Friday, 1 September 2017

Postcard From Sweden. Part Three...Heading South.

  Day six was to see us heading back south, and although a long drive it wasn’t without some very interesting stops along the way.  Early in the day we had good sightings of more Velvet and Common Scoter along with Black and Red Throated Diver.  I remember that these diver sightings had been particularly atmospheric.  We also visited Rogen Nature Reserve where Siberian Tits have been recorded, but not by us on this occasion although birds seen did include Yellow Wagtail.  Female Capercaillie was also seen again.

We were to have lunch at a mountainous reserve at Nipfjallet and happily we were able to drive to the top of the mountain.  There was talk of magic roads and trolls, but our minds were set on birds and the walk across the high tundra where to the south stood the conical shaped mountain, Stadjan.  This massive wilderness nature reserve straddles the Swedish/Norwegian border.  Higher ground still held snow although much of it had recently melted.  Having split up and walked the tundra a pair of nesting Dotterel were found along with Golden Plover.  Eventually a pair of Rock Ptarmigan were also found and these provided good photo opportunities.

Rock Ptarmigan

Well it had to rain sometime and day seven was the time it did, but there were still birds to be found and the rain wasn’t going to stop us.  Our first stop brought us a Corncrake calling from just below us, Sam was the only one to catch a glimpse of it in the tall grasses below the viewing platform, only feet away from us.  We saw our first Mute Swan of the trip and I remember Greenshank and Hen Harrier being seen again today.  We stopped off in Tallberg village for what I understand was a ‘traditional waffle’.  I thought this was a nice gesture until I found I had to pay for it!  Too sweet for my taste.  We watched Eagle Owls at a local mine, two juveniles and an adult bird.  Black Redstart was also seen here.  I believe this now large hole in the ground is Falun Copper Mine, opened one thousand years ago and closed in 1992.  Considering the size of the area, The Eagle Owls were in our sights quite quickly.

By lunch-time the rain began to ease and we were on the lookout for Ortolan Bunting on the edge of an airfield.  It wasn’t long before we heard the singing of the Ortolan Bunting and we were able to get close-up sightings of this species as it sang in the tree over our heads.  Not a species easily found these days so it was good to get it on the trip list.  It was a productive stop as we also had three Red Back Shrike and Whinchat close by us and Hobby and Merlin too.

Sam with Mount Stadjan in background.

Watching Dotterel

By evening the rain had stopped altogether and after dinner we met up with local guide Zombor, who I seem to remember was Hungarian by birth.  It proved to be a productive and fun evening.  First of all we had a pair of Montagu’s Harrier.  The male bird showing briefly and the female giving a much longer sighting as it perched on a post in the field.  Seemingly this species is doing quite well in Sweden.  A more distant White-tailed Eagle was seen on top of the distant treeline.   Roe Deer were seen and brought a very good joke from Zombor which I’m afraid I feel unable to repeat on my family friendly blog.  Another mammal was added to the trip list in the form of Hedgehog.  This Hedgehog was on someone’s land and outside of their house but that didn’t stop one of our intrepid group seeking a close-up photograph, nor another member of the group joining in, who on returning to the vehicle seemed put out by the fact that the lady of the house had come out and seemed unimpressed by it all.  I can only assume that our fellow travellers are quite happy for folk to enter their gardens back home without permission and take photographs!

Zombor took us to look for Long Eared Owls and asked for silence at which point the funniest event of the trip took place.  Our leader had to bite his lip to stop the laughter coming.  but Sam didn’t bother and laughed non- stop to the point I thought he had taken too much coke this evening, that’s coke as in Cola.  Wish I could tell you the funny tale but I’m saving it for if I’m ever invited to provide a sketch for a new series of Only Fools and Horses.  The incident still brings a smile to my face when I think of it.  No, we didn’t find any Long-eared Owls but we did find a singing Thrush Nightingale.  What a sound this species makes.  The atmosphere was helped along by a now very still and warm evening and Grasshopper Warbler reeled from the field behind the hedge as Sam and I left the group and took a walk into the field to listen away from any chatter.  I took one or two mosquito bites for my trouble, but it was worth it and it was our last evening in Sweden.  We did see the Thrush Nightingale but to be honest it wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t, the song was enough.   Not as melodic as our own Nightingale but certainly very much louder!  I’d had a beer with my dinner and so found it necessary to take a walk behind a tree where I found a large area of Lilly of the Valley.

We ended the evening with a drive looking at an area where Zombor was aware that Lynx had been recorded that week.  I relaxed and sat back not expecting at all to see Lynx and we didn’t.  However, we did find a Badger.   Perhaps I would not have been quite so relaxed if I had realised how good our chance of seeing Lynx was.  Zombor recorded a sighting of Lynx in this same area only a day or two after our return home! 
  
