More Merlins

Merlins abound
Merlin abound

Worth mentioning in (very) brief that during a forty five minute vigil down by the Solway this evening at sunset, I saw four merlins, two sparrowhawks and a peregrine over the same field, all within half a mile of where I saw the merlins and the harrier earlier in the week. The concentration of little birds is quite staggering, and there are no prizes for guessing why the predators have come in such numbers.

Mixed in with the arrivals are the many multitudes of birds which have been squeezed out of their inland haunts to lurk along the coast where it is milder. There was an entire field full of reed buntings – several hundred in a massed crowd, all whining sadly and ducking their heads beneath the lolling brassica shaws whenever a predator passed by. Stirred in with these were larks in trilling gangs and a flock of starlings which sprawled over three fields and blended seamlessly with the peewits.

There was one particularly stunning pursuit by a merlin over a stubble field in the last glimpse of sunlight, and then the barnacle geese rose up in a churning mass and stole the show.

Incidentally, I take every opportunity to flaunt this photograph (above) of a merlin I took last Spring on the Chayne, but must confess that I reduced it in size to fit on this blog and then lost the original. The image is now forever trapped as a sad miniature of its former self, and never fails to give me a pang of irritation whenever I see it.

Scotch Argus

Scotch argus; one of many.
Scotch argus; one of many.

Not being hugely interested in butterflies until quite recently, I have spent the past five years in unappreciative ignorance of all the wealth and variety of species to be found on the Chayne. It was only when I bought an insect book in May that I began to pay any attention to the various different kinds of butterflies going around, and I have since revelled in the discovery of green hairstreaks, orange-tips, ringlets and green-veined whites.

Walking through some rough, wet ground yesterday, I was delighted to stir up swarms of sooty black butterflies; literally dozens with every footstep. Photographed, logged and identified by keenly thumbing through the book, I find that they are scotch argus butterflies, a species which was once widespread throughout Britain but which is now mainly restricted to Scotland. The caterpillars feed mainly on invasive purple moor grass, so I wish them the very best of luck. The name “argus” would presumably have something to do with Argus, the thousand eyed giant of Greek mythology who also gave his name to the Great Argus, one of the most extraordinary species of pheasants I have ever seen. The twinkling little eyes on the wings of the scotch argus provide a convenient hint to that effect.

A very satisfactory find.

Sundew and Dragonflies

English sundew, with round-leaved at the bottom centre for comparison.
English sundew in abundance

Also worth mentioning in brief that I came across a huge abundance of English sundew while looking for fish in the high hills – this was the first time I have encountered this species of sundew, and I’m much more used to the D. rotundifolia which appears to be the really common one around these parts. The tall, tapered leaves were quite obvious on the soggy peat, and I note from the photo that several have curled up, indicating that they have been “triggered”. I didn’t realise at the time, but there are one or two round-leaved sundew plants at the bottom of the picture for the sake of easy comparison.

Hill fishing

Looking for a fish
Looking for a fish

Again, an abbreviated blog post to record a fantastic day of fishing in some of Galloway’s highest lochs at the weekend. Long, arduous walks and breathtaking scenery made for a stunning day in the hills, despite the fact that it turned wet later on and my decision to wear shorts met with the approval of the local midges. More on this to come, but suffice to say that the fishing in Galloway is worth a great deal more scrutiny.

It struck me as we passed the heart-rendingly idyllic Loch Enoch just how like Harris and Wester Ross these hills can be, with ragged white granite cliffs peering through a veil of moss and heather. Stunning silver granite beaches are miniature copies of the strand at Luskentyre, and the rough faces of Craignaw and Craignelder are every bit as lonely and secluded as the wildest crags of Torridon and the far North West.

Further to my post on the subject of eagles last week, we encountered little in the way of bird life beyond the odd pipit, but a screaming peregrine certainly grabbed the attention as we passed Loch Valley on the walk back to the car.

