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Pigeon- Counting In Leith (1 Viewer)

You should never believe your eyes…..

My Aberlady trip had been, er, a bit of a challenge and I was determined to get back out as soon as humanly possible. And by human, I mean as soon as the competing demands of employment, wife and mini- Sandpipers allowed me. Now, I do love a challenge and not being put off by the loathsome Aberlady, a few days later I found myself with a few spare hours and headed to Ardmore Point, in Dumbartonshire. A place I'd struggled for birds previously, despite other birders finding great riches there regularly. A place I'd always found challenging....sounds familiar? I made my usual mistake of looking at the internet at what other people had seen, and said “hey, I can do that….” Damned internet.

Arrived at Ardmore in mid afternoon, the sun still high enough to give plenty of light without a huge amount of warmth. Ardmore is a place where waders are often seen in good numbers and variety (not by me), where divers will turn up (not when I'm there), where geese overfly (nope) where interesting sea ducks frequent (nah) and (I can claim this one) Osprey can be seen indulging in mid- summer fishing. Basically, it’s the Clyde version of Aberlady.

Needless to say, none of the above occurred when I arrived. Ardmore is usually, though, an absolute guarantee for RB Merganser, and I was reasonably hopeful of seeing them in either the North or South bays. My anti- clockwise walk around the promontory got distant shelduck (you'll be shocked that I hadn't checked the tides) The wooded area had the usual suspects, plus song thrush, goldcrest and goldfinch. Seawatching got nothing more than BH and common gulls (call me mad, though, I never complain about common gulls. And if I ever do, call me out on it)

Long- tailed tits showed well, and although the tide was incoming rapidly, sea- life hadn’t picked up at all. A nice chat with a local was a great way to idle away some time, and we continued the walk together. A further stop allowed me to scope out wider area of the sea. And there, floating serenely were a goldeneye, and a male RB Merganser. Year tick, and one of those ‘rescue’ birds which saves a trip from being somewhat disappointing. The irony that it was opposite the car park, and I could’ve had an hour- long car-nap and still got it, wasn’t lost on me.

Still, a few hours in the fresh (ie freezing) air, in good sunlight, with the singing of a song thrush in the background, is never, ever a disappointment. Feel free to call me out again if I ever suggest that it is.

All this travelling about had triggered my ‘commando birding’ instinct- to make the most of brief windows of opportunity, to make the most of unexpected opportunities. A few days after my Dumbartonshire exploits, I had completed the list of man- tasks set by Mrs GS, and had a spare couple of hours. Decided to stay local, as I still hadn’t had a proper GS woodpecker. And given Uddingston has plenty of them, my pride was definitely dented.

Parked at the evil emporium which is Birnham’s auto breaking yard, and walked down the path. Recent winds had blown over some impressively- sized trees, I only hope that South Lanarkshire Council leave them where they are, and let nature do its thing. I doubt it, though, as SLC seem to have a genuine loathing for the natural world. All the usual suspects sang out from the trees and bushes. The wall of birdsong got me thinking about whether climate change was triggering changes in bird behaviour even on a local scale in Uddingston. Alternatively, maybe they were enjoying the afternoon sunshine as much as I was?

The water level was high as I crossed the green bridge over the Clyde, the river itself a lovely, frothy chocolatey colour. Needless to say, nothing on the water bar a couple of mallard upstream. The riverside was relatively quiet after the wall of noise further up the hill. A quick walk to the woods nearest the playing fields, and a wander off track found me in my favourite spot for woodpecker- hunting. Leaning against a tree, I waited patiently (well, patiently for me) and was rewarded not with a fleeting glimpse high up in the tops, but a low level, out-in-the-open specimen. One of those things that I just stood and drank in the sight, eventually moving on with a huge smile on my face and a spring in my step. The only pang was that this was a brief, afternoon visit to my local patch, a patch that deserves birders spending long, long days out in the mud.

Avid readers will know that I’m never happy with the amount of birding that I do, that I can never be out enough. And that often, when I do get out, even that isn’t enough to quell the urge, the itch. The final Sunday in February saw me trying to squeeze in a visit to Cathkin Marsh while Mrs GS was at the gym. Not because I had any great hopes for a festival of birding, but more that an hour somewhere, anywhere would be good for the soul.

Now, Cathkin Marsh is a place I have deep, and mixed emotions for. It’s a special place, that very often is frustratingly lacking in birds. It’s a place that evokes a sense of wildness, despite there being nearby houses, a farm, and a landfill site. As it was one of the first places I ever visited, it- along with the Haugh- epitomises how things change, which can bring on a rush of melancholy for birding in yesteryear. Don’t get me wrong, its still a great place, it’s a wonderful place for summer insects, for summer plants, and for summer warblers. But on this fine February morning, it was almost deathly quiet, offering an opportunity to get lost in my own thoughts.

I reminisced about how the path used to be awash with yellowhammer and chaffinch. How reed bunting were an all- year event. How kestrels hovered over the Marsh, and how buzzard tried to copy them. These are all things that you no longer see, but things that if you dwell on, you miss out on the beauty of the present- day.

All these thoughts and musings, the sense of nostalgia, of melancholy. All blown away by the most joyous sound in nature. The glory of a singing skylark. One of those moments of open- mouthed wonder. I gave up trying to find it as it soared above, and instead put my head back, my eyes closed, my arms out-stretched, and a look of unadulterated joy on my face. Don’t get me wrong- I appreciate the year tick as well, but this one perfect moment of beauty was worth a dozen hours rushing around a reserve on a birding challenge.

