Islay, Jura, Kintyre, Arran and Dumfrieshire, Scotland: 22nd – 26th November 2017   Leave a comment

Previous posts have detailed our visits to Rosslyn Chapel, Fife, Aberdeen and Speyside. From Speyside we continued on to the Kintyre Peninsula in south-west Scotland and arrived at the port of Tarbert late in the day.

 

Tarbert from our hotel room.

 

Early the next morning we sailed for Islay from Kennacraig on Loch Fyle on the western side of the peninsula . The loch almost divides the Kintyre in two, there being just two km of land between the head of the loch and Tarbert. It was raining and conditions were very gloomy, although quite still.

 

As we emerged from Loch Fyle and into the open sea we left the rain clouds behind,

 

There was still some cloud cover as we arrived at Islay with a sprinkling of snow on the hills.

 

As we drove north from our disembarkation point of Port Ellen we encountered ….

 

…. heavy showers ….

 

…. which resulted the most intense rainbows.

 

Quite a number of seabirds were seen, Great Northern Divers. Red-breasted Mergansers, Eiders and this flock of Scaup.

 

Scaup, more correctly called Greater Scaup, were once a regular wintering bird in Dorset but now we seldom see any, so a flock of 50 just offshore was a real treat. The grey flanks and backs of the males and white crescent on the faces of the females were clearly visible.

 

Our main reason for going to Islay was to see geese and there were geese aplenty.  As many as 45,000 Barnacles winter on Islay and surrounding areas.

 

Most were Barnacle Geese, the population that winters on Islay has been shown to breed in Greenland whilst the population that winters on the Solway Firth breeds in Svalbard

 

Flocks of geese were seen in flight both against pastel blue skies ….

 

…. and against stormy ones.

 

Barnacles weren’t the only geese species present, many Greenland White-fronted Geese were seen too. Islay holds about 5,000 of the estimated 19,000 world population of this threatened taxon. The other main wintering sites are in Ireland.

 

Larger and longer-necked with an orange bill and more strongly marked belly, the threatened Greenland Whitefront is sometimes considered a different species from the (Russian) White-fronts that winter in England.

 

Greenland Whitefronts and Barnacle Geese. Generally Whitefronts are larger and stockier but the frontmost Barnacle in this picture seems to buck the trend.

 

Almost all Barnacles seen in the south of the UK are from feral stock so it was a delight to see these birds that have flown all the way from Greenland against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains.

 

Good as these geese were there was one species I particularly wanted to see – Cackling Goose. The RSPB information centre at Loch Gruinart was not manned but you were invited to phone the local office with enquiries. The warden I spoke to confirmed that there had been no sightings of Cackling Goose for a couple of weeks but then said he had some unopened emails in his inbox. A minute or so later he announced that a Cackling Goose had been seen yesterday at Loch Kinnabus in the far south of the island. We returned to Port Ellen and continued on minor roads to the loch. Highland Cattle were there to greet us ….

 

…. but so too were flocks of Barnacles and Greenland Whitefronts.

 

It took a bit of scanning through the somewhat distant flocks before the Cackling Goose was found. Photography was attempted but the bird only showed as a brown blur in the pics. I have included a photo from http://www.lloydspitalnikphotos.com taken in the USA. This photo is quite informative as it shows a Cackling (left) alongside a wild Canada Goose. For a long time the Canada Goose complex was a conundrum, the many subspecies covering the largest size range of any bird. Subsequently the four smallest Canadian/Alaskan tundra breeding races were split off as Cackling Goose. Of these four only the nominate race hutchinsii, the so-called Richardson’s Cackling Goose, is a potential vagrant to Europe, the others being short distant migrants from Alaska to the USA and Canadian west coasts. However it is likely that the last word in Canada Goose (senso lato) taxonomy has been written and they may be further splits or they could even be lumped back together again.

 

My experience with Cackling Goose has been checkered. One was seen by others when I was on Islay in 1984 with a large flock of Barnacles, but I failed to get onto it before it disappeared behind a rise, I saw one on Wrangel Island, Arctic Siberia with a flock of Snow Geese in 1996, undoubtedly an overshoot from Alaska, I saw two so-called Cackling Geese, one in Norfolk in 1999 and another in Suffolk in 2002 but further research showed they were wild Canadas of the smallest race parvipes which approaches Cackling in size, I have seen two undoubted Cackling Geese in the UK but one was clearly of captive origin and the other (seen above) may have been, I have also seen a small wild flock in Nebraska. Until this trip I hadn’t seen a definite Cackling that was definitely wild anywhere in the UK. The photo shows the Cackling Goose that I saw with feral Canadas in Somerset in 2012.

 

Further along the track to the loch was this large flock of Twite involving perhaps 100 birds.

 

Although these lovely relatives of Linnets and Redpoll are common in the Northern and Western Islands the population that used to breed on the moors of northern England seems to have declined and it is this population that used to winter on the east coast. As a result few are seen away from the Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland these days.

 

Twite are particularly rare in Dorset, but I was lucky to catch one in November 84 when I was ringing Pied Wagtails at roost. A small flock used to occur at Dibden in Hampshire but in recent years I have only seen them in Scotland.

 

We were now on the RSPB’s reserve on the Oa (pronounced ‘O’) so it made sense to drive down to the Mull of Oa and look for Choughs and Golden Eagles.

 

My plan was to walk around the headland to the American Memorial which commemorates a number of American servicemen who were killed here during the war.

 

From the coastal footpath the shoreline of Antrim in Northern Ireland could be seen in the distance.

 

From the cliffs you could also get good views of the south-west peninsula of Islay.

 

Unfortunately the plan to walk to the American Monument had to be abandoned for two reasons, the sky turned very black and it was clear that another downpour was on its way and I slipped and fell on the rain-soaked grass and landed on top of my camera bruising my ribs which are still painful over two weeks later.

 

I just got back to the car just as the heavens opened. A few Chough were seen briefly from the car park but no eagles.

