Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The Dove from Above 27th June 2016


I have already written a piece about the perilous position the Turtle Dove finds itself in with regard to its future existence so this is just recounting a pleasant hour or so that I spent this afternoon in the company of one particular Turtle Dove on Otmoor in Oxfordshire. Maybe it will turn out to be a requiem, hopefully not.

I walked slowly down the Roman Road, the trees and tall banks of vegetation on either side now at their zenith, enclosing and sheltering me in a narrow green aisle from the mild wind, creating a silence of warmth and tranquillity. The track was deserted this lunchtime and I was free to be alone with my thoughts and feelings, just sharing them with a myriad of insect life

Squadrons of young darter dragonflies flew from their sunning places on the flat white panicles of hogweed, held high on rigid corrugated green stalks above the tangles of bindweed and bramble, grasses and sedge. Damselflies, like blue needles hesitantly probing, attached themselves at right angles to slivers of grass.  Meadow Brown butterflies flounced low along the track, dodging amongst the grass and bindweed as Speckled Wood butterflies winked their cream spots at me, flexing their wings from leafy blackthorn stems in the welcoming sun. White bottomed, spherical bumblebees careened around, impatient and dissatisfied, seeming forever unable to find what they were seeking as more prosaic worker bees scrambled through the egg yolk yellow stamens of the white and pink dog roses that clustered in tumbled profusion down favoured hawthorn trees.

I turned onto the bridleway and the distant gentle purring of a Turtle Dove, the Turtle Dove came to me on the breeze, and in harmony now with the gentle slow rhythm of the reserve I walked to where I knew I would find him, perched at his favourite spot, on his favourite branch, in his favourite tree, a large Oak, just across from the bridleway.

Familiar now with the many visitors that pass close by along the bridleway he is content to remain on his branch, relaxed in the knowledge of the constancy of the situation, as safe and secure as any wild bird can be and certainly with nothing to fear from the attentions of any man while he chooses to live here among us until his departure in autumn.

He knows nothing of the dire circumstances of his species and continues his being as all others of his kind have done before, instinctively enacting the inexorable cycle of life, innocent of the ever multiplying pressures ranged against him and his species.

I see him every time I come here at this time of  year, almost coming to be regarded as a distant friend, his presence familiar and re-assuring, hearing before I see him. With nothing else to distract me I stopped this time just to look and share an hour,  joining him in the solitary quiet of the early afternoon. He was busy preening but would stop occasionally to produce from a swelling breast, short bouts of purring,  the monotonous but soothing whirring of notes that is the signal to others of his kind that it is he that occupies this particular stretch of trees and bushes. 



Whilst preening he contorted into less familiar shapes, fanning his tail, its underside a shock of black and white, loosening his body feathers so he appeared enlarged and dishevelled and burying his head deep into the underdown of his main feathers. 






Always at the back of my mind was the lurking, unwelcome knowledge that I was in the close company of a bird seemingly doomed to disaster, possibly eventual extinction, symptomatic of the wider world and the slow environmental decline we are sinking ever more deeply into. It is a time of great uncertainty in Britain and in the world and it is hard not to be depressed as men's egotistical greed, ambition and intolerance seems to know no reason or morality both in this country and further afield. 


The dove's unheeding ignorance of my anxieties was almost a benediction, and rallying from moroseness I just stood and enjoyed the spectacle of watching a beautiful creature going about its natural existence. 

The preening took on a renewed vigour after another brief song period and then, satisfied he turned on his perch, sank his head into his breast and embarked on a period of quiet contemplation as did I.


The sun shone white through a jigsaw of gaps in the oak tree's limbs and dappled green leaves, and the warm wind whispered and sighed through the reeds and willows below. He felt secure perched above me and renewed preening as another feathered aggravation prompted him to sort through some feathers. A flurry of feathers as he shook them and a couple of inconsequential scraps of  white down drifted away on the wind. 


