Continuing the reports on my 2011/2012 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate, this time a visit to part of the estate I’d rather have missed out.
Monday 23 April 2012. Weather: A mix of cloud, showers and sunshine. Wind moderate.
It had been a fortnight of mostly wet weather since I had been on ‘my’ Highland Perthshire estate and I was desperate to get going again. The five-day forecast for the area showed that I might get through this morning without rain, but by 1.00 pm that would change. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were to be wet, and though Friday was to be dry, it looked as if it was going to be too windy. I settled for a morning on the hill and an afternoon, possibly at the weekend if the dry weather held over from Friday and the wind dropped (a big ask), on the lower ground.
When I parked at the farm, the first thing I did was to check for the tawny owl. No sign, so I thought my assessment that it was a female and on eggs had been correct. A lapwing ran along the grass field between me and the loch as I came into its view. I’ve often seen them doing this; coming off their nest and running for 50 yards or so before taking to the air so that their nest location is harder to detect. I spied the ground with the binoculars but there was no sign of a nest. Another lapwing was pee-weeping and tumbling in the air over on Brodie’s Moor. Chicks should be well formed in most of the eggs now provided the crows haven’t nobbled them. I looked over the loch with the binoculars. No sign of either swans or Canada geese nesting, so I doubt if that will take place this year. I must have a better look at the swans in any case as they may all be of the same sex!
A pied wagtail sat on the branch of a spruce tree beside me at the corner of the Tawny Owl Wood, then flew down to the grass field in front of me and sat on a molehill. I took a few photographs and only when I looked at the photos later did I see that in each one its head was cocked to the side either listening or intently studying the molehill. Its tail was still all this time, which was surprising. Was it concentrating? Its chief diet is insects so maybe more likely – rather than listening – it was looking for any sign of creepy crawlies. Its mate (presumably) was perched on a telephone wire behind me. Its black and grey and white feathers looked a bit dishevelled and not in the pristine condition of the mole hill explorer, so I wondered if it might have eggs, the crush into a nest somewhere in the farm buildings causing its more unkempt appearance.
I headed out to the hill, noticing that of three crows the keeper had caught in a crow cage, one was a hooded crow rather than a carrion crow. Even at 300 yards its grey back and breast were clearly different from that of its two captured companions as they jumped from perch to perch. Hoodies are found primarily in the north-west of Scotland, but they and carrions interbreed where their ranges overlap. A hoodie in this area is uncommon, though far from rare. Further up the hill road I got very close to a mallard drake in the pond since its head was underwater and bum in the air. Like the pied flycatcher, it was concentrating on food, but its manner of doing so made it much more vulnerable. It flew off in fright once it surfaced and saw me, but its panic was short-lived, and after circling twice I saw it land on the pond again once I was a few hundred yards further up the hill road. Whatever it had been eating it was keen to resume the feast.
The hill was quiet wildlife-wise, and by the time I got to the Mid Hill all I had seen – apart from the ubiquitous pheasants and red-legged partridges – was a roe buck. It watched me from half-way up the hill, then bounded away barking at me. It was a rather watered-down buuuff, followed by buuuff-buff-buff, then silence; not the full-blown long-winded version more common when a buck is disturbed during the rut in late July or August. I sat at the Mid Hill for a while as I was keen to see if there was any sign of the kestrels, which I hoped would be nesting on the crag on the east side. The female should be on eggs, and would only be off for feeding and exercise twice a day, but I thought the male might have been in attendance. I scanned the rocks in case he was on guard somewhere there, but no trace so I gave up after half an hour.
I took the right fork up Grey Craigs, stopping to admire a large patch of primroses among the heather. I heard the high-pitched song of a wren near where I had watched a newly-fledged wren family last July, then spotted it on a rock just above me. It flew down Grey Craigs 30 or so yards, then resumed its singing from a stunted larch tree. No doubt his lady wren had chosen from the many domed nests of moss and lichen he provides for her, and was sitting cosily on eggs. I wondered if it might have been one of the wrens I saw last year, but there was no way of knowing and it remains another of nature’s secrets.
