Curlew Chicks

A curlew chick, probably even older than the ones I saw last night.
A curlew chick, probably even older than the ones I saw last night.

It was with considerable pleasure and relief that I happened to come across a pair of curlew chicks up on the inbye last night in the setting sun. As I walked up to the gate at the top of the field, a gaggle of clipped yeld ewes ran wildly off in front of me, following the contour round and alongside a saw-tooth dyke. As they ran, a curlew began to chip with irritation infront of them, fluttering up and round into the faces of the running sheep and obviously trying to keep them off a particular spot. She hadn’t seen me, so I crept up, trying to peer through the drifts of ragged robin and buttercups with my binoculars. All of a sudden she rose in a panic, flying round and round my head and calling angrily. Five feet away, a tiny chick was crouching in the rushes.

Unlike many of the photographs available online of curlew chicks, this tiny little bird was purplish grey, with a creamy breast and charcoal grey zig-zag patterns on its back. It watched me with one huge, liquid black eye and began to whine. The sound was a miniature, more grating version of an adult curlew’s contact call, and it took me a couple of seconds to register that it was coming from the ball of fuzz at my feet. A few yards away, another chick was staring straight up at me over its short grey beak, and I began to retreat as the adult curlew landed on the dyke a hundred yards away and continued to yammer on. For the first time in several weeks I didn’t have my camera with me. Cursing, I crept away as quietly as I could, feeling as though I had just intruded on some grave secret.

I have never seen curlew chicks this young before, although I’m sure that I’ve been within feet of them dozens of times. They really must only be four or five days old, and my notes tell me that these birds suddenly became obvious again after what seemed to be an extended absence on the 24th – five days before I found the chicks. This is very late for curlew chicks, and obviously suggests a second clutch which was laid at the end of May. They stand a much better chance of success now that the grass is higher and they have more protection from aerial predators than they did when they first sat at the start of May, but knowing how finely balanced many of these breeding cycles can be, I am worried that it is getting too late for the birds to make the best of the year. Curlew chicks fledge after six weeks, so at this rate they won’t be leaving until the middle of August.

All the time I was looking I only saw a single adult bird, and I can dimly recall reading somewhere that curlews split their broods between male and female. This may mean that the other adult was nearby with other chicks, but I would have thought that it would rise up and mob an intruder with its mate if it heard calling and commotion. As the chicks start to grow up, one of the adults (often the female, apparently) will leave the family and go down to the coast, presumably to reduce pressure on the communal food supply. I remember seeing a very vocal bird calling well into August last year, and this would explain why it was still lingering around on the tops long after all the others had gone.

There is another pair of curlews which appears to have hatched something off successfully on the back end of the farm, so despite losing the nest I found in May, we have avoided a total whitewash. That said, the hard work is still to come.

Insect Life

A sawfly on a willow leaf
A sawfly on a willow leaf

I have been more than usually conscious of the insect life going around this year as the chick rearing season has been underway. Without insects there are no chicks, and it has been interesting to keep an eye on the various different species which have popped up at this crucial time. Sawflies have been particularly abundant, and this is great news because their larvae is a key food source for black grouse chicks. Of course talking of sawflies is the same as talking about birds; the name actually applies to dozens of different species, most of which look like a cross between a wasp and a flying ant. I have noticed in particular that the number of sawflies is at its highest around willow scrub, and while I haven’t been able to find any of the larvae themselves, clouds of sawflies have given me an encouraging spring in the step.

There have also been large numbers of scorpion flies, snipe flies and a million varieties of micro-moth which rise up like a bow-wave when I walk through the rushes where the ragged robin is flowering with considerable enthusiasm and the forget-me-nots lie in great baby blue drifts. I’m not sure that these tiny moths are such excellent news in themselves, but their caterpillars will be well worth having around for black grouse purposes and it is always quite encouraging to see them in such abundance. Craneflies have been slightly harder to find, but in my experience they tend to be visible for a short window only when the conditions are perfect, and they spend the rest of the time buzzing invisibly through the undergrowth – available for hungry chicks, but not apparent to me.

A respectable quantity of insect life is certainly present, and I just have to hope that the warm, dry weather is allowing the birds to take full advantage of this cornucopia.

Accidental Game Crop

A young wheatear
A young wheatear

Huge numbers of wagtail and wheatear chicks have suddenly exploded across the low ground on the Chayne, due in part to the phenomenal (and essentially accidental) game crop that I have “put in” this year. I watched a huge flock of more than thirty young wagtails hunting midges and craneflies last night on the darkening, as well as a tangle of a dozen wheatear chicks with stubby tails and whisps of down still on their heads. I sat and kept an eye on them until the sun disappeared, at which point they all gathered in a queue on a strand of barbed wire and one by one dropped down to roost.

