If it’s a wild weekend filled with rarities that you’re after, then you’d better head north. Far north…
I remember when I had my first sip of Guinness my father told me it was an acquired taste, and one sip later that taste was acquired. For me, Shetland is another acquired taste. This time it took me two sips, but I now think I’ve got it. On my first trip there, I was struck by bleakness and emptiness and the thought that the long, endless days of summer had to be filled and the endless nights of winter endured.
On my second trip there, though, I started to fall in love with the place – the wildness, the strangeness, the very bleakness. In a nutshell, Shetland is one great wildlife playground, and the whole place is jammed full of wildlife action to discover. It was this autumn just gone and I was a part of a group spending a long weekend searching for rarities. And if it had just been rarities we were after, it would have to rank as a success.
Against the odds racked up by high westerly winds, we found Marsh Warblers, relocated an American Golden Plover, had a few rosefinches, North-western Redpoll and identified the UK’s third Taiga Flycatcher. But, the rest of the time, when we weren’t scoring the rares, and took the trouble to look around us, there was intense action and thrills all around.
Take the sea, for instance; a quick glance at the surface revealed Shags, mergansers, Black Guillemots, Eiders and both species of seal. Plunging through the surface were diving parties of Gannets. And wherever there were Gannets with food there were Bonxies (Great Skuas) bullying them with a tug on the wing here, a tail there, until they puked up the Bonxies’ favourite: sashimi and sick.
We spent most of our time on the northernmost main island of Unst. Head north and a bit west from here and you hit Iceland and Greenland. It was the last week in September, and there were times when whenever we looked up it seemed there was a new skein of Pink-footed Geese coming in from the sea. There is something magical about knowing you are seeing birds which have just spotted land after flying hundreds of miles across the North Atlantic.
And the movement wasn’t just high up. One day we used our minibus to shelter from the wind and dedicated a bit of time to seawatching. There were thousands of Fulmars moving through and, with them, a smattering of blue-morph birds, a real thrill to pick up.
When we weren’t scouring tiny patches, laughably called ‘cover’, for rare birds, we watched dancing flocks of Snow Buntings, the odd Lapland Bunting, enjoyed watching familiar waders and pipits.
But for me the highlight (yes, even more of a thrill than that flycatcher!), was the great, close views I got of that most charismatic of all creatures, the Otter. On his home island of Fetlar, our guide and host Brydon Thomason’s passion for Otters came to the fore. He showed us secret signs and indications like some frontier scout. Here a patch of squashed grass, there a narrow pathway and here again a small pile of Otter poo that we were offered to sniff and were promised smelled sweet and lovely!
Then with a wave of the hand he signalled us to drop behind a boulder and we watched a lone female Otter working the shore and turning uphill along one of those narrow paths to bathe in freshwater.
If this wasn’t thrill enough, only a few hundred metres along the shore we saw a family of three… mother and two nine-month olds. They were incredibly efficient at catching fish, then treaded water with their heads above the surface, spinning in circles as they munched their catch, grasped between front paws.
They even came out onto some rocks and cleaned themselves, constantly playing and nibbling at each other: little aquatic monkeys, full of intelligence, play and fun.
There is a joke among bird guides that the best bird of the day is a mammal, and this was the case for me. But all over Shetland there is stiff competition, because the birdlife is abundant and superb, the rares are exciting, the common birds are thrilling – it is a challenge even for an Otter to outperfom them.
Shetland has acquired my taste and I will be back to sample more of its superbly distilled essence.
Mike travelled to Shetland courtesy of Brydon Thomason and Shetland Nature: www.shetlandnature.net and Saxa Vord Resort:www.saxavord.com Getting there: Daily flights from Scotland’s major cities and twice weekly flights direct from London Heathrow land at Sumburgh Airport on the southern tip of Shetland Mainland. The other major islands are reached via a network of regular ferries. Alternatively, you can take the car ferry to Lerwick, Shetland’s county town, either from Aberdeen or from the North Coast of Scotland via Orkney.
Our birding in Northumbria began with a Great Black-backed Gull. An unremarkable find, you might think, but this one had caught a large flatfish on the estuary of the River Coquet and had bitten off more than it could chew.
It highlighted how relatively ill-equipped gulls are to dealing with uncooperative prey. Having neither a tearing bill nor ripping talons, it was reduced to flailing and bashing, which obviously did for the fish but didn’t render it any smaller to swallow.
After half an hour of determined assault and battery the fish finally went down, swelling the bird’s neck alarmingly as it slid through. A passing Eider dived down and dealt far more efficiently with a small crab as we left the Black-backed, rooted to the muddy bank, having consumed probably a third of its body weight.
We were having a few days in Northumberland towards the end of September, staying at the Lindisfarne Inn, which is handily placed just next to the A1 at the top of the road leading to Holy Island. Our guide, Martin Kitching, runs Northern Wildlife Experience which specialises in bird tours around the Northumbrian coast and at inland sites such as Keilder Forest. He had suggested that we aim for the more southern part of his range for our first day’s birdwatching, aiming to work our way back up the coast for a grand finale at Holy Island over the course of the next couple of days. After exploring the area around the River Coquet, south of Alnwick, our next stop was East Chevington, a former open-cast coal mine, now flooded.
