BIRDING SCOTLAND - October 2006It was with some trepidation that I set out for a 3-4 week back-packing tour of Scotland with no accommodation or transport booked ahead other than for my first leg to Aberdeen and a B& B booked up for Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth. I was going to be primarily dependent on my own initiative and fairly limited experience to find the birds I was seeking and covering a wide enough area to produce a reasonable holiday list of species would be challenging without a car. However, this is the UK not the outbacks of Siberia, so I wasn't too concerned! I had target species and target locations to get to, flexibility would be the key as would be the weather. Here's a summary of my trip but I shall post some more detailed daily experiences related more specifically to the birding in the Birding Day forum, along with photos, as I type them up.
3rd/4th October: Brighton to Aberdeen
4th October: Aberdeen to Lossiemouth
7th October: Lossimouth to Orkney
11th October: Orkney to Islay
26th October: Islay to Brighton
3rd/4th October: Brighton to Aberdeen
4th October: Aberdeen to Lossiemouth
10th October: Lossiemouth to Orkney
16th October: Orkney to Oban
17th October: Oban to Mull
18th October: Mull to Islay
27th/28th October: Islay to Brighton
I found travelling round Scotland using public transport sporadic and challenging. It was the school holidays for much of the time and many bus journeys were cut back. However, bus drivers are very obliging on country routes, willing to make unscheduled stops and also a wealth of information about getting to the next port of call in their local areas. For the initial trip to Aberdeen, I had bought a Bargain Berth on line for £29 - this ran from Euston at 10.30pm arriving in Aberdeen at 7.30am the next morning. (Bargain Berth.com) I didn't book a return as I wanted to leave my return travelling arrangements open and flexible, not being sure of how the intended itinerary would work out. I couldn't sleep on the 'sleeper', it was cramped and stuffy and shared the bunk-bed berth with a taciturn Norweigan girl who suffered from insomnia and a weak bladder - I spent most of the journey in the lounge car drinking the House red wine vinegar at 4.50 for a mini-bottle and chatting to a Scottish psychologist from Oban. Arriving at Aberdeen, where I'd arranged to meet Andrew Whitehouse for a day's birding, I bought a Rover ticket for £130 which was supposed to allow travel for 8 days out of 15 on ferries, buses and trains. It proved to be a complete waste of money as I hadn't realised I could only use it with certain bus companies and only on routes that weren't served by trains. I could only use it on trains after 9am in the morning which limited the times I wanted to travel and one of the 3 ferry journeys I made were with a company that also would not accept the Rover Ticket. By the time i was ready to travel back from Islay, the ticket had expired - thus resulting in me using around £40 of the rover ticket cost out of the £130 I'd paid for it. Quite honestly, train, bus and ferry travel in Scotland is so lowly priced anyway and successful long distant coverage relies on a cocktail of methods (including hitching), it's probably better not to bother with the Rover Ticket unless you intend to be 'on the road' most days rather than using public transport to travel to only 3 or 4 destinations where I planned to be staying for some time.
Buses on the Islands were regular but infrequent, especially during the school holidays. They were also not particularly cheap and relying on bus travel to get around each day could rack up holiday cost and one could end up with one's birding day being completely dictated by the availability of local buses. In the event, I only took one bus journey throughout the whole 3 weeks while on the Islands and that was from Bowmore, Islay, to Port Askaig on the very last day of the tour! The rest of the time I walked and hitched. Befriending and chatting to local birders however, proved to be a real blessing as in Lossie, on Orkney, on Mull and on Islay, there were several times where I was given lifts or taken out.
The return journey to Brighton from Islay was the easiest trip to date, with well connected buses from Bowmore to the ferry terminal at Port Askaig and a well connected Citylink service from Kennecraig to Glascow. I had't booked a return train journey on the sleeper which was just as well because on arrival at Glascow Central, I was informed the sleeper was probably not running as there was some kind of problem with the connecting train from Fort William - if it was, it was likely to be booked! I caught a coach to Victoria for £25 with Silver Express which was £40 cheaper than the train would have been and also provided several comfort stops on the way.
My first ferry trip was to St Margeret's Hope on Orkney. However, it was problematic getting out of Thurso as it was school holidays - also there were no scheduled buses to the ferry terminal at Gills Bay, where the last ferry was due to leave at 6pm in the evening on the day I arrived at Thurso from Inverness/Lossiemouth. A very obliging bus terminal receptionist in Thurso and an even more obliging bus driver arranged to pick me up from the train station (an unscheduled stop) and drop me off at Gills Bay which was 'in the middle of nowhere' 20 miles up the coast from Thurso (also an unscheduled stop). Apparently the guy that had started up the ferry service to Hope from Gills, had not wanted it to be served by local buses but wanted to run a private mini-bus service instead - this had never got off the ground for some reason and public transport had yet to fill the gap! I had only 45 minutes to wait at Thurso, with an hour to wait at Gill's Bay for the ferry, giving me a chance for a little sea and seal watch. St Margeret's Hope ferry terminal was also pedestrian unfriendly: I arrived in total darkness, battled with cattle trucks to disembark from the car deck and had to hitch the short journey to the village as there were no pavements along the unlit mile or so of fast road which was bordered on both sides by stone walls.
