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Friday, 13 June 2014

Scottish Highland Break, Part 2 - 26th to 28th May, 2014

My last post ended featuring a day when I'd been suddenly taken ill with (probably) food poisoning when out looking for owls in the evening. This post continues the story.

Monday 26th May

I had a relatively bad night on the Sunday, and woke up feeling rather weak and with a still very unsettled stomach on the Monday morning. It seemed imperative that I stayed relatively close to base in case things deteriorated again.

Lochindorb was the obvious place to go , and the approach road was quite rewarding. 

I first stopped to take a photo of a lone Lesser Black-backed Gull that seemed to think it was a Common Gull, causing all sorts of confusion to the mass of Common Gulls there.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - Lochindorb Road
A little further up the road, just beyond the gulls, I saw a Curlew lurking in the heather.

Curlew - Lochindorb Road
Having taken the photo, I then started seeing the occasional Curlew in flight. I parked up and stood beside the car, trying to look inconspicuous. The Curlews performed noisily, and quite well, but after a while I felt the need to sit down. It seemed that I'd been photographing them for ages, but I see from the image data that it was only just over ten minutes in total! It was only when I came to look at the images that I found that I'd totally missed getting an above-wing shot, apart from a rather poor going-away shot.

Curlew - Lochindorb Road
I spent a short while by Lochindorb Lodge, before setting off for Avielochan, stopping to try and get some images of the very distant Black-throated Diver. They were only record shots, but at least the bird did some wing flapping.

Black-throated Diver - Lochindorb
Before I left the Lochindorb Road I managed some more shots of Meadow Pipit.  However, I was now conscious that my head was 'fuzzy' and my brain wasn't really in gear.

Meadow Pipit - Lochindorb Road
At Avielochan I fared rather better with the Slavonian Grebes than I had the previous day, and managed some images that I believe are a little better, although the results are far from good. I'm used to seeing Slav Grebes with their golden tufts raised and their black neck ruffs sticking out to varying degrees. I'd never before seen one with both these sets of appendages held flat to the head and neck as in the last image below.

Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan
By now I realised that the thing I really needed to do was go back to the hotel and have a lie down. As I left Avielochan there was a Common Sandpiper peering down into the water at the spot where one had been wing-stretching the day before.

Common Sandpiper - Avielochan
Back at the hotel I got into bed and went out like a light! I was awakened a couple of hours later by a message coming through on my phone. Jim was at a site that I'd taken him and Roger to on the Saturday evening, and where I'd seen Red-throated Diver the previous year. We'd not seen them on the Saturday, but Jim's message told me that they were back!

It's a measure of how much good the sleep had done me in that it only took 17 minutes for me to get dressed, get my gear together, load the car, and then drive the 9 miles to the lochan - a journey that Google Earth says should normally take 16 minutes. I must confess that, at one point in the journey, my car was airborne!

I shot over three hundred frames here as the birds were distant and we were facing into the light. The results for me were not good, but here's a few of the better ones - I was to do better later in the week.

Red-throated Diver - above Dava
That night I hadn't the stamina or confidence to go out after dinner, but stayed in to enjoy Jim Almond's talk to the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club (BWWC). The BWWC is based at The Grant Arms, and provides a superb resource for hotel visitors. Although I'd previously experienced this talk by Jim, it had changed somewhat since the last time, and was extremely enjoyable and informative.

Tuesday 27th May

Feeling somewhat more robust, I decided on a visit to the coast at Burghead, some 33 miles away via the deviationary route that I chose. My choice of destination was influenced by the knowledge that they'd got reasonable facilities and toilets there. Burghead is a great place to go in winter, as you can be almost certain to find Long-tailed Duck here, plus Grey Seals, both of which often actually enter the small harbour. Summertime is a bit more chancy for sightings on the harbour side (west side) of the head, but good for sea-watching on the opposite side. I started with the harbour side but only found distant Herring Gull and Cormorant on posts outside the harbour, and three Eider swimming past distantly off the end of the head.

Eider - Burghead
House Martins were nest-building under the eaves of one of the harbour-side houses. I caught one just 'laying the foundation stone'.

House Martin - Burghead
I then took a short walk along a track to seek out the martins' source of mud and ended up at a likely-looking puddle. The first visitor to the puddle was a Linnet. I saw Linnet at this same location last year, but didn't get any photos - I didn't do much better this time!

