Thursday 19 September 2019

Ringed Plovers on Arran 8th September 2019

It was our first morning on the island. The early light of dawn crept through a gap in bedroom curtains that had been carelessly drawn last night after an evening celebrating our return to Arran.

I stole out of the cottage and crossed the silent road below the front garden to the familiar stony beach opposite. 

Dawn breaking over Kilbrannan Sound
The wind from the northwest, that was so strong yesterday, had now subsided  to a gentle caress and the waves striking on the shore no longer beat a roaring tattoo but, less troubled, met the stones along the shore in a never ending successional sequence, creating an irregular gentle susurrus of sound, each wave as it broke leaving its gift of white froth on the stones. 

Opposite and  beyond the running sea of Kilbrannan Sound, the undulating topography of The Mull of Kyntyre, holding its eternal promise of the west beyond, was still mysterious and magical in the early light of morning.

From behind me the sun, rising in the east, cast a golden diffused light but was yet to clear the huge towering mass of Meall nan Leac, guarding the entrance to Glen Catacol.

I walked along the road, silent and untroubled by any vehicle, as it always is at this time of day.The world about here consists of only a few humans and those were all asleep so I was alone in a landscape where no sound was unnatural.

I made for where the burn had carved a passage of amber through the stones of the beach and ran out to the sea. Two Red Deer stags startled at my unexpected presence rapidly left the shore and disappeared into Glen Catacol. A Curlew, with preposterously long, downcurving bill was probing the mud between the stones at the water's edge. 

Eurasian Curlew
The Curlew had probably not come from far, maybe the barren moorland on the island's interior or the mainland nearby but this is the time of year when many other wading birds are returning from further, arriving after breeding in the high Arctic, phenomenal  travellers covering vast intercontinental distances between their summer and winter homes. The rocky shore here at Catacol, on the remoter west side of the island provides a  place where they can break their migration, rest and in the main be untroubled.

Catacol Beach 
This morning there were over twenty Turnstones concealed amongst the seaweed and stones on the shore, their plumage having mostly lost its bright harlequin breeding colours of orange and black so that the current transitory stage of their summer and winter plumage has brought a merging perfection with the colours of the seaweed which they frequented. Their sociable  presence was betrayed by the flock's continual feeding, as, true to their name, they upturned and  tossed seaweed and stones aside with their stub like bills in order to seize surprised invertebrates hiding underneath.

Gannets were, as ever, fishing in Kilbrannan Sound, patrolling back and fore above the calm water, stalling in the air, partially closing wings and pointing their bill downwards when they saw a fish, to become an outsized paper dart, plummeting at speed to hit the water with an audible thud and plume of spray. Submerged for a few seconds they would bounce up like an over buoyant cork to sit on the water, often briefly washing before lifting themselves off the sea with labouring wings to regain enough height for their next dive. 

Northern Gannet
Another flock of smaller waders were also inhabiting this part of the shore, maintaining a scattered but confidential presence with each other, and through which the larger Turnstones, forever restless, blundered. They were Ringed Plovers, over thirty of them, small, round backed, round headed waders with large dark eyes imparting an impression of constant benign anxiety. 

Ringed Plover
Their lack of movement and smaller size meant they were much less obvious than the Turnstones, as possessed of sandy buff upperparts and rounded profiles, this afforded them a superb camouflage as they stood silent and motionless amongst the stones that hid them.  They regarded my approach with an initial wariness but settled when they perceived there was to be no threat from me and some slept, head twisted round to snuggle bill into soft back feathers whilst standing on one leg. 

Others preened and, as is often the way, the action was contagious amongst the flock. Occasionally a bird would raise its wings  to their full extent above its body, a reflex action that is characteristic  of many wading birds, the white underwing coverts shining in the sun and  briefly negating the bird's marvel of concealment, whilst others would outstretch a white barred wing and orange leg, a slow, deliberate, comforting lateral movement of supreme grace and elegance. 

It was now high water and the flock stood awaiting the turn of the tide. The wind had dropped to a sigh, the sea was silver calm and it was as if time had come to a brief halt and the world was transfixed. All was still.Waiting.

Silently, by means of a series of cautious steps, I edged closer to the resting flock. Reluctant to flee the nearest birds hopped on one leg a few feet further from me, there to stand once more, relaxed and content.

I moved no closer and found a private solace in this beautiful location and the close proximity of the resting plovers. 

The gathering of these small birds became a re-assuring thread of certainty and natural order in the unravelling tapestry of an uncertain and troubled human world. 

Bill Oddie said recently. 'If you are puzzled, angry or just sick to death of politicians. Why not switch to animals and nature ........ Concentrate on the natural world.'

How true.