Sunday, 29 November 2009

Walk Ends With 'Golden' Treat.

Setting Off.
A few of the Golden Plovers.

Homeward Bound.

27th Nov. It was a cool, but bright morning as I left to start my pond, woods and coast walk, with the rising sun still painting the sky in the east a rather nice shade of orange. My first excitement of the day was to have a Kestrel fly directly at me as I walked between the village and Holywell Pond. I’m not sure if I had put it off a target prey item, but it appeared to fly directly at me until making a manoeuvre and flying over the nearby rooftops. I remembered a similar experience I once had when a hunting Sparrowhawk had narrowly, it seemed to me, missed my face as I walked through woodland. I also had a similar experience with a Barn Owl which flew directly at me, as if I wasn’t registering with it, before to veered off over a hedge.

I must say recent visits to Holywell pond have not been especially productive in terms of bird numbers. Today I was expecting much, but was rather disappointed. The expected flocks of waterfowl, especially Teal and Wigeon, just weren’t there. I found no Teal at all and only one pair of Wigeon. Have I just been unlucky? I found only one pair of Goldeneye, a small flock of Pochard and one Little Grebe amongst the Mallard, Moorhen and Coots. A small flock of Lapwing and four calling Redshank made a brief appearance over the pond. The feeding station I know has been the target of vandalism and that may explain the lack of available feed, but what was there was attracting tits, and small numbers of Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Dunnock, Robin and Wren, along with a female Pheasant. The water of the pond was quite high and judging by the waterlogged surroundings had been much higher in recent days. I decided to take a look from the public hide to see if I had been missing anything and just then numbers of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese flew in and landed on the fields behind the tree line. Only one lone Greylag called from the pond, as if it had drifted from its companions. Gulls on the water were, Black Headed, Common, Herring and Greater Black Backed. I found nothing more from the public hide from where the pond looked even more bereft of birdlife. Having spoken to a passerby the pond seems to have been very quiet recently. Having said this, there had been enough activity to make the visit well worthwhile. Sadly a dog walker found it quite ok to let his two dogs run loose around the reserve and down to the pond. I think I have seen more unacceptable behaviour by dog walkers on this my favourite local walk, than anywhere else I visit.

The woodland of the dene didn’t provide large numbers of birds either, apart from a constant fly past of Great, Coal and Blue Tits. A male Blackcap give a good showing as did a pair of Grey Wagtails that were found on the mud at the side of the burn, their wonderful colouring showing especially well in the limited light that was available. A passerby asked if I had seen the Kingfisher. He had watched it fly up the burn. Needless to say I have still to see Kingfisher in the dene. Perhaps I need to spend a day on one of the bridges to break my duck in this respect. A Brown Hare rested under the trees as I passed by and another Kestrel flew overhead.

The tide was high so there was good numbers of Redshank around the area of the salt marsh. I also had a good close sighting of a female Goldeneye here before it decided to fly up the burn. A Little Grebe was also on the burn, but dived and wasn’t seen again. It was now time to sit down for my fish and chip lunch, but not before finding a number of Oystercatchers along the verge by the roadway. It had been a fine morning weather wise and so I found it odd that there were so few people about, and even the fish and chip cafĂ© was very quiet.

The tide was beginning to recede as I walked towards St Mary’s Island. There was little on the sea apart from small rafts of Eider Duck. Oystercatchers, Redshank and an odd Ringed Plover made an appearance on the shore below. A lone Lapwing and Curlew was found in the fields along with a pair of Stonechat. As I continued the walk I saw in the distance flocks of what I initially mistook for Starlings. Strange how distance can play tricks on the eyes. I soon realised they were Golden Plover, and by the time I reached the ‘mast’ field small flocks had gathered into a large flock and were calling in unison from the field. More and more birds flew in to join the growing flock and this made for quite a sight. This was catching the attention of a number of none birders who were keen to know what species the birds were. A photographer was busy taking photographs and I heard him admit he wasn’t a birder but had been ‘taken’ by the sight. I reckon there were at least a thousand birds in the field by the time they had all flown in. I watched and listened for some time. The birds stopped calling as one and as I expected took to flight. At times the flock provided a display that was on par with Starlings coming into roost. For the rest of the afternoon I was entertained by flocks of Golden Plover. This was quite a sight in the and there was perfect light and conditions for watching this show which to me seemed to be birding at its very best! Certainly wader watching at its best!

