Amazing to see the hill is so cracked and dry as we approach the end of April. A fiercely cold wind has been in the North and East for as long as I can remember, and it has scorched the moss into a crisp. It’s no surprise that the snipe should be almost totally absent on this side of the hill, and it comes as quite a contrast to previous years when this moss has literally vibrated to the raucous displays of waders. These wheel ruts (above) are usually a squelching mess of mud and moss in April, and the puddles are riddled through with probing holes. I would have struggled to press my car keys into most of this ground this morning, and even the wettest holes are cracked and bare. I had hoped that “my” snipe were simply holding off until the rain came, but speaking to a friend who knows his waders, we’re so far into spring now that it is more likely that they have simply gone elsewhere to breed this year.
This dryness is having a knock-on effect on the curlews, which are being very quiet this year after their late arrival. I could easily have imagined that it was late March when I went for a walk around the hill this morning, and the cheering chorus of skylarks was little consolation in a biting, frigid landscape.
By way of consolation, the cuckoos have been with us since Saturday, and I was pleased to hear a grasshopper warbler reeling away in the twilight last night. Spring is springing, but in an awkward, half-cocked fashion.
Corncrakes return from Southern Africa in late April, and they must stumble back into their summer haunts with a groan of despair. In a cold, dry spring like this, the land must seem extremely inhospitable. As soon as they have got their breath back, they head for the deepest available cover, and they rely on early growth like nettles and silverweed to keep them safe. In a few weeks’ time, Tiree and Uist will become fortresses of meadowsweet, irises and cow parsley, but things are horribly sparse when the birds first arrive.
The last corncrakes bred in Galloway in the late 1980s, but even these birds were an anachronism. Most of our corncrakes were lost occurred around the time of the Second World War, and there are only a few old folk who remember them calling on the best arable ground on the Carse of Kirkcudbright and into Wigtownshire. Look around Galloway today and it’s not hard to see why we don’t have corncrakes anymore. Our agricultural landscape has intensified beyond recognition. Little patchwork fields of arable and livestock farming which supported a wealth of wildlife have been ironed into flat, featureless plains of rich silage.
Corncrakes are not alone in finding life pretty difficult these days, and all ground nesting species are on the back foot in the hostile world we have created for them. One of the key factors in the loss of corncrakes from mainland Britain is probably shared with several other farmland species – specifically a total absence of early cover. While they can get by with nettles and silverweed in the Western Isles, it’s hard to see how a corncrake would survive more than a day or two in modern Galloway at this time of year. In an intensive farming environment, there is little room for the kind of “weeds” which make the Western Isles so productive for corncrakes. Ignore the fact that monocultures of ryegrass provide little in the way of insect life; this kind of habitat fundamentally fails to provide the right balance of dense yet navigable cover.
It is tempting to draw comparisons between corncrakes and grey partridges, even though the two species are very different. Both fit in to an agricultural cycle which balances grassland and arable, and both have been thrown into chaos by changes we humans have made in just a few short decades. Grey partridges suffer from the same lack of early season cover at this time of year, and this absence surely drives late winter/early spring predation into overdrive.
It’s no surprise that when they were abundant, Galloway partridges often favoured weedy old cocksfoot tussocks and clumps of cooch grass between March and May; these are almost the only plants which offer any three dimensional structure in an otherwise even landscape. Both have been widely uprooted from ever more efficient farms, and I remember hearing my college agriculture lecturer saying that there was “nothing good about twitch (cooch)”. In an agricultural context, he was quite right, but the countryside is a bigger picture. We don’t have any of the thick green Alexanders which make life easier for partridges in Norfolk and Suffolk, and while we do have some patches of nettles, they are scant and unpopular to human eyes. At the risk of over-stating this point, it’s important to remember that few of these weedy plants are significant providers of food to partridges or corncrakes – their key value is in providing architectural structure where otherwise there would only be a smooth billiard table of uniformity.
When you consider all that they are up against, we are lucky to have any wild game birds in Galloway at all. Birds like corncrakes and grey partridges face many different challenges as the year revolves, and this spring period is just one in a long cycle of difficulties. Trying to see the changing seasons from the perspective of a small bird can be illuminating, and it will hopefully make me a more useful conservationist. As much as I would love to see corncrakes return to Galloway, I must accept that modern life simply doesn’t suit them. Grey partridges have a more reasonable chance of returning to this landscape, but it is interesting how lessons from one species can unlock details on another.
