4th September. What will hopefully turn up to be a good birding month, started spectacularly well, despite all the turmoil going on at a personal level with the ridiculously complicated house buying process. Anyway, after a stressful Friday I’d had enough of surveyors, solicitors and the likes so kept heading west and ended up for a brief visit to Carmarthenshire. The after effects of the dying hurricane Bill were becoming evident with a number of scarce birds turning up and none more so than here outside the Shoreline Caravan Park in Pembrey! I jumped out of the car and was disappointed to see no birders, so headed off along the coastal path to see if I could locate any birds and birders. After walking over a mile with only distant sightings of Little Egret, a single Curlew, Kestrel and a small flock of Linnets, I guessed I was heading down a blind alley so turned back towards the car park. My journey back was more successful with a fresh looking Wheatear posing nicely on a fence post for my first shot of the month. A few Red Admiral also distracted me from the yomp and by the time I was back at the car park, I was very heartened to see more cars, people and best of all ‘scopes! I joined the assembled birders and was soon watching 10 Glossy Ibis feeding and preening at close range. The strong wind kept changing the light conditions and the glossy sheen appeared and disappeared with the changing skies. A number were ringed with metal and colour rings, leading to the discovery that these birds were ringed in Doñana in Spain and thanks to the strong winds have become blown drastically of course during an attempted migration. Initial reports reported 25 individuals but to be able to observe 10 healthy birds going about their business in South Wales was a real treat.
9th September. With a wedding to attend in Scotland and the family staying locally it was the perfect opportunity to discover the birds of the North of the U.K. for myself. Flying out of Cardiff and arriving in Edinburgh via the cheap and efficient BMI Baby, but being stung for 30 quid excess baggage in the process (too much gear!) I quickly picked up my hire car and was soon driving over the Forth Road Bridge, heading north. I’d planned a route and an itinerary for the full five days but as I’d managed to make it on the road sooner than expected, I’d noticed there was an RSPB reserve just off the main road and soon found myself at Vane Farm. Decanting gear, boots and waterproofs from various bags I eventually made it on to the reserve and towards the hides. The first two hides were quiet due to reserve staff walking on the marshes, a shame as otter had been seen there earlier that morning. On arriving at the furthest hide with beautiful crisp clear light, I was soon watching a wonderful Greenshank perfectly illuminated. Several Common Sandpipers were bobbing their way around the pool edges along with a few Dunlins and a Ruff was at the far edge of the pool. A few Mute Swans dropped in forcing me to raise the camera for their spectacular alighting! A handful of Pied Wagtails were busily feeding along with Meadow Pipits and a few Linnets. Raptors were well represented with a Kestrel working the long grass, Buzzards soaring nearby and then a wing tagged Marsh Harrier drifting past being mobbed by both Lapwings and Gulls. As the few of us in the hide were watching the Marsh Harrier, one chap was fortunately looking through his optics and noticed an Osprey as it circled into view nearly over our heads. I fired off a few shots before it wheeled above the hide and we all dashed out to keep looking at the bird. With the great light, it was easy to see its fantastic eye colour and distinctive features and also wonderful to compare its flight style with the Marsh Harrier. As the bird drifted off to the west, we all agreed that it was going to be hard to top that and also realising I had a fair drive still to do, I headed back to the car and continued north. My destination was Grantown-on-Spey but rather than going the quickest route, I’d been advised to head via Braemar and then use the A93 to go over the tops of the mountains, hopefully to catch up with some mountain species. The scenery was simply stunning with great weather to boot, and once out in the wilderness I kept stopping the car every few miles to scan the skies and heather moorland for any sign of eagles or grouse. Apart from several parties of Raven and the ubiquitous Meadow Pipits, I wasn’t in luck with my targets for this section of the trip but it was a thoroughly enjoyable drive with plenty of Buzzards, Sparrowhawks & Kestrels seen from the car - it was also handy having a car with a nice big sunroof for a change! After many big ups and downs and spectacular vistas over stunning rugged countryside I arrived in the Speyside area and headed straight to the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten. The Osprey centre had recently closed for the winter but I hoped to see some of the local specialities of the regions ancient pine forests. There were still feeders up at the reserve and I was quickly drawn to a few Red Squirrels that were taking advantage of the free meal! When the light caught them through the trees, the red was stunning and it was great to finally see these much loved mammals. I met with a few other birders and we walked though the paths with eyes and ears open. I was drawn to a call I didn’t recognise and was soon on a scraggly but ultimately my first ever Crested Tit which I managed to bag a few reasonable efforts of. Dozens of Coal Tit and also Great Tit were mixed in with the flock along with a few Treecreeper and Goldcrest. Once the flock had passed though we moved to the Osprey hide expecting to see nothing but there sitting in the tree next to the empty nest was an adult Osprey! After looking through the scope at the magnificent bird and getting eaten by late season midges, it took flight and gave us some nice distant flight views before heading further away. Retreating from the midge laden viewing point for the Osprey we ended up walking around the Loch itself which was fairly quiet with only half a dozen Goosander lazing in the centre and a handful of Mallard and Grey Herons near the far edge. The woodland was very quiet with only Coal Tit and Robin seen so I decided to head back to the reserve centre to see if there were any more Cresties. I only managed to find the stationary Chaffinch flock near the feeders but one particular Red Squirrel was very approachable and I ended up photographing it on the feeder from six feet with it being totally unflustered - the near limit of the lens! I then watched it from no more than 3 feet as it happily munched on the peanuts, lapping up the experience and then headed to my B&B in Grantown, tired but happy!
