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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Scotland, May 24 - June 4, 2003,
From May 24 through June 4, 2003, I visited Scotland for the first time. This trip combined tourism, spending time with my friends, and, of course, birdwatching. I should note that following my 2002 trip to Mexico with the same group, during which I attempted (and just achieved) a birding "century" - that is, seeing one hundred life birds in a single trip - I vowed that my next vacation would be lighter on the birding and more in the nature of relaxation and enjoying my friends' company. I hewed fairly closely to that objective during this trip. The following is an account of the birding experiences during my travels.
Life birds are represented in all capitals. Generally I have listed only new birds for the trip at each location, thus avoiding monotonous repetition of chaffinch and starling in each entry. The first time each species is mentioned, I provide the genus and species for each bird in parentheses after the common name. Where the British common name for a bird is different from the American appellation, I have presented the British version after a slash (e.g., "Common loon/Great Northern diver"). After the first listing I refer to all such birds by their American common name only.
In preparing for the trip I reviewed a number of trip reports posted by other birders. I am particularly indebted to Graham Mee for his detailed all-over-Scotland trip report fom May, 2001, and to John Girdley for his summary of specialty birding areas in Speyside. As a field guide I relied upon the latest Peterson's, which generally proved perfectly adequate. Perhaps my most intelligent preparatory move was to visit my local library, where I chanced upon the AAA road atlas to Britain - an indispensable resource.
I arrived in Glasgow in the morning, spent a frustrating two and a half hours waiting for my rental car despite my advance reservation, and drove directly to the lodgings my friends and I had rented: Plane Castle, just off a minor road (B9124) about ten minutes out of Stirling. Stirling is approximately thirty minutes' drive northeast of Glasgow, perhaps forty-five minutes northwest of Edinburgh, and less than an hour south of the true beginning of the Highlands. Our location was fairly convenient for birding in the sense that there were only untrafficked country roads between us and major highways such as the M9, M80, and A9 (the main route to the Highlands). However, early-morning visits to Speyside were somewhat difficult and a more northerly location would have facilitated a search for the Scotland specialties.
Plane Castle, however, was a wonderful spot, quiet and scenic, with a beautiful backyard garden area and dramatic views. Our host, John Wright, was exceptionally helpful and certainly gave the lie to the general perception of Scots as taciturn and uncommunicative. He took a particular interest in my birding activities, as well, having some knowledge of the local avifauna.
The trip to Plane Castle yielded the expected common birds: Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), House sparrow (Passer domesticus), Rock dove (Columbia livia), Rook (Corvus frugeligus), Magpie (Pica pica), and Common crow (Corvus corone). After I had settled in and while my friends were trickling in by ones and twos, I took a stroll around the back garden and scoped out the neighboring fields, turning up some life birds fairly quickly. A WILLOW WARBLER (Phylloscopus trochilus) sang persistently from a tree at the edge of the garden, and occasionally moved into partial or full view to allow good study; it was fairly approachable, which was fortunate for visual identification purposes. A trio of Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) fled a hedge as I approached, showing the diagnostic white trailing edges on the secondaries; they landed in a plowed field across the road and I managed to obtain good views through the scope of one of the birds posing atop a furrow's bank. A second, more distant field already held green shoots, and favored me with distant NORTHERN LAPWINGS/LAPWINGS (Vanellus vanellus) and OYSTERCATCHERS (Haematopus ostralegus), the first of many I would see during my stay. Just about every Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) in the world announced its presence musically. A distant Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) called, reminding me of the contortions I went through in Italy trying to get a look at one until a male happened to perch within ten feet of my blind at Il Lago Trasimeno.
A Buzzard (Buteo buteo) also appeared and lit on a utility pole out in one of the fields. Barn swallows/Swallows (Hirundo rustica) constantly darted around their nests in the castle's eaves, and the barrel of an old artillery piece in the front courtyard, ironically enough, held a Blue tit (Parus caeruleus) and her young. A Swift (Apus apus) appeared high overhead. The garden included a pond, and the banks of the pond featured an immature Common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) - I would later see one of the parents, as they had nested in the garden.
