Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
HOW TO SEE ALL THE SCOTTISH SPECIALITIES IN TWO WEEKENDS,
Diary of two weekends spent with Lee Evans the foremost twitcher/bird logger in Britain.
Without doubt Lee Evans is the most famous and intensely dedicated twitcher in Britain and as my diary illustrates he goes to inordinate lengths to ensure he gets all the British Birds on an annual basis.
As can be deduced from this brief account his fanaticism compels him to be not only, a truly unique birder but also gives him an amazing ability to utilise the time at his disposal. Not my idea of what birding is all about, but unquestionably an efficient means of seeing as many different species in as short a time as possible, providing you have the necessary stamina.
This diary was not written, to be published, it was simply my own record of trips with a quite unique individual and an attempt to illustrate some idea of the logistics of his incredible annual quest. Consequently much of the text is anecdotal and of only marginal interest to other birders but there is also much that I am sure will be of help. After reading other trip reports on the Internet, I thought that it might be of some assistance to other birders planning Scottish trips.
As will no doubt be readily deduced, the frantic pace of Lee's trips and his lack of communication, meant it was difficult to keep as accurate notes as I would have liked. None the less I am sure that any birder keen enough to firstly find and subsequently read this article should be able to utilise it and make their Scottish trip more successful.
I have retrospectively added map references and any other information that I could remember that may be of use.
Hopefully it will help readers to locate the Scottish specials in as short a time as possible or more sensibly plan a more leisurely visit. I would defy anyone to come up with a more efficient circuit than those that Lee has evolved over many years. I have subsequently followed his summer itinerary and successfully found all his target birds myself. It seems he uses the second weekend to ensure he gets a second chance to see the resident birds that he might have missed earlier in the year as well as getting the summer migrants.
Not only does he know where to see birds, he also knows when, not just the time of year, which is fairly obvious, but also more specifically the time of day. Less experienced birders would do well to note his times of arrival at certain sites to maximise their chances of seeing particular birds.
To enable accurate location of these sites, I have given grid references taken from the excellent Ordnance Survey Land Ranger 1:50 000 maps. These are expensive so it would need quite an investment to get all the relevant issues, however most public libraries in England and presumably Scotland have the complete set in their reference sections. They also have a photocopying facility, which makes it quite easy to accurately pinpoint the sites whilst using an ordinary road atlas to navigate from site to site.
I have also attempted to indicate general location to assist map reading.
If you want to get all these specialities, then get your atlas out and arrange two long weekends in March and June and give it a go.
SCOTLAND 10th, 11th & 12th March 2000.
Friday 10th March 2000
It was this trip that prompted me to respond to Lee's website (unfortunately this website no longer exists) advert and it was one I really wanted to do. Had hoped to rendezvous with Lee at Corley Services, Coventry straight from work (in Leicester) and get some rest before we set off. However, had not got myself sorted out, so had to go home first to get packed and sort out food to take with me. This meant I had to do a 100 mile round trip instead of what I'd hoped would be a leisurely and relaxed 25 mile jaunt from Leicester to Coventry. Left home (Higham Ferrers, Northants) at 9:00p.m. and arrived in time to sort out the layout of the service station, find out where to park my car, how to get across the motorway to be on the opposite side and be ready and waiting. Easily found the service roads to both northbound and southbound service stations so had no problem getting my car into the right place for my return. Once I had got this sorted, rang Lee on his mobile and he said he was just passing Toddington so would be with me in about 45 minutes. Sat in the southbound cafeteria and read a book for a while then crossed the motorway via the footbridge and waited for his arrival. It was surprisingly mild and quite warm, so waited in a conspicuous position between the entrance to the cafeteria and the car park. Was only there a few minutes when they arrived in a very smart looking Mercedes people carrier, did not note the model but it was a luxurious vehicle with two forward facing and three rear facing seats, behind the driver's and passenger's seats. Introduced myself to everyone and noted their names for this diary, Lee and Dave Johnson needed no introduction but Les Holliwell who sat in the front all weekend and Nick Tanner, Des McKenzie and Pat Livingstone all did. They seemed like good sorts, and first impressions proved right, we got on well together over the next two very long days in each others company and I found them great company and they certainly enriched what turned out to be an excellent weekend. The journey north is very straightforward and direct so was uncomplicated and uneventful and we made fantastic progress. I was very tired when I got home from work so did my utmost to relax/sleep as much as possible on the journey. I always find sleeping in cars nearly impossible, but got as much rest as I could, during the 4¾ hours it took us to cover the 320 miles to Stirling. This including a "pit stop" at Lancaster (an average speed of nearly 70mph) was just a blur, so I must have got some rest. We arrived at Stirling services at 3:30a.m. and tried to get some sleep before moving on at dawn 6:00a.m.
Saturday 11th March 2000.
Black Grouse Lek.
A822 Between Crieff and Dunkeld.
Black Grouse are relatively abundant in the Amulree area and there are several sizeable leks along the A822 between Crieff and Dunkeld. The birds favour the lush green fields adjacent to the young conifer plantations in which to display. The ten-mile stretch of road between Amulree and Trochny being the most productive.
Please watch only from the car and do not trespass or disturb.
The omens were not good though, it was blowing a gale throughout the night and it was still cold and very windy when we arrived at the site on the A822 with not a grouse to be seen, black or even red. Lekking black grouse ought to be very conspicuous from such a viewpoint, but despite close scrutiny all we saw were distant views of skulking red grouse before we accepted "defeat" and moved on. Despite our failure with the black grouse we did see two species here that we did not see again and one that we started counting and were surprised how many we eventually saw. A pair of Ravens were displaying close to the road and a pair of Grey Partridge were also at very close range, ultimately giving us all good views. We also saw our first buzzard of the day before heading off in an disorientating and confusing journey to Glenshee via Aberfeldy where we got Grey Wagtail and Butterstone where we saw our first Greylag Geese, my first truly wild ones as opposed to their feral cousins in the south of England.
The Greylag Goose is a regular winter visitor from Iceland (primarily to Scotland) with up to 100,000 birds wintering in Britain between mid October and May. A large feral population also exists in southern England and Wales. The main wintering concentrations are found in the Moray Firth area, Aberdeenshire, the central Southern Uplands and SW Scotland. A total of about 800 pairs of truly native stock, still survive in NW Scotland and Orkney and these are largely resident.
