Saturday, 8 February 2014

American Coot, Black Duck, Sea Eagles and a Purple Sandpiper, Scotland 2014 - 8th February 2014

Monday the 3rd February - Traveling to Scotland.
A couple of weeks ago I was having a phone conversation with a good mate of mine called Matt Whitelocke who lives up in the Highlands of Scotland and the subject of weeks off work became the topic. It turned out quite coincidentally that we both had the same week off work at the beginning of February and as the American Coot had been showing well up near Inverness a trip was starting to form. My wife bought me the tickets (it's my birthday during the week so it was an early present) and on the 3rd of February I found myself on an Easy Jet A320 on it's way to Glasgow.

The view from the plane on the way to Glasgow
I arrived at the airport and met up with Matt mid morning and we left to head up to his house in Fort William, stopping on Rannoch Moor for obligatory pics along the way.

Rannoch Moor
Then we had a spot of lunch in the superb Clachaig Inn in Glencoe (the Heather Ale here is always a draw whenever I visit) and then we headed to the Fort. We did a spot of birding around the area too and as the sun went down we took a look along the shoreline of Loch Eil. Not much could be seen as we drove around the outskirts constantly scanning with bins but as we drove along the south side Matt all of a sudden slammed his brakes on and performed a dramatic emergency stop! "What's that in the trees behind us?" he said and as I looked in the side mirror all I could see was an elongated black shape, I had to twist my neck to see it as it was so close but by then Matt had the car in reverse and we moved back and under the tree in question. I couldn't believe my eyes! I was actually eyeballing a male Black Grouse which looked superb as it looked back at me from a branch only 8ft above the car, it's red bump on the head and beautiful lyre shaped tail feathers looked incredible from this range. There were another 2 male Black Grouse behind it on the flimsy Birch branches too! Unfortunately such was my surprise that I just sat there all this time with my mouth open as oppose to getting some pics. By the time I reached for my phone to get a snap (yes they were that close) they had took off and were whirling their way across the adjacent land and over the brow of a hill. Unbeknown to us, we had just had the first piece of luck which then continued into a lucky streak that lasted all week and culminated in quite possibly the best weeks wildlife watching I have ever had!


Tuesday the 4th February - American Coot and Purple Sandpiper
As the main purpose for my trip was to see the American Coot which had set up home on Loch Flemington we made this the priority of the first full days birding. We woke up nice and early and after a spot of breakfast in Inverness we arrived at the site. An alert on our phones confirmed the bird had been seen early in the morning which was a relief so we settled down in the car park with the white stones and patiently waited, and waited, and waited. 2 hours passed without a sign of it but we were reluctant to leave the area to look for it as all the sightings had been from this pull in. Sods law dictates that the minute yo walk away from somewhere the bird will step out the minute you turn your back. We did spend some time taking pics of the local Moorhens and the Long Tailed Tits proved very photogenic on the bird feeders of the house opposite.

Long Tailed Tits, Loch Flemington.
Then a couple of other birders turned up who, unlike us, didn't have all day to look for it. Having more than a couple of eyes to search an area is obviously a good thing and we agreed that we'll stay in the layby and they'll head around the Loch to search for it - a wave was agreed as the sign for whoever saw it first. Fortunately after 20 minutes or so I looked up and saw one of the other birders frantically waving and we rushed round to meet them. The American Coot was feeding right around the other side of a small headland to where we were and we got fairly good views as it nipped in and out behind some bushes. We took a few record shots but was a little disappointed that it wasn't closer (it had been showing right infront of the layby we had parked in until today it seems) and we walked back towards the car. We sat for a while chatting about where to go next and as I spoke to Matt I saw a black bird swimming into the bay out of the corner of my eye. I shot out the car and saw the American Coot calmly swimming right infront of us before heading over to the far side. By now most of the others had seen the bird and left but we decided to wait for a bit longer in the hope that it would come closer, and come closer it did! In fact it started swimming along the shoreline before walking out and calmly walked towards us! By now there were only 4 of us there but even so the sound of shutters going off was staggering as the bird walked around showing itself off in the sun. We managed to get some fantastic images of the bird, 2 of which are below.

