Tuesday 29 June 2010

Scotland: Mull

I probably ought to point out that I've not been living north of the border since the start of the month, but have been battling to get the images processed from the fortnight spent in Scotland, and as a result this Blog has been a bit out of date. We actually spent a few days in the Aviemore area first, then over to Skye for 2 more, 4 more in North Uist and finally, the last 4 days at the start of June in Mull, which is my last entry for the trip report.

Mull. A beautiful isle, slightly more accessible than the Uists, so more folks on it and more in the way of civilisation. After Ian's promises that there would be birds galore here, we were full of hope and optimism, especially given the glorious weather when we arrived. The Uists reminded me of the moors of Cornwall, but at sea level, combined with the Cornish beaches. Mull was very much like Scotland, with mountains and lochs, and a rich variery of habitats. So pretty in fact, that I had the "scenic" lens almost permanently attached to my 40D.

As with Uist, we then proceed to drive in convoy around the isle, to spots where Ian knew to be good. Unlike Uist though, there was surprisingly little around. Sure, the white-tailed eagle was sat on the nest, viewable from the RSPB watch-point, but with the warm weather and heat haze, the photos weren't ever going to compare to those from Portree. Good to see though, and the Live View on the cameras aided us, as you can focus in, switch on, and then digitally zoom in to see the birds much more clearly than through your binoculars.

Oystercatchers, common sandpipers, eider ducks and hooded crows were common though, as were herons, which seemed to be on every stretch of water. No sign of the tourist eagles that Ian said were everywhere when he's been, albeit in August. Which was a shame, as despite the obvious awe-factor of seeing a proper eagle, I still love to see buzzards and try to photo them.

So what did we see? Well, on the Mull boat trip, we saw almost nothing. A real disappointment, as we had hoped to have WT Eagles overhead. And the peregrine was MIA too. We'd seen it before from the cars though, and knew if it was about it'd be miles up the cliff face.

It wasn't a total loss though, birding wise. We spotted a cuckoo out hunting caterpillars early one evening, and that was fascinating to watch and photo. It was hopping down fence posts towards us and was about to become a frame-filler when Rob managed to lose grip of his lens and it bounced off the door frame, sending the cuckoo the opposite way. Easily done though, when these lenses are so awkward to manage in a tight area such as a car.

I took advantage of the swallows one evening as they perched on ferns near their nest - made a change to see them on natural perches, instead of wires or fences. And a hooded crow mooched around in the shallows of a loch, which made for some interesting shots - much prefer these crows to the "all blacks" we have back home.

No Mull wasn't great for birds this time around. But it did have another trick up its sleeve and was arguably more special than anything witnessed during the whole trip. I know this is a Birding Blog but these stars have to be mentioned.

Otters. Ian had an idea where we might find some and he was on the money from evening one of the trip. Initially we encountered a dog otter, as he munched a crab on the shore of a loch, glided effortlessly along in the water, slipping under and over the seaweed, and rolling around on the rocks, possibly marking his territory and drying off in the process.

Subsequent nights (and one morning) yielded sightings of a mother and cubs, though they were almost as large as she was. Fabulous to watch. The highlight for me though, came on the last night of the trip when we were parked along the lochside, CBs on, covering as much area as we could. Ian spotted the pair seconds before I could say anything on the radio, and they were headed my direction. "What the hell" I thought, as I donned my hat for what little protection from the midges I could get, grabbed the camera and bean bag, and scurried down to the lochside, lying prone on the rocks.

Midges descended like a swarm and were in my eyes, all over my hands and face, even in the viewfinder of the camemra, but I wasn't going to let them ruin the opportunity. Ignoring the feeling of needles on my face, I was delighted to see the pair of otters clamber out on to the seaweed, about 40 feet in front of me, for the mother otter to consume something she'd caught. Messy eaters - quite comical as they crunch and lift their head up to toss back the food into their mouth. Seemed to be a real effort to eat, but must have been worth it as didn't hold back, nor did she offer any to the cub.

A truly unforgettable moment and one I shall treasure, captured on camera too. The pair eventually moved off and further down the loch, at which point the pain in my face became unbearable and I retreated to the car. As I write this now, I can still feel the tiny bumps on my face from the 40+ bites which left me looking like a monster the next day for the drive home. Worth it? Oh yes. No doubt about it.