As a child, I must have worn shorts so often at school that my knees developed something like a rind of callus. Now that I am a grown-up and am in the habit of wearing trousers, this protective covering has become soft and vulnerable, and walking back through the bracken to Glen Trool was like wandering through a swarm of bread knives. I noticed this the other day while stalking in my shorts, and simply assumed that I must have knelt in the blaeberry when great stains appeared on my knees. As it turned out, I had been clawed to ribbons by the heather stick, and the blood ran down into my socks as if I had been rolling in razor-wire. Perhaps we take tough knees for granted as children, but I am at least grateful that the weather appears to have broken and it will be another year before I get my shorts out again.

Summer Ruttin’

Tis the season to watch deer.
Tis the season to be around roe deer

Blog posts have become so infrequent recently on account of a stunning roe rut which is taking up almost all available free time in the sweltering heat. There are some incredible sights to be seen on the hill, including a roe buck tossing a fawn into the air, active combat between two old masters and a staggering degree of stamina shown by bucks apparently capable of chasing does until they are both verging on collapse. I’ve brought down a couple of bucks for the freezer amidst all this enthusiasm, but the real pleasure so far has been simply sitting and watching. For the sake of interest, I have been playing with my Butollo deer call and have found it totally and utterly useless. The best reaction I have had has been confusion, but on the whole it has inspired more in the way of panic than attraction.

Amongst all the excitement, there have been cuckoo chicks, a pair of young peregrines and an impressive fly-by from two ospreys, who used the hill to catch thermals in the same was as children use a trampoline. Many thousands of words of notes (9,000 so far) have been set down and I will eventually get time to edit them down and provide a full account of all I have seen, but I can only say at  this stage that the Minox binoculars have already paid for themselves several times over.

The Empty Hills

Beautiful but empty.
The view North East from Tarfessock to Macaterick – Beautiful but barren.

It was interesting to read SNH’s recent report (press release) on golden eagles in the South of Scotland which predictably identified the potential for several more pairs in the South than are currently extant. Of course the issue has been hijacked by time-wasters who blame the entire eagle shortage on raptor persecution, but it made me think about the extensive areas of Galloway which are essentially eagle-less. Should we really be bursting our gussets with indignant disbelief that, in their current state, the Galloway Hills support so few eagles?

The eagles have gone from Clatteringshaws, Meikle Millyea and Cairnsmore of Fleet (managed by SNH and saved from the foresters a generation ago on account of its eagles). There are no eagles on the Awful Hand or up into Carrick, and this has nothing to do with raptor persecution; it is because there is simply not enough food to support these huge predators. Walking with the dog in February, I covered ten miles of hill from Kirriereoch to Loch Bradan and then over to Loch Doon and saw three red grouse in the entire day.

And where are the mountain hares which provide eagles with the foundation of their diet? There are one or two below Shalloch on Minnoch and the odd one on the Rhinns of Kells, but these are paltry remnants of a population which once supported several pairs of eagles. Aside from the odd chance at an ailing blackie lamb, a goat kid or a red deer calf, the hills are a deafeningly hungry place for a meat eater that is accustomed to dining on more than mice and linties.

Cairnsmore of Fleet no longer has enough grouse to support the peregrines which are its emblem. The reeking black rocks of Cairnbaber look perfect for an eyrie, but the forestry commission’s high water mark has drowned so much habitat for prey species that this too is empty.

Reading Jack Orchel’s extremely useful book on forest merlins, I was taken by the abundance of breeding raptors in Galloway during the 1980s. This has nose-dived during my lifetime, so much so that in order to see my first bog owl nest, I was forced to leave the county and head over to the Borders.

