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Scotland Trip - May 2004

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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 13:43   #1
Jasonbirder
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Scotland Trip - May 2004

Scotland – Highlands and Islands

Friday 14th May

An eagerly awaited trip back up to Scotland beckoned – I was hoping to catch up with the birds I`d missed on my previous jaunt north of the border and also to pick up some of the summer visitors, now that they are settled on their breeding grounds. As ever an early start beckoned and I was heading north on the M6 accompanied by the usual motley crew of Scottish tour “regulars” by 10:30, the usual landmarks flew by as we passed Manchester, Carlisle, Glasgow and Stirling – but it was fully light by the time we arrived at our first stop off, pulling into the Loch Garten car park just after 5:30am!

Loch Garten

Surprisingly given the time there were plenty of cars in the car park and the main hide was already quite full of birders when we arrived. After managing to squeeze our way to one of the windows we scanned the area in front of the hide – no Capercaillie had been sighted yet but the pair of Osprey were present on the eyrie. Always majestic looking birds with their piercing yellow eyes, shaggy half-crests, white heads and chocolate-brown eye-stripes, they shuffled around the nest while we were present, obviously not fancying taking flight in the chilly dawn air! A male Great-spotted Woodpecker was obvious in the stand of birch woodland in front of the hide working its way slowly up a tree trunk, another attractive bird, black and white with a bold red patch on the rear of its crown and two bold white “shoulder” patches on its wings. Close scrutiny of the more distant trees soon paid off as we picked up a single male Capercaillie perched high in a fir tree in front of us. Obviously a huge bird, glossy black – its large ivory coloured bill standing out even at this distance, with the scopes trained on it, its red eye wattles and white patches at the curve of its wings were all visible. Its long paddle-shaped tail extended behind it as it moved around in the bare branches in the crown of the tree. Whether it had sighted a female in the cover beneath the trees or from sheer exhibitionism I don`t know but we were then treated to the magnificent sight of it displaying, its tail fully spread like a huge fan revealing a delicate pattern of white markings and its head and neck stretched upwards and backwards. All too soon it dropped out of the tree and out of sight onto the deck and further searching proved fruitless. The feeder outside the hide was playing host to a boldly marked gold and black male Siskin as we left. A quick scan of Loch Garten produced a Common Sandpiper perched on a rock on the shoreline before flushing across the water piping loudly. The road through the trees provided us with excellent views of a Red Squirrel which ran along the road, paused briefly atop a tree stump and then ran up out of site into the canopy. Its long orangey red tail streamed behind it as it ran along the ground whilst the chestnut-rufous colour and “tufty” ears could all be clearly seen as it sat briefly exposed.

Black Grouse Lek, Boat of Garten Area

You`d have thought we`d have the place to ourselves at this time of day – but as we pulled up by the roadside we encountered a party of about a dozen birders (ahem – at risk of controversy I`d have to say dudes!!) part of a guided tour by one of the Scottish guided tour firms. We scoped across to a bare slope on the other side of a small valley and quickly picked up 4 male Black Grouse lekking. They were quite distant but their distinctive lyre shaped tails were visible occasionally – in truth though, they seemed more interested in feeding than lekking! The musical descending songs of Willow Warblers were all around us and we were treated to excellent views of one above our heads in a silver birch tree. Across the other side of the road we found a single male Black Grouse at very close range in a tiny Birch tree – feeding on the tree shoots, it seemed completely oblivious to our presence! A fully mature bird there was a lovely metallic-blue sheen to its glossy black plumage and the red eye wattles and bold white undertail coverts were all clearly visible. A buzzing call from low down drew our attention to a family party of Stonechats perching amidst the heather, whilst returning to our car a male Sparrowhawk sped over our heads down the road.

