Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

My bird count tuppenceworth

February 20th, 2016

20160213_124538LAST WEEK I wrote about my visit to Seggieden for the farmland bird identification day held in conjunction with the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count. The logical follow-up was to carry out my own bird count and add my tuppenceworth to the research.

I chose Waterside Farm lying close to the mouth of the River North Esk which, from past walks, I reckoned would produce an interesting mix of waterfowl and farmland song birds.

The results of my count were most instructive. They were a snapshot of what birds were on the ground and in the air over a one hour period on one morning. A different day, a different time, different conditions and it could have been a different story.

I counted 23 species – mostly waterfowl. Grey geese, oystercatchers, duck, gulls, heron, merganser, curlew. I expected to see more songbirds but saw only one meadow pipit and one dunnock. The recent river flooding had been more extensive than I had realised, pushing the small birds off the farmland and onto the brae faces overlooking it.

Being next door to the St Cyrus SSSI it was no surprise to see a buzzard and a short eared owl. If I’d been lucky I might have seen the peregrine falcons. I’m told that there are barn owls there too but I wouldn’t expect to see them hunting in the daylight hours.

The exercise brought home to me how often, when I’m walking, I’m on the lookout for unusual sightings and not paying enough attention to the familiar birds like crows and rooks and wood pigeons which are every bit as much part of nature’s story.

Narrow escape
To keep disturbance to a minimum I didn’t take Inka with me, but walking with him in the late dusk I had an encounter that was nearly too close for comfort.

He was lost from sight amongst cover beneath trees and I was standing quite still waiting for him to reappear. I turned towards the sound of powerful wingbeats in time to see a large cock pheasant flying straight at me about head height. The light was poor and I was motionless and I’ve no doubt the bird would have avoided me anyway. But there’s no time for rationalising in these sort of circumstances. I made a rapid executive decision and ducked down just as it flew over me.

I won’t dramatise the story further by saying I felt the wind of its wings on my cheek, but I’m in no doubt about the damage a 3lb or 4lb bird, travelling at speed, could inflict if it had collided with me. On reflection I’m glad I ducked.

I always know when Inka has retrieved something – it’s in his genes after all – which he wants to present me with when we get home. He trots more dutifully than usual to heel and, with his mouth closed, he stops panting. Mostly it’s a bit of a rabbit carcase, possibly the victim of a hunting buzzard. But on an evening walk I saw the small tail of a common shrew in the light of the torch, poking out of his mouth.

Shrews are voracious little animals and need to eat almost continually. The hard weather may have reduced the availability of insects and earth worms which are their main diet. So this one may have succumbed to hunger for I can’t imagine one of the resident tawny owls, which are a principal predator and similarly dependent on shrews for survival, being so careless as to drop it.

Good advice
I’ve been following my own advice from last week and keeping the bird feeders well filled. I don’t know who rings the dinner bell but in no time after I’ve hung up the replenished nets the garden is alive with hungry song birds.

A tall, spreading hawthorn tree in the next door garden attracts the birds too. I can spend ages watching them lining up amongst its branches waiting their turn to feed but, more importantly, it provides protection from predators.

An old, dense holly tree grew outside the back door of our last house which provided a wonderful escape route for the birds feeding at the bird table. When sparrowhawks from the adjoining woods came hunting, flying low and very fast, the bird table emptied into that tree in the blink of an eye.

Small birds are the male sparrowhawk’s main prey but the heavier female will kill birds as big as a pigeon. The scatterings of light grey feathers you come across in woodland clearings are almost definitely pigeon victims of hungry sparrowhawks.

Son James and his family came visiting last weekend and they had us out walking on St Cyrus beach. The Doyenne and I stepped out a stately guid Scots mile but the rest of them hiked off to the unmistakable Hen Rock at the top of the bay.

Inka had a good gallop on the firm sand left by the receding tide and the grandchildren endlessly threw sticks for him to retrieve. He even managed to persuade another family to join in the fun.

Written on Saturday, February 20th, 2016 at 12:57 pm for Weekly.