Sunday 19 June 2022

Off the bike

Easter saw me take an enforced break from cycling with a long-planned family holiday to Scotland finally happening after being cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid restrictions. We first booked Capercaillie Cottage near Rogart in Sutherland back in 2019 so we had waited a long time to get there. Before doing, so, however, a couple of stopovers were planned to visit old friends on the way.

Black-browed Albatross, Bempton, 11th April

Partly obscured views improved as the Albatross nudged its way into view
The Albatross attempting to land on Staple Newk
A magnificent bird
The first of these saw us heading for East Yorkshire and the giant chalk cliffs of Bempton where, among the throng of native seabirds, the Black-browed Albatross had returned for its third or fourth summer. Seeing it is a bit hit and miss, and arriving late afternoon it looked like it might be a miss after I had stood on a windy Staple Newk viewpoint for an hour with no sign. Then someone pointed out that the Albatross's shoulder could just about be seen from further along the viewpoint.
The Albatross can go missing for days at a time... I was fortunate to enjoy such good views

A huge and impressive wingspan

Not quite so elegant when dropping off the cliff to take flight!
The Staple Newk viewpoint is a robust wooden balcony built on the clifftop and despite being able to hold about 30 people, there were only about 2 places where a sliver of the bird's shoulder could be viewed from. Sharpening my elbows I got in position and hoped for it to do something to reveal a better view. After a while it began to preen and stretch and I could piece together views of this most magnificent and unusual of birds. Suddenly it was all gangly wings and open bills as a Gannet started giving it a hard time and it dropped off the ledge to reveal the full glory of its vast wingpsan. 
Those wings!
A good view of the 'eye-liner' look

After soaring around for a few minutes it became apparent that the Albatross wanted to land on Staple Newk and I hoped it would do so out in the open for some unobscured photos. It tiptoed onto the ledge a couple of times but on each occasion the sharp-billed Gannets would not let it settle, so I had to make do with some action shots of the bird unsuccessfully trying to fold its massive wings and get comfortable.



Staple Newk
After success with the Albatross and a night in Brid, it was time to press on to see the second old friend of the trip. Rosy lives in a dreamy self-build eco-home on the Isle of Skye's Sleat (pronounced slate) peninsula, best accessed via the old Mallaig-Ardvasar ferry rather than the 'new' bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh. We arrived in good time to make the last boat of the day and were soon settling it to warm hospitality and spectacular views back over the sound to the mainland.
Great Northern Diver, Mallaig Harbour waiting for the ferry to Skye
Wheatear, Sleat, Skye
Snipe drumming, Sleat, Skye
Hooded Crow, Portree
We wasted no time exploring Skye, booking a boat trip out of Portree the next day to take advantage of a decent forecast, during which we saw Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Black Guillemot, Otter, Common Seal, White-tailed Eagle and a very lively pod of Common Dolphin. The Eagle sat in a tree above our boat and would not be tempted down even when the skipper threw in a fish. The Dolphin were more co-operative, bow-riding and breaching as if to perform for the cameras.
Common Dolphin, Portree
Common Dolphin, Portree
Common Dolphin, Portree

White-tailed Eagle, Portree

White-tailed Eagle, Portree
Skye is a beautiful island but also a large one - as usual I probably tried to cover too much ground in our few days there, but in the process managed to locate Skye's first Ring Ouzel and Common Sandpiper of the spring, a few Wheatear and dozens of drumming Snipe on the moors above Ardvasar. The Ring Ouzel was on the scree slopes near The Quiraing, where a migrant flock of Pink-footed Geese were also noted. A family visit to Kilt Rock was slightly spoilt by a contretemps with a drone operator, clearly ignoring the signs asking him to desist so as not to disturb cliff-nesting birds. It was not the last time on the trip that irresponsible drone use caused my blood to boil, and it does seem to be an increasing nuisance in some sensitive environments.
Ring Ouzel, The Quiraing
Ring Ouzel, The Quiraing
Golden Eagle, Skye

Common Sandpiper, Sleat peninsula

After a few enjoyable but damp days with Rosy on Skye it was time to head across the country to Rilochan, a farmstead near Rogart in Sutherland, for the second week of Easter. The cottage was close to Loch Grudie, which a few weeks later would play host to a very rare Short-toed Eagle. I didn't see that species of course but had great views of both White-tailed and Golden Eagles over the course of the fortnight, with Red Kite also regular over the cottage.
White-tailed Eagle, Portree
White-tailed Eagle, Portree
Black Guillemot, Portree

Loch Fleet wasn't far from the cottage so on our first evening, while the family settled in, I headed down to the mouth of the Loch to look for a long-staying drake King Eider. It wasn't easy to pick out from thousands of Common Eider, but it was there and I enjoyed reasonable views of it, as well as the spectacle of vast Eider flocks diving for food in unison. 
King Eider at the mouth of Loch Fleet, 16th April
Thousands of Eider at the mouth of Loch Fleet, 16th April (click to enlarge)
This very dark pheasant at the cottage caused a double-take
Wheatear in the garden at the holiday cottage
This was just about the furthest north we had been for a family holiday so as well as the obligatory day trip to John O'Groats, we were able to check out the impressive sea stacks and auk colonies at Dunnet and Duncansby Heads, the former including a few Puffin. The cottage itself was an idyllic location with Curlew, Oystercatcher, Wheatear and Grasshopper Warbler all singing in the garden.
Black-throated Diver
Impressive stacks at Duncansby Head
Auk colonies at Duncansby Head

Duncansby Head
I was keen to explore some of the excellent mountain roads around the cottage. In doing so I was pleased to discover a local Black Grouse lek, a pair of Golden Eagle, a ringtail Hen Harrier, summer plumage Slavonian Grebe, several Osprey and all three divers in breeding plumage. The loop from Loch Fleet past Loch Bruidhe down to Bonar Bridge was particularly scenic.
Great Northern Diver, Scrabster
Great Northern Diver, Scrabster
Black Guillemot, Scrabster
Black Grouse
Male and two female Black Grouse
Tower Hide at Forsindard RSPB
Pink-footed Goose nr Forsinard
I made a solo pilgrimage to the RSPB reserve at Forsinard and while birds were few and far between it was good to appreciate the landscape of the Flow Country. A 4 mile walk around the nature trail at Forsinain was similarly birdless but walking on stepping stones as they gurgled and bubbled on the spongy sphagnum moss was an unusual experience. 
Red Kite, Rogart
Osprey, Bonar Bridge
Hen Harrier
Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle
More successful bird-wise were a couple of evening trips to Embo pier, which produced Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Bonxie and a small flock of Purple Sandpiper with the commoner waders, and a trek out to Tarbat Ness - another amazing landscape where migrating Red-throated Divers were passing almost overhead. 
Red-throated Diver
Long-tailed Duck, Embo Pier
Common Scoter, Embo Pier
Dunlin, Embo Pier

Purple Sandpiper, Embo Pier
This was the first time in many years that we'd taken two weeks off at Easter, and it was well worth it to see some familiar and new parts of the Highlands and Islands. A final stop to meet up with my brother and nephews at Edinburgh Castle broke up the long journey home where the bike awaited me - and there was work to do to renew the effort to build the non-motorised yearlist. 
Red-throated Diver, Tarbat Ness
Red-throated Diver, Tarbat Ness
Red-throated Diver, Tarbat Ness
Kittiwake, Tarbat Ness
Yellowhammer, Tarbat Ness
Yellowhammer, Tarbat Nes
Yellowhammer, Tarbat Ness

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