Loch Morlich

We stopped to quickly scan Loch Morlich – it often holds a Diver early morning before it is disturbed by the watersports users. 2 Common Sandpipers were viewed in flight across the loch – their distinctive flight action and white wing stripe making them immediately identifiable. 2 Pairs of Goldeneye (local breeders no doubt) were also on the loch, the grey bodied, chestnut headed females and the whiter glossy green-headed males both distinctive. A fantastic bonus was an Otter swimming across the loch – its chunky dog like head and short whip-like tail sticking above the water as it swam, leaving a V-shaped wake behind it in the water. With Red Squirrel and Otter – at this stage our mammal list was doing better than the birds!

Aviemore to Cairngorm Road

We stopped here to check out a well known Crested Tit site, but despite much searching there was no sign, this can be the most difficult time of year to find them though as they are sat on the nest and unobtrusive. The loud “Cuck – Coo” calls of a Cuckoo drew our attention – we picked up the bird in flight and it then spent some time perched high in a conifer, its profile distinctive, its long tail raised slightly and its wingtips dipped down. Grey above and heavily barred below – it was causing much consternation amongst the local Meadow Pipit population as it kept its eye out for a suitable host for its single egg. An Ospreys eyrie was visible distantly – a large messy tangle of twigs and branches high in a lone dead tree, both male and female birds were in attendance perched on the nest and the adjacent branches. Desperate for my first “year-tick” of the trip I picked up a single Tree Pipit singing from the top of a dead larch tree. Its lovely song was delivered from an exposed perch high in the tree, a beautiful vaguely thrush-like clear, musical descending sequence of notes.

Loch an Eileen

After driving down the heavily wooded road from Aviemore spotting another Tree Pipit perched on roadside telegraph wires en-route, we came to a stop by the turn towards Loch an Eileen, here a steep heavily-wooded slope has an excellent reputation for Redstart and Wood Warbler. Sure enough on getting out of our car we quickly picked up the distinctive evocative song of a Wood Warbler. A clear metallic accelerating song, starting slowly as distinct notes and speeding up into an extended trill, there is nothing that it could be confused with. Despite it giving full voice it was typically elusive in the high canopy – its green, white and yellow colouration providing the perfect camouflage amongst the sun-dappled leaves. On climbing over the stone wall to get amongst the trees, one of our party caused great hilarity by falling head over heels (though that’s not how we described it!) on a fallen branch – despite a nasty cut our sympathy was somewhat tempered by fits of poorly stifled chuckles! We finally located the Wood Warbler amongst the high branches – a typical Phyllosc Warbler but with a fine needle-like Bill, short notched tail, silky-white underparts, lemon-yellow throat and bold supercilium. Despite further searching of the woodland area we couldn`t track down any Redstarts or Flycatchers so bundled back into the car and headed back towards Aviemore.

Small Loch, Aviemore area

After scrambling down the birch covered slope to this small picturesque Loch, we set up our scopes to scan the calm, sheltered water. Immediately obvious were good numbers of Common Sandpiper around the shingle shore line, their constant tail-bobbing action instantly distinctive. From the woodland around the Loch the loud staccato drumming of a Great-spotted Woodpecker could be heard, whilst overhead an Osprey drifted over the Loch, from below looking very white, its long narrow wings giving it a Gull-like appearance as it passed. We quickly picked up our target bird; a beautiful summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe in the centre of the Loch, its rusty-rufous neck and black face contrasting against its Golden ear-tufts all distinctive in the bright sunlight. From behind us amongst the stubby Silver Birch trees we heard a thrush-like warbling song we recognised as that of a Redstart and so headed off to track it down. Eventually we located the Common Redstart perched on a fallen tree stump singing in the sunlight – it was silhouetted which made it difficult to admire the males bold grey, black and rufous colours but it perched openly and treated us to another rendition of its clear warbling song before flying into a fenced-off area.

