Part 2 of my 2011/12 wildlife survey tale told yesterday
As I walked up Spooky Valley, small groups of red-legged partridges rose from the scree on my right, most flying up over the high ridge behind them. Further up the valley a large flock of what I thought were fieldfares rose on the right and flew over the crest of the hill on my left. They were a good distance away and unfortunately had disappeared before I got the binos up to get a better view. By this time I was at No 6 peg, the spot where, as I described earlier, I had the most exciting hour of shooting of my life. Memories came flooding back as I looked at the peg down in the hollow and wondered if I would ever be lucky enough to stand there again.
I decided at this point to turn back and to make for the L Wood. I followed the dyke at the top of the grass field I had already been in and crossed fox tracks again half way along, just at the point where some junipers, rough heather and bracken encroach onto the field and where rabbits abound. The fox will know every inch of this area. I entered the L Wood at a gate half way down the fence and followed the track made by the gamekeeper’s quad bike (now replaced with a Polaris with a roof – much warmer, drier and of course, very much more posh!). L Wood has been a bare wood so far for birds, yet has everything that birds need. It is primarily young birch, with a good sprinkling of other mature hardwood trees, particularly beech, and one or two conifers round the outside. There seems no reason that birds should not be here in decent numbers in springtime. Finches form large flocks in cold weather – safety in numbers as a flock rising together confuses a bird of prey such as a sparrowhawk. Large flocks mean a lot of birds in one place, but an absence of birds elsewhere. Once the flocks disperse and the birds form pairs they’ll colonise every available wood on the estate.
In fact a surprise was in store: as I came round a corner I could see some birds under a pheasant hopper. Looking through the binoculars they were chaffinches, taking advantage of the wheat spilled by pheasants as they picked at the conical spring under the feeder that dispensed the grain. Among the chaffinches was a bird that looked almost identical, but wasn’t a chaffinch: it was a male brambling. I scanned the group again to see if there might have been a female but they flew up into the birches before I could check every bird. Bramblings have a rust coloured upper breast compared with the salmon pink colour of the chaffinch. The belly, the chin and the rump are white, which may be the easiest identifying features, since chaffinches have no white apart from on wing feathers. Bramblings are winter visitors from Northern Europe. From time to time in winter I see them at home, always in small numbers, feeding with chaffinches, though they have only ever been there, like today, in snowy weather.
I left the L Wood by the bottom gate and crossed over to the grass field between the Henhouse Strip and Low Wood. As I turned left on entering the field I looked back to the L Wood …. to see two roe deer crossing the path I had just left, then muzzling at the wheat under the hopper just vacated by the brambling and its chaffinch pals. The first roe was quickly obscured by trees, but the second was a buck with antlers beginning to grow back and of course in velvet. I had rattled the conical spring under the barrel as I passed so there was certainly a decent feed of wheat left for them.
I walked down the outside of Low Wood and crossed to the Dam Wood, also following it down the outside. I then made for a wooden bridge that would take me across the burn, which runs from the dam at the estate Loch. A tree had fallen, partly blocking the bridge, and I had to squeeze past. I was not the first to cross the bridge: a cat had crossed earlier, its rounded paw marks, with no claws visible, showed that it had crossed in the opposite direction to me. It had jumped a branch impeding its route (as it did mine) then, like a trapeze artist, completed its crossing on the narrow piece of wood running lengthwise at the outer edge. No-one near there owns a cat, so it is likely to be a feral moggie. These are the cats that in the northern half of Scotland hybridise with pure wildcats, depleting the already threatened gene pool. If it was a male, hopefully it was neutered before going feral. If not, it would be much better for wildlife, especially the Scottish wildcat, if it is tempted into one of the live-catch cat traps that the keeper is currently operating. With only 400 of our native Scottish ‘tigers’ remaining that are believed pure wildcats they need all the help they can get.
Leaving ‘Cat’s Bridge,’ I turned right down the estate road heading for the wood named Ranent. I walked slowly down the road, checking wherever I could into the gorge made by the burn hoping to see dippers. I’d be really interested to see where they nest in the spring, as it will be in this gorge somewhere. No dippers, but a lone woodcock rose and flew out the far side heading towards the Dam Wood. As I’ve said before they’re magical and mysterious wee birds and I’m always pleased to see one. Even more than the brambling, that made my day. I went into the top corner of Ranent, causing half a dozen pheasants to scurry off and the same amount of partridges to fly over my head. My entrance had not gone un-noticed by the jays, and two started to screech at my presence.