 

The following morning we drove to Port Askaig on the north-west shore of Islay. Here you get a good view of the island of Jura. The two most prominent mountains are known as ‘the Paps of Jura’ for obvious reasons.

 

Once again the sunshine was short-lived and whilst we waited for the ferry to Jura the heavens opened ….

 

…. but at least we had the shelter of the car.

 

The ferry was very small and there was only room for two cars and this lorry.

 

We really hoped that he wouldn’t roll back when we docked. Note the layer of hail on the car.

 

Jura is about 50km long but it only has one road and only 150 inhabitants.

 

Red Deer were common along the roadside.

 

We soon reached the little town of Craighouse.

 

There was still a lot of Jura ahead of us but we still had somethings we wanted to see on Islay and we had to be back at Port Askaig at 2pm for the ferry to the mainland so we backtracked to the inter-island ferry at Feolin.

 

We had hoped to see White-tailed Eagle, which we did, but it was quite distant and the photos were poor. Here is one I photographed on Skye in 2012.

 

Our return to Islay was as dramatic as our departure with another hail storm …

 

…. but at least this time we had a nice hostelry opposite ….

 

…. where we could warm up with a nice cup of coffee.

 

So it was farewell to Islay. We departed that afternoon with Jura on our left and Islay on our right ….

 

…. leaving the snow-covered Paps behind ….

 

…. perhaps Eccentrica Gallumbits once visited Jura!

 

After docking at Kennacraig we spent the night back in the hotel in Tarbert.

 

We now had to make our way south, we had the choice of driving all the way north to Loch Lomond and then south via Glasgow or catching the ferry from Tarbert to the Isle of Arran and then on to Ardrossan on the Dumfries and Galloway coast. The former involved a lot of driving, much of the time backtracking on the route we took to get here, so we opted for the latter. This gave us much of the morning to further explore the Kintyre Peninsula, but not enough to get to the Mull of Kintyre and back. First we drove down Loch Fyle past where we had boarded the ferry to Islay two days earlier ….

 

…. and we carried on southwards for about an hour seeing the wonderful scenery of the islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha to one side and the Mull of Kintyre and the Antrim coast in front of us.

 

The weather was predictably cold and windy but at least we had no rain, hail or snow.

 

About lunchtime we boarded the small ferry to Lochranza on Arran.

 

We had a beautiful journey across to Arran and even managed to add a few birds like Black Guillemot to the trip list.

 

On arrival we had about two and a half hours before our next ferry so we decided to take the minor road along the west shore of Arran.

 

As well as passing through many quaint villages we also had views of the southern Kintyre peninsula. We took a minor road over the centre of the island but it was snowing and we didn’t stop for photos. Late afternoon we caught the ferry to Ardrossan and arrived about 6.30 pm.

 

We stayed at a rather charming but cold guest house near Kirkconnel north of Dumfries and with a lack restaurants nearby we visited a typical Scottish small town pub for drinks.

 

Our final destination of the trip was Drumlanrig Castle. Margaret particularly wanted to visit as her grandfather had been brought up here. Unfortunately although the grounds were open, the castle itself was closed for the winter.

 

The story is that her paternal grandfather James Wright was born in South Africa, but at a very young age was taken back to the UK by his mother in 1869. His father intended to follow on a few weeks later but tragically died from a heart attack before he embarked. Weakened by recurrent malaria, his mother never recovered from the shock and died soon after. His siblings were sent to boarding school, but the infant James was raised by his aunt who owned the Drumlanrig estate. After he left school he returned to South Africa where later made a living transporting goods by ox wagon through the wilderness. His memoirs were later collected into a book which was privately published. Here he is seen in a hand coloured photo in the uniform of the Knights of Saint John. Date of photo unknown, photographer unknown.

 

We couldn’t visit the castle on this trip but one day we will return.

 

We both had developed chest infections and my bruised side was giving me some grief, so although we had another couple of days available (which we were going to use to visit the Lake District) we decided to cut the trip short and return home.

The return trip from north of Dumfries to Poole went quite smoothly and we were home by late afternoon. It had been a very interesting trip with good birds and great scenery, the weather was against us but there again it was late November. I’m glad we didn’t leave the trip until later as the area has received considerable amount of snow recently and indeed we just avoided heavy snow ourselves by leaving Speyside when we did.

 

 

Fife, Aberdeen and Speyside, Scotland:   Leave a comment

Previous posts have detailed our stops at Martin Mere in Lancashire and the Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian that we took on the way to visit Margaret’s brother Duncan in Aberdeen.

This post covers our time in Fife along the north coast of the Forth Estuary, our visit to Aberdeen and our stay in Aviemore in Speyside.

 

We left Roslin and skirted Edinburg on the ring road and crossed the Firth of Forth on the new Queensferry Crossing. Only opened this August at a cost of £1bn it is already (as of early December) undergoing closures for resurfacing. Of course it was Margaret who took this photo and not the driver.

 

The weather improved as we drove along the north shore of the Forth estuary. In the distance is the now uninhabited island of Inchkeith.

 

We skirted the large bay between Leven and Earlsferry on the lookout for flocks of seaduck.

 

A few Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Redshank were seen on the rocky shores ….

 

…. and we encountered a number of distant flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, Eider and Common Scoter. Velvet Scoter showed well and I was able to capture this passing flock. However we didn’t find seaducks in the numbers I encountered on a visit to the same area in April 2000, where a single flock contained 2000 Common Scoter and 500 Eiders.

 

We drove to Elie Ness lighthouse and looked back towards the pretty town of Elie.

 

We stopped in Anstruther ….

 

…. had lunch in this cafe ….

 

…. and in spite of the bitter wind that had sprung up, went for a walk around the harbour.

 

This proved to very worthwhile with stonking views of a Grey Seal ….

 

…. and a few hundred (Common) Eider.

 

We had great close up views of the dapper males ….

 

…. the well camouflaged females (female Eiders of course pluck their breast feathers to line and insulate their nests, the original eiderdown) ….

