Sheriffmuir in May

My favourite habitat at this time of year is the moorland in and around the Ochils. What seems mostly dead in winter suddenly comes alive with long-distant migrants arriving along with more local birds which expand their territories into all that available nesting ground. You can actually see a huge amount of wildlife just by driving the road from Blairlogie up to the Sheriffmuir Inn and back but I have also done several walks over the last month up Menstrie Glen and around the slopes of Dumyat.

So let me start by rejoicing – the Cuckoos are back! And what a welcome sound and sight they are. There don’t seem to be quite as many calling males as previous years around Menstrie itself but further afield there are loads. On a drive further afield last week we must have seen 5 and heard many more. I was able to get some good photos of a female (slightly brownish) and a male.

We had a couple of males in Menstrie Glen last year and I could hear them from the house if the weather was right. This year I have had to go up the Sheriffmuir Road to hear or see them. A good place to see them is in the old plantation at the top of the track leading to Lossburn Reservoir, they like the taller dead trees to provide a song post.

This location has been rich this year. Earlier in May I pulled up to the parking area and saw some birds fly into the top of the Scot’s Pine calling “Chips Chips”. These are Common Crossbill which I don’t see too often this close to home. They made quite a racket as they tucked into the pine cones, seeds falling as they went.

After a while they flew off and I wandered to the top of the landrover track and heard a grasshopper sound coming from the grass nearby. Unlikely to be a grasshopper in early May so I went to investigate and got fleeting views of a Grasshopper Warbler. With a bit of patience I was able to take a picture of this drab looking but charismatic sounding bird. Grasshopper Warblers are notoriously hard to photograph often hiding in bushes and shrubs and this is the first photo of the species I have successfully taken so that was a good photo tick for the collection.

Grasshopper Warbler

In mid April one of the first birds to arrive on Sheriffmuir are the Wheatears. I saw them in late April on a walk up Dumyat. The males seem to arrive first and establish a territory normally by taking a bold perch on a rock or fence post. The females arrive later and I guess get to inspect the males strutting their stuff. A beautiful bird with a black eye stipe. Easily told in flight by the white sugar-cube on their rump (or “white arse” from which their name is allegedly derived).

On the same climb up Dumyat I also had fleeting views of another migrant my first Whinchat of the year. I wasn’t quick enough to get a good photo but a few days later inspecting the plantation below the old Sheriffmuir Inn I counted 3 singing males without leaving the boardwalk.

Whinchat (male)

This is another striking bird with bold white stripe above the eye and buff orange breast. A real favourite of mine.

The other bird I see here is the Stonechat, and where you see one you almost always see a pair. Stonechats aren’t migrants but they do move from the moor in summer to the coast or agricultural ground in winter. The male has a bold black head, reddish breast and white collar. His alarm call is like two stoned banging together. The female is more muted in colour. They often wag their tail enthusiastically.


Two breading birds we have in the Ochils are the Lapwing and Curlew. Both spend the winter at the coast but come to higher ground in summer to breed. Both species have suffered on agricultural territories but seem to be doing okay, if not spectacularly, here. The evocative call of the Curlew can be heard up Menstrie Glen and around much of the Ochils. The lapwings are more found on marginal farm land but if you keep your eyes pealed you can see their distinctive flight or hear their crazy “analogue modem” calls.

At the smaller end of the scale the moors are covered with Meadow Pipet and Skylarks. On a sunny day the soundtrack of the moor is dominated by the Skylark singing from a tussock of grass with its crest raised (first picture below) or in its distinctive flight getting higher and higher. We have loads of Meadow Pipits (two photos below) in the Ochils too. Easy to overlook but great birds to have around. And if it wasn’t for these birds we wouldn’t have the cuckoos which rely on their baby sitting skills to make an early return to Africa.


Ravens can be seen over much of the Ochils with their massive bill and buzzard sized wingspan. If you look to Dumyat from Menstrie they are often flying around occasionally doing complete barrel rolls for fun it would seem, or as a possible defence against birds of prey (they often share nesting sites with Peregrine).

Raven

Increasingly we are seeing Red Kite in the Ochils too and over the last year I have even seen them from Menstrie. This month I saw two Kites from around the old Sheriffmuir Inn and was pleased to capture a couple of shots. One of the birds was tagged I noticed.

Fortunate for the rabbits and hares around here the red kites tend to take carrion rather than kill their own prey.

Hare

A little bit further afield I have been privileged to see one other special site on moorland this spring – Black Grouse Lekking – not too far from here. The sites of these impressive birds (all males) facing off, strutting their stuff along with all the sounds that go with it (bubbling, squawking, nasal chirping).

Black Grouse on Lek

A few points worth noting. First, whilst Black Grouse have occasionally been seen in the Ochils, these photos were not taken in the Ochils. Second, afraid I won’t share the location of these birds as they are vulnerable, protected by law and it would be irresponsible to share. Lastly, I want to assure readers that there was no disturbance whatsoever of these birds – the photos were taken from my car on a public road with a long lens. If you do want to see these birds the RSPB do guided walks near Aberfeldy but be prepared to get up early.

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