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