Partridge Enthusiasm

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The holy grail, but I have been a victim of my own over-enthusiasm this year.

As much as I’d love to be telling triumphant tales of success with my grey partridges this year, the season has held more tragedy than progress so far. I certainly let enthusiasm get the better of me when I bought my first clutch of partridge eggs, then faced the consequences of a cold, backward spring with little in the way of co-operation from the resident broody hens. Although the hen seemed keen, the nest was abandoned after a day or two and nothing was hatched from the first clutch. I am solely to blame for trying to rush things along when nature clearly had other plans.

The second batch of a dozen partridge eggs met the same fate a fortnight later, and again I suffered from an excess of enthusiasm, working with unfamiliar hens in less-than-perfect conditions. I candled the dozen to find that there were ten viable embryos but when the hatch date came, only one hatched off. The chick was crushed by the broody hen, who didn’t seem to have developed any rapport with her “offspring” and remained heavily broody for several days after it was obvious that the moment had passed.

It’s an unfathomable fact that some hens have the right attitude for rearing chicks and others just don’t get it. If it were simply a matter of personality, it would be easy to just get rid of the bad mothers, but I remember giving a clutch of spare eggs to a hen who had sat the previous year and had eaten every chick she had hatched. For some reason, that horrible glitch in her circuit board had resolved itself and she brought off and reared a strong brood of nine partridges without batting an eyelid. A related lesson was learnt when I experimented with an ex-battery hen from a rescue centre which unexpectedly went broody. Defying all expectations, she also hatched off a clutch of grey partridges and was a superb (if slightly large) mother.

I had the option to salvage one or two eggs from the second clutch which were pipping their shells, but decided against it – I was never blessed with the kind of “green fingers” necessary to rear game birds successfully in totally artificial conditions (heat lamps etc), and in terms of the end-product, I’d rather have broody-reared chicks or no chicks at all. Perhaps that is harsh or wasteful, but it’s a decision made from bitter experience. In due course, these chicks simply died without hatching.

In the meantime, the spring has progressed enough that I now have a really good broody hen sitting perfectly in a good spot. I’ve ordered more eggs, started them in the incubator and will soon set her down on them. This might finally be my moment for success, and perhaps it should be no surprise that this clutch should hatch at around the same date wild partridges will be bringing off their broods. Lesson learnt – more haste, less speed.

By the by, while I am yet to hatch off any eggs, the fertility rates for eggs which have been sent through the post have been surprisingly good. In previous years I’ve struggled to hatch even ten or fifteen percent of some eggs bought on the internet, but this year I reckon over eighty percent of my eggs have been viable. Many people rightly stay away from posted eggs, and there’s no doubt that it can be very hit or miss. It seems that partridge eggs are particularly vulnerable in the post, and while they are invariably well packaged to avoid breaking shells, even a slight bump can dislocate the air sack and irreparably damage the egg. I’ve been lucky this year, but I hope that I’ll be able to keep back a few pairs and produce eggs of my own for 2018.

Sedge Warbler

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How could I have failed to notice these raucous fowl?

I could write thousands of words on our new house and the plans we have to make it home. It has been a real pleasure to find my feet on a new piece of ground, which is a rough and ready blend of farmland, moorland, woodland and riverside. I was delighted to find barn owls and kestrels hunting on the moss, and I am constantly tantalised by kingfishers on the burn which snakes its way slowly down into the river. I am particularly engrossed by this lush, riparian world, which is wholly new to me after years of focus on the high hills. I’m learning about spawning fish and am beginning to study the stillness of cormorants and herons. More familiar parts are played by a population of roe deer on the reedy margins where lolling dock fields run into willows and alders. I am already falling in love with one buck who has made his home around banks of yellow flag iris and pink campion.

Perhaps there will be time to do justice to all this new subject matter, but for now it’s simply worth recording my discovery of a wholly new species. Although every bird book I consult informs me that they are “common”, “widespread” and “ubiquitous”, I don’t think I had ever seen or heard a sedge warbler until a month ago. Pausing for a moment by the river bank, a raging clamour came dodging through thickly frosted limbs of may blossom. My first thought was nothing more eloquent than “what the bloody hell is that?”

