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Thursday 15 February 2018

Another Visit to Speyside - January 27th to February 2nd, 2018

At the end of January I had a visit to Speyside in Scotland, staying at the wonderful Grant Arms in Grantown on Spey. Lindsay had decided that she would not accompany me on this occasion, not fancying the potentially cold and snowy conditions. The plus side of this was that I could please myself, weather permitting, as to what I did each day! 

I had some prime objectives, and some secondary ones too. The prime objectives were to get photos of Crested Tit, Snow Bunting, and Long-tailed Duck. The secondary objectives were to photograph Red Squirrel in their winter coats and to see if there were any Short-eared Owl overwintering in the area. After arrival, Mountain Hare was added to the secondary list.

Here's how the trip progressed:-

Saturday, 27th January            to Berwick Upon Tweed

I left home at 10h00 and set off northward via A42, M1, M18, A1/A1(M), stopping at Durham  services for a comfort break and a sandwich. The weather was horribly wet with low cloud and poor visibility all the way to the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne, where it suddenly brightened up and I saw sun for a few minutes. It must have been the Geordie influence as, soon after Newcastle, it got dull and wet again. I arrived at Tweed View House (my favourite B&B in the area) at around 15h00 and was met by Liz who handed me my parking permit for the station car park, just over the road. Having unloaded my bags into the hallway, I went and parked the car. I came back to find that Liz had taken all my bags (2 x camera, laptop, briefcase, suitcase) up to my room - bless you, Liz!

The weather continued to be wet and had turned very cold and windy, so it seemed pointless to continue with my original intention to go birdwatching at Cocklawburn. Instead I stayed in my room and listened to music on the mp3 player and headphones that used to belong to my dear friend Brian, and were given to me by his wife after he passed away late last year.

I took a break early evening to grab a bite at 'the Scottish restaurant', and filled the car up with fuel ready for the following day.

Sunday, 28th January             to Grantown upon Spey, then a brief visit to Lochindorb

Having said a mental 'happy birthday' to my brother, I performed my ablutions before Graham brought my requested breakfast to my room. Although I do not usually indulge in a cooked breakfast, I can vouch for the excellence of the breakfast at Tweed View!

I decided on a relaxed start as I didn't want to get to Blairgowrie before mid day, and set off from Berwick at 09h00. The wind had abated somewhat, but it was dull and mizzling. There was little traffic around and I was having an easy journey. 

Having taken the Edinburgh City Bypass, I found myself taking the Queensferry Crossing, as the new Forth road bridge is known. I hadn't realised that this had been constructed as a continuation of the motorway with its attending 70 mph speed limit - a great improvement on the old crossing!

I arrived at The Dalmore Inn, just south of Blairgowrie, at 11h45. Although the restaurant doesn't, technically, start serving food until 12h00 and I'd said I was happy to sit with a coffee until then, my order was taken early and served before time. The Dalmore Inn continues to be my favourite place in UK for lunch - Lindsay shares that sentiment!

Snow conditions at the Glenshee and Lecht ski areas were not good for skiing, but there were many people about. The rain/sleet and strong winds seemed to keep the birds out of sight, and only very distant Red Grouse were seen. It was disappointing to arrive at the Grant Arms without having seen anything remotely exciting in the way of wildlife.

Having deposited my baggage in my room I set off for Lochindorb. I knew that I was unlikely to see much there at this time of year, but it is one of my favourite places on Earth and probably where my ashes will end up! By the time I got there, the light was grim, and much of the north end of Lochindorb was covered in ice, and showed evidence of some recent extreme weather.

The first of the two images, below, was taken with my phone.

The only birds seen were 9 Mallard, a very distant Red Grouse, and a Goldeneye out in the middle of the water. Light and weather were closing in and so, having made a complete traversal, I set off back to the Grant Arms.

I had a relaxing evening after an excellent dinner (as always at the Grant Arms!) and turned in early. My room was very pleasant with a magnificent image of a female Capercaillie above the beds.

Room 203 - The Grant Arms
Monday, 29th January                     near Nethybridge - Cairngorm - near Boat of Garten -  Lochindorb

I had to be careful not to overdo it on this day, and keep an eye on my timings as I was booked to give a talk that evening - I had a gentle start to the day, not going down to breakfast until 07h30. After an excellent breakfast, I called at the Co-op to buy a sandwich, but there was little to choose from by the time I got there, and I ended up with a bag of 'freshly baked' (certainly still warm) sausage rolls. I found out why they were so cheap when I came to eat them - virtually no filling!

My first destination was a place near Nethybridge. My intention was to check out whether there were any Short-eared Owls overwintering in the area. I was not surprised, however, when, by the time a couple of hours had passed, all I had seen were a few very distant Stock Doves and a Buzzard. As the light and distance visibility were both poor. I decided it was time to head elsewhere and seek somewhere more productive.

I'd not gone far before a roadside sign urging me to slow for Red Squirrels caused me to stop and look at the nearby feeders. Sadly I could only park in the middle of the single lane road, so it was a brief stop, but I did manage to get some shots - the light was still poor.

Treecreeeper (Certhia familiaris) - near Nethybridge
Coal Tit (Periparus ater) - near Nethybridge

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) - near Nethybridge
Having achieved a half-tick for one of my objective species, I headed off to the Cairngorm Base Station in the hope of finding Snow Bunting. The car park was busy with people, but these were all set on mountain walking or skiing. I went to an area just above the car park where I have seen Snow Bunting once before. There were none visible when I arrived, but within five minutes a pair appeared. They had a quick exploration, totally ignoring the seed I'd put down, and then disappeared, flying high and distant. I had, however, managed to get a few images, although none that I was fully satisfied with - another half-tick!

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) - by Cairngorm Base Station

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (female) - by Cairngorm Base Station

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (male) - by Cairngorm Base Station
After these birds departed, I started to have a look around, and found myself contemplating heading uphill. I'd have had to go back and get spikes on my feet as it was icy underfoot, and being unfamiliar with the paths too, I decided that I'd conserve my energy and not risk getting lost on my own, so headed back to my car - a good decision as within seconds of me reaching my car it started to snow heavily!

I'm not sure what prompted it, but I felt the urge to visit a location near Boat of Garten at which I'd seen the rare Northern Damsefly in the past two summers. Following this urge resulted in what turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

As I pulled up at the side of the road, I noticed a lot of avian activity just into the trees. I was seeing mainly Coal Tits. I quickly put down some seed and stood and waited - for only a few seconds! The birds were there almost immediately. I got several shots of Coal Tit.

Coal Tit (Periparus ater) - near Boat of Garten
The real treat was when Crested Tit started arriving. Sadly, the only place that they seemed to stop for more than a second was on the nearby wire fence, which didn't give me the shots I wanted. However, I did manage one usable shot away from the fence.

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus) - near Boat of Garten
By 13h00 all the birds had disappeared and, as the weather was showing signs of improving, I set off for Lochindorb, having added another 'half-tick' to my list of objectives.

When I arrived at Lochindorb, the sun was shining brightly, giving the heather a look of warmth.

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) (male) - Lochindorb
This appearance was not to last, however, as soon threatening-looking clouds were rushing in.

Soon after this, high winds and snow arrived and then turned to sleet and then rain. For some reason, this weather brought the Red Grouse out onto the road in some numbers and gave a few photo opportunities.

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) (male) - Lochindorb
Suddenly the sun was shining again!

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) (male) - Lochindorb

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) (female) - Lochindorb
It didn't last long, however, but I stayed a while taking shots of the ice, which I found fascinating.  I've never known Lochindorb change its appearance so many time in such a short space of time. 

These next two images are my favourite of this session. The first because if the ice had soft edges it would look as if it was looking up through trees to the clouds, whereas it was taken with the camera pointing down at about 45 degrees. The second because I'd love to know how this happened!

Lochindorb Ice
I was relatively early back to the Grant Arms that day, in order to prepare myself for the evening's talk. As far as I could tell there were just seven birders/wildlife enthusiasts staying in the hotel at the time, and six of those were part of two organised groups with full agendas, so I was not surprised to have only seven attendees for my talk "Tales of Damsels and Dragons". It was the first time out for this talk and I'm delighted to say it was well received by the few! Here's one of the slides. 

Tuesday, 30th January          near Boat of Garten - Strathdearn - Lochindorb

After breakfast I went to the Co-op and was in time to get a cheddar and mayo sandwich for my picnic lunch. I was determined to re-visit the location with the Crested Tits from the previous day, and headed straight there. I soon came to the conclusion that these birds were being fed on the slice of tree trunk by the fence on a regular basis, and that the clunk of a car door was their signal to turn up! I scattered seed and was soon rewarded - by a Red Squirrel coming to check me out!

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) - near Boat of Garten
A Treecreeper put in an appearance.

Treecreeeper (Certhia familiaris) - near Boat of Garten
However, it was the Crested Tits that kept me really busy. I did manage to get a few shots of them away from the wire fence, but I'll include another shot of one on the fence for the sake of completion. It was quite hard work, and I was having to stop to rest my arms from time to time!

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus) - near Boat of Garten
Whilst these images would never win any prizes, I suspect that I'll never manage better! I decided that I'd probably got as near as I would do to 'full ticks' for the Crested Tit and Red Squirrel objectives for the trip

After a while the birds dispersed - I think that they'd over-eaten! - and I set off for Strathdearn, sometimes known as the Findhorn Valley or Valley of the Raptors.

On my way up the narrow road I encountered an extremely unusual number of vehicles for any time of year, let alone mid winter. These all stopped by a bridge, just before the car park at the end of the public road. As this was the time of year that deer are shot in these parts I presumed that these were shooters gathering, and continued to the end of the road. I sat in my car for a while as it was raining and extremely windy, consumed my picnic and, having seen not a single moving thing, gave up after an hour and headed back down the road.

I was back at the Crested Tit site just before 13h00 but there was little happening here too (confirming my suspicions of a 13h00 nap time?), so went on a circular driving tour, taking in some of my favourite routes. It was an enjoyable but totally unproductive drive and did, of course, include a visit to Lochindorb! The following image was taken with my phone.

That evening at dinner I talked with one group who informed me that the people I'd seen parking by the bridge in Strathdearn weren't shooters, but people going to see Mountain Hare in the most reliable location for miles around! Sadly, I was committed to leading a visit to the Moray Firth coast the next day!

Wednesday, 31st January              Burghead - Hopeman - Burghead - Strathdearn - Lochindorb

With only one birder staying at the hotel who was not part of an organised group, and a poor weather forecast, I was wondering if I'd have any takers for the visit that I was leading to Burghead and Hopeman on the coast to the north of Grantown on Spey. In the event, one lady showed up.

The weather was much better than forecast although it was still a bit windy and rather cold. I arrived in full sun to find Burghead harbour was hosting a group of Eider. As I got out of my car, a Rock Pipit was bumbling around next to me on the quayside.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Burghead
The Eiders looked quite splendid, with the light making the water appear inky at the angle I was shooting from.

Eider (Somateria mollissima) (male) - Burghead
I'd arrived 20 minutes early, and Pat (my 'participant') arrived some time later, having first looked for me in a different location. Pat turned out to be a charming companion. Thankfully she was a self-confessed novice, as we would find little that morning that would excite a 'hardened' birder.

Having looked at the Eider which were, sadly, silent we walked round the quayside adjacent to the outer harbour wall. Apart from several gulls, which neither of us were particularly interested in as nothing unusual was noticed, we found a group of Turnstones sheltering on the quayside in the lee of the harbour wall. A group of Cormorants was atop the harbour wall.

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - Burghead
As we came away from the harbour a Rock Pipit was nearby, on the roof of a cottage.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Burghead
Looking out to sea revealed only Cormorants and Eider, and the same was true when we went round to the eastern side of the headland. Unfortunately the tide was the highest it's ever been when I've visited this area and, with no rocks exposed for birds to land on, our only hope for improvement was if something was to fly by.

Although it was sunny, the strong cold wind did not encourage us to stand outside any longer, and so we headed off to Hopeman, with me showing Pat the start point to the walk up onto Clarkley Hill as we passed, just outside Burghead. I'd recommended this place to her if she was ever up this way in spring through to autumn.

Hopeman gave us even less of interest than Burghead. A very distant group of Oystercatcher were on East Beach, and the harbour had a group of birds which, to my shame, I initially identified as Turnstone, although something struck me as not quite right. It was only when I looked at my photos that I realised my mistake. My only excuse is that I've never seen Redshank in a group like this - only ever singly!

Oystercatcher ( Haematopus ostralegus) - Hopeman
Redshank (Tringa totanus) - Hopeman
We returned to our cars, and Pat picked up her camera and set back to photograph the Redshank whilst I headed off.

I'd been disappointed on arrival at Hopeman to find the Footprints Gallery was closed for the winter, as I knew exactly what I was going to buy from there as a homecoming present for Lindsay. I had another disappointment when I stopped on the main street to buy one of Stew 'n' Drew's excellent ice creams - they too were closed. 

I headed back to Burghead in the hope of finding Long-tailed Duck, but none had shown up. I took some shots of a Cormorant Shag (thank you, Marc, for the correction) on the harbour sea wall and then some more shots of the Eider in the harbour, which were now being delightfully vocal!

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) - Burghead

Eider (Somateria mollissima) - Burghead
At one point a female Eider came steaming out of the inner part of the harbour with something in her bill. I cannot make out what she had grabbed, being unfamiliar with the variety of marine creatures which might be found in these parts (if, indeed, it was a marine creature). If anyone can make any suggestions based on the following images, I'd be delighted to hear them, please! - On further investigation, I came to the conclusion that this was a dismembered crab, a view that is shared by my good friend David - thank you for your input, David.

Eider (Somateria mollissima) (female) - Burghead
I looked at the time, and worked out that it might be worth my while making a quick dash to Strathdearn to try and find Mountain Hare. My satnav told me it was only an hour and a half away, so I set off.

I arrived at the parking spot for the Mountain Hares to find it was blowing a hoolie, and four cars were already there. It was brightly sunny, and frequent strong gusts would whip up the snow that was lying on the ground and send it in a a face-stinging cloud. The following image only partly conveys the situation.

I started to make my way uphill and, at one point, saw a Mountain Hare run across in front of a photographer about 200 metres up the hill from me, before he could get his camera set up. I then bumped into one of the groups from the hotel on their way down who advised me that my best chance was to look in sheltered areas. I carried on and found it very difficult as not only was I walking directly into what seemed to be an ever-increasing wind, but I was also in snow and facing into the sun which at this time of the afternoon was rather low - the glare was blinding. 

I carried on uphill for probably only about half an hour, by which time I'd not found a Mountain Hare or a spot that could be even remotely described as 'sheltered'. The wind-blown snow was concealing my footprints almost immediately. The only other person I could see was a distant speck way over the far side of the valley, probably over half a mile (800 metres) away, and below my level. Suddenly the sky turned yellow-grey and the snow came down heavily - time to turn tail and get out!

Down at the bottom, still 700 metres from my car, the snow eased off somewhat, and I was determined not to leave without photographing something. Some very hairy Mountain Goats provided the solution - just! I understand that, strictly speaking, these are classed as 'feral'.

Mountain Goat - Strathdearn
Back at the car, I finished off my lunch (it was now around 14h45) while I warmed up, and then set off down the valley towards Tomatin. Weather conditions improved lower down.

At one point, where the road is high above the river (the Findhorn), I noticed two female Goosander in the river. As there was no traffic about, I managed to stop the car and take a few shots before they flew off upstream.

Goosander (Mergus merganser) (female) - Strathdearn
Being my last day, I made sure that my return to Grantown included a diversion past Lochindorb. Little was seen, however, so this was my parting shot.

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) (male) - Lochindorb
Thursday, 1st February               to Berwick upon Tweed

I checked the weather forecast for what would usually be my favoured route homeward and found that, at Glenshee, heavy snow was forecast all day with strong winds gusting at up to around 80 mph (130 kph). I didn't want to get mixed up in that sort of weather so opted to take the A9 southward. This is a road that I've tended to avoid like the plague in the past, but I was pleasantly surprised on this occasion, although I had dismally wet weather whilst I was on it.

I came off the A9 in order to make the short diversion to Blairgowrie and the Dalmore Inn, and found myself on a very scenic and rural road which passed Loch of the Lowes and other interesting places. I didn't spend any time in stopping as I realised that I'd be passing on this exact route in June when there would probably be more to see.

My heart sank when I arrived at the Dalmore Inn as the car park was full and there were cars parked on the grass and out in the road too. I managed to find a spot in the car park as it was being vacated and went inside, half expecting to be turned away. Instead, I was greeted with enthusiasm and shown to a table in a different part to usual. My order was taken quickly and efficiently and my meal served promptly. I was impressed - apparently they'd had a booking for a funeral group of 50 people and 70 had turned up!

The weather went downhill again (cold, wet, and windy) as I approached Berwick upon Tweed for another stay at Tweed View House. Once more I didn't venture out except to have a bite to eat at 'the Scottish restaurant' - I'd been eating rather well at The Grant Arms for the past four nights!

Friday, 2nd February               to home

After breakfast, and scraping the ice off my car, I had a totally uneventful journey home, arriving at around 13h00.

It hadn't been as productive a break as I had hoped for, but I'd had a highly enjoyable time. I'd achieved three and a half of my original five objectives (only Long-tailed Duck was totally missing), so felt that it had been quite successful in that respect.

My thanks to all at The Grant Arms for yet another excellent stay, and to Graham and Liz at Tweed View House for, once again, making me extremely comfortable and feeling like I was one of the family.

Garden List - Week 06 - 5th to 11th February, 2018

It was another relatively interesting week for birds setting foot in our garden - we don't count fly-overs.

Sadly, Great Spotted Woodpecker has not been seen for more than two weeks, although this is not unusual - sometimes we can go for months without seeing one.

Slightly worrying is the lack of frequency in seeing a Robin these days. 

Remarkable for us was 5 Siskin (3m 2f) one day although Siskin was seen on 5 out of 7 days

A female Blackcap visited us and was with us for much of the time on two consecutive days, but has not been seen since.

The two Redpoll are still around, but the female is seen much more frequently than the male.

Jackdaw unusually visited again, and I noticed it had large bare patches on its breast. It seems like a most inconvenient time to be in moult and I'm wondering if it had had an encounter with a predator.

I have little idea what my next post will feature. I must get out owling again, but only when the windy weather abates a bit - my last attempt, on Friday, came to nothing.

Thank you for dropping by.