The shoreline close to St Mary’s, both to the north and south held good numbers of waders. Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Turnstone, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Redshank and Curlew were all there, generally in good numbers. There were also numbers of Rock Pipit. I thought I best give the wetland area a quick look over just in case! In fact there were good numbers of Gadwall and Teal there with the odd pair of Wigeon and a Mute Swan.
It was time to make off towards home now and as I did so I found the sky turning a pale orange again reflecting the fact that the days are so short at this time of year. The temperature was dropping quickly. What had seemed such a quiet day had turned up 57 species of bird and a display by the Golden Plovers that will go down as one of this years birding highlights.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Back On Track.

Peaceful Patch

Whoopers at Martin Mere

15th Nov. Having been down to Martin Mere with the group yesterday, seven hours travelling for four hours birding, I was rather relieved to be able to take a quiet stroll on patch today. Although Martin Mere held its attractions in all honesty I wasn’t that impressed although I suppose I have recently been spoilt by my trip to the Scottish Islands. There were lots of waterfowl in Lancashire of course and the numbers of Whooper Swans was impressive, but the pick of the day for me was the two Peregrine Falcons on a telegraph poll that I watched as each individually took to flight, both have stretched and exercised the wings. I was pleased to watch overhead the Starlings coming into roost just as we were getting prepared to leave. The group’s day list came to sixty-one species.

I decided today’s weather was too good to let pass by without a walk on patch so I made for the lake. There were many anglers out today, but not too many birds! The Grey Heron was in its usual position beside the smaller lake and there were growing flocks of Black Headed and Common Gulls otherwise little about this area other than Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Coot and Moorhen. Corvids fed in the fields which were a quagmire after the heavy rains.

I counted fifty-one Canada Geese near the larger lake and reckon their numbers are increasing each winter. There were so far only two Goosanders on the lake with the odd Goldeneye and many more of the species seen on the smaller lake.
As I walked back at 3.00pm in the already fading light I reflected on the walks I had in spring and summer. I do like the skies at this time of year and look forward to some sky watching throughout the winter

Monday, 9 November 2009

Islay and Jura Pt 2

He wasn't going to move!
Walk around the Bay

Cloud over Islay Sound and Jura



Islay Sound

Paps of Jura

Red Deer stag, Jura

1st Nov. It rained and at times it rained very heavily! In the afternoon we were due take the five minute ferry crossing from Port Askaig to Jura, but before that we visited the area around Loch Gruinart. There was at least some shelter there to take our lunch. I saw my first Red Throated Diver of the trip today and my first Great Crested Grebe. In the main it was a morning for watch the geese again. Some in the party took a walk to find Chough which apparently roost in one of the barns nearby. I just couldn’t work up the passion for another soaking so missed out on the two Choughs that were found in bedraggled state. I’ll just have to live with the disappointment! The disappointment was eased when we found a Cattle Egret (a UK tick for me) and another ringtail Hen Harrier on the way to the ferry crossing. A flock of twenty Brent Geese (pale-bellied) was also seen today. We were soon on Jura and driving along what appears to be its one road. I’d been looking forward to spending time on the much wilder island. We were soon catching good sightings of some the islands 5,000 Red Deer. Once at the Jura Hotel at Craighouse we watched the bay for Otters. With no luck on this occasion, but as the hotel front windows overlooked the bay I thought that there would be every chance of Otter sightings at some point. I went off to bed that night in peace and quiet.

2nd Nov. We were up for a pre breakfast walk to look for Otters, and again with no luck. By now I was expecting rain and I wasn’t disappointed, although the mist and cloud soon broke up to lend a wonderful atmosphere to the island. Some of the skies over the next couple of days were magnificent, the light was wonderful and if nothing else the rain, which came only in showers now, brought out the colours in the landscape to great effect. There were numbers of Red Breasted Merganser in the bay this morning along with Eider Duck and Common Seals.

