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Offsetting Expectations (2 Viewers)

Its that time of the birding year where I’ve had a go at all the plans I had made earlier in the year, and even the wildly ambitious ones set at the end of the previous year. I’ve ‘done’ the coast, ‘done’ woodland for migrants, picked up the expected birds by being out in general, and of course mumbled and moaned about not being out enough. Thus the urge to do something ‘big’ competed with the practicality of ‘what.’ I was lucky to have a full week off work, and very few plans in place. The possibilities for some damned good birding were there for the taking.

Now avid readers will remember that I’m not a twitcher. I’m an ‘immerse yourself in the birding day’ kind of guy. This is partly due to my love of the purest form of birding, and (less romantically) the fact that I’m piss- poor at twitching. Anyway, bearing this in mind I found myself unexpectedly at Lochwinnoch RSPB on the first Sunday of June. I had intended to go there at some point in the summer for spotted flycatcher, the fact that I decided to go when a wood sandpiper was on the scrapes was purely coincidental. Not twitching, see?

The drive down there somehow seems to get longer each time, and I’ve driven it with 3 kids fighting in the back seat. Upon arrival, I managed to grab the last free parking space. My only irk is that there are parking spaces set aside specifically for shoppers. I’d prefer it if the vast majority of spaces were marked for birders only. A small gripe.

The feeders in the car park had chaffinch and great tits feeding. In the visitor centre I received the usual warm greeting from the volunteer, who seemed to think I was there for the wood sandpiper and immediately gave me a great breakdown in its habits and where best seen. I overheard a couple of other birders discussing how the spotted flycatchers are erratic (my kind of birds…) and not always reliable. Swifts had been seen more toward the village side of the reserve. The Wood Sand itself was viewed best from the tower.

30 seconds later I found myself in the tower, where a very helpful birder pointed me in the right direction. Wood Sandpiper ticked, only my second ever, and well worth the drive/ compromising my principles. While I’m not a twitcher, this bloke most definitely was, and while our conversation was an enjoyable, generic birding chat, the arrival of another twitcher changed the dynamic somewhat. This must be what its like for non birders in company whenever 2 or more of us get together. Tables turned somewhat, but I couldn’t complain. The wood sand was naked- eye visible, and ironically awkwardly placed to view from the scope. Binos much better. Gift of sight restricted, for once.

The scrapes held black- headed gull, redshank, shoveler, teal, obligatory mallard, lapwing, and plover of indeterminate- sized ring. Swallows performed regular flybys, just to remind us that they flew a helluva long way to be noticed. The twitchy- talk was easily tuned out, and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of my time in the Tower. I did though baulk a bit at the thought of each of their petro- miles. Not something I’d feel comfortable with.

The rest of the reserve held good numbers of birders, good numbers of families with kids with binoculars. Kids practicing their skills, and kids who were clearly seasoned experts. For the second time in a few weeks I witnessed a Daddy- Daughter combo, with the serious- faced child being left to bird at her own pace. Dad just looked unspeakably proud.

I continued my walk along to the ‘listening posts’ where spotted flycatchers were alleged to be. I got within bout 15 feet of them, still slightly round the bed and to the side of the posts, when I saw a youngish girl staring out onto the fen from the path. I followed her gaze, and despite having zero expectations, and despite my experience with the species being a bit awful, I got a perfectly- plumaged spot fly sitting on a post. The girl stared unmovingly, with her Dad slightly behind also standing stock still, drinking in the sight. I quietly set up my scope and got a better look, without any need to get closer. Some photography of dubious quality followed, but mostly, I just stood and stared. The beauty of a smallish brown bird on a brown branch.

2nd year tick, sure, but this wasn’t one that at the start of the year I thought I’d be ticking.

Movement in my peripheral vision got a second bird in the adjacent trees, flitting about. The bird on the jutting- out branch flew off, then back again very quickly. The two birds moved at their own pace, undisturbed by the 3 badly- dressed humans standing still, not interfering.

Eventually I caught the Dad’s eye, and we shared a brief smile. We knew the beauty, the perfection, of the moment.

