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Monday 26 July 2010

Owl Magic! - on 16th July, 2010

I had been somewhat disappointed that, apart from a distant view in near darkness on 29th June, I had not seen any Little Owlets. I then had a call from my good friend, and Little Owl guru, Paul Riddle who gave me directions to one of his sites (about 25 miles from my home) where he thought that I'd have a good chance of seeing owlets. I went that same evening.

I immediately spotted an adult Little Owl high in an almost bald tree as I arrived - not quite where Paul had indicated to me. The light was awful, with the sun behind the bird so that it looked as if the sun was shining out of its backside! A quick chat on the phone to Paul, and I positioned myself to await developments.

Little Owl - adult No.1

This owl departed during my positioning move, and settled on a wire in a field a couple of hundred metres away. Soon, however, a juvenile appeared, and perched on a branch in a tree that was only about 20 metres away. The light was going by now so high ISOs were needed and low shutter speeds. The images are, therefore, not too crisp.

Juvenile No.1

Suddenly the second adult bird (eyes closer together, and not such pale 'eyebrows') appeared on a slightly nearer branch and watched me inquisitively for a short while before departing.

Adult No. 2

Almost immediately after this second adult departed, it was replaced by the second and third of the juveniles.

Juveniles Nos. 2 & 3

Juvenile No. 3 decided to be even more inquisitive and fly down into the grass on the other side of the road to me, immediately opposite where I had parked. It did this a couple of times, returning to the branch beside its sibling each time.

Juvenile No. 3

Juvenile No.3 (with No.2 behind)

Juveniles Nos. 2 & 3

The two juveniles messed about on various nearby branches for some time before adult No.2 (which I imagined to be 'mum') arrived and clearly told them to move! 'She' then sat there for a short while loudly scolding me for taking interest in her children.

Adult No.2

Immediately 'she'd' gone, juveniles Nos. 2 & 3 were back. This time they took less interest in me, much of the time demonstrating their 180 degree swivel heads by facing away from me (see below).

Juveniles Nos. 2 & 3

I must have spent nearly an hour and a half, absolutely spellbound by the antics of these owls. If I'm right as to which of the adults is the male, juvenile No.1 looks like its dad, No.2 looks like mum, and No.3 is somewhere beween the two. Eventually, adult No.1 returned to the same tree. My last image, although technically rubbish, for some inexplicable reason is one of my favourites.

Adult No.1

I set off home in the darkness, but my excitement for the night was far from over. I'd only been going about fifteen minutes when a Badger ran out into the road from my left. It nearly got to the other side and then decided to double back. A quick application of the anchors and I missed it - just !

I'd got to about seven miles from home when I rounded the corner to find a Tawny Owl on the road immediately in front of me. Again I slammed on the anchors and came to a halt less than three metres from hitting the bird. However, it did not hang around long enough for me to take a long look, and flew up into the roadside trees. Although I have an interest in owls, this was the first Tawny I'd seen this year!

Wow! What a magical evening!!! Thank you Paul!

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Summer Hols Pt.2 - Speyside

The second part of our summer holiday was based on three nights at The Grant Arms at Grantown on Spey, Highland. You may think, from my previous posting, that my wife and I always do things on the cheap, and do not appreciate the finer things in life. I assure you that this is not the case. Before I retired, a large part of my business was providing gastronomic tours to continental Europe (personally supervised by myself!). I do, therefore, have an appreciation of good hotels and fine cuisine. I am delighted to say that, although I had relatively high expectations of the Grant Arms, it exceeded my expectations on most counts, and didn't fail on any! I will explain more as this posting unfolds.

Thursday 8th July

Much of our day was spent on the relatively long drive from Newcastle to Speyside, stopping for a picnic lunch in torrential lane at the Bowlees Visitor Centre in Teesdale (super place - must come back when more time and better weather!).

On arrival at the Grant Arms we were made very welcome, and having deposited our bags and got our bearings, we returned to the front desk. The lady on Reception took us to meet Kirsty, the Programme Organiser for the Bird Watching & Wildlife Club (BWWC) based at the Grant Arms. 'Membership' of the BWWC is automatically bestowed upon visitors to the Grant Arms. The facilities are superb! There is a huge library of birding/wildlife books, a long corridor covered in maps, charts, and brochures relevant to local wildlife, a large lecture theatre, a smallish book sales section, and boards showing today's sightings and yesterday's sightings. Having explained to Kirsty our objectives for our two days there, she took the time and trouble to explain to us our best options for achieving them.

We then returned to reception, booked a table for dinner at 18h30 (so that we had time for the voluntary wildlife briefing session at 18h00) and set off for Anagach Woods (just behind the hotel). Having crossed a narrow part of the golf course we found the squirrel feeding stations outside the golf course workshops, and almost immediately spotted a red squirrel on one of the feeders. It's a pity that the light was absolutely diabolical - no chance of capturing an image of this charming animal as it left the feeder!