I’m thrilled to report that the barn owl box I built out of old “For Sale” signs in December is being used. I recently resurrected my old trail camera and set it up in the hayshed where the box was mounted, and I was absolutely delighted to find this image (above) on the memory card when I returned to check it this afternoon – (The date stamp is incorrect; this picture was actually taken at 2:35 this morning).
This photograph is obviously a triumph, but it actually poses many more questions than it answers. The only cast iron certainty is that a barn owl visited the box this morning. Assessing the situation on that basis alone, I can determine that the box is now on the radar for local owl traffic, but a single visit in four nights makes it extremely unlikely that nesting is taking place this year.
But then I start to wonder. This single photograph shows a barn owl approaching the box, but provides no evidence that it left again. I don’t know much about barn owl routines, but I am surprised if this bird was “calling it a night” with three hours of darkness still to exploit. The camera was triggered several times during the four day period when it was up and running, but there is nothing in any of the shots – they are just blanks photographs of the box and the slatted walls. I now begin to wonder if there is actually much more barn owl traffic than immediately meets the eye, and that the camera has simply been missing it. The camera angle is not quite what I’d hoped, and the trigger mechanism could easily overlook the arrival of owls coming in from higher up. This can certainly be tweaked over the coming weeks, and I am on tenterhooks to find out more about these birds.
Barn owls are amazingly tolerant of human beings. This is a busy, working shed with lambs penned in to one corner. The gate clangs open and closed a few times a day, and I wouldn’t have thought it would be ideal for a quiet, sensitive tenants. But then I remember a friend’s house near New Galloway where barn owls successfully bred in the porch of a busy family home. I look back to childhood memories of barn owls nesting in sheds on most of the local farms and being totally unperturbed by farm work.
I’ve often thought that a shortage of good nesting sites is a key factor in determining barn owl populations on the Chayne, and while it’s only logical that boxes would help, I get a buzz of excitement that my ham-fisted carpentry skills could be helping out.
This shed is an ideal spot for owls, and it will be very interesting to see how this situation develops.
Having written about a slow start to the spring last week, it was a relief to find things well advanced when I arrived yesterday morning at 5am. Curlews flew in broad circles over the moss, whooping almost constantly and rising to steep fluttering climaxes in the first glow of sunrise. Watching them display, it occurred to me how fantastic the view must be for them from that angle, with most of the Southern Uplands spread out in a single swathe beneath them. But I daresay the scenery was of little interest to them as two birds flew in affectionate tandem and an angry dispute between two others was hashed out amidst trilling alarms and an angry chase.
It is extraordinary how quickly natural processes can catch up after a long delay, and these birds have hit the ground running. The only strange absence was any meaningful input from the snipe. I only heard a single bird drum once in over an hour on the hill, and I am seeing very few on the ground when I am checking traps. There is some of that beautiful chacking sing-song call from birds on the ground, but the aerial displays have been almost totally absent since late March.
In their place, golden plover continue to pass through in good numbers. I caught sight of several birds in my binoculars yesterday morning as they rushed in a curious loop across the glen. Their black tummies cast a strong impression against an ocean of pink-lit grass and rushes.
Now that the leks are properly getting underway, it’s been interesting to catch up with some old friends. I’ll soon have seven complete years of lek surveys under my belt, and it’s interesting to see patterns and themes emerging as I return to the same places again and again to review their progress.
Perhaps most startling of all, I’ve been stunned to find that one of the birds I first saw in 2010 is still on his stance and going strong in his seventh season. This highlights a general trend towards maturity in the local birds, and I know of at least three other cocks who are now entering their fifth year of displaying. This isn’t old for black grouse, and the species operates on a far slower cycle than partridges and red grouse. A blackcock isn’t fully mature until he is two years old, and the layered nature of black grouse society evolved so that old birds can pass shared knowledge on to younger ones. A seven year old blackcock is hardly worthy of a mention in the international record books, but perhaps his longevity is surprising in a world full of predators and fragmented habitat.
