Monday, July 31, 2006

Scotland: Highlands & Islands Easter, 2006

Having visited Scotland several times in the past I'd actually never been to the parts of the country for which it is most famous-the scenic splendour of the highlands and islands,therefore myself and Teresa decided to put that right at Easter this year. I pre-booked cheap flights and car hire with Easyjet flying from Bristol directly to Inverness and accomodation in the form of a self catering log cabin through Hoseasons at a small holiday park on the banks of the River Lochy just outside Fort William, a fairly central touring base I thought. We flew up to Inverness on Easter Saturday 15th April and by late afternoon we were driving along the bank of Loch Ness speeding west to Fort William having first called in at a massive Tesco on the main road on the outskirts of Inverness for essential provisions. Upon arrival in Fort William we were more than pleased with our accomodation and the park was surprisingly quiet and very peaceful with an incredible view of Ben Nevis. Sunday 16th April was spent close to base exploring Fort William and it's surroudings,I was amazed at the quantity of Common Gulls in the vicinity,certainly the most "common" gull recorded during my stay and a little exploring on foot soon found me a pair of Goosanders on the river, two Common Sandpipers on the bank and a Common Buzzard overhead which certainly put all the roosting gulls to flight. The weather forecast for the week was not particularly encouraging and in poor conditions(very heavy and frequent showers) Monday morning 17th April saw us heading north west for the Kyle of Lochlach and the bridge crossing over to the Isle of Skye, having only seen Golden Eagle in Portugal and having never seen White-tailed Eagle I tingled with anticipation although at the same time realising that the wet weather would have a significant bearing on the possibility of a sighting. A visit to Portree where a pair of WT Eagles breed quite close to the harbour was a severe disappointment with me failing to connect, the very heavy showers persuading the birds to stay at their nestsite. A visit to the WT Eagle exhibition on the outskirts of Portree was scant consulation for my serious "dip" but things picked up when the weather improved and on the way back a huge raptor flew over the roadside ridge,my first UK Golden Eagle !! I now know why they say you'll recognise one when you see one, it was awesome and in no way could it be mistaken for the "tourist eagle" the Common Buzzard, with spirits lifted the long journey back seemed to pass more quickly. A visit into Fort William on Tues 19th April for some provisions and a browse around the local shops saw me strike gold when a look around the tourist information office saw me pick up a leaflet on Wildlife and Birdwatching daytrips on Mull led by a professional birder/guide by the name of Richard Atkinson. A chat with Teresa and a day pass enabled me to take up the final seat on Richard's mini-bus for the following day,things were looking up and even the weather forecast was encouraging with a fine day in prospect. Before that we headed across to Loch Garten,my first visit to this holy grail of Speyside birding although I have to say that the views of the breeding pair of Ospreys was slightly disappointing as they were fairly distant and by the time we arrived viewing was directly into the sun. An obliging pair of Crested Tits directly outside the hide was my first UK record of this species having only seen them previously in the pinewoods of Monte Gordo in Portugal and cracking views of Red Squirel and GS Woodpecker on the feeders at the centre ensured a fine end to the day although the long drive back was very tiring. An early start on Wed 19th April saw me winging my way south along the picturesque 55 mile drive to Oban to catch the 10.ooam ferry. A lifer awaited in the harbour where I instantly spotted 5-6 Black Guillemots that apparently breed in the holes in the concrete harbour wall!! The ferry crossing was totally unproductive from a birding perspective although I got chatting to two very likeable retired ladies who well kitted out with bins and scopes confirmed that they to were going on Richard's daily expedition. We soon met up with Richard and having exchanged pleasantries were soon watching a male Otter in a small creek only a few mile from the ferry terminal, it performed well and even turned on to it's back to eat a catch as only Otters do. Another stop only a mile or two further saw Richard announce that we were in a WT Eagle territory and as we were not too far from the nest site the stop would have to be fairly brief so as not to cause a disturbance,low and behold as Richard spoke and as if on cue one of the pair probably the male soared in and landed in the top of an old tree on the hillside opposite our stop. This bird was truly spectacular and a lifer for me, I couldn't get over it's shear size and the impact it made, it certainly had the "woooaargh" factor. Soon it was joined by it's mate which alighted on the ground on the top of the hill and although abut 1/2 mile away it was clearly visible with the naked eye. We moved on and our next stop was one of the glens disecting the centre of the island,this was apparently a good place for Hen Harrier and almost immediately a large raptor came into view gluiding gracefully towards us, this was no Hen Harrier but a magnificent Golden Eagle that announced it's arrival by going into display mode climbing high and plummeting like a stooping Peregrine Falcon on folded wings, this was eagle behaviour at it's most spectacular and something to truly behold. Glowing from this incredible sighting we stopped next on the soth coast of the island where a massive WT Eagle flew towards us off the sea and getting within 200 yards or so of us before being mobbed by several large gulls whereby it turned and flew west to finally come to rest on a huge sea cliff a mile or so across the bay, this was an awesome sighting and the best of 4 of WT Eagle achieved on the day!! A lunch stop in a sheltered valley with some huge cliff faces was announced by Richard as a viewpoint for 4 Golden Eagle territories,the first tasty ham roll was quickly follwed by a Golden Eagle flying off a cliff face behind us met halfway across the valley by another of these impressive raptors from the opposite territory,with mutual respect for each other they both turned and headed back to their respective territories giving crippling views. Further sightings on our return journey gave a total for the day of 6,this was turning into the best £32 I had ever spent, this was the birders equivalent of buying a winning lottery ticket and with a cracking packed lunch thrown in as well!!! Although the eagles were the ultimate target species other great sightings were of both BT and GN Divers in various stages of plummage including a cople of each in stunning breeding plumage(wow!!), Greenshank,Redshank, a party of 4 returning Whooper Swans an unexpected Yellowhammer, Eiders and numerous Red Deer, dipping on Hen Harrier and SE Owl was a little disappointing but did not spoil an unforgetable day.

