Cuckoo Casualties

Chance's standard text on cuckoos, set about with some of the cuckoo chick feathers from fox kills I have found in the past weeks.

Chance on cuckoos, set about with some of the cuckoo chick feathers from fox kills I have found in the past weeks.

Being in the grip of a minor cuckoo obsession, I was delighted to get hold of a copy of Edgar P. Chance’s book The Truth About the Cuckoo in the post yesterday morning. This book is something like a standard text on the subject, and a constant source of reference for everything else I have read about cuckoos. I spotted it on eBay and managed to get hold of it without too much trouble, and I look forward to inhaling some of Chance’s material, complete with its somewhat dated but nonetheless groundbreaking photographs.

On the subject of cuckoos, I have noted a couple of rather distressing casualties on the hill over the past week or two in the form of dead chicks. “Dead chicks” is perhaps misleading and would be better pitched as “predated” chicks, and I found the remains of the second bird last night in the mouth of a recently cleaned out fox earth.

Both of the cuckoos had obviously been killed by foxes as the chewed feathers would suggest, and it makes me think of how vulnerable these fat little traitors are when poised in the heather waiting for the next gob-full of fraudulently acquired plunder. In my experience, they are easier to hear than see, and it is surely no wonder that they are being hammered by vigilant ground predators. I have included some of the feathers I have found from both cuckoos in the image above, and they are unquestionably pretty things, despite being somewhat tainted by the tragic overtones. It is sad to see that some of the quills had not even moulted through fully before the axe fell, and if only these two could have survived another week or two, what a life they might have had.

The eggs I found on the Chayne in April never hatched because the nest was raided, and I am starting to come to terms with what must be a major bottleneck for cuckoo numbers; the period of inordinate vulnerability which follows hatching but precedes fledging, when all they can do is squat and wheeze. Once on the wing, adult cuckoos are relatively bulletproof, and I was interested to read in Ian Wyllie’s book the theory that mature birds look like sparrowhawks in order to evade these predators.

To demonstrate the similarities between the two species, he provides an impressive photograph of a dead cuckoo next to a dead sparrowhawk. This image (below) is rather alarming to a modern audience, since it almost suggests that both were shot to make the picture,  but it drives its point home and also goes some way to prick to common theory that the resemblance between the two is designed to confuse pipits and warblers into deserting their nests so that the eggs can be layed. It is equally logical that cuckoos should have assumed the guise of sparrowhawks for their own protection, and despite having once seen a sparrowhawk chasing a cock cuckoo, I have never heard of one actually being killed, or found cuckoo feathers near any of the plucking posts on my beat.

Cuckoo and sparrowhawk for comparison, taken from Ian Wyllie's book The Cuckoo.

Cuckoo and sparrowhawk for comparison, taken from Ian Wyllie’s book The Cuckoo.

A fine drop

A fine drop

Pleased to finally get my hands on a bottle of Allendale’s Black Grouse beer which I’ve been seeing around for some time. I was rather turned off the idea of black grouse branded alcohol after an encounter with Edrington Group in 2012 which revealed that the people behind the Famous Grouse and the more recent Black Grouse purport to be “neutral” on the subject of shooting, and affirm their neutrality by working in partnership with the RSPB, which is increasingly gathering momentum as an anti-shooting organisation. I fulminated at some length on the subject, particularly since bottles of Grouse are doubtless on order to many shooting parties as they gear up for the Twelfth.

But putting that silliness to one side, Allendale’s Black Grouse is a fine pint, and has the cheerful appearance of a blackcock once poured into a pint glass; a black body with a white frill of fanned tail for a head. Perhaps a little darker than the beer I’d usually choose, it slipped down a treat regardless.

I was particularly impressed to read on the label that the beer “pays homage to the sport that preserves the habitat of the black grouse”; a sport that is currently under attack from conservationists who believe that all birds (black grouse included) could do better without gamekeepers or traditional upland management. Having spent three years at school in Hexham, I have fond memories of the hills around Allendale and Whitfield, and in a black grouse context, I shudder to compare them with areas of Northumberland which lie North of Hadrian’s Wall towards Otterburn and Kielder, where the hills have become an empty place in the absence of proper moorland management.

If you come across a pint of Black Grouse this August, don’t miss it.

English sundew, with round-leaved at the bottom centre for comparison.