So the trip was over. Several thousand images taken, fabulous memories and a new set of target destinations for future trips.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Scotland: Uists

Skye was a 2 day pitstop enroute to the third destination of the trip, North Uist. Seen recently on Monty Halls' Herbridean programme, this set of isles promised a lot, even though his series failed to show much wildlife. And we didn't see much when Ian and I arrived, as it was chucking it down with rain. Poor Rob had been delayed as his BMW had failed completely on Skye, so was awaiting a hire car.

The first day, given the weather looked to be a wash out, and we tootled around the undulating roads, waving at traffic which had stopped (all very civil over there) and hoped to see something interesting. Stinky Bay (named after the foul stench from the seaweed) proved interesting, though the rain failed to cease and we watched the waders on the shoreline from the cars. Numerous sanderlings, dunlins and ringed plovers scurried around, plus the now obligatory oystercatchers (they were everywhere) and out on the water, several eider ducks. And snipe sat on fence posts, though they flew off as soon as they saw the car slowing up.

A drive along a very narrow road on the north east of the island yielded distant views of a golden eagle perched on the top of a hillside, looking as fed up with the wet weather as we were. And I doubt the dive-bombing antics of a kestrel improved its mood.

The afternoon improved though, with the torrential rain easing to drizzle, and allowing me to leave the comforts of the car and go for a walk along the grassy scrubland behind the beach at the RSPB Balranald reserve. More little waders were on the shore, which I have to stop now to comment on. The beaches are breathtaking. White sand. Turquoise (when the sun is out) waters and deserted. Just stunning. The waders - more dunlins and ringed plovers, yet more oystercatchers and above us were Arctic terns, showing us that it's not only kestrels that can hang in the air when hunting. Everything went up when a skua went through, though it was too wet at the time to get a shot.

Noticing the numbers of ringed plovers around me, I opted to lie down on the grass, set the tripod up almost flat, and hope the birds would come to me. Didn't take long for a pair of ringed plovers to scurry over, and I was soon getting shots of them in amongst the daisies. Rather pretty, even with the rain.

Having checked into the B&B already (a very nice place called The Rowan Tree) we heard from Rob that he was set to join us by getting the later ferry, and we opted to meet him at about the only "pub" on North Uist, the Loch Maddy Hotel. Enroute from the reserve though, I spotted a corn bunting singing away on a fence, and wasn't about to refuse the shot. Parked too close initially, and had to reverse back to get it in the frame!

Just then the CBs we were using crackled into life - Ian had got a corncrake making its noise in the field by the entrance. Slowly driving alongside, we could hear it "creking" away, but just didn't have the time to search for it. Another time perhaps?

Our first full day of the trip was to be spent with a tour guide (Steve Duffield) who I'd spotted on the internet and offered personal tours of the isles based on his local knowledge. And what a tour it proved to be. He'd asked before we got there about what we wanted to see and boy was he determined to get the results. Given that we were based on North Uist, he suggested that we get a look around the other isles to see what they had to offer. That said, before we even reached the meeting point, we toured down Committee Road for a look, and bagged some shots of a short-eared owl as it sat out in the drizzle, so that got the day off to a good start.

The first stop was to see the red necked phalarope, though unfortunately this was at a fair distance, and I didn't even attempt a photo - would have been confused with a dust bunny on the sensor! More interestingly, we saw another short-eared owl nearby - that was about the 7th of the day - they were everywhere.

Driving along, we also spotted a distant golden eagle being harrassed by a buzzard and several cuckoos, which of course flew off before we could get a decent shot. A walk around a rather scenic loch proved to be productive, seeing an otter on the other side. A redpoll sang to us as we wandered along, and a pair of cuckoos bantered at each other up the hillside. On the loch itself was a red throated diver - such a shame the weather was so gloomy, but we could make out the red patch and I got some record shots. Also nearby was a black guillemot, fishing near the shore, showing off those bright red legs when it dived. And on the hills behind the loch, yet another SEO flew along, hunting for breakfast.

Another short drive and another loch - this time we were treated to views of 2 pairs of hen harriers. By now the weather had improved dramatically and the sun was out. This gave us (moaning) photographers another issue - heat haze. The distance to the harriers simply meant we couldn't get a decent sharp shot, though I was just as happy to watch them to be honest.

