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Where Birders Belong: The Sma' Glen and Fowlsheugh (1 Viewer)

The glow from my A- Team adventure (this makes sense if you read my previous post, but basically a plan almost came together) lasted a good few days. I've found that when I come home after a good or long day out I have an adjustment period. Getting used to people, and being indoors rather than being alone in a muddy field somewhere. What I've also found is that the glow can get extended by thinking of what to say in this blog, looking forward to updating Green Sand's 2021 year ist, Bubo, and even Birdtrack. The global plague and associated lockdowns mean that I haven't had a big day out birding with Bill, apart from local fortuitous meetings. Keeping each other updated on our respective exploits has been a highlight during some very dark times. Anyway, admin completed, records updated, Bill informed (and his own days out reported to me for comparison) and I allowed my thoughts to stray to the next weekend, my next opportunity to get out.

Dad duties took up the weekend, with little if any birding taking place. I was ok, as it allowed me to store up Brownie points for a day out on the May Bank holiday (up the workers!) and a long day out the weekend after. Bank holiday Monday saw me suddenly tied to a Dad duty timeframe. Eldest Mini- GreenSand has a part time job, which takes up more time than my own full time one. My 'red grouse calling at my arse' experience still offended by birding pride and I set off again for the Sma' Glen, albeit without my son this time. Disappointingly, no house martins visible in the town of Crieff, which is usually a stick- on for them Strange Spring 2021 strikes again. The route out of Crieff and into the hills allowed me great views of the low, glowering cloud cover. I realised then that the weather forecast had been accurate, and I was going to get wet. The rest of the journey to the car park was uneventful and devoid of birds (probably just as well, the last thing we need on that road is a distracted Green Sand) Upon arrival, I got a bonus with a common sandpiper landing on the gravel in the River Almond (the river runs adjacent to the car park) Completely unexpected, not a tick as such, but sub- consciously a 'ticking a bird where it belongs' tick. I really don't do coastal birding!!

For once, remembered my coat, and suitably prepared for the rainy onslaught I headed into the Glen. No house martins at the farm house at the start of the track, but I did get red grouse calling from the hillside. Happy to tick this one. Better, a cuckoo called from near the car park. Deteriorating light meant I couldn't pick the bird out visually, but a tick nonetheless. 2 for the day, and I was optimistic for the rest of the day. Ring Ouzel was a hopeful, and Red Kite a sure- fire certainty.......

A trudge then a climb got me to the ruined cottages where I made myself reasonably comfortable. The rain started, light at first (my Glaswegian grandparents would have called it a 'smirr') but the clouds all around told me it wasn't going away any time soon. A cuckoo called again, close this time, but still no eyes on. More red grouse appeared to be indulging in a vocal war, as they called from opposite sides of the Glen, against each other. Movement on the skyline got my attention, but hopes of red kite were dashed, though a kestrel can never, ever be called a disappointment. The heavy and low cloud cover, leading to poor light, put the size of the area into sharp relief. The massive boulder field, the clouds coming down over the tops, made me realise that any other birds would need unfeasible amounts of lucky, or hard graft. There was very little movement among the boulders (man- sized rocks left over from glacial retreat- eldest and youngest mini- Sand are studying geography, and I've picked up a few things along the way) Pied Wagtail and Meadow Pipit predominantly. Odd calls came from uphill, but I didn't have anything with my audible guide on it for me to check for Ring ouzel. The low cloud made raptor searching pointless, and it rapidly became a situation where the birds would have to come to me. Oystercatchers called and flew by in good numbers- funny, after struggling to get my head around a common sand on the coast, I still struggle to think of Oycs inland, in a mountain valley.