Of course it is fashionable to blame grouse moor management for a lack of eagles, but an area as large and as distanced from any serious sporting interest as Galloway has to provide more than this slack-jawed explanation for its failure to produce birds. SNH and the Forestry Commission feed a pair of eagles near Slogarie to keep them in the area, topping up a station with the bodies of the goats culled at Cairnsmore, but these birds are apparently unable to expand their range and establish a foothold because beyond that artificial platform, Galloway is a tough, hungry place to be for an eagle. Indeed, if these birds need to be fed artificially, perhaps nature is trying to tell us something. It is as ecologically significant to have eagles in Galloway as it is to have them in Glasgow if they are being fed by the hand of man, and it raises questions over what we really expect from “wildlife”. The same is true for red kites, of which more anon.

In the East of Galloway, we have allowed sheep to eat the best of the hills and planted the rest with conifers. In the West, we have let the hills go “wild”, which translates as allowing them to revert to molinia grass and rank, mangy heather, poached by sheep. If we are serious about getting eagles back in the south west, we need to stop complaining about raptor persecution (which is an irrelevance here) and start looking after the habitat, which has been horrendously disfigured by forty years of short-termism and neglect. SNH’s report goes some way to recognising this, but cynics will persist in saying that grouse shooting kills so many eagles that they are unable to colonise the South West. This is certainly not the case in the Highlands and there is no reason why it should be so in the South.

When bushy-tailed ecology students sit down for the first lecture of their course, they are surely told that an animal can’t live where there is insufficient food to support it – this is rudimentary stuff, but the sentiment appears to have eluded many of the foamy-mouthed fanatics who seem to believe that the only thing an eagle has to do in order to prosper is avoid gamekeepers. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if we fix the hills, the eagles (and everything else, including the blackgame) will come of their own accord. Gamekeepers (or “pest control and heather management officers” if you prefer) have a significant role to play in the future of these hills if we are ever to see a good range of upland birds return to Galloway.

Minox Binox

I'm watching you...
I’m watching you…

I have been pushing for a decent pair of binoculars for some time, and finally struck lucky with a pair of heavily discounted Minox 8x43s at the Game Fair at Scone. Not being much of an optics buff, I had never heard of Minox, but these binoculars are absolutely exceptional. The salesman played a neat trick by allowing me to compare a Zeiss pair with a Minox pair, and just when I thought I had chosen between them, he produced a second Minox pair which were the best of the three by a long shot. There was no contest, and given that I was in “compare” mode, I couldn’t very well go back to the lesser binoculars which had seemed so bright and perfect a few moments before, but which now seemed like a child’s toy.

Swarowski always get the best write-ups, but something about those binoculars has never felt just perfect in the hand. Aside from anything, I would also suggest that a good percentage of the price is in the name. As in common with hill boots, they can only cost so much to make and the final difference in RRP is just branding and kudos.

To try them out, I headed up the hill to spy on some roe deer on Saturday. The crystalline clarity was immediately telling by comparison to my old Hawke pair, which I loved dearly but which were no longer pulling their weight. The lucid brilliance of the view was extraordinary, and I had no trouble picking up a young roe buck in the bracken at four hundred yards. Although the rifle was on my shoulder, I still had the best part of one and a half deer in the freezer, and I resolved to watch rather than participate.

As I lay down in the rushes, I noticed that I had intruded on his fitful pursuit of a doe, and the two of them ran tirelessly round in a small circle of sitka spruce trees and rank heather, he always holding his head forward and close to her rump. This was clearly one of the mythical roe rings in formation, and two hours later I stood on the spot and noted the trampled loop of grass left by the passing red shapes. How inexplicable that mark would have been to someone who stumbled upon it without having seen the sculptors or the context.

For a few minutes, the buck and doe vanished together behind a stack of granite, and in their absence I took the opportunity to get much closer. Sliding down through the long grass, I wriggled on until I was a hundred yards away from where I had first seen him.

