Wildlife on an overcast day – an excerpt from a forthcoming book

Mute swans on the estate loch with whooper swan at the back

One of the fieldfares on the hawthorn trees

A buzzard flew over the fieldfares but its presence didn’t concern them

More pink-footed geese were landing among the thousands already feeding

My blogs have been more scarce recently as, surprisingly for a retired person, I have been incredibly busy. The activity taking much of my time is the carrying out of regular walks over a large estate in Perthshire. My intent is to see what wildlife is there and compare the estate and its wildlife to that which I knew intimately in the 1960s and 1970s. I began in early August and intend to do this over the course of a year, producing a book at the end of the same type as that which I wrote in 2012: A Wealth of Wildlife: a year on a Highland Perthshire estate. I have 14 short chapters written so far. Here is a taster:

Wednesday 7 November 2018. Dull, mild, stiff breeze. 11 degrees.

Another dull day with heavy rain forecast but I took the decision to go for it. I wanted to visit the lochs again just in case we get a cold spell soon and the lochs freeze over. Since my last visit here an ancient beech tree and a huge and absolutely straight conifer had been blown over. The foresters had trimmed the branches off the conifer and no doubt it will be carted off to the estate sawmill. The beech will either finish up as firewood or be left to rot down where it fell.

The larger of the estate loch’s attraction to wildfowl has waned, with the birds now favouring the smaller one. There were three mute swans on the loch today plus ten or so tufted ducks. Newcomers though were a small flock of about 25 greylag geese tight in to the rushes on the east shore. The loch – in fact this whole estate – is much more popular with pink-footed geese so these slightly larger geese are less-common visitors. A herring gull overflew the loch. As it came over the trees on the far side it somehow looked like an osprey, with its long narrow wings, but its identity became clear as it came closer.

Also new on the loch today were two cormorants sitting on a partly-sunken branch at the far side of the loch, plus three sitting in a tree to their left, their white breasts briefly shining in a blink of rare sunshine. The two on the sunken branch were drying their wings; with their wings spread they looked like miniature Angels of the North. I watched for a while and the three on the tree flew closer to me and started to fish. They look strange birds when they are in the water, with almost all of their body submerged and their neck and head sticking out of the water like a periscope or a sea serpent. I wondered if they sometimes hunt as a pack since most of the underwater forays were carried out in unison. I’m always hoping for a sighting of an otter but though I watched for nearly half an hour none of these large mustelids put in an appearance.

I walked along the forest track to the smaller loch. It had its usual compliment of mute swans, most of which were at the east end today. The wind was from the south-east and the waterfowl were taking advantage of a bit of shelter. A single male tufted duck was busy at the north-east corner. I took a couple of photos through one of the wire squares in the deer fence. When I looked at the photos later one photo summed up my photographic skills: I’d photographed a black spider hanging on a silk thread in the centre of the square.

I began to take a bit more notice of a small flock of swans feeding in the reeds on the far shore. It’s difficult to define why but I just thought they looked a bit different. Sure enough when I studied the members of this group through the binoculars they had yellow and black bills, wedge-shaped heads and, even though I was mostly seeing their raised bums, their necks were straighter than those of their mute cousins. There were half a dozen youngsters among this group of whooper swans, plus one away on its own half-way up the loch.

I continued up the north shore of the loch, noting a dozen or so tufted ducks resting on the far shore along with the same number of mallard. Further up, a raft of eight wigeon relaxed just out from the far shore. As I watched they were joined by another four which had flown down the loch. When the two groups combined they seemed to celebrate the meeting with much whistling. Their lovely musical calls whee-ooo, whee-ooo, whee-ooo floated across the loch.

As I continued up the lochside the numbers of waterfowl decreased, which was the complete opposite of my last visit. It demonstrates the influence the wind has on where waterfowl feed. One of the last birds on the loch was a heron, which rose at the edge of the loch ahead of me, circled over my head and landed somewhere behind me. I sat on the bank near the west end of the loch enjoying the view – albeit without waterfowl – enjoying my sandwiches and, most of all, enjoying the fact the rain had stayed away.

