Sunday, 23 June 2013

Gnome's Scotland Adventure

This year I've been making a conscious effort to try and catch up with some of the more difficult resident UK birds. This is why for example I went to Norfolk early this year for Golden Pheasant  and I've also had a couple of excursions in pursuit of Lady Amherst's Pheasant (though that's another story). However there were a number of glaring omissions from my list in the form of the Scottish specialities so it was time that this was put right. Of course, the time of the year that most people go on such as trip is in the month of May but my two daughters had GCSE's and AS Levels so I wanted to be around to help and support them during this difficult time. Thus it wasn't until June when they both finished their exams that I was free to make a trip north to rectify this situation.

Whilst the girls were doing their exams I had plenty of time to plan out the details of my trip and to do lots of research. I asked around on various forums and read up on various trip reports in order to maximise my chances when I was there. I homed in on a total of six things that I was particularly interested in seeing, namely: Capercaillie, Crested Tit, Scottish Crossbill, Corncrake, King Eider and also Chequered Skipper. Corncrake I had seen previously only as a release scheme bird so I was keen to see a genuine wild one. You may notice that Parrot Crossbill is missing from this list - apparently there haven't been any Parrots in the Abernethy region for at least a year now because of a failure of the pine cone crop so I wasn't expecting to see any of those. As far as the other Scottish specialities such as Grouse and Ptarmigan, whilst it would be nice to catch up with them they weren't essential as I'd already seen them previously. There would of course be plenty of ancillary interest in the form of Redstarts, Tree Pipits, Flycatchers, Dotterel, breeding waders, Divers, Ospreys etc which all added to the keen anticipation that I felt as the day of my departure neared.

My intention was to start off by flying to Aberdeen on the east coast to try and catch up with the more or less resident King Eider there, then move to the Abernethy Forest region for a day for the various forest specialities. Next was to be a dash down towards Fort William for the Chequered Skippers and then across to Mull and to Iona for the Corncrakes. After that it would be back to the Abernethy Forest for mopping up of anything I'd missed the first time before flying home from Inverness. That at least was the plan.

Day 1 Aberdeenshire East Coast
The start of my great logistical adventure saw me taking a train from Oxford to Birmingham International (not an airport that I'd been to before) for my flight to Aberdeen. There was a slight hiccup at security where apparently all my lenses and scopes that I was carrying in my hand luggage meant that it wouldn't scan properly so they needed to unpack and swipe for explosives every single item in my hand luggage case. Fortunately there was nothing too embarrassing in there. A nice little twin propellor plane hurried us north so that within an hour and a half we were touching down at Aberdeen with the weather sunny if somewhat breezy. Here I picked up a hire car (a Kia Rio) and drove the short distance to the east coast. As part of my preparation I had already programmed in all the site locations to my iPhone Sat Nav app so I arrived at Murcar golf course easily enough. Up until a few days before my departure the King Eider had been reported every day at the Ythan estuary by Newburgh but suddenly a few days before my arrival it moved to join the large number of Eider off the coast between Blackdog and Murcar. I therefore decided that in order to be thorough I should probably check all three locations. Thus it was that I started working my way north along the coast from Murcar religiously checking each Eider duck as I went. They were often somewhat distant and required a careful scoping so it was a time-consuming task. There were vast numbers of Common Scoter also about together with some Auks and a few Red-throated Divers. After a couple of hours I arrived at Blackdog tired and unfortunately unsuccessful. I had a brief scan through the Scoter flock there to see if I could at least find the Surf Scoter that had been reported there regularly but I couldn't seem to find that either. Disappointed, I walked back to Murcar, making half-hearted attempts to scan through the flocks as I went though by now I was feeling rather tired and disconsolate. I got back to the car and headed off to the Ythan estuary.

This turned out to be a very nice spot with a tidal river running between sand dunes to the north and the town of Newburgh to the south. I started to think that I should have started here first as at least there was more to look at here. Sandwich, Common, Arctic and Little Terns all nested here, there were loads of Eider and also lots of seals as well as a few waders including Ringed Plover, Dunlin and a single Sanderling. All in all it was a nice spot. I worked my way through the various birds starting at Inches Point and then the dunes by the old lifeboat house before taking a final look by the road bridge over the river but try as I might I couldn't find it any where. In the end I admitted defeat and set the Sat Nav co-ordinates for my B&B in Nethy Bridge, some two hours away and headed off. It had been a disappointing start to my trip though I was hoping that tomorrow things would pick up. By way of some consolation, the Surf Scoter wasn't reported again for the duration of my stay and the King Eider wasn't reported for several days so it wasn't just me overlooking these birds - they appeared to have genuinely gone AWOL.