The morning and early afternoon were taken up with the drive along the western side of the island where we passed wonderful bays, the Paps of Jura at times their tops covered by cloud and at other times perfectly clear under blue skies and Loch Tarbert which attempts to cut the island in half. It was a fascinating drive with many stops and many Red Deer including numbers of impressive stags. We drove to the end of the public road and at one point almost burnt out the vehicles clutch. We found both ringtail and male Hen Harriers, both giving short, but good views. As I turned from the male bird a male Merlin flew past over the moor on the other side of the road. Again we saw numerous winter thrushes and Common Buzzards now were with us almost constantly and of course there were numbers of Raven and Hooded Crow. I also managed to get my eye on my first Goldfinch of the trip. There were loads of good photographic opportunities and I thought that given more time on Jura there would be some excellent walking to be done.

Having returned to the hotel for lunch we were driven around the bay and most of us walked back. I saw another Merlin at the start of the walk. It was good to be able to step out and walk some of the past few days meals off! The skies were wonderful with storm clouds meeting blue skies and as the afternoon went on the sun caused areas of the sky to look a bright yellow as it also shone across the water. The afternoon shower was only short lived. Still no Otters though!

3rd Nov. I decided to skip the pre breakfast walk and stay in bed as I had heard heavy downpours during the night. I couldn’t rest however, thinking what might be being found by those few who had gotten out of bed so I joined them. It was just as well I did as an Otter was performing in the bay. This was our first of the trip and everyone had excellent views as it ducked and dived whilst apparently almost constantly eating. It lay on its back on several occasions and handled what seemed to be fish and crabs. I was surprised at how long these animals are when seen at full stretch in the water. Our watch carried on into the breakfast room until the Otter finally disappeared. Mallards, Grey Herons and Red Breasted Mergansers were also about.

Now today I had been tempted to join the small party going to visit Barnhill (where George Orwell wrote 1984) and the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Once I heard we were not guaranteed to see the whirlpool in action I decide against this as it meant repeating the journey of the day before with the extra march over very wet moorland. I decided a change would be better and went along the western side of the island where a walk along the beach was planned. I’m pleased I made this choice as before the day was out we had found three more Otters, one of which finally came onto the shore giving great views. We had some magnificent Red Deer stags in close up to, none of which seem to be especially concerned about our presence. One of them was a special beast indeed with seven points on each antler. We were later told that there numbers of similar size on the island.

The walk along the beach was a refreshing one with wonderful lichens and some interesting plants I have yet to identify. Kestrels and Common Buzzards were around in number. I reckon we saw thirty plus Common Buzzards today and that is probably well underestimated. We also had another excellent sighting of Great Northern Diver on Islay Sound. There were more Common and Grey Seals about too. One bird which surprised us was a lone Arctic Tern as it seemed so late for this bird to be still about. Gulls seen were Black Headed, Common, Herring, Great Black Backed and Kittiwake. Black Guillemot was also seen, and the shoreline gave me good sightings of Rock Pipit and more Stonechat. As we watched one of the Otters the ferryman told us he had seen two White Tailed Sea Eagles the previous day. This made us decide to return in the afternoon. Some of the rainbows seen today were magnificent. On our return for lunch we had a sighting of one of the birds of the trip as a Golden Eagle flew directly towards us from the hills and flew quite low over our heads giving great views.

We were soon heading back to the same area. White Tailed Sea Eagles on the mind, but to be honest I wasn’t really confident about seeing any. Then I got my eye on two large birds flying in front of us and over the Sound. They were quickly confirmed as White Tailed Sea Eagles as we quickly got ourselves in a good position to watch them. I had great scope views. I seem to remember the birds were tagged L and D (or was it H?). We watched them for about thirty minutes as they flew together over the Sound then eventually landed and perched in the trees on Islay. Our intended walk was forgotten by now as we also found an Otter and Red Deer. One of the Red Deer stags came down to the Sound to drink and taste the seaweed. It wasn’t perturbed by us at all. I felt that I could almost have touched it. Any walk along the beach was in any case out of the question now as the tide was high. It had been an excellent day and I’d hardly been wet at all! Again there were some wonderful skies and lighting conditions.

