Having now been made aware (too late) of the Long-tailed Skua that graced Lochindorb on Sunday and Monday I just had to get back up there to see if by some chance it was still in the area. Of course it wasn't but you've got to try! We also wanted to see the Loch with the sun at our backs instead of it being in our faces as it is in the evenings when we usually choose to visit. To be fair it's normally raining, or snowing, so it's just nice to visit in sunshine! Plus an early start promised little or no disturbance so we were hopeful that the resident Black-throated Divers may be closer to the roadside. In fact we hadn't seen them at all on Sunday so it would be good to see them at all!
We were alongside the Loch before 08:00 and going by the amount of rabbits and gulls on the roads, nobody else had ventured out yet. We had the whole place to ourselves. Pulling into one of the passing places we found the Divers but they were way out by the far side. Looking through the scope we saw that the adults were tending to two small and fluffy grey chicks. This was very good news since the breeding attempts had failed in the previous two years. Hopefully these chicks will fledge successfully. We were about to pack the scope back into the boot when we heard the sound of a car approaching. It turned out to be a sports car with Dutch number plates and a "North Coast 500" (more about that in a later blog) sticker emblazoned on the door. Nothing too strange about that and the occupants had just as much right as us to be there. They waved cheerfully as they passed and we acknowledged and waited for the peace and quiet to return. We watched the car disappear towards the plantation and became aware of another Dutch plated sports car with the same door sticker coming down the road towards us. That was followed by another and then another and then more. In fact over the next hour or so over 50 similar cars trundled past. We were gobsmacked. So much for our nice peaceful morning by Lochindorb! That craze of "driving the North Coast 500" has a lot to answer for. Everybody has a hobby of some sort but it seems to me that so many of them impact greatly on my own owing to the noise and disturbance generated by theirs, whether it be cars or cycling or dog walking or something else! Eventually though they had all gone and tranquility was restored and we regained some composure and got down to birding once again.
We arrived alongside the Loch at the northern end and studied the birds there. It had developed into a beautiful and sunny morning and the birds all looked absolutely stunning with the conditions lending themselves to some excellent photographic opportunities. We watched a couple of Black-headed Gulls preening and fly catching. These often overlooked birds were captivating in the bright sunlight and looked crisp and sharp against the still water.
An Oystercatcher dosed peacefully at the Loch edge no doubt as pleased as I was that the sports cars had left. Oystercatchers are ubiquitous in the Highlands and you see them virtually everywhere but they're a bird that I never tire of and they always offer themselves up for the odd photo or three. They look slightly comical and sound ridiculous. Perhaps I see a bit of myself in them!
The road, quiet again after the Grand Prix parade, was now being visited by families of Red Grouse. Unlike the other grouse species Red Grouse remain together as a family unit and both parents look after the chicks. The chicks were available here in all sizes with some just a few days old whereas others were almost ready to fly. We often had to come to a stop to avoid running them down. As I watched one family cross the road, the familiar Famous Grouse Whisky music reverberated around my head as I simultaneously rued the fact that so many of these birds will be blasted of of the sky by people with too much money and very little sense. How I wished that could be stopped.
We turned around at the head of the Loch and retraced our route. Apart from the "tour van Schotland" no other vehicles had been driven around the road and we regaled in our re-found solitude. We do like to have places to ourselves sometimes and that's one of the reasons that we seek out these quiet spots in the first place. We watched a Common Sandpiper firstly bathe and then preen in shallow water at the Loch edge. A beautiful bird particularly when illuminated by the full sun.
A cuckoo teased us by continually flitting from its perch on an adjacent telegraph wire to another slightly further up the road every time that we drew near before stymieing us completely by doubling back. I always struggle to get good shots of Cuckoos but remain ever hopeful that one day I'll get a decent image (I refuse to visit "Colin" the hand fed Cuckoo at Thursley).
