The Digital Corncrake

Another experiment with a graphics tablet
Another experiment with a graphics tablet

It was a foul day yesterday, so what better opportunity to stay in and play with the graphics tablet I was lent at the start of the year. Working with a stylus and having to negotiate photoshop made for a frustrating challenge, but I was encouraged by the tremendous scope for chopping and changing made possible with digital artwork. My first attempt was a wheatear standing in the clover, but feeling unsatisfied with the end product, I was able to transplant the clover into a second picture (above), using the same colours to blend the lines of the surgery so that you can’t now see them.

Sketching out the shapes and forms is surprisingly difficult, and working in a world without texture takes some getting used to. It is interesting to think that most people would disregard a picture drawn on a computer because it flies in the face of tradition and seems almost like “cheating”. In reality, this was far harder and more creatively demanding than producing the same image on paper with paintbrushes. Whether or not you like the picture, believe me when I say that it was bloody difficult.

I’ve been quite inspired by new techniques over the past few years, and encouraged by various artist friends, I’ve toyed with the idea of lino cutting and screen printing. The end result of this digital experiment has something of the effect I’ve been looking for, and it reminds me of some of the New Naturalist covers illustrated by Robert Gillmor. I’m feeling my way with this very tentatively, but I think there is scope for some good fun here.

As far as the subject matter goes, I was working with the loose idea for a front cover for an imagined “New Naturalist” guide to the Outer Hebrides. With a hotly anticipated trip to North Uist on the horizon later in the spring, I can’t help looking back to that hebridean blend of irises and corncrakes which provided the backdrop to a fantastic holiday on Tiree in 2013.

A Lay-by Blackcock

A welcome bystander
A welcome bystander

After another excellent day volunteering with the Galloway Fisheries Trust to clear sitka spruce scrub from the banks of the Little Water of Fleet on Friday, I headed home on the pretty route through black grouse country as the sun started to set. Although mildly disappointed not to see the short eared owls again, I got some close up views of a ringtail hen harrier and then a stunning blackcock right in the lay-by where I had to pull over to let another car pass. I actually said “surely not!” to myself as I pulled over and found the bird just a few feet away from the bumper, assuming that the black shape was really just a piece of rubbish or plastic. Even when he ran back up the verge with an expression of disgust, he was still close enough for a picture (see above) before he passed into some long grass and started to feed.

The black grouse lek bonanza is approaching, and things are starting to get exciting.

Wheatears 2015

A sure sign of progress
A sure sign of progress

It’s always a major date in the diary and a massive milestone of spring, so of course it’s worth marking the arrival of the first wheatear of 2015 on the Chayne yesterday – a game little cock bird bouncing around the knowes. The past few years have always brought hens first, so I wonder if there is any significance in this change-around. Their arrival is always surprisingly precise, and in 6 years of recording the first bird, the date has only varied by two or three days.

I’ve got a couple of wheatear projects I want to work on this year, so there is plenty more to come on these cheery birds. I moved on past the wheatear and headed around the back of the farm where I waited for a fox, but despite four hours lying in the moss, there was only a goshawk in the forest and a merlin flying huge loops out over the open hill. The black clouds came rushing in from Cairnsmore of Dee, bringing sprays of hail and then, having passed, warm, honeyed sunlight as the wind swung into the North and the snipe began to buzz.

And on a more lowland note, I also heard the first chiff-chaff too.

Manx Burning

A great day for a fire
A great day for a fire

Having thoroughly enjoyed my trip out to the Isle of Man last year, I was keen to get back for round two – albeit with a single and extremely important change. No matter what happened, I was determined not to take the late night ferry crossing from Heysham which usually leaves the port at 2:15am. Arriving at your destination at 05:45 is the best way to ensure a terrible start to any trip, and it was my sole regret of 2014’s visit that I decided to go for the “red-eye” and thereby write-off the first 12 hours of my stay.

So it was with a palpable degree of smugness that I pulled into the harbour to catch the 13:30 ferry on Wednesday afternoon, secure in the delightful knowledge that I could mince onto the ship and enjoy the trip at my leisure. It was not to be. Owing to some maritime whim of tide or lunar cycle, the ferry had elected to leave half an hour early and I was left high and dry like an abandoned jellyfish on the wharf as my ride coasted out into the Irish sea. The unhelpful ticket-stamper transferred my passage to the 2:15am ferry and I was resigned to pass twelve hours in Lancashire.

