Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Down to some serious birding, 4th June

After taking it easy on Sunday it was now time to get serious and tour around some local sites and see a few of the good local bird species that Strathspey has to offer. The weekenders and day-trippers had largely all gone home leaving the area much quieter and we could now enjoy the birding at our leisure. The holiday birding could really begin in earnest.

We've been visiting the Strathspey region for over 20 years now and have garnered much information of places to go to almost guarantee seeing the Scottish specialities. Some of these sites are well known and are firmly on the "map", others less so, and at 08:30 on a warm but cloudy morning we headed to a small lochan just a few miles from our base to catch up with a rare breeding bird which, in the UK, only breeds in the Highlands of Scotland. Specific site details will be omitted (unless well known) since rare birds need space to breed successfully and increased visitor presence is a growing problem. We are very careful to only observe from a respectful distance and never encroach into the birds immediate habitat (which sadly cannot be said of many other people). The bird we came to see, the Slavonian Grebe, was spotted almost as soon as we'd left the car behind. Just one or two pairs breed here in most years and we are normally successful in seeing them. This time we saw two but presumably at least one of the pair would be sitting on eggs. On the previous Friday a superb summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe had been seen at Farmoor (typical!) and had offered very close views resulting in some local birders obtaining some crippling photos. The birds that swam on the lochan in front of us were much further away so my own images pale in comparison somewhat but I have had stonking views before so I wasn't too disappointed.

Slavonian Grebe
Goldeneye also breed on the lochan and we managed to find 3 females along with some recently hatched ducklings. Mallard ducklings abounded with at least 4 flotillas following their doting mums around. I should point out, for the those of you that don't know, that most males of the duck species leave the parenting to the females and bugger off to hold big bachelor parties on nearby rivers and coasts. Very old fashioned! We only saw a couple of drake Goldeneye in the whole fortnight.

female Goldeneye
Mallard duckling chasing after mum!
Other birds around the lochan seen were the ubiquitous Oystercatchers and Greylag Geese that also had young to tend to. There is a decent colony of Sand Martins here too that nest close by. In the murky light capturing images of them in flight was beyond me but one did dutifully pose for me as it preened upon a telegraph wire.

Sand Martin
We returned our focus back to the Slavonian Grebes and were rewarded when one took to flight allowing me to take some action photos. The bird flew into one of the reedy margins and a few minutes later a different bird emerged (slightly less brightly coloured) so I'm guessing a parental duty changeover had taken place. Good to know that they're probably sitting on eggs.

Slavonian Grebe
On our walk back to the car a Common Sandpiper tootled a warning to us and a Little Grebe surfaced in the weed covered water. The day was going well.

Our next stop was at a nature reserve on the southern edge of Aviemore. Craigellachie NNR has become pretty famous as the breeding spot for a pair of Peregrine Falcons. Their eyrie is placed high up on a sheer rock face and as I walked underneath I noticed that there were now cameras installed overlooking the rock ledge. Not sure if they're there for security (a sad sign of the times, egg stealing is still rife) or whether they're serving as a webcam with footage beamed elsewhere. Anyway, in keeping with just about every other visit we've made here, the Peregrines were absent and nowhere to be seen. In fact I can only remember seeing one here once and that was years ago! But the information boards still proclaim that they're still breeding here so I guess we're just unlucky. 

I discovered a cunningly disguised Chaffinch nest in the fork of a tree. The way in which the birds had used lichen to help their nest blend in with the tree trunk was quite brilliant. A young recently fledged Robin watched from a branch nearby but I very much doubt harboured the same admiration.

Spot the Chaffinch nest!

Robin fledgling
I'd been given some first hand knowledge of a couple of pairs of Pied Flycatchers that were using some of the many nest boxes that have been provided and we turned our attention to finding those. The first location returned a blank so we headed uphill in pursuit of the others. We passed a fine pair of Tree Pipits but they were difficult to view clearly remaining, as they did, in the foliage, eventually though one showed in the open.

Tree Pipit
As we reached the "Tank" after a decent uphill walk I could hear a male Pied Flycatcher singing close by. It took a while to track him down but he was located high up in the canopy. These are fabulous little birds and I always enjoy watching them. They are very dynamic, often flying out to catch winged insects in mid-air but for now this one was content just to sing his little warble as we sat under the trees. The warm weather had encouraged insects to be active and there were a fair number of midges abroad, something we'd noticed yesterday too. Midges are not usually a problem in the Highlands unless you go further west but there definitely seemed to be a lot around this year. Thank goodness for insect eating birds like the Pied Flycatcher, at least they get rid of a few! Problem is modern farming practices get rid of many more bugs, far too many in fact, which then results in fewer insect eating birds and hence the paucity of farmland birds surviving in particular. After a while the Pied Flycatcher came within reach of my lens and I took some reasonable images. It was then joined, first briefly by a female and then by a second male. A territorial spat then ensued and although I can't be sure (since all male Pied Flycatchers look the same to me) the invader was repelled and departed stage right.