Having exhausted the lochs I had a look over the gate into the north-west moor. Two croaking ravens flew over at a distance and a flock of what appeared to be fieldfares were landing on the loose clump of berry-laden hawthorn trees on the moor. I climbed the gate and started to walk to the trees hoping to get close enough to determine whether the birds were indeed fieldfares, or could they be redwings or even a mix of both.  As I got closer I was able to confirm that all the birds I could see were fieldfares. A jay landed momentarily among the fieldfares but quickly spotted me and made a quick departure. A buzzard flew over at that point and it was interesting to note that the fieldfares were not in the least threatened. They continued gulping down hawthorn berries though no doubt still keeping one eye on the buzzard.

I sat down at the base of one of the trees and though the birds had flown to the furthest-away trees at my presence I knew their pattern and was satisfied that they would be back within a short time. Within ten minutes the flock was starting to return to the hawthorn trees beside me. Suddenly they rose in a cloud and fled towards taller trees in the wood. The cause of their panic was a male sparrowhawk that flew straight at them at tree height. It certainly meant business but was possibly confused by the sudden volume of birds and veered away. Amazingly it was then mobbed by a single fieldfare which almost made contact with the raptor. Do birds know that they may be safer from a sparrowhawk if not taken by surprise? Could it have been that because the sparrowhawk was high in the air the fieldfare could have climbed to safety if required? I once watched a merlin trying to catch a meadow pipit, which climbed higher and higher and eventually outflew the merlin, which gave up and looked for an easier meal.

I walked back to the car but on the way home I spotted a large flock of pink-footed geese in the same stubble field as they had been on my previous walk. They were in a position that I could stalk them with a reasonable chance of getting within seventy five yards or so. I succeeded in getting behind a drystone dyke just as several more skeins with maybe forty geese in each were gliding in to join the feeding flock. Luckily I had my back to the wind, which meant the geese would land into the wind and not have to overfly my position and spot me. I’m always fascinated by geese landing. Though I’d watched this at a distance on my previous walk here it was happening right in front of me. I managed to creep away from the now-enlarged flock without disturbing it. It was a great end to my morning. And a bonus that the rain stayed away.

 There is as yet no title for this book, which I hope to have published in autumn 2019.

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A shot goshawk – comment

x-ray of a shot buzzard taken at Dundee Airport.

x-ray of a shot goosander taken at HM Prison, Perth.

I read in the blog Raptor Persecution UK of the recovery in March this year of the goshawk washed up at the mouth of the River North Esk near St Cyrus. I may have missed it but it was disappointing not to have read of this or heard about in any other form of media. Is there so little interest in the shooting of a rare bird? Considering the 7 months delay before this found its way into the public domain it was very fairly reported by RPUK. Briefly, for those who are unaware, the bird had been found by a member of the public. The person who had ringed the bird was then notified and he arranged for the bird to be collected from where it had been washed up and sent to the Royal School of Veterinary Studies at Edinburgh University. The bird was x-rayed and found to have been shot by a shotgun at close range. It was then sent to Scottish Rural College (SRUC) for a post-mortem examination.

For whatever reason Police Scotland appeared not to have been notified of the dead bird or any outcome at any stage of this process.

It’s not too easy to get close to a goshawk so it may well have been caught in some sort of trap first and shot at close range within the trap. No x-ray is publicly available though the shot pattern on such an x-ray might throw some light on how close the bird was to the person shooting. The post-mortem examination should also be able to give a rough period over which the bird had been dead.

While the chance of Police Scotland getting anyone to court for this crime was minimal, it was in no way helped by the time delay. I accept that the failure of any organisation to notify the police was unintentional but nevertheless surprising considering the close working relationship by these agencies with police wildlife crime officers.

It may be that Police Scotland will remind the public and other agencies that may be involved in any way with the finding of a bird or animal which may have been killed unlawfully or the subsequent investigation to make contact with them at the earliest opportunity.

So far as raptor species are concerned, in particular if the bird is a goshawk or hen harrier, they are intensely disliked by many folks with shooting interests. The finding of a dead one should always arouse suspicion and I’d suggest the police should be notified and given the chance of collecting or examining the bird. In addition it is also worthwhile notifying RSPB Investigations so that they can link in with the police and provide advice or assistance if necessary.