I sat down to find out more, and soon discovered the culprit – a small, rather uninteresting green bird with an inflatable white throat. The RSPB website allows you to listen to a sedge warbler’s song, but even this chaotic and extraordinarily varied recording is quite subdued compared to the full twenty-five piece orchestra currently residing in the scrub by the burn. On closer inspection with a long-lensed camera, I found that there was more to this little creature than immediately met the eye, and I was strangely captivated by some stunning fine details of plumage and design. Now that my ear is tuned in, I hear sedge warblers almost every day, and I note that the bird I first encountered is now performing elaborate display flights from a section of telegraph wire over the rumbling water. Their song is weaving its way into my routine, and it can even  score a mark in the bat-crackling silence of midnight when I’m out to walk the dogs.

I used to live in the hills were the deliciously slurring drawl of willow warblers was the joyous confirmation of April, and I hope that future Mays at the new house will be marked by the song of a similarly thrilling little bird.

May Bliss

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Bog owls on the verge of darkness

We had been shooting goats. I sat alone for a few minutes as the dust settled. My friend had begun the slow, abrupt descent back through the scree to fetch his vehicle, and the silence rushed up to smother the sound of his retreating footsteps.

There are times when beauty collides with itself and becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In the soft gloom of that late May evening, I lay in the deep heather and watched a pair of bog owls displaying above the far horizon. The two birds flew with strange, exaggerated wingbeats over the white grass, performing to themselves in distant silence. The dull, mesmeric calls were lost behind a rummle of water in the burn, but every moth-like plunge and swerve was recorded against a slate grey sky.

With exquisite timing, a roding woodcock began to labour round in patient loops above his beat. I hunted for him against a maze of fiddleheads and birch scrub, and finally picked out his piggy shape as he dodged through a city of treetops. He was high but I was higher and could look down on his back from the steep, lonely face. His mate (and perhaps their strange, gawking chicks) would be somewhere on the burnside, lounging on a mattress of marigolds and meadowsweet. Veils of cool, dank air came up from the rushing water.

Grouse cackled in the gloom, and there was something like a lump in my throat.

Nightjar’s Return

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Steeped in lamlac and pecked apart by furious broody hens, I decided to finish a long day with a moment’s pleasure. Walking uphill beneath a veil of fresh larch needles, I knew precisely where to sit for the performance, which began at precisely 10pm on the verge of falling darkness. Within a moment or two of my arrival, something like a two-stroke engine cranked into action; a whirring drone which sapped up from the heather beyond the brow of the hill. This is thick, lonely country on the edge of the open hill, and I was jostling for space in a crowd of scrubby trees and ankle-high fiddleheads. The drone tried a few gears before it found one it liked, then settled into a casual, breathless hum.

Nightjars are scarce in this part of Galloway, but this bird is as reliable as clockwork – he calls from the same perch throughout the summer. Some miraculous quirk of skill or instinct has spirited this creature back from the Dark Continent yet again, and this was the first time that stirring call had filled this lonely corner of the forest in 2017. A fug of fresh blossom gave the stillness a treacly sweetness, and midges worked earnestly to dismantle my ears. A late cuckoo chimed, and a grasshopper warbler reeled away in the midst of the myrtle. The air was thick was moths and the dull commute of mechanical beetles.

Out in the long grass amongst a half-seen web of brambles and honeysuckle, a barn owl was hunting. Long, rasping calls slipped up through the larch trees and onto my lap. After a very slow start, summer has finally arrived.

A Headless Dipper

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Decapitated dipper

Spring rushes past in a blur, but there has been the occasional moment to find my feet at the new house as tradesmen come and go and the smell of emulsion reeks out over the fields.

I found the dismembered remains of a young bird in the long grass on Saturday, and puzzled over its identity for some time before recognising it as a dipper. Dippers have a nest in the bridge below the house, and it has been fun to watch the adults buzz up and down the bubbling water with their beaks full of grubs. This unfortunate fledgeling must have been caught napping by a sparrowhawk’s ambush, and it’s interesting to note that the body was found more than five hundred yards away from where it must have been caught. The little dipper was really nothing more than a scrap of flesh so perhaps it’s unsurprising that it could be carried over a long distance, but I am interested to see that after all that effort, the hunter simply ate off the head and left the rest of the carcass untouched.

