Tuesday 11 June 2013

More Eagles than Dippers June 2013

Loch Linnhe with Ben Nevis in the distance
Having had such an enjoyable time at Christmas staying in the Highlands of Scotland we returned to the very same cottage for the first week of June. As we did last time we stopped off in Glasgow to meet our daughter Polly and hit 'Gleskae Toon' on a sunny and warm Friday night. We went to the Ubiquitous Chip, the sister restaurant to Stravaigin, the one where Polly worked for some time to supplement her student life. Her connections meant we got one of the best tables and we were indulged with some of the finest food Glasgow could offer. The menu was an intriguing combination of very Scots items, with such things as champit tatties (mashed potatoes) and nine hole stovies (beef mixed with potatoes) combined with more universally understood descriptions of food. Not only was there a comprehensive wine list but also an extensive separate whisky list with prices going up to around £22.00 per measure. I heroically resisted. Not content with this the waiter re-appeared and announced he had forgotten to tell us about the two specials available which were rook and squirrel. I kid you not. According to Polly who had tried it earlier in the week, the rook was very tasty but the squirrel not so good. 

We stayed at Polly's flat overnight and on Saturday had a late breakfast at Cafe Jaconelli's, famed for featuring in the film Trainspotting. Apart from a signed photo on the wall there were no other concessions to stardom and the food and cafe was Scots basic. A young family at the next table all went for the eight item, full Scots breakfast, each with their own glass of Iron Bru to wash it down. which was somewhat of a contrast to last night's sophistication. We duly headed northwest from Glasgow after our more modest breakfast of scrambled eggs and soon were again traversing familiar winding roads through the awesome scenery that comprises Glen Orchy, Rannoch Moor and the wild and atmospheric Glen Coe. 

Glen Coe
The weather forecast that morning was uncertain but it was brightening up all the time as we headed for Fort William and the only low point of our sojourn? Yes - a visit to Morrisons. It had to be done as we were self catering but eventually the ordeal by trolley was over and we found ourselves leaving Fort William and driving onto the Corran ferry and making the ten minute trip across Loch Linnhe to land at Ardgour

The Corran Ferry at Ardgour
Then it was back on single track roads heading deep into the mountains of Morvern towards Achleek Cottage. A quick stop off at Strontian to see if the Black Duck was still about proved negative but no matter there were still plenty of days to come to try and find it but to cut a long story short we never did. So we settled in to Achleek Cottage on the opposite side of Loch Sunart to Strontian and sat contemplating the sensational views from the front door, overlooking the sea loch and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. A tatty female Siskin was busily collecting nest material from the lawn and a Garden Warbler's loud and throaty warble came from the bushes surrounding the cottage. Garden Warblers for some reason are far more ubiquitous than Blackcaps in this part of the world. 

Siskin female
Unlike our last visit the mountains  unobscured by low cloud and rain were now visible in all their glory with the loch as smooth as glass, reflecting the landscape with just the odd Red breasted Merganser and Eider cutting a line across the mirror surface.

The hillsides and mountains were now covered in all shades of green, with vivid yellow flashes of gorse and the roadside verges were a riot of emerging bluebells, primroses and uncoiling emerald green ferns as Spring, some two weeks later than in Oxfordshire, enveloped the landscape with all its vitality.

This was a very different geography to the gentle, matronly Cotswolds. The winding single track road, faithfully following the contours of the loch, was bordered on one side by the waters of the loch and steep hillsides on the other, covered in Oaks and other assorted species of trees. The trees rang with the calls of Siskins and the silvery trills of Wood Warblers, and the wistful cadences of Willow Warblers filtered through the green and sunlit dappled leaves. From the loch shore Common Sandpipers called peevishly and with their familiar stiff winged flickering flight flew around over the seaweed covered rocks. 

