Part 2 of my walk on 20 May on a Highland Perthshire estate during my 2011/2012 wildlife survey
I tied up the boat and drove up to the estate, noting when I passed that the nine Canada geese in the roadside grass field near the loch had increased to eleven. When I parked at the owner’s house, I was pleased that the first bird I heard was a cuckoo; the sound coming from Fank Wood. I checked the house martin nests at the owner’s back door, which were now completely refurbished. Of two back to back nests, one was half as big again as the other, though I think the additional size was mainly mud underneath and that there would be little difference in the cosy feather-lined chamber inside. The birds went to and from the nests no more than three feet from my head; house martins and swallows are remarkably tolerant of humans.
I headed off up the road to see if the mallard duck I had scared off the nest the previous week had returned, or if the crows had dined on embryonic ducklings. Thankfully the duck was back on the nest. It was sitting motionless, with its head and neck stretched out in front of it and encircled by a cushion of down. It looked as if it was sitting on a small grey cloud. I marched smartly past, averting my eyes once I saw it was back and the nest was safe. Further up, I crossed the fence and walked through the sheep field to Bericky. I found a sunny glade and sat on a hummock to watch – and of course to hear – what was happening. A song thrush sang from the top of a sycamore, repeating each phrase three or four times while the cuckoo still fluted its totally different tune from nearby Fank Wood. A woodpigeon cooed from some conifers behind me, and I seemed surrounded by chaffinch song. A shrew ran from somewhere secretive among the plantation of Norway spruce, darting across a grassy area kept shorn by the double incisors of rabbits, and took refuge under a pile of pallets. Within minutes its long flexible pink nose poked out the other side, testing the air before its next dash across to undergrowth at the other side of the track. It was very mole-like, maybe the main difference being that it had reasonable sight from its tiny black eyes. A nervous dunnock first flitted among the spruce trees, then hopped about the grass in front of me. It returned to a spruce tree and was joined by a willow warbler, two totally unrelated but equally secretive birds together. With something dry and reasonably comfortable to sit on, unlike the cold, hard rocks of winter-time, I’ve been sitting for longer periods and letting wildlife come to me. So far the strategy has paid dividends.
I walked up to the top part of Bericky, which is a high mound of mainly giant conifers. Near the very top a buzzard appeared over my head, mewing in the tone I now recognise as that of an anxious nesting bird. I saw the nest high in a Douglas fir; a huge nest that has probably been used on and off over a period of several years. Near the nest there was a dead young rabbit, probably killed or had died a couple of days earlier. On some estates this might arouse suspicion of being a poisoned bait. Two factors eliminated this possibility for me: when I turned it over it had no cuts where any pesticide could have been introduced, but more importantly, the integrity of the owner and keeper.
In my next encounter with a rabbit, midway across to Fank, the rabbit was alive. I saw the adult rabbit sitting along the field from me, but sitting in a position that looked much too relaxed for a rabbit that must have seen me. In the proximity of a human, a rabbit claps down, pressing its body as close to the ground as it can manage, until the point where it may eventually have to take flight. I walked closer to this rabbit, and could see that its back feet were pushed forward under its belly more than is normal. This is never a good sign and often indicates a rabbit with a gut complaint, rather like if we had a sore stomach we might curl up for some relief. By the time I was five yards from the rabbit I could hear it wheezing, though there was no discharge from its nose. The very fact I was so close confirmed the rabbit was seriously ill and I raised my stick above my head to finish it off. I still had a couple of steps to go before I’d be in reach, but at the last minute the rabbit hopped off, hunch-backed, and disappeared down a nearby burrow. Wild rabbits get a number of diseases. I suspected coccidiosis or snuffles (pasteurellosis) though I’ve never seen the latter disease in wild rabbits. Maybe if a vet reads this the answer will be obvious!
