Continuing my 2011/12 wildlife survey of a Highland Perthshire estate
Weather-wise, Saturday 28 April was a fine sunny day with no wind, and I was pleased to see when I parked at the farm that nine or ten house martins were showing significant interest in the nests of the previous year under the eaves of the owner’s house. They swooped in to the nests, some landing briefly, clinging on to their outer shell, before returning to join their airborne companions. They must have newly arrived and by next week I’d expect them to have begun repairs and refurbishment to their chosen nests. I looked carefully among the swirling birds for sight of a swallow. Though there was not a swallow among the group, a swallow flew over my head as I started to go down the road heading for Ranent. It came low and close to me, showing off its russet-coloured throat and long tail streamers. It was good to see these hirundine migrants again, and amazing to think that a few days earlier they would have been south of the Sahara in Africa.
I stopped opposite the marsh on Brodie’s Moor, watching the lapwings and oystercatchers. None were exhibiting warning calls at my presence, so no eggs would yet be hatched. They had been joined by new marsh inhabitants, which I recognised by their call before I saw them. The too-oodle, too-oodle; too-oodle drew me to a dark brown bird flying across the marsh, before landing on one of the wettest areas at the far side. Apart from the sound, the most obvious identification of the redshank was its long red legs stretched out behind it in flight, and the white rear edges to its wings. I saw through the binoculars that a second redshank was on the ground near to it, so, like the oyster catchers and lapwings, it would be terrific if they breed here. I’d earlier spoken on the phone with the keeper and he had caught 40 carrion crows and 2 hooded crows so far this spring, so the chances of breeding success of these waders must be enhanced.
Half-way down the road to the bottom of Ranent I stopped to watch a tree creeper. It had been feeding quite low down on a tree near me, and when it hopped round the back of the tree I moved closer, camera at the ready. Only a fraction of wild birds and animals comply with the wishes of photographers (I’m not really a photographer but I have a camera) and instead of hopping to my side of the tree again I saw it flying to the next tree, only much higher up. Further down the road I saw an oak tree that was virtually split down the middle, showing a two inch-wide crack. I wondered if that safe place might be the bird’s chosen nesting site. A jay flew from the keeper’s pheasant feeders as I passed, taking advantage of an easy breakfast of grain. Omnivorous birds have a definite advantage over specialist feeders, and hardly have to move far to maintain their food supply, unlike the house martins and swallow I had just seen.
Once into Ranent I quietly passed near the buzzard nest again. There was neither sight nor sound of the bird in the sky above, but I could see that slightly more greenery had been added to the nest. I wondered if the bird had remained on the nest as I passed. I cut up through the wood halfway along, having heard a green woodpecker’s kew kew kew kew coming from that direction. Almost simultaneously I heard a great-spotted woodpecker somewhere close on my right. It was not the normal single tick given by the bird, but a series of ticks, making me wonder if it was a warning call given by the male to warn the female on the nest of my presence. I never did see the bird, which vindicates the value of being able to make identification from sound. At the top of the wood a coal tit was feeding on the branches in a small birch tree. I was underneath the tree, and three times the bird came down and landed only 3 or 4 feet from me at the base. It was definitely keen on something there but wary of my close proximity. There looked to be a small hole in the trunk not far above ground level, and at first I wondered if this was where it was nesting, as coat tits nest quite happily at almost ground level, but when I looked more closely at the hole it was only a couple of inches deep. I moved off in any case to let the bird do what it needed to do, though its persistence to be at the base of the tree still puzzled me.
I made my way back along the top of the wood and stopped at a comfortable moss-covered rock to have a sandwich. My companions as I sat there were a buzzard circling and mournfully mewing above me (I wondered if this was one of the pair from a nest not too far from me half-way down the wood, though I’d never seen any evidence of the nest being used this year); a wren, which was trilling loudly in a juniper bush just behind me; and a bumble bee, which was busily buzzing about, landing every few feet to examine something that interested it. It was a sound I usually associate with summer, but bees had an early start this year with the exceptionally warm weather during March. Thinking particularly of the coal tit and the bumble bee, how little we really know of the everyday business of most creatures.
I had noticed as I sat down on the mossy rock that a rabbit had been plucked there. No bones or gut remained but there was clear evidence a bird of prey had been busy, and using the rock as a plucking post. I could see that a rock 10 yards in front was similarly festooned with rabbit fur. These two rocks were only 30 or so yards from the one where I’d noticed on 31 March the same evidence of plucking. Buzzards take young rabbits, but they don’t use a plucking post so far as I know. Sparrowhawks use a plucking post but their diet is restricted to birds. I may have been close to a goshawk nest, though I’m surprised I hadn’t seen any birds displaying earlier in spring. I’ll need to be a bit more observant when I’m in Ranent to try to get to the bottom of this.