On the way we stopped by one of the stubble fields to watch the touch-down of a flock of Icelandic Pink-footed Geese. The birds had just started arriving from their summer grounds and, as we watched, more and more appeared, first as dots on the horizon and then as wheeling formations that settled among the rough furrows. East Chevington yielded plenty of Lapwing, Grey and Golden Plover, and six Snipe that flew past the hide. Apart from open cast mines such as this, the whole area north of Newcastle and south of Berwick is prone to sink holes where old mineworkings have caved in and gradually filled with water. This, along with a number of tidal estuaries and vast areas of exposed coastal sand and mud at low tide makes for some great habitat for wildfowl and waders. It’s easy and uncrowded birding, with many of the bays close to the coast road so you only need to pull in to the frequent parking spots to get great views without effort.
Cresswell Ponds, for instance, at the southern end of Druridge Bay, is only a few short steps from the road, and can offer interesting birds such as Little Stint, which was showing on our visit.
Druridge Bay itself is rightly famous for the number and variety of birds that can be found there, and we certainly enjoyed watching a large number of Little Grebes and Sandwich Terns, but parts of it are also very popular with families enjoying the golden beach, as well as many dogwalkers. Lynemouth Bay, a little further south, is rockier but perhaps quieter and a good stopping point which gave us Knots, Oystercatchers and Sanderling, as well as over 100 Curlews.
On our way back up the coast, we stopped by at one lesser-known vantage point, certainly to people from outside the area. It is The Wynding, the approach road to the Bamburgh Castle Golf Club. You are high above the coast there and overlooking some bird-rich habitat. As we set up our scopes we were over-flown by a small flock of Pale Bellied Brent Geese, flying north. Our enjoyment of three juvenile Gannets plunge-diving was momentarily interrupted by the arrival of a pod of five Harbour Porpoise, making their way down the coast. At the shoreline, Common Scoter bobbed and we were amused to see the obvious consternation among a raft of Eider when a Great Skua arrived and settled in the middle of the flock. Like polite people at a party when a well-known drunk arrives, the Eider quietly radiated outwards to leave the Bonxie in splendid isolation.
A similar parting of the flocks occurred at the shallow, almost enclosed estuary of Budle Bay, between Bamburgh and Lindisfarne, as we were appreciating four Red-breasted Mergansers. As one, several hundred Lapwing rose and circled, the cause becoming apparent as a young Peregrine soared through the rapidly dispersing flock. Its youth and inexperience counted against it, though, and after several minutes of fruitless circling it abandoned the chase without a catch.
Martin’s decision to leave Lindisfarne until last gave us a wonderful ending to our autumn Northumbria birding experience. It was a bright, sunny midday, albeit with a chilly wind, when we drove to the causeway to catch low tide. We had a few moments to follow the footpath through the saltmarshes on the mainland side to appreciate the waders taking advantage of the exposed mudflats. A Jack Snipe flushed from the Marram grass beside the path and upwards of 150 Curlew flew overhead. On the way back a Wheatear paused to be admired on a piece of driftwood.
As we crossed the causeway we kept a keen eye on the posts that mark the Pilgrim’s Way, the walking route across the mud, and were well rewarded by the sight of a late-departing Osprey which was using one of the posts as a resting point.
The dunes at the island end of the causeway are worth a stroll for waders and migrants in the season, as it’s often the first landfall for many birds. If you walk among the dunes, though, you need to beware of the Piri-piri Burr. This fast-growing plant was accidentally imported from New Zealand in wool supplies. The sticky seedpods get everywhere!
Once on the island, we made our way from the car park to the road leading to the Castle. Martin was aiming in particular to see what could be found in the Rocket Field, the area behind the Coastguard’s flares store. It proved to be a fruitful area, with about 1000 Golden Plover and nearly 600 Redshanks gathered around the shallow pools. We then headed up onto the Heugh, the high ground next to the Abbey ruins, concentrating on the view from the top, hoping for Lindisfarne’s speciality Pale-bellied Brents among the geese flocks. In the sea between the island and the mainland, near the twin navigation obelisks, we soon picked out huge strings of geese floating and wading close to the far shore, but they were too far for accurate ID, even with the scopes.
One final thrilling sight awaited us at the start of the causeway back to the mainland. A Peregrine, which had obviously been using a Pilgrim’s Way post as a lookout, had caught some prey and was devouring it at the base of the post. As the light faded and the cold wind whipped across the exposed mud, it was a wild sight to cherish as a memory of a special place.
The Lindisfarne Inn, near Berwick Upon Tweed, is ideally placed to explore north Northumberland and offers ensuite accommodation from £75 per night for a double/twin room. There are special winter break rates available from £39.50 per person, dinner, bed & breakfast. For more information visit www.lindisfarneinn.co.uk or call 01289 381223. Other sites: Northern Experience Wildlife
Generally speaking, birdwatchers tend to gravitate towards North Norfolk and the coast, with the undoubted attractions of the likes of Titchwell and Snettisham. The birding potential of the Norfolk Broads, further south, may sometimes be ignored in an assumption that the area is bound to be too crowded and touristy to allow a relaxed day out in the field.
Yes, there are parts of the Broads that are busy, especially in summer or around Easter time when I visited, but there are other parts that have an abundance of interesting birdlife and where you can spend many a solitary hour, or at least in the company of only a few like-minded souls.
