Tuesday, 24 January 2012

One day pass, and why breakfast is not good for you

Having not had time to go to Dorset to nail the Hume's and the Richard's, I thought to nail them this weekend on my Jack Jones, then scurry back up to London and back out to Dunge to grab a few year goodies there too. Sounded like a plan. Just to make more interesting I changed it. Dunge first then to Weymouth for the night, up before dawn to get in position for the daybreak showing warble.

Planned times on line, should have booked online, but didn't. First bad move. Arriving at Stratford station at 6:15 found the rail ticket office closed, London Transport unhelpful and the ticket machines trying to steal all my money. At 6:30 the ticket office was still shut tight and not showing any signs of opening at its allotted time. Crap! 6:45 went, and so did the fast train to Ashford. Time for a serious rethink. Norwich = Lesser White-front, Waxwing..., Southend: Purple Sandpiper, er... I opted for a one day travel pass, which took me by surprise.

Now the plan was to hoof it to Chigwell and Connaught Water (Mandarin), back down to the William Girling (Black-necked Grebe and maybes...), one of the Lee pits for Smew and who knows...

Bit of a come down when you stack it against Dunge: Great White Egret, Long-tailed Duck, Smew, Slav Grebe and stuff... but it would be fun!

First up CW: Nuthatch calling in the trees, Goldcrest flirting with singing and all the tits present and correct. Came in from the north end of the lake, it appears the Corporation are cocking up paths here now judging by the scene of incompetent industry.

Nice numbers of Teal pretending to be displaying, while larger numbers did what ducks do best: sleeping. Mallards, Tufties, Pochard, female Hooded Merganser, Mute Sw(waaaat!). There she was in all her afro-headed finery, and come to think of it I do remember reports of this, ages ago though. So obviously the real deal, like Radipole's bread loving louche. Apparently another of Hawky's finds.

My quarry was behind this surprising North American duck. A couple of males lounged on a log. Scanning the bank of the island I picked up more of the gaudy males and some of their more refined female counterparts. I counted 8, which I thought quite good considering it was way the highest number I had seen here before. Then another party of 10 whispered their way over my head to land not far off. I had heard numbers of this duck were falling in the forest, which would be a shame as they do brighten up the place somewhat, and the females are very pretty.

After checking a Great Crested Grebe, just to make sure it wasn't something a tad more interesting and not on my year list. It was back through the Redwing infested woods to Chigwell. Luckily a bus was going my way, next stop W Girling.

From the top of Mansfield Park I managed to cover most of the reservoir by moving around. Ther actually wasn't much on it and with the wind coming from the west, what was there was sticking close to the western side as far away from me as possible. As good as the Swarovski scope is, the magnification leaves a bit to be desired. Another 30x to be desired. Clear though. So I clearly had small black and white dots on the far side of the water, which were discernably smaller than the tufties. Then I picked out a small raft of likely grebes, in amongst the more obvious Little and larger GCs.

Good enough. Off via Greggs (product placement opportunities on offer), to Ponders End for a train to we'll see where it goes. To the west of the King George V res, hundreds of Fieldfare were feeding in the hawthorns and on the paddocks, amongst a similar number of Chaffinch (I checked, no Brambling). Fieldfare remind me of plumb crumble, where the juice has just soaked through the topping. No, just me then!

As luck would have it a train arrived as I did at Ponder's, Hertford bound next stop Amwell then. More likely for Smew.

The viewing point was largely empty, one guy waiting for the Bittern to put in appearance. He had had a Little Gull that morning, which was now down at Cheshunt. Promising! The Smew (4) were still on Tumbling Bay (have I said I like that name?), but not much else. He was right a couple of Goldeneye and the usuals. I bade him farewell and wandered down to Tumbling Bay,behind a bunch of arsey kids, their fat mums and shitty dogs. Luckily their stamina ran out and they had to return to their car and thence to their fridges no doubt.

Tumbling Bay was the usual mass of Tufties, Pochard and Coot, all trying to look interesting, but failing to be Smew. I pondered the unfairness of life for a moment. Then I saw a beautiful red-head as she flew away from me into a pack of Tufties. Life is great, and being shallow has its advantages.