I crossed the dyke onto Brodie’s Moor, making for the large stand of junipers. A great tit was sounding its che che che che alarm call at me. The old birch trees around me were full of holes, really suitable places for tits to nest, and undoubtedly its chosen nesting site was nearby, though I thought it a bit early for there to be eggs just yet. I was studying some of the suitable nesting holes when a red patch on a birch tree caught my attention. A look through the binos revealed a red squirrel sitting on a branch, which I managed to get closer to by taking a step sideways till there was a tree between it and me, and slowly walking forward. When I reached the tree the squirrel was just 10 yards away. It watched me with interest, then went sideways behind the branch it had been sitting on. The branch was quite thin, and the squirrel was hiding lengthways, which must have been a bit of a strain for it. I went forward another few yards, keeping another tree between us, and awaited the squirrel’s patience (or endurance at its awkward posture) to run out and for it to come back into view. It had the last laugh: after nearly ten minutes of fruitless waiting I noticed a small red patch in a fork of the tree just slightly higher than where the squirrel had been. Somehow it had managed to get there without me noticing, and was watching my daft human antics, just its ears and the top of its head in view.
Further through the junipers I found further proof that summer is on the way, in the shape of one of the warbler family. It landed on the ground ahead of me just long enough for me to get the binoculars on to it but not enough to make a study and identification. From the glimpse I had I would put it down to one of three: garden warbler, chiffchaff or willow warbler. My guess would be the willow warbler, but I’m still not expert on these wee brown birds, though getting a lot better, and I always need a minute or two to study them.
From the end of Brodie’s Moor I headed across the sheep field (now with sheep and lambs, each with bright yellow numbers sprayed on their sides linking lambs with mothers) and up past the small pond near the edge of the High Larches Wood. No goosanders there today, but an adult black rabbit ran down the side of the pond and through the fence into the roundel. It was either one I hadn’t seen before or one that had moved. Some bucks do tend to move in spring if they are ousted from their ‘home’ territory by a stronger rival, but there is obviously a strong melanistic gene in this area. Of the different variations in colour of wild rabbits black is the most common, though I have seen albino, ginger, light grey, ‘Dutch’ type rabbits with a white band round the ribs and white blaze on the nose, and rabbits with a steel-grey coat, which is a mix of black and white hairs and always without the white belly fur, this steel-grey covering the whole body. No doubt these genetic ‘sports’ were the origin of many of today’s domestic rabbits.
I cut through the L Wood, noticing a small herd of fallow deer grazing to the north-east of Creag Bhearnach Wood. It was the pure white fallow doe, Penelope, I saw first. She was in the company of five dark coloured fallow and one slightly dappled. I was still thinking about the deer as I walked past the edge of the Henhouse Strip, where I noticed a cream coloured fallow yearling lying under an old elderberry tree. At first I thought the deer was dead, then realised it had its head laid flat on the ground, hiding, as it would have done as a very young calf the previous spring. As I stopped and turned it realised it had been spotted and bounded through the wood. I was puzzled. I had seen Penelope with a cream coloured calf last summer, and had made the assumption that it was the one that I photographed at very close quarters at the edge of Creagbearnach on 5 March. That calf had been much whiter than the one I had just disturbed so there seemed to be a white calf and a cream calf. But why was the cream calf not with a group, and why was there not a calf with Penelope? More mysteries to be solved, but I had a feeling of foreboding about this wee cream calf on its own……….
I walked down the side of Low Wood, amazed at the number of rabbits in the wood, which forms a wide gully with a good view into the wood from the bank on the east side. It was already swarming with young rabbits; the mild winter had certainly benefited Lepus cuniculus. I stopped for a minute to watch a male bullfinch searching for buds in a rowan tree that was coming into leaf, and noticed in the background a black rabbit that was one of the ‘known’ ones; one I regularly see near the two small feeder ponds that lie just to the west of the estate loch. It was indeed a black rabbit day: as I continued on down the track between the loch and Dam Wood another of the ‘known’ black rabbits sat at the edge of the wood watching my progress. It had an amazing sheen on its jet black coat and was clearly in tip-top condition. This is one I have managed to get close enough on a couple of occasions to photograph, and yet again it obliged. It has no objections to shooting – though only with a camera.
It was a day not just of black rabbits but of puzzles. I encountered another mystery when I got back to my car at the farm: there was not a house martin or swallow to be seen!