As I really start to learn about black grouse in Galloway, I have begun to pick up on a recurring theme which runs through the whole sorry saga. I could obviously rave on in excited hyperbole for days on this subject, but consider the following to be a severely cropped summary:
This region is sparsely populated by a handful of extremely isolated blackcock, often separated by several miles of open moorland. By showing extraordinary flexibility and determination, breeding occurs. Nesting attempts are “hit and miss”, but when they “hit”, the birds produce large broods of young poults which can be found throughout August and September. I would argue that some of the better grassy moors in the east end of Galloway provide some of the best brood rearing habitat it is possible to imagine for young black grouse, and in a year where the weather is kind, a bonanza ensues.
But black grouse like all different kinds of habitats. When the lush summer fields begin to turn in September and October, the young birds must turn to secure winter habitats based on mature heather (and perhaps birch or thorn scrub, although this is really debatable) which can protect them from predators and extreme weather conditions. Without access to the next step in their seasonal cycle, the young birds are like lambs to the slaughter, and their fate is invariably served up to them by foxes and goshawks.
Every summer, the few breeding birds work miracles, but their labours are always undone again in the autumn. Years go by without even a single youngster surviving through its first winter. As I’ve written on this blog many times before, if an old blackcock is the cleverest bird on the hill, a young one is surely the thickest. Sheer dumb luck is probably responsible for selecting which birds survive through their first winter, but it’s cunning, forethought and an innate sense of paranoid suspicion which keeps them right thereafter.
The fascinating thing about this gloomy situation is that the bulk of my surveys over seven years show black grouse numbers remaining almost exactly the same. The tiny percentage of young birds surviving their first winter seems to be just enough to replace the tiny number of old birds predated each year. It’s a precarious lifestyle on the edge of oblivion, but somehow it seems to work. There isn’t time or space on this blog to chew over any of the many implications of this discovery, but I am constantly dumbfounded by the extraordinary balancing act these birds are able to strike without any meaningful human support and a prevailing disregard for their well-being or conservation.
And at the same time, I’m aware that I’m not doing any good by simply monitoring leks. Read up on black grouse studies through the eighties and early nineties and you’ll find some excellent science, but on the whole it simply charts the birds’ decline into non-existence. There is something horribly passive about simply recording a line of ever-decreasing numbers without ever fully rolling up sleeves and making a stand.
It was extremely satisfying to revisit my hazel coppice work this morning to find significant signs of progress. The leggy trees were cut down to stumps in the autumn and we spent significant time opening up a gash in the high, shady canopy of mature sycamore trees to let the sunlight in. It’s still too soon to tell what effect this opening will have, but the stumps are already responding with a few minute crimson buds to suggest that the process of regeneration has begun.
Elsewhere, the woodland floor was a carpet of emerging bluebells, and their fresh, sour scent hung in the stillness beneath trilling peals of laughter from a green woodpecker. My botany is generally poor, but I spied dog mercury and wild garlic between the rising flowers, and galaxies of flowering sorrel peeped out from the shaded corners. Above them all, clumps of fiddlehead ferns curled up like speechmarks to punctuate the busy landscape.
It is a sign of my towering ignorance that I have lived for over thirty years on this planet and never really noticed wood anenomes before this spring. The flowers are stunning; each one a work of art against a collage of rich, bulbous greenery. In my defence, this oversight may be a matter of balance. Blackthorn is currently putting on such an extraordinary froth of white blossom that the effect has been quite startling in the dark, wintry landscape. I don’t ever remember the blackthorn blossom having been so absurdly prolific before, and I notice it everywhere I go. Perhaps the same applies to the wood anenomes, which might have been lurking on the peripheries of my vision for some time before finally stepping into the spotlight.
All this work on coppicing hazel has been carried out to introduce some diversity and excitement to an otherwise boring wood. I had hoped that in time these woods would provide useful habitat for our red squirrels, and bringing these trees into coppice rotation should pay dividends in the future.
I took the photograph (above) of a squirrel from the kitchen window this morning. Their business has become noisy and conspicuous over the last few weeks. Flashing, white-tummied tussles rush through the scrubby thorn trees, accompanied by girlish squeals of fury or delight. A drey is beginning to grow in the branches of the old scots pine below my office window, and the fuzz of activity is growing to a fever pitch.