On day eight there was a morning of birding to take in prior to making for the airport.  The morning was relaxing and productive but we fought the urge to get out of bed too early to seek out a singing Icterine Warbler.  After all we had a long day ahead, but forgetting all of that we visited a nearby lake.  It wasn’t long before we were watching Black Terns, Whimbrel and a Peregrine Falcon being mobbed by Marsh Harriers.  Daniel, Sam and I soon also picked up the song of Great Reed Warbler.

Common Crane

We moved off to visit a wetland site which I believe is quite a new venture.  Before arriving we stopped for a Common Rosefinch found in a garden.  The wetland was quite extensive and provided us with nesting Common Cranes, 40 Little Gulls, Osprey, Great Crested Grebe Red-necked Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe and a far off barely visible Temminck’s Stint.  Then just before we were to leave for the airport I finally had a lifer in the form of Northern Chequered Skipper Butterfly, seen nicely in the sun.

Northern Chequered Skipper

It had been another great trip.  We’d had good leaders and a small group of friendly and fun companions.  Everyone was keen to be involved and there was not a single super ego to deal with.   The bird list for the trip came to 163 which was a record for this particular tour.  Sweden had certainly far surpassed expectations.  We arrived back home around midnight.  

Friday, 25 August 2017

Postcard from Sweden. Part Two...Uplands.

Day three in Sweden was to see us taking quite a long drive further north onto higher ground and the southern part of Lapland.  I must say that I am never too sure where Lapland begins, as different maps I have looked at suggest different borders.  The area we were to enter was spectacular but to me it did not have the feel of the Lapland we had explored in Finland and Norway in 2016, but the area was no poorer for that.  Although a long drive, we had several stops and an interesting visit to Fulufjallet National Park and an unexpected guided tour by a local gentleman of the old Church at Sarna built in 1684.  I must check to see if Linnaeus visited this church on his Lapland tour.  I have a book by Wilfred Blunt (brother of spy Anthony Blunt) concerning the life of Linnaeus which was certainly worth reading, but I can’t recall if this church was mentioned.  Interestingly it did suggest that Linnaeus made exaggerated claims about part of the area of Lapland that he said that he had covered.  The book suggests that it had been impossible in the time limits.  Anyway, whilst my focus was of course on birds and wildlife I do think attention needs to be given to other aspects of areas visited, as that is what travel is all about.

Early on our trip north we had nice sightings of Black Throated and Red Throated Divers, Red Breasted Mergansers and Velvet Scoters.  Waders seen during the day included Lapwing, Common Snipe, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper and we had a very good sighting of Dipper on one of the rivers.

Njupeskar

Our stop at Fulufjallet National Park used up a few hours and I do remember that it had a very interesting visitor centre showing individual species within their habitat.  This was very nicely set out.  The information leaflet on the birds was not quite so well done and had a picture of a Dipper which looked more like a Razorbill.  Oh well I’ve seen worse in some bird guide books.  The national park includes the tallest waterfall in Sweden, Njupeskar.  We walked a couple of Kilometres through an area of bog and Scots Pine and Spruce Taiga Forest to a good viewing point where we had a distant sighting of Gyr Falcon on the nest.  Some walked to higher snow-covered ground and had a much better view of the Gyr Falcon and found Ring Ouzel.  I didn’t climb higher, but eventually walked back down towards the visitor centre and found a Siberian Jay and listened to bubbling Black Grouse.  I was later told that Black Grouse are now rare in this area.  Brambling was also found.

Whooper Swan

Later on, the journey we stopped for a good sighting of female Capercaillie and at some point, watched Willow Grouse.  We eventually arrived at our hotel at Funasdalen where we were to spend the next three nights and which was as far north as we were going.  The room was very cold as was the air outside, but after a very nice dinner the heating had gone on and things warmed up no end.  I really enjoyed the stay here and there was a real homely welcome to the place.  We weren’t done yet and after dinner we left to view a Great Snipe Lek or at least that was the intention.  Unfortunately the weather had closed in, it was now damp, cold and windy on the high ground.  I confess I wasn’t unhappy that things were called off and we returned to the hotel and called it a day.  The Great Snipe weren’t going anywhere.

Day four had arrived and we were to head off for a walk on the high tundra plateau of Flatruet.  Our outward journey was to prove rewarding with Sam finding us from the van a stunningly marked Icterine Warbler.  A pair of Whooper Swan was also found with snow and ice in the background and a bright sun overhead.  Even more exciting was the finding of a Golden Eagle eyrie high up on the mountainside.  The female bird was there with young and then the male bird flew in with captured prey.  Exciting minutes and we were to see four Golden Eagles today.

Once at the plateau it was on with gumboots and extra layers for the exhilarating walk which brought us some very good sightings.  Amongst birds seen we can include a long fly past by a male Hen Harrier, a Ruff lek on a high mound as well as individual Ruff on the frozen pools, a pair of Long Tailed Duck, a brief sighting of Red Necked Phalarope, Willow Grouse, a fly over Wood Sandpiper, the call of Whimbrel, Long Tailed Skua on their breeding site and Lapland Bunting.  You can add to this small herds of Reindeer.  As in Finland last year I was reminded that there are no wild Reindeer in Sweden now, but sightings of the feral ones were no less welcome and they did seem to find us interesting too.  The walk was quite tiring and involved the negotiation of some semi frozen streams.  The atmosphere was wonderful and it was true wilderness.

