Slow Spring

More yellow than green
More yellow than green

Can’t help looking to the skies as the red grouse hatch gets underway. It has been miserably cold and wet over the past seventy two hours, and the occasional periods of warm sunshine have done little to improve the situation. We are definitely seeing a slow spring in 2015, particularly in comparison to last year, and while the cow parsley is coming on in the roadside verges, the may blossom is still holding back and many of the cotton grass heads are still hard grey cones.

This should be a crucial moment for the birds on the hill, but the delayed arrival of summer is giving some cause for concern. I had an excellent, stirring evening listening to a lek on the hill as I went round some of the in-bye fields with the .22 shooting some rabbits for the pot on Tuesday night, and despite the cold misery of the spring so far, the blackcock seem unfazed by it all. Snipe buzzed and hummed overhead as I came down off the hill by ten thirty, but I woke up yesterday morning to rain smashing on the skylights and a chilly Southern breeze holding the plants in check. Fortunately the greyhen eggs are still a little way from hatching, so there is plenty of time for things to pick up before we start to see the first of 2015’s new black grouse.

It is worth noting that the song thrushes have come roaring back to life after a month of relative silence, and I wonder if the birds I am hearing are the cocks staking out their territories again for a second brood. They stand a much better chance this time now that the leaves are on the trees, particularly since nothing stands out more than a thrush’s nest in the boughs of a leafless winter sycamore. I wonder why they insist on breeding so early when their eggs and young are so vulnerable to a whole range of predators, but it must be worth trying.

The Romanian Corncrakes

United by corncrakes
United by corncrakes

After an alcohol-soaked stag weekend in Budapest, I was driven to the airport by the happiest taxi driver in Europe. Until that point, most Hungarian taxi drivers I had met had been sour, glum-faced fellows with a phenomenal ability to falsify fare charges, but this final driver was a gem. We chatted to and fro as the city whistled past, and he explained that he was only so happy and talkative because he was a Romanian gypsy.

“We all so happys”, he smiled. “In Romania, there is so much happys. Not like here”. With an exaggerated frown, he gestured to the wide streets with their bland, cinderblock apartment buildings as they buzzed past the open window. There was clearly some animosity between Romania and Hungary. As if to prove his point, he slapped his thigh and laughed.

“So what you do as work” he said, wiping a giggled tear from his eye.

“I am interested in birds – I write about birds” I replied, realising with a sinking feeling that I had teed him up for a classic pun – “yes, I like birds too – blondes, brunettes etc” – I prepared to groan as he replied with a sudden note of gravity “yes, I like birds also. In Romania, we have many birds, all beautiful”.

We had ten more minutes to go before Ferenc Liszt airport, and through my hangover, he had seized my interest.

“What birds do you have in Romania?” This was a silly question, since his taxi-driver English vocabulary was groaning ominously beneath the breadth of our conversation, and my Romanian is non-existent. He listed off a few names, but they were meaningless to me. At a set of traffic lights, he tried to use his mobile phone to translate bird names into English, but when the lights went green, he almost ran over an old woman with a shopping trolley. “It’s ok”, he laughed – “she just Hungarian gypsy. Romania gypsy much better”.

It occurred to me that language was going to be a barrier, but that birds are often better known by their sounds than their names. Having read something of Balkan bird life, I started to call like a corncrake and was met with a whoop of delight. “Yes!” he shouted, slapping the steering wheel and laughing.

For a few seconds, we both called like corncrakes to one another, and he explained that the Romanian name for these birds is cristei de câmp (I had to look up the spelling when I got back) – “There are many of them in the fields”, he said. “As child, we cannot sleep, so many”. For a strange moment, we were united by our shared interest in small, rather unremarkable-looking bird.

I stepped out into the evening sunlight as clouds of house martins swirled over the terminal building, and I left my new friend to his next fare. As he drove off down the taxi rank with his windows open, I was sure I could hear him calling like a corncrake again.

Latecomers

DSC00708

Having been off the hill for the weekend on account of a trip to Budapest, I headed back up to reset the traps and have a look around this afternoon in the sunshine. Despite only having been away for a matter of days, the ground has sprung to life in my absence, and the cottongrass is finally turning fluffy after a fortnight of relative inactivity. There are still few flowers to speak of on the hill aside from the massive sprays of lady’s smock, but the grass seems to have grown an inch over the warm, mild weekend.