If it helps, I can detail what I did when with Tayside Police and a dead raptor was reported. Firstly, the circumstances may suggest a high probability of accidental or natural death. Examples are an immature sparrowhawk found dead near a window or conservatory, a bird under power lines, a bird at the roadside or beside a railway line, or a thin bird during a hard spell of weather. Most of these can be discounted, though in hardly any circumstances would I suggest that a goshawk, hen harrier, golden eagle, peregrine or white-tailed eagle should not be collected for further examination. Even if the police officer is unable to make the collection RSPB Investigations are normally delighted to assist.

If I had collected a dead raptor I would initially have it x-rayed either at HMP, Perth or at Dundee Airport, whichever was handiest. This would give an immediate result if it had been shot and an investigation would begin. If there was no evidence of shooting it would be taken to SRUC for a post mortem and for samples to be submitted to Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) for examination for pesticides. From recovery of the bird to x-ray and passing to SRUC would almost always be done with 24 hours, 48 hours at most.

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Concern about mysterious deaths of hares in the east of England

A healthy brown hare hoping it is hidden.

A rabbit in advanced stages of the vile disease myxomatosis

I was interested to read a BBC News report today headedThe mysterious deaths of hares have sparked concern about the future of the species in the East of England’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-45810869 )

Suffolk and Norfolk Wildlife Trusts are working with the University of East Anglia (UEA) to look into a recent batch of deaths. In one case 6 dead hares were found in the same field. Suspicion is falling on either myxomatosis or hemorrhagic disease, which I presume is viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD).

In the past I have found hares dead without an obvious cause of death. I assumed at the time that it may have been braxy, which is a disease which causes sudden death in sheep. It is caused by the bacterium Clostridium septicum and generally occurs in winter, when sheep eat frosted foodstuffs. I’ve no justification for this apart from sheep having died suddenly in the area. It may even be that braxy doesn’t affect brown hares.

It appears from Dr Bell that, “Myxomatosis in hares is rare but earlier this year there was a huge die-off in Spain. That was the first time it had happened”. So it seems that myxy can indeed affect hares. If it spread through hares like it did through rabbits in the mid-1950s that would be a disaster. They would have no immunity and possibly, as in rabbits, it could kill about 95%.

I have to disagree with Dr Bell’s statement, ‘For rabbits, myxomatosis is almost always fatal”.  Many rabbits have now built up an immunity and are unaffected during an outbreak. They may also have a much milder infection with many surviving. It is common to find rabbits that have eyes that have healed even though one or both may still be partially closed. Some also have slight but repairing swellings around the base of the ears and/or the vent. In the earlier stages of the recovery they will be underweight but as they recover further they gain weight rapidly.

I have found that VHD kills rabbits much more quickly than myxy. It seems as if they are there in their original numbers one day and completely gone the next. They mostly die in their burrows, with VHD – at least in my experience – wiping them out completely apart from very odd small pockets. I am currently carrying out a year-long wildlife survey on a lowland Perthshire estate (which I hope will culminate in a book to complement my book on a wildlife survey of a Highland Perthshire estate). Until relatively recently this estate had hundreds of thousands of rabbits, despite an outbreak of myxy every autumn. I have now spent two months walking over more than half of the estate and have seen only one rabbit. VHD is undoubtedly the culprit.

Both myxy and VHD are vile diseases. Let’s hope that the hares dying in Norfolk and Suffolk are found to be succumbing to something less dreadful and much less virulent.

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Peregrine poisoned in the Pentlands – comment

A woodpigeon baited with pesticide and set out to kill wildlife

The report of yet another poisoned bird, this time a peregrine in the Pentlands in south Scotland, is depressing for several reasons. First of all another magnificent bird of prey has been lost to Scotland. Secondly the incident demonstrates that crime committee against raptors in the uplands continues, despite assurances by various organisations representing shooting and land management that no further restrictive action on game management by the Scottish Government is necessary. Lastly – and disappointingly for me as a retired police officer and wildlife crime officer – Police Scotland appears to have shot itself in the foot by not making at least some details of this incident public until now, some five months after the event.

