Continuing my accounts of walks on a north Perthshire estate which carrying out a 12 month wildlife survey, I braved the gales early last January. Though I enjoyed the bracing walk, the returns by way of seeing the usual amount and variety of wildlife made me resolve to study the weather forecast more carefully, and to remember that strong winds on low ground invariably translate to gales on high ground.
Thursday 5 January 2012. Weather: Sunny with a clear blue sky (apart from a short snow shower), but a very strong and bitterly cold west wind.
I knew the wind would limit what I saw today, but after too much eating, drinking and sitting about over the festive period I was desperate for a walk. I drove down to main estate loch first of all to see if there were any wildfowl about, but the loch surface was choppy and I could see nothing at all. Being a west wind, the sheltered part of the loch was at the opposite end, and though I could see swans, there was little hope of seeing anything smaller.
I drove back to the farm and started out up the hill road. The estate owner had commented that the only birds I would see in that wind were at his sheltered feeder in the garden. Blue tits and coal tits were feasting on the seed mixture, while chaffinches and a dunnock hopped about under the feeder picking up the scraps dislodged by the hungry tits (he said that yellowhammers were also visiting under the bird feeder, so I’ll watch out for those). I could see the trees ahead bending in the wind, and knew that the assessment of a scarcity of birds would not be far off the mark.
Half-way up to Fank Wood a bird of prey flew low to the ground, giving me hope of seeing my first sparrowhawk since I started the survey. The bird lifted up in the air and started to hover over some marshy land. A kestrel. It continued its journey down towards the farm, cutting across the wind and travelling at an amazing speed, before perching on telephone wires. It was too far away to identify whether it was male or female. It looked female but it was in the same territory as a male kestrel on my last visit, and was probably the same bird. It would be great if there was a pair there, so maybe another time I’ll get a better view of it.
As I went out the hill road I lifted covey after covey of red-legged partridges. Despite the snow and wind that we’ve had, the wind dries the ground quickly and they were taking advantage of the many dust baths that were available. Most went eastwards with the wind on their tails and had it been a shooting day they would have been exceptionally difficult targets. I was sure I would have seen buzzards or red kites on the hill, but I doubt if they like gales any more than I do. I may have missed some of course as my eyes were watering, and seeing anything but the hill road at my feet was quite difficult at times.
Further out the road there was a bit more shelter from the hills ahead of me. At the fork where I could have gone right to Grey Craigs, I went left up the shallow gorge bounding North Spooky instead. It was the steeper climb, made more difficult by most of the road being covered with frozen snow. I managed to walk up one of the tracks where melt water was pouring down, testing the waterproofing of my boots but at least getting some grip. I continued right to the top, and was rewarded by the sight of a single grouse rising at my feet and flying across the wind to the north. The advice it was giving me as it flew off was go-back, go back, go-back. I took its counsel and turned about to make my descent down the watery track of the gorge again.
Back down near the fork a flock of small birds flew from right to left. I assumed they were meadow pipits, but meadow pipits seemed scarce or even absent from the hill just now. They landed 50 metres from the track and when I put my binoculars on them I was delighted to find that they were bullfinches. There would be around 20, with the deep pink breast of the males reflecting the sun and looking like large plump plums. I note from the RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds (plug for a fantastic book by Stuart Housden and Peter Holden) that some bullfinches from Scandinavia visit the north and east of Scotland, and that they are slightly larger and more brightly coloured. This flock may well have been these winter visitors. Whether native or foreign they were certainly enjoying the heather seeds.
As I came further down the hill I saw two stunted trees on the hill on my right. They seemed very green, though I was putting this down to the sun accentuating colours. I put the binoculars on them to find that they were holly trees, each nibbled into a cone shaped by deer. My binos scanned to the right and there was the culprit. It was a roe doe; one that I had watched in the late summer when I thought that it was back a bit in condition. It had swapped its russet coat for its winter grey coat and certainly looked in good condition now. I looked again at its topiary skills and considered it must have gums almost as thick as those of a giraffe.
As I neared the bottom of the hill road I looked across to the High Larches, and saw that at least three of the buzzards were braving the wind. Two, which had considerable white feathering under the wings more typical of juvenile birds, were participating in what I considered might be a spring-time pre-breeding display, circling each other and coming in with mock attacks on each other from time to time. No doubt this would be a rehearsal for the real thing in due course.
I had enjoyed my walk, despite the biting wind and the exceptional (for this estate) scarcity of wildlife.