I was keen to see how the curlews were faring, and a week after finding a nest, I had to pass by the same spot again on my way off the hill. I have been trying to avoid this area, but necessity dictated that I came within fifty yards. I was pleased to see the curlew get off the nest in the warm sunshine, and I took her presence as an indication that the little clutch was still intact. On closer inspection, I was rather surprised to find that the nest now contains four eggs, and the pair has only started sitting in the past few days.

By way of comparison, a note from keeper pals in Perthshire informs me that very small curlew chicks were seen on the hill last week. This is pretty classic timing for a bird that is traditionally supposed to go down on eggs at the end of April, and while I enjoy the speculation that my pair might have held off their first clutch until better weather came, the fact that they are a month late implies that they have tried over the past few weeks and failed. It is unusual that their second clutch should have four eggs, but I have seen it before.

Whatever the explanation for the lateness of this hen going down (and I have so many theories), this clutch will have been completed shortly before last weekend and (all being well) will probably hatch during the third week in June. Provided they live, the chicks won’t be fully fledged until the end of July, but while there is no reason why they shouldn’t make it down to the Solway, past experience suggests that late chicks tend not to make it. I don’t quite understand why, but the very young birds I find in July tend to be poor doers and they just fade away. Depending on the weather, there is often a rise of ticks around that time, and in a hot summer, insect life dries up awfully quickly later on. Who knows – it will be different on every piece of ground, and I haven’t got to the bottom if it yet. That said, there have been one or two young birds which got off in August over the past six years, implying that late clutches are worth trying.

My eye was caught by the fact that curlews have been flagged up by the RSPB as a species of particular conservation concern in 2015. RSPB studies in recent months have identified the value of gamekeepers and predator control in curlew conservation, and it seems an excellent opportunity for the two to work together with a common purpose. I look forward to seeing how this gets on, but a cynical part of me already expects to see any collaborative progress hijacked by press releases like “RSPB (and partners) launch curlew project” or “RSPB gets gamekeepers involved in curlew conservation”.

I feel like I’ve rather grown out of bashing the RSPB’s publicity machine, and I’m often equally sick of the fumbling, half-cocked way that shooting presents itself to the world. Curlew conservation is so important that it shouldn’t matter who gets the credit – but no matter who does the work in British conservation, you can usually be sure where the spotlight will shine.

Serrations

Serrations
Serrations

As a postscript to the discovery of long eared owl feathers yesterday, it’s worth including this picture of the specially adapted serrations on the leading edge of the first primary. This comb-like configuration is reckoned to be part of the owl’s many adaptations to enable silent flight, as well as the flossy, velveteen coating to many of the wing feathers.

The book (Mike Toms’ New Naturalist) says that this pattern is most easily seen on barn owl feathers, but while I’ve seen them on barn owls, they’ve never been so obvious to me as they are on this unfortunate long eared owl feather.

A Shared Vigil

A head-on encounter
A head-on encounter

I’ve been meaning to get out early to see what the crows are doing in order to inform my trapping strategy over the next few weeks, but there comes a stage when early is just late. When I arrived on the hill at 3:20am this morning, it was without having slept, buoyed only by coffee, cigarettes and irrational enthusiasm.

As it was, there was plenty to see. I never regret an early start at this time of year, and I made all kinds of discoveries which might otherwise have lain in perpetual obscurity. Amidst stacks of good material and info which may emerge on this blog over the next few days, I crawled to within fifteen yards of a lekking blackcock, and if I had had my camera, it would have been one of the best photographs I have ever taken.

He was displaying on the viewpoint I had planned to occupy for the duration of the dawn, so I had to sneak in around him to get the views I needed of the young forestry where a pair of crows has been loitering. It turned out that he squalled and bustled in the half-dark a few feet away as I lay spying the wood as the dew (and then the rain) settled.

The Loss of a Favourite

Remains of a raptor kill
Remains of a raptor kill

I made an unfortunate discovery during an improvised fox drive through a strip of spruces this afternoon, and was deeply disappointed to find the predated remains of a long-eared owl on the mat of fallen needles. I was excited to find that the owls had returned to this strip when I heard them displaying in February, and I was hoping for a second summer of long-ears to follow on from last year’s extravaganza. Unfortunately, the wood has been quiet for the past six weeks, and the best explanation I can come up with is that one of the pair fell victim to a goshawk.

I wrote last summer about goshawk predation on barn owls in the same strip, and I’m even more upset by this latest discovery – further evidence of so-called intra-guild predation. Given that it was unquestionably a raptor kill in an area where goshawks are doing very well, I think it’s something of an open/shut case.