This was essentially a family holiday and nothing wrong in that but by careful planning I managed a couple of afternoons of birding and one early morning start before anyone was up, so everyone was kept happy. Near Strontian is Ariundle Oakwood which is a precious remnant of the immense oakwoods that formerly covered much of Europe's Atlantic Coast from Portugal to Norway. Would that it still did but Ariundle would have to do and thankfully is now preserved for all to enjoy. The sheer variety of greens was hard to contemplate with all shades from the bright yellow green of the emerging oak leaves to the olive hues of the luxurious carpets of mosses, lichens and liverworts that flourished in this superb National Nature Reserve.Walking through the upper reaches of the wood was almost what I would imagine it would be  like walking onto a set of Lord of the Rings. Every stone and boulder, was carpeted with mosses and lichens, their rounded shapes looked like some benign entombed army standing mute witness to eternity.

Ariundle Oakwood NNR

Strontian River

Ferns hung from tree trunks and from damp ditches the insect eating Common Butterworts raised a periscope like single stem topped with a purple flower. Glades of Bluebells brought heaven to the ground and the white Wood Anenome's and Greater Stitchwort substituted for stars in this botanical firmanent. 

Ariundle is a known site for the now extremely rare and threatened Chequered Skipper butterfly and in glorious sunshine which was to last for the entire week I left the wood, crossed the Strontian river and went in search of them on the far bank. Green veined Whites were everywhere, a Northern Wheatear sang from a rock with a Whinchat doing likewise from a nearby birch. Tree Pipits parachuted down from trees and Willow Warblers cascaded their melancholy song across the moorland but there was no sign of any Chequered Skippers. On the point of giving up I disturbed a Common Frog near to the river and as I went closer to investigate a small brown butterfly whirred up and away from the emerging Purple Moor Grass at my feet. I gave chase and it soon settled on some heather and here at last was the elusive Chequered Skipper.

Chequered Skipper
It had only taken two and a half hours to find it. I took pictures but could never quite persuade it to open it's wings entirely when it settled due to a persistent wind buffeting it. Never mind, the patterning on the undersides was just as attractive as the uppersides and at least I had finally found what was for me a new species of butterfly. The other rarity here is Northern Emerald Dragonfly but with this strange winter everything was late and I was apparently too early to see them. A startlingly emerald green beetle with an impressive set of pincers and which I have subsequently identified as a Green Tiger Beetle Cicindela campestris accompanied me on the track, running short distances in front of me until it finally veered off into the grass

Green Tiger Beetle
Satisfied with my butterfly find I headed back and passing through some conifers a familiar but slightly different than normal chipping call came from atop one of the conifers. I looked skywards into the blue and there was an immature male Scottish Crossbill calling loudly which then flew around looking in vain for company. Eventually it headed off, still calling incessantly and to be replaced in the conifers by Lesser Redpolls, announcing their arrival with their rattling contact calls. That night it was out with the bread and peanut butter to try and lure some Pine Martens but instead we were visited by a Red Fox vixen in beautiful condition.

Red Fox vixen
I could hardly begrudge her a free meal and it transpired as we watched that she must have had cubs hidden somewhere close by, as she collected the food but did not eat it, taking it into the thick undergrowth held in her throat and mouth. She came every night so unsurprisingly the Pine Martens remained absent. Every morning the sun shone and the loch was like glass and in the evening it was the same. We sat on the cottage bench by the lochside and just looked at the wonders of the scenery in front and all around us. In this glorious weather this location surely rivalled anywhere in the world for beauty and tranquility. 

View from our cottage looking West
On a couple of evenings we watched a Harbour Porpoise leisurely making its way up the loch and then back down again. Another evening and it was a Common Seal gaining our attention. A flock of thirty seven Eider arrived, all males apart from one female, Oystercatchers, Arctic and Common Terns flew back and fore in a constantly changing panorama of activity. Hooded Crows, always seeming to hold a guilty secret, sat sentinel on rocks watching Grey Herons fishing in seaweed that was floating orange brown on the receding tide. 