10th September. After an all too short nights sleep, the alarm went off to get me out of bed and off to the nearby Anagach woods. This unique habitat holds unspoilt Caledonian pine forest with its heather coated forest floor and of course some of the areas famous birding residents. On arrival I was immediately distracted by what I thought were Crossbill calls. After a brief trip down memory lane to my one other trip to this part of the world 13 years ago, I remembered that the Chaffinch call in this part of the world is markedly different to "southern" Chaffinches! Leaving the mixed flock of 50 Chaffinch and Siskin behind I headed down into Poorhouse Wood waxing to myself about the fantastic woodland scenery. I then had a moment. I swore. Loudly! No more than 20 meters away, a male Capercaillie sprung out of the heather and took flight in a cacophony of noise and spectacle. I was stunned by the size of the bird and its agility in navigating the woodland as it flew out of sight. Once I had caught my breath and brought my heart beat down to an acceptable level I walked slowly deeper into the forest, nerves fraught for a glimpse. The light was very dim and the camera was set to 1600 ISO which for Nikon users isn’t good news but getting a photo would be a massive coup. Another 200 yards passed and then it happened again. This time from further away but still the same explosion of wings as another turkey sized bird took to the air and quickly out of sight. I had already been creeping at this point and carried on until I approached a fork in the path. Peering around the corner I froze as I saw my third male Capercaillie, this time sat on the path around 50 yards away but a clear view of a static bird. I carefully raised the camera and fired off a number of handheld shots with the shutter speed not able to get above 1/80th second. Fortunately despite the grain and camera shake, some turned out to be usable and I’d accomplished a massive achievement in not only seeing, but photographing a Capercaillie! After a minute of us checking each other out, the bird took flight and a few snaps of the bird gave me images of the more typical Capercaillie sighting with the birds fanned tail on show as it again disappeared into the silent woods. Roughly two minutes after the Caper experience I met my first dog walker / jogger / biker coming the other way and I had been those extra minutes late, my chance would have gone. Phew! I then headed down a different path and after another 20 minutes saw the heads of two more males in amongst the heather and as I raised the camera they flew! Staggered by having seen five male birds I heard an approaching jogger but looked upwards to see a much smaller brown female Capercaillie flying towards me and then round the corner into deep woodland. Six! No wonder the woods have the nickname of Caper City! The risen sun meant more people in the forest and less chance of Capercaillie sightings so I focused attention on passerines and only heard one Crossbill in the time I spent in the wood. I did have another tit flock encounter and found two or three further Crested Tit which showed pretty well allowing some improved shots from the previous day. After four hours I eventually prised myself from the woodland and headed off in the car. Feeling very pleased with the sightings so far I decided on a change of scenery and headed towards Inverness on the A9 towards the Findhorn Valley. I missed the turn off and ended up changing plans and heading towards Loch Ruthven. When I arrived the clouds were whizzing by creating bright light one moment and grey skies the next. I gathered my things and headed straight to the hide where I managed to locate four Slavonian Grebes unfortunately hugging the far bank of the loch, two of which were still in their summer plumage and they looked magnificent through the scope. Fifty Mallard and a single Grey Heron comprised the other water birds with Grey and Pied Wagtail holding the passerine interest. I had a nice chat with the few birders in there but after half an hour it was evident that the grebes didn’t fancy having their pictures taken so I headed back to the car. I discovered a small mountain road form Farr Bridge which a birder