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The great outdoors: Nature watcher hears the soundtrack of his youth in the ear-piercing cries of elusive seabird

© ShutterstockAn Arctic tern hovers in the air as it defends its nest from anyone silly enough to get too close
An Arctic tern hovers in the air as it defends its nest from anyone silly enough to get too close

Somewhere in my childhood, there was a wheelbarrow with a squeaky wheel. It must have belonged to a neighbour or a gardener or a builder. The source is gone. But the high-pitched, jazzy song is still with me, not that I knew much about jazz in my childhood.

What I mean is that the wheelbarrow’s song was complex, so much more than just a single squeak every 360 degrees of its wheel. The song leapt from that tormented wheel in every direction and all its voices were high-pitched and higher-pitched. The movement of the wheel over the ground was the bass and drums of it, gave the song shape and form.

The acoustic recollection is still vivid. To this day, every wheelbarrow I see is a disappointment if it doesn’t perform. Silent ones strike me as a betrayal of their own tribe. It had, admittedly, been a long, long time since I had heard a good one, so it came as something of a shock to encounter childhood’s reincarnation on a quiet tract of the ocean-going shore of Kintyre.

I had been on Gigha with a bike. I am an infuriating companion to cycle with if the other party is hell-bent on a destination within a set time. I am forever dismounting to examine, immerse, smell, touch, draw, photograph or simply wonder.

On Gigha, no mile went past without a pause. What wind there was achieved little more than gently slicing warmly through sunlight. The roadside verges recalled Lismore, and late-spring-early-summer there at orchid time. Lismore has orchids like lesser islands have grass or bogs or rocks. And Gigha had flowers enough to make me think of Lismore.

A dense cluster of thrift rose out of a still thicker mat of daisies, the pink mass of the thrift so dense as it scaled a roadside bank, so tightly bunched, that I thought of a small, pink geyser. So I stopped and dismounted once more for Gigha’s pink geyser.

Then I stopped again at Gigha’s only standing stone. I laid my bike down in the roadside grass and suddenly five different wildflower species thickened the space between the chainwheel and the crossbar.

The standing stone split diagonally from the sculpted scoop that separates its two heads, and down towards its subterranean roots. With sunlight on the top and the inside of the scoop in deep shadow, it transformed into two hooded figures, monkish creatures turned to pillars of salt because they looked over their shoulders when they shouldn’t have and displeased their God.

It was then that I had a moment of revelation, as I picked up my bike again. The final mystery of standing stones was revealed to me: they are for leaning your bike against in a treeless landscape.

From the stone to the summit of a singular little hill, just tall enough to lay all the island at a traveller’s feet, I could see from Arran to Jura, Ireland to Mull. Argyll’s is an enchanted coast.

Evening was the Kintyre’s western shore, looking back to Gigha, reprising my slow journey through nature’s day while the sun sank behind Jura and threw smoky streamers high into the Hebridean sky. I was walking north beside an orange ocean along a shore of sand and shingle and machair and looking for otters, when I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of childhood’s wheelbarrow. What on earth was it doing here? But there was no wheelbarrow in sight.

Instead, there was the shore that sloped gently inland and where shingle and sand ran out and the machair kicked in, there was a disturbance, a busy little township whose inhabitants moved in a restless blur of small white bodies, pale grey wings, yellow flecks of bill and legs, black skullcaps with bright, white foreheads.

They moved constantly between the land and the inshore waters. The speed of their wingbeats seemed at odds with their leisurely progress through the air.

Above the shallows they flickered and hovered and dived and rose with and without a catch of tiny fish, and whenever they were seen against that sunset-smouldered orange ocean, their plumage unsettled the watcher by turning purple. When I watched the birds over the water, the background in the binoculars was the silhouette of the mountains of Jura.

And all of this agreeable spectacle had a soundtrack, orchestrated by what sounded like a dozen or more of my childhood wheelbarrows, high-pitched and higher-pitched. They were little terns.

I sat where I stood on a patch of sandy beach, the better to minimise the effect of my presence. And there I sat and there I watched and there I listened on that warm late-May late-evening, alone on the Atlantic shore, and my nature-writing life has known few moments of deeper contentment than these.

Little terns are different. They are scarce visitors to Scottish coasts, and their numbers are hard to pin down. Somewhere around 300 breeding pairs seems to be the current thinking but breeding birds often move to different stretches of coast year on year, and sometimes to different countries.

One of those conundrums which ornithologists like to drop into the conversation involves a little tern that was ringed at Ballantrae in Ayrshire in 1993. It was spotted again the following year and identified by its rings – in Hallan, in south-west Sweden.

Scottish breeding colonies are small, rarely more than 20 or 30 nests. They appear to be much more vulnerable to predators than say, Arctic terns. My personal anthology of Arctic tern encounters includes the second hole of Kilspindie Golf Course at Aberlady on the coast of East Lothian.

The fairway is separated from the beach by a narrow strip of rough. My ball had come to rest in the edge of the rough for I have been plagued by a tendency to fade or slice my drives forever. I found the ball, or to be more accurate I think I could see where it lay deep in the coastal grass, but it was also within a few feet of an Arctic tern nest.

The sitting bird greeted me by rising vertically, which was impressive in itself. Then it began hovering at eye-level and screaming at me. As if that wasn’t persuasive enough, the effect was heightened by the fact that I was looking right down her open, scarlet throat which was about a yard away.

I deemed the ball unplayable before taking a drop at a safe distance. I just can’t imagine a little tern mounting that kind of defence.

Wayward golf balls aside, the little tern’s main worries are dogs, foxes, crows, gulls, and – apparently – kestrels. Against that array of enemies, a voice like a squeaky wheelbarrow is not going to intimdate.

But on that Kintyre shore, it would prove a tranquil hour for the birds and for me. I simply sat and watched until, the light faded, the fisher birds drifted inshore for the final time, and the colony eventually quietened.

All the entries in my hefty two-volume set of The Birds Of Scotland published by the Scottish Ornithologists Club have a paragraph at the end headed “Gaps in current knowledge”.

Of the little tern, it simply says, “This is the least studied tern in Scotland. Further research on the reasons for changes in distribution and switching between breeding sites could help in conversation.”

Of course, it doesn’t help if you don’t know where to look.

If you are fortunate enough to live near a little tern beach, or if you stumble across one on your travels, they would appreciate it if you take two basic precautions. If you want to watch, do so from a good distance and be as inconspicuous as possible. And don’t take the dog.

And if you don’t know a little tern from a little owl, the little tern colony will be just up ahead the moment you can hear what sounds like an entire orchestra of squeaking wheelbarrows.