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Scotland Tour - March 2004

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Old Thursday 1st April 2004, 17:51   #1
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Scotland Tour - March 2004

SCOTLAND 27th and 28th March 2004.

Friday 26th March 2004

This was surprisingly my first trip north of the border in 2004, a late winter/early spring tour for all of the resident specialties and hopefully a few winter visitors too! I rendezvoused with everyone at Corley Services, Coventry. My usual “crew”, arrived in a very smart looking Chrysler people carrier, brand new (of which more later!) The journey north is very straightforward and direct up the M6 so apart from a burger stop in Birmingham and a pick up of our final member at Knutsford we made fantastic progress. I always find sleeping in cars very easy, but our driver and front seat passenger had a bit of a 70`s disco revival going on so we headed north to the strains of Imagination and Odyssey before we managed to sabotage the CD player at a petrol stop! We arrived at Stirling services at 3:30a.m. and grabbed a cup of coffee and put our feet up for a couple of hours before heading off just before first light at 5:30am.

Saturday 27th March 2004

Black Grouse Leks, Perthshire

Our first port of call was a traditional roadside Lekking site, Black Grouse are still relatively abundant in Perthshire and there are several sizeable leks that can be viewed from the car without causing any disturbance. En route we saw good numbers of Oystercatcher and a large colony of breeding Common Gulls. There were large numbers of Curlew in the fields, many making their distinctive display flight – climbing on “quivering” wings and then hanging Hawk-like in the air, plenty of Lapwings were displaying too, dipping their heads and bobbing their tails. A single Raven flew along the valley and we picked up our first Buzzards of the day including a single individual flying low across the heather slopes before perching on a rock giving great views. We quickly located four male Black Grouse in the valley, their distinctive “bubbling” calls drawing our attention as they squared up against each other on the Lek. Two of the males flew off along the valley, their double white wing-bars obvious in flight. Further up the valley we encountered three more male Black Grouse including one very mature male close to the road, a blue-green metallic sheen to its black plumage and big, bright crimson eye wattles. Its bright white undertail coverts were obvious when it lifted its tail into the lyre-shaped display pose. Black Grouse are long lived birds and it can take a male seven years to have developed its plumage to that point. A commotion in the Common Gull Colony drew our attention to a ring tailed Hen Harrier quartering the valley slopes. Drifting low across the heather on upraised wings, its brown plumage, white rump and barred underwings were easily seen, whilst its shape alone was distinctive – broad wings with distinctly fingered primaries held in a raised “V” and a long tail. Towards the end of the road we turned round and returned – the journey back producing 3 male Black Grouse, more Common Buzzards and a Pied Wagtail on the walls of a ruined stone roadside building.

At the second Lekking site we immediately found a pair of Red Grouse close to the road, looking as if they had just stepped out of “The Famous Grouse” Whisky ad, deep chestnut coloured with cream feathered legs and the male with those distinctive red eye wattles we were even able to pick out their bold white eye-rings and white flecking in their plumage. On a dry stone wall we saw five Ravens extremely close to the car – they were reluctant to move as we approached, affording excellent views; big bulky almost buzzard-sized birds with heavy chisel-like bills. Suprisingly for a single track road, essentially in the middle of nowhere we were constantly passed by a succession of vehicles – cars, 4x4s, tractors and quad-bikes and this before 6:30am in the morning!! Near the farm at the head of the valley we found another five male Black Grouse around the farms buildings – they were extremely close to the road and seemingly unconcerned about the vehicles which had passed mere feet away from them, again we enjoyed all the features of this delightful and exotic looking bird – the metallic blue-green sheen to its black plumage, the red eye wattles, the white undertail coverts and the long tail. Looking across the base of the valley towards a small Loch we picked out a pair of Goldeneye along with a few Wigeon and Tufted Duck. A large finch flock in a small group of 3 bare Birch trees proved to be about one hundred Bramblings their apricot, white and black plumage distinctive, some of the males where beginning to acquire the bold black hoods of their summer plumage. The birds were disturbed by three fisherman walking down to the Loch, their white rumps and wing-bars flashing as they took flight. We paused briefly to get some “group photo`s” then turned round and retraced our steps back to the main road. On the way back we had a real picture-postcard moment with a male Red Grouse stood atop a dry stone wall next to the road, it paced back and forwards almost within touching distance of the car. The conifer plantations sometimes hold roosting birds and sure enough we located two Black Grouse, a male and a grey hen bird partially obscured perched high in the top branches of the fir trees.

