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28 October 2016
Birds

The fieldfares have blown in at last! Flurries of leaves are being scattered from the birches and aspens and the loose, lively flocking of the fieldfares is similar in form, fluttering above the woods in gusts and bursts. I’ve been longing for them for weeks, watching the rowan berries starting to rot on the trees, wondering when, if, our migrant berry-eaters would fly in from Scandinavia.

It has been a fantastic year for berries and fruit but a strange one for birds. It began with the spring blossom – more flowers on my fruit trees than I have ever seen before.

Normally the buds are bitten off by bullfinches. The little blighters give me mixed feelings. They’re gorgeous to look at and I know they’re not common so it’s a privilege to have them on the croft, but I wish they didn’t trash the fruit crop. And this year they didn’t. My neighbours confirm that Achmelvich has been a bullfinch-free zone this year.

Then bees did a brilliant job of pollination and all our bushes and trees have been weighed down with fruit – more currants, plums and apples than I’ve ever known.

In summer, I returned from a sailing trip to find raspberries going mouldy on the canes. This is unprecedented. Every year there are resident blackbirds waddling and burping among the fruit bushes, and sitting in the cherry tree squawking in outrage at me as I try to get my fair share of the raspberries before they devour them all.  Most years one even manages to find a way into the fruit cage to gorge on redcurrants. I don’t really mind sharing my fruit with songbirds, as long as I can get some and I assumed that they would have had the lot while I was at sea. But this year we’ve seen no blackbirds and have, as a result, a huge surplus of fruit.

The rowans have also had a bumper year and my annual rowan jam production has made barely a dent in the crop. So I’ve been looking forward to the migrant flocks arriving. A week ago I was going to write a ‘where are the birds?’ blog as I was starting to worry that they weren’t coming. Then I had an early warning that they were on their way.

I was away in the Netherlands for a meeting last week and took the ferry back from Amsterdam to Newcastle. I woke early and flecks were flying past my porthole. My cabin was down close to the waterline. Could this be foam? Why was it being blown forwards? I rubbed my eyes. Could it be birds? I dressed and went up on deck and was delighted to see that the ferry was being accompanied by huge flocks of birds: lots of thrushes, fieldfares, maybe some redwings and some little birds (perhaps twites?), all heading west across the North Sea. Some stopped for a rest on a lifeboat, but most fluttered up and over the boat and away on. It’s impressive to realise that even the little birds must be making 30 knots or so, overtaking the ferry without difficulty.

And now they’re here, in Assynt, whirling and fluttering like sparks from a bonfire. I hope they enjoy a feast on our berries, come back again next year, and receive a better welcome than this country seems willing to offer human migrants at present.

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