Friday, 15 July 2011

Scotland. There's sunshine here somewhere.


We packed the tent and headed south, to a campsite I'd last stayed in many years ago when I was a teen. The journey took us down the west coast, through Ullapool (shop-stop) to Gairloch, via a quick soup-stop where a White-tailed Eagle drifted distantly past. Throughout the journey the sun shone, the birds sang and the weather was generally pretty fabulous. Weird.

We finally arrived at Big Sand campsite (yes, that's really the name of the place) and had a gentle wander along the beach to relax.The campsite was stuffed with Six-spot Burnet moths and Small Heath butterflies; and with Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Wheatears feeding on the caterpillars. Shame they don't eat midges.

The stony end of the sandy beach at Big Sand, looking to the Torridon hills

Six-spot Burnet moth.

As the evening seemed nice, we thought a spot of seawatching might be in order, so we headed off to Rua Reidh lighthouse, a few kilometres up the coast, to see what might be on offer. As we arrived, the weather closed in and a few spots of rain began to fall. Nothing daunted, we sat and watched - or I did, whilst Na wrote postcards - a steady stream of auks passing by, with the odd Black Guillemot pepping up the mix a little. A few parties of Manx Shearwaters drifted through, killing time before heading in to their roosts overnight. Even better, a first-year Great Northern Diver appeared just offshore, and to cap it all, a pod of about 60 Common Dolphins hurtled past southwards.

Looking north from Rua Reidh

Rua Reidh lighthouse, looking to the dim and distant Outer Hebrides


Once again woken by the rain, but swiftly forced out of bed by a combination of sunshine and midges. We trotted off to Gairloch harbour to investigate a whale-watching company, booked ourselves on their afternoon trip and set out for a brisk walk to blow out the cobwebs beforehand. The walk produced our only dragonflies of the trip: two Common Bluets (Enallagma cyathigerum), a couple of Goldenrings (Cordulegaster boltonii) and what looked like a single Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum), though the latter went past quite briskly in the wind. We also managed to find a Golden Eagle circling up in the sunshine and yet another pair of Greenshank.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch by the loch-side, then headed back to the harbour and kitted up for our trip. This entailed putting on a rather large survival-suit, or some such beast, which made me at least look like a bit of a charlie. 

Sailor Na

Sailor J, camping it up.

We were soon on our way out of the loch, heading out in search of cetaceans. After a rather disappointingly empty sea had been scanned for a while, we eventually picked up the occasional Harbour Porpoise, but nothing more significant. So off we headed for the distant flocks of Kittiwakes and Gannets, putting the wind up a few auks as we passed.

Gannet. Not camping it up - Gannets are too straight-laced to act in such a fashion.
The bird flocks signified nothing more than birds for a while, until a Minke Whale finally put in an appearance, sounding majestically near the rib, then diving in search of food. He/she/it did this a handful of times in the end, coming within 100m of us as we drifted along on the current. This was all fine and dandy, indeed quite spectacular - until we drifted into the patches of air where it had breathed, and my word!, does a whale's breath smell bad... if you've every had the misfortune to smell a septic-tank which has been cracked and the leachate is stagnating in the sunshine, well that's about as close as I can come to it - and believe me, I've no desire to come any closer.

Minke Whale diving, having just let out a vast blast of halitosis

Fulmar, gliding serenely by on its way somewhere. I bet they home in on feeding whales by scent.

We drifted far enough from the whale to start the engines up again, and headed off to be shown small pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, which really weren't interested in our boat. Sometimes you get the dolphin, sometimes the dolphin gets you, I guess. Anyway, whatever the reason, they headed resolutely off into the blue, so we had to be content with a drive-by viewing of a Common Seal haul-out, a handful of Grey Seals, and then a steady steam back to the harbour and dry land. Not a bad day, in the end.

Short-beaked Common Dolphin getting out of the water...

...and getting back in. Perhaps it was too cold out.


A return to form by the weather, so we headed slowly and steadily southwards in order to break up our return to Devon. A walk along the base of Slioch was uneventful in many ways - the highlights definitely a couple of newly-fledged Ring Ouzels and a pair of Golden Eagles heading down the valley - and we dawdled our way down to Pitlochry with a relaxed attitude. Pitlochry came as a bit of a shock after the slow and gentle pace of things in the north and west - the town seemed to be teeming with people and vehicles, rather like that first time you go to London as a child who's grown up in the country (if you've ever done this, it's a bewildering experience for a while) but all too soon it settled down into just being back in 'civilisation'. Cracking meal in the Turkish restaurant though... moussaka and lasagne followed by a richly sticky portion of baklava (mmm!), all washed down with a niiice red wine. Civilisation has its benefits.