One such hidden gem is Wheatfen, a perfect little piece of natural fenland with wet sallow-alder carrs, native woodland and reed beds preserved by writer and broadcaster Ted Ellis, who bought two marshmen’s cottages and the adjoining land in the 1940s and spent his life managing the habitat and studying the wildlife it attracted. Here you can step back in time to experience the landscape as it must have been hundreds of years ago: wild and beautiful. The earliest records of Cetti’s Warbler in the UK came from Old Mill Marsh at Wheatfen. When I was there in early April the woods were alive with all manner of tits – Blue, Great, Coal, Marsh and Long-tailed. Reed and Sedge Warblers had just returned to the reedbeds and, on the small Broads, Coots and Teal called. It was easy to imagine that you were a million miles away in space and a hundred years in time from the pleasure craft, ice cream salesmen and school parties enjoying the better-known Broads.
A little less off the beaten track, but a highly recommended stopping point nonetheless, is Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, near South Walsham. This is a natural garden built around a network of flooded ditches that wind through an ancient woodland of oak and beech trees. All three species of woodpecker inhabit the woods and can be heard drumming and yaffling among the trees. Nuthatches and Treecreepers were also making a living high above our heads as we walked down to South Walsham Inner Broad, which is the estate’s private Broad. On a sunny afternoon in April, the garden was full of wild primroses and white wood anemones, with the exotic flowers of the unkindly named Skunk Cabbage fringing the swampy areas like big yellow loudspeakers. We took a boat trip out onto the Broad for a closer view of Great Crested Grebe and their little humbug chicks, a group of Cormorants and the ubiquitous Greylag Geese, nesting on a small island. Our boatman steered us to the far bank and the exposed muddy network of roots of a large fallen tree. As he pointed out a small hole among the roots, there was a flash of blue as the resident Kingfisher left the nest and darted away along the shore among the overhanging branches.
Our next boat trip was on a much larger stretch of water – Hickling Broad. From the visitor centre at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad Nature Reserve, you walk along a boardwalk across the reedbeds. The milk parsley that grows here is the reason the area is so well known for Swallowtail butterflies that rely on the plant for breeding. A little electric boat glides silently through the tall reeds ensuring disturbance is kept to a minimum so that you get the best chance of a sighting of Bearded Tit. We were unlucky the day we went and although we heard the birds, they didn’t grace us with an appearance. What we did see plenty of were Marsh Harriers soaring over the reedbeds. Both at Hickling and at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen, which we visited at day’s end, we were mesmerised by these gorgeous raptors.
The Hickling Water Trail boat takes you to two hides, far out in the middle of the Broad. These overlook two wader scrapes in the making; the dedicated work of one volunteer, Andy Kane, who has single-handedly shifted tons of silt and mud and managed the reedbeds to create an ideal habitat out of an overgrown and neglected mudflat. The Rush Hill Hide is actually also accessible from Potter Heigham Church and is a good spot for migrants in the season.
Both Hickling and Strumpshaw, among many of the other Broads, host wintering geese. I was too late in the season to catch even the tailenders of the annual visitors but, from mid-September until March you get thousands of Pink-footed Geese on the potato and sugar beet fields around the Broads, grazing on the vegetation left by the harvesters. Around Heigham Holmes near Martham, and in the Cantley and Buckenham Marsh areas of the Yare Valley, you can also see over-wintering White-fronted Geese and Bean Geese. Only a few hundred of each species but, nevertheless, the only other regular wintering site of Bean Geese in Britain is near Stirling in Scotland so it’s worth a trip. Although we had missed the geese, our trip to Strumpshaw was far from disappointing. The woodland gave us several close-up sightings of Treecreepers and a lengthy view of a Barn Owl, perched on the edge of one of the boxes put up by the Reserve staff. As the twilight fell the bird surveyed its scrubby territory slowly and carefully, completely oblivious to its human observers. In amongst the reeds, from one of the hides, we glimpsed a Water Rail for a brief second before it stalked out of view. After that, the only evidence it was there was a pick-pick-pick call and one loud diminishing squeal. This was not the only bird heard but not properly seen on my April trip to the Broads. We were staying at Rivers End cottage overlooking the Staithe at West Somerton. To the front of the cottage was the end of a small offshoot of the river with fields and reedbeds further on to each side. Walking alongside the water we saw flocks of grazing Greylags at dusk and heard the boom of a Bittern. Sadly, a few waving reeds were the only physical evidence, and these could well have just been moving in the wind rather than disturbed by a wading bird, but we were optimistic that we had at least had a sighting-by-proxy of the elusive Bittern.
One final recommendation if you’re staying in the Broads and self-catering as we were, has nothing to do with the birdlife. But if you’re looking for something delicious for a meal, pay a visit to the farmer’s market and home-made produce stands at Wroxham Barns near Hoveton. It’s a good place for a souvenir to take home for anyone not lucky enough to have made the trip, too.
There is a world of undiscovered birding in Dumfries and Galloway
If there are two words guaranteed to elicit a Pavlovian response in me, they have to be ‘Birding’ and ‘Scotland’. I can’t get enough of the place, visiting two or three times a year. So when it was suggested that I road test this particular weekend, I didn’t have to think for more than a millisecond before accepting.
