Continuing accounts of my wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate during 2011/12.
Saturday 5 May 2012. Weather: Sunny, but cold wind first thing, with temperature of only 4 degrees. Wind moderated and day had warmed up by 10 a.m., and was at 10 degrees by midday.
The keeper had told me that when he was mending a fence separating the estate road from Brodie’s Moor there was an oystercatcher sitting on three eggs just ten yards inside the fence. I saw the bird as I drove up the road, sitting cosily in what looked like one of the hoof prints of the three highland cattle on the moor. Swallow and house martin numbers seemed slightly fewer this morning. I wondered if this had been a stopping-off point for some of the house martins, which had now moved further north. I know that sand martins, while migrating north or south, rest in the colonial nest burrows of other sand martins. This had been a crucial piece of evidence from an expert in the trial of a farmer who razed a sand martin colony to the ground, and where the prosecution was required to prove that the burrows were still being used. However I think there is less chance of house martins using old nests on migration north as many will have fallen off or been removed over the winter. Two swallows landed on the roof of one of the buildings, one on the ridge and one just below its mate, giving me a good photo opportunity.
I checked again for the tawny owl, but there was still no sign. As I was lowering the binoculars there was a flash of red on my left as a male redstart flew off a branch. It must have landed there momentarily, not ten yards from me, giving me the briefest of glimpses of its red, blue-grey and black colours. It was great to see these beautiful birds back, and I was delighted that a redstart was one of the first birds I had seen today. I sat on a stack of slates for fifteen minutes to see if it would return. I was regaled by a song thrush singing its heart out, and by the tea-cher; tea-cher; tea-cher call of a great tit somewhere just beyond the song thrush. As part of the bass of the orchestra, one of the mute swans on the loch gave snort not dissimilar to that of an impatient horse, but there was no further sight or sound of the redstart.
I headed down the estate road, hearing the too-oodle, too-oodle; too-oodle of the redshank and noticing the oystercatcher come off its nest and run across the moor. It remained on the ground and seemed relatively unconcerned, not taking flight and mobbing me as this species sometimes does when nesting, and certainly with chicks. I watched a lapwing run in a similar fashion; it had probably come off a nest as well. I managed to photograph the oyster catcher nest from the roadside, thus minimising disturbance. I went round by the dam, and stopped for a minute to watch swallows fly in and out of the boathouse. They don’t take long to get into action: the two I’d photographed on the roof earlier showed that they were already paired and no doubt some will have started to build their open mud cup and feather-lined nests. I started to walk slowly along the south shore of the loch, seeing a buzzard lift from the top of a conifer and glide silently round over the loch. I’d noticed this bird do the same the last time I’d passed, and wondered at that time if it had come off a nest. In minutes the buzzard was back over my head, still silent and in complete contrast to the one a week or so earlier out near the estate march that mewed at me in annoyance. This one definitely had a nest, but despite a scan with the binoculars, I couldn’t locate it.
I continued into the grass field beyond, the one that runs up the south-east side of Low Wood. An oystercatcher rose from an uncultivated, stony corner of the field, and as I passed I saw its nest with two eggs. Three is the more regular clutch, but I was intrigued by this nest for another reason: oyster catchers only make a rudimentary nest, little more than a scrape in the ground and lined – if that is an appropriate term – with some small stones. This industrious bird had gathered literally hundreds of small stones, more than I’d ever seen in a nest before. It was a masterpiece! I continued on up the fence line, then crossed into Low Wood, where I found a comfortable grassy seat to look down into the relatively open basin of the wood. It was like having one of the best seats at a theatre. Rabbits, large and small, were going about their rabbity business, and I was amazed at the explosion of young rabbits. Near the bottom of the food chain, they would provide plenty of snacks for a variety of mammalian and avian predators. The wind was still cold and I was thankful that I was sheltered, getting an undiluted value of the sun. Chaffinches were singing everywhere; wrap-around chaffinch song, and yet another song thrush, but there was no sound from the birds I was really listening for: the new migrant arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these birds prefer thick bushy cover rather than simply trees, which possibly explained their absence. I enjoyed the ‘local’ wildlife over a sandwich and drink of red grape juice, reluctant to move from my comfy seat.
I cut through Low Wood, noting the numerous fallow deer tracks, and came out at the south-east end of High Larches Wood. A narrow, damp strip that almost joins the two woods together provided exactly what I was looking for: ideal habitat for warbler species. The strip was mostly goat willow, interspersed with rowan and ash. I had immediate success, hearing a whitethroat, a bird I’d been regularly listening to at home over the past few days. Warblers’ songs are almost impossible to describe in words, so I’m not going to try; suffice to say it was a very pleasant series of warbles and trills, given off in short staccato bursts. It took ages before I eventually managed to spot the bird, which perched near the top of a willow for a good three or four minutes; a long time for this type of bird to remain in one place. It had a grey head, so was a male, a whitethroat, hence its name, brown wings and back and a greyish pink breast. The whitethroat has a longer tail than most of the other warbler-type birds and I always think its tail is slightly darker than the colour of its back.
As I was watching the whitethroat I heard the first cuckoo of the season. The male’s cu-ckoo; cu-ckoo; cu-ckoo came floating over from somewhere between the High Larches Wood and Fank Wood. The cuckoos’ visit to this country is short, simply enough time to find a mate, lay a single egg in up to a couple of dozen other birds’ nests and head back to far warmer climes, leaving foster parents to bring up baby cuckoo. Individual cuckoos seem to specialise in selecting a particular species of bird as foster parent. I suspect here it could be the meadow pipit.
I cut through High Larches Wood, passing one of the keeper’s crow cages and noting a buzzard nest in a larch tree almost above the cage, though I think this was one of last year’s nests. The two captive corvids sat on a perch in the cage and watched me passing. They and other decoy birds have lured 44 carrion crows and 2 hooded crows into the traps so far this year. Considering their predilection for eggs and young birds I can’t say that I’m sad about that, yet I’ve no great issue about, for instance, a buzzard taking a young wader chick. I suppose at the back of my mind is the fact that buzzards are protected while carrion crows can legally be controlled under one or more of four general licences. Just before the crow trap I’d disturbed a black rabbit from its form under some rushes. I’d never seen this one before and it crossed my mind it could be the rabbit that I always used to see from my ‘comfy rock’ overlooking Spooky Valley, and seems to have disappeared. It’s only a quarter of a mile away as the rabbit runs. Though I’ve seen hundreds of young rabbits, there have been no wee black buns yet. I must ask the keeper if he’s seen any.