Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Highland highlights

I'm not sure if I've ever been this late to blog before. I got back from a really very wonderful week in the Highlands and Harris/Lewis on 27th September, the photos remain unfiled and I've been other places since. Oh well. I am going to condense six very full-on birding days into one blog post but there will be lots of photos.

So here's what we did (it was a 'we' and quite a big 'we' too - I was one of a group of 13 (plus two guides) on a tour with Heatherlea, and I recommend them muchly). Day 1 - working the forests and Findhorn Valley close to our base. Day 2 - long drive to Skye, bit of birding on Skye, then ferry from Uig across to Tarbert, Harris, and drive up to Stornoway (with birding on the way. Day 3 - full day on Lewis, mainly working around the coast. Day 4 - Lewis in the morning, then ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool, and drive back to Strathspey. Day 5 - up to the Moray coast to look for waders, seabirds and farmland birds. Day 6 - more forest in the morning, then up Cairn Gorm for Ptarmigans etc in the afternoon. We had a week of mostly pretty dreich weather though Day 5 was sunny.

We were out before breakfast on day 1, driving north out of the forested bits to open countryside and Black Grouse country near the Dorback burn, and duly ticked off Black Grouse (distant but great scope views). We followed this with a forest visit and failed Caper search, though did find Crested Tits.

In the afternoon, we drove down the road that follows the Findhorn Valley and eventually stops because there are too many mountains in the way. It's a place where I had my first of many Golden Eagle dips back in my Sheffield University Birding Club days, one absurdly cold and snowy February day. It's a very beautiful spot when not covered in snow and steeped in frustration. Here I didn't dip a Goldie but did not-dip a Dipper.

Dippers were really not hard to find at all but this was the only vaguely OK photo I managed of one all week.

But actually bird of the day came before that, when we stopped for lunch halfway down the road - this young White-tailed Eagle, being escorted from the premises by two Buzzards (taking turns to harrass it).

The same spot also provided Mistle Thrushes.

We drove to Skye the next morning, an early start. Little of note on the way. At the harbour at Uig there were (distant) Black Guillemots bobbing about, and our first Golden Eagle, a whirling speck over a hillside as the ferry started chugging Harris-wards. We birded from the deck all the way but didn't see very much - lots of Gannets and a few Kittiwakes, very few auks and this solitary Great Skua.

 Coming into Tarbert.

Harris = stunning. Very rugged and hilly compared to the flatter Lewis, with beaches like this corker. From here we scoped various seabirds including scoters, and had another Goldie or two.

We were at this viewpoint when this Raven flew by, carrying what proved on close inspection to be the severed head of a Rabbit. Niiiiice.

Day 3's look around Lewis included some time at the northernmost tip of the island, the Butt of Lewis (stop giggling at the back). Lots of Gannets going through, a nice close Great Skua and we also saw Snow Buntings on the cliff path but not to photograph. And while I was trying to take landscapes I missed a big flock of Sooty Shearwaters going by well offshore (d'oh).

Some pics from other places we visited on day 3. Golden Plovers, Greylags, a Hooded Crow and a Snipe. You can see that the weather was not fabulous - apologies for the dingy photos. The beach with the rather forthright lavatorial sign was a gorgeous spot, where we had our best Golden Eagle sightings and also a thrilling close-ish flyby from a female-type Merlin, also good views of Arctic Skua offshore. The cat's just a cat but I liked his ears.

Day 4 wasn't really a camera day. It rained all morning. We didn't find a lot of wildlife (all I have to show is a Raven and, um, a sheep). Then we made the long ferry crossing to Ullapool. This was brilliant - great views of seabirds including Storm Petrel, but photography of any of these was impossible as our viewpoint (at the front of the boat, the only place to see the Stormies) was inside rather than on the deck. A really good crossing nonetheless. Then we landed at Ullapool and I fell asleep for a fair bit of the drive back to Nethy Bridge.

Sunshiney birds on a sunny Day 5. We went east along the Moray coast from Findhorn Bay to Spey Bay via Lossiemouth, looking for farmland birds in between seaside stop-offs. Here are Bar-tailed Godwits, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Cormorant, Herring Gull, juvvy House Martin, Redshank with Dunlins and Oystercatchers with a Knot and Redshank or two. We also saw an Osprey at Findhorn Bay and a few other unphotographable bits and bobs.

Last shot of the day (sun gone by now) shows Common Seals with Grey Seals behind, in what I hope is a handy comparison of the two species.

And the last day. We kicked off with more Caper-hunting, in two different forests. In the second we finally got lucky with brief flying-away views of two (though I only saw one of them). No photos (sorry). Then in the afternoon we climbed Cairn Gorm for Ptarmigans and Mountain Hares.

The Ptarmigans gave themselves up quite easily - we found a group of eight or so around the corrie near the summit. The hares didn't - despite a hard search the group of us who walked over the boulderfields specifically to find hares found none. Meanwhile, the other group, who'd gone straight back down, did find a hare. Luckily it stayed put long enough for me to go back up and take its picture.

It's a very dorky-looking Mountain Hare, but it's the first one I've photographed, and I love it.

And that was Scotland. It was a great week with a great group, and there was a most lovely and surprising bonus outcome that I won't talk about here, except to say that it's made me very happy :)

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