Thursday, 23 April 2015

Gnome Goes (Very Far) North

It was that time again - it comes around so quickly but Daughter Number 1 was due to head back to Durham for her summer term. I can't quite believe how she's nearly through her first year already, time is really zipping by. Anyway, of course this meant another foray north for some birding so in the week leading up to taking her back I started to put together a plan. Now there was precious little happening in the North East (all the spring drift migrant action was happening much further south than that) so I did start to wonder about making a trip north of the border as I'd been threatening to do for previous trips. After all there were still two Harlequin ducks about there and a White-billed Diver was being reported regularly from Portsoy as well, not to mention the two Scottish specialities that I had failed to see on my last trip north, namely Capercaillie and Scottish Crossbill. I floated the idea of an extended trip to my VLW who seemed amenable so I started to put together a plan. My original thinking was to head up on Saturday, drop off Daughter 1 at Durham and then head on up to Aberdeen where I'd stay the night before seeing the Seaton Park Harleqin the next day. I started to put out questions on Bird Forum about the status of the Seaton Park bird but sadly suddenly the week leading up to my departure it started to look a lot less reliable. It had been seen a couple of days at around midday but gone were the regular RBA reports. I happened to speak to Lee Evans who mentioned that he was going up to Scotland on the Thursday with one of his Scottish Tours and that he would be stopping off at Seaton Park to take a look. Therefore on Friday I texted him to see how he'd got on there and sadly there'd been no sign of it. Time for a change of plan: I wouldn't bother with Seaton Park but instead I planned to head up to the Speyside area and make that my base from which I'd make sorties up to the female Harlequin near Brora and over to the White-billed Diver at Portsoy, as well as trying to catch up with my two Abernethy specialities that I still needed. That was the plan at least.

Saturday morning, bright and early Daughter 1 and I set off in the Gnome mobile for the four hour trip up to Durham. The weather was lovely and sunny and the roads were clear and the trip was uneventful. By now we had a finely honed routine for dropping her off and within an hour and a half all her bags were unloaded into her tiny student room, we'd got some sandwiches for lunch and she'd met up with some of her chums and so we said our farewells and I went on my way. During my lunch break I'd checked up for news on RBA and intriguingly there'd been a report of a White-billed Diver in East Lothian "between Thortonloch and Dunbar". Now looking at the map, this was a five mile stretch of coastline (!) so either they were deliberately hiding the location or they were just ignorant of the local geography. Still I had nothing else of interest and I was going to need to have a break on the long slog up to Speyside so I thought I'd have a look around: after all the A1 on which I'd be travelling went right past Thorntonloch anyway.

I headed on north on the A1, seeing the "Angel of the North" statue for the first time as I did so. I realised that I'd not ventured this far north on any of my "Gnome Goes North" trips so far. A couple of hours later I'd crossed over the border and made it to Thortonloch.  Here I decided to head for the harbour at Skateraw which looked a reasonable spot where I could have a look around. This turned out to be a rather large natural and pretty harbour though the view was definitely spoilt by the huge Thorness power station on the south side.

Thorness Power Station
I decided to head north instead, away from the power station where it was much more scenic. It was lovely and sunny though rather breezy as I wandered along the shingle shoreline looking out at the Eider Ducks on the sea. Skylarks were singing, there were a few White Wagtails on the beach and some distant birds bobbing up and down in the bay that lead up north to Barns Ness Lighthouse. I decided to wander in that direction and to take a look.

Barns Ness Lighthouse
Scanning through the birds I found more Eider, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks and a single Red-throated Diver, in transitional moult but with a nice red throat. There was of course no sign of the White-billed Diver but with such a huge expanse of coastline to search I wasn't really expecting to find it. Still, I'd been on the road for six hours already and with another three hours at least to go it had been a nice break from the driving. I ambled back to the car and headed on north. Negotiating my way around the Edinburgh area I hit a bit of traffic but soon I was on the A9 heading north through the Scottish heartlands. The flat scenery gave way to mountains that were bathed in the evening sunlight and I slipped into a contented mental stillness as the miles sped by. I spotted a distant flock of Geese flying ahead of me in a V-formation and as I drew closer to my destination I started to see Oystercatchers, Lapwings and Curlew in the fields. Finally at around 8 pm I arrived at Grantown-on-Spey where I'd booked a hotel for my stay.

