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Wednesday 27 July 2016

Return to Speyside, Pt.1 - 17th to 21st June, 2016

My wife, Lindsay, and I had a return visit to the wonderful Grant Arms in Grantown on Spey in June this year, during which we celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary. This was our my tenth visit (Lindsay's eighth - I've been twice without her!) in seven years!

Friday 17th June

As is usual these days, we broke our journey from Leicestershire with an overnight stop in Northumberland, making a return to the superb Tweed View House in Berwick upon Tweed.

We had a very pleasant journey north, managing a lunch stop at the excellent Deli-Café in Boston Spa on the way up.

We'd hoped to visit Cocklawburn Beach that evening but, shortly after arriving in Berwick, the rain started, and continued all evening. A quick dinner in the local chippy was followed by a relaxing evening in our comfortable room at Tweed View House.

Saturday 18th June

We awoke to a misty morning - but no rain. After an excellent breakfast, served in our room as always by Graham, we set off, stopping briefly to fuel up just up the road.

The weather soon brightened up and the traffic was kind to us as we by-passed Edinburgh and crossed the Forth Road Bridge, admiring the works of the new road bridge which appeared to be almost ready to have the final spans dropped into place.

A break for a pot of Earl Grey at the Macmillan Cafe just outside Perth was followed by a short walk along beside the burn at Quarrymill in the hope of seeing Dipper. This used to be a sure-fire place, but they weren't seen on this occasion.

Lunch was taken at our favourite lunch stop anywhere - the Dalmore Inn, just south of Blairgowrie, and it was well up to its usual standard.

A stop at the Glenshee ski area, in the hope of seeing Ring Ouzel, only turned up Meadow Pipit and a relatively confiding Pied Wagtail.

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba ssp. yarrellii ) (female) - Glenshee
The onward journey to Grantown was uneventful, and we arrived in good time to check in and still have time to visit one of our favourite locations, Lochindorb, before dinner which we'd booked for 18h30 that evening. 

Lochindorb produced Meadow Pipit, Red Grouse, Black-throated Diver, Lapwing, and Greylag Goose as well as other things not noted, but the only images that were anything like reasonable were of a very close Curlew. I didn't notice until I came to process my photos that this bird had a hideous growth under its lower mandible. I've chosen one of the images where this is less obvious!

Curlew (Numenius arquata) - Lochindorb
We enjoyed a good dinner that night, after which Lindsay declared that she wanted to take a bath after a strenuous day being driven around, leaving me free to go out to another favourite place, near Tomintoul, which I'm sworn to secrecy over.  I didn't get any photos there that evening, but I did get my first Cuckoo sighting of the year on my way there. Sadly it was on the wrong side of the road and a shot through the windscreen totally failed. I tried to go past so I could turn round and get a shot, but it kept going up the road ahead of me. This is the best I could do.

Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) (juvenile) - near Tomintoul
Sunday 19th June

The weather forecast for the day did not look too bad, but the rest of the week looked as if it might be a bit grim and as Lindsay wanted a visit to the coast, that's where we went!

Our first stop was at Burghead. This is a great place to visit in winter for close views of sea ducks, but less productive in summer. I believe this next bird, out on the harbour wall, to be a genuine Rock Dove as, to my untrained eye, it looks OK for that species and I didn't see any feral pigeons here, or any other dove for that matter.

Rock Dove (Columba livia) - Burghead
By the inner harbour, I photographed a small bug on the harbour wall, the identity of which I've no ideas about! There was also a Rock Pipit grooving around - there usually is one here for some reason! Adrian has pointed me in the direction of Bristletail (thank you Adrian). I think it's probably a Sea Bristletail.

Sea Bristletail? (Petrobius maritimus?) - Burghead
Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Burghead
I left Lindsay relaxing in the car whilst I headed off to the area where House Martins tend to gather mud for nest-building. They soon arrived and busied themselves with this task. I tried for some flight shots, but didn't tarry too long as Lindsay was waiting.

