Archive for December 2017

Christmas Island: 5th -9th September 2017   1 comment

In September this year I went on a Birdquest tour to Western Australia. I am only now getting round to sorting and editing the photos.

In addition to the tour of the state of Western Australia there was an optional pre-tour extension to Christmas Island and it seems appropriate that rather than posting photos of family stuffing themselves, I upload an account of Christmas Island at Christmas time.

Christmas Island, although an Australia external territory lies a full 1550 km from the nearest point of the mainland but only 350 km from Java. Ornithologically it is known as the sole breeding site of two seabirds, Christmas Island Frigatebird and Abbott’s Booby plus the ‘golden’ form of White-tailed Tropicbird and has four endemic land birds (plus two more endemic subspecies that are likely to be promoted to species status in the future).

I have seen Christmas Island Frigatebird and a golden White-tailed Tropicbird off Java and remarkably saw a vagrant Abbott’s Booby in Micronesia. After that I declared that I would save my money and not ‘do’ Christmas Island. I’m very glad that I changed my mind as I really enjoyed the place (although due to changes in flight schedules we were there longer than was needed). It was an expensive few days (it’s no longer practical to fly from Jakarta so we had to fly all the way to Perth first and then back north) but the fact that I was asked to drive the second vehicle helped reduce the cost somewhat.

The flight from the UK was predictably lengthy and boring. On arrival at Perth I stayed for what remained of the night in a nearby hotel before returning to the airport the following morning for the flight to Christmas Island. Economically the island is known for phosphate mining and several of these mines could be seen as we came into land. The island is 135 sq km in extent and home to 2000 people, a mixture of white Australians and those of mainly Chinese Malay descent. Although first noted by navigators in 1615 it wasn’t named until 1643 when Captain William Mynors sailed past on Christmas Day. It wasn’t settled until the mid 19th century.

 

We had hardly left the airport when our leader Andy Jensen pulled to a halt. There perched in full view was a Christmas Island Goshawk, a bird that many birders have failed to see during their stay. We only saw two more and they were just a brief flight views. It’s taxonomic position is controversial. Currently considered a subspecies of Brown Goshawk, it has also been considered a subspecies of Variable Goshawk. Either way, it lies well to the west of the range of either Brown or Variable Goshawk. Most people agree that the most sensible thing is to consider it a species in its own right, something that has been done in the most recent Australian field guide.

 

There is universal agreement on the species status of Christmas Island White-eye however.

 

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeons were large and quite conspicuous.

 

Christmas Island Swiftlet was considered a subspecies of Edible-nest Swiftlet until a few weeks before the tour commenced. Identifying these small swiftlets in flight is nigh on impossible unless you can get near-perfect photos. Some are best identified by the composition of their nests: Edible-nest Swiftlet – only saliva, Black-nest Swiftlet – breast feathers and saliva, Mossy-nest Swiftlet – moss and saliva. It goes without saying that Edible-nest Swiftlet nest are the most valuable and sought after for the manufacture of bird nest soup.

 

Island Thrush was common and tame all over the island including in the towns. The Island Thrush complex involves some 50 or so races spread across the islands of Wallacea and the western Pacific. Many of the subspecies look very different from each other, some are black,some are brown, others have white heads, most occur on remote mountain tops and are very timid and elusive. Again the general consensus is that this tame species, which occurs to sea level should be split as Christmas Island Thrush.

 

The other endemic landbird is Christmas Island Boobook which showed so very well in a small park in Settlement on our first night.

 

The following morning we visited this viewpoint overlooking Flying Fish Cove and the conurbation known as Settlement. All of the above photos except the goshawk and owl were taken near here.

 

In addition we saw the endemic Christmas island Flying Fox  ….

 

…. and also Common Emerald Dove which is considered a different species from Pacific Emerald Dove that occurs in eastern Australia.

 

Breakfast time, indeed many meal times, were enlivened by Island Thrushes begging for scraps.

