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Trip report: Scotland 9th-13th April 2012 (1 Viewer)


My plan for a Scottish trip this year involved aiming for the usual Scottish specialities as far as possible, as well as seeking out some birds which were reported on Birdguides in the northern Scotland area. This year I planned a 5 day, 4 night trip, with the first day spent birding the Solway Firth, and the remaining three nights spent at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown on Spey, seeking the classic Highland specialities. Unfortunately, my every-few-hours check of half a dozen different online weather forecasts did not bode well. Every single one was talking a lot about rain,excepty when it was giving information about snow of varying degrees of heaviness. All in all I was beginning to think that the trip was doomed.

This year I had already managed to get quite a lot of what are often for me 'Scottish Run' birds onto my year list at English sites (all 3 divers, black grouse, crossbill, ring ouzel, dipper, iceland gull) and a Welsh site (black guillemot). I therefore set off with a Scottish specials wish list that looked something like this:

Crested Tit
Red Grouse (1)
Slavonian Grebe
Woodcock (2)
Golden Eagle
White-tailed Eagle
Hooded crow

In addition, I had print outs of information concerning half-a-dozen long-staying Scottish rarities and scarcities from Birdguides in my backpack, as well as hope of quite a few spring migrants that I had not yet seen because of the poor weather, like sand martin, swallow and willow warbler. Now I just had to hope the weather would give me the breaks.

(1)I have no idea how I can live in the Peak District and still not have a Red Grouse by the middle of April, as I have since childhood thought of them as a common, regularly seen bird. I think they must have been hiding every time I drove over the A628 this year.

(2) Woodcock seems to be an annual bogey bird for me. It causes me untold stress and anguish every year (especially the year I found freshly dead one when I hadn't seen a live one!). Dammit, it shouldn't be difficult so why do I have so much trouble?

Monday 9th April
After spending most of Sunday in planning and preparation, and for the first time written out a detailed plan of my strategy for the week, I woke early at 6am on Monday ready to get going by 6.30. The roads were very clear as it was a Bank Holiday, and I confidently headed North, encouraged by the fact that as I drove bands of rain were interspersed with bands of sunshine, and the weather didn't look too bad. I therefore decided to carry out the first part of my plan, and stop off at Haweswater in the hope of seeing the sole surviving English golden eagle. This was an important part of my planned schedule, as the timings I had written out for my rushed 3 days in Speyside did not include any time in the Findhorn Valley raptor viewpoint waiting for eagles, even if decent raptor weather did appear.

I was in the Haweswater car park by 0915, but unencouragingly the rain was falling heavily. However I donned the appropriate clothing and reminded myself of the bands of brighter weather I'd seen, and headed out on the walk to the eagle viewpoint. After about 600 yards, I slipped on the sodden grass and mud, and covered my jeans in muck, leaving me just one pair of trousers for the rest of the trip, and also covering my unwashable waxed jacket (to which I stubbornly cling in the face of 100 years of advances in waterproof clothing). On a positive note, however, I missed a pile of dog waste by about 1 inch, which I decided to take as a positive omen! I found time to be grateful that my years in the moshpit had taught me to fall without hurting myself, and carried on...

Walking to the viewpoint, I met a nice man who had been camping at Haweswater since his teens, long before the busybodies erected the 'camping prohibited in this area' notices all around, and who still camped there at every available weekend. He gave me a lot of gen about the eagles, which sounded positive if only the weather would clear. However, it showed no signs of doing that as I made my way to the watchpoint. My notebook got totally soaked as I noted down such 'exciting' birds as song thrush and chaffinch for the trip list. The wind was blowing icily, and as the hide isn't unlocked until 11, and it was only 10am, I got out of the wind by squeezing into the foot-wide gap between the hide and a 5 foot tall stone wall in front of it. There I waited for an hour, and nearly gave the warden a heart attack when he came to reach round the corner to unlock the flaps!

Another hour chatting to the warden told me that the site could give me a very good chance of eagle when it wasn't raining. The hour also convinced me that the rain was set in for the day, and around midday I abandoned the Haweswater plan and headed on to the second part of my day's plan, the Solway estuary birding. Driving back towards the M6 I made periodic efforts to direct the car's heater at various bits of my drenched clothing, but mostly succeeded in steaming up the windscreen.

