A record of the last day of my 2011/12 wildlife survey on a Highland Perthshire estate.
Wednesday 25 July 2012. Weather: Dry, sunny and only a light breeze – perfect for walking
What a surprise – another daytime-hooting owl. I had just parked my car and went to check at the former perch of the tawny owl in the small wood beside Over Cardney (it wasn’t there) when I heard an owl hooting. It was a long hoooooooooooooooooooooo, followed a few seconds later by a hoo hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooooooooooooooooooooo. I couldn’t make out if the hooting was much quieter than normal or if it maybe was coming from further away – maybe the east end of Low Wood. I stood silently for five minutes but the owl had gone silent. It was a great beginning to my last official survey day as the year was now up, but it had knocked my theory for six that tawny owls hoot in daylight at nesting time to keep in touch: we were long past nesting time and the owlets would have fledged some weeks ago.
I headed up the road towards the hill, noting about 40 lapwings in the sheep field and scanning about without success for the remaining 60 or so from my last visit. Two buzzards circled above Bericky, and there was definitely another in the wood answering. My theory – if I be so bold as to theorise again after my tawny owl failure – was that this was a fledged chick ensuring the parents knew its whereabouts for when food became available. I suspect one chick (if any at all) will be the norm this year after the diabolical spring and early summer weather. I read that in Norway this summer only six nests of white-tailed eagles from dozens visited had more than one chick and that from those ‘twin’ nests only six rather than the target of 20 could be collected to finalise the reintroduction of this iconic species to the east of Scotland.
When I got to Fank Wood I was hoping to have confirmation that the two red kite chicks had fledged. There was no sign of a parent over the wood but when I walked along the front edge of the wood a red kite flew quietly from a tree ahead of me and quickly slipped over the top of the trees out of sight. Had this been one of the parents, their trait in the past had been to keep an eye on me, so I have a strong suspicion this was one of the fledged chicks and that it perched in another tree once out of my view. I stood for a while to see if there were any developments, a wait that was worthwhile as a redstart – either female or immature – perched on a branch near me, eyeing me up and giving me that distinctive flash of red when it eventually flew off. Fank Wood seems popular with redstarts, yet as a completely coniferous wood, doesn’t have the holes in trees suitable for this species to nest, especially compared with the mature oaks in Ranent, where I have never even seen a redstart. When I returned to the corner of the wood I was pleased to see a large tortoiseshell butterfly busy feeding on some thistles. It is one of our more common butterflies, (though its numbers are declining) orange-brown with black spots and iridescent blue round the trailing edge of its wings. Butterflies in general have been scarce this year, though I’m not too sorry about the lack of cabbage whites and the corresponding absence of caterpillar damage to my brassicas.
As I headed out the hill road a flash of white caught my eye. It was a very light dappled fallow doe running downhill, in my direction, on my left and disappearing into the bracken. It hadn’t seen me and I could see nothing uphill from it that would spook it. Deer don’t usually take off like this for no reason but what caused its panic remains a mystery. Further up the hill I could hear – but not see – one of the Mid Hill buzzards. As I got closer I spied it on a rock almost at the top of the hill. Its call seemed immature and its bright yellow legs tended to back up my view that this was a young bird. As I got closer to it another buzzard appeared, then another, which I took to be the parents. The two new arrivals circled and the young buzzard flew short distances from one rock to another on the hill, continuing to mew loudly. It looks very like the Mid Hill buzzards only have one chick. I sat for a wee while hoping to see the kestrels, though they never made an appearance. I expected by this time of year to have seen the family flying round, but their breeding success may unfortunately have been no better than many other species. There was a good stock of red-legged partridges, and they were now forming small packs rather than the pairs of the springtime. Unfortunately none of the packs had young from this year.
I cut down through Spooky Valley and was enthralled to see a pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly. It was on the leaf of a foxglove when I saw it at first, with its wings open. It is a lovely orange-brown colour with an amazing pattern of black spots and chequering, and some white shimmering round the trailing edge of its wings. I tried to get closer but it lifted off and flew round me, close to the ground as this species seems to favour. It landed on another young foxglove, then a thistle, and from there into the bracken. It was a great sighting for me as I think it is only the second one I’ve seen.
