early summer having died down; now most of what I can hear are the calls of swallows and house martins as they search for insects for their young. House martins have held their own here; there are quite a few active nests around the tower, and they are onto their second brood, so often there are fifteen or so birds in the air at any one time. Swallows on the other hand are down to one pair this year, the lowest since I started coming here.
Other sounds at the moment include many young wrens learning to sing. They do this communally, there will be silence for a while then they are all at it, one after another. This suggests that they are learning by imitation; like humans song birds learn as much by imitation and practice as by their innate urge to sing. There must be dozens of young wrens practising in Elshieshields’ twenty acres at the moment. I can also hear young goldfinches and siskins begging for food, and the frequent contact calls of adults occasionally bursting out into snatches of song as they fly around. Despite the relative avian silence a walk around the grounds reveals plenty of young birds; family groups of young spotted flycatchers and willow warblers learning to catch insects together (the dappled young flycatchers really justify the name spotted, unlike their plain parents). Blackcaps and garden warblers call loudly as I approach, to warn their young, distract me, or both. Juvenile song thrushes and blackbirds rustle leaf litter in search of spiders and worms.
Young male wood pigeons start up a chorus, each one inflecting the song slightly differently as they strive to modulate the crucial second note of the song as richly as possible-next year females will be judging the fitness and suitability of the males on the evidence of that one note, so a remarkable proportion of their energy is expended on practice. The more strident calls of starlings and great spotted woodpeckers are occasionally heard from the old horse chestnut trees.
It’s late August, the quietest time in the whole avian year. Last weekend when it was hot and still I walked around the grounds and heard little apart from the constant chirping of house martins-more young have fledged since I was here a month ago and numbers around the tower are now up in the twenties. A charm of goldfinches flew up twittering as I disturbed them in the alders by the river; otherwise birds were mostly quiet.
However even on a quiet day you never quite know what is going to turn up; it was not much more than a year ago, on a similarly scorching day, that I flushed a juvenile night heron in the ditch below the house. I saw it for all of ten seconds, so it will never be accepted by official recorders, but it was only a few feet away, and heard it too. I know that call from travelling overseas; the bird was too young to have flown far, so somewhere local must have been Scotland’s first ever wild breeding pair.
Winter surprises here in recent years have included a blue snow goose that spent a few days one February with the local pink-footed goose flock. Less rare, but equally exciting are the peregrines and merlins that occasionally hunt the surrounding fields, peregrines hoping to surprise pigeons from the wood, merlins pursuing small birds along the hedges.
Elshieshields has also had its share of scarce breeding birds; there is a population of rare willow tits locally, and sometimes a pair hangs around the grounds, strangely reluctant to join the other tits on the feeders. Spotted flycatchers breed every year, and three or four years ago a delightful pair of redstarts nested near the house. For the last two years a pair of swifts has hung around the tower, so we have hopes that they may colonise. Dippers nest on the river, and one year there were a couple of pairs of sand martins in the banks. This year a pair of tree sparrows hung around the feeders. I quickly got online and ordered some nest boxes but they had moved on before we managed to get them up. Maybe next year!