Leaving the woods this morning after visiting my coppices, I looked again at the trees where my high seat will stand. A blackcap sang scratchy little tunes from inside a cage of dead ivy, and a flight of jackdaws came pealing overhead. Something tells me that I will enjoy sitting out for deer in this wood as the summer comes on.
Yet again, I would be jumping the gun if I claimed that my six Galloway heifers were reinventing the natural history of Galloway, but it is interesting to note that wildlife continues to respond to their presence. It may be a simple coincidence, but hares seem to have colonised the field since the cattle were put on, and now it’s not uncommon to see them loping slowly over the grass between the islands of gorse and blackthorn.
Ten years ago, hares were unheard of in our glen, and if this latest colonization is linked to the presence of cattle, I find it hard to explain the mechanism by which it has taken place. The best theory I have is simply that grassland in winter can be an extremely sterile, quiet place without the feeding and activity of livestock. I reckon that wild animals can be drawn into an area by an ambiguous sense that “something different is happening here”. Perhaps the bustle and activity of my animals provides a point of interest and variety in an otherwise quiet landscape, and it’s very hard to quantify this factor against easily measurable factors like “food availability” and “breeding cover”.
Bringing livestock indoors during the winter is now so commonplace that it’s almost unusual to see cows between October and March. Even by my SRUC advisor’s reckoning, the number one funding objective for any “New Entrant” to farming is sheds and housing. I quite understand why farmers are keen to house their stock indoors over the winter, but it has been interesting to explore what the disappearance of traditional winter routines is having on wildlife.
My six heifers have been sharing the field over the winter with six of my mother’s native breed sheep who are currently in the process of lambing. The sheep obviously have less of an impact on the field when it comes to poaching and creating mires around feeding areas, but the crumb-like makeup of their food has been an added draw alongside the hay that has been spread for all the livestock. We now frequently see pheasants and partridges picking at the places where the sheep are fed, yet when I scan the ground after the sheep have had their fill, I only find the tiniest crumbs of maize. This seems to be enough to draw in game, and it’s not hard to imagine that this little niche would once have been keenly filled by wild partridges. I remember the old shepherd on the Chayne noting that greyhens would come to pick at scraps of pellet left by the sheep in the cold winter of 2010, and these leftovers must form a small but significant part of subsistence living for wildlife when so many other natural food sources fail.
But again, it’s always worth remembering that what I’m doing is on such a small scale as to be almost meaningless. I believe that there is some truth in my theories, but they wouldn’t stand the slightest scientific scrutiny. The best I can do is conjure up some aspects of agriculture “as it was”, but I can’t resist teasing apart my own observations for some deeper meaning or significance.
Things are bizarrely subdued on the hill. Planting trees and then walking with a friend across the moss yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t heard a single curlew calling during the course of a two hour visit. This is absolutely unprecedented, and I would have expected curlews to be well on their way towards breeding by now. First clutches are usually laid towards the end of April, and there is an awful lot of noisy business to transact before this date, but it seems like the bulk of my birds are still to return from their winter quarters.
There was only a single male curlew displaying at 5:30am on Sunday morning, but his undulating flight was performed high up over the moss and seemed to lack the direction or focus of bird who really meant business. In time, he drifted away on the wind and I heard no more from him. Looking back at my notes from previous years, I see that displays were almost constant from dawn to dusk on April 11th 2016, and I even noted displays during the night in the first week of April 2013 and 2014.
The fatalist in me feels certain that it’s all over for “my” curlews; they’ve failed so often that they’ve finally given up. This would be a devastating blow, and it isn’t without precedent – some weird things have been happening on the hill for the past two or three years to suggest that the end is approaching for “my” birds (see countless articles on this blog for more detail). More realistically, the loyal old waders are simply being held up by cold, dry conditions and they will soon be up and running on their usual stances.
In almost ten years work on the Chayne, I’ve never known “my” curlews to successfully complete incubation on a first clutch. They are always robbed and destroyed, often before the clutch is even completely laid, and this is partly because the nests are formed before the vegetation is tall enough to hide them. I’ve often wondered why the birds try and nest before the rushes are sufficiently advanced, since this seems to be a fundamental factor in nesting failure. Success rates are only fractionally improved by second (or even third!) clutches which are laid in late May or early June, by which time the grass and rushes are tall enough to provide some cover for incubating birds. Unfortunately, there are downsides to laying late which usually cancel out the advantages, including the collapse of social structure in a community of nesting birds which is unsettling and full of distraction. It will be interesting to see what effect (if any) this late arrival will have on the returning birds’ success rates.
