Continuing my walks on a wildlife survey of a Highland Perthshire estate during 2011/2012
Saturday 12 May 2012. Weather: Sunny, but with occasional cloud cover. Wind brisk though moderated as the day progressed. Pleasant.
The oystercatcher was sitting tightly on its nest on Brodie’s Moor as I drove up the estate road. That’s good news, and possibly due to the carrion crow control, which the estate owner told me over an early morning coffee is now over 50, including two he shot with the rifle determined to raid an oystercatcher’s nest on the island on the estate loch. I was further reminded of the destructive nature of carrion crows when I found a pheasant’s egg with the typical hole made by the crow’s beak to suck out the liquid (or sometimes not so liquid) contents. I’m well aware that it’s perfectly natural for crows to eat eggs and young birds, and that they have been doing this for countless thousands of years without, so far as we know, wiping out any bird species. However they are not my favourite birds and while I often marvel at their guile and ingenuity I don’t have to like them. As I went to the estate owner’s door, house martins were actively repairing last year’s nests, and had a new nesting location in which they were taking a real interest under the eaves of the extension he has built since the birds left last September; an expanded house facilitating an expanding bird population.
I intended to go to the hill first today, and set off up the road. After 100 yards or so I stopped to scan the fields with the binoculars. It was an unfortunate place to stop, since my change in pace – or indeed lack of pace – made a mallard duck decide to leave its nest not three yards from me. I had not seen the duck, and it would have sat tightly had I not stopped. Its eight blue-green eggs were now exposed, and indeed were shining in the sun. The gleam off the eggs was probably due in part to their imminence to hatching, having been polished by the duck’s feathers over a large part of the four week incubation period. They would be a magnet for any passing crow, or even a rook or jackdaw, so I covered them with the down that lined the nest, in the manner that the duck does anyway when it leaves the nest to feed. I made haste up the road to let the duck return as quickly as possible.
When I reached Fank Wood I turned right along the grassy path on the south side, to circumnavigate the wood anti-clockwise. A small bird, facing away from me, was perched on top of the dyke. I could see from the shape it was a young robin; a young robin surrounded by a silver halo caused by the sun glowing on the remaining down that still protruded through its new feathers. I got a better view as I came closer. The robin could have been on its maiden flight from the nest; its tail feathers hadn’t yet grown and its breast was speckled in the manner of a song thrush. Its beak, as with all young birds, seemed to extend half way back its head; all the better to gape with and to beg for food. The covering of down made the wee robin look as if it had been electrified. Slightly further along the dyke two birds were having a bit of a tussle. When they separated one flew towards me and I could see it was a robin, probably a parent of the electric chick. Its sparring partner flew into the field and perched on a rock. It was a female wheatear, the first I had seen this year. Though the two species are in slight competition for food, both with a predilection for invertebrates, I’ve no doubt the robin had seen off the wheatear in defence of its chick.
Compared to a smart male wheatear in breeding plumage, the female was much plainer, having a sandy-brown back, as opposed to the slate grey of the male, and not nearly as broad an eye stripe of chocolate brown. As it flew off I could see the white rump common to both sexes, and the main point in identification when the bird is in flight. As I followed the wheatear’s flight along the edge of the field I saw a half-grown black rabbit looking out of a burrow. I’d been checking all the known sites of adult black rabbits for young black ones, and here was one in an area I’d never seen a black adult. Observing wildlife often throws up more questions than answers!
This was a busy corner as, three-quarters along the wood, I heard a cuckoo. The sound seemed initially to be coming from nearby Bericky Wood, but was coming closer. The bird was calling in flight, and landed on a fence post just along from me. It sat silently on the post in typical cuckoo pose, with its wing tips drooping much lower than its tail, unlike most birds which hold their wing tips above the level of their tail. It was a slate-grey bird, with a white breast barred with black and looked incredibly hawk-like. The cuckoo moved a few fence posts further up, then flew through the wood behind me. It flew fast and low and, had I not known it was a cuckoo, I might have thought the bird to be a sparrowhawk. Its cu-ckoo; cu-ckoo; cu-ckoo call then radiated from the west end of Fank, and it may well have been the bird I heard the previous week.
