The Wheatears are Back

The first wheatear of 2012

Just to note that I saw a wheatear for the first time this year on the Chayne this morning. That’s not to say that it’s the first wheatear – I have a feeling that they’ve been around for the last 48 hours, but I just hadn’t managed to spot one. A few were seen during the long process of fire fighting earlier in the week, but since we weren’t on the Chayne, it didn’t count. There have been reliable reports of birds in Britain for the last fortnight, and some of them seem to pass straight over Galloway on their way north. A reader of this blog wrote to tell me that he had seen three wheatears up in Angus six days ago, so perhaps my birds are actually a little slow when it comes to returning.

The first wheatear on the Chayne was the 25th March in 2010 and the 28th March in 2011, so even if I am a day late in spotting the returning migrants, it’s still quite a good grouping. Wheatears are not only the upland equivalent of swallows, bringing the first proper signs of spring, but they are also fascinating little critters in their own right. I plan to look at wheatears in a little more depth this year, so I’m looking forward to some sunny days when I can get up and watch them at close hand.

Next up, swallows…

Night Roding

A woodcock on the Chayne (2009)

It was an odd experience a couple of nights ago to hear a strangely familiar croaking sound ringing across the hill while lamping foxes. The noise came persistently through the moonless darkness, and while I knew that I had heard that sound before, I just couldn’t place it. Snipe drummed and a tawny owl bawled in the conker trees by the farm gate. The sound was almost amphibian in its tone, but held a sort of musical wetness that was much more like a bird. Whatever it was, it was moving in a huge circle back and forth over the low ground by the forest – and then it hit me – it was a roding woodcock.

The last time I saw a woodcock roding was 2005, when I happened to find myself sitting beneath the flightline of a displaying male. He came round and round like a hornby train, flapping slowly and interspersing his croaks with a slappy little whistle. Over the years, the precise detail of the sound had faded, so it was hardly surprising that I didn’t recognise it straight off when I heard it in the darkness.

From what I can gather, some woodcock do display after dark, so the case is now closed. It’s a buzz to think that woodcock are breeding on the Chayne, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for them over the summer.

The Funnel Trap Experiment

A funnel trap near the old lek site

Over the last few days, I’ve been pre-baiting a home-made funnel trap for rooks and jackdaws, made out of partridge pen sections and old release pen netting. The idea occurred to me that, while I’ve got used to rooks and jackdaws flying around the old farm buildings near the lek site, I really can’t go on ignoring them altogether. I’ve shot one or two as and when the opportunity presented itself, but if I’m going to plant cover crops and make some real progress on the hill, they’ve got to go. The rooks fly over from a rookery on the neighbour’s farm, and they’ll obviously be keen to find eggs and chicks as the spring goes on, while the jackdaws sit in the ash trees above the farmhouse and drop into the chimneys to feed their skrieking broods.

Noticing that they’ve been feeding from my wheat hopper, I built the pen around the container and allowed them to get used to feeding from it. I put the roof on last night with a funnel made to 1970s MAFF dimensions which I found in an old manual. True to form, the trap seems to work, but not on the large scale that I was hoping for. I caught a handful of rooks and no jackdaws whatsoever, and while I’m pleased, I’m also a little disappointed.

Maybe the trap will get better the more it’s used and really come into its own as breeding birds develop a keener hunger, but I must say that I expected more from my ladder trap. That said, if it’s not working well then it’s more likely to be that I’ve made a mistake in positioning it than any inherent flaws in the design…


The aftermath - a view from the helicopter

To cut an extremely long story very short, I had front row seats for the recent wildfire near Dumfries, and was involved in fighting the flames for over twenty four hours. The event became a curious mixture of terror, amazement and exhaustion, and following it through from ignition to extinction was one of the most engaging and extraordinary experiences I’ve ever been involved in.

In due course, I’ll publish a proper account of what happened on Monday and Tuesday on this blog, if only to show that burning into a large area of unmanaged heather always has the potential to go badly wrong, even when experienced and knowledgeable people are on the ground. There is no real reason why the accident happened, but as I was lifted off the hill by RAF helicopter on Tuesday evening, I took the photograph (above) which gives some idea of the extent of the damage caused.

It’s too soon to really take in everything I learned from the burn, but I’m obviously very grateful to everyone who helped to put the fire out. Even as I write, more wildfires are raging across the uplands up and down Britain, and while this time of year is becoming characterised by wildfire, it will be a few weeks before I can look at the experience objectively.

In the meantime, work continues on the Chayne…


Back Burning

Heather fire behaves very differently

After a surprisingly long period of warm, dry weather, the heather is now a different plant altogether. Damp and sluggish to burn last week, the undergrowth is now a crisp, volatile mattress on the hill. I’m starting to see that tactics for burning are totally different when the heather is dry, and we’ve spent the past two days burning into the wind – a slow process, but safe and hot. The wind can’t carry the flames skimming over the heather leaves like it did in the cloud, and instead it crawls, hissing, through the woody stems. By lighting the fire and then putting out the windward side, you burn your own firebreak and force the flames to work into the wind. In the time it takes the flames to pass through, they build up a better heat and when the fire has gone, there’s little more than white ash and a few blackened stumps – the sign of a good fire.

It was a pleasure to take a break from burning the heather to look up and notice a familiar silhouette watching us from the horizon several hundred yards away. A red grouse cock was supervising us, and he seemed to approve of what he saw. After a little while, he rolled off his vantage point with a little flutter of wings and vanished into the deep sea of swirling heather.

The value of wasteland

A first year blackcock on willow buds - scrub is useful at this time of year.

With the majority of trees planted this year, it only remains to get the last few hawthorn and birch whips in the ground before the season ends. It’s been a hard slog to get the trees planted in time this year, and I just hope that this dry weather breaks soon or most of my new trees will start to feel unpleasantly thirsty. Most of my trees have been planted in the few areas across the farm which are of no use to livestock and have been fenced off, and it’s interesting to see that the majority of black grouse on the property seem to congregate around these idle plots. By filling them up with scrub and supplementing the naturally regenerating willows and rowans, I hope that they will become more and more useful to the birds.