The time flew by, and I spent several happy hours watching big flocks of golden plover swarming around the fields below Abbeystead while smoke streamed up from the hills above me and the sky was filled with tumbling peewits. I had dinner in Yorkshire and then rushed back to spend the night sleeping face-down on the carpet in the canteen area of the ferry while truckers noisily swapped rambling and improbable sexual anecdotes nearby.

But it was all worth it the following morning as we headed out onto the Manx hills for a day’s heather burning, passing a couple of hen harriers as we ground our way onto Colden in a vintage Kawasaki Mule. The conditions were perfect, and with support from a tractor laid on by the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture, we covered a huge amount of ground in the clear sunshine.

Lisping pipits trilled their songs and parachuted down through the smoke, and there was a stunning glimpse of a so-called “skydancer” plunging up and down as if strung to a bungee cord. The white shape vanished after a second or two, and we burnt on into the afternoon, letting the fires run with the wind and soaking up the rich, poppy crackle of burning blaeberry. Some ravens swirled around in the cinders, and our progress was closely monitored by white hares, which sat on their hunkers and eyeballed us with suspicion.

And there were harriers again on the drive home. I stopped the Mule to watch a ringtail circle round and round on the fringe of a spruce plantation as the sun started to set. As much as I had been trying to work, my visits to the Isle of Man always feel like a holiday.

Curlew’s Return

A call to arms
A call to arms

After a few days on the Isle of Man (of which more anon) and a stag night in Liverpool (which is not for public consumption), I blew away the cobwebs with a brisk walk up around the hill yesterday afternoon in the sunshine. There was a grand big fox mousing in the white grass above the old farm steading, and I marked him down with the binoculars at five hundred yards. Not having the rifle with me, I resolved to head out and make his acquaintance later in the week.

On the way back to the car, I disturbed the first curlew of 2015 on the rough grass above the sheds. It was a cock bird, and I watched as he looped right around the bog on his own in the wind, calling twice and landing on a knowe in the rushes. Cocks return to their breeding grounds a few days before the hens, and I hope that he will soon have some company in the long grass.

As I’ve written before on this blog, the odds are set against breeding curlews on the Chayne. I’m delighted at this sign of Spring, but it is a timely reminder that crows and foxes need to be gathered up or disrupted as much as possible over the coming month. I had a vixen last week carrying five cubs no more than an inch long, but a friend on some neighbouring ground has found one just a fortnight off whelping. Now is the time to get stuck in.

A Langholm Afternoon

Trapeze artist
Trapeze artist

I took the indulgent decision to spend this afternoon mooching around Langholm Moor, hoping for some more short eared owl action. As it was, I drew a blank with the owls but enjoyed a couple of hours on the hill on a rather dull and overcast day. The grouse were quietly getting on with their own business, but some very vocal hen birds offered a timely reminder that pairing up and mating is well underway. There was a quiet bubbling of curlew off in the distance, and while those cunning old whaups are not yet settled on the hill, they’re certainly starting to dip their toes tentatively into the heather.

I couldn’t resist heading round to one of the lek sites, despite it still being rather early to see any action from the blackgame. As it was, I popped my head over the brow of the hill just as eight cocks flew in over the white grass, joining at least three others for a short bout of sparring and silliness. One bird landed on the power lines (pictured above) and leered disdainfully down at us all, fanning his tail and pausing for a second to wonder what I was. Tails were up, but they were wild and wary, never calling more than the odd giggle. There is no question that numbers are up on last year in this area, and it looks like there are a few new recruits still watching and learning in the margins. It’ll be interesting to see how these youngsters fit in as April approaches and the hormones take over.

Heading back, I stopped to watch half a dozen greyhens on the roadside, almost within touching distance from the car window. Sometimes you can sweat and strain over the hill for little return, then find the best views from the comfort of your seat.

Displaying Owls

A Teesdale bird in 2012.
A Teesdale bird in 2012.

Can’t resist making a quick mention of the short eared owls which have suddenly appeared on ground near the Chayne. I had a fantastic time watching two pairs displaying over the long grass last week, and having lost track of the time in my enthusiasm, I realised that I had been sitting for two hours when the darkness came on the first spots of cold rain came out of the East. During that time, I had seen almost the full range of breeding behaviour and borne witness to some of the most curious noises I’ve ever heard.