 

…. and the variable and somewhat scruffy first-winter males.

 

We continued on to the easternmost point of Fife, Fife Ness. From here you could look northwards to Arbroath and Montrose or south to East Lothian. We continued northwards through St Andrews and Dundee but arrived at Aberdeen at rush hour on a Friday. In a set of extensive and very poorly signed road works to the south of the city we took the wrong turn and ended up in the city centre. Frustratingly it took an hour before we emerged and carried on to our destination.

 

Margaret’s brother Duncan and his wife Wendy moved from South Africa to the UK about 10 years ago, first to Edinburgh and then to Aberdeen. The climate must be a bit of a shock after living in Durban. We haven’t seen them since 2012 so it was good to meet up. This photo was taken in 2008 when their sons Darren and Sean were still living at home. L-R Darren, Margaret, Sean, Wendy, Duncan.

 

Early in the morning I popped down to Blackdog a coastal site to the north of Aberdeen and close to where Duncan and Wendy live. Offshore were many anchored ships from the oil industry. Whether they are moored up because of the downturn in the oil business or due to a lull in the need to supply the rigs is anyone’s guess. Blackdog is famous for its huge flocks of summering scoters and eiders, with several rare species often being present. I enjoyed this spectacle in 2012 but found out on this trip that this gathering doesn’t occur in the winter.

 

A little bit to the north of Blackdog lies the Trump Golf Course. The Scottish Government let his empire destroy a nationally valuable, wild and totally protected stretch of unspoilt coastal dunes when he promised a multi-million pound investment, thousands of jobs and a huge leisure complex. He has reneged on all of this except for the building of the course, which now operates at a loss. So now we have the destruction of a precious ecosystem, hardly any new jobs and just a bit of manicured grass.

 

We hoped to pick up one or two rare birds during our stay so having heard of a Snow Goose at Loch of Skeen a few miles east of Aberdeen, we headed out there one afternoon. It’s not that difficult to see Snow Geese in the UK but most are feral or direct escapes. Seeing one in the company of wild Barnacle or Pink-footed Geese or Whooper Swans greatly increases the chance that the bird has really come from Arctic Canada. We arrived at the lake before dark and carefully scanned the few hundred Pink-feet on the loch without sucess. As darkness fell thousands, well probably tens of thousands, of Pink-feet flew in a long skeins until the entire surface of the lake looked black. It was too dark to see when we left yet still you could hear them flying in. We never saw a white one though.

 

After a final morning with Duncan and Wendy we headed inland for Speyside. It was a lovely day, if rather cold and the sun lit up the autumn colours a treat. The route from Aberdeen to Aviemore is not straightforward but we negotiated the many changes of highway with ease ….

 

…. and arrived at the quaint village of Carrbridge just as it was getting dark (hence the lacklustre look of the photo). We continued onto Aviemore where we had booked an apartment (it was actually bigger than our house) for the next three nights.

 

The Aviemore/Cairngorms area (or Speyside as it sits on the banks of the river Spey) is one of the most outstanding areas for birding in the UK and one that all British birders should visit at some time. Most notable are the stands of ancient Caledonian forest, which has in places remained unchanged since the end of the Ice Age. Mature forest is made up of Scots Pine with birch and oak in places with an understory of juniper, rowan, blaeberry and heather.

 

Birdwise this area is famous for both Red and Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Ptarmigan, three species of crossbill, Crested Tit, and in summer Dotterel. Other goodies (in season) include Snow Bunting, Long-eared Owl, Osprey, Golden Eagle, Dipper and a multitude of other more widespread birds. We first headed to the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten but the visitor centre is shut at this time of year. This lady was feeding birds in the car park and they were tame enough to feed from her hand. They were mainly Coal Tits but we did also see ….

 

…. a few Crested Tits. These forests are the only place in the UK where this species can be found. I have made many excuses for not using my own photographs in the past but this time it was a good one, I’d left my camera behind in the apartment! So here is a photo of Crested Tit from highlandphotography.co.uk

 

It had rained all morning but suddenly the skies cleared, I glanced up from the car and saw this bizarre upside down rainbow directly above us. By the time I had got my pocket camera out the 3/4 full circle had shrunk to a crescent but it still looked remarkable. This phenomenon is known as a circumzenithal arc or an upper tangent arc (‘upper’ as it is above the sun) and is caused by light refraction through ice crystals.

 

It was perfectly still and nearby Loch Garten was like a mirror.

 

Summer visits have revealed lots of breeding Goldeneye on this lake but today it was birdless.

 

We also took a drive to the Cairngorm Mountains 13 miles south of Aviemore. The road goes straight to the ski centre car park and the funicular railway which takes you up to 3600ft asl.

 

You pass through beautiful areas of heathland studded with areas of natural Caledonian Forest and modern plantations.

 

Way in the distance to tops of the 4000ft (1200m) high Cairngorms peek through the clouds. Whilst not very high by the standards of the Alps, Rockies or Andes, at the latitude of Scotland the Cairngorm plateau is a true alpine-arctic wilderness home to many species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the UK. The Cairngorm National Park is the largest wilderness area in the UK and the largest National Park.

 

By the time we reached the car park cloud had descended and we saw no point in going up the funicular railway to the Ptarmigan Restaurant. To prevent those unprepared for hiking in arctic conditions from wandering about the plateau and getting lost you are not allowed to leave the restaurant at the top and if you want to explore you need to walk up. I did hike to the neighbouring peak of Cain Lochan (left in the photo) in June 2012 and saw Ptarmigan (see below) and Dotterel but I have never seen breeding plumaged Snow Bunting in the UK.

 

In spite of the weather we saw other good birds during our stay, a flock of crossbills, most likely the endemic Scottish Crossbill, plus Dipper and genuinely wild Greylag Geese, but pride of place goes to this distant male Black Grouse seen on the climb up to the Cairngorm car park. It might have distant but it looked really good in the scope.

