Wednesday, 20 March 2019

An Uphill Struggle! 26th February 2019.

The Day Nurse tablets and a good nights sleep appeared to have done the trick since I awoke with a clear head and feeling much better. Maybe I was just fatigued from too much driving over the past few days. So the walk up and into the mountains to see Ptarmigan in their smart winter white coats was a goer!

Ptarmigan, Coire an t'sneachda, 26/02/2018
The weather was true to the forecast of promised clear skies and no chance of precipitation of any kind and as we approached the Cairngorm Ski area the mountain tops stood proud against the blue sky backdrop. When we walked here exactly a year ago the whole area was covered in a deep carpet of snow and ice and the air temperature was -10 degrees celsius with a further wind chill of another -15 degrees or so. Chilly indeed! Contrast that with todays sunshine and a positively balmy 5 degrees above freezing at 8 in the morning. The walk we made into the Coire an t'sneachda last year was probably the most arduous trek that we've ever undertaken, don't forget that we are from the flatlands of North Oxfordshire so are hardly used to extreme hill walking, but one that we'll never forget (read about that day here Ice Bird Challenge). We were greeted by a female Red Grouse stood on one of the road signs, perhaps it was on car park duty!

Red Grouse
We hadn't yet decided on a route to take but we knew after talking to the ranger yesterday that we were going to have to go high up to find both the Ptarmigan and Snow Buntings. The only available snow cover was right up near the tops and that would be where the birds would be. Since the funicular railway was built we've always taken the path towards Ben Macdui because it leads away from the busy part of the "resort". However last summer the railway was found to be structurally unsound and has been closed. Hence the area around Cairngorm mountain itself is now very quiet since access can only be attained by walking up to it. Furthermore the lack of snow meant that there was no winter sports taking place and hence the car park was pretty much empty with just a few other intrepid folk about. So we went for it and took the most direct route to Cairngorm, that is the Windy Ridge path. That route climbs steeply away from the car park but offers the shortest route to the tops. After starting off on the walk in fine fettle it soon became apparent that all was not well with Old Caley. Mrs Caley was easily outstripping me as we climbed and I had no energy whatsoever. Frequent rests were required and I was forever doubting the wisdom of carrying on. But this was our chance to see the Ptarmigan, one of the birds we'd specifically come to Speyside to see, so I pushed myself on against my better judgement. I popped a few more tablets and drank lots of water and despite my struggles managed to climb higher and higher albeit very slowly. Still we had nearly all day to get up there! 

Cairngorm ahoy!
The Windy Ridge path
I scanned the mountain sides ahead of us hoping that I'd spot some Ptarmigan lower down and save my leaden legs any more torture but I knew that wouldn't happen because they were high up on the snow patches. In the winter Ptarmigan turn almost pure white so I often got excited when I spotted a white blob amongst the rocks only to find that it was always a white rock (there are many on the mountains) and not a bird. Except for once when one of the white blobs turned out to be a fine Mountain Hare! Although we'd seen "winter" Hares before, their fur also turns white in the winter designed for camouflage against the snow covered landscape and rendering them hard to see for any passing predators such as Golden Eagles, our views had always been distant through the scope. This Hare was feeding quite close to the path so I settled down so as not to scare it and took a few photos. Despite my best efforts to not disturb the animal, another walker passing by startled it and the Hare disappeared over the ridge to the south. 

Mountain Hare
Seeing the Hare had given me a momentary fillip, I refound some energy from somewhere and it wasn't long before we were sat outside the closed Ptarmigan restaurant for a well earned rest. I should have eaten something but my appetite was completely suppressed although for now I felt ok. I scanned the mountain sides again but still couldn't find any white blobs that were actually birds so we had to move on. There is a well constructed pathway that leads from the restaurant buildings up to the summit of Cairngorm. It is normally "roped off" on both sides to prevent people taking part in ranger led guided walks from walking out onto the fragile ground away from the path but for now the ropes had been removed leaving just the posts behind. If it wasn't for those posts, spaced only around 20-30 metres apart, I'd never had made it higher up. The path is very steep and for somebody who was by now struggling even more than before it was very hard work to climb. I had to take a breather at every post! I've never so pathetic in all my life as I did stood on that mountain. But I still had to find a Ptarmigan before I could leave! Eventually I made it to the more level ground close to the summit and immediately felt a bit better. I could see the snow now and it took me just a few seconds to find a group of 8 Ptarmigan feeding around the edge of the snow. The birds that were off the snow stood out like beacons against the brown vegetation and grey rocks whereas those on the snow were very much more difficult to pick out. 