the previous day had mentioned and soon set off up the hills in search of mountain birds. I did see a falcon which I thought may have been a Merlin but wasn’t convinced. It still remains a bogey bird of mine! As I got into the serious heather moors and having the windows fully down I heard and then saw one of the things I was searching for – Red Grouse. I slammed on the brakes as I saw a stunning male bird, resplendent with his bright red eyebrows caught by a shaft of sunlight! I reversed the car down the mountain track to a passing place and jumped out and finally managed to get a few shots of the male before it walked out of view. Feeling pleased with myself I headed back to the car and had yet another scan of the hills and horizon. I thought to myself, “That’s a big Raven.” And it was. A Golden Eagle! I fired off a load of record shots of the distant bird gliding gracefully around a mountain top, with distinctive broad wings and “fingers” clearly viewable through the camera. Thinking what a result I’d had by stopping at this point I decided to have lunch while watching the eagle and as I munched my sandwiches two further Golden Eagles appeared and started “playing” with the first bird. They were talon grappling and tumbling up and down in a rollercoaster type flight, flipping inverted and putting on a wonderful show for around 10 minutes as I watched captivated. Two birds gained height and headed off high to the west whilst the other disappeared from view. I then carried on up the mountain road stopping whenever I saw more Red Grouse and after around fifteen separate stops(!) I had some great shots from the several coveys that I encountered. As the road dropped down into the Findhorn Valley and to the road at the bottom, I thought against heading up the valley as I’d already encountered what I wanted to and couldn’t imagine I’d manage to get better views if I hunted for them again. A Kestrel perched in a tree which brought me to a halt whilst I leaned out of the car to photograph it. As I did so, a Meadow Pipit landed on the fence no more than twenty feet away and that also joined the photo list! I then drove back towards the Spey valley and back to the pine forests, this time heading for Forest Lodge in the Abernethy Forest. After getting directions from a local resident I parked at the end of the dusty track and headed off into the woods. I walked for a mile or so before reaching a fork in the path. I turned right which eventually led out of the forest. Ho hum – a wrong turn so retraced my steps. Before rejoining the path, I heard the now familiar call of a Crested Tit amongst a mixed passerine flock and proceeded to get some good pictures. After 15 minutes or so the birds moved on and so did I but not before noting something else. Once the sound of the birds had faded I realised there was complete silence. No background traffic noise, no wind noise, no animal noise just absolute utter silence. It was magic! I had the whole forest to myself and it was a moment I’ll always remember. Moving further down I had my ears pricked for any sound of Crossbill but it wasn’t to be so headed a few miles down the path before turning round and heading back. Again I managed to stumble over a good sized tit flock, predominately Coal Tits, but with a few Great Tit, Treecreeper, Goldcrest and two more Crested Tit. Again I managed to get a few nice shots, and also tried to get pictures of the Coal Tits but they were far too flitty to get tied down for more than a fraction of a second. I then yomped the remaining distance back to the car as the evening approached and zoomed quickly back to Anagach woods. I didn’t expect much in the way of photos and in that respect wasn’t disappointed! More of the same but without the Capercaillie this time. A rattling flock of fifty or so Mistle Thrush was notable along with several Red Deer & Red Squirrels, Great Spotted & Green Woodpeckers, and also similar passerines from the morning but with a couple of Crossbills heard this time. I kept on doing one final loop hoping for another Caper sighting but as the sun dipped below the forested horizon it was time to look for my own feeding & roosting spot after 13 non stop hours of top quality birding!
