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Serrations

Serrations

Serrations

As a postscript to the discovery of long eared owl feathers yesterday, it’s worth including this picture of the specially adapted serrations on the leading edge of the first primary. This comb-like configuration is reckoned to be part of the owl’s many adaptations to enable silent flight, as well as the flossy, velveteen coating to many of the wing feathers.

The book (Mike Toms’ New Naturalist) says that this pattern is most easily seen on barn owl feathers, but while I’ve seen them on barn owls, they’ve never been so obvious to me as they are on this unfortunate long eared owl feather.

A Shared Vigil

A head-on encounter

A head-on encounter

I’ve been meaning to get out early to see what the crows are doing in order to inform my trapping strategy over the next few weeks, but there comes a stage when early is just late. When I arrived on the hill at 3:20am this morning, it was without having slept, buoyed only by coffee, cigarettes and irrational enthusiasm.

As it was, there was plenty to see. I never regret an early start at this time of year, and I made all kinds of discoveries which might otherwise have lain in perpetual obscurity. Amidst stacks of good material and info which may emerge on this blog over the next few days, I crawled to within fifteen yards of a lekking blackcock, and if I had had my camera, it would have been one of the best photographs I have ever taken.

He was displaying on the viewpoint I had planned to occupy for the duration of the dawn, so I had to sneak in around him to get the views I needed of the young forestry where a pair of crows has been loitering. It turned out that he squalled and bustled in the half-dark a few feet away as I lay spying the wood as the dew (and then the rain) settled.

Remains of a raptor kill

Remains of a raptor kill

I made an unfortunate discovery during an improvised fox drive through a strip of spruces this afternoon, and was deeply disappointed to find the predated remains of a long-eared owl on the mat of fallen needles. I was excited to find that the owls had returned to this strip when I heard them displaying in February, and I was hoping for a second summer of long-ears to follow on from last year’s extravaganza. Unfortunately, the wood has been quiet for the past six weeks, and the best explanation I can come up with is that one of the pair fell victim to a goshawk.

I wrote last summer about goshawk predation on barn owls in the same strip, and I’m even more upset by this latest discovery – further evidence of so-called intra-guild predation. Given that it was unquestionably a raptor kill in an area where goshawks are doing very well, I think it’s something of an open/shut case.

Getting enthusiastic about long-eared owls recently, I happened to mention them to a friend on the Isle of Man. There are no voles on the Isle of Man, and most owl species are a bit of a rarity as result. The most common owl on the island is the long-eared, presumably because those birds are not so dependent upon voles and eat a good proportion of songbirds to make up for the shortage of small rodents. The traditional Manx name for long-eared owls is kione chayt, which means “cat’s head” – probably a reference to the slitted eyes and contented expression of a roosting long-eared owl. In Scotland, the species is sometimes called a “lug owl” or a “luggie” on account of the exaggerated “lugs” (or ears), and I think these are much nicer ways of differentiating them from their short eared cousins, since the differences between the two species are so much more interesting than the simple length of their respective ears. To be honest I’d rather talk about bog owls and cat’s heads.

And the final punchline was that the fox hopped the dyke just where we least expected him and took off through the rushes, making a clean getaway.

A precarious clutch

Having written yesterday about nesting curlews, I came across one of the nests last night as I left the hill after a quick check around the larsens. The hen got off and away low and silently, and I went forward to find her nest in the most appallingly naïve and obvious spot, bang in the middle of a strip of rushes which I cut in the back end. Interestingly, the eggs are much greener  than others I have seen, and it would make an interesting study to compare all the different shades and tones of curlew eggs, which range from beige to blue to green and have an extremely variable amount of camouflage markings.

There is some fantastic thick cover just a few feet away, but this hen has elected to lay her eggs right out in the open, where the vegetation is less than 7” tall. The soft, round eggs seem to glow in the sunlight and they stand out beautifully in their eye-catching dish of rush stubble and shadows. The fact that there are only two imply that this is a second clutch, but there is a chance that she may be an old hen or the conditions may have been against her.

Either way, as I see it there are two outcomes for this nest, and neither are particularly promising.

  1. It is an inexplicably small first clutch due to hatch any day now. The grass has hardly grown yet this year, so as soon as the chicks are out, they will be as exposed in this field as if they were standing on a billiard table. With little in the way of insect life available, kites and buzzards await.
  2. It is a second clutch, which means that the incubation process is only a few days old (if indeed there is not another egg to come) and the chances of this nest remaining undiscovered for three and a half weeks is extremely remote, despite my best efforts.

Interestingly, it is almost a year to the day since I found a nest in 2014. Looking at my notes from the 19th May 2014, I find references to tormentil flowers and milkwort on the moss, as well as green hairstreaks, large whites and orange tip butterflies. I described the undergrowth as “full of spiders, craneflies and small beetles, and evidence everywhere of growing, thrusting grass”. There are no such signs of life yet this year, and there is no question that we are further behind in 2015. There are a few sprigs of cuckoo flower here and there, but otherwise the hill is bare.

Silkie x sussex with a brood of young grey partridges

Silkie x sussex with a brood of young grey partridges

Any news on the grey partridge front? We haven’y heard anything for a while on them. Are you going to continue with your hatch and release policy this year?