I checked in to the motel at Gretna Services (which I can heartily recommend), and then dumped my bags and headed straight out on my planned Solway excursion.

I wanted to see some wild barnacle geese for my year list, but in addition I had information that a red-breasted goose was associating with a barnacle flock at Loaningfoot in Dumfrieshire. I duly drove there and located the fields described on the birding info services, and a barnacle goose flock was present, but search as I might the red-breasted wasn't there, a fact that became very obvious when an unseen threat put the flock to flight. Most of the flock was clearly on the estuary, as it was low tide, and a look at the relevant OS map showed no obvious legitimate way to view the mud in that area. To add to my misery, it was still throwing it down,as it had been doing since I arrived at Haweswater, and every bit of my outdoor clothing was now soaked right through. A less determined (or insane) birder, might have given up at this point, but I was either more determined or more insane. So I ticked the barnacles, and headed out to my third intended site of the day.

This was the hide at Wigtown harbour, where a long-billed dowitcher had been regularly reported at high tide. Here, I have to admit I made a major mistake in my detailed planning. Since the 'dowitcher at high tide' had been reported late afternoon the last couple of days, and at 5pm the previous day, I assumed that that was high tide, instead of checking online. Hence I arrived around 6, to find it was low tide and the birds were about half a mile distant on the mud. I duly wrote down what I saw for my trip list, and admitted total defeat. To add to my annoyance, the birding guidebook had said that the hide was 'easily wheelchair accessible', which I stupidly took to mean paved, and so since my walking boots were soaked through I had put on brand new, shiny work shoes, less than a fortnight old. The book was right, but forgot to say that the tarmac path was covered with an inch of liquid mud...

My first day had drawn a complete blank in terms of year ticks ( I already had List C feral barnacles), so I returned to the motel, feeling far from happy and trying to dry out my clothes on the car's screen blower. And it was STILL throwing it down.:-C|

Tuesday 10th April

When I woke up, it was still throwing it down.

I hadn't set my alarm clock, as in my written plan this was the last chance I would give to my body to decide how tired it was. As a result I woke up much later than intended at 0630, and headed out in a hurry. I headed purposefully the the next site that Birdguides had given me, a blue-winged teal just South of Glasgow at a place called Gilmourton. I shoved the relevant print-outs in my rucksack and drove to the pool next to a farm indicated in the previous day's report. A careful search in the pouring rain revealed that the theme of failure was being repeated; no BW teal was present.

And it was STILL throwing it down.

Uttering some unrepeatable words, I turned the car and headed back towards the M74. After about 10 miles, I suddenly remembered that the older info on the printout had mentioned a viewing platform. There was no viewing platform at the site I'd visited, the one described in the previous day's report. Clearly the bird was favouring more than one pond, and I hadn't picked up on it before. As this thought occurred to me, I suddenly decided to practice my emergency stop, followed by my turn in the road using forward and reverse gears. I then pulled onto the verge and pulled out the map and printout. A hasty return to Gilmourton revealed a beautiful viewing platform in the middle of nowhere overlooking a small lake along a different road. Obviously a labour of love for some local birders, and I am extremely grateful to them for their work. And there, as I walked quietly onto the platform, was the blue-winged teal. As soon as saw me it took off in a hurry, which made me feel bad about disturbing it, but also good about the bird's credentials, as that wasn't the behaviour of an escape. After the luck I'd had so far, I felt as if I'd hit the jackpot.

It was STILL throwing it down. But suddenly, with a rarity under my belt, I didn't mind as much. :D|

My work there being completed, I began the drive to Speyside. As the weather forecast was bad, and the Cairngorm snowsports types were still trying to keep the skiing up and running, I feared that I would not be able to climb Cairn Gorm as I usually do, so I detoured to Glen Shith (Glenshee) where I had been told ptarmigan can sometimes be picked out from the tourist parking lay-by in winter by scoping the higher slopes. When I arrived it was STILL throwing it down, and at Glen Shith blowing a wind too. So I lowered my scope and knelt on the ground in the lee of the car for an hour, freezing, and found no ptarmigan. There were a number of red grouse, duly ticked, but because I spent most of my teenage years wandering around the Dark Peak, I still find it hard to think of this tick in a category other than the one I think of song thrush or chaffinch! At that point, I felt as if the previous day's luck had reasserted itself.