The day ended with Steve desperately trying to get us a view of a corncrake. He tried all over the place and admitted we were actually a little late in the season, in that most would be on a nest by now. That said, he still delivered the goods. Pulling over sharply, he'd spotted a head poking out above the grass - a corncrake! Calling away. It was then that Rob did the unthinkable, and instead of staying hidden in the car, decided jump out and go for a closer shot. Ian, Steve and I were somewhat surprised by this as we expected the corncrake to bolt, never to be seen again.

It didn't. It stayed put and seconds later, when we decided to join Rob (what did it matter now?) we spotted 2 other corncrakes in the same patch of ground. Probably a male and female, and the one we'd seen first was defending his territory, and chasing the female. We were then treated to views of the 2 flying over a fence (none of us reacted to take a shot!) and the lone male strutting his stuff out in the open. I have to admit, the birds are highly amusing. They resemble those velociraptors on Jurassic Park, but with mechanical flip-up heads as they call. And so loud! No wonder folks moan about being kept awake by them.

Steve's day tour was certainly that - he ended it early evening sort of time. We thanked him for his time and company - definitely worth the small cost if you're visiting the isle.

We promptly went out again, in search of raptors on Committee Road. Oh to have a camper van on this stretch of moorland. Hen harriers, golden eagles, short-eared owls a plenty, not to mention the possibility of merlin, and dozens of pipits and wheatear too. I could spend a fortnight on this patch alone!

After seeing the delights of the Uists, we generally did our own thing for the remainder of the trip, with Rob desperate for hen harrier shots, and Ian and I more content to tootle around seeing whatever came our way. Another couple of visits to Balranald gave even more glorious views of the beach, and some brighter shots of the waders and terns. We even ventured across a few causeways, to get scenic shots (why not, it was so picturesque!) plus a few more common species such a skylarks and redshank. Committee Road never seemed to fail to deliver, and we got some decent pics (in the end) of short-eared owls, including a chick, nestled in the undergrowth, hen harriers and a distant golden eagle, which defied all tradition and perched on a fence post.

If there's more than one of you going in separate cars, I recommend taking these CB radios that Ian had brought along. Decent range and were invaluable when it came to watching large areas for subjects. I dread to think the number of opportunities that we'd have missed between us had we not been able to communicate from afar.

Leaving Uist was sad. We'd only been there a few days but wanted to stay so much longer. The only thing stopping me from getting too downbeat was the prospect of Mull next.

Monday 14 June 2010

Scotland: Isle Of Skye

Before heading over to the Outer Hebrides, we had decided to stop off for a couple of nights on the Isle Of Skye, mainly because we'd heard such promising tales about the boat trips from Portree, and how close the white-tailed eagles fly past them. The drive from Aviemore over to Skye left me open-mouthed in terms of the scenery. Just breathtaking. Unfortunately, Skye brought two expenses to me that weren't too pleasing.

Firstly, on the way to the island, a car took up more than his fair share of the road coming the other way and forced me off the side of the road and down into a monster of a pothole, damaging an alloy and sending shockwaves through the car, and then later during the trip, a huge logging truck flung a golf-ball sized stone through my windscreen. I'd only had this screen for about 10 months!
Anyway, car incidents aside (and we won't mention Rob's BMW disasters!!) Skye lived up to expectations. The scenery was stunning, and we frequently stopped to take photos. Portree was as I'd seen it on the tv; a small harbour with beautiful views and a decent village behind it.

We had pre-booked 4 trips over the 2 days on the Stardust boat trip and they didn't disappoint. The first on the afternoon when we arrived was quite calm, but it rained and everyone bar me hid in the wheelhouse. I was fully waterproofed up and sat like Billy No Mates out in the rain. Was quite refreshing actually. The rain eased by the time we reached the cliff face where the eagles nest and after a few minutes and several descriptions of where it was later, I eventually spotted the nest, at the foot of a tree.

Even at that distance you could see how large the eagle was. Then the act began. Inject a fish full of air, wave it around for the eagle to see, and lob it over the side. Then hope. Both that the eagle would come down, and that one of the greedy gulls wouldn't wolf it down before the eagle got the chance to perform.

