Sunday 19 January 2014

First Class Birding 14-16th January 2014

An American Coot, only the sixth for Great Britain had been discovered on Loch Flemington, some nine miles northeast of Inverness. This was just too good an opportunity to miss as not only was it a great bird to see but it was right on my ancestral doorstep.

I considered the Black Audi but she had done two recent trips to Holland to see the Hawk and Pygmy Owls respectively and was also in need of a service which could be done while I was away in Scotland. As the coot was only nine miles from Inverness I looked at trains. Consultation of the East Coast train timetable told me that with luck I could do it all in three days by utilising the train. Not only that but there was a First Class option which combined with my Senior Railcard made the fare extremely attractive. An hour with the wonder of the Internet had me booked on the midday 'Highland Chieftain' from Kings Cross on Tuesday 14th January arriving in Inverness at eight in the evening, booked for two nights into the nearby Glen Mhor Hotel by the River Ness, a hire car booked to be delivered to the hotel at eight fifteen on the morning of Wednesday 15th and then back on the early morning train from Inverness on Thursday 16th arriving at Kings Cross at four in the afternoon. I even printed my own tickets.

With suitcase duly packed I headed for London on the train from Kingham. There was a slight niggle at the back of my mind. What was  it? I dismissed it and settled back for the hour or so journey. Just after Oxford it came to me. I had forgotten my tripod! Frustration and futile rage at my own stupidity consumed me but my forgetfulness was beyond redemption. A period of further quiet contemplation on the train and I regained my equanimity. The coot from memory had apparently been showing really well so maybe a tripod and scope would not be required or I could use the scope from the car by resting it on the open window of the car. Also I was going back to my ancestral home. I could not forget this fact as for me it was almost as exciting  .

Kings Cross Station
So I duly arrived at Kings Cross station and made my way to the First Class Lounge where I sat back and enjoyed free tea and biscuits in the quiet and tranquillity of the lounge. The clock slowly came round to departure time so I made my way to the train. It was not quite Harry Potter's Platform nine and three quarters but Platform One would suffice, and felt just as magical as I boarded the train and was soon ensconced in the luxury of a first class carriage, and being offered yet more tea. A hot meal or sandwiches plus drinks both alcoholic and soft were also available free of charge throughout the journey, but I restrained myself admirably, refusing all blandishments from the crew and restricting myself to just Green Tea and a couple of sandwiches.

The train slid quietly, almost imperceptibly out of the station and I was on my way North. The adventure had begun. The same almost intoxicating excitement and childish glee gripped me now just as it had  all those many years ago when my mother took us as a family, north on the train for the summer holidays at my grandparents home in Ross and Cromarty. Memories long since buried under the stuff of life's passing years came back to the fore and I entered an almost zen like state watching the initially flat countryside moving past the train windows at speeds unheard of all those years ago. To some people eight hours on a train is purgatory but to me it is sheer joy as I indulge in the heady mix of tactile experiences brought about by my presence on the train combining with the subsequent resurrection of long lost happy childhood memories, returning like  forgotten old friends to take me pleasantly by surprise.

I slept, I read, I fiddled with my i-phone and I just relaxed. By the time we reached Edinburgh it was dark and then the train became more homely, the lights and comfort of the carriage reassuring as the vast empty wastes of the Highlands of Scotland, although unseen outside in the night, became more and more a part of my consciousness. Isolated stations came and went. Pitlochry, Kingussie  and Aviemore. The latter lightly covered in snow. Finally at eight in the evening we arrived in a wet and dark Inverness and a short taxi ride took me to the Glen Mhor Hotel.

Although seemingly unprepossessing when viewed on the Internet I was pleasantly surprised by the hotel and the attentiveness of the staff and decided to have a meal in their restaurant. Scottish cuisine is not renowned for it's quality but believe me this meal was outstanding. Nothing deep fried here but first class cooking to an imaginative menu. The surrounding tables were exclusively populated by single men, all presumably on business but they imparted to it a forlorn air as they whiled away the boredom and dead time until bed by staring into space as they ate or constantly consulted their mobile phones. Not me though. I was birding and an American Coot hopefully awaited me in the morning, so with eager anticipation I retired to bed to read yet another crime fiction novel on my Kindle before falling fast asleep.