11th September. Another short night’s sleep was greeted with a fantastic dawn as I again drove the short distance to Poorhouse Woods to hopefully repeat the previous morning’s exploits. I should have known it would have been less successful but ever optimistic I walked the forest for around 3 hours but this time only had only one brief flight view of a male Capercaillie. The bird had been perched in a small pine tree around 20 feet up but I’d have needed laser vision to spot it before it exploded into clear view. It was a very pleasurable morning strolling through the wonderful habitat, again encountering most of the resident species but I was alerted to a Crossbill calling and as the noise remained constant, quickly located it in the top of a tall pine. From looking through the camera it was difficult to pin down its identification so after checking with a few other birders after my trip I learned that it was almost certainly a Parrott Crossbill. The width of the bill and the nature of Anagach woods with its perdominance of Scots Pine almost certainly makes it a Parrot. The bird remained atop its perch for a minute or two before taking flight. I then had a look through the images and checked out the bill to try and get a better identification. I then continued my walk before heading back to the car stopping to fail at my attempts at getting a picture of some Goldcrests there. I called back in at the B&B to pick up my water which I’d left behind and ended up having a second breakfast! I was soon back on the road and headed over to Loch Garten again to see what was around. No Cresties but great views of Chaffinches and also more Red Squirrels. After further nasty midge encounters I left and headed up into the mountains again this time in search of my third Grouse species. I arrived at the Cairngorm funicular car park at 635m above sea level and after re-arranging my gear, started ascending the Windy Ridge Trail hoping to see some of the recently reported wildlife on the mountain. The first part of the ascent was difficult due to my own fitness and I had frequent stops to purely take in the view! After ¾ hour of lung busting climbing the path decreased its severity and I was able to enjoy the ascent to the Ptarmigan restaurant but on reaching it, I’d seen none of its namesake birds – in fact only a few hardy Meadow Pipits. Seeing no sign of movement other than a few feral Reindeer I pushed on up to the summit at 1235 meters – safely the highest mountain I’d climbed in the U.K. and even more silly as I had all my camera gear on my back! I had my lunch at the summit and phoned the family before scanning for any sign of wildlife. I eventually saw 2 Ptarmigan flying way down on the plateau beneath and decided to scramble down in search of them. Once down on the plateau there was no sign of anything. No Ptarmigan, no Dotterel of which 2 had been seen, no Ring Ouzel, not even a Mipit! I was already feeling that the mountain excursion had just been a physical exercise rather than a birding one and eventually trudged my way down, not wishing to re-ascend a few hundred meters up to the Funicular station. So after 4 hours on the mountain I was back at the car and was soon on the road once my jelly legs had recovered! Feeling gutted on having missed out on Ptarmigan and wishing I’d gone up Càrn Bàn Mòr instead, I thought lets pick up another new species so instead of heading straight down to Fife I left the A9 and headed over towards Fort William. As I arrived at Spean Bridge 10 miles to the East I saw what I was looking for. I slammed on the brakes, did a U turn and parked up overlooking a residential lawn where a pair of Hooded Crows were feeding. One bird was un-phased by the appearance of a green Peugeot which started clicking so I managed to pick up the last of our British crow family quite easily. I kept on heading west to Fort William where I got stuck in the only traffic jam of the trip before heading south west past Ben Nevis and on towards the western coast. I kept looking for further Hoodies but only had glimpses of a couple of birds so was pleased that I’d stopped when I did. The road eventually headed south past Glencoe and into the rugged countryside of western Scotland and although I had my eyes peeled for sights of Hooded Crow or any raptors, I kept driving with no birding reason to stop the car. Again it was fantastic scenery and an area that I’ll be returning to, to enjoy at a more leisurely pace in the future. I stopped for a bite to eat in Stirling before heading to my B&B in the East Neuk region – arriving after roughly 5 hours driving and the earlier mountain exploits – I was going to sleep well!
12th September. With the wedding to attend in the afternoon I had a morning to fill and what better way to do so that birding on the Fifeshire coast. I headed past Elie to Ruddon’s Point at Shell Bay and after getting my bearings, headed towards the rocks at the headland and took stock. I tried to make the sea ducks into Scoter but as hard as I tried, they all turned out to be Eider in various stages of eclipse. A few males were almost into their smart full winter plumage but it was still fantastic to see one of my favourite birds in their natural environment, bobbing up and down on the sea and also to hear their magical call in the wild again. The numbers of Gannets surprised me for mid September and I really enjoyed watching them fishing with several birds flying directly overhead. A nice mix of bird ages with their differing plumages kept the interest further and the diving birds are always special! Also present were good numbers of Cormorant and Shag, one of the latter I managed to get a cracking flight shot of in the fresh morning light. A constant wind meant cold hands and a runny nose but even after a few hours watching I was keen for more. Through the scope I hoped for something slightly more exotic and I thought I’d found a distant Long-Tailed Duck in the choppy waters before id’ing it as a young Guillemot. I managed another few flight shots as I noted a Goose flying and it turned out to be a Pale Bellied Brent Goose and also picked up a reasonable shot of a male Eider in flight. There were a few waders to be seen with Curlew, Oystercatcher & Redshank present along with a few Dunlin. A pair of Kestrels hovered in the breeze nearby and a Buzzard was seen lazily floating in the distance. As time passed I started to move back towards the car but was distracted by two Wheatears and a pipit which didn’t mix with the other nearby Meadow and Rock pipits. Hoping it was more interesting than it turned out to be I fired off a few shots but on closer inspection it turned out to be a Mipit. Passing the beach I managed to get on to a Rock Pipit and bagged a few better shots than those I had before. After a great morning I returned back to the B&B, and managed to get a great flight shot of a Buzzard before heading off to the wedding at Kilconquhar, which was also thoroughly enjoyable!