Hooded Crow
Another trip was required to Fort William so we drove the short distance back to the ferry at Ardgour. On the way we passed through some huge mountains and my wife pointed out a large bird on the skyline. We stopped and looking through the bins and I saw a Raven. 'No not that one, the other one further up' my wife advised. I looked again. A White tailed Eagle soared above the mountainside. Its short tail emphasising the size and breadth of its wingspan. It gave a couple of casual flaps and glided behind a hillside and was gone pursued briefly by the Raven. We got to the ferry but had to wait as it was at Corran over the other side of Loch Linnhe. To while away the fifteen minutes or so before the ferry arrived I looked on the loch and a Black Guillemot was swimming about just off from the pier. I pointed it out to my wife who was watching some Eiders. I then looked at an old derelict trawler by the short pier and noticed that right at the end of the pier there were at least two pairs of Black Guillemots using a rusted abandoned iron structure as a nest site. So smart in their chocolate brown plumage with white oval patches on the wings and crimson legs.

Polly and Isabelle exploring the derelict trawler

Black Guillemots @ Ardgour
On our return to the cottage I noticed a Common Sandpiper fly from the grassy bank by the driveway and over the road to the loch. This could only mean one thing.There was a nest up the bank somewhere. I used to find them when I was a ghillie on an estate in nearby Glen Etive many years ago and knew they nested some way from the water's edge. I left it until after dinner that evening and then went to investigate. It took all of five minutes before the sandpiper exploded from under a bramble spray and went into its full 'I am so injured' distraction display.The nest was beautifully hidden in a depression in the long grass under the bramble spray with four exquisitely patterned eggs.

Common Sandpiper nest and eggs
We retreated and the sandpiper after much plaintive calling soon returned. We left it well alone for the rest of the week and were gratified to see it had hatched out the chicks on the morning we left. 

My next solo excursion was to Glen Borrodale. This is the location of the RSPB's westernmost reserve and promised Common Redstart, Wood Warbler and Tree Pipit. The sunlight in the oakwoods as I drove along was like rippling water through the leaves. Everything was infused with the sun's bright white light shining in the gaps between the cool green of the trees and Loch Sunart was an indescribable shade of bright blue, brighter even than the sky above it. I had no idea what to expect at Glen Borrodale but commenced the very steep climb up from the road through the oakwood and out onto a hillside of dead bracken, new unfurling bracken fronds and a veritable sea of bluebells. Up to then I had not seen much apart from a Tree Pipit singing from some wires. Now out in the open I walked up a narrow path with slight banks of bracken and bluebells on either side. A large brown butterfly cruised past me.What on earth was that? It disappeared at some speed in a direct and purposeful flight. Fritillary? As I progressed another two appeared and dallied in the dead bracken. One larger than the other. Fritillaries alright, a male with a markedly larger female. Closer examination when  they finally but only briefly stopped moving pointed to Pearl bordered Fritillary but then they were gone. I hung about but only one more came and went without stopping. I gave up any thought of getting a picture and went in search of a singing Common Redstart which after giving me the run around for a while I duly located in an Oak tree. Suddenly two Cuckoos, a male and a female landed in the same Oak both calling frantically. The redstart fled and the cuckoos were vigorously mobbed by a pair of Willow Warblers, incidentally much browner than the ones we get in Oxfordshire, before the cuckoos split up and flew down the hillside. 

As with virtually everywhere I went I had the place to myself and wandered around just enjoying the stillness and isolation. I commenced walking back and as I did encountered another fritillary which seemed more obliging than the others in that it settled regularly but only for a few seconds and usually partially obscured by bracken. It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get a picture but finally after much chasing about and detours through bracken clumps and bluebell patches I  partially succeeded. One aim of getting the picture was to eliminate Small Pearl bordered Fritillary. On checking the images it was indeed a Pearl bordered rather than Small Pearl bordered Fritillary.

Pearl bordered Fritillary
I walked further back down the track and by now familar, staccato notes of liquid silver rippled in a descending scale from an Oak off to my right. A Wood Warbler. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Wood Warblers in this area at least seemed to prefer to sing and feed in the very topmost twigs and leaves of the Oaks so most of the time one is looking up at it's underside.Not good for photos or one's neck. However most of the trees grow on steep hillsides so it is possible to get almost level with the treetop by ascending the hillside.This I managed with some effort to achieve and was eventually only a few feet below the warbler. At first it seemed alarmed by the crashing and crackling of dead bracken as I struggled up the hillside but I found if I stood still once in position it soon relaxed and carried on it's normal existence.This individual was singing constantly and I remained watching it totally enthralled to be so close, for over an hour. In the green and yellow reflective light of the sun soaked oak leaves it was, with it's own green and yellow plumage almost part of the tree itself. Slim and acrobatic it sang it's short song with it's bill pointed heavenwards, it's whole body shaking as it delivered it's shivering song over and over again.

