Wipe-Out

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Worth recording that all three pairs of curlews on the in-bye ground have failed in their breeding attempts this year. When curlews lose their eggs, they frequently try for a second clutch within a week or two, but there is every sign that this first attempt (which should be the most successful) has been a total wipe-out.

I can keep a close eye on these birds as they hang around the old hayfields and the near end of the moss, and I was tremendously excited by the obvious tell-tale signs of young chicks hatching out towards the end of last week. In the event, the same pair had moved away by Tuesday and I watched the cock trying to tread the hen last night – hardly the actions of two devoted parents. I don’t know what became of the chicks, but in many ways, I consider this to be a major turn-up in itself. The percentage of eggs which actually hatch is tiny compared to the huge majority which are lost during incubation (95% by my notes), and I’m not aware of any live chicks on the hill since 2014 (and only one fledged since 2009). There is little to celebrate in this latest disaster, which is only noteworthy because failure was simply postponed.

One pair abandoned their nest almost as soon as the clutch was complete, and the other lasted about ten days before abandoning. I see that they are trying again in a deep wet pan criss-crossed by the tracks of badgers from two large setts nearby. I will eat my hat (and yours too) if those eggs ever hatch, let along result in fledged chicks. The other nest looks like it is going to be built within sight of a ravens’ nest on the forest edge, and the probability of success there seems equally dire. I haven’t kept in touch with how the other pairs are doing further back, but there was a patient, solemn “whoo-UP” from a displaying cock on the far hill three days ago. These are the sounds of early April, suggesting that failure has set the clock back for him as well.

Not only do the curlews have to compete with a limitless supply of foxes, badgers, crows, magpies, buzzards, kites, stoats and weasels, but this slow spring has hardly helped. There is almost no cover on the hill as a result of the dry weather, and any nest would hardly stand a chance, knitted together out of last year’s yellow rush litter and a thread or two of grey grass. We need deep, lustrous blades of timothy and cocksfoot; spiring jungles of soft rush and club rush to crowd up and hide the eggs, which glow like bulbs on the moss.

A line of eight young non-breeding curlews flew over the hill last night as I checked my crow traps. They chittered and squeaked, and they sounded like the shore. Not the bland yellow drift of child’s play sand, but the vast, semi-solid plains of the Solway. It was the sound of home for our breeding pairs, manacled to a strange and dangerous hill country by instincts and loyalty and a refusal to understand the concept of failure. It must have broken their hearts.

I spend three or four hours a day running crow traps and snares at this time of year. My work schedule groans beneath the weight of it, and I have to query the value of this effort when the sky hangs with buzzards and kites and the rushes are sifted clean by badgers every night. There is only so much I can do. The curlews are faced with the same predicament every year, and like an idiot, I work my guts out in the hope of a different outcome.

Birthday Cows

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The gang

Small celebration is due to the approximate first birthday of my four riggit galloway heifers.

Although the grass has taken a long time to rise, they are finally getting a good bellyful and no longer require silage. I have a project to resurrect an old 1950s pattern cattle crush which has been abandoned on the hill for decades, and I soon hope to have some kind of handling facility in place so that I can get up close and personal with them. They have calmed down a great deal since they first came to me in January, but while one or two have allowed me to casually pat their heads, they certainly didn’t enjoy the experience.

 

Nightjar’s return

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What a bird!

I can’t resist mentioning with a smidgen of pride that the nightjar has returned to the hill behind the house. Perhaps it means little to most people who have never heard of such an queer bird, but I find a real kudos and excitement to sharing my home with a creature so bizarre, obscure and un-birdlike. My wife and I went out last night at 10:30 and caught phrases of churring song between the chirrup and groan of roding woodcock. Bats flickered overhead between the lacy larch needles and I was swooning with excitement.

I have (or at least I think I have) a really nice idea for a painting of a nightjar, but I am buried with all kinds of writing and painting projects at the moment and it is probably towards the bottom of the pile. I will make a point of spending some time in the blue, buzzing world of nightjarland over the next few weeks and try to make time for this amongst so many others.