Ythan Song Thrush

Not the Eider I was Looking For

I arrived at the Nethy Bridge B&B (Balciuin - I can certainly recommend it ) at around 8pm, dumped my stuff off and decided to have a quick reccy at the sites I was going to be starting off at tomorrow. Firstly, I'd been given the location of a rogue male Capercaillie which I wanted to check out and I also wanted to have a quick look at the Loch Garten feeders for Crested Tits. I soon found the Caper site but there didn't appear to be any sign of him though I was hoping that it was just too late in the day. Next on to the feeders but again it was too late and there were no birds visiting them at all. By now I was very hungry so it was back to Nethy Bridge to try and find some food though in the end I had to go to Grantown-on-Spey to score a take-away pie & chips which I ate in the B&B whilst veg'ing out with some telly. I couldn't get over how light it still was up here at well after 10:30 pm when I went to bed. I needed plenty of sleep as it had been a long, tiring and frankly rather disappointing day. I was going to be up with the lark tomorrow and in Scotland in the summer the lark rises pretty early indeed.

Target Score so far 0/1.

Day 2 Abernethy Forest
Another day of decent weather - so important when birding in Scotland where inclement weather can
scupper the best laid plans. I was up and out of the house by 4:30 am, keen to see if the Capercaillie was in fact around after all. Normally these birds are very hard to see so I was eager to take advantage of the inside knowledge that I had. I parked up at the correct spot though despite spending a good hour there there was no sign of it at all. Hmmm, so far things weren't exactly going according to plan with two dips in a row.

Next target was Crested Tit and I'd been told that a couple were still coming to the feeders by the entrance to Loch Garten occasionally. I duly pulled up in the car park and positioned myself so that I could watch the feeders from the comfort of my car. A few Chaffinches and Coal Tits were taking advantage of the single peanut feeder and a Red Squirrel was loitering in the vicinity as well. After about a quarter of an hour a Crested Tit did indeed fly in though it only hung around briefly. Bingo! At last I was off the mark with my target tally. I waited around a bit longer to see if it returned but it didn't.

I was getting a bit stiff sitting around in the car so I nipped a few hundred yards down the road to the car park for the Loch Mallachie trail. I didn't have very long until I was due back at the B&B for breakfast but I just wanted to stretch my legs a little. Right by the car park a lovely male Redstart was singing from high up in the pines. I spent a little while trying to pick him out though with no luck. Further down the trail I heard a Tree Pipit singing and then came across the plaintive piping of a family of Common Sandpipers which were hanging about in the trees by the loch shore. Coal Tits, Tree Creepers and Goldcrests were calling in the canopies and the forest was soothing and peaceful. These forests are very interesting being characterised by a dense carpet of Bilberry and Heather covering all the area between the trees. Of course I kept my eyes and ears peeled for Capers and Crossbills but to no avail. After a while it was time to head back to the car for my breakfast but it had been an enjoyable walk in the peaceful and beautiful woods and I resolved to come back later in the day to do the complete trail loop. I did pop in briefly once more to the secret rogue Caper spot but still no luck though I met another birder there who informed me that the bird hadn't been seen in over a week now. Well, at least it wasn't just me overlooking it then. I headed back off for my breakfast.

The Loch Mallachie Trail

Back at the B&B I was discussing my failure to see the Capercaillie with my landlady (a very nice women call Trish). She said that there was another rogue Caper within half an hours drive from here and she gave me some instructions on how to get there though she didn't know exactly where the bird was located. So after breakfast off I set and duly turned up at another pine forest. I spent the next couple of hours wandering around, following all the trails and waiting to be set upon by what was by all reports a rather aggressive Caper. In passing I saw plenty of Tree Pipits and my first Spotted Flycatcher of the trip but little else of note and I ended up back at the car disappointingly unattacked. There I met a lady dog walker who knew of the location of the bird though it turned out to be somewhere I'd already checked out. Obviously it too had departed. I did know that Capers tend to undergo a bit of a moult in June and head off to skulk in the woods so this was obviously what was happening with both these birds.

Tree Pipit

Disappointed I headed back towards the Abernethy Forest to continue my quest. There I parked up at the Loch Mallachie trail car park and decided to do the complete circuit. I encountered the same birds at the beginning as I had done in the morning and in under half an hour I came to the loch itself with not much more to report apart from some Large Red Damselflies and a few Latticed Heath moths.

Loch Mallachie

On the return trip I managed to hear and briefly see a Crested Tit, so it was nice to get a second sighting for one of my targets. I also came across a huge Wood Ant nest, one of a number that I'd already seen in the woods. I then met a chap taking a photograph of the bottom of a tree who turned out to be from Oxfordshire. Called Peter Creed, he specialised in insects as well as mosses and liverworts. Apparently there are about 1000 of the latter species of which 800 occur in Scotland. He does guided walks for BBOWT so we chatted for a while about insects as we walked back towards the car park.

Peter pointed out this Door Beetle, turning it over to show it's lovely iridescent belly

My next stop was back to the Loch Garten carpark. Whilst I was here I thought that I should at least pay my respects to the Ospreys for which the site is so famous especially since as a paid up member of the RSPB it would be free entry. Back by the entrance a few camera-toting visitors were staking out the feeders where apparently a Crested Tit had been visiting every half hour or so. I put in a bit of time and was rewarded with another sighting though in the rather gloomy conditions my photos didn't come out that well.