A wander back the way, and then further along the Barr Loch trail to the bench got me a wall of willow warbler noise, with one dissenting, defiant sedge warbler. I sat on the bench, letting the competing noise of wildlife and distant humanity wash over me. Very relaxing, very mindful. Too relaxing, as I ended up having a prolonged car nap before beginning the journey home. 30 bird species, immeasurable bird ‘life’ and equally importantly, birder life from the volunteer, the helpful twitcher, and the dad- daughter teams. A damned fine day, as ‘visitor centre’ birding trips go. The journey home had me thinking that, with the unexpected spot fly, did I really need another trip into the woods of Loch Lomond? If a bear ws there, most definitely, but otherwise? Unsure.

The next day, the first ‘official’ day of my week off, found me in the Sma’ Glen with Mrs GS. Definitely not birding trip, but any time spent outdoors listening to birds, seeing birds, noticing birds, meets the criteria for birding. You don’t have to ‘go’ birding as much as ‘be’ birding. The river was low with lots of exposed shingle and boulders. Almost immediately, got common sandpiper on said boulders, and followed it before it flew off downstream. A cuckoo called very distantly, and swallows performed acrobatics. A picnic in the field beside the river, before Mrs GS sent me off down the path to do some ‘formal’ birding. As is the story of 2024, no raptors (definitely no red kite) and I realised the field Mrs GS was in was a far better place to be.

Back at the car, sudden movement on the river got grey wagtail on the shingle. Mrs GS noticed that it was particularly well- named, as it stood doing its tail- wagging thing. A family of mallard swam past, entertaining us both. Not a birding trip, clearly, but time spent in a place of absolute natural beauty is never time wasted. The dance of the swallows, the grey wag, the common sand, and the family of mallard, elevated the trip beyond the normal.

Next day, and I was more or less plan- less. I’m guilty of procrastination, and I freely admit that my birding suffers somewhat as a result. It dawned on me that this was as good a time as any to go for a local wander- like every year I had vowed to spend more time locally, and like every year I’d been utterly negligent in keeping to this. The procrastination thing meant that I didn’t set out until about noon (after being awake from 7am) I still needed swift and RN parakeets, and the Clyde area offered some sort of hope for both. More than that, though, was the chance to just be out for anther day. The weather wasn’t perfect, a stiff breeze and scurrying high cloud was fairly standard for 2024.

I stopped at what I’ve now labelled my ‘mystery glade’- the patch of wild- ish land outside my estate where the council allow the grass to grown, plants last long enough to flower, and trees grown enough to form a canopy. Birdsong encircled this small patch of wildness. I closed my eyes, tuned out the background noise of humanity, and thought of the fragility of such perfection. This is a place with soft ground underfoot, mossy tree trunks, a place where you can blend into the background unnoticed. A place, essentially, where bear should be.

The path to the railway station had calling blackcap, chiffchaff, wren and blackbird. Not quite a wall of noise- we may be beyond that for this year- but still bird activity, bird life. The path between the station and the river saw the weather take turn for the worse- colder, duller. Billy Connolly’s sage advice about bad weather and bad clothing popped into my mind, given that I hadn’t bothered with a jacket.

The plan, such as it was, had been to head direct to the Horse Field and hope for hirundines feeding high up. Immediately on reaching the path, though, the unmistakeable call of ring- necked parakeet called from through the trees, then again heading slightly upstream. I pursued, hoping that it would call again. By the time I reached a gap in the foliage and stood on the riverbank, though, there was neither sight nor sound of the parakeet. A tick, certainly, but not exactly satisfying.

The walk across the bridge gave me views up and downstream, to a river very short of birdlife. A pair of female goosander stood on an exposed rock, and drifted serenely downstream. The highlight of the river. The Horse Field itself was ablaze with buttercups as far as the eye could see. It also lacked horses, which is an overwhelmingly good thing. Willow warbler called from all around, and goldfinch flitted from tree to tree, I found a quiet spot to sit and relax, letting the sights and sounds wash over me amidst a blaze of yellow. I’m not convinced whether a buttercup monoculture is a good or bad thing, ideally it’d be a mass of different wildflowers, but maybe this is the first stage, either for the year or for multi- year recovery. Regardless, it offered both peace and beauty, in a place not often associated with either.

After the Horse Field I walked up the path, past the evil car breakers. I stopped to take photos of their continuing vandalism, and inwardly rage at the local politicians who allow it to happen with impunity. I had the option to go to Fine Me Oot, or to Redlees Quarry. I opted for the latter, as it had been a while since my last visit. The same council that allows the evil car breakers to wreak havoc, had themselves begun a tree- chopping programme, with no end product in sight. Also lacking any sign of fruition is the local nature reserve they announced ages ago.