A particularly breath-taking spectacle was the sight of all four owls suddenly rising to a tremendous height and engaging in an outright fight. Clumps of feathers blew off downwind, and two owls bound their talons together and fell in a vertical spiral down towards the ground. There was an extraordinary impression of weightlessness to these birds as they span head-first in a freefall, and although they only fell for sixty or seventy feet, my heart was in my mouth. This happened twice, and each time there was a strange, scarcely audible booing sound over the rustling, wind-raked grass. It is fashionable to lavish praise on the display flights of the hen harrier, but these owls put on a show that would have totally eclipsed even the most ardent “sky-dancer”.

In due course, the owls returned to hunt, pausing now and again to circle round and exchange bizarre, yapping calls. I am besotted with short eared owls, and if there was never another blackcock in the world, I would happily spend my days following these birds instead.

The Little Water of Fleet

Planting trees on the Little Water of Fleet
Planting trees on the Little Water of Fleet

In 2014, I was invited to an open meeting of the Galloway Fisheries Trust to find out more about their work. As it happened, I ended up getting my dates in muddle and arrived for the meeting precisely a week after it had taken place. The hotel staff were very polite, but I can’t help thinking they had a word or two to say about me as I wandered back out of the door. With commendable patience on the GFT’s part, I was invited to the meeting again this year and made a point of marking down the precise details and double checking them several times.

The meeting was fascinating, with a series of presentations made to explain what the Trust has been doing over the past year. The topics of discussion covered everything from the control of invasive non-native species like crayfish, himalayan balsam and giant hogweed to peatland management and its effect on water quality, and it was fascinating to hear these well-known national issues being tied in to familiar local places. The meeting opened up all kinds of new lines of enquiry, and I was keen to follow up the day by providing some hands-on volunteer support on the Trust’s many and varied projects.

Sure enough, Friday morning found me driving up above the Gatehouse viaduct and into the deep forestry below Loch Fleet, where extensive commercial planting has changed the landscape beyond all recognition over the past half century. Readers of this blog will remember my wholesale antipathy to commercial afforestation, particularly when it comes at the expense of heather moorland and hill country.

As it happens, spruce trees have had a similarly devastating effect on fish ecosystems as on blackgame and wader habitats, and when the trees aren’t trickling acidic litter into the water to kill invertebrates, the associated drainage systems help to oxidise the peat and create dark water discolouration to the widespread detriment of fish and insects alike. The problems associated with plantations are complex and far-reaching, but it hardly takes a rocket scientist to see that when you totally industrialise an entire semi-natural landscape within the space of a few years, there will be massive and extremely abrupt consequences.

We spent the day planting broadleaf trees in the beautiful sunshine along the banks of the Little Water of Fleet, not only to shade the water and keep it cool, but also to provide habitat for insects and create a buffer between the commercial woodland and the running water. The Fleet was once known as a prime spot for sea trout, and while waterfalls prevent migratory fish from coming this far up the river, the Little Water is an important habitat for brown trout and eels. It was startling to see just how close to the banks spruce trees were planted during the “bad old days” of commercial forestry, and sometimes there were stumps within six feet of the tumbling burn. Before the spruces were clear-felled, the boughs reached right across the river and shaded it out altogether, and there was no way that any life was going to thrive in the gloomy monoculture of half-darkness and acidity.

While these plantations will be re-stocked with new trees, modern (and more enlightened) planting techniques will mean that there will be a wide buffer-zone between the main plantations and the river, and this margin is important for river life. It was an excellent chance to spend time in parts of Galloway that I would never otherwise have seen, and my eye kept wandering to the snow-flecked horizon of Cairnsmore of Fleet on the offchance of seeing some hawk or falcon passing overhead. While the chaffinches kept up a constant torrent of noise and the wrens bawled below them, there were only a few kestrels to be seen in this far-flung corner of the hills. Back in the days when this was all open moorland, there would certainly have been the cheering bubble of blackgame on such a bright March day, but the nearest birds are probably now a mile or two away.

It was an excellent day to be out and about, and I certainly look forward to lending a hand on another day. There is little altruism involved with volunteering of this kind – I certainly concede that helping to conserve and protect the river was a driving incentive of the day, but there was little in the way of hardship and the beautiful weather was its own repayment.

The Plastic Goshawk

Watch out crows! There's a, er... kind of, um.. cuckoo on the prowl?
Watch out crows! There’s a, er… kind of, um.. cuckoo on the prowl?