I didn't go straight there but first headed over to the High Street to get some food. Last time I'd been there I'd found a great Chinese Takeaway which I went to look for though it had now become an Indian instead. However, it turned out that it had just moved across the street and I soon had my bag of yummy House Speciality Sezchuan and Spring Rolls in my hand as I headed over to the hotel where I checked in, ate my delicious grub and unpacked. I then went for a little walk just to stretch my legs after all that driving before turning in. It had been a long day but I'd made it back to the Speyside area.

The reason for my basing my stay in Scotland in the Speyside area was of course for the Scottish specialities there. It is a right of passage for any serious birder to come up to the Abernethy Forest region to try and see Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbill and Crested Tit. Now I'd been previously a couple of years ago in June (the worst month for these species!!!) and had only managed Crested Tit so I was back again to try and mop up the first two on that list. As April is lekking season one had to be really careful about tramping about in the forest - as a Schedule 1 bird it was illegal to disturb a lek so I'd decided that my best chance was going to be to attend the RSPB Caper Watch at Loch Garten from 5:30 to 8 a.m. each morning. Thus it was that at the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning I left my hotel and sped off along the deserted roads towards Nethy Bridge. The reason for starting even earlier than necessary was that I wanted to have a little drive along the road to Forest Lodge first where I'd heard that Capers could sometimes be seen taking grit first thing. It was rather spooky driving through the densely packed forest in the pre-dawn darkness with occasional deer or rabbits being caught in the headlights. I arrived at the Forest Lodge turn-off to find that a barrier had been put across the track: the road was closed to avoid Caper disturbance. That rather foiled my plans so I just got out of the car and had a listen. A few birds were just starting to sing and I could hear a distant barking deer. In the distance I heard a very Grouse-like call - not the weird popping of a lekking male but could that be the call of a female? I listened closely but it didn't call again. After about ten minutes I had to leave so carefully turned around the Gnome mobile on the track (I didn't want to end up in a ditch that early in the morning) and headed on towards Loch Garten where I found a car park full of other keen birders all there to try and see the elusive Capercaillie.

The warden came out at around 5:30 and lead us along the track to the large hide. He gave a talk about what had been seen of late: yesterday it had been misty all the way up until 8 a.m. though one person had seen a female in flight. In general, this season was looking better than last year in terms of sightings with two males about though one was much more dominant than the other so not much lekking had been taking place. They'd managed sightings on roughly half the days from what I could gather which didn't seem too bad odds.We all set about looking out of the hide windows whilst one warden manned the remote cameras looking for Capers and another went to the smaller forward hide to see if one could be seen there. Time passed, a male Redstart was singing away constantly from nearby and a couple of squabbling Tree Pipits fought over the territory in the clearing before us. I got to chatting to a birder next to me who told me that he'd seen some Scottish Crossbills near Grantown. Upon questioning him further it turned out that he meant Anagach Wood so I made a mental note to follow up on that. There was no Caper action and people gradually started to leave. Eventually we got to 8 a.m. and we were all turfed out. No luck, sadly!

The view from the hide
Osprey at dawn
I made my way back to the hotel for breakfast and to think about the day ahead of me. My main plan for today was to head up to Brora in the Highlands for the Harlequin duck, a two hour drive away. So I fuelled up the car and bought some lunch before heading out through Grantown on my way north. In the middle of the town I spotted Lee Evans and a few of his tour party clearly on a bird, judging by their frantic movements and the wielding of cameras. I stopped to take a look and it turned out to be a Dippers under the bridge. I took a quick peek and then left them to their photography though it was so dark that I wouldn't have expected any shots to come out. I was soon out on the road heading northwards towards Inverness and then beyond up into the Highlands. I settled into the relatively slow driving speed of these roads and patiently the car chipped away at the miles. I spotted a Hooded Crow on the roadside at one point though most of the Crows were still Carrions on this side of the country.