He was content now and sleeked down his plumage and took on the more usual image of his kind. Shaded and secure on his branch, I left him and walked back along the sunlit track to the car park and into a human existence once again.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

What's this? 26th June 2016




This week my wife has been participating in a small exhibition of paintings and jewellery at a farmhouse near Swerford in Oxfordshire. A couple of evenings ago she arrived home to show me a picture on her i-phone and asking 'Do you know what this is? It was in one of the bushes in the garden where the exhibition is being held'


I had a look and was pleasantly surprised to see that there before me was the unmistakeable image of a Puss Moth caterpillar. Without much persuading I suggested I would come over tomorrow and have a look for myself as I had not seen a Puss Moth caterpillar in years.

Adult Puss Moths have a beautiful grey and white marbled appearance and are so called because of the furry coating over their head, body and legs

The next afternoon I went over to the farmhouse and surveyed the bush which was in fact a heavily pruned willow no more than five feet high. 

The Willow bush harbouring at least five Puss Moth caterpillars
At first I could see nothing but as is usual in such cases it took a little while to get my eye attuned and then as if by magic I found one of the beautifully camouflaged caterpillars and then another and in the end there were five on just this small bush of willow.







Puss Moth caterpillars or larvae if you wish to be pedantic are arguably one of the strangest, quirky and most striking of all moth or butterfly larvae, with what appears to be a large square head and two prominent spikes at the rear of the body. Prod the caterpillar and two fine red threads, called flagellae come out of the ends of the grey and black spikes whilst the front end of the caterpillar convulses so the head is raised, pointed towards you and at the same time drawn back into the thorax . The head when withdrawn is surrounded by a pinkish red square with two prominent black false eyes meant to add to the deterrent effect.

If all this is not enough of a deterrent the caterpillar, as a last resort is also capable of squirting formic acid from its thorax. Not enough to harm a human but probably enough to get into and irritate the eyes of a smaller predator such as a bird or rodent.

The larvae emerges from the egg as a tiny black caterpillar and then goes through several stages known as instars where it gradually grows until it becomes green with a prominent black saddle over its back. The two whip like grey and black spikes at the rear are really modified claspers and when threatened the caterpillar spins a fine red thread from each spike and waves them around to enhance its fierce appearance. 


When it is ready to pupate the caterpillar turns orange and then purple, before spinning a cocoon of silk and camouflaging this with bits of bark. The cocooon is one of the strongest of any moth in Britain and the adult moth will emerge next Spring to complete the life cycle

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Handa for Skuas 18 June 2016



Having realised my long held desire to visit Brownsea Island in Dorset this month I now travelled to the other end of Britain to satisfy yet another long held wish, namely to visit Handa Island off the north west coast of Sutherland in Scotland. A very different prospect to Brownsea Island.

Handa Island is owned by the Scourie Estate and is managed by one warden and a number of volunteers employed by The Scottish Wildlife Trust and is 1.19 sq miles in size and rises to 404ft at its highest point. The island is composed of Torridonian Red Sandstone which is over one million years old and has cliffs in the north and west of the island providing superb panoramas of the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding islands and mountains. The cliffs are covered with nesting seabirds at this time of year providing  a truly magnificent spectacle and the Great Stack of Handa, a huge tower of Torridonian sandstone is located here, slightly set apart from the island and holding an incredible density of seabirds. A 5.5 km circular boardwalk runs round the island and visitors are requested to remain on it to avoid disturbance to ground nesting birds such as Arctic and Great Skuas. Nearly 100,000 seabirds breed here, including internationally important numbers of Guillemots (52,000 on the last census in 2010), Razorbills, Arctic and Great Skuas with smaller numbers of Puffins (250 pairs in 2010), Fulmars and Kittiwakes. The island is now uninhabited although there is still evidence of an almost invisible graveyard if you look carefully and there are still the ruins of a small village which was inhabited until 1847 when potato famine resulted in the remaining sixty or so  residents from eight families being forced to move to Nova Scotia. The islanders had a parliament similar to St Kilda which met daily and the oldest widow on the island was considered its Queen. 

Being so remote a location, Handa required some planning and logistics in order to get to it. I planned to drive from my home in Kingham to Ullapool on Friday 17th June, visit Handa on Saturday 18th and return south on 19th June. I booked myself into The Caledonian Hotel at Ullapool for the two nights I would be away.


