Part 2 of the account of my 2011/12 wildlife survey from 1 March 2012. A walk in the estate woods called Ranent and Bericky, both great for red squirrels
Having munched my way through my roast chicken, I continued quietly along the wood, noting the high number of blue tits and great tits. I passed a line of freshly excavated mole hills with a dead mole lying near them. The mole had been dead for some time and certainly hadn’t been the busy subterranean worker that had been pushing all this rich and crumbly soil above ground. Moles seem not to be particularly palatable and are sometimes killed by a fox but not eaten, which might have been the fate of this wee fat chap in the black furry jacket. As I looked up another small flock of lapwings flew over the wood heading towards the estate loch; maybe the same flock as I had seen earlier still making their mind up where to settle for the rest of the year. In the distance I could also hear a swan flapping along the surface of the loch, maybe the male of one of the north shore pairs seeing off the male from the other pair. Their territories are fairly close and this might be a regular display of ownership and defence during the next few months.
Three-quarters way along the wood I cut uphill to avoid the rocky outcrop near the end of the wood as foxes sometimes cub in a den there. They’ll be cubbing shortly and I didn’t want to incur the keeper’s wrath by leaving my scent near the area and moving any fox that might be considering that den away to another den that might not be known. I like foxes but I have to respect the fact that part of the use of this estate is as a sporting estate and that foxes are controlled to protect game birds and wild birds alike, though will never be eliminated. At the top of the wood I cut back towards the estate road again, thinking, in contrast to my last visit to Ranent, I had not seen or heard any woodpeckers. Concomitant to these thoughts I heard the kew kew kew kew kew of a green woodpecker behind me. Since I’d not had much luck seeing this bird I found a comfortable seat on a moss-covered rock and sat for a while to see if the bird might come to me. Fifteen minutes into my wait I saw a group of fallow deer making their way, quietly and unconcernedly, up the wood towards where I thought the woodpecker might be. They were all dark coloured; in fact I’d never seen any of the light dappled variety at this end of the estate. They gradually picked their way up through the trees till they were lost to sight. Like the otter, the green woodpecker failed to show and I moved on up to Brodie’s Moor.
I picked my way up the west side of the junipers on Brodie’sMoor, heading away from Ranent at almost right angles, and was surprised to hear the familiar mocking call of the green woodpecker again. Assuming it was the same one, it had left the oaks in Ranent and cut the corner to issue its laughing cry from ahead of me. Though green woodpeckers feed quite a lot on the ground, I considered it wouldn’t be vocal while it was in that more vulnerable position. There were four or five old birch trees ahead and I suspected that’s where it was. I didn’t doubt it could see me, but even though I scanned the trees with the binos there was no sign of it. I walked slowly forward, hoping even if I couldn’t see it in a tree I would see it flying off; a flash of green and red with deeply undulating flight, closing its wings after every four or five flaps of its wings – much like some of the finches. Even before I finished my stalk I could hear it behind me in the Ranent oaks again.
Determined not to let this bird beat me, I turned to go back towards Ranent …. in time to see a huge bird, some distance away, soar at considerable height in the sky but quickly lost to my view as it disappeared behind a large birch tree. I was convinced it was not a buzzard but I needed a second look to gauge the distance that the bird was from me and thus get a better idea of its size. I ran forward and had to completely pass the birch tree before I saw the bird again, now almost a mile away and probably over the estate loch. Even at this distance there was no mistaking a white-tailed eagle, with its huge size and disproportionately short tail. I could see no white on the tail, probably meaning it was an immature bird. It banked at one point, giving me a great view of its broad wings, with long fingering on the ends. It was the underside of its wings I was seeing; the top side would have been much more interesting since all the young white-tailed eagles released as part of the East of Scotland reintroduction programme have different coloured tags. I fervently hoped it would bank again and show me the top of its wings but it now glided further and further away until it was just a speck in the sky. White-tailed eagles are much less wary of humans than golden eagles and it’s not unusual to see them comparatively close to human habitation. This is now the third live one I’ve seen in Tayside (unfortunately I’ve seen an equal number of dead ones, victims of deliberate poisoning) and can’t wait till they start to breed in this area.
