After six days under snow, the hill has wound down to a state of almost total inactivity. Ravens clock and roll in the highest blue, but aside from the odd wren and stonechat in the heather, the only visible birds are the kestrels, which appear to be almost impervious to the cold. The local kestrels did very well during the summer of 2014 (as did anything with a penchant for eating voles), and by the end of August it was not uncommon to see half a dozen hunting at a time.
The harriers all hooked off overnight at the start of the month when the cold weather came on all of a sudden, and it has now been a fortnight since I last saw a bird on my ground. There was a ringtail hunting down on the merse on Friday, but it is alway mild in the saltings and there are many more chances down there to catch a snipe or a redshank than up on the barren tops.
I knew that the harriers would be put off the hill by a bit of cold, but this wholesale abandonment of their winter quarters has been surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps they only stayed because it had been so mild until that point, but the fact that the kestrels remain suggests that it wasn’t a lack of food which saw them off. I can only conclude that the little falcons are altogether hardier than their foppish counterparts.
The relationship between harriers and kestrels was not all plain sailing when they shared the hill, and I saw harriers attacking kestrels and stealing their meat on several occasions. They had a strange relationship founded on mischief and bullying, but I never saw any real animosity between the two. In fact, kestrels attacked harriers as frequently as vice versa, and there was a certain “brothers in arms” camaraderie between two birds sharing an apparently inexhaustible supply of voles.
Now that the snow is down, it must be harder work to catch those rodents, but the kestrels appear not to care. They still leave little mounds of fluff on their favoured plucking posts, and it is interesting to see the delicacy with which they remove the gall bladder of their prey and leave it to blow dry in the wind. They seem to have a particular aversion to eating the nose and bottom jaws of the voles they kill, and these disembodied whiskery bits are often found on well used post tops or cairns.
Although merlins seem to catch fewer voles, they have been hunting on the hill since the New Year, and I see that they also have the habit of removing the bottom jaw before swallowing the skull. There are still some pipits and buntings lurking in the rushes, and I daresay the presence of these little birds is enough to tempt a merlin uphill when logic dictates that it would be more sensible to head for the reed beds of the Solway.