The 8 Ptarmigan 

We watched the snow birds for a few minutes then traversed around and above them to a clump of rocks that stood at the head of the "Marquis's Well", a spring that emerges from the mountain and then streams downhill. On reaching the rocks I could see the Ptarmigan around 30 metres away but my attention was diverted by a sudden movement on the ground about a third of that distance from me. It was a Snow Bunting that had been drinking from a trickle of water. Two birds with one stone! I was elated and forgot all about my own travails for a few moments. I rattled off a few shots of the Bunting, got Mrs Caley on to it, and turned my focus back to the Ptarmigan.

Snow Bunting
My intention was to settle down amongst the rocks and then stealthily close the gap between myself and the birds in order to get some closer and clear photos. The birds had seen us and were crouching down as they do and I took a couple of shots before getting comfy. 

In the time it took for me to park the rucksack and turn back round to view the birds they had disappeared! We didn't see them fly off or hear them but gone they had leaving the area devoid of all birdlife except for the Snow Bunting that was now stood on top of the rocks. I couldn't believe it and cursed our luck. All that effort to get up here and I'd failed in my main objective to get some really good photographs of the Ptarmigan. But at least we'd seen them and they and the Bunting had pushed the year list up to 143.

A fellow birder sauntered over and asked if we'd seen any Ptarmigan so we related our experience to him. Simon is a wildlife guide based in Grantown and he was doing a recce ahead of bringing a client up a few days later. We had a nice chat the Cairngorms and Speyside birding scene and related our desire to move to the region one day . While we nattered away he noticed a couple of Ptarmigan far away on another patch of snow. He left us to check them out while we decided that seeing as we were almost there we may as well walk to the summit of Cairngorm and bag ourselves a bonafide "Munro". 

Cairngorm summit
It was time to return to base camp and the car so we began the walk down. Walking down off a mountain should be easier than walking up on to one but on this occasion for me it was sheer hell! I was feeling very rough again and any lingering spark of energy that I'd had, had completely deserted me now. I was done in! Every step was a supreme effort to make and I had visions of me just laying down and ordering a mountain rescue helicopter to take me home! Obviously that wasn't a serious option so, with Mrs Caley coaxing me along and supporting me all the way, I made one desperate weary step after another downhill. It took us nearly two hours with many, many stops for me to gain some vitality, before we finally made it to the car park. I have never felt so wrecked since I overdid the drink after an FA Cup final once! Needless to say that it was straight to bed once back at the cottage and, I'll spare you the gory details, a night as bad as I've ever endured, predominately spent sat upon a very valuable piece of bathroom furniture! Yuk!!

Monday, 18 March 2019

Becalmed at first, increasingly rough later. 25th February 2019.

We were tired, very tired in fact, after all the driving of the past four days but, when you've only got a week to bird Speyside and the surrounding area, then you just have to carry on and get to as many places as you can! The car was covered in a slight frost but it was going to be another warm day which somehow just didn't feel right for Scotland at this time of year. There was hardly any snow visible on the mountains that we could see from the cottage so at least we knew that our planned excursion up Cairngorm tomorrow would be easy going (ha, wishful thinking!). As I cleared the ice from the windscreen I could hear the Yellowhammer singing again from his usual song post and the trees surrounding the garden were adorned with around ten Brambling. Brambling do seem to be everywhere this year, except at Castle Caley back in Oxfordshire obviously.