As I moved, he came back from behind the granite, alone this time, and I watched him browsing around for half an hour. The rain came on a little, and I pulled my coat over my shoulders and shielded the binoculars with the brim of my bonnet. The dog stretched out behind me with a groan in the shelter of a sprawling bog myrtle plant, all set about with glowing asphodel. I looked away at a screeching jay, then turned back to see a much larger buck standing proudly up on some higher ground. He had materialised as if from nowhere and had clearly noticed the younger boy. With solemn pomp, he began to strut down to where this juvenile intruder was standing. The younger buck was very aware of the older, and he watched him warily at a distance of perhaps one hundred yards.

The old buck walked with a stiff-legged, grandiose swagger, and he paused after a few paces to thrash an old, rank heather plant with his antlers. He seemed to be rubbing his face as much as he was deliberately fraying, but he really went for it and it looked like he was trying to uproot the plant altogether. The rain came on heavier and the cloud started to close in as sprigs of myrtle and moss flew over his fevered brow.

At this display of ferocity, the younger buck lost his nerve and ran straight towards me, stopping when he was thirty yards away and looking back edgily. He had a very dark line down the back of his neck, and was made to look very small by comparison to the boss. Even despite his obvious youth, he had still been trying to get his way with the doe, but his slim, straight spikes looked decidedly insubstantial against the great dripping black pearls of the older. He had effectively been caught red handed, and he turned back with an apologetic gesture, handing back control of the arena without contest.

As the rain got heavier, the young buck curled up and lay down in the grass like a dog, and the older boy bounced off keenly as some new message was blown up on the wind. Every nuance and gesture had been brought into stunning clarity by the new binoculars, and after the actors had departed, I stood quietly in the cloud while the woodpigeons continued to boo and wheeze in the forest nearby. Although the rain had soaked my trousers, I found that I was rather enjoying the feeling of total immersion in the smirr. After half an hour, I turned and began the walk home again, splashing through the new puddles and marvelling at how hard the mud still was beneath the slopping water. It will take some time to soak in, and in the meantime all this soft, gentle rain is running off the bogs as if they were concrete.

Curlew Chicks

A curlew chick, probably even older than the ones I saw last night.
A curlew chick, probably even older than the ones I saw last night.

It was with considerable pleasure and relief that I happened to come across a pair of curlew chicks up on the inbye last night in the setting sun. As I walked up to the gate at the top of the field, a gaggle of clipped yeld ewes ran wildly off in front of me, following the contour round and alongside a saw-tooth dyke. As they ran, a curlew began to chip with irritation infront of them, fluttering up and round into the faces of the running sheep and obviously trying to keep them off a particular spot. She hadn’t seen me, so I crept up, trying to peer through the drifts of ragged robin and buttercups with my binoculars. All of a sudden she rose in a panic, flying round and round my head and calling angrily. Five feet away, a tiny chick was crouching in the rushes.

Unlike many of the photographs available online of curlew chicks, this tiny little bird was purplish grey, with a creamy breast and charcoal grey zig-zag patterns on its back. It watched me with one huge, liquid black eye and began to whine. The sound was a miniature, more grating version of an adult curlew’s contact call, and it took me a couple of seconds to register that it was coming from the ball of fuzz at my feet. A few yards away, another chick was staring straight up at me over its short grey beak, and I began to retreat as the adult curlew landed on the dyke a hundred yards away and continued to yammer on. For the first time in several weeks I didn’t have my camera with me. Cursing, I crept away as quietly as I could, feeling as though I had just intruded on some grave secret.

I have never seen curlew chicks this young before, although I’m sure that I’ve been within feet of them dozens of times. They really must only be four or five days old, and my notes tell me that these birds suddenly became obvious again after what seemed to be an extended absence on the 24th – five days before I found the chicks. This is very late for curlew chicks, and obviously suggests a second clutch which was laid at the end of May. They stand a much better chance of success now that the grass is higher and they have more protection from aerial predators than they did when they first sat at the start of May, but knowing how finely balanced many of these breeding cycles can be, I am worried that it is getting too late for the birds to make the best of the year. Curlew chicks fledge after six weeks, so at this rate they won’t be leaving until the middle of August.

