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I’ve lived in Lanarkshire all of my 40 years, and in that time I have seen my local area change beyond all recognition, and definitely not for the better. From the appearance of massive identikit housing estates where rolling fields once rang to the song of yellowhammers, the inexorable process of urbanisation goes on as the local authorities undertake a concerted effort to eradicate every sign of nature- or so it seems. The nature- filled halcyon days of my childhood are a swiftly receding memory, replaced by the creeping horror of what is replacing them. Its important, I think, to highlight what we, as nature lovers in general and bird lovers in particular, still have, for the moment at least.
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Big Day Out in Dumfries and Galloway

Posted Tuesday 3rd January 2017 at 18:43 by Green Sandpiper
Three wise Men Reach Dumfries and Galloway.

New Year, new list, new hopes, and determination to make this a good birding year. After the relative disappointment of 2016’s year total (for the first time I failed to beat the previous year, and worse still, much of the birding I had done had been scrappy and unfulfilling) I was determined that 2017 would see me get back on track.

11 year ticks on New Year’s Day- traditionally a non- birding day for me- was enhanced by the sight of waxwings 10 feet away from me. You just don’t get good birds so close, do you….?

Flushed with the success of our last Big Day Out, in November, the three wise men- me, Bongofury and Bluebill chose this team to head South rather than East and to ‘hit’ prime sites in Dumfries and Galloway. The presence of 3 ‘yank’ ducks in the area was the icing on the cake, but we also sought willow tit, red kite, and other raptors.

The day began rather inauspiciously with bongo being with 10 seconds of giving up on me as I overslept (or rather, having gotten up in plenty of time, I went for a nap, so I technically over- napped) Anyway, we set off some 40 minutes later than planned, meaning that we really were chasing daylight.

I surprised the hell out of us all by staying awake for the first hour of the drive down from Lanarkshire, before the gentle rocking motion of Bongo’s driving (and my low blood sugar) saw me nod off. Once again, my sleepiness led me to miss lammergeyer and condors galore.

First stop of the day was Carlingwark Loch in Castle Douglas, for a Ring- necked Duck that was known to be there. Our local intel was that it was on the Southern half of the loch, and we headed there. Difficult access and a low sun meant we struggled for a vantage point, and after a mile or so of walking, admitted defeat. On the way, back to the car we saw a group of birders across the loch focussing on an area very close to us. A quick chat with another local chap got us new info that the duck had been seen er, about 20 feet away from where we had started, but in the northern half of the loch. A quick scope got us our first target, a beautiful ring- necked duck, floating serenely among tufties. It showed well, then disappeared out of sight. Cue much jubilation…! The visit also got us goosander, treecreeper, red kite and song thrush, among a total of 31. Suffice to say, a good start.

En route to our next site- Ken Dee Marshes RSPB reserve- we stopped in Dumfries Town Centre for an opportunistic look for a grey wagtail on the river Nith. Fast flowing, deep water did not fill us with hope, but there it was, in its finery, the sun casting its subtle colours with beauty. By this point, it was beginning to dawn on us that this had the potential to be a very special day.

Ken- Dee got us wet feet (!) plus a very pale, unusual- looking buzzard, redwing, and fieldfare. IT also got us stonechat, an unexpected raven, a very expected Red Kite, and one of our targets for the site- a willow tit. Disappointingly, it didn’t look like the feeders had been filled for a couple of days at least, and the areas around the hides was fairly devoid of bird life. 21 species was harder work than expected, but the willow tit automatically made the trip a success. Happy, glowing faces all round.

By now daylight was a serious issue and we knew that we would be pushing our luck to do Caerlaverock WWT justice. The information board gave us the idea of where we needed to target note to RSPB reserves- the ACCURATE information board…) Green- winged teal and American Wigeon were obvious targets, and as we were preparing to walk round to the hide, a friendly local told us that the best views were from the tower. A vertiginous climb up the stairs and the GW teal was obvious immediately. A search for the other Yan was fruitless, but we did get shelduck and large numbers of shoveler. Dunlin and a peregrine in the far distance, plus yellowhammer on the pathways got the visit off to a great start.