I can get closer than this I thought and scooted off down the path, meeting two guys coming the other way. Hadn't seen the red-head, but a drake was further down by hiding behind some trees.

Not when I looked he wasn't ha ha!

Having raised my blood pressure somewhat I rushed for the train: perhaps I could catch the Little Gull over Cheshunt. Yeagh right! Or have a quick look at the scrape at Rye for some wader action.

The scrape at Rye House had gone, just a few bits of grass showing above the water. Apparently the scrape had been just one of those things, as the powers at be tried to rid themselves of invasive pests and invigorate reed growth as part of the Herts reed bed project. So it appears the scrape will be no more. The did have a Bittern in last winter though. Good, but I wanted waders...

I'll be back for a bit of rustling. I fancy a small herd of Buffalo on the flats, and the Konick's cos they are pretty.

The race down to Cheshunt proved fruitless, bar 2 Water Rail and a large number of Jackdaw off to roost. So to part 2 of the cunning plan.

To Dorset. Booked ahead to my old resting place of the Rex, just on the sea front. Handy-ish for Wyke Regis if I got an early start and missed breakfast. The night porter said breakfast is at 07:30. I crumbled, my stomach rumbled.

And that as they say is where it all went wrong. Should have used the early morning darkness to get in position for my prey. Instead had a rankly greasy effort, whose bulk severely restricted my goat like nimbleness.

So I got to the bridging camp after first light. Met a guy from Bristol and had a quick look for the Richard's as we made our way to the Hume's. Nothing bar two very attractive Stonechat, hundreds of Med Gull, RB Mergs and Goldeneye in profusion, and a face full of Atlantic wind.

We reached the site of the Hume's, to find Mr LGR Evans on the case. Sorted I thought. He was looking grumpy. It had been seen, he'd even heard it, but had not refound it after wandering through the habbo several times. I thought to ask him to check his boots, but wise counsel suggested otherwise.

Nada! Zip. Strike one. Make that strike 2 as reports from the pipit field suggested the bird had flown into the camp at the time I had just been reaching the other side. Funny did hear a pipit calling as I met up with the guy from Bath. The Richard's was not going to be seen quickly and time is not one's side this early in the year. A female Black Redstart showed distantly amongst the pontoons, but nothing RP like.

Back along the path to the fleet, the tide on the way out - I hoped to get a few waders in front of the visitors centre. Strike 3, some anglers were using the repairs at the (closed) centre to dig for bait, where my waders should be.

Ok grebes and divers in the harbour. A bus turned up going on Portland. I jumped on. Sea watching then!

After being dropped off at Southwell, I took the coastal path (wrong move) to the bill. The wind was getting much stronger up here and I was in danger of losing my woolly hat. Something that could not be countenanced. Bugger all to see as well bar a few gulls enjoying the uplift from the cliff and a possible Merlin that shot passed too far and too quick to be certain.

At the bill I found somewhere reasonably sheltered. Not far off shore a feeding frenzy was going on; hundreds of auk, gannet, shag, cormorants, kittiwake and larger gull were circling, landing, diving in a constant whirlwind of movement.

Having satisfied myself that this was the only action occurring at the bill, it was a rush back to get the bus, this time using the lee of the island for shelter and to see if there was anything grebe-diverish. There wasn't.

Happily, a bus was not long in coming and dropped of again at the Ferrybridge (B&B £25, for future reference), I could spend some serious time looking for Slavs. With all the activity in the harbour, the water equivalent of unruly dogs, the chances of a close bird were nil. I finally caught up with them way under the nothe, with a large school of BN grebe. No divers though.

Not finished yet, I caught another bus (£4 travel permit) for Radipole just in case the Iceland or the RB Gull would put in an appearance. Of course they didn't. Strike 4 and 5. Missed the train by a minute, which gave me time for a fish supper overlooking a very calm Weymouth bay towards Osmington and the white cliffs that played a large part of childhood holidays. Aah!

