On the lookout for hen harriers

Meadow pipits were back on the hill in force

Meadow pipits were back on the hill in force

Roe deer watched me from the hill face

Roe deer watched me from the hill face

Another of my walks while conducting a wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate in 2011/2012. Part 1 of 2


Saturday 31 March 2012.  Weather:  Mostly sunny and warm, though, contrary to the forecast, there was a light shower around 10.00 am.  Wind quite light.

As I drove north up the A9 an osprey flew over the road from right to left. It was coming from an area where there have been two nests in woodland over the past few years. It was great to see it back from its West African visit, though this was not the first sighting of the year: I’d spotted one sitting on the top of a tree in north Perthshire during a train journey to Inverness three days earlier. Anyway my sighting this morning seemed a good omen.

My first task on parking at the farm was to see if the tawny owl was still in the same place, which it was. It was on the same branch, facing the same direction, and it barely opened its eyes while I captured its digital image once more. Tawny owls nest quite early in the season, usually during March, so I suspect this bird could be a male as a female may well be incubating by the last day of March. I thought the Canada geese may have been nesting, but both were still on the loch below the ‘Tawny Owl Wood’. They were accompanied by about 15 mallard drakes, though the female mallard were absent. They are also early nesters: I once had wild mallard ducklings on my own pond on St Valentines Day. With a normal clutch of eight to ten eggs and an incubation period of around 28/30 days that early duck must have laid its first egg during the first week in January. Invariably these early clutches are unsuccessful, and in fact I finished up hand-rearing the Valentine’s Day ducklings after the mother deserted them because of a heavy snowfall.

I hadn’t been on the hill for a while and that was my first destination today.  As I climbed the track towards Fank Wood a flock of nine Canada geese, possibly parents with a previous year’s brood, flew south over the duck ponds. They swung round over the loch and I thought they might settle there, but they turned and came up low over the duck ponds, heading northwards again, and maintaining that height as they flew up over the sheep field and disappeared over the skyline. The sheep field was empty apart from the ubiquitous rabbits and a single oyster catcher, busily probing the dry ground in the forlorn hope of finding an invertebrate snack.

On the hill meadow pipits were back in force. Many of these skylark-like birds sat atop heather lookout posts as they claimed territory; others flitted with deep undulating flight on a mission to which only they were privy. One landed near me and I got a good look at it through the binoculars. It even stayed still long enough for a photo. What looks a plain brown bird is in reality something a wee bit grander than that. In a way it resembles a miniature song thrush with its pale yellowish breast streaked with chocolate brown. It has a white eyestripe, white underparts, white outer tail feathers and pale yellow legs.  I thought the males might have been singing, which they do as they rise off the ground, then parachute down again with wings fluttering half-open. Maybe it was just a bit too early, or maybe they were just having a rest…..

Six roe deer watched me from above the shooting pins of Butts partridge drive. I sat for a few minutes to watch them, but they seemed quite content to watch me. As I sat there cock pheasants seemed to be everywhere, strutting their stuff and giving voice to their testosterone-laden cuck, cuck, followed by a rapid whirr of flapping wings and raising of their head into the air, showing off their iridescent neck feathers and beetroot-red face topped with small feathery ‘horns’. By now the deer and I had reached a stalemate, to which I was first to capitulate. I walked on along the hill road, with the six pairs of cervine eyes following my every move.

The red-legged partridges also had breeding in mind, and any that rose at my approach were either in pairs or an occasional single still seeking a mate. Unlike the polygamous pheasant, where one male will gather a harem of as many hens as he can manage, then leave them to their own devices once they start nesting, partridges remain with the one mate and both share the care of their brood of chicks. Pheasants and partridges usually start laying around the middle of April, though with the mild winter and early spring they may be thinking of laying very shortly.

It was a ‘deer day’, and I watched three dark-coloured fallow deer walk slowly into a hollow, where they watched me with heads just above the heather. With their rather long necks and large ears they could easily have been mistaken for three hyenas. I noticed as they walked into the hollow that one seemed to be shedding its winter coat, and looked rather scruffy around the back end. Further along the track, as I was about to take the right fork up Grey Craigs, I spotted a roe deer sitting in the open halfway to the pins for the Grey Craigs partridge drive. It was aware of me, but had simply turned its head to watch rather than rise and turn round. I put the binos on it and wasn’t convinced that it was too healthy. It was less than 100 yards away, in the open, and seemed to have a lump in the area of the left shoulder. Or was it the way it was sitting? It certainly looked a bit scabby around the neck area, but that was probably the change from winter to summer coat. After a few minutes it rose and trotted off…….along with another deer I had not seen but which must also have been in the open. I was pleased. Since there were two deer, the chances are my initial fears of ill-health were probably unfounded.

I walked up Grey Craigs, photographing a fresh fox scat near the top of the track. With the weather having been hot and dry, this must only have been a couple of days old. The keeper has been ‘cleaning up’ quite a lot of foxes in snares, but he hasn’t got them all yet. He never will! Another 50 yards on, at the bend at the top of the road, I flushed a pair of red grouse. They flew off with the male telling me to go-back, go-back. Good to see them paired up, and I hope they have success in rearing a decent brood, though they have a few weeks to go yet till they lay.

At the top of the Grey Craigs hill road I cut left through the heather and up on to the ridge, where I could look down over the Allt Choire a Chaibeil burn. The estate owner is keen to have a pair of hen harriers nesting, and I thought the long heather rising from the east side of this burn was a likely place. I found a large flat rock on the ridge and sat down for half an hour to watch. I was looking for a male harrier displaying, with its beautiful skydancing display over the chosen nest site where he repeatedly flies almost vertically up into the air and flips over backwards to come down again almost as steeply. It is one of the most amazing displays of all the birds in the UK and I never fail to be thrilled by it. As I sat quietly I became aware of a roe deer lying in the heather on the other side of the burn, maybe 300 yards away. Just over a quarter of a mile down the burn, again on the other side but this time in the open on burnt heather, three roe were sitting contentedly. A light shower had been and gone and the day was warming up. It was quite pleasant sitting on the rock, and could have been really pleasant if I’d had a cushion!

I watched a bird in the binos flying over a small pool a mile away over on the neighbouring estate. I suspected I knew what it was but continued following it. It seemed about to land in a tree, which gave me some doubts as to its identity, but it bypassed the tree, then seemed about to land in a small lochan, which again gave me doubts about the species I considered it to be. Eventually it crossed over the boundary fence and landed on burnt heather on Cardney, giving a short bubbling call – just audible at the distance and no more – as it did so. Curlews neither perch in trees nor swim.  I sat on the rock a bit more than half an hour but I suspected I was still at least a week early for displaying harriers and moved on. I used to watch hen harriers regularly and my wife, Jan, was keen to come out with me one day when I told her it was just a case of sitting and watching. Question – how long do you sit? Answer – between three and four hours. No further questions. No further interest in watching harriers.

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