All the time I was looking I only saw a single adult bird, and I can dimly recall reading somewhere that curlews split their broods between male and female. This may mean that the other adult was nearby with other chicks, but I would have thought that it would rise up and mob an intruder with its mate if it heard calling and commotion. As the chicks start to grow up, one of the adults (often the female, apparently) will leave the family and go down to the coast, presumably to reduce pressure on the communal food supply. I remember seeing a very vocal bird calling well into August last year, and this would explain why it was still lingering around on the tops long after all the others had gone.

There is another pair of curlews which appears to have hatched something off successfully on the back end of the farm, so despite losing the nest I found in May, we have avoided a total whitewash. That said, the hard work is still to come.

Insect Life

A sawfly on a willow leaf
A sawfly on a willow leaf

I have been more than usually conscious of the insect life going around this year as the chick rearing season has been underway. Without insects there are no chicks, and it has been interesting to keep an eye on the various different species which have popped up at this crucial time. Sawflies have been particularly abundant, and this is great news because their larvae is a key food source for black grouse chicks. Of course talking of sawflies is the same as talking about birds; the name actually applies to dozens of different species, most of which look like a cross between a wasp and a flying ant. I have noticed in particular that the number of sawflies is at its highest around willow scrub, and while I haven’t been able to find any of the larvae themselves, clouds of sawflies have given me an encouraging spring in the step.

There have also been large numbers of scorpion flies, snipe flies and a million varieties of micro-moth which rise up like a bow-wave when I walk through the rushes where the ragged robin is flowering with considerable enthusiasm and the forget-me-nots lie in great baby blue drifts. I’m not sure that these tiny moths are such excellent news in themselves, but their caterpillars will be well worth having around for black grouse purposes and it is always quite encouraging to see them in such abundance. Craneflies have been slightly harder to find, but in my experience they tend to be visible for a short window only when the conditions are perfect, and they spend the rest of the time buzzing invisibly through the undergrowth – available for hungry chicks, but not apparent to me.

A respectable quantity of insect life is certainly present, and I just have to hope that the warm, dry weather is allowing the birds to take full advantage of this cornucopia.

Accidental Game Crop

A young wheatear
A young wheatear

Huge numbers of wagtail and wheatear chicks have suddenly exploded across the low ground on the Chayne, due in part to the phenomenal (and essentially accidental) game crop that I have “put in” this year. I watched a huge flock of more than thirty young wagtails hunting midges and craneflies last night on the darkening, as well as a tangle of a dozen wheatear chicks with stubby tails and whisps of down still on their heads. I sat and kept an eye on them until the sun disappeared, at which point they all gathered in a queue on a strand of barbed wire and one by one dropped down to roost.

The “game crop” is literally swarming with insects after it was allowed to run wild into docks and redshank. Readers of this blog will remember the past two years of indifferent success with game crops, and ironically I have created quite the best cover (particularly in terms of brood-rearing) when I simply left the docks to do their worst. If I had tried to put in another crop this year it would be only a few inches long by now, and while the docks will fade and collapse by the winter, there is considerable value in having them up and at full stretch at this time of year. I am a big believer in brood rearing cover crops, and it seems that growing a field full of weeds is actually of considerable value.

I am planting up a rushy paddock with some blackgame friendly trees next to the game crop at the moment, and the combination of young trees, scrub and thick undergrowth is a haven for birds. Amongst the gobbets of cuckoo spit and orchids, I spotted whinchats, whitethroats, redpolls, linnets, goldfinches and siskins last night during a ten minute period. I could hear grasshopper warblers belling in the thicker patches of undergrowth, and a family of twite came buzzing past when I returned from my traps an hour later.

The weather continues to hold for the black grouse, and although I am cursed with the southern Scotsman’s congenital pessimism, I must concede that things are looking pretty good.