Black rabbits and unusual trout behaviour
Yesterday (Thursday) was a beautiful sunny day, though with a cool wind at times. My day started with four hours of chain-sawing logs on my favourite (though anonymous) Highland Perthshire estate. I’d finished a wind-blown oak tree in the summer and now I was on to some wind-blown alder, with a mix of a few birch and ash. Alder thrives in damp places and despite having been down for a year will still need some time before it is completely dry. However there is no great rush as I’ve a good stock of ash and oak already stored to keep the wood burning stove alight for this winter – and maybe next as well. With the deadly fungus that now affects ash trees I suspect there will be no shortage of firewood for a while. The super-optimistic view is that the fungal spores won’t affect as many trees as anticipated. We can only hope.
With nearly two tons of logs cut and the sun still shining, I needed a walk. I walked up the road from the farmhouse, then cut through a recently-sown grass field. I was surprised how wet the field was, but it would dry as the grass matured and soaked the moisture up. The field is full of hillocks covered in bracken, and I kept clear of these not to disturb any partridges that were likely to be there as the keeper had said this area would be part of a shoot the following day. I was heading for the High Larches Wood, which has to be one my favourite woods. I was surprised at the amount of blackbirds in the wood, and I looked to see what food source there might be for them. There was plenty of wheat scattered on the track through the wood but they are not seed eaters. I was looking for bushes with berries, which is their favoured autumn diet, but could see none. Something must have attracted them in such numbers and I’ll bear this in mind for future visits.
Since I had been looking at so many blackbirds I was not surprised when a thrush-like bird, a redwing, landed on a tree beside the now-empty pheasant pen. Apart from rust-red on its flanks and under its wings, the main identifying mark of a redwing is a bold creamy-yellow stripe above its eye. This bird had that, but it seemed also to have a yellow stripe below its eye. I looked and looked through the binos, but finally saw that the lower stripe was in fact a ray of sunlight. For much of the time its breast was facing me and it seemed that the dark brown spots on the breast faded as they reached towards the tail. I tried to get closer and eventually managed a photograph (of sorts) and the lack of spots further down the breast is also evident in the photo. I wonder if this might have been a young bird. I eventually got too close for its comfort and it flew down into some bracken, where I left it in peace.
I walked up the side of the pheasant pen and spied into some open woodland – mainly birches with an odd coniferous tree – just outside the main High Larches Wood. A number of wee birds were feeding high in a mature birch. They turned out to be bullfinches: two males and a female. They were feeding on what I could only think were either seeds or new buds, though I thought buds unlikely in November. My pocket-sized 14x zoom camera even managed a photograph, despite the distance, and when I blew it up a bit I was quite amazed at the clarity. Hardly Wildlife Photographer of the Year stuff, but more than sufficient to keep me happy. The bullfinches were shortly joined by a great tit, then a flock of half a dozen chaffinches; a great mix on one tree.
All the time I had been in the wood I could hear a fallow buck grunting some distance to the east. I had missed the main rut, but it obviously wasn’t over yet. I headed towards the sound, through the flat boggy area running from the High Larches Wood to the Henhouse Strip. As I walked along the track at the top end of Low Wood I saw a dead rabbit under an ancient juniper bush (this estate is fantastic for juniper!) I wondered if it had been killed by a stoat and managed to retrieve it with my stick. There were no tell-tale stoat or weasel bite marks at the back of its neck, nor was there any sign of myxy. The rabbit was in poor condition and with a dull, lacklustre, coat. I guessed at coccidiosis, which can kill many rabbits, and was a real problem disease at a time in my teens when a school friend and I bred New Zealand white rabbits. I checked this disease out on the internet and the treatment is sulphaquinoxalene given in the drinking water. It was the same remedy in 1962, but unfortunately not very successful. It would be impossible to administer to wild rabbits.
As I examined the ex-rabbit, I saw a dark coloured fallow doe with a dark calf slip quietly across the track from Low Wood into the grass field that runs up the side of the L Wood to the Craigmore Face. I then saw that I was being watched from deep within Low Wood. A dappled fallow doe stood facing me, and I wondered if I could manage a photo. Slowly I went to my pocket for the camera but the shy beast was having none of it, and turned and trotted off, followed by a dark coloured calf. With all this going on I failed to notice that the grunting of the fallow buck had stopped. It may have seen me or got my wind, or it may have given up rutting for the time being. I never did see it.
I headed back towards the estate loch, down the south side of Low Wood, and watched three pheasants dusting in ground so dry it was almost fine sand under a larch tree. They really were enjoying it, and getting the best of the sun at the same time. I could see there was a dead pheasant outside the fence and headed down to examine it. Reluctantly the pheasants forsook their pleasurable dusting at my approach. A freshly dead hen pheasant lay in full view of them, only separated by a fence. It had been well plucked, then predated, by a bird (mammals don’t pluck their prey), and I wondered if it had been killed by a goshawk I’d seen a couple of weeks earlier, since it was in the same area of the estate. It could, of course, have accidentally hit the fence then been predated, but I thought that less likely.
Round at the dam at the estate loch I had an interesting experience with a trout. I heard the sound – not so much of splashing but of rippling and gurgling on the water – and as I got closer I could see that it was being caused by a very substantial trout. I crept to the dam wall and peeked over, to see a trout surfacing with great regularity, then diving like a hump-backed whale, with its tail right out of the water. This went on for a good ten minutes and I was puzzled as to what was happening. The fish must have surfaced and dived at least 40 times. I wondered if it was tangled on something but it was at distances from me varying between 3 yards and 15 yards, so that was unlikely. Suddenly the fish was gone and I was left with the puzzle as to why it was carrying out this strange behaviour. I managed to take some photos – mostly of rippled water after it had disappeared – but in several photos chunks of the fish were clear enough to show it was a rainbow trout of maybe four or five pounds.
I was keen to get a photo of the Dam Wood black rabbit that lived just beyond the boathouse. I walked quietly forward, camera at the ready. Half a dozen cock pheasants ran from the lochside into the wood and I thought my chances of seeing the rabbit would be slim. I edged forward, peeping round the bracken on my left. The rabbit was in its usual spot, but well aware of me and ready to bolt into the wood. We had met under these conditions three or four times now and maybe it sensed I meant no harm. Its trust – or naivety – allowed me two photos before it hopped to a burrow and disappeared. As I crossed the bridge over the burn running into the loch I looked at some of its pals up in the adjacent grass field. This field has some of the largest warrens on the estate and there must have been fifty rabbits sitting sunning themselves, including another black one. Their day was clearly as enjoyable as mine