Monday, 20 April 2015

Ptarmigeddon - Blonde Birders Return to the Highlands

Tom and I have been mixing up our usual Hopeless in the Highlands tour...

We started the weekend with the Glen Shee/Clunie tour including a morning trekking up Glas Maol for our ptarmigan targets. On the way to the ski centre car park we picked up both back and red grouse, and the climb provided wheatear, meadow pipit, red deer and mountain hare; but, after four hours walking in the blazing sun, we were forced to concede defeat at our first ptarm site.

The low traffic before 7 meant that the deer were still at the roadside
Luckily we didn't have to walk far in Glen Clunie. Within 20 mins of the car we'd picked up grey and pied wagtails, more mipits and wheatear, a dipper, peregrine, curlew, and one very approachable feeding ring ouzel.

The wheatear in Glen Clunie look stunning in the sun
Ring Ouzel were found feeding in the valley bottom

Thoroughly toasted by the sun now, we decided to pick up our stuff and head up to Loch Garten. After checking in at The Boat we headed straight to the reserve for a wander beside the loch, adding tree creeper, goldcrest, willow warbler, chiff chaff, and golden eye to the days list. Exhausted now, we decided to call it a day and slunk back to our rooms with the sun still up.

One of the very visible creepers at LG

The next day saw us freezing our behinds off in the caper-hide by 5.30... But alas no lek. The ospreys had produced their first egg the day before, and EJ was looking uncomfortable on the nest while Odin still brought in the occasional bit of nest material. At 8 we fled back to the hotel for breakfast, lots of breakfast. Over the remnants of our fry ups we checked the reports from yesterday, in particular the king eider that had been spotted on the Ythan, a potential lifer for the pair of us. Throwing out the idea of crested tits, we decided to spend a while on the coast.

Two hours later we were pulling up in the dunes behind Newburgh Golf Club. We met another birder in the car park; he'd been there at six that morning, but with no luck, and was hoping for better chances on the incoming tide. We teamed up and headed for the mouth of the estuary, where most of the eider were out on the bank, heads tucked away. Together started picking our way through the dozing birds, but the bird wasn't there. Weighing the options, we decided to split up again, Tom and I would check further seaward, our new friend would move upriver - we would wave if we saw anything.

After 15 minutes of no eider in the estuary mouth we decided to head back upstream. Another three birders had emerged from the car park. As we passed the first we told them about the absence of bird downstream and scoped our friend upstream - who was waving. Shouldering the scope, we headed off up the beach, taking the new bloke with us.

We set an impressive pace for two unfit twenty-some-things weighed down with optics, and we were soon stood on a bend in the river, following a rapidly disappearing bird as the tide took it upstream to where a knot of cars sat beside a bridge. Hopefully, we hopped back into the cars and went in search of the second car park.

Pulling up we bundled out of our respective cars and took position on the bridge. I got the scope out and there it was, sat on the bank, preening. I moved over for Tom to see, and it promptly put its head under its wing and went to sleep. Luckily we didn't have to wait long. the tide pushed the birds off and they proceeded to swim and display within 50 meters of the bank for a good few hours for eight very chuffed looking twitchers. 

The bird was surprisingly confiding, often drifting to within meters of the few assembled birders
It certainly knew we were around, and was interested in the noise of camera shutters

After a victory doughnut, Tom and I hopped back in the car and headed back for a few hours in Anagach forest, with no joy and even less navigation. Baked by the sun and suffering from two early mornings, we gave up quickly and went in search of food and our beds. 

Monday morning started with another unsuccessful (and very mist) caper-watch, so I talked Tom into one last punt for ptarmigan at Cairngorm car park. As we arrived the cloud was very low on the hill - obscuring the top of the railway, but I set up the scope and hoped. One pass over the scree, two, three, and the, there it was; the most distant, almost fully moulted into summer plumage, bird you could ever wish to vaguely see. I moved out to let Tom used the scope and he ticked his second lifer of the weekend. Job done. Despite missing crossbill, crested tit and caper, we'd racked up 79 species (plus a scraggy hooded/carrion hybrid) over the weekend, time to go. 

I'm safely at home with a brew now, but Tom has another couple of hundred miles to drive and a chance of two common cranes - another lifer for him - en route, maybe we can make 80 species by bed time.

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