Anyway, to counter- act this the path to the pond had lots and lots of warbler noise. For once, there were neither anglers not dog walkers. A Minor miracle. I began the anti- clockwise circuit from the pond, before getting adventurous and leaving the ‘formal’ man- made path and wandering onto a very informal (but still, technically man- made) path leading to the railway line. Blackcaps called loudly, as tree branches had to be gently moved away as I made progress. Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff also called, but for the first time in weeks, blackcap dominated. I followed the mini-path to the railway fence, where it then dropped steeply. Branches and twigs were thicker now, actively trying to attack me, and this was possibly the most fun I’d had in ages. Eventually, the path dropped too steeply for me to continue. 16 year old Green Sand would have continued without needing to think about it.

I miss being young.

The intention had been to walk round to the anti- aircraft emplacement (WW2 era, not current- I know Lanarkshire can be rough, but not that rough) as I had previous had buzzard and kestrel there. Before that, however, I noticed another ‘informal’ path cutting across the field. My adventurous instinct kicked in again (this was flat, no scary slopes involved) and I headed along it, across the meadow. Not knowing where it would end up, the joy was in finding out. As much as the meadow was a thing of beauty, it was utterly devoid of butterflies, bees, hoverflies or any other pollinator. It had taken me a while to notice this. Shifting baseline, as even a few years earlier this would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

Eventually, I ended up on the main path, and retraced my steps home. The 1 year tick was a bit unfulfilling, but in my mind this was more than made up for by the birdlife, and wildness found elsewhere, even if the wildness was only in my mind.

Wednesday saw me sticking to one of the few real, set-in-stone plans I had for the week. It had been far too long since I’d seen the North Sea, or Edinburgh Waverley station. I had a Lothian itch only Musselburgh could scratch.

Now, I my have mentioned before that I’m not twitcher. Honest, guv’nor. I was always intending to go to Musselburgh on my week off, and that my trip coincided with avocets being on the old scrapes was, genuinely, well, coincidental. My targets were common tern and peregrine, definitely this year’s bogey bird.

Procrastination meant that I didn’t reach Musselburgh to about noon, and for someone who isn’t a twitcher, I got awfully nervous that the avocet had buggered off whilst I was on my couch watching repeats of Series 2 of The Chase. Avocet would be a lifer, see, and given the geographic limitations of my birding, I would never have a better chance to see them.

The walk from Wallyford Station to the scrapes as completed in record time. Pausing only to set up my scope I entered the middle hide. One other birder was there, who greeted me warmly and pointed me in the direction of where the avocet were. My first sight of them was through the binos, the later views (and vidi- scoping) from the scope waited as I drank in the views offered. I was far from home, with a stranger, so the ‘Dance Of Lifer Shame’ was done inwardly.

The avocet didn’t actually do anything spectacular. The stood around, wandered a bit, slept, preened a lot, and squabbled with other birds. Also present were good numbers of dunlin, shelduck. A mass of sand martins were very distracting, interspersed with good numbers of house martins. A swallow out- performed them all. The best sky dancing though was both serendipitous and inevitable. Given the global megastar due to hold concerts just up the road in Edinburgh, it was fate that I would finally get a swift for the year. And not some half- arsed, slightly disappointing view like last year, but a chance to watch them in action. It was a hirundine party, that we’d gatecrashed.

The Yorkshire folk from a few weeks ago arrived, and continued their tradition of being unimpressed by what was on offer. Or, rather, giving no outward sign of being impressed. Definitely a Yorkshire thing, as you’d have to be dead inside not to be taken aback by what was on offer.

The rain then began, only briefly, before being replaced by hailstones. In June. Scottish weather is such a cliché. Sheltering under a tree, I basked in the glow of a lifer, and of the brighter glow of the hirundines. The sea was mostly empty of birds, and eventually I shuffled back to the station to begin my journey home. A journey prolonged as my train was stranded in the West Lothian wilderness. I could have sworn I looked out my window and saw a bear going past.