Reindeer

Sam on the tundra

After a late lunch, there was time for a little exploration but you had to be very careful where you put your feet as a few of us found out when we sunk into mud and water under what looked like sold snow.  Perhaps I exaggerate a little and let’s just say we got our feet wet.  On the drive over high ground we found Dotterel and the photographers amongst us had a good opportunity to take some close-up images.  Rough Legged Buzzard and Merlin were also seen.  We had time for a bit of relaxation before dinner.  Although there was plenty of action on this trip we never felt rushed and were always given time to get our thoughts together.  We were to be in action again this evening following dinner as we were this time off to the Great Snipe Lekking site and on this occasion conditions proved to be ideal.

Dotterel

In stark contrast to the previous evening the sun was up, the air calm and relatively mild as we set of in gumboots up the small incline over wet ground to the Great Snipe Lekking ground.  We had been immediately rewarded with the sight of Black Grouse in the trees and then by a wonderfully marked Red Fox which watched us from a distance as it showed so well in perfectly clear light before it suddenly vanished before our eyes, as Foxes are so inclined to do.  Some expressed thoughts of Wolf or Lynx had soon departed, it was a Red Fox.  It didn’t take too long before we reached our positions and we were able to alert the senses to their full extent.  Neither did it take too long before we began to hear the rather strange clicking and popping of the Great Snipe.  Sighting them on the tundra ground was altogether a different matter.  Then gradually one, two, three displaying Great Snipe appeared, running, strutting, challenging, jumping and flashing those white tail feathers.  Great Snipe numbers were soon into double figures.  As we watched surrounded by snow-capped mountains and as the sun lowered in the sky leaving a red glow in its wake, a Cuckoo called from a distance, Black Grouse bubbled and two Common Cranes called as they flew in and landed not far from us.  The air began to cool but I don’t think anyone really noticed, although a few layers were added instinctively.  Minds were firmly set on the lekking display.  Time passed us by quickly as the silence was broken only by the natural sounds around us, and soon midnight was approaching and it was decided that we best make off towards the hotel and our beds.  What better way to end the day than to listen in now fading light, to the singing Bluethroat, the Swedish nightingale of Linnaeus.  Sam and I agreed later that this had been one of our top nature experiences ‘ever'.  Sleep came easily tonight.

Slavonian Grebe (female)

Slavonian Grebe (male)

Slavonian Grebes

It was now day five and before returning to the plateau we took a walk to look for Siberian Jay without success on this occasion, but a Redstart was amongst birds we did see.  Further along our route to the plateau Whooper Swans and at least five Bluethroat were found.  Later the van suffered a puncture and a team effort (that I watched) ensured it was fixed. but not without some struggles.
Later in the morning we arrived at a lake to find nesting Slavonian Grebes.  I’ve never had nor do I think I will ever again have such a good sighting of Slavonian Grebes.  They were sitting on four eggs and performed very well for us.  The images can do the talking.  Some had lunch and some of us didn’t bother but we all took a walk later and found an Osprey on the nest, rather more distant than the Slavonian Grebes.  A Cuckoo was watched as it wandered around the lawns of one of the buildings and we found many Brambling today and Golden Eagle again.  Then it was time to try for Siberian Jay again and we timed it wonderfully and it seemed they had been waiting for us.  I seem to remember watching at least four Siberian Jays at length and again there was good opportunity for the photographers.

Siberian Jay

Siberian Jay

Rather than become repetitive I’ll now jump to our after-dinner drive.  There was a wonderful sunset this evening and we found much of the area flooded from snowmelt.  Sightings included Merlin, Roe Deer, European Elk and Mountain Hares, one of the latter species being especially friendly and providing a photo opportunity.  I heard that a Pine Martin had been seen but we missed that.  It was a good way to end the day and we headed back to our rooms for our final night in the uplands, maybe to dream of the days to come.  Part three to follow.

European Elk

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Postcard from Sweden. Part One...Not Just Owls.

Having been to Finland and Norway in 2016, Sweden was soon to appear on the growing list of places to visit. What follows is the first instalment of highlights of the trip which took place at the end of May 2017.

