Monday 31 December 2012

Christmas in the Highlands 21st-28th December 2012

Friday the 21st December found myself and my wife heading for Glasgow with the Black Audi loaded to the roof with presents, food, and everything else that is required these days for a successful period away from home. I felt an unaccustomed freedom as for once we were staying in the UK so had no worries about the disgraceful money making opportunism of cheap airlines and their weight restrictions. In my case the most important items were my camera equipment, telescope, tripod, bins, suitable clothing and a large bottle of Old Pulteney whisky,' The Maritime Malt' as it says on the bottle. 

Christmas this year was going to be spent in an isolated cottage on the shores of a sea loch called Loch Sunart on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula not too far from Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland. I am from the highlands but on the eastern side of Scotland so this was going to be a new experience for all of us as we were also picking up my daughter Polly from Glasgow University, on the way through. 

Arriving in Glasgow we rendezvoused with Polly and headed quickly for the lively 'Stravaigin' pub/restaurant ( stravaigin is a Scots word meaning to wander aimlessly about) and many in Glasgow seem to do this naturally, usually under the influence of alcohol. Stravaigin is also where my daughter does part time waiting in between studies at the University. It was fairly swinging in a packed Stravaigin when we arrived with everyone seemingly celebrating the oncoming festivities and the long drive was soon forgotten as a few Deuchars (local beer) revived my spirits along with a great meal. 

The next morning we set off from Polly's flat, leaving a rainy Glasgow and a stop at a garage on the west side of Glasgow brought a first for me as I noted a cold fish finger baguette on offer as we filled up with diesel. Sheer class. It is less than a hundred miles to Fort William from Glasgow but once we had left the city behind and driven through water covered roads around Loch Lomondside it could be another world with mountains rising to the sky on all sides and bleak, windy, rainswept moors and deserted roads. We traversed the wilds of Rannoch Moor with the West Highland railway away to our right and descended through the oppressive and atmospheric Glen Coe, scene of an infamous incident in ancient Scots history when the Clan Campbell  returned the traditional hospitality of the resident Clan Macdonald by massacring them. My grandmother to her dying day maintained a distinct antipathy to anyone called Campbell. Such were the tribal or clan loyalties evident in this part of Scotland until comparatively recently. We pressed on down the glen into Fort William with our destination being the Corran Ferry a few miles west of Fort William. Here we could make the short ten minute ferry crossing with the car over Loch Linnhe to Ardgour in western Lochaber. We were now in Clan Cameron country.

Corran Ferry looking towards Ardgour
Then it was driving on single track roads until we got to Achleek cottage, our home for the next seven days, overlooking the tidal Loch Sunart. The Highlands of Scotland, especially in the west, is where the most dramatic scenery is found, with roaring, tumbling burns, lochs, miles of moorland and towering mountains often with snow covered peaks as far as one can see. The density of birds and animals is relatively low but those that are here are generally to be savoured and well worth the time, patience and effort it takes to find them. All this with very few people around, so when you find something it is a very personal affair and the memory becomes as permanent as the timeless contours of the mountains

I do not intend to go into the day by day detail of what we did but just concentrate on the highlights and boy was I in for a pleasant surprise but more of this later. The weather throughout was, as expected grim, with rain on all but one day but this is the West of Scotland and it always rains in winter and this winter as we all know is even worse than usual. Achleek cottage was roomy and yet cosy with an open log fire and a huge kitchen.We settled in.

View from Achleek cottage door

Achleek Cottage
I had a whisky, pulled up a chair by the fire and we were all set for Christmas apart from one required trip back into Fort William to collect the joint of beef and brace of pheasants ordered earlier by my wife from the local butcher. The less said about Fort William probably the better. The only thing in it's favour at this time of year was the towering presence of a snow covered Ben Nevis above it. Quite magnificent with other mountains disappearing into the distance behind it.

Ben Nevis with Fort William below
A grey town with a depressing air about it is maybe being unfair to Fort William but all of us felt better for leaving it. The early morning spell of shopping in Morrisons did not help the mood nor did the constant rain and low cloud and it was with relief we headed for the hills and our cottage. On the 23rd December I decided to take a short drive around the head of Loch Sunart to Strontian on the opposite side of the loch to our cottage and where the element Strontium, named after the town, was discovered.  