It was STILL throwing it down, and I had had about enough.

I drove on to the Grant Arms hotel in Grantown, and checked in. Once I had dumped my bags and looked at their new-look birding map, I saw that not only had the world's-worst-kept-secret slavonian grebe site of the last few years been published, the hotel had built a hide there for the exclusive use of guests, with authorised parking for hotel guests just next to the hide. With an hour to go before it closed, I headed out and as I pulled in to the car park saw a large raptor overhead; even with the naked eye at this range I could identify an osprey. OK, third year tick of the day, and to cap it all the rain had stopped at last! I proceeded into the hide where not even the news that the osprey had flushed an iceland gull could dampen my growing optimism. I scoped the lochan and soon picked up a beautiful summer-plumaged salvonian grebe at close quarters...and without the long walk of Loch Ruthven! Four year ticks today and I was beginning to feel better.

I then hastened back to the Grant Arms for the evening birders' briefing, to hear that the worsening weather had driven crested tits back to the feeders that the hotel had put up in Anagach Forest. So in spite of my tiredness I headed in to the woods, hoping to get ahead of my written schedule and pick up this species. However, I totally failed to find the feeders for 2 hours, in spite of their being exactly where they were described. By the time I did find them it was too dark to see any birds there. During my wandering I did manage to see coal tits,siskins and chaffinches, and watched a goldcrest repeatedly carrying nesting material to a nest site. As it was dusk I stood on the Old Tip for half an hour hoping that my bogey-bird, the woodcock, would rode; I'd been told it was a good place. No woodcocks roded. My bogey bird remained a bogey.

Wednesday 11th April

With three days on Speyside, my priority had to be capercaillie. Any other Scottish speciality which I missed now could be got in July on a return trip if I failed, albeit at a cost of another 500 pounds. But caper can only reliably be seen when lekking. So my day began at the RSPB caperwatch.

My alarm clock went off at 0445 and I woke up. I dragged myself out of bed, and was far too slow getting up, in spite of the Pro-plus. As a result when I got to Loch Garten RSPB at 0545 and paid my pound the car park was already nearly full, and when I got to the hide there were at least 50 people there ahead of me. The cameras were giving brilliant views of a lekking male and several time of females too... in fact there were at least 2 males and 3 females, on the cameras, which was a real treat to watch. However, you can't tick an image on a TV screen, and the capers had decided to lek behind trees far to the right of the hide. Since the males now seem to favour that area for lekking every year, it would be nice if the RSPB would build a new forward hide in that area, instead of wasting money replacing excellent hides at popular reserves with expensive glass boxes that scare all the birds away. Those people who had managed to get to the front of the scrum in the hide peered down their scopes frantically and mostly saw pine trees. However, two chaps were in a position to see a male through gaps in the trees and a queue was quickly arranged. Unfortunately, the first five people in the line seemed oblivious to the fact that there were fifty people waiting behind them in line, and spent about 30 seconds each having a good look. When I was third in line, the caper decided to wander behind a tree. Much nail biting followed, but after 10 minutes the chap whose scope I was lined up to see down relocated it, and I jumped up onto a box and stared down his scope. Aware that there might be other year listers behind me, I applied my eye to the scope for etwo seconds only, then jumped down to let the next person have a turn. After all, if I wanted to watch the caper, there are cameras for that.

Target bird out of the way, I headed back to the car park, pausing only to watch the siskins on the feeders for a couple of minutes.. There were still people arriving; to my astonishment there seemed to be quite a lot of non-birders among them, including people who had brought their kiddies along. It was still only 6.30, which was a bonus, as the weather forecast the night before had suggested that today would be the only day of little wind and clear skies during my visit, so I had also decided that after the caperwatch I would head for my carefully planned Aberdeenshire Coast run, combining some ordinary birds I had missed in England this winter with a couple of longstaying birds announced on Birdguides info.

