Reconnection: Spring migration in the Cairngorms

by Andrew Painting


“They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working”
Ted Hughes, ‘Swifts’

Six days until the wheatears come back and a fresh layer of snow is covering the ground. Late snow is normal here in the Highlands. Nevertheless, and in spite of the full knowledge that a wheatear is far hardier than a human, you can’t help worrying for them a bit. Wheatears are small birds, related to robins. Every year they come to Britain from West Africa to breed. They are gorgeous – slate grey, black, amber and white – cocky, charismatic creatures. They are welcome company after a long, cold winter.

Like a person, a place cannot be understood in isolation. It is only in understanding the creatures which call it home that you can come to something like an understanding of what a place means. Birds and places cleave; they become with one another. Birds lend a place its character, while a place’s character defines its species assemblage. Birds are the embodiment of the places they live – the world made flesh.

My patch is the Cairngorms. The Cairngorms are ancient mountains, 400 million years old, hunched over and gutted out by glaciers. It is a large patch of uplands, a mosaic of native pinewood and plantations, steep gorges, clefts and corries, heather moorland, blanket bog, burns and great rivers. And high above it all leers the Cairngorm plateau, the highest, coldest, least friendly place in Britain. It is a place steeped in wildness, but perhaps not quite so much as people sometimes think. A lack of humans (there are twice as many red deer living in the Cairngorms National Park as there are people) does not mean that our presence is not felt.

One of the things about upland areas at high latitudes is that they are extremely inhospitable to most things in winter, and extremely hospitable to lots of things in the long days of summer. For birds, this means one thing: migration. The annual cycle of the place, the emergence and withdrawal of plants, insects, even people, is calibrated with the annual cycles of the individual birds that spend some of the year here. It’s less that this place exists like clockwork; more that clockwork mechanically mimics the rhythms of this place.

First redwings and fieldfares, subarctic thrushes, quietly depart in February, to be replaced a month later by mistle thrushes. Pied wagtails, reasonably anthropophilic, turn up on the 8th March most years, loudly announcing their presence, strutting along rooftops. Lapwing, oystercatcher, common gull, goosander, greylag goose, curlew, redshank, return to the marshes, usually in that order. Lapwing quickly get down to the business of breeding, showing off their head plumes, cavorting into the air in improbable displays of virility. Up here they are regularly on eggs while the snow is still falling. These eggs are the original Easter eggs, once harvested in their thousands, now in extremely short supply.

Meadow pipits come in mid-March, look a little confused for a couple days, and then settle down. On the rivers and burns dippers, unlikely birds which enjoy hurling themselves into icy, fast-flowing streams to catch insects, also return in mid-March (‘icy water’ is not an exaggeration – just last week I saw one dipping away as ice was forming on the river. This wasn’t a small mountain burn either – this was midstream in the mighty River Dee).

Early April. Keep an eye on the sky. Following the prey are peregrines, merlins and hen harriers. Some days pink-footed geese fly over, hundreds at a time, heading north to Iceland. Tree pipits return at some point, but they are so similar to meadow pipits that no one notices until they start singing, usually the third week in April. Now we’re getting to the long-distance migrants. Willow warblers and redstarts, woodland birds, once common across the country, now less so. Chiffchaffs and blackcaps, once uncommon up here, are becoming regular migrants. High up in the hills ring ouzels and whinchats return to their usual haunts. Golden plover fill the bogs. Higher still, on only the coldest, remotest peaks, dotterel return in early May. Most people are supremely unaware of this rather stupid bird, but they are prized by birdwatchers for their rarity, inaccessibility and beauty.

House martins usually turn up around the 24th April, chirruping outside my bedroom window. They are normally beaten here by sand martins, their less famous cousins, but nobody notices them because they don’t live right outside people’s windows. Then the swallows come about a week later. Then the cuckoo, about the tenth of May. Finally, the stragglers, spotted flycatchers and swifts, and dunlin, a reasonably common bird that through a mixture of excellent camouflage and a taste for the wettest, boggiest parts of the country is rarely seen in its breeding plumage.

Memories of arrival dates are accompanied by memories of past migrations. Places, birds, people, do not live in isolation. Last year’s grey wagtails were spotted while I was swimming in clear snowmelt pools. Swallows recall childhood picnics in English meadows. Peregrines throw up memories of central London, the Tate Modern, the brown Thames. Oystercatchers remain incongruous to me here; I will always associate them with the coast.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking of ecosystems as complex but unthinking machines, working like clockwork, a mere backdrop to human affairs. Spring migration, should you care to notice it, provides a deep connection with one’s environment, a reworking of the mechanics of one’s perceptions of the environment. The act of noticing is an expression of what it is to be a human part of a complex ecosystem.


“When the swallows come back to Capistrano,
That’s the day you promised you’d come back to me.”
Leon René

This song, with its slightly exploitative nostalgia, easy romance and stoically suppressed pain, its forlorn hope that a loss might yet be regained, gets me every time. The swallows, signifying spring and fecundity and a world working as it ‘should’, provide an evocative counterpoint to the singer’s romantic travails. We know of course that the song is a lie, and that she’s not coming back, but for all that, for the duration of the song, the promise of forlorn hope is seductive.