Dumfries and Galloway doesn’t so much suffer from an image problem as a lack of image problem.
Very few English birders visit, preferring to keep heading north towards the better known delights of the Highlands. Certainly, as our own car practically knows its own way to Speyside, turning left at Gretna felt decidedly counter-intuitive. But, to those who haven’t yet visited: you don’t know what you’re missing!
Having a couple of hours to kill before registering at our accommodation, we called in at Carsethorn Point, overlooking the Solway Firth and just round the corner from the hotel. A good selection of waders such as Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit foraged along the shore and a small flock of Knot flew through. A couple of Whimbrel were decidedly unseasonal but it turns out that they are more or less resident there, a useful tip for anyone trying to build their list.
The waders were soon forgotten though, as our attention focused on the spectacle in the channels beyond. Living in Norfolk, Scaup is a duck I only see a few times each year on autumn seawatches. So to see a couple of thousand, catching the autumn sun beautifully, was a jaw-dropping experience. For anyone who has agonised about the amount of white shown round the base of the bill when trying to decide whether a bird is a female Tufted Duck or Scaup, then go there. You won’t ever have that dilemma again.
A couple of Whooper Swans flew past and a large female Peregrine drifted over. An Otter strolled out onto the sands and caught a flatfish which it started to devour. This attracted the attention of several gulls but the Otter simply picked up the fish, waggled it in the gulls’ faces a few times and continued to chomp on its meal. It’s not often you see a Great Black-backed Gull lose face like that.
The weekend was brilliantly led by Dave Fairlamb, warden of the nearby Mersehead RSPB reserve. He took us for a quick introductory stroll around the hotel’s wonderful grounds which produced flocks of geese and waders flying over, plus a good selection of woodland birds including Great Spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper, Bullfinch, Goldcrest and Nuthatch, a species which is only just spreading into southern Scotland.
My usual fare on a day’s birding consists of a couple of curled up sandwiches and a flask of stewed coffee. So returning to open fires, afternoon tea, a pre-dinner drink followed by some excellent local produce with wine included produced a level of pampering totally outside my usual experience. It was easy to see why so many of the guests were repeat bookings. Going to sleep felt as if you were immersed in the centre of the latest hi-fi surround sound system as Tawny Owls called and answered from seemingly every direction.
Saturday started off very wet and got wetter. A trip to Mersehead produced a good selection of wildfowl, but only a few small parties of Barnacle Geese – the jewel in the Solway’s crown when it comes to wintering birds. Thoroughly soggy, we decided to return to the hotel for some homemade soup rather than picnic on the hoof. Unfortunately the car we were in broke down in the middle of the ever-rising floods and there was no alternative but to get out into the calf deep water and push: let no-one say that Bird Watching writers don’t suffer for their readers.
The soup warmed the sun as well as the guests and, after another visit to Carsethorn, we drove a couple of miles to Southerness, finding a field full of all the missing Barnacle Geese en route. Set against the backdrop of a stunning sunset, something none of us thought we would ever see again, we finished the day watching an avian bombing alley. Dozens of Crows and gulls lined up to drop shells onto the rocks below. If you can’t prise the shells open to extract the food, try breaking them instead: it was a wonderful example of learned behaviour.
The Ken/Dee Marshes RSPB reserve is part of the local Red Kite trail, so it was no surprise to get fantastic views of this gorgeous raptor, both perched and flying over. There is even a feeding station a couple of miles away at Laurieston if you want more close-up views. The feeders in front of the hide attracted more Nuthatches, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and, my favourite, wonderful views of Willow Tit.
One of the shyer members of the tit family, Willow Tits usually fly straight in and out at feeders: by the time you realise that they are there, they have gone again. Here was a chance to get to grips with their subtle identification details – bull neck, pale wing panel and dull cap. They are, though, very difficult to separate in the field from their close relative, Marsh Tit and you really need to get to learn the calls – a nasal sneeze ‘tschay tshcay’ in Willow and a loud ‘pit-chu’ in Marsh Tits. This is why this is such a good place to start learning – you don’t get Marsh Tits there!
A party of Snipe remained unseen for ages. Even with telescopes trained on them, several people struggled to find them, such is the brilliance of their camouflage. As is often the case, we heard the Ravens long before we saw them, their deep, bass kronk calls carrying far across the valley. It didn’t take long for the local Buzzards to fly up and ‘encourage’ the Ravens to move on.
Fieldfares, Redwings, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes fed voraciously. Mixed flocks of finches and buntings allowed close comparisons of Twite and Linnet as well as the various plumages of Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings. The only birds we couldn’t find were the flock of White-fronted Geese that winters in the area.
Our final stop was by the River Nith, south of Dumfries. Several Goosanders fished and a couple of Merlins hunted. One final bonus was the sight of 30,000 Starlings flying over as we headed home, part of the much larger flock that roosts near Gretna in winter. Despite the vagaries of the weather, we recorded just under 100 species over the weekend without having to travel more than half an hour or so from the hotel.
