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Friday, 20 June 2014

Scottish Highland Break, Part 3 - 29th & 30th May, 2014

Thursday 29th May

This was to be my last full day in Scotland and, feeling well-recovered from my earlier ills, I was determined to make the most of it, although mindful that it shouldn't be too strenuous as I was facing a 450 mile (720 km) drive home the following day.

I was waiting at the door when the dining room opened for breakfast, and was soon on my way back to the owl location near Nethybridge that I'd already spent quite a lot of time at.

About 5 miles (8 km) from my destination a Short-eared Owl flew across the road in front of me. By the time I'd stopped it was rather a long way away and I could only grab a distant shot. I then watched with frustration as it flew further away, put up two further SEOs which quickly settled down into the grass again, and then continued on it way.

Short-eared Owl - from road to Nethybridge
Having set up at my destination, taking care to position the car so I had a better view of things approaching from behind than I'd had the previous day, I sat and waited.

The pattern started to repeat itself once more, with birds from the south-west flying high and carrying prey as shown below.

Short-eared Owl (with prey) - near Nethybridge
Suddenly, however, things changed, and an owl started to hunt at the roadside only about 90 metres from my position. This gave some better photo opportunities.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
I mentioned, above, that I'd positioned myself somewhat better to see birds coming from behind me. This paid off just a few minutes after the last sequence was taken, when a bird did the low north-east to south-west passage in front of the woods towards the hunting grounds - this again at a distance of about 90 metres.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
Things then went extremely quiet for well-over two hours, until I was awakened from my reveries by a bird making the south-west to north-east passage, empty handed but a little closer than had been the norm. From past observations, it does seem that SEOs tend to fly high when carrying prey. I wonder if this helps them avoid conflict with competition for their spoils?

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
Less than two minutes later, I was extremely glad that this owl had left me set up for shooting against the sky when I saw a very distant, very large, bird in the sky behind the woodland. My first reaction was Raven. As I was taking the photos I realised what I was looking at - a White-tailed Sea Eagle with wings like barn doors! It was extremely distant, so I've pasted together two images of the same bird. you can just detect the bird's wing tags. Incidentally, this location must have been at least 30 miles (50 km) from the nearest sea.

White-tailed Sea Eagle (photo-montage of 2 images of single bird) - near Nethybridge
I sat there for about another 40 minutes, and it was now approaching 13:00 and entering what I expected to be a quiet time for the owls. Furthermore, I needed a 'comfort stop', so prepared to move off. I had just started my car when an owl landed on a post beside the road about 60 metres away. I took the safety shot from where I was.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
As the car was already started, I thought 'what the heck' and halved the distance. The owl took no notice of me, and I had to make squeaking sounds like a mouse before it would turn to face my direction, but even then it didn't take any notice of me.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
I halved the distance yet again, and this time it was so intent on looking for prey that I couldn't get it to turn its head at all - a pity as it would probably have resulted in by far my best SEO image ever. Here's one of its back! Can you sense my frustration?

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
After what seemed like ages but was, in fact, less than 10 seconds, the bird dropped down into the grass, missed its prey, and then flew to a fence on the adjacent edge of the field.

Short-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
Having done the necessary, I returned to my post and waited another couple of hours, but little was happening and so I decided to depart and 'say goodby' to some of my other haunts in the region. The disappointment at not seeing a Long-eared Owl during this session was more than compensated for by the sight of the WTSE and the knowledge that I'd almost certainly got some of my best SEO images in the can.

I don't know what inspired me to return to the small lochan above Dava where I'd previously seen Red-throated Diver, but I'm glad I went. The Divers were there, a little closer to the road, and in better light, so some slightly better images were obtained than my previous efforts.

Red-throated Diver - above Dava
I'd never seen Snipe in this part of Scotland before, so I was particularly saddened to find a dead one beside the road here - presumably through collision with a vehicle.