Wild Greylags feed almost exclusively on farmland by day and roost on estuaries, reservoirs, lochs or river islands at night. The largest numbers to be found are in Inverness-shire, Moray & Nairn and Aberdeenshire.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 43 140E:778N
A93 South of Braemar
8:30 to 9:30a.m.
There is a ski lift and a small complex at the side of the A93 at Glenshee and although the mountains were snow capped there did not appear to be enough for good skiing. Even so the car parks were pretty full and lots of skiers were milling about and obviously preparing to go skiing.
The ski-ing complex at Glenshee is also an excellent site in which to record Ptarmigan and one of the only places in Britain where the species can be watched from the warmth and comfort of a vehicle. Up to 20 birds are present here during winter and can be seen between December and March feeding on the often snow-covered peak of Cairnwell. They can be 'scoped from the tourist car park at NO 140 778 and are to be found amongst the scree-slopes and rocks just below the skyline. During heavy snow, they often move down the hillside and can be seen at the same level as the car park.
Large flocks of Red Grouse can be seen in winter along Glen Clunie, a steep-sided valley south of Braemar. The Old Military Road (A93) leads south to Spittal of Glenshee and the stretch from Auchallater southwards is highly productive. The area is also good for Peregrine and Arctic Hare and is one of the only places in Britain where Ptarmigan can be watched from the comfort of your car. Park in the ski-centre car park at NO 140 778 and view the high peak of Cairnwell to the west. The Red Grouse are present lower down the slope in winter and around the upper levels in summer.
Glenshee is located some seven miles south of Braemar on the A93
We stopped in a large lay-by just south of the ski centre where it was very easy to 'scope the adjacent mountain and easily got onto the pure white Ptarmigan and mountain hares on and around the snowfields at the summit.
The Ptarmigan is a bird of mountainous terrain and is restricted to the Scottish Highlands. They occur on all large areas of Arctic-alpine ground in Scotland and obtain cover from rocks and feed on scant alpine vegetation. They are beautifully camouflaged in both summer and winter and can be quite difficult to detect, allowing approach to within a few yards.
Me Des and Pat climbed part way up the mountain to get better views but quickly realised our limitations and descended and settled for the perfectly adequate views from the car park. Les, however, who is older than me, easily got to the summit and ultimately came back saying he'd had stunning views of at least 6 birds which confirmed how many we'd seen. On his way down he flushed several Red Grouse affording us proper sightings of this other local speciality.
The Red Grouse is the only species endemic to Great Britain and is confined to Scotland, northern and southwest England, Wales and Ireland. The birds are sedentary with the highest densities occurring in northern England and eastern Scotland. They breed on open, treeless moorland dominated by heather or crowberry and nest between March and early June.
It was still cold and windy and was not yet 10:00a.m. when we left and headed north to Braemar. Saw more buzzards from the car and Des who was logging how many he had seen proposed we have a sweepstake to guess what total he would have at the end of our trip and the five of us in the back pledged 50p a man and nominated a total.
The Linn of Dee Area
O.S. Land Ranger No.43. 062E 897N
Signposted minor road west out of Braemar.
10:30a.m. to 12:00 noon.
The Linn of Dee is a schism in the rocks, which forms a very narrow constriction in the River Dee. This unique natural feature is an obvious tourist attraction and there is a large car park here to accommodate the very many visitors who come to see this wonder of nature. We came near here to see another natural wonder and the holy grail of many birders. Capercaillie is a notoriously difficult bird to get and we all doubted whether we would actually see one over the weekend and Lee was not sure we actually would.
The Capercaillie is a localised Scottish breeder which is markedly decreasing in numbers, and is restricted to the Scots Pine forests of Tayside, Grampian and Highland. It is an incredibly difficult bird to locate and can take many hours of seemingly endless walking to find. Very occasionally a rogue male will take up territory near or on a public footpath and afford excellent views but more often than not, searching of suitable forest will prove fruitless. WARNING territorial males on footpaths will attack humans if approached too closely and have been known to cause serious injury.
Capercaillies frequent open mature pine woods on hills and valleys with an undergrowth of heather and bilberry and spend much of their time feeding on needles and shoots high in the treetops. The sound of them crashing through the canopy as one approaches is often all that is witnessed of them and it is a rare sight nowadays to see males lekking. It is probably one of the hardest birds on the British List to find and the felling of natural pine forest, as well as the hazard of deer fencing, has had a devastating effect on their numbers.
Note from Editor: Please avoid searching for Capercaillie
at dawn in March, since disturbance of the lek is impossible to
avoid, and the birds don't come back. There are now about 850 left, and dropping.
He took us to a wood where he had previously seen them and assigned Nick and Pat to climb up the hill and walk through the trees parallel to the track which the rest of us were walking along. His technique worked sublimely well and in only a few minutes we had flushed 4 cock birds and got a magnificent view of one as it flew and banked over our heads. It was a sight of a magnificent bird I will never forget and I'm sure Des who was along side me felt the same. I had not dare hope I would see Capercaillie so from now on everything else would be a bonus as far as I was concerned, more bonuses were to follow to reward our self imposed endurance test. We did not want to disturb these increasingly rare birds too much, so did not continue our search once we had seen them (Lee requested that we did not divulge the exact site and in deference to his wishes must leave the location anonymous) so we returned to the car which was parked near some houses. In the gardens of these houses were several bird feeders and these were attracting lots of tits and finches. Mostly chaffinches and blue tits, at first we did not take much notice until Nick spotted a Brambling amongst the chaffinches and then with closer attention saw an incredibly vividly marked male Siskin and lots of Coal Tits coming to a peanut feeder in an adjacent garden. Not rare birds but always a delight to see and year ticks for me as are all birds underlined starting with capital letters in this diary. Just 24 hours earlier a Gyr Falcon had been released at the Linn of Dee and we were all choked that they could not wait just one more day so we could have seen it. This area is popular with hikers and we walked a mile or so through the woods to an open area overlooking mountains (0.S. 063E 914N) and a lovely stretch of the river. By now the wind had died down and it was becoming a beautiful day, a seemingly perfect day to see large raptors and the perfect place to see them and a place I am sure Lee expected to find golden eagles.