A Cresty by the Feeders

Next I went into the huge Loch Garten hide where in the distance you could see the sprawling structure that was the osprey nest. Of course there were live camera feeds and a video of the highlights of the day though that wasn't really what I was after. I took a few quick digiscoped shots whilst I was there and asked about Caper sightings though apparently there'd not been any for about a week and a half. I mooched around for a little while and then left.

Loch Garten Osprey

By now it was mid afternoon and I decided to have a walk in a different part of the forest. I chose to head down towards Forest Lodge, the head quarters of RSPB Scotland. I was the only car in the car park so I decided on a quick 30 minute power nap - the early starts were beginning to catch up on me. Refreshed, I chose to walk the loop down to the cottages to the south of the lodge. Here the terrain was more open on one side though still with dense forest on the other side. Another Cresty sighting was the best that I could muster on the outward journey until I came to the cottage with the Cairngorms in the distance.

Cairngorm view

There was little of note on the return loop apart from a nice sighting of a male Redstart, another Spotted Flycatcher and a singing Tree Pipit as well as the ubiquitous Willow Warblers.

It was by now getting rather late so I headed back towards the B&B though I did stop to walk one more trail, this time much more open with a white tufted flower growing in all the boggy places. I'd learnt in the Loch Garten hide that there is a specialist type of habitat that you get around here called Bog Woodland. As it was more open it was full of singing Willow Warblers everywhere together with a couple of Tree Pipits.

An example of Bog Woodland

Dinner was another Grantown take-away, this time Chinese, which turned out to be very good. I was feeling very tired after a whole day of walking in the woods and rather disappointed not to have had any luck with the Capercaillie and also not to have heard a single Crossbill. It appears that the pine crop failure had also affected the Scottish birds as well as the Parrots. I'd been told that one could also get Common Crossbills in the forest, these being continental birds that come over for the summer but I'd not heard any of those either. So after two days I had depressingly seen only one of my target birds so far.

Target Score 1 / 4.

Day 3 Fort William & Iona
Despite a full day's travelling ahead of me I still woke up at the crack of dawn. Since I was awake I thought that I might as well take advantage of the continuing nice weather and go for another walk. This time I decided to follow the trail that started more or less right by the B&B. As I wandered I kept a keen eye and ear out but I encountered little of note apart from a deer in a Meadow and a singing Redstart. The trail ended up by the road to Forest Lodge so I realised that I'd walked a fair distance and I had to hurry back in order to be back in time for breakfast at the B&B.

After breakfast I bundled my belongings into the car and headed off on towards the Fort William area. I knew that the roads could be rather slow in Scotland but this turned out be a rather tortuous route and despite some speedy driving on my part it seemed to take for ever. It was interesting to note though how as I headed west, suddenly the Carrion Crows were replaced by Hoodies. Towards the Fort William area the skies darkened and the heavens opened. That was going to be the end of any chance of success with the Chequered Skippers I thought but miraculously the downpour passed and it stopped raining. There were some occasional spells of sunny weather, often so essential for butterfly viewing so I drove avec grande vitesse towards my destination of Glasdrum Wood, a known hot-spot for this rare butterfly. I only had a limited amount of time there before I had to be on my way to catch my ferry at Oban so time was very much of the essence.

I arrived at the car park to find an elderly couple there. They told me that they'd had a look around but hadn't seen anything at all. Would this be yet another dip I worried? I resolved to give it my best shot seeing as I was there anyway. I wandered no more than fifty yards up the path when I came to the main clearing. Almost immediately I spotted a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and then another flew by. Well at least there would be something to look at I thought. The old couple came back and I showed them the Frits. A Speckled Yellow moth flew by and the gent got all excited, thinking that it was a Skipper until I put him straight. They were not in any way dressed for going off piste but it was clear to me that all the butterfly action was going to be had by following the boggy and overgrown track off the gravel path along the length of the main clearing. As I set off I started to see lots of moths flying about and I set about trying to photograph them so I could ID them later. The couple were watching me and I would hear "Ooh, he photographing something now" coming from where they were. I called back that I'd let them know if I found a Chequered Skipper but after a while they left - dressed as they were, they wouldn't have been able to get over to see it even had I found any anyway. Apart from the odd Fritilliary and some moths I wasn't initially finding very much. I spotted a colony of orchids and wandered over to investigate. I was just about to photograph one for later ID when I spotted something sitting on top of one of them. Could it possibly be....? Hallelujah!  It was indeed a Chequered Skipper. Boom! (as Mr. Garner would say) - another target in the back of the net. I spent some time photographing this for posterity and then wandered further along the track where I managed to find four more of the little beauties as well as a couple of dozen Frits in total. There were also plenty of moths to try and photograph though it was very tricky to get clean shots of them as they were rather skittish.