So what else has Dumfries and Galloway got to offer visitors if you are looking for a longer holiday or want to travel a bit further afield? For culture vultures, there are strong Robbie Burns connections, castles, gardens and good numbers of arts and crafts galleries. The whole area is famous for the quality of its light and it was easy to see why so many artists are attracted here. Wigtown has a major book festival and there are dozens of secondhand bookshops to browse for that elusive bird book. Failing that, watch the CCTV pictures of the breeding Ospreys in summer, one of several pairs in the area. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has an excellent reserve at Caerlaverock. You can find Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers, Black Grouse, Redstarts and Wood Warblers in the interior, with the Galloway coast holding an excellent selection of seabirds. Cavens hotel runs guided weekends in spring and autumn but the area offers brilliant birding all year round. Take the rest of your bird club too, while you are at it. I’m sure that Angus, the owner, would be more than happy to negotiate a deal for groups wanting to book an out-of-season weekend. Great birds, great hospitality; I can’t wait to go back and explore some more. Just remember to turn left at Gretna.
Gordon Hamlett was a guest of Cavens hotel visit the website at www.cavens.com or call 01387 880234
I’m a veteran of more than 50 trips across the Bay of Biscay, looking for cetaceans and seabirds. I’ve even done the odd ferry journey along the west coast of Japan and across the Cook Strait of New Zealand. But until this spring, the closest I have been to seawatching from a small boat, was a working research trip off the Otago Peninsula, dragging an Agassiz trawl along the seabed to collect marine invertebrates. This inevitably attracts petrels and shearwaters and the odd giant petrel and albatross. But I was there to collect the creatures we rudely dragged up, not watch birds.
So, I was delighted, this mid-May to be invited by Captain Keith Leeves – Keith being the K in AK Wildlife Cruises, to join one of his pelagic cruises out of Falmouth, Cornwall. Capt Keith is a vastly experienced skipper, running all sorts of boats around the world. He is extremely knowledgeable about the area of our trip along the southern coast of Cornwall. And not least of his many skills is that he is also a remarkable observer.
We had not got far out of Falmouth, when Capt Keith spotted a dark shape in the water ahead of us. As we approached, we could see it was a Great Northern Diver, in perfect, summer plumage. Though we were careful not to get too close to intimidate the bird, we were close enough to see the green sheen of the neck band and every lovely white spot on its filigree back. We even heard the bird calling, more evocative of a North American lake than at sea off Cornwall.
I could tell straight away that this was going to be a trip more akin to my trawling in New Zealand than seawatching from ferries. The views are so much lower and so more intimate.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that mid-May isn’t perhaps the best time to be out looking for wilidife off the Cornish coast, but there was plenty to see. In fact, part of the joy of the area is that it can be productive at any time of year, and in just about any conditions. Capt Keith’s knowledge of the coast allows him to bring the best of the wind conditions, no matter where they are coming from. Our route took us on a general southerly bearing and, on the way, we encountered a few flocks of Manx Shearwaters, shearing by, always best to see while you are at sea rather than as distantly from the shore. I was taken back to my first encounter with Manxies, more than 30 years ago, on a sailing trip off Ayrshire.
On that same sailing trip, we also had Storm Petrels flying close to the boat, and I remember my father digging out cans of Tennent’s lager with scantily clad girls on them, to celebrate. Capt Keith is far too professional for such shenanigans but did have Stormies in mind as we approached a couple of fishing vessels and their attendant seabirds. A couple of Bonxies were joining the general gullage, and Capt Keith and his assistant Richard set about laying a chum trail to see what we could draw in. To our delight, a Storm Petrel came and sniffed out the trail, but was gone all too soon.
No pelagic trip is complete, for me, without a bit of mammal action. On my Cornish trip, the starring beasts were Harbour Porpoises. They are always tricky to see, as they swim so low when they break the surface, to breathe, so Capt Keith took us to a more sheltered area of coast where he had seen porpoises before. They are hugely underrated cetaceans, and it was, again, great to see several close by at such a low vantage point.
The little treats kept on coming as we went further down the coast, with a late ‘wintering’ Puffin, several Guillemots and Razorbills (which Capt Keith identified with unerring accuracy). Plus there was a nice little group of Purple Sandpipers with some wonderfully striking breeding-plumaged Turnstones on the rocks underneath some family groups of Shags.
The Shags had progressed remarkably into their breeding season, and most of the juveniles we saw on rocks and on the nesting cliffs, were full-sized birds. Also approaching full size were a couple of young Ravens still with their parents on a cliff not 30m from where a pair of Peregrines was nesting.
This stretch of coastline is beautiful, with cliffs and idyllic harbours, bays and flowered grassy tops. It is also home to what proved the trip’s pièce de résistance: my first Cornish Chough, indeed the first Chough I have ever seen in England, dancing over the clifftops as only a Chough can. A wonderful end to a great trip. I can’t wait to get out to sea again.
Mike’s pelagic trip was run by AK Wildlife Cruises. See the website akwildlifecruises.co.uk for details of sightings and excursions out of Falmouth, Cornwall, throughout the year.
Pieter and I were desperate for a holiday so, with a 10-day window in early June and aiming for a low carbon break, we settled on the Scottish Highlands. It would be my first trip to the area since 1995 and Pieter’s first ever visit.
We had heard about a new innovation: a bird watching hotel. The Grant Arms, in Grantown-on-Spey, has its own Bird Watching and Wildlife Club (BWWC). It promised to supply the local knowledge that can make all the difference to watching birds and other wildlife, without having to go on an all-inclusive wildlife tour. We prefer finding our own birds so we decided to give it a try.