My friends and I traveled to nearby Bannockburn to have our first meal together, and walking the streets I had my first COMMON GULL (Larus canus) perched atop a chimney. Herring (Larus argentatus) and Lesser black-backed (Larus fuscus) gulls were also evident here, and the first Blackbird (Turdus merula) of the trip watched us from a low stone wall.
I hoped to see Black grouse on this trip, and had printed out trip reports identifying a few well-known lekking sites that could be scouted from the roads. This morning I rose at about 5:30, hoping to be at a reputed lek west of Braco by 6:30. Unfortunately I made the mistake of following the A9 through Stirling rather than circumventing the town via the M9. This portion of the A9 was very slow, even at that early hour, with numerous roundabouts and other delays, so I did not reach the general area of the lek until about 7:00. To make matters worse, I spent some time familiarizing myself with the area, and although I believe I eventually hit on the right place to stop, it was impossible to be sure. To make a long story short, no Black grouse were in evidence.
The trip was not without rewards, however. The place I had come to was on the B827 about four miles west of Braco, which is north of Dunblane. The moors held numerous CURLEW (Numenius arquata) and a pair of SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago, recently split from the American species, Wilson's snipe) flushed briefly from the grass. A Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) was perched on a fencepost for a while, then showily flew away. A pair of Pied wagtails (Motacilla alba) appeared on the road margin before flitting off into the underbrush. Ring-necked pheasants/Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) appeared in numerous spots, mostly males.
After returning to the castle for another hour's sleep, I joined some of my friends in a trip to Stirling. After touring the old town jail (and being thoroughly bored in the process), I promised to meet my friends at Stirling Castle and took a leisurely walk alone through the garden and cemetery there. Jackdaw (Corvus moredula), Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris), Great tit (Parus major), Song thrush (Turdus philomelos), Woodpigeon (Columbus palumbus), Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto), and Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were seen or heard in this area. Just on the grounds of Stirling Castle I found a plain sparrow-like bird trotting casually across the lawn - a DUNNOCK (Prunella modularis). I was doing well with the common European birds which had escaped me on earlier trips. I eventually met my friends on the front lawn of the castle - following a really excellent nap in the sun - and we toured the castle together.
Returning to Plane Castle with my friends, I investigated the garden, where a Winter wren/Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) made its presence musically known from the weedy ditch at the rear of the yard. Among the Swallows appeared one or two House martins (Delichon urbica) making their homes in the castle's various crags. I then strolled down the lane, which ran straight between two large farm fields. At one point a rivulet or irrigation ditch ran to a culvert beneath the road; here a noisy small bird in the long grasses proved to be a SEDGE WARBLER (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), which kept to cover for a while but eventually came out into the open, allowing me to view its black-edged crown and otherwise plain plumage. Later in the evening, as my friends and I were marveling at how light it was still at 9:00 p.m., a Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) flew over and disappeared beyond a distant stand of trees. The sun would not set until after 10 p.m., and rose shortly after 4:00 a.m., a definite bonus for birdwatching that took a lot of the pressure off getting one's birding in early in the day. I hate racing the sunlight - you never win.
A hill visible from the castle was said by John Wright to be the site of an Iron Age hill fort. He also happened to mention that good birding might be had on the walk to the site, which was called Dunmyat, so I traveled to a town called Bridge of Allan (on the north side of Stirling) and then headed up into the hills on a road called Sheriffmuir. This ultimately led me to a small parking area near a stile, which is basically a piece of wood set up so you can step over the barbed-wire fence which was interposed between the road and the trailhead. The trail led through areas where sheep graze, with beautiful rolling hills covered in short-cropped grass, heather, and mustard. After seeing several Tree pipits (Anthus trivialis), Pied or White wagtails, and Skylarks, I had a small brownish bird cut across my path and land in sight on a boulder downslope from me: a WHINCHAT (Saxicola rubetra). Soon thereafter I spied a Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) working along the ridge above.
I came soon to a fork in the path, with one branch leading down toward a small patch of forest. This proved to be called Yellowcraig Forest. Visibility was not great in the forest due to the dense foliage, and several promising songsters eluded my binoculars, but I did trace some sibilant calls to a TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris) engaged in the behavior for which they are named.