Chequered Skippers

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries

Small Argent & Sable

 Brown Silver-line

 Anania Funebris
Giant Carder Bee - it really was huge

It really was a buggy paradise in this spot and I could have spent far longer there looking at all the insects but eventually I reached the end of the clearing and as time was marching on I decided to press on to Oban to catch my ferry. I made my way back to the car and within half an hour I was at the ferry terminal. Whilst waiting for the ferry to arrive I occupied myself with the obligitary task for all birders in this location, namely looking for Black Guillemots. It didn't take long to find one though it was rather distant.

Black Guillemot in Oban Harbour

I met a couple of fellow birders there who were on holiday with their wives. We got chatting and they gave me some tips on where to look for Corncrakes on Iona, most useful. We birded the ferry crossing together though apart from a few Arctic Terns, a single Auk and a pair of Mergansers by the Craignure ferry terminal there was little of note. I wanted to get over to Iona as soon as possible and since the last ferry there was quite early and the journey over to Fionnphort was, as I recalled, rather long I didn't hang around but immediately set off across Mull. About an hour and a half later, with only a fly-by male Hen Harrier of note, I arrived at Fionnphort, parked up in the free car park and packed a small bag with what I needed for my overnight stay on Iona. I then made my way down to the quay side to await the Iona ferry. It was all just as picturesque as I remembered it from last time. A Raven flew over cronking and the Abbey looked resplendent from across the channel. On the ten minute ferry journey over we were followed by a few Kittiwakes and I managed to take a flight shot of one - always very tricky with a super-zoom camera which generally struggles with movement shots.

Kittiwake Following the Iona Ferry

I'd no sooner disembarked on the other side when I heard the rasping and most welcome call of a Corncrake. At least there would be something to listen to I thought as I walked the fifteen minutes to my B&B. Neil Oliver (of TV's "Coast" fame) walked past with a film crew - apparently they were filming a new series on sacred places there. There was plenty of bird life on show as I walked along with numerous Meadow Pipits and even a Wheatear family to be seen. At the B&B I dumped my stuff, had a cup of tea and a bite to eat and pondered my tactics.

Corncrake Info

I'd seen a helpful Corncrake sign en route which gave the location of all the iris beds where the Corncrakes would lurk. I therefore decided to do some reconnaissance to check them all out and to see which ones might most easily yield an actual sighting after staking out. Fortunately, in many of the locations there were singing males so one could get a sense of where the birds were. In the fields behind the fire station there were up to three birds though they were distant and would always be hard to see. Next to the old Nunnery ruins was a very small fenced-off enclosure where a calling male was no more than five or ten yards away at worst though of course in June all the grass was very tall.

Close but hidden Corncrake

In front of the Heritage Centre was another calling male though this was a rather larger field and just as overgrown. In this same location I heard a singing Chiffchaff, noteworthy because it was the only one I had on the entire trip, whereas Willow Warblers were to be heard constantly. Behind the graveyard was a large field with several birds though they were always very distant. Working my way around all the spots eventually I found a rather small iris bed which wasn't fenced in and which had a singing male in. I followed what he was up to for a while. It was amazing how he could move from one end of the beds to the other without a trace of movement - it seemed almost magical. After a while I discerned a pattern where he was moving steadily in one direction so I snuck around to intercept him at a spot where the irises were shallower. After a few moments I spotted a yellow bill and a beady eye and then his head. I saw him and he saw me. He ducked back a bit but I could still see his eye and he knew that he'd been rumbled for a moment later he flew up and landed again about twenty yards away in a deeper section. Bingo! Another successfully acquired target! I didn't want to disturb the bird any further so I didn't try for any photos. Instead I wandered back towards the B&B. At the Heritage Centre the calling bird had moved very close to the wall so I tip-toed up close to take a peek. He saw me and I could follow the shifting grass as he quickly moved back to the centre of the field - not quite so invisibly done that time!

After all my early mornings and my travelling I was feeling rather tired and so an early night was called for. Before bed I checked myself carefully for ticks as I'd been told that Glasdrum Wood was notoriously "ticky". It was as well that I did for I found one of the little blighters clinging to my leg despite my having taken the precaution of tucking my trousers into my stocks. Fortunately my nails were rather long and I soon managed to prise him out. I feel asleep dreaming of calling Corncrakes amidst the beautiful Iona scenery.

Target Score 3 / 6

Day 4 Iona & Mull
I'd originally budgeted on having a late evening and an early morning session trying to see the elusive Corncrake but since I'd already achieved my goal I opted for a lie in instead. Accordingly I got up at 7 am and had a bit of a wander around to see what was about. The crakes were mostly silent but there was plenty of bird life to photograph with lots of young birds on show. There was a lovely Wheatear family, a young Stonechat and lots of young Meadow Pipits and I put the super-zoom to work.

Plenty of Young Birds on Iona

Then it was back to the B&B for breakfast and to pack. I strolled down to the quayside in time for the first 9am ferry only to find that there were about 50 Christians (I presume) there all leaving some residential course that they'd been on. They were saying their emotional farewells to each other, having come from all over the world to be there (not that I was eavesdropping). A few more Kittiwakes on the crossing back and it was back to the car to drive back across Mull.