The “game crop” is literally swarming with insects after it was allowed to run wild into docks and redshank. Readers of this blog will remember the past two years of indifferent success with game crops, and ironically I have created quite the best cover (particularly in terms of brood-rearing) when I simply left the docks to do their worst. If I had tried to put in another crop this year it would be only a few inches long by now, and while the docks will fade and collapse by the winter, there is considerable value in having them up and at full stretch at this time of year. I am a big believer in brood rearing cover crops, and it seems that growing a field full of weeds is actually of considerable value.

I am planting up a rushy paddock with some blackgame friendly trees next to the game crop at the moment, and the combination of young trees, scrub and thick undergrowth is a haven for birds. Amongst the gobbets of cuckoo spit and orchids, I spotted whinchats, whitethroats, redpolls, linnets, goldfinches and siskins last night during a ten minute period. I could hear grasshopper warblers belling in the thicker patches of undergrowth, and a family of twite came buzzing past when I returned from my traps an hour later.

The weather continues to hold for the black grouse, and although I am cursed with the southern Scotsman’s congenital pessimism, I must concede that things are looking pretty good.

The Moult Continues

Looks itchy
Looks itchy

As June progresses, so too does the blackcock’s moult. I found an immaculate half black, half white secondary feather blowing about on the moss the other day, and the birds themselves are looking more and more tatty as the days go by. As July approaches, these birds will vanish altogether into the ragged robin. Their tails will fall out and their wing feathers will moult away, leaving them in a temporary “eclipse” plumage rather like a duck. I would not expect to see any blackcock on the hill between the middle of July and the end of August, so while the displays are still trickling on, I must make the most of them.

Industrial Disturbance

Clear felling adjacent to brood rearing habitat
Clear felling taking place adjacent to black grouse brood rearing habitat today.

Disappointing but not altogether surprising to find that the local forest managers have yet again chosen the end of May and the beginning of June to ramp up their clear-felling exercises in the heart of a marginal population of black grouse. Since the middle of May, three clear-felling operations have started within a mile of the new lek which sprung up this spring, and I had the disheartening experience of finding a huge swathe of woodland which has been clearfelled right in the middle of an area where greyhens had been lingering in early May. The area photographed above has always had a greyhen or two kicking around nearby, and an abandoned shed two hundred yards away also has had breeding barn owls every year for as long as I can remember. My “anecdotal” observations are also borne out by a series of surveys carried out by independent ecologists over the past ten years.

I am all for felling forestry, but I simply cannot get my head around the logic of flattening the landscape with heavy machinery at the very peak of the breeding season. During the leks in April, foresters down tools and make self-righteous comments about how environmentally sensitive they are being for not disturbing the blackcock, but for some senseless reason, it is then perfectly acceptable to fell woodland right on top of greyhens with eggs and young chicks. There would be much less harm caused by working the other way round and disturbing the leks but leaving the greyhens in peace. In a small population like this, blackcock will always find a way to cover the greyhens, but a sitting bird is easily spooked by roaring diesel engines and the prospect of a collapsing canopy nearby. I wrote about this last year when reader Mike Groves sent me a photograph of a greyhen actually sitting on a clear-felled stump in the height of summer.

It is a sentiment enshrined in forest management policy (guidance note 32) that “As a basic principle, major operations, such as thinning and felling near known nest
locations should take place outside the main nesting season” and the Forestry Commission Scotland’s Black Grouse “Delivery” guidelines list as a “level one action” that forest operations should be timed to “avoid disturbance of breeding black grouse”.

I’ve drawn the comparison before, but if any other industrial land use was found to be disturbing breeding birds in the same way, there would be rallies and petitions to sign against it. Imagine what would hit the fan if a wind developer was seen to damage black grouse habitat during May and June. But the foresters are still able to do as they please without any repercussions, having played a large part in fragmenting and annihilating black grouse populations in the first place. In fact, this block of spruce will probably be replanted in due course with open areas and a good percentage of hardwoods (at the taxpayer’s expense), but it makes no sense to invest in future black grouse habitat while trampling all over the extant population of birds.

I am very keen to find out who is managing these three areas of woodland and will make enquiries. It will be very interesting to hear from the managers as to why these harvesting operations have been given the go-ahead at such a ridiculously inopportune moment.

I seem to write about this issue every year, but perhaps it’s time I kicked up more of a stink about it.

