Having secured an extension to my little vacation oop north, I was happily watching a shed load of Basking Shark of Col, when I got a text. "Can you come in to work as we are exceptionally busy!". Hmm! I suppose that could happen, but since I was on my way to the outer Hebrides, there could be a snag. Or rather a lot of snags...
Heroically I made it the next day, and just 4 hours late after travelling for 10 hours and so any thoughts of commuting from the west of Scotland can be scotched, it's not that feasible. Anyway I am back from a thoroughly fantastic fortnight travelling Northumberland, the Highlands (well Aviemore at least), and Oban and (some of ) the Western Isles. c. 130 species, 3 lifers and 20 year ticks (if I count the calling female Capercaillie, which I might have to come the end of the year), and another huge hole in my bank account.
First things first and day 2 in Northumberland. My sister had told me that a colleague would be ringing at Derwent from 06:30 the next morning and that it might be quite interesting. Sounds like it should be. Derwent was only a mere 6-7 miles away across the moors, so a nice early morning stroll then. It would help to clear the memory of a near death experience at the feet of Hissing Sid, the ugliest and biggest of the ugliest ducks in the world (Muscovies) that my sister kept on the premises.
I had been trying to shoo the big ugly bastard into the shed with his more affable mates, when he decided to take a detour up my leg, pecking as he climbed. I tried to shake him off, succeeding in only making him lose his grip with the result that he was now hanging upside down, flapping his wings violently, from one of his talons that had slashed through my trousers and into my knee. I would have to touch him, eeeeugh!
It took about 10 minutes to free myself and the irate duck and save my bits, and slightly longer to regain my composure. Luckily my knee support had saved me from too much damage and the need for a tetanus injection. Happily the chickens had already shut themselves in already. Job done.
Next morning I was out of the house at 05:00. Cleverly I had sketched a map of my route through the forest and over the moors. Cleverly I left it by the front door as I left. The morning was set fair, how hard could it be, all I had to do was go due east and soon enough I would get a visible reference point.
It all started so well, pleasant sunshine, the smell of the pines and of the forest flowering, Siskin a constant, the occasional small group of Crossbill, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Coal Tit, all audible over a background grumble of water tumbling. All very nice, but all very much uphill.
Having drawn a map I could just about remember what landmarks I was looking for, at least the first few then it went a tiny bit wrong, which went further wrong as I guessed routes so that I left the forest about a mile or so to the south of where I should have been. Not that I knew this at the time - it looked right to me.
Then on the moors it went completely wrong. I might have been distracted by the grouse, or the sadly calling calling Golden Plover or just decided to stick to the paths that clearly defined rather than risk the ones that looked like ditches. I think I ended up somewhere near Sheffield.
Spotting some gulls I surmised that gulls meant water and made my towards them. The next crest would surely reveal the reservoir over which the now numerous gulls were hawking. Happily it did, though not were I expected. I could just see the northern arm of the water seemingly miles to the east, shit! Now that I could see where I wanted to go it was evident that none of the paths were willing to take me there. A farmer was shooting something on the best looking candidate so I tried another looking for a easterly route from there. A couple of dead ends not helped by the fact that controlled burning of the heather gave the impressions that there were paths to be found going the way I wanted. Time wasted. By now the farmer had shot everything he had wanted to for the morning and had gone home for breakfast, I retraced my steps. The path looked good and I made up some time.
Red Grouse were everywhere some amazingly stupid birds amongst them that probably wouldn't make it past the glorious 12th. Amongst them 2 Black Grouse and a couple of Grey Partridge. Where the farmer had been shooting a flock of Returning Golden Plover wheeled and called before heading off somewhere altogether quieter. A Short-eared Owl flew high to the east and a couple of Buzzards mewed up high somewhere.
After a mile or so the path began to descend, which was good, but then turned and ran along the contour line to the north not so good. I could see the road I presumed I needed so plunged into the increasingly boggy stuff having had enough of going round in circles. Using a line of fencing to get over the worst of the streams and mires I couldn't help but notice the other side to the idyll. Traps placed on crossing points over the little streams. I would see dozens of these repellent objects but only one that contained an unfortunate Stoat victim.
I thought these kind of things were illegal, but I suppose in the county that was trying to reduce Buzzard numbers, and has successfully eradicated the Hen Harrier, a little thing like legality is not going to stand in the face of making of making money out of rich twats.
Having made it through the bog I found another track which finally lead me to a road I had assumed would lead down to the reservoir. It had other ideas and appeared to be heading back up hill to the north. I took a footpath east down by a stream along a path which appeared to be one part mud, one part cow dung and rather a lot more parts water.
Did see my first Spotted Flycatcher and it looked good for Pied too. Half an hour later I reached the reservoir road, knackered and slightly muddy. I could see my destination about half a mile up the road, but the wellies with 3 pairs of socks were becoming increasingly uncomfortable as they had leaked and the socks sucked up water.
Only a few hours late (it had taken me 7 hours to get here) I met up with Martin Hughes, local BTO ringer, as he sat under the shade of the trees processing his last catches.
He had had a good morning, best for a while he said. And the good morning continued as we did another couple of circuits before packing up, netting, 4 Willow Warbler, Long-tailed Tit, Treecreeper, Chaffinch, Great Tit and best of all a juvenile Common Redstart taking his tally up to nearly 50 birds.
While he processed these he gave me some background information on local birds and where to find them and we exchanged stories. On the matter of traps he said that the local game keepers try and place traps on the nature reserve itself, his disdain for the introduced Red Grouse quite palpable. Interesting man and a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, furthermore it meant I could sit down, which was also pleasant.
Having helped pack away his nets I set off for home, somewhere over the hills and far away. I decided to stick to the roads as far as possible but even then took one or two false turns before finally forgoing trust in my own senses I did the sensible thing and used the satellite positioning on my i-phone. Wish I had done that earlier.
The way back was still a slog with a few highlights in the form of a flighty Little Owl and a family of Willow Tit in a small copse (apparently they are still quite common round here according to Martin). I got back just before sundown and collapsed. It then took me half an hour to extract myself from the wellingtons which had welded themselves to my feet - quite the most arduous part of the day.
The following day unsurprisingly I kept close to the house keeping the dog company. On a brief foray down the wooded valley part of the patch I found a pair of Spotted Flycatcher presumably still with a nest somewhere and my first Slow Worm; a trio sunbathing on a small raised mossy lump.
Tomorrow the coast.