The Golden Eagle is resident breeder in Britain in internationally important numbers, with a population of between 540 and 600 pairs. It is almost exclusively confined to the west coast islands and highlands of northern Scotland, with just roving immatures accounting for records to the south and east of the range.
Like most species of birds of prey, Golden Eagles are heavily persecuted, with poisoning, egg collecting and continuing loss of habitat taking an annual toll on numbers. Because of these dangers, it is not possible to publish the whereabouts of breeding pairs and I can only recommend those sites in which there is a high chance of connecting with a non-breeding wandering individual.
None appeared though but we did see our first Scottish Parrot Crossbill here.
The Scottish Crossbill is considered by Evans & Turner 1996 to be a smaller-billed race of Parrot Crossbill but by Knox (see British Birds 83: 89-94) to be a species in its own right. The bird is largely resident in the central and eastern Highlands of Scotland and is somewhat restricted to the Caledonian Pine forest, particularly in Speyside. It differs from Common Crossbill in having a larger bill with less overlap at the tip and a much deeper vocabulary and from Parrot Crossbill in its smaller bill and habitat preference. It is a scarce bird and fluctuates in numbers depending on the availability of its main food source, the seeds of the Scots Pine.
It is entirely confined to the central and eastern Scottish Highlands, where it is resident from parts of Tayside, Grampian, Moray & Nairn and Inverness-shire to eastern Ross & Cromarty and southeastern Sutherland. The population is estimated to be at least 250 pairs but may rise to 1,000 pairs in irruption years created by the abundance of the pine crop.
We waited for Nick to return from the car, having run back to check whether his wallet was there. He had noticed he had lost it and we feared it could have been whilst we were searching for the capercaillies in which case he had NO chance of finding it again. Fortunately he eventually returned with big smiles and thumbs up so all was well. This place would warrant a longer stay and would almost certainly produce eagles, I'm sure. Time is of the essence when out with Lee, he sets himself a target and an itinerary and tries his damnest to achieve both and is constantly assessing the logistics of both. Besides being a birder Par Excellence he also has an uncanny knack of being able to estimate/calculate time and distance accurately and generally to make sure he gets to the right places at the right time. We had one final bonus as we left when a red squirrel ran across the road in front of us another lifer for me. It was mid day now and we set off on the 80 mile drive down the Dee valley towards Aberdeen and then up the A90 to the Ythan estuary. It took about 2 hours and Lee let Les take the wheel for just over an hour while he rested. They stopped in a lay-by near Loch Kinord and we managed to get a few trip ticks whilst they changed seats. The Dee valley is a beautiful place, were I not so tired I would have enjoyed scenery more. As it was no matter how hard I tried to savour the beauty all around, I just had to close my eyes from time to time and try to rest.
Inches Point:Ythan Estuary.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 38. 004E 257N.
A90 North of Aberdeen
2:00p.m. to 3:00p.m.
I am amazed I had never heard of this place, it ought to be legendary and it is somewhere I will definitely re-visit. We arrived about 2:00p.m. and the numbers and diversity of wildfowl and waders all within easily viewable range assaulted my senses. Lee's primary reason for coming here was to get King Eider which 'unfortunately' he found quite quickly.
The King Eider is an annual vagrant with at least 76 recorded in Britain and a further eight recorded in Ireland. Certain individuals have joined resident Common Eider flocks and have remained for periods of up to twenty years. Scotland is obviously the best place in which to encounter this beautiful seaduck, and Shetland attracts the largest numbers.
Up to three drake King Eiders have been recorded on the Ythan Estuary in recent years and it is very unusual for not one to be present between April and July. The estuary is composed of inter-tidal mud and sand flats, with extensive mussel beds confined to the deeper channel. This in turn attracts vast numbers (up to 3,000) of moulting and breeding Eider. When present, the King Eiders appear to favour three distinct areas: at low tide, the shallow water between Inches Point and Waterside Bridge is best with the bird being visible from the Point (NK 005 256 - Sheet 38) or from the public footpath on the east side directly opposite, or occasionally the sandy dune beach at NK 008 250 is used for roosting. At high tide, King Eiders occasionally wander as far as the river mouth and can be looked for from the beach at the SE end of the village (NK 005 246). The estuary itself can be reached by taking the A92 north from Aberdeen for about ten miles, both Newburgh and Waterside Bridge being located on the A975.
I say unfortunately because I would have liked longer to savour the delights before my eyes. The relatively small part of the estuary we 'scoped was alive with breeding pairs of Eider, Long tailed Ducks, Red breasted Mergansers, Scaup and Common Scoter as well as waders, Turnstone, Redshank, Knot and Black tailed Godwit. Not all the party saw the King Eider because it swam out of sight into the bay near Newburgh, but, it was fairly obvious, even without a map, that it was possible to drive much closer to it and ensure everyone saw it. No one could have dreamed just how close we did get, or how good a view we got. The road from Newburgh to Waterside Bridge runs right alongside the estuary on an elevated sea wall so it is possible to observe birds from the car at very close range. The King Eider had swum here with a small group of Eider and they were literally only a few feet from the car (O.S.002E 262N.). We had outstanding close ups and watched as it displayed to both male and female Eider and were able to marvel at its fantastic plumage and note that no field guide could do justice to its beautifully coloured head. It was also good to be able to observe both male and female Eider at ridiculously close range in absolutely perfect light and note the subtleties of their plumage as well. We spent at least half an hour enraptured and aware how privileged we were to get such spectacular views, oh!! to have had a camera, it would have been possible to take a terrific picture with just an ordinary and inexpensive one.
Ugie Estuary, Peterhead.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 30. 120E 474N.
3:10p.m. to 3:30p.m.
We had heard on the pager that a Ring billed Gull had been reported here and so it made sense to call and check it out. A public car is not the place you would expect to find a rare bird. However not many car parks overlook small estuaries and offer the opportunity for car parkers to feed wild birds. This, however, is what happens here and gatherings of mute swans are regularly fed, and naturally the gulls take advantage of these handouts. A birder had been in the car park all day (since 10a.m.) and said he'd not seen the ring-bill whilst he was there. Not very promising, however; after only cursory looking, either Des or Nick (not sure which one) spotted it, as it flew in amongst a mixed flock of gulls that were milling about and taking advantage of the free food on offer. We all had excellent close up views of the bird, which must have been around all day and had not been recognised by the guy in the car park. At least we put him on to it and put and end to his fruitless vigil. All in all a worthwhile stop, good bird, good deed. This place is hardly the birdwatching capital of the world so naturally we did not stay too long and left at 3:30p.m.