BWWC has a suite of rooms in the hotel, including a well-stocked library, a lecture theatre for evening talks, and an information centre from which Kirsty Sharratt and her assistants dispense the latest information. There is a recent sightings board, and daily and monthly newsletters for guests. Before we reached the hotel we managed a late afternoon visit to the RSPB’s Loch Garten Osprey Camp, where we were treated to scope views of the female Osprey on the nest and CCTV views of three chicks. After a short wait the male flew in with a 40cm fish. We were very fortunate as the male usually only makes four or five food passes a day, with up to four hours in between. The feeders and bushes around the Visitor Centre offered good opportunities to photograph Red Squirrel and Siskin, plus other common birds such as Coal Tit and Chaffinch. Although the Osprey nest is easily viewable from the Centre, to photograph the birds you’ll need to digiscope or employ a 400mm lens.
The following day we were particularly keen to see Otter, so, armed with info from Kirsty, including tide times, we set off for North Kessock and found two Otters swimming across the mouth of the Beauly Firth under the A9 bridge. We continued on the advised route taking in the Findhorn Valley where we found a gaggle of birders waiting for Golden Eagle to appear. Through the day we had great views of ‘goodies’ like Mountain Hare, hunting Peregrine, displaying Tree Pipits, croaking Ravens, a Dipper carrying food, Ring Ouzels, stonking male Redstarts, ‘bubbling’ Red Grouse, non wing-tagged Red Kite, and breeding Slavonian Grebe. And all the while there was amazing scenery and (mostly) very few people. Saturday morning we set off for Lodge. We soon found fresh Capercaillie droppings and an obliging flock of Scottish Crossbills giving their diagnostic call (verified by a quick listen to my Collins Bird eGuide). A good bout of pishing brought in various tits including Crested. Then Pieter turned a corner and flushed a female Caper feeding on the needles of a young Scots Pine.
We headed back to Loch Garten, to see the male Osprey return twice with fish and a pair of Redstarts performing in front of the hide. Loch Garten, in the last few years, has been the place to see lekking Capercaillie in April and part of May. We’d been told by BWWC that a male Caper had been seen from the visitor centre recently, so I continually scanned the area, while waiting for the male Osprey to put in another appearance. I was rewarded when a male Caper poked its head above the heather, showing off its massive pale yellow bill and red eye wattle. A Goldeneye with chicks creating ripples on the loch in the late afternoon light made for a wonderful scene. All brilliant stuff.
Over the next few days, following advice from Kirsty, fellow guests, and prompted by Gordon Hamlett’s guide, Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands, we got to grips with most of the specialities including Parrot Crossbills at Loch Garten (wow – what a conk!), Black Grouse at Tulloch Moor, breeding Golden Plover and Black and Red-throated Divers at Lochindorb and, oh yes, Golden Eagle on the way back down the A9. You don’t even have to drive from the hotel to see iconic Scottish wildlife. Anagach Woods is a short walk away and is home to Red Squirrels, Crested Tit and Capercaillie. We didn’t have time for Ptarmigan and White-tailed Eagle, which are a long drive away, but it’s always good to leave something for next time.
Next time wasn’t long in coming. We were so enthralled with the Highlands we decided to spend a proper white Christmas at the Grant Arms. Little did we know it was going to be one of the harshest winters in living memory. We set off from Norfolk on 23 December, our vehicle ‘expedition ready’ with flasks of hot coffee, food, plenty of de-icer, blankets and a shovel. We encountered heavy blizzards around York, spent the night at Scotch Corner and arrived at Speyside before dark the next day, past very heavy snow drifts but on clear roads. Scotland is certainly better equipped for snow than southern England! We did wonder what kind of birding we would have with all the snow. Christmas Day dawned crisp and sunny and after clearing 20cm of snow off our vehicle we set off for Loch Garten. On route we came across flocks of Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds feasting on frozen Hawthorn berries. Loch Garten’s visitor centre is closed in winter but the feeders are kept full. We were the first visitors and the paths were covered in fresh snow that was calf deep! The feeders were very busy with Coal Tits, Chaffinches, Robins and Red Squirrel. A trip to Burghead Bay gave us Long-tailed Duck, Common and Velvet Scoters, which were present in spectacular numbers. Off Burghead itself we found the regular King Eider with a small flock of Common Eider and a flock of confiding Purple Sandpipers.
On our last day we headed back towards Cairngorm, but in a futile attempt to see Black Grouse that had been reported feeding in Larch trees on a little used side road, we got stuck in a snow drift. It took the help of a nearby crofter to get ourselves out. The days were very short and driving conditions treacherous but the Scottish Highlands in winter are a magical place. Birding was difficult but seeing them in these conditions is exhilarating. We enjoyed ourselves so much we’re going back to the Grant Arms this Christmas!
The Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth, east of Edinburgh, is the largest single island Gannet colony in the world and has been described by Sir David Attenborough as one of Earth’s 12 wildlife wonders. There are over 150,000 Gannets on the Rock. In fact the scientific name for the Northern Gannet, Sula bassana or Morus bassanus, derives from the Bass Rock. Most people, when seeing it for the first time, are amazed at the colour of the Rock, and assume that the white is guano. However, it is simply the vast numbers of Gannets covering every surface. In the winter, when the birds have left for the warmer climes of the West African coast, the Rock becomes brown again.