4th Nov. Today was our day to return to the mainland and onwards to home. An early breakfast was had and we were off at 7.00am towards the ferry for Islay. On reaching Islay we made for the ferry to the mainland which left from Port Ellen. The crossing was smooth and some good views were had especially of Jura. Birds seen on the crossing included Black Throated Diver (the first of the trip), Manx Shearwater (the first of the trip), Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill and Black Guillemot. On one side of us the skies were dark grey and stormy, and on the other bright with white cloud and large blue areas. This seemed to sum up the weather on the trip. The crossing on this mill pond in daylight was very enjoyable after the initial crossing had been taking in heavy rain, wind and darkness. We were soon heading for Glasgow and I managed quick sightings of some wildlife on Loch Fyne which included a very brief view of another Otter and a Little Grebe.
It had been an excellent trip despite the odd soaking. In my eyes the weather had added to the atmosphere. If it had been drier I’m not so sure we would have seen many more bird species. Perhaps a few woodland birds would have been added to the list as we never ever made the woodland area. My only disappointment was not adding Chough to my UK list. Another time perhaps, but in any event I’m not complaining. Islay and Jura are two very different islands so I would find it impossible to really say which one I preferred. Each one has its strong points, but I did really appreciate the wildness of Jura and a bedroom on it that was not over a noisy public bar!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Islay and Jura Pt 1

The Atlantic from Port Wemyss, Islay
Port Wemyss, Islay

Cliffs at Oa, Islay.

American Monument at Oa, Islay.

Cliffs at Oa, Islay

29th Oct. After a train journey up the east coast in full sun where I spotted several skeins of geese, possibly Pink Footed Geese, I was met at Edinburgh by drizzling rain which continued off and on as I travelled onwards to Glasgow. We were soon heading past Loch Lomond, Loch Long and Loch Fyne on our way to catch the ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen, Islay. I had recorded my first Common Buzzards, Ravens and Hooded Crows on the journey from Glasgow and during a short stop at Loch Long the only Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Black Backed Gull of the trip. There was a number of variable hybrid Hooded and Carrion Crows on the shore here. The rain became heavier as we approached the west coast and darkness set in very early. Happily I managed to eat my scampi and chips and drink my red wine on the ferry before the waters became choppy, which made walking in a straight line impossible, and no, the red wine had no role in this. After the two+ hour crossing we were soon at out hotel at Bridgend on the island, and as my room was above the bar I was entertained until almost midnight by pop music, as I prayed for quietness and for drier weather for morning!

30th Oct. The morning was cloudy, but in the main dry. I was fully aware of Islay’s reputation of perhaps being the best place in Europe to see geese and I remembered Peter Scott’s comments about it, but I hadn’t been prepared to see quiet so many and this trip definitely provided my best ever geese watching by far, many of them at very close quarters. The Greenland Barnacle Geese (up to 40,000 on the island I believe), were of course the most numerous and we began to see large flocks of these within minutes of leaving the hotel as we travelled the edge of Loch Indaal. There were also a number of smaller flocks of Greenland White Fronted Geese and these again provided my best ever sighting of this species that I have only ever seen at distance at Loch Ken in Dumfries. Smaller numbers of Greylag Geese were also seen. Geese were to be seen in their thousands throughout the next three days on Islay.

We were making for the RSPB Reserve at Loch Gruinart and before arrival we began to see our first flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare, which again were to be seen in large numbers throughout the trip. Eider Duck were seen on the sea as were numbers of Red Breasted Merganser, another bird often seen over the few days we were on the islands. The reserve at Loch Gruinart provided us with some good sightings of more geese of course, but also Grey Heron, Shelduck, Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall Pintail, Shoveller, Teal, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye. Our first small flock of Whooper Swans was also seen here. Around lunch time the rains returned so we sought shelter in the hide and the reserve centre which provides a good large window view across the reserve. Waders seen were Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew and Snipe. I have to say, the trip as a whole did not bring sightings of too many waders. The rain became steadily heavier and some discussion took place about a visit to a distillery! I had already made it known I don’t like whisky unless mixed with dry ginger and that comment was met with some sniggering. I don’t know why! Anyway I opted to return to the area near our hotel for a walk in the woodland with some others whilst others couldn’t resist the pull of malt whisky.