Thurs 20th April saw myself and Teresa take the cable car up to the ski station on nearby Ben Nevis in my search for the elusive Ptarmigan, the weather was bright and sunny and the views were nothing short of stupendous!! Leaving Teresa in the comfort of the cafeteria I trudged a few hundred yards across the mountain in what turned out to be a vain search, although I heard a call I could not locate any birds as there were simply too many people about and I probably would have had to have hiked for several hours to get away from the crowds, I gave up and turned back to the comfort of the cafeteria and after a luckless scan of the car park for Snow Bunting we made our way down the mountain and spent the remainder of the day sightseeing.

I had made up my mind that whilst visiting Scotland I should really make a serious attempt to find one of it's prized birds and a lifer for me the impressive Capercaillie, although we had another day booked in at Fort William I persuaded Teresa that we should pack up and head for Speyside and find ourselves a B&B for our last night so that on our final morning before heading home I could attend the early morning Capercaillie watch at RSPB Loch Garten.

So late morning on Fri 21st April we headed for Speyside arriving late afternoon at Boat of Garten where we quickly found ourselves a very comfortable B&B just over the river bridge and as close to Loch Garten reserve as we could be.

The landlady was quite knowledgable and helpful and advised me that I could see summer plumaged Black-throated Divers at nearby Lochindorb and Slavonian Grebe at nearby Loch Vaa,having only seen the species in their more familiar winter plummage this was not a chance I wanted to pass up and with a few hours of good light left we headed off in hot pursuit.

Three distant but very impressive BTDs duly obliged,the road to and from Lochindorb also being littered with Red Grouse some so close that they gave an excellent photo opportunity which I took up and a Golden Eagle over the ridge along the main road back towards Aviemore was an unexpected bonus!!

Parking near the cemetry by the main road and a brisk walk through the wood soon saw me 'scoping five resplendant Slavonian Grebes, I was soon joined by a group of birders from Sheffield who I was also going to bump into the following morning at Loch Garten. The Slavs were so impressive in their summer fineary and were such a contast to the little black and white blobs that we normally view off Whitford Point in the depths of winter.

A nice meal in Aviemore on the way back to the B&B was a splendid end to a great day.

Sat 22nd April saw me rise at the ungodly hour of 4.30am for the short drive in the dark to RSPB Loch Garten, upon my arrival at the car park I was surprized to see about 12 cars already parked up, are we birders totally mad or what!!

The watch was very well organised with small groups being taken in turn from the main hide to the smaller forward hide for better views, a slendid male Caper strutted it's stuff and although distant gave good views,a female was even more obliging and gave a brilliant photo opportunity whilst perched in a nearby tree, mission accomplished I quickly made for nearby Tulloch Moor in an attempt to see the Black Grouse "lecking" before they dispursed.

It was extremely windy when I got there and I was lucky enough to get a good view of the one remaining male before he disappeared into the heather, two "lifers" and it wasn't even 7.30am yet!!

A birder at Loch Garten told me of the breeding Ospreys at Loch Insh near Kincraig which was only a 25 min drive or so and making good use of his directions I was soon viewing a pair of these wonderful raptors on their nest from only about 50 yards away on their safe little island in the loch.

The birds saw me arrive but as the site is well watched were not at all alarmed,it remained very windy and the shelter I took in the trees on the shoreline enabled me to keep the scope steady enough to take some pleasing photos. I left the Ospreys in peace and hope that they successfully reared some youngsters who will also return to our shores next year.

A hearty Scottish breakfast,a quick thanks and goodbye saw us on the 30 min drive to Inverness to return the hire car and get our early afternoon flight back to Bristol, this was bang on time and we were soon crossing the Severn Bridge to arrive home by teatime.