After I emerged from the forest I climbed up a grassy bank to check on a bird that was perched on a small tree; it proved to be a Tree pipit. On the way back down I slipped and my elbow hit a rock. Fortunately I had my jacket on, so the area was not completely unprotected, but still I thought for a moment that I had fractured something. A moment's flexing dispelled that concern; nevertheless I found I had cut myself pretty well and was bleeding quite a bit.
Some time later I arrived at Plane Castle, where my friends were waiting for me to join in a scheduled group activity (for which I was late). I faced some questioning when I arrived. In response I displayed my elbow and explained that I had injured myself at Dunmyat approximately an hour and a half earlier. One of my friends looked at me curiously and said, "But that's only half an hour from here. You still should have been back a while ago."
"Well, yes," I said. "But for the next hour or so it was watch the birds, stop the bleeding, watch the birds, stop the bleeding..."
A group trip to Edinburgh this day produced no new birds, but when we returned to Plane Castle I immediately set off back in the same direction to head to North Queensferry, my elbow thoroughly bandaged. Along the way I found a grouse by the side of the road which was probably a female Red grouse, but the views were not sufficient to satisfy me for listing a life bird.
Again, some confusion about the precise location of the birdwatching site in North Queensferry delayed me, but around 8:30 p.m. I finally found the right spot: a small access road right underneath the A90 bridge, with clear views to a rocky little islet where terns roosted. Black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus), Common terns (Sterna hirundo), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Common eiders/Eiders (Somateria mollissima) were present. After sifting through the terns for a while I found one with wings obviously much shorter than the tail streamers, and a bill that was apparently black with a red base - a ROSEATE TERN (Sterna dougallii). I could have wished to find the bird when the light was stronger, but there was no doubt about the identification.
I had intended to head up to Speyside and go after the Highlands specialties earlier in the week, but scheduling negotiations with my friends pushed it off. Thus this morning found me rising early and starting what I had anticipated to be a three-hour drive to Loch Garten RSPB. My earlier mistake with the A9 stood me in good stead here, however, as I this time took the M9 past Stirling and its northern suburbs, and found that I was nearing Aviemore after only two hours. On the way I spotted a female merganser flying off to the side of the road, but was unable (at high speed) to verify it as common or red-breasted.
I found Loch Garten without difficulty - thanks to the AAA road atlas and good signs - off the B970 southwest of Nethy Bridge. My plan was to stop briefly at the admissions booth near the visitors' center, just to get directions to the Forest Lodge area. I also wanted to inquire as to my target species and get some local insight as to the best strategies for picking them up. Thus, I mentioned to the warden at the booth that I was interested in finding Crested tit, crossbills, and Capercaillie. I knew that Capercaillie was a practical impossibility, given that there are fewer than 900 thought to remain in Scotland, and I had no real hope of seeing one.
You can imagine my surprise and dismay when the warden said that a Capercaillie had been viewed from the visitor's center only forty-five minutes earlier. Kicking myself for not having arrived earlier, I got the directions to Forest Lodge and some tips on a good area for crested tits near Loch Mallachie. Noting a Siskin (Carduelis spinus) with the Chaffinches at the feeder near the admissions hut, I then went ahead and trudged up the path to the visitor's center to pick up a copy of the OS map covering the Forest Lodge area. Along the way I picked up a pair of GOLDCRESTS (Regulus regulus) by following their high, thin calls - both in appearance and in voice strongly resembling their American cousins the Golden-crowned kinglets.
When I reached the center people were excitedly gathered around a handful of scopes trained far out in the open pine woods. Unexpectedly, the bird seen that morning was still around and visible, and after a few moments I was delightedly viewing the prize of the trip, a male CAPERCAILLIE (Tetrao urogallus)! I was well aware of how outrageously fortunate I had been, a stranger to Scotland, to have seen this bird during the first minutes of my initial foray in search of the great rarity. Presently I jogged back to the car to retrieve my own scope and managed to obtain very good, albeit distant, looks at the great grouse. It was never wholly visible - at most its head, neck, and back were seen - but I studied its massive, griffonlike face with absolute glee. This sighting alone made the whole trip a success from a birding standpoint.
While I indulged my interest in the Capercaillie, one of the center guides drew our attention to the center's feeders, which were at that time being visited by a GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopus major) - like a larger version of our Hairy woodpecker, but with rose-tinged vent and undertail coverts. I was happy to see this as it was my first European woodpecker.