At 3.30 am on Friday I left Kingham and made steady progress up the motorways through the centre of England until I made a stop at Tebay Services just south of Carlisle. A cup of tea and a snooze in the deserted and restful lounge area of the services prepared  me for my onward journey into Scotland. Tebay Services is very different to any other Motorway Services in that it is situated off the Motorway and there is none of the accustomed dross such as game machines, fast food outlets and general tat that you are normally assaulted by on visiting most Motorway Services. Here much of the food is organic and a well stocked retail area sells a wide variety of  local produce including I am proud to say my cousin's Cumberland Mustard.The seating area is comfortable and tasteful so you can truly relax and the wide panoramic windows provide a scenic vista over the surrounding fells.

I was currently half way through my journey and it was still only 7.30am. Resting in a comfortable chair in the services I decided that instead of making straight for Ullapool I would first head for the RSPB's reserve at Loch of Strathbeg just north of Fraserburgh which is on the northeast coast of Scotland. This would mean adding at least a hundred miles to my journey but a pair of breeding Little Gulls at the reserve, the first ever breeding record of these gulls for Scotland and only the seventh for the UK was in my opinion well worth making the extra effort.The last pair of Little Gulls to attempt to breed in the UK was in Norfolk back in 2007.


I passed Glasgow just after nine and called my daughter who lives in Glasgow and was travelling by car to Orkney this same day and we arranged to meet in Dingwall just beyond Inverness that evening as here the road divides, going west to Ullapool and north east to Caithness from where the ferry departs to Orkney. The weather just after Glasgow started to turn for the worse and by Dundee it was raining hard and a strong wind had developed. The further I went the worse it got and by the time I reached the Loch of Strathbeg it was a full on storm of rain and wind. Undaunted I drove the faithfull Audi through a mass of potholed water on the approach track to the reserve and pulled up outside the reception area. Needless to say there was no one around in these conditions and all the doors were firmly locked. I investigated around the side and found an unlocked door and entering came across  a rather startled young lady inside. I asked about the gulls and she donned a pair of wellingtons and showed me to a nearby screen through which I could view a scrape and on which she told me the Little Gulls were breeding but had hardly been seen today. She then left me to it and retreated to the sanctuary of her office.The wind was blowing hard now and the rain constant and I stuck at it but all there was to see were the Common Terns and a few Black headed Gulls nesting on the scrape. Of the Little Gulls there was no sign but the lady had assured me they really were there but were hunkered down in the grass avoiding the foul conditions. I hung on relishing the fact I was actually standing vertically and not in a car endlessly driving and after twenty minutes I noticed a small gull standing with some Common Terns in a loafing area adjacent to the scrape. It had its back to me but it was clearly an adult Little Gull and as if to confirm my identification it lifted delicately into the wind, showing its pale grey and white wing tips and small size, flew to the scrape and hovered over the long grass presumably above where its mate was sitting on a nest. 


Little Gull with Common Tern
Little Gull
Having achieved a sighting of the Little Gull and realising this was the best I was likely to get in these conditions I checked the nearby feeders under some trees and found half a dozen soggy Tree Sparrows as the rain commenced to ease. I still had a hundred and fifty miles to go, so set off once again heading for Dingwall and a rendezvous with my daughter. Although the rain was easing, the downpour resulted in badly flooded roads and on one stretch the road was almost impassable with police directing traffic through the shallowest part of the flood despite one car already being stranded in the waters. I and the Audi survived this crisis and then it was onwards to Inverness and then a short drive northwards to Dingwall.

The rendezvous worked perfectly and I spent a pleasant hour with my daughter catching up on matters in the bar of a local hotel before we parted and I headed off into a now calm and sunny evening to complete the last sixty miles to Ullapool.


