Saturday 2 March 2013

Highland Harlequin 23rd-25th February 2013

Paul rang me on the 18th February to advise that an immature drake Harlequin Duck had been found on the sea off Balranald Reserve on North Uist. We both secretly hoped it would fly away as we had both just returned from separate trips to Shetland to see a Pine Grosbeak and had no wish to renew our acquaintance with any motorways going north. Tuesday came and it was still there. Wednesday also. By Thursday our anxiety levels had approached overload. 'Please little duck fly away and solve our dilemna'. Friday it was still there and a short phone conversation resulted in myself and Paul leaving Oxford at nine that night to make the long haul journey by car and ferry to North Uist. 

The mesmeric white lines of the carriageway lanes and red tail lights of other vehicles were all too familiar as we sped northwards in the night. Neither of us could have managed the journey on our own non stop but by alternating the driving one of us could sleep whilst the other drove and we made very good time. Driving through the night you are unaware of the changing landscape around you and it is always a surprise when dawn breaks in Scotland to find how very different it is to sedate Oxfordshire. Seven am and well north of the border we were confronted by an inhospitable but beautiful scenery of snow covered mountains, frozen lochs and wild rugged moorland. 

The desolate road wound ever onwards towards the Isle of Skye with us making our first stop at a lonely loch to view fifteen Whooper Swans. We carried on, crossing the road bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh  to Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. Another stop found us at Broadford and in a roadside cafe, mixing it with lurid jacketed road maintainers and early morning delivery drivers, and there we got a bacon roll and an extremely good cup of tea served by two very amenable eastern European ladies. Then onwards towards Portree, where just south of there, we made another stop at the Aros Centre, a cultural and natural history focal point for the Isle of Skye and which had a tremendous elevated view over Portree Bay and Loch Portree beyond. I had been informed this was a good point to look for White tailed Eagles. It did after all have a huge ornamental eagle guarding the entrance to the car park and even an exhibit of the eagles inside. 

Disappointingly the man on the reception desk advised that we had little chance of seeing any White tailed Eagles here as the overcast and damp weather meant they would not be flying around and they were not really in this part of the island anyway, but he did direct us northwards which is where we were going, and where he said we had a good chance of seeing Golden Eagles. Undeterred by this set back I got the scope out to check the waders feeding in Portree Bay. They were mainly Curlew and Bar tailed Godwits. I then scanned the snowy, mountainous cliff sides beyond the bay. The man on reception had said there was little chance of eagles. 

'What's this then?' 

Two distinct lumps were visible on top of the highest plateau of the cliff to my left. Surely they were two eagles, perched? 

'Paul, either I am a Dutchman or I espy two eagles yonder. Have a look though my scope'

Paul looked. 

'Indeed, I can say categorically you are not Ewan van Two Eyes, they are definitely eagles'. 

White tailed Eagle site- top left
We watched the two White tailed Eagles doing what eagles mainly do which is nothing much apart from the occasional turn of their heads. We admired their huge yellow bills, pale brown plumage and white tails. A Raven tried to tweak their tails but thought better of it. A flock of Rock Doves careered around the cliff face. Half an hour passed in the blink of an eagle's eye. 

We set off north towards our destination which was Uig where the Calmac car ferry sailed for Lochmaddy on North Uist. The ferry did not sail until 2pm so we had hours yet and after traversing the cloud shrouded Cuillins and then coming into sunshine, we arrived in Uig around eleven o clock and parked near the terminal. I scanned the cliffs looking over the sea. At the highest point two lumps manifested themselves. Surely not?  But yes, there were two more eagles. Golden Eagles this time and relatively close, giving great views. One soon took off and sailed over our heads, it's golden head shining in the sunlight but the other remained perched for a good hour before it too took to the wing and soared upwards and over the sea to the other side of Uig Bay. 

Golden Eagle site at Uig

Golden Eagle courtesy of Paul

Uig Bay
We checked in at the ferry terminal. Paul decided to grab some sleep while I unsuccessfully went looking for Otters in the bay but found some Eiders, Black Guillemots and a Great Northern Diver by way of compensation. We were first in line to board the ferry due to our early arrival, which meant we would be in pole position for leaving the ferry at Lochmaddy. By the time it came to board, there was quite a queue of cars and heavy lorries behind us. 

