Friday, 30 April 2010

He Adder

I see loads of snakes at this time of year. Any warm day will have them out basking and there are areas where I can just about guarantee a sighting. However it's not every day you get to see a pair mating. I came across that very thing this morning and felt I just had to get a pic for all you out there in Webland. Unfortunately my stealthy approach wasn't stealthy enough and I disturbed them. It turned out there were three- the happy couple and another male who was an innocent bystander- without the innocence. Or the ability to stand, for that.
Be that as it may, the males (snake-)skinned out without a backwards glance ("I'll ring you later." Har) leaving the female hissing with anger. Or frustration. If she were a cobra, she'd have been spitting.
Disappointed, I continued on my way only to find a second pair hard at it 50 yards further on. My delight- although not matching theirs- increased as I managed to get in good and close (not a phrase in common usage when it comes to snakes)and get some shots. They were not put off their stride (eh?!) one bit and I marvelled at the effort they were putting into it. All that was missing was the third rate seventies backing music. Unbidden, the old chestnut sprang to mind:-
"Do you smoke after sex?"
"I don't know- I've never looked."

Barely an hour later I was treated to another rare spectacle. I was sitting quietly spying for crows along a rocky, tree-lined face when a heard a 'whoosh' above me. I looked up just in time to see a Merlin grab a pipit out of the air, 25 feet above my head. Within a couple of seconds it had disappeared around the corner, leaving only a little cloud of tiny feathers hanging in the air.
So you'll not be getting any pics of that.
And another short while after that I came across a herd of deer at really close range. I froze where I was and managed a few shots before an eddy in the wind put them away. Unfortunately my 'point-and-press' camera still gave the impression they were in the next county.

Oh, and if you're wondering how we got on last night, I got to my bed at 4am with the distinct impression that it wasn't the fox that was bamboozled. Foxes-1, Keepers-0.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Graveyard Shift

Woodcock. They are a strange and mysterious bird. We have our own resident population which is swelled by migrants from Scandinavia in the winter. When they migrate they apparently fly by the light of a full moon. At this time of year you can hear them croaking like a frog as they fly the woodland rides in the dark.
Their large eyes, positioned on the sides of their head are said to give them virtually 360 degree vision and folklore has it that they 'airlift' their young out of danger by carrying them between their legs.
I can't vouch for vision thing but I can tell you I've witnessed the 'airlifting' on several occassions.
I came across a hen with three chicks as I returned home yesterday evening. The chicks were well grown- just smaller, slightly fluffier versions of mum. When woodcock run they hold their bodies horizontal and totally motionless while their diminuitive feet go 20 to the dozen. Seeing the four of them make good their getaway in this style, along with the Tom-and-Jerry-esque sound effect in my head, had me in stitches.
I must get out more.
But our evenings and nights are filled with sound just now. Oystercatchers, curlew, and snipe are the main perpetrators, with the oystercatchers being particularly insistant (especially around bed-time, it seems.)
There are 4 other nocturnal creatures worth a mention- my colleagues. They've been staking out a couple of fox dens. One pair have given it 3 nights, the others are on their 3rd night tonight and, thus far, it's all been to no avail. Fiendish cunning, these foxes y'know.
I head out in an hour (10pm) to act as a 'floater'. Sometimes an extra spotlight coming from a different direction bamboozles a shy fox into making a tactical error.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Turning over a New Leaf

This week saw us start our 'foxing season'. As I've hinted elsewhere in my tomes, grouse are not just the bread and butter of this estate but the bacon, lettuce and tomato forbye. And, as such, we try and take care of them as best we can.
And in the red corner we have a positive plethora of mammals and birds which delight in feasting on said grouse, their eggs or chicks.
After many failed experiments in the past, it is now accepted that you can't intensively rear grouse as you can with, say, pheasants. Which is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It's a blessing because, if you could, I would have to find another vocation (poultry farming is not for me) but it's also a curse when weather or disease wipes out your stocks despite your best efforts.
So we do what we can. In practice this means burning heather, providing medicated grit (to combat disease) and keeping certain predators at an artificially low level.
The law states which we are allowed to control and, of those, you'll be hearing plenty mention of rats, weasels, stoats, feral cats, foxes and crows over the next wee while.
We've all noticed over the last week how our hen grouse have gone secretive and sit very tight before they flush. This means they are 'heavy with eggs'and ready to nest. This period- along with when they are sitting (or 'clocking' as we call it)-is their most vulnerable time. (The eggs/chicks simply remain vulnerable until they're grouse also!)
Which is a very long winded way of saying that we need to get on top of our 'vermin' ASAP.
To this end, we have spent the last week starting to check out all the sandholes which have been known to have been used as fox dens in the past. We found one in use and the terriers bolted the vixen to the gun. Two lads then 'staked out' the den and at 2am on the second night the dog fox appeared. Our trainee was trusted to take the shot and, fortunately, didn't disappoint. (Make no mistake, you might only ever get one chance at a fox- especially in the spotlight- and this adds a load of extra pressure to the shot. They ain't a big target at the best of times, but when your pulse is up around 120bpm the crosshairs can be louping all over the surrounding countryside!) Well done, that lad.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Burning Desire