Wood Warbler
Nearby a boggy bit of ground with a small stream was home to Four Spotted Chaser and some Small Red Damselflies. 

Four Spotted Chaser

Small Red Damselflies
Satisfied with my afternoon I returned to the cottage to rejoin the family.Tomorrow I had booked a morning with Ardnamurchan Charters to go and look for Otters. A special request from Polly and her Glasgow flatmate and fellow student,  Isabelle. With no little struggle we all rose at 5.30am and by seven o clock were in a boat heading for the small uninhabited island of Carna with Andy the skipper, to look for Otters. The boat slid through the mirror waters on an absolutely still morning with not a cloud in the sky.

Family - Guen, Polly and Isobel my sister

Common Tern

Common and Arctic Terns flew around us and Razorbills, in pairs, floated on the sea surface looking for all the world like elderly gentlemen formally dressed for dinner at some auspicious club. On arriving at the island we stationed ourselves on a high heathery bank overlooking the sea to await a sighting of an Otter. In the meantime we were serenaded by Cuckoos and Sedge Warblers. It took some time but in the end a young Otter turned up fishing in the seaweed and everyone was happy. Then another Otter showed up and everyone was even more happy. A bonus was a summer plumaged Red throated Diver feeding in the bay and Common Seals that hauled themselves onto a small rocky island as the tide came in. 

We went further out towards Mull and found several Harbour Porpoises and various Razorbills, Guillemots and Eiders. Small rocky islands were home to nesting Common Gulls, the default breeding gull around these parts. On the journey out Andy informed me that it was planned to release genetically pure Scottish Wild Cats on Carna in the hope of saving yet another endangered native species. He also told me that they are having a major problem with Mink which are decimating the nesting seabird colonies on the outlying small islets. A regime of trapping is in place but all is not well.

Common Gull
Then it was back to shore and we drove to Kilchoan almost at the end of the Ardnamurchan Penisula and had lunch alfresco in the garden of the Kilchoan Hotel, basking in the sunshine. I was introduced to a three legged Greyhound by one of the locals who told me he regularly takes it on an eight mile walk! Just a short trip down the road from the Hotel to the Post Office and the familiar monotonous tones of a Corncrake came from an iris bed on the saltmarsh. I never saw it although it sounded virtually at my feet but the vegetation was too lush and high with no gaps to afford the possibility of a sighting. Frustrating but at the same time rewarding. I was happy anyway. 

I got up very early the next morning and setting a deadline of an 8am return to the cottage set off with the camera to see what I could find. The world was still, although it had been light for over three hours and it was just me and the wildlife. I headed for Strontian and took the turning for Ariundle Oakwood. Half way up the road a buzzing trill coming from a rough field could only be a Grasshopper Warbler. I stopped and found it easily, singing from an exposed stalk in the field oblivious to anything and anyone. I watched it turning it's head and noted how the sound varied in volume as it did. I found a Hooded Crow which for once did not beat a hasty retreat. They are incredibly wary and rightfully so as I am sure they are not welcomed by the sheep farmers or crofters hereabouts. Then it was back down the road to Ardgour to get some more pictures of the Black Guillemots but not before finding another White tailed Eagle soaring in the heavens over the most mountainous part of the road. I love this time of day before most of humankind has awoken. Wood Warblers were trilling away in the Oaks along the roadside and an Eider shepherded her constantly diving ducklings in a small bay. Driving along I could stop the car without fear of catastrophe literally in the middle of the road if I wished. An A road at that. Where else in the UK can you do that? I did not see another car for the first two hours, so isolated and uninhabited is the area. Whinchats sang from heather clumps and Meadow Pipits and Swallows sat on the fences in the early morning sun. 