Being Caerlaverock, whooper swans and barnacle geese abounded, and we also ticked pink- footed and greylag geese. An oystercatcher sat fairly lonely from the Sir Peter Scott hide. A detour down one of the side paths to the LBJ feeding station whilst the swan feeding kept the masses at bay was fruitful. House sparrow, greenfinch (healthy, vibrant colours) various tits, a rat, and a deceptively loud collared dove ensured that the pace of birding didn’t drop. Suddenly, I head “water rail, right there!” and started scanning the ground for it. Not to be seen at all. “can you see it” I was asked “and grunted frustratedly in the negative. “Its right there” and I looked, about 8 foot in front of me, boldly feeding. There’s a Glaswegian word for being cocky or over- confident- gallous. It’s the only way to describe this skulking, secretive water rail.

As you would expect, we had a curious feeling of excitement and satisfaction. We decided to try both towers overlooking the flood and the merse. Stopping off at one of the hides en route, Bongo picked up a pair of pintail- one of my bogey birds from last year. No sign of the alleged 200 black- tailed godwits, mind. Less hard to see was the little egret, shining like a beacon in the late afternoon sun.

The first tower got little except sore necks and muscle fatigue as Bongo and Bluebill- scope- users- struggled with the really, really awfully useless height of the windows. Much cursing abounded.

The second tower, though, was to prove somewhat different. ON our way to it, a birder tipped us off that a hen harrier had just been seen. We hurried upstairs to be told it had gone to ground. Undeterred, we scanned the area out toward the water, but no luck. Gradually, as the light failed, the other birders present drifted off, leaving the tower to the three of us. Whoopers and barnies were by now coming into roost, such was the lateness of the day. I glanced out of the window to see a pale, ghost- like mirage rise from the grass close by the tower. A high- pitched squeak of random syllables was the best I could muster whilst pointing frantically. Bongo almost trampled me to death as we raced to the other side of the tower, with the beautiful male hen harrier floating languidly across the grass. All of three of us, despite everything we’d seen whilst a lot of years birding, stood transfixed by this. The beauty of it is hard to describe (as you can tell…!) but seeing it was a moment of birding perfection. Eventually, the dream ended and the bird went to ground. Cue much cheering, fit- bumps, punching the air, swearing, and sheer unadulterated joy. Us men almost hugged- to put it into perspective.

A further quick look for the American Wigeon failed, but we agreed that a hen harrier was the perfect ‘going home’ bird.

A total of 68 different species for the day as a pretty impressive haul, all told, given the lack of daylight, travelling, and restricted time on sites. WE three call these trips Big Days Out. Big in terms of time spent (12 hours is the norm) big in terms of the scope of what we attempt- and usually succeed at, but more importantly, big in terms of sheer quality and value. Its not a tick fest or a treasure hunt, a Big Day Out- and this one in particular- is a day which is big on quality, big on laughs, and big on friendship. At the end, we were wondering why it is that BDOs were such a success. Is it the three pairs of eyes (despite mine regularly being closed) or is it that we bring the birding best out of each other? I agree with both of these points, but I also think there’s something else, something difficult to put into words, that only comes about through comradeship and the gelling together of a group. I’ve said before and this BDO cemented my belief- Birding is a solitary activity that’s best shared.
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bongofury's Avatar
I'm feeling a little emotional!

Great report as ever. Arguably, the best BDO ever, and not a single lifer in there for me. Although I still believe that a male Hen Harrier should be separated from the female.
Posted Tuesday 3rd January 2017 at 19:27 by bongofury bongofury is offline
Old
the male HH should be in a category for 'special' birds. Not so much twitchy migrants or lost ducks, but birds with a deeper meaning. I've had a day to calm down and I still want to beat up a gamekeeper.....
Posted Tuesday 3rd January 2017 at 19:42 by Green Sandpiper Green Sandpiper is offline
 
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