I'd done my research the preceding week and had the location of Sputie Burn where the bird was already programmed up in the Sat Nav. Thanks to Google Maps I reckoned there was a space for one or two cars to park down at the end of the narrow track that followed the burn and sure enough my hunch turned out to be correct. I parked up and was just starting to get ready when I got the first of a number of phone calls from Lee wanting to know where the location was. Eventually I managed to convey to him where it was and I headed on down the path that lead down the rather low cliff to the mouth of the burn. Even from the top of the cliff I could see the female Harlequin sitting on some rocks right where the burn ran into the sea so the journey had already been a success.

Sputie Burn

At the bottom of the stream I was just heading over towards the Harlequin when one of a number of seals that were bobbing about in the sea, surfaced right next to the bird which spooked and took flight. I watched it in my bins as it flew about half a mile to the next rocky outcrop south of where we were. Hmm, lucky for Lee and his tour that I'd seen that or they'd have been struggling to see it, I thought. I set off on the walk down to the point along the sandy beach noting a nice colony of Fulmars nesting in the cliffs next to me. A few Eider and Long-tailed Duck were bobbing about on the water and there was a steady passage of Gannets in the distance. 

nesting Fulmars

I was half way along the beach when Lee came running up behind me with his tour party stretched out a long way behind him. I told him where the bird was and we went on together. Fortunately the bird was happy enough where it was though it was clearly a bit wary of all the birders and moved a little bit further out whilst we were there. Still it was close enough for some reasonable digiscoping.

The female Harlequin Duck

The tour party seemed to be on a whirlwind schedule because after only about fifteen or so minutes they were back down the beach, stopping to photograph the Fulmars briefly before heading back to their van to go and look for Eagles, apparently since Findhorn wasn't producing the goods this year. To be honest I was glad to be left in peace where I could once more enjoy the tranquillity of the location. A couple of Ringed Plover and a Curlew were knocking about and Rock Pipits buzzed around the place as I wandered back along the beach. I headed back to the car, got out something to eat and went and sat on the cliff top, enjoying the sunshine and staring out at the sea. The gentle sound of the sea and the warmth of the sun were very soporific and in my sleep-deprived state I could easily have dropped off but in the end decided that I should head back. I got back into the Gnome mobile and started to wend my way back south again along the way that I'd come feeling content after my successful morning - after all this had been the key bird of the whole trip north and I'd have been really upset had it not been there. I had thought about going on to Portsoy on the way back but in the end I was too tired so I decided to head back to base and to spend the afternoon looking for Crossbills instead.

The wonderful coconut smell of the Gorse was intoxicating

I arrived back in the Abernethy Forest region a couple of hours later and drove in from the Boat of Garten entrance. I stopped off briefly at the dragonfly pond on the way in where Northern Damselflies can be found at the right time of year. There were of course no insects on the wing there yet but plenty of birds calling in the trees including a Crested Tit and lots of the ubiquitous Coal Tits of course. Whilst I was there a Crossbill came "jipping" over though to my ear it sounded like a bog-standard Common. That was though at least the first Crossbill that I'd heard in the region - when I was last here there were none about at all.

Encouraged I headed on to the Forest Lodge area and parked up. When I was last here on my previous trip I'd heard and seen almost nothing though I was hoping that this was because it had been June as it was supposed to be a good spot for Crossbills. I started to head south on the track that skirts the edge of the forest to my right and the clearer area to my left. It was eerily quiet with almost no sound to be heard at all.  This didn't look good and after no more than twenty minutes I decided to cut my losses and head off elsewhere. Instead I made my way back to the car and then curb-crawled back along the Forest Lodge track with my windows open listening intently for bird life. I came across pockets of bird on the way: I found an area with lots of Coal Tits and a lovely Crested Tit that gave good views in the tree just above my head. A little further on by a stream there were several Willow Warblers, a Chiffchaff and a singing Siskin. Indeed the down-slurred call of this species could be heard all around me and I spent a very pleasant fifteen minutes just standing there listening to all the bird song that filled the forest.

