Part 2 of one of the days during my 2011/12 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate:
Monday 5 March 2012. Weather: Cold wind first thing but the day warmed up in the sunshine and the wind became weaker by 1000 am. Clouded slightly at midday, then quickly returned to full sun. Peaked at 11 degrees.
Getting clear of the farm and its surrounds at last, I headed up the road towards Fank Wood. A small flock of greylag geese briefly flew parallel with me, spread out in the loose formation more significant of seeking out a feeding place rather than the disciplined V formation more usual when moving from point A to point B. They curled back over the duck ponds as if showing an interest, but if they had an interest it quickly waned and they flew on southwards again. On the other side of the track a pair of oystercatchers were feeding, and between them and me a single starling pecked greedily at the ground – maybe an emissary of the larger group there in the autumn and scouting to assess the suitability for the flock’s return – then flew to the company of the oyster catchers as I came closer.
I cut anti-clockwise round two sides of Fank Wood then headed uphill alongside the neighbouring march dyke. I was intending visiting a small pond well off the hill track, as I’d never been close to it before and wondered if it held any interesting secrets. The shallow water was frozen after the sharp overnight frost and since it was crystal clear I could see the rich weed life under the thin ice, which would be great for amphibians such as frogs and newts. A pair of mallard, probably having been prospecting for a nest site, rose from the heather just beyond the pond. I regularly saw drake mallard at home intently watching their mate choosing a suitable nesting site, the drake sitting near the chosen site early each morning as the female laid her daily egg; an easy indication of the nest location to the knowledgeable observer.
I returned to a minor fork of the hill road, cutting a corner past the pegs of Butts partridge drive to join the main hill road, where I found a suitable flat-topped rock for a seat. I scanned the hill to the north-west and saw two roe deer quietly feeding on the area of last year’s big fire. Further up the hill were three more roe, but they were alert, with their heads up, and bunched together as I watched. I could see nothing to alarm them but something clearly was, since they started to walk down the hill towards me, the walk turning into a trot. Looking up to the north-east I could now see two figures coming into view: a young man wearing a green top and a young woman with a brilliant white top and with a small greyish terrier-type dog on a flexi-lead. They seemed incongruous with their surroundings, having none of the more usual hill walkers’ clothing, rucksack or, so far as I could see, binoculars. They were still quarter of a mile distant, but then disappeared round the back of the hill out of sight. I thought little of it and took advantage of photographing the roe deer, now only 60 yards away.
I continued along past Mid Hill, with the pair of Mid Hill buzzards in attendance overhead. I heard the prukk of a raven, though trying to see the bird meant looking straight into a blinding sun, and I saw nothing. It must have been some distance away as it was a good few minutes before it eventually passed behind me, curled round the Mid Hiill and flew up over the Butts drive towards where I had last seen the couple with the dog. I watched to see if there was a reaction from the raven which might give me an idea where the folks had gone. The raven continued straight on, heading north-east, which I took to mean that the couple had not gone that way, and had probably continued on a route pretty much parallel to mine, round the back of Mid Hill.
I took the left fork on the hill road ahead, taking me up the side of North Spooky. I continued over North Spooky and met the keeper in his posh Polaris at the other side. I chatted to him and casually mentioned that the couple I had seen were the very first folks I had seen walking on the estate since I started the survey last August.
Leaving the keeper, I walked down the steep (and exceeding greasy with the frost coming out) hill track leading down towards another adjoining estate march. The track veered to the left and became more level, which was a relief as I hadn’t enjoyed my earlier slipping and slithering, with clay building up on my boots, making the going even more difficult. A herd of ten fallow deer, all dark coloured, trotted over the track ahead of me and made towards the Hill Loch. Dark is definitely the predominant colour of fallow on this estate. A single dark adolescent fallow grazed unconcernedly right down at the march deer fence. Several large sitka spruce were lying over the deer fence since the winter’s high winds, making its purpose of keeping deer in – or out – redundant.
It was now 12 noon and I had a welcome stop on a rock in a sheltered sun-trap gully overlooking the Hill Loch. On each side of the gully were a few dozen larch trees, interspersed with an occasional spruce and pine. It was a lovely tranquil setting. As I ate my lunch I watched the mallard on the loch. Two lots seemed happily paired but a single duck had the close attention of two drakes that chased her around the loch with much quacking and splashing, and occasional aerial sorties culminating in much more splashing as the three landed on the water almost in a heap, such was the intent of the drakes to mate with the harassed duck. A flash of red from my left brought my head round to see a red squirrel bound across the ground and climb a few yards up a larch tree. It regarded me suspiciously for only a second or two, and climbed higher for a better – and potentially safer – look. I reached into my pocket for my camera but the squirrel was not in photogenic mood and raced along a branch to allow it to the next tree, a spruce, where it climbed to the top out of sight. I’ve had ‘roe deer days’ on this estate, ‘fallow deer days’, ‘buzzard days’, ‘red kite days’, ‘woodpecker days’, but never ‘red squirrel days’. This was to turn out to be such a day as there was much more to come.