On the whole, ferry travel was easy, and Caladonian Macintyre ferries excellent and inexpensive. Little was seen from crossings in the way of wildlife (although a Great Northern Diver and Manx Shearwater on the way to Islay were welcome additions to the holiday list) but fresh air kept me awake as did the stunning landscape, especially in the Western Isles. Winter season had now begun and I managed to catch the very last ferry passage of the year to Islay from Oban on my return from Mull - I'd loosely planned to be around Oban on a Wednesday as from some pre-trip online research, I knew there was a weekly ferry to Islay on a Wednesday from Oban. (There was no need therefore to grapple with local bus connections and the Citylink bus from Glascow to get to Kennecraig thank goodness, which would have been the alternative) - it was also a very pleasant ferry journey taking me to Port Askaig via Colensay). However, bus connections to ferry arrivals on the Islands in the evenings were poor. I'd arrived on Islay at 8.00pm in the evening only to find the last bus to Port Charlotte where I intended to stay at the Youth Hostel had been and gone some hours ago. (This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as sitting in the cabin of a lorry giving me a lift to Port Charlotte, my first tick of Islay was a stunning Barn Owl sitting on a post at the side of the road and highlighted by the headlights of the lorry as we went past!). Returning from Islay, the bus connections to Port Askaig, and from Kennecraig were excellent, Caledonian Macintyre phoning ahead and insuring all their passengers had seats reserved on the Citylink to Glascow which picked us up from the ferry terminal shortly after arrival.
Again, as with travel, I had not booked advanced accommodation. This was risky, not least because on some of the journeys during my tour, I arrived at destinations well into the evening and several times, I had to try a few places first before finding a vacancy. However, I wanted flexibility and free choice about where I stayed and for how long. I was determined the birds would be the dominating factor of how long I stayed in a place, where I would go and when. Much of this would be information I would only gather in the field so to speak and indeed, having an idea of what the winds/weather was doing at any particular time would also dictate how long I stayed and when it was time to move on. Much of this I would only know once I'd arrived at the intended rough intinerary holiday locations and would be a day to day decision to some extent.
In the main I used B&B accommodation throughout the tour and on Islay, also the Youth Hostel at Port Charlotte. The standard of Scottish B&B's compared to some of the English I have stayed at was exemplary and were also half the price. For a full cooked breakfast (if wanted) and en suite room with coffee & tea making facilities, colour remote TV, I was paying an average of £24 per night. Every one of them were spotless and serviced every day. All the Proprietors I met were excellent hosts doing everything to make me comfortable. One B&B offering me their spare car to get around the Island (I don't drive unfortunately but it was a nice gesture), giving me a lift to the ferry terminal at 7am in the morning when I left - another B&B proprietor lending me his scope to go birding with, and another phoning a friend who worked for the RSPB as a farmer to pick me up from the B&B and give me a lift to one of the Reserves where he worked. It is worth noting that chatting and befriending proprietors of B&B should be an integral part of a birding experience of Scotland as they could be the closest contact one has with local people if one is traveling alone to places where one does not know anyone beforehand. They know their island/mainland environment very well and are more than happy to give all the run down of local fauna and flora and talk about any related issues of farming/environmental/social concern.
The hostel at Port Charlotte is execellent in terms of cleansiness and facilities. For £11 per night, it was good economic value. However, it is self-catering so food needs to be purchased at the one poorly stocked local shop or eating out at the not too cheap Port Charlotte Hotel or Croft's Kitchen. However, I didn't find it particularly well placed to cover most of the Island by foot or by hitching and if I go back to Islay I would probably prefer to stay at Bridgend or in Bowmore, where bus connections and people travelling on the roads were more frequent. Bridgend would be my favored location but the hotel there is expensive and the B&B would need to be booked well in advance. It is close to some of the best birding woods on Islay, on the head of Loch Indaal where migrating geese roost, and divers in good numbers along with sea duck. It's in easy walking distance (about 3 miles) of Bowmore, the main town and also the Reserve at Gruinart. Port Charlotte is primarily a holiday/tourist village. I found it difficult to touch base with any local birders, in fact there was little sense of local community with most of the cottages being holiday lets or occupied by people serving the tourist trade. It was very quiet. The Hostel for the second week of my stay on Islay was deserted and the relief manager left something to be desired, being keen to 'pack up' for the season and b*gger off basically - there were evenings where I'd return to the Hostel and it would be completely deserted! The Hostel was largely inaccessible during the day, which in a village with no transport to get to around and most days suffering heavy rain and strong wind, left me feeling rather frustrated with Port Charlotte at certain times. I moved out a couple of days earlier than paid for (didn't get my money back) and after failing to find accommodation at Bridgend, stayed in a very nice B&B in Bowmore for a couple of days, allowing me to get to the Oa reserve and do some evening geese roost watching which until now I'd not been able to do.
