My survey – Part 1 – hen harrier and roe casualty

A female hen harrier attacking me (photographed during a licensed project with schools and estates)

A female hen harrier attacking me (photographed during a licensed project with schools and estates)


The dead roe deer under the crag. Well predated by foxes and scavenging birds.

The dead roe deer under the crag. Well predated by foxes and scavenging birds.

Continuing with excerpts from my wildlife survey of 2011/2012

Saturday 28 January 2012.  Weather: Cold (-2 degrees) with white frost, but sunny and mostly blue sky. Very light wind.

I started with a quick look down to the estate loch. I thought it would have been completely frozen after two nights below freezing, but noticed when I passed a roadside loch en route that there were quite big areas that were not frozen. I suspected the estate loch would be no different. That was the case, in fact it seemed that the estate loch had been even less affected by ice. Upwards of a dozen goldeneye were swimming in the bay at the east end. The large, round, white patch above the beak of the males was easily visible even before I got out of the car, but I wished I had stayed in the car as they were very jumpy and took off up the loch as soon as they saw me, even though I was more than 100 yards away. The tufted ducks that had been near them, much less concerned about human presence, were unfazed and remained where they were (or below the surface, feeding). I scanned the loch with the binoculars, recognising a pinky-white bird away at the far end of the loch as a male goosander. A few mallard were at the edge of a reedbed between me and the public road, and, apart from the usual pairs of swans, that was my lot. The adjacent loch has a far bigger variety of waterfowl than this, and I am quite sure they regularly visit the estate loch, though maybe just on the days that I’m not there!

I drove up to the farm and parked up, thinking on my way up the estate road about a diseased rabbit I saw in the sheep field on my last two visits. I scanned the field with the binos and saw a rabbit carcass not far from where I had last seen it feeding. Heading up the field I examined the carcass; the crows had picked out the eye that had been facing skywards and the body was well predated, probably also by crows, though maybe with some help from buzzards and red kites. When I turned the rabbit over, the other eye was clear and eliminated myxy as the cause of death. I suspect it would be the one I thought either had coccidiosis or enteritis and wasn’t at all surprised that it had died.

I headed up through the middle of the sheep field and the one above it, heading for the corner of Fank Wood. A buzzard was sitting on the fence near the corner and seemed huge in the binoculars. Even without the magnification it was a large bird, and probably a female, which in the manner of birds of prey is considerably bigger than the male. When I walked round Fank Wood I was surprised at the number of spruce trees round the edge of the wood that had the tops completely taken off them by the wind. If this was the damage in one small wood, the recent winds must have damaged or toppled thousands of trees across Scotland.

After having circled the wood anti-clockwise, I came out on to the hill road just at the top side of it, and continued out the hill. I was pleasantly surprised to rise nine mallard off the wee pond that is on the right just a quarter mile or so out the hill. Despite the pond having hides for duck shooting (which must indicate that ducks at least used to come in to it) I had never seen ducks on it. They curled back over my head, probably heading for the ponds down near the farm. With my attention on the ducks, I just got a fleeting glimpse of a bird of prey that came from left to right and disappeared over the crest of the hill. I immediately though ‘hen harrier,’ even having seen it for just a second. It was too light-bodied for a buzzard, was slim like a kite but did not have a forked tail, and had a longish tail.  All this pointed to hen harrier and I was frustrated I hadn’t had enough time to confirm the sighting. I continued up the road, hoping to see it once I was round the next bend.

The next bend unfortunately gave no view to the right of the road, as there was still a crest.  Annoyed, I marched on and took a right fork off the main hill road on to the track that goes round the neighbouring march. I noticed four roe deer on the skyline ahead but ignored them for the time being and concentrated on looking for the unconfirmed hen harrier. Luckily it appeared again, though still only a quick view before it disappeared over the near horizon. This time there was no mistake, with the clearly visible white rump and long tail with dark coloured bars across it letting me confidently identify it as either a female or immature hen harrier. Though male hen harriers are a beautiful grey-white colour with black wing tips, they don’t metamorphose into this completely different-looking bird until around two years old. If it is a female I hope it remains on the estate to nest in late April.

My attention returned to the four roe, which were still on the skyline in almost exactly the place I saw three on my last visit. They looked in great condition and have had an easy winter so far, though February can sometimes bring heavy snowfalls.  It seemed to be a day for roe deer, as further along the hill, between the partridge drives known as Mid Hill and Grey Craigs, three roe were making their way up the hill, gradually curling right-handed to the area of the two stunted holly trees. So there were maybe three topiary artists rather than just one. Maybe the doe I had been watching since the summer time did have twin fawns after all. They certainly seemed to regard this patch as their territory.

One of the Mid Hill buzzards was circling above as I came to the next Y fork. I headed right up Grey Craigs again, meaning to try a different route round the hill for a change, and – again for variety – walking on a swiped track that ran parallel to and 30 or so yards to the right of the hill road. Half way up Grey Craigs I was thinking that I hadn’t seen a mature roe buck on the hill for a while, and that the last one I saw had been just at this point. Roe are unusual in that they shed their antlers in winter rather than in summer when food is more plentiful.  In January antlers will either be absent or beginning to grow and in velvet. I was still thinking about the Grey Craigs buck when I looked across to the west side of the hill road and saw what I was sure was a dead roe deer half way down the face. I confirmed this with the binoculars, and also realised that it was directly under a vertical crag about 40 feet high.  I wondered if the deer had fallen over the crag, and, of course, if it was the buck that had barked at me in August.

I crossed over to the hill road and looked up towards the crag. The face of the hill was extremely steep, beginning with about twelve feet of scree at the bottom. I hate walking up scree and as soon as I put a foot on it I liked this version even less. It was covered in frost and ice and if the scree did not give way and start to avalanche then my foot slid over the stones, upward progress was reversed and I finished up at the bottom again. Buggeration! After several attempts I eventually managed to get far enough up the scree to get a hold of some heather, but before I managed to pull myself up my feet slid away again, though I stoically retained hold of the heather. There’s not much you can do, even with a handhold if you are stretched straight out, and I’d to start again. This time I managed to grip the heather and keep my footholds. I gradually went up the remaining part of the scree rather like a caterpillar; drawing my feet up almost to my hands, then reaching out again for another strong chunk of heather. It was an effort, and once past the scree even the steep climb to the crag seemed a dawdle.

The deer was a doe, probably a young doe.  Though it was quite fresh, three quarters of the carcass had been predated. Foxes had definitely been a diner at the banquet as one of the deer’s back legs was turned almost inside out, something even a golden eagle couldn’t do. There were white splashes of bird droppings around the deer, so birds – possibly crows, ravens and buzzards had been there; maybe even a golden eagle or red kite. I looked around for any fox scats and was surprised that there were none as they often ‘mark’ a carcass in this way. From the considerable tufts of deer hair and some blood under the overhang of the crag the feast had begun tight into the rock underneath the overhang. It couldn’t have fallen to that position. I doubted even if it could have fallen to the position it was in now as it was still slightly under the overhang and would certainly have bounced or slithered further down the slope had it fallen. I felt the deer’s legs but none appeared broken.  The two forelegs felt as though they were dislocated, but that was just because the muscle joining them to the shoulder and breastbone had been eaten away. I doubted it could fall 40 feet without breaking at least one leg and had to conclude that it had been unwell or even injured and had simply died under the overhang. It was a pity, but at least it wasn’t the buck.

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