Eventually I made my way back to the road and started to head off, stopping at Tore Hill to have a wander around there. Once again it was Coal Tits, Siskins and of course Chaffinches that was all that could be heard. Back in the car again I decided on one more wander around, this time back at Grantown at Anagach Forest. I parked up and started to wander down the paths and tracks there that were familiar from last time. I heard a distant calling Wood Warbler a few times though I never got close to it. There were lots of Siskins around and the omnipresent Chaffinches though as it was getting late in the day now the wood was becoming quieter. It's interesting how Anagach is more open and aesthetically pleasing than the dense darkness of the forests around Nethy Bridge. I had a good wander around but by now it was getting late, I was getting tired and was having no luck with any Crossbills at all. I was just trudging back towards where I'd parked the car when I heard the unmistakable jipping call of Crossbills! What's more these didn't sound anything like Common Crossbills, being much higher pitched and quieter though not the metallic staccato call of the Parrot Crossbill. I spotted six birds which landed in a tree near my. I peered up at the branches, trying to get a view of one in the tree but they were too well hidden. A minute or so later and they were off again flying away over my head. I was confident that these were Scottish - the call had sounded very different. Result!

Elated at this late bonus tick I headed back to the car with a spring now in my step and headed back into town. Time for a celebratory Chinese takeaway I thought and this time went for a Beef and Mushroom in Black Bean Sauce. Then it was back to my hotel room to eat and to rest a bit. After that and because it was a bit too early for bed yet I went on a walk down to the Dipper stream where I saw a bird speed off down the stream. I decided to follow the stream down through what proved to be a lovely bit of parkland with singing birds serenading me as I went. There were Willow Warblers and countless Siskins all around me. Eventually the stream fed into the Spey itself and I went to sit down by the side of the river for a while. A pair of Goldeneye were sitting on a rock in the middle of the river though they sped off as I approached. It was all very peaceful as dusk settled gently on the area.

I found a colony of Wood Anemone by the riverside
I headed back to the hotel, ordered a double Old Pulteney whisky in honour of Ewan Urquhart (it's his favourite whisky apparently) and went back to my room. There I read for a bit and then at around 10 pm I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer and I was soon fast asleep. It had been a successful first full day up in Scotland.

I woke up again in the middle of the night in order to be down at Loch Garten for the start of the Caper Watch. Whereas yesterday I hadn't felt too bad first thing, today I felt absolutely shattered - the cumulative effect of too little sleep was starting to take its toll. Out in the hotel car park I found myself scraping ice from the car windows - it was much colder than yesterday (in fact Aviemore was the coldest location in the whole of the country it turned out at -4 degrees!). As I drove along in the dark I kept going through ominous patches of mist and I couldn't help but wonder if the Watch would end up being a wash-out or whatever the mist equivalent term should be.

Once again I detoured to the start of the Forest Lodge track for a listen. This time in the cold and the mist it was even more eery in the dark. There was a distant Tawny Owl calling away and gradually getting closer. I wandered a few yards up the track to see what I could hear but there was nothing of note. Just as I was getting back to the car I heard the whirr of wings as something flew away in the dark. This bird sounded large and powerful: much bigger than a Wood Pigeon or anything like that. I've little doubt that it was a Caper but as it was unseen it didn't really matter. So two near misses in two days - close but no cigar.

Next it was on to the Caper Watch. As the road started to descend towards Loch Garten suddenly I hit an ominous wall of mist which lasted all the way to the car park. Once again we were ushered into the hide where we could look out on nothing but mist. It was all very depressing. As I was so tired it was hard to summon any sort of optimism about the prospect of spending two and a half hours staring out the window. At one point it did start to clear briefly but then it soon came in again. Instead I listened to the warden talk about the plight of the Capercaillie and how it's numbers are crashing, due almost entirely to human disturbance apparently. They are very shy birds and disturbance at their lek can put them off very easily. Man's encroachment into their forests with buldings and roads was reducing the areas where they felt safe. The warden pointed out that even in the Abernethy Forest there was a road going through the middle of it. Apparently there are 31 males left in the entire forest and total numbers of birds in the whole of Scotland are less than one thousand. There were some note of optimism though: on some private estates where there was no disturbance they were holding there own and conservation efforts were now being focused on planting more forests to make a corridor linking the various areas of the remaining Caper population. Apparently the Loch Lomond and Deeside populations are all but gone now. It's for this reason that the Loch Garten Caper Watch is so important: birders blundering into leks can cause real damage apparently.