It was unfortunate that the hostel was being run temporarily by someone who neither had any knowledge of Islay, nor was particularly interested in staying around now the season had quietened down. However, earlier in the week, people staying at the Hostel had said their previous visits to the Hostel had been brilliant as had the previous Warden and the current manager was an exception to the rule. It was partly his attitude that had resulted one of the other guests on a cycle tour of Scotland, who had been a good drinking companion for the evenings, moving out himself a few days earlier. For myself, personally, I think I'd rather pay the extra £10 for a a B&B, have a good breakfast as the main meal of the day, with all the en suite facilities and accessibility this offers rather than pay to eat out in the evening or cook and eat in a place that felt like the Marie Celeste the majority of time with only a very small room to sleep in. If I had not been alone in the building the majority of time, it would not have been so bad possibly and if the relief manager had been a little less anal about locking everything away and trying to pack up for the season, the experience would have been very different, I'm sure.
All in all, it was a very successful trip and I managed to get to every place I'd hoped to. The birding at times was hard work as I had set myself certain endemic targets, had no 'tours' arranged and lacked transport but it was also very enjoyable and rewarding. I was fortunate in meeting Tim Wooten and his friend Paul on Orkney which made a very big difference to my time in Hope, giving me a sense of the local birding scene as well as an insight into the community life of the village. Duncan and Martin, whom I met in Lossiemouth were also an added bonus and in both places I had a sense of being a part of the 'universal community' of birding and how it is possible to have a full sense of working and being in someone else's local patch even as a 'visiting birder' for a few days. It was this experience I'd hoped to find on my 'birding tour' and it worked out beautifully. It's hard to say what location I enjoyed most, but certainly, the very warm welcome to Orkney, I received from Tim and being shown around his excellent art studio, the day out 'twitching' with Paul et al, the time spent with Duncan searching for Scottish Crossbill have to be highlights of the trip. In terms of birds, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, it was the spectacle and heart rendering sight and sound of thousands and thousands of Barnacle and Greenland Whitefronts arriving in their winter home on the green fields of Islay and their subsequent roosting movements against fantastic sunsets (on the days it wasn't raining!) - it was better than Rose Coloured Starling, better than Scottish Crossbill, better than white-tail eagles and better than all the other experiences put together - I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Andrew Whitehouse, BF; for a day's birding in Aberdeen, a fantastic amount of pre-trip research material and advice, and a very useful OS map of Islay (it's still in one piece Andrew!)
Tim Wooten, BF: for welcome to his home and village on Orkney, for a very helpful few hours of sketching and advice re: capturing 'live' bird action in pencil!
Duncan: for your company in Lossie
Pete, BF of Mullbirds: for a trip round Mull and finding me not just one, but a pair of White-tailed eagles!
Ian: Proprietor of the B&B at Lossie
Margeret and Duncan: Proprietors of B&B on Orkney
Volunteers and Director of RSPB on Islay
For all BF members who provided help and advice before the trip - especially Delia, Ken, Andrew, Nirofo and Gordon Hamlett
134 SPECIES SEEN: (Where I didn't find the bird myself, the name of the finder is next to the name of the bird - where I had specific directions with where to locate particular species but found the bird myself, I've typed 'refs:' with the person's name after' - all other birds were found by me without assistance other than references and information provided before the trip). With regard to birds seen on Islay, they are not listed separately other than those particularly endemic. However, Malcom Oglivy's book, 'Birds of Islay' was particularly helpful and all birds seen were seen in places he referenced in this book. I also would not have seen as many birds as I did, if it were not for the kindness of local people stopping to give me lifts, or the general information about local geography and habitat given by local birders in the places I visited.
(in order of frequency)
White Tailed Eagle (Pete, Mull)
Golden Eagle (ref: Pete, Mull)
(S?) Crossbill (ref: Duncan, Lossimouth)
Rose Coloured Starling (Keith, refs: Paul, Orkney)
Richards Pipit (Paul)
Ring Ouzel (Stuart)
Yellow Browed Warbler (refs: Paul, Orkney)
'Grey' Chiffchaff - (ssp undetermined, Orkney)
Dipper (refs: Malcom Oglivy)
Long tailed tit
WADERS, DIVERS & WILDFOWL
Bar tailed Godwit
Black tailed Godwit
Red throated Diver
Surf Scoter (refs: Duncan, Lossie)
Slavonian (horned) Grebe
Great Skua (Paul)
Great Northern Diver (crossing to Mull)
Manx Shearwater (crossing to Mull)
Black throated Diver
Greenland Whitefronts (Islay)
bat (sp undetermined - not pips)