I spotted this bird in the fields below the house this evening – curlews are usually so shy and impossible to approach that my eye was particularly drawn to this rather confiding individual. After a few seconds, I noticed the horrible deformity to his right leg which has left it looking as twisted and bendable as a pipe cleaner. Seen from the side, the entire foot projected out horizontally behind him and the toes were totally useless. I could see no sign of recent injury or infection, and almost suspect that it has been twisted for some time. I’m not clever enough to be able to age curlews, and in fact I can only be sure of their sex when a cock stands beside a hen, so this bird’s story is a bit of a mystery.
The fact that he was feeding happily suggested that he is not at death’s door, and despite a rather hobbling gait, he was managing quite nicely. He rose up and flew away after a little while, and although his future seems bleak, it is surprising how robust these birds can be. I’ve seen missing toes and absent feet many times, and I’m looking forward to the return of a curlew to the Chayne in March with a leg that sticks out to one side like a golf club. I’ve written about the longevity of curlews on this blog many times, but it seems that they are often damaged or scarred during the course of their long lives and yet take little notice of injuries that would make our eyes water.
Just worth a short update on the roe buck which I have been watching for the past few weeks in a turnip field at the bottom of the road to the Chayne. I posted about him on the 21st January, noting his rapid antler growth, but much has changed in his world since then.
He was always in the field with a doe, but I found her lying dead a fortnight ago. Ravens got up and clattered away from the turnip shaws which had turned brown and soggy under the snow, and I hopped out of the car and over the dyke to see what the fuss was. Sure enough, she was curled up and stone dead with her ears chewed off and her eyes away. Inspecting her teeth, I found that she was a very old deer, but while the snow had lain for some time, I found it difficult to imagine that the cold weather alone had killed her. It was something of a mystery, but her death signalled the end of the buck’s perpetual presence in the field. The two had been inseparable, and now a new doe moved in with her young doe follower.
A short distance away over the burn, a much finer buck (pictured below, yesterday) started to attract my attention, and soon I found that I was hardly looking for the beast in the turnips anymore. That was until last night, when I came off the hill on the darkening and found him out on his own in the shaws. His antlers have come on a great deal, and his tops have now grown well above his brows. There is no sign that he is planning to grow back points this year, and when compared with his neighbour (below) it now seems like my enthusiasm for this buck’s head was misplaced.
Also worth mentioning in very brief that there is a small gang of greyhens down in the old hayfields which have been eating the remnants of the sheep nuts. I last saw these birds in the autumn, and I think that some of them came out of the brood I found on the bog in August. Greyhens have two dispersal phases over the winter; one in late autumn and one in early spring. Whether these native birds will head off for pastures new in the next six weeks remains to be seen, but it could be that we are already receiving new hens from elsewhere. Meanwhile the cocks remain largely on the high ground, either singly or in pairs.
In two months, they will all be coming together and I have fingers crossed that 2015 will be by far the best spring yet in terms of lekking.
With the first skylarks of 2015 singing on the Chayne yesterday, it suddenly feels like spring is coming. All of a sudden the pigeons have started to boo and groan in the woods above the house, and it won’t be long until the snipe begin to chack again. In less than a month, the curlews will be back on the hill, and I have been stepping up my efforts to keep on top of the foxes before the waders return.
Oddly enough, I appear to have stumbled on a new and altogether more fruitful technique for catching up with foxes over the past few weeks, and it has taken me by surprise if only because it is so simple. Combining good binoculars with extreme patience has allowed me to take up fox stalking, and the resulting activity has allowed me to double the number of foxes I usually take off the hill by snaring and lamping at this time of the year. To be quite honest, I’d never considered this technique before because I imagined that it simply wouldn’t work – that the fox is too wily and vigilant an animal to allow it. As it turns out, the simplest method seems to be the most effective.
There are several good high points on the hill which are comfortable and out of the wind, and I have taken to sitting out on these with my much lauded and eternally useful Minox binoculars. By spying to and fro across the hillside, seldom more than an hour or two goes by without some glimpse of a distant fox, either lying out in the sunshine or noodling quietly through the long grass in search of a vole. The nature of the ground is such that the resulting stalk takes place on a massive scale. The fox I knocked over last weekend was first seen almost a mile away, busying around on a drift of snow below some broken ground. It took 45 minutes to get up to him, by which time he had lain down in the grass and was totally invisible. I waited for an hour before he stood up, then thumped him amid-ships at 130 yards.
The actual stalk is almost identical to the pursuit of hill roe, but the last three or four hundred yards take place in a pressure cooker of nerves and excitement. There is no margin for error with a fox, if only because he represents the paranoid equivalent of a roe deer after half a dozen double espresso coffees. He is restless and curious and wholly unforgiving of even the slightest creak or twitch of movement. The fundamental difficulty of the operation makes it extremely exciting, and I increasingly think that it can make roe stalking seem very tame. And when luck is on your side, it is an extremely productive way of doing business.
