COAST And Country — Listen Out For The Sounds Of Spring

27 April, 2021 | Features

Migrating geese fly north in April en route to their breeding grounds. Picture: Pixabay

THE haunting calls of migrating geese on the long flight north to their breeding grounds are sure signs that spring has finally arrived, writes David Carnduff.

I watched a large skein of geese winging their way over the Clyde on a crystal clear April morning when the temperature was more akin to that of midwinter.

Adverse weather is often a hindrance to migratory species but the urge to get to their breeding territory is compelling, even if it means crossing oceans.

In the case of the pink-footed geese I watched that cold morning, their destination ultimately will be Iceland or possibly Greenland.

Members of the Clyde branch of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club keep a count of migrating geese and share findings on the club’s social media pages. Later on the morning of my sighting, a similar number were reported from Loch Lomond. I wondered if it could have been the same flock.

Spring, with its returning migrants, is not just a visual feast but also a treat for the ears. The calls of migrating geese — so evocative of wild places — are just one of a suite of sounds which proclaim that winter is over.

Come mid-April, for example, woodland throughout Inverclyde rings with the songs of willow warblers, little bags of energy newly arrived from sub-Saharan Africa.

The influx of willow warblers is a key event in the birding calendar and one which proclaims that summer is just around the corner. Their song is a tuneful cadence repeated with unbridled enthusiasm as they flit from branch to branch.

Upland Inverclyde also has its own sounds of spring, provided by the skylark, curlew and, of course, the cuckoo.

However, there is another sound in the uplands which is guaranteed to puzzle — possibly even unnerve — people hearing it for the first time. That’s because the source of the unusual sound is frequently difficult to spot.

It is, in fact, the “drumming” ritual of the snipe, a secretive little wading bird that inhabits marshes and muddy pool margins.

The “drumming” is caused by outer tail feathers vibrating together during the snipe’s display flight. The sound has also been described as “bleating” or “winnowing”.

The snipe’s unusual display flight in spring is known as “drumming”. Picture: Pixabay

So strange is the sound that folklore in some cultures offer fanciful explanations for its source. It was of popular belief in parts of Sweden that the snipe was actually a horse that had been miraculously transported into the sky because the drumming sounded so similar to the whinny of a horse.

And in parts of northern Germany it was believed that the bleating of snipe at twilight was made by goats pulling Thor across the heavens in his chariot.

As far as I know, no such folklore exists here about the origins of the mysterious sound, but to hear it on a lonely moor as night is falling still makes the hairs on my neck tingle.

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