Our journey began with a car journey to Edinburgh, a flight to Stanstead, an excellent dinner followed by a warm summer evening birding in Essex (I can recommend the woods near the Stanstead hotels if you’re willing to initially tackle the unpaved roads to get there), followed by an overnight stopover and then our flight to Vasteras, Sweden where the birding began in earnest.  We were led by Tom Mabbet and Swede, Daniel Green.  We were soon into the Svartadalen/Black River Valley area north of Vasteras and Stockholm.  White Wagtail was my first sighting of the trip and as we drove away from the airport we were soon counting Nordic Jackdaws, Fieldfare and Redwing on the grass verges.  The wide open fields were a very different habitat than our UK enclosed and over populated system.  We made a stop for a cup of tea and watched a feeding station.  Woodland/garden birds seen included Great Spotted Woodpecker and Tree Sparrow but our attention was taken mainly with three Hawfinches which at times showed well together.   It wasn’t long before the call of Wryneck was heard and we eventually had a good sighting of it.  I was already beginning to think that this was to be a good trip.

After settling in and having dinner we were soon off to the forest on the lookout for Great Grey Owl which we saw quite quickly, but only briefly and at distance as it flew over the forest glade. We had a walk in this area hoping for a closer sighting but it never came although we did have three Woodcock and a Green Sandpiper fly over, and a singing Garden Warbler, Cuckoo calling, Pied Flycatchers and Tree Pipits.  A family of Wild Boar were seen in the distance and the adults were certainly the largest Wild Boar that I have ever seen, not that I have seen that many.  We moved on to a lesser known site for Great Grey Owl and immediately on arrival we spotted one hunting over the glade only a few metres from us.  The next forty-five minutes were taken up watching and photographing this bird.   It’s surprising how this species tolerates humans so easily.  After last year’s sighting of a Great Grey Owl on the nest, it was my hope we would find at least one of this species in flight but I hadn’t expected one on our first evening.  I do have to say though, whilst an excellent sighting it didn’t quite match the magic of the bird on the nest in the Finnish Forest which had involved a rather difficult but atmospheric walk last year.   As the light began to fade we left for our hotel and a sound sleep ready for an early start the following morning.

Great Grey Owl

Great Grey Owl

Our second day in Sweden and again in the area of the Black River Valley was to again focus on owls, but not just owls.  I believe the intention today was to initially look for Pygmy Owl but we were rather diverted when Daniel saw movement in a dead tree.  It turned out that it held three young Ural Owls.  On occasions all three could be seen from various parts of the dead tree stump.  If there was a fourth bird we didn’t see it.  The adult bird watched us from a more distant tree.  Ural Owls are of course notorious for being protective of their young and we didn’t get to close to this nesting site and later today we will see why that was a wise decision!  A Red Backed Shrike was also seen in the area.

Ural Owl

Ural Owl Chicks.  Two can be seen here, the second only just.

We eventually did get around to finding our Pygmy Owl and what a sighting that was.  We had a sighting of this bird in flight, calling and perched.  Its small size was best noted whilst in flight.  It was mobbed by fourteen species of woodland bird including, tits, warblers, Spotted Flycatcer and Pied Flycatcher and it was today that we also saw Crested Tit.  We weren’t so lucky when some local birders/ringers took us to the Tengmalm’s Owl nest site.  The birds had nested in a box and when examined the ringers found only two dead chicks.  It wasn’t impossible that another chick had survived, but it seemed unlikely.  We had better luck in another area of forest where we found Three Toed Woodpecker and also had a sighting of Black Woodpecker which seemed to do a fly past to check us out.  Great Spotted and Green Woodpecker were also seen today.

Ural Owl

Ural Owl Chick

Later in the day we were met by another two ringers who escorted us to a Ural Owl’s nest where they intended to ring the chicks.  We met the two guys with their ladders, metal helmet with visor and what one of them described as ‘hi tec’ equipment.  This equipment was a long pole with a large cushion on the end which was to be used to protect the ringer from possible Ural Owl attack whilst he climbed the ladder, removed the chicks and ringed them.  Once we had walked a little way into the forest we were at the nest site and we had good views of an adult Ural Owl.  The ringer climbed the ladder and removed the chicks for ringing and whilst the adult bird called in a rather agitated manner and kept a close eye on him all seemed to be going well.  I seemed to remember that I ought to keep my eye on the adult bird and should it swoop I was to turn my back and stoop down towards the ground.  Well, when it did swoop I did as I had been told (although we were a safe distance away from the action) and heard scuffling and the rattle of the metal helmet.  When I did turn around again I saw that the ringer had had his helmet knocked off by the Ural Owl, had been slightly hurt and was clearly shaken.  As we all know ‘hi tec’ equipment often doesn’t work!  However, all’s well that ends well and having ringed the chicks, allowed time for photographs and placed the chicks back into the box all was calm again.  It had all been quite an experience.  Daniel informed us that several ringers had been seriously injured by Ural Owls in the past and now will no longer get involved in ringing them.  I understand why.  Anyone who underestimates the danger from these owls ought to have been present that day.  In total we had seen eight Ural Owls today and it’s a species now challenging Great Grey Owl as my favourite bird.