My next stop was to be Loch Mallachie; on the way out of the visitor's center parking lot I spotted a Common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) crossing into the trees. I then took the walk to Loch Mallachie, stopping at Loch Garten itself where a local birder put me on a juvenile CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carbo) swimming near the far bank. Further along the trail to Loch Mallachie I found COAL TITS (Parus ater) playing in the underbrush. Along the path I heard what sounded like crossbills several times, but they kept out of sight; however, when I reached the bank of the loch a pair of birds moved into view - a female and a juvenile RED CROSSBILL/COMMON CROSSBILL (Loxia curvirostra). I was extremely happy to see these birds, as Red crossbill was the last of the birds found regularly in Upstate New York (where I was raised) which was missing from my life list. I studied the bills as carefully as I could, and they did not seem large enough to call them Scottish crossbills - and certainly not Parrot crossbills, the other possibility in those woods.
A wait for Crested tits here did not yield that target bird, but a fellow birder also waiting on the tits did call my attention to a single GREY WAGTAIL (Motacilla cinerea) that was calling from the brush on the shore. A small islet with a few trees not far from the shore also held a possible Chiffchaff and a Spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata).
Giving up on Crested tit there, I went on to Forest Lodge. A long walk on a circuitous route there did not produce any new birds, and required fording a stream that went up nearly to my knees, but nevertheless was one of the best and most relaxing birding experiences of the trip. I much prefer hiking through a forested area to birding from a blind or (God forbid) a car. I heard several times calls that might have been Crested tit, but was unable despite some searching to get on the birds themselves.
It was getting on in the day and I had another stop I wanted to make before heading back, so I cut short the search for Crested tit, figuring I would have a better opportunity to explore Forest Lodge later in the trip. This would prove to be a poor assumption.
Next up was Cairngorm Ski Area, further southwest on the B970. I went ahead and hiked up the main peak, seeing several MEADOW PIPITS (Anthus pratensis) and Northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe) along the way, but not the Rock ptarmigan I was principally searching for. The wind was blowing straight down the slope and made an already-arduous climb a real exercise; I had to stop for a rest about two-thirds of the way up. It was cool enough that I had my sweater on but I carried my winter coat because the exertion was keeping me quite warm. At the top I spotted a large raptor cruising along the peaks which proved to be an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). I was later told that Osprey are doing quite well in Britain these days, and are no longer exceptional rarities there. I myself am always glad to see one, but, of course, every marsh in the Northeast U.S. these days seems to have its own nesting pair.
Despite the miss on ptarmigan, the view from the peak made the trip more than worthwhile. Eventually I headed on down and started the long trip home. I managed to arrive at Plane Castle just in time to partake of a home-cooked group meal.
I again visited the moors on the B827 west of Braco, hoping for Black grouse. Bean geese (Anser fabalis) were present in the sheep pastures along with the usual pheasants. No lekking was in evidence, however, and I decided to spend some time walking along a track leading past a farmhouse. The owner came out to talk - what was that about taciturn, uncommunicative Scots again? - and mentioned that he had not seen Black grouse in the area for several years. The trip reports I had reviewed on the Internet indicated that participation at this lek was declining due in part to imprudent behavior by overeager birders, and it is, I suppose, possible that the birds have given up at this location.
While returning to the road I heard an interesting call from the ruin of a stone house or barn. I moved to investigate, and although the bird fled unseen, I started up a small gamebird: a WILLOW PTARMIGAN/RED GROUSE (Lagopus lagopus). With that sighting I returned to join my friends for an all-day group activity.
A few of my friends wanted to walk around the Plane Castle neighborhood, and having pretty thoroughly explored the environs, I took on the role of tour guide and resident naturalist. They enjoyed viewing Common buzzard and Pied wagtail through my binoculars. I had assumed I would not find any further new birds in the castle's immediate area, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to see a black-headed brownish bird perched on a fencepost near the road - a REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus).