The 'birds will come to me' approach was not ideal, clearly, and ultimately proved unsuccessful. The steady (and gradually heavier) rain also breached the waterproof limit of my coat, and my back became uncomfortably cold and damp. I gave up my Ouzel search, and began the trudge back to the car park. Occasional glances to the hilltop couldn't get any more raptors. The walk back allowed me to dwell on whether the day could be called a success or not, and whether I would be unreasonable if I thought it was a failure. I began formulating arguments that 2 audible ticks plus a great view of a common sand and kestrel hunting is enough to make it a success. Before I could conclude my ruminations, though, a blur of activity caught my eye as it crossed in front of me from the river, uphill toward a copse of trees near the cottage. My first thoughts were song thrush, then my more conscous thoughts were that it was too dark. I searched uphill, and found it standing proudly on a dry stane dyke. Large, black, and definitely thrush- like. It turned its head, and the bright white necklace confirmed my suspicions. Male Ring Ouzel, proud and bold. Even better, it was soon joined by Mrs Ouzel, and I like to think that Mrs Ouzel was giving him an absolute bollocking for choosing Scotland, the land of the perpetual rainy season, as a place to raise a family. Joy unbounded, I punched the air and performed a celebratory pirouette. Naturally, I lost the birds as a result, but after finding them again, I watched them be oblivious to the effect they had had on one wet bloke watching from afar.

The rain by now had reached deluge levels, and the journey home from Perthshire was one of adrenaline- fuelled aquaplaning down the motorway. I had passed my driving test almost 30 years to the day, and its no exaggeration that these were the worst conditions I'd ever driven in. Once I arrived home, kissed the ground, and changed my underwear, I had a chance to ruminate on the day. No red kite or house martin but did get 3 other ticks, including the 'salvage male pride' red grouse.

More importantly, I think, was something completely intangible . Sitting quietly in a mountain glen in the rain is deeply appealing to me, for some reason. I never consider animal or bird noise to be intrusive, or to be 'noise' at all. Its elemental, it belongs, it soothes. Its something that you can get lost in, your mind can wander, part of it being aware of individual bird calls, or the noise of rain dropping on stone, the wind in the grass, but you are also reaching almost a meditative state. My few hours sitting in the rain in the decrepit abandoned cottage literally was a wonder. The ticks I got, including the Ring Ouzel, merely added to it.

The rest of the working week followed a similar pattern. Garden birding, the occasional glance upwards for a circling sparrowhawk, getting excited about the scattered reports of swifts, and of course, the excitement and trepidation of what to do the next weekend. The pandemic and lockdown restrictions wrecked last year's birding, and I have an urge to cram in as much as I can before it goes belly- up again. It might be irrational, and probably is, but I can't shake the 'what if' feeling. This says much more about me than it does about the state of the pandemic. High on my list of hopes this year has been a trip to RSPB Fowlsheugh in Aberdeenshire. I've waxed lyrical about this seabird city on many occasions, and it is a place of wonder. Its not just the ticks, its the location and scale of things- other 'sea bird cities' seem to pale in comparison, though I've been reliably told there are even better ones, albeit outside my driving radius.

I settled on Fowlsheugh, but being ambitious, I also tried to factor in a trip to Balgavies Loch SWT in the hope of Osprey. Cos I had one there once. Planning involved working out my route to Fowlsheugh, and how long it would take. How to factor in time spent on site, then the return journey via Balgavies. Reading and re- reading the RSPB reserve webpage, checking the internet for recent sightings, working out what time to leave it in the morning. Checking the weather forecast repeatedly. If by some fluke my gaffer is reading this, I'm sorry I did piss- poor work that week. Anyway, Saturday was spent in preparation. Petrol in the car, food bought, appropriate snacks for a long drive and drive back. (I have type 2 diabetes, so choice of snack is important. Pickled Onion Monster Munch are great for the soul, but God- awful for everything else. ) Given my habit of sleeping in, I avoided my bed and slept on the living room floor in a sleeping bag. 2 separate alarms set for 5 am. Clothes laid out, bag packed, binos and camera safely inside. All set......

For once, I got up when I was meant to, and set off pretty much on time. The journey was long, but uneventful. The 'long' part meant I had to pull over for a nap in order to stay safe. Any worries that this would mess up my schedule were put away when I found the reserve immediately, thus negating my 'getting lost in Grampian' time I had factored in. I found a parking space easily, and rolled down the windows to let the fresh air and noise permeate my senses. The sun shone strongly, although the breeze was slightly chilly. The noise of thousands of kittiwakes was unmistakeable, though and I closed my eyes, smiling.

Immediately upon leaving the car, I heard a yellowhammer demanding its little bit of bread and no cheese form the gorse. Not a year tick, but any time I see a yellowhammer its always with a sense of relief. We see so much about how they're struggling with habitat loss, and I've seen them more or less disappear from 2 of my places, that I enjoy seeing them wherever they are. The distant sea was an odd mix of deep, deep blue and white peaks of waves. Despite being a country boy, I do appreciate a beautiful deep blue sea. As long as I'm only visiting....