American Coot, Loch Flemington

American Coot, Loch Flemington
After some advice from a local guy (who we later discovered was Marcus Conway - the ebirder) we left the site and made our way to Burghead Harbour. The area was just beautiful and the calm weather meant the sea was very easy to watch. Lots of Long Tailed Ducks were just off the harbour wall and in fact a couple of Long Tailed Ducks were present in the harbour itself giving excellent views.

Long Tailed Duck, Burghead Harbour.
 We continued to scan the sea and saw quite a considerable number of birds. Joining all the Long Tailed Ducks were numerous Eider, Great Northern Divers, a Black Throated Diver and lots of Common Scoter flying across the water and a few Black and Common Guillemots were thrown in too. On the opposite side of the harbour a small cluster of Turnstones could be seen so with Purple Sandpiper in mind I went through them with the scope and sure enough right in the middle could be seen a tiny Purple Sandpiper sleeping away! The Turnstone did a quick fly around after being spooked by something and landed on the wall we were standing on nut it soon shot off back to where it had started and quickly fell back to sleep. We walked back towards the town in order to reach the other side of the harbour for a better look and as we did so I noticed a Shag feeding within the harbour. I waited until it dived and crept up to the side to wait for it to surface and when it did it surfaced right underneath me! I'm not quite sure who was more surprised to see who but I was considerably more on the ball than I was with the Black Grouse and got a shot of it while it swam away.

Shag, Burghead Harbour.

As we reached the other side of the harbour the Turnstone flock could be seen all huddled together still on the wall so I got the camera ready and very slowly got closer and closer. I'm not sure if my fieldcraft skills were really need though as I got so close it was crazy, they didn't even look concerned! By now the Purple Sandpiper had rather conveniently stepped out of the group and was fast asleep to the left of the Turnstones. A nice looking Redshank was also in the mix and gave a good size comparison.

Purple Sandpiper (asleep), Redshank and Turnstones, Burghead Harbour
Obviously seeing a Purple Sandpiper so close is great but I really wanted to see it awake. After a short while the little group shuffled around a bit and the Redshank stepped out. Luckily this was enough to wake the Purple Sandpiper up and I got a couple of shots before it puts it's head back under it's wing.

Purple Sandpiper with Redshank behind, Burghead Harbour
After we got the pics we wanted we left Burghead and drove around to Roseisle beach. Unfortunately be arrived a little too late in the day to see any Crested Tits but the sea was simply stunning! Beautiful mill pond quality and coated in a raft of incredible looking Velvet Scoter! We stayed for a while as the sun went down just taking the place in! As darkness fell we headed back to Fort William so plan the following day.

Roseisle Beach at Sunset
Wednesday the 5th of February - the Black Duck Discovery
After much debate on the previous night we decided to head to Mallaig today to see if any white winged Gulls were present and bird along the west coast on the way. We didn't have to wait long before seeing any white winged Gulls though as Matt pulled out of the road to his house we drove along the A830 and just infront of the Police Station could be seen a large puddle on an area of wasteland. Quite a few Gulls were milling around but even from the car I noticed one of them was very pale. We turned around and parked up and gave the Gulls a scan. Sure enough one of the birds was a nice looking 1st winter Iceland Gull and as we watched it another Iceland Gull, this time a 2nd winter' came in and joined it!

1st (left) and 2nd (right) winter Iceland Gulls, Fort William
 We headed along the road opposite the police station and got very close to the 2nd winter bird using the car as a mobile hide.

