A winter walk. Part 2 – fieldfares, twite and black rabbits

One of four black rabbits I know of on the estate

One of four black rabbits I know of on the estate


The four swans on the estate loch

The four swans on the estate loch

I made for my favourite rock seat looking out to the Craigmore Face and Spooky Valley, disturbing a black rabbit that I’d seen there before, and which hopped off to the safety of some rhododendron bushes.  I sat on my rucksack and had my second sandwich, with a view over a lovely part of the estate. I never fail to see buzzards from this point and today was no different, though only two rather than the usual six or seven. I was hoping two red kites would materialise, but not to be. The estate owner had told me earlier that the radio-tagged red kite with the red and white wing tags had recently been identified by RSPB at a roost site near Crieff. This coincided with two of the kites on this estate, probably the young from 2011, having disappeared. Both may still be together and one may well return here with a mate, though usually kites are at least two years old before they begin to breed.

Leaving my rock, and putting on my gloves again as the temperature was dropping due to the sun now being covered by cloud, I headed through the gate into the grass field, cutting diagonally up towards the drive known as The Shoulder.  I passed a large rabbit warren en route and saw that, earlier in the day when the sun had been out, some of the warren’s population had come out for some fresh air; the small oval-shaped areas in strategic places near the burrow entrances where the heat of the rabbits’ bodies had melted the frost being evidence of their earlier sunbathing.  I skirted the top of the L Wood and came down the far side. About 30 medium sized birds were in search of something to eat on the frosty grass, though on a frozen surface I couldn’t think what this might be. I looked at them through the binos and thought they were blackbirds…..but they were all males! This couldn’t be right, as my initial thoughts were that this was a flock of fieldfares.  Two things put me off plumping for fieldfares: they looked to be black, whereas fieldfares are brown and grey on top, with a speckled breast, and – normally flighty birds – they were letting me get quite close.  In fact it had been a trick of the light; darkish birds on a white surface looking much darker than they really were. Indeed they were fieldfares and as I came closer they lifted and flew back up the field, landing behind me. They were certainly finding food in the field, but as birds that eat invertebrates and berries I was stumped as to what it could be.

I crossed over the track at the end of the grass field and as I entered the grass field opposite, which is bounded on one side by Low Wood and at the other by the Henhouse Strip, I caught a whiff of fox. Fox urine is strong at any time but seems even stronger during their breeding season. This is hardly surprising as they need to advertise their presence to find a mate.  The weather conditions were also perfect for picking up a scent and I could imagine Vulpes vulpes, sometime over the past couple of nights, squatting over a tuft of grass to make other foxes aware that he or she had passed.  Further down that field, nearer to the loch, a dozen or so rabbits were out in the field having a late breakfast of unappetising frozen grass. As I approached they scurried into the wood, but even had I not seen them, their scrapings in the frost and plenty of fresh, round, droppings were evidence of very recent lagomorph presence.

I made towards the west end of the mainly-frozen loch and was surprised when two of the swans took off from the unfrozen west margins and flapped and pattered across the ice to study me from the surface of the ice near the far end. The swans on the loch are tame, like those on the Hill Loch, and much more inclined to swim towards someone than fly off.  I looked at the swans still at the edge of the loch and there were four – the correct number. The wary pair was in fact a pair of wild mute swans that had come in to visit, probably because their home loch or pond was completely frozen. Comparing those two with the domestic ones, their beaks were very much brighter and more orange, and they looked altogether bigger than the tame residents of Polish origin. They’ll be unlikely to stay, but it was nice of them to call in!

I skirted the west end of the loch and as I crossed the wooden bridge over the burn that runs into it, saw another of the four black rabbits that I know of on the estate.  It was sitting near its burrow beside the drystone dyke that, on a shooting day, bisects the line of guns waiting on pheasants being driven from the High Larches Wood. I’ll keep an eye on all these ‘ministers’ in the coming months to see if black offspring appear.  With the recent mild weather (apart from today) I’d be surprised if some of the doe rabbits on the lower ground are not already pregnant. The gestation period is 28-30 days and it is not unusual in mid-February to see evidence of a doe rabbit having pulled out some of her belly fur (which it does above ground) to mix with dry grass and line a nest chamber immediately before the kits are born.

As I climbed the short hill through the grass field that leads from the loch up to the shooting lodge I was aware of some small brown birds on the grass.  At first I thought they were house sparrows but even without the binos I could see they were much more industrious wee birds than sparrows. They walked (and ran) about the grass rather than hopping, and were slightly smaller and much more streaked than sparrows. The giveaway, confirming they were twite, was the small yellow beak – hardly a beak at all compared with other finches – and an almost imperceptible white edge to the wing in the bird that I was studying closely. There were five in the group, maybe a family group, and they busied themselves hunting the grass in their search for seeds.  Though I’ve possibly seen twite before, I’ve never recognised them as such.  As in an earlier encounter with an otter, I was so engrossed  that I never thought about the camera in my pocket. Damn!

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