English sundew in abundance

Also worth mentioning in brief that I came across a huge abundance of English sundew while looking for fish in the high hills – this was the first time I have encountered this species of sundew, and I’m much more used to the D. rotundifolia which appears to be the really common one around these parts. The tall, tapered leaves were quite obvious on the soggy peat, and I note from the photo that several have curled up, indicating that they have been “triggered”. I didn’t realise at the time, but there are one or two round-leaved sundew plants at the bottom of the picture for the sake of easy comparison.

Great fuzzy bees roared past, and the long purple grass heads clattered with the din of dragonflies. As we walked, these neon monsters came soaring over the granite spaces. I could identify four or five different species, each tagged with threatening names like “chaser”, or “darter”, or “hawker”. Grotesquely huge, it was almost possible to hear the meaty roar of whirring tendon and sinew from inside the gaudily painted housing. If you were to step on one of these helicopters by accident, the innards would not reveal themselves as semi-solid, ambiguous goo, but instead resemble fleshy, clockwork parts encased in a lobster’s shell. Some individuals paused fearlessly before my face, and I watched their bitty legs working thoughtfully in the undercarriage.

One little orange darter in particular caught my attention as it landed before me on a sprig of near bursting heather buds, and I had crept quite close before it lost its nerve and rustled away. The quantity and variety of these aircraft only increased as we ascended into the sweating tops, until we reached a damp pool which lifted with insects like snipe from a January bog.

Surrounded by carnivorous plants and harried by aerial predators, the walk would have supplied a naff Hollywood producer with rich pickings.

Hill fishing

Looking for a fish

Looking for a fish

Again, an abbreviated blog post to record a fantastic day of fishing in some of Galloway’s highest lochs at the weekend. Long, arduous walks and breathtaking scenery made for a stunning day in the hills, despite the fact that it turned wet later on and my decision to wear shorts met with the approval of the local midges. More on this to come, but suffice to say that the fishing in Galloway is worth a great deal more scrutiny.

It struck me as we passed the heart-rendingly idyllic Loch Enoch just how like Harris and Wester Ross these hills can be, with ragged white granite cliffs peering through a veil of moss and heather. Stunning silver granite beaches are miniature copies of the strand at Luskentyre, and the rough faces of Craignaw and Craignelder are every bit as lonely and secluded as the wildest crags of Torridon and the far North West.

Further to my post on the subject of eagles last week, we encountered little in the way of bird life beyond the odd pipit, but a screaming peregrine certainly grabbed the attention as we passed Loch Valley on the walk back to the car.

As a child, I must have worn shorts so often at school that my knees developed something like a rind of callus. Now that I am a grown-up and am in the habit of wearing trousers, this protective covering has become soft and vulnerable, and walking back through the bracken to Glen Trool was like wandering through a swarm of bread knives. I noticed this the other day while stalking in my shorts, and simply assumed that I must have knelt in the blaeberry when great stains appeared on my knees. As it turned out, I had been clawed to ribbons by the heather stick, and the blood ran down into my socks as if I had been rolling in razor-wire. Perhaps we take tough knees for granted as children, but I am at least grateful that the weather appears to have broken and it will be another year before I get my shorts out again.

Summer Ruttin’

Tis the season to watch deer.

Tis the season to be around roe deer

Blog posts have become so infrequent recently on account of a stunning roe rut which is taking up almost all available free time in the sweltering heat. There are some incredible sights to be seen on the hill, including a roe buck tossing a fawn into the air, active combat between two old masters and a staggering degree of stamina shown by bucks apparently capable of chasing does until they are both verging on collapse. I’ve brought down a couple of bucks for the freezer amidst all this enthusiasm, but the real pleasure so far has been simply sitting and watching. For the sake of interest, I have been playing with my Butollo deer call and have found it totally and utterly useless. The best reaction I have had has been confusion, but on the whole it has inspired more in the way of panic than attraction.

Amongst all the excitement, there have been cuckoo chicks, a pair of young peregrines and an impressive fly-by from two ospreys, who used the hill to catch thermals in the same was as children use a trampoline. Many thousands of words of notes (9,000 so far) have been set down and I will eventually get time to edit them down and provide a full account of all I have seen, but I can only say at  this stage that the Minox binoculars have already paid for themselves several times over.