I began by heading north towards the Morayshire coast, to the Roseisle picnic site just outside Burghead. Here there is an opportunity to see the sea only a few yards from the car park; a quick scope showed a couple of dozen long-tailed ducks, a couple of late common scoter, a couple of red-throated divers and some red-breasted mergansers. I then returned to the car park, as it was reported to be a good site for cresties. I heard one crestie, but couldn't locate it. I did see a couple of crossbills flying over; they sounded like perfectly normal crossbills to me, so went down on the trip list as common crossbills (I am not sure that I believe it's possible to separate scottish crossbill in the field anyway).

I then moved on for an hour's seawatching at Portsoy. I'd chosen this location because Birdguides reported a white-billed diver there the previous day. The diver was always a long shot, and there was predictably no sign, so I contented myself with adding guillemot, razorbill, eider, fulmar and gannet to my trip list. There were also still long-tailed ducks at this site, and a rock pipit on the rocks.

I continued my drive along the coast to Loch of Strathbeg. A quick look at the sightings book in the visitors' centre showed that the greater yellowlegs which had been present in the area all winter was still there; a green-winged teal and an iceland gull were also reported as visible from the visitors' centre, but my first priority had to be to get to Tower Pool Hide to look for the yellowlegs, which would be a Year Tick for me. There was a couple in the hide when I arrived, also looking for it in the vast expanse of spits, islands and pools in front of us. We searched for half an hour, before finding it feeding on one of the many pools. .It was fairly distant, but I was able to watch it for quarter of an hour and get fairly good views in the end. I take no credit for spotting this one, incidentally, as it was the chap in the hide with me who picked it out and quickly helped me get onto the bird. This was a big relief, as I always begin to worry in circumstances like this. I can't help being struck by the difference between the presence of a mega in Norfolk and a mega in northern Scotland; in Norfolk there are always dozens of people already on the bird when you arrive, but here there's always a nail-biting period trying to locate it. I'm very grateful to the gentleman who found it, as I would undoubtedly have been delayed much longer if there had only been my eyes to find it

With the target bird secured, I then walked back to the visitors' centre, where a quick scope of the
wetland in front soon produced the green-winged teal and the iceland gull which had been reported. Neither was a year tick for me, but they were nice birds to see. A family of holidaymakers came into the centre shortly afterwards and I was delayed for a few minutes while I relocated the iceland gull for them, before heading back to the car. There were good numbers of tree sparrows on the feeders by the car park. To my great satisfaction, a merlin flew across the road, quite close, not long after I drove away from Lock of Strathbeg, a species I was rather pleased about, as it's not easy to guarantee sightings.

My last site on the day's outing was the Ythan Estuay, just north of Aberdeen, where a King eider has been resident for some years. I wasn't familiar with the site, and wasted some time finding out where I should be viewing from, having been confused by a sign which said 'Private land, no public parking' , which I later realised referred to a car park beside the track to the estuary mouth, not the track itself. Before realising this, I wasted at least 40 minutes scoping the eider flocks drawn up on the banks of the estuary from a very unsatisfactory position some way in front of the sign, only realising my mistake when I spotted another birder driving down the track past me. We both then scoped the flock from the correct place for half an hour, but without success. My mood was further worsened by the realisation that I had left my hat and gloves at Loch of Strathbeg, and my schedule didn't have enough leeway for me to undertake the hour's drive back. It was now blowing an icy wind, and my fingers were threatening to stop working.

Deciding that the King eider wasn't on the banks of the estuary, I drove to the viewpoint for the estuary mouth, parked, and walked the short distance to scope the eider flocks there. I should have done this to start with; within 3 minutes of setting up my scope I had the bird in sight. It was asleep near the estuary mouth, though it did raise its head for a couple of seconds and let me get a look at its remarkable bill. I even managed a blurred record shot by holding my camera up the the lens of my scope! The wind, though, was still icy, and I very much wished that I had had my gloves!