Loch of Strathbeg.
O.S. Land Ranger No.30. 057E 582N.
4:00p.m. to 5:00pm
The Loch of Strathbeg is an RSPB reserve situated halfway between Peterhead and Fraserburgh and is an important site for wintering wildfowl, principally greylags and pink footed geese and well worth a visit. We only made a fleeting visit to the main hide and the visitor centre to check what was about before setting off in search of the wild geese flocks in the surrounding fields. We spent some time tracking up and down lanes and farm roads to the north of the reserve, eventually getting on to a flock of Pink-footed Geese with a solitary Greenland white front in amongst them. We had earlier seen a lone Barnacle Goose in with another flock, overall though our stop here was not too successful. However as we left to head for Fraserburgh we spotted a Corn Bunting on a barbed wire fence, a bird I always delight in seeing.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 30. 000E 670N.
5:30p.m. to 6:45p.m.
Fraserburgh is an important and fairly large fishing port and as such is a magnet for gulls. We arrived here at 5:30p.m. and stayed until it was nearly dark just over an hour later. Being the weekend and quite late the docks were virtually deserted so we just drove all around and stopped and scanned each and every congregation of gulls we saw. This certainly was a worthwhile exercise seeing quite a variety of sea birds as well as two Grey Seals that were nonchalantly resting on the lifeboat slipway in the middle of the harbour, right in the middle of town. We saw four Iceland Gulls including a beautiful biscuit white juvenile all at ludicrously close quarters as well as the commoner species and a couple of the Scandinavian race of herring gull. I also had year ticks for Gannet, Guillemot and Shag dozens of the latter two species perched on a ledge on the harbour wall. Presumably because it is hardly glamourous, Fraserburgh does not get a mention in Madders and Welstead's 'Where to watch birds in Scotland' but it is undoubtedly well worth a visit for the gulls and ought to be included.
We left Fraserburgh sometime between 6:30 and 7:00p.m. and headed the 80 or so miles to Grantown on Spey where we were booked to stay the night. We had all been up and working or travelling for over 36 hours by now so were all very tired and most of us dozed and no doubt got a little rest, Lee however, dutifully carried on driving all the way. We stopped in Keith for some fish and chips, our first stop for food since leaving Stirling over 13 hours previously. Fortunately I had brought plenty of food with me so would have managed, but Dave with whom I shared some, would have been starving if I hadn't. The fish and chips were delicious and made a lovely supper. Finally arrived in Grantown about 9:00p.m. after travelling well over 700 miles in the previous 24 hours. Lee had stopped at the guesthouse many times before so we were expected and booking in only took a few minutes. Whereupon we all decided to go for a drink in the hotel across the road, however I was so tired I barely finished my pint and quickly went back. Had a shower and was in bed and dead to the world when all the rest came in, never heard a sound until 5:30a.m. Slept like a log.
Forest Lodge: Abernethy Forest.
O.S. Land Ranger No.36. 021E:162N
Study O.S. Map closely. This site is not easy to find without a large-scale map, but is quite easy to find with the much clearer Land Ranger Map.
6:15a.m. to 8:30a.m.
Everybody was up on time for a pre breakfast trip to the Abernethy Forest and we left the B&B at 6:15a.m. A quick stop at Nethy Bridge for Dipper and then the short drive to Forest Lodge where most of us thought we were primarily looking for crested tits and crossbills.
The Dipper is a fairly common resident of fast-flowing rivers and streams in the upland regions of Scotland, Northern England and Wales, with isolated populations in southwest England and the north Midlands. Although resident, they are less easy to locate during winter and are often to be found wintering at lower levels and often where rivers meet the sea.
Lee is so knowledgeable and focused and so certain; he never bothers to explain his moves, or route, or itinerary to us mere mortals. Obviously it makes sense to understand and appreciate this, and just stick close to him and do what he does, and go where he goes. Most of us ignored this bit of common sense logic and left our 'scopes in the car thinking a telescope would be superfluous in the forest. Wrong!! Next time do what Lee does. We promised to be back for breakfast at 8:45a.m. The path we took was at least a 3-mile circuit taking a triangular circuit south to Rynetin, so we could not linger about too much. As usual Lee marched off at his normal quick march and I hustled along keeping in close touch. Eventually he came to an open area that looked out to distant crags where he stopped and scanned the horizon. At first with no success, but quite soon afterwards he put us all onto a distant Golden Eagle that seemed to be hunting over the mountainside.
Whilst here he also heard then put us onto a pair of Parrot Crossbills and a few yards further up the track we also had a Crested Tit in a mixed flock of tits that were flitting about in the tops of some Scots Pines.
The Crested Tit is a very localised and sedentary species, which is restricted to Caledonian Pine forests and mature Scots Pine forests in the Moray Basin of the central Scottish Highlands. The population is estimated to be in the region of 900 pairs, with birds breeding from Strathspey north into Morayshire, Banffshire, Nairn. Easter Ross and southern Sutherland, and west as far as Strathglass (West Inverness).
Although resident, birds can be very difficult to locate in winter, as many leave the bleakness of the woodlands to visit rural gardens for food. However, from late February onwards, they may be found at potential breeding sites and can be located by their distinctive and trilling 'prrrululull' call note.
Crested Tit is renowned as a hard bird to get so I was surprised when we did not stay too long and get better views. Neither I, or the others knew where we were going, or how far it might be, so had no alternative other than just keep up or get left behind and get lost. It turned out Lee was heading for an area where he hoped to see lekking black grouse, but despite it being an absolutely glorious morning, once again we dipped out on them. It had taken some time to get to here and was getting close to the pre arranged breakfast time so me, Lee and Dave set off back to the car at a brisk pace assuming the others would follow at a similar speed. They didn't and hadn't, so Lee drove up the track to find them, leaving me and Dave behind, to ensure the gated road was not locked behind him. While he was gone another Parrot Crossbill flew over and perched for a while.