I'd budgeted for a bit of time driving back to the Craignure ferry so that I could stop off en route and do some birding. I stopped off at Pennyghael to buy some lunch and to admire the scenery but there was nothing of note so I soon carried on. Apart from a road-side Whinchat there was nothing of interest on the rest of the trip so I decided to head down to Grasspoint to look for Sea Eagles. I'd stayed there a few years ago on a family holiday so knew the area well. I arrived to find one of the wildlife tours there scoping a couple of Sea Eagles sitting on the distant islets. After the tour group left I had a quick look though they soon flew off. Apart from a Tree Pipit on the road down and a couple of fly-over Redpolls there was little else of note though it's still a beautiful spot and I'd love to return there on holiday some day.

Grasspoint Sea Eagle

Time was marching on so I drove off to catch the ferry back. The crossing this time was a bit better with several dozen Arctic Terns, half a dozen Black Guillemots and a similar number of Auks. Back in Oban I set off on for the long drive back to Nethy Bridge. I was feeling rather tired so had a cheeky power nap in a layby and decided not to bother stopping off anywhere on the way. Back in the Abernethy region I felt I needed a walk to clear my head after all that driving so I decided to have a quick reccy in Anagach Wood next to Grantown, where I wanted to go for an early morning walk tomorrow. I figured I'd have one last crack at trying to see a Capercaillie or a Crossbill though by now I wasn't holding out much hope. There was not much of note on my reccy apart from nice views of a male Redstart. It was interesting to see how this woodland was more open than the ones by Loch Garten though it was still the same basic pine trees with heather and bilberry undergrowth. I went back to Grantown where I indulged in another Chinese take-away before heading to my new B&B which was practically next door to the old one in Nethy Bridge. Feeling tired after all my travelling I was soon settled in bed for an early night.

Target Score 3 / 6

Day 5 Aberdeenshire East Coast Again
As I mentioned previously, I'd decided on having one more early morning walk to look for Capers and Crossbills. I was up before 5am and soon strolling around the lovely Anagach Woodland next to Grantown-on-Spey though I saw precious little of note - that's June for you. On the way back to the B&B I stopped at the bridge in Nethy Bridge where I met a birder who has just been on one of the Heatherlee Scottish birding tour holidays. He reported that they too had not seen any Capers nor any Crossbills at all which made me feel much better - they clearly weren't any about at all and I officially gave up trying to find any at this point in my trip. I went for a brief walk along the river where after a while I was rewarded with a fly-past Dipper sighting.

Back at the B&B for breakfast I met some fellow guests who were on a three week tour of Scotland. They were looking for interesting things to do on the Isle of Skye so I helped them out with some suggestions. For myself, I had one more full day's birding and had to decide what to do with it. I'd given up on the Capers and Crossbills - I didn't really fancy slogging around any more woodland anyway. What's more, after an absence of several days the King Eider had been reported again, back once more at the Ythan estuary. I was starting seriously to consider driving all the way back to the east coast to take a look. Had it been reported again at Blackdog or Murcar I wouldn't have bothered but the Ythan estuary was a lovely place and there would at least be plenty of other things to look at should (God forbid) I dip the King Eider a second time. In addition a Grey-headed Wagtail and a Pectoral Sandpiper had both been reported over the last few days at Meikle Loch, located just a few miles north of the estuary. I was convinced! It was therefore a little after 9am that I set off in bright sunshine on the two hour journey back east towards Newburgh.

The sun was still shining when I arrived and the temperature was perfect. As I was getting ready a dog walker passed by and one of his dogs wandered over. Not a problem until it started to cock its leg against my tripod which I hastily moved. The man apologised and hurried his dog away. As I walked along the track towards the estuary the gorse was a blaze of yellow and smelling wonderful. A Yellowhammer and numerous Willow Warblers were singing and I was glad that I'd chosen to come back to this lovely spot. This time the tide was out and most of the Eider were awake and swimming about. I decided that I would be methodical and start from the river mouth and work my way back up the estuary systematically checking each Eider. As I walked towards the sea I saw the dog man again sitting on the sand. As I approached he hurriedly tried to hide something in his lap but I saw enough to see that they were a pair of binoculars. Hmm, I thought - perhaps a local birder trying not to give away the location of the King Eider, not very friendly. Nevertheless I opted to do my methodical search and started to work my way inwards. The first fifty Eider by the sea were all Commons. Next came a huge rank of seals, numbering one thousand at least.

Ythan Seals

Next to search was the river bend where there were a lot of Eider. This is where the dog walker had been sitting though he'd gone by now so I was cautiously optimistic. I started to work my way through the ducks and then Bingo! there was the unmistakable blue-grey head I'd been looking for. He was having a good preen to start with but eventually settled down before going for a swim. I spent my time trying to get a good digiscoped photo of him though in the sunshine it was rather hazy.

 The King Eider

After a while he swam off and I lost sight of him. Still there was plenty else to look at with all four Tern species passing by at close quarters as well as some lovely baby Eider to look at.

