A fox den and Wellingtonias

A centuries-old Scots pine with a diameter of nearly six feet lost in the woodland on the west end of the estate

A centuries-old Scots pine with a diameter of nearly six feet lost in the woodland on the west end of the estate

Rhododendrons and azaleas on the drive up to the former estate owner's house

Rhododendrons and azaleas on the drive up to the former estate owner’s house

Giant Wellingtonia trees in the policies of the estate still in the hands of the previous owner

Giant Wellingtonia trees in the policies of the estate still in the hands of the previous owner

Another day in my year-long wildlife survey of 2011/12 on a Highland Perthshire estate

Part 3 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. 

At the fork in the road I journeyed left up through North Spooky, this track seeming to get steeper every time I climb its rocky surface. I passed the hill pond, with only one drake in residence, swimming into the reeds as I passed. It will be unable to fly just now as it will be moulting. Most bird species moult a few feathers at a time so that they are always able to fly. This is crucial in birds that depend on flight either to escape predation or to search for food. Ducks, on the other hand, complete their moult over a very short period, losing all their flight feathers simultaneously, and making them flightless for about three weeks. This different moulting strategy is facilitated by being able to find food and refuge on water, with the drakes moulting first, then the ducks moulting after their brood has fledged.  Three common gulls flew over the pond, this being the last wildlife I saw until a mile and a half later I was at the sheltered gully above the Hill Loch. There was no sign of the tree pipits, but a wren chattered at me from the root of a blown tree as I passed and a willow warbler softly sang a few bars of its repertoire from somewhere within a birch tree. I’d seen the wren in this area every time I’d been in this gully and knew it would be nesting somewhere within or near the blown root. From its reaction I was sure it had well-grown chicks in the nest. The visit to the gully was completed by a single dark coloured fallow deer springing out of the bracken ahead of me and running off through the trees.

I cut past the west end of the Hill Loch, watching a red squirrel with the most gloriously silver tail, shining in the sun, as it scampered about the edge of the huge west end woodland I was about to enter. As I reached the quad bike track (now posh Polaris track) into the first part of the wood, a mix of larch and sitka spruce, the squirrel raced up a tree and watched me from the first fork. I followed the track, taking a wrong turn to the right first of all, which took me into a clearing with an incredibly old granny pine to my right and a fantastic view down over neighbouring lochs. I went a bit further than the end of the track to see if there was a route though the trees, and stumbled on a fox den, though one that hadn’t been used this year. It seemed to consist only of a single entrance hole and I’d be surprised if the keeper or the estate owner didn’t know about it as I suspect visits to the den in spring to be the reason for the spur off the main track.

The track I was on took me back to the main woodland track that runs from the Hill Loch to the public road, though just before I reached it my route took me past another really old pine, this time having probably one of the widest girths I’ve seen on a Scots pine. The diameter of the tree exceeded the length of my walking pole, so is well in excess of fix feet. I couldn’t help wondering what age it was and how many different centuries it had seen.  I followed the woodland road down, marvelling yet again at the diversity of trees in this unique woodland and stopping for a minute to try to spot a whitethroat that was singing (though not nearly so well or with so much gusto as at the beginning of spring) somewhere behind a large Rhododendron ponticum – that out of control foreign invader. The purple Asian interloper blocked my view and the bird was reluctant to move, so I carried on, intent on deviating through the area of wood nearer the road that is part of the Rutting Stand pheasant drive.

Half a mile on I cut to my right, leaving the main track and following the subsidiary track that goes round the Rutting Stand. There was a thunder of hooves as seven dark fallow deer that had been resting round the first corner took off. One yearling doe was a bit confused and stopped, looking in the opposite direction to the potential threat – me. I took my camera out of my pocket but she heard the faint whirr as I put it on to almost maximum magnification, and took off to join the remainder of the deer, which had stopped 100 yards away. In another few hundred yards I came into a large clearing with a high seat from which deer could either be shot or watched, depending on the intent of the occupant. It was a lovely open part in the woodland, the variety of types and density of trees in this woodland being much better than the regimented monocultures in some forests. I was taken by the beauty and symmetry of a half-grown Norway spruce. Its topmost branches grew upwards, and as my eye came down the tree the branches came straight out from the trunk, then nearer the bottom, hung downwards touching the ground. The new growth on each branch tip was light green and made the tree a real gem in the woodland. Another admirer of the tree, this time for its shade, was a dark fallow deer that bolted out from under its branches and stood for a minute with just its head visible over the top of the bracken while it decided on the best direction in which to make off. The silence was suddenly broken by the deep roar of a plane high above. When I looked up there was a pair of buzzards that seemed almost as high as the plane. They must have caught a really good thermal to gain that height. They circled without a sound; at least that’s how it seemed to a tiny human hundreds of feet below.