Meadow Pipit

Barn Swallow
On the way back to the cottage just after leaving Ardgour I noticed a Common Gull sitting on what appeared to be a nest on the high tide line of the deserted beach running by the road. I stopped to investigate and sure enough there was a nest with three eggs although strangely two eggs had a background colour of greeny blue while the other was brown. 

Common Gull nest site.The beach is so deserted they are undisturbed
Common Gull nest and eggs. Note two green eggs and one brown egg
Friday came around all too fast and we took another trip to Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. My brother in law and myself planned to climb Ben Hiant the highest point on the peninsula while my sister Isobel and Guen, my wife, took the short ferry trip to Mull and we would all meet up at the Kilchoan Hotel for lunch.The views from the top of Ben Hiant were spectacular and we could see all the way to the Outer Hebrides. It seemed the entire West of Scotland was at our feet and the weather was just perfect for such a climb. As a  finale to the holiday we had made a reservation for our last evening to return to Lochaline and treat ourselves to another gourmet meal at the White House Restaurant

Ben Hiant from Kilchoan Hotel garden
Yours truly 'On top of the world' or at least Ben Hiant
On an earlier visit to the same restaurant mid week, arriving early, my daughter plus student friend Isabelle decided to go in the sea - naked. I discretely went to the bar of the hotel with my brother in law while they went swimming and my wife supervised. Unfortunately they chose to go swimming just as the local ferry left port. Ha ha! We all had a laugh. I guess they did on the ferry too. Our last night in the cottage and then it was time to go home and on Saturday morning we left for Glasgow. Polly had already returned a couple of days before so we arranged to take a minor detour on an unclassified road to Ardgour even narrower than the road past the cottage and meet Polly in the early evening in Glasgow. It is said that it is wise to leave the best to last but this was pure chance as initially we had no idea what was in store for us.The road was as per usual completely deserted and we came to a stop by a loch also apparently deserted. Getting out of the car there was no un-natural sound,  just birdsong and the slight sigh of the gentle wind in the wires. It was going to be a very hot day. I scanned the loch for divers but drew a blank but then a Common Snipe started to chipper away and just went on and on. A distant pale wader by the far loch shore, on investigation through the bins, was a Greenshank. Soon it was away, flying up into the mountains calling evocatively and headed no doubt to it's nest site. Some Teal swam out from a reedy patch and a Whinchat settled on the telephone wires and commenced singing. A Red Deer hind traversed across the moorland and we admired the Bronze Age settlements on the hillside behind us 

We did not want to leave. 'Can we stay here for a bit longer?' enquired my wife. 'Sure but the road is over twenty miles long and there are many other good spots as well as this one'. Half an hour passed and then we drove along the road some more.The wires were now inhabited by European Stonechats and Meadow Pipits. Another male Whinchat perched on a dead tree trunk by the river. We scanned the river for Dippers but there was no sign. Slowly the road wound downwards to sea level and the small village of Kingairloch, all part of the 14000 acre Kingairloch Estate. We had some tea at the small Boathouse Restaurant, that although not open until eleven said it was no trouble to serve us at ten am. It's situation overlooking Kingairloch Bay and surrounded on three sides by mountains is just sublime. We sat on the small verandah in the sun and watched the Eiders fishing in the waters. A Swallow flew under the verandah with nest material, two Grey Herons floated past at eye level on broad grey wings and two Cuckoos  competed vocally with each other across the loch. Cuckoos may be on the decline but throughout our stay they seemed to be everywhere, calling from the trees on the hillsides from dawn to dusk.We moved on disturbing a pair of Spotted Flycatchers flitting around some Rhododendrons at the top of the drive. The road became progressively narrower and soon it ran under a sheer rock face to our left and with the shore line perilously close on our right. Passing places for cars were in short supply but so deserted was the road we never met another car. We stopped at a little green area just off the road and had some lunch. The Yellow Irises were just about to bloom.

