Monday, 29 May 2017

Scottish Highlands Early Spring

As the breeze subsided, the rustling of the reeds that lined the shore of the loch was replaced with the excitable trilled calls of little grebes, pairing up for the breeding season. In the distance, small pockets of snow, not remnants of the winter, but from a recent fall clung to the hilltops, in areas shaded from the spring sunshine and warmth from it.

The waters of the loch calmed, and reflections of the surrounding trees took shape on the surface, some bearing new green leaves, others still biding their time for spring to arrive for certain, but decorated with lichens able to thrive in the clean, fresh air.

A rise in temperature allowed one of the mute swans sitting on eggs in the reed-bed to shuffle out, and glide gracefully back on to the loch; time to stretch its wings before up-ending, reaching down to the bed of the loch in search of food, its rear end pointing skywards, taking on the appearance of a feathery iceberg perhaps.

Sitting as low as I could beside the edge of the loch, I tried to drink in the tranquility and beauty of the morning. The air was filled with bird song, from the resident linnets and goldfinches, to newly arrived sedge warblers, and the distinctive call of a cuckoo, very much the indicator of spring. Overhead the chatter of swallows caught my attention, and I watched in awe as they swooped down to pick insects from the water, or to scoop a small drink from the surface.

I was in Scotland again, and was hoping to photograph a stunning bird that uses these freshwater lochs in the Highlands for breeding. While I had missed most of the courtship dances, I was within a window of opportunity to get images of them, in breeding plumage before they began to nest.

Their call, similar but slightly quieter than that of the little grebes, burst from the reeds nearby, and I held my breath. A glint of gold caught my attention, and then that ruby red eye. A Slavonian grebe had emerged from the reeds, and was busy preening for a moment, before scanning the area, and immediately diving down for some food.

They can stay submerged for quite some time, and are able to cover a fair distance underwater too, so it’s very much pot-luck if the grebe surfaces near you. Mostly they didn’t, following a familiar route out into the loch each time, only varying it should something such as the swan or one of the coots be in the way. Sometimes only one grebe would appear, but when both did, I have to admit I was crossing my fingers hoping for a dance.

As with last year’s trip to the Highlands in May, this one wasn’t really planned - a last minute decision and one that happily coincided with some free time Andy had, meaning we would be able to spend some days out together enjoying the wildlife. That said he had to prepare for an exhibition, so we had some tasks to address, and I also chipped in with some maintenance around his red squirrel site.

Chanonry Point was the target on a couple of days, as there had been some unseasonable activity from the bottlenose dolphins. When I arrived, most of the action had calmed down, but for once I did manage to get a breaching shot, something that has all but eluded me despite several visits. It was good to catch up with other friends up there too; the banter and laughter helped distract us from the freezing wind that was cutting through us on the shoreline.

Aside from the dolphins, the beach offers great views around the Moray Firth, and we watched oystercatchers, common scoters, terns, gulls, sanderlings, ringed plovers, mergansers and eider ducks passing by.

Some offering better photo opportunities than others, which was welcome when the dolphins were failing to put on a show.

Lyndsey would be able to accompany us at the weekend too, and she suggested a trip out to Handa Island on the Saturday. I’d never been before, so jumped at such an opportunity. The drive across the Highlands was spectacular and I kept an eye on all the lochs for signs of any birds, especially hoping to see black-throated divers; another bird that uses freshwater lochs for breeding. What I hadn’t expected to see though, was a trio of common cranes circling over the hills! While I was relatively surprised to see them there, both Andy and Lyndsey were thrilled at the sight, and hastily parked the car up for a better view. Not a bad start to the trip.

The crossing to Handa is quickly dealt with, in a small dinghy boat which lands on a white sandy beach. After a brief introduction to the place from the volunteers, we set off along the paths in search of skuas. Andy had promised me views of both great and Arctic skuas, though the latter seemed in short supply. Bonxies though, were present in good numbers, and I settled down near a small loch where they were choosing to bathe. Bizarrely, amongst their numbers was a lone red-throated diver, which seemed to be sizing the loch up for somewhere to perhaps breed. It was testing the length of it for taking off, and tried from a number of spots around it, managing to take flight each time. Surely not the best place to bring diver chicks into the world, surrounded by predators?

Both Andy and Lyndsey had wandered off, with Lyndsey choosing to complete the whole circuit of the island. I found Andy lying on his stomach taking photos of meadow pipits, skylarks and wheatears, which amused him somewhat that he was ignoring the stars of the island in favour of such common species. I joined him for a few moments before taking a brief walk along the clifftops, watching the fulmars floating on the updrafts or bickering at their nest sites.

The views around the island were incredible though. On such a clear and sunny day, it was blissful to be there.

Meeting up on the beach for the last boat away from the island we were soon back on the mainland, and we had just started on our journey back towards Inverness when we spotted a pair of black-throated divers on a loch. I was lucky in that they were on my side of the car, and I had my camera to hand. I took some shots as they drifted serenely across the water, but when they started to head towards the end of the loch, Andy decided to move the car along the road, and jumped out for a better view.