With time pressing (we had a ferry to catch after all) we headed onto the A9 and headed north towards Inverness, a quick scan in the Schlod Summit area failed to turn up any Ring Ouzel and we quickly moved on, heading onto the Black Isle over the imposing Moray Firth bridge before swinging west towards Ullapool. With the weather closing in to give grey skies and heavy bursts of rain we settled back knowing we wouldn`t be missing any soaring raptors!

Ullapool Harbour

After joining the queue for the Ullapool – Stornoway ferry and purchasing our “Island Hopscotch” tickets we decided to forgo the lure of a fried breakfast and search the harbour area for White-winged Gulls. A small group of Gulls feeding on the Shoreline was scanned and quickly revealed a pale looking bird with white primaries – an immature Iceland Gull, we started to jog towards it along the promenade but the Gulls soon took flight and flew past us and began wheeling around the Ferry and quay right in front of us, affording superb views and an ideal opportunity for comparison with its commoner relatives. It was a beautiful creamy-coloured bird whith white primaries and secondaries containing not a hint of black, its undertail coverts were barred with beige, its eye was still all dark (because of its age) and the bill was half flesh-pink, half black. Offshore a couple of Grey Seals where bobbing about, just there heads poking abouve the surface, their size and bulk instantly separating them from their smaller cousins. Before long we were back in the car and parking up in the cavernous and nearly empty car deck of the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry and heading up to the observation deck in the hope of adding some Skuas to our trip list as we headed out into the Minch.

Ullapool to Stornoway Ferry

We started out scanning from the comfort of the observation deck but all too soon the driving rain made viewing from the large plate glass windows impossible and drove us out into the cold open deck to continue our scanning….happily we did find time to avail ourselves of the excellent restaurant – a bumper helping of Lasagne and Chips being the ideal “pick me up” as I was starting to flag after our overnight drive – I`m a notoriously poor sailor, but the Minch, the strait between Mainland Scotland and the Western Isles is usually quite sheltered and I was able to enjoy my meal confident that it would still be “Onboard” HMS Jason when I got off the boat!

We didn`t even have to leave the shelter of the harbour before we started encountering the birds. First up were small numbers of Black Guillemots in my opinion our most attractive Auk, all sooty-black with bright white wing patches that become visible as complete ovals when they flap their wings. In flight across the harbour was a summer-plumaged Red-throated Diver whilst a sleek looking Black-throated Diver bobbed about on the water. Heading out towards more open waters the boat passed through rafts of Guillemots in a mix of plumages – winter – transitional and summer. A pair of Red-breasted Merganser also drifted by the boat as we headed further offshore. Close inspection of the pack of Gulls feeding off the stern of a passing fishing boat revealed 2 Bonxies (also called Great Skuas or Jaegers) harassing the Gulls. Huge in size, bulky and all dark, though as we passed close one settled on the sea and could be seen to be chocolaty brown with a gingery tinge to its neck sides. Disappointingly, despite constant scanning we were failed to encounter any Storm Petrels which are normally present in numbers from this ferry crossing. Another Skua seen further offshore was a dark phase Arctic Skua slimmer, more falcon-like in flight than its bulkier cousin. Out in the minch proper our efforts were paid off by encounters with more Bonxies and more Arctic Skua`s – including a single pale phase bird. Also a trickle of Manx Shearwaters – sharply black and white with the distinctive stiff-winged flight and “shearing” glides. Before long we were approaching Stornoway Harbour and encountering more Shag and Arctic Tern a we got closer inshore. Then it was off the ferry and reading the ordanance survey map furiously as we headed out of town towards Col.

