Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Norfolk and Scotland

We’ve just returned from a holiday of contrasts. The first week, a family get together in the wide and flat landscape of the north Norfolk coast and the second week and a bit in the magnificent, mountainous landscape of the North West coast of Scotland.

The end of July and beginning of August is not a good time for seeing lots of bird species. Many have either moved on, or are feeding up for migration and keeping a low profile. However, quality can compensate for quantity.

Holme Next the Sea must be the epicentre of the UK Wood Pigeon population. Whichever way you turned; even to look towards the shoreline; you stood about a 90% chance of seeing a Wood Pigeon.

We stayed in a modernised cottage at Holme and spent much of the time doing holiday and family things, rather than bird watching. A visit to nearby Tichwell produced excellent views of a shed load of Avocets along with Black-Tailed Godwits, Spotted Redshanks and Ruffs. 

The stars of the holiday were Marsh Harriers. Two at Tichwell, two over the garden of our cottage and three near the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Holme Dunes. The garden list was further enhanced by a Hobby fly-over.

The weather in Norfolk was predominantly hot and the temptation just to sit in the large garden and enjoy Pimms was compelling. One evening we sat out until dusk and were entertained by bats that occasionally flitted within a whisker of our heads. Without a bat detector, all that can be reported is that they were Pipistrelle sized. Whilst they move so quickly that it was difficult to count more than three in the garden at once, I am convinced that there were many more enjoying the abundance of insects in the garden and those that adjoined. Such intimate encounters with wildlife are what really drives my interest in our natural environment.

Although there were lots of suitable food plants, butterflies, other than white ones, were in worryingly short supply. We saw a few Peacocks, one Comma and three Painted Ladies.

One of our Norfolk trips was to Sherringham and Beeston Common. Although towards the end of the flowering season, this brilliant botanical site still had a few Marsh Helleborines in full bloom. It’s also a good site for Odonata. Earlier in the year, Sundew and other marsh plants abound. There’s an abundance of Hay Rattle.

During our journey to Scotland, we stopped at the Dolphin watch point near Kessock Bridge at Inverness. Excellent views of at least 10 adult Bottle Nosed Dolphins and two calves.
Our stay in Scotland stared with a one night stop over at Kingussie, in a very friendly and comfortable B&B. The nearby Tipsy Laird produces excellent food and any pub that has six real ales on the pumps gets my vote.

The most prominent birds at Kingussie were Swifts. The numbers almost matched those seen last year in Wells in Somerset. They were the only Swifts that they saw in Scotland. I suspect that those we saw in Kingussie were within a night or two of rising high in to the sky to disappear and not be seen again until they arrive in their African wintering area, the young birds remaining on the wing until they land at their nesting sites on reaching breeding age up to four years later.

We then spent a week at Ardmair Point camping site near Ullapool. Each day produced a mixture of some rain and more than enough fine weather to enjoy the breathtaking mountain and moorland scenery.

Apart from a brief visit to Ullapool about 32 years ago, just before my beloved and I tied the knot, my last serious bird watching trips to the area were in three consecutive years, 1976 to 1978.

On our second day near Ullapool we went to a cliff where I had seen Peregrines 35 years earlier. To my delight, Peregrines appeared as soon as we pulled in to the lay-by opposite the breeding site. Two Peregrines, a male and female, not enough light or close enough to see weather adult or juvenile, harried two passing Ravens and then had a go at two Buzzards. We watched the spectacle for at least twenty minutes. Raven chased Raven; Buzzard chased Buzzard and Raven and Peregrine chased Peregrine plus anything else that came within harrying range.

Whilst we hit the coconut in one throw with the Peregrines, it took three trips to the Loch where I watched Black Throated Divers 35 years ago before we got a somewhat distant view of a single bird.

In spite of visiting the area around Inverpolly National Nature Reserve for three consecutive years in the 1970’s I had never visited Achiltibue. We went down the winding road twice and had brilliant views of Red Throated Divers, a pair of Common Scoters and two Tysties; one in breeding plumage and the other either a juvenile or non breeding bird. We also saw a female Red Breasted Merganser with four ducklings.

There were lots of Buzzards wherever we went, including two together that were very pale; one of them a large bird that for a short while had me trying to make it in to a Golden Eagle. I’ve never seen a Golden Eagle in that part of Scotland, even though it’s probably their stronghold. The problem is mainly the ratio between the huge areas of suitable habitat and the small percentage that’s accessible and/or visible from a road. The other challenge is that if they make a food catch early in the day, they will sit and do nothing for most of the rest of the day.

We had good views of two Bonxies en route to Inverue Gardens. One sat extremely close to a couple fishing in a small boat, looking a bit like a dog waiting for crumbs at the dinner table. The second bird was seen harrying a Gannet; something that I’ve never seen before.

Small birds were difficult to find, with Swallows by far the most commonly seen. A few Wheatears occupied the closely grazed grassland around the remote coastal hamlets but only a single Stonechat was seen and this on our final day. It was good to find that House Sparrows were plentiful around all habitations, including our camp site. Not having seen or hears Song Thrushes around any of the larger inhabited areas, we eventually saw some in one of the most remote areas that we visited. The biggest omission, based upon previous experience, was the absence from our list of a Sprawk.

On the return leg we saw two Red Kites near Inverness. There's a Red Kite centre nearby.

Yet another visit to Scotland without a Sea Eagle! Perhaps they’re hiding with all the Dartford Warblers that I’ve failed to see on many visits to the New Forest. Still, it gives me an excuse to visit the area again; not that I need one. I think we’ll plan a June visit next time.

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