With my East coast sites all visited, I began the drive back to Speyside, intending to spend the early evening searching for crested tits. However, by the time I got back there around 6.30pm, it was absolutely throwing it down with rain, and there seemed little prospect of achieving anything except wet optics, especially without a hat to keep the rain off my glasses, so I retired to my room for the evening.B :)

Thursday 11th April

The next morning's weather forecast had been extremely bad on all the weather forecasts I'd looked at, promising heavy rain, low cloud and snow, so I decided to change my plan of spending the second morning on Cairn Gorm looking for ptarmigan, and instead set out to search for crested tits. I did have some doubts at 6am when I saw the tops of Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui clearly visible and free from cloud, but I decided to play safe and continue with my crestie quest. An hour on the edge of Anagach forest by the feeders was sufficient to convince me that the hotel was wrong; the absolutely awful weather had NOT convinced the cresties to start adopting their winter habits and visit their feeders! The only birds coming to the feeders were coal tits and siskins, and the only trip tick I got was a treecreeper on a nearby trunk. I therefore drove the other site where I've had most luck with cresties in the past, the car park for the Loch Mallachie loop path in Abernethy. Within seconds of getting out of the car I could hear at least 4 birds calling in the trees around the car park', and within 10 minutes I had had very good views of one of these hyperactive little birds in the branches above my car. Success.

With another of the Speyside specialities out of the way, and the time being only 7.45, my next step was to head off towards the West coast in search of the specialities of that part of the country, white-tailed eagle and hooded crow. I'm always pleasantly surprised by how narrow the country is at this point, and how good the roads are, and by late morning I was at Loch Maree, scoping the mountain ridges around the loch, visible from the picnic site car park. I'd read that this could be a good raptor viewpoint, potentially for both species of eagles. 45 minutes passed without eagles; I had intended to stay, but the weather forecast was for heavy rain to set in on the west coast by lunchtime and I could already see some approaching over the ridges in front of me, so I decided to try another site before rain made me give up for the day. I therefore drove round the coast to the viewpoint overlooking Gruinard Island, and pulled into the lay-by. There was a professional birding tour in the lay-by, who had not seen any eagles during their time there, nor did we see any in the half hour before they gave up and left. Not having the tight schedule of a tour group, and the rain not having arrived yet, I stayed on running my eyes repeatedly over the island and its skyline. There were numerous hooded crows and a raven on the island, and still a fair number of great northern divers in the bay, plus a black guillemot and good numbers of red-breasted mergansers and shags, but I saw no eagles. The tour group did spot yet another iceland gull in the bay, though quite distant.

I'd been there about an hour when I picked up a brown bird in my binoculars, flying low across the water from the direction of the mainland. Unfortunately I picked it up precisely half a second before it came down to land near the beach just out of sight on the far side of the island. A comparison between the size of what I'd seen and the size of the numerous herring gulls which were flying around the same area left me fairly sure about what I'd seen, but not sure enough to tick what would have been a lifer for me. The fact that 4 hoodies and a number of gulls went over to that area in the next half hour and swooped low as if mobbing something, further convinced me. I kept my binoculars fixed on the area; I wasn't going anywhere till the bird I'd seen showed itself. Unfortunately, the bird wasn't going anywhere either. An hour passed.

Meanwhile, yet another birding tour group pulled into the lay-by for half an hour and looked at black guillemots and great northern divers, then drove away (I can't help thinking that this is NOT the way to see raptors; patience is needed.) Then the heavens opened and the rain began to throw it down. No way were any raptors going to be showing in this. I got back into the car, said a few swear words, and ate lunch. After half an hour I admitted defeat and was about to drive away, but as I did so I saw brighter weather. Remembering that raptors often fly at the first opportunity after being grounded by heavy rain I stayed put. Half an hour after it started, the rain stopped. Five minutes after that, the eagle flew up from behind the island and began flying low over the bay, looking for fish, mobbed by a dozen gulls. I watched it flying around for perhaps 10 minutes, before it headed off up Little Loch Broom and away inland. Success with my west coast targets, and a life tick as well (the only one of the trip). I was thoroughly pleased with myself as I drove back to Speyside.

