3 Go Wild In South-west Scotland
Although we all love living and birding on the Isle Of Man, there comes a time each Winter when you just have to get away for a few days. Divers, auks and winter passerines are all very well, but it is very easy to get a little bored with seeing the same birds at the same places, week in week out.
With this in mind, Rob Lowe, myself and my wife decided that an extended weekend’s birding in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, would provide us with a welcome break and, hopefully, a dozen or so new birds for Rob.
8am on Thursday 6th. February found us at the ferry terminal in Douglas waiting for the boat to sail across to Heysham and undergoing an impromptu security check. The officer conducting the search noticed our telescopes, cameras and binoculars in the boot of the Land Rover and asked “ I see you’ve got the gear to spot your targets, have you got any weapons with you to shoot ‘em?”. The temptation to say that we had a pound of C4 with us but that it wasn’t a weapon until we inserted the detonators, was almost too much too resist!
Anyway, we managed to avoid getting arrested and endured an uneventful sailing across to Heysham. An hour before docking, Rob and I went out on deck to see what birds were flying over the sea and, in particular, if there were any of last week’s Little Gulls hanging about. Almost immediately Rob called a funny, small gull flying off the starboard side of the boat (that’s the right hand side to you non-nauticals!). His comment “It looks like it’s upside down – it’s dark underneath and light on top” got my alarm bells ringing and a couple of seconds later I was watching an adult Little Gull fly right past the boat and off into the distance. Rob’s first new bird of the trip – although we could have done with more prolonged views.
We eventually docked and immediately made our way to
Morecambe town centre, in the hope of connecting with the flock of 11 Waxwings
which had been roosting in a tree outside a hair salon for the last week or so.
We felt really self-conscious wandering around the packed streets with our
extensive (and expensive!) optical equipment and drew some particularly
disturbing stares and shouts of derision from the local school
children. All for nowt! The Waxwings had scarpered. Not a great start – one
crappy view of a gull and a dip!
Next port of call on our way up to Scotland was Talkin Tarn, near(ish) to Carlisle. On arrival we jumped straight out of the car to give the tarn a quick scan while Keren prepared lunch and immediately got onto a superb, but distant male Smew. Whilst eating our sandwiches Rob noticed a large (150+) flock of finches that was flying back and forth between the adjacent woodland and car park fringes – Brambling. Not a new bird for Rob, but one that we don’t get in such numbers back on the IOM and always worth a look. We then took a stroll around the tarn to see if we could get nearer to the Smew, but it couldn’t be re-located. However we were rewarded with excellent views of a male and female Goosander, male Pochard and a stunning Nuthatch (tick No.2 for Rob). Having lived on the IOM for the last 5 years I haven’t seen a nuthatch in all that time and it was nice to see such a beautiful little bird again.
A short pre-breakfast amble in the immediate vicinity of the hotel produced several close-up views of Buzzards, a fox on the opposite bank of the river (now there’s something we don’t get on the IOM!!!! – this is sarcasm by the way!), several groups of Siskin feeding in roadside alder trees and a female Bullfinch gently stripping the buds off the hedgerow bushes. (Rob Tick 3). It was then back to the Ken Bridge for the best breakfast I’ve ever been served in a hotel – if it couldn’t be fried it wasn’t there! Fabulous.
After breakfast we set off for Stranraer via Newton Stewart and through some stunning countryside. On the way, a Buzzard performed in a stunning manner at the top of a roadside jack-pine. Pulling up at Loch Clatteringshaws a male Great-spotted Woodpecker flew over the car and landed at the top of a distant pine tree (Rob Tick 4). Whilst Rob was valiantly attempting, but failing, to get ‘usable’ photos through his ‘scope of the woodpecker (bearing in mind it was about a ¼mile away!), I heard the familiar call of a Crossbill coming from nearby larches. 2 birds flew overhead and landed atop a roadside pine and gave excellent views –albeit against the light - for several minutes. Not only was this Rob’s 5th. new bird of the trip, it also meant that he could now put it on his Manx List - having heard, but not seen, them in Ballaghennie Plantation. A multiple bonus, as Rob’s main “listing rival” (Ian Scott) hasn’t got Crossbill on his Manx List at the time of writing!
