Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

I had an interesting and enjoyable weekend from Friday 10th to Sunday 12th June 2016. It started after work with a gig in Leeds, then a music festival in Leicestershire, a morning on Portland Bill and a trip to Somerset.

The trip to Portland was, of course, to see the young Great Spotted Cuckoo, which had been around Southwell on Portland since 13th May. So, nearly a month later, I'd finally found a free day to get down to it. I'd arranged with fellow West Yorkshire birder Joel to be picked up, post-festival, from my brother-in-law's in Derby at 05:30 Sunday morning. In normal circumstances, this isn't such an early start, but after countless beers and bad kebabs at Download, and going to bed at 02:00, I'm glad I wasn't driving. Thanks Joel.

On arrival at Reap Lane at 09:30, we found a handful of birders staring into bushes around 20 metres away. Looked promising. The bird was roosting, apparently in its favourite roost site. Unfortunately it wasn't easy to see the whole bird, with the head obscured, except for the few occasions it preened. Hence, my photos are somewhat lacking!

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 (Canon SX40)

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016
(Digiscoped: Opticron GS 665 and iPhone 5)

A large, shaggy bird, with typically dropping wings and a long tail. The wings were a dark chocolate brown covered in white spots. The tail was the same brown colour, with white edges and tips. Dark brown hood on the head (which could be seen briefly as the bird preened and shifted position), with a dark eye and bill. Underparts a dirty cream colour, with a yellowish neck, throat and upper breast. Large, scaly pale grey legs.

Great Spotted Cuckoo notes, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

The cuckoo eventually flew, looking like a small falcon, towards the Observatory, and we didn't see it again despite heading down that way. During a brief sea-watch from beside the Lobster Pot Café we had 3 Manx Shearwater, 10+ Fulmar, and Guillemot and Gannet.

 Portland Bill, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

Some moths were still left in and around the moth trap at the Obs, including Small Elephant Hawk-moth, Privet Hawk-moth, Cream-spot Tiger Moth, Common Swift, Small Magpie, Heart and Dart, White Ermine, and Light Brown Apple Moth.

Common Swift Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

 Cream-spot Tiger Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

Light Brown Apple Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

 Privet Hawk-moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

Small Elephant Hawk-moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016  

 Small Magpie Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

 White Ermine Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

In the chalky, dry grassland around the Obs were Meadow Brown, Common Blue and Painted Lady butterflies. An unringed White Stork was reported at Steart Marshes WWT reserve. Although not directly on the way home, it wasn't too much of a detour, especially for a potential lifer for both of us. So we headed off to Somerset, with a spider Enoplognatha ovata hitching a lift with us.

Enoplognatha ovata, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

On arrival, we find the White Stork had just flown high north east around 45 minutes ago, and hadn't come back. Disappointing, especially after the bird had been present for around two days. Well, we were here now, the weather was glorious, and the reserve looked really promising (and very new), so we went for a wander.

 Arty shot of a pylon at Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

We mostly had our eyes to the skies, scanning for thermalling storks, but did manage a few insect sightings too.

Black-tailed Skimmer (male), Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

Common Blue (female), Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

The scrapes were quiet, probably due to the state of the tide (out, we suspected), but we did enjoy the Little Egrets, noisy Oystercatchers with young, and mating Little Ringed Plovers.

Little Ringed Plovers, Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

We drew a blank on the White Stork, and the info in the sightings book wasn't helping either (a report of the White Stork from earlier and sightings of the college bus...), so headed home. A successful day, regardless.

Sightings log, Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

A pleasant end to a tiring couple of days. Here are a couple of other sightings from the weekend.

Neil Young and Promise of the Real, Leeds Arena - Friday 10th June 2016

Lawnmower Deth and Kim Wilde, Download Festival - Saturday 11th June 2016

Before the downpour, Download Festival - Saturday 11th June 2016

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Cairngorms, Scotland, 28th May-3rd June 2016 - Part 2

Continuing the little diary of my family holiday in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Click here for Part 1.

We managed to really pack a lot in on Tuesday 31st May. We spent the morning and early afternoon cycling from Cromdale to Nethy Bridge along the disused Speyside Railway in lovely sunny weather.

We took in Anagach Forest again, and crossed the Spey at Speybridge, watching Grey Wagtails and Common Sandpipers on our break.

 Anagach Forest - Tuesday 31st May 2016

 Common Sandpiper, Speybridge - Tuesday 31st May 2016

The fields along the valley bottom were full of Redshank, Curlew and Lapwing, and the track-side gorse had singing Yellowhammer. On the way back, a group of House Martins were coming down to a road-side pool of mud for their nests, allowing some great close views.

 House Martin, Speybridge - Tuesday 31st May 2016

My daughter and I had tickets for the dusk watch on the Rothiemurchus Estate, starting at 21:00. This left us time to get to Laggan, about 25 miles west of Aviemore, to try and see a singing Icterine Warbler, which had been reported there for the last two days.

