Continuing with observations made during my 2011/12 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate – PART
Wednesday 13 June 2012. Weather: Overcast, with the sun occasionally breaking through.
Further along the road, rather than risk disturbing any penned pheasant poults further up the hill, I cut left towards Spooky Valley, disturbing a lone yearling fallow doe as I followed the burn down. I photographed common butterwort, a wild plant that has small purple flowers on top of long stems, and very light green leaves growing almost flat to the ground. I only noticed when I looked at the photo later that there was also a primrose and another small yellow flower (that I couldn’t identify) in the frame. I wish I was better at identifying flowers!
I sat for a while further down Spooky Valley. Two roe does, maybe last year’s fawns, grazed on the bog near the High Larches Wood, where an ensemble of wood pigeons cooed loudly. Chaffinches lower down Spooky Valley joined the chorus, but the graceful rhythm of the orchestra was ruined by the raucous cuck cuck of a cock pheasant that erupted from the heather behind me and sailed past me with a whirr of wings across the valley. The other observers were two buzzards, probably from High Larches Wood, circling above the outdoor auditorium and giving an occasional mew of approval. There are few trees in Spooky Valley, yet they are as diverse as the wildlife. A rowan tree, now cloaked in white flowers that in time would become rowan berries, was in the gully directly below me. To my left, the slope above the scree was dotted with broom and dog roses, with one rose shrub being the perch of a solitary willow warbler. To my right there was juniper, a pair of really ancient and beautiful birches with leaves resembling a cascading fountain of silver water, though near them was another, much younger and plainer birch with larger and greener leaves. Behind and to my right there were another two old birch tree with a lovely Scots Pine as a companion. I have many favourite parts of the estate, but Spooky Valley is near the top of the chart. I looked again for the deer, which were now, like me, relaxed and sitting down.
Relaxation ended, I headed for Creag Bhearnach Wood, passing along beneath The Shoulder jackdaw colony. Further along Craigmore Face, beneath the Green Hill and just short of Creag Bhearnach I crossed the dyke at the rabbits’ crossing point where there was a missing coping stone, and sat on the grass above a bank of juniper and among some birch and larch trees. The sun had just come out and I watched a dunnock busy with its preening on a thick juniper branch, framed in an inverted heart shaped gap by branches growing above. Under the juniper two speckle-breasted young robins were skulking, awaiting food from a parent, and while I watched them the dunnock was replaced in the inverted heart frame by a willow warbler.
Further along the junipers a warbler started to sing. It was a lovely melodic song and I spied the tops of the bushes thinking first of all it was a whitethroat, temporarily forgetting that a whitethroat sings in short bursts, whereas this was a full-blown song delivered with great gusto. I spied a wren right on the tip of a branch, looking rather like a small brown fir cone. That was certainly not the singer. I moved slowly and quietly along the top fringe of the junipers, getting closer to the sound but not yet spotting its source. Eventually I glimpsed the star of the show, a garden warbler. It was halfway up a juniper, on top of a green branch with some dead, grey-brown, branches as a backdrop. It was singing its heart out. Its beak was pointing skywards and its white throat feathers were puffed out as it churred and warbled and trilled, the perfect sound resonating across towards me. I edged closer and managed a photo or two, smiling at the thought of how pleased with itself the bird seemed to be. I was such in awe of the wee warbler that I moved back from it and sat and had my sandwiches, soothed and entertained by its magnificent voice. In fact it got better, as the bird was soon only a few yards away in a birch tree above me, then somewhere just in front of me again. Like the garden warbler to which I had listened a couple of weeks ago in Low Wood the bird was ensuring other like birds knew its territory and was patrolling its boundaries. It was just amazing and the highlight of the day.
Moving on from the garden warbler, I headed west along the outside of Creag Bhearnach, passing one of the keeper’s snares lying in wait for the unwary fox (or indeed bird watcher). At the end of the wood I decided to have a look at another of the estate’s great juniper stands, named Connor’s Wardrobe. Two cock pheasants rose together in front of me, tumbling slightly as they clipped each other’s wing on taking off. A herring gull flew overhead, maybe en route from a rooftop nest to someplace unknown in search of food, or maybe even a non-breeder. In any case it was the first time I had seen this relatively widespread gull (though their numbers are decreasing) on this estate. I sat for a while in a clearing and though there were small birds from time to time flitting along the top of the junipers they would have to land before I could recognise them, and none of them landed where I could see them. Despite that, since the sun had come out again, I was enjoying my seat.
I had been sitting maybe ten minutes when there was a loud rumble of hooves behind me, so close I could feel the vibration. I’d obviously sat down very close to a deer – probably a fallow – which had decided to stay still and sit out the threat. Eventually its nerve had broken and it had scrambled to its feet and made off with haste. I never saw it but the sounds told the tale. Another sudden sound, this time on my left, was the air whistling through the wing feathers of a young carrion crow as it suddenly changed direction. It had flown almost into my face as it came round a bush, and dramatically altered course. Having done that it landed in a birch tree easily within shot, though a camera is much less deadly than a shotgun. Two of its siblings made the same mistake, though when they changed course in panic it was full speed astern as they made an emergency turn and flew back in the direction they had come. Carrion crows not being my favourite birds, I later let the keeper know where the three catching compartments of his new circular Larsen traps might be filled.
I made my way back along the track running through Creag Bhearnach, being loudly chided by a wren en route since I was probably passing near its newly-fledged chicks. I continued via the henhouse strip, where a goldfinch watched my passing from a branch halfway up a conifer, then cut across to Dam Wood. I then walked between Dam Wood and the estate loch, spotting a common sandpiper on a rock in the middle of the loch and near the island. The sandpiper flew to the loch shore in a manner very like an oyster catcher, with exceptionally shallow wing beats and appearing to move only the tips of its wings, then landed, wagging its tail up and down in typical sandpiper style. This sandpiper is grey- brown above and on the chest, has pure white underparts, long greenish legs and beak about the same length as an oyster catcher, though a plain yellow-brown colour rather than the much more gaudy orange beak of the oyster catcher. As I came closer it flew to the dam at the end of the loch.
The sandpiper flew from the dam as I approached, but was almost immediately replaced by a pied wagtail and its chick, the tail of the chick perhaps bobbing in anticipation of food as well as through the characteristic habit of this bird that gives it and others in the wagtail species their appropriate name. Amazingly the wagtails were joined on the dam wall by a male redstart, giving an incredible contrast between the monochrome of the former and the radiance and technicolour of the latter. None of the birds stayed more than half a minute but while it lasted it was a great example of the divergence of colour in birds.
My final stop was at the fence-side of Brodie’s Moor. I spied across the moor to see what waders were visible. Where I had seen the lapwing with two chicks on the previous visit a lapwing was pee-weeping in warning to chicks, despite my being 100 yards away. She moved away to the right, still alarming; a signal totally ignored by two half-grown chicks that I could see standing bolt upright looking for the danger that the parent had recognised. I spied for signs of any more chicks beside the first two, and was hopeful for a moment, though it was a false alarm in the form of yet another pied wagtail. Behind the chicks I saw a young mallard duckling preening. Intense watching, with arms beginning to ache, eventually resulted in the sight of two heads attached to small black and yellow bodies. Further observation eventually disclosed the mallard duck mother a few yards to the right. Two ducklings were better than one. And there was always hope that other siblings were snoozing and couldn’t be bothered raising their heads to preen……