Early Birds - written by Mary Macintyre 

18th April 2019, starting at 6.30 am in the Botanic Garden, led by Dr Jean Stewart 

Is there anything more delightful than meeting up in springtime with an expert birdwatcher, on a calm mild morning, to walk slowly and quietly through the stunningly beautiful St Andrews Botanic Garden? Eleven of us with a range of birdwatching skills and ages, the youngest an undergraduate studying conservation and ecology at the university, did this delightful early morning walk. As we padded through the gardens, the distant church bells in St Andrews, and from time to time a crowing cockerel, added that special feeling of being in a time-warp.

James Hearsum (Director) met us at the gate at the start of the walk and told us that there are six ongoing St Andrews university research projects in the gardens at the moment, two of them being about birds – one a predator/ prey study, and the other to do with materials used in nest building. In this way the gardens are important academically to students in the university, as well as being a place of tranquillity and beauty for all.

That morning we counted 25 different bird species including two similar looking migrants, the chiffchaff and the willow warbler, both so called ‘leaf’ warblers (the Phylloscopus species) because they look like little leaves. Their song tells them apart immediately, the former saying its name, the latter singing a descending wispy scale of notes.

Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) seem to have survived our not too harsh 2018/19 winter and are everywhere in good numbers in the garden. They are always easy to hear, having a very loud distinctive voice for such a tiny bird. Likewise, wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) were common, voluble and easily spotted.

Jean guided us in identifying by sound as well as sight. On occasion, when it was all somewhat muddling for the beginners in the group, she showed the bird and played its song briefly on her tablet. For instance, the garden warbler and the blackcap have very similar songs and can confuse even the experienced birder.

Mention must be made of a red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) seen running through the conifers down by the Kinness Burn; a grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) near the back gate; and the strange flowering plant the purple toothwort (Lathraea clandestina) a parasite on some tree roots.

Birds heard or seen:

Mallard, moorhen, herring gull, wood pigeon, grey wagtail, dipper, wren, dunnock, robin, blackbird, song thrush, willow warbler, chiffchaff, goldcrest, coal tit, great tit, blue tit, treecreeper, magpie, carrion crow, starling, house sparrow, chaffinch, bullfinch.