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Scotland April 2007

Travelling companions:

John Jennings
Steve Lister

April 6th

I paired up with Steve Lister again for a few days based in the Nethybridge area of Scotland. We had decided to try for the 05:30am Capercaillie watch at Loch Garten. To achieve this meant we had to leave Coventry at 8pm and to drive the 450+ miles through the night. I managed a couple of power naps on the way and we arrived 45 minutes early at 04:45am.

There were about forty of us that were let into the main hide and it wasn’t long before the CCTV cameras picked up a lone mail. Unfortunately the bird was out of range of us and stayed that way for over an hour. No other Capercaillie came into view so we missed out on one today but at least we did see three Osprey (two male and one female). A bonus was a Red Squirrel feeding just outside of the Loch Garten hide.

Our base was a place I had stayed at before Mondhuie B&B & Chalets. http://www.mondhuie.com. We had booked to have a breakfast after leaving Loch Garten and it didn’t take long to finish it as we were hungry. No time for a rest as we had planned to go up the Cairngorms after Ptarmigan but even after a long walk, and a thorough search, one couldn’t be found. We did find 7 Red Grouse and a lone male Wheatear plus a few displaying Meadow Pipits but that was all.

Steve had been told about a site that might hold both Parrot and Scottish Crossbill. They were supposedly in a wood near to Grantown on Spey and it didn’t take long to find it. Less than an hour later and we were looking at two stunning male and one female Parrot Crossbills plus Steve also found a male and female Scottish Crossbill. This was a great start for me as I thought I would never ever see a Parrot Crossbill so this was a great lifer for me. Having had our fill of these beauties they were quickly followed by a Crested Tit that Steve had seen.

Quite a few Siskin were also amongst the trees but by now it was time to leave as we wanted to go to Findhorn Valley, via Sloch Summit in the hope we would see some newly arrived Ring Ouzels, but this was not to be as none showed. Between Grantown and Sloch Summit we called in to Dulnain Bridge to look for Dipper. Thankfully the Dipper was seen straight away. This left us with plenty of time to call into Findhorn Valley in the hope of seeing Dipper (to photograph) and Golden Eagle, both of which we actually achieved. Four Dipper were seen plus a Juvenile Golden Eagle that was concentrating all of its efforts into fighting off two Ravens that were harassing it.

Well that was an excellent start to the day. Tomorrow (Saturday we are off to the Moray Firth to find some wildfowl.

April 7th

What an excellent day this turned out to be. It started dull and grey with a biting wind. Our fist site was at Burghead, a site Steve had never done before. I had chanced across Burghead two years ago when I found a huge flock of Long-tailed Ducks there.

By the time we reached Burghead the weather had started to improve. The wind was still there but the day was getting brighter. Within minutes of us arriving Steve started to dance a jig, announcing that he had just found a 1st winter King Eider Drake. Within seconds I was onto it. It was showing amongst a small flock of Eider, just off some rocks. I phoned up Rare Bird Alert and the message went on. Unfortunately a combination of heavy winds, low light, distance of bird and high waves conspired against any decent photography but I did manage one record shot of the bird.

We stayed at Burghead for over an hour and in that time I also added Gannet, Sandwich Tern, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Rock Pipit, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Diver and Black Guillemot for a very nice ten year ticks.

Our next site to visit was Lossiemouth where a huge raft of Long-tailed Ducks were the star billing. Steve did a count of them and there were over 500 there. The estuary was fairly quiet but we did find at least six Ringed Plover and a lone Dark breasted Brent Goose. We had been hopeful of an Iceland Gull that had been visiting there but we had no luck this time. The Iceland Gull had also been visiting the nearby Loch Spynie so we paid that site a visit next but it was very quiet with just a few Goldeneye the only things of note.

The next site was one where Steve had been to before but not me, Spey Bay. That was a real eye opener. 800+ Long-tailed Ducks, 2000+ Common Scoter, 110+ Velvet Scoter & 150+ Eider. The Velvet Scoter was a year tick for me. It was great watching so many Velvet Scoter, especially so close inshore, and I attempted a few flight shots, some shown below.

The first two are of Common Scoters.

Following are a couple of the Velevet Scoters.

A few Common and Velvet Scoters.

A few more Velvet Scoters.

A few Eider.

A couple of Oystercatchers.

Steve wanted to go to Loch of Strathberg reserve to see the large numbers of Pink-footed Geese that congregate there prior to their departure from our shores. We arrived quite late, after 5pm. The light wasn’t great but we did find the geese, albeit very distant and an estimate in the book was for 8,000 plus geese. We also found a few Barnacle Geese amongst them and Steve counted 46 of them. Out on the pools were found a lone Pintail & Whooper Swan & Gadwall plus two Shelduck a few Redshank, a lone Grey Heron & a couple of Buzzard. There were also a few Tree Sparrows on the feeders.

