Birds keeping their heads down

A roe doe and a fallow buck

A roe doe and a fallow buck

Part of the group of almost 100 lapwings in the sheep field

Part of the group of almost 100 lapwings in the sheep field

The whinchat eyed me up from a broom bush

The whinchat eyed me up from a broom bush

Continuing the accounts of my 2011/12 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate


Thursday 12 July 2012.  Weather:  Dry, though overcast till late morning, then intermittent sunshine. Light wind. 

Three weeks since my last visit, with a sprained right ankle and twisted left knee (done on the steps from the conservatory, not on the hill) and almost incessant rain keeping me at home.  The weather was far better in March! I set off down the estate road past the bog on Brodie’s Moor. The ground cover on the wetland had grown slightly and it seemed abandoned by the ducks and waders. There is no doubt that some would still be there, but it was even more wet than normal after torrential rain yesterday, and in any case I don’t like to panic any birds that might have chicks and risk them getting lost and abandoned. I continued on and entered Brodie’s Moor further down, meaning to cut through and have a look at the plucking post at the top of Ranent.

I struggled through the shoulder-high bracken at the bottom end of Brodies Moor, quickly attracting the attention of the pair of buzzards nesting not far from the plucking post. They circled above me, mewing relentlessly. The chick (or chicks) would have either left the nest by this time and be in the nearby trees, or would be ready to do so.  The baauuff, buff buff buff of a roebuck ahead of me broke the rhythm of the mewing. I couldn’t see the buck but knew from his barking that he was getting near to the Ranent boundary dyke. He barked a few more times and eventually quietened as he ran deeper into the huge oak wood. I gingerly climbed the fence which was tight into the dyke, not seeing for the bracken what was on the other side. I didn’t want another injured ankle or knee, so prodded with my walking pole and identified a small square of ground free of large stones that had fallen from the dyke, where I could jump down safely. My efforts were in vain, since there had been no more activity at the plucking post since my last visit to it, and the remaining parts of rabbit skull had been cleaned of any vestige of meat by the myriad of wee beasties that inhabit any square yard of ground – or of moss-covered rock in this case.

I returned to Brodie’s Moor and was disappointed at how few small birds were visible. None were singing now, as it was getting late in the season, but I thought that an odd one might have been alarm-calling at me if I passed too close to a nest. It was if they had all abandoned Perthshire and moved to somewhere that it didn’t rain every day, as had pretty much been the case in most of the UK apart from the Western Isles these past few weeks. There is no doubt that many nests will have failed and young birds have perished. Insect-eating birds will have struggled some days to get enough food for their chicks, and would have been unable to leave them unprotected in the nest during the very many downpours as they would die of hypothermia. The same would apply to ground-nesting birds that leave the nest after the first 24 hours. Newly-hatched waders, pheasants or partridges are often okay as they are small enough that all can get under the mother, but as they get older and bigger there’s no longer enough space. In any case this year a large proportion of the invertebrates on which they depend will have themselves been drowned, died off or simply have been unable to breed and increase their numbers. The estate owner was telling me that this year has had the best hatching success for pheasants and partridges since he took over the estate, but that the chicks are being killed by the weather within a very short time. It’s a real pity, both for the birds and for all the work the keeper has put in over the winter keeping the birds fed and keeping at low numbers any predators he can legally control.

I left Brodie’s Moor and headed up towards Bericky, noting a roe doe in its foxy-red summer coat and a dark coloured young fallow buck standing almost together on a ridge ahead of me. The doe at least must have been disturbed from an early morning rest; as it stretched, its back gradually became concave and it arched its head back over its shoulders. It then proceeded to stretch its back legs, pushing them straight out behind it one at a time. It was now ready, if need be, for flight. It was an unusual pair, and I assumed it was just coincidence rather than any inter-species partnership.

I could now see that there were over 100 lapwings and a handful of oystercatchers in the sheep field. Of the lapwings, a good proportion was young birds, and if they had all been hatched on this estate I had missed them somewhere. Irrespective of where they were hatched, I was pleased to see such a large number of one of my favourite birds. Surprisingly they seemed to have been abandoned by their diminutive friends the starlings. Thirty or so mallard were in the duck ponds but I was too far off to be able to recognise any as this year’s young. In any case the early-hatched ducklings would now be almost adult size.

I walked up the outside of Bericky, now being surveyed by the Bericky pair of buzzards, the female quickly flying over from Fank Wood to join the male, which had raised the alarm from near the Bericky nest. They were as vocal as the Ranent pair, though remained higher in the sky. By the time I had cut across the field to Fank Wood the buzzards had landed in the trees in Bericky and I was sure I could hear three different birds calling. Probably their chick or chicks had fledged as well. I watched out for the kites from Fank, which were bound to have been alerted by the noise, but they never showed. The estate owner had never seen the chicks on the wing yet, but had regularly watched the adults over Fank Wood.