 

At least the Red Grouse (a endemic British subspecies of the Holarctic Willow Ptarmigan or Willow Grouse, which doesn’t change to white in winter) showed well. This is a female ….

 

…. and here a male.

 

As we returned to Aviemore we stopped at Loch Morlich where the mountains formed a perfect reflection on the water ….

 

I have camped by this lake a number of times in past; in the early 70s with two friends (I well remember having to walk back from Aviemore at dawn after a very memorable night on the town) and in the late 70s with Janet when we tried to go sailing and I realised far to late that I couldn’t remember what I learnt on sailing holidays ten or more years earlier!

 

All in all I’ve made about 18 trips to Scotland and most of them have brought me here. These days I just enjoy the magnificent scenery and wildlife and avoid adventure activities and all-night parties!

 

So that was it for Speyside and we drove from the rich autumn colours around Loch an Eilein ….

 

…. straight into winter. We had heard that heavy snow was on its way and it was time to leave anyway, so we planned an early departure and only met a small amount of snow on route. We drove south over the eastern Cairngorms and onto Braemar on Royal Deeside, favoured by the royal family since 1852.

 

We then climbed another pass at Glenshee in the hope of seeing the Ptarmigan that we missed on Cairngorm. I had seen Ptarmigan at Glenshee in April 2000 but had to climb quite a bit to see them. It was cold and windy and I didn’t fancy the climb so we scanned the slopes from the car park. Initial attempts drew a blank but after warming up in the cafe we had another go and found a flock of 11 white winter plumaged birds high above us. Yes, the six white blobs in the photo are Ptarmigan, its a dreadful photo but they were a considerable distance away and it was starting to snow.

 

Here’s a lot closer pic of a pair of Ptarmigan in grey and white summer plumage taken in Cairngorm in 2012. Remember they are ‘P’tarmigan, a bird with a silent P (like in ‘swimming pool’).

 

From Glenshee we headed south and then west via Loch Tay on the long drive to the west coast. We arrived at our hotel at Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula just before dark. On route we passed these falls and paused briefly for photos.

 

…. but I’ll conclude the post with another couple of views of Loch Morlich.

 

By leaving Speyside when we did we managed to avoid the worst of the snow but there was plenty more wintry weather waiting for us at our next destination, the west coast islands of Islay, Jura and Arran, which will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, Scotland: 17/11/2017   Leave a comment

Like many people I have to admit that I had never heard of the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel until I read Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Margaret and I paid a visit to the Chapel in April 2010. We had a planned trip to Portugal cancelled at the last-minute due to the infamous Icelandic ash cloud, so we set off in the car on an impromptu trip visiting old friends and tourist sites all across northern England and southern Scotland and Rosslyn Chapel was one of many historic sites we stopped at.

Unfortunately then the Chapel was undergoing a much-needed renovation and Margaret said ‘we must come back when all this scaffolding comes down’ – so this year we did.

Dan Brown falsely claims that the names Roslin/Rosslyn originate because the Chapel sits on the ancient Paris Meridian, a French alternative to The Greenwich Meridian (which it doesn’t), which he names ‘the Rose Line’ and then (again falsely) associates it with the Rosicrucians and the supposed bloodline of Mary Magdalene.

The Chapel is situated on a rise above the town of Roslin. Behind is a wooded gully and even in mid-November many of the trees were still sporting their autumnal colours.

 

This is what the exterior of the Chapel looked like when we visited in 2010, there was also scaffolding inside the Chapel.

 

Here is an elevated view (taken from Wikipedia) of the chapel during the restoration process.

 

This is what the Rosslyn Chapel looks like today. Much of my information on the history of the chapel has been taken from Wikipedia or  https://www.rosslynchapel.com/about/rosslyn-chapel-timeline/

 

The Rosslyn Chapel was commissioned in 1446 by William St Clair (the family now know as Sinclair). It is thought that it might have been planned as part of a much larger building, but work ceased after William’s death in 1484. The endowments for Rosslyn Chapel were seized as the effects of the Reformation began (this was the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries). The Chapel’s provost and prebendaries were forced to resign as a result and in 1592 Oliver St Clair was ordered to destroy the altars of Rosslyn, it being described as a ‘house and monument of idolatrie’. After the altars were destroyed, the Chapel ceased to be used as a house of prayer and subsequently fell into disrepair.

 

In 1630 (another!) William St Clair was pronounced Grand Master of the Masons in Scotland. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s troops sack Rosslyn Castle. The Chapel was spared, although it was used for stabling the troop’s horses. In the same year, Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn died at the Battle of Dunbar. He is believed to be the last knight buried in full armour in the vault below the Chapel, said to be the family custom. The chapel falls into serious disrepair for 150 years until limited restoration occurred in 1736. Between 1780 and 1850 visits by the likes of Robbie Burns, Dorothy Wordsworth and Queen Victoria brought the chapel to the nation’s attention as a place of romantic association and mystery, something that was enhanced by the enigmatic nature of the carvings. In the 1950s a major restoration was carried out but cladding the stonework with a concrete like material (which gave the interior its current grey colouration) but it sealed the moisture in and the chapel continued to deteriorate badly. It’s inclusion in the 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the 2006 film brought worldwide attention and visitor numbers increased ten-fold. This along with a £4.9m lottery grant has allowed a full-scale restoration.

 

Photography inside the Chapel is no longer allowed. This and the following photos have been taken from the internet either from the Rosslyn Chapel website or via Wikipedia. Those photos that were credited were taken by either ‘Guinnog’, J McInnis, Joe Ellis, Jeremy Atherton or ‘the Lothians’. Although this photo makes it look quite spacious the chapel is quite small inside ….

 

…. but is very high. Of course the stained glass windows are a later addition.

 

A wide angle view of the fantastically ornate roof.

 

The chapel is covered in ornate carvings, many of which would have had deep meaning at the time when the chapel was built. Of note are the many ‘Green Men’, about 100 carvings of a pagan symbol of fertility and regrowth that seems curiously out-of-place in a Christian place of worship.