I reached Ullapool at around 9pm, 644 miles from Kingham. The hotel was easy enough to find as Ullapool is not that big a place but my heart sank when I entered its doors. Usually I check Trip Advisor before booking such places but for some reason I had failed to do so this time and of course regretted the fact.  It was an outstanding example of an establishment that was an affront to the barest minimum that is required in accommodation and it was not as if it was inexpensive. The staff were fine and friendly and did their best but they could not compensate for the fact that a complete makeover of the hotel was long overdue. Shabby, second rate, dirty and soulless it was the last thing I needed after my marathon journey but I had paid in advance so I was stuck with it. 


My laughably described 'double room' was just about big enough to accommodate one person, the TV did not work and I am being charitable when I describe the bathroom as grubby. The piece of knotted string to operate the light switch in the bathroom was a  unique experience as was the large chip out of the enamel in the bath.


I was however very tired so decided bed  was the best option after administering a whisky from one of two miniature bottles of malt that I had brought with me, a present from Clackers on Thursday last, following his visit to Scotland. I was determined that this dump would not receive one penny more than the cost of the room.

Tomorrow however, there was the promise of a visit to Handa Island and with that in mind I banished all thoughts of burning the hotel down and went to bed. I just hoped the weather, always capricious in Scotland would not let me down.

I awoke early and determined to get out of the hotel as quickly as possible. I packed everything for my trip and was soon on the road out of Ullapool heading for the tiny hamlet of Tarbet where the ferry left for the ten minute crossing to Handa Island. The weather, in complete contrast to yesterday was now calm with little wind and light, rain free skies. The road was deserted at this early hour and I stopped at various locations just to stand in the still air, listen to the silence and look at the mountains. No traffic, no unnatural noise just a Whinchat singing far out on the moorland and a distant Cuckoo calling before lapsing into silence. The huge panorama around me of distant mountains rising blue and grey and indistinct in the early morning light, the moorland now full of flowers and the richness of a Spring that comes later in these parts, banished all  memories of the hotel. The road wound onwards, twisting, rising, falling, past deep lochs and dark pools filled with water lilies and green spiky reeds. The roadside was periodically enlivened by great sweeps of  Gorse flowers, a rich butter golden glow shimmering up the roadside embankments.




After an hour I came to the sign for Tarbet and turned left onto a tiny road just wide enough for one car but with frequent passing places should a vehicle come the other way. I progressed up and down a switchback of blind summits with grasses brushing the car and a constant panoramic backdrop of huge mountains and wide sweeps of moorland. After three miles the road dropped steeply down to the shore and an area in which to park a few cars. I had arrived. This was the hamlet of Tarbet. The small Shorehouse Restaurant, specialising in seafood and once visited by Rick Stein who gave it a good review on account it was so hard to get to, stood guard over the slipway for the ferry, a tiny adjacent beach and a small wooden hut festooned with posters indicating that this was where the ferry departed. The first ferry was at 9.30am so I had an hour to wait. This was no hardship as I could look out into the bay and watch Arctic Terns fishing. A Grey Seal was asleep on a rock and a distant Great Northern Diver was floating on the sea. Shags came and went and the sea lapped gently on the stony shore.


The bay and slipway at Tarbet
A movement on the beach caught my eye and I found a recently fledged Northern Wheatear bounding from stone to stone. Its male parent fed it occasionally and I found its siblings scattered further round and about the beach. A pair of Common Sandpipers, nervously teetered on the shoreline and a juvenile Ringed Plover flew in to potter around the rocks, seaweed and sand. House Sparrows were also a surprise in such a remote area.


Juvenile Northern Wheatear
Male Northern Wheatear
Juvenile Ringed Plover
The ferryman arrived and I gave him the £12.50 return fare and we chatted for a while and he gave me some background information about the ferry and how it operated. We would be taken over in a RIB and picked up from Handa Island on an ad hoc basis.

The RIB that would take me to Handa Island
The last ferry trip back from Handa was at 4.45pm so this would give me a long time on the island to walk around, explore and just enjoy the spectacle. My concerns about the weather were dispelled, for as we spoke the sun came through and the whole area was transformed from beautiful to exquisitely so. The sea took on hues of blue that are beyond description and far off the two hundred foot high pillar of rock called The  Old Man of Stoer stood in splendid isolated silhouette against a haze blue sky


The Old Man of Stoer
We could see the beach on Handa where we would land from the slipway at  Tarbet and it too took on a shining white aura as the emerging sun caught the millions of grains of sand.