Wood White Butterflies mating

During the day we had sightings of increasing numbers of Whooper Swan and Common Crane and a very good sighting of Osprey.  Other significant birds seen included Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, Kestrel, Hobby, Crossbill, Lesser Whitethroat and numerous other species.  Our mammal list was growing too and the following had now been seen Red Deer, Roe Deer, Red Fox. Brown Hare and Red Squirrel along with the Wild Boar.  Butterflies were commonly seen and included Orange Tip, Brimstone, Holly Blue, Dingy Skipper (seen by Sam), and numerous Wood White and Green Hairstreak.

A Room with a View

We began our drive further North later in the day and arrived at Tallberg in the evening.  Once we were in our rooms and I took in the vista from the veranda I was a little disappointed that we were staying here only one night before moving further north.  The view was magnificent and it was hard to believe we had left the main road behind and now seemed to be in a wilderness area so quickly.  We were able to look across Lake Siljan, the sixth largest lake in Sweden, and onwards to the mountains.  I learned later that the lake occupies part of the Siljan Ring, the largest meteorite impact crater in Europe, created 377 million years ago.

Parts two and three to come

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Coastal Trip

16th Aug.  Sam and I headed north today and our first stop wasn’t for birds, but for books.  We called into Barter Books at Alnwick, not only a bookshop but a bit of history.  Northumberland is blessed to have a bookshop such as this.  The only other one I know that comes close is Michael Moon’s Antiquarian Bookshop in Cumbria.  Anyway, Barter Books was heaving with folk today and it was difficult to move without bumping into someone.  We headed initially for the Natural History section, or I should say sections.  There were numbers of New Naturalist and Poyser additions we were keen on but just like our local football club we shopped in the bargain basement today and I purchased a nice copy of Derek Ratcliffe’s Bird Life of Mountain and Upland before we moved onto Budle Bay.
One I took earlier as they would say on Blue Peter.

The tide was high and just on the turn when we arrived at the bay and all I could pick out that were in anyway close to us were flocks of Redshank of which there were many.  It was a bright sunny morning, bit of a rarity in its self this summer, although there was still that hint of a cold wind.   We stuck around for over an hour and watched the tide quickly ebb.  It wasn’t long before we were able to count at least six Little Egrets feeding and found a couple of Knot and Curlews.  Eider and Shelduck began to appear and we got talking to a guy visiting the area from Somerset and the conversation of course turned to birds and good birding sites in our respective home areas.  As we were talking a flock of birds feeding at the waterline was disturbed and we quickly saw why, as a Peregrine Falcon was flying over a remaining Redshank.  The Peregrine made several dives at the Redshank in an attempt to make it lift, but to no avail.  I had no sooner said, ‘the Redshank should be fine if it stays put in the water’ when the Peregrine swooped down again and lifted the Redshank and flew off with it alive and possibly kicking.  The Peregrine seemed to be heading inland but then turned, perhaps put off by us watchers, and flew out into the bay.  Several birds nearby had just kept on feeding throughout.  White species of Butterfly were numerous and we picked up Wall Brown Butterflies too.

We eventually made off south along the coast and stopped at Monk’s House Pool.  There were good numbers of Lapwing here but little else although we saw four waders lift which were probably Dunlin.  I did recently get hold of a signed copy of The House on the Shore by Eric Ennion, again purchased from Barter Books.  It appears to have been signed at Monk’s House in 1960 and owned by a gentleman who lived in Seahouses.  I found it very much a book of its time, the 1950s, and I enjoyed reading about Monk’s House Observatory, although I must say whilst I recognise the high quality of E Es artwork I didn’t rate the written text too highly, but that is just my opinion.

Seahouses was heaving with tourists as were the fish and chip cafes so we had our lunch at a pub in Newton.  It advertises itself as a ‘Gastro’ pub and so we had Gastro Burgers before visiting Warkworth Castle.  I’ve not been to the castle for many a year.  It was a bit difficult to imagine Robert The Bruce involved in his siege of the castle or Edward 1 paying an overnight visit, as today the castle grounds were more like a theme park or adventure playground.  We decided to visit again when things are quieter.  As Sam said on occasions throughout the day, ‘who is it that says Northumberland is quiet?’  Never mind it’ll soon be winter.

Later, we paid our first visit to the NWT Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre.  The car-park here was almost full and the centre quite busy.  I’m not a great fan of Hauxley reserve but if the centre can be put to good use as an educational establishment then that is all to the good.  The building itself seems quite pleasant.  We didn’t go out on the reserve as it looked very quiet as far as birds were concerned, although we saw a flock of Black Tailed Godwit and Dunlin.  I knew about the new pathways, but I can’t say I noticed any real habitat changes.

Next stop was Druridge Pools where Sam picked up a lifer in White Rumped Sandpiper.  There were more Black Tailed Godwits and Common Snipe.  We had a further sighting of Little Owl.  We later stopped at Cresswell Pond which was very quiet but we enjoyed a chat to a long-standing friend.  The Spoonbill on the west shore was dozing and there was no way we were going to see that bill!  We also found a lone Avocet.  By now we had also seen Red Admiral and Peacock Butterflies.