Nightjars are the last in a long list of spring arrivals which mean it’s now summer, well and truly.

Slight Return

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Strange to see a single male lapwing return to the hill for a period of intense displaying over the weekend. There have been no truly viable attempts to breed in the glen for five years, and there have been no birds at all for the past three. This one bird added a lively fizz of song to the still evening chorus of snipe and blackgame, but now I think he’s gone again.

Most waders are strongly faithful to their original place of birth and will always try to return there to breed – this is why it is so hard to expand their range or re-establish them after they have been lost from a particular area, so this single cock is probably just venting his hormones after having failed elsewhere and is trying the glen on some speculative foray. Perhaps he was hatched here several years ago but moved away and now considers the glen to be “worth a look” in passing.

We have all kinds of waders passing through each spring. The oystercatchers from further down the glen sometimes turn up and feed, and some large trips of golden plover turn up on the high ground throughout April and May. They never really intend to breed with us, but their return is like some half-forgotten memory of bygone days when everything was different. Within a single human lifetime, there were redshank, dunlin and plover breeding on the hill, but I wouldn’t advise them to try it today. The hill has changed, and even with the best intentions, I can only hope to make a small dent in the tide of predators which combs through the grass around the clock.

So much of this wandering wader traffic takes place at night time, when peeps and squeals ring against the stars. Only a relatively small percentage of a population will breed each year, and perhaps it’s no wonder that youngsters or non-breeders are feeling footloose and happy to explore under cover of darkness. But at the same time, it’s easy to imagine that these half-heard sounds are the ghosts of Springs long past.

Dry Spring

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A glut of leverets in the dry evenings

The past fortnight has provided food for thought. Longer days and a good deal of sunshine has brought much of the countryside swelling into life; we’ve even made huge progress in the past few hours. But where there has been progress, there has also been delay. The dryness and the heat has parched the hill so that it has become a barren waste of crackling undergrowth. I cut a few experimental peats on Tuesday morning and returned this afternoon to find them dry enough to burn already. This process might usually take up to a fortnight in a normal year, and the hagg is already dry enough to cut again.

The grass is yellow and the sedge heads have parched into dry, ashy scaffolding. When I look for running water to fill up my crow drinkers, I sometimes have to walk several hundred yards before I find even a trickle. Insect life is very thin, although there was a brief shower on Monday which brought crane flies out of the moss like a blizzard. The constant East wind has dried the hill to within an inch of its life, but many of the breeding birds have already cast in their lots. In this uncertain moment, there is little grass to shelter or conceal wader chicks, and the ditches will soon be too dry for probing. In fact, the cows are still being fed on the hill and the sheep with twin lambs are now getting supplementary pellets.

Compare this with last year when the hills were green and full of flowers by mid May. There are some marsh marigolds and primroses in the wettest areas, but aside from a single flake of lousewort I found on the hill this morning, the ground looks much as it did six weeks ago. The difference is not so pronounced in the bottom of the glen where the bluebells and blackthorn are putting on a staggering display, but my galloways live at 400ft above sea level and are still hungry for silage and cake every day.

The only real winners have been the hares – there are leverets in almost every field, and my wife and I have enjoyed watching a very diligent mother return to suckle her three youngsters on the lane below the house over the last week. She sits upright and they cluster in between her front legs in the half dark; hares are usually so secretive and obscure that I almost feel that I shouldn’t watch this moment of tenderness. Hares have such varied and unpredictable fortunes in Galloway that I’m now getting a rare opportunity to study them in more depth.

Crow Politics

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While stalking on Friday morning, I found myself high up on a steep face of granite and heather overlooking a single sitka spruce tree. This ground was all burnt out in 2012, and the scorched tree is now little more than a black gallows in a world of fresh young heather and blaeberry. A crow’s nest was easily visible in the top of this tree, and as I watched, the occupant dropped off her nest and flew noisily into combat with a gang of seven immature crows which had come drifting off the moorland margins. Her partner joined her, and the two of them took part in a vicious aerial exchange which ultimately saw off the youngsters. Ten minutes later, a buzzard was battered into submission by these two extremely territorial birds, and when a raven passed by, it was also hounded out of sight. I watched them for an hour, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a gamekeeper do such an efficient job of seeing off corvids.