Ythan Estuary delights

By now it was getting on for lunch time so I drove the short distance to Inches Point where I ate my leftover Chinese take-away for lunch whilst watching the birds coming and going. Then it was a short drive north towards Meikle Loch.

Meikle Loch turned out to be a medium sized lake bordered by farmland and with no proper path or viewing area. One had to walk along the eastern shore trying to scope the birds before they all flew off as one approached. I kicked up a flock of waders which looked to comprise of two Ringed Plover, a Dunlin and an interesting smaller bird. Hmmm, clearly not a Pec Sand, in fact it looked rather Stinty to me. I worked my way down the shore finding eight more Ringed Plover and a dozen or so Oystercathers. On my return journey I found the same flock of four birds and this time got good views of what turned out to be a lovely Temminck's Stint.

Meikle Loch Temminck's

Back at the car I decided that my work here was done and after phoning in my findings to RBA, I headed back off on the two hour journey towards Nethy Bridge. I arrived back at Grantown at around 5pm and as it was still rather early I decided to pick up some picnic food and to head out to Lochindorb, some twenty minutes or so to the north of Grantown which was supposed to be very nice. It turned out to be a beautiful loch surrounded by heather moorland with a ruined castle on an island in the middle.

 Lochindorb - you can just make out the ruined castle on the island in this photo

There was a smattering of sightseers admiring the scenery but there was plenty of bird life to enjoy as well. There were quite a few Common Sandpipers along the shoreline, a single Redshank and several Red Grouse families in the heather. It was wonderfully still and quiet apart from the occasional bubbling of a calling Curlew. The loch is well know for Black-throated Divers and I managed to find one right at the far end looking gorgeous in its summer plumage. I did have a go at digiscoping it though there was the usual problem of it diving all the time and in the end I just watched it for a while and enjoyed the beautiful location. It was supposed to be a good spot for Osprey as well but despite watching for quite a while I didn't see any. A lady came by campaigning to stop some wind turbines being built there so we had a discussion about renewable energy for a while. It took a while before she got the hint that I just wanted to  enjoy the scenery but she finally left, leaving me to soak in all the peace and beauty once more.

Roadside Common Sandpiper


Concerned parent Grouse looking on

I drove back to the B&B very content with my day's birding. I'd seen another target bird, found a bonus Temminck's Stint and got in some lovely scenery and Scottish specialities.

Target Score 4 / 6

Day 6 Homeward Bound
Today was my final day. I was up by 6:30 and left the B&B by 7:45. I was flying back from Aberdeen which wasn't very far from Nethy Bridge but I wanted to get in a final morning's birding before leaving, hence the early start. For the first time on my entire stay the weather was cloudy, cooler and threatening rain. I started off by heading west towards the A9 and then north with the Findhorn Valley and Loch Ruthven the two sites that I intended to visit. First stop though was the famous Layby 151 on the A9. All the layby's on the A9 in this area are numbered so it was easy enough to find. This spot is traditionally well known for Ring Ouzel as the road at this point passed between two steep mountain sides. I'd spent no more than a few minutes scanning the slopes when the chuckling Fieldfare-like call alerted me to an Ouzel which flew over my head from one side of the road to the other. Job done.

Next it was on to the Findhorn Valley, a well know spot for finding Golden Eagle. The low cloud and cool conditions didn't make for very promising weather conditions but I thought that I'd at least explore the area a little - after all I read up on it quite a lot during my pre-trip research so it would be nice actually to see it. It turned out to consist of a winding single-track road which followed a shallow river situated in a rather broad flat valley with steep mountains on either side. It looked a lovely spot and I imagine that in good weather it would be great for Eagles though the cloud was only just above the mountain tops this morning and it was still rather cool and damp. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes to the skies though without success.

The Findhorn Valley

Oystercathers could be heard piping all along the road and as could Common Sandpipers. Indeed I came across a lovely family of Sandpipers crossing the road with very cute young that must have only been a few days old. I would have liked to have spent longer exploring the valley further - one can apparently walk much further on beyond the car park but time was marching on. Instead I retraced my steps until I reached the small road that went up over the moorland towards Farr.

This turned out to be a lovely tiny single-track road that initially went up between pine forest alongside a small stream. I tend to drive in all these locations with the windows open and I soon had to pull over to listen to a lovely male Grey Wagtail singing away in a tree by the stream. After a while the forest gave way to stunning open moorland. I imagine that earlier on in the year it would be full of Grouse but at this time of year they were skulking around with their families. Still I did manage to find one Grouse family close to the roadside

Farr Road Red Grouse

Next it was on to Loch Ruthven, famous of course for its breeding Slavonian Grebes. It was a very picturesque loch with plenty of Grebes on though they were mostly Littles that were whinnying away noisily. I did manage to find a couple of distant Slavs in the far corner of the loch though they weren't visible from the hide. Given their distance I didn't bother trying for a photo and as time was marching I got back into the car and headed for Aberdeen Airport.
Loch Ruthven

After that it was just a matter of travelling back home. The Airport was rather small with not much in the way of distractions so I decided to go through security into the Departure Lounge sooner rather than later, this time remembering to take all my lenses out of the case first so there were no problems at security. The Departure Lounge was even more spartan though fortunately I had my Kindle with me so had plenty to read. I flew back to Bristol airport where a rather tedious bus link and then long train journey got me back to the bosom of my family tired but very pleased with my Scottish Adventure.