I am comforted by the fact that the entire hill is lagging behind previous years. Despite a strong start from the snipe, I’ve heard no drumming in a fortnight, and the skylarks are also proving reluctant to “get stuck in”. There was a cold wind yesterday afternoon which had shrivelled up the cotton grass flowers, and the grass was still far from green. The only real signs of life came from a flock of almost a hundred golden plover twisting and turning on the distant horizon towards Moniaive. Pairs or trios of these birds often appear on the high ground during the breeding season as if they are scoping us out, but they never even try to nest. Unlike the curlews, they seem to know a hopeless spot when they see one.
I fall in love with wheatears every spring, and yet as summer progresses they become so commonplace that my eye is led elsewhere and the fascinating little migrants fall out of focus. At this time of year, they are at a peak of industry and enthusiasm, and they offer so much more to the quiet observer than many comparable birds.
I watched a pair of wheatears this morning for over an hour around sunrise as they went through an extraordinary range of different emotions and behaviours, from arid, scratchy little song flights to strange begging rituals in which the male would present the female with all manner of gifts. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise these various transactions, but when the birds finally settled down to the serious business of foraging for food, I felt as if I had been spying on two complex, intelligent little characters.
Now and again, a neighbouring cock bird (who fortunately had a missing tail feather to aid with identification) would be drawn in by the incessant calling of the hen, and there would be an almighty skirmish between the little blue warriors. Feathers would fly, and then equilibrium would be resumed after a determined pursuit of the routed enemy. It was interesting to see that the hen was as keen on displaying as the cock, and she would often fan her tail and puff herself up in encouragement, clicking all the while like two dry stones knocked together.
I bought a copy of Peter Conder’s excellent monograph on wheatears two years ago during a burst of enthusiasm, and despite a 5am start to the hill, it will form the thrust of this evening’s entertainment. I’ve just typed up 2,000 words on all these two birds got up to, and this blog is the condensed essence of so much more material which will probably never see the light of day – still, it seemed too important to risk forgetting it.
A good hot day in Galloway has brought on the spring in a sudden rush. Having just stepped indoors after a day on the hill, it’s worth reporting an extraordinary influx of wheatears, the first few willow warblers of the season and a phenomenal glimpse of a female ring ousel. This is the first ring ousel I’ve ever seen on the Chayne, and it was bouncing tamely around on some of the in-bye fields where the tups had their feet up in the sunshine. This terrain is nothing like the kind of ground I’d usually reckon as classic “ousel” territory, and it’s likely that the bird was just stopping in for a moment on its passage northwards to breed in the Highlands.
Ring ousels have declined in southwest Scotland to such an extent that this once common bird is reckoned to be extinct as a breeding bird in Galloway. Despite this gloomy assessment, I know of two nesting sites where ring ousels have bred near me on the wild, rough hill country in Dalbeattie Forest, and there are other places where I think they are holding on. As ever, the difficulty of getting a real perspective on breeding bird populations is compounded by the fact that so much of this area is horrendously rough and almost totally inaccessible to all but the most determined bushwhacker.
Ousels pass back through Galloway in reasonable numbers in the autumn on their way back down to their Mediterranean wintering grounds, and they can be easily found in a few locations where the rowan berries offer a nutritious boost. This is the first time I’ve seen a bird on spring passage, and I wonder how often I must have missed them or simply overlooked them as blackbirds.
Further North, there are some really good places for ring ousels in Angus and Aberdeenshire, and a gamekeeper friend near Banchory has several ousel nests on his beat. The birds seem to like nesting on steep banks of rank heather with short patches of grass and heather nearby for foraging – grouse moor management provides this in spades, and the highest density of ousels I ever saw was on a moor in the Peak District above the Derwent Reservoir on ground which had been mowed and burnt in an experimental grid-iron pattern by a sporting tenant. Frustratingly, the land was owned by the National Trust who (for no obvious scientific reason) later forbade the trapping of stoats and weasels up the scrubby cleughs where the ousels often lurked. Perhaps inevitably, these beautiful birds have been sorely reduced in number ever since.