The excitement had taken my mind off the green woodpecker, which I could now hear pecking at a tree. Green woodpeckers are less inclined to drum than their great-spotted cousins and the sound of this one tapping was as if a person was slowly and methodically hitting a tree with a small hammer. There was a hollow, resonant sound to its tapping and I suspected it was looking for insects on one of the many dead or dying trees. I also realised the tapping was coming from the place in Ranent where I had earlier sat hoping the woodpecker would come to me! I sat on a banking with a rabbit burrow beneath me and waited and watched again. A song thrush sang very close behind me and another some distance away, making my wait much more pleasant. A rabbit thumped a warning underneath me, anxious at my presence on its doorstep, but the sounds of the woodpecker had finished and I had to concede it to be the victor – for today at least.
I left Brodie’s Moor and made towards Bericky. A red kite flew quite low over my head, coming from the direction of Bericky and heading towards Ranent. That was a good sign. I hadn’t seen a kite for several visits, and now that I had seen one it was heading towards where they bred successfully last year. It didn’t have wing tags, but of course the one with the white and red tags and the radio tag was on one of the 2011 chicks and it had left the estate to prospect in the Crieff area, though it probably wouldn’t breed anyway until the following year. I walked through Bericky, going for the first time into the steeper section at the very top with mature larch and spruce trees. My attention was immediately taken with a red squirrel searching the ground for nuts or some other delicacy. It scampered round behind a fallen tree and as I closed in, camera at the ready, it climbed a short distance up a larch tree and sat on a larch branch holding some item of food to its mouth with its dextrous front paws. It would have been a great profile photograph, but it heard the ‘ping’ of the camera being switched on and jumped to the larch tree behind. I managed to get closer, keeping a tree between us as cover, and watched it finish off its morsel before gradually making its way further up the larch, run out along a branch and jump to a neighbouring spuce. It had seen me by that time and flicked its golden bushy tail several times in agitation before disappearing in the topmost branches.
As I emerged from Bericky a red kite was circling over Fank Wood. I’d no idea whether this was the same one I’d seen earlier but hoped that it was the second one of the pair. I continued on from Fank Wood across to the top side of the High Larches Wood, seeing three or four coveys of red-legged partridges en route, probably a hundred birds among the coveys, which is a remarkable amount for this small area and which might hopefully breed successfully later in the spring. They have settled down since the end of the shooting season and in each case only flew a short distance before landing again. I could see, through the bare branches of an old birch tree, two white dots bobbing away. At first I thought they were birds, then realised of course that they were the back-ends of roe deer. Predictably way they stopped to look back at me before finally jumping the dyke into High Larches Wood.
As I circled the wood I could see that the keeper had been busy with a trapping programme. I passed three fox snares, one of which I reset as it had been knocked, a tunnel trap for stoats and a cage trap for a feral cat. Crow trapping would also begin soon, all reminders that on an estate that depends on forestry, farming and shooting as well as valuing its wildlife, some species need to be controlled to protect others. The species that the keeper is legitimately reducing in number prey not only on pheasants and partridges, but on ground nesting birds such as lapwings, oyster catchers, curlew and mallard. When an estate is teeming with the number and variety of wild birds and mammals seen on so few other estates, those who don’t like game shooting surely can’t complain at this successful, albeit synthetic, balancing of nature.
My day finished with an unexpected bonus. I was loading my car with some blown timber, cut into manageable pieces, beside the owner’s house. At the other side of the steading there is a small wood of conifers and I was surprised to hear a tawny owl. I’ve heard tawny owls in daylight before, though it is quite unusual. This was not a full blooded hooo-hoo-hoooo of the male’s call, but rather a hoarse, gurgling, almost half-strangled hoooo-oooooo. This call is usually associated with a female tawny, whose main call is kee-wick. The owner had told me he heard plenty tawny owls at night and I had been thinking during my walk that I would need to come out some morning before first light to confirm their presence for myself. I was quite pleased that such an early morning start is no longer required.