Initially there was only two of us going across, both of us birders with cameras but then a party of French tourists arrived so we now had a boatful but as far as I could see we two were the only serious birders. We were met on the beach at Handa by the warden who guided us up the beach and through the dunes to a stone bothy where he gave a short talk about what and what not to do, and a map showing where to go and what to see. The bothy contained various curios such as a collection of skulls, bones and wings laid out on a table and including an Otter's skull while outside they even had part of a whale's skull.

Landing on Handa Island


The SWT bothy with whale skull and bones on show!
Ten minutes of talk and then we were free to go. I could hardly wait and set off up the indicated hill track with my fellow birder to hopefully find some  skuas. Five Greylag Geese flew across as we headed up the track and on reaching the brow of the incline I could see below me a large expanse of grassy, boggy heath with areas of stunted bushes, sweeping down to the sea and a number of dark morph Arctic Skuas either standing sentinel on various rocks and mounds or flying about high above us in the increasingly blue sky.

Heathland where many Arctic Skuas were breeding
The Boardwalk across the Heath
One good reason for remaining in the EC

Dark morph Arctic Skua
In Spring I have seen thousands of migrating Arctic Skuas on seawatches from the coast of Sussex that pass by unstopping and are gone in moments but what I was now seeing was unique for me in that I was now viewing Arctic Skuas no longer migrating but on their breeding grounds, perched on rocks, sat on nests or just flying around in great random circles above me. A pair of dark morph Arctic Skuas were nesting close by on the heath with one bird sat on its nest and the other standing guard nearby on a rock. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant, as I could just sit and look at them to my heart's content, for unlike on a seawatch these remained and did not just fly by never to be seen again


We eventually moved on and came to  another location where the circular boardwalk split so you could choose to go either one way or the other but ultimately, whichever way you went would arrive back at this point. Up to now I had only seen dark morph Arctics but here were a pair of very smart pale morph Arctic Skuas, possibly one of my all time favourite birds. They were nesting close to the boardwalk and did not hesitate in letting us know the fact by dive bombing us in no uncertain fashion. To have a pair of Arctic Skuas coming at you at eye level and hovering inches above your head was another unique, unnerving and unforgettable experience. The pair would sweep in a wide arc out across the heathland and then level up for an assault, coming at you at great speed and calling with a cry similar to a large gull, something else unique for me as I have never heard an Arctic Skua call before.








Pale morph Arctic Skuas
As we watched the skuas a female Red Grouse appeared on the boardwalk in front of us with two chicks and there then followed a confrontation between one of the skuas and the adult grouse. I am sure an Arctic Skua would not be adverse to a meal of grouse chick but these were maybe too large now but the female Red Grouse was not to know this and threatened the skua in a display of defiance.The skua uncertain of what to do stood with wings raised ready for flight and eventually gave up and flew away.

Female Red Grouse
Red Grouse chick


Red Grouse and Arctic Skua confrontation
We walked onwards and upwards and this in turn levelled out onto another grassy boggy plateau. Now it was the Great Skua's turn to attract our attention and one stood on a rise very close to us. They definitely occupied the higher ground with the Arctic Skuas nesting on the lower slopes and everywhere you looked a Great Skua would be perched on an elevated mound enabling it to survey anything and everything below and around it.


Their popular name, now widely used by birders is Bonxie which originates from Shetland and somehow seems to perfectly fit the bird's appearance and character.

They are huge, solid birds when seen close, their substantial bodies almost out of proportion to their heads. The hooked bill is formidable and they have an aura of invincibility and slight menace about them. This particular bird went into some sort of display, lowering its head, calling loudly and raising its wings in response to either us or another passing Great Skua.