Linnet - Burghead
The first indication that I was at the right place came when a single House Martin arrived.

House Martin - Burghead
Quickly there were two of them.

House Martin - Burghead
I hadn't noticed at the time that one of these birds had a spider on its back! The next image shows it a bit more clearly. edit: Doug McFarlane has pointed out that it looks as if the 'spider' is probably a tick. On reconsideration, I agree - thank you, Doug.

House Martin - Burghead
It wasn't long before a small flock of around twenty birds were all at the puddle together. Here's a bit of the action.

House Martin - Burghead
During this session I'd had a conversation with a charming gentleman by the name of Bob Johnson, a keen local birder, who was on his way back from a walk. He'd seen a staggering number of species during this walk (I can't remember the figure stated, but I seem to remember that it was around the 50 mark), and when I asked him if anything outstanding had been seen he offered "Short-eared Owl"! Having established my credentials with him, he kindly informed me where he'd seen it - just half an hour earlier. You'll not be surprised, therefore, to hear that I quickly curtailed my time with the House Martins, and set off to try and find the owl. 

The information is now in the public domain and so I can tell you that the location was in the vicinity of Clarkly Hill.  Bob had told me about the Northern Marsh Orchids that he'd been keeping an eye on and that had flowered for the first time this fine sunny morning. Due to the marsh, I couldn't get close enough to use macro.

Northern Marsh Orchid - Clarkly Hill
Linnets were in the Clarkly Hill area too.

Linnet - Clarkly Hill
During this Scottish break, for the first time I found myself noticing significant numbers of Yellowhammer in Scotland. I'm not saying they weren't there on previous visits- just that they hadn't impinged on my memory, and I'm not one for keeping lists. I had several sightings round Clarkly Hill.

Yellowhammer - Clarkly Hill
Warblers were everywhere, and I'm hopeless at warblers. I'm assuming this one is a Willow Warbler, but am happy to be told otherwise.

Willow Warbler - Clarkly Hill
A few Whitethroat were also there, and quite active.

Common Whitethroat - Clarkly Hill
In the event, I didn't find the owl, but I'd had a splendid time in this beautifully tranquil location, which was full of birdsong. The tranquillity only once being shattered by another type of 'bird'  - a pair of  RAF Tornado GR4s from nearby Lossiemouth, which screamed overhead at low level.

RAF Tornado GR4 - Clarkly Hill
Prompted by reports of sightings of Scottish Crossbill beside Lochindorb Lodge, I set off to spend a major chunk of the afternoon there. I got myself settled in comfortably - and fell asleep! I woke up and hour or two later to see a Cuckoo on the fence about 150 metres away, with its host, a Meadow Pipit.

Cuckoo (female) with Meadow Pipit - Lochindorb Lodge
Fortunately they decided to come a little closer to me.

Cuckoo (female) with Meadow Pipit - Lochindorb Lodge
I also took some shots of the Red Grouse at Lochindorb

Red Grouse - Lochindorb
 At dinner that evening, Roger and Lynne told me that they'd found me sleeping at Lochindorb, and they'd kindly left me to my slumbers.  Also at dinner there was discussion about an owl site near Nethybridge. Roger, Lynne, and Jim were going to a place on the edge of Grantown to look for Nightjar, but for me, the call of the owls was too great.

On arrival at the location in question, I found a bird-watcher sitting in his car in a gateway. He confirmed I was in the right place. I continued up the road to where a group led by John Poyner were watching Black Grouse and hoping to see Short-eared Owl (they'd seen one, but at such a distance that he didn't know whether it was a SEO or LEO). I continued even further up the road to a place where I could park and walked down towards John's group. However, before I reached them they departed. I took some record shots of the Black Grouse (there were at least six of them) in the fading light at a distance of over 300 metres (all my distances are measured via Google Earth). In the first image, below, you can just see the typical shape of a Black Grouse's tail.

Black Grouse - near Nethybridge
I started to walk down the road towards where the first person that I'd spoken to was still parked. He then drove up the road to meet me, and politely told me that I wasn't helping matters as there was an owl, looking like a pinhead, way up in the sky, that was waiting to come down with food for its young, but my presence was putting it off. Suitably repentant, I went back to my car and drove it down to where John Poyner had been with his group - and stayed in the car.

It was getting dark when, through my windscreen, at about 600 metres distance, I saw what looked suspiciously like an owl fly along in front of the wood and then into the wood. If it was an owl it was probably a Long-eared Owl.