In fact, the Bass Rock was once green, with sheep grazing on it. It is only comparatively recently that an explosion in the Gannet population has resulted in the birds taking over and the sheer numbers eroding any soil that was once there. The birds were traditionally known as Solan Goose and as with other gannetries, such as St Kilda, the number of birds was kept down as they were harvested for their eggs and the flesh of the young chicks, both of which were considered delicacies.
A retreat for early Christian hermits, including St Baldred in 600AD, the Bass Rock was later the fortified home of the Lauder family and, in Cromwell’s time, a notorious gaol for political and religious prisoners. In 1902 a lighthouse was built, which has been unmanned since 1988.
The lower ledges of the Bass are home to Shags, Razorbills and Guillemots, while Puffins nest in the ruins of the castle and prison below. The trip over to the Rock from the harbour at Dunbar can give you Cormorants, a selection of gulls and numerous seaducks such as Eider. During the trip the boatman will pause to throw in ‘chum’ and give you great views of the birds diving into and under the water.
Maggie Sheddan has worked on the Bass Rock for six years as the Scottish Seabird Centre’s guide, taking people out and helping them experience the uniqueness of the place.
“It is a real privilege to be able to do this job,” she says. “Not only do you see famous people such the Princess Royal and Sir David Attenborough, but you meet some lovely members of the public, too. I get a buzz out of making people’s days out here memorable.”
Visitors to the Rock can include some of the top scientists and experts in the world who seek Maggie’s advice on the birds’ behaviour. Not only that, but she offers sound advice for good visitor behaviour, too.
“Stop for a while and put your camera down,” she says. “You will see far more if you just stand still and watch. After all, you’re here for three hours.” There is certainly a joy in just sitting there with the birds wheeling and banking above your head as they return from the sea with food for their chicks. As you watch you begin to understand the tempo of life on the Rock.
“You do see life in the raw here,” says Maggie. “Red in tooth and claw, with predation, injury, and chicks being deserted. I never take it for granted. Being out here, looking at incredible views of the coast, I am often overwhelmed by the nature of my job.”
On my visit, Maggie’s dedication to her work had her crawling down a steep slide to rescue an emaciated, abandoned chick balanced on the edge of the deep muddy bog halfway up the south side of the Rock. It was taken down to the lighthouse and would be sent to North Berwick for recuperation before being released back into the wild. “This does show that the most difficult thing in this job is keeping clean,” says Maggie. It’s not surprising when she can find herself wading through dense undergrowth to rescue chicks that have jumped from the cliffs above to get to the sea and have missed. I even noticed her cutting back huge swathes of plants to rescue a pair of expensive sunglasses dropped by a visitor.
The pathway from the landing stage is flat at the bottom but becomes quite steep as you travel up to the top near St Baldred’s chapel. That’s no bad thing, as it’s steep enough to force you to stop every now and then to admire the view and the birds. You get very close to the Gannets, at times you have to shoo them off the path, and at the top the birds are very tightly packed together so you get excellent views of their behaviour and the chicks in the various plumage stages of their development.
Nesting space on the Rock is at a premium and many birds now build no more than a few feet above the tide line. Their nests are so strong through, being cemented together with excreta and spittle, they very rarely succumb to any waves that do wash over them. One thing the visitor must be prepared for is that lovely ‘eau de seabird colony’ fragrance that lingers here all year round, as well as the wonderful, incessant ‘cack, cack, cack’ noise.
Gannets are incredibly strong birds which, as youngsters, they need to be. When they reach a certain age the adults simply desert them and they are forced to make their way down to the sea in order to feed. Unfortunately this involves two hazardous factors – having to jump off very tall cliffs onto rocks while not being able to fly properly.
As a result, if you are there at the right time of the season, you are treated to a sound of frantic flapping, whooshing past your ear, closely followed by a loud thump as they land. The buildings of the Bass are topped by a selection of ramps and diving boards put there by Maggie to aid the chicks to get down to the shore. There is always a feeling of anxiety watching the young birds preparing to take the plunge to the rocks 150 feet below. Often they only jump when the pressure from those behind forces them to do so.
The other wonder of the Bass Rock is looking up at a sky that is black with birds. One of the greatest moments of my life was in a Zodiac circumnavigating the Rock and hugging its walls, with the birds flying around and above us, silhouetted against the evening sky like thousands of midges. It is an awe-inspiring experience. Although, if you take my advice, gleaned from a harsh lesson, keep your mouth closed when you look up!
There are no facilities on the Rock so it’s a good idea to take your own food and drink. There is a safe area where you can leave kit but there are no toilets. Sturdy walking boots are recommended as well as warm, waterproof clothing even when it’s fine, as the weather can change suddenly. There can be spray on the boat journey so waterproofs and covering for cameras and optical equipment are advised. The Scottish Seabird Centre also runs trips in high-powered boats around the Rock from North Berwick, in partnership with Sea.fari Adventures. These trips get you up close to the Rock, which you can’t do in regular boats. From April until the end of September tickets to land on the Rock may be purchased at the harbour on the day, but it is advisable to book in advance by phoning 01620 890202 as places are limited to just 11 per trip. Tickets cost £98 per person for a five and a half hour trip. If the weather does not permit a landing on the Rock, there is a 50% refund. There is very limited parking at the harbour but there are spaces at the leisure centre above the harbour, no more than 200 yards away. It’s also a good idea to visit the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick which has solar powered cameras located on the Rock to beam back live close up images of the seabirds to large screens. The images are sharp enough to read the ID rings on birds’ feet.