Isles of Lewis and Harris
Bac Pool, Col

The first thing we noticed on getting out of the car was the strong wind – it was blowing a gale! It was difficult to keep our scopes upright in the gusts as we scanned the pools and creeks from the bridge to the south. The turf covered islands were home to a busy, noisy colony of Arctic Terns, constantly coming and going, squabbling over space and generally making a racket! Elegant birds, in flight their slim angled wings and deeply forked tails show why they are known colloquially as “Sea Swallows”, on the ground their white and pearly grey colour, long tail streamers and sooty black cap give them a neat and tidy appearance – their dark red bill and tail streamers extending beyond their primaries distinguish them from Common Terns. Tucked in, sheltering from the wind as much as possible were a few Oystercatcher and Curlew – but I was setting myself up for a big disappointment! Despite careful searching there was no sign of the long staying Harlequin Duck – a duck present in one of the tidal channels proved on closer inspection to be a drake Red-breasted Merganser. Driving round to the north side of the pool and scanning from the cemetery was no more fruitful either – there was definitely no sign of our quarry…

Loch Tuamister

We arrived at this picturesque well vegetated shallow Loch, set amongst grazing land to search for the much debated Cinnamon Teal. Before we had chance to look any further we quickly spotted 2 Northern Wheatear - boldly plumaged males slaty grey above, creamy underneath and with black and white tails (of course the name Wheatear is a reference to its White rump - a corruption of white ar*e!) perched on rocks and fences whilst overhead was a Raven a big, buzzard sized corvid with a diamond shaped tail. With our scopes out we scanned the shallow weedy pool – with plenty of marginal vegetation there was ample opportunity for our quarry to be elusive, but we were lucky enough to quickly find the Cinnamon Teal associating with a couple of Teal. It was feeding actively and appeared larger than the common teal with a large spatulate bill, its head and bill profile being vaguely reminiscent of a Canvassback. It was a striking dark cinnamon colour which stood out even from the road – slightly creamier above and slightly redder on the flanks, with a bright red eye (like a Pochard). It seemed quite wary of the sheep grazing around the Loch and would frequently take flight – revealing a Garganey like blue-grey forewing. The origins of this bird have been widely debated – it seems unlikely to be accepted onto the BOU list – but it certainly didn`t detract from my enjoyment – if anything its “controversial” rep enhanced it!

Loch Stiapabhat

The Western Isles always strike me as a curious place – I`ve a feeling that they`ve received more than there fair share of development money over the years as you frequently encounter a pristine large glass and metal bus shelter in the middle of nowhere, the police station here was another example – brand new looking and expensively finished – what crime can they have out here – a bit of sheep rustling every now and again? Anyway the Loch behind the police station was our next destination – local info giving it as a possible site for Corncrake. Walking down to the new and capacious hide we stopped to view the fields as we thought we heard the grating call of a Corncrake – despite 7 pairs of ears it was never heard again so it was either shy or a figment of our collective imagination….From the hide we scanned the shores of the Loch, there was a small party of summer plumaged Dunlin looking attractive with their black bellies and a drake Garganey in the lakeside grass – frequently obscured its chocolate brown head and broad white supercilium were obvious. On the other side of the main road a walk beside the police station produced good views of 2 summer-plumaged Twite perched on a barbed wire fence, streaky brown but the pinkish flush to their rumps showing. Also feeding actively in a newly ploughed field were a party of 20+ Rock Dove much tidier than their scruffy-looking feral cousins – all identical with smart narrow black wing-bars, white rumps and a complete lack of any deformed bills and club feet they were an unusual sight to a city dweller such as myself! Unexpectedly a small flyby party of waders landed in the field and turned out to be a party of 5 Whimbrel their more marked headpattern of bold supercilium and median crown-stripe and the shorter bill with a “drooped” tip quickly separating them from their Curlew cousins.

Stornoway Harbour

A drive back into Stornoway to check the harbour area was unproductive – carefully grilling the gulls around the boats and fish factory sheds failed to turn up any of the hoped for white-winged Gulls, just good numbers of Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in various plumages. Time was starting to catch up on us now and it was time to make a move south if we were to reach the ferry in time to get across to North Uist this evening – it’s a long trek down hilly, winding roads to the ferry terminal at Leverburgh so it was “pedal to the metal” time as we headed off through some stunning and spectacular scenery of mountain and moorland.