As I headed out the hill road the usual roe buck was on my left. He was busy feeding and I managed to pass him unseen. Small birds were still scarce, and even when I came to the large patch of broom near the pond it was – or at least appeared to be – devoid of birds. A mallard drake lifting off the pond was the only sign of life. Once round the corner I sat on a flat-topped stone and spied the hillside. Two roe deer, about 200 yards apart, were feeding near the top of the hill, and a pair of meadow pipits flitted anxiously around in the heather near where I sat. At least one nest seemed to have survived. I considered that there were far fewer wheatears than last year. Whatever had caused this, the recent atrocious weather could well mean there will be even less next year.

I moved on, spying a roe doe along with a buck further ahead on my left. It is almost into the roe deer rutting season, and possibly the reason they were together. They were near the brow of a hill, and they slowly disappeared over the crest without having seen me. I stopped at the Mid Hill, at last seeing a kestrel high in the sky on the left side of the Mid Hill. It was mobbing a soaring buzzard, though rather half-heartedly. The kestrel was a male and looked tiny compared to the buzzard, the contrast more exaggerated if the buzzard was a female, since with birds of prey the females are bigger than the males. The buzzard seemed unconcerned at my presence but, just as I was beginning to think that the Mid Hill pair had failed to breed this year, two buzzards (presumably this one and another) appeared over me, mewing apprehensively. By this time I was nearly at the bottom of Grey Craigs. A third buzzard rose from the crags on Grey Craigs and flew low over my head, landing rather unsteadily on the top of a larch tree down towards Spooky Valley. It would seem that this was a chick, and my proximity to it the reason that the Mid Hill parents suddenly took an interest in me.

I walked up the side of Grey Craigs, returning down past one of the keeper’s pheasant release pens.  Well-grown pheasant poults fluttered out of my way, landing after only a few yards. It was maybe this food source that had attracted a golden eagle that the estate owner had seen here the previous day, though unfortunately there was now no sign of it. He was pleasantly surprised that the presence of the eagle had not scattered the pheasants; in fact he said there had been very little predation on the poults from birds of prey this year. I retorted that I had the avian predators well warned to be on their best behaviour. As I looked over to North Spooky I could see a roe doe feeding on a patch that was bare of heather, and with a single calf with her.  I was surprised how large the calf was, but of course with being born in May it would be somewhere around the eight week mark. They appeared very relaxed, and were yet more deer on the list that I had seen today without being seen by them.

Coming back down to the slightly lower ground beside the hill road, I could hear a bird scolding me from somewhere among the bracken and heather.  There was a quiet chit chit chit chit, then a louder single cheep, which I at first thought was coming from a different bird in a different part of the heather. When the bird eventually perched on top of a frond of bracken I could see it was a male whinchat. Another one, probably the female, was alarming somewhere behind me and I was obviously close either to their nest or to recently-fledged chicks in the heather. So another nest had survived the rain.

I made for the High Larches Wood, cutting through the Vernon’s Nightmare partridge drive on one of the keeper’s Polaris tracks. There was plenty of mud to examine for tracks made by the range of wildlife that take advantage of these roads, but there was nothing more exciting than those of pheasant, red-legged partridge, rabbit, roe deer and fallow deer. Once in the High Larches, I was spotted by the residents buzzard – only one this time – which circled over me mewing in unease. I checked under their nest and there was an absence of ‘whitewash’, so it was likely that their nesting attempt had failed at some stage. From there I moved out of the wood and round the corner to sit on one of my favourite rocks (when not in use as a rabbit and red-legged partridge loo) looking out to the Craigmore Face. One or two small birds were fluttering about the bracken ahead of me, though I was never quick enough with the binoculars to get identification. A young roe buck with single spike antlers was grazing in the bog down towards the L Wood, though he spotted me when I rose to go to Low Wood, and he entered Low Wood ahead of me.

I sat for a while in Low Wood, but the foliage on the trees was now really thick and making out the few birds of which I did get a fleeting glimpse was extremely difficult. However I could now see the trees in full ‘bloom’, and I admired the mix of oak, alder, ash, rowan, larch and sitka spruce. The sun had come out, my jacket was deposited in my rucksack and I sat for half an hour in the sun. I’ve no doubt that there were as many birds in the wood now as there had been a month ago but they were eerily silent and hard to see, a good survival strategy! I saw that many of the nettles in front of me had their tops eaten off, clearly a delicacy for the deer, yet something I’d never noticed before. Half an hour with no birds of mammals focusses the mind on trees and plants, and there is always something to learn.

I left Low Wood and walked round towards the Dam Wood. The black rabbit that lives in Low Wood was at the mouth of a burrow in the adjacent grass field. In the past when it has spotted me, the rabbit has run the 200 yards to Low Wood rather than diving down the first available burrow. Today was no exception. I spied round the other burrows looking for any black offspring, but there were none, though plenty of the ‘normal’ colour.

It’s amazing how often my day has finished on a high. Today was no different as not one but three young herons flew off from the marsh at the top end of the estate loch. There would be no trout there but maybe frogs and certainly slugs and other creepy-crawlies that herons might relish. The three, all still without the glorious crest they grow in later life, flew as if in slow motion in a semi-circle, then headed up in the direction of the small pond near to the High Larches Wood. They were probably from the same brood and it was interesting to see that they were keeping together rather than dispersing. Despite the weather-induced devastation to young birds that there had obviously been, there are always survivors.

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