I am very excited to be in Scotland where I'll be spending the next 5 weeks assisting ornithologists with their fieldwork, mostly on raptors. Today I had the pleasure of walking into the hills with my friend and fellow eagle enthusiast Ewan Weston, to check the status of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) site at which Ewan had observed a pair of eagles earlier in the season. Ewan recently completed his PhD on juvenile Golden Eagle dispersal using satellite telemetry, so it was wonderful to 'compare notes' with someone with whom I have so much in common.
Although it was summer, the landscape in Scotland is never short of water, and (coming from the driest inhabited continent on earth!) I found it very refreshing to see so much of it about. While walking along an old farm track, we discovered many puddles that were home to a number of Palmate Newts (Lissotriton helveticus), an amazing amphibian which was something totally new to me (the only amphibians I'm used to finding in Australia are frogs!). It was interesting to catch one and have a closer look at its very froggy face and lizard-like body!
Speaking of lizards - the weather was quite fine and the sun frequently broke through the clouds, leaving patches of sunlight warming up the heather. From a few of these we flushed many a Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara). This animal is not something one always expects to find while out walking on the hills, as the air is often cold with quite a strong wind, but at ground level, grass and thick heather break up the moss-and-lichen covered open patches, and the lizards seemed to have no trouble clambering to suitable basking sites. On approach they would scurry into the tangle of heather to hide. Before it escaped in this fashion, Ewan managed to pick up one lizard and show me its spectacular orange belly. I also thrilled at seeing the coarse belly scales, and by contrast, the fine scales around the throat, legs and eyes.
|Common Lizards are very camouflaged when seen from above, but have a beautiful bright belly.|
|A Common Lizard in profile - the brown eye stripe helps them blend in among heather stalks.|
We left the track and climbed higher into the landscape, crossing many bogs and open patches of heather. The trickling burns (streams) were ideal places for another of the hills' cold-blooded creatures, the Common Frog (Rana temporaria). With the breeding season well underway, we encountered frogs of all different sizes. The one below was about as big as the end of my thumb.
Eventually, after crossing a beautifully wide glen, we reached the Golden Eagle site. Refreshing my memory from my last eagle-seeking visit to Scotland, I remembered how difficult it was to discover the nests of this species. Despite being the ecological equivalent to the Australian Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax), a bird whose nesting habits I am very familiar with, I found it fascinating to take note of the aspects of the Golden Eagle's ecology that were different. Most notably, 'goldies' usually nest on the ground, building their large eyries on flat, usually well-vegetated cliff ledges. Even when up close to a known nest cliff, the nest itself can be nearly impossible to spot, and one must keep a sharp eye out for bits of dead heather or tree branches used in its construction. The arrow in the image below points out the eyrie we visited, which was only about 4m above the ground near the base of the cliff. Ewan explained that this nest had been newly constructed this season, but he wasn't sure how far its owners had progressed with their breeding effort.
|Golden Eagle eyries are almost invisible against the cliffs. This one is given away by only a small piece of overhanging heather.|
We climbed up to have a closer look, which involved a quick scramble up a rocky but solid corner, and found the eagle nest to be empty. There were, however, plenty of flecks of eagle down-feathers on the nest, a sign the birds had visited it regularly, and a well-lined cup had been prepared for egg-laying.
|Ewan explains this nest was well-lined but had no evidence of eggs being laid.|
As well as the feathers, deep grooves cut into lengths of heather also told us the eyrie had been recently visited by eagles, and I pictured one tearing pieces from the moors with powerful thrusts of its sharp bill, then soaring in with the nesting material to alight on the ledge on which we sat. I've found the same bill-marks on sprigs of eucalypt and mulga on and below many Wedge-tail nests back home.
It was a shame to discover this eagle pair had not successfully bred, but the information was valuable nonetheless. It is not uncommon for large raptors like eagles to 'have a year off', particularly if they've reared a successful brood the previous season, are young and inexperienced birds, or if food supply is low.
We scrambled off the cliff and began the long walk home, stopping to look at crows and buzzards that zipped overhead. As our feet waded through a section of very dense heather, there was suddenly a flurry of wings and the grunts of a Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus) filled the air. We noticed a hen grouse racing around with her wings folded down, conducting a 'wounded' display in an attempt to distract our attention away from her brood of small chicks, which scurried away through the grass.
You might like to see another photo I took of the grouse, as well as some of the other hillside scenes and characters, on my Flickr photostream here.
|Willow and reeds line the banks of a wee burn, with a tall Rowan tree lit by the golden evening sun.|
On the final stretch of our way home, we came across a sad sight: a ewe had died beside a burn, and her small lamb lay huddled next to its mother's smelly corpse. We failed in our attempts to catch the orphan, and ended up following it all the way down the hillside. Just as we gave up hope, the lamb decided to change direction and attempted to cross the burn, diving hooves-first into the gushing water. Ewan sprang into action and managed to catch it as it came up against the opposite embankment, which prevented the lamb's escape. He then placed it in his backpack and carried it all the way back to the nearest house. Fortunately, the residents knew where the farmer responsible for the lamb lived, and after a short drive up the road, we were met by some relieved folk who greeted the lamb with a warm blanket and a bottle of fresh, warm milk.
There's nothing like an animal rescue story with a happy ending to warm the heart at the end of a long day. Of course, had the eagle nest contained a chick, we might have found another use for the lamb...
Only joking, of course!!! ;-)