I am now back in Suffolk after nearly a month touring Northumberland and Scotland. Last month I wrote about the first part of the trip, so I will finish it by describing some of the birds and birding experiences in the second half.
As we continued north it was a beautiful and scenic drive to our next stopping point of Aviemore situated in the centre of the Scottish Highlands and the Cairngorms National Park. A walk to the summit of Cairn Gorm seemed a reasonable idea, so a drive to the highest ski station took us up a good way and gave a good starting point for the ascent to the top of the mountain range at 1,309mt. Starting the walk on the steepest route up to Windy Ridge proved to be a mistake! It didn’t get its name undeservedly. When we arrived at the ridge it was ‘blowing a hooley’, a Scottish expression for extremely windy. Having no desire to be blown away, an immediate descent to the ski station seemed a sensible option, so we explored some of the more sheltered mountain slopes on the opposite side. It was an interesting excursion, but the birdlife was hard to come by. In the area we walked it was environmentally degraded, probably by historic over-grazing and more recently by the ski industry. The mountain slopes were bare, had little vegetation and there was no sign of the dwarf trees and shrubs which would normally grow in the gullies and more sheltered areas. However, we were kept amused for a while by a pair of Ring Ouzels (Turdus Torquatus) who were carrying food back and forth to what must have been a very hungry family at the nest.
Ring Ouzels breed on the high moors and mountains of Northern Europe and are very hardy versions of the much more common Blackbird. They are similar looking, but have a white crescent on their chest. In Murcia they are winter visitors to our higher mountains and can regularly be seen at the top of Sierra Espuňa, the Revolcadores and some sites in the Northwest such as Bajíl.
Whilst in the Highlands a visit to Loch Garten and Abernethy Forest was certainly on the agenda. A very common bird of Murcia’s pine woodlands is the small and cute-looking Crested Tit (Lophophanes Cristatus), but in the UK it is very uncommon and is only found in this small area of the Highlands. It is confined to the Caledonian Pine Forests, such as Abernethy. Although we had a very pleasant walk in the forest and around the loch for a few hours we only came across one Crested Tit; a very confiding bird that was obviously intent on having its photo taken as it posed quite beautifully and patiently on a nearby branch. It was quite a surprise as they are normally hyper-active little blighters as they search for small insects amongst the leaves and branches of pine trees.
Five days later and it was time to move on to our final destination of the Outer Hebrides (or the Western Isles), the romantic sounding, wild and windy islands on the North Atlantic coast, but first, a visit to Loch Ruthven, a small loch near to the famous or infamous Loch Ness. It is home to a few pairs of Slavonian Grebes (Podiceps Auritis) a bird that is a bit of a rarity for most of us. Its European breeding range is restricted to Greenland, Iceland and Norway with just a handful of pairs in the north of Scotland.
On arrival we found out that a recent storm had destroyed their waterside nest a few days beforehand. Fortunately for us, they weren’t giving up and were making another attempt to re-build, so we were able to watch them from a waterside hide. In their summer plumage they are quite stunning birds to see with reddish-brown colour to the neck and sides, black on their backs, cheeks and forehead and bright yellow ears! However, there’s not much chance of seeing one in Murcia as it has only been recorded once before; a single bird at the reservoir of Alfonso X111, near Calasparra in 1985.
Following the visit to see the Grebes, the journey took us to the southern end of Loch Ness at Fort Augustus, then across to the island of Skye to catch a ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy on North Uist. A three to four hour car journey followed, but the time seemed to fly past as we admired some dramatic and beautiful scenery along the route.
The landscape of the islands is very different from the mainland. There are few hills, very few trees and you are never far from the sea. The coastline is spectacular with wide expanses of sandy bays and rocky inlets and a backdrop of clear blue seas. In fact there is water everywhere, because the islands are covered with a myriad of inland lochs, often surrounded by peaty bogs. The islands are sparsely populated with scattered crofts (smallholdings) mainly situated in areas of machair (gaelic word) which are the low-lying fertile plains that have been naturally built up by windblown sand. The machair was full of wildflowers and must be a botanist’s paradise because even our untrained eyes were seeing several species of flowering Orchids. The peat bogs also had their unique plant life and it was fascinating to see some of the insectivorous plants like Sundews thriving there.
