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.
I circled the wood and walked down the dyke-side to Spooky Valley, taking a slight circuit past pegs 1 to 3 of Spooky Return. The face up the north side of Spooky Valley would be an ideal place for ring ouzels, often called mountain blackbirds. I’ve never seen a ring ouzel for years and would love to see them again, though unfortunately they are in long-term decline and of conservation (red-listed) concern. Still thinking of ring ouzels, I walked along the dyke-side separating Craigmore Face from the grass fields. The jackdaws were out in force above The Shoulder, mobbing a passing buzzard. There must have been over 100, and even if only half that number have eggs (probably now chicks) on the crags and scree of The Shoulder, that will be a massive increase in jackdaw numbers in the area. More prey species, but for a much more limited number of predators than the rabbit; probably only the goshawk, peregrine and maybe the sparrowhawk. Red-legged partridges were calling from Craigmore Face, and some of them could now also be on eggs.
I climbed over the dyke at a part well-used by countless numbers of rabbits, the stones stained and scratched by thousands of feet and claws. There is an ideal stepping stone on the field side in the form of a coping stone that has fallen from the top of the dyke. A bounce on this gets them halfway up the dyke, then the gap where the coping stone should be makes an easy passageway to and from the hill. It eased my access to Craigmore Face and I sat for a while on a mossy rock with beautiful silver birches with brand new lime green leaves at my back and junipers in front of me. The view down over the birches at the top end of the Henhouse Strip and across to the L Wood was incredible. The colours ranged from the brilliant lime green of the birches, to mid green of sycamores, pastel green of rowan, the almost brown colour of oak leaves still unfurling and the dark green of the sitka spruce at the far end of the Henhouse Strip. In contrast (and to some degree contradictory) was the vivid white of the blossom on a row of blackthorn bushes at the side of Low Wood. This was the place for my second – and final – sandwich, savouring the springtime colours even more than the sandwich. The seats I pick now are much more comfortable than in earlier days and, like Low Wood, I was looking down on the variety of birds busying about the junipers – mostly chaffinches and robins – and listening to a blackbird singing from a birch somewhere at my back and part-way up the Craigmore Face.
Tearing myself from this idyll, I cut the corner to the sheep fank half-way along Creag Bhearnach Wood, and returned along the track in the centre of the wood, stopping to listen to a robin singing in an old pine tree, and further along to watch a red squirrel searching on the ground for whatever delicacy it could find there. The squirrel hopped down through the wood, then on to a fallen tree, where it ran along the prone trunk almost to my feet, before seeing me at the last minute, giving a snort of alarm, and scurrying up the tree beside me, its claws scratching audibly on the bark at its rapid ascent.
I was keen to see if I could get any more evidence of there being a nesting goshawk in Ranent, and made for there, following the Cardney Burn down on its right hand side, and crossing via a fallen tree in the manner of a very easy tightrope walk. I entered Ranent at the high seat, and watched a group of six fallow make their way in single file from the clear-felled and replanted part into the sitka spruce at the top end, stopping only momentarily to look back over their shoulder in unison at me. Just about the point they left the clear-fell I spotted a nest in a spruce tree. I was not sure if the nest was this years or not, but I knew there was another about 75 yards to the east in an oak. I checked the oak nest and saw branch still with dead leaves hanging from it. This tended to indicate it was the one in use, though I still couldn’t be certain. I’d seen no bird come off either nest and there was no bird circling above.
I checked the mossy rocks on the top side of the nest and found five that had been used as places to pluck rabbits. None of these plucking posts had feathers, which I would have expected had either of the nests been that of a goshawk. On balance, I think that one of the nests I had just seen is in use by a buzzard rather than a goshawk, and the other is last year’s. I can’t explain the plucking posts, but maybe all will be revealed in due course.
