As you will have seen from my last blog post, I managed to get out of the office back in June for a trip to Scotland to meet with some of the team at RSPB Scotland.
I was blessed with amazing weather, which was absolutely perfect for my visit to Loch Lomond, another new site for me. It was a good chance to catch up with an old friend, Rob Coleman who I know from his time working on RSPB Ouse Washes and Titchwell Marsh – two of my regular haunts from the past.
Not only was the wildlife spectacular, just check out the sort of view you get as a bonus when visiting this gem of a site!
Loch Lomond - not a bad setting to watch your ospreys...
Wildlife frenzyGreenland white-fronted goose is one of my favourite birds, and a speciality of Loch Lomond, but as it was summertime and they’re all in Greenland, I contented myself with these two as we were fed and watered on arrival.
I'm assured that the real Greenland white-fronted geese that spend winter here are a little harder to see than these two.
The team told me a lot about creating the ideal feeding conditions for these rare geese around the Loch and as a big goose fan, I lapped it up. It never fails to amaze me how much work has to go in to cater for the needs of wildlife. Which reminds me, there are some tips for wild goose watching from yours truly in Nature's Home Winter 2016, which has literally just been printed.
I already knew that Loch Lomond had a fascinating history, and even has a song named after it (hence the blog title) but I soon learned that it is also a very beautiful site and one with a cracking range of habitats and wildlife as we were given the tour by Site Manager Paula Baker and Rob, who is officially known as RSPB Scotland Area Reserves Manager - Forth & Loch Lomond.
Moth trapping had taken place the previous evening on site and among the many lovely beasties on show was this poplar hawk moth, which I tried a couple of arty shots with. Note the word "tried".
It hardly seems possible that the poplar hawk moth can fly with these curvy wings
Redstarts sang cheerily from the oak woodland, tree pipits “fizzed” and “buzzed” from the tops of bushes and once we reached the loch shore, ospreys started to appear. I reckon we saw around eight different individuals with many looking for food for their young – a superb bird to see in such a beautiful setting.
Loch Lomond is a fantastic site to see ospreys (Chris Gomerall (rspb-images.com))
In the dockSo, a confession. One thing I was really hoping to see, even more than these brilliant birds: it’s a plant and it only goes around the shores of Loch Lomond. It wasn't discovered until 1936 and is sometimes called the Loch Lomond dock which would seem a sensible name. It’s the Scottish dock and I can tell you I was really excited to be shown one of these rare plants. Each to his own, remember...
Here's a shot I grabbed of it. Admittedly it wasn't the time of year for seeing it at its best, but I felt really privileged to see one.
The super rare Scottish dock - another great species for the list!
There will be more on RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond reserve in Nature’s Home in 2017 so I only wanted to whet your appetite with this blog post. The Loch and all its secrets will be revealed in your magazine soon!
It’s 4.30am and I’m brewing coffee. We’re about to set off from Cambridge for a long bank holiday weekend on Islay. The stag party of three (not the most raucous of stag-dos) are packed and ready for wildlife watching, distillery tours and wild camping, and for all of us it would be a completely new experience of Scotland.
The view from the ferry (actually the way back, and of Jura, but you get the idea).
I volunteered in the Cairngorms last year so was well aware of at least some of the beautiful landscape Scotland had on offer, but for the groom it was a first. The less said about the 10 hour drive the better, but once we approached Loch Lomond the excitement started to build. The ferry ride from Kennacraig to Port Ellen flew by as we stood at the bow feeling the refreshing Scottish air.
It was a very short drive to our accommodation once we docked – just a stone’s throw from the Lagavulin distillery. The whiskey tour would come later, and sitting on the deck of our shack all I could think about was the little bay in front of me and its potential for otters.
A l-otter potential.
With not a hangover in sight we rose early and packed a lunch. The Mull of Oa was the destination for a good long walk and some wildlife. But before we could even really get going we pulled up in a layby. My friend had spotted something big.
“Is that an eagle?” he asked.
“…Yes!” I said. “Four of them!”
Yep, four golden eagles, just taking flight and calling like they were in a spaghetti western. Nice start.
The Mull of Oa is great little RSPB reserve, with clear signage of where’s best to spot specific things. The circular walk is quite short but we managed to make it last over four hours, taking in the views, the couple of ravens and the few gannets. Sadly we didn’t manage to get sight of the choughs on the cliffs or any marine mammals, but there was plenty of time left in the weekend.
Back to base just didn’t feel right after a long walk, so we headed for the lighthouse near Port Ellen hopeful of there being a beach. And what a beach! Pristine sands, crystal clear calm water, and not another person in sight. We had a chilly swim with the jellyfish and a bit of rock pooling, then headed back for a BBQ.
Plenty of jellyfish, but not a whale in sight.
We’d booked a whiskey tour for Sunday morning after the swim, and the very friendly tour guide gave us a tip-off on some nearby otters. I’d guessed right, and just along from our cabin would be our stake-out for the night.
Clambering in the dark, accompanied by me keen-on-wildlife friend and noisy-not-too-interested friend, we settled in on a rocky crag.
Nothing. And I’m blaming the noisy friend for it!
Port Ellen at sunset.