Fragrant Orchid

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Scotland. It's warmer further north...


After another brisk night amid the pines and another grey and gloomy start, we headed on northwards in search of better weather. We broke the journey with a quick stop at Chanonry Point to look for Bottle-nosed Dolphins, which put on an obliging show for us and a cavalcade of admirers, then headed on northwards into the murk. The journey was brightened up by a very obliging couple of Black-throated Divers at Lairg, though a walk at the other end of Loch Shin failed to produce much of interest - bar a brief snatch of Ring Ouzel song. We pressed onwards to the north, eventually finding a campsite at Scourie with a view along the sea-loch towards Handa island. Gratefully we pitched the tent and headed off for a short walk.

Wood Tiger moth, livening up a rather quiet walk near Loch Shin.

Next to the campsite a small stream runs out into the loch, with a little road across the mouth damming it back into a small marsh. This was packed with a wide variety of plantlife - Marsh Cinquefoil, Northern Marsh Orchid, Water Forget-me-not, and some spectacular Monkeyflowers. A Sedge Warbler gave us a brief rendition of his song before breaking off to beat up his neighbour. Following the patch on towards Tarbet, we climbed the hillside and enjoyed the view before the weather once more began to close in on us.

Northern Marsh Orchid


We awoke to another grey and cool day, so decided that plan B was the one to execute. We packed a substantial lunch, filled the thermos and set out cheerfully to walk from Duartmore to Ben Stack, then round the base of the mountain and back the way we'd come. We soon arrived at our kick-off point. An auspicious beginning: within moments of setting out, a male Merlin hurtled overhead, a pair of Common Sandpipers bobbed around the rocks of the little roadside lochan, and - believe it or not - the sun came out. Briefly. The old road along which we set out was fringed with Fragrant Orchids, studded with butterworts and heathers. All in all it looked good. The path soon left the road and plunged wildly up and down over the gnarled gneiss which underlies the wet heath and blanket bog of this part of Scotland. Squelching through mires, skirting lochs and lochans, we headed on away from the road and deeper into the hills. The sun didn't fulfill its earlier promise, and indeed the cloud slowly dropped down the tops throughout the day, but the walking kept us both warm. We eventually crested the highest point of the walk, dropped down to yet another loch, and settled in to lunch to the sound of Greenshank, Common Sandpipers and the omnipresent Meadow Pipits, whilst a Black-throated Diver kept a wary eye on us from the middle.

Arkle. In the lowering cloud.

Small White Orchid

The next part of the walk was probably the least interesting: a switchback path led us to a steep drop to the main road, along which we trudged for about three miles before we turned away along the western side of Ben Stack, trudged steadily up the slope to where we'd had lunch, and finally turned our noses for home. Whilst the bird-life wasn't exactly spectacular at any point along the way, at least we were serenaded by Golden Plovers on the journey back. In all it worked out at a quite respectable 20 mile walk, there or thereabouts, which we felt justified some slightly stiff legs and a good appetite: well and truly satisfied with a fine meal at the Scourie Hotel later that evening.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid


By contrast, Wednesday morning was fair of face, rather like Sunday's child is meant to be in the old rhyme, so we splashed out on a boat trip to Handa Island - a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. We arrived bright and early, in fact about half an hour before the first boat, but soon realised that that was probably a very good move: people appeared in droves just before the boatmen and began queuing on the jetty. Fortunately we managed to get on the first boat of the day and were swiftly ferried over to the island.

We were met by a pleasantly efficient warden who instructed us all to remain on the paths, explained where the best places were for the purposes of Puffin-viewing and told us a little of the history of the island before releasing us all to the tender mercies of the wind and the skuas. In case you don't know what skuas are, they are close relatives of the gulls which lurk around your local town centre and steal your food. Skuas, however, are generally chocolate-brown coloured (without getting into complexities of colour morphs) with pale patches towards the outer edge of the wings, and they live by stealing food from auks, gulls and terns. In fact, Great Skuas (a.k.a. Bonxies) will attack anything up to the size of a Gannet, and rather than steal from the smaller seabirds will sometimes just eat the birds and their lunch. As all seabirds do, they come to land to breed, and have an undeniably effective method of protecting their nests: if you come near it they'll beat you up. Simple...