Later I led a caravan to Dunmyat and we commenced what my friends later called the Dunmyat Death March. The trail to Dunmyat, which started out deceptively level and easy, stretched out much farther than I had envisioned and involved a fair degree of climbing. Several spills and falls later we made it to the top - where little of the actual hill fort remained. My friends proclaimed it well worth the effort, but they were pretty winded and I felt a bit rueful that I had undersold the rigors of the hike. (I was particularly impressed that a couple carrying an infant persevered to the top!) Along the way I pointed out singing Skylark, Tree pipits, Common crows, and other birds.
Our time at Plane Castle was up. Some of my friends returned to the States at this point, some went to other points to continue their vacation, and I - I was bound for the Shetland Islands.
I took the slow way to Aberdeen to catch my flight, driving the A93. This is not a great road; it is very curvy for its entire length, and high speeds are not advisable on it. I would certainly not want to drive any substantial distance on it at night. However, it does pass by Glenshee Ski Area, where I wanted to make a repeat try for the ptarmigan.
Because the A93 turned out to be a much slower road than I had anticipated, I reached Glenshee with - I estimated - scarcely an hour and a half to mount the summit and return to my car. A lady operating the cafe there advised me that ptarmigan were generally seen below the ski lift shack near the top of one of the trails. Although the highest peak does not match Cairngorm for altitude, the trail up is a much more rudimentary path and is steeper at many points. On the way up I lost the path for a while and thus happened to start a male Red grouse from hiding. The bird ran, rather than flew, and presently stopped at no very great distance to inspect me; I thus had a leisurely observation of better quality than the hen at Braco Moor two days earlier.
I reached the top of the ridge in good time but without seeing or hearing anything unusual. Inspection of the ski lift and neighboring areas did not turn up the hoped-for ptarmigans. I wanted to err on the side of caution with respect to time, and was about to head back down when I heard a faint, low cooing sound that I imagined to be grouselike; it seemed to be coming from a good distance away in the direction of another peak. I decided to quickly hike over to that peak - a reasonably short distance - and take a different trail down. Almost as soon as I set out in that direction, a well-camouflaged bird skittered from a spot barely twenty feet from where I had been standing! It was indeed a ROCK PTARMIGAN/PTARMIGAN (Lagopus mutus), in summer dress, showing much less of the white in the wings than I had expected on a standing bird. The ptarmigan stopped almost immediately and allowed me to scrutinize it at short distance for as long as I liked. Intermittently it made that same soft, low cooing, which at any distance would have been inaudible.
Elated, I quickly made my way back down to the car, finding that the stop had taken up only an hour of my limited travel time. This proved fortunate because I encountered delays in Aberdeen trying to reach the airport; by the time I reached the gate it was only ten minutes until boarding time. From there it was a quick ride to the Shetlands.
When I got off the plane it was quite cool and windy. I caught the bus to Lerwick, seeing many Curlew and gulls along the way, but nothing new or unusual except a likely juvenile Parasitic jaeger/Arctic skua (Stercorarius parasiticus) and some purebred, wild Rock doves. In Lerwick I arranged for accommodations at the Glen Orchy House, took a good dinner at a local restaurant, and then headed to Lerwick Harbor just to poke around. The first bird I saw there was an ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea), flying close enough that all the field marks could be seen with the naked eye (including the greyish underparts and white cheek line). A young Parasitic jaeger also tenanted the harbor. It was getting late and I decided to call it a day.
Well in advance of my departure for Scotland, I had contacted Jonathan Wills, proprietor of the Bressaboats tours, to schedule a cruise around the island of Noss. Seabirds, seals, porpoises, and whales were the hoped-for highlights of this venture. I was disappointed, therefore, when at breakfast one of the Glen Orchy waitresses informed me that the cruise had been canceled for that day due to weather concerns. I promptly visited the tourist information office and rescheduled my reservation to June 2, the last morning I expected to be in the Shetlands. Little did I know that dark forces were gathering to frustrate my plans not only with regard to Noss, but with regard to the remainder of my vacation.
I determined to travel to Mousa by ferry that afternoon so the day would not be wasted. In the meantime, I had some hours to kill, so I contacted Martin Heubeck, a local birder known to me from the Internet. He suggested that, the migration season being essentially over, I would best spend my time walking south along the shore from Lerwick to an area called the Knab. There, he said, I would find some minor cliffs with roosting seabirds and likely also a few swimming Black guillemots.