2nd winter Iceland Gull, Fort William.
We then had to dash off in order to catch the Corran Ferry. We drove along the road that heads to Strontian with the intention of then heading along the coastal road to Mallaig. I had visited Strontian last year (see previous post) as a Black Duck was there but despite visiting 4 times we only saw it distantly in flight. We decided to have a look in the bay as we passed and from getting out the car we could see a collection of Curlew and Ringed Plovers along thin grass bank that heads into the Loch. A tourist was already there and he had decided to try and get a photo of the Curlew on the bank and as he got closer he disturbed a small collection of Mallard that were under the bank below him. As they swam out into the Loch I couldn't believe my eyes, right in the middle of them was the Black Duck!

Black Duck with Mallards, Loch Sunart, Strontian Bay
It peeled off from the rest of the group and made it's way towards the grassy bank and then hid itself in one of the many hollows there. I managed to get a shot of it though as it came infront of where we were standing.

Black Duck, Loch Sunart, Strontian Bay

 So it had returned! I quickly got the news out via the many rare bird news services and pretty much spent the rest of the day answering questions from people on Twitter who were planning to come up and see it. This bird has been returning here for 7 years or so but for me and Matt find it for the first time this winter was quite a nice surprise. We finally left Strontian after staying considerably longer than we intended and headed up to Mallaig but unfortunately despite a thorough search we couldn't find any white winged Gulls anywhere. We stayed out until darkness and then headed home to fill out the description form for the Black Duck that had been sent by the local bird recorder and had few celebration pints too!

Thursday 6th of February - Isle of Mull and Black Duck Revisited
Today had been earmarked for a trip to the Isle of Mull. This is a stunning place to visit and the wildlife and scenery in such a fairly small area is without comparison with anywhere else in Britain (that's my opinion anyway). We got up nice and early again and got to the Corran Ferry in darkness. As a few people had asked on the previous night about the Black Duck we decided to make a quick detour to Strontian to give out the news if it was still there. When we arrived in the car park we found 5 birders were already there after completing a 3 hour road trip to reach the site before dawn! We waited for the sun to come up and as the light got better the Black Duck could be made out quite clearly in the scope feeding by an island at the mouth of the bay. We noticed the day before that it seems to have teamed up with a female Mallard and had seperated from the rest of the group with her and today was no different and both the Black Duck and female Mallard were an obvious pair as they fed together. We popped the news onto Birdguides and tweeted it to @rbnUK and we made our way to the Isle of Mull. Unfortunately by now the heavens had opened and it was chucking it down. We decided to head up to Tobermory first for breakfast and to see what birdscould be seen from the shelter of the car. The best birds of the town though were the pair of Dipper that whirled up and down the stream that heads into the harbour. They put on quite a show as they flew up and down but they certainly wouldn't pose for photographs as the minute anything like a lens was pointed at them they were off!

Meeting some of the locals, Isle of Mull

Tobermory
 Luckily the weather improved considerably so we left the town and headed west. As we went over a ridge we had a tantalising glimpse of a Golden Eagle which then flew down a small valley out of sight scattering the local Raven population, and some were obviously pretty wound up as they flew around with their throat puffed out. We continued along the road taking a few scenic shots along the way, noticing another Golden Eagle which once again promptly disappeared from views scattering corvids off the cliffs.

Raven, Isle of Mull

Isle of Mull
 Then as we drove along the west coast I noticed a bird soaring above us, we jumped out of the car and saw a magnificent Golden Eagle which was then joined by another one as they rode on the wind. They hung there on the wind right above our heads for quite a long time and we managed to get some shots and a ropey phonescoped video as they did so.

Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull
It's best to watch the below video in YouTube itself. Blow up to full screen and set the highest playback quality you can



The birds then shot off out of sight, and to be honest that's probably not a bad thing as we would have been there all day admiring these incredible birds if they hadn't. There's just something about seeing Golden Eagles in the wild, it's much more an experience than just an everyday sighting especially if you are lucky enough to see them well. They are quite simply the true epitome wilderness. Anyway I shall stop myself there before I get to romantic. We then headed along the coast road towards Loch Na Keal. This is one of the best places to see White-Tailed Eagles and as you head around the corner you can't help the anticipation rising within you. Eagles are of course a rule unto themselves so there's no guarentee they're going to be there but if you do see them it can make the whole trip worthwhile. We scanned the cliffs and islands stopping regularly along the road as we did so and about half way down I looked towards the far end and I could see some of the Gulls were getting spooked and it didn't take long to work out what it was. A White-Tailed Eagle was flying over their heads! It flew back to the shore and landed on the beach. After a few minutes it took off and another White-Tailed Eagle could be seen flying into the same area. The new Eagle landed on the beach while the other flew around the Loch. I watched it fly through my binoculars and as I did so I noticed it drop towards the water and my blood pressure increased ever so slightly as it flew over the surface before extending it's huge talons and then bam! It then flew back up into the air with quite a sizeable fish! I'd like to say I kept my composure after witnessing this but I'd be lying if I did, in fact if I'm brutally honest I bounced up and down like a kid on a pogo stick while shouting "yes, yes, yes" over and over again! How lucky I felt to be able to witness that! The Eagle then headed back to the beach and joined the other one on the shore so we jumped in the car and headed down for a closer look. As we got out of the car both could be seen but with fantastic timing the White-Tailed Eagle with the fish took off and flew infront of us as it headed round to the right and out of view no doubt to enjoy it's meal in peace. I rattled off rather a lot of shots and if you look closely you can see the fish in it's talons as it flies passed.

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

White-Tailed Eagle (with fish), Loch Na Keal, Isle of Rum

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull.
By now the rain was starting to come back down so after a spot of lunch we headed back to the ferry. Quite how we managed to get there in time I have no idea as Matt sped down the roads and drove onto the ferry just before they raised up the ramp and set off back to the mainland! We then headed back to Strontian as there was still a bit of daylight left and found the tide had gone out a long way and the bay had hardly any water in it at all. I had noticed that the Black Duck liked the channel that enters the bay on the right so I crept along the bank to be greeted by the Black Duck right infront of me! I took a few shots before it swam across the channel with it's female companion in the pouring rain.

Black Duck, Loch Sunart, Strontian Bay
As a nice touch we were told over Twitter that the White-Tailed Eagles we saw are well know and a ropey Phonescoped photo shows the bird that was on the beach (not the one with the fish) is know as "Yellow Black Spot" or "YBS" for short and the bird with the fish is known as "Dad". It's amazing what you can learn by sharing through social media!

White_Tailed Eagle (YBS), Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

Friday the 7th February - the Trip Home
Regrettably today saw the end of my stay and me and Matt headed back to Glasgow so I could catch the evening flight back home. We stopped along the way and got some good views of Black Guillemots, Slavonian Grebes and Eiders in the various bays we visited. Numerous Rock Pipits were along the beach at Cuil Bay, and the bay itself was a pretty stunning backdrop with the now glorious weather and Great Northern Divers gliding along out to sea.

Cuil Bay

Rock Pipit, Cuil Bay, Scotland.

We had a quick stop off too at the "rest and be thankful" and admired the local Hooded Crows.

Hooded Crow (prob hybrid ), rest and be thankful car park, Scotland

The view from rest and be thankful, Scotland.
A Common Buzzard also put on a show as I headed back.

Common Buzzard.
And so that's it. We had a meal at a pub near the airport and then I had to leave to catch the plane home. It had been a fantastic few days and the luck certainly seemed to be on our side. Thanks of course go to Matt Whitelocke and his family, not only for allowing me to stay with them but also thanks to Matt for letting me play with his new lens. There will always be a special place in my heart for this area though, especially the Isle of Mull. Lets hope it's not too long before I get to return!

Me on the Isle of Mull - pic by Matt Whitelocke







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