MV Finlaggan
Once we were on board we relaxed in one of the ship's lounges for the two hour crossing which was to be through breathtaking scenery. Another group of birders vaguely known to Paul joined us. They looked in a terrible state and it transpired they had made a navigational error at Fort William and ended up at Mallaig some eighty miles in the wrong direction. It was only by some frenetic driving that they had made the ferry and the strain showed. If they missed this ferry they would have to wait until the next day as there is only one sailing per day. It did not bear contemplating. They made it with about a minute to spare but it cost them in equanimity but eventually they calmed down enough to hold a sensible conversation with us. 

We intended to push our luck and try and see the Harlequin Duck that evening when we left the ferry although it would be tight as the ferry did not dock until four pm and we could not be certain of the light. Paul had called the warden of Balranald, a friend of a friend and we had got specific instructions from him as to the location of the duck, which was frequenting the sea off the northwest dunes at Balranald. Crucially he had given us permission to drive further onto the reserve than is normally allowed which would save us time, although even then it was about half a mile further to walk. We were first off the ferry and away down the single track road to Balranald. I navigated via the warden's instructions through gates and right and left turns through the machair until we arrived at the specific gate where we were to leave the car. We got our stuff together and silently started to run to the designated spot in the dunes which would either make or break our hearts. This was at one of the most northwestern points of the island. The famed Long tailed Skua watchpoint of Ard an Runair was just to our right. 

On arriving at the Harlequin Duck location my heart sank as there was an awful lot of sea and rocks confronting us. I steadied myself and in a calm manner started to scan the sea. Did I hell. I grabbed my bins and rapidly scanned the expanse of ocean before me more in hope than expectation. Almost immediately I latched onto a small, dark duck swimming steadfastly on the sea, alternately appearing and disappearing into wave troughs. 

'Paul, I think it's here' I shouted in the wind. Paul scanned with his scope. 

'You cracker! Oh yes! Brilliant! That's it! We've done it!'  

This told me all I needed to know and I too got it in my scope and we just enjoyed this supreme moment. 

Harlequin Duck!
It does not get better than this. The mixture of planning, hoping, gambling with time, money and emotions all come together in one great adrenalin rush as anxiety drains like a flood from one's head to be replaced by sheer elation. Our colleagues were someway behind us as they were last off the ferry and did not have permission to park as near as us on the Reserve. They eventually emerged like advancing infantry from the dunes and came running towards us tripods extended.

Advancing twitchers
'Have you got it? Where is it? Can you give us directions?' 

The anxious questions  spilled out and we did our best to direct our colleagues to the duck. There were only nine of us but it took some time to get every one lined up on the duck. Birders react in strange ways at this moment of epiphany and it never surprises me the differing behaviour and reactions that manifest themselves. Some swear like troopers 'effing marvellous this, effing superb that'. Others hug or shake hands with the nearest person to them. One birder next to me on viewing the duck for less than a minute then started asking me technical details about my scope. I politely told him I wanted to watch the duck thanks but would be happy to discuss scope specifications at some other time. 

'Maybe later? Let's watch and enjoy the duck'

Paul phoning a friend

After watching the duck for some time we became aware of geese landing on the machair behind us. A flock of around fifty Barnacle Geese flew in and amongst them was a Richardson's Canada Goose, a diminutive form, no bigger than the Barnacles, of the more familiar Canada Goose we see on our local lakes. In fact they are now split into separate species and Richardson's Canada Goose is part of the complex comprising Lesser Canada Goose whilst our local birds in Oxfordshire are now Greater Canada Geese. So just by turning around we had another really good and rare species under our belts. We also checked the flocks of Greylags in search of the two reported Snow Geese but our luck had all been used up and we failed to find them. We could hardly complain. Some Oystercatchers were roosting on the tidewrack on the beach with a lone Bar tailed Godwit. Just beyond them a large, biscuit coloured gull on the sea turned out to be a first winter Glaucous Gull which soon flew off past us. This area of the reserve is really wild, lonely and beautiful with a unique atmosphere all of its own and to share it with these birds was indeed a privilege and joy. 

First winter Glaucous Gull
As the light gently faded we walked back to the car as if treading on air. My head was giddy with what we had achieved and all we had gone through to fulfil our aim. We joined our colleagues in the Lochmaddy Hotel and Paul and myself had a large whisky apiece and our first meal of the day.We retired to bed early as we were physically and emotionally drained and I would like to say we slept the sleep of the just but we had not bargained with the Lochmaddy Locals Saturday Night Singalong Extravaganza. At ten pm cheesy songs were to be heard emanating from the bar below our rooms. Adele or One Direction this was not. Thankfully it ended at midnight as Sunday is taken seriously here. However a Storm Force Ten domestic row then broke out in the car park below our windows finally terminating when the rowing couple either got in a taxi or returned to hell. With the ensuing peace and quiet I finally slept. Next morning dawned cold and sunny with just a breath of light southeast wind. 

