Cold Steel

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There’s a cold wind in the east. It’s the kind of wind that can pull the meat off your skull and freeze your tears while it does it.

We unloaded steel beams as darkness fell. The eight foot girders are heavy, and I felt each burry, fresh-cut edge on my gloveless hands. This steel will build much-needed strength into the cattle pens, and the bull calf rolled his eyes and stamped in the red tail lights of the trailer – he has the makings of monster.

Bending and lifting soon opened a crack between my shirt and my trousers. An inch-wide strip of skin was exposed to the wind and I fought to contain a shriek. Shreds of straw skittered past my boots like the ribs of long-forgotten rats.

Woodcock flew in the twilight. The little birds are famously fat and well oiled, but they looked bitterly pitiful in the claws of this wind. Perhaps they will spend the night in the shelter, because open ground would be a death sentence. I pictured their bodies frozen into curling stones on the short grass at sunrise.

Only geese can stare down a wind like this. They came in the final moments before abject dark, pouring down to the shore in ripples of two and three hundred birds. The steel clattered and rang on the concrete as we worked, and the sky replied with the roar of half-seen ranks. Every winking mutter rang around the yard, and the stars blinked as the geese passed against them – endless skeins and a relay of sound, growing and fading in joyous, gabbling waves.

It takes more than a cold wind to upset the geese – Grand old ganders lead their teams across country to the sea. Cold steel; hard birds; tough places.

The Owl

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A view over the moss from our bedroom skylight

I am of interest to an owl.

His first arrival was inelegant. I stared at the ceiling beneath a mound of blankets and counted the last few seconds of peace. My alarm is triggered at 6am, and it has become a habit to wake a few moments early. I usually lie in the darkness for those hanging minutes, listening carefully for hints of wind or rain on the skylights.

A gentle bump of bone on glass.

I turned my head to see a dull figure flaring off-balance against the glass. A moment’s panic subsided, and the shape settled on the gutter below the window frame. Without my glasses, I narrowed my eyes in the gloom. A grey, headless silhouette bobbed against the darkness, shoulders hunched up to a sawn-off neck.

My slightest movement caused panic – the shape was off again. Grey wings blurred behind the glass, but instead of reeling away across the moss, the owl had simply moved over to the skylight on the landing – two cracked panes of old glass in a cast-iron frame. This window bleeds rust down the plaster and leaks our precious warmth like a chimney – it is a relic of bygone years, and the bird made it a frame.

I lay back and listened to him land on the glass, skidding down the sloping surface like a clumsy child. Talons caught here and there on the cracked surface, and the contact produced a sharp, mousey squeal.

I crept from the bed and peered out of my bedroom door. Viewed from an angle, the window was a navy blue oblong of darkness against a black ceiling. The owl found some purchase in this space. Judging by his silhouette, he was comfortable – he began to preen his undercarriage. He was almost within arm’s reach – I could almost have touched him. I had woken from a feather bed, and the owl’s quiet softness seemed to offer similar comfort. I began to raise my hand towards the glass.

With blasting horror, my alarm exploded and the illusion was lost. I rushed to my bedside table to shut off the noise, but the moment was as dead as a dream. When I returned to the landing a few seconds later, the electric light was on and the glass seemed much further away than it had been. The staircase had been gentle and smooth in the natural dullness, but now it was hard and angular. The bannister vanished mysteriously down into the hall.

The scene was so profoundly changed that I began to wonder if it had all been a dream. After all, why would an owl land on the roof of an occupied house? What business did a bird have to walk on a pane of glass? And yet the narrow, reedy squeak of those talons was oddly vivid.

The day soon intervened, and these half-seen images paled beneath the glare of daylight. I forgot my dream.

But the memory returned as the clock approached 6am the following morning. I tested reality beneath the covers and found the scene had been immaculately reset. With a minute or two to spare before my alarm, I heard small, clattering footsteps on the slates above the window. The dull shape returned to peer in the bedroom window.

I slipped my hand out and crushed the alarm before it had a chance to say its piece. I found my glasses and returned the observer’s gaze. The headless form had eyes and a dark, inscrutable glare. My skin crawled and my hackles rose, but the exchange was strangely hypnotic. He swirled his cloak and vanished back to the slates. For ten minutes, the bird clambered all over my house as if it were merely a large, curiously formed boulder. I lay beneath the covers and followed his exploratory paces with my ears, submitting my belongings to inspection.

