Continuing the notes from my walks on a Highland Perthshire estate during a wildlife survey in 2011/12
Part 1 of 2
Monday 4 June 2012. Weather: Sunny spells, though never really warm long enough to take my jacket off
A snipe at last! That sighting made my day, but I’ll return to that later.
I headed up the road towards the hill and was disappointed to see ten lapwings resting in the sheep field (along with the obligatory starling). This was not good news: the lapwings should have been on eggs or brooding or tending to chicks. Five pairs, if that’s what they were, is a high failure rate. Most will have nested on Brodie’s Moor or on a rough patch of ground immediately behind the Tawny Owl Wood at the farm. No doubt corvids would account for some clutches (or chicks), though the keeper has kept the numbers of the worst offenders, carrion crows, pretty low. Considering how lapwing numbers have plummeted over the past few decades this was really depressing, and I’m not sure at this time of the year whether they’ll lay another clutch of eggs. I’m quite sure the oyster catcher that nested on Brodie’s Moor near the estate road also failed. There has been no sign – or more importantly, sound – of oyster catchers there in the last two weeks. The keeper saw a stoat in the area of the nest, and caught it in a tunnel trap a couple of days later. That’s another possibility for predating the chicks. Lastly, there are three highland cattle on Brodie’s Moor. Highland cattle are renowned for being extremely careful about trampling nests, possibly because they react to the defensive display that the female will direct towards them if they get too close, and their quiet nature usually means that they move off, so I don’t suspect them.
The ten lapwings flew off as I crossed the fence into the sheep field to walk along past the duck ponds. Six drakes sat peacefully at the far bank, in each case a leg tucked up into their breast feathers and their head beneath a wing. Reluctantly they awoke from their slumber, and raised heads in unison to watch me as I passed by. Like the pheasants and red-legged partridges, they have long forgotten the shooting season and tolerate humans remarkably close. Along the bank a bit, on a gravel bank near the gate into the ponds, three oyster catchers sat. Unlike the drakes, whose parenting responsibilities cease once they have mated with a duck, both male and female oyster catchers share family responsibilities. They should also have been tending to eggs or downy chicks. They rose and flew quietly over my head, with none of the peep, peep, peeping associated with defensive behaviour in the protection of chicks, to land further up the sheep field. As I came closer to the large sandy rabbit warren in the corner of the field, rabbits of all sizes bolted down the holes in a series of disappearing white tails. I walked over the top of the warren and could hear some of the lagomorph denizens thumping with a hind foot in a warning of danger, the sound travelling easily up through the labyrinth of sandy burrows.
I walked up the side of Bericky and followed the boundary fence with Riemore towards Fank Wood. I passed close by the rabbit that a couple of weeks ago had been ailing, last week was dead and now was little more than a skeleton. As I looked up towards Fank Wood a bird disappeared over the tops of the trees, only to reappear minutes later, joined by another. I was a wee bit concerned to see the red kite pair up here. It seemed a long way from their last year’s nest site in Ranent, though when I looked back towards Ranent it was really less than a mile away, no distance to a large bird like a kite. Their eggs should be hatched and the chicks might be of a size they can now safely be left; too big for most predators. The kites flew above me, occasionally going back over the top of the trees out of sight then reappearing overhead; they seem inquisitive birds and this is quite typical of at least this pair’s behaviour. It would also be typical of behaviour if they had moved their nesting site to Fank Wood and now had chicks. It is certainly a favourite area of the kites and I made a mental note to discuss with the estate owner the possibility of a nest there.
I’d spoken to the keeper earlier in the morning. He was telling me about having flushed a snipe the day before as he passed over a boggy bit of the hill on his 4WD Polaris. He told me where this had been, so that was my next destination. I headed out the hill track up past the east side of Fank Wood. I guessed that the wood was named as such as it was close to a sheep pen, in Scotland normally referred to as a ‘fank’ or, in some areas, a ‘baucht’. This consisted of an old concrete dipper surrounded by some now dilapidated pens and a small ‘shedding’ gate, which the shepherd can swing either way to separate off particular sheep as they pass along in single file. I was now heading for another Fank, this time the pegs for the Fank partridge drive. The pegs for this drive, and for the adjoining one – ‘Vernon’s Nightmare’ – abut, rather like semi circles touching at one end. The partridges go over the guns on Fank from the north east, and on Vernon’s Nightmare from the north west. Both sets of pegs are numbered clockwise, so that number 8 peg of Fank is very close to 2 peg of Vernon’s. In the gap behind the pegs 5 and 6 of Fank, and 4 of Vernon’s, is the boggy area to which the keeper had directed me.
I was following the keeper’s Polaris tracks from yesterday when a snipe rose from one of the tracks ahead of me, giving a flash of white belly as it did so. The snipe had been feeding rather than having come from a nest. It made the typical single zeep call as it lifted off the ground, zig-zagged as it gained height …… and emptied its bowels. Snipe is a quarry species and the saying is that you must ‘shoot before it shits’. They are incredibly difficult targets and by this time are nearly out of range. The snipe flew left initially then gradually circled to the right, gaining some height and flying up over the Vernon’s Nightmare pegs 2 and 1 and over the short skyline. There are many boggy areas like this on the estate where the snipe can probe for semi-aquatic invertebrates with its long beak. Where I can, I usually go round rather than through wet patches but nevertheless I’m amazed it has taken me nearly 11 months to have seen a snipe. I hoped there would be another close by incubating a clutch of four well-camouflaged eggs. They can sometimes be late breeders so I might yet hear their drumming display, when the snipe flies over the nest area continually calling cheep-er, cheep-er, cheep-er, cheep-er and generating a loud pulsating whoooooo, caused by the wind vibrating the two very stiff pin feathers at the outside of its tail every time it goes into a steep high speed dive.
As I cleared the bog I heard the sound of a cuckoo. This was not the instantly recognised cu-ckoo call of the male bird, but the completely different bubbling sound of the female. I spied in the direction I’d heard the call and saw the bird sitting on top of a rock about quarter of a mile away, high on the shoulder of the hill running from the top end of High Larches Wood. Had I not heard the bird, I may have thought what I was looking at was a sparrowhawk, however even without having heard it, what I saw next would have dispelled any thoughts of sparrowhawk. A small brown bird was sitting on top of a broom bush only a few feet from the cuckoo. I could neither hear not recognise the wee bird because of the distance but I could see its flutter of wings, its head going forward and its tail going up at it screamed defiance and annoyance at the cuckoo. It was soon joined by another, probably its mate, which fluttered round the larger bird, mobbing it as a crow would mob a buzzard. There is no way they would have dared do this to a sparrowhawk, and, though they seemed to know the cuckoo posed a threat, I doubt they knew exactly what the risk involved. I made myself as comfortable as possible on a rock to watch.
The cuckoo sat for about ten minutes without ‘bubbling’ again. I wondered if it was surveying the heather below it to spot any comings and goings from a moorland nest, and give it an opportunity to foist an egg on to unwitting foster parents. Between the patiently observing cuckoo and where I was sitting runs a craggy face with several undersized native trees, stunted by the lack of soil on the crags. It would be an ideal place for a nesting ring ouzel, and I’d half an eye on the cuckoo as I inspected and listened, without any luck, for this blackbird-like red-listed bird. The cuckoo’s luck was no better than mine, and it flew off over the back of the hill towards Spooky Valley.