Loch nam Feithean
We had resolved to go out birding first thing and try to find the elusive Snow Geese before having a late breakfast at 9.45. We found plenty of geese but only Barnacle and Greylags. In the end we satisfied ourselves with going to see a female Ring-necked Duck on Loch Scaraidh. We found it, as is usual for this species, fast asleep, although it did raise it's head twice just to assure us of it's identity. The day was becoming increasingly better with nigh on perfect weather conditions, itself a considerable rarity in the northwest. You could see for miles across the sea with strange, angular isolated islands and lumps of rock jutting out from the sea in the distance and the white topped mountains of Skye  and the mainland in the far distance. Returning for breakfast I availed myself of a very Scots breakfast of scrambled eggs and a smoked haddock. We met our colleagues from yesterday's triumph at breakfast. They were returning on the 11am ferry today but we planned to return on Monday so had a whole day of birding the island in prospect. We learned from our fellow birders that the Harlequin was still there so planned a return visit after breakfast. At the Visitor Centre a Merlin that was perched on a dung heap allowed us to get very close before zipping away across the machair. 

On arriving at the Harlequin location we revelled in our isolation on the wide, white sandy beaches with blue sea and sky and sensational scenery all around us. 

Dunes  and beaches at the Harlequin site
It was a joy to be here and alive on a day such as this. The Harlequin duck was still swimming around offshore, diving and feeding, eventually leaving the sea and perching on the rocks to preen. 

Harlequin Duck
Sadly it was just too distant for my camera to do it justice. In the sunlight I noted its overall dark grey plumage with a distinct blue tinge. The flanks were beginning to turn chestnut and there were patches of white on the head and upper body. It fiddled about in the seaweed, never straying far from the water and seemed to relish riding the swell and surf surging up the rocks.We watched it for around an hour. An Otter swam by as did a Grey Seal and a Great Northern Diver. 

A local birder came along the beach with his two dogs and stopped to chat to us. He told us about his cottage and how he did bed and breakfast. He also told us his garden list which included no less than three Gyr Falcons and countless Long-tailed Skuas! I made a note of his details as it would be a no brainer where to stay if ever I returned. Cheaper than the Lochmaddy Hotel as well. The day was so clear he also pointed out to us the bulk of the legendary and iconic St Kilda looming up on the horizon forty miles northwest. 

View to St Kilda just visible on horizon
Bidding him farewell we returned to the small, white, unattended cottage that serves as the Balranald Visitor Centre, where Paul made us a welcome brew of coffee. A large flock of one hundred and fifty Rock Doves, the largest flock I have ever seen were feeding in a field with cows just behind the Centre and another smaller flock were the other side of the road. Every so often they would get spooked, possibly by the Merlin, and would rise and wheel about before landing in the fields again. 

Rock Doves
A flock of small passerines flew over us and settled on a wire fence by the road. Twite. Another good bird to see. 

A hundred yards up the road was Loch nam Feithean to our right, containing around four hundred Barnacle Geese along with various ducks and waders and we stopped by a grassy bank to survey the Barnacle Geese. Maybe the Richardson's Canada Goose would be amongst them? We scanned the goose flocks more than twenty times but there was no sign of the Richardsons. I became aware of a flock of Greylags half hidden in the crofter's field behind us which I thought possibly might contain the Snow Geese but there were Soay sheep in the field and a wire fence separating them from us. No way does one trespass here without permission. A car stopped by us and the lady driver enquired  

'Are you looking at my sheep?' 

Before I could reply she then asked 'Are you birdwatchers?' 

I replied 'Yes'

She then said  'You can go anywhere you like on the croft. I own it. Just jump the fence if you want'. 

We were overwhelmed by this spontaneous generosity and indeed the islanders seem very friendly to strangers and have the charming habit of nonchalantly waving to you, a complete stranger, as you drive past, as if they had known you all their lives. I was just about to avail myself of the kind lady's invitation when I made one last scan of Loch nam Feithean and rather than look at the Barnacles scanned a grassy mound in the middle of the loch. Two white geese were asleep on the grassy mound. Snow Geese. Bloody obvious. How had we missed them? Tiredness probably. 