Scottish Crossbills may be found in moderate numbers in Abernethy Forest and are seen at a number of localities within the reserve boundary throughout the year in the Caledonian forest surrounding Forest Lodge. Park at NH 019 161 and explore the circular footpath that leads past Rynettin cottages and north parallel with the river as well as the footpath that leads north from the track at NH 013 162. Capercaillie and Crested Tit are both likely to be seen from these same footpaths
The extensive woodlands at nearby Forest Lodge hold up to eight Capercaillies but these are difficult to locate. Forest Lodge is reached from the Tulloch road at NH 998 167, an RSPB reserve car park being situated at NJ 019 161.
The wardens at Forest Lodge regularly hang up suet and nut bags around the lodge buildings and these attract up to ten Crested Tits in winter. The houses at Forest Lodge are private RSPB accommodation, and the feeders are out of bounds to visitors. There is a sign saying so. The track to the right of the car park that leads down to Rynettin cottages attracts up to five nesting pairs in summer and these can be seen from the main footpath. Park at NH 019 161, accessed from the minor road between Tulloch and Loch Garten
When Lee got back it transpired Nick had once again lost his wallet, and once again it could well have been in a place where his chance of finding it would have been less than zero. However this time he miraculously found it on the footpath and his agonies were not too protracted and we were not delayed too long and were not too late for breakfast. The early morning walk had worked up a healthy appetite so the well-cooked breakfast was much appreciated, as were the generous extra helpings of toast and the fresh pot of tea. Soon afterwards we packed up our kit and less than forty-five minutes after coming back from Abernethy we were on the road again at 9:30a.m.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 35. 709E 178E
A9: South of Inverness.
10a.m. to 11:00a.m.
The Findhorn Valley is reached from Tomatin (next to the A9), 15 miles south of Inverness and about 12 miles north of Aviemore. The single-track road begins at Findhorn Bridge. Away from breeding areas, and is the best site in Scotland in which to see Golden Eagles. They are present all year and generally number up to 6-8 birds. Most are immatures, but occasionally adults wander in as well as first or second year White-tailed Eagles from the reintroduction programme on the west coast. The road up the valley is about twelve miles long and extremely treacherous in winter and is only single track throughout most of its length. There are several spots along the road which continuously produce sightings, but which require extreme caution when parking. It is essential to use Landranger Map 35 for this purpose, with recommended stops near Laggan (NH 749 227), opposite Creag Dhubh (NH 736 195), around Coignascallan (NH 730 185) and from Coignafearn Old Lodge (NH 709 178). Golden Eagles tend to soar or fly high over the valley, and particularly favour the rocky cliff-sides and the steep side-valleys on the east side of the river. The walk SW from Coignafearn Old Lodge to the new lodge at NH 680 155 will also produce sightings as well as the minor and gated road from Garbole to Farr.
This valley should also produce sightings of Goosander, Peregrine, Common Buzzard, Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Ring Ouzel and Red Grouse, as well as Red Deer and Mountain Hare. Goshawk is also resident.
The Findhorn Valley is reputedly the best place in Scotland for raptors, especially golden eagle. It's only about 25 miles from Grantown to the Findhorn so it was still fairly early when we got there. We drove at a reasonably leisurely pace the 9 or 10 miles from the A9 to Coignafearn where the dirt road finally ends, keeping an eye out for soaring raptors. Saw a few buzzards, and at this stage any of the five of us in the back could still have won our buzzard sweepstake, but the ones with the lower estimates were beginning to look vulnerable. Also saw a pair of Goosanders and another dipper on the river and the carcass of a dead red deer that had been washed down the river and left high and dry on the shingle riverbank. Hoped to see ravens or eagles feeding on this carrion but no doubt it had not been there long, it looked fresh. Those of us on the left hand side, looking out over the valley had the best views, yet it was Pat who got the best bird. Despite sitting in a rear-facing seat on the mountainside of the road he put us onto a Goshawk, which flew from one side of the valley to the other, a distance of at least 2 miles.
The Northern Goshawk is a rare breeding resident in Britain with a population of between 312 and 360 pairs. It is seldom seen, however, because of its rather secretive behaviour. They breed at rather low densities in primarily larch and coniferous woodland and are predominantly sedentary. Food is obtained by hunting in both woodland and open country and generally consists of birds (mostly Stock Dove and Wood Pigeon), Grey Squirrels, Rabbits and other medium-sized mammals. The current British population of Goshawks is largely derived from imported birds which have escaped from hawk keepers or which have been deliberately released into the wild. Gamekeepers and estate owners throughout the last century heavily persecuted the natural population, which was last recorded nesting in Yorkshire in 1893. It is probable that small numbers survived in Scotland and during 1938-1951, a small nucleus of birds was present in Sussex. Widespread releases and escapes took place between 1968 and 1976 and the population dramatically increased to up to sixty pairs in 1981 and this increasing trend still continues today.
Goshawks are remarkably secretive species and are only reliably seen in March and April. At this time of year, pairs partake in display and can be seen circling high up over woodland for periods up to fifteen minutes. They show best on days of negligible wind and clear, blue skies, and normally appear between 9.30 and 11.00am and 2.15 and 3.00pm
At Coignafearn there is a turning area where we parked for a while scanning the surrounding hills, to no avail. Did not stay too long and were soon on the move again, back down the valley, turning left halfway down, into the unclassified gated road towards Farr. This road took us over some wild and lonely moorland and could easily be an ideal area for raptors and no doubt red grouse. We saw neither; in fact it was a bird free zone.
Loch Ruthven, The Black Isle, Rothiemurchus & The Insh Marshes.
11a.m. to 1:45p.m.
We were too early in the year for Loch Ruthven's specialty, breeding Slavonian Grebes and once again we dipped out at another Black Grouse lek site. It was mid-day now and we headed back along the B851 towards Inverness through Farr where Lee told us Wryneck was known to have bred. We saw our first Scottish Hooded Crows in the fields along this road as we drove towards the A9, which took us north past Inverness and over the modern bridge across the Beauly Firth and into the Black Isle. Red Kites have been reintroduced into this part of Scotland and the population is now thriving so it did not take us too much searching to find one.
The Red Kite is a scarce breeding resident in Britain with at least 77 pairs nesting annually in Wales and a wintering population of at least 284 birds. Small numbers also appear on the south and east coasts between March and May and a large reintroduction programme is in operation in Scotland and Oxfordshire. The wardening of nests to protect them from disturbance and egg collecting has been an essential ingredient to their slow recovery, following their demise to just 3-4 pairs at the turn of the century. Despite recent successes and a general spread in range, the species is still limited to a restricted area of Wales.