Wheatears today, two males and a female. One day late. In fairness they probably turned up a couple days ago, but that was the weekend and I was away.

For twenty years, off and on, and with varying degrees of accuracy and enthusiasm, the ecologists, gamekeepers and rangers at Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve have been recording the arrival dates of a few species. Four of those species have been recorded enough to analyse their average arrival dates with some degree of statistical accuracy. Each species is now arriving back at Mar Lodge between two days and twelve days earlier than twenty years ago. This is probably because of climate change. It’s probably an example of birds becoming out of sync with the emergence of their favoured prey species. For some species, like dotterel, this is very bad news.

The dawn of the Anthropocene, where humans are the principal ecological and geological driving force on the planet, forces us into new relationships with our environment. The anthropologist Andrew Whitehouse came up with the term ‘anxious semiotics’ to describe the sense of unease that comes with watching birds in the Anthropocene. Whitehouse writes that “while listening to birds can still iconically and indexically ground people, signs of absence and change can precipitate anxieties that stem from the ambiguities implicit in the Anthropocene’s formulation of human relations with other species”. Such is the insidious nature of the Anthropocene – if you’re not careful it permeates your each and every interaction with the environment.

Swallows and house martins are particularly anthropogenic birds. They have changed their nesting behaviour to exploit human-created ecological niches, and feed in human-created habitats. Now humans are putting them under threat. Industrial scale insecticide use is stripping the country of their food, while architectural changes mean that modern housing has fewer suitable places on which they can make their mudspit nests. Every year I count the house martins outside my window. Thankfully ‘my birds’ are doing just fine.

This is the anxious semiotics of the Anthropocene – every year, the lingering sense of discomfort, no longer trusting the seasons, because you think you’ve broken them. Every year the concern that things are becoming disconnected. The emptiness left by a lost chunk of evolution, the sense of relief when birds arrive when they ‘should’, and the concern that one of these years they simply won’t turn up at all, are symptoms of an Anthropocentric mind.


“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
Aldo Leopold.

Late snow makes walking on the high plateau slow work. Still, spring is coming here too. Mountain hares are shifting from white to brown, ptarmigan from white to grey. And everywhere the rusty bike wheel call of golden plover, already paired up, picking off insects trapped around the edges of the snow fields. Pink-footed geese, sure enough, flying north, just one big skein of around 150 birds. They would have gone unnoticed were it not for their incessant honking, heard from well over a mile away.

Lower down, in the usual place in the glen, three ring ouzels enjoy a lone mature rowan tree, feed on short deer-clipped sward and rummage around ruined dry stone walls. One of the males lets out a reel of half-hearted song. The other male fights him away.

Ring ouzels can be pretty long-lived birds, and they usually return to favoured haunts, so you can be pretty sure that the bird you saw last year is the same one you’re looking at now. Over the hill, at Abernethy, a remarkable osprey named EJ has returned to the same nest for the last sixteen years, usually sometime between the 21st and 29th March. Individual birds are place incarnate.

British ring ouzels have their own culture. In Scandinavia they’ll breed in any old scrubby patch of birch or willow, but in Britain we don’t have many scrubby patches of birch or willow, because we cleared it all away. Here, they like rocks, with short sward grass, and if possible a tree to perch on. There aren’t many of these places left either any more, and ring ouzels are declining badly. The breeding habits of ring ouzels in Britain are an expression of human history, culture and government agricultural policy.

Leopold’s line, now seventy years old, draws on the growing disconnection between the average punter and the environment they live in. The ecologist lives with the intensely isolating understanding that she sees the world in a very different way to other people. But there is also the individual’s isolation from their environment. The Anthropocene promises fewer encounters with other creatures. Disconnection from the rhythms of the creatures we share the world with makes us lonely. No wonder pets are so popular in Britain.

Feeling or expressing anxious semiotics requires a specific perceived relationship between human and more-than-human, where humans are both responsible for and different from an immutable more-than-human, and where all human actions have the potential to alter negatively the life and behaviour of the more-than-human. It is good to remember, then, that the more-than-human retains its own agency, its own rhythms and connections. It is a wonder that ring ouzels continue to return here at all. And yet they do.

And here lies the silver lining, the hope that transcends the false hope of Capistrano’s swallows. With an ecological education comes the understanding of what is being lost and what to do to stop it. Humans have caused great ecological changes in Britain, some good, but mostly bad. Redemption is still possible, but it will take a great reconnecting.

Birds are the embodiment of the environment in which we live, their migrations connect us to lands most of us will never see. Their sheer corporeality is to be cherished. It is rare these days for me to feel a simple joy in wildlife, one that is not accompanied by a lingering sense of foreboding, guilt, or anger. Such is the price of living in the Anthropocene. For today, at least, the ring ouzels provide me a complex happiness. They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working.

Quotes taken from:

Hughes, T., 1974. Seasons Songs: Spring Summer Autumn Winter, London: The Rainbow Press: 1974

Leopold, A., 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, A., 2015. ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, pp. 53-71.

Andrew Painting is an ecologist living and working in the Cairngorms National Park.