My last post bemoaned the small number of swallows and house martins we were seeing at the time. As hoped, this situation changed and we did end up with our fair share of these delightful guests. As ever, though, we’re hoping for more next year. Having said all of which, I was astonished on my morning run today to see what I estimated to be four to five hundred swallows just down the lane, crowding onto the telephone cables where they could, and filling the skies above just like a swarm of flies. I came back breathlessly to Steve and suggested that perhaps they establish something like a motorway service station en route to Africa… He gave me a bit of a funny look but changed his tune later in the day when we drove back up the same part of the lane to see what we think were almost a thousand swallows in the same place, all vying for a place on the phone line or swirling around, chattering noisily above us. Perhaps the wet weather was putting a stop to their travels? Perhaps they do this every year and I’ve only just been privileged to witness it? Perhaps they do have a motorway service station just down the road from McMurdoston?
Our red squirrels are elusive currently – this happens periodically and I really should establish a journal to record when we see them and when we don’t as there may well be a pattern. I was particularly pleased though to see a gorgeous one on a walk yesterday. He had a large hazelnut in his mouth, still covered in greenery, which made him look as if he had a dramatic green handlebar moustache (hence me assuming he was a ‘he’!). Very handsome. As I drove back up to the house I was also lucky enough to have a male sparrowhawk, all grey metallic weaponry, lead me for quite a distance up the lane. They are unbelievably manoeuvrable and he disappeared in a flash, just as I was getting my eye in.
We have bees back at McM now. They are lovely and calm and we are preparing to harvest a small amount of honey, as we did this time last year. We even managed to capture a swarm which turned up in the field about six weeks ago – we are on a distinctly alpine learning curve but we’re both fascinated by them and determined to keep up the education process.
Last, but not least, I followed a badger from the next farm’s entrance to our drive a couple of nights ago – they trundle like our hedgehogs do (oh yes! – did I tell you we have hedgehogs*?!), until you approach them too closely and then they’re off like Olympians.
*We had a bonfire today and spent a good thirty minutes turning it over beforehand checking for unwanted visitors. We found a toad, who lives to fight another day, but thankfully no urchins, as they are know in these parts.
I’ve been bad at keeping up to date with this blog, partly because I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written for the past few years. When you’re logging wildlife and its wonderful happenings things can become somewhat repetitive – in a good way that is. So, at the risk of boring you (and, really, who could be bored with wildlife?!), I’ll give you a little update…
The swifts and swallows are back, not in huge numbers but they’re here. We’re a bit mystified by the house martins who appear regularly in the yard but have not nested yet – it seems highly unlikely that they will now. Steve is thinking of amending the arrangement he put up to encourage them to nest (as detailed on page 11 of the latest RSPB Nature’s Home magazine). Fingers crossed we get them back – I miss their reassuring, gossipy chatter. There are dozens of baby tree sparrows twittering about, flapping greedily at their harassed parents, and just now a juvenile yellowhammer appeared outside the kitchen window. We spotted a pied flycatcher in the trees at the top of the drive and are really hoping it’s nesting up there.
In our field we have a mass of yellow rattle and buttercups with some welcome newcomers peeping through the lovely long grasses. I’ve spotted stitchwort, campion, wild marjoram, alkanet, knapweed, viper’s bugloss and birds foot trefoil amongst other beauties. Now I have to be patient and see what else appears through the Summer. The veg plot is starting to look quite interesting too and the pond is teeming with tadpoles, whirligigs and the occasional damsel fly. The bees have gone away to be re-queened, having become a little too feisty for our liking. They’ll be back when they’ve learned to behave better!
Two deer have just trotted elegantly through the long grass in the farmer’s field. I also watched a pair of hares earlier on and Steve has been seeing the barn owl on the cameras fairly regularly again – these are repetitions I’d be happy to see endlessly and I hope you’ll allow me to share my sightings.
Finally, Steve has just said that when he left early this morning for work he carefully followed a beautiful little leveret down the lane until it ran off through a gateway – a stunning shade of gingery red.
Well… as I write, Steve is up a scaffold knocking holes into the side of the barn.We had some repairs to do on one of the old buildings which form our ‘steading’ and decided that while we had the means to reach one particular wall we would install some more accommodation for swifts. Last year while I was mowing I saw a swift repeatedly flying in and clinging on to this wall to look at a crack at the base of an old chimney. It moved off eventually, having investigated thoroughly and decided it wasn’t a suitable nest site. Both of us felt duty-bound to see if we could improve the chances of it trying again this year – this time successfully perhaps.
So, after a little research, Steve constructed some small ‘nesting pods’ out of air brick liners, each one containing a shallow nest-cup suitably lined with a few feathers and a bit of straw. While the chimney was being repaired above, Steve got down to preparing sites to install the pods. Luckily he’d had some practice at knocking holes in buildings when we converted the cottages and he’s pretty good at it now!
Once the pods are all suitably installed and the wall is painted I shall put a series of pictures on the blog. One day we’re hoping to see a swift going to investigate them but, given how fast they move, I somehow doubt my photographic skills will be able to capture that.
… as you can see. Eight superb new homes are now ready for whoever gets there first, and there’s a refurbished one just perfect for the smaller visitor. With luck this will solve the local housing shortage, particularly among the tree sparrow population. We are so lucky to have them here in increasing numbers and Steve’s doing his utmost to keep them happy and accommodated.