It occurred to me that having this breeding pair on the hill could potentially serve as an excellent natural predator control mechanism. As long as they had a vested interest in keeping other birds out, the local grouse only had to worry about one pair of crows. I had made a note to destroy the nest while I was on the hill, but then I started to waver. Without eggs to protect, these crows would allow open access for all other predators and the net effect of removing the nest might even be negative. Perhaps they were serving an important purpose.

That was until I remembered that territorial breeding crows are without question the worst egg thieves of all. Studies have shown that the huge majority of nests are raided by dominant, territory-holding birds which acquire the skills to find sitting birds over many years of practice. Juvenile crows certainly eat eggs, but they are so much more transient and nomadic that they rarely spend the time looking for nests or hunting like their mature peers. On balance, I think it’s safer to have a dozen young crows on the hill than a single pair of territorial birds, and my mind was made up when I finally reached the bottom of the tree and found shards of grouse egg scattered across the moss.

Like a black bear, I clumsily hauled myself up thirty feet into the dry old branches until I reached the nest, pushing it out from below and catching a single egg as it fell from the densely packed pad of roe hair and sheep wool. I carefully opened the shell and found that the clutch would have hatched within a day or two. Seconds later, I slipped calamitously and the other three green eggs fell out with a clatter onto the stones below me. As I had been in the tree, one of the pair had come to call loudly in protest, and it circled high up above me on the edge of sight.

It’s not a very nice job and it would have been good to have caught both of them in a trap before disposing of the nest, but this is such a remote, obscure spot that I can only do what is possible with limited time and resources. It may be too late for them to sit again this year, and at least it’s an improvement to ensure that they are not raking the heather, looking to feed four extra hungry mouths over the next few weeks. And if they do sit again, their chicks should be so late that the grouse will hopefully have grown up enough to be out of harm’s way.

 

A Wet May Evening

 

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Back to reality

After a long, stuffy day indoors yesterday, it was an enormous treat to head up the hill in the evening to go around my larsen traps and see something of the real world. It was eight o’clock by the time I rolled to a standstill on the track, and as soon as the engine fell silent, the car was flooded with rolling waves of blackcock song. Some rain began to patter on the windscreen, but the view towards the West was a smirry blur of orange light, turning Cairnsmore of Fleet into a blue smudge above the sea of conifers and moorland.

This is the first time that this blackcock has displayed into the evening, and he worked away on his little patch with fantastic patience, turning slowly round and round and sneezing back to the provocative calls of fencing pheasants in the rushes. Snipe hummed and buzzed overhead, and there was a constant seesaw chorus of cuckoos from the new plantations. I tried to put my finger on how many I could hear, but they moved and turned until it was just an ambiguous din of pulses. I should think there were between six and ten, but it seemed less important as I began to splash up through the paidled moss to feed the traps and check the crows. The curlews are well down on their eggs and I hear very little from them these days. Paradoxically, you should only worry about curlews at this time of year when you can see them.

I’ve had something of a bonanza with two of my larsen traps over the past few days, and it’s gratifying to find that they have cleared quite a large area between them. After a few days without catching, I usually leave a hen’s egg out beside the trap as a test of my success. It’s too simple to say that an untouched trap means there are no crows in the area, but if the egg is still there when I get back, I can conclude that things have gone quiet. A sitting crow’s a canny thing, and they’ll often hang out beside a trap without actually going in. No matter how cunning they are, they can never pass up the opportunity of a free egg, so even if the trap is totally untouched after 24 hours and the egg has gone, you can be sure you’ve had a visitor. For the past forty eight hours, I’ve had pure white bantam eggs lying out beside my traps without being touched – a fairly reliable sign that things are going well.