Young lapwings

Looking up Spooky Valley

Looking up Spooky Valley

Early purple orchids in Spooky Valley

Early purple orchids in Spooky Valley

Continuing the notes from my walks on a Highland Perthshire estate during a wildlife survey in 2011/12

Part 2 of 2

Monday 4 June 2012.  Weather:  Sunny spells, though never really warm long enough to take my jacket off


I walked up the track through the heather used by the keeper in his various moorland duties, which has included feeding the partridge stock right from the end of the shooting season so that they are in tip-top condition to breed. I veered right, running parallel with the much narrower top end of Spooky Valley until I was opposite a part where the sides began to flatten out and make access to Spooky Valley possible without crag-hopping. This route took me past dozen of bugle plants, small purplish flowers that resemble tiny orchids. I then cut sharply left into Spooky Valley and started to follow the burn down, now going in the opposite direction to my last few hundred yards. The burn is narrow and I criss-crossed it in accordance with the vegetation and gradient of the banks, picking my way down the easiest route. I stopped to admire a huge spider’s web, as perfect in symmetry as webs can be, strung right across the burn. I was puzzled as to how the spider managed to get from one bank to the other to anchor the first strands of its web, and can only assume it was wind-assisted. No spider was to be seen, but the web held a small light-coloured fly at one edge, distorting the evenness of the two outer strands in which the hapless insect was now inexorably trapped. I’ve no doubt if I had reached across and lightly touched the web its owner would have appeared.

I continued down Spooky Valley, stopping to photograph a group of four early purple orchids standing erect and line abreast like sentinels guarding my way forward. Further on I passed No 6 peg, where I stopped for a minute to reflect on my day’s shooting the previous September, paradoxically by far the most demanding shots I’ve ever attempted yet the best I have ever shot in my life. As I turned away from No 6 peg a bird, which I initially thought was the cuckoo again, crossed my line of vision. The bird was swooping down towards the ground, but when it returned to view I could see it was a male kestrel. The bird came very close to me, giving me a great view of its colouring: light blue head and tail, with a black tip to its tail and a buff coloured belly beautifully streaked with black. In its yellow talons it was carrying a small mammal and it headed across to the crags, just out of my view, at the bottom of Spooky Valley. Minutes later it came back into view minus the prey item, making me think it had just visited a crag nest and fed a chick. I sat on the edge of the pallet used to provide a level surface for the gun at No 4 peg and waited for a while in case it came back with another rodent. I gave it half an hour, but there was no sign. If the eggs hadn’t yet hatched or the chicks were very small there would be little pressure on it to hunt extensively, so the next visit might yet be some hours away. In any case the wait had been another chance to look out for a ring ouzel.

I cut across to High Larches Wood and went down the ride through the centre, finishing in the re-planted part near the bottom end. I walked through this part and realised that it must be a good vole year as field voles were scurrying everywhere and the grass tussocks were pock-marked with the small round holes they had tunnelled. This will be really good news for many birds of prey, especially kestrels and owls that must still be recovering from the effects of the deep snows of the 2010/11 winter when numbers plummeted due to starvation.

From High Larches Wood I cut across to the Henhouse Strip, as I wanted to see how the robin I had watched building a nest two weeks earlier had got on. The mossy nest in the side of the ditch was well hidden by a curtain of dry grass. No bird flew out and when I gently probed behind the grass screen with my hand I could feel a hole in the bottom of the nest. The nest seemed complete, but whether eggs had been laid and taken by a predator, or whether indeed the female robin had been taken off the nest I’ll never know. Small birds nesting at ground level have a fragile and uncertain existence, never more than when they are nesting.

I finished my day by visiting Brodie’s Moor, walking round to the far side of the marshy area to try to see how the nesting waders were faring. I’d no intention of walking through the marsh and causing mayhem but came in quietly through the junipers and sat on a grassy bank overlooking the marsh. As I arrived, a lapwing rose away to my left. It circled a couple of times, then landed beside a boulder and near to five mallard drakes. Another lapwing was straight ahead, quite near to the fence between Brodie’s Moor and the estate road. It was standing quietly, with no sign of chicks. A third lapwing was off to my right. It was sitting on a slightly higher grassy area but not anywhere it would have made a nest, with the cover of the marsh vegetation being a much better option. The lapwing beside the boulder had now moved forward ten yards or so and I could hear it very quietly calling. Peeee-weep; peeeee; peeee; peeee-weep. The bird was obviously calling in its chicks. Suddenly one tiny mottled grey and white form came through the grass on legs that seemed too long for its body, then a second. I waited for the other two, as lapwings have clutches of four pointed eggs that always lie in the nest with the points towards the centre, taking up minimum space. They remind me of four tea cups on their sides, handles hidden in the inside of each neighbouring cup and all placed on a saucer for ease of carrying or storing. No other chicks appeared but two were better than none.

Apart from the five drakes, and a duck and drake near to lapwing No 2 across at the estate road, I could see no sign of sitting or brooding birds. Oyster catchers most certainly would have announced their presence and would have been piping round my head. There was no sign of the redshank pair that had been there earlier, though I haven’t given up on them yet. They are much more secretive nesters and even with the binoculars I wouldn’t have been able to see the brooding female. It may still be there, or the pair may have moved across to the marsh at the far end of the estate loch, which is also suitable nesting habitat. Of the two other lapwings, might they have been waiting until I went away before they returned either to eggs or to chicks? Just in case, I crept quietly back into the junipers and circled back to my car. Two chicks from all of these lapwings would be a pitiful return, but there’s still time yet ………….

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