Wednesday and my hire car was delivered on the dot at eight fifteen as arranged and the ensuing formalities were dispensed with quickly. It was still dark and indeed it did not get properly light until well after nine. The grey rain clouds did not help matters and a light rain was falling as I made my tentative way into the rush hour traffic of Inverness. The main road out of Inverness in the direction I wanted to go was closed due to roadworks and I had to make a diversion, crossing the River Ness that runs through the town and then re-crossing back onto the right side of the river further down. 

Inverness at dusk with the River Ness running through it and the illuminated
bridge over the River Ness. The hills of Ross and Cromarty in the background
I had no proper map but knew I needed to follow the road signposted for Aberdeen. This I managed without too much angst and soon left the chaos of the wet morning rush hour traffic behind as I reached the periphery of Inverness. The road ahead was now virtually empty passing through open countryside and all I had to do was drive east for some nine miles before I came to the minor road on my right leading to Loch Flemington and hopefully the American Coot.

I turned right at the designated turning and then shortly after came to a sign at the entrance to a single track road on my left pointing to Loch Flemington. I turned onto the road and after a quarter of a mile the shallow loch appeared on my right. I drove on looking for the 'layby with the white stones' which is where postings on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) indicated one should park, both to see the coot but just as importantly to maintain harmonious relations with the local residents by not blocking the narrow road. Another quarter of a mile and I came to the layby, on my right opposite a bungalow. 

Loch Flemington
'The Layby'
The view from the layby adjacent to Loch Flemington with the grassy bank
and floating vegetation favoured by the American Coot. When alarmed the
coot would swim and hide underneath the overhanging bushes on the left
I parked by a small grassed area bordering the loch. I was completely alone. It was still raining so I remained in the car and wound down the window to view the loch only some six metres away from the car. All I could initially see was half a dozen Moorhens feeding at the edge of the loch and on the floating mass of vegetation extending for some metres out into the shallow loch, with ten or so Mute Swans further out on the water. I looked closer and there was the American Coot feeding on the floating vegetation, in amongst the scattered Moorhens.

It really was as easy as that. Once I had turned the car engine off the Moorhens approached the bank and promptly marched up onto the grass and commenced feeding. 

The American Coot to my utter delight followed suit and was soon also feeding by plucking at the grass and, even better was, at most only some four to six metres from the car. You really could not ask for more. My anxieties about the missing tripod were now totally allayed. So long as the car engine was turned off the coot was relaxed but if I turned the engine on to slightly move my position it would rapidly return to the loch's edge, sometimes remaining there before hesitantly venturing back onto the grass but at other times retreating some way off into the floating vegetation or even out of sight under some overhanging bushes at the left hand side of the grassed area. It would repeat the same procedure every time  a car came along the road but eventually always returned to feed on the grass. 

I noted the differences from our familiar Common Coot. It was slightly smaller, much less aggressive and would feed quite happily in close proximity to the Moorhens and almost seemed to prefer to be close to them. 

Its plumage was overall dark grey with a blue tinge in some lights but the head and neck were black. The bill was pure white with no white frontal shield this being substituted with a reddish brown slightly swollen oval on it's forehead. There was an incomplete ring around the bill towards the tip which appeared to be grey but on looking at my photos was actually a similar reddish brown colour to the oval on its forehead. 

The undertail coverts were broadly edged white almost like a Moorhen and indeed when the coot and moorhens were facing away on the water one had to look hard to discern which was the coot, so similar looking were they. 

Its feet, as with our Common Coot, were enormous, the toes palmate and almost ungainly. Its eyes were a dark wine red colour.