I passed along the bottom side of Fank, looking for the young black rabbit from the last visit, but only seeing its grey/brown cousins. The second litters of the season are very evident now, with literally dozens of tiny rabbits just weaned and probably around five weeks old, scattering in front of me like leaves blown in an autumn wind. A heron rose from the pond near to the roundel at the High Larches, the ponderous beats of its huge wings progressively gaining the bird height until it could clear the tops of the trees of the roundel and make towards the smaller estate loch. It is only the second of these pterodactyl-like birds I have seen here. I looked in the roundel for the long-tailed tits I had seen several weeks ago, hoping to see their nest, but no success, so I cut over to the damp strip between High Larches and Low Wood, where I knew of yet another comfy seat. I’d only been sitting for a few minutes, and was awaiting the song of the whitethroat I knew was in that area, but, like my earlier encounter with the grebe when I was hoping for an otter, I was surprised – but not disappointed – yet again. Two birds flew into the goat willow beside me: a pair of bullfinches. The female had a beakful of nest material, clearly intent on a nest-building project nearby. Both sat looking at me but of course the handsome male, with his bold black cap, rose pink breast and slate grey back drew my attention away from the female. By the time my gaze had returned to her – or to where she had been – she had disappeared to an unknown nest site. Looking at these willows, almost silver with algae, lichens and mosses, a nest made of the same material would be all but invisible.
I made next for Low Wood, and found a lovely soft grassy seat looking down into the open centre of the wood. I had a sandwich and drink of juice, and settled, while the wildlife again came to me. Blackbirds and song thrushes went about their business collecting insects and a variety of worms and grubs. The ground in front of me is damp and an ideal place for much of their food, so they were kept busy. A robin joined them, surveying the land first of all from a fencepost before beginning his invertebrate search. A great tit sang his tea-cher; tea-cher; tea-cher song to my left, and a convoy of jackdaws made their way to and from The Shoulder, beaks no doubt holding as wide a range of food as the parameters of their omnivorous diet allowed. An orange-tip butterfly danced and pirouetted over the bog in front of me; it seemed to have no clear purpose and looked like a creature demented as it went back and forward, up and down. Red-legged partridges chattered and were tic, tic, ticking from areas out of my view as pairs kept in contact. This was one of the most delightful places I have sat on this estate without a doubt. And it got better…………..
Two garden warblers landed on an alder tree to my left. They hopped about the branches gathering insects for a few minutes, then flew further left out of sight. Five minutes later one landed on a dead tree to my right, perching in clear view, and started to sing. With the warbler family you usually either see them or hear them, seldom both. From my notes (made at the time, M’Lord) it was a brown bird, plainer than some of the other warblers, with a thin, dark eye stripe, dark legs, a light, almost white, breast and with a slightly darker, off-white, throat. Its song was incredible and listening to it was a delight. Like the complex song of the robin and blackbird it is impossible for me to describe. To me it resembled the song of the whitethroat, but much more fluid, with less staccato stops and starts. The bird flew from the dead tree and immediately started singing again on my left, then behind me, then back on to the dead tree again. This had turned out to be a real warbler day.
The garden warbler made me take more notice of the dead tree. It was one of two growing out of an expanse of dense alien and invasive rhododendron, Rhododendron ponticum. It seems that little can grow in the shade of this plant and I wondered if it had killed these two trees. There are several patches of this rhododendron in this part of the estate. It is great as cover for foxes, rabbits, partridge and pheasant, and for several nesting birds, but for little more. Elsewhere it is often the subject of intense eradication projects.
After nearly an hour of enjoyment, I moved on, passing the delirious but delightful orange tip butterfly still apparently trying to find purpose for its infinite energy. I crossed to the Henhouse Strip and was cutting through the wood next to the pond when I spied a robin with a beakful of moss. Like the bullfinch earlier, it was intent on nest-building. This would certainly not be the robin’s first nest and whether its first attempt was successful or failed I’ll never know, though I now have seen several young robins on my walks. The bird was aware of my presence but I stood stock-still while it bobbed on a branch like a dipper, keen to get on with the job in hand but reluctant to reveal the nest location. It dipped and bobbed, undecided, while I never moved a muscle. After several minutes it flew to an adjacent tree, landing slightly closer to the ground than on its previous perch. It continued with its hesitant behaviour, then flew to a branch lower still. I looked around for a likely nest spot, knowing that a robin is quite happy nesting almost at ground level or even on the ground. A ditch ran towards the pond, and I thought the banks of this ditch might be the answer. Sure enough the robin flew down to the far bank, slightly out of my sight, to mould its modicum of moss into what would turn out to be a creation of beauty. I decided not to investigate in case the bird deserted. I may look more closely the next time I’m passing. As I turned to go, I almost walked right into one of the keeper’s fox snares. What an ending to the day that would have been!