We continued our journey on to Stranraer without adding anything of particular note – just plenty of Buzzards and a few distant skeins of geese going over. On arriving at the harbour, there were several divers offshore but all appeared to be Red-throated. A winter-plumaged Great-crested Grebe then surfaced about 100yds. away and was immediately followed by a winter-plumaged Red-necked Grebe – it’s identification confirmed courtesy of it’s dusky ear-coverts, yellow-based bill and slightly smaller size than the accompanying Great-crested. (Rob Tick No.6). Just east of the harbour is Stranraer Beach a very good place to see wintering sea duck and gulls - and we weren’t disappointed, with excellent views of several Scaup (Rob Tick 7) although we failed to connect with any ‘decent’ gulls or the long-staying King Eider. Bummer! We continued up the eastern shore of Loch Ryan and were rewarded with good views of Red-breasted Merganser and Common Eider but no more ticks for Rob.
Our final destination of the day was a secret location for the locally endangered Black Grouse, which had been passed to me by ‘someone in the know’ - although I can reveal that it is in the Glentrool area. Whilst we were waiting for these elusive birds in the freezing conditions, a large female Goshawk blasted over and into the extensive plantation (Rob Tick 8). A ‘grouseless’ hour later, with the light fading rapidly (and with frostbite a very real danger!) we headed back south for the comfort and warmth of the bar and excellent food at the Ken Bridge Hotel (this is starting to sound like a commercial!).
A damp and grey dawn somehow seemed appropriate given our somewhat fragile conditions this morning (I told Rob that drinking the absinthe was a bad idea, but no….). Anyway, having filled up on another amazing breakfast and feeling slightly more human, we headed south down the eastern side of Loch Ken in search of the Red Kites which have been re-introduced to the area, but with no luck (given the conditions, I couldn’t really blame ‘em). We then arrived at Ken Dee RSPB Reserve and decided to walk down to the hide nearly 2 miles away. I’m still convinced that this decision was made against my will and under the after effects of Rob’s excesses the night before!! However, walk to the hide we did - and got p****d-wet-through in the process and for what? A Willow Tit was, grudgingly, a nice tick for Rob (No.9) but there was little else to be had from the hide (alright, in all honesty, there was bog-all). We then started the long trudge back to the car with only a couple flighty, distant, Jays being seen (Rob Tick 10). Then, “is that just a Buzzard, Chris?” Rob asked from the depths of his sodden clothes. Having not looked at a bird through my bins for about an hour, I raised them to my eyes to see a large raptor flying low and away from us. I was immediately struck by the white tail and brief glimpses of it’s black carpal patches - “Goodness me, Rob it’s a Rough-legged Buzzard” I said calmly (as you can imagine!). The bird continued flying away from us and eventually landed in a small hawthorn bush about 500yds.away. The weather conditions made it impossible for Rob to “digiscope”, but we could see the bird’s pale head and black belly patch quite clearly even through the torrential downpour we were experiencing. This was a major surprise - as well as being Rob’s 11th. tick of the trip.
We then headed for Auchenroch Loch (great name) café to meet up with a contact I had made recently – Tristan Reid – who had promised us Ring-necked Duck and, possibly, Lesser Scaup. Unfortunately the recent thaw and subsequent increase of water surface meant that there was just too big an area to cover comprehensively and Tristan failed to produce the goods - something he proved particularly adept at during a second meeting on the Sunday (only kidding, Tris’), but more of that later.
We left Tristan and decided to go for the long-staying Mediterranean Gull that had been hanging around Carlingwark Loch in Castle Douglas for the last few months. On arrival at the site, there were dozens of people feeding the local Mute Swans and we again failed to connect with our target species, which had presumably moved off to another site (away from the people who were getting in some “gull target practice” with stale bread crusts!).
So it was with a slightly disappointed mood that we headed back up the eastern shore of Loch Ken in the hope of seeing these damned elusive Red Kites. We arrived back at our hotel (The Ken Bridge, I might have mentioned it earlier!) we were greeted by another guest who told us (with a sickening smirk) that he had seen two kites that morning and that they were only a couple of miles away from the hotel!! “I’m not having that” I said, and ushered Rob and Keren back into the Land Rover for our third attempt at these magnificent birds. The rain by now had eased slightly, but still didn’t look particularly conducive for raptors to be airborne. After about half an hour I was starting to lose patience (yes, really!) and said “These bl***y kites are beginning to p**s me off” (sorry for the bad language, but had you been there…..) to which Rob and Keren simultaneously asked “what’s this flying alongside us?” closely followed by “Christ! It’s a "Red Kite”, which was even more closely followed by the type of controlled breaking manoeuvre I have become infamous for! (See Ian Scott’s Bird Race report). The bird circled overhead and allowed me to get some excellent video footage and was then joined by a second bird. We watched them both for about half an hour until they drifted out of view. In fading light we headed back to the hotel again for a change of clothes, a ‘couple’ of beers and the best Steak and Ale Pie money can buy! (if that doesn’t get me a free weekend, nothing will!).
As this was going to be our last day we had an earlier start than previous mornings and hit the road (suitably breakfasted) by 8.30.
It was a glorious ‘spring’ morning – sunny and cold but with no wind (apart from Rob……) - and we picked up several flocks of geese, mainly Greylags, but one flock of over 700 Pinkfeet was a very nice sight. As it was so early, we decided to try again for the Mediterranean Gull in Castle Douglas. We arrived at the ‘swan feeding point’ and immediately found the gull sat amongst Black-headed Gulls on the bank of the loch allowing Rob to get a couple of shots off through his telescope. (Rob’s 13th. Tick).
Next we headed south from Castle Douglas and followed the scenic, coast road round to Dumfries, stopping briefly at Carsthorne for a small (400+) and distant flock of Barnacle Geese and yet another tick for Rob (this was getting ridiculous!!). After a slight navigational cock-up in Dumfries (Rob blamed the local council for not putting up enough road signs!) we headed for Rockcliffe and possible Greenshank. After half an hour of not seeing a Greenshank and the fact that we were on a tight schedule, I was getting itchy feet and suggesting heading for our second rendezvous with Tristan, in Cumbria. “Hold on Chris, what d’you make of this in the ‘scope?” asked Rob. Lo and behold - and despite being silhouetted 300yds away against a brilliant, sunlit sea - a Greenshank. Sometimes he actually earns his new birds. Sometimes.
Time was pressing now though, if we were to fit in every where on our planned return route, so I had to put a few miles between us and Scotland.
An hour later we met up with Tristan “Solway Birder” Reid
on his home turf and he again made a rash promise. This time it was for Little
Owl. And Short-eared Owl. And Ross’s Goose. Alright, he didn’t actually promise
the goose, but I got the distinct impression he was holding that one as an ace
up his sleeve! We followed Tristan for what seemed like an age across the boring
landscape of Northwest Cumbria (sorry Tris’, but it is rather a bleak looking
place!) until we were on the edge of the Solway Firth itself. Immediately we
pulled up we saw a huge (4000+) flock of
Barnacle Geese off in the
distance but we couldn’t get too good a view so we moved on a few yards to a
higher vantage point. “I can a see a white one amongst the Barnacles” said Rob,
“Lemme see” I said as I none-too-gently pushed him away from his expensive
equipment. “Yep, it’s the Ross’s” I calmly confirmed. (Rob 16 v Chris 1) That
said, it was a white and black goose about ½mile away through a heat haze
amongst a flock of 4000 black and white geese, so you can imagine how great the
views were! As we were enjoying the spectacle of an airborne flock of such
massive proportions, I noticed a
flying over the salt-marsh at much closer range. We watched it for at least
20 minutes in brilliant sunshine and I again managed to get some decent video
footage. Rob was very disappointed with his shots though – he was that excited
by the bird he forgot to focus!! So far, Tristan was redeeming himself for his
poor performance yesterday! “We’re on a tight schedule Tristan, where’s these
guaranteed Little Owls?” I asked. “I’ll take you to see them now” was his
over-confident reply. Needless to say, and true to form, we didn’t see the
buggers Owls and now it was time to head south and try and reach
Leighton Moss for the last half hour of ‘birdable’ light. This was perhaps the
only part of the weekend that I had miscalculated and we soon realised that we
had no chance of getting there in time, so we made an ‘executive’ decision and
tried for the Haweswater Golden Eagles and possible Dipper instead. By 4pm we
hade seen neither and had leave the area to head down the M6 and reach Liverpool
Ferry terminal by 6pm.
So there we have it, 3½ days, 650 miles, 91 species, 17 ticks for Rob, 1 tick for me and far too much alcohol later, we’re back on the Isle of Man. It’s raining, I’m knackered and I really can’t be arsed to go looking for the Common Crane which has re-appeared after a 6 week absence.
Honourable mentions must go to the staff and owners of the Ken Bridge Hotel for putting up with our constant pestering for Red Kite locations and especially to Tristan Reid for going out of his way to try and find us some goodies (a 40% strike rate must be improved on for next time mate!).
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