 

By breakfast time on our first morning we had seen all the endemic land birds so we set off to explore the rocky coasts. With three and a half days in front of us we had plenty of time to concentrate on the seabirds. Unfortunately flight schedules meant we could only spend two nights or four on the island. If we chose the former and there was bad weather or the flights were routed via Cocos Island we could have well dipped on the goshawk or the owl. Of course an extra day in such a lovely place was no hardship but we really could have done with an extra day at some locations on the mainland.

 

The coastal scenery was characterised by jagged volcanic rocks ….

 

…. quiet coves ….

 

…. and dramatic blowholes.

 

Nankeen Kestrels were regular if not exactly common ….

 

…. it’s interesting that this species, widespread in mainland Australia has colonised rather than Spotted Kestrel which can be found in Indonesia, including Java, only a quarter of the distance away.

 

Unlike the Red-footed Boobies, which nest in trees, Brown Boobies were seen along the rocky shores.

 

So we got great close-ups of their long gangly necks.

 

For an hour or so after dawn large numbers of Brown Noddies passed close inshore.

 

Red-footed Boobies gave wonderful views ….

 

…. Red-footed Booby is one of the most widespread of the Sulidae, the family that comprised the ten species of Boobies and Gannets, being found in the tropical Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

 

A brown phase also occurs which is a pale brown all over unlike the dark brown upperparts and white belly of Brown Booby.

 

Some of the delights of Christmas Island were the excellent views of Red-tailed Tropicbirds that we saw all along the coast.

 

Pairs would perform their ‘rowing backwards’ aerial display, but as the pair keep some distance from each other whilst doing this it didn’t result in great photos, but as they drifted past on the updrafts from the cliffs they posed nicely for the camera.

 

But the highlight was the ‘Golden Bosunbird’, currently classified as the race fulvus of White-tailed Tropicbird. Bosunbird or Boatswain Bird  was the name given to Tropicbirds in the days of sailing boats (for reasons I can’t establish).

 

There are those who consider that this form should be split as a separate species, but whilst this is an attractive proposition, I think they don’t even warrant subspecies status and they are no more than a colour morph. The bird in these two pictures represents the extreme of golden colouration, most are much paler ….

 

…. and white morph individuals, looking just like the White-tailed Tropicbirds that are seen elsewhere, are not uncommon.

 

Once when driving past the golf course someone in the group saw an Intermediate Egret. We turned round and went back to investigate ….

 

…. but only found a white-morph Pacific Reef Egret.

 

However the next day we saw an undoubted Intermediate Egret in the same place. Talk about the ‘two bird theory’.

Tree Sparrows, introduced to Christmas Island from Asia, could be easily seen around habitation ….

 

…. but the introduced Java Sparrow (which isn’t a sparrow at all but a member of the Estrildidae) was much harder to find. Fortunately we heard that a resident put out food for them at 4pm every day on the roof of her garage so we had great views along with a few Tree Sparrows. I missed Java Sparrow when I went to Java but have seen introduced population in places as far-flung as Hawaii, St Helena and here. Java Sparrow is one of just two or three species which I have only seen as introduced individuals rather than in their native range.

 

One of the most bizarre experiences of the trip, indeed in all of my 40+ years of birding occurred when we visited the part of the town by Flying Fish Cove, immediately under the viewpoint that I illustrated at the start of this account. About half an hour after sunset a strange call was heard offshore and we followed it round until it turned and came directly towards us up the street.

 

It was a Tropical Shearwater, possibly only the third or fourth record for all of Australia. The bird continued up the street, dodging traffic, calling all the time, before it swung back out to sea. It repeated this performance twice more before flying up the hill. I didn’t get any photos worth publishing so have used this photo from one of the local birders, Hickson Ferguson.

 

Imagine a small shearwater zooming up this street at shoulder height as you were driving down it! What made the experience even more bizarre was that this was a Muslim part of town and whilst we were listening to the shearwater’s calls an Iman from the local mosque was preaching in (I presume) Arabic and his sermon was being relayed over the loudspeakers.

 

We also spent time in the forested interior of the island.

 

In some areas there were colonies of Frigatebirds ….

 

…. but the main attraction was Abbott’s Booby.

 

Undoubtedly the rarest and most range restricted of all the ten members of the Sulidae, this species is restricted to Christmas Island where it nests in tall trees. I was lucky to see one in a Red-footed Booby colony on Rota in Micronesia (the bird was probably ship assisted) but seeing them and their chicks in the breeding colonies on Christmas Island was a superb experience.