I’m not working with grey partridges at the moment for the simple reason that I just don’t have time. I absolutely loved the rear and release programme I tried out in 2012 and 2013, but it was staggeringly time consuming. During the actual release phase, I was spending five or six hours a day on the poults, and could have spent far more if I had had nothing else on. It was a huge pleasure to sit up somewhere quiet and watch the young birds feeding through the grass with their bantam mother, and the work repaid itself many times over in terms of sheer delight. One particularly fond memory was finding a covey of seven which had been fostered to an adult pair dust-bathing in the track on the back hill one sunny evening. They moved and sounded like wild birds, and I almost convinced myself that the project had worked.

In fact, I even had some cause to believe that the project might have worked if I had kept going, with two pairs of partridges still holding strong after two years on the hill. It was great to hear them calling in the half-dark amongst the red grouse, and I was always amazed at the huge distances they used. I lost track of these last birds a few months ago, but feel sure that they could have held on if they had received another wave or two of new recruits from my project. That said, predation rates were pretty dire and I lost an awful lot of birds for every one that lived.

Rearing small numbers of grey partridges under broodie hens should be mandatory for anyone interested in shooting – it ticks every box in terms of conservation, habitat management and game bird husbandry and it provides hours of pleasure for anyone with a naturalist’s eye for sporting shooting. Unfortunately, it is so labour intensive that I simply cannot justify breeding and rearing young birds as I was, and the project had to fold.

Although even as I write this, I have looked around at the details of some old contacts to see if there are eggs going to rear a clutch this summer. I have the broodies and the time to spend on one or two birds, so perhaps it is worth watching this space. If anyone reads this and knows where I might find a dozen eggs, let me know…

Larsen trap

Larsen trap

I’ve had a couple of good “question” comments on my blog recently, and it’s a good opportunity to respond to them both by email and on the blog itself – I’m not sure how the “comment” section works on WordPress and have often fudged replies, so perhaps this is a good way of responding so that everyone can see.

Patrick,
Just been having a browse through your blog which I’ve read with interest. As a frequent hill-goer with an interest in wildlife and landscape, I’ve begun to notice more and more in the press, as well as on the hill, conflicts between land managers and conservation bodies (though groups like the Heather Trust, GWCT and Songbird Survival appear to be bridging the divide). One thing I have noticed myself has been the apparent increase in the use of traps (Fen and Larsen) in an attempt to control vermin species. Perhaps, I’ve just become more observant in my old age and notice them more, but is this paralleled by an increase vermin like crows, stoats, weasels, raptors, foxes, and if so why are these species on the rise?
Regards,
Steve

Your comments about traps becoming more conspicuous is perfectly right – they are, but I don’t think that this has to do with increased predator numbers (although in some areas, predators have increased).
Larsen traps only came to Britain in the late 1980s and took some time to get established as a pest control tool. They have reached their current popularity only in the past decade, so perhaps this is why you see them now more than you used to. Unfortunately, crows do get used to them and learn to avoid them after a while, so new traps are always being designed to keep one step ahead. You may see more different types of larsen as time goes by, but they will probably depend on the same “call-bird” blueprint. As a reflection of this, the traps are now recognised by the law as “larsen or larsen-type” traps, rather than just larsens.
With Fenn traps, I think that  the numbers used are more or less similar, but they are now set differently, often in more conspicuous places than previously. Placing traps on bridges over streams or building them in to dykes has become fashionable recently, partly because these are good places to catch, but also because they can be checked quickly and easily from a distance. The old trap sites were almost exclusively buried in tunnels under sods, and keepers of the old school were taught  that traps should never be visible to human beings.
In some areas, pest control activity has intensified, but I don’t think that it has across the board – there are just different techniques coming in and out of fashion. Perhaps the shooting community is more confident than it was 10 years ago. When I first started keepering in 2003, traps were always put out of site because there was a risk that passers-by would break them or release call birds from larsens if they were too conspicuous. There has been a lot of hard work put into educating the public on the value of predator control, and I for one certainly feel less secretive about trapping that I did ten years ago. Traps are still damaged or broken (although not with me, fortunately), but this is more from hard-core animal rights folk who don’t care why predator control is undertaken and are simply reacting to the immediate emotions they feel when they find a trap.

Curlew Progress

Proprietorial

Proprietorial

It looks like the curlews are making progress with their nests. I watched a cock rise up and mob a red kite yesterday afternoon, and a different bird spent the last few minutes of daylight circling noisily around his patch last week, giving me hope that territories are being carefully maintained. Some of the birds are definitely just starting their second clutches after disaster struck earlier in the month, but I am quite confident that others will soon be hatching.

I was concerned to find stoat tracks across a muddy gateway early last week within fifty yards of one of the nests, but was then satisfied to have caught the culprit within 24 hours of refreshing a nearby trap. It sometimes seems that a trap simply needs to be sprung and reset in order for it to make a catch, particularly if the process scuffs up the soil and makes it seem like something interesting has happened. The stoat was a monster, bigger than any I have ever caught on the hill, and it is scary to think what he might have got up to if he remained at large on a hill full of nests.

At the same time, much of this hard work will be for nothing if the weather doesn’t warm up. The last ten days have been cold and severe, and much of the insect life is either suppressed or absent. The first broods of red grouse are not far away, but aside from the occasional hatch of flies and beetles, the best brood-rearing habitats are still quiet and sterile.

The only birds which really seem to be thriving despite the cold are the cuckoos. The cold weather has done nothing to put off the drinker moth caterpillars, and they lie like fuzzy fingers all across the white grass. I watched a cock cuckoo gulping down a pile of these massive tubes a few days ago, hopping around the fallen bracken like a short-legged jay with his beak laden down. While the wind has made it hard to hear the cuckoos, they seem to be faring surprisingly well in the cold.

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