An amazing estate for juniper

Some of the many hundreds of juniper bushes on Brodie's Moor

Some of the many hundreds of juniper bushes on Brodie’s Moor

An adult rabbit and a young one in Bericky wood

An adult rabbit and a young one in Bericky wood

Continuing my walk during the wildlife survey of a Highland Perthshire estate in 2011/2012

Monday 9 April 2012.  Weather:  Dull with a few light showers

I’d only a short time available this morning but returned on Thursday 12 April to continue with a walk on some of the lower ground of the estate. The weather forecast was good, and despite rain when I first went out the door at 6.00 am the sky had cleared by just after 7.00 am. My first job was to check on the tawny owl. I was disappointed it was not on its usual perch, and I made a check of the rest of the small wood to no avail. That’s not to say it wasn’t there since they are so difficult to spot, but I certainly couldn’t see it. Maybe it had been a female and was now on a clutch of eggs; after all it was a female I had heard in the wood on 1 March. If it was a male maybe it had found a roost nearer the nest hole. I was pleased, though, to see three pairs of lapwings as I walked down the estate road next to Brodie’s Moor. They should be on eggs now as I regularly remember clutches of eggs we had to shift and replace, or work round, when we were harrowing or rolling newly-sown grain at the very beginning of April. Let’s hope the carrion crows leave the eggs and subsequent chicks in peace as lapwings are really getting scarce.

Nearer the bottom of the estate road I heard a green woodpecker calling off to my right, probably up on the hill somewhere around the Ten Acre.  It called half a dozen times, with the sound always from the same place. As I entered Ranent at the clearing with the high seat used in the control of deer I heard another green woodpecker ahead of me. These birds seem quite common here but why are they so hard to spot; I used to see green woodpeckers regularly when I was young, and that was without even trying! There are three buzzards’ nests at this end of Ranent, though it was the third one I visited that seemed to be in use this year. A buzzard wheeled above the nest, calling in displeasure at being disturbed. A couple of small branches woven into the nest with leaves still green were indication of current use (apart from a blue tit that cheekily sat on the edge of the nest), and I moved on quickly to let the bird back as there may well have been eggs in the nest.

I still wanted to leave the far end of Ranent in peace as that’s where I suspected the red kites could be nesting, and they are more inclined to desert a nest than a buzzard. In any case they are Schedule 1 birds and it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird included on Schedule 1 while it is building a nest, or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young. I didn’t know that it was nesting there, but since I suspected it might be, that was a good enough reason to keep my distance. I therefore cut up through the wood about three-quarters way along and started to come back along the march dyke with the neighbouring estate to my right. The keeper has reduced fox numbers over the past six weeks, but a fresh scat on top of a tussock showed that there was still at least one around.

I’ve had many ‘specialist days’ on this estate, such as ‘deer days’ and ‘red squirrel days’.  This was starting to be a ‘day of pairs’, which is hardly surprising in spring.  Along the wood a further 100 yards I stopped to look at a pair of blackbirds. I was sure they were nesting – or going to be nesting – in the vicinity. This is rather unusual as I would have thought oak woodland is normally too dry for their favoured diet of earthworms.  They were close to a part of the wood where a trickle of water running down through the wood has formed a slight bog, with the resultant damp-loving trees such as willow starting to take hold. They are also not too far from Brodie’s Moor, so I’ll watch with interest to see if they nest in the willow thicket.

The blackbirds have a companion in a wren, which can nest virtually anywhere. I heard its strident song before I saw it. It had been in the centre of a huge oak limb that had snapped off in the gales and now lay on the ground, but it flew to the single strand of barbed wire atop the dyke to give me an even louder version of its song. It was a lovely shot for a camera, but although it sang three or four bars it was off back to the safely of its oak limb before I got the camera switched on. Damn! As I waited to see if might re-emerge I heard the single chik of a great-spotted woodpecker. Had this been in different habitat it could be confused with a similar single warning note often given by a starling. I could hear the soft tapping as the woodpecker probed a tree for insects, but the territorial drumming has finished for the season and the birds are now much more discreet.