 

With their fluffy plumage and black surround to the eyes, the chicks looked almost owl-like as the gazed down from their tree top nests.

 

With its drooping neck and thin, elongated wings held in strangely pushed forwards manner, Abbott’s Booby’s flight has been likened to that of a Pterodactyl, which is a bit strange as we all missed adding Pterodactyl to our list by at least 65,000,000 years so how does anyone know?

 

Although Christmas Island has some great bird spectacles, most people know it as the site of the world’s largest crab migration. This occurs later in the year at the onset of the monsoon so we didn’t get to see it.

 

However there were plenty of the giant Robber Crabs about ….

 

…. but far more Christmas Island Red Crabs. The population is estimated at 40 million or 20 thousand for each human inhabitant.

 

In order to reproduce the crabs must migrate to the coast and lay their eggs in the sea so the males can fertilise them. With 40 million crabs on the move all at once island life does get disrupted but this is what the island is famous for and it brings in tourist dollars. Judging by what was on sale at the gift shop, the islanders were proud of their unique wildlife spectacle.

 

We were initially puzzled by these apparent ‘cattle grids’. There was no stock to contain and the grids weren’t for water drainage as they were usually situated at the top of a rise rather than in the dips ….

 

… closer examination showed guide rails on each side – they were to protect the migrant crabs from traffic by channeling them under the road.

 

This is the sight tourists see when they visit during the crab migration Photo from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/12/march-christmas-island-red-crab/ a site which contains more information on this amazing spectacle.

 

Where else in the world would roads be closed due to crab migration? As we were a month or two too early I think Circuit Tracks and Boulder Track are closed for reasons other than crabs.

 

I haven’t mentioned the frigatebirds. Christmas Island is probably the only location in the world where three species (out of a total of five) frigatebirds breed in sympatry. Telling them apart was a different matter though.

 

It’s not that the different species don’t have a distinct plumage, they do at least in adult male or adult female plumages. This is an adult male Christmas Island Frigatebird.

 

…. and here is an adult female.

 

Juveniles however (like albatrosses and large gulls) go through a complex series of plumages before they are adult. The youngest have brown heads like this immature male Christmas.

 

This particularly ragged looking bird is an immature female Christmas with a partial pale collar and limited and poorly defined white spurs in the axillaries. I have seen Christmas Island Frigates off southern Thailand and Java but Christmas Island is their only breeding site.

 

Adult male Great Frigatebirds are relatively easy as they are all black. This one is having a quick preen in flight. This species is the commonest frigate on Christmas Island but bizarrely I took far more photos of the eponymous species.

 

The pale backward-pointing horseshoe on the adult female Great Frigatebird makes it fairly easy to identify.

 

The brown head of this bird marks it as an immature but I’ve not been able to identify it conclusively to species.

 

The pale head and breast without spurs in the underwing indicate that this an immature Great Frigatebird .

 

One of the easiest to identify is the much rarer Lesser Frigatebird, especially the male which is all black except for the narrow white spurs in the axillaries.

 

Christmas Island has a superb National park covering some two-thirds of the island. Large areas were destroyed by phosphate mining but this has largely ceased. However there are plans to renew the mining, it is critically important that these activities don’t impact on the only nesting grounds of Abbott’s Booby or Christmas island Frigatebird. The above photo shows the loading facility for the phosphate at Settlement.

 

Well that was it for Christmas Island, a fairly relaxing destination by bird tour standards.

 

Our four-hour flight to Perth took us down the west coast of Western Australia where the huge expanses of arid wilderness could be seen. the route to and from Perth is a triangular one with flights visiting the even more remote Cocos Island either before or after visiting Christmas Island. Unfortunately on both our flights we were on the direct route. That did save several hours in the air but I would have liked to see Cocos Island, even if it was just briefly from the plane or departure lounge.

 

I’ll end with a sunset taken from our hotel on Christmas Island. This island is never going to get a lot of visitors from far-away Europe but it is an enchanting destination with some wonderful wildlife.

 

 

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.