Red Squirrel

Our walk through Anagach Woods was totally fruitless. Our objective was Crested Tit, which are present in the wood. We saw virtually no birds at all during our walk - just Chaffinch and Blackbird! I''m not sure why this was, but it could be weather related. It was very dull, windy, and threatening rain.

We returned to the hotel in time for the briefing, and found that we were the only birding visitors and so had a one to one (two, actually) with Kirsty. It was then time for a swift jar before dinner.

Dinner was absolutely superb. They've obviously got an excellent chef here. After three courses, we'd had an ample sufficiency and headed off for a short exploration of this pleasant town. On our return we made for the bar, deciding that we would not visit the film show in the BWWC theatre - on Raptors of the World, if I remember correctly. I enjoy a malt whisky and was somewhat fazed by the amazing range on offer - many of them somewhat exotic. I settled for one of my favourites - Highland Park 12 (I used to favour Highland Park 18, but I've not seen it available anywhere for a long while - the last time was in Davos, Switzerland). We'd had a long day, so retired somewhat early.

Friday 9th July

I was awake by 05h00 so decided to leave my good lady asleep in bed and head off for another visit to Anagach Woods. As I passed the nearby museum there were Oystercatchers on the lawn outside. There were three squirrels by the feeders beside the golf course, but the light at 06h00 was even worse than the previous evening.

Red Squirrel

Further into the woods I started hearing the occasional birdsong. I stopped to listen and observe, there being a convenient seat to sit on at this point. Soon a small flock of (maybe 20) birds came into view flitting silently through the treetops. Light levels were low and I was looking directly into what light there was, so only unidentifiable silhouettes were seen. Suddenly I caught a brief glimpse of a crest on a tit-sized bird - could I have been seeing things! Within a few seconds I had another brief glimpse - I was now sure - Crested Tit!! Sadly this was the last I saw of the Cresties. I did manage to get better views of some of the other birds in the flock which turned out to be Willow Warbler. Here also I found Treecreeper and Coal Tit. However, in this light with the birds constantly on the move, no usable photos were possible.

After this it was back to the hotel for an excellent breakfast.

We had been advised by Kirsty that Lochindorb was a good place to visit, and relatively local to the hotel. This was our next destination. Having left the main road, the road to Lochindorb is single track with passing places. The road was virtually deserted and so we were able to stop wherever we wanted without causing any obstruction. We had only been on the road for a minute or so before I spotted the heads of Red Grouse approximately 20 metres away.

Red Grouse

Further on we started seeing plenty of the ubiquitous Meadow Pipit.

Meadow Pipit

Eventually we came to the loch itself. A large flock of Starlings greeted us as we arrived, and we found Oystercatcher and Common Sandpiper by the water's edge and relatively close at hand. Further away, in the distance we could see a long thin line of birds stretching over nearly the whole width of the loch.


Common Sandpiper

We set off in the car again, stopping briefly to observe an Osprey flying above the loch. We then found out that the line of birds was a mass of Greylag Geese which were still in the process of leaving their roosting/grazing grounds on our side of the loch, crossing the road in front of us. We stopped for a while to watch, and in scanning the flock I found two Barnacle Geese (record shot only).

Barnacle Geese

We stopped again a bit further along still, and I took an extremely distant record shot of the castle ruin on the island, on which the Osprey had settled. There was also a juvenile Black-headed Gull at the water's edge.

Black-headed Gull (juvenile)

Osprey (on Lochindorb Castle)

A little further on we found another gull. I'm not very good at gulls and, although I recognised it as one I'm not used to seeing, I had no idea what it was. It was not until I got back to the hotel and consulted the books that I realised it was a Common Gull (not too common in my neck of the woods)!

Common Gull

At about this time the rain started, and with the strong wind we started to get a bit wet. A couple of key viewing points were fully occupied by campervans (it was still quite early), and so our next stop was at the southern end of the loch by the bridge over the burn which enters the loch close by. I soon spotted a very distant Golden Plover (only a record shot - but never done much better!).

Golden Plover

A bit further up the road I spotted a striking looking wild flower. I can't find what this is from the Collins Nature Guide on Wild flowers. It looks a bit like a sort of Knapweed, but the bright red flowers are confusing my identification - any suggestions would be most welcome!

