Walking along the beach at Lund in south-west Unst at the weekend, it was good to see a flock of around 30 ringed plovers – quite a good number for so early in the year, but not necessarily local breeding birds.
Ringed plovers are such delightful, characterful birds. Those with slightly less well-defined black breast bands and less colourful legs and bills represented last year’s young. They breed when one year old, but unfortunately a number of nests here get predated by hedgehogs and feral cats.
Typical of the family, they have large eyes and short bills as they feed mainly on the surface or just beneath, spotting clues to their prey by sight. Maybe it was the wind direction making this beach a little more sheltered that attracted the birds, because windy conditions certainly make locating food more difficult.
The slightest movement of a prey item beneath the sand may be hidden by water riffling on the surface, and therefore be missed. Plovers’ typical feeding method is to stand still, then make a short dash before bending their heads over to spot or even hear some prey – they have such vastly superior senses to us. A bit of space between individuals also ups the success rate – more than one bird dashing after the same prey item is no good for any of them. It also uses up unnecessary energy.
Such is the nature of many of our roadside verges in Shetland that ringed plovers find them very acceptable breeding habitat – a dangerous development. How often does one fly off at the last minute, low across the front of an approaching car and several years ago one came off worse when it hit my car. I still feel bad about it. But they also breed on other man-made sites as well as more traditional coastal venues such as sandy beaches. And should you unwittingly approach a pair when nesting, they will put on a very plausible broken-wing display as they try to lure you away from the nest.
I was also watching a flock of curlew feeding on pasture land the same day, and mused how hard it must be for birds with such long bills (especially curved ones) to successfully pinpoint their prey in gale force winds. Strong gusty wind must raise the bar for them considerably.
Curlews are the largest species of wading bird in the region, and, like various other wader species, the bills of the males can be up to 10 per cent shorter than those of females, thus affording the possibility of slightly different feeding strategies, especially when on muddy shores. Mostly feeding in daylight, they do, however, take a wide variety of prey both on and beneath the surface.
Fieldfares formed quite a strong theme last week. Driving up through south-east Yell on the Wednesday morning, quite a few were flying around in their typical excited manner, blending magnificently with the mellow hues of the winter heather.
A few redwings were also in among them as they searched for vital food before moving on towards their breeding grounds. While they were probably heading towards Scandinavia, another species, 14 of which were seen in a garden at Burrafirth last Sunday, may well have been moving more north-west towards Iceland – snow buntings. The North Isles wildlife scene is gathering pace.