Today wasn’t a matter of getting away from the maddening crowd but simply joining them, it is August after all and we did have some pleasant chat with a few individuals.  Birding was quiet but as you can see from my report it wasn’t all about birding and so we had a very good day and the Peregrine Falcon sighting was special.


I’m eventually getting around to writing up our Swedish adventures so more of that anon.  

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Dumfries and Galloway Adventures. Part Two

I’m presently reading Galloway and the Borders by Derek Ratcliffe, and number 101 of Collin’s New Naturalist Series.  It’s relevant to this trip of course and it ought to be remembered that without the likes of DR we may not have been in a position to watch Peregrine Falcons at Threave, or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.  It was DRs work in the 1960s that led to the findings of the link between pesticides and eggshell thinning in raptors.  This problem had led to a rapid decline in many raptor species.  DR was brought up in Carlisle and as a young man ventured over the border into Dumfriesshire and Galloway where he took a keen interest especially in the Peregrine Falcons and Ravens of the uplands.  Years later monographs for Poyser followed, concerning the Peregrine Falcon and Raven.  DR lived to see many changes in the area, not all for the better, afforestation being one concern.  The present plans by the Forestry Commission to extend the planting of none native trees in the area by a substantial amount would not have gone down well with DR.  Derek died in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2005 just after completing his book Galloway and the Borders.  I believe at the time he had been on his way to Lapland, an area he loved, and I would recommend his book Lapland (Poyser) to anyone interested in that area.  Thanks Derek Ratcliffe.


18th July.  We set off this morning for Castramon Woods, one of the largest semi natural broad leaved woodlands in the area.  The oak trees were once used for charcoal and bobbins.  As my journey had been delayed by several weeks we were aware that our target species would not be easily found and so it proved.  Sam did catch sight very briefly of a Wood Warbler, but we were unable to find Pied Flycatcher, Redstart or Tree Pipit.  Some Woodland species were seen and included Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Great Spotted Woodpecker.  In any event the walk through the woods was a delight with the sunlight giving backlighting to the leaves and having a stunning effect in places.  It was midmorning and already very hot.  It would be difficult to be greatly disappointed in such wonderful surrounds, but what little disappointment we did feel was very quickly dissipated at our next stop.

We stopped at a Bridge over the River Fleet in expectation that we might find Dipper.  We never did find that species, but we did find Golden Ringed Dragonflies, long on my wish for list of species to see.  Once picked out from the bridge we managed to find a path down to the river bank and we settled here to watch.  It wasn’t easy to judge how many Golden Ringed Dragonflies there were but we reckoned at least three or four, which included both male and female.  This was to be nature watching at its best as we watched males patrolling, perching, courtship, male and female in tandem and flying high and possibly into the trees to continue mating and females ovipositing.  Whilst not the largest Dragonfly species in the UK, it is the longest and perhaps the most beautiful.  Unfortunately perching always took place on the other side of the


river so photographs weren’t possible, but this was all about watching anyway and there was also a pair of Grey Wagtails to keep an eye on.  All the time the sun blazed down and we were fortunate to have tree cover and shade to drop into.  The river reflected a multitude of green, umber and red hues and as we watched a Kingfisher flew along the river below and only a few feet away from us, lit perfectly by the sun and showing the blueness of plumage at its best.   I’m not sure if it was heat, hunger or thirst that finally dragged us away, but we did eventually move on.  We’d had all this to ourselves and it is this aspect of nature watching I love.  This was special.

We did stop off for a bite to eat and then moved on to Cardoness Castle.  This is a 15th century tower house with slots for dropping burning tar on unwelcome guests and a prison for those who got in!  It also offers an excellent view of Fleet Bay and we had good sightings of Siskin and Bullfinch here.  Next stop was a walk at Carrick which seemed to have excellent habitat for warblers.  Sam had been told that it was unclear if Lesser Whitethroats still nested here.  We can confirm that they do having found four of them along with Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff.  After the walk it was time for a break before dinner.  The heat was exhausting and approaching 30 degrees and I can’t remember where we had seen the Red Kites, but perhaps it doesn’t matter as they are all over the place up here.

Refreshed after dinner we were off to Rockcliffe for a walk to Castlehill Point where there was once a Roman Fort.  A beautiful area with great coastal views and a wonderful estuary.  The wind from the sea was picking up a little and this seemed to be a ‘wind of change’.  We found the Common Scoters again along with the likes of Oystercatcher, Curlew, gulls including Kittiwake, Guillemot, Rock Pipit, Dunnock, Wren, Robin, Song Thrush, warblers, tits, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrow.  When we got back to the village we climbed to the Mote of Mark.  The site was occupied in the 5th and 6th centuries and it is thought may have been destroyed by the Northumbrians.  Don’t we get everywhere?  With a beautiful view over the Urr Estuary it was a wonderful way to end another great day.