While on the subject of goshawks (below), I couldn’t resist carrying out an experiment on the local crows, many of which have been getting rowdier and more conspicuous over the past few days. I’ve shot dozens of crows over raptor decoys, and most of these have been home-made attempts to copy buzzards or peregrines. It is possible to buy plastic peregrine decoys in the shops, but for some reason they are exorbitantly expensive. While not using a great deal more plastic than a whole-body pigeon decoy (rrp c.£2 each), peregrine decoys frequently cost more than £20, and they are sometimes seen for sale in excess of £30. This is one of the great mysteries of the countryside, and I’d be delighted to know why it is so.

Rather than fork out for a plastic peregrine, I decided to modify one of my pigeon decoys so that it resembled a male goshawk. My track record with modifying decoys is not great, and I lost three full-body mallard decoys when I painted them as goldeneye to see what impact they would have on any diving duck which happened to be passing for a photography project. I was unconvinced by the mallards’ long beaks and cut them off to resemble the goldeneye’s shorter, stubbier bill, but in so doing I left an opening through which water could enter the buoyant shell. Sure enough, I staked them out as the tide came in and one by one they sank.

It took half an hour to paint a white breast on the pigeon decoy and slap on a white eyebrow. The result was strongly reminiscent of a cuckoo, but I consoled myself with the thought that colours and patterns were probably more significant in terms of bird recognition than specific shapes. I headed off onto the hill and set the decoy up just outside a small plantation by the top moss. I knew that there would be fireworks and fury when the crows discovered the plastic hawk, but I hadn’t anticipated the rabid, expletive-laden fury the “hawk” would bring.

In fact, the decoy was a victim of its own success. The first two crows came lazily up towards it from behind, from which angle they presumably assumed they were approaching a pigeon. As soon as they saw the white breast, they exploded in horror. Rather than hang noisily within easy shooting distance, they rushed away like swallows. I’ve never seen crows behave with such terror and fury. They made sounds I’ve never heard before, and quickly rose to such a height that they were almost immediately out of range of my shotgun, which was poised behind a mossy old scots pine tree.

In seconds, three or four other crows had come in, seen the decoy and shot right up into the air, where they presumably felt safe from the low-level ambush tactics of the hawk. I was straining every angle for a chance at a crow, but they were fifty yards up in the air and while a shot might have been possible, crow control is practical, not speculative. I knew it made more sense to hold my fire and wait for another chance on another occasion, and within five minutes the crows had vanished again. They left a single lookout three hundred yards away, and this bird finally grew bored and loped away as the sun started to set.

This fascinating experiment revealed beyond all doubt that crows on my ground know everything they need to know about goshawks. I have read that goshawks will frequently kill crows, so while I sometimes fear for the blackgame, there are many redeeming features to these awesome predators. I hadn’t banked on these crows being quite so terrified of goshawks, and wonder how I can use this bizarre weapon to best effect before the lambing starts, the eggs are laid and the crows rise up the list of priorities.



Goshawks become conspicuous again
Goshawks become conspicuous again

I’ve been seeing goshawks over the past few weeks out on the back hill and around the forest plantations on the neighbouring ground. The first sighting was the most notable; a glimpse of a pure white-breasted cock bird sitting out like a wood pigeon on the forest edge before turning up over the trees to reveal a blue-grey back and short, broad wings. I lay out in the grass yesterday and watched a hen bird circle high up around the hill before dropping down in a long taboggan-like slide to the cover of some red-skinned larch trees a mile away.

I do fear for the blackgame (and a host of other species) with these powerful, determined hunters in the area, but there is a terrifying squeak of pleasure in seeing goshawks out in the wild. They are doubly appealing because they are so intolerant of human disturbance, and despite the fact that they live on or around the hill all year round, I only tend to see much of them at the end of February or the beginning of March. If any more knowledgeable goshawk enthusiasts can let me know if there is anything more interesting or exciting in terms of behaviour I need to be looking out for at this time of year, I’d be grateful to hear it.

I watched a goshawk hunting with an eagle on a moor near Aboyne last winter, and the spectacle remains powerful in my memory. The eagle passed along the contour at no great height, sending grouse bursting out of the heather like popcorn. Lower down, skimming the heather, a goshawk shadowed the progress of the giant and waited for any sign of weakness in the panicked grouse. We had two hinds in the argocat and had spent a long, hungry day on the hill, but the sight was extremely striking. I only hoped that the jaws of the trap would not spring on a blackcock, many of which we had been watching nearby a few minutes beforehand.