Saturday, June 06, 2009

Highlands of Scotland Holiday - day 6

We were planning a very early start to get back to Loch Ruthven for the Slavonian Grebes but settled instead for breakfast at the hotel and a more sedate start. We did pop in to Ruthven but it was very quiet, only the Bullfinches showed:

So on to our next centre, though we weren't sure how Helen would cope with the drive. It turns out not well, so by the time we got to the Kyle of Lochalsh she was in a lot of pain. We decided to head to the Otter Reserve on Skye as it was only about another fifteen miles and see how she fared with a short walk (one mile each way). Here are some views from the walk and hide:

Whilst in the hide we did spot an Otter which led to everyone piling down to the end we occupied, cue thoughts of the hide standing up on one end. We beat a hasty retreat and drove back to Kyle of Lochalsh but decided against staying there, so turned around and headed back on to Skye and up to Portree. The hoteliers we spoke to were surprised they were so busy - being mostly full, an unusual level of demand at this time of year apparently. In the end the lack of availability decided us - we took a double room for one night at the Portree Hotel on the village square and sat down to Pizza (comfort food time). The curtains in the room were woefully inadequate such that we were awake shortly after dawn and gave up trying to sleep instead getting up and out. We spent the first hour and three-quarters cruising around the top right end of Skye looking for eagles, and we did in fact get our first glimpse of a Golden Eagle, it's the dark smudge in this picture:

I also took a number of snaps as we cruised around, the morning started with a few passing showers then cleared (the weather on the whole was excellent, which was a relief!):

Helen was however very uncomfortable so we bit the bullet and headed for home, some 635 miles south, achieved in a little over nine-and-a-half more hours driving, with just a single stop!

We enjoyed the first half of our holiday, clearly the second half was substantially disrupted and in the end cancelled due to Helen's broken arm. We're glad we visited the Cairngorms but probably won't go back to Aviemore - the town strikes us as a seaside resort in the middle of the mountains, all stag and hen parties and drunken singing/shouting at 3am - what does appeal however is the West Coast and the very North of Scotland together with the Western Isles and of course we've yet to set foot on Shetland...

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Highlands of Scotland Holiday - day 5

With the forecast of mostly clear skies and some cloud we set off just after 6am to climb Carn Ban Mor a shortish drive from Aviemore. The walk promised an elevation gain of 700 metres and our best/only chance of some Highland specialities, namely Dotterel and Ptarmigan. The walk was heavy going and took us around two hours twenty minutes to get to the top of the Carn and a little beyond. On the road heading toward the hill climb we encountered a small group of chats, I believe juvenile Whinchats?

En-route we passed first the tree line and then the snow line:

spotting the Ptarmigan first, about 50 metres short of the top. The male was showing very well - though I didn’t think the way it wandered towards the female on the nest was the best option but it was fantastic to see one:

At the top we decided to turn back for the car on the basis the weather was closing in, including a cold strongish wind, spots of rain and low cloud. As we headed back Helen spotted a Dotterel, one of a pair:

Fantastic, both target birds within 100 metres, we were delighted! From the top I took first a picture of the view:

Then early on during our descent a mountain spring:

Unfortunately (!) on the way back down Helen slipped and fell, fracturing bones in both her left arm and left hand in the process, which put a dampener on the day and indeed the holiday, as six to ten weeks with only one functional hand is not an entertaining prospect for either of us! It took over an hour to walk off the mountain and to reach our car. Once ready I drove at an ‘aggressive’ pace to get Helen to hospital and get her treated before heading back to the hotel to pack.

We had a real sense of achievement in making the climb, despite being out of wind and with complaining legs and were chuffed we found the two new species but clearly Helen breaking her arm changed all of our plans. Tomorrow is Skye, possibly.

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Highlands of Scotland Holiday - day 4

Well the weather couldn’t stay perfect for the whole holiday, could it? Tuesday started as cloudy as it was predicted to, with rain forecast on the hills, so we decided to postpone the climb another day and instead visit some more of the local spots for birding.

First-up we visited the Findhorn Valley. The valley is accessed via a long and meandering road that first crosses the river on a high bridge, where we watched this Dipper preening:

I like the way its eye is covered by the inner membrane in this shot. Unusual. In the same spot we watched a juvenile Grey Wagtail bobbing around:

Further along the road a pair of Mistle Thrushes, again much paler than we're used to:

Approaching the car park at the end of the valley we passed first a smaller herd of Red Deer:

before a much bigger one. We kept watch at the end of the valley for the raptors, but none showed. From the Findhorn Valley we took a gated road up to a grouse moor, heading for the village of Farr. Sadly en route we passed a parked 4x4 with spotting light and later heard shooting. At this time of year it only means one thing, illegal killing of birds of prey to protect the grouse so they in turn can be shot during the 'season'. Anyone with a brain and a conscience finds this sort of activity utterly despicable. The shooting lobby have us all tied up in knots so they can continue their barbaric and shameful practice of managing anything and everything around their canned killing, even the RSPB have their hands tied, though frankly they could do a lot more even so. It's hard not to have your whole day ruined by the knowledge that almost no one is doing anything to stop these practices, after all the Lairds and Lords are making a handsome profit, whilst successfully breeding species like the Golden Eagle 'mysteriously' shrink back to ever more remote and confined habitats.

We did spot a pair of Red Grouse and indeed a family as soon four chicks emerged, still the experience was tinged with sadness as the moor echoed to the sound of the gamekeeper killing other birds:

Our last stop of the day was looking for Crested Tits, we struggled to locate the exact spot from the book as the local landowners have decided to try and 'forget' it. The parking sign has been turned around and someone had previously tried to block the tarmac entrance, though the logs they used had been moved.

