Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Clyde Nights

Well, more Clyde evenings. I've just come in from another 45 minute long 10 minute evening walk.

I like to get out in the evenings when I can, the mix of air currents around the islands and semi-maritime climate can make for great atmospheric conditions. You can often hear the seals howling, and the evening flight lines of birds can be wonderful.

This evening in particular had a great mix of cirrus and cirrocumulous clouds, a terrific inversion (low cloud level caused by and overlying layer of warm air) around Arran, and wonderful colour. It was also that encouraging mix of rising tide, still sea, and fading light that makes for great otter spotting. I know, I'm supposed to be working; but everyone needs a break right. Just two laps of the point, then home to the laptop.

The Clyde provides fantastic sunsets.

I nearly didn't do both turns, after the first lap - as I passed the house - my favourite jackdaw flew down to see if there was any suet going spare. I almost stopped to feed him. But I think he disliked my bright red trousers (they are special), flying off as I approached. So I ignored him and wandered of for my second turn round the point. As I reached Farland Bight I another person. Another person, on my quiet evening stroll. I picked up the pace and left him behind. Then something caught my eye in the water. Otter! Score! No wait, a tangle of otters... barely distinguishable from one another as they rolled in the shallows.

There were three otters, a female and two large kits, foraging on whatever was moving up the shore on the incoming tide. Nipping in and out of the water. I ducked low behind the scrub and began to run home for my camera... then stopped. Bryony and Tracy would certainly want to see this. And what if they were gone by the time I came back?

After 30 seconds of dilemma - get the camera, or alert my friends to the otters - I chose altruism and started dialling. So no otter pictures this evening, just a smug me and some sound advice. If you happen to have missed the ferry on a still evening in Millport, head for Farland point. You'll have be cold, but you might just be happy.

No otters, just more cloud

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Clyde Pied Billed Grebe

After dipping out on both Ring Ouzel and Hoopoe earlier this month, I didn't feel much like checking out the alerts this morning. However, when I finally crowbarred myself out of bed, I found an unusually combination in the RBA feed; "Clyde" and "**". Suddenly, getting dressed seemed more important than my morning cuppa.

Thankfully the gear was still packed from the Loch Garten trip, so within minutes I was in the car. I nipped in to "On Your Bike" to see if fellow Cumbrae birder, Sean, could get some cover, then we were off to Loch Thom.

Off the ferry, and within 20 minutes we were pulling into a lay by beside the loch, starting to pick through the waterfowl, occasionally being distracted by wheatear, common sand piper and cuckoos. But aside form the gulls and geese, the loch was quiet. Too quiet. I began to feel guilty for dragging Sean off island...

After scoping out the island with no success, we headed half way up the hill to where we'd noticed another group of birders (which turned out to be the regular Lochwinnoch crowd). Tripod up. Scope on. Bird.

Fastest tick ever. Also, worst phone-scoped image ever - but you get the point. Tiny bird, massive head, stubby little beak. Faith in following shouts restored. I might even go out again tomorrow.

Excuse the water droplet blur!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Hopeless in the Highlands Part 2: the Capercaillie Quest

For the second April in a row, Matt, Tom and I escaped to the wonderful Cairngorms in search of the Scottish greats. Setting up home at the usual base of Estacarny in Tomintoul.

Last year we had limited success, lots of early starts and bad weather. Its shocking to think that last winter everything was covered in drifts of snow. This year I got sunburn.

Day 1

We were up for Caper Watch at 5.30, with me chivying the boys out to the car in the freezing cold, the sun just rising. Unlike last year, the car park was practically full, and we entered the hide to find it lined with birders. Unfortunately, despite the many bodies, the hide was still freezing, and the view noticeably Caper free... Even the ospreys looked frozen and bored and at 7.30, we gave up; heading for second breakfast at Grantown.

Poor Osprey's, we never really stop to enjoy you

Full of lorne sausage and black puddings we parked up at the golf course and wandered into the pines (sticking to the path of course). After 5 minutes of wandering we'd zero'd in on a crested tit high in the canopy (approximately 15 meters up), 15 minutes later we'd found more birders (who said they'd met others who'd seen capers there that morning), and I was regretting carrying my camera.

After 50 minutes I was really regretting it. We were ambling alongside the Spey, trying to work out the quickest way back to the car, when we stumbled across a group of siskin in a birch tree... right beside a spruce that appeared to be raining cones. Finally we'd manage to track down those sneaky Scottish crossbills (and gett some pictures to double check our ID). Time to find the car - which took another 30 mins and a nice shot of a red squirrel - and go back for a nap on the sofa.

Poor crossbill record shot

Red Squirrel at Grantown

Saturday night we were booked into the pine marten hide on the Rothiemurchus estate for a dusk watch run by Speyside Wildlife. If you have limited time and want a completely unforgetable experience, I highly recommend it. John, our guide, was knowledgeable, having worked in the park fr the past 3 years, and the hide was blinking luxury after the -3 start to the day at Loch Garten. There were seats. SEATS! And even double glazing. That wasn't even the best part.

As the light was dropping John told us that badgers habitually used the area, and woodcock and tawny owl could commonly be seen. Then, BOOM, two roding woodcock. Points to me. Quickly followed by views of grazing roe dear. Already happy, we settled in to wait for sun down. And we waited. and waited. After an hour I was beginning to think that the mammals had capercaillied on us, and were destined not to make an appearance. Then Matthew, sitting nearest to the window, pointed down in front of the hide - where a lovely old brock was snuffling at the peanuts. Points to Matthew.

I snapped a couple of quick pictures, then went to tell the others, sat at the far side of the hide, and we were inundated with photographers. He hung around for a good 20 minutes, before shuffling off down the path, just as John told us he'd picked up a marten on the infra-red cameras. A moment later he was up on the platform outside the hide, munching on raisins and peanuts.