The police are certainly not obliged to make every wildlife crime public knowledge but the more incidents that are reported in the media the more the public appreciate how much crime is committed against our wildlife, and senior police officers are reminded of the public interest in its prevention and detection. The more serious the crime then the greater should be the need to make the public aware. The level of severity doesn’t come much higher than setting out a poisoned bait in an area frequented regularly by walkers.

The police have a balance to strike between keeping the knowledge of the discovery of the crime from the criminal involved until an investigation can be made and releasing a press statement asking for any witnesses to come forward. This balance is compounded when there is a risk to public safety and, while it is always difficult to make judgements without having all of the background knowledge, it is to be hoped this was taken into consideration. In the month of May it is less likely that the pesticide used was chloralose. This kills by lowering the body temperature and the victim dies of hypothermia. Late May this year was warmer than normal and it is doubtful if chloralose would have been effective. This suggests that the pesticide used would have been one considerably more dangerous than chloralose.

I was pleased to see that the police statement gave a reasonably precise location of where the peregrine was found. I was a bit puzzled though to read that ‘Our investigation has concluded that this appears to have been deliberate as we do not believe that under the circumstances the poison could have been used legitimately’. This suggests that the pesticide used was not one of the more-commonly abused ones where the licence for use was withdrawn some years ago, since there is no longer any legitimate use for these pesticides.

I was disappointed to read. ‘The investigation has now concluded and no further Police action is being taken at this time’. It’s maybe a bad choice of words but surely an investigation into any crime is never concluded until a person is charged and a report submitted for prosecution.

It’s interesting that the peregrine poisoned was known to be a male from a nest in the area (or a scrape in the case of a peregrine) with a brood of chicks. That puts paid to any allegation that the bird could have been poisoned elsewhere and dumped where it was found. It is also interesting that the female and chicks ‘disappeared’ soon after, though could this have been because the chicks were young and the female was unable to brood and provision them at the same time? That question should be able to be answered by a raptor worker.

Peregrines don’t come readily to a bait, but will return to a kill that they have made. The methods used to poison peregrines are either to place pesticides on a kill that a peregrine has made or to set out a poisoned bait which is, or looks to be, alive. The most likely bird on which this peregrine has fed could be a pigeon or a grouse. Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) are very good at examining the last meal eaten by the victim which in some cases can help a police investigation.

The peregrine incident is also reported as being ‘a few miles from where golden eagle Fred had ‘disappeared’ in highly suspicious circumstances in January.’ This tends to lend credence to the golden eagle having been the victim of crime, as has always been suggested, though has been disputed by some folks involved in game management.

Despite the public not being made aware of the latest poisoning there is no doubt that Roseanna Cunningham and the team looking at a variety of issues concerning the running of the uplands for grouse shooting would have been made aware at the time. It is very relevant to the conclusions the team will submit to the Scottish Government. I have always thought that at least driven grouse moors will be subject to some form of licensing as a result of the report. This makes that outcome even more likely.

 

 

 

 

 

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Buzzard found in Yorkshire confirmed poisoned – comment.

Poisoned buzzard found on log at the roadside in Angus and claimed to have been ‘planted’

Close-up of the poisoned buzzard. Maybe it had indeed been ‘planted’ to create trouble.

The following was published today by Teesside Live and by other Yorkshire media.

 

‘A buzzard found dead on a North York Moors dry stone wall had been poisoned, tests have confirmed.

North Yorkshire Police is appealing for information after toxicology tests showed the buzzard died of suspected chloralose poisoning.

The bird of prey was found on January 29, 2018 on top of a dry-stone wall, next to a layby on the Kildale to Commondale road near Percy Rigg.

It was found by a member of the public, who reported it to the RSPB and North Yorkshire Police.

Officers say the area is very public, and it is unlikely the bird died where it was found, but appears to have been placed onto the wall deliberately.

The bird was collected and no obvious signs of trauma were found. An x-ray revealed no signs of injury.

Toxicology tests (show?) it was probably poisoned by chloralose – more commonly used to kill mice.

