Of willow warblers, whitethroat and goldcrest

The fallow deer filed up the other side of the hill

The fallow deer filed up the other side of the hill


A charming shot of a willow warbler among broom on the hill

A charming shot of a willow warbler among broom on the hill

Continuing interest from my walks during a year-long wildlife crime survey in 2011/12


Saturday 12 May 2012.  Weather:  Sunny, but with occasional cloud cover. Wind brisk though moderated as the day progressed. Pleasant.

Part 2

Further down the hill my ‘deer day’ continued, as I watched a dappled fallow doe and a light coloured calf climb the hill on the other side of the Allt Choire a’ Chaibeil burn. The calf, a young male, had small sharp-looking buds of antlers and rather resembled a wildebeest calf on the wrong continent. The doe was making good progress, but the calf seemed much more intent on looking back to try to understand the reason for the hasty departure from what would no doubt have been a comfy couch in the sun. I sat on a rock, partly to watch the deer and partly to look for any sign of a hen harrier. Another group of fallow deer then filed up the hill from roughly the same area as the light coloured ones. This time there were seven, led by a very rotund-looking doe that seemed ready to drop its almost-developed calf anytime. Tail-end Charlie of the line was again a calf, though this time female.  Like its earlier light-coloured relative, it also seemed more interested in what was behind rather than what was ahead.

From walking parallel with one neighbour’s march fence, I now gradually turned right to walk parallel with the other neighbour’s march fence in my clockwise circuit of Conlan Hill. I passed a group of larch trees and checked them for carrion crow nests as they were the only trees in the area. No carrion nests, so the keeper’’s work is definitely paying off. Further round the hill, near the end of my circuit, I spotted fox tracks on a patch of drying mud on the track. They were not fresh enough to have been left the previous night, but had they been there during extremely heavy and prolonged rain on Thursday (three days ago) they would have been washed out. I concluded they had been left on Thursday night after the rain went off. The pads were typical of fox, with the hind foot landing almost inside the mark left by the front foot. George has culled a fair number of foxes this spring, but like the carrion crows, there are always some left.

As I passed the pond on the hill I could hear a hushed willow warbler song coming from within a patch of broom on my right. A willow warbler – possibly the singer – flew from the broom and landed on the track in front of me. I photographed the bird and when I looked at the photo later I was quite amazed at the length of its legs. Perched on a bush the legs appear insignificant, but this bird, standing on the road, had its legs, stilt-like, at full stretch and its head cocked to the side scanning for insects. This is all difficult to register even when looking at a bird through binos, but can be appreciated at leisure from a photograph. The obliging willow warbler then flew to a small broom bush and inspected it for insects, daintily picking a minute morsel off with some regularity.

I left the hill road and walked across a boggy area where George said he had also seen snipe, but no success for me yet again. Clear of the wet area, I sat on a grassy knoll for my second sandwich of the day (the first having been taken as I watched for hen harriers). It was a lovely spot at the top end of the clear-felled area beside High Larches Wood, with the partridge drive through the clear-felled area simply being called the High Larches drive. An old birch tree was close-by on my right. A stand of young birches, now almost in full leaf, was ahead of me in a dip through which ran the embryonic burn that eventually flows into the estate loch. A single roe doe was grazing away to my right, unaware of my presence. She looked rather clapped in at the flanks and I was sure she would have twin fawns hidden in the bracken nearby. Like most animals, roe deer go off on their own to have their fawns, and she is likely now to remain apart from other roe deer until late autumn, when she and her fawns will merge with others into a larger group. The group won’t necessarily stay together all winter but will drift apart and regroup as circumstances – particularly disturbance – dictate.

I came through the interior of the High Larches Wood, keeping to the inside edge of the conifers on the south-west side. There was a huge buzzard nest three-quarters way up a larch tree and to one side on the main trunk rather than in a fork. Initially I thought it was a nest being used this year but when I turned round a buzzard came off another nest in a nearby sitka spruce. Like the one in the larch, this one was also three-quarters way up the tree and against the trunk. The buzzard mewed from above in an alarm call which was more rapidly repeated than the normal communication call. As I left the wood the buzzard was still mewing, but from an incredible altitude. I was amazed at the different reactions of nesting buzzards. Of the four active nests I’d encountered I’d now had one buzzard mobbing me (rather stupidly from a distance that was within shotgun range); two circling and mewing at a height not much above tree level; and now this one, which was not much more than a speck in the sky.