Remember I said I wasn’t a twitcher, because I’m rubbish at it? Thursday the 6th had my car booked in for service in a garage in Motherwell. A garage a brief 40 minute walk from Baron’s Haugh. That’s Baron’s Haugh that had seen red- necked phalarope the previous day. Now, I was heading there anyway, but the thought of another lifer had me up and out early, and at the reserve by 9am. I was met by the news that it hadn’t been seen all morning, but had possibly re- located to Balgray Reservoir (where I got the RN Duck a few weeks ago) Being car- less, I had the reserve to myself as every other birder who arrived promptly headed off for East Renfrewshire’s premier urban reservoir.

The avid readers who remember I’m not a twitcher will also remember my strained relationship with the Haugh. Occasionally feels like home, at other times very alien, but always full off the ghosts of birding and birders past. An emotional experience, quite often.

The area around the Marsh Hide was a wall of noise once again. Blackcap singing well in spurts, willow warbler more consistent. Sand martins dominated the sky outside the hide, a water rail called from its traditional place to the rear. Coot and its unbelievable cute young swam in the pool to the right, while a grey heron skulked in the reeds. Moorhen walked on the mud, while roe deer play- fought and chased each ther. 2 separate families of Canada geese, each with different- aged goslings swam further out. Great- crested grebe was visible far out toward where the Phoenix Hide once stood, a single tufted duck was also there.

Eventually, I moved on from the hide nd noticed that the wildflower meadow had been allowed to grow this year, rather than the farmer getting more free grazing. A meandering path had been cut through the field, a swathe through what was predominantly buttercup and ox-eye daisy. Hopefully, other species will fill in, a reminder that the cold, wet spring has held so many things back. No butterflies, though. Yet? Or at all? The fact that this could even be contemplated shows how far we’ve fallen.

I enjoyed a slow, leisurely stroll up the hill. Background noise was unobtrusive, but formed the tapestry of the experience. I reached the top of the slope, sat and relaxed. A Kestrel caught my eye, hovering relatively close by. Suddenly, it swooped, and I followed it through my binos. It eventually rose again and I could see something small, furry and dead in its talons. It flew into nearby trees with a meal for a hungry chick or 2. Two further hunts were equally stunning visually, but were unsuccessful. One success out of three. The fragile uncertainty of life, of bird- life.

A walk around the river side was blocked off by a fence and gate. The ongoing works to create the ‘new’ wetlands didn’t need visitors interfering. The sight of the area of the old ‘bench’ (which had in fact been a fallen tree trunk) brought back fond memories of Sunday mornings with the Hamilton RSPB group. Of learning, gaining experience, and the value of a solitary pastime shared with friends.





A walk through Dalzell Woods offered background noise again. Treecreeper was seen but not heard. Sitting on the Sow Bridge I let life pass me by, soaking it up, living in it. By now my car was ready and I took my time walking back to the garage, real life eventually pushing through the reverie of a full day on what had shown itself to be my home nature reserve.



Thoughts:

A busy week, a productive week, a week mostly without planning, without an agenda. A week with birds, and with thoughts. A week which brought ticks, both of life and year. A week that brought so much more in terms of bird- life. Comparing the (mostly formless) aims of the week with the hopes/ plans set earlier in the year got me thinking. I was incredibly happy to get spotted flycatcher at Lochwinnoch, and redstart at Loch Lomond. Do these 2 relatively unexpected ticks make up for missing out on pied flycatcher and tree pipit? Would the lifer and (in the case of the wood sandpiper) near- lifer, make up if I miss out on greenshank this year, or a curlew sand at Musselburgh? Or a red- throated diver?

Evil industrialists try to greenwash their actions by off- setting carbon emissions by planting forests that will take 20 or 30 years to mature. By savouring the birds I do get, and more importantly the bird life I get, I offset any disappointment in what I don’t get. I’m completely aware of my limitations as a birder, both in terms of skill, and in terms of what I can do, when, and where. These limitations though are most definitely offset by immersing myself, by glorying in the birdlife when and where I can get it.

And to me, that’s whats truly fulfilling.



Stay healthy, stay safe, stay brilliant, folks.



John
 
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Wow you had an eventful week of birding! From Lochwinnoch to Musselburgh and Baron's Haugh, you covered a lot of ground and had some unexpected sightings. That moment with the spotted flycatcher sounded magical. Your reflections capture the essence of birding—it's about immersing yourself in the beauty of it all. Here's to more fulfilling adventures ahead!
 

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