Whinchats and nesting red kites

The roe buck watched me from among the heather and broom

The roe buck watched me from among the heather and broom

There were a surprising number of whinchats on the hill

There were a surprising number of whinchats on the hill

Continuing with observations made during my 2011/12 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate  –  PART 1


Wednesday 13 June 2012.  Weather:  Overcast, with the sun occasionally breaking through. 

I sat for ten minutes on the veranda of the shooting lodge. There was no wind and the estate loch was flat calm. The four swans snoozed on a mudbank juxtaposed to the island, heads tucked under massive wings and each with their bulky snow-white bodies balanced on one leg. Two mallard drakes napped on the grass at the far side of the loch, while rabbits grazed round about them. Two more drakes dozed at the water’s edge, their full colour images reflected on the loch’s mirror surface. The mirror was briefly cracked in places where a trout broke the surface or a swallow skited off it as it caught a fly, though these aberrations quickly healed. On one of the narrow spits of land running into the loch and created for trout fishers, two oystercatchers sat quietly, watching the antics of another black and white bird, a pied wagtail feeding its two grey and white almost fully-grown chicks. A robin sang in the Tawny Owl Wood on my right and a cock sparrow chirped happily from the ivy on the estate owner’s house to my left. It was a scene of total tranquillity.

Tearing myself away, I headed up the road towards the hill. A pair of oystercatchers in the sheep field prodded and poked for diminutive titbits, and a single common gull stood as if surveying the scene. I watched a single duckling, about two to three weeks old, swimming round one of the duck ponds. It reminded me of a clockwork duck in a child’s bath, except that every so often its paddling speeded up in an effort to catch an airborne fly, reaching as high as possible to grasp the unfortunate insect. I was concerned at it being all on its own and thought that, for whatever reason, it had been orphaned. I’ve had ducklings of that age survive at home when their mother is tempted away by a drake and gradually abandons them. I’m not sure if this is a natural phenomenon or only occurs where ducks are semi-domestic. Though these were totally wild mallard they had come to rely on us for most of their food supply and maybe this was an influence that encouraged a duck to try for a second brood, knowing her offspring would be well catered for. Of course this theory could be anthropomorphic nonsense and the continual sexual harassment by the drake really brings the duck back into breeding mode. This wee duck might just have been able to survive on its own, but as it turned out there was no need, as its mother suddenly emerged from the reeds to join it. One surviving duckling out of a clutch of eight or ten eggs is poor, but still better than none. As I watched the two unite, a common sandpiper called, its three-note call, tee wee wee; tee wee wee easily recognisable. I spied all around the duck ponds and the marsh but it was nowhere in sight. I wasn’t particularly bothered as it’s as satisfying to hear birds as it is see them

Having given up on the sandpiper I marched on up to Fank Wood. I walked along the narrow grassy track to the south east of the wood, looking over the dyke into the bank that runs down to the field, where there were several groups of meerkat-like young rabbits looking up at me, ready to bolt down their burrows at the first sign of danger. This wood had earlier been the stronghold of the cuckoo, but it was now silent, and indeed was quiet today so far as other birds were concerned.  I turned to come back to join the hill road and noticed one of my friendly red kites above me. Its procedure was the same as before: flying over me at about 30 yards up, then dipping back out of sight over the trees again. The kite continued this intermittent surveillance as I walked back to the hill road and even up the hill road for about quarter of a mile, keeping marginally ahead of me. Only when I had left Fank Wood behind did the kite let me continue on my own and return to the wood. I’d discussed this behaviour with estate owner the previous week and we were both of the view that the bird was likely to be nesting in the wood. Despite our thoughts, the habitat was not typical, as the wood is completely coniferous and the kite seems to prefer deciduous or at least a mix of trees. The owner passed this information on to the RSPB kite monitoring officer, who later visited to make a check of the wood and had found the nest with two well-grown chicks peering over the edge. The conifer was spindly and not suitable for climbing, so the chicks won’t be tagged this year.

A young foxy-red roe buck took over surveillance from the kite, keeping ahead of me in the heather and bracken on my left, and giving me the once-over every so often as I caught up with it, when it would trot ahead to repeat the sequence of hide and seek. We parted when I came to the large bank of brilliant yellow broom near the hill pond. A small bird with a black head sat on top of a sprig of broom. When I put the binos on it there was a yellow broom flower in front of its head so, though I could see the black top to the head, I couldn’t see the remainder of its head and neck. I’d recently seen a male stonechat in this bank of broom, but this bird wasn’t as brightly coloured. I moved to my right several times to try to get a better view, but still this damn yellow flower limited what I could see. What eventually solved the mystery was a similar bird with a brown-capped head coming and perching near my first bird. Blackcaps! These are grey-brown coloured warblers, with the male having a jet black crown and forehead – giving the bird its name – while the female has a rusty brown cap and forehead. The male is a fantastic singer; it’s a great pity he was sitting quietly rather than in full song.

The blackcap pair weren’t the only inhabitants of the broom: at least two willow warblers flitted between the broom and the surrounding heather, actively catching flies. None had a beakful of flies so the chances are any nests will still contain eggs rather than chicks. I settled down in a wooden shooting butt beside the pond, with a great view of the broom bank. No doubt the stonechats were in there somewhere with their fellow summer migrants but they failed to appear. Of the three species, in a singing competition the blackcap would be the clear winner.

The hill was busy today. The keeper was settling the first batch of pheasant poults into their pens. He and the owner have recently seen a vixen on the hill and suspect she has cubs. They’ve tried all the known dens, but there are no signs of occupation. It’s a worry for them with a high number of red-legged partridges on nests, newly-released poults – even in a pen – and foxes on the prowl. They hope that either the vulpine family will move on or that they will find them soon.  Cubs will be well grown now and might soon be living above ground, away from a den, making them even more difficult to find. It shows that even with the large number of foxes the keeper accounted for in late winter and early spring, their numbers can only ever be controlled, never eliminated.

I walked further along the hill road and, at Mid Hill, sat on one of my favoured rocks to see if there was any sign of the kestrels there. The estate owner regularly sees them but somehow they are never there when I visit. As I sat there I heard two birds simultaneously, one behind me and one in front.  The one behind was easy: it was an alarm call of a curlew. I’d never seen a curlew on that part of the hill, yet here was one that must have had a nest and had been disturbed, maybe by the proximity of a carrion crow or a stoat. Its chi wi wi; chi wi wi wi; chi wi wi continued while I tried to locate and identify the smaller songster in front of me. I didn’t immediately recognise the song, possibly because of my distraction with the curlew, but I could now see the bird 50 or so yards away, albeit just a bit of its orange-brown breast and its head. Its size, plus the white eye stripes that seemed to meet above the beak meant that it was a whinchat. I waited to see if it would give me another rendition of its song but instead it flew off, the white at either side of its tail another feature of identification.

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