 

This image of the fallen angel Lucifer bound by ropes is said to be a motif of the Masons. Both the Masons and Knight’s Templar are said to have historic associations with Rosslyn. Legends associated with the chapel include that it is the final resting place of the head of John the Baptist or that of the Holy Grail.

 

The chapel was commissioned in 1446, building started in 1456 and ended in 1484, so how then were maize and aloe vera (North American plants that supposedly couldn’t have been discovered by Europeans until after Columbus’ voyage in 1492) depicted in the carvings? I don’t believe any of the superstitions associated with Rosslyn but I do believe that Columbus wasn’t the first European to land in the New World!

 

Many embossed carvings are to be found, some depicting scenes from the Bible, others life after death and still others whose meaning is greatly debated by both scholars and by those with a ‘mystical orientation’.

 

…. these include the 213 cubes carved into buttresses and architraves that have a variable number of dots on them. Some have interpreted this as a secret code, others as a musical score.

 

Perhaps the most spectacular carvings are to be found on the so-called Apprentice Pillar. The following is taken from Wikipedia: ‘One of the more notable architectural features of the Chapel is the “Apprentice Pillar. Originally called the “Prince’s Pillar” (in the 1778 document An Account of the Chapel of Roslin) the name morphed over time due to a legend dating from the 18th century, involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice mason. According to the legend, the master mason did not believe that the apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing the original which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason travelled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column by himself. In a fit of jealous anger, the master mason took his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. The legend concludes that as punishment for his crime, the master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice’s pillar. On the architrave joining the pillar there is an inscription, Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas: “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all”. The author Henning Klovekorn has proposed that the pillar is representative of one of the roots of the Nordic Yggdrasil tree, prominent in Germanic and Norse mythology. He compares the dragons at the base of the pillar to the dragons found eating away at the base of the Yggdrasil root and, pointing out that at the top of the pillar is carved tree foliage, argues that the Nordic/Viking association is plausible considering the many auxiliary references in the chapel to Celtic and Norse mythology. There are those who claim the Holy Grail is buried under the Apprentice’s Pillar! Of course I don’t believe any of these fairy tales but its fun relating them!

 

As I said before, although not know so widely before the publication of The Da Vinci Code, the chapel has always been a source of mysticism and wonder, as a drawing from ‘Heath’s Picturesque Manual’ from 1835 shows. Here on the left the Mason’s Pillar and the far superior Apprentice’s Pillar can be seen.

 

Near the chapel is Rosslyn Castle once the home of the Saint Clair family.

 

The castle dates from the late 14th or early 15th century and so predates the chapel. The castle suffered from a domestic fire and attacks in the ‘War of Rough Wooing’ in 1544, and by Cromwell’s troops in the Civil War.

 

The castle once contained a scriptorium containing many valuable documents some of which (including the earliest example of Scots prose) are in the National Library of Scotland. In a fire in 1452 valuable documents were said to have been lowered from the castle by a rope. Questions of the nature and current whereabouts of these documents adds to the mystery surrounding the Rosslyn (Roslin) area.

Needing to be in Aberdeen that evening we had to leave by late morning. We crossed the Firth of Forth and did some birding/sightseeing along the Fife coast. This and more will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

Martin Mere, Lancashire: 16th November 2017.   Leave a comment

We recently have spent some time in Scotland, the main purpose of our visit has been to visit Margaret’s brother and sister-in-law who lives in Aberdeen.

To break the long drive north we spent a few hours at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere in Lancashire.

 

Like many WWT reserves Martin Mere has an extensive collection of captive wildfowl, but interesting as they can be time was at a premium, so we concentrated solely on the lagoons where the wild birds are found.

 

Martin Mere has a large wintering population of Shelducks.

 

These are quite independent of the Shelduck population that winters in nearby Morecambe Bay.

 

There were good numbers of other duck species, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard and (above) Pintail.

 

Wigeon were also present in good numbers and could be seen grazing along the margins of the mere.

 

Martin Mere is a famous site for the Whooper Swans that fly to the UK from Iceland for the winter. Around a thousand roost here, but only a few were seen close to the hides ….

 

…. but many more were on a lagoon in the distance.

 

Even more impressive were the flocks of Pink-footed Geese that winter here.

 

About 25,000 were present in the area in mid November but larger numbers occur in October.

 

When Pink-feet first arrive from Iceland and Greenland they stop off at Martin Mere to refuel, some stay for the winter but around 70,000 continuing on to Norfolk. Other populations winter in Scotland. The reverse migration occurs in spring. We have noticed these movements between Lancashire and Norfolk whilst birding in Derbyshire.

 

The site of thousands of geese in the air was spectacular.

 

A view that I couldn’t resist photographing over and over again.

 

Pink-feet are quite rare in southern Britain, indeed the one that made it to the lakes near Ringwood, just over the border from Dorset became a bit of a local celebrity.

 

In mid afternoon the wildfowl are fed just in front of the main hide.  At the time we were some distance away and took this photo from another hide ….

 

…. however we had the sun behind us, the photographers in the pictures might have been close but the light for them would have been dreadful.

 

As the afternoon wore on more Whooper Swans flew in from the surrounding fields to roost ….

 

….accompanied by even larger number of Pink-feet. Martin Mere is also famous for hosting a spectacular Starling murmuration but time was pressing, we still had a three-hour drive to reach our B&B near Edinburg so that had to be left for another time.

Trinidad part 3: Grande Riviere: June 20th-22nd 2017   Leave a comment

This post covers our final destination on the Lesser Antilles and Trinidad tour, the area around the small town of Grande Riviere on the north-east coast of Trinidad.

 

As I described in the last post in late in the afternoon when we arrived at our lodge at Grande Riviere we found there was no electricity due to the previous nights cyclone and therefore no aircon and little water supply. Power was restored about lunchtime the following day.

