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Oliver Twist Birding (1 Viewer)

Avid readers will have worked out by now that I’m most definitely not a morning person. Which is unfortunate, given the amount of bird ‘life’ I miss out on by virtue of being a barely- functioning shell of a man before about half ten. My ‘birding hard reset’ though seems to have worked wonders for early morning. The Friday after my Sma’ Glen/ Loch of the Lowes trip I was due to be in the office. Normally such mornings are spent pondering life choices and ruminating about why I never play the lottery. This Friday, however, was something special.

A wall of noise struck once I left the house. A handful of house sparrows had been feeding in the garden and scattered to the shelter of my neighbour’s hedge. A song thrush called from close by- invisible, but loud. Song thrush song is maybe second only to a skylark as a mood- lifter. Greenfinch wheezed, again I couldn’t get eyes on them, but its definitely good enough to know they’re here, close by. Outside the estate and at the start of the railway path there is a small, but welcome, patch of wild land. Well, relatively wild- I’m always hopeful that I’ll walk past and find a Bear lurking among the trees. Maybe one day…

Blackcap called and got answered from further away. Similarly chiffchaff. This wasn’t a birding trip,. t what a damned fine start to what ended up a pretty good day at work. Never under-estimate the power of birdsong and sunshine.

My plan for the weekend was to visit Musselburgh. It had been a while, and spring had sprung, leaving me optimistic of a worthwhile and productive day. Continuing railway engineering work on the Sundy meant that transport East would need to be creative. A fitful sleep overnight meant I was up and out the door in time for a 7am bus into Glasgow. A shockingly busy 7am bus. The connecting coach to Edinburgh was mercifully empty, thankfully the woman sitting in front of me didn’t seem to mind my snoring. My connecting train to Wallyford got me there without a hitch. I’m genuinely not used to things going so smoothly.

Wallyford Station got me very vocal chiffchaff with competing greenfinch. As unmelodic as greenfinch are, given the absolute hammering they’ve had over the past few years, its damned good hearing them in full cry.

The glowing start to the day was tempered somewhat when trying to pass a group of chatting dog walkers on the approach to Levenhall scrapes. A small, yappy bundle of wasted DNA approached, with its owner oblivious, and took a bite out of my ankle. I yelped (a manly yelp, thank you) and the owner’s friend offered a “oh, has he been naughty?” I channelled my inner Glaswegian and responded with “naughty? Naw hen, he’s f-ckin bit me”. I decided to continue down to the scrapes rather than to parlay with a group of fools. I did think to myself that this kind of thing never, ever happens to My Mate Bill.

Having, for once, plenty of time to spend on site I started at the furthest East hide. The approach path was scattered with whole peanuts, and I found the hide itself similarly polluted. Absolutely no ide why, my guess (because I’m a cynic) was that a fieldcraft- free photographer had scattered them to try and bring things close in. Damned foolish, elementary bird feeding tells us that whole peanuts will choke birds. The positive take- away from this hide was the presence of a young birder and her Dad. Birder had a scope, binos, a notebook, pen, and a look of determination on her face. She also had a Dad who was 100% supportive of her. More power to the pir of them.

Bird- wise, got shelduck, sand martin, pied wagtail, and lots of redshank. Checking the fast- moving sand martins for any house martins gave me eye-strain and a vague headache. It’s a long summer, so plenty of time…..

The Dad and Daughter team was eventually replaced by a group of Yorkshire folk who, I don’t think, actually looked at the birds in front of them. Instead, they had a great chat about all the birds they’d seen in Yorkshire. I pointed out a wheatear on the mud, and didn’t get a reply from any of them. Great views, for me and apparently me alone. It did reaffirm that I’d made the right choice of Lancaster University over York.

The middle hide got more of the same redshanks, shelduck, and a skulking wee brown jobby on the mud. Further eyestrain and a fortuitous shaft of sunlight let me see it was a linnet. Not great views, it was at the limits of the scope, but still a year tick. I was interested in seeing whether anything had dropped in with the recent strong winds, and scanned the far reaches of the pools. Nothing sandpiper-y, unfortunately, but my scanning did get me a half dozen black- tailed godwit. Wanting a better look, I popped round to the furthest West hide, and promptly couldn’t find them again. What was it I said about fieldcraft?? Unnatural patience finally got them again, and GS was a very happy birder.

By this time the wind had picked up, making seawatching even more baleful than usual. My spirits were lifted by a pair of gannets feeding. Year tick 3, and a look toward Bass Rock told me how lucky I was to have seen them- the Rock is still very, very grey rather than chalk white with the 1000s of gannets it should have.

The walk to the new scrapes was notable for the sheer number of skylark singing, and showing ridiculously well. The topography of the new area means that they start their song flight from lower down than the path, giving us birder types a chance to get eyes on them and keep eyes on them. I may have mentioned in passing how much I love skylark.

The new scrapes were, though, a bit disappointing. Nothing much of note, although I did have the chance to visit all of the hides for once. I still think that, in time, it will fulfil its potential, but I just wish it would hurry up. The trip home was just as entertaining as the trip there, another noisy sleep on the coach, but a feeling of contentment about a damned good day out. It did, though, leave me wanting MORE…..