A thoroughly memorable trip was enjoyed by us both and from a birding perspective I picked up 4 "lifers" and 2 further U.K "ticks", to dip on Ptarmigan was disappointing but then again it gives me a great excuse to go back again!!!!

Friday, July 14, 2006

2006, part II

I resumed birding last evening following the long intermission that is the bleak birding period of June and early July. Alec and I visited Llandegfedd Reservoir in the hope of spotting the Sabine's gull that has been around for a day or two. We arrived at the north car park, with a couple of other birders just making their way out to the north east corner of the reservoir, Green Pool. A pleasant walk through a meadow area was rewarded with plenty of butterflies on the wing - mostly meadow browns, a few marbled whites, a couple of skippers and possibly a few ringlets too. Paul and Matt from GBC were making their way back to the car park and confirmed the bird was still there among a small black-headed gull roost. Having set the 'scope up I was put on to the bird by the small group of birders who were already there. It was a little distant, but it was just possible to see the yellow-tipped bill and the shape of the hood as it sat on the mud bank. A grey heron and a couple of little ringed plovers were present too. After about ten minutes or so it took flight, and I lost sight of it. A few observers speculated the age of the bird, with the consensus appearing to be that it was in fact a 2nd or 3rd year bird in partial moult. Frankly, I didn't see it well enough to have an opinion. I later relocated it flying in front of the dam at the far south of the reservoir. These were distant views but it was possible to see the distinctive wing markings that separate this species from the crowd. All in all, not entirely satisfying views of this species, but another tick nevertheless.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Monty's Return Part 4

Sunday was our last day, and the birding was to be near our route home, in the Brecklands. We were diverted off the Norwich bypass due to an accident, and approached Thetford from the Diss direction. This proved lucky, as a Tawny Owl flew over the road in front of us. At Weeting Heath, the Stone Curlews (and 2 chicks) showed well. A Spotted Flycatcher flitted around outside the hide, and I glimpsed a distant flying Woodlark. On to Hockwold, more in hope than expectation. We walked along the edge of the plantation nearest the railway until we found a slight clearing, with a narrow water channel in it. A chap from Doncaster assured us that if we waited there long enough, we would see a Golden Oriole. So we sat down to eat our lunch, and begin our vigil. Even though I'm a fast eater, I hadn't finished my first sandwich before he calmly invited me to look through his scope, and sure enough there was a stunning male Golden Oriole. Gill got decent views in her bins before it disappeared. We waited a while longer, then decided that we had used our luck up, and headed home. An uneventful journey home was brightened by a Red Kite over the A14 near Kettering, but then was back to the bird desert of Cardiff in June. A lovely break, and I'm sure a longer stay could have brought more memorable sights.

Monty's Return Part 3

Saturday was another hot and sunny day, so we went to Strumpshaw Fen to look for more Swallowtails. We soon found a couple in a meadow near the visitor centre, having already had a cracking view of a Cetti's Warbler about 10 feet from us. Also showing well was a Barn Owl, at 10am! Presumably mouths to feed nearby! Good numbers of common butterflies and dragonflies passed us, as we walked around the reserve. Half a dozen Egyptian Geese on the river were slightly exotic, but not a great surprise in Norfolk. As at Minsmere, Hobbies and food-passing Marsh Harriers kept us entertained. A Green Sandpiper flew low over one pool, but landed out of sight. Several Swallowtails flew close by on a short boardwalk, but wouldn't settle for photos. Eventually, we reached a cottage, with a stunning flower border. A handwritten sign enouraged passers-by to walk up the border if they wanted to view or photograph Swallowtails. After about 20mins, 2 of them appeared, and landed briefly on nearby flowers. Stunning! We drove around Norwich, and headed for North Norfolk, in search of Montys. As we neared the viewing area, we saw a couple with a scope, looking over a gate into a field. Sure enough, the male Monty was perched on a hedge. We watched him for a while, before he flew across the road, behind a high hedge, and out of sight. Soon he reappeared with prey in his talons, and flew towards where he had been perched. His mate flew up out of the crop for a food pass, nice! When they both disappeared, we headed off to search for Turtle Doves nearby. A hot and frustrating hour gave a brief glimpse of one flying away from us, so we returned to the Montys, and immediately saw another food pass. A pair of Turtle Doves showed briefly and distantly on wires, before an immature male Marsh Harrier landed in a tree near us. It was time to head for home. However, this being Norfolk, there was still time for a spot more birding, this time on the east bank at Cley. 3 Cuckoos flew over calling, as we left the car, and good views of more Avocets, Little Terns, a Pink Footed Goose, and another Bearded Tit were had, before a pair of Marsh Harriers flew low in front of the setting sun. Time for beer!