We were lucky in that we had 4 trips and the eagle came down each time. I'll try to describe it, as it's an incredible, mesmeric sight.

Firstly there's a buzz of excitement on the boat as someone spots that the eagle has took off or is headed our way. Even when they're flying at the top of the cliffs, compared to black-backed gulls, the white-tailed eagles look immense. After circling briefly, the descent begins, and wings back, huge legs dangling, this monster of a bird swoops down towards you. The feet on this bird look like human hands in yellow gloves and they pick up the fish just as easily. With minimum splash, the eagle rushes past the side of the boat (at one point close enough to feel the breeze off its wings), grabs the fish and powerfully flies off to the cliff again. Even when the skipper threw over a huge ling (like a 3 foot long eel) the bird simply picked it up and flew away.

Watching and admiring them is one thing, and that in itself made the trip worthwhile, but we were there for photos, and when the boat is full of people, and bobbing around on the water like a cork at times, photographing something flying past isn't easy. Holding down the shutter for a burst of shots resulted in pics of sky, sea, sky, someone's head, boat, sea, part of a blurred eagle, sky and so on. The eagle is past you within 10 seconds and away in no time at all, leaving you chimping your shots and moaning at your inability to track flying birds.

I really could have done with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens, as Ian and Rob both had, as I found my 100-400 a little slow to focus, gave too slow a shutter speed and was in some instances, too much lens for the bird. Still, I had a go and some pics came out okay, and a little time spent adjusting levels etc in my graphics packages yielded some reasonable results, which I'm quite pleased with.

The remainder of the time on Skye was spent tootling around the lanes, hoping to see anything of interest. North of Portree is an expanse of high ground where we spotted a pair of short-eared owls quartering the fields, but at a distance, and on another trip, we found a narrow winding road leading up and over the main mountains on the island. Terrific views from the top, and the others had a great view of a golden eagle as it lazily soared from the mountainside. I was looking at a hairpin at the time, hoping my windscreen wouldn't crack from another pothole...

It was up here that I got my first decent views (and images) of a hooded crow. Another new species (sub species perhaps?) which look so much more interesting than the normal black crows. And despite my dodgy eye sight, I managed to spot a golden eagle sat eating something atop of one of the rocky towers in the distance. Too far for pics, though Rob hurried over closer to try, not knowing it had flown off as he wandered over!

Both evenings were spent at the bar / restaurant of the hotel Eilean Larmain overlooking the Sound of Sleat, which was idyllic. Food and beer were great too. I'd like to stay longer on the isle next time - seemed to be a lot of interest on it, amazing scenery, decent restaurants and bars to visit, and still connected to the mainland, so fuel wasn't so dear.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Scotland: Aviemore area

The first blog entry after a terrific trip to Scotland. We'd spent weeks planning and researching for the fortnight north of the border, so most days were already planned out in terms of what we wanted to do or see. Staying in a great B&B (The Boat Inn) in Boat Of Garten, we had booked 2 sessions at the Rothiemurcus Fishery, where wild ospreys take advantage of the pools of trout on offer.

Getting to Scotland is an effort though, and I opted to get up at 4am on the Saturday to head north, and actually had a really good run, so was at the RSPB Loch Garten reserve in good time. It was here, with a brief shower of rain through the canopy that I realised that after proofing my raincoat, I'd left it on the end of the stairs. D'oh!

A walk to the osprey centre yielded views of the pair, with the male bringing back a fish for lunch, then departing shortly thereafter, which is what I did, as the place was very busy with visitors and groups of school children. Armed with invaluable info from a friend (cheers Mark!) I drove over to Lochindorb, a remote heathland around a loch with what was supposed to be a castle on an island, but looked more like an old wall! Anyway, it proved to be a good spot to meet up with Ian and it wasn't long before we'd clocked a red grouse, a new one for me.

Once we'd seen one, it became clear that the heath was alive with them, pairs pottering around, the males calling proudly out, and the females following along behind, and around her, maybe as many as 10 chicks. When the wind picked up, the female would sit down, and one by one, the chicks would make their way over and after snuggling next to her, disappear beneath her camouflaged feathers.

On the loch itself were common sandpipers, redshank and curlew, with meadow pipits and calling cuckoos nearby. We even got a brief view of a distant black throated diver, though it was a mere speck in the scope of a birder who showed it us.