I continued on, still cutting the corner to a degree, till I was near the bottom of the wood, then followed parallel to and about 50 yards up from the bottom fence. At least two great-spotted woodpeckers were drumming; a tremendous method of communication as it carries a long way on a quiet day such as this was, only being interrupted by the mewing of three buzzards overhead. Halfway along the wood a flock of birds rose from among some oak leaves where the snow had all but melted. They landed near the top of one of the trees on the edge of the wood. I suspected they were fieldfares and I had some difficulty finding them for identification; every time one moved it was to land in a tree further away. I eventually found one in the binoculars and was surprised to see it was a redwing. I know that redwings are often along with fieldfares so I was keen to see what species the remainder of the birds were. I edged forward, but unfortunately so did the birds, now being three or four trees distant.
Giving the birds best for the time being, I made my way up onto a path that very gradually took me further away from the wood edge. I was hoping that they would fly back round me, giving another chance at ID. Meantime I could hear the chik of a great spotted woodpecker ahead of me. Before I could locate it, it flew over my head at tree-top level and landed four or five trees behind me, where it started drumming. Simultaneously I heard the kew kew kew kew kew of a green woodpecker. The sound came from the top side of the wood and probably a bit ahead of me. I scanned with the binos but still no sighting; it was probably too far away in any case, though I hoped I would fall in with it when I came back along the top edge of the wood. It was all happening at once! The flock of birds (redwings or fieldfares?) began to filter back over the trees at the bottom edge of the wood. As they landed behind me I managed to confirm two as redwings, so I thought it reasonable to assume redwings comprised the whole flock. There had recently been some extremely cold weather in north-eastern Europe that could cause a late migration, though I always thought that the redwings that wintered in Scotland were Icelandic birds.
I followed the fence line at the far end of Ranent (which I should maybe ask the owner to re-name Woodpecker Wood) and began to return along the top. I had to climb the edge of a rock face that came right to the top fence line, and as I did so I spotted an immature dark-coloured fallow ten yards away at the other side of the fence. I slowly reached into my pocket for my camera, every delicate movement being watched closely by the young deer, with ears facing forward straining to hear the least sound. I brought the camera ever so slowly up to face level, but the click as I switched it on was enough for the deer already on the starting blocks, and it was off. I gradually stood up and peered over the rock face, to see three fallow looking in puzzlement in my direction. I lifted the camera and took a couple of photos, but only got ears. The ears heard the clicks and now twenty fallow, all dark, were bounding into the trees, where they stopped for another look, still unsure of the danger. This time, with considerable luck more than any stalking or photographic skills, I managed to get a photo of the last three to melt into the trees.
I followed the fence line along the boundary with the neighbouring estate and climbed over once I came to Brodie’s Moor. I cut through the junipers and at the end, crossing a boggy patch, again sticking to the rabbit hops to ensure I didn’t sink in the bog. The rabbits had developed this safe route over many years and I’d have been daft not to trust to it. I could see two blue tits on top of a blackthorn bush at the side of the drystane dyke separating Brodie’s Moor from the grass field beyod. They were flicking their wings and clearly alarmed. I couldn’t hear them at that point but as I got closer I could hear their tsee tsee tsee alarm calls. Their calls had attracted another blue tit and there were now three on top of the bush warning fellow birds and mammals of danger. I had a good idea what the danger was, and made a squeaking sound, sucking with my lips, somewhat (hopefully) resembling a rabbit squealing in distress. Within a few seconds a small brown triangular face, with two dark eyes and an equally dark and shiny nose, poked out of the dyke. Knowing how inquisitive stoats and weasels are, I continued squeaking and he (or she) came out a bit further, resting his front paws on one of the stones to get a better look at me. He was a smart wee chap, with a light brown coat and white belly. He went back into the dyke and re-appeared two or three stones further up, repeating this twice more before giving up on identifying the cause of the squeaking. Whatever the weasel had been up to – or was going to be up to – the blue tits had given everyone around an early warning.
I headed back through the sheep field (still with no sheep) to the car, disturbing several rabbits en route that had been basking in the midday sun. Flattened snow, dirtied brown from earth on their paws or with urine stains ranging from yellow to orange, showed where they had been resting, and resonant thumps below ground conveyed their annoyance. My day in the countryside in the snow had been rewarding beyond all expectations.