I had a listen and a look at the line of predominantly goat willow than runs from the High Larches Wood to Low Wood. Almost right away I heard a whitethroat and I tried to get into a position to see it. It had initially been amongst willow but flew to a rowan. I found a comfy seat on a rock and watched the rowan tree. I had tantalising glimpses of the bird among the branches. It then moved to one of the topmost branches, where I had a good view but for only a few seconds before it flew over my head and continued to sing from within the bowels of a rhododendron. Despite sometimes singing from high in a tree, overall they seem much more secretive than willow warblers.

From here I headed towards the L Wood, stopping briefly to spy up towards Spooky Valley, where there are normally buzzards circling, though not today. I had high hopes for L Wood as I thought it would have been ideal for small birds: mainly youngish birch trees, with a line of mature beech down the west side and a mix of mature trees along the south end and the east side. Apart from pheasant, partridges, mistle and song thrushes, chaffinches and of course the brambling from the winter time, I have seen or heard little else. I decided to sit a while to see what happened and found a mossy tree trunk that suited the purpose. When I sat down I heard a thump from underground, then a three quarter grown rabbit looked out from under the stump, saw me, and bolted into a hole under the next stump less than ten yards away. Had I been interested in catching the rabbit it would have been no safer there than where it originally had been. The rabbit, and a rather hoarse cock pheasant with a missing tail, was the sum total of 20 minutes on the tree stump. But at least I had tried.

Leaving the L Wood I cut through the Henhouse Strip to the left hand side of the pond. Half a dozen mallard drakes were on the pond but were reluctant to leave and swam into some rushes at the far side. At the far end I went up the dyke that bisects the pheasant pen, sending wee rabbits scurrying everywhere. A male blackbird on the other side of the dyke busied itself turning over leaf litter in search of the many creepy crawlies that hide under the dead leaves, its vivid yellow beak and eyelids in complete contrast to its jet black feathers.  A smaller bird caught my eye as it landed on a branch ahead of me. Though I was looking pretty much due south and directly into the sun I could easily see the red tail of the restart. It was a female and, with unostentatious light brown and cream colouring, lacked the grandiose brick-red breast, blue-grey upperparts and black cheeks of the male, but it was still a lovely bird. It flicked its exquisite red tail a few times, then flew into some larch trees just beyond the pen. I sat for a while near where it had been to see if it would return. My patience was rewarded, not by a returning redstart, but by antics of a willow warbler. The bird had flown from the Henhouse Strip to a blackthorn bush some 50 yards outside the wood. It perched in the bush for a minute or two then briefly flew out 10 yards from the bush before returning again to its perch. It did this again, this time flying double the first distance, and back again to the bush. I thought at first I was watching a spotted flycatcher, which flies off a branch in this manner to catch a fly, then returns to its perch. I doubted that a spotted flycatcher would be back in Scotland yet, as it is one of the latest migrants to return. At last when I managed to get a good look at the bird through the binoculars and confirm it was indeed a willow warbler I was satisfied, though I was intrigued by this activity I’d never seen before.

Turning and moving further up the henhouse strip, to the part that is predominantly conifer rather than the birch of the opposite end, I was studying an enormous Douglas fir. Two tiny birds flew from the tree on to the top of the dyke that forms the boundary of the wood. Like the robin and wheatear earlier there was a dispute over something, but the battle continued down the dyke until they were almost beside me. The flurry of activity was rapid, but one perched on top of the dyke long enough for me to see that it was a male goldcrest, the orange strip on the top of its head bounded by black on each side clearly visible, if only fleetingly (the strip would have been yellow had it been a female). The two birds continued their skirmish along the top of the dyke, making contact with each other momentarily before one was again in pursuit of the other. It was a fascinating sight and I can only conclude that both were goldcrests and that one was seeing the other off from its ‘patch’, which I supposed was the Douglas fir. It had been a remarkable day and this was a tremendous finale.

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