In a tricky situation, I’ve tried to squeak a fox which seemed to be wandering out of my grasp and only succeeded in driving it away in panic – this made me ponder the varying natures of stalking and squeaking. As I understand it, broadcasting a squeak across open country is like dangling a worm for a fish – if the fox wants to have a go, it is in control of the situation and commits itself willingly. But stalk a fox to within 200 yards and then start to squeak and the ball is no longer in his court – he is entitled to feel insecure. At a fairly fundamental level, you are letting him know that something unexpected is happening within his comfort zone – that he is not in control of his surroundings. It is no wonder that they don’t come trotting in like some daft cub in July, and the best reaction I’ve had has been a wary retreat.
Foxes which have committed to the squeak are easily dealt with, but I’ve found that trying to combine squeaking and stalking simply doesn’t work on my ground – This actually adds to the excitement of the game, since there are no gadgets or tricks involved. All of the foxes I’ve had since the New Year have been dogs, but this has largely been the luck of the draw. Sometimes I’ve stalked in to a dog and vixen running together and just happened to shoot the dog, whereas other times it has been obvious from the outset that the object of a stalk was a lone dog. One by one I am making a difference, and I just have to keep it up.
I enjoyed a grand reunion with an old friend on Saturday afternoon. Spying for a fox on the high ground (on which more to come), my eye was caught by a black shape against a drift of snow. Assuming it was a raven, I scanned the binoculars along the crest of the hill and only returned to the apparition five minutes later, by which time it had become much more conspicuous. I found myself staring at the same blackcock I followed all spring, standing proudly up on a tump of moss seven hundred yards away. Although I have seen glimpses and signs of birds all winter, this was the first time I had seen this individual since November, and I was encouraged by the momentary suggestion that he was not alone. I could have spent all afternoon watching the bird(s) browsing through the frozen grass, but a fox materialised three hundred yards away to the imagined overtures of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
By the time this fox was accounted for, the cold sun had crash-landed behind Cairnsmore of Fleet and smashed the sky into a million crimson shards. I searched the hill for some sign of this bird or his accomplice, but headed home disappointed. I consoled myself with the thought that it won’t be long before the spring brings these hidden shadows into their full glory. For a bird so large and apparently conspicuous, it is surprisingly easy to lose track of blackgame between July and March, so I have fingers crossed we’ll have a busy spring.
Worth mentioning in (very) brief that during a forty five minute vigil down by the Solway this evening at sunset, I saw four merlins, two sparrowhawks and a peregrine over the same field, all within half a mile of where I saw the merlins and the harrier earlier in the week. The concentration of little birds is quite staggering, and there are no prizes for guessing why the predators have come in such numbers.
Mixed in with the arrivals are the many multitudes of birds which have been squeezed out of their inland haunts to lurk along the coast where it is milder. There was an entire field full of reed buntings – several hundred in a massed crowd, all whining sadly and ducking their heads beneath the lolling brassica shaws whenever a predator passed by. Stirred in with these were larks in trilling gangs and a flock of starlings which sprawled over three fields and blended seamlessly with the peewits.
There was one particularly stunning pursuit by a merlin over a stubble field in the last glimpse of sunlight, and then the barnacle geese rose up in a churning mass and stole the show.
Incidentally, I take every opportunity to flaunt this photograph (above) of a merlin I took last Spring on the Chayne, but must confess that I reduced it in size to fit on this blog and then lost the original. The image is now forever trapped as a sad miniature of its former self, and never fails to give me a pang of irritation whenever I see it.
Having developed an interest in hen harriers during the course of the last winter, it was fascinating to compare them with the marsh harriers which haunt the North Norfolk coast. These larger, rather more cumbersome birds were notably abundant on the freshwater marsh where we were shooting at the end of January, and I had several close encounters with them during the course of my stay. I didn’t see any cock birds and I failed to make out much difference between youngsters and adult hens, so much of my time was spent spotting the many behavioural differences between these birds and the more delicate hen harriers I’ve been watching all winter in Galloway.
Most strikingly, the marsh harriers seemed to hunt with a more laid-back approach than hen harriers. While hen harriers float like feathers a few feet off the ground, the marsh harriers I saw hung up considerably higher and were much less frenetically reactive to the slightest stimulus. I don’t doubt that they are equally thorough in their hunting, but the hen harriers I’ve been watching have the ability to spring backwards, forwards and around in a tight circle at the slightest provocation. Although I never saw the marsh harriers actually making a kill, they periodically flared up as if about to pounce. This action was much more like a kite or a buzzard, not necessarily clumsy, but without the surgical knife-edge of a hen harrier.
There was a dead goose out on a spit of dry ground, and the marsh harriers were preoccupied by this carrion feast. One by one they tried to land for a feed, but three resident crows bobbed and ducked so cleverly that it was hardly worth their while. The harriers hovered and fussed while the crows mobbed them, dangling their long yellow legs down below them like straws. Now and then, one would land at the goose but it was soon beaten off again. In due course, a red kite came and landed at the same kill, but either the crows were too brutal or there wasn’t much worth eating, because it was soon up again too.