In the event I never made it to the woodland as I was tempted by another guy to walk back to the hotel around the edge of Loch Indaal, a walk of four miles. As it happened I was easily tempted as I was feeling a bit tied to the vehicle and as the rain had eased it seemed a good idea at the time. Well, we all make mistakes and this turned out to be one of mine. No sooner had the vehicle left us and the rain came down heavily and never ceased to do so throughout the walk. It was being blown in off the sea and loch by strong winds and my face was stinging from the force of it. It wasn’t all bad though as I found a Slavonian Grebe on the Loch edge, the first of only two seen throughout the trip and we had the pleasure of walking close by flocks of Barnacle Geese as they lifted and flew over our heads. Snipe were seen also. I wasn’t so keen on the cattle I had to walk through although they seemed as cheesed off with the rain as I did! Four miles began to seem one hec of a long way, and was I pleased when our friends returned from the distillery and picked us up after three miles. I was soaked to the skin by a mix of rain and perspiration caused by my waterproofs. Young Sean, a staff member at the hotel took my clothes to the drying room. In fact it would have probably been easier just to peg me up in them so wet was I. Anyway I’m sure it will be an experience I shall look back on with fondness. I had a cappuccino before diving into a hot bath.

31st Oct. We had an early morning walk planned, but in fact stayed in the vehicle, as yes you’ve guessed, it was raining still. We drove along the edge of Loch Indaal again and watched the flocks of Barnacle Geese, White Fronted Geese and Greylag Geese and on return and over breakfast I spotted in the hotel grounds my first Song Thrush of the trip. One of our party was keen to find the two Richardson’s Canada Geese that were reported on the island. I couldn’t help feel he was going to require some luck! (We never did find them). The good news was that the forecast suggested that the rain was to come in the form of heavy showers today and that was how things turned out.

We were soon heading for the cliff top reserve at the Oa. On the journey birds included numbers of Raven, Common Buzzard, Stonechat, House Sparrow and Reed Bunting. At the start of the walk towards the American Monument (which commemorates American servicemen lost during the First World War) on the cliff top, we had a fleeting glimpse of our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail. There were many more Common Buzzards, Ravens and Hooded Crows throughout the walk, but none of the hoped for Choughs. The showers came as promised and conditions underfoot were wet in the extreme. There were large flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare about which were seen well, as were the large flocks of Twite which fed close to us. Linnets, Meadow Pipit and Rock Pipit were also about. The light was wonderful and the Antrim coast could be seen very faintly through cloud and mist. After taking in the excellent views from the clifftop we walked back to the vehicle and I managed to miss the first Merlin of the trip as I lagged behind talking to a guy who was visiting from Leeds. Despite the heavy shower this morning, this was to be the best day weather wise we had on Islay and at last we were seeing the island at its best.

After lunch we were to take the drive via Bridgend to the bay at Port Wemyss. The journey was to bring us some excitement and a great sighting. Over the hills to the east two large birds were seen and it didn’t take to long to realise these were Golden Eagles. It didn’t take long for us to jump from the vehicles and everyone had great sightings. They put on a fine display of circling over the hills as we watched for around ten minutes. They gave fine views. Red Deer, Roe Deer and Islay Brown Hare were seen on the journey and once at the bay both Grey Seal and Common Seal were found. It was a little disappointing that there were not the expected numbers of divers around, but we did have a fine close up sighting of Great Northern Diver. Other birds included Cormorant, Shag, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew and Turnstone.

We returned to the RSPB Reserve at Loch Gruinart in the hope of seeing the geese come into roost, but the majority had beaten us to it. On inspection the fields were covered with thousand upon thousand of geese, of course in the main Barnacle Geese. This was an amazing sight in itself especially as the flocks occasionally lifted. A volunteer at the reserve advised us of Hen Harrier roost, but I felt we visited too late and nothing was seen but Common Buzzards, although our only Goldcrest of the trip was heard calling.
It was of course Halloween and the hotel was holding a party in the bar so my room was throbbing along with the music so I felt it best to stay downstairs for a drink myself. It was entertaining to say the least as I almost accosted by Miss Piggy, a member of staff in a Miss Piggy mask. I had earlier watched Miss Piggy slurping from a bottle of wine. Then Count Dracula joined us complete with blow up doll strategically strapped to his body, and the description I shall leave to your imagination. Thankfully the party moved on at 11.30pm and I could get some sleep!