On the way to a third and final Black Grouse site we had the pleasure of seeing a pure white Mountain Hare running across the hills, whilst a stop at a likely looking stream for Dipper produced a sighting of a single Grey Wagtail, its long tail and lemon-yellow undertail coverts obvious as it perched tail constantly flicking atop the rocks in the stream. The third Black Grouse was adjacent to a main road and our only sighting was of two males that flew up off the lekking field across the main road in front of the car and into a dense conifer plantation south of the road.

We set off through some stunning scenery along a winding road towards our next site, The Loch of the Lowes for Osprey, pausing briefly en route at one of the gardens in the village of Trochry where we got good views of a pair of Bullfinches perched in roadside bushes – chubby and full bellied with a flat crown, both birds sporting an obvious broad white wing bar, the female ash-grey above and beige below, the male brighter, slate-grey above and a beautiful salmon-pink below.

The Loch of the Lowes

The Loch of the Lowes is a fantastic site for Osprey and in my opinion a much nicer place than Loch Garten, having a quieter, more secluded feel to it. There is a large two-tiered hide overlooking the Loch and the Ospreys eyrie. Whilst late march is still early for Osprey we were fortunate that a single male had returned earlier in the week. From the hide we immediately picked up a single male Osprey perched on the eyrie – a stunningly spectacular bird, a loose crest of feathers on the rear of the crown, its eye with a piercingly yellow iris and its plumage a mix of chocolate-brown and cream. Stood motionless in the reedbed around the west end of the Loch was a Grey Heron whilst the Loch itself held good numbers of Great-crested Grebe, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye.
Driving west we saw our first wild Icelandic Greylag Geese in roadside fields, their large size and “farmyard-goose” Jizz enabling quick identification whilst overhead “V” shaped skeins of hundreds of Pink-footed Geese were taking advantage of the good weather to head north – too high overhead for any plumage details they were identified by their small size and short-necked appearance.

Craigluscar Reservoir

A new site for me, we stopped briefly at this small lowland lake to search for a Green-winged Teal which had been reported recently. After asking permission to park up at the Fishing Lodge we walked down to the Reservoir where a birder was stood – he had been present for over an hour and had been unsuccessful in his search. Typical waterbird fair was enlivened by the presence of four Little Grebes, whilst not rare I think they are a charismatic little bird, they were diving constantly and had already acquired their brighter summer plumage of brick-red cheeks and neck and a bright yellow teardrop at the base of their bill. Other birds on the water included Eurasian Teal, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Coot and Moorhen. The water was quite choppy and badly affected by the strong breeze and I think that for every Teal on show there were another ten tucked into the dense reeds sheltering from the wind. We diligently checked each visible Teal but all lacked the characteristic vertical white flash that marks out their rare American cousin. A short path down to the waters edge was explored but came to an abrupt end – not before we had flushed a small party of Snipe out of the flooded reeds. Drawing a blank here we quickly drove west for our first look at the sea!

Methil Power Station, Fife

We had been lucky all day with the weather and were greeted with azure skies, warm sun and a mill-pond calm sea when we left the car in the car park at Methil. A couple of birders were already present and informed us the King Eider had recently swam out of sight around the end of the breakwater. Setting up our scopes we quickly picked up the female King Eider loafing around the rocks at the base of the outfall. Myself and Rob were elated to say the least at picking her up having dipped out on her on two separate occasions in 2003! With the sun in our eyes we climbed over the seawall and onto the beach, walking out to the waters edge so we had the sun over our shoulders giving much better viewing conditions. It was bathing in the outfall stream with a small group of Northern Eider - females and first-winter males affording an excellent opportunity for comparison. It was obviously smaller and more compact, whilst the sunshine showed off its warm gingery-brown colour to good effect in comparison to the darker, colder brown female Eiders, it had an obvious pale eye-ring and a much shorter, thinner bill. It spent some time bathing in the stream, some time sunning itself on the rocks before getting into the water and swimming off out of sight around the end of the outfall. The bay in front of was alive with small parties of Northern Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Merganser and both Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, whilst the outfall stream itself held Goldeneye and the rocks around the outfall base had Redshank, Turnstone and a single Purple Sandpiper A rig offshore held number of Shag whilst passing distantly offshore. The Long-tailed Ducks were stunners, acquiring their chocolate brown and white summer plumage the males long tails quivering behind them. There where good numbers of Velvet Scoter – the bold white wing patches obvious at they took to flight, getting good scope views revealed more subtle features – the males white eye crescents and yellow beak and the females paired pale spots before and after their eyes. We spent a good long time here enjoying the fantastic views of the varied seaduck before loading back up and pressing on.