Great Skua

The path to the seabird colonies of Handa take you through the skua colonies. Fortunately the birds seem pretty phlegmatic about people, so contented themselves with a few token eforts, circling us as we walked and occasionally gliding around behind us to keep us on our toes. A solitary Red Grouse popped its head over the skyline as we walked up towards the cliffs, and then we arrived. The first to notice is the nose: a mildly fishy, tangy smell wafts over the edge of the cliff in the updraft. Then the ears start to pick up the murmur of the birds on the ledges, and as you get to the edge, the view below spreads until you feel you're teetering on the edge of it all, a clamour of growling, gurgling, squalling Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Shags, Puffins and gulls assaults your eyes, ears and nose simultaneously.

Red Grouse

Gradually the whirling mass of birds resolves itself into some sort of order. Fulmars drift along the edge of the cliffs, apparently revelling in their ability to ride the updraft with the minimum of effort: constantly wheeling down into chasms and crevices to be able to pop up again at the top of the cliff a moment later, twisting and turning with splayed feet, crooked wings and fanned tail until they come almost to a halt, then whirling away again in a series of twirls and swoops.

Fulmar, demonstrating wind-hanging skills

Gulls and skuas also patrol the cliff edge, but they drift elegantly along the wind on the lookout for an unwary auk coming back from the sea with fish for its offspring. Puffins loaf on the edge of the cliffs, where the soil is deep enough to dig a respectable burrow. They pop in and out of the plants, looking a little incongruous with their outrageously colourful and oversized bills. Occasionally one will arrive from the sea with - or without - a neat silvery row of small fish held tightly in their bills, whilst their wings whir them up to the land, where they scurry post-haste down into the safety of their burrows.

Below all this is the main activity of the colony: the Razorbills and Guillemots. The Razorbills tuck themselves into the deeper ledges, where they can lie flatter on their bellies and relax. If there is a crack behind a rock into which they can press themselves, so much the better. They tend to sit carefully in their pairs, a respectable distance between themselves and their immediate neighbours. The Guillemots, on the other hand, cram onto the smallest possible ledges, shoulder to shoulder with one another, yarring and growling, attempting to stab one another (or so it seems) with their long slender bills. There are abandoned (infertile) eggs scattered around the ledges like childrens' toys, and a constant stream of adults rocketing up to the cliffs from the sea below, with fish clasped lengthwise for their chicks.

Interspersed with the auks are the Kittiwakes and the Shags - the former gluing nests made of seaweed and birdshit to the ledges, decorated with whatever comes to hand, often bits of old fishing gear, and usually sitting together on their nests, nuzzling one anothers' faces and screaming at their neighbours with a deafening 'kitt-a-waaak, kitt-a-waak' call. The Shags confine themselves to deeper ledges like the Razorbills, building a messy stick-based nest which is liberally spattered with droppings, and brooding with a squat, menacing look, emerald-green eyes alert for any attempt by the neighbours to steal bits of nest material.

The sea offshore is peppered with auks, all bobbing gently on the slow swells that roll in from the Atlantic, some diving for fish near the colony, others washing and preening before heading back out to better fishing grounds elsewhere.

A pair of Razorbills deciding whether or not this ledge really, actually, honestly suits them.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Scotland. It's cold up there...


There's something wrong with getting up at 2 in the morning on a holiday, but with the prospect of having to get past Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow on the same day, we felt it was worth getting an early start. So off we set, and were past Manchester by 7.30, leaving us well-placed to have a break, meander into Scotland and leave the Glasgow traffic to get on with things in our absence... which I'm sure it did. We eventually arrived at Aviemore in the early afternoon, pitched the tent at the Rothiemurchus campsite and went out to stretch our much-cramped legs. A gentle wander down the Glen Einich track paid immediate dividends for our southern sensibilities: huge black slugs like ambulatory liquorice on the path, Snipe chipping from a nearby bog, Juniper sprawling across the heather, Chickweed Wintergreen, Mountain Everlasting and Pale Persicaria in flower at our feet and a family of Crested Tits purring in the pines beside us. Never mind that the weather was grey and chilly, never mind that we were dog-tired; we'd arrived on holiday and we were ready to chill out.