When silence returned, I got up and peered out through the glass. This building stands alone in the midst of a landscape dominated by rough grass, marshland and scrub. It is an obvious focal point for a curious bird on his way home to roost. From where I stood between carpet and curtain, I had a view of the moss rambling away beneath a layer of frost. Stars prickled down to the dark horizon, and I shivered. I turned the sense of intrusion on its head. I call this my land, but cornered by the cold and held captive indoors during the hours of darkness, I would soon die here without heavy clothes and burning stoves. I pulled on my dressing gown and decided that if anyone was out of place here, it was me.



North Sea Crossing

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They’ve come at last

Despite my enthusiasm around the recent fall of snipe, woodcock have remained stubbornly thin on the ground. The November full moon usually brings a torrent of birds to Galloway, but aside from a few outriders (and the birds which breed in the woods behind the house), there was very little to see this year.

An explanation for this strange absence can perhaps be found in the wind maps which I shared last week to explain the dramatic dump of Icelandic snipe on the moss. These winds went on to turn at a ninety degree angle before blowing east across the North Sea. Any migrants in Scandinavia would have been held up by these headwinds, and it is fun to imagine a queue of woodcock building up on the coast of Norway waiting to cross. The wind finally changed two days ago, and we received a mild, sloppy breeze from the Atlantic southwest. This relieved the pressure from Scandinavia, and the migrants came pouring over the sea. Running in the woods this evening, I saw seven woodcock flighting out to feed in the wet fields – nothing like as many as I might see in a peak year, but still a substantial step up from three days ago.

During the early days of the War, my grandfather patrolled the Firth of Forth in a spitfire. His first active engagement was over the docks at Leith, and bullets from his machine gun hammered through the pitifully thin aluminium fuselage of a German Heinkel bomber. When I was told the story as a child, I always pitied those foreign airmen. It seemed perverse that they had come so far across miles of featureless ocean, only to be hammered and killed by fighters when land was finally in sight. We have a newsroom photograph of their aeroplane lying “dead” on the moor near Humbie, a small village near Haddington in East Lothian. There is a swastika on the tail fin.

The story has given me a strange idea of the North Sea and the things which cross it. The East coast is a profoundly bizarre landscape to those of us who were brought up between estuaries and mountains in the west. Lush, arable landscapes run into cold dunes, and the sea laps soupily at your feet. This is no home for me, and Scandinavia feels like a very long way beyond the horizon – you can’t see it, so it might as well be as far away as America. The lands beyond that Sea are occupied magical beasts; Norse gods; even Nazis. The idea that familiar birds routinely cross that vast gulf does little to make the opposite shore feel closer; it simply makes the birds feel more special.

And then there is a counter-perspective. Flying back from Finland at the start of October, we crossed over Norway at 33,000 feet. The landscape looked tiny below us, and I watched it quietly receding into an expanse of open water. Perhaps half an hour passed during which time I could see nothing but water and the occasional oil rig. It was easy to look down on the water and see it as little more than a quick step, particularly when Scotland appeared in the distance and we crossed the coast near Elgin. A woodcock’s migration suddenly seemed like a small affair.

But the birds wait for the right wind for a reason – the crossing is a tall order, and they need all the help they can get. Who knows how many woodcock collapse onto the waves in the darkness, unable to fly another inch; how many birds sink down into the water, leaving their feathers to swirl like autumn leaves along the bottom.

Big Whisp

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More migrants

The snipe landed and moved on. Delighted with their visit, I marvelled at the tiny migrants and their mysterious movements. I could hardly have foreseen that the torrent of waders was just a fore-runner of the main invasion.

Walking the dogs on the edge of darkness this evening, we flushed seventy snipe from a five acre field. As the light began to fail, I struggled to distinguish the birds we had put up from others which were simply flighting to and from their feeding grounds. For a few extraordinary seconds, I could see twelve snipe flying in a tight group together against a dank, fiendishly cold sunset. The collective noun for snipe is a “whisp”, but the birds are usually far more likely to flush on their own. When they first arrive, it can be possible to see two or three flush from a single point, but the biggest whisp I had ever seen before this evening was five.