Lunch stop and site of the first Golden Eagle encounter

Yellow Iris - the first of many
The iris beds were extensive and they must be a fabulous sight when in full bloom which would only be in a few days now. Twite were feeding on the road and the surrounding sheep cropped grass. We beachcombed and relaxed, collecting shells in the sunshine. Loch Linnhe was glass smooth and Otter spraints were all around the tideline. A Cuckoo was calling from high up on the rock face where a few birches maintained a perilous existence in fissures in the rock face. It's calls echoed around the rocks. Looking up to the top of the sheer rock face a Red Deer stood right on the cliff edge. I scanned along and another large but darker animal shape became apparent also standing perilously close to the edge. It moved. It was one of the wild Goats that inhabit this area and we were really lucky to see it. 

Then fate took a hand. 'That's not a Buzzard is it?' asked my wife. 'Where? 'Up there'. 'I know it's up there but exactly where dear?' 'There in front of that white cloud, right of the deer'. I found it. A Golden Eagle. Our very own self found Golden Eagle. It went through it's repertoire of soaring, gliding and lazily flapping in the azure sky above the rocky cliff side. Best of all it stooped at the Red Deer not once but a couple of times. We watched it for ten minutes before it was lost to view behind the clifftop. We waited and by some miracle twenty minutes later it returned and did a repeat performance.We spent around an hour in this magical spot and then moved on. We came round a bend in the road and the landscape spread out as the road left the shoreline and wound inland. Huge mountains to our left and smaller hills to our right and beauteous desolation all around. We stopped again just to admire the sheer magnificence of our situation. My wife again. 'That's not a Buzzard either, is it?' A huge bird of prey was coming towards us followed by another. 'No dear, believe it or not that is a pair of Golden Eagles and they are coming our way'. I tried to remain calm. The eagles flew across the road in front of us and behind the contour of a small hill. 'I think the way they are heading will bring them out on the left side of the hill and past us. Keep your eyes on that spot.' For once it happened as predicted and we had a flypast of a pair of Golden Eagles close enough to hear them calling. The gold on their heads and napes shone in the sun and the huge bills were very obvious as was their size. 'Look at how long the tail is and see the shape of the wing and the fingers of the outer primaries'. The smaller male was in front and the larger female followed. They rose in a thermal. We kept our bins focused on the female who rose to a fair height and then descended in a power dive of huge speed and impetus and was lost to sight behind a wood. We waited to see if they returned but there was no sign. Time was getting on and we needed to get the ferry if we were to get to Glasgow on time and still some three hours away. As we crossed Loch Linnhe on the ferry my wife said 'You have still not seen a Dipper'. 'No but we have just seen three Golden Eagles.' Nae bother.

Birds seen

Golden Eagle/ White tailed Eagle/ Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Tawny Owl (heard only)/ Raven/ Hooded Crow/ Magpie/ Little Grebe/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Common Tern/ Arctic Tern/ Red throated Diver/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Red breasted Merganser/ Goosander/ Eider Duck/ Mallard/ Eurasian Teal/ Oystercatcher/ Common Snipe/ Common Greenshank/ Common Sandpiper/ Ringed Plover/ Corncrake heard only/ Grey Heron/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Guillemot/ Black Guillemot/ Razorbill/ European Cuckoo/ Common Pheasant/ Woodpigeon/ Collared Dove/ Common Starling/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ Blackbird/ Mistle Thrush/ Song Thrush/ Robin/ European Stonechat/ Whinchat/ Northern Wheatear/ Common Redstart/ Spotted Flycatcher/ Tree Creeper/ Eurasian Skylark/ House Sparrow/ Pied Wagtail/ Grey Wagtail/ Meadow Pipit/ Tree Pipit/ Scottish Crossbill/ Chaffinch/ Bullfinch/ Goldfinch/ Siskin/  Lesser Redpoll/ Linnet/ Twite/ Garden Warbler/ Blackcap/  Common Whitethroat/ Wood Warbler/ Willow Warbler/ Sedge Warbler/ Grasshopper Warbler/ Barn Swallow/ House Martin/ Sand Martin/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Long tailed Tit/ Wren/ Goldcrest (83)

Mammals seen

Red Deer
Roe Deer
Wild (feral) Goat
Red Fox
Common Seal
Harbour Porpoise

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