Red Kites breed in mature Sessile Oak woodland, often on steep valley-sides. They feed on small mammals, birds, earthworms, beetles and carrion. They remain in the breeding valley from late February to October and then join other birds to scavenge refuse tips, abattoirs and feeding sites throughout the winter months. It is at these large communal feeding sites that Kites are best observed, especially as many nesting sites are extremely vulnerable to disturbance.
We were able to just pull off the road and watch one lazily drifting around us, no more than 20 yards away. It was a lovely sunny day so it was possible to easily observe its unique plumage and to readily see it was not wing tagged. It would have been virtually impossible to improve on this for tick, so once again off we went. Lee had heard there was a small flock of waxwings in Inverness, so naturally we stopped there for a few minutes in the hope of finding them. Normally they are very approachable and fairly easy to find so we did not expend too much energy looking for them, which in all probability would have been a waste of time any way. Since breakfast the day had been fairly anti-climactic and our quest for crested tits at Rothiemurchus was unsuccessful and disappointing, it was now 1:45p.m. so we moved on again.
It is over 120 miles from Aviemore to Largo Bay mostly due south on the A9, which en route passes the Insh Marshes a few miles south of Aviemore. We stopped briefly, on the side of the road here, to see the Whooper Swans on the marsh.
It took us 2 hours to cover these 120 miles and we amused ourselves with little mind games to while away the time. Pat started us off by asking us to name the 19 different second names of football teams (viz: United, Town, City, Rovers etc, etc.) in the English League. From this we graduated to puzzles more in tune with the purpose of our trip. A particularly good one was to name all the birds on the British List whose name begins with the letter S. This proved to be good fun as we took turns to name a new and different one; it certainly turned out to be a real brainteaser. As it did when we varied the theme to include British mammals and then butterflies. Good fun, entertaining company. We also kept the buzzard count going and it soon got to a situation where only Nick or me could win it. Before we reached Largo Bay they all accepted defeat and paid me 50p each and my guess of 88 birds had been exceeded.
Ruddons Point, Largo Bay.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 59. 453E 004N.
A917: East of Glenrothes, South of St. Andrews.
3:45p.m. to 4:30p.m.
We got to Ruddons Point at 3:45 and a sign at the gate on the cliff top track said it would be locked at 4:00p.m. A quarter of an hour at this wonderful place is a ludicrously short time. We in fact stayed nearer three quarters and could easily have spent longer, to do justice to the host of sea ducks, grebes and divers that were all within good viewing range. Definitely worth another visit, but still good to see Surf Scoter,
Surf Scoter is an annual vagrant from North America/NE Siberia with at least 200 recorded in Britain and 65 in Ireland. The majority of British records are from north and east Scotland, where, since 1979, a total of at least ten individuals have been resident. As to be expected, birds join up with wintering flocks of Common and Velvet Scoter and in most cases, it has become evident that they remain with these flocks throughout the year.
Largo Bay - Fife
A traditional site, which regularly attracts up to eight Surf Scoters between October and May. They loosely associate with the Common and Velvet Scoters in the bay and are best observed from Ruddon's Point, at the east end of the bay. They are very often feeding just west of the point and can sometimes afford excellent views. Ruddon's Point can be reached from the A917 between Lower Largo and Elie. About a mile north of Elie, turn right towards Shell Bay Caravan Park and follow to end. Between 9.00am and 4.00pm, the gate is open and one can drive to within 600 yards of the point, but at other times, a walk of one mile must be made from the gate. These birds commute between this site and St Andrew's Bay and in some years are seen from the south side of the Firth of Forth, off Musselburgh and Aberlady Bay.
Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck out to sea and Sanderlings and Bar-tailed Godwits on the beach. We had a slight panic as we drove back, it looked as though the gate was shut and locked, which could have been awkward. However fortunately it wasn't so a possible crisis was averted, I thought, perhaps, we would now begin to head southwards, Wrong! Lee and Les checked the map and the pager and said we had two alternatives, to go for snow goose at Stranraer 140 miles away or go for green winged teal. It was now 5:00p.m and getting dark so to think we could do 140 miles before it actually got dark was preposterous. So we headed back 45 miles west to a place called Carsebreck Loch near Auchterarder and Gleneagles in the hope of seeing the green-winged teal. It was turned six when we got here and the light was fading fast so Lee sprinted from the car to the loch a distance of perhaps a third of a mile. It soon became obvious that we were at the wrong place. The green winged teal was supposed to be with at least 200 other teal, but no small dabbling ducks were to be seen. Another quick jog back to the car and a drive back to the A9 where we were able to park in a lay-by overlooking the loch, it was almost dark now. At least we found the teal and Lee got the green wing but none of the rest of us was able to pick it out in the gloom. All in all it was a disappointing end to what overall had been a successful and enjoyable weekend. The weather had been kind; quite spring like, we'd had good views of good birds, seen over a hundred different species and the final buzzard count was 97, which we all under estimated. By the time we set off on the 350-mile drive south to Corley it was turned 6:30p.m. Did not keep any notes of the journey back, which was largely uneventful. We were all very tired and most of us dozed and tried to get some sleep, am sure we all did manage some. Lee however despite doing well over 1400 miles of driving in just over 48 hours stayed awake and alert and drove safely all the way back. Got back to Corley Services at 11:30p.m and was in Leicester just before midnight. Decided to sleep in the site office to ensure I would not be late for work in the morning. When I got there I could not start the generator so was not able to have any heat or light, however was so tired it did not matter much and I did get enough sleep to enable me to do my work and cope quite well.
As can easily be deduced it would be easy to add the following trip, [18th March 2000 (in reverse)] and make a very successful long weekend.
SCOTLAND 18th March 2000.