Fresh snipe seemed to be rising up and passing overhead with every step I took, and I was staggered to find the cold air fizzing with wings and sharp, grating cries. I don’t want to labour the point, but the arrival of these winter migrants has been utterly staggering.

We have lived in this house for just a little over six months. Every changing aspect of the seasons has brought us something new and enthralling, from cuckoo chicks and otters to curlews and kingfishers. Perhaps this is an unusually prosperous year for migrant snipe, but I can’t help thinking that we have found a really special place to live.

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The view up towards the farm from “the snipe fields”

Finnish Surprise

An unexpected delight

This blog has fallen silent over the last few days on account of a trip to Finland. Once I have caught up with work again I will certainly make time to write in more detail about the vast, bear-infested taiga forest of Arctic Lapland, but for now I can’t resist a quick note about a chance discovery on the roadside near the northern town of Rovaniemi.

Finland is essentially a vast forest, but a few fields have been carefully carved into the wood here and there. When we arrived, most of this open ground had been cut and baled for silage, but there were a few larger arable fields south of the Arctic circle. By sheer chance, we happened to pass one of these rare open spaces which showed the remains of barley stubble. Some unfamiliar grey shapes were gathered in the far corner of this field, and my wife and I slowed down for a closer look from the car window. To my overwhelming delight, the binoculars soon revealed that these were cranes – a family group including red-headed juveniles and stunning adults in gorgeous black and white plumage.

I was not prepared for these birds, despite the fact that their luxuriant breeding displays form some of the most distinctive spectacles in wild Lapland. I had assumed that they would have migrated south by the time we arrived, so I wasn’t prepared for this chance encounter. The birds rose up and flew away as soon as we stopped the car – three hundred yards of open country lay between us, but these cranes seemed nervy and anxious to keep their distance. Revelling in the discovery and marvelling at the shape of the long-necked birds passing away over the forest, my wife and I decided to take the opportunity to pause for a walk in order to stretch our legs. A railway line formed the backdrop to the field, and we set off on a slow amble towards this landmark beneath the grey, overcast skies which would come to dominate our entire trip.

As we finally reached the raised embankment and peered over the rails, an extraordinary spectacle was laid out before us. We had only been able to see a small portion of the stubble field, and the main bulk of the open ground had lain out of sight beyond the train line. A hundred cranes and almost as many whooper swans rose up in a clattering mass of wings, alarmed by our sudden appearance close at hand. We had accidentally kicked a hornet’s nest, but the hornets were monstrous, bugling creatures which combined to make the sky vibrate.

We stood for a moment and absorbed the spectacle while a seemingly endless file of bramblings rose up from the field margins and rushed past at close range, disturbed by the clamour of the larger birds. A merlin seared over from the forest edge looking for an opportunity, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car, dizzily wide-eyed at our chance encounter.

The cranes continued to circle overhead for five minutes, then finally dropped back to land again once we had moved away again – perhaps this was a stop-over for their southerly migration, which takes them diagonally across Europe to Spain and Portugal for the winter. Their purring calls rang in our ears for hours, and this fortuitous blunder turned out to be one of the most spectacular moments of the entire trip.

I’m drawn to the Nordic countries because they have so much cross-over with Scotland. It helps me to understand how strange, exotic birds fit into their niche when I can see them sharing it with species I already know and recognise. At a push, I could find a stubble field full of whooper swans in Galloway, and there is an outside chance that I could also find brambling on the same day. But the cranes lifted that spectacle out of the ordinary and turned a fine autumnal scene into a moment of staggering grandeur.

Of course there is much more Finland to come on this blog…

More cranes and swans on a drably lit Finnish stubble field

Autumn’s Kestrel

Haws in their thousands, but for how long?

The last swallows have now trickled through our fingers, and we can finally stare autumn squarely in the face. A pair of kestrels has moved into the rough ground beyond my office window, and I can see them hunting almost every day, often with some success. I was on the telephone earlier this week and had front row seats for the death of a vole, which was carried squealing to a granite outcrop in tightly clenched feet. The dark little shape wriggled mightily until it was ripped in half and bolted down in two shoulder-humping motions.