Snipe - above Dava
I'd not visited my favourite Lochindorb yet that day and this is where I went next. Nothing spectacular was seen, but I had felt that it was necessary to say farewell. I took some photos of Meadow Pipit and Lapwing, and observed a swan fly past, thinking nothing of it at the time.

Lapwing - Lochindorb

Meadow Pipit - Lochindorb
As I headed back towards the hotel for dinner, I noticed a swan (presumably the same one I'd seen flying north-east up Lochindorb) was on the tiny lochan by the old owl-watching lay-by at Dava, but didn't give it a second glance.

Over dinner that night, Jim told us of the Whooper Swan that was on the lochan by Dava. I'd just assumed it was a Mute Swan as Whooper Swans should all be in their Iceland breeding grounds at this time. I don't know why this one hadn't made the journey.

It was a genuinely difficult choice as to where I went after dinner, but I decided on a quick visit to the small lochan below Dava before heading back to the owl grounds near Nethybridge. The lochan is away from the road, but I managed some shots of the Whooper Swan from high ground. The swan looked healthy enough.

Whooper Swan - below Dava
I then quickly headed south to the owling grounds. The owls weren't very evident during the evening, with no SEOs seen but, at around 20:30, a Long-eared owl landed on a fence post against the woodland about 100 metres away. There was no way I could get a decent shot in this light and at this range without getting out of the car as there was long grass in the foreground obscuring my line of sight, plus intervening fencing. The next image will give you an idea of the problem.

Long-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
Not wishing to disturb this owl I contented myself with staying in the car, and observing. At least I got a clearly identifiable record shot.

Long-eared Owl - near Nethybridge
After the owl had departed I think I got another view of a LEO, but I'm not sure. I did, however, witness something that seemed quite bizarre. A female pheasant came down the road carrying what seemed to be an egg with a feather attached to it!

Pheasant (female - with egg) - near Nethybridge
With no owls seen for a while, and a long day ahead of me the next day, at 21:30 I decided it was time to head back to the hotel. As I departed the area, there was a female Roe Deer near the road.

Roe Deer (female) - near Nethybridge
I felt that I'd made the most of this last day, and that I was ending my stay on a high! I also felt that my photographic efforts were better this day than on previous days. I suspect that the intense photographic activity was improving my technique, but I also think that lucky opportunities and helpful weather played a significant part too.

Friday 30th May

I was all packed, checked-out, and ready to leave Grantown-on-Spey by 09:20. The day started with bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, promising to be the best weather of the week - shucks! Rather than the cross-country route of my outward journey I took the nominally quicker route via the A9, stopping very briefly at Avielochan just in case I could get some better images of the Slavonian Grebes. I didn't, but I offer the following two images as they show how their eyes shine like red jewels in the sunlight - something I'd not captured before.

Slavonian Grebe - Avielochan
I can see why the A9 has the reputation of being the most accident-prone road in the UK. It's just fine where there is dual-carriageway although there is, understandably, a lot of speeding. However, there's a lot of frustratingly slow traffic on the rest of the road, with a lack of safe overtaking places. I'd have probably been quicker taking my outward route!

I stopped for my picnic lunch break, over the border into England, just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed at Cocklawburn Beach. I'd been here before with my wife, daughter, and granddaughter a couple of years previously and it's a beautiful unspoiled spot. It's a bit off the the A1 that I was travelling on but I fancied a tranquil place for my picnic. It's also quite a 'birdy' place, and I managed a few photos.

Skylark - Cocklawburn Beach
Stonechat - Cocklawburn Beach
It was only after I got home that I found out that this was a place that I could have indulged one of my other interests as there are some remarkable fossil beds here!

The rest of the journey home was distinctly unpleasant. I hit heavy slow traffic round Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and later hit stop-start traffic on the A1. This went on for some hours. It seems that there'd been an accident with a crane in the 25 mile (40 km) section of continuous roadworks on the M1 between Sheffield and Nottingham, backing up traffic on the M1, M18, and A1, and the radio was speaking of impending closure of the M1. I couldn't face much more of this slow traffic, so continued well south on the A1 rather than my usual route of cutting across to the M1 on the M18. I arrived home almost exactly 12 hours to the minute after leaving Grantown, of which approximately 11 hours had been driving time.