House Martin (Delichon urbica) - Burghead
Having rejoined Lindsay, we set off for Clarkly Hill, just outside Burghead. Local birder Bob Johnson put me onto this place a couple of years ago. As we arrived, there was a flock of 80+ Linnet in the field and on the wires near the car park. Lindsay elected to wait in the car whilst I did a quick look-around. Just up from the car park is a small boggy area which has Northern Marsh Orchid as a speciality and there were a few specimens in evidence.

Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella) - Clarkly Hill
A young Reed Bunting was in the gorse on the far side of the marsh.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza Schoeniclus) - Clarkly Hill
As the sun was shining, I stepped into a field to see if I could see any interesting butterflies. I couldn't, but I did take a shot of a beetle - no idea what species it is, but it was extremely shiny!! Noushka has told me that this is of the Carabidae family (thank you, Noushka). I'm sure she's right.

beetle (Carabidae fa.) - Clarkly Hill
Just a little further up the lane, I did find a butterfly - a rather tatty Painted Lady. It's only in the last couple of days that I learned that all Painted Ladies in UK are migrants, having spent their winter in Africa! No wonder it looked tatty! This was one of the very few butterflies that I saw during this week in Scotland, most of the others being Green-veined Whites.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) - Clarkly Hill
Further up the lane I found Linnet and Goldfinch.

Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) (female) - Clarkly Hill
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) - Clarkly Hill
For me, the real treat here was the very vocal and obliging Whitethroat.

Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) (male) - Clarkly Hill
From here, we moved on to Hopeman for our picnic lunch. No wildlife of interest was seen here, but a small village that has TWO ice cream makers each with their own shop has to be worthwhile!

I'd been to Spey Bay only once before and, on that occasion, arrived late afternoon as a downpour was starting. We turned away immediately and set off 'homeward'. On this occasion we decided to give it another chance. The place was seething with people, all taking advantage of a hot Sunday afternoon with a poor week forecast ahead. We were lucky in that a car park space freed up as we arrived. Most people were having to turn round and come away again. I went for a walk, but found nothing of real interest. Not wishing to come away totally empty handed I took a photo of a beetle - yep! no idea idea what species again!

beetle sp. - Spey Bay
We left Spey Bay, probably never to return as it's a bit out on a limb when staying in Grantown. We opted for the scenic route back to the hotel where we enjoyed another excellent dinner before having a relaxing evening in the bar.

Monday 20th June

After breakfast we set off for Laggan, well to the south of Grantown. Our main objective was the old General Wade's military road which runs westwards from here. However, an Icterine Warbler (a rarity) had been being seen in Laggan and so we first tried to find that. It seems that it had last been seen two days previous to our visit, but it didn't reappear whilst we were there.

Heading down the road, we'd not gone far before we found a Wheatear. We usually see this species on this road, but not until much further along the road.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (female) - near Laggan
As expected, we started to see Meadow Pipit with some frequency.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) - General Wade's Military Road from Laggan
It's always a treat to see a Common Sandpiper that isn't running along at the water's edge.

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) - General Wade's Military Road from Laggan
For me, it's even more exciting to find an obliging Redstart! This one was near to one of the few places with habitation along the road.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) (male) - General Wade's Military Road from Laggan
In the spirit of showing birds in their environment, here's a couple.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) - General Wade's Military Road from Laggan
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) (female) - by Garva Bridge, General Wade's Military Road
After passing over the River Spey at Garva Bridge we ran into torrential rain. We continued to the point where the road is permanently closed due to a collapsed bridge, and had our picnic lunch in the car before setting back again - still in pouring rain.

The weather brightened up as we headed eastwards and we had good views of Wheatear again.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (male) - General Wade's Military Road
Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (female) - General Wade's Military Road
I was much more excited, however, to find a pair of Whinchat feeding a youngster, near farm buildings.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) (male) - General Wade's Military Road

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) (female) - General Wade's Military Road
Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) (juvenile) - General Wade's Military Road
Another Common Sandpiper was an opportunity not to be missed.

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) - General Wade's Military Road
As we neared Laggan I did a quick double-take when, through a gap, I noticed something in a field. I reversed up again, and realised that I'd been fooled. This was, presumably, to keep the corvids from destroying the plastic covering the bales. This is a common problem, and it looks as if this solution is working!

decoy Peregrine near Laggan!
At Laggan we stopped again in the hope of seeing the Icterine Warbler. There were other people there who had failed to see it before our arrival. We stopped a while on the off-chance, but it didn't show.

