A dodgy walk to the hill – part 2

The coal tit watched from from a spruce tree

The coal tit watched from from a spruce tree

Some of the large flock of jackdaws at the Craigmore Face

Some of the large flock of jackdaws at the Craigmore Face

Having abandoned my excursion to the hill, I walked back to the steading using the fields rather than the steep and icy hill road, then cut right-handed up towards the High Larches Wood.  There is a small roundel of spruce and larch trees just short of the High Larches and I could see some tits feeding on the branches of the top part of a spruce tree that had been snapped off in last week’s storm. I spotted a stone that looked dry and sat to watch. There was a good collection of tits. Most were coal tits, frenetically grabbing a morsel of whatever was taking their fancy and flying with it to the safety of a higher branch, returning seconds later for more. Taking a more sedate approach to lunch were two blue tits and a single great tit. They were enjoying their snack and didn’t seem bothered that it was at ground level rather than 40 or 50 feet in the air.

This was a fortuitous (though hardly comfortable) vantage point so I quietly took the rest of my lunch out of my rucksack. It was one o’clock and everyone seemed to be at lunch. I watched a pair of mistle thrushes, on a track of well shorn grass, feeding on worms that had been incautious enough to have come above ground overnight and had probably been frozen. They seemed to have plenty to choose from and each gulped down three or four in the time it took me to eat my sandwich. I was distracted by the prukk, prukk of a raven again. This time when I looked up there were two. They circled like vultures and may have been waiting for me to keel over so that they could also dine, making me think of the first two verses of the poem, The Twa Corbies –

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies makin’ a mane;
The tane unto the t’other did say,
“Where sall we gang an’ dine the day?”

“In ahint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
An’ naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawk, his hound an’ his lady fair”

The corbies stayed with me, though circling higher, for a good five minutes, before eventually giving up on a potential corpse and heading off to the north-east. I had been so engrossed with them that I’d forgotten about the mistle thrushes, which had now gone. All the time I sat there I was aware of the smell of wood smoke from the various estate cottages. I could detect this despite the nearest house being nearly half a mile away.  Imagine how much further away this and other scents can be detected by the considerably more developed olfactory senses of mammals.

The keeper had been saying that his pheasants were rather jumpy, so rather than go up through the track in the High Larches Wood I continued down in the direction of one of my favoured rock seats (one that regularly serves as a rabbit toilet) looking out to the Craigmore Face and Spooky Valley. Surprisingly it had been a good choice not going into the High Larches. When I’m in the trees there I can always hear buzzards, but they’re not easy to see through the canopy. By being on the outside of the wood I could see three buzzards circling over the trees. Like the ravens, they spiralled higher and soon three became five, then six.  They were joined in their aerial waltz by two red kites, one of which was the ubiquitous red/white tagged bird, a tagged youngster from that year. There was no animosity or competition between the two species and their acrobatics, diving and wheeling, were a joy to witness.

Having a sporting estate should not only be about game birds and deer. This estate, along with one or two other estates that I know, has such a fantastic variety of wildlife; surely all estates should consider the value of having diversity rather than cursing – or worse, killing – every bird of prey that is seen.  I’ve just finished reading a news article about the grouse season that finished a couple of days ago. The article stated that 2011 was the best grouse season in recent living memory. Two of the estates named in the report are Glenogil and Millden in Angus. In the past five years more poisoned baits and victims have been found on these two estates than in all the rest of Tayside put together. The estates have repeatedly claimed they do not kill birds of prey. If they can have such a fantastic season without killing birds of prey then why are birds of prey demonised ……. or am I just a cynic?

I made my way down to the rock favoured both by me and rabbits, though for different reasons. It was soaking wet today so I made do by standing beside it. The flock of jackdaws from the Craigmore Face were out in force, with a couple of hundred chak-chaking loudly and wheeling about above me. As I watched them I thought they were doing this for nothing more than pleasure, but something else caught my eye. Any birds that temporarily broke away from the main flock were in pairs.  Looking more closely at the flock, the main bunch was surrounded by at least a dozen satellite pairs of jackdaws.  I watched for some time and this was not coincidence. It made me wonder if this flocking was a means of finding a partner, or do they keep their partner from one year to the next. I’ll watch flocks of crows and jackdaws with more interest in the future.