The Seapie’s Apprentice

The seapie's apprentice
A well grown chick

When the tractor came to plough up all that remained of last winter’s rape, it seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb the turfs which had been allowed to gather a halo of buttercups and docks. Hares frisked through the plantains, and geese flopped up from the loch to land and browse through the fresh growth. The field had become a perfect slice of spring freshness, skimmed periodically by swallows and sandmartins. Linnets and redstarts lurked around the margins, while a monstrous and ever-expanding tribe of rabbits slowly foamed up and spilled over from their sanctuary under the sheep shed.

A pair of seapies usually nests somewhere in the vicinity, and in 2012 they fledged three young despite incessant weeks of wet weather. Last year it seemed like all five had returned together, and there was no attempt to breed in the mossy banks below the house. However, since the start of March it has been obvious that something was afoot. I can lie in bed at night and hear them squeaking under the moon, and the fever pitch of shrill trilling in April gave every indication that a new nest was underway. It was impossible to tell while the growth was still on the rape remains, and the only indication we had of progress was when kites, buzzards and even a passing osprey were flogged and flailed by noisy, furious black and white shapes. They were obviously protecting something down amongst the cow parsley.

So when the field was turned over into a corrugated plain of roots and soil, everything became clear. A single seapie chick sat fatly in the middle of the furrows while its parents taxied wiggling cylinders of protein back and forth over the mud for its delectation. The chick is well grown with wings which are a close approximation of an adult, but it makes absolutely no effort to fend for itself, and spends its time fastidiously tidying up the white feathers which have grown on its breast and down to its flanks. Its head and shoulders are still grey, speckled and downy and the beak is short, but not so short as to preclude riddling up a leatherjacket or two of its own from the bountiful clods. I don’t consider that a valid excuse for such wholesale inactivity.

During the brief periods when it stands up and walks around, the chick wags its tail like a sandpiper with the hiccups, performing elaborate origami movements to unpack those strange, unfamiliar wings. I watched it flutter a few inches into the air before deciding that flight was altogether too demanding and returning to squat in its grotty form in the mud. Its camouflage is surprisingly effective when it sits down, and the parents sometimes lose track of it when they return from longer forays. They peep in confusion, and the sound is strangely uninhibited by having a beakful of earthworm. And what earthworms they find; some of them are six or seven inches long, writhing like furious adders in a careful chopstick pinch.

The whole exchange takes place within fifty yards of my office window, so I have been keeping a fairly constant eye on their progress since we discovered them on Saturday. I am delighted to have these “front row seats”, but although the plough has made the whole charade visible, I wonder if it also explains why there is only one chick still remaining.

Bruno Liljefors (again)

Mård och orrhöna, 1888,
Mård och orrhöna, 1888

While trawling through the internet for black grouse related paraphenalia (as one does on a horrible Saturday afternoon), I happened to find this fantastic picture by the Scandinavian artist Bruno Liljefors. I have posted about Liljefors on this blog before and he did some fantastic black grouse artwork during his life, but something about the extremely realistic rendition of fur, feather and spruce gives this one a little something extra. The marten’s fuzzy tail, the beautiful markings on each of the greyhen’s feathers and the illusion of depth created by overlaying the branches on a dark, ambiguous background all make the whole thing leap off the page.

When I get a chance to have a proper root around online, I will dig up a print of this for the wall, because I’ve come back to it several times this afternoon and have been stunned by it every time.

The Song of the Corncrake

The sound of the summer
The sound of the summer

Only with a heavy sigh can I cast my mind back to precisely this day last summer when I arrived on the Isle of Tiree. It turned out to be the best holiday I’ve ever had, and the four days spent prowling over the beaches and through the hayfields with binoculars, sketchbook and camera rank as one of the most satisfying and wholly peaceful periods of my life.

The stars of the show were inevitably the corncrakes, which haunted the knapweed and lurked beneath the lolling docks as a mild Atlantic breeze came combing through the beached wracks of meadowsweet and cow parsley. The promise of these unassuming birds was enough to draw me off the mainland to this arable slab, ringed by a shark infested moat of turquoise water.

Despite the corncrake’s long absence from much of mainland Britain, the scraping sound is hardwired into our congenital experience of the seasons. Even if you have never heard it before, that distant scrape soon wins you over like an old friend.

The loss of these birds has not been final. As the countryside changes and once familiar birds grow strange and exotic, their contribution seems not to vanish. It lies latent; inactive in our brains. In the case of the corncrake, it seems possible that the incessant, powerful throb of sound has been forcibly drummed into the very psyche of Northern Europe, so that we still know them after generations of absence.