The other birds reacted variously to the harriers. The larks flew in flagrant terror, but the harriers never even looked like going for them. Peewits and some black headed gulls got up and flew on when they got too close, but there was only a moderate reaction from most birds. Only once did the resting spread of pink footed geese show any reaction to the hunters, and that is when a single harrier started to circle up into the air and gained some altitude. Perhaps fifty geese took exception to this and moved over a short distance, but the general reaction was more of irritation than fear.
Only when a peregrine appeared further down the marsh was any major upset caused, and in the resulting confusion I lost sight of a ruff I had been watching – the first one I have ever seen. The bird was feeding with two redshank on the edge of a wet splash, and the whole illusion of peace and tranquility was smashed by a blurry haze of dunlin and shoveller passing through my binocular vision.
By a chance encounter this afternoon, I lifted the curtain on a fantastic process currently taking place right under my nose. Heading down to the coast to walk the dog, I pulled the car over to watch a couple of roe deer browsing through some old stubble. My eye was drawn from the deer to a flock of barnacle geese, and then from the geese to a massed formation of lapwings and golden plover.
It so happened that within five minutes of stopping the car, this peaceful scene was absolutely shattered. Coming up from the South and hidden behind a low bank of whin bushes, a ringtail hen harrier had judged its ambush carefully. Although I hadn’t seen them, the stubbles were alive with hundreds of skylarks and meadow pipits, presumably returning to the hills as part of their migratory movements. The harrier burst over the whins and flared into the middle of them, sending the whole mass of birdlife into the air. Even some of the barnacle geese were put out, and they rose up with a wailing yap and settled further down towards the sea.
Against the spread of the snowbound Lake District, the harrier worked behind the flock of larks like a mackerel after whitebait, showing the most phenomenal degree of agile dexterity. It shepherded them one way, then took a sudden shortcut and blazed into their midst. It flew briskly one moment, then at a snail’s pace the next, adjusting its speed and pirouetting round on itself – an absolute masterclass. The larks and pipits were strangely unwilling to take to their heels, and they often settled again in the same spot after a few minutes, only to rise again when pressed too closely.
It was a strange deadlock, and it felt almost as if the harrier was holding back, searching for weakness – and then the moment came – pressed against the fence, half a dozen little birds faltered for a second to make space to escape and the harrier slashed into them. This all within sight of the dusk-lit mud and the Isle of Man and a mouldering rummle of black cloud on the far sea.
The golden plover swirled round overhead, and a buzzard coursed menacingly near the geese so that they rose, looped around the field and settled back where they had been again. Wondering at the massed larks and pipits, I drove on and in the next field found a merlin mantling over a very fresh kill. It was a cock bird, wonderfully white on the chin and flecked all down his breast with black sooty smudges. I watched him through the binoculars as he plucked his prey, and saw lark feathers caught in the bitter wind. He was close enough for me to see his orange breeks and the trailing edges of his black moustache.
And even as I watched him, a mass of tiny birds rose out of the strip-grazed fodder crop three hundred yards beyond. Another merlin was hunting them, and it pared a single shape away from the gang. They chased and fled for several breathless moments, then the hunted bird fell like a stone – a desperate throw of the dice to shake off the hunter. The two birds vanished below the horizon and I never saw what happened next. Some redshank squeaked in a tizzy, but they had not been involved in this encounter and the sound was sheer petulance.
It occurs to me now that when I judge the start of the year by the arrival of the larks, I am looking at a massive puzzle through a very small aperture. For the past six years, the first larks have sung on the Chayne on the fourteenth of February – a whimsical touch for the love birds, but a surprisingly reliable date in the diary to suggest the changing seasons. Shooting in Norfolk last week, there were already larks singing over the cereal stubbles, and I see from my notes that the earlier arrival of larks in the South has been consistent for the last three years. My fixation on the fourteenth is only really relevant for the hill ground in the immediate vicinity of my patch, and now that I live near the coast, I can understand the birds’ movements a little more clearly. They obviously don’t just fall out of the sky when they land at the Chayne, and my observations this afternoon allowed me to follow them back a step or two in their migration.
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of skylarks and pipits in the reedbeds down by the shore as I write this. In the next few weeks they will spread themselves across the West of Scotland, but for now the long Solway grass is teeming with them. It is hardly surprising that the predators have rolled up their sleeves and made hay. After all, much of the upland vole country in Galloway has been under several inches of crackling snow for more than a week, and prey for small hunters is scarce. I saw a pure blue cock harrier hunting the whins from my office window on Friday – there are snipe down there in the myrtle, but it is not classic harrier country – the cold weather must have pushed him downhill, conveniently just as the mass migrations have started to arrive.
I have lived within these same few square miles of Galloway for thirty years and never knew that this migration (and a proportionate predation pressure) could be so conspicuous. I felt that these things happened mysteriously under cover of twilight, but as it unfolded before me this afternoon, I came to terms with a process that, while not immediately obvious, warrants much closer observation.