We could hear the bird before we were out of the car - singing its rich song, which seemed to include all kinds of mimicry: Curlew, Lapwing, Swallow, Reed Warbler, Song Thrush, etc... I had no trouble hearing the bird; but my hearing being what it is, I had trouble pin-pointing the bird's exact location. No such trouble for my 11-year-old daughter, who quickly pointed it out in a nearby tree.

 Icterine Warbler, Laggan, Highland - Tuesday 31st May 2016

We had some great, prolonged views of the Icterine Warbler in the fabulous evening sunshine - a UK tick for both of us! It was particularly great to spend some quality time with my wonderful daughter, and was nice the chat with some locals and other opportunistic birders who were holidaying in the area too. I scribbled some notes and we headed off to Rothiemurchus for our mammal watch.

Our trip to Rothiemurchus was for one reason only: to see Pine Marten. By no means, guaranteed, it was certainly one of the best opportunities to see this scarce and elusive mammal. After walking from the meeting point, passing a herd of twelve Red Deer, we entered the hide for our three-hour session. Our guide, John Walters, explained that Pine Martens tend to appear before it was fully dark, with the Badgers arriving a little later after dark (which would be well gone 23:00 at this latitude at this time of year). John went out and filled the feeding stations, which invloved smearing lots of peanut butter around, and leaving a raw egg for the Pine Marten.

Wood Mice scurried around the rocks outside the windows as we waited. Around 21:45 a Pine Marten came bounding out of the forest and on to the feeding table! What a slinky and canny creature it was. It went to the feeding table and proceeded to eat the scattered nuts, although it was clearly very wary of movement and sound in the wood. It was, according to our guide, a youngster. The Pine Marten didn't stay around for long - once it had the egg in its jaws, it was off - but we all managed to get really good views and acceptable photos (my cheap camera isn't great in low light, but I'm more interested in the experience than the photos).

 Pine Marten, Rothiemurchus, Highland - Tuesday 31st May 2016

We had a wait of an hour before the Badger family turned up, but it was worth the wait. John explained the complicated family politics of the Badgers and pointed out the individual characters. I'd never had such close and prolonged views of Badgers before and it was fascinating to see them feed and interact. Well worth staying up late for. The whole evening was great: the sunset, the scenery, the Icterine Warbler, the Pine Marten, the Badgers, and the lovely company of my wonderful daughter. Happiness.

 Badgers, Rothiemurchus, Highland - Tuesday 31st May 2016

The following day was meant to start with a lie-in after we'd got back so late the night before, but the cockerel outside our window put paid to that.

No matter, because we'd hit the jackpot for Highland weather; for on Wednesday 1st June it was again forecast as hot, sunny and still. So we decided on a trip up the raptor heaven that is Findhorn Valley.

 Findorn Valley, Highland - Wednesday 1st June 2016
Look at that sky!

I've visited the valley on several occasions, and I can't recommend this place enough. Come on a sunny, still day in late Spring and you'll be treated to fabulous views, perfect walking conditions, fascinating wild flowers, and almost certainly some sightings of large raptors.

The air is so fresh, and the water of River Findhorn clear and cold. Wild Goats graze along the valley, from the very highest peaks to the river banks, and large herds of Red Deer roam the mountain tops.

 Red Deer, Findorn Valley, Highland - Wednesday 1st June 2016

 Wild Goat, Findorn Valley, Highland - Wednesday 1st June 2016

The first birds you notice are all the Oystercatchers, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Jackdaws, Common Gulls, and Swallows. I scanned the mountain sides for Dotterel and Ring Ouzel, to no avail. But I did pick up Ravens and three Kestrels.

A guided birding group joined us by the wooded bridge at Dalmigavie, and together we picked out Common Buzzard, Osprey, and two Peregrine Falcons. After moving further up the valley to the small car park, I picked out an obvious eagle species further up the valley. It was soon joined by another, larger eagle! This was perfect, allowing us all to compare the two. A Golden Eagle and a young White-tailed Eagle

We spent Thursday in Inverness, starting with a boat trip to see the Bottlenose Dolphins in the Moray Firth. We headed out on the Dolphin Spirit and things didn't go entirely to plan. No Dolphins! Three Atlantic Grey Seals, Black-throated Diver, and a few Guillemots were the best of the wildlife. The weather, again, was great, and the staff on the boat were nice and helpful, so no complaints there; but it was slight disappointment. We had a nice day in Inverness anyhow.

Kessock Bridge, Beauly Firth, Inverness - Thursday 2nd June 2016

Later, back on Speyside, I went for an evening bike ride through Anagach Forest (yes, I really can't get enough of those old forests).

  Anagach Forest - Thursday 2nd June 2016

  Oystercatcher, Grantown-on-Spey - Thursday 2nd June 2016

Friday was our last full day on Speyside, and the weather finally started to crack. We cycled to the shops in Grantown (Spotted Flycatcher, Willow Warbler, and Dipper en route). 

I can't go on a UK holiday without a trip on a heritage railway, so we spent the afternoon on the great Strathspey Railway. I can really recommend it. Please excuse the train photos...

 British Railways No. 46512 (Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0), Aviemore - Friday 3rd June 2016

BR Class 117 DMBS SC51367, Boat of Garten - Friday 3rd June 2016

So, a great holiday. The long journey home was made better by the bright sunshine, a stop off in lovely Dunkeld, and even a Merlin flying over the car on the A9 at Dalnaspidal!

Cairngorms, Scotland, 28th May-3rd June 2016 - Part 1

I spent a week in the Cairngorms with my wife and two children over the May Bank Holiday week, staying in Cromdale, about 3km east of Grantown-on-Spey. The focus was mostly on getting outdoors, on foot or on our bikes, and experiencing some of the habitats and wildlife in the area. The weather was great (it seems it often is in the Highlands at that time of year) and Cromdale proved a great place to stay.

We spent a night in Stirling on the way up, and in the morning took a scenic route across Braco Moor, to Dunkeld, Pitlochry, Killiecrankie and Breamar, before arriving on Speyside.

Eurasian Curlew, Braco Moor, Perthshire, Scotland - Saturday 28th May 2016

Mandarin Duck, Loch of the Lowes, Dunkeld, Scotland - Saturday 28th May 2016

Yellowhammer, Loch of the Lowes, Dunkeld, Scotland - Saturday 28th May 2016

Osprey, Loch of the Lowes, Dunkeld, Scotland - Saturday 28th May 2016

Tinder Fungus, Loch of the Lowes, Dunkeld, Scotland - Saturday 28th May 2016

I always enjoy my visits to the Loch of the Lowes SWT reserve near Dunkeld, although they're generally when I'm passing through. The female Osprey was on the nest, and Yellowhammers, Bullfinches, and a Mandarin Duck were on the feeders, and I saw my first Spotted Flycatcher of the trip in the woodland.

The weather was cool and misty at first, but was hot and sunny by lunchtime at Pitlochry and Killiecrankie. I tramped around listening to the Spotted and Pied Flycatchers (couldn't pick up and Wood Warblers though), and Dipper, Grey Wagtail, and Goosander along the River Garry. The drive through the National Park was fantastic - in the sunshine it felt like the Tirol region of Austria!

Killiecrankie, Perth and Kinross, Scotland - Saturday 28th May 2016

The farm we stayed on at Cromdale was lovely - full of chickens and sheep, and surrounded by calling Curlews and Lapwings, with Swallows filling the air and the occasional Buzzard overhead.

On Sunday 29th May we cycled part of the Speyside Way to Grantown-on-Spey, going along the disused part of the Strathspey Railway and through the beautiful Anagach Forest.

Oystercatcher in the garden, Cromdale, Highland - Sunday 29th May 2016

Brown Hare, Cromdale, Highland - Sunday 29th May 2016

Dipper nest boxes, Cromdale, Highland - Sunday 29th May 2016
Anagach Forest, and the other remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest, is wonderful. I never tire of the wildlife, ecology and ambiance in here.

Anagach Forest - Sunday 29th May 2016

Pine Marten scat, Anagach Forest - Sunday 29th May 2016

 Detail from the FSC 'Guide to British Mammal Tracks and Signs'

Velvet Mite (Trombidium-holosericeum), Anagach Forest - Sunday 29th May 2016

It's possible to cycle through these woods, but if you do please keep to the marked cycle tracks. During our frequent stops we heard, and eventually saw, three Crested Tits - a real speciality here. We also saw three Dippers in the Spey from the bridge by the old Cromdale and Advie Church.

The view from Grantown, over Anagach Forest, towards Cairngorm

I suggested an early morning walk through the lovely Abernethy Forest on Monday, so the kids could look for Red Squirrels and Wood Ants, and we could take in the view over Loch Mallachie. We weren't disappointed. The woods were full of the sounds of a Caledonian Forest in spring: singing Tree Pipits, Willow Warblers, Goldcrests, Coals Tits and Crested Tits.

 Abernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016

 Looking out over Loch GartenAbernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016

  Loch MallachieAbernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016

Scottish wood ant (Formica aquilonia)Abernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016

A lovely place, especially in early morning. But, we hadn't found a Red Squirrel, so we decided to pop into RSPB Loch Garten, where I know they occasionally come on to the feeders.

 Red Squirrel, RSPB Loch Garten, Abernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016

Siskin, RSPB Loch Garten, Abernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016 

Osprey, RSPB Loch Garten, Abernethy Forest - Monday 30th May 2016

We headed to Aviemore for dinner, and then checked out some Slavonian Grebes and Ring Ouzels; before heading up Cairngorm on the funicular railway. I couldn't pick out any Ptarmigan from the top, though did see a Red Grouse on the way up.

Please note, I took these heavily cropped photos from public footpaths, with a 35x zoom, and didn't linger where adults were feeding chicks. I appreciate the temptation for photographers to try got get closer, but please always keep your distance from breeding birds, rare, scarce or common.

 Slavonian Grebe, Speyside - Monday 30th May 2016

 Ring Ouzel, Cairngorms National Park - Monday 30th May 2016

The view from the top station on Cairngorm - Monday 30th May 2016

Another fine day out and about.

Lapwing, Cromdale, Highland - Monday 30th May 2016

Please see Part 2 for more on our trip, including a Pine Marten, Badgers, and a UK lifer!