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Timing Is Everything & A Birding Hard Reset (1 Viewer)

So much for the joy of being out......

Following my moan- fest in Dunbar I was desperate to get back out, find space and time, somehow and somewhere. I had booked a couple of days off work to give me a (very) long weekend, and had a set-in-stone plan to visit the Sma' Glen. The 'plan' if you can call it that beforehand was to fit in as much 'guerilla birding' as possible. Fit in birding amongst the taxi- duties and man- tasks. Dropped eldest mini- Sand at work, and headed for Cathkin Marsh. Not in the expectation of great birding, but more as part of a back-to-basics approach. That, and the chance of a willow warbler....

Predictably, the micro- climate meant the wind and rain arrived early, and a useless driver (parker?) in a white van meant that I couldn't get parked at the reserve. Plan B- stop off at CAthkin Braes for the first time in years. Not great, but I was still being 'out.' A lull in the rain gave me the chance to get out the car in the relative dry. The Braes are no what you would consider to be bird- friendly, though I have had stonechat there before. The key factor being years before. Singing chiffchaff from a small copse of trees to the South got my attention, and I veered off the main path toward a patch of mud. The day was immediately a success as I sank into the sodden ground. The chiffchaff showed well, and unexpectedly, it got a response. Stood at a discreet distance watching his reaction to this. Bird life......

The rest of the walk became an aimless wander, in the expectation that I knew where I was going. Turns out that the place has changed somewhat in the intervening years, and I found myself temporarily misplaced. The walk back to the car coincided with the rain returning. Perfect timing as the rain began battering down on the windscreen.

A quick check of the phone (I didn't have my reading glasses on, so a lot of it was guesswork) and a message from My Mate Bill. Whilst I had been wandering on the Braes he had found two swallows in the Horsefield off the CLyde Walkway in Uddingston. I messaged him to say I'd be there in 30 mins, albeit the strong tailwind meant I made it in 15. Bill was by that point safe and cosy in his house. Parked at the evil autobreakers, and walked down the path. With a couple of hundred yards a robin popped down from the hedge, and stood watching me. Hooped forward closer, and without anthropomorphising things, both of us satisfied out curiosity about the other. A birding moment.

A heron flew overhead from the direction of the evil autobreakers, toward the river. Second time recently there's been one flying about in that area. Curiouser and curiouser.....

The river itself was in spate, dark brown, a raging torrent, and utterly bird- free. The skies were mostly empty, bar corvids, and a chiffchaff called from the woods.

The path to the horsefield had a male chaffinch calling rather urgently. Once over the stile into the field, the noise of goldfinch flitting invisibly among the treetops caught my attention. Very flighty, very noisy, seemed to be in good numbers, but somehow always out of sight. Fighting the goldfinch for noise was the mass flock of jackdaws erupting into the air. Great to see, strangely great to hear- jackdaws were one of my favourite birds as a kid. My grandad used to walk me to school, and one of the houses we walked past had a jackdaw roost. Our morning walk coincided with them waking up, and this has always stayed with me 40- odd years later.

In amongst the corvid and goldfinch noise a single chiffchaff called. I wandered among the trees toward the area where I first got willow warbler last year, keeping an eye equally on the trees and in the skies. My Mate Bill had already told me that sand martins were back in the area, and I was hopeful of getting them near the river. No sign of the swallows, sadly, but my patience was rewarded as a smattering of sand martins arrived as if from nowhere. The usual joy watching them, and then from nowhere the unmistakeable sound of willow warbler in trees 100 yards upstream. Some silky fieldcraft got eyes on him, albeit briefly. I've got all summer, though, to drink in a festival of willow warblers. 2 summer migrants in what was atrocious, wintry weather. Birding in Scotland summed up, and a very pleasant day out in the mud.

Monday rolled round, and despite past form, I managed not to sleep in. Had a couple of Dad- tasks, but arrived in the Sma' Glen for half past ten. The River Almond is full and free- flowing- I had been desperate for a day out in the wild, and it seemed like the Sma' Glen would give me it. The scenery, as alwys, was stunning in its own right, and worth a visit even for non- birders.