Naturally I wanted to take some photos but frustratingly the light was truly appalling although it had now thankfully stopped raining and there was absolutely no wind. It literally was perfectly still with the cloud base lifting slightly. My first efforts at photography were all blurred as the camera and lens were just not up to the conditions or maybe it was the operator!  Slowly as the morning progressed so the light got better and in the end I like to think I managed some decent images. Well I could hardly fail it was so close at times.

When plucking grass it would turn its head and bill sideways to pull the grass
I really enjoyed watching this transatlantic vagrant. For some reason it struck a chord with me.The subtleties of its plumage, its behaviour, the sheer pleasure in realising that my elaborate plans to see it, made way back in Kingham, had come to fruition successfully, all combining to give me a sense of personal satisfaction and well being. This was also happening with my being the sole person present so there was no disturbance and myself, the American Coot and the environment all blended as one. Communed if you like. Happy times. 

I watched the coot for around two hours until eleven, just enjoying the experience and then decided I would go six miles further east to Nairn where yesterday a King Eider had been reported on the sea off the western side of the town. I did not hold out much hope as I had only sketchy details of directions, namely that it was approximately half a mile west of Nairn harbour. I arrived on the western outskirts of Nairn and turned towards the sea before entering the town. I had no idea where to go but figured if I reached the sea I could get some approximate bearings and possibly judge how far west I was of the harbour. I turned down another winding road which looked promising and reached the sea, parking the car in a tiny car park in front of a wet and isolated promenade running above a sandy beach. I could see what looked like a harbour wall some way off to my right. It was about half a mile away. I looked out to sea. Nothing at first but there was quite a swell and occasionally dark shapes would rise on the swell before disappearing again. They were too distant for my binoculars to aid identification. With no tripod I had to improvise by resting the scope on some railings and this worked quite well. I scoped the rising and falling dark shapes. They were Herring Gulls which was a bit of a disappointment. I panned left to another group of 'shapes'. These were better.They were Common Eiders. Hmmm? Hopeful? 

There were only five, four apparent drakes and one female. I upped the zoom and looked harder and there bang in the centre of the scope, one of the drakes turned out to be a fabulous drake King Eider, swimming with the Common Eiders. What luck, although forgive me if I indulge in a little self congratulation at finding this beauty based on so little information. 

The tide was coming in and the ducks came a little closer but still were way too far out to take a picture. I watched the King Eider and then as often happens started to pick up other bird shapes out to sea. Some smaller brown blobs materialised and turned out to be Long tailed Ducks, all bar one were females or immatures, the exception was a lovely male. Chocolate brown and grey with his white head and breast gleaming against the cold sea. There were around twenty Long tailed Ducks, all in small groups which dived and surfaced in unison. Four female Common Scoter came into view as did several Red breasted Mergansers whilst a distant Red throated Diver headed east, low over the sea. Cormorants and Shags were fishing further out. The group of Common Eiders and their exotic cousin took off, flying past me going east. I even managed to take some photos although the ducks were still very distant. 

Drake King Eider leading two male Common Eider
Thrilled with my find I walked the half mile of beach towards the harbour looking for Snow Buntings but all I saw was a single Carrion Crow picking at something on the tideline, so I returned to the car and decided to go back for just one last look at the coot.

I drove back down the narrow approach road to Loch Flemington and noticed, sadly, a dead Mute Swan lying in a field under some power lines. Arriving at the layby I was disappointed to find there were now two cars parked in it and even worse some idiot sitting on the grass with a huge lens pointing out at the centre of the loch. One car still had it's headlights full on and various other people were wandering at the loch edge with telescopes and binoculars presumably looking for the coot which unsurprisngly had taken evasive action under the bushes and was nowhere to be seen.