A pleasant surprise came immediately as I left the cottage, with a flock of around sixty Siskins feeding in alders by the lochside. The single track road follows the contours of the loch very close to the shore all the way round and is ideal for using the car to look for Otters. I was out of luck today and eventually arrived in Strontian and parked by a small area of saltmarsh to look at some Greylag geese. Yes, real wild ones, none of your Farmoor Reservoir, southern softie ferals here! There were also some Curlew and Oystercatchers fiddling about on the saltmarsh, the only resident waders at this time of year

Greylag Geese


Looking at them I became aware of some Mallard emerging from under a bank and dabbling in the flooded vegetation. One looked darker than the rest. I looked at it in the bins. For a moment I was flummoxed. What was it? A hybrid of some sort? Mallards are notorious for this after all but no this was not a Mallard pure or hybrid. It suddenly registered. This was an American Black Duck and a drake what's more. It was paired to a female Mallard and quite happily feeding and coming ever closer on the incoming tide. I did not shout expletives, I was not stunned or started shaking but quietly did a mental jig of joy and called my wife to share my excitement. I took images as fast as I could with the camera. I was aware of the problems and pitfalls of hybridisation with Mallards as the two species are so closely related but with no reference books or articles to help me just took as many images from as many angles as possible and made copious notes, all to be consulted later. I knew the speculum was an important feature but the duck was constantly feeding, mainly with its head under water and it looked unlikely to flap its wings. I waited almost two hours, which frankly was no hardship with such a rare bird in front of me, until finally it gave up feeding and started preening and I at last saw the crucial speculum.  Blue with no white on the inner side and only the thinnest of white lines on the trailing edge. It looked good, very good but I was still cautious. Now of course it was too dark to get an image of the speculum for future reference. Never mind. My day closed with the duck asleep and darkness descending at only four in the afternoon. I returned to the cottage and after some discussion with Angus at Birdline Scotland we agreed that it was a genuine, pure Black Duck and he would put the news out on Birdline Scotland. Reeeeeeeeeeesult. Christmas had now come early for me. I also noticed that there was a hybrid male Mallard with it which was also paired with a female Mallard, so presumably the Black Duck has been here for some time and has already bred.

Saltmarsh at Strontian favoured by the Black Duck

The drake Mallard top right is probably a hybrid
Mallard x Black Duck.The Black Duck is next to it
What a great start to the holiday. The next day I made the same drive around the loch, again looking for Otters and approaching Strontian found two Otters playing with a fish. It looked like they were a mother and a full grown cub.Of course they were in possibly the most difficult place to park a car on a single track road but eventually I found a passing place in which to leave the car, sneaked out of the car with the camera and got some images as they came out of the water and messed about on some seaweed covered rocks. Then back into the water they went and off out into the middle of the loch, fishing and playing. I moved on to try and see the Black Duck again but there was no sign of it or any Mallards. In fact I only subsequently saw it once more, on the day before we left, so my initial extended sighting was really lucky.

I cannot say that the birdlife or animal life was prolific at this time of year but the creatures I saw were of high quality and more importantly rarely seen in Oxfordshire so I was not complaining and let's face it a Black Duck and Otters in unbelievably beautiful and isolated surroundings was worth a thousand Fieldfares in vast, flat Oxfordshire fields or a Caspian Gull on a Didcot landfill site. After Christmas Day we made various family journeys to local sites of interest and always in sensational surroundings. We visited the ruined 13th century Castle Tioram at Dorlin on Loch Moidart, featured in the films Rob Roy and Highlander 3 and a walk around the deserted bay and out to the castle produced Common Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard and a nice flock of fifteen Rock Doves. By the way on the whole holiday we did not see one Woodpigeon. Who would have guessed that?

Castle Tioram 
We then drove on a seemingly endless but only twenty five mile long, winding, single track road right out to the very tip of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, the westernmost point of mainland UK. My daughter who is not really known for extreme sports apart from an interest in taxidermy and trapeze decided she wanted to swim from the westernmost point of mainland Britain. So in her underwear took to the sea scaring both a Great Northern Diver which surfaced nearby along with her amazed parents. It was zero degrees but she insisted and was in for about five minutes before admitting it was very, very cold. 

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Crazy daughter
Sensibly dressed wife with now very cold daughter
The efficient car heater thankfully rectified matters quickly and hypothermia was averted. Back at Achleek cottage we tried enticing Pine Martins to the cottage with the jam on bread routine but ended up with something much larger in the form of a Red Deer stag on the doorstep next morning, who promptly hoovered up all the bait, in between snacking on Holly. He was what is termed a Royal as he had twelve points on his antlers. The one to really get excited about is an Imperial which has fourteen points on its antlers but our friend with twelve was good enough for me

Looking for jam sandwiches which were on the doorstep

We heard the Pine Martins outside during the night but sadly never got to see them as we did not fancy sitting up all night. I also visited the eco-friendly Garbh Eilean bird hide at Ardery for an afternoon which provided welcome shelter from the incessant rain showers and allowed me to do some quiet bird watching and recover from the excesses of Christmas Day.

