Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Some Scottish specialities

Before I was so rudely interrupted by a flurry of local and national rarities, I was regaling you with tales from our recent Scottish holiday. We'd done the star mammals and the cetaceans, so let's have a look at a few birds. I found a notebook recently from a childhood visit to Gairloch which recorded sightings of three species of diver - Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern. By the end of the first day of our recent trip there, I had seen all three species again in a short drive from our cottage on the southern shore of the sea loch to Red Point. Later I counted at least 10 individuals (mostly Red-throats) in one brief scan from the Big Sands campsite where we spent family holidays almost 40 years ago.
This immaculate Red-throated Diver was just off the beach of Red Point
Such a beautiful bird

Another Red-throat was just offshore at Big Sands 
Red-throated Diver flying past us at Red Point
Click to enlarge for a better view of the pinstriped neck pattern
Divers are one of my favourite bird families, combining sleek good looks with haunting calls and an exquisite choice of breeding habitats. It's bad form, not to mention illegal, to bother these protected birds during the breeding season too close to their nesting sites (typically islets on small lochans for Red-throated and on larger lochs for Black-throated), so my plan was to check out plenty of coastal and roadside habitat and hope for close views in areas where there was no risk of disturbance. An early morning visit to the vast shoreline of Loch Maree - the most important breeding site for Black-throated Divers in the country - produced very distant sightings of three birds, which nest on the large islands way out in the middle of the loch. A visit later in the day was equally unsuccessful as the lochshore was busy with kayakers - no chance of a close view in those circumstances.
A reasonably close view of not one...
...or two...
...but three Black-throated Divers on Loch Maree
You have to be a long way north to see Hooded Crow - this one was on the shore near Gairloch harbour
Twite was on my target list for the week - we saw just the one pair, in the rain along the north shore of Gairloch
On another day a couple Black-throats were snoozing close in to an inaccessible stretch of coast near Red Point. So despite good telescope views I was struggling for a photo of a breeding plumaged bird. Then a few days later, when at the south end of Loch Maree looking for dragonflies (more on that in a later post), in an area with few islands and therefore not where one would expect to see divers, not one, or two, but three Black-throated Divers sailed past, apparently too absorbed in each other to pay much attention to me as I fumbled with my camera settings on the shore.

Siskin in the garden of our holiday accommodation
Red-breasted Merganser flying over the sealoch
Skylark at Red Point
Repoll at Red Point - apparently we don't even have to worry about what flavour these days
Northern Wheatear with prey near Red Point
The Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, close to where we were staying, is home to another special bird I was hoping to see on our trip - Scottish Crossbill, the UK's only endemic species. A couple of quick visits to suitable habitat had produced nothing more than some distant calls, but a more leisurely stroll with the family around the woodland trail in the NNR was more successful: first a male Crossbill, then a pair. The various site guides I had suggested that Crossbills in this area ought to be Scottish Crossbill, but as I was not carrying sound recording equipment, I guess I can't really prove it. They were fairly chunky, and the calls sounded deeper to my ear than the Common Crossbills near home, so for the sake of argument and the want of a sonogram, let's just call them 'presumed' Scotsbill.
Presumed Scottish Crossbill
Scottish Crossbill has a chunkier more bull-necked appearance than Common
Tree Pipit, Beinn Eighe
I really enjoyed the general 'bumbling around' birding and bumping in to commoner species as well as seeing the local specialities - plenty of breeding Skylark, Siskin, Redpoll, Tree Pipit and Wheatear, all pictured above, were a delight to see. Stand by for one more post on the birds of Wester Ross and then we'll make our way down the food chain to the odonata and lepidoptera before closing the Scottish chapter at the very bottom of the ecological and moral web with an excoriating critique of the West Highland Midge...

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