I crossed the dyke to Brodie’s Moor, and was regaled by the sight of skein after skein of pink-footed geese flying over. They were in V formation high in the sky, beaks all pointing to the north, and no doubt gradually making their way back to their breeding grounds in Greenland and Iceland. As they head north away from us, many other species will shortly be heading north towards us, and I look forward to seeing and hearing several that I missed last year.  Though the day so far had been OK weather-wise, the sun suddenly shone through, perceptibly heating the air.  As if warmed into life like a cold-blooded lizard on a sun-kissed rock, a blue tit on the top of an alder tree above me sang its tsee-tsee-tsee, tsee-tsee- tsu-tsu, tsee-tsee-tsu, tsee-tsee-tsu, finishing as if in a flourish with a long trill. At the same time an oyster catcher started to call from the marshy area of the moor beyond the junipers. The call started off with the pweep-pweep, pweep-pweep, pweep-pweep, then graduated into a long and rapid peep-peep-peep-peep-peep. Though I couldn’t see them I could visualise the male – the one calling – flying in a circuit over the marsh in pursuit of the female, possibly the latter part of the call being emitted as they both landed; piebald birds with their plumage colours in complete contrast to their deep orange of their beaks and blood-red of their eyes. Spring and early summer are great seasons for listening to birds, which is at least as interesting as seeing them.

I crossed to the far side of the junipers, seeing two pairs of dunnocks, at different places, busy round the bottom of the bushes, peck and hop, peck and hop. It’s a handy aid to identification that some birds hop, such as the dunnock and blackbird; some walk, such as the starling and the partridge; and others, like the magpie have a mix of hop and walk. At the end of the moor I heard a tawny owl hoot. It was the real thing this time hooooooooooo, then a pause followed by a bubbling hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooooo, not the half-hearted daytime hoots that I’d heard on other occasions. The sound came from coniferous trees just on the boundary with the neighbouring estate. I scanned with the binoculars but saw nothing. I heard another tawny owl later in the morning in the Henhouse Strip. Both appeared to be males and I can only conclude, firstly, that daytime calling by tawny owls is much more common than I realised, and secondly, that it is probably related to keeping in touch with a mate.

I crossed the dyke out of Brodie’s Moor, disturbing a woodpigeon from a nest in the blackthorn bush used (in an earlier visit) by three blue tits to pronounce a warning to all who would listen of a weasel nearby.  I stood on top of the dyke to try to confirm the presence of the normal clutch of two white eggs but I was still a foot or so short. I walked up round the top of the duck ponds, counting 12 adult rabbits and two half-grown ones outside a large warren in the sheep field. Two pairs of common gulls shared the field with them. I wonder if the gulls have their eye on nesting at the edge of the duck ponds. I’ll watch with interest, though the colonial-nesting common gulls I’ve seen seem to prefer damp, open moorland, pebbly islands in rivers or round stony loch shores. At the far end of the field a red-legged partridge defended his territory from the top of a molehill, before scurrying off as I came closer.

I climbed the hill and went into Bericky Wood about half-way up. Another two dunnocks were exploring the ground under spruce trees. I wondered if these rather spiky conifers would make suitable nesting places for dunnocks, but there was little alternative. As I stood with my back to a tree an adult rabbit hopped down the ride, coming quite close before stopping and sitting on its hunkers. A young rabbit hopped from my left and sat a few yards from the adult. Another adult rabbit crossed from right to left, then back again. Dappled sunlight was coming through the trees and I noticed that, whether by coincide or by intent, the young rabbit and the (very close) relaxing rabbit were each sitting in a shaft of light. Much as I was enjoying the rabbit parade I’d to move on, which meant the rabbits had to do likewise.

I left Bericky near the top end, cut across to Fank Wood, where I skirted the bottom edge before heading over towards High Larches Wood. As I passed a small pond on my journey two female goosanders took off, blurs of grey and white with fast and shallow wing beats. Four mallard drakes remained behind, and as I passed close by I was reminded of how relaxed and unafraid many birds become after the end of the shooting season. I walked through the small roundel at the north-east end of the High Larches as there had been an old buzzard nest there and I wondered if it was being used this year. Despite the fact that it was quite an obvious nest the last time I was through the roundel, I couldn’t find it. I gave up and became much more interested in any case in a pair of long-tailed tits that were feeding high in a larch tree that was just blossoming into leaf. I’ve never seen a long-tailed tit’s nest so I’ll return to the area later.

My journey was finishing as I passed one of the keeper’s crow cage traps. Four carrions crows were inside, their time on the estate just about to come to an end. In the grand scheme of biodiversity their loss, or the loss of the dozens – maybe hundreds – of eggs and chicks that they would guzzle had they not been trapped, would make no difference. On a more local scale there should be a better success rate of ground-nesting birds.

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