Great Skua or Bonxie
A pair of Red throated Divers flew over us flying in close formation and calling before dropping below the skyline. The sky was full of skuas, both Arctic and Great, wheeling about in loose pairs in the case of the Arctics or just individually stooging about in the case of the Great Skuas. The difference in profile was marked with the Arctic Skuas, lithe, long winged and flying with an easy grace their protruding rapier pointed central tail feathers adding to their elegance whilst the Bonxies, barrel bodied, broad winged and less agile almost seemed to lumber around the sky in comparison. I always regard the Arctics as falcons of the sea, fighter jet fast whilst the Bonxies are more bomber material, steady and remorseless.

Arctic Skua
Great Skua
We were still heading steadily uphill for the cliffs and the seabird spectacle but before we got there another pair of dark morph Arctic Skuas dive bombed us in protest at our presence with one of the birds settling right by the boardwalk and giving us some great photo opportunities.








Dark morph Arctic Skua
Dark morph Arctic Skuas are more likely to be found breeding in the south of their range whilst the pale morph increase further north and certainly on Handa this was borne out as dark morph birds were definitely in the majority.


After we were out of range of the skua's attacks it was fun to sit and wait for other visitors to come along the boardwalk and see their reaction as the skuas dived on them.


We reached the cliffs and looked over at a spectacle that can never cease to thrill and astound.The sheer noise, constant bird activity and dizzying height sends a tingle like a spike of electricity through you. There, below us, were countless Guillemots, perching on what appeared to be inadequate and perilous ledges where they were incubating eggs and would raise their young whilst others were dotted in flotillas of brown and white on the deep blue sea just offshore. Birds were flying to and fro from the cliffs constantly, creating a never ending, ceaselessly changing picture.

The Cliff edge at Puffin Bay




Guillemots
Razorbills kept slightly apart from the clusters and lines of massed Guillemots, finding their own bit of ledge and looking ever so smart in their black and white plumage and with white pencilled lines on their bills. Fulmars rode the rising air currents, floating effortlessly on stiff wings and fanned tails, up and down, rising and falling hundreds of feet in seconds whilst other pairs sat on grass tussocks and cackled at each other in some form of courtship.

Razorbill

Fulmar Petrels
Harder to see were the Puffins which stood on the lower ledges outside their burrows, looking up and around like stout old gentlemen as if surveying with distaste all this commotion from their noisy neighbours. I find them so endearing as they gently nibble each other strengthening the pair bond.


Puffins
We just sat here on the cliff edge's short turf, amongst the pink drifts of Thrift, enjoying this spectacle. The weather was glorious, unceasing sun, blue sky and sea of various shades all around. Skuas above us and countless seabirds below us, the distant Summer Isles and mountains on the mainland forming an uneven frieze of blue in the distance. Who could not feel enthused and overjoyed by this?

A small loch called Swaabie Loch off to the right of us was obviously the place for the Great Skuas to come to drink and bathe and a constant procession of these great birds would come and go from here. The birds on the water would beat their wings and duck their heads as they threw the water over themselves and then fly to the shore to sort out their feathers before flying off. There must be quite a population of Great Skuas on Handa as the loch was constantly receiving skua after skua.

Swaabie Loch and bathing Great Skuas
A Red throated Diver also swam on the loch keeping discreetly away from the bathing skuas and I suspect that it was breeding on the loch and its mate and nest were hidden by the water's edge. Maybe it was one of the pair we saw flying over earlier.

The island was a patchwork of various greens and emerging bright green fern fronds peeped through the boardwalk while the heathland was liberally sprinkled with white cotton grass, huge swathes of it covering large areas interspersed with patches of bright yellow flowers and livid purple heather and I found a few Heath Spotted Orchids growing in the grass by the sides of the boardwalk. By the cliff edge mounds of Thrift, bosomy pink in both form and colour spilled down like errant blancmanges to the ledges below adding splashes of colour to the sombre cliff faces.