Unidentified flower

The rain was really heavy by now and so we set off to find the craft centre at Logie Steadings by the River Findhorn. This proved to be an interesting place, but we were disappointed with the café there. It seemed all a bit 'veggie inspired' and over-earnest. We settle on a light lunch of Earl Grey tea and a slice of carrot cake. The weather was still pretty awful when we departed, setting the sat-nav for the 'shortest' rather than 'quickest' route back to Grantown. This took us down a very minor road from Relugas. I made a brief stop to photgraph a juvenile Swallow just beyond Relugas, and then we stopped at the bridge over the Dorback Burn near Wester Glenerney in the hope of a sight of a Dipper. One look at the narrow gorge far below with a raging torrent in it told us that there'd be no Dipper here, but there was a Spotted Flycatcher doing its thing by the bridge.

Spotted Flycatcher

We continued through Grantown to the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten. My interest here was more for the Crossbills than the Ospreys, although I always delight at seeing Ospreys. The rain here was torrential for most of the time, and no Crossbill was seen and so we soon set off for nearby Loch Mallachie which is also a favourite haunt for Crossbills.

Ospreys (3 chicks in nest on left)

We met up with some local people on the trail to Loch Mallachie who told us that there had been a Redstart down by the loch a few days earlier. The walk, however, was totally fruitless, apart from a Mottled Beauty moth - a species which we saw a few of during our two days.

Mottled Beauty

After this it was time to return to the hotel for the briefing session before dinner. My report of the Spotted Flycatcher was welcomed by one new arrival, who successfully found it the next day. I, for my part, was interested in Kirsty's advice to this lady as to where the best places for Crested Tit were. Our travels the next day were to try and get better views of these birds.

Another superb dinner was followed by drinks in the bar, and then an excellent talk by Roy Dennis (one of the world's foremost authorities on Ospreys) in the BWWC theatre. I was very disappointed for Roy that there were only ten people present for his talk.

Saturday 10th July

As previously mentioned, our background objective was to try and find Crested Tit, whilst enjoying some of the other delights of the region. We first set off for Loch Morlich in Glenmore Forest Park. Near Coylumbridge I spotted this roe Deer

Roe Deer

The owner of the café by the dry ski slope told us that she'd not had any Cresties on the feeders for a few weeks now as all the young had fledged and the parents were out in the woods showing the fledglings where to find natural food. She did give us a pointer as to where both Cresties and Crossbills had been seen recently. We set off as advised and spent a couple of hours walking very pleasant paths, but the most exciting thing seen was a solitary Red Squirrel. The weather was a bit better today, but not brilliant as can be seen in the image below.

the River Luineag entering Loch Morlich

Red Squirrel

Mottled Beauty
From Loch Morlich we headed off into Abernethy Forest and the RSPB's base at Forest Lodge. This is another area which can be good for Cresties. My wife is still sufferning with damaged ligaments in a knee and so our walking was a bit limited. Here we stayed close to the car, and had our picnic sitting in the car. I'm 75% sure that another Crestie was seen - but again just a brief glimpse. We then set off back to Grantown as my wife wanted to spend some time sitting beside the Spey. We found a nice place where we could park close to a bench and sat and watched the water go by, only briefly being exercised by a distant Dipper.

The Spey at Grantown on Spey

distant Dipper

although we'd had a most enjoyable day, we'd been a bit short of birds, and my wife suggested a return to Lochindorb - great idea! The initial approach was disappointing, with virtually no birds being seen before we got to the Loch. As soon as we got to the water, however, we had some relatively close views of a number of birds.

Black-headed Gull

Pied Wagtail (male)


Black-headed Gull (juvenile)

Common Sandpiper

Just over halfway (heading southwards) along the loch shore, the road leaves the water's edge, and skirts wooodland around Lochindorb Lodge. On the far side of that the road stays some distance from the water. We almost turned round at the point where the woodland starts, but something told me to continue. I'm so glad that I did as, when we got past the far end of the woodland section I found three Black-throated Divers relatively close in to the shore, and showing well on the calm waters. They were about 200 metres away so good photos were not possible, but this was a really good highlight to end our day on. There was still another highlight to come, however!

Black-throated Diver

Time to head back to the hotel and a quick clean-up and refrshment before dinner, which was up to its usual high standard.

At 21h00 there was a wildlife quiz in the bar, hosted by the BWWC. Although this was open to anyone in the bar there were, in the event, only five 'teams', and my wife and I won by one point! Our prize was a bottle of wine or our choice of any book from the BWWC book shop. In view of the poor attendance for the quiz, I felt that I should only choose a modestly priced book and came away with a delightful book - "Owls" by Keith Graham. Although this had been an owl-free holiday this made a very welcome memento of a superb time. The next day we departed early for the long drive home to Leicestershire.

I feel that we only just scratched the surface of what was on offer at the region surrounding the Grant Arms, and we are very much looking forward to returning here in the not-too-distant future. Our thanks to all the staff who made our (all too brief) stay so enjoyable - always cheerful, always helpful, always friendly, always efficient. Thank you!!!