If you want to see seabirds, the best way is get out among them – and there aren’t many better ways of doing that than by spending a relaxing few days on a boat-based birdwatching break
There’s no question that Scotland offers some of Britain’s best birding, but the very wildness that makes it so attractive to nature can also deter some birdwatchers.
There are the distances involved, the relative isolation once you get away from the big cities, the unpredictable weather, and of course the dreaded midges in summer. The Cairngorms, the Hebrides and the west coast offer huge birding riches, but exactly how do you get at them?
Until well into the 20th Century, the west of Scotland was very much a maritime world, and even now there’s probably no better way to test the waters than by actually taking to the waters. The Majestic Line’s cruises allow you to do so in luxury.
Boarding the Glen Tarsan at Hunter’s Quay, on Holy Loch (with Eiders bobbing on the waves everywhere around you), you follow a relaxed itinerary that’s shaped to suit the time of year and the weather.
We travelled in mid-April, sailing down the Firth of Clyde, then past Rothesay into the Kyles of Bute, finally dropping anchor for the night in Loch Riddon. We used the last of the light to watch gulls gathering to roost, with the odd Cormorant or Oystercatcher along the shore. The boat effectively acts as a highly efficient mobile hide, being just far enough from the shore not to disturb the birds, but still close enough to see them well.
Where it scores heavily over the sort of hide we birdwatchers are used to, however, is in having top quality cuisine to hand! The food was superb throughout the trip, with a focus on local produce including salmon, haddock, scallops and venison, but all tastes can be catered for, and tea, coffee, fruit and snacks are available all day. Wine is included with meals, and a bar means that you can always sample one or two of the single malts if you feel the need to keep out the cold. The next day, we sailed on, crossing Kilbrannan Sound in bright sunshine. It made for perfect conditions for a bit of seawatching, so I got myself comfortable on a lounger, with binoculars and scope to hand, and started scanning.
Gannets occasionally flashed past, although their nearest nesting site is at Ailsa Craig, well to the south. There were plenty of gulls, too, the first few Common and Arctic Terns, and occasional Razorbills and Guillemots, plus Fulmars whenever we got close in to the cliffs.
The highlights, though, for me, were the Black Guillemots, known locally as ‘dookers’ (I think because of their habit of ducking beneath the waves). They’re smart, attractive little birds, and there are few better places in the UK to see them. Certainly I’ve never seen so many, and showing well.
We reached the Isle of Arran, and went ashore at its main town and harbour of Brodick. We’d been warned to keep an eye on the skies for Golden Eagles, but although we had no luck there, there was plenty to keep us occupied.
Walking along the beach, small flocks of Ringed Plovers gathered, occasionally rising into the air and flashing around the bay, while the adjacent golf course offered great opportunities to see Oystercatchers at very close quarters, with the birds roaming the fairways and greens seemingly oblivious of incoming drives or shouts of ‘fore!’
Brodick also has Arran’s main ferry port, so it is possible to reach it quickly from Ardrossan, on the coast of the mainland.
Later we moved on to Lamlash, in the next bay, protected by the great bulk of Holy Isle, and with Arran’s own mountains (the moors can contain Hen Harriers in spring and summer) still looming large in the background.
After riding at anchor overnight, we went ashore on a glorious spring morning, and I was able to see a familiar fieldguide claim confirmed. Throughout the trip, we’d seen both Hooded and Carrion Crows, but here we twice saw one species paired with the other. No sign of any of the hybrid offspring that are possible, but doubtless they were around later in the year.
Evening arrived and we put ashore again in Lochranza, on the island’s north-western tip. It’s a picturesque village huddled around a calm bay, with mountains looming dramatically behind its small castle, built on a spit jutting out into the water.
It made a good vantage point to watch the wildlife – Grey Seals lounging on the shores, Red Deer everywhere from the highest mountain to the paddocks bordering the road, and a scattering of waders on the exposed mud. The ubiquitous Oystercatchers were there, of course, but so too were Redshanks, Curlews and Whimbrels, the latter passing through on migration and providing a great opportunity to compare and contrast them with their larger relatives. Out at the mouth of the bay, a Red-throated Diver appeared and disappeared again and again. Walk up the hill out of the village, and you’ll find the Isle of Arran distillery. It’s also the best place to watch for Golden Eagles.
In summer, you can also reach Lochranza from Claonaig, on the mainland’s Kintyre peninsula, but part of its appeal is that it feels satisfyingly remote. We enjoyed another glorious meal, more banter over the single malts, and were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat as it rode at anchor.
It’s worth stressing again that the exact route taken by the boat can change at any time, to suit the weather and seas, but that’s part of this trip’s appeal. You sit back and let the superbly efficient and very friendly crew do the difficult part, and enjoy the wildlife, the scenery, the food and the sensation of stepping outside the rat-race.
If it’s hectic rarity-chasing you’re after, then you really need to look elsewhere – but if you’re looking for a genuine holiday, with some fine birding thrown in, then it’s hard to beat.