Getting enthusiastic about long-eared owls recently, I happened to mention them to a friend on the Isle of Man. There are no voles on the Isle of Man, and most owl species are a bit of a rarity as result. The most common owl on the island is the long-eared, presumably because those birds are not so dependent upon voles and eat a good proportion of songbirds to make up for the shortage of small rodents. The traditional Manx name for long-eared owls is kione chayt, which means “cat’s head” – probably a reference to the slitted eyes and contented expression of a roosting long-eared owl. In Scotland, the species is sometimes called a “lug owl” or a “luggie” on account of the exaggerated “lugs” (or ears), and I think these are much nicer ways of differentiating them from their short eared cousins, since the differences between the two species are so much more interesting than the simple length of their respective ears. To be honest I’d rather talk about bog owls and cat’s heads.

And the final punchline was that the fox hopped the dyke just where we least expected him and took off through the rushes, making a clean getaway.

A Conspicuous Clutch

A precarious clutch

Having written yesterday about nesting curlews, I came across one of the nests last night as I left the hill after a quick check around the larsens. The hen got off and away low and silently, and I went forward to find her nest in the most appallingly naïve and obvious spot, bang in the middle of a strip of rushes which I cut in the back end. Interestingly, the eggs are much greener  than others I have seen, and it would make an interesting study to compare all the different shades and tones of curlew eggs, which range from beige to blue to green and have an extremely variable amount of camouflage markings.

There is some fantastic thick cover just a few feet away, but this hen has elected to lay her eggs right out in the open, where the vegetation is less than 7” tall. The soft, round eggs seem to glow in the sunlight and they stand out beautifully in their eye-catching dish of rush stubble and shadows. The fact that there are only two imply that this is a second clutch, but there is a chance that she may be an old hen or the conditions may have been against her.

Either way, as I see it there are two outcomes for this nest, and neither are particularly promising.

  1. It is an inexplicably small first clutch due to hatch any day now. The grass has hardly grown yet this year, so as soon as the chicks are out, they will be as exposed in this field as if they were standing on a billiard table. With little in the way of insect life available, kites and buzzards await.
  2. It is a second clutch, which means that the incubation process is only a few days old (if indeed there is not another egg to come) and the chances of this nest remaining undiscovered for three and a half weeks is extremely remote, despite my best efforts.

Interestingly, it is almost a year to the day since I found a nest in 2014. Looking at my notes from the 19th May 2014, I find references to tormentil flowers and milkwort on the moss, as well as green hairstreaks, large whites and orange tip butterflies. I described the undergrowth as “full of spiders, craneflies and small beetles, and evidence everywhere of growing, thrusting grass”. There are no such signs of life yet this year, and there is no question that we are further behind in 2015. There are a few sprigs of cuckoo flower here and there, but otherwise the hill is bare.

Question: grey partridges

Silkie x sussex with a brood of young grey partridges
Silkie x sussex with a brood of young grey partridges

Any news on the grey partridge front? We haven’y heard anything for a while on them. Are you going to continue with your hatch and release policy this year?

I’m not working with grey partridges at the moment for the simple reason that I just don’t have time. I absolutely loved the rear and release programme I tried out in 2012 and 2013, but it was staggeringly time consuming. During the actual release phase, I was spending five or six hours a day on the poults, and could have spent far more if I had had nothing else on. It was a huge pleasure to sit up somewhere quiet and watch the young birds feeding through the grass with their bantam mother, and the work repaid itself many times over in terms of sheer delight. One particularly fond memory was finding a covey of seven which had been fostered to an adult pair dust-bathing in the track on the back hill one sunny evening. They moved and sounded like wild birds, and I almost convinced myself that the project had worked.

In fact, I even had some cause to believe that the project might have worked if I had kept going, with two pairs of partridges still holding strong after two years on the hill. It was great to hear them calling in the half-dark amongst the red grouse, and I was always amazed at the huge distances they used. I lost track of these last birds a few months ago, but feel sure that they could have held on if they had received another wave or two of new recruits from my project. That said, predation rates were pretty dire and I lost an awful lot of birds for every one that lived.

Rearing small numbers of grey partridges under broodie hens should be mandatory for anyone interested in shooting – it ticks every box in terms of conservation, habitat management and game bird husbandry and it provides hours of pleasure for anyone with a naturalist’s eye for sporting shooting. Unfortunately, it is so labour intensive that I simply cannot justify breeding and rearing young birds as I was, and the project had to fold.