View from Mote of Mark

19th July.  Having gone to bed last night listening to heavy rain it was a pleasant surprise to wake to a bright dry day, in fact the forecast thunderstorms never did materialise today.  We set off for the Loch Ken area.  There were of course a few Red Kites as well as Common Buzzards.  Bird wise it was a quiet time of year, but we enjoyed the walk to the hide and whilst we sat there the number of bird species seen did add up and included our first Willow Tit of the trip along with the likes of Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Long tailed Tit, Jay, Nuthatch and a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers with the male, female and two juveniles all present at the same time.  We agreed to move on and as I stood up I caught sight of a bird flying in and suggested to Sam that he might want to sit down again as it was unmistakably the shape of an Osprey I had seen.  We were aware that an Osprey had fed here the day before and we believed the likelihood was that this was the same bird returning.  Sam eventually read the ring number and it was the male adult bird from Threave.  Black 80 was first seen at Threave in 2008 following the construction of a nesting platform in 2007.  The bird was identified back then and traced back to RSPB Glaslyn, at the time the only successful Osprey breeding site in Wales.  Black 80 has been breeding at Threave since 2009.  Anyway, we weren’t going to rush away now and we soon watched this Osprey dive, take a fish and then fly off.  Another star sighting of the trip and especially rewarding for Sam as he has so much connection to the Threave Ospreys.   Once again we had the whole area almost to ourselves.


All Osprey images of Black 80 and heavily cropped.

The latter part of the day was spent exploring the Galloway Forest area and hills.  Ravens were seen and we took time to watch the Red Deer.  The Feral Goats weren’t found.  We rounded the day off with another hearty meal and a relaxing evening, my last of the trip.

Red Deer

20th It was time for my return home today but not before a morning tour beginning with a short visit to RSPB Mersehead a favourite reserve of mine.  We knew there wouldn’t be much birdlife so we only visited the centre.  Yellowhammers were among birds visiting the feeding station and we learned about the successful breeding of the Barn Owls.  Next stop was Southerness and I must learn more about that very old Lighthouse.  We drove around to Paul Jones cottage but didn’t go in.  I’ve known of Paul Jones for many years as I was always made aware of his attack on Whitehaven harbour during the American War of Independence.  It’s an interesting story as is the story of Sweetheart Abbey and New Mill.  We visited the Abbey and the old mill workings before moving on to Drumcoltran Tower, a 16th Century tower which is in the grounds of a working farm.  Some of the final wildlife I saw in the area was dead.  We found two dead bats in the tower, species yet to be determined…I think Sam is working on that, and a dead Goldfinch which appears to found it harder to get out of the tower than get in.  Some time was then spent in Dumfries town prior to my bus ride to Carlisle.

Sweetheart Abbey

My thanks go to Sam who had done lots of ground work prior to my visit and without whom the visit would not have been possible.  I can recommend him as a tour guide.

Since childhood I have visited the Cumbrian side of the Solway, but I am far less au fait with the Dumfries and Galloway side, so made some new discoveries during what was a great trip.  I’ve set myself the task of learning much more about the area and its history, hence my present reading of the book by Derek Ratcliffe.  I also have a book first published in 1955 The Solway Firth by Brian Blake.  Throughout my life I had cursory glances at this book which was always on the bookshelves of my aunt and uncle in Whitehaven.  I never read it fully.  Some years ago just prior to her death, my aunt gave me the book.  I intend to read it now.  Interestingly it was written during the years when Derek Ratcliffe made his early visits so I will find the Solway area as he did at that time, if only on the written page and in photographs.      


Saturday, 29 July 2017

Dumfries and Galloway Adventures. Part One.

16th-20th July.  Unavoidable incidents made for a delay to my trip over the border, but all good things are worth waiting for and my few days of birding and culture were eventually done under clear skies and sunshine.  By, did it get hot at times.

16th July.  The train from Newcastle to Carlisle went at a snail’s pace because of rail works, but I needn’t have worried about catching the onward train to Dumfries as it wasn’t operating at all.  I was assured of good sightings of Common Buzzard as I sat back on the replacement bus service which included a tour around Annan, a rather nice town I thought as I breathed in diesel fumes.  I met up with Sam on arrival and we made for Kippford situated on the Urr Estuary where I was to stay for the next few days.   A hearty meal at one of the local pubs overlooking the bay was enjoyed before we set off for the evening.  It was my first visit to this village, but hopefully not my last.  Red Squirrel had already been added to the list as we saw one leaving a local garden.