A waste of time looking from the hide
Given how tired I was and the state of the mist I didn't last more than about half an hour before I gave up and went back towards Grantown. I decided instead to wander around Anagach Forest which was mercifully less misty and full of birds. In the end there wasn't much to report apart from some more heard-only Crossbills: two flocks of Scottish and one single Common.

Anagach Forest in the mist
Anagach Deer
Next it was back to the hotel for my cooked breakfast. After that I felt that the most productive thing I could do was to catch up on some sleep which is what I did. I was woken after about an hour by an RBA text coming in reporting the White-billed Diver still at Portsoy (I had it set to all Rare+ in mainland Scotland). That was encouraging as that was exactly the bird I was going to go for today anyway! Feeling refreshed from my sleep I got together my gear and loaded up the car. Then it was off to get some petrol and lunch before I set off along the A95 towards the north east. It was a route that I remembered from my previous trip and as I passed the various distilleries along the "Whisky Trail" I listened to Radio 4 with a feeling of cautious optimism. 

The miles crawled by (it's a slow road and one often gets stuck behind a lorry) as I drove through unremarkable farmland when suddenly without warning I found myself at Portsoy. This turned out to be a pretty little town, with all the houses made out of granite, perched on the top off some cliffs looking out over the sea. From my pre-trip research I knew to go to Marine Terrace where there was a good viewpoint and this indeed turned out to be the case. I could see a bench on a little grassy knoll nearby so went to set up there. A quick scan with the bins revealed a number of birds dotted about on the sea. What was immediately noticeable was how good the conditions were: the sea was wonderfully flat and there was bright sunshine behind me as I looked out so everything was beautifully lit. The only problem was that many of the birds were very distant and this indeed was the one issue that worried me: would the bird be too far away to ID correctly?

Looking down on Portsoy harbour from the view point

I needn't have worried after scanning only for a few minutes I found the White-billed Diver, a good distance out but quite unmistakeable with the large white uptilted bill clearly lit up. What's more it was a lovely summer plumaged bird and one could make out it's white collar and smart black head. I watched it for a while and then another birder came over asking about the Diver so I let him have a look through my scope. Also present were a couple of Black-throated Divers and quite a few Razorbills and Guillemots as well as the usual Eiders and Gulls. A few Sand Martins were flying around by the cliff top and a Yellowhammer was singing nearby in someone's garden which bordered a large field. Pleased with my success I had my picnic lunch whilst looking out on the sea and pondered what to do next.

Garden Yellowhammer

I knew from my previous trip that Lochindorb was sort of in the same area so I decided to stop off there on the way back home. It was another slow drive towards Inverness before turning off and heading up to higher ground. I eventually saw the moorland terrain that I recognised as I came to the turn-off and headed down the single track road towards the loch. There I started looking out for Red Grouse and periodically I came across birds poking their heads up above the heather. I parked down by the loch shore and sat there staring and the wonderfully remote scenery contentedly for a while until another car came along and chose to park right next to me and I decided to leave. I curb crawled along the road looking for more Grouse and managed to find a few more before it was time to turn around and head back to the hotel.

Red Grouse
Lochindorb Redshank

It was mid afternoon now and I'd done all my planned trips for the day already so I decided that another nap was called for. After that I felt that I'd more or less caught up on my sleep deficit and decided to head out to get some food. However, there was such a queue at the Chinese that in the end I went to the Co-op and got some healthy pasta salad option instead. I didn't want to mooch around the hotel all evening so I decided to drive back down to the Abernethy Forest to see what I could see. I wandered about in a contented manner before coming across a couple of RSPB wardens who told me about a viewpoint for roding Woodcock. I went to have a look but it was going to be another hour before they'd actually start flying and I was feeling tired already and wanted to get an early night so instead I headed back to the hotel and soon went to bed.