Other important news from McMurdoston is that we have a new cat. She’s a little grey beauty called Sheba, rescued when her owner sadly died unexpectedly. Zeus and Sheba spent today trailing me in the garden, the former shyly delighted to have a new friend, the latter apparently attempting to work out just what the soppy ginger and white moggy’s thought-processes are… good luck with that Sheba!
Local sightings of red kite continue and today we saw a yellowhammer and a brambling under the bird feeder. Oh – and the sight of snow on the tops of the Lowther Hills in the distance also made me grin stupidly, especially with the sky as blue as it was for a while today.
What a great start to the year! Crystal-clear sunshine spotlighted a goshawk today at Caerlaverock, a pair of red kite are now regular visitors over our field, McMurdoston the handsome whooper swan has found a mate, the (surprisingly entertaining) sheep have discharged their grazing duties diligently and Venus is blazing brighter than ever at the top of the drive. The house is almost back to normal again after a busy festive season and we’re looking forward to meeting and greeting friends both old and new as 2017 progresses.
Come and visit – there’s always something to see…
The ever-changing Dumfries and Galloway weather keeps us on our toes here – oddly warm and sunny one minute, freezing cold with snow on the hills the next. The solar panels don’t know what to do… mind you, they have taken on a new role currently as shelter for our latest guests, four Texel tups, borrowed from a neighbour to graze down the long grass in our ‘wild’ area. I find them irresistibly entertaining and have to restrain myself from getting too friendly!
Another regular visitor has been a red kite. We’ve put large numbers of pheasant carcasses out in our field, thanks to the generosity of the local shoot (I skin and de-breast the birds first) and the kite is getting increasingly brave as it negotiates with the local buzzards and crows over who gets the richest pickings. I’m hoping to get a good photo one day but it’s hard to concentrate when a bird of such multi-coloured magnificence is so close overhead.
Other good sightings locally have been a dozen or so golden plovers in the high stubble fields, plus literally hundreds of skylarks rising from the same stubble as we walked the perimeter. Today’s moment of magic happened just as I’d puffed my way back up the road after a run, to find Steve at the top of the top field enjoying the view. We both stood in the sun, registering how lucky we are to live here when what sounded like a pigeon being fired out of a cannon shot over our heads … milliseconds later we recognised the local peregrine on the hunt and just caught sight of it again as it narrowly missed its prey – a genuine and supremely lucky pigeon. Phew!
Finally – an image I caught just now and one most of us take for granted.
Wonderful news – our adopted whooper swan McMurdoston is back at Caerlaverock for his Winter sojourn. I saw a group of about 10 whoopers flying over this evening and checked the website. http://www.wwt.org.uk/news/all-news/2016/10/wwt-caerlaverock-sightings/latest-sightings-29th-october-fog-named-whooper-swan-update. Just the excuse we need for another trip down to the reserve for a piece of cake. Whoop whoop!
After a very busy few weeks here at McMurdoston, we decided to do some further exploring locally in a bid both to relax and to learn. It paid off massively – what’s more the weather has been incredibly sunny and warm.
A climb up to the top of the ridge opposite us brought excellent sightings of goshawk and peregrine. A scenic drive up to the top of the Scaur Water meant that we were able to watch a female hen harrier hunting for a good 5 minutes and then see a merlin dashing off into the distance. Yesterday’s trip to Loch Ken gave us innumerable fly-pasts by red kite and 3 great views of red squirrels. Oh – and earlier in the week we drove over to Eskdalemuir to the Samye Ling Tibetan Monastery, where the sensation of calm and serenity is almost good enough to taste. On the way back we visited the Lockerbie memorial to the terrible Pan Am 103 disaster – sombre, moving, thought-provoking.
However, of all the sightings this week so far, I have to say that the above was my favourite (obviously): a herd of Galloway Belties in their element, grazing happily on the beautiful banks of the River Scaur.
Apologies to anyone who has been trying to get in touch with us via our website’s Contact page. It turns out that it broke and I failed to notice. Please get in touch via the usual numbers/email addresses.
Well, the couple of sticklebacks which Steve put into the pond have turned into several large flotillas. So far no major predators appear to have cottoned-on to their presence but we’ve been aware of herons flying over in pterodactyl-like style and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of migratory birds to see if any have kept up to date with the blog (the pond seems huge to me but might just be more teal-sized than whooper swan!).
There have only been a few sightings on the wildlife cameras to get excited about but occasional badgers, foxes and hares show up to remind us of their existence. Cottage inhabitants last week saw two squirrels together at the feeder and Steve spotted a deer down the track. If Facebook is your thing you might have seen the magical piece of taxidermy a guest showed us last week – a tiny still-born roe fawn which he’d found moments after its mother had given birth and which he couldn’t bear to see going to waste. It’s been given a new life in the most extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive way – https://www.facebook.com/mcmurdostonhouse/photos/a.425158434356521.1073741834.413650192174012/511422652396765/?type=3&theater.
Another, rather different, camera to get us excited has been the Camera Obscura in Dumfries which turned 180 years old last week. It’s a fascinating bit of kit which is well worth the minimal entrance fee and provides a fantastic spy’s eye view of the town and its surroundings – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-36940561. It’s housed in the old windmill dominating the skyline above the Nith and you’ll get free entry to one of the best museums in the country to boot. I hadn’t visited since I was a child and it reminded me again of the many unique aspects of Dumfries and Galloway which have drawn me here all my life.