The buzzard and kite dance was ending and the participants were making their way elsewhere. Two buzzards were now perched atop a larch tree on the south slope of Spooky Valley. One kite was circling low over rocks where guns 1 to 3 stand on the drive named The Shoulder. I knew there had been a shoot on 10 December and wondered if there might be a missed carcass lying there. Another buzzard flew east along the Craigmore Face ridge towards the Green Hill. It disturbed what I initially thought was a peregrine, but was in fact a kestrel, which then mobbed it, though rather half-heartedly.  Because of the distance (probably two-thirds of a mile) I couldn’t see if it was male or female, but at least it was another kestrel, and maybe establishing or even defending a potential territory. I’ll look out for a pair there in the spring.

I headed along the bog area that runs between the top of the Low Wood and the bottom of the L Wood, then walked clockwise round the Henhouse Strip, noting a couple of dozen trees toppled by the wind and lying into the field. I climbed up the hill to the west of the Pheasant Planting, noting more trees toppled and part of the fence now 20 feet in the air, lifted by the tree roots.  As I entered the track running through the Long Strip Wood I spotted a dark coloured fallow doe watching me from behind a tree. Its tail was straight up in the air, a sign of danger. We watched each other for a while, then the doe bounced off, springbok style with all four feet off the ground at the same time, and tail still in the air, towards the top of the Pheasant Planting. I walked along the track through the Long Strip Wood and watched a small flock of birds feeding, flitting between the lower branches of a bush and some nearby heather and blaeberry. I could see they were finches but a magnified view through the binoculars identified them as bullfinches. There were between ten and twelve in the group and slightly more females than males. The heather seemed of most interest to them and, being seed and bud eaters, I imagine they were eating heather seeds. They flew ahead of me as I walked on, then curled back to resume their feeding as I passed.

At the other end of the wood I came down on to the track that runs from the Hill Loch to the public road. The loch was partly frozen but the four domestic swans had kept an area clear and had been joined by a dozen or so mallard. I could barely see the mallard, though heard them quite plainly. I took a couple of distant photos with my camera on 14X zoom. Looking through the viewfinder I could only see the swans, but remarkably when I looked at the image the ducks were quite clear; in fact in the second photo some of them were taking off.  The last time I was in this wood I was amazed at the different mature trees, which (in August) were still in full leaf. This time the deciduous trees were bare, but this made the aging pine trees even more outstanding. The estate is fantastic for juniper, and there is a huge stand of juniper just down from the loch, part of the Boat House pheasant drive and called Connor’s Wardrobe, named after a now deceased friend of the estate owner who sometimes shot on the estate and came each time in a different array of gaudy clothing.  I walked down the mile or so to the public road, admiring the bare oaks and ash trees with the sun glinting through them, and listening to the gurgle of the trackside burn, running almost at capacity as it carried away the overflow from the loch.

I walked up through the estate policies. Though one or two trees in the policies were down, and the tops off others, the huge and ancient Wellingtonia trees near the tennis court, towering above all of the other trees, were still standing proudly. They will have weathered storms worse than the 80 mph gales of last week during the many centuries of their life.

Arriving back at my car, the tree on which I saw the kestrel on my arrival now held a small flock of fieldfares. For birds that seem constantly on the move they sat a remarkably long time and may have been resting after a feast of berries elsewhere.  As my gaze turned from northwest to northeast I glimpsed a bird of prey at a low level flying away from me over the fields. I still hadn’t seen a sparrowhawk on my travels (though I’ve seen them regularly on the estate in past years) and this bird’s height off the ground was consistent with the sparrowhawk’s low-level attack strategy. I scanned the area with the binos and saw in fact that it was a male kestrel, now perched on a distant fencepost.  My day had started with a kestrel, and finished with probably the same one.

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