We parked up again opposite the Divers retreat and noted that the adults were now swimming alone roughly (only) halfway out in the Loch. With the chicks hopefully safely harboured (there are a lot of breeding Gulls in the area) it was clear that the adults were going fishing. After just a couple of minutes both birds erupted from the water and flew off towards the other end of the Loch. I feel we're going to be forever thwarted by these birds although I was able to rattle off some flight shots of the lead bird. Divers look odd in the air with their wings set right on the middle of the bird. The neck is stretched out taut in front and the legs trail behind while the deep body hangs awkwardly underneath. If you ever see a Diver on land then they look even more ridiculous with the legs set so far back on the body that they actually struggle to walk. But in the water they reign supreme being able to swim and (as it says on the tin) dive with ease. Any fish within range are caught easily.
Naturally we turned around once more and headed back to the northern end in the hope that one or both of the Divers had decided to fish close in to the road. Needless to say they hadn't and we couldn't see either of them! Our tread marks were retraced once again and I took more images of the now wide awake Oystercatcher.
A juvenile Stonechat offered itself up for the holiday list by watching us closely from the top of a Juniper bush and we watched a pair of Mistle Thrush's bringing food in for their hungry nestlings.
Next we noticed a fine male Reed Bunting hunting out flies at the shore, readily hoovering them up and collecting them to take back to its own nest. I think that they're relatively uncommon breeding birds in the Highlands so it was nice to spend some time watching a bird that we'd wouldn't normally look at twice back at home where we have lots.
Further breeding success was exhibited when a flotilla of Mallard ducklings followed their mother through the still calm waters. The Oystercatcher had gotten bored and flew off exclaiming continually as it went.
We stopped at the bridge at the southern end and Mrs Caley spotted a couple of Common Snipe feeding on the muddy bank of the outlet stream. Before I could focus on them they were up and away leaving me with just blurry and partially obscured by grass flight images. We took a short walk into the moor via one of the tracks hoping for a Golden Plover but for the first time that we could remember we didn't find any. Bird numbers are definitely down this year.
We made another and last sortie along the Loch side and saw that one of the adult Divers had returned and was now swimming closer to our shore. Unfortunately the air had warmed considerably so the view was affected by the dreaded heat haze which renders distance photography useless. But I tried and failed regardless. One day I'll get it.
The last birds that we noted were a Meadow Pipit with a bill stuffed full of insects and an impressive looking moth species and a Curlew that came hurtling past, maybe it was doing the 500 too.
After a short stop at the cottage we thought we'd give the Findhorn Valley (or Strathdearn if you're a local) a go for any Eagles or other Birds of Prey. We had also yet to see a Dipper and the River Findhorn can usually provide these. Our recent record at the valley had been appalling and it had been at least a couple of years since we'd seen any raptors of note there. Nothing changed on this visit! In the trudge (it was hot) to the bridge and back from the car park we only saw a Raven, a Buzzard and a Kestrel! We dipped on Dipper too! I'm going off the Findhorn Valley big time. I had to fill my time taking more photos of Gulls, this time the rather elegant Common Gulls.
The only decent bird that I was able to observe at close quarters was a fine Grey Wagtail that adorned one of the bridge railings. Small consolation but we come here for the Birds of Prey and we weren't doing at all well on that score.
Heading over the Farr road we were dismayed at how the moorland landscape was being trashed by the installation of yet another wind turbine "farm". A vehicular access road had been constructed alongside the old road and vast swathes of the heather had been cleared to make way. The whole area is just a scene of devastation and the days of seeing Hen Harriers, Merlins and Short-eared Owls hunting here must surely remain firmly in the past and are unlikely to ever reoccur. Very, very sad.
Loch Ruthven is always worth a visit since it is a reliable (and very famous) spot for seeing Slavonian Grebes. The RSPB run reserve has become a victim of its own success though and owing to increased visitor pressure it's now no longer possible to sit by the shore and allow the birds to approach closely as they used to. I'm glad that we know of a superior site to see these stunning water birds where disturbance is much less of a problem. We left less than half an hour of arriving (we did see a pair of Slavonians as well as a couple of Little Grebes) owing to there being a noisy party of youngsters present. Yep, for those that don't me, I'm a right grumpy old git!