We took the long route back via Lochindorb where we found a juvenile Lapwing and a Common Sandpiper together in the very narrow strip of grass between the road and the water.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) (juvenile) - Lochindorb
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) - Lochindorb
After dinner at the Grant Arms that evening, I headed back to the location near Tomintoul that I favour. Again, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of birds compared to visits in previous years. I did find a Short-eared Owl, however, albeit at a very great distance.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - near Tomintoul
There were a few Curlew around and I wished the one that flew in with full evening sun on it, against a hillside that was totally in the shade, had done so somewhat closer to me than it did! I did get a Curlew come quite close to me as I sat in the car, however.

Curlew (Numenius arquata) -near Tomintoul
As I headed back to Grantown, at the same location where I'd seen the Cuckoo on the Saturday, I spotted a Snipe sitting on a distant post. I've only ever seen Snipe on posts in Scotland. Everywhere else I see them at the water's edge!

Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) - near Tomintoul
Tuesday 21st June

A relatively gentle day was in order this day as I was requested by the Grant Arms to take a group out on a visit in the morning and then give a talk in the evening.

The venue for the visit was Lochindorb and, in the event, I only had two takers. Mike and Val were a delightful couple and I was pleased to offer them a lift in my car.

We visited a couple of places en route, before heading to Lochindorb. The usual summer colony of nesting Common Gull was very much in evidence. Common Sandpiper were at the water's edge, and there were Lapwing about too. I was somewhat delighted for Mike and Val's sake when an Osprey paid a brief visit.

Osprey (Pandion Haliaetus) - Lochindorb
 At the south end of the loch I couldn't resist a photo of a Meadow Pipit on a road sign.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) -Lochindorb
We were hoping for Golden Plover, but had no luck on that score. The real excitement came after we'd turned round and were heading back beside the water - a Red-throated Diver flew in, swam around in front of us briefly, and then flew off again. Black-throated Divers are usually resident on Lochindorb at this time of year (they breed here), but Red-throated are only occasional visitors.

Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata) - Lochindorb
I do like Common Sandpipers - I think they have a subtle beauty - so here's one that didn't fly off when I stopped the car beside it as we headed round Lochindorb.

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) - Lochindorb
Back at the Grant Arms, I met up with Lindsay again, and we headed of to Ballindalloch Castle for a bit of tourism and lunch. We'd never been here before, although it was highly recommended by friends. The grounds are wonderful, and beautifully kept.

garden - Ballindalloch Castle
As is was late lunch time, we made directly for the castle's cafe. The place was heaving with people when we arrived and we were greeted with the news that we could be three quarters of an hour waiting for a table. We were just deciding whether to take food out and eat it in the gardens when a table suddenly freed up and we were invited to take it. The reason for the crowds was that a coach-load of Australian farmers had booked to have a group lunch here before heading off to view the castle's famous original herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. They were a really good humoured group!

We sat down for our lunch (very good, and reasonably priced), before going round to the castle entrance for a most enjoyable visit inside the castle. That's Mrs P with a bag over her shoulder in the foreground.

Ballindalloch Castle
After going round the castle, I took a walk round the grounds in the hope of finding some wildlife, but failed in that respect.

A scenic route took us back past Lochindorb, but the only sensible photo was of a Pied Wagtail.

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba ssp. yarrellii ) (male) -Lochindorb
We had to be back at the hotel relatively early so I could set up for my talk after dinner that night. There were more people than I expected for my talk, entitled 'Speyside - A Place For All Seasons'. I was even more surprised, considering the subject matter, to find that half the attendees were local people, rather than hotel residents! The talk seemed to go down well - even if I did overrun my allotted time of one hour by about 15 minutes.  

This takes me to the halfway mark of our stay on Speyside, so I'll end this first part of my account of our visit. I've just realised that this first part started and ended with Pied Wagtail!

The second part will probably be in about a week's time, and will contain what I consider to be rather more interesting species and photos than featured in this first part!