 

There was just enough time before it got dark to admire the sunset ….

 

…. as the lodge was situated right next to the beach and you had a great view from the balcony.

 

Apart from a few Frigatebirds, vultures and a single Osprey there wasn’t much to see on the beach during the day although that would change big time when we ventured out first thing in the morning or at night.

 

A White-tiped Dove was seen near the lodge but our main ornithological interest lay ….

 

…. in the hills behind the town.

 

Our main reason for coming to Grande Riviere was to see Trinidad’s other endemic bird, Trinidad Piping Guan.

 

A large garden above the town held a small group of these impressive cracids and we all had excellent views.

 

Other birds seen in the area included Fork-tailed Flycatcher, this bird has a shorter tail than most, either the feathers are old and have broken off or are new and are still growing!

 

Skulking deep in cover we located this White-bellied Antbird.

 

Overhead was a Rufous-browed Peppershrike, which isn’t a shrike at all but a vireo.

 

It looks like a kiskidee but has a stonking bill, the appropriately name Boat-billed Flycatcher.

 

The largely diurnal Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, which has a range that extends from Arizona and Texas all the way south to Argentina.

 

Short-tailed Swifts shot by overhead ….

 

…. and skywatching revealed the presence of the lovely White Hawk ….

 

…. and several Common Black Hawks.

 

They must have been displaying or driving off an intruder as one would often sweep low with its undercarriage down but yet made no attempt to land.

 

Whilst we were watching all these birds up the hill our local man Kenny returned to the lodge and tried to locate where the rare and elusive Lilac-tailed Parrotlets were coming to roost. After a while he returned with a smile on his face and we all bundled into the minibus and got back in time to see these gorgeous little parrots. They were high up in a tree and photography was difficult but you can see the lilac tail on one of the four birds illustrated. A great find Kenny. Along with the two endemics plus Tufted Coquette and Green-throated Mango this meant I had five life birds on Trinidad – plus one very good mammal.

 

However good the birds were I’m afraid they were overshadowed by a reptile, and what a reptile, the fourth largest in the world (and the only one in the top ten largest reptiles that isn’t a crocodilian). On both morning at Grande Riviere we left the accommodation just before dawn ….

 

…. and searched the beach for evidence of these giants.

 

It didn’t take long, along with a group of students from the USA we soon located the last of the previous night’s Leatherback Turtle females crawling back to the sea after laying eggs in the sand.

 

Although sometimes the crawl was a bit erratic.

 

They seemed completely oblivious to us, although I think this young lady might be approaching a bit too close.

 

As I said above they are considered the fourth largest reptile in the world after Saltwater, Nile and Orinoco Crocodiles. Males are considerably bigger than females weighing as much as 650kg (heavier ones have been claimed but not verified). Females (of course all the adult individuals we saw were females) may be about half that weight. Although nesting occurs or has occurred in the Caribbean/Central America, Africa and the Far East the majority of important nesting sites are now in the Caribbean, indeed the largest nesting site in the world in Malaysia has been totally destroyed because all the eggs were harvested for food.

 

The beach was covered in Black Vultures looking for late emerging hatchlings and unearthed eggs.

 

Although it may seem like the vultures are digging up the eggs the majority of eggs on the surface are due to turtles accidentally uncovering previously laid eggs as they dig pits in which to deposit their own.

 

Whilst we were watching the adults, hatchlings from earlier layings were erupting out of the sand at our feet,

 

It was strange to see a patch of sand suddenly quiver and and then see tiny turtles appear ….

 

…. and immediately head off to the sea.

 

Many fall prey to the Black Vultures and the local dogs ….

 

…. but at least this little fella made it ….

 

…. but then of course it had to navigate the pounding surf and the Frigatebirds. Its estimated that less than one in a thousand hatchlings will reach maturity.

 

You were not allowed (quite understandably) to wander the beach at night looking for laying turtles. However for a small fee a ranger equipped with a red torch would take groups out to see these leviathans laying. They appeared to be completely unaware of us and seemed to be in a trance.

 

The pit is dug with the hind flippers and then the female lays a clutch of about 100 eggs.

 

The best time for the hatchlings to emerge is at night when predators aren’t present, but there is one major disadvantage to this. The hatchlings have evolved to head towards the any light source as the sea is usually brighter than the land at night. This doesn’t account however for man-made light pollution, clearly not a problem when turtles first evolved in the Cretaceous period, 110 million years ago. On our second night (but not our first as we had no electricity then) we were suddenly aware that the dining area was being invaded by hatchlings. Several children present and the staff collected three boxes of hatchlings which were then taken to the sea by one of the rangers. At least this boxful will avoid the vultures and the dogs.

 

One afternoon we visited a headstarting’ facility. Here Leatherback and Green Turtle hatchlings (above) are raised in tanks until they are a few months old when they are far less vulnerable to predators and then released in the sea.

 

A member of staff gave us a close up view of a Green Turtle (this species breeds earlier in the year than Leatherbacks and the adults had already departed the beaches). Great as this program is you cannot get away from the key problem. Turtles and predators have co-existed for over 100 million years, its the lack of secure breeding sites for them, free from those who collect eggs for food and free from light pollution that is the underlying problem. And I know that by visiting these areas and staying at the beach side lodge I’m adding to the light pollution problem but at least the locals have a reason to protect the turtle beach if it brings in tourist’s money.

 

So I’ll end this saga with a couple of Caribbean sunset shots. It had been a great trip, almost every life bird seen and a great mammal (Silky Anteater) and a great (literally) reptile too. We asked if for this part of the trip we could vote for Leatherback Turtle in the ‘bird of the Trinidad’ competition. The leader agreed and it won hands down.

 

We had some additional birding the following morning then it was a drive to the airport and the flight home. The trip around the Lesser Antilles and Trinidad was a bit whistle-stop tour, but it was very, very worthwhile. There are still a few birds I haven’t seen in the Caribbean, I missed quite a few on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in the 90s and I’ve never been to the Bahamas so I expect I’ll be back one day.

