It was the white that stopped me in my tracks, not a shiny brilliant white but more a shimmering paleness that shone out from the grass and heather of this Perthshire moor.
At first I thought it may have been a flower but when I crouched down closer I realised it was a magpie moth; a real dazzler of an insect with a beauty to rival any butterfly. The pattern was quite dramatic – symmetrically arranged splashes of black and orange beautifully offset by its pallid wings.
It’s a shame that butterflies get all the plaudits when moths and so many other types of insect are as equally striking. And even those that are not top of the beauty league are no less fascinating for it. I admire these underdogs of the animal kingdom and make a point of seeking out such creatures whenever I can.
Magpie moths often occur on hill and moor but they are found in gardens too where their caterpillars are a pest on currant bushes. Birds tend to avoid them as they are toxic to eat and the caterpillar advertises this fact through its bold warning coloration.
As I examined the moth, I was aware of the continual and rather monotonous mewing seagull-like cries of a family of buzzards from a nearby forestry plantation. But in amongst the buzzard noise, I could hear a higher pitched chattering.
It was a kestrel family, a mother and two fledged youngsters working their way along the forest edge and passing right beneath the soaring buzzards. The young kestrels were incredibly noisy; right little livewires who were finding life so very exciting and which contrasted starkly with the mournful mews of the buzzards.
From being common 30 or 40 years ago, kestrels are now much less so. Conversely, buzzards have had a remarkable turnaround in fortunes and are currently our most abundant bird of prey having soared in numbers in recent decades.
I reckon there is a connection here in that the buzzard has displaced the kestrel by out-competing it for food. Rising populations of goshawks and peregrine falcons may also be adding to this pressure through direct predation, whereas in the past kestrels had a free rein and limited competition. So maybe there is a bit of a natural reset going on here.
But then again, things are seldom black and white in nature and most likely there are other factors at work too. The most obvious one is habitat loss, in particular areas of rough grassland, which has resulted in fewer voles and mice being around for kestrels to prey upon.
As I watched the kestrels disappear over the rim of a small hill, I wondered what the future holds for these wonderful little falcons. They are up against so many complex environmental challenges and I can’t see them returning to their former abundance any time soon.