The results may well have not been what was planned. But there's always next week end, if I can survive at work...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Aviemore and more

Day 2: The map reads: "Caper watch early AM, but can be a scrum, and 95% composed of muppets... " "Shaded area is Black Grouse lek site. First light essential. Amazing spectacle..." Whereas Stuart's words resonate in my ears: "Loch Vaa a sure thing for Slavonian Grebe..."*

Target birds for today: Osprey, Scottish/Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit, Black Grouse, Capercallie, Slavonian Grebe, and other stuff!

* I paraphrase here somewhat

Nice sentiments, but containing words that were to have very little meaning or bearing on any of my efforts during my short stay: "Early AM" and "First Light", top-trumped as they were by "only after a substantial breakfast". As in "only after a substantial breakfast did I managed to get out of the hotel", or "Only after a substantial breakfast did I realise that I should have tied my boots up before my substantial breakfast..."

After a substantial breakfast I started off towards Grantown along the Speyside Way, which became more of a rail-way due to a large golf course which obscured the river. The weather was undecided, lobbing hand fulls of drizzle and then a tease of sunshine and calm, only to forget what it had done and so start again.

Birds there were but very few and distant: Crossbills and other finches bounced between the pines. In the larger stands Redstart and Tree Pipit sang and always the Chaffinch and always the Coal Tits..

I took a slight detour from my route to have a gander at Loch Vaa, "Slav's a cert!". Got a Little Grebe, which try as might I might remained fixedly a Little Grebe. It turns out it might have been another Loch that Slav's were a cert on. No matter a great little Loch, enchanted! All was not lost as I managed to pick up a call that research and planning (an app) convinced me was of a Scottish Crossbill. It failed to show for a picture.

Less shy was the Red Squirrel I met up with further down the path. How many year's is it since I last saw one of you...

Not much happened for the rest of my walk to Loch Garten, and then not much happened there. Apparently the Osprey had just changed sitting duties and the relieved bird had buggered off to fish. So nothing to see there...

Rather than follow the road back towards Coylombridge I cut across country through the pines to Tulloch Moor. Nice, dry and easy at first which then became decidedly muddier and wet bordering on liquid before too long. I had no desire to walk miles with sodden socks and boots but rather than go back I deliberated long and hard between steps to avoid the inevitable.

Eventually I reached dry road just to south side of Tulloch Moor and close to its leks. I wandered down one path on to the moor to see if any straggling Black Grouse would give themselves up easily. I think the only bird I saw was a Whinchat.

Back on the road to Coylombridge the countryside became less wild and more agricultural, and the birds became more apparent. I heard a sound I was familiar with, but it just sounded wrong here. I looked for the source and after a while found not one but several Yellowhammer singing and calling from the hedgerows. Another bird I had not expected to find here, following a small group of Bullfinch in the woods behind Boat of Garten.

It got better. At Pityoulish a Small black bird sat in a cow field. I had thought crow, but for some reason I looked at it through my bins. F***k me! Black Grouse. The bird was obviously just as taken aback as I, but having got its wits together if hoofed it into the woods by the river.

Happiness and a spring in my step. Just round the corner 2 Raven peeling something quite dead of the road, and in Loch Pityoulish itself a group of Red-breasted Merganser, while a Sedge Warbler called from a clump of innocuous looking reeds. This is great, I felt anything could happen on the few miles remaining and Aviemore.

A Woodcock!

A roding Woodcock though

Day 3

Next day and I am up good an early taking on the challenge of the buffet breakfast again.  Oh no ate too much again.

Today I was following up one of Mr Fisher's other recommendations, not in the slightest dismayed by lack of success on his previous suggestion. Destination Loch Eanaich about 7-8 miles to the south. A stroll.  The promise of breeding Diver, and other exotica.

The first part of the hike took me back into Rothiemurchus and it's wonderful Caledonian forest. The weather wasn't too shabby either, sunny with a nice breeze and the occasional overcast bit just in case you got too hot.

Familiar songs of Willow Warbler, Great Tit and Blue Tit and the less familiar sounds of Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart and the occasional Tree Pipit helped my mood as I slowly climbed.  Some Crossbill patiently waited for me to get the camera settings right, munching on pine seeds.  Still can't work out whether they were Parrott or Scottish, the pictures didn't come out that well!

