Wednesday 22 January 2014

Losing it

Let me clear one thing up before I start. I’m not talking about mental meltdowns here; I’m doing pretty well. If you’re thinking Adam Scott chasing a major title, or Neil Cavanagh during exam season, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Instead, I’m focussing on losing yourself, or a part of you. Might sound pretty deep and philosophical – it’s not.

The reason for all this lost chat is that Islay seems to be filling up with waifs and strays. Unsurprisingly, geese feature quite strongly here – but two I have particularly enjoyed. The first is a juvenile pale-bellied brent goose, who has had to resort to hanging out with the barnacle geese. Pale-bellied brent breed about as far north as you could wish to go (probably further..), right up in high Arctic Canada. They migrate south via Iceland, where I would guess this youngster got separated from his parents and ended up with the masses of barnacle geese.  Similarly, my second refugee (a juvenile pink-footed goose) probably lost its family in Iceland too and hitched a migration-route lift down to Islay with the Greenland white-fronts. Both these babies have actually not done too badly; about 80 brent geese even winter here on Islay (though some distance from this juvenile) and, whilst pink-feet tend to winter in mainland Scotland down to Norfolk, this baby pinkie will probably return with the white-fronts to their Iceland mid-migration pit stop, where, with a bit of luck, it’ll find its own kind returning to breed. The baby pinkie I see almost every day, always with the same white-fronts. I’m developing a bit of a soft spot for him!

The juvenile pink-footed goose in with some young Greenland white-fronts. Daddy white-front looking very worried in the back!

It’s not that unusual for ducks and geese to end up on a different migration flyway (what we call a major migration route) by accident. This year on Islay there have been reports of a few lesser Canada geese – B. c. hutchinsii for all you bird nerds out there. In layman’s terms that means real ones, not just the big fat ones sitting on a golf course near you – and a green-winged teal; both North American species. Previous years have seen snow geese (N. America) and red-breasted geese (breed in Siberia, winter in S.E. Europe) turn up here.
Red-breasted goose. An endangered species that breeds in Siberia. 

It just goes to show what a challenge migration can be, especially your first one. It’s a key reason why young migratory geese remain with their parents for much of their first year; learning and inheriting routes, staging sites and winter destinations. Most birds don’t use this strategy, with adults often migrating some time before the juveniles are ready to go. These youngsters really are in at the deep end, having to follow a strong instinctive drive and learn routes and safe stopovers en route.

Iceland gull showing off its pure white wing-tips over a dark and stormy Loch Indaal

The next two wanderers to pitch up here were two of the northern gull species that arrived in the New Year, almost certainly due, to some extent, to the wild and windy weather. Glaucous and Iceland gulls are both most commonly associated with Iceland, and, to be fair, I think the Icelanders picked the prettiest one to bear their name. They’re both very similar, but the Iceland gull has a slightly rounder, friendlier, forehead, whilst the glaucous has a seemingly meaner, more aggressive facial expression. The most striking feature of both is their completely primary wing feathers. This has given them the moniker “white-wingers” amongst birders and is more noticeable than you think, even amongst a number of herring gulls – which can look pretty similar again, but have distinct black wingtips.

Glaucous gull. A mean looking bird!

Finally, I saw a common crane up here last week. Quite what that was doing up here is anyone’s guess; there aren’t any others anywhere nearby. Sadly, it was just flying over, so I never got a good look or a photo, but there are rumours that it was seen a week before my sighting, so hopefully it is still tucked away somewhere up here. It certainly was doing a much better job scaring the barnacle geese than a few scarecrows and gas guns. I don’t think they’d ever seen anything that big before, and obviously reckoned it could eat a load of them all in one go if it wanted to. It frightened the living daylights out of them!

And so to the losing a part of you part of the story. A bit of a mouthful.. Yesterday I saw the young stag I photographed early in the autumn ( down on the Mull of Oa. Clearly he’d been in the action and had a scrap or two during the rut because his antlers had taken a fair bit of wear and tear. His right one had snapped off just above the brow tine and the left brow tine was also looking somewhat abbreviated. At least he’ll be shedding them pretty soon and growing a new pair over the summer for next autumn.  He’s certainly pretty vain and enjoys posing for photos, walking up to about 15 yards from my office (the car) and then standing beautifully silhouetted against the rising sun. If only he had a full set of antlers…

Looking pretty scruffy..

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