Seventeen years ago, when I first came to the area, one of the first people I met was Campbell Steven, a remarkable man, a writer, mountaineer and naturalist.
He challenged me to the task he set himself every May, to identify a hundred species of birds in Tayside. He wrote up one of these adventures and finding himself stuck at 99 wondered whether to go to Gleneagles in case some lonely magpie ‘looking in vain for some discarded tiara in the hotel’s dustbin’ would provide his hundredth for the month. He got his ton all right but not with a magpie.
Moving here from the Midlands I immediately noticed the deficiency of Pica pica, that commonest member of the crow family, which was ubiquitous in Warwickshire. Every year, when I repeat Campbell’s competition, I notice a difference in the birds I see. Sometimes these differences mirror national trends, sometimes they are more local. In my early years here May always yielded kingfishers along the Tay. Now, possibly related to increased recreational use of the river, I never see one. For the the years 2010 -12 I also missed the stonechats which earlier were commonplace along the Schiehallion road, so much so that one place became known to my wife and me as ‘Stonechat Corner’. Then suddenly they proved impossible to find until this year when the first of two turned up, appropriately at ‘Stonechat Corner’.
One of my favourite sites was in Glen Quaich where hen harriers, short-eared owls and occasional merlin delighted me. This year, thanks to the disturbance caused by the Beauly-Denny line, Glen Quaich has almost been a disaster but was saved by golden eagle and a few black grouse. Noticeably the number of golden plover were markedly reduced but on two or three occasions there were a pair near the head of Loch Freuchie.
One bird, once common, was completely absent despite miles and miles of motoring. The kestrel is in trouble and its numbers are markedly reduced all over Britain. I managed to spot a couple at the end of the season’s awful winter, but none in May. The red kite, however has compensated for the lack of kestrels and is now quite a frequent sighting in Glen Quaich.
By three-quarters of the way through the month I was at 79 and beginning to panic. The weather was against me and all the ‘easy’ species had been logged. We took a trip to the coast, at Arbroath collecting more gulls, three auks and those denizens of the cliffs: rock doves and rock pipits. But ,Oh dear, the cliff path grows steeper every year.
The last Saturday of the month was fine, for a change, and with a score of 99 we spent it in Glen Lyon. West of the road to Lochs I spotted a male redstart singing from the top of a telegraph post and a moment later I saw a female completing the hundred.
Campbell, who died some years ago, would have been delighted.