Cademuir Forest near Peebles is a relatively small Forestry Commission plantation predominantly of Sitka spruce and larch. I was surveying a walk there in early March. When the needles are off the larch the views over to Hundleshope Heights are excellent. The east side of the hill is very steep, accentuating the high rise of ground on the other side of the valley.
The pine trees are very tall and straight. The landscape beyond their lines is bright and open. They are like a huge window blind, in the same way they create a sort of privacy, they are a shield. I caught a glimpse of the red flash and emerald feathers of the owner of a call like a cackle – a green woodpecker (pictured, top of page).
I looked higher through the trellised branches up to the canopy. Several score small birds were moving through the trees in a jubilant group. Their calls show excitement and a strong social connection – siskins.
The birds were gathering. Even in February, a chattering group of little birds had stopped us in our tracks. Where the Borders Abbeys Way goes through Greenhead Farm, the fields and track have hedges that offer a perfect feeding ground and haven. As we passed, the closely-knit branches were teeming with yellowhammers.
Another day, I was in Innerleithen having a site meeting with the area manager from the Woodland Trust. On our return, we stopped to look into the maze of tree crowns studded with buds. The loud call belonged to a great spotted woodpecker; we saw him land. Then just farther along the path, a bird landed on the ground. I recognised the slightly aggressive movements of a nuthatch.
When I worked as a ranger at Bowhill, my colleague Trish had a nut feeder at her window. Her desk was only a few feet away but the nuthatch happily came and fed urgently, despite the proximity to a human. This was the first time I had seen this bird. Being brought up in the central belt and doing most of my wildlife watching on Arran, I would not have seen it before.
They are most common in England and Wales and are only found in part of the border lands in Scotland. They are also described in field guides as resembling a woodpecker. This similarity is apparent in those quick head movements and the shape of the beak; although the nuthatch is the size of a great tit, so much smaller.
Later in April I stopped the nursery children at Tweedbank on the return leg of our spring walk. A male blackbird was singing in a rowan tree. I wanted everyone to hear his song, if just for a few moments. Blackbirds are so prolific that we can forget about their beauty, their song is not common place.
Collins’ bird guide describes a “song well known for its melodic, mellow tone, a clear and loud fluting … at slow tempo and on wide, often sliding scale, with soft twitter appended”. Even this description has fallen into a deep sigh of appreciation. Indeed I wonder that the blackbird should not be called the song thrush.
The rather unassuming chiffchaff is a bird that has also gone unnoticed most of my life; although I remember father mentioning it at some point. It is very similar to the willow warbler, a bird whose call spoke summer to us in the gardens and woodlands on Arran. However, the chiffchaff has less pronounced colouring and its song, which gives it its name, is far simpler.
Many of my annual walk surveys fall in the early months of the year. From such a chore, I can also note the arrival of breeding residents and the crescendo of bird song. The songs build up like a symphony with some extra gentle calls in the mornings that increase as small flocks enjoy feeding frenzies and species and numbers increase. The birds are gathering.