Not having made too much of a plan for today we decided to do a recce of the Cairngorm mountain from the ski car park where at this time of year the Snow Bunting flock usually hangs out around the picnic tables happily taking the free seed handed out by eager photographers. However on reaching the parking area it was soon apparent that this was not normal conditions for the time of year since the only snow was high up on the mountain tops. It was also over 10 degrees celsius at ten in the morning. We went into the rangers office and inquired as to the possible whereabouts of our target species. When we visited at the same time last year in very wintry conditions, the Ptarmigan were holed up in the Corries and just a short, although gruelling, walk from the car park (see Ptarmigan) while the Snow Buntings were indeed favouring the food bank distributed in the car park itself (see Snow Buntings). This year with the lack of snow at lower altitudes the ranger told us that the Ptarmigan would be keeping to the remaining snow patches which were generally above 900 metres and the Snow Buntings would be right up on the tops. So in order to get to them we would have to walk uphill and a long way up at that! But we were undaunted in our quest to see these birds, after all it's one of the reasons we chose to be in Scotland at this time of year, so we made plans to return the following morning (the weather forecast was good) and make the climb up to the birds, more of that later.

Ptarmigan, Coire an t'Sneachda, 26/02/2018
Snow Bunting, Coire an t'Sneachda, 26/02/2018
Our next recce was made to Loch Garten to see if any Crested Tits were using the feeders there. Again, when weather is poor, Cresties are frequent visitors to both the car park where they are fed by photographers and to the Osprey Centre feeders. There were a few people present watching the feeders but none had seen any Cresties, only more common species such as Coal Tit. With the warm conditions the Cresties had retreated back into the woods to feast upon more natural offerings. We gave it half an hour and gave up feeling sure we'd find a few Crested Tits in the forest later in the week.

Crested Tit, Loch Garten, 28/02/2018
Over a coffee and an early lunch we decided that in the absence of any easy birds to get around Nethy that we'd drive up to the Moray coast and hopefully add some wintering sea birds to our year list. We chose Burghead which we've visited many times before, it's where Elvis the King Eider has spent many a winter although he wasn't present this year. It was high tide which was good since any wading birds would be close in on the shore, but not so good was the fact that there wasn't any discernible breeze at all so the sea was totally unruffled and as a consequence all true marine species of bird would be miles out from the shore! And so it proved, the only birds close enough to recognise with binoculars were the rock loving Turnstones, over 50 of them searched among the seaweed for food, around 20 Redshanks, 40 Oystercatchers and just 4 Purple Sandpipers. For the birds out at sea the scope was required and on pretty much full 75x zoom at that. At least the waves weren't getting in the way! Photographing birds sitting on a lifeless monotone grey sea at half a mile distance (at best) is a waste of time so I didn't bother but I did find some good birds nonetheless. Added to the year list were Red-throated Divers (over 10 seen) and a couple of Shags. There was a small raft of 7 Common Scoter loosely associating with a group of c15 Razorbill and a flock of c10 Eider. Best of all were 2 Velvet Scoters, a bird that we missed on last years list, that flew strongly past and headed towards Hopeman to the east. The Velvets made it 141 for the year so far.

Purple Sandpipers
By this time, in the early afternoon, I was beginning to feel a little unwell so we gave up on the sea watching and drove back towards Grantown with a plan to look for a Great Grey Shrike that had been found a few days before not far from Lochindorb. We took a now familiar slow drive along the minor road where the Shrike had been reported, scrutinising every possible potential lookout post that a Shrike could use with no success. We turned around and drove along the road in the opposite direction but still couldn't locate the Shrike. I was now feeling much worse and deteriorating rapidly so after one more go I had to give up and search out the Chemist in Grantown instead and stock up on flu remedies. Day Nurse usually works for me so I popped a couple and headed back to Nethy Bridge intending to go straight to the holiday cottage. As we entered Nethy a message came through informing of 11 Waxwings currently perched in trees next to the Nethy Bridge Hotel garden so, just a few minutes later and temporarily forgetting my increasing malady, I was staring up the tree and getting yet another Waxwing fix! By now, this late in the day, the light was awful but Waxwings are still to be admired. The Waxies were using the tree as a staging post and were flying out frequently presumably to catch flying insects, behaviour I've not witnessed before. 

