24 November 2015
Our small group assembled in Gloucestershire to load up our baggage and take on the drive to Scotland. Conditions were none too favourable but we carried on and made a couple of stops along the way to break up the journey and have a hot drink and a bite to eat. Our first birding stop was at Silloth which situated on the south side of the Solway Firth mouth, it was windy here too but at least the rain has eased. Flocks of Oystercatcher headed out of the Firth as the tide dropped no doubt to feed on the sandbanks. A Rock Pipit skulked under the seawall and a few Redshank picked about in the rocks. After leaving Silloth for Anthorn we saw a small flock of Pink-footed Geese along the way.
Driving back east we stopped at Anthorn Harbour where we found our first flock of Barnacle Geese grazing the saltmarsh, among them was a fine leucistic bird, completely white! A pair of Red-breasted Merganser fed in the river channel with two female Goosander on the sand and mud were Curlew, Redshank and Lapwing. It was a busy spot but we had to press on to our hotel for the night near Tarbert. After getting through Glasgow we were soon in the countryside.
Nearing our destination the moonlight beams were fabulous as we drove along the loch side, the blue light was constantly flickering as we drove through the trees at the water’s edge. The hotel was fronted by a castle, they offered comfortable rooms, a tasty menu and the first whisky bar of the trip. Some participants sampled a nightcap before retiring for the night. Although brief, a Woodcock was noted by a vigilant IH in the moonlit grounds from the dining room!
25 November 2015
Up for breakfast at the earliest time available, it was still windy out we would have to see if the ferry would be running, on arrival at Kennacraig the staff seemed unconcerned, gave us the tickets and loaded us aboard. We found the most sheltered part of the ship ready for the voyage and recorded 20+ Red-breasted Merganser, 2 Slavonian Grebe, 2 Little Grebe, 6 Goldeneye, a male Long-tailed Duck, 2 Black-throated Diver, 5 Red-throated Diver, 30+ Great Northern Diver, 15+ Eider, 4 Shelduck, 2 Kittiwake and a Black Guillemot that took flight as we entered Islay’s Port Ellen harbour.
Once ashore we scanned the harbour again and saw a Great Northern and 2 Red-throated Diver and c 10 Shag. We followed the minor road out to the rugged Mull of Oa, stopping and scanning we saw a distant male Hen Harrier ghosting its way across the moor. A large bird, possibly a Golden Eagle was seen distantly on the sea cliffs which encouraged us head in its direction. A male Stonechat and Mistle Thrush were noted as we stopped at the RSPB car park as well as large numbers of Redwing nearby before a squall came through. This meant we could only bird from the car but certainly enjoyed some very close flocks of Greenland White-fronted, Barnacle and Greylag Geese were seen before we left.
A stop at Bowmore town was welcome for snacks and facilities before making two brief stops to look over the south shore of the impressive Loch Indaal. At the head of the loch bobbed a very close raft of 53 Greater Scaup, among them a single male Tufted Duck courtesy of RG. A nice diving duck role reversal for what many of us are used to in the West Country. Heading back to a shelter belt at Bridgend we scanned the mudflats on the rising tide to watch the Barnacle Geese arriving, c3000 had dropped in before we had to leave. Other species included 40 Pale-bellied Brent Geese, a Red-throated Diver, 8 Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Shelduck and 5 Red-breasted Merganser. This concluded our day in the field so it back to the hotel for the evening whisky tasting and a hearty meal.
27 November 2015
After breakfast we headed back to the Bridgend roost to watch the Barnacle Geese, c3500 were present along with a similar assembly of species as the day before so we moved on to Loch Gruinart RSPB. Passing many flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese along way we realised that their behaviour toward vehicles had changed from all previous visits. It was impossible to stop the car adjacent to a flock, as soon as you slowed they became nervous and flew off. Perhaps they are now being shot at or scared from vehicles?
Looking over the wetlands and fields from the vantage point we could see plenty of birds including Whooper Swans. Around the farm buildings were flocks of Chaffinches and Sparrowhawk and Kestrel. Next stop was out in the Ardnave Point dunes, we scanned the wild and windy loch and got really close to nine feeding Whooper Swans, they looked fabulous in overcast or sunny conditions. Also on the loch were 5 Goldeneye, a male Pochard, female Tufted Duck and Teal and Wigeon.
Plenty of Jackdaw were foraging the dunes, IH saw a female Hen Harrier in the distance. As were leaving Ardnave a pair of Chough finally flew by calling, they carried on up the loch and out of sight. We made for Loch Gorm and surrounds still dodging the heavy showers. In one large field a flock of 200 Rock Dove demonstrated just how beautiful a bird they are as they fed in the stubble. A female Merlin was spotted clinging onto a fence post next to the car so we turned around to allow the other side of the car to have close up views too. Large flocks of geese were feeding in the area, 2000 Barnacle and 4000 Greenland White-fronted were estimated on our drive around this stunning setting. The hill tops were shrouded in low cloud which ruled out eagle spotting. Another scan of the Chaffinch flocks did not reveal any Twite. At Bruichladdich we stopped for a hot drink to scan this section of Loch Indaal, a single Common Scoter drake and a few Dunlin were seen as well as a dead first winter Kittiwake. Unfortunately no Purple Sandpipers were seen.