At this point I was totally shattered and decided to go back to the car for a sleep and to leave Steve in the hide so he could watch the rest of the geese as they came in. Steve awoke me at 8pm and so began the journey back to Nethybridge, stopping at Grantown on Spey for some very welcome Fish & Chips. We did have one slight highlight as an Owl (poss Long-eared) flew briefly alongside us but the sighting was so brief in the darkness that we couldn’t ID it.

Sunday we plan to go to near Applecross first (Belach na Bar) for Ptarmigan then onto Skye for hopefully a good sighting of White-tailed Eagle.

April 8th

The planned stop at Belach na Ba didn’t go to plan as the weather closed in, totally covering the area with cloud and rain. We parked up at 08:30am and stayed in the car until 10am. In all that time the cloud neither lifted nor the rain stop. It was pointless waiting any further so we moved onto Skye and the White-tailed Eagle watch site at Torvaig. We made a quick stop at the White-tailed Eagle centre just south of Portree on the way and whilst Steve went for some information I stayed by the car and took a couple of images of a confiding Hooded Crow that was busy sifting through the grass.

At the W T Eagle site the weather didn’t start too clever but at least it wasn’t raining. We hunkered down out of the wind and started to scan across to Raasay in the hope of seeing one. Whilst waiting Steve first spotted a Black Guillemot followed by an Iceland Gull. Plenty of Raven and Hooded Crow were flying around us then the clouds broke allowing the sun to shine giving us respite from the cold conditions.

I was watching the far left hand side of Raasay and a large bird appeared then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Then Steve spotted a bird on the far right side of the island but quickly lost that one as well. I was studying the far left side of the island and was eventually rewarded with a brief glimpses of a Juv White-tailed Eagle. Not satisfied with this we stayed a bit longer and half an hour later Steve spotted probably the same bird coming in from the right side. Not long after the Juv was joined by a female and for a couple of minutes we managed to watch them, albeit distantly. Result.

After two hours the weather started to close in rapidly so a quick exit to the car was needed.

As we drove south we stopped at Luib and scanned over the water picking up a few Eider, a couple of Red-throated Diver, a Great Northern Diver, Black Guillemots and a few Razorbills. By now the rain was falling quite heavily so I thought it might be best to move on and try Loch Slappin as it could possibly be sheltered but on arrival the cloud cover was low and the rain was still fairly heavy. The only surprise here was a lone Whooper Swan in a small pool just off the road. Out on the water was a Red-throated Diver a Shag and a few Razorbill but little else. By now the weather had really closed in and so it was decided to carry on back to Nethybridge, via Inverness to fill up on Diesel.

We filled up at the Esso Garage in Inverness (Kessock Service Station). Whilst I was filling the car up Steve was scanning some gulls on a nearby new building. Just as I was about to walk to the garage to pay for the diesel Steve shouted that he had found a 2nd winter Iceland Gull. I managed one quick look, rushed to pay for the diesel, then moved the car into position. Luckily I managed a few Digiscoped shots and a short video of the bird before it dropped onto the other side of the roof. It wasn’t very good light as it was now dusk but here is one of the resulting photos taken of the bird.

That was it for the day. Tomorrow we are staying local, starting at the Capercaillie watch first.

April 9th.

The day started at Loch Garten after Capercaillie. We arrived at 05:30 and within 30 minutes one was spotted from the far hide on wires between Pylons. The first fifteen birders were asked to go to the hide but the bird flew off and only about three people saw it.

By 7am we hadn’t seen one and by then Steve had got bored and decided to walk the forest lanes back to the B&B in the hope that he would find one. Wrong decision as ten minutes later I saw a Caper briefly fly behind the two Osprey trees. I told the RSPB warden where it had gone down and they turned the cameras into that area but nothing was found. Thankfully about twenty five minutes later the male Caper was found and we all managed to get onto it, albeit distantly.

After breakfast it was a walk up the Cairngorms again in the hope of getting Ptarmigan at our second time of trying. We tried a different route this time and after a fairly long walk we found an ideal spot and sat down to watch in leisure. The weather was beginning to turn cold and a strong wind was blowing. We sat there for what seemed like ages when I heard one calling behind Steve and shouted for him to look that way. Just as he did one flew across us, then another one. Soon one more came into view and I tried to get closer to them to photograph them. As I did I flushed a fourth that, unlike the others, had no white on it. It totally blended into the background and I lost it to view when it landed again. At this time the other three flew well out of range so we decided to walk back down the mountain and go to Loch Ruthven after the Slavonian Grebes.