I stopped a couple of times on the way back to look at the edges of Little Loch Broom, where I had seen greenshank and other passage waders in previous years, but there was nothing of note there. I therefore carried on back to base. As I drove south from Inverness on the A9 I was far from pleased to notice that I could STILL see the tops of Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui, and the weather was bright sunshine. In fact, perfect raptor weather. I noted this as I passed the turn for the Findhorn Valley. A little voice of conscience told me that I should turn for the raptor viewpoint and spend a couple of hours looking for golden eagles; it was only 5pm and there were a couple of hours left to do so. However, the rest of my mind told me that I was absolutely exhausted after a thousand miles of driving and four early mornings, and very sick of scanning for eagles, so I carried on down the A9.

Instead I drove to Lochindorb to see if I could add black-throated diver to my trip list. For the first time ever, I couldn't locate the species; whether the fact that I didn't actually need them as a year tick meant that I wasn't looking as hard as I usually do, I don't know; it was very cold, and I still hadn't replaced my gloves. However, a chap I spoke to said that he had seen a pair, which had flown off north just before I arrived so perhaps not. On the way back to Grantown, I looked in at the lay-by overlooking the river just outside Dulnain Bridge, which I often find a good spot for dipper and grey wagtail. No grey wagtail (or common sandpiper, which I though might have arrived by now), but I did get good views of a dipper.

After spending a short while in the hotel writing up my notes , I returned to Grantown Old Tip at 8.30 to look for roding woodcock again and stayed until it was almost too dark to walk back. I saw a lot of displaying oystercatchers. Woodcock are definitely my bogey bird.

Before going to bed that night I reviewed my progress and studied my list of target birds. Apart from scottish crossbill (which,as mentioned, I don't think can be told in the field), I now had all the 'Scottish birds' I needed for my year list except for golden eagle and ptarmigan. Golden eagles could be got at Haweswater. If I got ptarmigan on my final morning before heading home, then I would not need to return to Speyside for my usual summer mop-up trip, unless I missed passage dotterel. I made a decision. No matter what, I was getting up early and walking up the track on Cairn Gorm the next morning.

Friday 13th April

Hence at 6am I pulled in to the car park at the ski centre. Whereas the previous day had been clear, today the cloud was on a level with the car park. But this isn't always bad news; when the cloud comes down the mountain so, as often as not, do the ptarmigan. On clear days I've always had to walk to the summit, but in low cloud I usually see them before reaching the restaurant. I headed up the mountain along the service track to the restaurant, and at around 950m puled up short at the sight of a pair of ptarmigan feeding quietly at the side of the track. I watched them for several minutes at a range of about 30 feet (the range I first noticed them); I have never seen a male closely before, and they really are handsome birds, much darker and greyer than the females, and with a lot more white. Apart from that, the only birds I saw on the mountain were meadow pipits.

With my last Scottish speciality in the bag I headed back down to the car park through a sudden blizzard, to begin the long drive home. Amazingly, I hadn't picked up a single common spring migrant on the trip, not even a sand martin. But I'd succeeded on three twitches (BW teal, Greater yellowlegs and king eider), as well as all my Scottish targets except goldie, so I was quite pleased with the result. The only down side was that while I was in Scotland I had missed the Thayer's gull which had been showing for several days in Lincolnshire, but kindly decided to leave before I got back.

Trip List.
Meadow pipit
Canada goose
Herring gull
Pied wagtail
Barnacle goose
Pink foot
Collared dove
Feral pigeon
Common gull
Blue-winged teal
Red grouse
Slavonian grebe
Blue tit
Great tit
Tufted duck
Little grebe
Coal tit
House sparrow
Red-throated diver
Long-tailed duck
Common scoter
Red-breasted merganser
Rock pipit
Tree sparrow
Lesser black-backed gull
Greater black-backed gull
Mute swan
Greater yellowlegs
Green-winged teal
Iceland gull
King eider
Crested tit
Hooded crow
Black guillemot
Great northern diver
White tailed eagle
Red legged partridge

Sandra (Taylor)

Registered User
Great read - we're due our Scottish break late Sept this year.

Still not too late to retrieve your hat & gloves. A quick email to the visitor centre at Loch of Strathbeg will probably be fruitful. I'm sure they'll post them to you for a small donation, assuming they were handed in. It worked for me at Caerlaverock when I lost an ear-ring!


Ben Nevis

Registered User
Great report and at least you have left a bird (Golden Eagle) to go back for..! ;)
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