13th September. Getting to bed at 1am and then an alarm going off at 5:40am isn't nice but as it was the final day I thought what the heck! I was on the road just after six and had intended to head to Guardbridge to see what was on the Eden estuary but as I'd have been looking straight into the sun, I decided to head over the other side of the Forth and head to Aberlady Bay to try and find an American vagrant. On arrival there were plenty of Redshank, Oystercatcher, Curlew and also a few hundred Greylag Geese, flying off to their feeding locations. No sign of any yellow coloured legs although the light was challenging. After a short while I heard a familiar call as several hundred Pink Footed Geese took flight and passed directly overhead. A wonderful noise and spectacle at any time. After scanning through all the waders and not picking anything "unusual" up I decided to chase the high tide and head towards Musselburgh to look for sea ducks. I stopped off several times en route, including all three Longniddry stops, again trying to make any of the dark female Eider ducks into Scoters. I stopped off in Prestonpans after seeing a suitable sand bank and was rewarded with good views of several Bar-Tailed Godwit, and a few dozen Ringed Plover. Still no Scoter though so I headed towards the reserve at Musselburgh Lagoons and out to the sea wall. The first notable birds on the sea were half a dozen Slavonian Grebes, too far out to photograph but mostly in their winter plumage. Yet more Eider were present on the mill pond like sea and after half a miles walk out to the point, I picked up my first ever Velvet Scoter. The birds were distant, roughly 300 yards plus at their nearest but through the scope they were revealed in their full glory. An intense black with the drakes showing the white tear and also a distinctive yellow bill. In flight the white speculum was clearly visible and the distant flock of roughly 100 birds way out in the Forth showed the birds distinctive posture with many birds showing their cocked tails. I willed them to come closer but despite the distance managed decent record shots via the SLR as my digiscoping efforts turned out to be terrible! The Scoter drifter further out into the estuary and so I moved on, managing to get a few flight shots of Bar-Tailed Godwit as they passed low to the sea. A female Reed Bunting kept on popping up along the path, along with a charm of Goldfinches and several Linnets. Several other species performed fly pasts, notably Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank & Cormorant whilst a raft of easily 70 redhead Goosander was an impressive sight. After seeing the sea ducks drift out on the tide, I decided to head back to Aberlady and stopped off again in Prestonpans where I saw a Curlew nice and close and got some good images. I also noted a lot of activity on a small building where House Sparrows and House Martins were clinging to the side of the wall. It looked like there had previously been House Martin nests present which had somehow come down. A few birds were still keen to investigate the site and it allowed me to get a few nice shots of a wonderful bird. I arrived back at Aberlady Bay and set off in search of my final target. On chatting to a few of the local birders we soon managed to pick up the American visitor. It was far upstream and difficult to pick out but there was the Lesser Yellowlegs, alongside a Greenshank and amongst the few score Redshanks. After watching the bird distantly for half an hour, I walked back up the road to see if I could find a gap in the hedge to get a different perspective on the bird. I found one and managed to pick up a few shots of the bird from which I could actually pick up the leg colour, always a worry for me being colour blind! I then proceeded to stay in the area for around three hours observing the bird and wishing it to come closer. From the observations I had of it, it was a much slimmer bird than the Redshanks, more graceful, Greenshank like in it's movements. It's finer bill was a good identification feature and often its wary nature made it easy to pick out from the two other Tringa species present. The bird did relocate below the wooden bridge and after keeping its distance there, flew back upstream and kept annoyingly distant there too! Never mind as it was good fun introducing other birders to the bird and observing its behaviour. Around 4pm it was getting towards time to think about the journey back to South Wales and I had officially flagged so headed back to the airport. A great trip with a whole bunch of fantastic birds seen. I'll certainly be coming back to do some more birding in this part of the country when I can!