When you hear a corncrake for the first time, the novelty is quite arresting. You wonder aloud “what kind of extraordinary creature could be responsible for such a racket?” The sound inspires mental images of a dull, monstrous insect, crenelated with serrated edges and sharp, exoskeletal fins. At close hand, the scrape becomes an threatening roar which raps on your lugs and makes your chest rumble. The beast is sinister in his lair.

After a few minutes of intermittent calling, the noise becomes familiar; assumed into the repertoire of the “known”. On Tiree,  it provides a welcome structure to the chaotic throb of drumming snipe and squeaking redshanks; as reliable as a clock in a train station. When the blue dusk gathers over the swirling grasses and the birds begin to call, your mind accepts this extraordinary sound as if nothing in the world were more appropriate or fitting to hear. Safe inside a darkening stockade of toothy iris leaves, the corncrake noisily pursues his objectives, stalking beneath the heraldic origami of fist-sized yellow flowers.

Visitors to the Hebrides joke that corncrakes are a beautiful novelty which quickly fades once the bedside light goes off. As a teenager working on the Hebridean island of Scalpay, I would curse the sound which came to life for the few short hours of rest between long shifts on the boats. After all, these birds will call throughout the night, with a sonorous peak between midnight and dawn. For many, the sound precludes relaxation. On Tiree, it haunted the borderland between consciousness and sleep, and bound itself to the silence. When a corncrake stopped calling, I woke with a start, appalled by its absence.

The sound is not consistent enough to be peaceful. It varies, pauses and changes its rhythm. Usually delivered in pairs, the doubled calls periodically shift to become raking monosyllables, broken by pulses of silence. Perhaps there is a pause before the double calls return again, or the blend can be seamless. As the bird turns and scrapes, the pitch and volume alters slightly, forming phrases and sentences which are countered by brief full-stops. The human brain longs to find patterns within the relentless quotation, and the bird teasingly offers them time and again, always defying the listener with a change on the very moment of understanding.

You probably didn’t hear a corncrake calling in the darkness as a child when you woke up sweating from a nightmare to find that you had tossed the covers angrily off the bed. There was probably no sound and a dull, pallid glow of dusk or dawn, and although you longed for sleep, you felt your eyes blink easily in the stuffy mirk. But if there had been sound, it would have been this; this timeless, instinctive monologue delivered from bird to man for as long as either have existed; a panting file on a stone as the stars silently twist and fade into dawn.

Cheerful Chicks

A sight to make your heart glad.
A sight to make your heart glad.

Amidst the developing gloom and gnashing of teeth brought on by the enduring nature of this moderate weather precisely at the peak of the black grouse hatch, I thought it would be cheering to include a couple of photographs of black grouse chicks which I took on the Isle of Arran a couple of years ago while visiting their reintroduction project. In fairness, it is not as bad as it could be, but there is none of the hot sun that makes a game bird chick nod off in contentment, nor is there the mild, warming breeze that is effectively a tonic for all of young life’s troubles.

After this spring, I am more convinced than ever that the two key drivers behind black grouse breeding failure (particularly in Dumfries and Galloway) are crow predation on eggs and wet weather in the first few days after the hatch. The chicks in these pictures are around two or three weeks old. If they can survive another week then their chances of making it to adulthood are pretty good (goshawks permitting) even in Galloway, but these first few days present an irresistible hurdle to the huge majority of young birds.

I have fingers crossed, but my hair is going as grey as the cloud which is currently scraping its hull on the cairn above the moor.

Captive bred chicks on Arran.
Captive bred chicks on Arran.


Summer Lekkin’

First signs of the moult
First signs of the moult

Also just worth recording in brief the fact the blackcock continue to display and call into June, despite the fact that a close encounter last night revealed that the moult has begun and the feathers on the back of the head and around the collar are beginning to get tatty. I picked up a few feathers from a roost heap the other day, but can only commend the determination of isolated birds who just don’t know when to stop.

Some more experienced bods and scientists are always surprised to find that the blackcock on my ground continue to display into June, since the general trend is for birds in low densities to confine their calls to April and not a second longer. It seems that my birds this year are as determined as their predecessors, and the archetypal anthem of the spring has continued into these long days of midges and speedwell, when the horizon only turns blue for an hour or two each night.

I have fingers crossed for the greyhens, but having watched a fox scouring through the grass on the neighbour’s ground last week at a distance of several hundred yards, I must admit that my hair turned a little white.