Although even as I write this, I have looked around at the details of some old contacts to see if there are eggs going to rear a clutch this summer. I have the broodies and the time to spend on one or two birds, so perhaps it is worth watching this space. If anyone reads this and knows where I might find a dozen eggs, let me know…

Question: Conspicuous Traps

Larsen trap
Larsen trap

I’ve had a couple of good “question” comments on my blog recently, and it’s a good opportunity to respond to them both by email and on the blog itself – I’m not sure how the “comment” section works on WordPress and have often fudged replies, so perhaps this is a good way of responding so that everyone can see.

Patrick,
Just been having a browse through your blog which I’ve read with interest. As a frequent hill-goer with an interest in wildlife and landscape, I’ve begun to notice more and more in the press, as well as on the hill, conflicts between land managers and conservation bodies (though groups like the Heather Trust, GWCT and Songbird Survival appear to be bridging the divide). One thing I have noticed myself has been the apparent increase in the use of traps (Fen and Larsen) in an attempt to control vermin species. Perhaps, I’ve just become more observant in my old age and notice them more, but is this paralleled by an increase vermin like crows, stoats, weasels, raptors, foxes, and if so why are these species on the rise?
Regards,
Steve

Your comments about traps becoming more conspicuous is perfectly right – they are, but I don’t think that this has to do with increased predator numbers (although in some areas, predators have increased).
Larsen traps only came to Britain in the late 1980s and took some time to get established as a pest control tool. They have reached their current popularity only in the past decade, so perhaps this is why you see them now more than you used to. Unfortunately, crows do get used to them and learn to avoid them after a while, so new traps are always being designed to keep one step ahead. You may see more different types of larsen as time goes by, but they will probably depend on the same “call-bird” blueprint. As a reflection of this, the traps are now recognised by the law as “larsen or larsen-type” traps, rather than just larsens.
With Fenn traps, I think that  the numbers used are more or less similar, but they are now set differently, often in more conspicuous places than previously. Placing traps on bridges over streams or building them in to dykes has become fashionable recently, partly because these are good places to catch, but also because they can be checked quickly and easily from a distance. The old trap sites were almost exclusively buried in tunnels under sods, and keepers of the old school were taught  that traps should never be visible to human beings.
In some areas, pest control activity has intensified, but I don’t think that it has across the board – there are just different techniques coming in and out of fashion. Perhaps the shooting community is more confident than it was 10 years ago. When I first started keepering in 2003, traps were always put out of site because there was a risk that passers-by would break them or release call birds from larsens if they were too conspicuous. There has been a lot of hard work put into educating the public on the value of predator control, and I for one certainly feel less secretive about trapping that I did ten years ago. Traps are still damaged or broken (although not with me, fortunately), but this is more from hard-core animal rights folk who don’t care why predator control is undertaken and are simply reacting to the immediate emotions they feel when they find a trap.

Curlew Progress

Proprietorial
Proprietorial

It looks like the curlews are making progress with their nests. I watched a cock rise up and mob a red kite yesterday afternoon, and a different bird spent the last few minutes of daylight circling noisily around his patch last week, giving me hope that territories are being carefully maintained. Some of the birds are definitely just starting their second clutches after disaster struck earlier in the month, but I am quite confident that others will soon be hatching.

I was concerned to find stoat tracks across a muddy gateway early last week within fifty yards of one of the nests, but was then satisfied to have caught the culprit within 24 hours of refreshing a nearby trap. It sometimes seems that a trap simply needs to be sprung and reset in order for it to make a catch, particularly if the process scuffs up the soil and makes it seem like something interesting has happened. The stoat was a monster, bigger than any I have ever caught on the hill, and it is scary to think what he might have got up to if he remained at large on a hill full of nests.

At the same time, much of this hard work will be for nothing if the weather doesn’t warm up. The last ten days have been cold and severe, and much of the insect life is either suppressed or absent. The first broods of red grouse are not far away, but aside from the occasional hatch of flies and beetles, the best brood-rearing habitats are still quiet and sterile.

The only birds which really seem to be thriving despite the cold are the cuckoos. The cold weather has done nothing to put off the drinker moth caterpillars, and they lie like fuzzy fingers all across the white grass. I watched a cock cuckoo gulping down a pile of these massive tubes a few days ago, hopping around the fallen bracken like a short-legged jay with his beak laden down. While the wind has made it hard to hear the cuckoos, they seem to be faring surprisingly well in the cold.