I’ve been keeping a tally of the bird species I’ve encountered at the new place, and this has reached thirty five yesterday morning to the cheery tune of a yellowhammer. I have a feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Working for Waders

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How sustainable is “farmland wildlife”?

There was plenty of food for thought at the “Working for Waders” workshop in Edinburgh on Thursday. This project is building on the idea established by previous projects to develop progress from a blend of science and social consensus, and it’s interesting to see this approach delivered at first hand.

I’d like to write more about this in due course, but the Working For Waders workshop adopted a “question and answer” structure in which small groups were asked to report back to the whole after a period of conversation and interview. The first question we were asked to consider was:

“Should we attempt to reverse declines in wader populations?” 

Of course, the whole room answered with a resounding (but not unanimous) YES, and in a series of sub-groups, we were asked to explain why. Common themes emerged, including the central idea that waders are part of our culture and heritage – they should be preserved because they belong to our landscape, and for many their personal significance is impossible to overstate.

Playing devil’s advocate, we were then asked to imagine counter arguments – ie. why we should not attempt to reverse declines in wader populations. The most interesting thread here was the idea that wader distribution is almost entirely a human construct. We created a landscape which suited waders and they simply populated it without any active assistance. We often hear of “shifting baselines”, by which each generation adopts a very subjective understanding of how things “should” be. The current generation of land managers grew up in a countryside full of lapwings and curlews, and the decline of these birds is being marked with great sorrow and regret – of course we want to right the wrongs which have taken place on our watch, but how much does this wander into subjectivity?

If traditional farming created a countryside which suited waders, modern farming does not. The same agricultural economy which once made lapwings super-abundant is now making them extremely scarce. I absolutely believe that we should conserve waders and integrate their conservation into modern farming, but human beings have enjoyed these birds at zero cost or effort for centuries – We are the first generation to plough significant amounts of money, research and labour into keeping waders on farmland, and this is a good moment to think about why we feel this is justified.

Much of what is now being written of curlews and lapwings reflects a general feeling that these birds are evocative of rural landscapes – that their loss would come at a shocking emotional, spiritual cost to the countryside. I can absolutely sympathise with this attitude, and I am partly motivated to conserve waders because they are a living, breathing part of the landscape to which I belong. But at the risk of labouring my love of corncrakes, it’s worth remembering that the corncrake’s call was once cited as a true sound of summer by country folk across Britain. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wrote that the sound of corncrakes in his native Worcestershire was “one of the enduring symbols of rural England”, but less than a Century later, corncrakes are little more than a distant memory. Their loss was mourned by those humans who lived through it, but the birds are now just a bizarre, vaguely ridiculous footnote.

Our memories are short and time soon heals scars of loss. Most people in modern Britain have never heard of a corncrake. No sensible conservationist would seriously argue for the birds to be reinstated across their former range because they require a habitat which is incompatible with modern grassland and arable farming. But wait a minute – why should we bend over backwards to accommodate lapwings in a hostile modern world and yet ignore the idea of restoring corncrakes? Is it simply because we remember lapwings more vividly?

Science increasingly allows us to build birds back into our working landscapes, but why do we still choose waders to live on our farms? Is it just to satisfy some cultural memory? It’s possible to massage the design of an arable field so that it can provide some kind of habitat for almost any bird or mammal, so why should we choose lapwings, hares and curlews? – Traditional farming has changed, so can we really expect traditional farm wildlife to stay the same?