 

 

 

 

Trinidad part 2 The Caroni Swamp, Yerette’s hummingbirds and a cyclone: 19th – 20th June 2017   Leave a comment

I had intended to do just two posts on Trinidad, but as always there were too many I photos that I wanted to share. So this second post covers our final hours based at Asa Wright and a place we stopped at on route to Grande Riviere on the north coast.

 

 

 

No wildlife holiday to Trinidad would be complete without a visit to the Caroni Swamp and its stunning Scarlet Ibis roost. So we headed back west and then south of the capital, Port of Spain ….

 

…. and took an afternoon cruise down the creeks and channels of the swamp.

 

By far the best sighting was this diminutive Silky Anteater which was curled up in the mangroves like a furry football. I now have seen all four species of anteater, another one off the bucket list.

 

Eventually we emerged from the mangroves into the main lagoon.

 

We saw a few waders like this Hudsonian Whimbrel. UK birders have only about six weeks left to enjoy having this Nearctic form of Whimbrel on their lists because as of 1/1/18 the BOU will adopt the IOC checklist as a basis for the British List and Hudsonian Whimbrel and Eurasian Whimbrel will be relumped.

 

Along the edge of the mangroves was a large collection of egrets and herons.

 

Those we could get close to were revealed as Snowy Egrets, Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons ….

 

…. with the occasional Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

 

However just as the first Scarlet Ibises were starting to fly over it turned ominously dark. We had heard that bad weather, well a cyclone actually, was on its way but hadn’t expected it to arrive until after dark.

 

What we had hoped for was this …. (photo by ‘One more shot Rog’)  see https://www.flickr.com/photos/onemoreshotrog/9475920061 

 

…. what we got was this!

 

It was now raining very hard and we had no option but to head back, arriving back at the bus completely soaked (in spite of ‘waterproofs).

 

Through the night the wind howled and the rain was torrential, beating down on the metal roofs of our rooms with great intensity. The following morning the lodge was wreathed in cloud and it was still raining hard. Several dead nestlings were seen on the paths washed out of their nests ….

 

…. but the baby Spectacled Thrushes outside reception had survived! (photo taken before the storm).

 

One of the large trees outside the verandah had its top broken off ….

 

…. and Black Mastiff Bats were found taking shelter inside the building.

 

We thought that this presumed (it was hard to know when it was soaking wet) Copper-rumped Hummingbird was dead, as it hung motionless upside down for a long time but a researcher rescued it and fed it sugar-water from a dropper and it soon perked up and flew off.

 

Then the bad news; our bus was at the bottom of the mountain and couldn’t get to us because of fallen trees, mind you there are worst places in the world to be trapped than Asa Wright.

 

After about three and a half hours of hanging about two 4x4s belonging to the lodge appeared. The road had been cleared enough for them to get down the hillside but not for the larger bus to get up. It was a case of creeping under the fallen trees rather than going around them.

 

Reunited with our minibus we headed off through flooded roads ….

 

…. to a place called Yerette, a private garden turned into a hummingbird spectacular.

 

Keith, its above you!

 

We could wander around the garden looking at the various feeders. I counted 37 and I’m sure I missed some.

 

Although not in focus, I quite like this image of an incoming Black-breasted Mango.

 

We saw eleven species of hummer at Yerette, including this Little Hermit ….

 

…. Long-billed Starthroat ….

 

…. Blue-chinned Sapphire ….

 

…  a female Amythyst Woodstar

 

…. and yet another male Black-throated Mango. There was also a single Green-throated Mango around which was lifer for me, it looked much the same but was slightly bulkier with a green throat.

 

But the best hummer of the bunch was this Ruby Topaz.

 

As with all hummers Ruby Topaz’s colour changed in intensity with the direction the bird was facing.

 

See what I mean! In many species all of the iridescent colours, so carefully illustrated in a field guide, can’t ever be seen at once.

 

We were now well behind schedule so we headed off for the north-eastern point of the island, from here we headed back west along the north shore (there is no short cut across the mountains). Although the way was clear the road would have been impassible due to flooding if we had left Asa Wright on time as there was a lot of mud on the road, especially when we crossed the streams. The flooding had been less severe in forested areas as forest uplands hold back the water and let it flow gently to the lowlands and in these areas the streams were already running clear. In deforested areas it runs off the hills like the proverbial water off a duck’s back and is full of mud and debris. Deforesters in northern England and near the Somerset Levels please take note.

 

We arrived at our lodge at Grande Riviere before dark but we found they had no power due to the storm and that meant no air-con and no water supply either as the pumps wouldn’t work. They managed to cook us a meal which we ate by candlelight and we squeezed just enough water out of the pipes to wash our hands and face. The power came back on at lunchtime the following day.

The next post will cover the birds we saw in this scenic area, including Trinidad’s other endemic and a very close encounter with the world’s fourth largest reptile.

 

 

Trinidad part 1: Asa Wright Centre and nearby lowlands: 17th-19th June 2017   2 comments

Following on from my very successful trip to the Lesser Antilles (see earlier posts) most of the group continued on to the island of Trinidad for an optional five-day extension. Three didn’t take this option and one joined for the extension only. The tour didn’t visit Tobago, the island that forms a nation-state with Trinidad, as it only has one bird species that cannot be seen in Trinidad and that can be seen in Venezuela.

Although the island of Trinidad may be considered to be in the Caribbean, it certainly doesn’t have a Caribbean avifauna. In fact it’s avifauna is a watered down version of that found on the adjacent South American mainland (which is not surprising as they were connected during prehistory).

The island of Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 until Spanish governor Don José María Chacón surrendered the island to a British fleet under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797. During the same period, the island of Tobago changed hands among Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander colonisers more times than any other island in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago were ceded to Britain in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens as separate states and unified in 1889. Trinidad and Tobago obtained independence in 1962 and became a republic in 1976 (copied from Wikipedia).