I would have stayed until dark but my body was telling me that I must get back to the comfort of the cottage. My day ended with one of those shivering fits that a flu bug sometimes brings on. I was in bed early fearing that our planned walk up Cairngorm may not happen unless I felt considerably better by the following morning.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A Hopelessly Wild Goose Chase. 24th February 2019

After settling into our favourite Holiday Cottage close to Nethy Bridge, we've stayed here over a dozen times since first visiting Speyside in 1997, Sunday morning dawned bright, sunny and warm. A far cry from the cold weather of the previous year. A Yellowhammer greeted us with his song issued from the top of the telegraph pole at the end of the driveway. We ventured out early choosing to go and look for some Waxwings that had been reported just outside of Nethy Bridge over the previous few days mainly because sunny conditions enhance the photographic opportunities. We'd seen Waxwings already this year (see Waxwings) so didn't need them for the year list but they are such beautiful birds and you never tire of seeing them. The birds had been reported feeding on roadside rose hips but despite driving slowly back and forth along the wild rose bushes there was no sign. It would prove to be the first "dip" of many during the day! We did however, have the consolation of finding a huge flock of Brambling, maybe 200 strong, feeding in a stubble field along with similar numbers of Linnets and Chaffinches. This flock had been starred on the recent BBC Winterwatch programme but until I found them I'd had no idea of the location. There were also a couple of Lesser Redpoll feeding in a birch tree that offered decent photos although nothing like at WWT Washington a couple of days previously.

A few of the Brambling and Linnet flock

Lesser Redpoll
In keeping with our holiday taken at the same time last year, our plan was to travel around and "pick up" some scarcer species. Twelve months ago we had ticked off a Ring-necked Duck at Lairg, which incidentally had returned to the area a few weeks ago, but had failed with an American Wigeon and a pair of Shore Larks. This year I had American Wigeon on the itinerary again along with another Green-winged Teal, a Lesser Snow Goose, a Greenland White-fronted Goose and, if I could make the long drive north, a couple of Bean Geese. We began by driving to Munlochy Bay on the Black Isle, north of Inverness. The rich farmland in this area attracts the large herds of Pink-footed Geese that winter in the bay and surrounding area. In the preceding few weeks before our arrival a Lesser Snow Goose (Blue Morph) had accompanied the Pink-foots to a field next to the small hamlet of Killen. We drove slowly (again!) up and down the only road in Killen but there was absolutely no sign of any Geese. We tried hard for over an hour to spirit the Goose flock up out of nothing but to no avail although we did eventually find some way off in a field but scope views proved them to be Greylags! So no luck there, but I hatched a plan to return on the way back to Speyside later that afternoon since I know that Geese are highly mobile birds and may well be present at another time. 

The next place to try was at Tain some 30 miles to the north where both a drake American Wigeon and a drake Green-winged Teal had been seen over most of the winter. We walked the short distance down to the waterside, known as Tain Links, where the river Tain flows into the Dornoch Firth. The tide was out and the exposed mudflats held lots of birds so I set up the scope and scanned through them. Some of the ducks were helpfully feeding close by at the river mouth but I could only find Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal along with a few Mallard and Shelduck. I looked further away and found a large group of Pintail, more Wigeon, lots of Redshank, some Curlew and a few Hooded/Carrion Crow intergrades but still couldn't find either of the American species.

"Hooded" Crow
I scanned again and this time noticed a flash of green amongst a few sleeping Wigeon about 50 yards away. Checking that it wasn't a Mallard, the duck very obligingly stretched its head up and gave away its identity, that of the American Wigeon! It promptly went back too its slumber but at least it had given itself up and upped the year list to 134. Now we had the whereabouts of one scarce American duck I looked hard for the other but there was no sign at all of the Green-winged Teal but having seen one in Northumberland a few days ago I wasn't too concerned. After 15 minutes or so the American Wigeon awoke and set sail but frustratingly instead of following the Eurasian Wigeon in towards shore it swam further out and away towards the open water of the Firth leaving me with just a few distant record shots. I decided as we left that I'd return in the afternoon (it's going to be a busy afternoon!) and see if the bird was closer in at high tide.