Luckily, I had booked the next 2 days off work……

Monday saw a return of Lanarkshire’s rainy season (I don’t like moaning about the weather, but even by Scottish standards 2024 is awful) In between showers I scooted out and wandered to the River Clyde. The walk down the path again got me chiffchaff, blackcap and song thrush. I now considered them to be mine. Something that I’ll rely on to raise my spirits just by being there.

The Clyde itself was in full spate, and was a lovely chocolatey colour that would give Willy Wonka paroxysms of joy. Not great for birding, though. A single willow warbler called from the woods, but I lacked the wall of warbler noise that a proper summer brings. Wren, though, appear to be waterproof as they made their presence known all along the path. The highlight of a very soggy, very muddy walk was the handful of treecreeper chasing each other through the trees closest to the path. Oblivious to me, the various dog walkers, and clearly impervious to the rain. Mud on my boots, and some unusual birding ‘life’ gave me a very enjoyable hour and a half. Guess what, though? It left me wanting more!!

Tuesday saw me travel to Lochwinnoch RSPB, to give it a chance to redeem itself after the last time. That, and yon internet thing had said they had little ringed plovers on the scrape. I’m not a twitcher, remember….

Which is just as well as the overnight showers (if its constant rain for hours, can it still be called a ‘shower’?) had raised the water level at the scrape. LRP no more….. The feeders were empty, which didn’t help things at all. The overall feeling that Lochwinnoch had returned to its former (and wholly unfair) status of being a bird- free zone. A walk along the Dubbs Water trail was, though, good for the soul. The sun was shining, and I sat on the bench, scanning the water. Almost immediately, I got 2 pairs of breeding- plumage Great- Crested Grebe. I’d like to think that there isn’t a birder alive who can’t look at these in wonderment.

A lovely walk on a spring day in fresh air was rewarding in itself. It did, though, leave me wanting much, much more.

It had been at least 2 weeks since I last had a cold, and I knew it was overdue. Lo and behold my next few days were spent feeling very sorry for myself. By today (Sunday) I’d realised that my lot in life was to cough and sneeze in perpetuity, and that I may as well get on with things. Being ill didn’t prevent Mrs GS giving me a list of tasks to do, and I opted to combine these with an afternoon out. Searching the internet I saw that Balgray Reservoir in Barrhead was being visited by a ring- necked duck and female scaup. Now, I’m not a twitcher, but I do remember getting these birds there last year, long with house martin and sedge warbler. Also, and more cynically, Barrhead is far enough away from home that Lady MacBeth would have to leave me alone.

A lot has changed in a year. The water level in the ‘reservoir’ is shockingly low (Western Scotland has had 4 months of rain in 2024, so it must have taken some effort to lower the water level) and large-scale building works are ongoing. Someone, somewhere will think that this is progress, but it risks destroying what is a well- known birding site that has the happy knack of bringing in some damned good birds. Speaking to another couple of birders and it appears that no- one is happy about it. Various signs warned that the footpath was closed, but we all know that this doesn’t apply to birders. Any anger at this was immediately dispelled by the reeling sound of grasshopper warbler. I counted at least 3, but from bitter experience I know that they can be a bit deceptive. Naturally, couldn’t get eyes on them as they skulked in the undergrowth, but damned good to get, nonetheless.

I walked as far as I could until I reached the bit where the path genuinely was closed- though locals seem to have indulged in ‘guerilla dog walking’ and forced a gap in the fence. Anyway, scanning the distant water got me a pair of common sand on the far shoreline. Not great views, as it was really at the limit of my scope’s ability, but still good to get. The sky and water though were utterly devoid of either sand martin or house martin. Whether the earlier rain had kept them way, or the very low water has killed off their food supply, I don’t know.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a twitcher. If I was, I’d have reminded myself of what a ring- necked duck actually looks like. I had vague memories of something that looks like a tufted duck until you see it, then its really obvious that its different from a tufty. Which, admittedly, isn’t the best preparation ever, but you know, you have to work with the tools you’re given.

There were a LOT of tufted ducks….. There were a lot of tufted ducks diving….

Eventually, though, perseverance got me the RN Duck, and yes, when I saw it I remembered just how different it is from a tufty. No sign of the scaup, though. I had a very pleasant walk back to the car, with the glow of 3 year ticks safely tucked under the belt. Once in the car I checked Twitter, and saw a post from 15 minutes earlier that there were 3 little gulls in among the black- headed gulls that I’d glanced at and ignored. I’m used to ‘you should have been here earlier’ but this was something new. And do you know, despite missing out on the Little Gull, I headed home content. For this day at least, I didn’t need any more.



I tend to dwell on ‘ideal world’ things and wishes. In an ideal world I’d be a millionaire lottery winner, who could spend his days birdwatching and chilling with bears in my own private primordial forest. The odds against either happening are a bit steep, though, so I tend not to get too upset by it. I can’t help, though, wanting more birding, wanting more birds, more bird life. When you have a bad day you want the chance to make up for it. You want to get back out, to prove that this was an aberration, an outlier in the life records of a birder.

When you have a right good day, though, you never want it to end. You want it to go on and on and on. And that desire, that need is a wonderful thing to have.

Stay healthy (healthier than me, certainly) and keep being brilliant to each other.


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