At the south east corner of the wood a red squirrel scurried along the ground and disappeared behind some brushwood. I waited on it emerging but it never did. I’d had only the briefest of glimpses but I was pleased to see a squirrel, as this was the only sighting in this wood since the previous July. I came along the top side of Fank, cutting through a part that had been clear-felled. As I entered the trees again, I became aware of a buzzard mewing in alarm over my head. It was quite low over the trees and I got the impression it had just come off a nest. I checked the trees as I passed through the wood, but couldn’t see any nest, though it may well have been further into the wood. After I left the wood and headed out the hill road the buzzard became silent, making me even more convinced it had a nest.
It was a day for deer on the hill, starting with two roe deer trotting to my right towards the neighbouring estate when they spotted me, and another two watching from the horizon to the north. Simultaneously five fallow deer, two light coloured and three dark, filed slowly up the hill ahead of me. I sat on a rock to watch, and true to form, the fallow stopped at the skyline to look back. They knew I was there, though it’s doubtful they would see my stationary form. A meadow pipit was giving its sweet sweet sweet song behind me, and I turned in time to see it fluttering, almost perpendicularly, to the ground. This is a similar display to that of the skylark, yet another red-listed bird becoming increasingly rare and unfortunately not so far seen or heard on this estate. The hill was alive with red-legged partridges, and I could hear a pair keeping in touch with their quiet tic, tic, tic call. Pheasants are nesting, and indeed some may have hatched, so I’d be surprised if at least some of the partridges are not on eggs. No doubt the first sign I’ll see is a predated egg. The partridges had been quite close to me, and as I rose from the rock they flew off, their call now changed to a wee-choo, wee-choo, wee-choo as they disappeared.
I was surprised not to see any buzzards, and disappointed not to see any sign of a kestrel as I approached the Mid Hill. Many nesting birds are quite silent at this time of year and it almost seems that they have disappeared, with a re-emergence once their chicks have fledged. I spent some time at a bog on the Mid Hill as the keeper had told me he regularly saw snipe there. No such luck for me, though the area was thronging with meadow pipits. Further along, nearer the North Spooky partridge drive pins, a hen pheasant fluttered from the heather. It landed only 20 yards away and I was sure it would have chicks. I had a quick look in the area it came from, being careful not to stand on any chicks, but I could see neither chicks nor nest. The pheasant’s actions were certainly that of a bird with chicks and I can only assume that there may only have been one or two and they were lying low. Good for them!
Two more roe, one of them looking really scruffy in its moult from winter to summer coat, bounded up the steep face of Grey Craigs as I took the right fork. One was making for the overhang where I once had found a dead roe deer, and I thought it would go no further than that as it would be out of my sight. I stopped just after the overhang to admire the natural emergence of plant life growing out of the rocks and scree. Rowan was predominant, even growing out of sheer rock, but there were also mountain ash, birch, juniper, dog rose and of course loads of blaeberries. The gradient of the face will have limited browsing by deer, allowing the seedling trees a better chance, though when I looked through the binoculars at the fierce thorns of the dog rose I was in no doubt as to what its saviour had been.
At the top of Grey Craigs I made my way down to a swiped path through the heather that after the first 100 yards and a right turn would take me roughly parallel with the neighbouring estate march and down towards a hill road leading to a neighbour’s house. A greyhen, the female of the black grouse, flushed from the path and flew over to the neighbour’s side of the fence, where there is a stand of young larch trees. When I came further along the path, I could see that what had attracted the greyhen was one of several red trays of medicated grit George had put out for the few grouse that there were. The grit would aid in the production of calcium for their eggs, and the medication in the grit would help combat Trichostrongylus tenuis, the intestinal threadworm, accumulations of which can be fatal for young grouse. It was great to see a greyhen, as populations of black grouse have fallen dramatically in recent years, though some parts of Perthshire remain a stronghold. The greyhen, as it flew off, was not unlike a red grouse, though was larger and had grey-brown plumage, with some white showing under the wings, rather than the much redder plumage of the red grouse. Had it been a male – a blackcock – identification of the glossy black bird with a bright red wattle over its eye and a lyre-shaped tail, would have been much easier.