male Pied Flycatcher
We had also heard a Wood Warbler trilling away as we walked up the path and we returned to see if we could find it. I can't get enough of Wood Warblers. They are simply gorgeous little birds putting every bit of energy that they posess into their song. We had excellent views of them earlier in the year in Mid-Wales so didn't have to put too much effort in here (see Birds the colour of rainbows...) but as our luck would have it the Wood warbler suddenly appeared in a small stand of dense silver birch trees close to the main path and began singing in earnest. It still took a while to get decent views but once we'd pinned him down, a few photos were secured and we moved away and walked back to the car.

male Wood Warbler
Remarkably we didn't see a single Spotted Flycatcher on this walk despite them usually being very common at Craigellachie. Indeed a friend had seen no fewer than 8 just a few days before. Where they must have been I had no idea and after Mrs Caley had missed the one by the cottage yesterday, she was now getting a bit twitchy! I did find a presumed Spotted Flycatcher nest in one of the boxes but there was no activity and if there was a sitting bird then I couldn't see it.

Spotted Flycatcher nest (?)
We left after a very enjoyable couple of hours at this excellent reserve to the sound of a Chaffinch singing incessantly while a Buzzard lazily circled overhead. Now for a visit to one of the best lunch spots that we've ever found for coffee and cake!

male Chaffinch
To our great disappointment (shared by many) the Potting Shed Tea Rooms is no more, the owners having retired and given up the business. The Potting Shed was one of the best places to go for a fine coffee and made and sold some of the most amazing cream cakes we've ever eaten! You could also sit and watch a plethora of birds and squirrels at the feeding station while partaking. It will be sorely missed. As an alternative we took in the Marina cafe at Loch Insh which served us well enough before moving down to Insh church to look at a well known Osprey nest. The nest is situated at the top of a tall tree on a small island in Loch Insh and close viewing is possible from the path below the church. I much prefer to come here and get my initial Osprey fix rather than join the hordes at Loch Garten. Both Ospreys were present, the female on the nest and the male attendant in a dead tree next to the nest tree. As soon as we arrived however the male flew up and disappeared away over the island. Gone fishing. Usually an Osprey returns after a half hour or so but despite us staying for over an hour he hadn't returned so we departed also.

We saw a drake Teal here along with another family of Mallards and a Curlew flew past but in the afternoon heat (the sun was beaming down and the earlier cloud has dispersed) the birding had slowed so we moved onto our next destination for the day.

male Teal
Mallard family
The Spey Dam and Laggan area is famous as a former breeding spot for Temminck's Stints but sadly to my knowledge they no longer do so there. My purpose of driving there was to maybe see an Osprey fishing which we had seen a few times before but there was no sign of any. We did scope a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers way out on the Loch but it was fairly quiet probably due in some part to the massive Energy Co. works being undertaken on the far bank. The hot afternoon had generated a vibrant heat haze too so long distance photography was pointless. We stopped at the small cafe in Laggan where there is delicious coffee served (the cake however just left us feeling sick!) and listened intently at the trees opposite. Two years ago we had seen an Icterine Warbler at this spot but lightning wasn't about to strike twice this time.

Our final stop for the day was at the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Carpark primarily as a recce since we were planning on a mountain walk the following day. While gazing up the various tracks and wondering whether we'd make it up the "hill" (we do this every year but we always manage it) a fine male Ring Ousel appeared close to the stream that runs through the gully. It was feeding voraciously on earthworms and other bugs and we sidled a bit closer. We were pretty much alone too since by some stroke of luck (for us anyway) the Mountain Railway had closed the day before for a month for essential maintenance to take place so the usual coach loads of visitors that choose to take the train were absent. The Ring Ousel fed quite happily very close to our position until a group of returning walkers put it to flight. 

male Ring Ousel
We could hear another (or the same) Ring Ousel singing it's squeaky song from higher up the track so we walked up towards it. We spent a good 15 minutes searching amongst the rocks without success (they are incredibly difficult to locate on the mountainside, it is vast!) until finally it blew its cover by flying down to the railway track side. Now we followed it once more as it searched for food around the concrete stanchions of the track but it rarely emerged into the open. We were in luck again though when the bird appeared perched on an inactive steel hawser that normally pulls the train and proceeded to sing. For the next 10 minutes and totally unperturbed by our presence we were treated to a fabulous concert even if the music was a bit repetitive. Maybe it was proclaiming for anybody that didn't already know that the "railway is shut for the next month". Nothing to see here. Except for a mighty fine Ring Ousel that is!

male Ring Ousel
Tomorrow, with more good weather forecast, we'd head up the mountain in search of the special birds that make that special place their home but I had still to decide on the route, should we try a more direct path following the now quiet railway track or go our normal way up? Decisions, decisions!

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