Progress along the path got herring gull, until eventually I get to the cliffs proper. A fulmar flew past no more than 15 feet away, but no photo sadly. In- shore, a linnet appeared on a fence post, and stayed long enough for me to get great views of it. Second year tick, and it looked absolutely lovely in the sunlight. The cliff was slightly busier than expected, and I had lots of stepping off the path to accommodate people standing blethering ('stepping off the path' atop a 80 foot sea cliff isn't something I'd recommend if you have blood pressure issues) The slight annoyance of this was partly bemusement that not everyone is a birder, and that locals could ever become so used to the place that they could ever take it for granted. No- one who knows me will ever be surprised that I don't really understand people.

The sea was dotted with hundreds, if not thousands, of distant black birds. It was fun trying to pick out the guillemots from the razorbills, and keep track of the cnstantly moving mass of birds landing and taking off. The cliffs themselves gave me close up views of nesting fulmar, theoretically well within the 'good practice' distance for photogaphers, but geography and the path meant that it was impossible not to get close. Further along the path, the 'sporadic' nests gradually become a teeming mass, and I stopped to appreciate the scale of the cliffs. Razorbill and guillemot jam- packed on the cliffs, seemingly every free space taken up, a mass of rear- ends pointing outwards, a mass of movement. A sight to behold and enjoy. Certainly one to never, ever take for granted. Best of all, a dozen or so rock doves sat huddled together in front of a rock crevice. Now, I know that its up to us how we manage our own lists, but I always feel that a pigeon nesting on a sea cliff on the North Sea is a rock dove, not a feral pigeon.

Progress was awfully slow as I took as many photos as I could. All too soon, I reached the end of the reserve path. I stopped and chatted to a couple of birders who had travelled up from Fife. I asked about puffin, and any hopes I had were more or less dashed. There was a possibility for some further along the path, but no guarantees. After chatting to them, I glanced out to sea. I watched a seal bobbing, and noted a large, gull- like bird landing near to it. Gut instinct identified it as a great skua, based on its size. Kittiwake mobbed it incessantly, with little effect. Only when a herring gull flew at it did the skua react, and it took off. I had managed to get 2 usable record shots. Given that I've only rarely seen a skua, (specifically, twice) self- doubt immediately crept in. Was it definitely a skua? If so, Arctic or Great? My Collins guide was inconclusive, naturally, and I knew I would once again rely on Bill's photo I.D skills.

The reverse journey was filled with more wonder, albeit from a different angle. A further skua appeared, clearly just to tease me. Reaching the car, I sat, and rested, sorting out my thoughts. Fatigue had set in, and I abandoned any plans for Balgavies Loch, and decided to head home, naturally stopping for a kip on the way.

Bill confirmed it was a Bonxie, which I was kind of glad. An arctic skua would have been my 200th species, and I'm trying to keep that for white- tailed Eagle on Mull. (I know I occasonally make no sense) All told, 6 year tcks, of which the Bonxie was completely unexpected. The other ticks, though, were completely predictable. I knew I'd get guillemot, fulmar and razorbill. I was confident of Linnet, and would have been gutted if rock dove had chosen this year to bugger off to Aberdeen city centre. However, what stops this from being a perfunctory tick- project is the nature of the place. Its an assault on your senses, from the calls of thousands upon thousands of seabirds, to the blinding sun on the sea, to the hypnotic movements on the cliffs. And the smell. Oh, the smell. I grew up surrounded by farms, and spent many happy days trudging through fields as a kid. More often than not, I'd come home with at least a splash of cow shit on my shoes or trouser legs. Even now, the smell of a farm evokes long- forgotten memories, and I revel in it. My very suburban kids, though, can never understand why. This seabird city, though, smells like nothing else in nature. Rancid, fishy urine is being generous.

And I love it.

More or less everything fell into place that day, from the weather to getting slightly lucky with the linnet and incredibly lucky with the Bonxie. A clifftop on the North Sea should be utterly alien to me, but on that day I felt as much at home, outdoors, among nature, as I would have been anywhere.

Its a long, long journey but my year has been made all the better for it.

Stay healthy, stay safe.

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