It'd been a superb holiday - my first ever that was purely focused on birdwatching. I stayed at The Grant Arms in Grantown-on-Spey, where I have stayed several times before - but always with my wife. The Grant Arms is a wonderful base for a holiday in this fabulous part of the world - at any time of year. The food is excellent, the rooms are very comfortable, the whole of the team of staff is very friendly, helpful and efficient, and the facilities for the wildlife enthusiast are superb. The Birdwatching and Wildlife Club is part of the hotel's amenities and a stay at the hotel gives automatic membership. The club offers regular free events, but can also arrange focused guided tours if you're looking for something extra special. The club has impressive premises on site, including a lecture theatre, excellent wildlife library, and a clubroom which is full of useful data and information sheets that can be taken away. Daily breakfast-time briefings are offered where you can catch up with the latest sightings or seek advice from the club staff. Thus it's possible to have a wildlife experience as intense or relaxed as you wish - and you can decide on a daily basis! My wife, who is no birdwatcher, loves the place, but the place also came up trumps for this solo visit. My thanks to all at The Grant Arms for a wonderful stay.

I've already booked for the same period next year, where I'm expecting to team up with Roger and Lynne, and probably Jim Almond, again, and (hopefully) my wife will be with me this time - although it'll be a very different holiday if she's not - I might not venture far from the location near Nethybridge!!!

Thank you for stopping by.


  1. Wolw, that was a great time you had, my fave is the Red-throated Diver, but I think any would do. Brilliant photography Richard.

  2. It must seem strange photographing a shortie in more warmer weather and not having to worry about a early setting winter sun. Really like the ground hugging flight shots and the one on the post too. What a privilege to see the web too it looks massive!
    Like the lark too.

    1. Thank you, Doug. The long days (they're even longer than ours at this time of year in Scotland) and a bit of warmth certainly make for comfort and ease when looking for shorties. My goal is, one day, to achieve a shortie image as good as your blog banner image - fat chance of that, though!

    2. I hate autocorrect "web" should've been WTE... DOH

    3. I thought it probably was, Doug, but it did get me looking through the post to see if I'd done something strange by mistake!! ;-}

  3. Glad you had a great holiday :-) You did well to get shots of the owls and the Sea Eagle. I love the eyes of the Short-eared owl, they look like they have eye liner that been smudged around their eyes.

  4. Hi Richard: Some of these photographs are simply spectacular, especially of the owls in flight. I am truly impressed. But you had such a wide variety of other species too. What a great vacation you had. I am sure that you are already looking forward to next year.

    1. Thank you, for your kind words, David.

      The variety of species shown is only a very small percentage of what I could have seen and photographed if I'd not been quite so focused on just a few species. I'm really looking forward to next year, but who knows what it will bring! I can't see me foresaking the owls, however!

      Best wishes to you both - - Richard

  5. Hi Richard You gave us agreat narrative to accompany some superb pictures.The "shorties" are simply stunning and as ever the wealth of other species is tremendous.You certainly had a briliant holiday ina very special part of the world.

    By the way the barnie had simply picked up some grassy debris along the way although I did notice it had a ring also.

    I agree about the fox - a definite "record" picture.

    1. Thank you, Phil. It's difficult to go wrong in such a marvellous place!

  6. First class Richard,every image is a delight to see,especially the Short Eared Owl.
    Brilliant flight shots,also love your Header.

    1. Thank you, John. It's much easier to take SEO flight shots in summer lighting conditions than it is on cold winter days when they appear 'down south'!!

  7. Nice one Richard! Excellent series with lovely images, especially the Owls which proves the value of time spent in pursuit of them :-)

    1. Thank you, Jim. Hoping to see you there again next year.


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