Thrift
Common Cotton Grass
Bell Heather
Heath Spotted Orchid
We spent quite some time here just enjoying our surroundings but then I left my new found birding companion and moved further uphill and along the cliff edge, coming to the Great Stack of Handa. It was first climbed from sea level in 1969 and to this date less people have been on the top of it than on the Moon! What an impressive sight, as it was literally festooned with Guillemots on virtually every ledge, nook, cranny and crevice possible. Countless birds, crammed shoulder to shoulder, some in long lines facing into the cliff, others with more space sat sideways or facing outwards whilst others sat more comfortably on flat surfaces and slept in the sun



The Great Stack of Handa


Guillemots on The Great Stack of  Handa
Some of the Guillemots were of the bridled form looking like they had white, wire rimmed spectacles around their eyes, a plumage feature in Guillemots that is more prevalent the further north you go. I sat again, taken aback and reduced to sheer mouth gaping awe at the sight before me. The Great Stack of Handa is impressive just as a topographical feature but with all the birds currently treating it as home it is just mind blowing. Kittiwakes were also breeding here and their cries came from below bouncing off the sheer cliff faces and echoing upwards. A Wren's loud song was amplified even more as it came from deep in a  gloomy fissure in the ancient cliff wall far below me and a Raven was up to no good amongst the colony, no doubt looking for eggs or young to feed its young which were somewhere in a nest nearby. Some of the Guillemots were spattered with droppings from their neighbours on the ledges above and doubtless when they returned to sea would wash and preen off the mess. I sat amongst the pink thrift and white fluffy heads of cotton grass silently watching this constant turmoil of teeming abundance. Occasionally a strong whiff of gauno and stale fish would come on the air but failed to deter me from remaining as long as I could. The rest of the island is less of a bird spectacle but I was  determined to walk the entire circumference of the island which in itself was a not unpleasant prospect on such a wonderful day, as wherever you looked the views made your heart sing








Views on Handa Island
Northern Wheatears bounced from rocks and fence posts, their white rumps betraying them as they flitted about collecting food for their young. All seemed to have recently fledged young and I encountered quite a few newly fledged birds on the grassy paths and boardwalk, yet to learn to be apprehensive about close proximity to humans

Male Northern Wheatear
Female Northern Wheatear

Juvenile Northern Wheatear
Meadow Pipits also had young, the adults alarm calls, not dissimilar to the sound a cricket or grasshopper makes, coming to me regularly as I passed through their territories. Skylarks sang overhead and a pair of Twite flew high above and along the cliff edge

Meadow Pipit
Skylark
I took another break, sitting on an orange lichened rock, removing more clothing as the sun was so hot and took a long cool drink of water. My companion caught up with me and we slowly made our way back towards the warden's bothy. A Common Snipe, which breed here, rose before us and quickly dropped further into the grass and overhead the distinctive rattling trills of Lesser Redpolls came from the sky. We passed a pair of Oystercatchers, their frantic cries and harrassed demeanour betraying the fact they had young hidden in the rocks by the shore at the appropriately named Boulder Bay. Arctic Terns flew over a small shell sand beach turned white in the sun glare and two female Eiders shepherded their young through the brown slimy seaweeded rocks.

Oystercatcher
We came back full circle to where we had first encountered the pair of pale morph Arctic Skuas and were treated once again to an aerial attack but after a while the skuas accepted we were not a threat and settled to await the next unwitting victims to come along the boardwalk.

My birder colleague under skua attack
Two more visitors get the skua experience



Pale morph Arctic Skuas
Passing the ruined buildings of the long abandoned village a dark morph Arctic Skua swept past us and dropped out of the sky to land on a rock. A Common Snipe flew up from just below it and the skua dived into the grass and seized a snipe chick which it carried off in its bill. It was over in seconds.

The ruins of the Village abandoned in 1847

That was the final act in my visit to Handa Island, an experience like no other, aided by unbelievably good weather. It was as Lou Reed once sang 'Just a perfect day'

We returned through the dunes to the beach and awaited the arrival of the ferry, sitting with some fellow visitors in the shade of the rocks, warmed by the sun and looking out on the shining white sand and the azure sea beyond.

The beach at Handa Island
The ferry on its way to take us back to Tarbet
Back at Tarbet I treated myself to a Dark Island Beer and a slice of cake, sitting on the verandah of The Shorehouse and basking in the sun, totally content and wishing this day would never end.