Returning to Loch Gruinart we watched a Peregrine hunting and all got good scope views of at least three ringtail (female/juvenile) Hen Harriers as they hunted the low ground, one was watched interacting with a Buzzard. Some great birds but we had to leave to catch the ferry from Port Askaig to Kennacraig (2 hour crossing) and drive an hour north to Oban where we would be staying immediately on the seafront. The crossing produced a few birds but was it dark not long after departing. At the hotel the sea was splashing over the harbour wall road due to the high tide and the storm, indoors you wouldn’t know anything was going on at all, quiet, cosy and warm.
Another windy and wet dawn greeted us. I don’t think I have ever studied the weather so intensively as on this trip. I was relieved that we had got on and off Islay without any interruption, the rain and wind had certainly affected bird behaviour and made everything more challenging, a good group spirit and positivity fended off the conditions. I had made alternative plans to go birding on the mainland as we headed to the ferry terminal at Oban not expecting to sail. Picking up ticket from the Caledonian Macbrayne office was as efficient as ever, everything was going ahead as normal! The staff in the office and vessels were so helpful and friendly.
Another crossing ensued with plenty of birds seen especially Great Northern Divers and another Black Guillemot or two. Making port at Craignure on Mull it was not long before we were on our way. A stop to scan over the channel produced Ringed Plovers on the beach, Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers, I spotted an Otter running along the top of a long rocky island but it went over the other side before anyone else got to a scope to see it. Further on a more sheltered wooded bay (which is good for Otters) was scanned from the hide as well as the next bay with no luck, it would be worth trying again on the way back.
Pressing on to Loch na Keal we got out to scan the bay at low tide, giving instructions to scan everywhere to see if we could locate the local White-tailed Eagles. A number of birds were seen but the first of our eagles was located by IH, two young White-tailed Eagles sitting up in a sheltered spot in the trees. This was a good start and the weather was improving, the cloud was lifting and it was even becoming brighter. Another eagle was located at the mouth of the loch, it looked to be a White-tailed, further scanning turned up a second eagle, this looked to be a Golden so after enjoying the two nearer WTE we moved off to get closer.
More Great Northern Divers were seen close inshore including the spot where we parked to scan. A pair of displaying Golden Eagle were on the wing over the island and gave good, constant views, a second pair did the same over the high sea cliffs. Eventually a White-tailed Eagle flew the length of the loch to give a comparison. That was a special half hour or so. We had been so lucky with the weather to allow this window.
With CalMac staff earlier advising that it may be wise to come of Mull on the 3.30pm ferry I was mindful of time, one or two last stops were on the cards before leaving Loch na Keal but before departing this special place we checked the gull flocks feeding where a stream flowed into the loch. A spectacular flock of Goldeneye were jostling just offshore. Our last stop on Mull was a chance to check the bay that we had scanned earlier, IH immediately spotted an Otter feeding just offshore and everyone had great views of it before we had to catch the ferry.
Back on the ferry to Oban we noted yet more Great Northern Divers before it got dark so we retired below for a coffee and bite to eat and were soon ashore after the 45 minute crossing. Back on the mainland it was time to head back south to the borders, we were staying at a hotel in Lockerbie for our final night.
28 November 2015
Another comfortable night and good breakfast and it was back on the road in horrendous conditions, we really were not having much luck with the weather. One nearby site offered much needed sheltered birding and was well known to me and some of the other party members.
At WWT Caerlaverock we passed large flocks of Barnacle Geese on the way in, it was too wet to stop as the roads were flooded. At the car park we donned out waterproofs and made for the Whooper pond. A flock of Icelandic Whooper Swans were sheltering in the lee of the hide along with a variety of wildfowl.
A first winter female Greater Scaup bobbed about among the Tufted Ducks. After half an hour or so one of the local scarcities finally flew in from a sheltered ditch and joined the fun. A first winter male Ring-necked Duck, apparently a first for the reserve was giving us all brilliant views, all from the comfort of the hide. Perhaps the current gale was similar to conditions it faced when crossing the Atlantic. We listened to Joe’s excellent commentary at the feed and enjoyed being inside.
It was time to brave to weather again, we stopped briefly to watch the Tree Sparrows among the passerines at the feeding station before scanning the Folly Pond wildfowl. Snipe were spotted and the Wigeon and Teal flock scanned for another rarity. Changing view from the hide to the tower was rewarded with the American Green-winged Teal feeding right under us. Not a bad set of birds and worth celebrating with a hot drink in the cafe before getting back on the road to head home.
The weather did not improve in the afternoon so we made a group decision to press on for home eventually arriving in good time after a stop to refresh. Thank you to everyone who joined me for this winter tour, despite the challenge of the weather we logged some great birds, scenery and had a good time.