Part 2 of 2 of the detail of my walks while conducting a wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate in 2011/2012.
I retraced my steps along the ridge, then took a quad bike track that took me past some partridge release pens and down a gorge that ended at the pins for the Mid Hill partridge drive. I thought I might see the fallow deer again as I could now see into the metamorphic hollow that turns deer into hyenas, but there was no trace. The hollow maybe has other still-undiscovered powers. I crossed the hill road and walked along another quad bike track that runs past the beehives (still to appear for the summer), then cut right-handed into the top of Spooky Valley, en route photographing a holly tree manicured into the shape of a giant tear drop by the munching of deer over the years. I crossed the burn that bisects Spooky Valley and walked up the other side till I found a sloping area of grass to have a rest and survey the scene. It was indeed a deer day, as ten dark fallow had materialised below me and were nonchalantly walking up the dyke side towards High Larches Wood. I waited till they were out of sight round the corner before moving off, then followed a quad bike track along the face of the hill, before descending to the young grass field beside the L Wood.
After trekking along the dyke-side bordering the Craigmore Face, I turned right into the junipers that skirt the outside of the east end of Creag Bhearnach Wood. This is a lovely corner with a couple of acres or so of junipers edged by the wood on one side and by 50 or 60 birch trees and a single very old larch on the other side. The sun was still shining and there was lots of bird life among the trees. I sat for 15 minutes to try to establish what birds were there, either by sight or sound. Easiest were the woodpigeons, with their loud coo coo coo cooo cooo, cooo coo coo. As I was looking almost due south into the sun, one was ahead of me in a birch tree and one behind in the wood. Stereophonic sound indeed. Pheasants were still defending their territory, with their cuck cucks and wing whirring. A pair of red-legged partridges crept through the junipers, putting on a bit of speed as they noticed me. Jackdaws flew over from The Shoulder, chack-chacking to each other as they passed, and a chaffinch perched on a branch just above me, warning other birds of my presence with a continual pink, pink, pink. A blackbird was just audible in the distance; in fact I’d to listen closely to make sure it was a blackbird and not a song thrush, which of course repeats its notes. This was the first blackbird I had heard on the estate, even though I’d been hearing them at home for three weeks now. I had seen blackbirds from time to time along at The Shoulder, and this was maybe where it was.
As I sat I heard a bird I had not yet seen on her, though the owner said he recently had one below his feeders: a yellowhammer. Its song is unmistakable and is often described as sounding like a little bit of bread with no cheese, though it was not its song I heard but a sharp zit, zit, maybe echoing the warning of the chaffinch. I followed the sound and saw it perched momentarily on top of a juniper before it flew off. They are usually associated with nesting in gorse bushes, of which there are none (that I have seen) on this estate. Maybe it was just passing through, though they are late nesters, not usually laying until May.
A robin was next to feature, landing in a birch tree near me. Almost simultaneously a dunnock gave a very quick rendition of its song. It was a short, fast warble which was unmistakable. I have heard them singing several bars of their song, but like this one, often it is just a quick burst before losing concentration to do something else. I was just starting to move off when I heard the tic of a wren, which I saw on the root of the old larch tree. As I watched it, it kept waggling its tail from side to side, something I’ve never seen before. Many birds bob their tail up and down but this was a variation on the tail-wagging theme. I was in full view of it so maybe it was a warning signal: maybe I was supposed to be frightened by the tail-wagging and back off. I lost concentration for a minute, having noticed a run snaking down through the dead bracken and going under a branch of the old larch. It crossed my mind that this would be an ideal spot for a snare and looked along the run. The keeper obviously had the same thoughts and I saw a snare, almost invisible, on the run, ready to catch an unwary fox. As I moved on I thought that I had just witnessed a remarkable variety of bird species in a very small, but obviously very suitable, area. Missing were the jays that normally show their annoyance at human intrusion, but more of jays later.