His name was Ouzel (which instantly made me happy), last year's kit, still lurking around the territory. He had two small dark patches on his cream bib, and barely stopped eating for half an hour, when he suddenly shot up the tree, came down the other side and slunk over the brow of the rise. We were slightly crestfallen.


I gazed out into that darkness for a while, watching for movement. Just finding interesting rocks. Owl shaped rocks. Points to me. I called the tawny and the rest of the hide shifted again. The bird sat for a while, waiting for mice and bank voles attracted by the food on the ground, and then launched a couple of attacks, before ghosting off into the darkness. That's it. Ten o'clock. time for bed.

Nope. Three more badgers arrived 5 minutes laters, snuffling and shuffling over the peanuts. Their mouths a blur. No quarrelling, no nervousness. Just concerted eating. They cleared up one side of the hide in no time; a female wandering round to the remains in front of the panoramic windows, while the others ambled away into the darkness.

Brilliant badger - thoroughly ignored when the second marten appeared

This female was fearless. right up to the windows. I could have watched her for hours, unfortunately for her, after 15 minutes another pine marten appeared. He was called Twiggy, so named for his poor body condition when he first arrived, and was the local dominant male. He set to clearing up the remaining food and the hide buzzed with happiness. We finally left at 11 30, completely elated, before the hideous realisation that wee had to be up in 5 hours to get to the Caper Watch... and it was a 50 minute drive back to the cottage.


Day 2

Almost four hours later I woke up, crept round the cottage, and almost ditched both boys in the attempt to make it to Loch Garten for 5.30. In his rush to catch a lift, Tom double layered pyjamas with clothes, and away we went. The hide was slightly emptier, but more importantly there was a caper. It was distant, but we got it in scope, and a truly awful record shot before it disappeared back into the tree line. I ate a victory cookie, then we went home for more sleep.


After a solid nap we spent the rest of the day exploring Cairngorm and wandering the shores of Loch an Eilein, where we spent an exciting ten minutes luring in GS woodpecker by drumming on trees, 5 minutes watching goldeneye and teal, and 90 minutes roasting alive.


Scottish Crossbill
Crested tit
Red grouse
Tawny Owl
GS Woodpecker
Carrion Crow
Willow warbler
Great, Coal and Blue Tit
Song Thrush
Plenty of Oyks, Lapwing, Curlew
Too many Chaffinches

Mountain Hare
Pine Marten
Red Squirrel

Unlike last year, we left feeling smug, already planning a trip later in the year - watch this space.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Venturing Out

Its been quiet, hasn't it?... Don't hold it against me, I've been busy.

Since my last post I've pretty much locked myself in my flat; alternately working on my thesis, or on fundraising for this year's International Marine Conservation Congress in Glasgow (you should come along).

The hours have been funny; often 30 hours stints, followed by sleep snatched on sofa or - very occasionally - the floor (my back hurts being hunched over my laptop, laying on the floor helps, the sleep is unintentional). Recreation is a 10 minute drive to Fintry to check out what's in with the geese... I tend to feel guilty when I'm not near my desk.

When I do stop, the last thing I want to do is write a blog post, and I've not been outside to see anything anyway.

I suppose you could say that I've been coping by not coping.

So yesterday I decided to break the rhythm and cook for friends. Of course the result was that today I woke up hung over. I decided to take the scope and a flask round to the far side of the island, do a little sea watching, and let my head adjust. The next thing I knew, I was on the ferry, heading for Stevenson's Point. I'd go and take some shots of the purple sandpipers, and come back feeling like I'd done something fun. 2 hours tops. Back and working by 3...

There was one problem with that plan... No bloody purp. sands. I sett in the scope broke out the flask, and settled in for a sea watch instead. The weather was pretty grotty, and for the first 50 minutes there was nothing but mergansers and eider, idly bobbing in the waves.

"you could have got these on island" my conscience whined.

Then I picked up a few razorbills heading north. Then a red throated diver just inside the cardinal buoy. An arctic tern close in. Then sanderling on the beach. A sandwich tern. 8 common scoter. The tide was well out by this point, no chance of tracking down those sands now...

"you've missed 3 hours of typing time" said the conscience.

Home time then.... right after I drop in on the golf course and tick off the scaup. They're always there anyway...

A cheap tick

Right, done, my flask is cool enough to drink now, which means I've been out way too long...

...maybe I'll just look in at Muirshiel, see it there are any cuckoos or hen harriers around. Seeing as I'm off islands.

...bang! cuckoo is the first bird I see as I get out of the car. Time to stomp around and try to spot a hen harrier. I followed the trails upstream, getting out of the tree line (Muirshiel has a nice mix of coniferous areas and upland heath). The water level was testament to the excess of rain we seem to have had recently.

Everything's damp...

Hardridge Trail

Then as I head up Hardridge, I hear the sound of someone running their fingernail down a comb... dipper! Two in fact, feeding together along the burn. Hen harriers forgotten I spent a good hour snapping the pair, watching them nip in and out of the water (some of which was seeping through my trousers where I was kneeling). One even took a moment to chase off a passing grey wagtail. I was starting to feel much better for ditching work for a day.

Beginning to lose light and decidedly damp I started down the trail for the car park, keeping my eyes peeled for any harriers over the hills. However, the only other thing I managed to tick off was this foraging tree creeper.

Treecreeper at the visitor center

As I got home the ravens were attacking something on the cliff. I was expecting the resident sparrowhawk or kestrel, but it was a peregrine that nipped around the crags, before gaining height over the house and heading for wee Cumbrae.

Bonus Bird

I still feel guilty for going out; but at least it paid off. I think I can hold out until our annual capper hunt on the 18th. Now, time for an 18 hour writing stint. Adios!