Barnacle Geese with distant Snow Geese
Snow Geese courtesy of Paul
We watched them awaken and walk down to the water's edge to feed. The sun shone and the constant calls of the Barnacles and Greylags added to the evocative atmosphere. We had seen everything now and just relaxed and enjoyed watching birds. No chasing around. Just plain simple birdwatching. As the day wore on Paul suggested we return to Lochmaddy harbour to see if we could find an Otter on the rising tide. At first not a lot happened apart from the temperature plummeting as the sun slowly set and I became very, very cold. The wind dropped and the sky began turning a delicate pink. The moon became visible. 

Moon rising over Lochmaddy harbour
We found around seven Great Northern Divers and a couple of Red throated Divers feeding in the harbour or further out. Suddenly the gulls started creating a commotion. Two resting Greater Black backed Gulls I was watching stood up on the rocks, alert and apprehensive. Then a huge brown shape crossed the sea before me. A White tailed Eagle. It flew towards the cliffs to my right, it's white tail clearly stood out against the shaded cliffs and it was finally lost to sight behind some rocks. A little later a movement on some small rocks alerted us to an Otter running over the rocks before returning to the sea to fish leisurely around the rocks. Paul found another closer Otter fishing in the sea to our left. We watched as it lay on it's back in the water and crunched up a fish. For all the world looking like some aquatic teddy bear. The sun was sinking ever lower and the moon getting ever brighter. I was frozen with cold now and we retired to the warmth of the hotel. Another double whisky for both of us to celebrate yet another superb day of birding. 

That night peace, quiet and the still of a Sunday night were ours to enjoy. I slept for eight hours. Next morning we had a leisurely breakfast. The morning was again superb weather wise but frankly we did little birding. As we waited for the ferry to arrive two Golden Eagles flew low from our right, over the harbour and gradually rose upwards towards the distant mountains. On the ferry as we left the outer harbour, a White tailed Eagle floated high above us in the blue heavens. The view from the ferry's forward facing lounge was unbelievably scenic. We were faced with a blue sea and white capped waves in the strengthening south east wind as the distant wintry brown hills of Skye turned golden in the sunlight. Guillemots and Razorbills flashed across the bows. Unbelievably an Otter was swimming around some two miles from shore as we passed, accompanied by a Greater Black backed Gull. As we approached Uig two Golden Eagles and two White tailed Eagles were soaring over the harbour. We left the ferry and commenced the long journey home on what Paul declared was the most scenic drive he had ever made in Britain. The whole countryside was bathed in a golden light and we passed through the jagged beauty of the Cuillins of Skye, skirting blue sea lochs and barren moorland, then over to the mainland and up Glen Sheil, past the five huge mountains that comprise the Five Sisters of Kintail towards Fort William and the towering, white mass of Ben Nevis.

The road south over Skye
We headed up through the pass at Glencoe, still for many Scots a place of oppressive memories due to it's history of Clan betrayal and now sadly due to the presence of the boarded up, deserted roadside cottage owned by the disgraced Jimmy Savile. We reached the summit of the desolate Rannoch Moor at 1142 feet above sea level and then descended into Glen Orchy with the West Highland railway line heroically clinging to the hillside on our left. As darkness beckoned we reached Stirling with its spectacularly floodlit castle and finally turned onto the welcoming expanse of the motorway and commenced the long drive south. We arrived in Oxford at one am on Tuesday morning. Quite a trip.

North Uist sunset

We saw the following birds and mammals in the three days

White tailed Eagle/ Golden Eagle/ Common Buzzard/ Peregrine/ Common Kestrel/ Merlin/ Common Raven/ Carrion Crow/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Glaucous Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Kittiwake/ Mute Swan/ Whooper Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Snow Goose/ Barnacle Goose/ Richardsons Canada Goose/ Common Shelduck/ Red Breasted Merganser/ Eider Duck/ Harlequin Duck/ Mallard/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Northern Shoveler/ Eurasian Teal/ Tufted Duck/ Ring necked Duck/ Common Goldeneye/ Great Northern Diver/ Red throated Diver/ Black Guillemot/ Guillemot/ Razorbill/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Grey Heron/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Golden Plover/ Lapwing/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Common Redshank/ Turnstone/ Ringed Plover/ Sanderling/ Rock Dove/ Dipper/ Common Starling/ Eurasian Skylark/ Meadow Pipit/ Rock Pipit/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Robin/ House Sparrow/ Dunnock/  Greenfinch/ Twite/ Chaffinch/ Goldfinch/ Blue Tit/ Wren

Red Deer
Roe Deer
Grey Seal
Common Seal

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