drake American Wigeon
We headed to Lairg to see on the off chance if the Ring-necked Duck was present (it wasn't) and to have Sunday lunch at the excellent Pier Cafe (it still is). The cheesecakes made there are some of the best I've ever eaten. and the cafe is well recommended. The drive both there and back to Loch Fleet was uneventful with nothing bar a couple of Kestrels seen. I'd dismissed the notion of driving north to the Bean Geese by now since it was too far for the amount of time left in the day. At least the tide had come in whilst we were dining but the Mound at the head of Loch Fleet held nothing except Curlews and Shelducks so we drove out to Coul where we had dipped on the Shore Larks last year. We found the flock of around 500 Pink-footed Geese easily enough but couldn't find any Greenland White-fronted Goose, this was not a good Goose day at all. At the entrance to Coul Farm a stubble field was attracting interest from a large flock of Finches, Reed Buntings and Skylarks. Among the Finches, comprised mainly of Linnets and Goldfinch, there were some Twite that continually flew up and perched on overhead wires before descending back to the stubble. I reckoned there were about 30 in total of these understated little finches which became number 136 for the Old Caley year list and a nice bonus for the day.

Reed Bunting
Next it was on to Embo, a place next to the sea that I've always enjoyed visiting. No time wasted there since you can park right next to the rocky shore. On the rocks we clocked our first Ringed Plover of the year, six of Mrs Caley's favourite wader shared the space with around 30 Dunlin, c20  Turnstone and c20 Purple Sandpipers. I checked the southern beach and found 3 pale-bellied Brent Geese, another year tick.

Ringed Plover
Purple Sandpipers & Turnstones
Brent Geese

We kicked on and checked out a lek site for Black Grouse that had been recommended by a friend, it was empty, before returning to Tain. The high tide had indeed pushed the Wigeon flock into the river itself but there was no sign of the American and we didn't have time to search any further since I wanted to have another go for the Snow Goose before dark. I needn't have bothered because the fields at Killen were still Goose free. I decided to re-christen the area "Unlucky Bay".

I felt we were having a bit of bad luck in our efforts to find scarce birds, seemingly dipping more than we seeing but there's always tomorrow in this game.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

A Stag Do That Rocks! 23rd February 2019

It was barely getting light when the noise of geese got me running to the window and looking upwards. A few seconds later some 200 or more Pink-footed Geese flew right over the hotel and pushed the year list up to 127. Flocks of Pink-foots are winter residents in the Northumberland coastal area and these would be heading out into fields to feed or maybe onto a marsh nearby.

The Waren House Hotel had served us well and after a hearty breakfast (at which we had a choice of what to eat) it was "moving day" and we would wind our way slowly up to the Cairngorms area of Scotland still some 220 miles further north (not allowing for diversions on the way, of which there would no doubt be a few).

But first we would visit the Harkness Rocks close to Bamburgh. Locally known as the Stag Rocks since, for some unknown reason, a white stag had been painted onto the rocks and is maintained regularly by the adjacent lighthouse keepers. I had discovered the Stag Rocks for myself last February after staying at another local hotel and had had a fabulous time watching and photographing one of the most enigmatic of Wader species, the Purple Sandpiper. I have a feeling that a visit to the rocks will be become an annual tradition in the Old Caley diary.

The Stag painted onto the rocks
Last year it was a beautiful clear and sunny morning but blisteringly cold with a bitter wind blowing in from the East courtesy of the "Beast from the East", read about it here Purple Patch. This time around it was equally clear and sunny and it was also very breezy but the temperature was into the low teens celsius, about 15 degrees warmer than the year before! We began by scoping the sea from the car park. I was hoping to add a few more "marine" species to the year list. The sea was reasonably choppy so finding birds on it was a bit tricky but I soon had a trio of winter plumaged Slavonian Grebes just offshore from the rocks but at least 100 yards away, too far away for any photos but another year list addition. As per the evening before Eiders and Common Scoters were present in small numbers and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers picked their way along the surf line. 