Thus, the late morning found me walking a paved path south from Lerwick harbor. I soon realized that the "gulls" around me were actually predominantly NORTHERN FULMARS (Fulmaris glacialis), with light grey mantles and prominent breastbones. Rarely has an adjective been so apropos as when the term "barrel-chested" is used to describe a fulmar. When I reached the Knab itself, I picked out Razorbills (Alca torda) and BLACK GUILLEMOTS (Cepphus grylle) on the water. SHAGS (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) were also present on the rocks near the waterline, and a Northern raven/Raven (Corvus corax) was perched near the top of one of the sea cliffs, vocalizing occasionally.
By this time a storm was threatening, so I returned to the Glen Orchy, getting somewhat wet in the process. The storm proved to have a lot of energy, with significant lightning and thunder, but passed over in the space of perhaps an hour. I was thus able to catch the ferry to Mousa under the blessing of clear blue skies and warm temperatures. On the trip out I saw at least one COMMON MURRE/GUILLEMOT (Uria aalge).
Mousa is a small island which is nearly divided into two smaller islands. The area to the west of the isthmus is a protected breeding area, but there is a good trail circling the eastern portion of the island. The first new bird I had there was a GREAT SKUA (Catharacta skua) regarding me from atop a low stone wall; I was to see many more of these on Mousa and on the Shetlands mainland, usually in flight showing off their broad wing patches. There is an Iron Age "broch" on Mousa - a circular stone tower like a cistern - which has breeding Storm petrels. I inspected this carefully, but the Storm petrels that stay ashore during daylight hours are esconced on nests hidden well inside the rock cavities, and I did not see any.
Continuing on the trail, I started up a pair of RINGED PLOVERS (Charadrius hiaticula). I also saw several small birds which were likely Twite. However, the identification of such small, brown, undistinguished birds in flight is beyond the capabilities of a newcomer, and the only time I saw them at rest they were at a good distance showing only their unremarkable backs.
In time I saw my first adult Parasitic jaeger, a light-morph bird; Arctic terns also hovered nearby, anxious lest I approach their nest sites. A small tidal pool held several basking Grey and Harbor seals which were very interesting to watch. Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) and Black-legged kittiwakes/Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) passed by in fives and sixes periodically at sea, and Cormorants also made occasional appearances. A few Hooded crows (morphs of the Common crow complex which are not accorded separate species status) were present back near the ferry dock. On the return trip to the "mainland" I found another Common murre alone out on the water.
That evening I walked back down to the Knab, where I saw the same birds as before plus one flying alcid that I was fairly sure was an ATLANTIC PUFFIN/PUFFIN (Fratercula arctica) and the first Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) of the vacation. That pretty much wrapped up the seabirds I anticipated seeing in the Shetlands, not counting Storm-petrel, Leach's storm petrel, or Manx shearwater, which were fairly unlikely without making special arrangements. Heading back toward the hotel, I got good looks at a pipit on the sward atop the cliff, which seemed heavily streaked and showed a large bill. On examination of my field guide I found that these were the precise field marks to identify a ROCK PIPIT (Anthus petrosus). I was still looking forward to the boat cruise around Noss when I returned to the hotel to get a good night's sleep.
During the night the rainwater, finding neither rivers nor streams to escape the islands, seeped down into the peat. It lay there, waiting, pregnant with ancient malice for all things of the soil.
A sense of deja vu gripped me as the waitress at breakfast AGAIN informed me that the boat cruise to Noss was canceled. Outside was a near-impenetrable fog: rainwater which had found no release to the sea had instead risen from the peat in a thick obscuring mist. This was disappointing, but as I had already had at least some sightings of the expected seabirds, I was not too upset. I resolved to head to the southern end of the island to hike around some birding spots there before heading to the airport for my afternoon flight back to Scotland.
