Continuing the detail of my 2011/12 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate, part 1 of 1 March 2012 – On the loch with goldeneye and grebe. Part 2 (in Bericky and Ranent woods) follows tomorrow
Thursday 1 March 2012. Weather: Very mild (13 degrees), sunny with very little wind.
Spring was definitely in the air today, confirmed at almost first light by the sight of a rook breaking a twig from the top of one of my larch trees and carrying it off to the nearby rookery. This will be the first of many visits by this rook and its hundred or so cronies to prune the tops of my maturing larch trees.
The estate loch was my first destination today. On my arrival just before 8.00 am there was a boat ready for me with a fully-charged electric outboard motor, though as it hadn’t been tested there was a set of oars ‘just in case’. The loch was flat calm, and a couple of rafts of goldeneye were bobbing on the surface 100 yards offshore, but they were very jumpy and took off to the south east corner even before I got into the boat.
It was great to get back on to the loch again, especially on such a beautiful spring morning. The quiet purr of the electric motor and the swish of the silvery water being parted by the bow of the boat were joined by a chorus of birdsong. Mistle thrushes sang a stilted and slightly repetitive- but nevertheless wonderful – stereophonic duet from the north and south shores; a pair of oystercatchers flew from the north shore in a semi-circle over the boat, voicing their rapid peep-peep, peep-peep, peep-peep call, and a moorhen made its single kurr-uk call from deep within the reedbed near the boat anchorage, answered by another skulking out of sight further round the reeds. This was a great start, and I’d only just got on to the loch.
I scanned round the loch with the binoculars, as I was keen to see what was there with as little disturbance as possible. The raft of goldeneye in the south-east corner numbered about 30. The goldeneye normally nests off the ground, in tree holes or nest boxes in woodland near to a loch. Some already seemed to have paired up, though I’ve no idea if there will be suitable sites round this loch. Since there are such high numbers of goldeneye here maybe we could get some nest boxes up for next year. Some mallard were behind the goldeneye, mostly resting on the shore. Some took off in fright as a heron pitched in over their heads to land at the lochside in the hope of a fish small enough to swallow. It was a mature bird, and I could see the long plumes of its crest as it stood with neck bent forward ready to strike any unwary fish.
I veered right, up the loch and away from the goldeneye. A lone great-crested grebe was in the middle of the loch and I wondered if its partner was another lone grebe I had glimpsed from the car as I passed the adjacent roadside loch earlier. Three pairs of swans seemed to have established territories now, with one pair at a reedbed right at the top (west) end of the loch, and the other two at reedbeds on the north shore. I wondered why there were no young reared last year. Maybe I’ll get the answer this year. As I headed up the loch a small flock of about 15 lapwings flew over. From underneath they looked like a flock of male hen harriers (not that any harriers would flock) with their white underparts and black wing tips. That’s the lapwings and the oyster catchers beginning to come back now from their winter coastal haunts, though with the mild winter we’ve had they could easily have been back much earlier. I always thought weather was the trigger, but another trigger may well be the time of year; maybe mid-February, even with mild weather, is too early.
Another bird that spends its winter on tidal mudflats and salt marshes was now also back. I was thrilled to hear what is probably the most magical of bird sounds: the bubbling coooor-lee, coooor-lee, coooor-lee song of the curlew came from just behind the trees on the south shore. The first sight (or sound in this case) of a curlew is yet another true reminder that we have left the worst of the winter weather behind and that we are now entering what is – at least for me – the best season of the year: springtime. Somewhere between me and the curlew a great-spotted woodpecker drummed on a tree in support of the curlew’s promise of spring. I cut the motor so that not even the slightest sound interfered with this delectation.
Having savoured the moment, I started off up the loch again, disturbing one of the most wary of birds, a cormorant, which was a good 200 yards away in the centre of the loch. It is the most persecuted of the sawbill ducks, hence its reticence to be anywhere near humans. It flew off towards a neighbouring loch to resume its fishing there. Beyond the cormorant there were another three pairs of goldeneye and three females in the bay at the top of the loch, so rather than disturb them I moved right again towards the ‘otter’ bay. With the flat calm surface any otter movement would be easy to spot and I fervently hoped it would emerge from its holt for a spot of fishing or exercise. I’m much more aware now than when I last saw it of the camera in my pocket, but it didn’t oblige today. I had sat with the motor off for 15 or so minutes, and was entertained by a large trout that kept rising between the boat and the shore. It broke the surface four times, each time moving about ten yards further along the shoreline. Though it never came right out of the water it seemed a substantial fish, but I couldn’t determine whether it was a brown trout or a rainbow.
With no show from the otter, I headed down the loch again, noting another raft of goldeneye – maybe 30 or so again – near the north shore. I kept my distance from them and swung further right to avoid the great-crested grebe, which had now moved further down the loch not far from the anchorage. I steered between the grebe and the flotilla of goldeneye still at the south-east corner. There would be at least 60 goldeneye on the loch, probably as high a number as on any of the Scottish lochs. I edged the boat into its berth and chained it up, having thoroughly enjoyed my outing.
Leaving the estate loch, I parked my car at the farm and walked down to the bottom of Ranent, rapidly gaining favour as my favourite wood. I passed a frog, squashed on the road. It seemed a pity that this poor wee amphibian managed to survive the winter in hibernation only to be killed as the breeding season is about to start. It was fresh and would make a snack for a buzzard or a red kite. As I entered the wood near the bottom of the estate road I sat to eat my ‘piece’, some roast chicken. I sat on the trunk of an oak tree that had fallen some years earlier and was now covered in moss, which gave me a comfortable cushion. Rabbits also favoured this perch, their droppings the length of the trunk evidence of their regular use of it as a thoroughfare or look-out post. Sitting quietly in the sunny glade I was aware of two chaffinches singing. Both had the very same version of a song which has regional variations, normally in the last few notes, and I could hear that the ending was slightly different from ‘my’ chaffinches at home. I was also being regaled by a song thrush and a robin. This was the first song thrush I had heard this year. They are lovely songsters, repeating each line of their song three, four or even five times. The song thrush has a loud ‘voice’, and this one seemed to be at least 100 yards up the wood yet I could hear every note clearly. The robin, meantime, was in a holly bush just behind me, singing vigorously to proclaim its territory. It would not allow any other robin, except for its chosen mate, inside the invisible territorial boundaries, and might even fight to the death with any interloper. For such delicate birds they’re certainly feisty and aggressive.