Garbh Eilean Hide

Sightings board at Garbh Eilean Hide
It is meant to be a good area for Otters but for the first hour there was no sign just ten or so Common Seals loafing on the seaweed covered rocks, numerous Grey Herons (there is a heronry on one of the islands just offshore) a Shag, a male Goldeneye and some Red breasted Mergansers. A distant and dark shape way out in the middle of the loch turned out to be a Great Northern Diver when viewed through the telescope. An hour passed. A Little Grebe surfaced amongst the seaweed. Then a dark head appeared well out in the loch. Common Seal again? I got the scope on it and it was the  long awaited for Otter. It was fishing and feeding constantly and coming closer to the shore all the time. It surfaced with a flounder, crunched it up with apparent relish whilst standing on a submerged rock and then slid effortlessly back into the water still slowly heading for the shore, fishing as it went. I last saw it right by the shore and then lost it in the onsetting gloom of rain and low cloud. I must have watched it for over thirty minutes all on my own before retreating home to an open fire and the warmth of the cottage. The one big regret was that due to the weather conditions we did not see any eagles until the last day, when on the drive out two White tailed Eagles gave us a brief glimpse by Loch Linnhe before they disappeared round a hill side never to be seen again. My wife is planning for us to go back in June and I will not be complaining. 


For interest I saw the following birds and mammals during our holiday

White tailed Eagle/ Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Common Raven/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jay/ Great Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Northern Diver/ Little Grebe/ Goosander/ Red breasted Merganser/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Eider Duck/ Common Goldeneye/ American Black Duck/ Mallard/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Eurasian Teal/ Oystercatcher/ Eurasian Curlew/ Ringed Plover/ Dipper/ Common Pheasant/ Red Grouse/ Grey Heron/ Cormorant/ Shag/ Rock Dove/ Common Starling/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Redwing/ Robin/ European Stonechat/ Dunnock/ Siskin/ Common Chaffinch/ House Sparrow/ Rock Pipit/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Long tailed Tit/ Wren/ Goldcrest

Common Seal
Red Deer

Monday 17 December 2012

Hornie in Suffolk 16th December 2012

A Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll has been residing for the last week or so on the shingle beach and surrounds at the southern side of the small town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. This, the larger of the two subspecies of Arctic Redpoll is also called Greenland Redpoll and in America it goes by the name Hoary Redpoll but to me Hornemann's sounds much more exotic. They are normally found in Canada and Greenland and rarely found in Britain, although this year one had been seen earlier in Norfolk but only stayed for a day. If they are found in the Britain it is usually in Shetland or some other distant and hard to reach location. They are also larger than any other species of  redpoll, incredibly attractive and charismatic, sometimes called 'snowballs' due to the large amount of white in their plumage. In the field they do indeed appear very pale. The other subspecies of Arctic Redpoll is called Coue's Arctic Redpoll and is much smaller but again very charismatic and with a similarly large amount of white in the plumage. They are seen slightly more often in Britain but are still rare and just as sought after by birders. I recall seeing one plus a Mealy Redpoll and a Lesser Redpoll, all in the same Alder tree, at Titchwell RSPB some years ago, which gave a really good opportunity to study the differences in the three species, Arctic, Mealy and Lesser, the latter being our native breeding species of redpoll. 

I had arranged with Badger to collect him from Kidlington at 9am on Sunday to drive to Aldeburgh to see the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll. The late start on Sunday was planned due to Badger having an appointment with large amounts of liquid refreshment on Saturday night. I was therefore hardly surprised  to get a text from him early on Saturday evening advising that Christmas shopping had to take precedence on Sunday along with an anticipated hangover and he would not be coming. Long drives can be lonely and sometimes I prefer it that way but this time I thought someone to chat to and share the experience would be the better option so I called Keith Clack. Clackers is always good company with no shortage of stories and reminiscences of past birding glories. So it was that I collected him from his home in Witney at 7am and we set off into the breaking dawn for the two hundred mile trip to the Suffolk coast. We exchanged stories about twitches past, present and yet to come. How appropriate for this time of year as I recalled 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens although Dicken's tale involved ghosts rather than birds. We also both agreed that for us, on twitches like this, it was as much about the adventure and thrill of disappearing to far flung places in the middle of the night at a moments notice, as that of actually seeing the bird. Kindred spirits indeed. 