In fact the car park is located by heading away from Aviemore, past the ‘Sleddog’ (Sled Dog) Centre and a little further along on right hand side, where you see the back of a parking sign.

We didn’t meet any Crested Tits but we did see a small group of Scottish Crossbills and thoroughly enjoyed the close encounter. In fact it was real treat watching them feeding and moving about. Helen nearly got nutted by a falling cone, they were right above us for a good ten minutes or more:

We did enjoy the day despite having our worst fears for the area confirmed, it being primarily a 'huntin', shootin', fishin' kind of place. The forecast for Wednesday was reasonable so at last we can climb one of the Carn's and maybe get a few more of the local specialities, before heading on to Skye on Thursday.

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Highlands of Scotland Holiday - day 3 pt 2

Other birds included Oystercatchers, common throughout Scotland:

Meadow Pipits (though much paler than the ones I'm used to further south):

Northern Wheatears:

and Lesser Black-backed Gulls:

Helen spotted this, we don't know if it's now a fledging or just ended up a meal (turns out it's a Guillemot egg):

as well as the main breeding birds, including Northern Fulmar, Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin. the views from and across the island were stunning, a phrase we seemed to use almost hourly during the whole of our stay north of the border:

We stayed on Handa until about 1:30pm catching a boat back to Tarbet for the three-hour drive back to the Hotel, smiling all the way! All in all we spotted 31 species on the island, seven more than the lady from the Avon Wildlife Trust who'd give us the orientation talk at the start of our trip.

NB - apologies for the alignment of the text here - it only took five hours to get this posted - thank you blogspot for such awesome software!!!

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Highlands of Scotland Holiday - day 3 pt 1

Setting off just after 6am proved to be an excellent idea as the three hour drive turned out to be just a two hours twenty minutes drive, as there was virtually no other traffic. Handa is a privately owned island managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and is reached by a ferry service provided by the locals at Tarbet, itself reached by driving for 3 miles down a single track road with many a blind summit!

The views en-route were stunning, shame about the barbed wire in two of the pictures, good camera, poor user:

We were early enough to stop at Scourie and make use of the loos there (no facilities at all on the island) before catching the first boat of the morning. The sky was clear and the water millpond still as we and six other passengers were ferried the short distance to the island (a return trip costs £10 per person), and landed before walking up to a hut for a brief talk on familiarisation and the code of conduct, etc.

Once we'd finished with the chat and a made a donation to the Wildlife Trust we started birding. Of course on the way over we'd been bird-watching too, having seen a new species, Black Guillemot but the boat trip was too fast for any pictures, which was a shame as we didn't see any more of them.

A few Arctic Terns are now breeding on Handa:

Birds visible from around the hut also included Ringed Plover:

and a lone Greenland White-fronted Goose, I suspect paused on migration, it was gone when we returned some four hours later:

Across the Island, large numbers of Great Skua were either feeding, zooming about or loafing:

Together with the less common Arctic Skua (this is a dark-morph bird; light-morph birds with white chests were also present):


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Highlands of Scotland Holiday - day 2

Sunday morning dawned early and again the sky was clear and the forecast was for a stunning day. We decided to work around the Aviemore area for the day, starting at RSPB Insh Marshes. We had breakfast at the hotel first before setting off, arriving at the reserve around 08:30, the first visitors of the day. A short walk down the hide which provides panoramic views of the reserve:

In the middle distance a ruin of some sort:

Whilst we could hear a lot of birds and see the odd heron, etc., not much else was visible from the main hide so we headed to second hide, back via the car park and then down a series of steps. On the way Garden Warblers were singing, a beautiful song for quite a dull coloured bird:

In addition a number of Willow Warblers were singing their descending song and feeding amongst the trees:

Down at the second hide we watched a Curlew fly and land very close in front of us:

A small group of Roe Deer wandered out onto the marshes before settling down:

Our next stop of the morning was at Inshriach Forest for a woodland walk. It is billed as the area's best kept secret but whilst stunning:

it proved to be very quiet in terms of birds. Next-up we headed to 'The Potting Shed' ( a famous cake shop. Helen had the Gooseberry and Rhubarb cake whilst I tried the Summer Fruits, both were delicious. We enjoyed watching the Chaffinches, Siskin and Coal Tits feeding behind the shed, which doubles as a hide. The real problem was choosing which cake to try, we didn't get a chance to try either the peanut or chocolate cakes which also looked awesome, maybe next time :)

From the cake shop we headed to the RSPB Osprey Centre at Loch Garten. First up a dragonfly resting on a reed at the conveniently located pond, as usual I have no idea what species this is:

We headed into the viewing area hoping to see the Osprey but the nest is really quite distant. There's a second hide which is staff only, apparently they could see a Capercaillie from there but it wasn't visible from the public hide. In addition there was a nesting pair of Redstart but only the female showed and she was partially obscured. We decided we'd probably get to see more by walking one of the many trails around the reserve and set-off. A pair of Common Sandpipers were making a racket, disturbed by the group of people sunbathing and dipping in the Loch waters:

We saw a number of ducks including Shoveller, Mallard and a Goldeneye with youngsters, but mostly distant, again flushed away by the humans. The views across the Loch though were beautiful:

In one clearing we watched a couple of Spotted Flycatchers taking prey - they watched from a favourite perch then flew to their target, performing some serious acrobatics in the capture, then returned to watch again:

From Loch Garten we headed to our last stop for the day at Broomhill Bridge near Nethy Bridge hoping for good views of Dipper. We weren't disappointed:

We thoroughly enjoyed our first day proper in the Cairngorms however the weather forecast was for cloud and showers on the Monday so, whilst we really wanted to climb one of the mountains, we decided instead for a crack of dawn start and a 3-hour drive to Handa, an Island off the upper Northwest coast of Scotland, which had a much better forecast for the day.

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