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The birds of the pine marten wood (part one)


In previous years when I have been bone collecting, I have explored a different wood each week maybe Titus Well to see the red deer, then the Rhynd lakes to watch the migrating geese, then Quoiggs Wood the week after that to track the roe deer and foxes. But this year I've had less time at the weekend for walks, and most of my time has been spent checking the trail camera which is set-up to film the pine marten.

It's been great having so much success with the pine marten (I'm going to write about that in a few weeks), but it also means that instead of exploring lots of woods, I spend all my time in one very small area, maybe one square mile in size. What has been amazing, though, is finding out how many animals - especially birds - live in such a small area. So this week and next I'm going to write about the fifteen amazing and rare birds that thrive in one of the coldest and most exposed places you can imagine.

The moor 

The moor is about twenty miles long in total, sitting high above my village. The land in the lower bits of the valley are used for beef and sheep farming, then above a certain point the farms stop, and the land is rough scrub with heather and grass. The area is full of old abandoned farms, so at one point the land would have been used much more but now huge areas of it are left to wildlife, which is great.

It is beautiful but very cold and windswept. It is difficult to imagine how hard it must have been to live up here during the winter in a farmhouse without electricity, cut off from the other villages. It also makes you think how difficult it must be for other animals, like the roe deer and the pine marten.

A couple of other things...

I've added in the RSPB status of the birds. Green means they are fine, red means globally endangered, amber means they are or have been in decline. Of the 14 birds, three are red listed, and only four are green listed. I'm not sure if it's good that so many threatened species are in one place, or bad that so many animals in one place are threatened !

I've also added in the latin name of the bird, because the common names of birds can alter from country to country, and I have a lot of people from outside the UK reading my blog.

The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)

RSPB Amber listed 

In February I wrote about the fight between two short-eared owls which I nicknamed Whitewing and Darkwing. The fight took place two miles east of the Pine Marten Woods, and since then Whitewing has moved a mile west to hunt in a new territory of scrubland and heather. There's at least one other short-eared owl on the same area (I've only seen them together once) so they might be a breeding pair.

If I go up in the afternoon and look hard enough, I almost always can see Whitewing, either flying low over the moorland, or resting up on a fencepost.

Whitewing flies low over the heather looking for voles and other small mammals, sometimes circling back if something is visible in the scrub. 

This area is full of voles and mice. After I left out peanut butter on a tree trunk hoping to attract the pine marten, I got 1,200 videos in two nights - all of mice ! But these mice and voles provide food for other animals, like foxes, pine martens, buzzards and owls. Here's Whitewing with a freshly caught vole in his beak:

Often Whitewing is difficult to spot if flying low down...

...and almost impossible to spot if camouflaged in the grass and heather. Here you can see how flexible owl necks are and how Whitewing can look behind him even when sitting in the same spot:

The camouflage works well when they are flying low and you can just see the tops of their wings:

until they turn the other way, and you get a flash of the white underneath !

Whitewing likes to fight, and I've never seen any other bird want to fight as much. Apart from the fight with Darkwing, I've seen him scare off crows that have wandered onto his territory:

....as well as a scrap when he scared off a red kite who was on his patch:

In case you were wondering, Darkwing, the other short-eared owl, is still well. I don't see him, because his territory is in the other direction to Whitewing's, but Dad photographed him when he was sheltering from rain on a fencepost:

Skylarks (Alauda arvensis)

RSPB Red Status

If short eared owls are good at camouflage, then skylarks are experts:

I originally thought this was a woodlark because of the crest of feathers on the top of the head, until I checked the RSPB website and found you don't get woodlarks anywhere else but the south of England. That meant it was a skylark instead.

Skylarks are listed as red status, because they are declining quite fast. It was nice to get a clear photograph of one to help with identification, because from a distance they could easily be mistaken for so many other birds.

Buzzards (Buteo buteo)

RSPB Green Status

Where I live, buzzards are one of the most common birds of prey, feeding on young pheasants in the woods in the valley near my house which are used for shooting parties. 

Up on the moor there isn't much pheasant shooting any more, because the pheasant pens have been badly damaged in the storms in recent years, but a few buzzards remain. There is one which lives close to the pine marten wood, and I often see it nearby.

The REALLY WORRYING THING is that a buzzard was found poisoned very close by to this wood a few months ago. I have no idea who poisoned it (and neither do the police) but often when this happens, it is a gamekeeper or farmer trying to poison a particular type of animal by leaving carbofuran - a poison which is blue crystals - on a small animal carcass, such as a rabbit or woodpigeon. 

Unfortunately, if you leave poison out for one animal - like a fox or crows - you can often end up poisoning an entirely different meat-eating animal instead, like red kites or pine martens. There is a REALLY bad case at the moment in the north of Scotland where 18 red kites and buzzards have been killed in the same area by poison.

Curlews (Numenius arquata)

RSPB Amber Status

Curlews are unusual and very interesting birds, and I've never seen them that high up on the moor until this year. The most I've seen at one time on the moor is three, but the one in the photographs was flying by himself with his distinctive high-pitched call.

The usually winter by the coast, then head inland for the summer. We are about 50 miles inland, so these have come a long way. 

Curlews have highly adaptive beaks that are incredibly long and thin for the size of the head, much longer than say oystercatchers. Unfortunately, I don't have a curlew skull yet !

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

RSPB Amber Status

Bullfinches are beautiful to see, especially the male which is the one in the photograph. I've only seen them on the edges of woods on the moor.

Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus)

RSPB Amber Status

Kestrels are the only bird of prey that I consistently see across the whole length of the moor. They are very easy to spot, because instead of swooping and gliding like other raptors, they hover with their head down, facing into the wind, watching the ground below.

Last Saturday I sat and watched one for a while. I would flutter the wings until it could balance on the wind, then pause and seem to float, all the time watching the ground below. If it saw something, it would drop down in stages, getting closer and closer to the ground, before going for a final swoop to kill prey below. Compared to, say, a buzzard it must be exhausting being a kestrel.

This kestrel was hunting in the farmland between the territories of the two short-eared owls. It's not the best photo because it was taken from quite a way away, but this looks like a juvenile male because of the barred tail:

Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris)

RSPB Red Status

This was a pretty flock of birds in the farm field opposite the pine marten wood. Dad didn't know what they were at the time, so he just took photographs as they flew up between the ground and the trees, and it wasn't until he got home that I identified them as fieldfares, which I hadn't actually seen before.

These fieldfares would have been just finishing off their winter migration; in a month or so, they won't be around any more.

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Alison said...

Hi Jake! I am a new fan of your blog. Your photos and wildlife observations make me want to visit Scotland. Can you tell me, do any types of wildlife make use of the abandoned buildings at the farms you mentioned? Where I live in northern California (USA) we often find barn owls and bats roosting (and sometimes nesting) in old structures.

Jake said...

Yes, loads. The most recent was when I found jackdaws living inside the stone wall of an old farm when looking for the pine marten !

Alison said...

How interesting! It's fascinating how certain kinds of wildlife find ways to adapt to human influences on the environment. Have you seen the peregrines that nest on skyscrapers? On a smaller scale, we have cliff swallows that are building their little mud nests under the eaves of our home's roof. Good luck with your search for the pine marten. I look forward to your photos and next post. Happy Earth Day!

Liam Gilbert said...

Hi, nice reading your blog

Liam Gilbert said...

Great reading thiss

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