Thank you for dropping by.

Saturday 16 July 2016

An Owl Update - mid-July, 2016

I was recently taken to task by my good friend, David Gascoigne, for not publishing anything about Owls for a very long time. I've been aware, for some time, that this was so, but there have been reasons.
Up until the end of February, things were looking very promising on the Little Owl front. during the month of February, I'd had 27 sightings of Little Owl over 8 different sites. This compares favourably with the same period in 2015, when I had 18 sightings over 8 different sites.

Things went downhill a bit in March with 19 sightings over 9 sites compared with 25 sightings over 13 sites the previous year.

By the end of April, I knew that there was serious trouble. I had just 3 sightings over 3 sites, compared with 60 sightings over 15 sites the previous year.

May was just as bad with 4 sightings over 3 sites (19 sightings over 9 sites in 2015 - when I was away for a chunk of the month).

By now I was finding the situation somewhat depressing and getting disheartened. I possibly reacted in a way that I shouldn't have done, and tended to shy away from the situation by not visiting sites that were not on regularly travelled routes. Whilst some of the drop in sightings can be attributed to destruction of nests, nest invasion (definitely) and probably predation contributed to the situation! My owling buddy, John, and I suspect that food supply and weather were also factors.

It's too soon to get excited, but July is possibly showing us a small turnaround in the situation. John and I are starting to see birds again where they've not been seen for many months, although I've only seen juveniles at one site so far. We've also spotted an owl at what will possibly turn out to be a new site.

Here's a run down on my Little Owl sites that were active this time last year.

LO Site 02

The barn that is home to the owls suffered major storm damage to the roof in the spring, with approximately 30% being lost. Russian Vine is also invading the roof space. At least one owl is still around, but sightings are sporadic.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.02 on 18th February, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.02 on 1st May, 2016

LO Site 17 

The barn that was home to the owls also suffered roof damage in the spring. Since then, sightings have been almost non-existent.  Jackdaws have been frequently seen using the barn, and on my last visit,  two weeks ago (3rd July), I found that the barn door was off its hinges and lying on the ground, leaving the barn open to predators. I'm particularly sad about this one as this has been a great breeding site, and given me some wonderful photo opportunities. At least one owl is still around as I spotted it that day on a pole the other side of the farm house.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.17 on 3rd July, 2016
LO Site 23

This site is also a barn, in which cattle are housed in the winter. An owl is very occasionally seen, usually on an RSJ which is part of the roof structure. Only once have I seen a pair of owls here. I last saw an owl here in March, but pal John saw one for the first time since then on Thursday (14th July).

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.23 on 25th February, 2016
LO Site No.30

This site is difficult to monitor as it is a good 20 minutes walk from any footpath and in the summer the field either contains boisterous cattle, or I have to pass through other fields with these cattle in. Many a time I've had a herd stampeding towards me and had to make a run for it! As far as I'm aware, all is well here - but it's been a while!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.30 on 7th March, 2016
LO Site No.34

This has, since the day I found it, been one of my favourite sites - a gateway which overlooks it is a usual lunch stop for both John and I. Sadly, however, the site has a chequered history as, in all but one year, the site has been taken over by Stock Doves or Jackdaws. This year it was both. The last sighting, of a pair, was on 3rd March - then Stock Doves took over, followed by the Jackdaws. Both have now departed again, although the nest cavity is still full of sticks brought in by the Jackdaws. It was quite upsetting to have lost this pair. John and I had a real moment of excitement, however, when we stopped there on 7th July and John spotted a LO on the next tree down from the nest tree. We have fingers, and everything else, crossed!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.34 on 25th February, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.34 on 7th July, 2016
LO Site No.35 

I've only seen an owl here three times, but I know that it's resident in the farmyard somewhere. Each time I've seen it, it's been in exactly the same place, so I'm guessing that this is its home.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.35 on 15th January, 2016
LO Site No.36 

This site is extremely close to site No.34. This site also has a history of being taken over by Jackdaws. Sadly, this happened again this year, and shortly after that it appears that the farmer had taken the top off the nest tree - possibly to protect his cattle from the danger of falling branches. We've not seen an owl here since 14th April, 2016.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.36 on 14th April, 2016
LO Site No. 37

This site is a strange one in that we only seem to see a bird here during the winter. The last sighting was on 8th January. However, John and I saw a bird a few hundred metres up the road from here on 7th July, and John saw one even closer on 14th July, so we suspect that this is probably the same bird.