Decisions based on instinct, guts and whimsical ideas of culture are often why “re-wilders” look down their noses at mainstream conservation. They see it as a kind of pickling process which refuses to accept change and cherry-picks species for their cultural or emotional significance rather than their literal ecological value. The most ardent re-wilders would consider the collapse of curlews as a simple re-balancing of natural systems. I believe there are strong arguments to resist this approach and wader conservation is one of the most pressing conservation issues we now face, but this was an interesting exercise “tae see oorselves as ithers see us”

A Dry Hill

 

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The view from the tent door at 4:30am

The hill has withered to a crisp. Spring usually unfolds in a systematic pattern, but those rhythms have been parched into jolting chaos. The wind has been stuck in the north for more than a month, and the drying breeze has reduced the moss into a desert. The desiccated grass crunches underfoot like an ocean of cornflakes, and the colourful blare of sphagnum and milkwort is just a dusty pastel cushion. I wrote in early April about the late arrival of breeding curlews on the hill, noting how subdued the snipe were as the month went on. I was momentarily relieved when the curlews finally arrived, but their return was confused and uncomfortable. Many left again after a few days, and their absence has struck a hollow chord in this fiercely dry, cracked landscape.

Keen to find out exactly what impact this dry weather was having, I decided to spend a night on the hill. Packing up my tent and my stove, I headed out into the gloaming on Wednesday evening with several questions to answer. I certainly picked a good night; the hill was breathlessly still beneath a silver full moon. Lying in my tent with the door open, I could peer out over forty miles of southwest Scotland as the last few shreds of sunset melted into the gloom.

It is a fine feature of Galloway that I could look out over such an extraordinarily vast spread of countryside and yet see no sign of human habitation whatsoever. The landscape rolled away to the distance in blue velveteen folds, and despite a concerted search, I was unable to find even the slightest pinprick of electric light. There was a beautifully prehistoric feel to the landscape as the sun died somewhere behind Carsphairn. Down in the clearfelled forestry below me, a roe deer began to bark furiously. Some eddy in the breeze was blowing the scent of my car onto him from where it was parked half a mile away. He would bark intermittently until morning, joined now and then by the formless skirling wail of a vixen.

A snipe began to drum behind me as the stars came out. The single bird looped round and round for ten minutes before faltering into a standstill. After that single display, the night closed in with a cavernous, astonishing silence. There was hardly a breath of air. I woke occasionally from a light doze, astonished that I wasn’t in my own bed at home. The moon climbed higher and a barn owl began to snore asthmatically from the crumbling old sheds a mile away.

I was staggered by the death of it all, which rang in stunning contrast to previous nights beneath the May full moon when the stars ring to the almost constant buzz of waders. I slept for a time and finally woke to the sound of larks. The songs had merged into my dreams, but they swarmed into focus with a roar that made my head swim – the sound came from every conceivable angle across the moss – a million complex voices chattering at once. I had fallen asleep with the tent door open and my feet jutting out onto the moss, and it was surprising to find that my boots were coated in a fuzz of frost. As I came to, a chorus of cuckoos belled in stereo from the forest – I counted nine individuals, then lost the tally and started again. More birds tuned in to join them until I was sure of more than twelve, and the constant see-saw song hummed beneath the gales of larks – an echo from the Congolese rainforest miraculously transported to frosted Galloway. There was an occasional distant bleat of blackcock beneath this transmission, but so distant as to be half imagined.

I was utterly dumbfounded by the accumulative roar of birdsong, but rose up from the clammy tent to find the wind was bitterly cold. It was 4:30am, and the pre-dawn glow revealed a landscape patched with blue frost. A single snipe drummed again over the moss behind me – this was almost certainly the same bird I had heard in the darkness, but one bird is a mockery of the many which usually haunt this hill. Over the horizon, a single curlew wailed some long, trailing notes, but this was the only contact I had with these birds all morning. I was soon distracted by the strange, crackling displays of a wheatear on the dyke nearby, and the frost paled into non-existence while my back was turned.

The night’s trip had merely confirmed my suspicions – the hill has blown so dry that the waders have abandoned it. Curlews have long lives and can afford a degree of circumspection when it comes to breeding. They can alter their plans if the weather is not suitable, and their ability to see the “long game” should mean that this silent spring is just a blip. At the same time, snipe cannot afford to be so laid back. Assuming that they will not return to the hill in 2017, it will be interesting to see how they bounce back when they return in February.