Wildlife on an overcast day – an excerpt from a forthcoming book

Mute swans on the estate loch with whooper swan at the back

One of the fieldfares on the hawthorn trees

A buzzard flew over the fieldfares but its presence didn’t concern them

More pink-footed geese were landing among the thousands already feeding

My blogs have been more scarce recently as, surprisingly for a retired person, I have been incredibly busy. The activity taking much of my time is the carrying out of regular walks over a large estate in Perthshire. My intent is to see what wildlife is there and compare the estate and its wildlife to that which I knew intimately in the 1960s and 1970s. I began in early August and intend to do this over the course of a year, producing a book at the end of the same type as that which I wrote in 2012: A Wealth of Wildlife: a year on a Highland Perthshire estate. I have 14 short chapters written so far. Here is a taster:

Wednesday 7 November 2018. Dull, mild, stiff breeze. 11 degrees.

Another dull day with heavy rain forecast but I took the decision to go for it. I wanted to visit the lochs again just in case we get a cold spell soon and the lochs freeze over. Since my last visit here an ancient beech tree and a huge and absolutely straight conifer had been blown over. The foresters had trimmed the branches off the conifer and no doubt it will be carted off to the estate sawmill. The beech will either finish up as firewood or be left to rot down where it fell.

The larger of the estate loch’s attraction to wildfowl has waned, with the birds now favouring the smaller one. There were three mute swans on the loch today plus ten or so tufted ducks. Newcomers though were a small flock of about 25 greylag geese tight in to the rushes on the east shore. The loch – in fact this whole estate – is much more popular with pink-footed geese so these slightly larger geese are less-common visitors. A herring gull overflew the loch. As it came over the trees on the far side it somehow looked like an osprey, with its long narrow wings, but its identity became clear as it came closer.

Also new on the loch today were two cormorants sitting on a partly-sunken branch at the far side of the loch, plus three sitting in a tree to their left, their white breasts briefly shining in a blink of rare sunshine. The two on the sunken branch were drying their wings; with their wings spread they looked like miniature Angels of the North. I watched for a while and the three on the tree flew closer to me and started to fish. They look strange birds when they are in the water, with almost all of their body submerged and their neck and head sticking out of the water like a periscope or a sea serpent. I wondered if they sometimes hunt as a pack since most of the underwater forays were carried out in unison. I’m always hoping for a sighting of an otter but though I watched for nearly half an hour none of these large mustelids put in an appearance.

I walked along the forest track to the smaller loch. It had its usual compliment of mute swans, most of which were at the east end today. The wind was from the south-east and the waterfowl were taking advantage of a bit of shelter. A single male tufted duck was busy at the north-east corner. I took a couple of photos through one of the wire squares in the deer fence. When I looked at the photos later one photo summed up my photographic skills: I’d photographed a black spider hanging on a silk thread in the centre of the square.

I began to take a bit more notice of a small flock of swans feeding in the reeds on the far shore. It’s difficult to define why but I just thought they looked a bit different. Sure enough when I studied the members of this group through the binoculars they had yellow and black bills, wedge-shaped heads and, even though I was mostly seeing their raised bums, their necks were straighter than those of their mute cousins. There were half a dozen youngsters among this group of whooper swans, plus one away on its own half-way up the loch.

I continued up the north shore of the loch, noting a dozen or so tufted ducks resting on the far shore along with the same number of mallard. Further up, a raft of eight wigeon relaxed just out from the far shore. As I watched they were joined by another four which had flown down the loch. When the two groups combined they seemed to celebrate the meeting with much whistling. Their lovely musical calls whee-ooo, whee-ooo, whee-ooo floated across the loch.

As I continued up the lochside the numbers of waterfowl decreased, which was the complete opposite of my last visit. It demonstrates the influence the wind has on where waterfowl feed. One of the last birds on the loch was a heron, which rose at the edge of the loch ahead of me, circled over my head and landed somewhere behind me. I sat on the bank near the west end of the loch enjoying the view – albeit without waterfowl – enjoying my sandwiches and, most of all, enjoying the fact the rain had stayed away.

Having exhausted the lochs I had a look over the gate into the north-west moor. Two croaking ravens flew over at a distance and a flock of what appeared to be fieldfares were landing on the loose clump of berry-laden hawthorn trees on the moor. I climbed the gate and started to walk to the trees hoping to get close enough to determine whether the birds were indeed fieldfares, or could they be redwings or even a mix of both.  As I got closer I was able to confirm that all the birds I could see were fieldfares. A jay landed momentarily among the fieldfares but quickly spotted me and made a quick departure. A buzzard flew over at that point and it was interesting to note that the fieldfares were not in the least threatened. They continued gulping down hawthorn berries though no doubt still keeping one eye on the buzzard.

I sat down at the base of one of the trees and though the birds had flown to the furthest-away trees at my presence I knew their pattern and was satisfied that they would be back within a short time. Within ten minutes the flock was starting to return to the hawthorn trees beside me. Suddenly they rose in a cloud and fled towards taller trees in the wood. The cause of their panic was a male sparrowhawk that flew straight at them at tree height. It certainly meant business but was possibly confused by the sudden volume of birds and veered away. Amazingly it was then mobbed by a single fieldfare which almost made contact with the raptor. Do birds know that they may be safer from a sparrowhawk if not taken by surprise? Could it have been that because the sparrowhawk was high in the air the fieldfare could have climbed to safety if required? I once watched a merlin trying to catch a meadow pipit, which climbed higher and higher and eventually outflew the merlin, which gave up and looked for an easier meal.

I walked back to the car but on the way home I spotted a large flock of pink-footed geese in the same stubble field as they had been on my previous walk. They were in a position that I could stalk them with a reasonable chance of getting within seventy five yards or so. I succeeded in getting behind a drystone dyke just as several more skeins with maybe forty geese in each were gliding in to join the feeding flock. Luckily I had my back to the wind, which meant the geese would land into the wind and not have to overfly my position and spot me. I’m always fascinated by geese landing. Though I’d watched this at a distance on my previous walk here it was happening right in front of me. I managed to creep away from the now-enlarged flock without disturbing it. It was a great end to my morning. And a bonus that the rain stayed away.

 There is as yet no title for this book, which I hope to have published in autumn 2019.

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