After a while it was too dark to see much at that range and so I departed, pausing briefly to apologise again to the guy in the car, who confirmed that I had seen a Long-eared Owl.

Wednesday 28th May

I was due to be going home this day, but the previous day I'd been concerned about my ability to drive the 450 miles (720 km) home in one shot as planned, and I also felt that I'd got so much more to do up in Scotland that I decided to stay on another couple of days - fortunately the hotel was able to accommodate me.

For some reason, probably because it was raining (!) I didn't manage a very early start this day, not leaving the hotel until around 09:00. My objective was clear, however - to see what I could find at the location near Nethybridge again!

I was respectful of the advice given to me the previous evening and stayed sitting quietly in my car at the spot where the guy had been the night before. Between 09.30 and 10:30 I had five sightings of Short-eared Owl. A pattern soon emerged - birds travelling north-east took a high route behind and above the trees at a distance of around 200 metres from me, and were usually carrying prey. Those travelling south-west were empty-handed and kept low and passed in front of the trees at around 100 metres distance. This made photography very difficult, particularly as the light was awful, and I was constantly changing exposure compensation from around +1.7 (for those against the white sky) to -1.3 for those against the virtually black trees. I was also in a position where I was tending not to see the low flyers coming in behind me until it was too late.

Nevertheless, I did manage a few record shots of the Short-eared Owls during the morning.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge.
It was only when I got home that I realised that the only 'keepers' from the morning session were of the distant ones against the grey sky.

After about 10:30, the owl action dropped off somewhat, but there were other things to watch too. At first I thought I'd caught midges in my image but I'm now pretty sure it's the persistent drizzle that tried to ruin the morning.

Curlew - near Nethybridge
Suddenly, at 12:29, after it had brightened up somewhat, there were sign of heavy movement in the branches of the trees 120 metres away. I was alert and waiting when a Long-eared Owl showed for the grand total of about three seconds! At least I got some record shots.

Long-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
There was then a relatively long period without owls and I took a few photos of Kestrel and Meadow Pipits (sorry, but I do like Mipits).

Meadow Pipit - near Nethybridge
After that, it went very quiet, and the rain started again. Windows were wound up to keep the rain out, and the wipers occasionally turned on. Fortunately the rain had stopped by the time a Short-eared owl suddenly appeared in front of the car. This was the closest, by far, that I'd seen an owl here, and I just wish that I'd managed some images that weren't shot through the windscreen glass. Here's a few that were - they were never going to be good under those circumstances!

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
I left at about 14:30, so I'd had five hours here, rooted to the spot, with just a couple of exceptions when I'd driven away for a couple of minutes so that I could answer the call of nature without disturbing the owls!

That afternoon I went up to the location above Dava and found the Red-throated Divers on a different lochan to the one on Monday. I also spent some time by Lochindorb.

Oystercatcher - Lochindorb
After dinner, Roger and I left Jim to give his talk on "Shropshire Peregrines" (we'd both seen this talk before) and returned to the location near Nethybridge (Roger hadn't been here before) - now you're probably starting to get the impression that I'm rather fond of owls!

As the Long-eared Owls were the main objective for both of us, we sorted ourselves out before we arrived so that we were sitting, Roger behind me, on the same side of the car. As we arrived a Short-eared Owl crossed the road ahead of us and landed on a roadside post. I managed a very distant image  - my first sitting owl at this location.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
We did have one more sighting of Short-eared Owl here as it was getting dark, and then we simultaneously spotted an owl fly to the ground about 80 metres from us. It was a Long-eared Owl.  It was behind long wavy grass that was near to me and also behind fence wires, and a fence post which was way in front of it too. We could clearly see its ears and facial disc, but I just couldn't focus the camera on it in the dark. The next image will show you the problem - it's the dark 'blob' at the bottom right of the post.

Long-eared Owl (really, it is!) - near Nethybridge.
Having given up trying to take a photo I scanned the fence posts in case there was another - and found one sitting on one of the posts that belongs to the distant shadowy posts in the last image. I pointed Roger to it and he got his 'scope onto it and, with surprise, called "it's a Tawny Owl".

I don't think that there can be too many people in UK who can claim to have seen three species of owl in the wild within around a half-hour period without moving 10 inches (25 cm) from the spot! I'm pretty sure that I'll never do it again!

I just wish I'd managed to get an image of the Tawny.