Serious birders will travel far to see some special breeding birds on the islands, such as Red Divers (Gavia Stellata) and Black-Throated Divers (Gavia Arctica), Red-Necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus Lobatus), Great Skuas (Stercorarius Skua) and Arctic Skuas (Stercorarius Parasiticus), Hen Harriers (Circus Cyaneus) and Corn Crake (Crex Crex), to name a few. However, much that I like to see these birds, I am quite happy to quietly enjoy and observe the lesser stars of the avian world. The number of Short-Eared Owls (Asio Flammeus) silently hunting during daylight hours was a delight to see. They glided effortlessly a few metres above the ground, hunting for voles to feed their hungry young families. These Owls are very occasional winter visitors in Murcia and are seen on passage from time to time.
A very uncommon Gull in Murcia that has the odd sighting in most winters has the unfortunate name of Common Gull (Larus Canus). It is a bird that I have been unfamiliar with for a number of years, so it was great to see lots of them on the islands and familiarise myself with their identification. They are more gentle-looking than some of the big thuggish-looking Gulls that they hang around with and as Gulls go, they are quite pretty. I suppose with the name they have, they have to be common somewhere!
A bird you definitely won’t see in Murcia and which is becoming increasingly uncommon in most of the UK is a Twite (Carduelis Flavirostris), an LBJ (little brown job). These small Finches were common winter visitors to the Northwest coast where I grew up, but they probably haven’t been seen there for years. They breed on treeless moorland habitat so the landscape was perfect for them and there were certainly plenty around, providing me with many memories of my childhood birdwatching.
The most exciting and enjoyable day of our trip was a visit to one of the southernmost points of the archipelago, the uninhabited island of Mingulay. (There is a famous folk song ‘Mingulay boat song’ – no, I’d never heard of it either!). It was an early start with a couple of hours drive via the islands of South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay to catch the car ferry to Barra. Then we had another drive to meet a small fishing boat to sail the 12 miles out to the island. Fortunately, the captain deemed the weather to be good for the trip as it is cancelled on many occasions.
On arrival at the island we had to transfer to land using a small rubber tender as the swell made landing difficult, but with a little bit of trepidation we managed to time our jumps onto the rocky ledges of our improvised landing jetty. A slow walk up to the grassy slopes of a nearby headland gave spectacular views of the pristine sandy bay below us with groups of Seals pulled up on the beach. Progressing uphill, a very strange looking Starling flew past us and landed on a hillside rock. It certainly wasn’t the normal colour as it was two tone, black and pink with a pinkish beak – no mistaking that one – it was a Rose-Coloured Starling (Pastor Roseus), a lifer for me (‘bimbo’ in Spanish), absolutely amazing! Normally, they would only be seen in Eastern Europe, but this year there had been several reports of birds being seen in Western Europe, including Spain (as far south as Albacete). It is a species that has experienced several abnormal irruptions in recent years. Maybe a prelude to western colonisation?
We were in high spirits as we picnicked on the hillside surrounded by Puffins (Fratercula Arctica) taking off, landing and delivering sand eels to their offspring underground in the burrows; all with a view of a clear blue sea and sandy bay with noisy seals singing below us. Occasionally a Great Skua (pirates of the skies) would fly overhead harassing the returning seabirds to steal their catch of fish. All was quite memorable.
On returning to the fishing boat, our captain decided to risk returning by the western cliffs, although he thought it may be a bit rough. This meant going through the gateway to the Atlantic where the swell from the surrounding islands made our small boat dance around like a cork being tossed into a torrent. It was an amazing and scarily exhilarating experience as we hung on to the sides. Fulmars were gliding effortlessly around the boat as we passed close to the towering cliffs with thousands of nesting seabirds around us as they flew back and forth to their nest ledges. I will never forget the island of Mingulay.
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