The kestrels are under constant attack from large, rollicking gangs of rooks and jackdaws, and the hunters can scarcely move from one telegraph pole to another without bringing on furious overtures of abuse and invective. It has been spectacular to see ten or fifteen jackdaws mobbing a single white-bellied kestrel against the dark, bruising rainclouds, and I’ve been surprised at how nimble and fast the corvids have been to sustain attacks over extended periods.

When they are not chasing kestrels, the rooks and jackdaws are stripping away punnets of berries from the hawthorn trees. At this rate there will be very little fruit left for the thrushes when they come over the North Sea, but I’ve been encouraged to hear of redwings and some fieldfares already making landfall along the East Coast. These Nordic invaders are never overtly beautiful or exciting, but I can’t help feeling deeply drawn to them.

Wintering Peewits

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An autumnal treat

As promised, the last few nights have been spent in pursuit of foxes. More on this to come, but the considerable progress I’ve made so far will be for nothing unless the work becomes sustained, systematic and persistent. This will be a marathon, and I am gearing up for an enduring grind.

In the meantime, it’s worth recording the presence of a small but determined gang of peewits in the land beneath the house. A flock of these gorgeous birds arrived in August as if they were merely passing through, but they have recently become an almost permanent fixture. We were enormously privileged to have a group of them foraging in our hayfield two days ago, and the dusty autumnal sunlight lit up their white breasts in orange and gold. Walking by the light of the moon with a rifle on my back, I’ve been surprised to hear peewits calling periodically throughout the night, and I now realise that the flock of perhaps forty birds which moves around by day is active (and perhaps even bolstered by others) during the night.

These peewits are a particular pleasure to me, since they offer a rare chance to spend time around a fast declining bird. By the time I was seriously looking at waders in Galloway, peewits were almost a thing of the past – they are often the first to go when landscapes change and predators gain an upper hand. My attention has been focussed on oystercatchers and curlews simply because they are longer lived and can hang around for years after their breeding has become functionally non-existent – they were all I had left to play with. There is a world of difference between winter flocks and breeding pairs, but peewits are a year-round bird and their lives are always of interest.

We did not move into this house until May, so it is hard to tell whether or not peewits breed in the marshy ground below the farm. 2017 was a terrible year for breeding waders, and any nesting attempts might easily have failed and fallen apart by the time I was really looking for them. Perhaps I’m being optimistic. It’s probably more likely that the birds have abandoned this patch like they have abandoned so many others.

Peewits are notoriously difficult birds to resurrect once their numbers have collapsed, but I take heart in the thought  that they are always passing through, and successful nests can be found within a mile or two. There are some really nice areas of wet pasture which might still bear fruit, and the work I’m doing on foxes will surely pay off for an entire wealth of ground nesting birds. Here is still more encouragement to get my head down and tackle the predators.

Pigeon Hunters

A rain-soaked spectacle

When we moved to this house, we inherited a reasonably large number of pigeons. Most probably have racing ancestors, but they are mainly just a genetic hotchpotch of colours, shapes and sizes. The farm had lain unoccupied for two years before we moved in, and this provided the birds with a quiet, peaceful sanctuary in which to multiply and prosper. I have shot a few of these pigeons to train the dogs, and the dogs have killed a few squabs under their own steam which they have found lying around in the yard. All considered, I was happy to leave these birds be, provided that I could pick off one or two as I needed them for dog training or ferret food as required. I resented their constant crapping, but I balanced this with the pleasure of seeing their enthusiastic mating rituals, which take place on a stage-like knuckle of granite behind the house.

Since bringing in the hay, I am beginning to feel less tolerant. Pigeon crap can carry disease, and the birds have been sluicing my bales with pots of white slurry. I have shot a few more, but I’ve been pleased to see natural control mechanisms begin to kick in. Over the past three weeks, the fields around the house have been littered with puffs of white feathers. A juvenile peregrine has been working around the house, and while his efforts have been mainly confined to the starlings which browse through the wet ground, I found scraps of bone and feather suggest that the hunter has been working on the doos.