My anticipation was tempered slightly by a nagging suspicion that I was just a wee bit too early in the season to visit what is, despite the proximity to Glasgow, a Highland site. I also had a nagging hope that the recent storm blowing in from the South had blown things northward. One of my favourite books is Red MArs by Kim Stanley Robinson, where the protagonists adopt the philosophy of shikata ga nai- essentially, it cannot be helped. This was the only time I was likely going to get to the Sma' Glen this side of July, my other 'car days' are earmarked for wandering round woodland in Dumfries and visiting seabird cities in the East, so essentially the decision to visit the Sma' Glen was made for me.

Chaffinch and Great Tit called from the car park, but beyond this there was an almost unnatural silence. My last trip there had been full of cuckoo calling everywhere, and my memory jarred with the comparison. A buzzard called from further down the track, but I couldn't get eyes on it. The familiar trudge toward the abandoned cottages seems to get steeper and longer every year. Strangest thing, really. Movement on the wall of the first framhouse got me a female wheatear briefly, before it hopped down and disappeared. A tick, so the expectation that a female should mean males nearby, surely? Set myself up in the second cottage, flat ground for the scope, plenty of places for GS to sit and- if needed- have a nap. Meadow pipit called from various places, and individuals flew about, stopping briefly on the telegraph wire. Scanning the valley side and the ridgeline eventually got the buzzard, but no other raptors. The area was kite- less, whether this was an issue of timing, or whether its related to the shooting estate over the ridge remains up for debate....

Eventually, though, I reached a tipping point. Being out in the wild is wonderful for the soul, but I had a birding itch that needed scrtching. I needed birds. In planning this trip (yes, I do plan things) I had half- heartedly looked at Loch of the Lowes SWT reserve, which was a 30 minute drive away, and home of celebrity ospreys. 30 minutes is almost next door.....My walk back to the car got me a very unexpected swallow over the river. Year tick 2, all the better for being a complete surprise.

The drive along the country road was exciting, to say the least. Arrived at the reserve relatively unscathed. I'd only ever been there once before, years ago, with My Mate Bill, the bird magnet. This was also later in the season, in retrospect. The reserve is well- signposted, and certain RSPB reserves could take lessons on advertising themselves. I paid my entry fee to get access to the hides, and eventually got the osprey on the nest. It showed well, albeit it had been active before I got there ("should have been here an hour ago...") A walk through the woodland was much more my thing, albeit also quiet. Once spring really hits, and the foliage fills out, I could imagine walking carefully, expecting a Bear to appear from nowhere. Its something good about a place where your mind can wander back to primordial times.

Chiffchaff sang loudly, and a nuthatch sang unseen from the woods near the Loch. A jay screeched, and I caught it out of the corner of my eye. Second year tick of the visit. My instinct is that I was definitely too early in the season to see the reserve at its best. Timing being slightly out, but tantalising glimpse of what could be.

The year ticks are good- its always nice to see Osprey somewhere other than a fencepost at RSPB Loch Leven. What was better, in many ways, though, was spending time watching the feeding station. Sure, its visitor- centre birding, but I got yellowhammer, nuthatch, GS woodpecker, siskin, and a dozen male chaffinches. Immersive, despite the glass window, and the sight of these (relatively) common birds in action re- charged my birding power packs like a video game character.


My son is a tennis fanatic, who (predictably) idolised Andy Murray when he was younger. Early in his career Murray had surgery on his back, his ranking took a hit, and he rebuilt his career via playing multiple lower- level tournaments- the Challenger Tour its called. The guerilla- birding, being in the Sma' Glen in the fresh air, and the visitor- centre birding at Loch of the Lowes was my Challenger tournament after the aberration of the Dunbar Day. A weekend of getting back to basics, of getting back in the groove, a reset. However you want to characterise it.

And it was damned good.

Anyway, stay healthy, stay safe. Lets keep being great to each other.


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