Ruddon`s Point, Largo Bay, Fife

We arrived at the point having driven down a very bouncy, rutted track to find a couple of birders already scoping out to sea, a quick glance back across the bay quickly revealed good numbers of Seaduck flying further offshore – at least one hundred plus Velvet Scoters were in flight their white secondaries flashing as they flew. They seemed to have been flushed by some SSPCA animal wardens that were working their way along the rocks picking up Eider which had been oiled by boats emptying their ballast tanks in the bay. It was depressing to see such attractive birds being unceremoniously netted and bagged up. We were gutted to hear that amongst the birds which had been flushed offshore was a Surf Scoter, one of our target birds here. The whole of the bay was peppered with good numbers of Seaduck – predominantly Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Red-breasted Merganser. The pager had earlier reported a Puffin present here but careful scanning only revealed a couple of winter plumaged Razorbill diving actively, their black and white plumage, short stubby bill and short wings distinctive. After picking up a distant black and white grebe offshore we assumed it to be Slavonian and were surprised when closer inspection revealed it to be a Black-necked Grebe tiny, fluffed up in appearance with a round head profile and sooty smudged cheeks. As we drove up to the main road we stopped quickly to scan a field which held a small party of Yellowhammer perched up on some telegraph cables, then dropping down into the ploughed field to feed, their bright yellow heads and breasts standing out in the sunshine.

Buckhaven, Fife

I apologize to any local residents but after all the beautiful places we`d visited we came back to earth with a bump, Buckhaven was a grade 1 dump – all the houses had metal grills on the windows and the walls were covered in graffiti, a gang of youths were hanging around on the street and it was with some trepidation we left our car parked up – I half expected to come back and find it up on bricks with the wheels gone and stereo stolen! We scanned the sea here hoping for Surf Scoter but the sea was comparatively devoid of birds just a few Eider and Long-tailed Duck. We were relived to find the car in one piece, though somewhat perturbed by a volley of abuse from a bare-chested youth! A quick scan from a raised embankment behind East Fife football ground produced lots and lots of Scoter, good numbers of Eider, Merganser and Shag, a few Auks included Guillemot, Razorbill and a pale silver-grey auk we at first assumed was a winter plumaged Black Guillemot but which we reluctantly concluded to be a pale or leucistic Guillemot on shape alone. Offshore was a lone Grey Seal, a big partly submerged shape with its Labrador shaped head poking out of the water.

East Wemyss, Fife

A return to safer territory here! We scanned from a slipway running down to the Sea across some rocky sea defenses adjacent to a well manicured lawn and car-park. Here we were finally able to catch up with our quarry, a pair of Surf Scoter sat on the flat calm sea less than a hundred yards offshore. They were giving crippling views and we literally couldn’t believe our eyes – all too frequently Surf Scoter are visible as distant specks far, far out to sea (the Cornish bird at Feock being a classic example!) and here we were able to absorb all the subtle features of both the male and female birds! Both were bulky Scoter with a blocky head shape and a wedge-shaped forehead and bill profile, they were diving actively – giving a little forward leap with half-open wings, their diving action midway between that of Velvet Scoter and Surf Scoter. The female was chocolate-brown with two pale patches on her face. The male was a real beaut, with bold white patches on the forehead and nape his swollen bill a mixture of bright orange and yellow with white spots at its base extending onto his cheeks – magic! It was difficult to tear ourselves away from them but scanning around rewarded us with a Black-throated Diver in winter plumage, its elegantly snaked neck, dark grey mantle and hindneck and an isolated white flank patch readily identifying it.
Much as we had enjoyed our time here time was pressing so we returned to the car and set out on the lengthy drive north to Speyside.

(To be Continued….)
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Old Thursday 1st April 2004, 17:54   #2
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An excellent read. I am looking forward to the next instalment.
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Old Thursday 1st April 2004, 18:17   #3
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me too!
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Old Thursday 1st April 2004, 18:24   #4
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Excellent, wish I was there but the report is the next best thing!
Are you listening to the voice that talks in your head while you read this?
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Old Thursday 1st April 2004, 18:28   #5
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A great report Jason
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Old Thursday 1st April 2004, 19:24   #6
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Originally Posted by Jasonbirder
The bay in front of was alive with small parties of Northern Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Merganser and both Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter, whilst the outfall stream itself held Goldeneye
So THAT'S where all my ducks were...!!!

Great read Jason!
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