As I lit the stove last night, there was a noisy thump on the window. I rushed outside to see what the matter was and found a pigeon waddling around in the wet grass. Rain hammered down, and the poor bird was struggling with heavy, gummed-up wings. I noticed that it was missing a good part of its tail, and it seemed strangely dazed. I went closer to investigate and the bird rose up groggily and flew in a loop around the hayfield; a figure of eight which took twenty seconds. It passed over the house and headed for a branch in one of the old scots pine trees which stand above the yard. That seemed like a sensible decision, since the old trees have thick canopies and would offer some shelter from the developing downpour. Almost as soon as the pigeon had landed, a second bird came rushing in behind like a sinister shadow – there was a moment’s tussle, then both fell vertically down into the wet rushes in a squalling cartwheel, during which I saw a pair of brown, barred wings powerfully outspread.

My wife and I had already been soaked by a thousand teacup-sized droplets of rain, and we rushed over for a closer look. Not wanting to disturb the drama, we tried to hold back and watch without being seen, but the sparrowhawk (for it was she) saw us immediately. Rather than fly away, she boldly began to pluck the pigeon right before our eyes, and she allowed us to approach to within thirty yards. This was more than close enough, and we spent the following fifteen minutes watching her dismantle her prey as the rain continued to batter down. It must be hard work hunting in those conditions, but we later found that the pigeon was just a youngster and would not have provided much of a challenge.

We presumed that the hawk had bashed the pigeon and forced it to crash-land into our window. If we had not intruded, the hawk might have come down and finished the job then and there, but instead the poor pigeon had been flushed again and was finished with a second assault. After fifteen minutes, the hawk suddenly rushed away again with her crop swollen and tight. I walked up to inspect the remains of the pigeon and found it well butchered. Most of one breast was gone, and there had been a hole ripped into its guts through which several lengths of intestine had been pulled. I was impressed by how quickly the job had been done, but I suppose it makes sense to work fast when you’re a small, nervous predator with many enemies.


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.

February Rut?

Lying doggo, exhausted by the chase, poor boy.
Lying doggo, exhausted by the chase, poor boy.

By sheer chance, I happened to stumble across an extraordinary drama while heading up the hill on Friday. Movement caught my eye through the trees as I drove up the road, and I pulled over onto the verge to watch a group of roe deer running wildly across an open field. Wondering what had disturbed them, I scanned the binoculars up and down for a few seconds before realising that they were chasing themselves. A buck (incidentally the same fellow pictured at the bottom of In Velvet (part 2)) was chasing a doe and her single doe follower up and down the field.

Every time the doe stopped, he would press his nose into her rear as if he was expecting her to be in season, and she stood to his attention with an uncomfortable resignation. Then she would spring away and the buck would launch after her again. The doe follower seemed to be adding nothing more to the situation than an element of confusion, and if anything it seemed to be aggravating the stand-off by. It sometimes seemed as if the adult doe was just as irritated by the youngster as she was by the buck, and there was some barging and frustrated head-tossing.

Increasingly, the buck would lie down when the doe came to a stop, and even as I watched over the course of an hour, he became heavy-footed and clumsy in his exhaustion. Latterly he would even lie with his neck stretched out on the ground like a collie dog (as in the picture, above), totally flummoxed and dumb with fatigue. But when the doe ran on, he felt honour-bound to follow her, showing less interest in her rear end as the afternoon went on and falling like he had been shot every time she stopped.

Having enjoyed exclusive use of this fifteen acre field since November, the deer are now being forced to share it with the first lambs. They haven’t taken kindly to this intrusion, and despite running all over the rest of the field, they avoided the shelter of the ash trees where the sheep were lying as if it were contaminated, unholy ground. This is no surprise, but it was interesting to see that even in the throes of their dispute, all three deer were united in their hatred of sheep.

Now this situation poses a bit of a mystery. In effect, what I was seeing was very similar to the rutting behaviour I’ve come across before, but I could think of no real reason as to why a doe would be coming in season in February unless perhaps she wasn’t covered in the summer and her cycle has kicked in out of season to compensate. Despite having watched her for some time, I saw no glaringly obvious evidence to suggest that she wasn’t pregnant. Skimming through all my books on deer, I found some mention of a “false rut” sometimes seen in October and November, but there was no reference to anything like the pursuit of does by a buck at this time of year.

I’m fortunate to have an extremely knowledgeable readership on this blog and would be grateful for any theories or suggestions regarding these bizarre events –  any explanations keenly received –

Round and round, then back round again.
Round and round, then back round again.