Although I have never been to Trinidad before, I have an emotional connection with the island as Margaret lived here during her yachting days, as did her daughter Janis, and the two granddaughters were either born here or lived here from when they were a babies for a period of up to four years.

 

The island of Trinidad lies just 11km off the Paria Peninsula of Venezuela (and indeed I could see it from there when I visited northern Venezuela in the 90s). We couldn’t see the South American mainland as our explorations were limited to the central and eastern part of the northern mountain range. The northern mountain ranges of Venezuela are contiguous with the Andes and as they were once joined with Trinidad ….

 

…. the easternmost point, where Trinidad’s northern range runs into the sea, can be considered the furthermost reach of the mighty Andes.

 

On arrival we were met by our cheery local guide and driver Kenny. Our drive to the mountains was mainly though large areas of cultivation but fortunately some areas of forest have been protected around our destination ….

 

…. the world-famous Asa Wright Centre. Like many of these lodges it had a very ‘olde worldly’ feel to it, from the furnishing …..

 

…. to the old photos on show in the corridor.

 

Wildlife interest was immediately apparent as a Green Hermit had suspended its nest from the light fittings ….

 

…. but it was this scenic view and the birds on show from the elevated verandah that grabbed our attention.

 

Common species included our old friend the Bananaquit (note this race has a shorter bill and lacks the fleshy red gape of the birds we saw in the Lesser Antilles) ….

 

…. Spectacled Thrush (formerly called Bare-eyed Thrush but renamed to avoid confusion with the African species of the same name) ….

 

…. the striking male Barred Antthrush ….

 

…. Violaceous Euphonia ….

 

…. Green Honeycreeper ….

 

…. and the beautiful Purple Honeycreeper. All these species are widespread in northern South America (at least) but the great thing about Trinidad in general and Aza Wright in particular is the ease with which these birds can be seen and photographed. As such Trinidad makes a wonderful introduction to the Neotropics, clearly I’m not a Neotropical neophyte having visited some 25 times, but I still greatly valued getting such good views of these avian gems.

 

The many feeders were full of hummingbirds like this White-necked Jacobin, showing off its white neck and tail ….

 

…. however when they are at rest neither the white neck or white tail are particularly visible.

 

The star of the show was the diminutive (and very fast) Tufted Coquette. The exquisite male never visited the feeders but shot from flower to flower at such speed that I never got a sharp photo. Picture from Wikipedia Commons taken by Steve Garvie.

 

In the Lesser Antilles we saw four different subspecies of House Wren that looked and sounded different enough to be elevated to species status, but none posed for photos. The only one that did pose was in Trinidad and that was a bog standard House Wren just like you can see anywhere in the Neotropics.

 

The Red-rumped Agoutis walked around like they owned the place ….

 

…. and seemed quite unafraid of people.

 

We also saw the little Red-tailed Squirrel from the verandah.

 

Unfortunately it rained regularly, often heavily. As soon as a downpour started all the birds would disappear immediately ….

 

…. and re-emerge to dry out once it had eased off. Here are three species of common tanagers doing just that – Blue-grey ….

 

…. Palm ….

 

…. and a male Silver-beaked.

 

These White-necked Jacobins lined up on a bush in the rain ….

 

…. with tails spread, presumably enjoying a shower.

 

We also spent time on the forest trails (admiring the Cupid Lips bushes) as well as birding.

 

Overhead we saw a Zone-tailed Hawk, a bird that is thought to have evolved to sneak up on its prey by imitating the harmless Turkey Vulture.

 

One of our goals was seeing a displaying male Bearded Bellbird. The strange ‘growths’ on its throat are wattles which it shakes as it emits its ear-shattering bell-like call.

 

A couple of species of manakins were lekking as well. In well-defined display grounds we could see calling and dancing White-bearded ….

 

…. and Golden-crowned Manakins. As with all the species shown (except Tufted Coquette, which was a lifer) I was familiar with them from previous trips, but I have never seen them so well or been able to photograph them before. This, more than seeing a couple of endemics, makes a visit to Trinidad so special.

 

Other goodies included this Green-backed Trogon (back looks a little blue in this shot) ….

 

…. a distant Keel-billed Toucan …

 

…. and of particular importance, the endemic Trinidad Motmot, a recent split from Blue-crowned Motmot.

 

Also on the Aza Wright property is this cleft in the rock (so it’s not really a cave) where there are a number of nesting Oilbirds.

 

These bizarre birds, distantly related to Nightjars but in their own family, nest in caves. They are nocturnal frugivores and find their way about at night or in the darkness of a cave by echo-location. Conditions inside the fissure were wet (it was raining heavily outside and it was dripping down from above) and dark, my camera misted up and my photos didn’t amount to much.

 

Here is an excellent photo of an Oilbird from the Internet Bird Collection by Tony Palliser see here

 

Away from Asa Wright we visited a number of sites in the lowlands, we had to peer through the fence to see the birds at this water treatment works.

 

New birds for the trip included this Yellow-headed Blackbird ….

 

…. a Pied Water Tyrant ….

 

…. a pair of the amazing Black Skimmers ‘unzipping the pond’ ….

 

…. and best of all the bizarre Large-billed Tern which has a wing pattern reminiscent of a Sabine’s Gull.

 

Nearby a Peal Kite surveyed the scene from an overhead wire.

 

Also in the lowlands we visited an area of Moriche Palms near a disused airfield.

 

We found plenty of White-winged Swallows ….

 

…. a few Orange-winged Parrots ….

 

…. and a Black-crested Antshrike.

 

But the highlight were this flock of Red-bellied Macaws feeding on figs.

 

One of the smaller macaws, this species has a wide range from Trinidad in the north to Bolivia in the south. As is so often the case with bird-names the eponymous red-belly isn’t very striking.

 

So it was back to Asa Wright where a ‘crappy little chappy’ photobombed my shot.

 

Our visit to the Caroni Swamp a hummingbird mega-fest and the arrival of a cyclone will all be covered in the next post.