Tuesday 14 May 2013

Thick and fast

In the last post I shared my angst at lagging behind with blog updates relative to the passage of time since returning from Scotland. It's a tricky balance after such an excursion: do you blurt it all out while it's still hot, or drip-feed in the hope of stringing out the content through more fallow periods which may lie ahead? I'll not be allowed out for weeks after this so should probably go for the latter. But you'll have to forgive me if the posts keep coming thick and fast for now.
Snipe at Balranald - from the car window
'Thick and fast' is a description which could equally apply to the main subject of this post, the Corncrake, which is given to running from danger despite the God-given gift of wings. The first week of May should have been good timing for seeing them on North Uist: late enough for them to be back from East Africa, but too early for their favoured habitat, the iris beds, to have fully grown up. And so it seemed as I cruised to Balranald on my first day on North Uist, pausing only to nearly crash the car in a ditch as a male Hen Harrier tonked past the windscreen: within 15 minutes I had heard a Corncrake from the car window, in an iris bed on the edge of a village.
Dunlin on Benbecula from the car window

This gave a false impression of how easy it might be to hear them, however, as on arrival at Balranald, apart from a couple of birds which had paid a brief visit the previous day, the sightings board revealed no calling birds on the reserve at all. Like so many other things this year, the cold weather had appeared to delay their spring migration.
Golden Plover on Benbecula - also taken from the car window
The next morning I returned to the area where I had heard the initial bird. The iris bed was next to a large garden, and I chose what seemed a considerate location on the road overlooking the area to avoid invading the privacy of both the Corncrake and the residents.
Lapwing on Benbecula - another car window photo
The Corncrake didn't see me and continued to call at regular intervals, but I failed in the other respect as the lady owner of the cottage saw me standing in the rain and the strong southwesterly wind, and, out of pity presumably, invited me to go into the iris bed via a gate at the bottom of her garden. I politely declined the offer to yomp through prime Corncrake habitat, explaining the sensitivity of the bird and so on, but I did accept the chance to stand in the lee of her shed which provided some shelter from the rain, and a discreet view of the iris bed over a chest high wall. 

Sanderling on Benbecula - had to get out of the car for these
Corncrake calls, I discovered, can be a bit ventriloquial in a strong wind, and it took a few more bouts of calling for me to realise that the bird was actually at the bottom of the garden, not in the iris bed! The bird continued to call from an unseen songpost but I eventually glimpsed it walking under a tamarisk at the end of the garden. Happy with my views, not wishing to outstay my welcome and now keen to get out of the atrocious weather, I was about to beat a retreat when the Corncrake walked out onto the patio behind the house, took a dump and sauntered around the corner to next door's garden. Not quite the au natural view I had imagined I might get, but I suppose defecating Corncrake must be something of a photographic rarity at least.
Corncrake doing its business on the patio
My tight itinerary involved spending the night on South Uist, so after a bit more quality time with the Balranald waders (see previous post), I headed down the west coast of Benbecula where another Corncrake was heard, Golden Plover mingled with Lapwing and Ringed Plover in the fields, a female Merlin hunted pipits, a Great Northern Diver fished offshore and more waders graced the beaches.
Moulting Great Northern Diver, Benbecula
The weather had picked up on Benbecula but deteriorated again by the time I got to South Uist. A Short-eared Owl at the end of the long causeway over Loch Ba was a good bird with which to end the day.
Short-eared Owl, South Uist
I had a room for six to myself at the excellent Howmore hostel, and was spared any embarrassment at being a 40-something in a youth hostel when it became apparent I was the youngest person there. Most of the rest were cyclists, heading north and grateful that they had chosen that direction in view of the prevailing winds which continued throughout most of my stay.
Another view of the Corncrake in a North Uist garden - heavily cropped to get the washing line out of shot!

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