Another day in my year-long wildlife survey of 2011/12 on a Highland Perthshire estate
Part 2 of 3
Wednesday 20 June 2012. Weather: Mostly sunny, improving as the day went on. No wind first thing, but picking up only to a slight breeze.
A mallard with eight newly-hatched ducklings sat at the side of the estate road, slipping quietly through the fence onto Brodie’s Moor as my car came closer. Eight or nine is the normal clutch size. These ducklings would have hatched the previous day but the duck sits on them for 24 hours, allowing them to dry, before leading them away from the nest. This would be their first outing, but they had many dangers yet to face before they could be considered large and strong enough to be safe.
I parked and headed up the road towards the hill. Apart from three oystercatchers and some rabbits, the sheep were the only occupants of the sheep field today. A single red kite soared over Fank Wood, coming down the road to meet me as if in greeting, though with a nest of chicks in the wood that wasn’t the reason for its interest at all. I went round Fank Wood in an anti-clockwise direction, noting a female wheatear watching my progress from a rock in the field. Two buzzards were calling from the tall conifers at the top of Bericky. The chicks from their nest near the top of a Douglas fir should be nearly ready to fledge; in fact it will not be long before family groups of three, four or five buzzards rather than pairs of will be circling above my head in different parts of the estate. Let’s hope, like last year, they behave and don’t bother the partridges too much. On the subject of predation, I’ve seen no more than half a dozen eggs on my travels that have been picked by carrion crows. That’s a really small number and in no small measure attributed to the keeper’s purge on them through multi-catch cage traps and Larsen traps. I once saw nearly a hundred picked pheasant, duck and wader eggs during a spring time walk on a 1000 acre farm where there was no crow control.
As I orbited Fank Wood and crossed the clear-felled part at the far end, two lovely dappled fallow deer bounded through the bracken. One was an adult doe and the other a yearling calf with short buds of antlers in velvet. They stopped to look back at me when they came to the march dyke, then bounded on again. Their presence, and mine, went un-noticed by a roe buck grazing at the other side of the dyke in a field that seemed to have more nettles than grass. He was intent on filling his belly and obviously felt relaxed, though his relaxation is maybe misplaced since the season during which bucks can be shot began on 1st May. Though this buck wasn’t on ‘my’ side of the dyke, the estate owner had told me the previous week that he was cutting back on the roe deer shot during 2012 as he felt they still hadn’t recovered in numbers after the effects of the horrendous winter of 2010/11. Good wildlife management means being aware of the numbers and condition of the wide range of animals and birds, the suitability of the habitat to support them, and taking appropriate conservation measures to maintain the species. So far as deer are concerned, in some years this might mean culling the older or weaker beasts in quite high numbers, exactly as wolves would have done centuries ago.
The kite had moved to the top side of Fank Wood to keep an eye on me and, like last week, it fell back once I started heading out to the hill. Where there was a roe buck on the left of this part of the road last week, it had been replaced by a doe, which stared at me with ears forward and nose in the air as I approached. I didn’t see its departure as a resplendent male whinchat was sitting on top of a small broom bush. It cheeped at me, as did a willow warbler with a beakful of flies that came on the scene, both now probably feeding chicks. They kept their distance, but fluttered nervously from bush to bush until I moved on. I was hardly up the road 50 yards when I spotted a glint from something polished under a trackside broom bush. I lifted a small branch of the bush, and underneath was a pheasant’s nest that had successfully hatched. Shells of seven eggs that had hatched remained, and another which was intact, either being infertile or from which the chick failed to emerge. It was a smallish clutch for a pheasant but if it reared them all successfully it will have done well.
As I passed the first hill pond I caught sight of what on some other estates would have been highly suspicious: an egg on top of a rock just out from the shore. I have found many eggs in the past that have been laced with pesticide and this would have been a perfect place for one. The egg in fact was a duck’s egg without a shell, laid on the rock probably in the evening by a duck resting there. Only having the membrane and not a shell for protection, it had begun to dry out, with part of it now being concave rather than rounded. This is quite common, and my own ducks from time to time lay one of these shell-less eggs. They desiccate very quickly and I suspect this egg had been on the rock less than 24 hours.
I sat and had a sandwich at the Mid Hill, watching – and listening to – the pair of buzzards, that circled on the thermals and mewed incessantly while I was there. Chances are they are nesting on the crags on the west side of Mid Hill, though it’s a fair trek through high heather and bracken to get there. At one point a large bird dived down with folded wings just like a peregrine on a stoop. It travelled easily quarter of a mile at an incredible speed, losing height rapidly. It was so fast that by the time I got the binoculars up it had gone out of sight behind a rise in the ground. I turned my gaze back to the Mid Hill, expecting to see only one buzzard ….. but there were still two. Buzzards can stoop at speed as well, and while I suspect it was a buzzard I had seen, there remains the outside chance it was a peregrine. Peregrines don’t nest on this estate, though they are frequent visitors. Just not on the days I’ve been there!