Theory:- Create an optimum environment for Red Grouse through systematic muirburn. A regime of burning many small fires on a year to year basis creates a mosaic of heather patches of differing ages thus providing the diversity of habitat favoured by grouse and most other inhabitants of heather moorland.
Practice:- Try and get as many fires as you can in the limited time you've got available. This means going out despite it being rather too damp/dry/windy, attempting to locate an area with appropriately long heather (easy) that will allow you burn safely to a place where it will definitely stop (ie the North Sea)(not easy), saying a prayer, lighting, then chapping like hell for the next 2 hours with a besom made from leftovers from the Forth Rail Bridge.
Actually, today was our last burning day. (Officially, we can continue until the end of the month, provided we burn above 2000ft.) But for the last couple of days conditions have been really dry and windy and we have been skating on thin ice- to coin an inappropriate phrase. And we have other pressing business next week. Tune in for the next thrilling installment......

Friday, 9 April 2010

Absolutely Cream-crackered...

It's Friday evening. Thank God. My week has been one of pure graft.
The weather was pretty abyssmal on Monday and Tuesday so I caught up with a few stoat traps and cut, carted and split (with an axe) a load of firewood. (There's a saying that firewood warms you more than once. Not half!)
But the rest of the week had been filled with putting grit trays out on the hill. And by my calculations, I've cut about 300 divots in the last 3 days. Boy, do I ache.
Since last weeks blizzards, temperatures have soared again and more and more birds are returning to the hill. This week has seen the return of Osprey, Golden Plover, Ring Ouzel and Wheatear. And some of the residents have been putting on their best shows recently. Golden Eagles- those Kings of Birds- make a noise like a puppy needing out for a pee, however their display makes up for it. The cock bird sweeps up to a height then folds his wings and stoops like a stukka. Then he does it a few more times for good measure.
I watched a Raven doing a similar thing a few weeks back (they say the Raven is Britains earliest nesting bird) but with the added bravado of him flipping over onto his back before the stoop. Unfortunately for him this fine showboating is completely undone by the laughable attempt at singing. I could hear him making a series of randomly-pitched croaks; it must work for she-ravens, however. (Let's face it-they can't have any taste. Look at what they eat!)
Every dub on the hill is seething with frogs and they're at it like rabbits, while in the parks the rabbits not showing much sign of anything just now, truth be told.
For any Southerners reading this, I'm sure you'll laugh to hear that we're celebrating the snowdrops being out and the daffodils and crocuses are sprouting up quickly. Buds are appearing on the trees and that reminds me that I'll have to get round them quick (yes, all of them on my beat) checking for crows nests before they come into leaf.
Anything but grit piles!!

Friday, 2 April 2010

British Summertime!

I think this this has been my longest break from blogging since I started eight months ago. It isn't that I haven't had anything to report- if fact the opposite is true but my spare time just hasn't, spare.
My last blog mentioned how the weather had finally turned Spring-like and one of the pics in this 'episode' show how much melt-water (we call it 'bree') was coming down the river. The snow got such a shift that the wreaths that we would have liked to use for fire-breaks for our heather burning disappeared before we could put them to use; as one of my colleagues found out. He returned that evening, his face black with soot (apart from the white stripes where the sweat had run) and complaining of a sore arm. He'd been beating at (and beaten by) one fire for the whole day. Ouch.
Mind you,I wasn't feeling too fresh myself. I'd been installing grit trays out on the hill (this is a new thing) and this involves digging divots (turves to you) and creating a mound into which you set the tray (see pic). I reckon I'd dug over a hundred divots that day.
Two days later the clocks had changed to British Summertime and he- with his sore arm- and me- with my tired back- were digging snow drifts out of gateways. The blizzard we'd had was the worst of the winter.Or do I mean summer?