I made for the flat rock where I sat on 31 March with a view down the Allt Choire a Chaibeil burn. Cloud had been gathering as I walked up through the heather, then as the clouds burst the rain came down in sheets, making me frantically jettison my rucksack and pull out my waterproof jacket and ‘bunnet’. When I reached the rock ten minutes later the rain had just gone off, but the rock was soaked, which meant I had to stand rather than take the weight off my feet for a wee while. Twenty minutes standing around was enough, especially when I saw nothing larger than a meadow pipit. I still think this would be the part of the estate favoured by hen harriers but they have been persecuted so much elsewhere and are now so uncommon on the east side of Scotland that the chance of a pair reaching this safe haven would be slim indeed.
I had now three different routes in my head to continue the morning’s walk. One meant a clockwise round-the-hill trek; the next meant a partial retracing of my steps and crossing North Spooky to get to the Hill Loch, while the third meant going down the hill directly towards the neighbouring march then turning left along the flat towards the hill loch. This entailed a 200 yards steep decline through rank heather to a swiped path, then a march along the swiped path to meet the track coming over North Spooky and heading to the loch. So I thought! The reality was decidedly different.
The decline was easy, as was the trek along the swiped path ………. until the path came to an end. The terrain ahead didn’t look too bad, but I thought the boundary with the neighbour at that point should have consisted of a stand of sitka spruce with half a dozen lying over the fence as a result of the winter winds. There was no sitka spruce in sight; only a stand of larch the best part of a mile ahead. Anyway I was now on a long patch of white grass where the going was half reasonable. A patch of dead bracken lay ahead, which didn’t look too bad either. Both areas were only 100 yards or so in length, then I was on to a boggy area cut into sections by a series of deep and narrow ditches. One of the ditches had cut really deeply into the land and must have been five feet down. If I’d fallen into there I might never have got out. I saw a walker with a spaniel on the path that runs round one of the neighbour’s lochs just over the boundary. He came from behind me and, because he was on a path, in no time seemed miles ahead of me, making my trek even more frustrating. I splashed and squelched through the bog, which degenerated into large – and not so large – tussocks of white grass. The going here was really difficult, with the potential of a twisted ankle every time my foot slipped off one of the mounds. This was a part of the estate I hadn’t walked on and I’d no intention of being back on it. It was a real trudge, with the larches now just ahead of me.
I stopped to get my breath (I’d still not managed to sit down since the Mid Hill) and heard a buzzard mewing on my left. I looked at the sky, but saw nothing, and eventually located it sitting on a rock 500 yards up the hill. Almost concurrent to my placing it, the buzzard took off, glided downhill and started to circle me, still mewing loudly. It clearly had a nest nearby, which could only have been in the larches. I found the nest on an outside larch, but really hard to spot with the tree now in almost full leaf. It was a smallish nest, almost certainly brand new this year. The buzzard was one which was almost pure white on the underside, and she didn’t like my presence there. I wondered, if it had been later in the year and she’d had grown chicks, would she have attacked me. So far my experience of buzzards with chicks attacking has only been towards joggers or cyclists, but she did seem quite a bold bird, though not quite in the league of most nesting female hen harriers.
I left the buzzard in peace and continued the slog at almost a snail’s pace, passing a hawthorn bush on which deer had carried out an exquisite exercise in topiary art, the lower half thick and tight, while the top half – out of reach of the deer – sprouted thin branches upwards and slightly outwards, making the whole bush now almost thistle-shaped. Once over the crest of the hill just past the hawthorn I could now see the sitka plantation, though still a further half mile ahead, and with still no sign of the track coming over North Spooky. Even had it been there it would have been little use to me as it would have been 300 or 400 yards up the hill and I’d decided to keep as close as I could to the contour I was on. I managed to follow a deer track from time to time, which made walking slightly easier, but unfortunately the destination of the deer seldom coincided with mine, mostly heading uphill away from the march fence rather than along parallel to it. In due course I got to the Hill Loch, but what I thought might have been half a mile of relatively easy walking in actual fact had been two miles of heavy slog. Apart from the buzzard, all I’d seen were a couple of roe deer that had been as daft as I was to be in that most inhospitable part of the estate.
Like on my previous visit, I’d only a relatively short time available and had to make for home. I intended to return to have a look at the lower ground on Saturday 28 April.