At a gap in the dyke I cut through to the wood and continued westwards on the track that leads to the Hill Loch. I then turned left down the track that leads from the loch to the public road. As I’ve described before this is an amazing woodland of juniper, oak, pine and ash. I walked on, or rather limped, as I’d somehow twisted my knee a bit, the pain manifesting itself much more on a downhill gradient rather than on the level or uphill. The kew kew kew kew sound of a green woodpecker coming from high on the hill on my left stopped me in my tracks. I found a moss-covered boulder and sat down to see if it might come closer. I’d eaten part of my ‘piece’ on the flat rock on the ridge while awaiting a hen harrier; now it was time for the remainder. After quarter of a (rather large) sandwich there it was again, the mocking kew kew kew kew. After half a sandwich another rendition, then again after three quarters. But still no closer. As I finished my sandwich I had a distraction: a tree creeper landed on the tree in front of me, ten yards away, and started pecking at the bark for insects. I got my camera from my pocket, switched it on, put it to full zoom, but I couldn’t find the tiny tree creeper in the lens. I checked round the side of the camera and it was still there. I found it at last and was about to press the button…..when it flew off. A cock pheasant cuck, cucked and flapped its wings. The green woodpecker cackled again in derision. The tree creeper had moved to a tree to my left, but quickly went round the back of the tree. I reached into my rucksack for my juice, distracted while I fumbled. Kew kew kew kew again, this time from behind me. How the hell it got there I don’t know!
I gave up in disgust, stomping down the track to the road, then walking along the public road towards the estate entrance. A tawny owl hooted from the wood on my left; a half-hearted attempt – hooooooo; a pause, then hoo-hoooo, which I was sure was a male’s call. Unusual in daylight and now I’d heard it twice within a month.
I cut along the bottom of Ranent, a jay flying across the estate drive as I entered. It clearly hadn’t seen me and it panicked as I approached a boulder it had been behind. At close quarters I was almost dazzled by the pink and white and grey and black and blue of its feathers. It is by far the most colourful of the corvids, but its colour belies its corvid tendencies. Further along the wood I thought I saw two jays fighting. In fact it was a mistle thrush trying to see a jay off from a holly tree amongst the oaks in which it was taking an interest. The jay flew into the holly and the mistle thrush perched for a minute on a nearby branch. It flew into the holly and it and the jay came out again in a flurry of feathers. I was sure the jay was after the mistle thrush’s eggs and I edged closer. The mistle thrush flew off at my approach but the jay was still in the holly. I came round the top of the holly and heard a clatter of wings as a wood pigeon flew from the holly tree followed by the screech of the jay as it took off. I had a good look at the tree and the only nest I could see was quite far up. Mistle thrushes usually – though not always – nest in a fork, sometimes quite high up. This nest was on a branch. A high branch. I took off my rucksack and started to climb, but though I almost got within touching distance I couldn’t see into the nest. From the twiggy construction it certainly looked like a wood pigeon’s nest so maybe that had been the jays target. Half a century ago I would have managed to reach the nest, and even higher, but age brings either timidity or caution and I clambered back to terra firma. As the jay knows of the nest, I have little doubt the eggs are doomed, but after all that’s part of its diet, not grass or turnips.
I headed gradually uphill, restricting myself only to the first half of the wood. At the top I sat on a moss-covered rock (I wish moss covered the rocks on the hill as well), noting rabbit fur that seemed to have been plucked. Behind the rock there was a piece of rabbit gut – only the small intestine. From the diameter of the intestine it had been a young rabbit, and the plucking meant the predator (or scavenger if the rabbit had been dead already) had been a bird, almost certainly a buzzard or red kite. So only part of the mystery solved but interesting nevertheless.
At the top of Ranent I climbed over to Brodie’s Moor and walked up through the junipers there. I kept to the west side, up the edge of a very marshy section as I was keen to see if there were lapwings present as it is an ideal area for them nesting. Only one pair was there, rising silently into the air and quickly landing again as I passed. Hopefully their numbers will increase. There were certainly two pairs in the area on my previous visit. As I approached the farm and my car I looked back over Ranent and was pleased with what I saw. A pair of buzzards circled, but in addition, and mingling with the buzzards was a pair of red kites. They were over their nesting site of previous years and hopefully they will nest again this year.