Common Scoter
We spotted a flock of 20 or so Oystercatcher feeding at the outer edge of the rocks. The bird I was most wanting to see, and one that we'd missed out on last year, was the Long-tailed Duck and I soon found a fine male just off the rocks. Long-tailed Ducks can be hard to observe since they always seem to be diving and you never know where they'll resurface. By the time you find them again they're ready to dive once more and promptly disappear and you have to find them again! Eventually though we both had decent scope views but again it was far too far out to get an image. A small flock of four Curlew flying overhead were at least in range of my lens.

We walked along the cliff path towards the lighthouse and I noticed a flock of small waders flying past low to the sea and then settling on rocks by the lighthouse wall. These were the Purple Sandpipers that we'd come to see. 

Purple Sandpipers and Turnstone
Purple Sandpipers
We descended the small cliff down to the rocks and crept slowly to the wall. The Sandpipers were feeding at the waters edge along with a few Turnstone. Leaving Mrs Caley with the scope I crawled along the rocks until I was closer still and settled down to take a few shots of the birds in the surf. It is fun to watch them running backwards and forwards with the tide, occasionally having to fly up to evade the larger waves.

I noticed a couple of Fulmars and some Razorbills flying past, both year list additions and a  few Kittiwakes too. When I returned my attention to the rocks some Purple Sandpipers had crept in from my right and were now feeding within 20 metres of me allowing me to rattle off some nice shots. Mostly though I was just content to watch them prying into miniature cracks and voids within the rocks after stranded morsels to eat. I mused on the notion that surely "Rockpiper" would have been a better name than Sandpiper for these birds since I always see them on rocks and never on sand. On the rocks Purple Sandpipers are completely at home and surprisingly well camouflaged blending in effortlessly. Fortunately in keeping with many small wading species they are restless, scurrying endlessly over the rocks so can be seen more easily.

By sitting still the "Purps" had become comfortable in my presence and a few of them had encroached to just 10 metres or so. This is why I had fallen in love with this place and I envy anyone who has this on their doorstep. It's a far cry from Oxfordshire although we do get close encounters with wading birds at Farmoor where the concrete embankments rudely imitate rocky shores such as here. 

One particularly inquisitive, or so it seemed, Purple Sandpiper put on an excellent show for me and after just a few photos I actually put the camera down and just watched the bird at length, not even needing my binoculars to do so. I wish now that I'd had the foresight to take a video via my phone.

We'd been at the rocks for about an hour and we needed to get on the road northwards so a few more quick shots and then I shuffled backwards along the rocks to the lighthouse wall and we departed back to the car, this time choosing the lower path that traverses the landward edge of the rocks. 

I scanned the sea once more but there was now no sign of either the Long-tailed Duck or of the Slavonian Grebes. The Common Scoters were still present and I walked out onto the rocks to get a closer view. The closer I got to the sea, the more slippy the rocks became and keeping a firm footing was proving tricky. Too tricky since a few moments later I was laid on my back staring up at the sky! Thankfully my ample posterior had taken most of the blow and the optics were undamaged. You need claws not boots for walking on slippery rock surfaces! When I regained my composure and managed to upright myself I furtively took a few frames of the Scoter raft (I'm sure I could hear chuckling from their direction) and retreated back to Mrs Caley.

Common Scoter chuckling away!
Just shy of the path back up to the car park a pair of Rock Pipits were feeding in a small water course that gushed out of a pipe set into the cliff. They were obviously used to intruders into their territory and stood their ground as we approached only flushing when we actually had to cross the stream.

Rock Pipit
The year list now stood at 133 and I was hopeful of adding a couple more on the drive north. Firstly we went searching for a juvenile Common Crane near Wark on the English/Scottish border and failed to find it. Next after a coffee stop at Loch Leven RSPB reserve near Kinross we looked for some Waxwings and failed to see those too. Lastly a drive through the Trossach's failed to turn up any Eagles or anything else for that matter owing to heavy rain that had set in. Oh well, things can only get better once in Speyside, can't they?