As I continued down Spooky Valley I gradually climbed up the right flank, gaining height as I approached Craigmore Face with, surprisingly, no jackdaws. I almost walked on top of a mid-brown coloured fallow doe that barked loudly at me as it sprang out of the bracken, a bark that could easily be mistaken for that of a large dog such as a German shepherd. It stopped 50 yards away, broadside, and as I was motionless it seemed momentarily unsure of where the danger lay, then ran off a further 20 yards to the top of the ridge, where it stopped to look at me again, before barking and making its final exit into the dip beyond. I watched for it reappearing to the left, right or above the ridge, but it never did. The older fallow are as wily as a fox and it would sit tight once it was out of sight.
I came down to the grass field below Craimore Face, where the walking was much easier. My attention was drawn by a movement which seemed to be on top of the dyke just at the entrance to The Shoulder. I thought it was a stoat, but when I saw it again it was the tail of a dark fallow, regularly switching from side to side to keep the flies off. I moved a couple of steps to the right to get some cover from the dyke and quietly moved closer, but, even though I moved soundlessly, it must have got my wind and I saw it bounding ahead then stopping to look back to allow its eyes to confirm what its nose had told it.
I went through the gate to the second grass field and at the far end leaned on the fence to have a good look into the junipers below the Green Hill. Willow warblers were in good numbers feeding on insects on the junipers. Many had the typical yellow, more fluffy, breast of young willow warblers, though there was an occasional more dishevelled adult bird with a white breast. They fed busily on the junipers but seemed disinterested in the nearby birch and larch trees, so I assume that insects are more attracted for some reason to junipers. I watched a wee brown bird skulking about in some bracken and eventually got a view of its orange-brown wing feathers, distinguishing it easily as a whitethroat more so than its white throat, which in truth I can’t recollect noticing. As I watched, I heard a roe buck loudly barking 500 yards away at the bottom end of the L Wood. Something, probably something insignificant, had disturbed it in its highly-charged rutting state, or maybe it was seeing off a rival buck. The baauuff, baauuff, buff buff buff echoed through the woodland and made me realise, with the sounds I had heard over the past year and what they meant to me, how much more they mean to wildlife that depend on all of their senses to survive from one day to the next.
I cut through the east end of Creag Bhearnach Wood and came out of that wood on to the track running between the Pheasant Planting and the marshy rectangle between the Craigmore Face and the Henhouse Strip. This is all the territory of the white fallow deer, Penelope, Sandie and the cream-coloured calf. I was walking down the track thinking that I hadn’t seen the cream calf since about April and hoped that he (or she) was alright. At that I was suddenly aware of a white fallow on the marsh area near the Henhouse Strip. It had a calf beside it, but not a white or cream one: a brown calf. They stood for a few seconds but had spotted me, at 200 yards away, and they trotted in to the safety of the Henhouse Strip, the doe leading her calf through a well-used gap in the fence.
Further down the Henhouse Strip I cut through past the pond, noticing a nice brood of mallard ducklings a week or so old trotting behind their mother at the far side. I exited the wood through the kissing gate and cut over towards Low Wood. I passed under the tree in which I had during the winter watched the flock of crossbills, re-living that fantastic experience. It was only then that I noticed that the tree (which I at the time thought to be an ash) was in fact a small-leaved lime tree, with its huge crop of fruits hanging in threes and the leaves near the fruits being a long narrow shape, as opposed to the more common heart-shaped leaves on the remainder of the tree. I walked past where the oystercatcher had nested in the rough stony corner of the field. The nest was still identifiable, but was now a tiny flat raft of small pebbles in a sea of larger stones. The fluttering of a pheasant poult in the adjacent Low Wood made me look round …….. in time to see a small black rabbit scurry under a blown tree. On my last day, at the last minute, I had seen evidence of the progeny of one of the four (or maybe five) adult black rabbits I had watched over the past year. The year had turned its full circle.
PS: In the last couple of days (27/28 Sept 2013) I have heard a tawny owl hooting in the afternoon in a small wood near my house. It called several times, a quiet hoooooooooooooooo, then an even quieter bubbling sound, not dissimilar to the call of a female cuckoo. So much for my thoeries.