Bracken Control

Bracken spraying

Bracken spraying

I know precisely why bracken control is a great way to spend time and money, and I applaud my neighbours for their strenuous and commendably successful bracken control programme on the hill above my house. But I must admit that the sound of a helicopter landing and taking off more or less in the garden all afternoon was quite tiresome.


Picture from the notebook

Picture from the notebook

After several years of trying, I finally succeeded in making contact with nightjars on Wednesday evening. I’ve always been fascinated by these birds, and have followed hot on their heels since I was a teenager without ever clapping eyes on one. A friend manages a small area of raised bog down by the Solway, and equipped with apparently reliable directions, my girlfriend and I walked out on the darkening for a closer look.

As we moved through the moss, billions of moths swirled out of the rushes like a bow wave at our feet, and the cooling bog reeked of myrtle, liquorice-sweet asphodel and wet grass. This immense flat space is criss-crossed with rides and drains which are strangely uniform in the vast mass of wilderness, and we followed the maze of sheepwalks and quad tracks until we came near a silhouetted rampart of young scots pine trees. Perched up on a low mound, we sat in silence as the moths and flies bumped into us and wheeled crazily up into the darkness. Bats like spaniels broke off their high altitude flight paths to select and pinch individual beasties from the cool air with tweezer-like precision, and a roe deer barked furiously somewhere in the middle distance. A lawny mist was exhaled from the moss as if the ground was sighing deeply before sleep, and this chilly veil drifted hopelessly through the undergrowth like some half-formed bogle. 

Assured that we would see some action, there was an inevitable lull and a dawning of potential disappointment before I heard a sort of crunchy “wick-a-wick-a” DJ scratching sound, then a flash of movement over the pine tops. It was only a spark and could have been a woodcock, but in context it was surely something other. Lost again below the horizon, we continued to wait, leaning back on a fibrous tump of molinia grass.

After a while, the wind carried in snatches of so-called “churring” from the South, so distant and faint that it was almost inaudible. Something like a cross between a grasshopper warbler and the echoed sound of a land rover idling in a stone yard, the noise was so extraordinarily un-birdlike that I wondered if my ears were playing the sound for me so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. It was made all the more tantalising because only I could hear it, and although my girlfriend strained her ears, she failed to pick anything out of the darkness.

As we were starting to chat and wind up for the evening ten minutes later, the same sound whirred into life a few hundred yards away and there could be no mistaking it – long exhalations in one tone followed by quick sips of breath at another, slightly deeper. Each long phrase began with a second or two at half volume, as if the full mechanism needed to be primed and prepared for use with a crank handle. 

From what I have read, nightjars clap their wings together over their backs almost like woodpigeons as part of their display ceremony. Having been told that a nightjar will respond to the sound of quietly clapping hands, we slapped our palms together and were stunned by an immediate response.  A bird so used to lurking in the darkness needs to have a well developed means of communication beyond the visual, and the hollow “clopping” sound was eerily expressive as it moved straight towards us like a shark to a swimmer. Despite knowing that  the bird was no bigger than a kestrel, I felt the hairs rise up on the back of my neck; the sensation of being observed by an unseen creature is fractionally unsettling in any context. 

We could see nothing as the clopping wings flew round us in a loop at close range. It was like being explored by a ghost, and only by crouching down to catch something of a silhouette against the horizon could I see the long-armed black shape against the sky, no more than twelve feet away. That curt, snapping clop seemed to pass between my girlfriend and I, and there was almost a whisper of cool breath as it moved before our faces. I had not expected the experience to produce such a sense of unease, but what a first encounter with a bird I have always wanted to see.

The clopping fell silent, and churring began again in the pines a few seconds later. He was clearly not impressed with what he had found. A second bird began to call where the first had come from, pausing periodically to make some odd, rather wet chirrups which sounded almost like a wader’s peep. With a waning red moon rising up in the East, we headed back, finding that our path had been obscured by alternating pockets of hot and cold air. It was as if we were walking through a sequence of rooms in a corridor, some of which were filled with dank, chill air and others with mellow stuffiness. The alternation between the two was so abrupt that it was possible to step from one to another with a single pace, and although this effect is nothing new, it was refined to a pitch of extraordinary resolution.

Half a dozen teal whipped past overhead as we reached the car, and I turned to look back over the moss which was growing ever more smothered in an obscure wheeze of mist. What a wonderland, populated by spunkies and ghouls.


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