4am again. Not exactly everyone's idea of a vacation, but we needed to be at the fishery early, and it was a cold one too. Soon we were sat in the hide, waiting expectantly for the ospreys to show. Didn't have to wait long, and what a sight. Circling and diving. It was a case of hoping, as you needed the bird to catch a fish, be pointed in the right direction for you, be visible (there are spots on the lake obscured from the hides) and of course you need to be able to restrain yourself to only move the lens when the bird is in the water, something Rob failed to do for virtually the entire time!

Fortunately, we got lucky and managed to focus on the bird as it heaved itself out of the water with a decent sized trout. It took a few seconds to get airbourne again, so allowed us to lock on and bag the precise shots we'd been after. Superb.

It didn't all go to plan though, as we saw birds take fish from areas we couldn't see, or were surprised at the skills of some, one which barely made a splash as it plucked a fish out and flew off. I did get a lovely shot of it as it flew away, shaking its feathers dry, which I'm most pleased with. And at 9am the fishermen arrived, so it was time to head elsewhere.

Loch Insh proved to be a good spot as ospreys nested nearby too, and we had more views as they flew in and out, hassled by crows. Kindly allowing us to return to the fishery at 5pm, gave us more chances of shots, and an even earlier start the next day (3:30am) should have yielded better results, but the weather was against us and it was rather gloomy for shots, even if the birds had dropped where we could see them.

The final evening session should have given me another set of great shots like Ian, except I managed to focus on the bank behind the bird and only bagged a couple of shots of it flying away. With the light fading, the others headed back to the cars, and I stood and watched 3 ospreys circling the pools. A truely amazing place, and arguably worth the cost.

Dotterel and ptarmigan were targets at the Cairngorms, but it soon became clear that the walk to reach the snow-covered area would be too far with all the gear (though I did see a ring ouzel), and descending again, I happened to chat to a couple about what they'd seen around the area. This was a huge slice of luck as they informed me of a crested tit site, and it wasn't long before we were racing over to the location. Another new species for me, and right beside a public footpath in the woods near Loch Garten. We'd already tried another couple of sites for them, but only managed to see siskin, a female cuckoo and a spotted flycatcher, not that they're disappointing of course!

The light wasn't great but we made the best of it, and soon spotted one returning with a huge beakful of grubs for the nest nearby. Perching on a broken branch, allowed us a moment to photo it, before it moved on. Then, seconds later, it'd zip off back into the woods again.

Detouring over to Loch Ness, Ian and I took in some more fabulous scenery, and stumbled upon a road with golden plover and curlews, plus mipits. This made up for the lack of results at the RSPB Loch Ruthven, where the Slavonian grebe stayed on the far side of the lake.

Hoping to see some eagles, we aimed for Findhorn Valley, an immense expanse of wilderness, picturesque (enough for me to dig out the scening lens!) and full of promise. The valley slopes held herds of deer and a few beardy-looking goats, and the air was filled with bird song from pipits and skylarks.

Looking at the river as we drove along, we all pretty much thought (and said via the CBs) that there should be dippers around, and within seconds of saying so, Ian spotted a juvenile on a stream, and we quickly parked up for a closer view. Sitting beneath a large boulder, we took some shots before heading to the end of the valley, in hope of an eagle. One showed up, though it was miles up and I never had time to consider a shot before it had disappeared from view. Still, a view of a golden eagle isn't to be sniffed at.

Wheatears and more pipits entertained on the way back, and another stop off at the dipper site gave us views of a couple of juveniles and also the parents, who were more difficult to photo, keeping to the shadows.

Before leaving the area, we had already met up with a local professional photographer (Neil McIntyre) who gave us info about Slavonian grebes (never coming as close as the one at Grimley, sadly), and also offered us the chance to photo wild red squirrels on his land. So we followed him back to his place in the woods, and set up on a slope in line with some random logs, into which Neil placed hazelnuts. The red squirrels descended very quickly and posed for some fabulous shots.

We had a good couple of hours here, and took a large number of shots which should sort me out for greetings cards for the next five years! Neil also gets crested tits on his land in the winter months, so I may need to find an excuse to head north again, for that experience. Should be good, if this red squirrel one is anything to go by!