Road to Leverburgh

Stick half a dozen birders in a van for a day and in their eagerness to be the first to pick something unusual any over flying Buzzard can be an Eagle but when something that seemed to be the size of a Stealth Bomber flew over the road ahead of us – we knew we were onto something! 2 huge White-tailed Eagles soaring effortlessly by the road – their huge size immediately apparent in contrast to a Common Buzzard that was harassing them. With great big slab-like wings, deeply “fingered” primaries and short tail – their silhouette was instantly recognisable, their chocolate brown colour, creamy head and neck, huge yellow bill and white tail confirmed it! One of the birds was sporting a green wing tag and we all got fantastic views as they circled round gradually drifting away from us.

Leverburgh to Bernarey Ferry

It was touch and go as to whether we would make the ferry and we pulled onto the little inter-island boat with only minutes to spare. The route to Berneray winds through a maze of tiny islands, rocks and sandbanks – the clear channel being marked by a series of buoys and posts. The calm shallow waters were alive with birds, big rafts of Northern Eider being much in evidence - in a range of plumages, from almost all black through to neatly pied adult males and the barred brown females. There were plenty of Black Guillemot too, looking smart in their black summer plumage, many close enough to see their bright red feet as they dived to feed. More “pelagic” seabirds were scarce in the narrow inter-island channel but we did obtain excellent views of 2 dark phase Arctic Skuas – neatly plumaged adults flying low over the water looking purposeful and menacing with their sharply angled wings – no doubt on there way between their breeding sites and feeding grounds. Certainly dominating our attention were Great-northern Divers there must have been at least 50 seen on our short voyage – many looking stunning in full summer plumage, with a chunky dagger-like bill, blocky head and distinctive black and white checkerboard pattern on their back they were fantastic birds in their own right – but the recent presence of a couple of White-billed Divers off Lewis earlier in the month meant that every individual was given extra-special attention – “just in case”!!

North Uist, South Uist & Benbecular
Grimminaish

I readily confess to loving these islands – they have a wonderful remote and wild atmosphere about them and some fantastic scenery – the sea always seems blue and the beaches bone-white and with hundreds if not thousands of Lochs and Lochans – with threatening mountains looming over - there`s always something to look at! They are always alive with birds and a glance out of the car windows at any point will give views of Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank breeding amongst the heather.

Heading south from the ferry we paused briefly to watch a displaying Snipe over its territory, climbing high into the air and then diving down, making a whirring sound with its tail feathers. The next emergency stop was caused by the sight of a Short-eared Owl over the road in front of us, then showing well over the peaty moorland, Flying effortlessly and silently on bowed wings, the yellow cat-like eyes in its facial disk immediately grabbing out attention. It was a lovely warm buff, streaked with brown and with dark patches on its wings at the carpal joint.

Balranald RSPB

Our next destination was the famous RSPB reserve at Balranald – renowned for its breeding Corncrake and spring Skua passage. We were here, hopefully to obtain good views of the ever elusive Corncrake as it is undoubtedly one of the best sites to see rather than just hear this mysterious bird!
Stopping the car and walking the road to the visitor centre meant we could soon hear the distinctive, grating crek-crek call of the Corncrake all along the approach road. From the main paddock, at least 2 calling birds could be heard – tantalisingly close to the roadside – with patience we caught a glimpse of a head popping up fleetingly amidst the long grass and irises as a Corncrake poked its head up to call, for the next ten minutes one would almost comically pop up and then disappear before re-appearing again a few feet away. Then bizarrely we heard it call from the other side of the road – how it had managed to run across unseen is a mystery but we were fortunate now that the Corncrake was showing well amidst the Irises and low vegetation. We were treated to “best ever” views as it ran horizontally through the vegetation like a small mammal, pausing occasionally to crane its neck up and hold its head back to give its crek-crek call. It had a lovely cryptic buff and black scalloped plumage, with a grey supercilium and pink beak. The object of this birds desire soon revealed itself as it began chasing another Corncrake through the grass, scurrying alongside and trying to shepherd her towards the edge of the field – watching a pair of Corncrakes amorous advances towards each other seemingly oblivious of our presence – sheer magic!