As it turned out, I had just missed the 9:30 bus to the southern end of the island, and the 10:30 bus did not run on Mondays. I was thus presented with the choice of staying in Lerwick until at least 12:30 or paying the thirty-odd pounds to hire a taxi down to the south end. Exasperated, I decided to go ahead and hire the taxi. I approached one cab and inquired about the precise fare, explaining that I was interested in birdwatching to the south. As it happened the taxi driver - a fellow named Graham - was an avid birder himself. He offered to take me around to all the hotspots on the south end of the island and do some birding with me, and then take me to the airport, all for a flat sum of twenty-eight pounds. I gladly accepted, counting myself very lucky to have stumbled upon the opportunity. It turned out to be very nearly the last bit of luck I would have during my vacation.
After stopping at Graham's home to pick up his scope (a Swarovski, I am compelled to note), we first stopped at Loch of Spiggie RSPB Reserve. There were supposed to be breeding Whooper swans there, which would have been a life bird for me, but the fog prevented us from seeing anything but the closest shore of the loch. Graham did point out to me a REDSHANK (Tringa totanus) in a field, and we both saw more flying Common snipe and some Tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula), as well as, of course, Curlews. Next we stopped at an overlook near a small pond where a number of birders were apparently looking for migrants put down by the fog. Here we found a pair of Green-winged teal/Teal (Anas crecca) of the Eurasian form, my first experience with this race, as well as a drake Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna). The other birders told us that an Ortolan bunting and a Wood sandpiper had been seen near Scansset the day before and earlier that morning. Both were rarities for the Shetlands and Graham was happy to try for them.
So on we went to Scansset. Along the way Graham gave me a good overview of the islands' history and recent troubles with an oil spill from an allegedly Mafia-controlled tanker. He also apprised me of the fact that the local Winter wren subspecies was now under serious consideration for full species status - the Shetland wren. (We would later be informed that the Shetland wren had, in fact, already been split. I have been unable to confirm this to date.) It was agreed that he would find me the wren and some viewable Twite. As we were passing in view of a small inlet we noted a juvenile Common loon/Great Northern diver (Gavia immer) dozing on the water.
Scansset promptly served up the SHETLAND WREN (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandi?), which is visibly more rusty-colored than Winter wren. Its song was also more wiry and foreshortened. We were less lucky with the bunting and the sandpiper - they simply refused to appear. A Barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) was foraging on the side of the small pond where the sandpiper had been reported; it was accompanied by a Bar-headed goose, which had been confirmed to be an escape from a nearby waterfowl collection.
Graham then took me to the Pool of Virkie, a bay near (but, due to security concerns, a paradoxically long walk from) the airport, for possible shorebirds. The fog and the tide were both in, so even if there had been a Bar-tailed godwit hanging around on the far shore, we would never have known it.
Our next stop was at Sumburgh Head RSPB Reserve, where there are fairly substantial colonies of Puffins, Common murres, Razorbills, and Black guillemots. The fog, however, prevented viewing of virtually everything. I did, however, get much better views here of a Puffin, situated only a few feet down the cliffside; even at that distance the colors were washed out in the fog. Also, Graham led me to a spot where two TWITE (Carudelis flavirostris)were picking at the dust oblivious to us.
Finally we returned to Scansset for another try with the bunting and sandpiper. Still no luck, and Graham offered to take me to the airport. I still had several hours, though, and was not daunted by his estimate that it was an hour's walk, so I thanked him and sent him on his way. Bad tactical decision.
I roved around the Scansset area for a while, turning up nothing new but finding more Ringed plovers, plenty of Curlews and Oystercatchers, some breeding-plumaged Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Ruddy turnstones/Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), several Meadow pipits, and various Great skuas and Parasitic jaegers. That, of course, is when the rain started. By the time I had hiked back to the main road I was pretty well drenched. I managed to hitch a ride to the airport, and in the airport men's room changed into the clothes I had worn the day before. They were not exactly fresh but at least they were dry. It was all for naught, though, as no flights got into or out of the Shetland Islands that afternoon due to the fog, and I had to reschedule to the next available flight - the following morning.
This really screwed up my plans. I had intended to get back to Aberdeen that evening, drive to the Speyside area, and spend the entire next day leisurely birding Forest Lodge and possibly some of the nearby lochs before completing the trip to Glasgow that evening. Now I faced reaching Speyside by midmorning at the earliest, which would eliminate the best opportunity to find Black grouse in the area.