Thus ended a very enjoyable day, but better was to come the following day. This will feature in the third (and final) part of this account of my Scottish Highland break.

Thank you for dropping by.


  1. It's a great report, Richard. Any species of owl is always special and worth whatever it takes to see them. In the winter we can go down to Fisherville, ON and see as many as twenty Short-eared Owls at dusk. It's a spectacular event.

    1. Thank you, David. I suspect that my travelogue posts are too long-winded for some folks, but I do find it difficult to be brief in these circumstances!

      SEOs at dusk in Fisherville sounds fabulous - however, it's the cold that I don't do so well at these days!!

      Have a great weekend - - - Richard

  2. Not too long for me Richard. Great account of your trip with some stunning images.
    I couldn't pick a favourite I enjoyed them all. To see three species of owls in one day is indeed very special.
    On the House Martins was it definitely a spider and not a tick? A lot of weird looking ticks hitch a ride with our swifts, martins and swallows

    1. Thank you, Doug.

      I did wonder about that 'spider' being some sort of parasite but thought it probably not as it was on the outside of the feathers rather than stuck into the flesh, and it had eight legs. I now see that a tick is of the same family as the spiders and an adult tick also has eight legs. Furthermore, having looked more closely at my images, it appears that two of the 'front legs' are strangely folded back over the top of the body - I suspect that you are right. Makes me shudder to think about it!

  3. Absolutely brilliant, I can't say more, it is superb.

  4. Interesting selection of birds you managed to capture, brilliant. I saw a Long Eared owl once in County Durham and guess what? I did not have my camera with me:-( I could have got a brilliant shot of it as it was so close. Rule Number One - ALWAYS have a camera with you. That is why I bought myself a small one, a Lumix, that stays in my handbag.

    1. Ah! - the joys of having a handbag! I rarely go out without a camera unless it's just popping to the shops or somewhere where I'd have to leave it in the car, and then I have to rely on my phone. This isn't as bad as it sounds as I use a splendid app called 'Camera FV-5' on my phone which gives most of the controls that you'd get with a DSLR. It's brilliant, but it only allows a digital zoom, of course.

  5. I really enjoyed your comprehensive account Richard. I think your report and pictures explain why so many people love Scotland where the population of many species remains comparatively high. I loved seeing the Slav Grebes and Red-throated Divers in their summer plumage. Nice one with the three owls - takes some doing.

    1. Thank you, Phil. Yes, Scotland is a place where you'd be very unlucky if you didn't turn up something interesting in a day.

  6. First thing first,a big well done Richard,hope you are fine and well after your ordeal.
    So many likes,in particular your flight captures, love each and every one.
    What a fantastic treat.
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your very kind words, John. Thankfully, I was fully recovered by the time I got home.

  7. Once more,another fantastic account of your adventures in Scotland,well impressed Richard.
    I also hope your health is back to normal.
    Take care.

  8. Great set of pictures - most people in the UK would have never seen one owl anywhere!


    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

    1. Thank you, Stewart. I suspect that many (or most) people will have seen an owl - but most of them that have, probably didn't know that they had!

  9. WOW! What a fantastic post, Richard!
    So much to comment on!
    The Cuckoo begging food from foster mum is amazing!
    And that Curlew flying is one hell of a shot, one I would have really happy to take!
    And what bout seeing 3 species of owls is such a short time!... Indeed I don't believe many others could gloat on a similar event! :)
    Keep well!

    1. Thank you for your very kind, and extremely encouraging, word, Noushka.

      Have a great weekend

  10. Hi Richard! We are impressed. These photographs of scottish birds are amazing. You are a great photographer of nature.

    1. Thank you, Michał and Piotr. Your very kind words are really appreciated!

  11. Richard, I trust you are feeling well by this time! I am literally out of breath after reading your post. What a trip you have had! My pulse was racing thinking about waiting in the car for owls to appear. And they did! Simply superb!

    Brilliant narrative accompanied by equally brilliant photographs! Each was my favorite. Can't wait for the next installment!

    1. Wow, Wally! Very kind words, indeed.

      I'm absolutely fine now, thank you.

      The last installment is up there now.

  12. Isn't Scotland just a magical place, you have really whetted my appetite for another visit Richard! Another excellent post with some brilliant accompanied images.

    1. Thank you, Paul. I reckon if you'd found the spot I did, you'd not have moved from it all week - I'm not sure I will if I return (see my latest post)


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