Continuing my now out-of-synch reports on my walks during the 2011/12 wildlife survey I carried out on a Highland Perthshire estate (Part 1 of 2)
Monday 27 May 2012. Weather: Sunny, very hot. With a midday temperature of 25 degrees am I allowed to complain it was really too hot?
A veritable cloud of birds flew from the estate owner’s feeder as I went past to where I park my car. A high proportion was house sparrows, which have a safe haven in dense ivy that covers the west gable of the house. The chirping took me back to when my granny lived in an old tenement, where there were innumerable sparrows’ nests and roosting crevices under the gutter, and cock sparrows chirped incessantly from their hidden places. Any gaps and fissures still available were claimed by the swifts that screamed round the summer sky, only landing during nesting time since they could sleep on the wing. Farm buildings still seem to hold good numbers of house sparrows, even if they are scarce elsewhere. The ivy would be ideal for nesting tree sparrows, though I’ve seen none so far.
When I walked past the mallard duck’s nest I was pleased to see it had hatched successfully. The eggs had been painstakingly opened almost round the centre by the small egg tooth at the end of each duckling’s beak; a small, hard extension that works rather like a wee can opener as the duckling gradually chips away at the shell, turning in a circle as it does so. Now the smaller part of most of the eggs lay neatly inside the larger part, with the red veins still visible on the inside of the shells; all typical signs of a successful hatching. I scanned the duck ponds for the new family. There was no flotilla of ducklings to be seen, though the female may have preferred the nearby marsh or even the loch at the farm.
At the top of the road I turned right along the bottom of Fank Wood. It’s amazing how one day an area will be alive with birds and the next it seems quiet, as was the case today. The ailing rabbit I’d seen the previous week was certainly quiet. It was lying dead not far from the burrow in which it took refuge seconds before my stick would have ended its suffering in advance of its natural demise. When I got to the far end of Fank Wood, for a change I cut back through the centre to re-join the hill road. I’d never been through the middle of the wood, and the route was frequently blocked with blown trees, which I’d to circumvent or clamber over. There is a large rocky outcrop in the centre, which I also skirted round, passing through a series of lovely patches of wood sorrel, with their trio of heart-shaped leaves and dainty white flowers: five petal surrounding a pale yellow centre giving the impression of a mini fried egg.
Leaving the wood and heading out the hill road, I stopped at the trackside pond, where a willow warbler was singing quietly in golden-yellow broom. When I see broom I’m always reminded of the travellers’ song The Yellow on the Broom –
I ken ye dinna like it lass Tae winter here in toon For the scaldies aye miscry us And they try to put us doon But it’s hard to raise three bairns In a sing flea-box room So I’ll tak ye on the road again When yellow’s on the broom
I spied another inhabitant of the yellow broom as I turned the corner. A plump and handsome male stonechat sat on the tip of one of the bushes, the yellow of the broom and the azure blue of the sky accentuating his colours: the black head with what appeared a white collar, but not quite fitting and failing to meet either at his throat or at the back of his neck, his speckled brown back and wings, set off by a small white wing patch, and his orange-red breast fading to almost white in the centre. He was a really smart wee chap, but gave me only a minute to study him before disappearing over the back of the broom embankment. I waited to see if he would reappear but was disturbed by the loud baauuff, buff buff of a roe doe no more than 100 yards away. She was not keen to leave the area and very obviously had fawns not far away. She had winded me but still hadn’t seen me, as she was looking in the wrong direction to try to match the scent to a human form. The doe barked again, this time spotting me as I moved forward. Still she stood her ground, gazing at me. Baauuff, buff buff. Most of my experience of roe that would have fawns has been in woodland. They would have slunk off, maybe even without a bark, but she just did not want to go. She moved another 50 yards up the hill and remained there as I passed, moving a further few yards to the skyline to watch the dreaded human form gradually shrink as I marched along the hill road. I was amazed, but this was just the first of three similar cervine encounters.
Away from deer for a minute, I heard bird song that reminded me of a skylark coming from heather on the left of the road. I stopped and looked across, though the bird that I saw first of all was a meadow pipit floating down from above in the way that skylark does. Despite the two being similar in many ways, the meadow pipit will always take second prize to the skylark as a songster. I did see another bird perched on a tuft of heather and didn’t recognise it immediately. I walked closer and as I did so the bird gradually edged away from me, though I was gaining some ground. It had a mate, and the two briefly chased each other over the heather. Though I was still some way from the birds I could now identify one as a male whinchat; rather similar to the stonechat I had seen earlier, and with a rosy pink breast and partial white collar, but with a wide white eye stripe and very noticeable white feathers at the base of each side of the tail as it flitted over the heather. The other bird – I presumed its mate – was slightly further away and colours were much more difficult to discern, though I was pretty sure they were a pair. I was over the moon that I had seen such beautiful and similar ‘chats’ within quarter of a mile of each other.
There was a marked difference in the red-legged partridges since my last hill visit just over a fortnight earlier. At that time I saw the birds in pairs; this time it was mainly cock birds that I saw, often on sentry duty on top of a rock or a grass tussock. The females would be on nests close by. I know much more about grey partridges, which are great parents, sharing the responsibility of bringing up the brood. Hopefully their red-legged cousins do likewise. As I passed I could hear their quiet tic tic communications. In the distance I could see three fallow deer grazing, but minutes later, despite being nearly half a mile away, they had spotted me and were standing line abreast, heads towards me. The next time I looked they had gone. What had arrived, though, was the Mid Hill pair of buzzards. They mewed as they circled high overhead, though not the concerned mew that they emit when someone is near their nest. I’ve seen little evidence of them for some weeks and can only assume, if they are nesting, it is among the crags at either side of the Mid Hill. A third buzzard – maybe a chick from last year – joined them in their carousel in the thermals.
A lone roe doe ahead of me had also spotted me, and gave a single, deep, baauuff. It kept me in sight as I passed along the hill road as it, too, would be close to its fawns. The fawns would welcome the dry spell: lying in the sun is much better than being curled up soaked and cold with rain. The partridges were clearly also taking advantage of the sun, since the heat had desiccated the surface of the hill road and it was pock-marked with their dust bowls, many with a single partridge feather at the rim, rubbed from the bird in its enthusiasm to wriggle in the dust and rid itself of parasites and other biting beasties.
At the junction, I went left to go up over North Spooky, spooking another roe doe that was on the shoulder of the shallow gorge leading down to Spooky Valley. The routine was the same: baauuff, buff buff buff barked at me, with the doe only moving to the first larch tree 150 yards away and staring at me from there. I moved on quickly up the steep track to let the fretful doe settle again. With the warning, the fawns would be aware of danger and crouching as low to the ground as they could. I stopped briefly at the pond at the top of the hill, going down to the water’s edge. I’d scanned it from some distance away with the binoculars and it seem devoid of birds, yet when I approached the pond a pair of mallard flew from the reeds at its south east side. I expected to see tadpoles or some form of water beasties in the mildly peaty water, but apart from a handful of pond skaters I could see nothing. No doubt the situation would have been different if I’d been pond dipping.