I had barely opened the car door when I realised one of the divers had surfaced very close to where we’d parked, and using the door-frame for support, I was able to reel off a number of shots, capturing a sequence when the diver rose up out of the water to stretch its wings.

These birds have such intricate and clever markings on their feathers, perhaps evolved over time to mimic bubbles or streaks in the water when they dive and hunt for prey underwater?

They also have incredibly good eyesight, and must have seen the car, as they soon dived, and appeared some way along the water again. We tried to follow, but soon realised it was a lost cause!

Calling into Ullapool on the way back, we found a sheltered spot outside a restaurant and enjoyed dinner together, laughing about the day’s trip and planning what we might do the following day, though Andy had a client booked, so some of it was sort of pre-arranged.

Lyndsey and I pestered Andy to stop off at a couple of lochs along the route home, to take some scenic shots, though he was forced to join in when the sinking sun lit up some clouds over one reflective loch, and created a most beautiful sunset scene.

Dotterel was on the menu for the Sunday, and the client had said she didn’t mind Lyndsey and me tagging along. After last year’s hike to the summit, I chose to wear my summer trousers this time, as fleece-lined combats were way too hot before. But opening the car door at the Cairngorms car park made me regret the decision. It was freezing, and the air was filled with fine rain, like the Cornish “mizzle”. Annoyingly for Andy and his client, the forecast for the mountains had changed overnight, and the clear skies had vanished behind low cloud and rain. Dotterel was off the menu…

Thankfully there were plenty of alternatives, and after a coffee in Aviemore, and some indulgent shortbread, we found other subjects to point the cameras at, including red kites at the RSPB Tollie feeding station, a site that Andy and I had visited a number of times before.

Unlike Gigrin, there are only a handful of kites that visit the site, and hence makes it much easier to isolate the birds as they dive for food. Andy and his client came away with fabulous images and, despite being unfamiliar with a 1DX, Lyndsey managed to take some stunning images of the kites swooping down for the food. But took some convincing, having been used to the extra reach of the 7D mk2 and its sharper LCD screen, that her images were as good as I suggested. A review on Andy’s iMac later backed up my assessment, and she started to see why both Andy and I rate the 1DX so highly.

The working week began with Andy having to concentrate on final preparations for his exhibition, so I headed out alone and chose to visit a site good for watching sand martins. I’ve never really had too many opportunities to study these birds in much detail, but was charmed by how sweet they appear facially, especially as they peer out of the sandy burrows at the outside world.

They were busy with bringing in bits of grasses to line the nests hidden underground, as well as kicking out sand that had fallen at the entrances.

As the clouds cleared, I returned to the Slavonian grebes once more, and managed to get some reasonably close views. But the sun was making its way around me, and that wasn’t great for the shots, so I considered relocating…

Looking at a map, I picked a few lochs along a road to visit, hoping for a sight of more divers, but the further along I drove, the better the scenery became. Just a short distance along the road, according to the map was Loch Maree, a location that featured in a wildlife documentary about a year in the Highlands. With clear blue skies, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see it for myself.

And boy was it worthwhile. Not so much for wildlife, though I did see a ring ouzel along the way, and a pair of black-throated divers, but for the scenery. Wow, just wow.

A friend from last year’s Mull tour calls this area home, and I can see why he loves walking around here so very much. It is simply stunning.

The blue sky was reflected in the loch’s water, and thankfully for me, the midges hadn’t emerged in great numbers yet.

My last full day was again spent alone. With bright skies and calm waters around the Moray Firth, I hoped the loch with the grebes would allow for some reflection shots. I was wrong, and a steady breeze kept the water’s surface choppy.

The grebes were still around, but I noticed a change in their behaviour. Instead of both birds coming out, or either one being out every 15 minutes or so, only one would appear, and would be out for much longer. The grebes were also much more defensive of the area, and chased off anything they considered to be a threat. That was my cue to leave, as the window had closed, and nesting had begun. Hopefully it’ll be a successful season for them.

As the day had warmed up so much, the heat haze had become a problem, and I chose to head back to meet up with Andy. He’d considered visiting the hares later that day, but all the effort of preparing for the exhibition coupled with the hazy light put him off the idea, and instead we visited Chanonry Point once again, calling in for an ice cream along the way.

As before, the dolphins failed to do much at all, and a drop in temperature tempted us to head back to base again, for my last night of the trip.

After saying our goodbyes, it was rather strange to wave Andy and Lyndsey off, as they left me at their house! They had to drop their two dogs off at the kennels before the trip for the exhibition, and I was still getting my bags together.

Rather than head straight back south, I broke the journey up with another visit to the sand martin colony, and after a quiet start, they soon started performing again. Perhaps the cooler weather meant they had to spend longer searching for insects.

The second destination was Langholm Moor, in the hope of seeing some hen harriers. I did spot a couple of the ghostly grey male harriers, but only from a fair distance, and by then the heat haze was blurring the view, let alone any images taken. Plenty of other birds around, such as meadow pipits and skylarks, cuckoos and buzzards, and even a wild goat!

The next “planned” trip to Scotland will be for the Mull Photo Tours in July, but I'm sure I'll find something to blog about before then...

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