Lighthouse at Mull Of Galloway

Despite the clock ticking it was a warm evening with good light so we had plenty of time left for exploration and began at Orchardton Tower, a well preserved 15th century circular tower house.  Having climbed to the top and taken a good look around we headed off towards Balcary Bay and Cliffs.  This proved to be an excellent walk in another area new to me.  I spotted numbers of houses that I coveted. There were great views from the cliffs across the Solway and Irish Sea to the fells of Lakeland, St Bee’s Head and the Isle of Man.  I even found my cousin’s old cottage on the cliff edge near St Bees Head.  Had it not been for heat haze I’m sure we could have picked out individual folk over a distance of about 20 miles away.  On the climb up the cliff path we found some interesting plant life including Common Rock Rose, Wild Thyme and Devil’s Bit Scabious.  Bird species of the day was a pair of nesting Black Guillemot in a recess on the cliff side.  Other birds seen included Rock Pipit, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Cormorant, Guillemot, Sandwich Tern and Kestrel.  Whilst the Black Guillemots were the bird of the day, the sighting of the day had to be the large flock of Common Scoter in the Solway.  There seemed to be no end to the extent of the flock and we were looking at a number in four figures rather than three.  I’ve no doubt this is the highest number of this species I’ve ever personally recorded and it was quite a sight.  As the light began to fade a little it was time to make our way back down the narrow cliff footpath and head back to Kippford.  It had been a great beginning to the trip.

Harebells at Mull of Galloway

17th July.  We were up and ready to leave quite early and we were under clear blue skies and already warm as we made off towards The Mull of Galloway.  A Red Kite was seen early on our journey.     Our first cultural stop along the way was made at Cairn Holy Chambered Cairns, which are very interesting Neolithic burial cairns.  We spent some time here examining the site and taking in the view over Wigtown Bay.  There was a gent there taking measurements and notes and when he gave me a riddle to solve concerning the solstice etc and I began to think I’d dropped into a remake of the ’Hobbit’.  Being no Billbo Baggins I left the talking to Sam.  We then made off towards Wigtown in search of books.  Wigtown was designated Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998.  In one of the bookshops (there didn’t seem to be that many) Sam got his eye on a book about the ‘Longest Day’ on the top shelf of the World War 11 books.  We asked if we could have a look at it.  The young lady brought the steps and said she wasn’t happy using them, which Sam and I saw the funny side of.  Yours truly climbed them.  The book wasn’t that good so Sam climbed up to put it back.  Just goes to show ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’.  There appeared to be no New Naturalist books so we were soon off to the Rhins and Mull of Galloway.

It's a few years now since I had the pleasure to stand and overlook the Solway from the Mull of Galloway so I was eager to get back and on this occasion we were also able to view the area from the top of the lighthouse, after a chat with the assistant who had welcomed us.  She wa originally from the Northeast of England and I made the fatal error of calling her a Geordie when in fact she was a Mackem.  We had expected lots of butterflies but saw very few, once again underlying the fact that it has been a poor year for them.  We saw White species, Common Blue, Ringlet, Meadow Brown and Red Admiral.  There was certainly lots of Birds-foot Trefoil, and Sea Campion and Harebell were among other plants seen.   Birds seen included Fulmar, Gannet, Shag, Cormorant, Kestrel, Kittiwake, Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill and Raven.  A Wheatear was seen with a juvenile bird in the exact same spot as I had seen this species on my last visit.  Bird of the visit was without doubt Hooded Crow, not a common bird for this area.  It was made even better by the fact that we saw Hooded Crow with Carrion Crow and an intermediate bird.  We spent a good bit of time in this area, stood close to the most southerly point of Scotland, checked out the foghorn and enjoyed the sights of Luce Bay.  The weather remained perfect throughout the day.  The tar near the RSPB site was melting and although a hot day I do think it was probably a fault in the tar rather than the heat which had been the main cause of this.  A Brown Hare was recorded at some point during our journey today.

We stopped off at a busy Portpatrick where we found only one pair of Black Guillemot in the harbour wall and took the chance to catch a bite of dinner.  It was getting hotter.  Sam took a drive through Gate House of Fleet where we photographed a Grey Heron in a tree over the pond and where  the early evening reflections were wonderful (I think that was today!). We then drove over the higher road to Lauriston whilst taking in the scenery.

Evening at Threave

We weren’t finished yet and we drove down to Threave and walked to the castle, the area where Sam is presently employed.  Threave Castle is on an island in the River Dee and the castle was the idea of Archibald the Grim.  I think I’ve met one or two of his ancestors whilst birding!   We were hoping for Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons.  We found one of the juvenile Ospreys on the nest and soon after its sibling on a tree nearby.  The second bird was soon in flight.  There was much calling of Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons and also Redpolls which were in the trees close by us and showing well on occasions.  Greylag Geese and Oystercatcher provided background sounds.  Are there many places where you can stand and listen to both the calls of Ospreys and Peregrines at the same time?  I think not.  Both species have had successful breeding years in the area.  (I’m giving nothing away here as it is all public knowledge and encouragement is given to folk to go and view them).  Whilst the Peregines could be heard I thought we weren’t going to see them, but just as we were getting ready to pack in for the night as the sun sunk down towards the horizon, the female Peregrine Falcon was found on the castle wall and we had excellent telescope views of it.
 
The evening at Threave will stay with me for a long time, as will the entire day which had been a long and rewarding one of 14 hours on the go with just an odd break to eat and drink.  There were many more bird species seen of course.  Part two to come.