Leave home 5:00a.m
If any one trip were needed to illustrate Lee's commitment to his quest, this, surely would be the one. Certainly amongst the ones I have accompanied him so far. Whilst we were in Scotland the week before I felt sure Lee wanted to try to get to Stranraer to get the snow goose. Despite the impossible logistics, I believed he wanted to try to get there when we left Largo Bay. So when I rang Lee to check about our trip to Israel, I was not surprised when he said he was planning to go to Scotland again. He said he would be leaving early and had to pick up somebody else in Oxford, so we agreed to meet at Bicester Services on the M40 at 6:00a.m. This meant leaving the house at 5:00a.m and getting up around 4:00 to ensure I was ready. Obviously Lee would have had the same timetable, having to come a similar distance. I know the journey to Bicester like the back of my hand so knew I would be there on time and duly arrived at 5:45a.m. Rang Lee, who said he'd be there on time and sure enough, he was. Bill Page who was our travelling companion was also already at the service station so we left without delay. It was a beautiful morning as we headed north in the little Ford Fiesta Lee had hired for the trip. Knowing how gruelling these trips can be I tried to get as much rest as possible, was in the back on my own so I did my best to relax and if possible sleep. Lee drove for about an hour and a half, to Sandbach, and then asked if I'd take the wheel, saying he'd not had much sleep. Knowing his ability to keep going, goodness knows whether he'd slept last night or not. So I was happy to oblige, and drove the next couple of hours up to Carlisle, stopping briefly at Lancaster to put £30:00 worth of petrol in the tank and agreeing with Bill that he would fill up next time. Lee never explains where we are going, he knows where he's going and what he wants to see, He has pre-planned his itinerary and sees no need or point in explaining or even mentioning it. From what I've seen so far this cannot be contested, he knows his stuff and makes sure he makes efficient use of his time when out birding. So it pays to just 'go with the flow' and follow where he leads.
Castle Carrock, Cumbria.
O.S. Land Ranger No.86. 569E 555N
B 6413 (A69): East of Carlisle.
9:30a.m. to 10:a.m.
Lee took over the driving when we left the M6 and followed some detailed directions to a black grouse lek site near Castle Carrock. Through his extensive network of contacts he gets very detailed locations of sites for rare birds to add to his already almost definitive list. This site was a new one for Lee and from the details he'd got we drove straight there and parked at the spot suggested, near a cattle grid. This was at O.S. map ref. 569:565 near Talkin Fell. It was a lovely sunny, spring morning and although at first it looked as though once again I would not see any grouse, to be in such a place of natural beauty was a delight. However we had not been there too long before Lee heard a Black Grouse and almost as if on cue a hen bird flew by us and perched on top of a small hawthorn tree quite close to us. It stayed there for several minutes affording us great views.
The Black Grouse is a declining resident of Scotland and Wales, with much smaller numbers in northern England. They inhabit forest edges and heather moorland and groups of males indulge in lekking displays close to the breeding areas. Birds are generally secretive and are best seen early mornings, lekking males in spring being the most easily observed.
The males are sociable throughout the year but females are less gregarious and are usually seen in only ones and twos. Lekking usually commences in late February and continues until late May. Peak activity is at the end of April/early May and generally occurs during the first two hours of daylight. The lek is usually a flat area of short grass in a forest clearing, on open moorland or near a young conifer plantation.
Eventually Lee got onto a couple of lekking males just across the valley. The hen obviously also became aware of them and eventually flew off in their direction, although we were able to watch the cock birds we did not see the hen thereafter. We spent about half an hour here before leaving just after 10:00a.m.
O.S. Land Ranger No. 84. 926E 560N
A710: South of Dumfries.
11:40a.m. to 1:20p.m.
It's about 60 miles from Castle Carrock to Mersehead and we got there at 11:40a.m. Here once again Lee's ability to get up to the minute information came to the fore. We met a couple who obviously knew Lee and he immediately asked them about the snow goose. They said that they had just seen it in flight with a flock of barnacle geese and doubted whether it was possible to see it from the hide. Nonetheless, Lee set off at his usual high speed pace the half a mile or so to the hide. Knowing his normal pace I did my utmost to keep up, although Bill who told me he was an International standard marathon runner trailed behind with the couple who gave us the information. At the hide and its adjacent scrape were the usual waders and wildfowl and perhaps 200 or 300 barnacle geese, but no snow goose.
The Barnacle Goose is a common winter visitor to SW Scotland and Ireland with up to 33,000 birds appearing annually. Large numbers are also breeding ferally in southern England with flocks of up to 200 birds being commonplace.
There are three separate breeding populations of Barnacle Goose in the world and two of these winter exclusively in Britain and Ireland. Birds breeding on the east side of Greenland winter on islands off the north and west coasts of Scotland, in Ireland, and onSkomer Island and the Dyfi Estuary (Dyfed), whilst those from Spitzbergen, in the Svalbard, winter almost exclusively on the inner Solway Firth. The third population nests on the islands of Novaya Zemlya and Vaygach, off the Siberian coast, and winters in Holland and West Germany. Fluctuating numbers of these birds cross the North Sea to East Anglia and southeast England, particularly when the continent experiences freezing conditions.
Barnacle Geese are very gregarious in their winter quarters, both at roost and when feeding, and form vast flocks. They favour coastal sites and frequent salt marshes or agricultural pastures within ten miles of the sea, and are faithful to their chosen winter haunts
A total of up to 12,178 Barnacle Geese winter at Caerlaverock and can be seen from the reserve hides or at nearby Mersehead or in roadside fields in the area. The refuge is well signposted from the B725, one mile south of Bankend. This road also offers ideal viewing opportunities of the Merse and the eastern side of the Nith Estuary. There is a parking area at NY 018 653.
Consequently, Lee was only marginally interested and once again quizzed all and sundry about the snow goose's most recent movements. It transpired that it was last seen flying east out of the reserve and it usually did not return until late afternoon. Lee had not come all this way not to see his intended quarry, so he quickly decided to leave the hide and go and look for it. This eventually took us on an about 4-mile walk over fields and sand dunes. We saw the remaining barnacle geese take to the air from the hide area and watched where they landed. A longish walk along the beach and over sand dunes eventually brought us to a place where with a bit of judicious stalking, we were able to look over a flock of about 4,000 Barnacle Geese and easily pick out the lone white morph Snow Goose amongst them.
The Snow Goose is a rare, but annual vagrant to Scotland, with up to ten occurring in flocks of Icelandic Greylag or Pink-footed Geese or Spitsbergen Barnacle Geese. In England, at least 242 free-flying feral Snow Geese were recorded in 1995, with breeding taking place in at least four locations.