Sergeant Stuart Grainger, of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Taskforce, said: “Sadly, as a county, we have more confirmed incidents of raptor persecution than any other county in England – a situation North Yorkshire Police is absolutely determined to tackle.

“It is saddening that this magnificent bird has been poisoned. I would urge anyone with any information about this incident.” (to do what?)

Jenny Shelton, RSPB investigations liaison officer, said: “Raptor persecution is a serious, ongoing issue affecting some of our most incredible birds of prey.

“Our UK population of buzzards dropped during the 20th century largely due to illegal killing, and it’s alarming that these practices are continuing even today.

“This was a despicable and deliberate act. If you have any information, please speak out.”

Contact North Yorkshire Police on 101, quoting reference number 12180127114. Or to speak in confidence about the incident, or any raptor persecution, call the RSPB Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 9990101’.

 

The additions in parenthesis are mine as they are missing from the article.

I can’t understand why it took from January until October either to get the results of the pesticide analysis or, having got it earlier, to release an appeal for information months later. It seems to take much longer in England for the police to get an analysis than it does in Scotland. I’m not so sure of the procedure south of the border but in Scotland a suspected victim of pesticide abuse would either be taken direct to Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture by the police officer in the case, or to a vet lab for samples to be taken and sent to SASA. Neither route normally takes longer than two or three days. If the officer or the veterinary pathologist can give a clue to SASA as to which pesticide was involved then a result might follow a few days later. If not, then a result might take a month to come through but seldom longer.

I’m not clear either why the first line of the news item states the bird was poisoned, yet the second line indicates the poison is only suspected to have been chloralose. There may be good reason for this uncertainty but it’s something I’ve never encountered.  Despite the uncertainty both the police and the RSPB are of the view that raptor persecution is involved so they are satisfied that a crime has been committed.

For an allegedly poisoned bird to be found on top of a wall next to a lay-by on a public road suggests that this will be almost impossible to solve. It is a classic example of why so few raptor poisonings result in a court case, and even less in a successful prosecution. The bird may have died anywhere and been brought to the location where it was found.

A comment to another newspaper stated,

‘More likely that a mouse was poisoned and the buzzard ate the dead mouse’.

Proprietary mouse poison containing chloralose is of a very low purity, probably around 5%, whereas chloralose used illegally against wildlife can be up to 100% pure. Chloralose kills by lowering the body temperature and the victim dies of hypothermia. A buzzard eating a mouse that had died from proprietary chloralose is extremely unlikely to be affected. Chloralose is unlike some mouse and rat poisons containing chemicals such as bromadiolone, difenacoum or brodifacoum that can gradually build up in the body of a predator or scavenger that eats them and eventually kill it through secondary poisoning. I have, however, seen a hooded crow affected by secondary chloralose. The circumstances were that a buzzard had been poisoned by high purity chloralose and the body had been predated by a hooded crow. We picked them both up to be sent for pesticide testing. The hooded crow appeared to be dead but recovered in the heat of the police car and was released, while the buzzard was taken for testing.

Getting back to the North Yorkshire incident, I wish the police the best of luck with this one.

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Book review: Common and Spotted Sandpipers by Phil Holland

Common and Spotted Sandpipers by Phil Holland

A book for bird enthusiasts, especially those specialising in waders. 160 pages of facts and figures covering probably every aspect of the lives of these two specialist shorebirds. Phil Holland depicts their similarities and differences, in particular the contrasting methods of their breeding behaviour. He explores their migration before and after breeding, their preferences for nesting territories and the various factors which affect their nesting success.

The book is brim-full of photographs, sketches and graphs illustrating the points being made by the author, which make it a much more informative read. He even looks at why some birds have evolved to be polyandrous and the advantages to the spotted sandpiper of this unusual method of reproduction. I found the reasons fascinating as to how the female spotted sandpiper decides on the best male or males to whom she can entrust a clutch of eggs.

The author has crammed 40 years’ experience of studying the lives of these birds into a book which will undoubtedly give pleasure and knowledge to most birders. I’ve never yet seen a spotted sandpiper but will watch common sandpipers now with much more interest and increased awareness.

Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG. £18.99

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Goshawks galore!

Goshawk

I had a lovely couple of walks during this past week on an estate not too far from Perth. On both occasions the days were sunny and with light wind. I try to avoid walking on windy days as wildlife seems to have the sense to stay under cover.

On the first of the two days I was on the edge of a narrow strip of woodland with a lovely mix of native trees interspersed with one or two conifers. A yearling roe doe, in resplendent summer coat of foxy red stepped daintily out of some bushes and surveyed its surroundings. I doubted that it would see me as I was motionless and to a degree blended in with the gate I was leaning against. What little wind there was unfortunately blew from the south from me towards the deer. It lifted its head, facing in my direction, clearly got my scent and retreated, albeit without panic, back into the bushes.

Suddenly three young pheasants about 100 yards from me jumped in the air and began to cuck, cuck, cuck in alarm. I thought they’d been spooked by a fox but seconds later a female sparrowhawk landed in a small rowan tree just in front of me. She had lovely slate grey and white bars on her breast and leg feathers and was close enough that I could see her yellow, piercing, eye. She had most likely flown low over the pheasants, as hunting sparrowhawks do, and was unseen by me until she landed. I slowly reached into my pocket for the camera but the sparrowhawk, much persecuted for centuries and in fact the last of the raptors to be protected by law, was not for posing and flew off to the other side of the wood.  The pheasants, still alarmed by the sudden appearance of this stealthy predator, continued to cuck cuck cuck for some time after it had gone. Even the much smaller male sparrowhawk has the same effect on my domestic ducks at home: they often dive into the pond if a sparrowhawk flies over, and they quack in alarm, often for a good 15 minutes afterwards.

Amazingly the next birds I saw were much bigger versions of the sparrowhawk: goshawks. I had walked further westwards along the woodland and was sitting on a stile having a sandwich when three birds appeared in the air about a quarter of a mile further west. I thought of the oft-quoted tale about buses: you wait for ages for one and then three come along at the same time. So it was with the goshawks, with the last one I’d seen being around seven years earlier. They are normally pretty secretive birds, mostly keeping to woodlands where they hunt small mammals and birds up to the size of an adult pheasant. In the springtime they display with an undulating skydance above their woodland nest site but what I was being treated to today was, I am sure, a form of training.

Of the three one was much larger and was clearly a female. The other two were male. I suspected they may have been this year’s youngsters though could equally have been the female’s partner plus one youngster. Unfortunately they were just out of the range needed to make this differentiation. The three were diving at each other in mock aggression, with the main player being the female. They were probably about 150 metres high and at one point the female closed her wings and plummeted towards the ground in a stoop that would have done credit to a peregrine. She rose again and this mock sky battle continued for at least five minutes until unfortunately they were lost to my view behind trees. It was interesting to note their underwing colour, which was much lighter and much more even that those of buzzards, birds of a similar size, and which very often have dark and light patches under their wings. The goshawks’ wings were broad and short, which facilitates their fantastic manoeuvrability through the narrowest gaps in trees in their more usual environment, woodlands.

This was a fantastic display by top avian predators. I thought of the prey species in the woodland underneath the trio of raptors and wondered how they were reacting. All was quiet and I suspect the pheasants had hidden out of sight. Rabbits would have been perfect prey for the goshawk family but they seem to have been killed off in the area by viral haemorrhagic disease, a disease that is even more deadly than myxomatosis.

On my second walk I was still on the same estate though a couple of miles northwest. I was in an ancient woodland that has a loch in the centre. I was interested in three birds on the loch that were sometimes bobbing on the surface and other times disappeared underwater and which I thought would be some variety of grebe, but my attention was attracted by an osprey which had come from the far side of the loch and was now flying over my head. Unbelievably, following on the same parallel course but a bit higher was a goshawk. The colour of the underside showed that it was an adult and, since I had the osprey to give a size comparison, I suspect the goshawk was a male. It was remarkable that I’d never seen a goshawk for years and here was one for the second time in a week.

And the three birds on the loch? Two  had disappeared and one was hiding in reeds at the side of the loch, but they were little grebes.

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