Today I was heading back but even though I had a long day's driving ahead of me I decided on one last go at the Caper Watch. Thus I was up at stupid o'clock once more though this time I decided not to bother with the Forest Lodge listening hors d'oeuvre and went straight to Loch Garten. As I drove along the same road yet again through the spooky forest I reflected that however beautiful this forest was, I'd really had enough of slogging around it trying to see a wretched Caper and that if I didn't see one this morning it meant that at some point I would yet again have to come back here to try for one - sometimes I wonder why I do it! Anyway, fortunately it was warmer this morning and there was no sign of the dreaded mist. The warden opened up the hide and once more I stared out at the familiar view. The Redstart was singing away to the left of us as usual and the sun gradually rose and started to warm things up a little. My mind drifted off and started to think about my forthcoming journey back home.

I was woken from my reverie by the warden who was checking out the forward hide coming back. Apparently he'd found a male Caper and was going to take us to have a look. Now, the forward hide was much smaller so they have a first come first served ticket service: when you enter the hide first thing they give you a ticket, partly to keep track of how many people visit and partly so those who arrive first get first dibs on the forward hide visit. Now, once I'd worked this out I always made sure that I was first in the queue waiting for them to let us in in the morning so I was first in line for the hide though actually there were so few of us this morning that he said we could all go at once. 

We hurried along to the hide and the warden tried to put us onto the distant bird. It was "you see that Y-shaped tree, then behind that there's a question mark shaped one, go back from that to a very straight one and it's a bit to the left of that..." sort of thing. Someone had it in his scope but it was too high for me to see through. After what seemed an agonising long time though actually was only a minute or so, I picked it up in my bins at some 200 yard range. I could clearly see it's really thick black neck which stood out above the heather. It was all rather chaotic in the hide with the warden trying to make sure that everyone could see it but eventually I was able to get my scope out and onto it though my view was partially obscured by a tree. I had a go at digiscoping it though the amount of jostling and bouncing around in the hide and the surprising amount of heat haze for that early in the morning meant that my efforts belonged firmly in the "record shot" camp.

Distant Caper
Still I'd finally seen one! We watched it as it fed (they eat pine needles, heather and bilberries apparently) and then it suddenly moved rather rapidly off to the left. The reason for this turned out to be the arrival of a second male though this was out of our sight way off to the left. Fortunately there was a remote camera out there so we went back to the main hide to watch. The two birds eyed each other from a distance but seemed unsure of what to do next. The warden who was commentating guessed that they might be young males, hence the lack of lekking. Since they were just sitting there and I'd got my view and I had a long drive back today I decided to head back hotel to crack on with my departure. As I drove through the forest I reflected that I might not be back here for some time now, though I still needed to see Northern Damselfly so at some point I'd have to return.

Back at the hotel I enjoyed my last cooked breakfast and then went back to my room. I tried to take a power nap before my long drive but my mind was now firmly fixed on the journey ahead and I couldn't rest. So I packed up all my stuff, checked out, fuelled up the car and got some sandwiches and snacks for the journey and then headed off on the long slog home. Because of my tiredness I took it nice and slow and stopped off a couple of times for a decent rest and a power nap. The traffic was actually fine all the way down until I reached the M42 where an accident there delayed me by an extra three quarters of an hour so it wasn't until about 8 p.m. that I finally arrived home to the bosom of my family for a well-earned cup of tea and then something to eat.

Reflecting on the trip I couldn't really have asked for more: I'd seen all four of my target species as well as the usual specialities of the area. The weather had been wonderful (it hadn't rained the whole time I was there and this is Scotland!) and everything had worked out fine. All in all a highly successful trip. As far as the all-important trip list goes it consists of the following:

Harleqin Duck, Eider, Long-tailed Duck, White-billed Diver, Red-throated Diver, Black-throated Diver, Capercaillie, Red Grouse, Scottish Crossbill, Common Crossbill, Crested Tit, Tawny Owl, Osprey, Wood Warbler, Dipper, Common Redstart, Tree Pipit, Redshank

No comments: