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Tuesday 19 March 2019

Out For A Duck (or two) - on Wednesday 27th February, 2019

Firstly, my apologies for my lack of visits to websites that I follow. I have been away for just over a week, visiting the Isles of Scilly. I will try and catch up with your blogs over the next couple of days or so. There will be a post on this visit at a later date. Herewith a post that I wrote before going away.

Wednesday 27th February was in my diary as attending a pre-season Osprey Volunteers' meeting at Rutland Water in the early evening. I made up my mind, therefore, to set off after an early lunch and get in some birdwatching at Rutland Water beforehand.

However, I also had a couple of reasons for wanting to visit a reservoir more local to my home, one of which was to seek out a Wood Duck that had been seen there.

This particular day was forecast to be exceptionally good weather, with a few days of fairly grim weather following close behind it. I decided, therefore, to kill (no, I won't use that expression). I decided, therefore, to achieve as many objectives as possible that day, and set off for the local reservoir after an early breakfast.

I think that every man and his dog (literally) had also decided that this would be the last decent weather for a while and headed for the same destination. The car park, and parking spaces on the adjacent road were all fully occupied. Fortunately, I'd gone in my tiny Smart car, and squeezed into a space that no other vehicle would fit into.

I decided on an anticlockwise walk round the entire perimeter of the reservoir. As I crossed the dam, there were Pied Wagtails beside the dam wall.

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii) (male) - a local reservoir
There were plenty of Teal around, but none were close. This shot was taken from up high on a bank.

Teal (Anas crecca) (male) - a local reservoir
I'd got five sixths of the way round the reservoir before I spotted the Wood Duck. I make no bones about it - this is, with little doubt, a bird that is an escapee and many birders would shun it as 'non-countable'. However, for me, it was a delight to see. It was quite distant, and preening before having a nap. I suspect that this was its regular resting place as there was a bit of a worn track leading through the long grass to the water's edge. However, I was not going to depart from the path (as I suspect others had done) and risk disturbing it. Here are a few shots of it. Although the light was bright, it was not in a position where it displayed the full sheen on its wonderful plumage. The second image surprised me a little in that it shows just how narrow this duck's head is.

Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) (male) - a local reservoir
I'd now spent significantly longer here than intended and, having phoned Lindsay to say I'd be late for lunch (again!), I set off homeward.

After a quick lunch, and having made myself a picnic tea, I set off for Rutland Water. I took the old 'owling route' and, sadly, not a single owl was seen.

On arrival, I first called at Plover Hide, where little of photographic interest was seen. Next was Bittern Hide, and here I was entertained by a Little Grebe amongst the reeds in the shallow waters close to the hide.  My first shots were with it in full sun, against dark water, and I'm rather pleased with the effect.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
It was fishing, but had moved into the shadow of the hide. I was somewhat astounded at the size of the fish it caught - and swallowed whole!

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
It caught two of about the same size before heading off into the distance. I suspect that it had taken enough to keep it nourished for a while!

Calling in at the usually productive Shoveler Hide, which was quite busy with people, There seemed to be little happening, so I continued on to to Buzzard Hide. Here there were a few pleasant photo opportunities.

A pair of Gadwall passed by at a distance, looking handsome.

Gadwall (Mareca strepera) (female + male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
A drake Goldeneye was even more distant and I didn't manage to catch it flipping its head back.

Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
A drake Shoveler was far more cooperative, passing close by and showing of its glorious plumage.

Shoveler (Anas clypeata) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
If I see any bird flying by, it is usual for me to try and take a photo of it, as I consider it good practice for when I really want to capture an image of something special passing by. Often these practice shots are consigned to the bin. However, sometimes I get one that I want to hang on to- even if it is a common bird. It's easy to forget just how magnificent a bird a Mute Swan is!

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
From here, I moved on to Smew Hide where I found myself unable to see a thing as I was looking directly into a bright low sun on flat water. I then continued to Crake hide in the hope of catching up with the Jack Snipe. However, the water level was way above what it was when I was last there and I came to the conclusion that, without any muddy margins, a sighting was unlikely.

My next stop was at Sandpiper hide on Lagoon 4. Here there were a couple of gentlemen already installed when I arrived. They pointed out a couple of redhead Smew in the distance. I watched and waited patiently for a while as they were joined by a drake and another redhead. However, they soon headed off north.

I then moved on to Dunlin Hide and immediately spotted several Smew at reasonably close quarters. I was just sorting out what was where when ex-Rutland Water boss, and continuing head of Birdfair, Tim Appleton, and a companion arrived. Between us, we counted 12 Smew (4 drakes + 8 redheads). However, I am relatively confident that the four seen five minutes earlier from Dunlin hide weren't in that count, and so there were possibly/probably 16 Smew present on Lagoon 4.

I don't suppose that many shots of four drake Smew have been taken at Rutland Water or anywhere in the county, for that matter!

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
There will now follow a bit of a 'Smew-fest'. I have never had views like this of this species before, and it is unlikely that I ever will again! 

Any previous sightings I've had have all been of birds 'drifting around' on the water. One thing I did notice this time is what tremendously powerful swimmers they are. When they really want to motor, it seems that they sink lower into the water and carve a deep furrow - this seems to defy logic, as you'd think that skimming the water was more efficient.

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
 There was the occasional 'head back' display by the males.

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
Whilst things were calm for most of the time I was watching, there was the occasional altercation - probably testosterone-fuelled!

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
Most of the time, things were peaceful, however.

I must confess that I mainly concentrated on the males. In an effort to address this imbalance, here are a few shots including or featuring female Smew.

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (male + female) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (female) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
Here are a few shots of drakes, when there was not too much contention going on.

Smew (Mergellus albellus) (male) - Rutland Water, Egleton Reserve
Sadly, I had to depart to give myself time to walk back to my car and eat my picnic tea before the meeting. On departing the hide I called out to the gentlemen in Sandpiper hide to alert them to the Smew at Dunlin Hide. On my way back Tim Appleton stopped to tell me he'd felt the need to rush home to get his camera to photograph the Smew.

When looking at my photos afterwards, I was absolutely astounded to see that the time that had elpsed between my first and last Smew photo was a mere three and a half minutes! It seemed very much longer.

It was an informative meeting that evening, and it was good to meet the new members of the team who will be looking after various aspects of the Osprey Project this season.

Nothing of interest was seen on my way home, but it had been a very rewarding and enjoyable day.

I suspect that my next post will feature my visit to The Isles of Scilly.

Thank you for dropping by.

Sunday 3 March 2019

A Scottish Highland Break - 10th to 16th February, 2019

Lindsay and I were booked on a Valentines Break at The Grant Arms Hotel, Grantown on Spey, Scotland, earlier this month. We were looking forward to some great wildlife and scenery, coupled with comfortable accommodation and great food. There had been a really cold spell and we were expecting snow to feature strongly. This is an account of that break.

Sunday, 10th February

Having packed our cold weather gear, including a spade and bits of carpet to help us out of snow drifts, we set off northward mid-morning, stopping for lunch at the Deli-Caffé in Boston Spa. After a great light lunch, we were on our way again and arrived to Berwick upon Tweed at 15h30. Here, we checked in at the Travelodge, which we find to be a very acceptable accommodation when travelling.

Lindsay had been suffering with a heavy cold for over a week, and for the past few days I'd been feeling as if my body was fighting off the same virus, so we did not feel like venturing out, particularly as it would be starting to get dark at around 17h00. We sat and drank tea, and read books until around 18h00 when we walked across the car park to 'the Scottish restaurant' (McDonalds!) had a bite to eat and then returned to read a while before turning in for an early night.

Monday, 11th February

We were up relatively early (for us!), and headed across to the Morrison's supermarket where we bought the makings of a cold breakfast, and then returned to our room to consume it. We were ready for departure rather earlier than anticipated and, having fuelled the car at Morrison's, set off towards Grantown on Spey. We had a very easy and uneventful journey for the first part, which meant that we arrived at our all-time favourite lunch stop of the Dalmore Inn, just south of Blairgowrie, too early for lunch. Rather than hang around until lunch time, we just stopped for a coffee and a plate of their wonderful home-made shortbread, before continuing towards Braemar, where we knew there was a choice of places we could have lunch.

We usually stop at the Glenshee Ski area as this can be very good for birds usually found at high altitudes. However, the car park was solid with cars and the whole place was swarming with skiers, in spite of there being relatively little snow visible. The weather had turned quite warm and I suspect that these were people who were determined to get in a last skiing session. We carried on past, without stopping.

At Braemar we found that our chosen cafe was closed for refurbishment. We then went to the edge of town to a cafe that I'd previously visited with Canadian friends, David and Miriam, but that too was closed. We walked to the other end of town where Lindsay, as were arriving, had seen a cafe sign proclaiming it open, but it was, apparently, closed. We were making our way back to the hotel in the centre of town as a last resort when we were stopped by a couple who asked about places to eat as the hotel was fully booked for lunch. We ended up visiting a butcher's shop where Lindsay had a steak pie, and I had a chicken tikka slice, which the butcher heated up for us - they were delicious! However, whilst our purchases were being heated, we chatted to the butcher, and was told that the 'open' cafe was indeed open, and we'd been looking at the wrong place.

From Braemar, the journey became more interesting, but not in a good way! Near Balmoral Castle we usually turn off the A93 and take the scenic B976 road. However, there was sign at the entrance saying it was closed. We continued towards Ballater for another 7 miles (11km) and turned off onto the A939 which would join up with our originally intended route. After 5 miles (8km) we found the road again closed. We turned round and set off back to Ballater and took the only other route available via the A97 and A944. This added a total of 30 miles (48km) to our journey. This might not sound a lot, but in the Highlands it equates to nearly an hour of travel. 

The above, however, was a relatively mild inconvenience compared to the fright we were to experience on the A944. There was a point where (fortunately!) the road was relatively straight and we were travelling at getting on for 60 mph (100km/h). I noticed what looked like a strip of mud crossing the road, as if a vehicle had been exiting the land beside the road with muddy wheels. However, as I hit this strip, a wave of thick muddy slurry enveloped the whole of the car's windscreen, which became totally opaque. I slammed on the brakes and the windscreen wipers, and I estimate that it took about 4 seconds to stop and for the windscreen to clear enough for me to see through it - 4 seconds might not sound like a long time but, allowing for the deceleration, it amounts to around 50 metres of travel, blind!

We arrived at The Grant Arms over an hour later than planned, and turned ourselves round quickly to pay a visit to Lochindorb, which is one of our favourite locations. In spite of the weather now being quite warm, Lochindorb was completely frozen over. Furthermore, there was virtually no wildlife to be seen. I did, however, take the opportunity to clean the car up a bit using handfuls of snow to wipe down, and then running fast through deep puddles of water!

That night we enjoyed an excellent and relaxed dinner in the hotel, and followed by relaxing in our room before taking another relatively early night.

Tuesday, 12th February

After an early breakfast I took some photos with my phone of our car, which was now somewhat cleaner, although I would, over the next few days,  get a few questions as to whether I'd been 'off-roading' in it! It was quite galling, as I'd had the car thoroughly cleaned before we set off for our break.

Our car (Automobilia limosoque) - looks like I've been taking full advantage of its 4x4 capabilities!
Lindsay had elected to go shopping in town while I had a morning exploring to the south of Grantown. There'd been reports of Waxwings in Nethy Bridge, and also of a flock of several hundred Brambling there. I also needed to do a check of the Loch Garten area as I was due to lead a walk there the following day. The wildlife guides based at the Grant Arms had been most helpful, and I set off first to see if I could find Crested Tit in Abernethy Forest. I'd been advised to try The Dell. 

I found the wrong place, at first, and saw nothing during a 20 minute walk. I then managed to find where I should have been. Sadly the dull start to the day continued, and the light in the forest was grim. There are some feeders here, with a bench beside the path at a sensible distance from the feeders. A Jay departed as I approached, but during the half hour or so that I sat here there was little of interest - Coal, Blue, and Great Tits, Chaffinches, and a pair of Bullfinch. Even if something interesting had arrived, there was little chance of a sensible photo, due to the light and the environs. As it's about time I showed some wildlife, here's a shot taken of a Bullfinch near the feeders - yes, I think it demonstrates that conditions weren't good!

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) (female) - The Dell, Abernethy
From here, I drove round to the back of the Community Centre in order to use their 'facilities' and then headed off on foot to the start of the Speyside Way, beside which there had been the regular flock of Brambling. I joined the trail at the old station, where I was distracted by a couple of Yellowhammer. Sadly, the weather was still very dull and grey. My knowledge isn't enough to discern females of this species from winter plumage males.

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) - Nethy Bridge Old Station
I was just about to move on when the group of seven Waxwings flew in from the north and landed in the tree above me! They stayed high in the tree, and the light was still awful so I didn't do well with photography.

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) - Nethy Bridge Old Station
I walked for just under a mile (about 1.4 km) passing the place where the Brambling had been feeding previously, but didn't see one. I did bump into other people, but it seems that the most that had been seen that day were two!

Returning to my car, my next stop was at a place between Boat of Garten and Loch Garten where I had seen Crested Tit in January 2018. I put some seed and peanuts down and within seconds I had a good number of Coal Tit (I'd guess at 20-30), and a few other common birds, come down - they cleared my offerings in less than 5 minutes, and departed. I put more seed down, and nothing more came! I didn't see a single Crested Tit.

Coal Tit (Periparus ater) - near Boat of Garten
I then headed up to the RSPB's Loch Garten site to check it out for the following day's visit. I was told that Crested Tit were thin on the ground, with only two being seen so far that day. It was also suggested that it was too warm for them to be attracted to the feeders. Whilst there I photographed more Coal Tits. I saw, to my horror, that it seems some people are still ignoring the signs saying not to feed the birds peanut butter as it is bad for them.

Coal Tit with fouled-up feathers - Loch Garten
I now had to return to Grantown to collect Lindsay, so that we could have a picnic and an afternoon out. We parked in the car park half way up the ascent to the Cairngorm Base Station and ate our picnic, before heading up to the base station.  Here, I left Lindsay in the car while I went looking for Snow Bunting. Almost immediately a group of around 8 birds flew over my head and disappeared into the distance. However, I soon found a solitary bird, which went to join three others, giving me a group of four to enjoy.

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) - Cairngorm Base Station
Lindsay said she'd like to find Red Squirrel and so we set off to try and find some. At one point, with her phone, she photographed me hand-feeding the Coal Tits with sunflower hearts.

feeding the Coal Tits - Loch Garten
That night we had another excellent dinner at The Grant Arms, before turning in for a relatively early night.

Wednesday, 13th February

I had an early breakfast in readiness for leading a walk to Loch Garten and Loch Malachie. In the event, only one lady turned up at reception for the walk. Sadly, however, she was without transport, and I was advised that it would not be sensible to take her in my car as this was an organised event and my insurance would not cover me (or her) in that situation. This, therefore, meant that I was now free to do as I wished until the evening. Lindsay and I therefore agreed to pay a visit to the south Moray Firth coast, making a short diversion to Lochindorb on the way. 

Little was seen on our brief passage round Lochindorb, although we did notice that the virtually total cover of ice seen on the Monday had now totally disappeared! The only shot I took was of a distant Red Grouse.

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) - Lochindorb
We stopped for a while at Logie Steading to have a look around before moving on to Burghead, parking first in the harbour area. Here we found little of interest, although the Cormorants were unusually confiding! Sadly, they were directly into the light, so a lot of post-processing has been required!

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) - Burghead
From here, we drove over to the east side of the head and parked with a view of the rocky shore while we had our picnic lunch. The tide was right out, which is possibly why we had seen little by the harbour - we'd been hoping for Long-tailed Duck.

On this side of the head we had distant views of a drake Eider out on the sea.

Eider (Somateria mollissima) (male) - Burghead
On rocks at the water's edge were a few Turnstone.

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - Burghead
Somewhat closer, in rock pools were Oystercatcher and a Redshank.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - Burghead
Redshank (Tringa totanus) - Burghead
Closer still were several Rock Pipits - Burghead is a reliable place for this species.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Burghead
Meanwhile, on the slope behind us, there was a brief visit by what I believe to be a true Rock Dove, rather than a feral pigeon.

Rock Dove (Columba livia) - Burghead
From Burghead, we moved on to Hopeman. Again, little was seen in the harbour - the tide was still well out. However, a Redshank was at the inner end of the harbour, and I also took some shots of flying gulls. By now we had bright sunshine. I'm not good at gulls so if I've ID these two incorrectly, please let me know!

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) - Hopeman
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) (1st summer) - Hopeman

Redshank (Tringa totanus) -Hopeman
We then walked round to the harbour wall on the east side, and found a few more birds down on East Beach. Sanderling are one of my favourite shore birds, and are always a delight to watch. The Bar-tailed Godwit were a pleasant surprise - thank you, 'Conehead54', for the correction.

Sanderling (Calidris alba) - Hopeman

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) - Hopeman
An incoming flight of Oystercatcher is always an amazing sight.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - Hopeman
There was a Redshank on the beach too.

Redshank (Tringa totanus) -Hopeman
After this, we had a gentle drive back to base as I needed to get set up for my talk after dinner that night. After another super dinner it was time to give my talk 'Scilly Sojourns' - here's a slide from that talk. With only 11 birdwatchers staying at the hotel that night, it was a small attendance!

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) - Tresco, Isles of Scilly, on 18th March, 2018
Thursday, 14th February

Being Valentines Day and my wife not being a wildlife lover, we started, after breakfast, by going to my wife's chosen destination, which was The Heather Centre. We arrived to find that, nearly two years down the line, the place was still a building site after the fire which destroyed the original building. We looked around for a while, but there was little to hold us there, so we set off for Strathdearn, sometimes known as the Findhorn Valley and also as The Valley of the Raptors. My target was Mountain Hare.

Leaving Lindsay in the car with a good book, I waited until 11h00 (at this time of year, access is restricted because of the potential for shooting!) and set off up the hillside, in the same direction as I'd seen Mountain Hare in January, 2018. Two people were three or four hundred metres in front of me and heading in the same direction. I was a little incapacitated, however, as I'd pulled a calf muscle, and progress was painful. I saw a 'mountain goat' off to the left. This was one of what has now become a large number of these, being (I have read) part of a centuries-old feral population - hence my reluctance to give them a specific name.

'mountain goat' - Strathdearn
Almost immediately, I spotted two Mountain Hare on the hillside to my left, and took some safety shots. Here's a shot of the furthest one.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) - Strathdearn
The people in front of me headed off to exactly where I wanted to be to photograph the hares, so I very stealthily approached from around the hillside. By the time I got there, one of the two people had gone ahead, and I sat down behind the other. It was a while before he realised that I was right behind him and turned round. To my surprise, I found that it was John Poyner (one of the wildlife guides based at The Grant Arms) and the person in front was one of his clients. In this situation, it was only fair that I sat with John (out of sight of the hare) and let his client get on with it. I said that if his client got to the point where he'd had his fill, and the hare was still there, then I'd have a go. John's client was displaying excellent field craft (he'd taken about 20 minutes to advance about 10 metres on his belly) and, an hour later, he and the hare he was concentrating on were still there! I needed to get back to Lindsay so left them to it.  On my way back down I took a slightly better shot of the hare that had been the nearest of the two on the way up. I also took a shot of John's client in action.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) - Strathdearn
the benefits of good fieldcraft - Strathdearn
As I passed the wooded area, on my way down, I noticed a caterpillar making its way across the track. I estimate that, for every inch it 'walked' another couple of inches were added by the wind! I think that it is probably the larva of a Garden Tiger moth, just out of hibernation, but I'd welcome any comments.

probable Garden Tiger (Arctia caja) (larva) - Strathdearn
Having rejoined Lindsay, we set off for the top car park to have our picnic lunch. Just a few hundred metres up the road, however, there were two parked cars and people taking photos. There was a Mountain Hare quite close to the road! I took a shot from my car and set off with the intention of seeing if it was still there on the way back.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) - Strathdearn
Up at the top car park, there was just one other person parked and the gentleman kindly came over and pointed out a very distant Golden Eagle above the hills - which promptly disappeared over the horizon!

We were quite quick about our lunch and returned to try and find the hare, parking a little way away so as to not draw too much attention to the spot. I then walked down the road on foot and found the hare was still there. It was aware of my presence, and I didn't want to stay too long for fear of disturbing it. Sadly, it didn't fully raise its ears in this time, but I did get some more shots. You can see that this one was already getting a spring coat of brown fur on its front. I wonder if this was because it was living somewhat lower down than the all-white ones seen further up the hillside. Or maybe it was because it had found a nice warm and dry crevice to live in?!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) - Strathdearn
Heading back towards Tomatin I spotted a small flock of Brambling. I managed some distant shots before they departed.

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) - Strathdearn
Lindsay was still wanting to see some deer - we'd been quite surprised, for the first time ever, not to see any deer in Strathdearn. Maybe they'd all been shot? I knew a place where I'd often seen Red Deer and Red Squirrel, so we set off there. However, as we approached Nethy Bridge, a message came through that the Waxwings were at the old station - and we were only a few hundred metres away! 

We called in to find three people watching. The light was much better this time but they were quite mobile, and when they landed it was always up in a higher tree than the last time. As I was always shooting from way below them, I didn't get a single shot that showed those fabulous 'candles' in the wings.

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) - Nethy Bridge Old Station
After a few minutes, they disappeared, and we continued on our way  to see if we could find some deer that were alive - we must have seen 5 or 6 that were roadkill! We didn't succeed, however.

That night, we enjoyed a great Valentines Dinner, followed by coffee and a tipple in the bar, then an early night before our journey home.

Friday, 15th February

We had an uneventful journey to Berwick upon Tweed, stopping for a break at the cafe in Braemar that we thought had been closed on the way north. A stop at the Glenshee ski area (now closed for skiing) resulted in nothing of interest being seen. We then stopped for an excellent light lunch at the Dalmore Inn, Blairgowrie. Having checked in at the Travelodge in Berwick upon Tweed, we decided that we'd eaten too much in the past few days, and settled for just a snack at 'the Scottish restaurant'.

Saturday, 16th February

We had an easy journey home from Berwick, stopping once more at the Deli-Caffé in Boston Spa for a very enjoyable light lunch.

In spite of it not being a particularly good break photography-wise, we'd had a very enjoyable time and although it was a Valentines Break, Lindsay had been her usual generous self in letting me do 'my own thing' from time to time whilst she sat patiently in the car. It would have been nice to have had a bit of snow. Instead we had daytime temperatures which reached up to 16°C and remained in double figures throughout.

It might be a while before my next blog post but I suspect that, amongst other things, it will largely feature ducks!

Thank you for dropping by.