Final Target Score 4 / 6

Given that it was June I was very pleased to end up with a Target Score of 4 out of 6. I'd been lucky with the Chequered Skippers and the Corncrake and I was most pleased to have caught up with the King Eider. The Capercaillie and the Crossbills were clearly not meant to be and I'll have to leave them until another time though I had scored a lovely Temminck's Stint by way of compensation. There'd been a nice supporting cast of good Scottish birds including both Red-throated and Black-throated Divers in summer plumage, Tree Pipits, Spotted Flycatchers, Redstarts, Ring Ouzel, Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Curlew, Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Red Grouse, Osprey, Hen Harrier, Raven, Hooded Crow and Slavonian Grebe. I was pleased that all the logistical aspects of the trip had worked out flawlessly and that my stamina had held up despite all the early morning starts. Of course one has so much more energy when it's light so much as it is up there. I'd also been most fortunate with the weather - on many of the trip reports that I'd read rain had ended up ruining the best of plans. In conclusion I'd certainly do it again though perhaps not in June next time. All in all a great success and a most enjoyable Scottish Adventure.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Lakenheath Savi's

Given how slow things have been this spring I have been keen to pounce on anything good that turns up that fulfils my twitching criteria. A very showy Savi's Warbler at Lakenheath RSPB in Suffolk certainly ticked all the boxes: it was well established,  giving morning and evening performances each day for about a week now and it was only just over two hours away (who's going to quibble over fifteen minutes?). What's more, Savi's are normally very hard to see but this bird was apparently very showy and predictable. What more could you ask for? I mentally pencilled in a Monday afternoon trip in order to catch the evening performance though I had to wait for confirmation until the morning itself as my VLW had been a bit poorly and she didn't want to be left holding the fort if she was still under the weather. In addition, over the weekend the first Wood White butterflies had finally been seen (only four weeks late) at Wicken Wood which turned out to be very much en route so I could nip in there briefly on the way there. The Wickster had previously expressed an interest in seeing the Wood Whites and I was sure that he wouldn't say no to a nice juicy Savi's so even though it was very short notice I dropped him a speculative text. He hastily arranged his affairs and texted back in the affirmative and so it was that I picked him up from central Oxford at 2pm and we sallied forth.

En route we hit a log jam of lorries on the slip road off the M40 onto the A43 and started to wonder whether to ditch the butterfly detour but fortunately after about ten minutes it cleared itself and we soon made up the time. Wicken Wood (a new site for me) turned out to be in the deep backwaters on the Bucks/Northants border though we found it easily enough. It consists of a single central track going through a wood of rather small but densely packed trees. After about ten minutes of walking we came across a sun-lit patch where four of these dainty little butterflies were flitting around happily - easily identifiable by their size and jizz. I took a couple of quick snaps and we watched them for a few minutes though given that we were on a tight schedule we didn't linger long before heading back to the car.

Wood Whites, distinguished by their small size and trademark rounded wing tips

We had a bit of problem navigating back to our main route as the Sat Nav took us down what turned out to be the private drive of a large country estate. It would have worked out fine except that the exit gate was locked and we had to retrace our steps. There was then a bit of a battle of wills when the Sat Nav decided that the best route was through Milton Keynes but eventually we got back on track and she acquiesced to our preference. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we arrived at Lakenheath at about 5:45 pm.

I'd only ever been to the reserve once before but I remember it being a wonderful place to visit. Lots of little reed-fringed pools and a couple of larger fens surrounded by three Black Poplar plantations and a river all made for a great selection of habitat. As we yomped towards the Savi's site there were Warblers chattering away everywhere and a couple of male Cuckoo's calling constantly. Marsh Harriers quartered the reeds and Swifts filled the skies with their aerial dog fights. Dotted about the place were helpful signs pointing out what to look out for. One mentioned Hairy Dragonflies and sure enough there was one close by. Another pool held a colony of sign-posted Marsh Violets.

Hairy Dragonfly

Marsh Violets

After the best part of half an hour we came to the spot with a small gathering of ten or so birders patiently staking out a reed bed. There'd apparently been no sign of the bird so far but as it was only about 6:20pm there was no immediately cause for concern - yesterday it hadn't started the performance until after seven. We surveyed the scene, I munched my packed dinner and Tom looked out for the Red-footed Falcon though apparently it had moved right the west end of the reserve now. Reed and Sedge Warblers were babbling away everywhere and Reed Buntings were flitting in and out of the reeds constantly. Periodically a Marsh Harrier would go over and four fighter jets from the nearby airbase flew low overhead, briefly disturbing the tranquility. However, apart from a brief two second burst of reeling that could possibly be a copy-cat Sedgie there was no sign of the star performer.