I crossed the dyke into Brodie’s Moor and walked up the side of the pheasant pen on the Moor. The inside and the outside of the pen is a mass of juniper bushes and I could hear two or maybe three warblers singing. One was in a bush just in front of me, with the singer in view: a willow warbler. The song was softer than I expected – this being the first time I had seen and heard one simultaneously. The bird almost seemed to be singing to itself rather than to the wider world, and more specifically, to create a territory and attract a potential mate. Like the whitethroat, the song came in short bursts, slightly briefer than those of the whitethroat. Its dark eye stripe and pale coloured legs were obvious, though I would have described the breast feathers as white rather than the pale yellow sometimes attributed to this bird. It was puffing its feathers out as it sang, which maybe made the breast feathers look paler than they were, rather in the manner of a carrion crow, whose black breast feathers show the light grey underneath if ruffled. The bird moved from perch to perch, still singing but mostly now out of my view. I was lucky with a willow warbler further up through the junipers, which stayed still long enough for me to photograph it.
I had seen a small group of dark coloured fallow sneaking through the junipers, and as I came to the end of Brodie’s Moor they suddenly appeared not 20 yards from me. I froze, as did they, and we studied each other. One was a buck, with velvet antler buds only an inch long. Though the deer were dark, they actually looked dappled because of their moult, the remaining light coloured tufts of old coat contrasting with the new, dark, incoming coat. I reached to my pocket for my camera and slowly raised it up, keeping all movement in front of my body rather than to the sides. I took a photo, which remained momentarily on the screen, freezing the image of the deer. If I was being anthropomorphic I could have said they had puzzled expressions on their faces. I kept the camera at eye level for the next photo, but when the screen cleared they were no longer there. In any case even one photo of totally wild animals at such close range was a fitting end to the day.
My grand-daughter, Frieda, and I repeated this walk on Monday 6 June 2013. Weather-wise it was reasonable with the recent winds having dropped, though we barely saw the sun. Our first stop was to see if the tawny owl was back in its favourite position in the wood beside the farm. As we looked up the tree it rose from a branch not far from the ground and flew off into the wood. This is the first time for a while I’ve seen it there, though the estate owner refers to it as the ‘mad owl’ as it hoots at all times of the day. Frieda spotted a red squirrel as we entered Ranent Wood. I hadn’t seen it so two pairs of eyes already proved an advantage. We saw redstarts frequently, though often just a flash of brilliant orange as they darted between trees. Bericky seems their favoured wood and I hope to get some nest boxes up in the next few days. Maybe a wee bit late for this year but they’ll be there for the future.
Buzzards were rather scarce, with us only seeing a single one at the top of Bericky and a single one at the High Larches wood. With the females on nests they might be a bit quiet just now, though the estate owner and keeper were commenting on the lack of buzzards since the last snowfall. Continuing out the hill road we watched a red kite swing off the hill towards Fank Wood, where they nested last year, so hopefully the female will be on a nest there. There were plenty willow warblers and meadow pipits on the hill, especially – in the case of the willow warblers – on a favourite site of about an acre of broom, but no other migrants, even wheatears or cuckoos, just yet. I was surprised to see a peregrine above Mid Hill. This is the first I’ve seen on the estate. They nest on the neighbouring estate, though about 5 miles distant, which is not a long haul for a peregrine. Considering the food supply of red-legged partridges on ‘my estate’ I’m surprised they’re not a common sight.
Roe were scarce on the hill, but there were several fallow both on the hill and the woodlands below. I’m sure if I take a walk to the hill in a couple of weeks the roe with fawns in the heather will be noisily barking their alarm at me. The last bird of note was a garden warbler just beginning to sing amongst the junipers on the Craigmore Face (where I listened to one last year). It seems that a good few birds sing quite quietly at the start of their season, then gain confidence to burst into full flow within a day or two. I’ve certainly noticed this with blackbirds and whitethroats.
So though we didn’t see as many birds and animals of interest as I saw the year before, it was an exciting and energising walk of about eight miles, some of it at quite a brisk pace. I’m just not sure whether my 21 year-old grand-daughter was keeping up with me or the reverse was the case.