Oh, I also managed to add a squealing water rail, which while being less of a thing of wonder, was still good to tick. A good dose of birding effort got me a male stonechat at the back of the reserve. A quick visit, sure, but a worthwhile one in multiple ways.

These brief outings, though, left me desperate for a bigger day out. A day of birding opportunities. A day out East, basically. I was missing it. I’d spent too long scrambling about in the West. Dad duties meant that Sunday just past was my only available time at the weekend. Public transport in the West on Sundays is a tad, well, crap, and I found myself in a logistical nightmare of getting into Glasgow, changing stations, then getting to Edinburgh for my connection to Musselburgh. Having looked at my scribbled notes of train times, I decided that even if Musselburgh didn’t go according to plan, I was definitely going to do East Coast birding of some sort.

My good friend Bear, being an Edinburgh native, had joked about pigeons in Waverley Station, and whether they’d be counted. Pride meant that no, I wouldn’t. But I did promise that counting Leith pigeons, with Leith being a notoriously wilder part of Edinburgh (sorry Bear…) would definitely be a plan B.

And this is where the old adage of not believing your eyes comes in.

I had checked the BBC weather website for Sunday. It cheerfully told me that Musselburgh would have glorious, unbroken sunshine. At the back of my mind was a niggling doubt, given the BBC have farmed out their weather forecasting necromancy to a private, for- profit company, but no, I trusted the internet. I arrived in Musselburgh to see glowering, cloudy skies.

Thanks BBC. Luckily I didn’t check the tides, mind you.

The walk from the station along the Esk got the usual waterfowl. Wigeon, Canada Geese, goldeneye, and an assortment of gulls. A trio of female goldeneye floated at the weir near the cadet hut, diving as the water often rushed over them. A fun thing to watch. Bird life, my favourite. The tide was far out, with the sand and mud pretty lacking in birds. A closer look saw why- a half dozen or so dog walkers on the mud, with every sea bird keeping its distance. Now, I should know better, and that these are local people using their own resources, and I’m visitor, and I’m a grumpy sod, but that really put me in a mood.

Until skylark started singing from the new scrapes. And yes, not my first of the year, but still the same feeling of joy. Its almost like a drug- to me at least. It triggers endorphins somehow. When I’m King of the World I’ll commission a team of psychologists to investigate it, but until then, I'll just enjoy it for the mystery effect it has on me.

A quick look in the closest of the new hides got nothing much, bar a male pheasant. A walk along to the ‘old’ scrapes, though, was far more productive. Almost as if the old area was feeling neglected, and felt the need to put on a show. A flock of over 30 stock dove made their presence known. Not a year tick, but never a species I take for granted, and the numbers were impressive. Movement next to the fence got a pair of stonechat, a scan to the left got me a pair of reed bunting. A target bird, but painful experience over the past couple of years has meant that they’re never a guarantee, anywhere. Year tick 1.

The scrapes themselves were fairly quiet, of birds and birders. Shelduck, redshank, a dunlin, and (surprisingly) a pair of Long- tailed ducks.

I wandered back to the sea wall, where with the tide now incoming, I had more chance of more birdlife. Within a few minutes I saw a lone female RB Merganser, relatively close in to the sea wall. A scan westward got me what my eyes told me was a 100% red- throated diver. I took in every feature, albeit I didn’t have a camera, and committed them to memory. Only later did I check online, and realised that every feature I saw that had convinced me it was a diver, was feature of a cormorant. Don't believe your eyes.....

At the time, though, scanning further out, the scope was filled with hundreds of eider in massed rafts. In among them, more long- tailed ducks- the males resplendent in their breeding plumage. If skylark are a treasure for the ears, then a male LT Duck is a joy for the eyes. Searching further out I got a mass raft of scoter. Singling one out, I was able to see it was a common scoter- a bird I never take for granted. Further searching, and by now the scope (“gift of sight restored”) was operating at the limit, and I got velvet scoter. Year ticks 2 and 3 for the day. Patience, and idling time away chatting to an Ayrshire birder/ photographer (the right kind…) saw the tide pushing distant ducks further in. Much better views of the velvets, the beak and white eye- line standing in stark contrast to the blackness of their plumage. The tide also brought in the mass of Slavonian grebes, which in addition to being year tick 4, were also in numbers greater than I’d ever seen.

A walk back to the new scrapes got me nothing new and nothing exciting, other than a sense of impatience for the scrapes to hurry up and fulfil their potential. A walk back to the train station, and a long journey home followed. Lightly dozing on the train, I could still feel my smile from a damned good day out birding.



I checked birdtrack, and saw that this year I’d only posted results for 18 visits. 18 times I’d been out and saw enough to merit record- keeping . It struck me as not enough, nowhere near enough. Then I thought about it. The first weekend in March, the year less than 10 weeks old, and I have been getting out regularly. Sure, I’d like more, but looking over my species list I’ve have some right good birds. Looking back over my blog posts, more importantly, I’ve had some right good days.

The year list can look after itself. I’m loving being outdoors, I’m loving going birding, whether its an hour in twilight at the Clyde, or hours trudging in the beautiful, magnificent hell which is Aberlady. Life is good, birding is good, but birding life is great.

Anyway, stay healthy and stay safe folks. Lets all keep making the most of life.


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