A flock of full-winged Snow Geese exists on the island of Mull (Strathclyde), this flock numbering 41 in December 1993. These birds winter on nearby Coll and successfully breed in most years.
Recent winters have also seen single white morph birds in the Loch Leven area (Tayside) (with wintering Pink-feet) and in fields south of the A9 near Forteviot. Birdline Scotland (09068 700234) carries full directions to Snow Geese as and when they occur.
Eventually we got quite close and were able to get much better views than are normal with truly wild geese. Not before we had nearly 'spooked' them when, although out of view I spoke a bit too loudly and a few birds took to the air. Fortunately the rest did not become alarmed and the whole flock settled contentedly to grazing very quickly. This enabled us to get into an ideal spot on the dunes and get excellent views before making the long trek back to the car. On the way back we flushed a couple of Roe Deer that were sheltering in the dunes, we also met the warden of the reserve who told us that it was possible to see nightjars here in summer. This naturally interested Lee and it will be interesting to see if he calls here in June. The final walk across the fields proved worthwhile, as we were lucky enough to see a Merlin hunting at close range. It was 1:20p.m when we got to the car and a beautiful warm afternoon and we set off to Wigtown.
Wigtown, Kirkcowan and West Freugh.
2:30p.m. to 3:45p.m.
Lee had heard on his pager that a garganey had been reported on flooded fields near Wigtown, he needed this for a year tick so we headed the 50 miles to the site, a place he never previously visited. One other birder was already there when we arrived an hour and a quarter later but he had not seen it and there were no other teal on the flood, so obviously things did not look promising. Once again we only saw common birds and some distant views of wild geese and whooper swans. Bill thought we were going to look for golden eagles next and I had no idea what was next on the agenda. As it turned out we had another 30 miles plus drive to West Freugh looking for more wild geese, stopping at Kirkcowan where Lee added another site to his already extensive collection of dipper locations. It was 3:30p.m when we got to West Freugh, which is a well-known area for Greenland White Front Geese, and we eventually found a field with a flock of about 400 and perhaps 20 Greylags. At first they were "hidden' by the undulations of the field, but we eventually found a good place to get proper views and once again Lee's tenacity to see a bird paid off.
The Greenland White-fronted Goose is a localised winter visitor, which is found in internationally important numbers in Britain and Ireland. It can be separated from the European White-front in its much darker plumage and orange rather than pink bill. It breeds only in west Greenland and winters almost exclusively in Ireland, north and west Scotland and in mid-Wales.
Greenland White-fronted Geese reach their wintering grounds in Britain in October and remain until mid-late April. They are generally static throughout the period, although some wandering between sites does occur.
Loch Ryan near
O.S. Land Ranger No. 82.
4:30p.m. to 5;15p.m.
Neither Bill nor I knew where we were going next and once again Lee did not see fit to let us know. It was turned half past four when we passed Stranraer and drove north up the west side of Loch Ryan, eventually stopping at the roadside where two other birders were scanning the loch. We joined them and quickly 'got onto' several distant red throated divers and red breasted mergansers and a few eider ducks quite close in which Bill was very pleased with, it seemed he'd not seen one before. We also had distant views of Slavonian Grebe and long tailed duck here. The other two birders told Lee that there ought to be black guillemot on the loch but none were in view. Consequently we returned towards Stranraer and stopped again near a small boatyard slip way (O.S. 035E. 665N.) and scanned the loch from a different viewpoint. We were much more successful here, seeing 3 Black Guillemots a Black Necked Grebe a Red Necked Grebe and a Black Throated Diver as well as 3 long tailed duck, 20 common scoters and 20 goldeneye. Although these were all mostly distant views, the light was good and all were unequivocal.
The Black Guillemot is a relatively common resident of Scottish waters with its highest breeding density in the Shetland and Orkney Islands. It is also commonly found in Caithness, along the west coast of Scotland and in the Western Isles, and penetrates as far south as the Calf of Man and Anglesey in the Irish Sea and to Muchalls in Grampian in the North Sea. The entire British breeding population is currently estimated to be about 37,000 individuals, about 17% of the European population.
As the species is resident, it can be seen at breeding localities throughout the year, and in NW Scotland and the Northern Isles, it can be easily encountered, especially in harbours or in sheltered coves.
Small numbers of Black Guillemots can be seen in winter in Loch Ryan, north of Stranraer. The harbour area around Cairnryan, on the east shore, is best.
From here we drove through Stranraer to the southern end of the loch and scanned the 'bottom' end of it from the A77 at O.S. 067E. 615N. Very worthwhile too, a flock of 30 Scaup were feeding not too far out to sea affording good views. Loch Ryan, like Largo Bay the previous week is far too good a place to just make a fleeting visit. On any future trip I would plan to stop longer and take more time checking out the grebes, divers, auks and sea ducks, species that are not easily seen in such numbers in England.
It was 5:15p.m now and Lee wanted one more chance to 'get' his garganey so we detoured via Wigtown on our way back to Dumfries. However once again we were unsuccessful and we set off homewards just after 6:00p.m. Our adventures were far from over though. Halfway between Wigtown and Dumfries, Lee was stopped by the traffic police and booked for speeding, which certainly caused him a great deal of concern. He said he had already got 9 points for speeding and this would mean disqualification under the totting up procedure, he was naturally very concerned and made several calls to colleagues on his mobile 'phone to seek some solace. Can't be sure what comfort he got, but the furore had so absorbed him that we failed to notice how low we were on fuel. And the last 20 or so miles to Dumfries were quite stressful as we seemed to be driving on fresh air, so low was the tank. Thankfully, made it and found a filling station where Bill also put in £30:00 worth of petrol in the tank. It was now turned 7:00p.m and we still had over 350 miles to go to get back to Bicester Services so certainly would not be home in time for a pint. Lee carried on driving back to Tebay Services on the M6 where we stopped to get something to eat. Once again he asked would either of us drive whilst he tried to get some sleep, Bill offered and drove all the way back to Bicester. It was a very uneventful journey and we got back just before midnight. We had to pay Lee a further £24:00 to cover the car hire so all in all it was quite an expensive day to see just one 'lifer'. I finally got home just before 1:00a.m. 20 hours and over 800 miles after leaving the house thinking goodness knows what drives him to make such journeys on a habitual basis.
Where to Watch Birds in Scotland