I briefly joined the public road before leaving it again as I entered the drive to the former big house on the estate, and on part of the estate retained by the original owner. A part of the hillside near the house was alight with rhododendrons – and some azaleas – of every colour. It was a glorious feast of colour in the early afternoon sun and no doubt would have been even more magnificent a few weeks earlier. The huge mansion, which until recently looked decidedly dejected, has had a facelift and would make a great country house hotel. It has been repainted, the stonework has been cleaned and re-pointed, slates repaired, old-fashioned climbing roses adorn each side of the door at the top of a flight of wide stone steps and the lawns manicured. It probably now looks something like it did when it was built, apart from the height of the Wellingtonias behind it, which would be mere saplings at that time.

I crossed the burn via a wooden bridge over a very deep ravine, with a waterfall directly underneath cascading white water into the foamy pool below and even creating some fine spray. The route to the bridge was concealed by bushes, then a patch of dog’s mercury, and had I not been looking at the burn for evidence of dippers (which I never found) I would not have known of this hidden gem. From there I walked along the re-planted part of Ranent, disturbing yet another pair of fallow deer and noticing a buzzard fly quietly from an area I knew there was a nest. Once airborne and away from the nest the buzzard began to mew at me, and kept track of my movements through a sea of foxgloves to the nest tree. Bracken under the nest soiled with the droppings the chicks had scooted out after first reversing their backsides to the edge – whitewash in bird terminology – confirmed their presence. I left them in peace, en route stepping over a log from which the bark had fallen with age. Its surface bore a myriad of parallel scratches from the sharp claws of rabbits scrambling across it in either direction and over many years. A jay flew silently away, with none of the screeching that is the norm at other times of the year when not needing to conceal the presence of a nest.

Ranent, one of the most pleasant woods to walk through earlier a month ago when carpeted with bluebells, was now a nightmare of bracken, each frond trying to out-compete the oaks and already reaching chest height. Unless looking up all the time I’d see nothing. A roe buck rose almost at my feet, running off through the wood with a loud baauuff, buff buff. This angry call got even more intense: baauuff, baauuff, baauuff, buff, buff. The sound reverberated through the woodland, with the buck still giving vent to his anger – or the fright he got – even when he must have been several hundred yards away. For my part I’d had enough of sprachling through bracken and made for the top of the wood. I deliberately went past the mysterious plucking post on the moss-covered rock. This time another young rabbit had been plucked. The diner had been there recently as two fresh and bloody chunks of a rabbit skull remained, along with copious amounts of plucked fur. Could it be a goshawk? What puts me off that line of thought is the fact that it is always rabbit that is the victim, never birds, yet I’m sure birds comprise at least half of the diet of most goshawks. It is a mystery that might never be resolved.

I finished my day walking through Brodie’s Moor, also now rather awkward with high bracken, though at least at a height I could see above. I skirted the wet part with the nesting waders and ducks, circling round to come in from the north end and sit on a small crag where I could see across the wetland without unnecessarily disturbing the birds. I watched a redshank rooting about in the sodden ground, and was pleased to see they were still here. Despite trying not to disturb it I did so in an indirect way. My route through the bushes on the top of the crag had obviously disturbed resting rabbits. These rabbits now wanted back to the main part of Brodie’s Moor and the cover of the junipers. Their route was past the redshank, with a succession of rabbits scooting past the bird a few feet away from it until it abandoned its former peace and quiet and flew further down the marsh to continue its probing. A lapwing pee-weeped quietly from the far end of the marsh, and another from my right near to the keeper’s house, welcome sounds and maybe an indication that there could be two pairs with chicks. That would be a reasonable result.

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