I took a room in the only hotel within walking distance of the airport, got a good but expensive meal there, and then went hiking back to Pool of Virkie. The fog was still thick and I saw little other than more Oystercatchers and Curlews. There were some smaller shorebirds in the water but I could not get anything other than indistinct sillhouettes on them. Giving up there, I went to Scansset again, where the bunting and sandpiper were once again notable for their absence. Eventually I returned to the hotel, somewhat dispirited but looking forward to getting back to the mainland and Speyside.
The fog had other plans.
I woke to find the fog still thick on the ground. My waitress at breakfast advised, as I had anticipated, that the morning flight from Aberdeen had not made it in, and thus there was no plane to take me off the islands at 7:50 as I had planned. I nevertheless hiked back to the airport hoping that the flight would simply be delayed. After a couple hours' wait the fog was starting to burn off, but the process was slow, the airport seemed to be the last place getting the benefit of the burnoff, and the flight was canceled. To make a long story short, I somehow was not placed on the next flight out - at 11:15, which would still have salvaged some useful birding time back in Speyside - and instead had to wait until the 4:45 flight. At this point I was getting fairly uncomfortable because I needed to get back to Aberdeen, pick up my car, and drive the three hours to Glasgow to catch my flight back to the U.S. in the morning. If the 4:45 flight did not come off it was extremely unlikely that I would be able to get back to Glasgow in time to fly home. I must confess at this point I had ceased to think of Shetland as a "Seabirding Paradise" and begun to think of it as "The Godforsaken Rock Which Ruined the End of My Vacation." However, the fog did finally burn off, the 11:15 flight left (at 12:50 or so), and there seemed to be no further weather problems to interfere with my departure.
I spent the last several hours in the Shetlands visiting the same spots as before. The Pool of Virkie and Scansset provided no significant new birds except an adult intermediate-morph Parasitic jaeger at Scansset. A small beach off the main road had a standing bird that proved to be a Common murre; it was so still that I became concerned it was injured, but when I came quite close to it, the bird finally shuffled off a few desultory paces. I would later be told that this behavior, while not unheard-of, was certainly uncommon. Sumburgh Head had visibility long before the airport did, and I was able to view the massed ranks of Common murres and Razorbills on a towering rock just away from the cliffs. Also, some obliging Puffins sat at close range, allowing study through the binoculars even of the yellow spot and blue line at the base of the bill shield, as well as the orange feet. Finally, at the airport I found a pair of Twite on a fence, and they allowed even better study than the birds at Sumburgh Head the day before.
I had quite had my fill of the Shetlands when I boarded the plane at 4:45. Reclaiming my rental car at the Aberdeen airport, I headed directly for the Speyside area. My revised plan was to find a bed and breakfast, visit Loch Mallachie, get a few hours' sleep, look for Black grouse, visit Loch an Eilean, and then be off toward Glasgow by 6:00 at the latest. Loch Mallachie that evening was quiet - it was really too late to expect any bird activity. However, I did chance upon a MISTLE THRUSH (Turdus viscivorus) on the entrance road. I was impressed by the size of the bird; when I first glimpsed it I thought for a moment that it was a small grouse variety.
I hit the hay after 10:00 p.m. with plans to rise early the next morning.
Sunrise found me searching for a reputed Black grouse lekking site. As this site was identified to me by a local, and does not appear to be widely known, I am going to refrain from passing on its location. Black grouse numbers are declining dramatically, likely due in large part to disturbance at leks, and I do not wish to contribute to this phenomenon. In any event, I departed without seeing any grouse. It would not be until I reviewed my notes and field guide on the plane ride home that I realized the chorus from the woods - which I had dismissed as doves - was almost certainly the lekking call of Black grouse. Had I followed the track further in, I probably would have gotten the birds quite easily. This is a testament to the wisdom of thorough research before birding in a strange country, I suppose.
Finally I went to Loch an Eilean, where Crested tits were said to be possible. The only tit calls I heard were soon traced to Great tits playing in the trees, however. After about an hour's pleasant stroll along the loch trail, I decided to quit while I was ahead and ensure my timely return to Glasgow. I was thus back on the road by 5:45, reached Glasgow in plenty of time, and had an uneventful flight back to the U.S.
I have since heard from my friends that Costa Rica is under serious consideration for the next group vacation.
God help me.