May 3, 2010

Raptors in the hill

I went in to the hill tonight in the early evening. I wasn’t all that far from home and I was really just out for a bit of a leg stretch and a spy about. I’m not going to say just where it was but it was a fairly typical sort of valley, grazed fields giving what to rough grazing and then the heather hill. Several burns run of the hills here and there are stands of scrub willow dotted about the lower slopes. The walk up over the fields had lapwings and oystercatchers mixed with a few greylag geese that have no intention of heading to Iceland. The rough grazing has rabbits scampering around my feet as I pick my way through the clumps of rush grass.
Through the throng of calling meadow pipits and skylarks I here a familiar song! To my delight I can here the descending song of a willow warbler the first this year. I take the opportunity to draw breath and have a look. Before me there are a few spruce trees and beyond that a large clump of willow. Its from in here that the bird is singing. Unfortunately its quite sporadic and doesn’t seem to keen to get up high and sing, its enough to know he is here though. It’s a good job as well because as im standing looking panic is spreading up the valley as birds scatter and warning alarms sound. The reason is almost instantly obvious, a male hen harrier is quartering its way along the burn, swooping about the stands of shrubs as he attempts to put up small birds. This is quite a show but just as quickly he is gone, disappearing over the brow of a low slope. With in moments the sound of birds re-emerges to fill the air. I move on towards the heather edge. I had not been moving for more than five minutes and the male harrier returned to give the burn another look. This time I plonk down the scope and scope the slow moving fella up. It’s a fine twisting plunging display as he pounces a couple of times unsuccessfully until he moves off from sight once again.
A bit of peace falls over the hills side before me and I sit in the lea of a ruined building. I am out of the north wind and am catching the warm rays of the sun. Is so unusual to feel the sun so hot on the skin I think I’m going to get an instant tan…lovely. Looking across the vista before me I see high sloping hillsides covered in heather. You can hear curlews and red grouse from in front as the wind is carrying the sound towards me. The next raptor to arrive is a male short eared owl. I see it on the horizon as crosses and descends, It makes little effort to quarter the ground. It turns and banks then turns again and lands. During this manoeuvre it was giving out a rough barking call. I scope him up as he sits. Its apparent he is sitting looking out making no effort to preen. As minutes pass I look about to see what else is happening returning briefly to the owl to check he is still there. On the third look he was gone! A quick look drawn by the same call put me strait on him. The moment I acquired him in the bins my relieved breath I was about to exude was strangled in the throat as a darker larger female burst from the ground to and I a flurry of wings turn almost inverted and receive a food pass. It was over in seconds and my eye naturally followed on after the male as he moved of horizontally along the hillside. Within seconds I was back to look for the female. She was nowhere to be seen though she hadn’t flown off and was not on the wing anywhere in sight, neither was she insight on the heather. It now dawned on me that I had just seen a food pass to a bird that was sitting on a nest. I had found one of those really hard to find sites a SEO nest site…..excellent. The male eventually crested the horizon and disappeared over the hill top.
Ravens and big gulls moved along the hilltop horizon and the raptors settled down for a bit. With nothing in the air I turned my attention to scanning the heather its self. This proved to be successful almost strait away, on the lower slopes I found a female ringtail casually preening. I put her in the scope and even though she was quite distant and a bit engulfed by the heat haze that was messing up efforts to film and photograph her she was providing a nice enough view. To my surprise though another bird arrived and although this one lifted up it soon settled unperturbed by the new arrival. My thoughts are that these are first year birds and probably related. So with the two of them on the ground I an trying to get them both in frame with the digiscope the male bird comes on the scene. This looks good and the ring tail is rising to the male things really get a head of steam. Screaming into this comes yet another ringtail female. There is a furious strumash of wheeling shrieking birds as the new bird sets about the other two and has them sent on their way quick smart. It is breath taking and dramatic stuff. With the competition gone the pair play and bond with a delight full interaction around the willow stands both will land and the male will preen, this wont last for more than a minute then the female will make him rise and settle again. This goes on for a while and I make some efforts to film the male but its all desperately far for the camera.
As I am doing this I am aware of the owl calls coming from up the valley at the probable nest site. I can see nothing there but sure enough a scan about shows the male short eared owl entering the hill side. He moves along the hillside high up and despite the calls moves over the hill top and disappears…probably foodless. I move back to the hen harriers but they too are up and moving away. I take that as my cue to move away as well. I have only been watching for forty minutes but it’s the sort of forty minutes that make Orkney such a special place.

Want to see it for your self come for a walk…phone 771697…we seldom close.

1 comment:

  1. Good spotting DAFI, SEO nests are not easy to find! A possibility with the Hen Harriers having a nest in the same area as the SEO also, they both like similar nesting areas, I should keep an eye on that area if I were you. Incidentally, there's a Hen Harrier breeding survey on this year, if you get a result let your local Highland Raptor Study Group know about it.