Selfish peron with a huge lens
I debated whether to approach these people and politely suggest they would be better to return to their cars if they had any sense at all and wanted to get good views of the coot, not only for the benefit of themselves but for anyone else coming to see the coot but in the end decided they were not worth the effort. I doubted if they would thank me anyway or take my advice. So I left them to their inconsiderate ways and formed a plan to bird various random spots by turning onto side roads off the main road leading back to Inverness. Mid afternoon I planned to go and look up my ancestors in the graveyard at the tiny village of Urquhart which is situated on the Black Isle just north of Inverness

My first random venture was to turn off the main road to the right and onto a small road leading to a village called Ardersier and then go on to Fort George to see if the famous Bottle nosed Dolphins were around off Chanonry Point. As I turned off the main road a huge flock of Pink footed Geese flew overhead and then spiralled down like an inverted vortex into the fields to my left. I stopped the car and admired the sheer spectacle of so many geese There were in excess of two thousand. 

Part of the flock of Pink footed Geese
No sign of the dolphins but a few Great Northern Divers were scattered on the flat calm sea and Oystercatchers were busy probing the sodden grass by the roadside. I retreated back to the main road and a mile down the road another flock of again two thousand Pink footed Geese were feeding in a field right by the road.

My next venture off the main road was to go to Alturlie Point where up until about two days ago a Lesser Scaup had been reported. The tiny deserted road ran right down to and then along the seashore and here were many ducks just offshore but all, on examination, proved to be either Wigeon, Mallard or Teal. Two distant ducks, diving, got me going but on checking in the scope they proved to be Common Goldeneyes. Common Redshanks and Oystercatchers were roosting on the weed covered shore and a couple of Hooded Crows patrolled the rocks near the point. Interestingly at Nairn, just fifteen miles up the coast, there were only pure Carrion Crows around the shore. I did not see any hybrid crows so is this region a transition area from Carrion Crow to its northern sub species the Hooded Crow?

No matter, I was birding and thoroughly enjoying myself. A lifer in the form of an American Coot and good views of a King Eider, all in one morning, were more than enough. If I found anything else it would be a bonus.

Now with the time inexorably moving on and conscious that the short hours of daylight in the north of Scotland would terminate at around four in the afternoon I decided to head for home territory in Ross and Cromarty. Dingwall, a short drive north of Inverness and well known to me was currently hosting a Ring billed Gull which was frequenting either the boating lake or the roof of the adjacent Dingwall Academy. There were only Herring Gulls and Black headed Gulls on the boating lake and even a visit to the nearby Tesco's to purchase a loaf to feed the gulls failed to lure the Ring billed Gull. I demurred from going to the school to look for it on the roof. It would probably be alright but why ruin a perfect day by risking potential misinterpretation of my actions.

Birdwise I called it a day in Dingwall and made the pilgrimage I had  promised myself on the way north on the train. My surname is Urquhart. I am from the Clan Urquhart and on the Black Isle there is the tiny village of Urquhart. This is my spiritual home. In truth you can hardly call Urquhart a village, it is just a few houses, a farm and a graveyard.

The ancient graveyard in Urquhart is where many of my ancestors are buried. It is in a most beautiful situation overlooking the southern shore of the Cromarty Firth and looks across northwest to the currently snow covered mountains of Easter Ross. 

Urquhart graveyard
As I stood in the silence of the graveyard I remembered a sunny Sunday afternoon a very long time ago, when as a wee boy my grandmother took me on the tiny ferry boat from Invergordon, across the firth to this graveyard where she wandered around studying the inscriptions on the gravestones (a very Scottish trait) while I played on the beach, heedless of care or the wider world and my interest in birds and nature was unwittingly born. 

That was in the early years of my life and now here I was back in the same place but towards the other end of my life. The bitter sweet feelings of remembrance and communion made me feel very strange. Emotional, more so than usual. But why? The love I have for the Highlands and the joy of being here, albeit briefly, is tempered by the memories of those long gone and innocent halcyon days, the sadness that they are gone never to return and now here I stand amongst my ancestors bearing mute witness to my emotional turmoil. I like to think they understand but I doubt they would offer much sympathy. 

It was a hard life all those years ago and Scotsmen don't cry - or do they?

1 comment:

  1. It just gets better and better. Thank goodness we English aren't too proud to shed a tear.
    The Oxon Feather.