LO Site No.41

The tree that is home to the owls is in an advanced state of decay, and there is a split in the trunk which probably means it will come down in the next gale. We've had a nest box in place for two years, but the owls have not used it. Currently, sightings of an owl here are sparse, and we suspect that they are now favouring the farm buildings.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.41 on 31st March, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.41 on 17th May, 2016
LO Site No.42

Sightings are difficult here as the owls share their time between their heavily foliaged nest tree and a barn. However, they have continually bred successfully and this is the only site at which I've seen juveniles (2) this year. I've no photos to offer as they are all from a great distance and would give away the location of the site.

LO Site No 43

This site is close to Nos.34 and 36, but now appears to have been abandonned as we've had no sightings since December, 2015.

LO Site No.44

This site is in a tree, right beside a road. We've often seen a pair here, and things were looking good for 2016. However, we've not seen any juveniles yet this year.

John and I were both recently enraged to see that some stupid idiot has trimmed the branches from around the nest opening - presumably so that they can get a better view of it (probably for photography) as this is the only pruning that has been done to the tree. This means that the owls have less protection from incoming predators, the nest cavity is more attractive to invasion by Stock Doves and Jackdaws (of which there are many in the vicinity), and that any juveniles that the nest might produce have been deprived of branches that would help with the fledging process. The crazy thing is that some decent images could still be obtained when the branches were there, by waiting for the owl to be in another part of the tree. OK, so neither of the next two images would win prizes, but they are a reasonable record of owls in their environment, and I don't think that the second is too shabby! All those branches visible in the first two have now been removed by someone who puts their photography before the welfare of the birds! The last image was taken post-pruning and away from the pruned area - just to prove it can be done!

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.44 on 18th February, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.4 on 3rd March, 2016
Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.44 on 30th June, 2016
LO Site No.46

The last sighting here was on 9th August, 2015.  Although there is some visible deterioration to the nest cavity, I suspect that the loss of this site might have been due to predation. Both Buzzard and Sparrowhawk were being seen locally at that time, with even a pair of Sparrowhawk in the nest tree on one occasion. I think, however, that I might have witnessed the demise of one of the birds as cries in tones which were reminiscent of a Little Owl drew my attention to a Buzzard having a go at something on the ground about 50 metres from the nest tree. We've not yet given up hope of a return, however.

LO Site No.47

Johm and I only get occasional sightings at this site, in spite of passing by on a weekly basis and the nest opening being clearly visible. Our last sighting had been on 3rd March, until this month, when I had sightings on both 7th and 14th July.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Site No.47 on 14th July, 2016
LO Site No.49

During 2015, the owls relocated from the original nest tree to one much less accessible about 100 metres away. This might have had something to do with the Mandarin Ducks which nested in the original tree! I've not seen an owl at this site since January, but my visits have been a bit sparse!

LO Site No.51

The last sightings here were twice in February (4th and 11th). Since then the nest opening has been grown over by Ivy, so we think that the bird (we've only ever seen one here) has gone.

Other Owls

Apart from the Barn Owls that I was seeing locally to my home in February, and The Short-eared Owl that was even more local to me from November to February, other sightings have been sparse, the latest being a Short-eared Owl at Eyebrook Reservoir on 7th July. However, I did have a session at Cossington Meadows with John on 31st March, when we had quite good views of Short-eared Owl, and a Barn Owl put in a short appearance at a great distance Here's some images from that session.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)  - Cossington Meadows on 31st March, 2016

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - Cossington Meadows on 31st March, 2016
Writing this post has instilled in me a new enthusiasm and I realise that I must get out there and revive my passion.

Thank you for dropping by. I'm not sure what the subject of my next post will be, but it's about time I reported on my visit to Scotland in late June. That might take some time to put together, however!

I hope that this compensates for my lack of post on owls, David. Thank you for the prompt!