Finally I stirred myself and headed off back down the sunlit roads to Ullapool. The late afternoon sun seemed to impart another different kind of majesty to the mountains, different probably because of the light being so much stronger to that of this morning. Deep mysterious shadows appeared high up on the mountain tops, giving the mountains another dimension and allowing my mind to indulge in fantasy and imagination about what strange things might happen there in those dark shadows rarely visited by human souls.

The road wound on towards Ullapool and reluctant to spend any more time  than was necessary in the vile hotel I dawdled physically and mentally, stopping frequently to admire a loch or just sit and contemplate the view, allowing my mind to go into a freespin of random thoughts and recollections, past, present and future.

The single track road from Tarbet to the junction of the road to Ullapool

Scenes from the road to Ullapool
I got to Ullapool around eight in the evening and buying some fish and chips ate them al fresco as I wandered around admiring the trawlers and fishing boats moored in the flat calm waters of the harbour and wondering at the rusting machinery and ships and how hard the life must be of the men that man these boats at sea in all weathers.

Ullapool Harbour
I was in bed by nine and planned to leave for the south at seven the next morning. Nothing could devalue the huge triumph of today and my visit to Handa Island and I was soon asleep.I slept soundly and next morning was out of the hotel and on the deserted road to Inverness by seven thirty. Quite a contrast in the weather greeted me as the sun was now obliterated by grey cloud but there was still hardly any wind.

Just out of Ullapool and passing through a wooded stretch, a brown furry animal with cream underparts crossed the empty road, slightly bigger than a ferret it was none other than a Pine Marten. I was to see another much later, crossing the busy A9 and just avoiding being run over by a tour bus. My plan was to head south but make a detour to Musselburgh, which lies just on the other side of Edinburgh, to try and see a female King Eider that was associating with the regular Common Eider flock where the River Esk, flowing out of the town, joins the Firth of Forth.

The dreaded average speed checks on the A9 seemed to go on forever and I trailed along in lines of traffic for the whole one hundred miles but eventually the torment was over and I was then in the traffic hell of the City Ring Road around Edinburgh. Soon though I turned off onto quieter roads and came to Musselburgh, a pleasant enough little town and almost a suburb now of Edinburgh. I drove to the river mouth and parked next to it before walking the few feet over to the sea wall and scoping the Common Eiders either floating asleep just offshore or sitting on a small, half submerged wall jutting out a short way into the sea from the river mouth. Initially I could see no sign of the female King Eider amongst the flock which was comprised of mainly males that were already beginning to moult but closer scrutiny of the sleeping females in the flock revealed one that was slightly smaller and a different tone and pattern of brown and this proved to be the female King Eider. Also with the resting eiders on the wall were a good number of Goosanders, thirty six in total and all females or immature birds, not a male was to be seen.

The River Esk flowing into the Firth of Forth
Goosanders
I wanted to get closer to the King Eider to try and get a photograph but this necessitated getting on the other side of the river so I back tracked to the nearest bridge which was not too far and leaving the car in a side road walked up the other side of the river through some parkland and back to the river's mouth. This time I was much closer to the eider flock and stood on the beach, waiting sometime for the King Eider to stop sleeping and in the end got my images as well as some of the male Common Eiders on the wall.

Female King Eider
Female King Eider (right) with female Common Eiders
Female Common Eider


Male Common Eiders
It was very mild but getting increasingly dull and I felt rain was on the way so commenced walking slowly back by the side of the river to the car. A couple of female Common Eiders were guarding their young and fishing in the river and on getting to the bridge, as I crossed the river I looked down on a stony spit below and was amazed to see a female Goosander fast asleep with an impossibly large number, eighteen in all, of well grown young all huddled together and asleep, in two groups.They could not have been all hers as there was just too many but there was not a sign of another female unless it was one of those I had seen at the river mouth. This seemed to be a favourite spot for mother ducks and young, an al fresco duck nursery if you like as there was another Common Eider with her young as well as a Mallard with her young. I got to the end of the bridge and it duly commenced to rain.

Female Goosander and eighteen young Goosanders!
Female Mallard with two young Mallards

The rain persisted all the way from Edinburgh to Kingham which most of me reached some six hours later.The rest is still to catch up!