Peat infused whiskey makes for an interesting breakfast, but overall the tour was very interesting and well worth a visit even if you can only manage the 11am booking. The ferry back was booked for 3pm, so that gave me about an hour to look for the number one thing I had on my list. Hen harriers.
My friend had booked the ferry from Port Askaig – clever, since we’d have the opportunity on the way back to drive through the north of the Island. We’d be going past Loch Gruinart, which is the other RSPB reserve on Islay. A quick look at the map table and I clocked the recent hen harrier sighting, visible from the edge of the visitor centre car park. I had half an hour left to scan.
Success! I think. It was unbearably far away and I can’t be 100% certain it was what I wanted it to be, but it was grey and quartering a field. I’ve decided I’m having it since we didn’t see whales, dolphins, choughs or otters.
We made the ferry in time, and all decided we’d have to come back soon, but for much longer. Perhaps a different island though – something to Mull over at least…
Scotland is one of my favourite parts of the world. It's a stunning country and the provides some of the best wildlife-watching you could hope for. There are so many exciting and rare species to enjoy and RSPB Scotland has a great many of them on its reserves - thanks of course to the support of RSPB members. I first went to Scotland when I was at college, on an eventful study tour. That first trip sowed the seeds for my lifelong love of Scotland with pine martens playing in a wood in daylight; dotterel, snow bunting and ptarmigan feeding just feet away on the climb up Cairngorm and the sight of a dozen or more ospreys fishing over the fish farm at Aviemore where we stayed in the youth hostel.
I’ve been back a few times since, but back in June I was very lucky to spend some time with my RSPB Scotland colleagues on a visit to research and plan content for future issues of Nature’s Home and find out about some of the amazing work going on in Scotland.
My guide for the trip was Louise Cullen, who my team and I work with on Scotland News, which mails to RSPB Scotland members with Nature’s Home. The itinerary was planned for me thanks to the help of RSPB Head of Marketing and Communications James Reynolds, and I couldn’t wait to get up there and find out a bit more about the exciting work going on in Scotland, visit two RSPB Scotland reserves I had never visited before – and to get a behind the scenes look at the simply wonderful Abernethy reserve.A west coast gemThe sun is shining today here at RSPB HQ, so it felt right to blog about my visit to Glenborrodale where Louise and I met up with Site Manager Simon McLaughlin who gave us a tour and showed us what it takes to keep these special places special: a lot of hard work and an intimate understanding of the needs of different species.
While enjoying this view from the top of Glenborrodale, redstarts, tree pipits and wood warblers sang all around
Excitingly, chequered skippers have recently been found at RSPB Glenborrodale. This is a tiny butterfly that flies in late May and June and is only found in an area roughly 50 miles around Fort William. It is as I like to say a real "goodie!”. Not only that, it was the only one of the UK's breeding butterflies that I hadn't seen, so opportunity really was knocking.
The sun shone as we met up with Simon and within minutes, I had fallen in love with this beautiful woodland site on the famous Ardnamurchan Peninsula with views around that took my breath away. The views alone were worth the visit and hearing from a super enthusiastic Simon about the management work needed on this little known reserve to keep it so special, including keeping the invasive rhododendron in check, was so inspiring.
I won’t try and describe the beauty of this fabulous reserve as my photos (above and below) will convey this much more powerfully and accurately.
A chequered historyMy eyes were firmly peeled for a certain fast flying butterfly as we walked through the woods. I scanned bracken fronds in hope, but nothing stirred. Simon was looking hard as well for me but as we came out of an area that he said was particularly good for the skipper, I realised that I may have to face up to not seeing the species again. The only other time I’d ever tried to see it, it rained, so I was thinking a third time lucky was required.
With wood warblers and redstarts singing all around, and an amazing display of lichens (and the rare Wilson’s filmy fern making it onto my list), it was a joy to be here.
And then it happened in one of those fortune-changing moments that nature can deliver so unexpectedly, but that fill you with a rush of joy. I spotted something perched on a bracken frond in the middle of the path up ahead, lifted my binoculars with baited breath and there it was, the chequered skipper finally met my gaze. I was ecstatic and we all enjoyed great views of this pristine, fresh individual basking in the sunshine.
UK butterfly number 60 on the list - thanks to RSPB Scotland and the great management work at Glenborrodale
Further along a second chequered skipper appeared and even tussled with pearl-bordered fritillaries (another rare butterfly – one that is in worrying decline nationally, so good to know it is being looked after here by the RSPB Scotland team).
We also found a golden-ringed dragonfly freshly emerged from a small pool, right by the path. This is another species that we don't get in Cambridgeshire, so I always love seeing them - real beasts!
This golden-ringed dragonfly, one of our biggest species, was showing superbly by the path
It never fails to amaze me, working for the RSPB, just how varied our reserves are and the unbeatable wildlife experiences you can enjoy at them. I had never been anywhere quite like Glenborrodale. Before we left, Simon took us down to the shore of Loch Sunart opposite and showed us where an otter comes to eat fish. Not a bad view at all.
The view over Loch Sunart at Glenborrodale - a haunt of otters and eagles
Come back soon and I'll take you behind the scenes of RSPB Scotland's Abernethy reserve - home to the world's most famous pair of ospreys - where the weather wasn't quite as sunny, but the wildlife was hot, hot, hot! First up though, it's my visit to Loch Lomond...