It didn’t take too long to get there and almost as soon as we arrived we found a pair. Soon three more pairs were to be seen, all in beautiful summer plumage.

We stayed there for well over an hour in the hide watching these little beauties. After a while we decided to carry onto the Findhorn Valley but not before Steve spotted a Redpoll near the car park and I spotted a Birdforum member (Dbradnum) I knew as he came into the car park. On our way back to Findhorn I came across a photo opportunity I just couldn't miss. A head shot of one of the Highland Cattle that were at the side of the road.

Findhorn Valley

The weather had really changed by the time we had reached the valley the dark clouds had rolled in. I decided to have a rest as I couldn’t face raptor watching in these conditions but Steve soldiered on. His reward, one lone Buzzard. The weather eventually beat him and he escaped to the comfort of the car stating that it looked like it might clear soon. That was a slight mis-calculation on his part as it was soon obvious by a rain cloud working its way up the valley towards us, shrouding everything in its path with a heavy wet mist. Enough was enough and we decided to go to Lochindorb to try for the reported summer plumaged Black-throated Divers. On the way we stopped at the Slochd Summit which is known for its Ring Ouzels. Thankfully it didn’t take long for Steve to find a male on the rocks by the side of the main A9.

It was time for Lochindorb next and upon arrival it didn’t look too good. A very strong wind was creating large waves on the loch, which was going to make finding a diver a bit troublesome. After a while Steve locked onto a Diver on the far side of the Loch but after looking at it through his scope realised it was a Red-throated Diver. Thankfully, not long after Steve spotted a summer plumaged B T Diver not very far off our bank. We drove a bit closer to the bird but a combination of bad light, rolling waves, heavy wind didn’t help my quest for a good photo of the bird. On the way back home we came within a few feet of a Red Grouse which came out close to the road.

Having not seen a Capercaillie on this trip Steve asked me to drop him off on one of the Forest roads. His intention was to walk back to the B&B in the hope that a Caper might make an appearance. Unfortunately that was not to be but he was fortunate enough to find a Tree Pipit. Tuesday we drive back home and we have planned to call in at Largo Bay (hopefully for a Surf Scoter) then Edinburgh (for a Lesser Scaup) and finally near Preston for a Glossy Ibis.

April 10th.

Steve went for a walk before breakfast in the hope of catching a showy Capercaillie but unfortunately luck was not on his side. We had a 7am breakfast and by 07:45 we were on the road back home. First stop Shell Bay caravan site at Largo Bay where we had been told the Surf Scoter had been showing. Upon arrival it was evident we were going to struggle as there was a very strong wind whipping up large waves out in the bay. We did find a few Common and Velvet Scoters, a Sandwich Tern, a couple of Red-throated Divers, a summer plumaged Slav Grebe and a few Eider but no Surf Scoter. I did get a quick glimpse of a small Grebe species but it was quickly lost in the waves and never relocated.

After a couple of hours we decided to move on. The next site being St Margarets Loch in Holyrood Park, Edingburgh where a fairly long Staying Lesser Scaup had set up residence. Thankfully it was relatively easy to find and below is a photo of the bird.

Steve got a bit excited with the Swan population there. He loves nothing more than to take ring numbers and to check out where they had come from and at least a third of about seventy Swans had leg numbers on them. I think Steve found twenty two birds with these numbers in the end and it will be interesting to see what information he gathers from these numbers.

It was now 14:15 and the next leg of the journey was a long one as we were going after the long Staying Glossy Ibis near Preston. Working our way towards the M8 we came across messages pronouncing that there were long delays on the M74 at junction 9. We remembered these well on the way up as we were caught in a large queue and that was well after midnight so goodness knows how bad they would be in the afternoon. Steve suggested that we took the A706 to Lanark then on to the M74 south of the problem. This turned out to be a good decision as we flew through the back roads and reached the M74 in about 45 minutes.

We had to stop at a Service Station for me to have a thirty minute power nap but we were soon back on the road, arriving at Warton Marshes around 7pm. The Marshes spread out for some way but apart from a few Little Egrets and Shelducks not much more could be seen (apart from hundreds of distant gulls). I checked the earlier messages on the pager and saw that the bird had been seen about 400 yards east of where were now standing earlier in the day so we made our way in that direction.

At first it looked bleak. No different from where we were previously standing but on one of my final scans I found it, tight to the end of a small pool with a Little Egret. It could easily have been overlooked as it was fairly close to the nearside edge as opposed to closer to the estuary.

Well that was a very successful end to our few days away. I actually managed 27 new birds for the year, bringing my total up to 200 for the year in the UK.

I am now ready for my Lesvos trip from May 3rd to the 17th. But that is a different report.

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