Mountain Everlasting

Saturday: The Caledonian pine forests.

Chill out was exactly what happened overnight too: at some point in the early hours the cloud rolled back and the temperature dropped like the proverbial. We shivered, shuddered, turned over and went back to sleep, to awaken to the gentle sound of rain pattering on canvas. Ah yes; camping in Scotland. It all came rushing back. Nothing ventured, as the saying starts, so we got up and out and wombled off to Loch Garten and Abernethy Forest. We felt that we were tougher than needing to visit a luxury Osprey-observation-facility, so headed along the tracks between the dripping pines - all very atmospheric - and admired such delights as downy Goldeneye ducklings, Common Sandpipers twiddling on the lochside and a quartet of Red Squirrels having the most almighty bust-up. It couldn't have been a more acrobatic sight if it were the olympic gymnastics - there were squirrels hurtling up and down treetrunks with reckless abandon, chasing each other out into the thinnest of the branches - and dropping out of them - bounding helter-skelter across the logs, heather and juniper on the ground and starting the whole breathless endeavour all over again. Never did find out what it was all about though.

Loch Mallachie looking gloomy and romantic. In a perverse sort of fashion.

A hot drink was needed, so we settled down on the banks of Loch G., got out the gas-stove and brewed up some soup. Mid-way through this warming exercise we noticed a smallish duck with a trio of ducklings in tow. With some incredulity we watched this female Wigeon paddle serenely to the shore next to us, haul out and lead her young into the grass beside us. She constantly talked to them with a subdued version of the husky growl that you hear from the flocks in winter, whilst they piped excitedly back and dashed around the bankside feeding on insects and plants.

Wigeon plus one of the three ducklings

Sunday. Cairn Gorm.

In a similar fashion to the previous night, the cloud rolled back - but this time we awoke to glorious sunshine. This was the opportunity we were awaiting, so we scarfed down our breakfast and set out for a brisk walk onto the Cairngorm plateau. The way up is either short and nasty, long and steady or up the funicular railway - fortunately the latter starts at 10 in the morning and passengers aren't allowed out of the Ptarmigan Restaurant's grounds when at the top, unless they're on an organised tour. We slogged up the short and nasty route, stopping for Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and breath. Eventually we reached close view of a patch of snow, where two incredibly under-dressed birders were scoping for Ptarmigan. We stopped for a mouthful of water, scanned quickly with the bins, and headed on up - only to bump into a family party of Ptarmigan within about 5 minutes. We stopped and admired the beautifully patterned chicks, still in their down coats, and the amazingly cryptic female who chuckled away to her chicks the whole time we watched. We eventually moved off on and up, past the restaurant and up to the peak, where another cup of soup was in order whilst we admired the view east into Aberdeenshire and north up to the Moray Firth. Fine indeed!

We continued on around the mountain, skirting along the ridge towards Ben Macdui. A snatch of Snow Bunting song held us up for a while, but as he seemed happy to use a corrie as an echo-box, we let him be and continued along our way. We soon came across a fabulous spring-head, with rolling waves of Purple Spoonwort cascading down the wettest track: it would have been interesting to stop and search the mosses and liverworts more thoroughly, but I have no great wish to cause boredom and strife with Na, so we wandered on in search of birds. Eventually we found ourselves looking onto the slopes of Ben Macdui, with a cracking male Ptarmigan close by. As I scanned around the rocks - more in hope than expectation - a male Dotterel popped his head over a rock and gave me a dirty look. Close by was a female, with at least one downy chick trotting rapidly back and forth across the stony heath. We watched them from a restrained distance, then strolled over to admire a pair of Snow Buntings, and finally began to make our way back down the mountainside to some shelter and lunch. The journey back to the car was enlivened by a selection of nice montane plants: Globeflower, Trailing Azalea, Dwarf Cornel and also what appeared to be a clump of White Wood-rush.

Purple Spoonwort cascades down the moutainsides...

The Cairngorm plateau from the top.

Trailing Azalea

We tried a bit of hide-based birding at Insh Marshes to round the day off, but there really wasn't anything going on. A couple of Roe Deer grazing on the edge of the marsh were the highlight, so we headed back for a well-deserved dinner.