The Savi's reedbed

A back-lit Wickster looking for Warblers

Seven o'clock came and went and some people started to leave. Those of us who remained jokingly agreed to try tape-luring if there was no sign by 8pm. Suddenly at 7:25pm the reeling began close by and the bird came into view for me but low down in the reeds. Fortunately there was a line of sight just where I was standing through a gap in the reeds so I could clearly see the bird. I excitedly called it out and tried to get people on it but the viewing angle was quite small and no one else managed to see it before it moved out of view. It was therefore with mixed emotions (pleasure at having seen the bird myself counter-balanced with concern that Tom hadn't) that we all went back to viewing the reedbed. Fortunately some fifteen minutes later the reeling started again and this time it was plainly in view at the top of some reeds about thirty metres away. What's more it stayed there for getting on for ten minutes, reeling away with pauses in between. It looked like a rather dark and slightly scruffy Reed Warbler though you could clearly see the darker undertail coverts and the reeling was noticeably different from a Gropper, being faster and higher-pitched. An interesting Savi's fact is that apparently it's actually a Locustella rather than a Acrocephalus, which I hadn't realised until I looked it up though of course the similarity of it's song to Gropper should be a big clue. I'm getting to the stage now where I struggle to hear Groppers though I had no problems with the Savi's at all. Anyway, everyone managed to get on it and fill their boots with great views and I busied myself with taking some video. There was the usual problem of the autofocus fixing on reeds rather than the bird itself but in the end it came out ok. After a while, Tom and I agreed that we'd had our fill and given the long journey back and the fact that he had to catch a bus back in Oxford we yomped back to the car, a distant booming Bittern serenading us as we walked.

Reeling Savi's Warbler (viewing in HD is recommended)

We left at around 8:30pm and were intending to go back via the same A14, A45, A43 route though signs reporting a good chunk of the A14 having been closed soon changed our mind and we opted for the brute-force route along the M11, M25 and M40. Light traffic conditions meant that I was able to give the Gnome-mobile its head and we raced back in two and a quarter hours, well in time for the Wickster's bus. It had been a long and tiring afternoon's travel but well worth it: it's not every day that one gets to see so well such a rare and elusive bird as a Savi's Warbler.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Getting the Bug

I've long ago given up trying to get my six year old (nearly seven now in fact) son interested in birding. Once he was old enough to know what he wanted to do for himself it proved counter-productive to drag him off to bleak and windswept birding locations against his will. However, he's recently started playing the game Animal Crossing on the Wii, which involves amongst other things catching fish or hunting around for bugs which you then sell for money. He's really enjoying this game and has been learning about some of the (American) bugs that one can come across. So when I casually mentioned to the family that I was going out for a walk to my local patch (Port Meadow) and that I was going to look for butterflies in Burgess Field next door his ears pricked up and he asked if he could come along. We have a lovely time rummaging around for butterflies, moths and insects of all sorts and he proved very good at spotting things for himself and also having a go at taking photos himself using my old point and shoot camera. Thinking about it, bugs are easier to relate to than birds: they move more slowly, you can often get much closer to them and even pick them up or get them to crawl on your hands - something that he really enjoys. Birds on the other hand fly about very rapidly and are often only seen as a blur or at a great distance through a scope. It's easy to see why bugs are more accessible to him. He was full of excitement when we came back from our walk and rushed to tell my VLW what we'd seen.

I mentioned to him that the next day I was going for a walk to Otmoor to look for dragonflies and he immediately asked if he could come too . The aim of my visit was to look for Hairy Dragonflies - part of my on-going mission to catch up with the various different butterflies and dragonflies during the summer doldrums. This species had eluded me up until now, mainly because it's only really found in the county at Otmoor and in the spring I'm usually diligently working my patch. So time to put amends to this and Luke was happy to tag along. On arrival we started to work our way down the Roman Road which was teaming with insects and I soon had my first glimpse of a Hairy Dragnonfly as well as a Four-spotted Chaser. I then got a call from Badger saying that they were watching a Hairy on the brindleway nearby so we went and rendezvous'ed with the Otmoor Massive. I didn't manage a clean photo of it there but at least I got a record shot. During our walk there were plenty of other creatures that we came across and Luke really enjoyed himself spotting stuff, trying to pick things up, getting excited when a Cardinal Beetle went on his nose and taking loads of snaps. Below is a selection of some of the things that we saw on both days. Whether he'll maintain this interest remains to be seen and I'll certainly not try to push it at all but you never know, this just might be the start of a life-long passion.

Male Azure Damselfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Cardinal Beetle on Luke's Hand

Clouded Silver

 Four-spotted Chaser

 Paritally hidden Hairy Dragonfly

Hover Fly: "Helophilus pendulus" 

Longhorn Beetles getting it on


Nursery Web Spider

Scorpion Fly