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May's Diary - Salute to the Nest

By Taylor Wildlife, Jul 13 2018 01:57PM

Lying back in a patch of heather warmed by the sun, lunch box cradled in my lap and a cool drink in hand (actually, tepid bottle of water might be a more accurate description), a days work in the highlands is a total job. Yes, no fooling, Scotland can be warm, dry still and midge free!


Nestled in heather, I can start to imagine what it would feel like to be a wee chick in a nest, waiting in anticipation of a mouth full of grub. Strolling through the hills i'm frequently noticing bird activity which would suggest a nest containing eggs or growing chicks is nearby. Excitement and reverence always rises within when this happens. Often, I walk on by not wanting to cause unnecessary bother, but occasionally I come across nests precisely on my transect. Without fail, these encounters are spectacular.




The brilliance behind the craft of nest building is utterly awesome. The spectrum of colour on the eggs and the variation in pattern, not only on a species level but on an individual egg to egg level, is beautiful. Everything about the miniature pieces of architecture, from their structual dimensions to the material used is directly relevant to the strength of a bird, habitat preference and the shape of a bird's beak. For example, the nest of a meadow pipit is very different to that of a golden plover's. Although both of these birds breed on the Scottish hills, the birds' nests are dissimilar. The primary reason in this instance is habitat preference.


Typically preferring a short heather on hill plateaus at 300 - 600 metres, for a golden plover to construct a nest with sides would make a brood obvious to predators, including common and black-headed gulls which are often seen scouting the hills for eggs. For this reason their nests are hidden in plain site, in the form of a shallow hollow or 'scrape'. Sitting low in a bowl also gives the eggs shelter from harsk weather conditions that a nest with sides would otherwise provide. It may also be a waste of time for a golden plover to construct a solid nest - exposed on a plateau, a gust of wind would wipe it off the ground in no time!



A golden plover 'scrape' with eggs.
A golden plover 'scrape' with eggs.

Meadow pipits favour the lower upland ranges, where vegetation is more developed, and thir nests are comparatively of a higher level of craftmanship. A lightly coloured woven masterpiece of purple moor-grass, I often come across the nests built into the base of heather and grassy tussocks.



The nest of a meadow pipit, nestled in a grassy tussock.
The nest of a meadow pipit, nestled in a grassy tussock.

Recently, whilst carrying out a bird survey on a site in a striking glen in Inverness-shire, I quite literally stumbled across a mallard's nest. The duck bird (as it is the female who constructs the nest) chose a raised spot in a clump of heather surrounded by saturated ground to raise her brood. I think the structure is just stunning.



Can you spot it? A mallard nest near an upland loch.
Can you spot it? A mallard nest near an upland loch.



A closer view of the well-built mallard nest.
A closer view of the well-built mallard nest.



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