Glorious views and the sound of crashing water of the stream below, I was full of the joys and breakfast still.  Above the treeline my mood changed.  Here the only sound was the wind in my ears and the rushing water.  No birds, bar the occasional Common Sandpiper, and Meadow Pipit.  It was getting quite bleak as was the weather, my gloom was not helped by cyclists rushing passed me towards Loch Eanaich.

My thoughts of going off the path and finding the remote breeding sites of diver were taking a back seat as I realised how far off my goal was seemingly.  The route was never ending, with the occasional  major water obstacle to overcome thrown in.  The last of which was a bent and rusty metal tray like object of around 10 foot in length which pretended to be a bridge.  This is where I get seriously wet, I thought.  I was wrong, that was further on where a side stream was not even considered worthy enough for a bridge.

As a former trained geologist I could appreciate the glacial effort and influence on the valley, but as a hot and sweaty walker with wet feet I was finding it slightly depressing.  The cyclist bombed back past me, day trippers apparently rushing to get their bikes back to the hire shop.

I was alone, and felt it. Partly that was good, but alone also meant being the only warm blooded creature alone.  No birds.  And the weather was now joining in the malaise, sleeting and the clouds gathered glowering lower.

I had reached the loch.  Job done.  Stuart had apparently climbed the apparently vertical sides and camped on the top.  I have had moments when I've questioned his sanity, this was one of them.

It had taken me about 2 hours to climb from the tree line, it was sure as shit not going to take me that time to get down.   Plugged into my i-phone it took me "Beggars Banquet" (The Rolling Stones, 1968) to get down again, my mood improving every metre down the path.

The sun was out again as I hit the forest trail and happily I could hear bird song.  Even more happily the bird song turned into something I had familiarised myself with over the last few days.  Crested Tit.  And there it was flitting through the pines and all too quickly gone.

I decided to go to Loch Morlich a few miles to the east and then back to base.  Morlich offered the possibility of diver and duck and maybe a wader or two...

A delightful walk but and maybe another couple of Cresty Ts, a Green Sandpiper and some loafing Goldeneye - always a surprise to find a bird you imagine from the arctic wastes nesting in Scotland. 

I achingly walked back home for another curry.

A Woodcock!

A roding Woodcock though

de ja vu

Day 4

My last day, and another impressively large breakfast.  Squeezing out through the door, today it was all or nothing.  Er by that I mean I had to carry all my kit and leave nothing, and... well that's it.  Still had a few things to find: Dotterel, Ptarmigan, Caper... The last one seemingly out of reach, the others well, a possibility.  It was off to Cairngorm.

I took a taxi as it would have taken me half the day to get there otherwise, but it also meant I would have the energy to climb from the cable car station to the summit.  For it is said "yay, only those idiots that climb from the base camp to summit, are allowed to wander freely once there..." or words to that effect.  OK it was a bit windy, no probs, probably only a thousand feet or two, simples.

It was slightly windier than I thought.  It was much steeper than I thought, and I am very much more unfit than I thought.  Winds of 60mph trying to push me sideways, weighed down with telescope, tripod and all my stuff, I was enjoying every minute of it.

As I got near the plateau, I found a cairn that I thought might be out of the wind and I could set up my scope and look for Ptarmigan and Dots.  Even this rock wind break wasn't up to the task. I scoured the plateaus, the slopes, a few white looking rocks that appeared to move, but were probably my eyes watering and the cold effecting my brain. The last bird I saw at the base camp was a Pied Wagtail, the only bird I saw at the top... a Pied Wagtail.  Probably the same one, taking the piss.

This was the highest I had been on land anywhere, pathetic.  I went down by the lift after an overpriced and bland helping of something. Disappointing is probably what I would say now, but not what I said then.

I decided to walk back slowly to Aviemore and catch the train in the evening. A leisurely walk, not expecting too much just enjoying my last day in this glorious place.

Loads more Crossbill, but none that I could get a look at properly.  Some lady Goosander in a fast flowing burn.  A Crested Tit nest in a perilously wobbly stump, and at the last the sight of a female Capercaillie, like a small transport plane cruising through the forest.  Yay!

Not a lot of species and fairly hard work, but ***k me absolutely brilliant. I coming back.