Cnoc an Torrain

Driving further south we turned off the main road towards a small Loch and after consulting with a couple of local farmers got some directions to some more calling Corncrakes. We quickly located a chorus of calling birds – at least four birds amongst some rough vegetation and Irises giving their distinctive Crek-crek call, but try as we might – not a glimpse was seen of any of them – we could track their movements by their call as they moved up and down the field and along the adjacent drainage dyke – but their perfect camouflage and stealthy movement meant we couldn`t see them. More showy were a couple of boldly plumaged Golden Plover beautiful gold spangled above with a smart black breast and belly. Back on the main road we headed south – across the inter island causeways, pausing briefly to view some Summer plumaged Red-breasted Meganser and small parties of Dunlin. Another lucky sighting was a beautiful, ghostly-grey male Hen harrier drifting slowly over the moorland adjacent to the main road – silvery grey with a white rump and back primaries it was a stunning sight as it glided, quartering the heather on up tilted wings.

With the long days, whilst still light it was getting late and we headed off to find food – the only hotel we could locate was hosting a wedding party (!!) and wasn`t serving food so we retreated to the bar, whilst negotiating with our B&B landlady to prepare our fried breakfast at 11:30 in the evening – leaving us free to depart first thing in the morning without stopping for food! After 24 hours on the road and a couple of pints of “80 shilling” we were all falling asleep in the dining room before our helpful host served up a (literally) midnight feast of sausage, bacon & eggs – surely the perfect end to the perfect day!
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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 14:00   #2
tom mckinney
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jasonbirder
The loud “Cuck – Coo” calls of a Cuckoo
So that's where the name comes from I never realised ("You sarcastic git, Tom")

Great stuff, Jason, very enjoyable and plenty I can relate to myself. Lasagne and Chips is grrrreat on Calmac Ferries, I had it en route to the Teal myself from Skye to Harris. My last Ullapool-Stornoway was ****ing awful!!! Burger & Chips, pint of lager, rough sea ... BBLLEEUURRGGHH!!!
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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 14:08   #3
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Lasagne and Chips, a fry up, 80 shilling and loads of top quality birds in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK!

my kind of trip Jason
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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 15:32   #4
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Excellent Jason reminds me of my bash to the Western Isles in 1981 for the Steller's Eider.

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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 16:03   #5
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Great report Jason, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. It brought back some great memories of our trips north of the border
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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 16:09   #6
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Have printed it off to read on the bus tomorrow, thanks and I expect to enjoy it very much.
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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 17:29   #7
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Hi Jason

Very enjoyable read. I was in Scotland recently back in June. I have been to the RSPB loch Garten reserve in the hope of seeing Capercallie quite a few times but never been lucky. Now I know why. I didn't realise they opened the hides as early as 5.30 am ! Still next time I guess. Also I would appreciate details of the Black Grouse lek, as I 've never seen one .

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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 17:54   #8
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A great read Jason. 24 hours on the road - phew! How on earth did you do it?
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Old Thursday 22nd July 2004, 19:32   #9
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A great trip and a fine read. Thanks for posting that Jason
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Old Saturday 24th July 2004, 16:27   #10
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Hi Jason,

What a fantastic report, i'm going to have to go. I'm not to sure about stand on deck in driving rain though. I know i'm a bit of a wimp! Sounds like a brilliant day.

Steven
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Old Saturday 24th July 2004, 16:48   #11
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Jason,
Brilliant report. I enjoyed reading it and getting a little idea of what birding in Scotland can be like.
Thanks
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Old Saturday 24th July 2004, 20:51   #12
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Took a copy with me and it was a good read. I am even keener for a Scottish jaunt!
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