We made really good time on comparatively empty roads and were in Aldeburgh by 9.30am. Aldeburgh is a pretty seaside town and has long ago cast off it's simple fishing origins to become a trendy place for media types and others who make lots of money in London. The last time I was here was to see an Ivory Gull at the end of 1999 which departed on the night of New Year's Eve 2000, sent on it's way by a fusillade of fireworks heralding the Millenium celebrations. 

However, going back even further into the mists of time Aldeburgh will always live in my memory as where I had the honour to sing, as a fourteen year old choirboy, in the world famous Aldeburgh Festival, in those days still held in the Church, and to meet the world renowned composer who founded the festival, Benjamin Britten. I also got to see and hear Bitterns for the first time as we were accommodated in a very grand house on Oulton Broad! 

After asking directions from a very nice, cheery lady on the north side of Aldeburgh we were directed to the location of the redpoll which turned out to be on the south side of the town near the Martello Tower, a local landmark. We drove through the pretty town centre and out towards the boatyards by the river mouth. The birders on the raised bank, silhouetted on the skyline, then  gave the game away. "Here we are Clackers. Let's go". We drove across an area of  waste ground weaving our way round numerous water filled potholes. The Audi was safely parked in a long line of birders cars and we got ourselves together. We left the scopes in the car as the redpoll could be approached to within a few feet. I just took bins and camera as did Clackers. We walked up the ramp onto the raised bank which was presumably a sea defence and commenced a short walk to join the group of birders looking intently down the landward side of the bank into the boatyard. 

When we got there we found the redpoll was feeding, at a little distance, on the ground in the boatyard with a Pied Wagtail for company. It's paleness was very apparent against the wet ground and even as we watched, it  flew much closer to us and settled on a fence post just at the bottom of the bank, showing itself in all it's glory.Whilst taking numerous images with my trusty Canon camera I noted how comparatively large it was and it's forked tail struck me as quite long. The head was a combination of grey and white with a gentle suffusion of buff and a splash of scarlet on the forecrown, set off by a small, buttercup yellow bill with black surrounds. Quite beautiful. The bill was tiny almost disappearing into the feathers and appearing disproportionately small in comparison to the head. The rest of the upperparts were a combination of dark grey and white streaks with two prominent pale wing bars. The underparts were snow white with just a few dark streaks on the flanks whilst the rump was pure, unsullied white and when the white feathers were fluffed up it did indeed appear like a miniature snowball. 

The arrival of this vision of beauty on the fence post prompted a staccato volley of continuous clicks as camera shutters went into fast mode and recorded the moment. I was in there with the best of them and obligingly the redpoll just sat  for some considerable time on the fence post as if to ensure everyone managed to get it's picture. Eventually it dropped to the ground in front of the fence just a few feet from it's assembled and may I say impeccably behaved audience. 

It set about demolishing the brown stems of some withered Yellow horned Poppy, extracting the small black seeds from within the opened stems. It's bill may appear to be small but it was quite a tool. It was surprisingly robust in splitting open the stems, twisting and tugging them with dexterity, pulling off the outer casing of the stem, tossing bits aside and creating an effect on the stem similar to that of a can being opened. We watched and we watched, just enjoying these precious moments. 

Clackers did a bit of hard core twitcher spotting,  informing me in hushed tones "That's Richard Bonsor over there with the furry boots. See that guy with the long hair? I don't know his name but he is a seriously keen twitcher". Refreshingly, there also appeared to be some normal human beings amongst us, even one young lad sketching the bird on an artist's notepad. A very rare sight these days. 

The redpoll would take short flights along the bank every so often to be followed by its admirers and re-located feeding on the poppy seeds. It showed virtually no alarm at the presence of so many birders and photographers looking down from almost point blank range. Indeed it's 'tameness' has been a notable feature of it's stay, as it was with the one in Norfolk. I do hope it's confiding nature and lack of fear will not be it's undoing. There has already been one close encounter with a Sparrowhawk but the continued presence of birders may be enough to deter that threat for the time being at least. 

So time passed and after an hour we decided to head off. It was just approaching 11am. "Just one last look Clackers?" I pleaded. 'OK by me, not  a problem' he replied. We took one last lingering look with the redpoll still hard at it in the middle of a tangle of poppy stems. We walked slowly back to the car noting a passing Red Throated Diver high over the cold, grey sea. "Fancy some breakfast?" 'Good idea. There must be somewhere in Aldeburgh'. There was. Munchies - where without fear of exaggeration I can say that the breakfast was one of the best I have had. No dissent from Clackers either. 

Happy Christmas everyone.