Friday, 2 November 2012

Willow warblers luck

Spring and early summer in north west Scotland was notable for the excellent weather and, in one small area, a large number of willow warblers. There were times when almost the only bird song heard in the garden was from a willow warbler.

By mid June the garden was looking very overgrown and the good weather was a chance to get on with tidying up.

While strimming I almost stepped into a hole created by a fallen tree and for safety I used the dead tree on the left in this photo to mark the place.

Within a few minutes one of the many willow warblers was using this tree as a perch and it was good to be able to get clear views of the bird. After resting on the tree the bird almost always dropped down to the ground very close to the tree stump on the right.

I had a quick look around the area and found this nest with four young. Had I not almost stepped into the hole it is very likely that I would have strimmed the nest. They were so lucky. In future I will have a good look around first.

A few days later I'm pleased to say the four young fledged successfully.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail

In late April, May and early June 2012 north west Scotland had a lot fine and very warm weather so one day in May I decided I'd fill a gap in my short walks in the area. 

Sitting in the car park by Loch Maree after I had finished this walk I asked myself, “Why?”

Not, why did I bother but why had I not attempted this before now? It is one of the best short walks I have done.

The Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre and the car park by Loch Maree, where the walk starts, have been familiar sights on the way to Gairloch and the north west coast from many years but I had never tried the walk.

The guide booklet for the trail, apart from providing lots of information about the wildlife and scenery stresses that it is a mountain walk and advises on appropriate equipment and preparation.

The walk is only 6.5km and the height gained is a little over 500m, but all the ascent is in less than 2.5km.

The trail starts by passing under the A832 and climbing gently through the forest of Scots pine by a stream that will be seen again on the way down. Soon the track goes over a bridge. The forest is left behind and below as the path steepens quickly on to open hillside.

The middle section of the ascent is the steepest and most exposed but there is little danger as the track is wide.

                         Shadow on the trees from the steepest section of the path

The steepness does mean height is gained very quickly and the view back towards and across Loch Maree is spectacular. If you want you can check your progress by the cairns at 305m and 460m.

   Path above the 305m cairn looking towards the head of Loch Maree

   Loch Maree and Slioch

Fairly soon the highest point is reached and from the summit cairn the views are well worth the effort, particularly the northern side of Beinn Eighe. Close to the cairn there is a small stone construction that looks as if it could be used as a shelter at night.

   Beinn Eighe from the summit cairn

   Slioch from the summit

   Kinlochewe and Glen Docherty

The path turns north west towards Meall a' Ghiubhais and passes two lochs before going downhill just after the Lunar loch. Some parts of the descent are steep and at one point steps have been cut into the rock to help in bad weather.

   The return path

The gorge of the Allt na h-Airighe (the stream that was seen at the start of the walk) comes into view. All of the gorge cannot be seen but it is still impressive with a waterfall and many pine trees clinging to the vertical sides.

   The gorge

The trail descends away from the gorge to join the Woodland Trail and returns to the car park.

Although the guide book in not essential as the path is clear I think it is essential for the information on flora, fauna, geology – just the right amount and accurately linked to what you can see.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Northampton and Bedfordshire

Spent a few days staying in Northampton at the end of March. It may sound an unlikely place for a short break but the hotel was convenient for us and our friends and the all inclusive deal was good.

The excellent weather helped us to enjoy our days out but I think we were all surprised by the countryside.

We started off with a bicycle ride around Pitsford Water. Like a lot of other reservoirs it is suffering from the lack of rain but the cycle ride was good and easy – a more or less level surface all the way around

We did two walks in our couple of days stay. The first was around Castle Ashby. The castle is not open to the public but there is access to the gardens and plant house.

Castle Ashby

The Plant House

Harrold-Odell Country Park is just over the county border in Bedfordshire. It is an area of lakes, scrub and woodland and our walk included part of the park and Odell Great Wood.
The warm weather brought out a few early butterflies – peacock, brimstone and orange tip.

Two carvings in the country park

Until visiting here I had not seen an inland breeding colony of cormorants. They seemed to be doing well but also make a mess of the trees. It was also the first time I had seen a heron holding its wings in an odd way, though I have since read it is not uncommon.

My wife's closer view of the heron

We ended our few days away with a short walk in Salcey Forest. We found this twisted tree.

There are photos of it on the 'net but I can't find an explanation for its shape.

The forest also has a elevated walk to above tree top level and a pond with lots of toads.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Need to improve my wildlife skills

Within the last few weeks I had the chance of photographing birds on two occasions. Although I'm interested in birds I do not photograph them very much at all.

The first on here is the shore at the head of Loch Ewe. There are a two curlews in there but they are a little difficult to see and are too small in the frame.

With some cropping I managed to get the following. It is a slightly better view, but the quality is suffering

About a week later I was close to a lake in east London and saw this heron.

Again too far away to be any use and cropping had about the same effect as with the curlews.

Two good indications I need to improve my wildlife skills and get closer to the subject, though for the heron I would have got very wet!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Gairloch February/March 2012

Lucky enough to have been in the north west again for a couple of weeks.

Most of our visits start with a flight to Inverness. EasyJet comes in for a fair bit of criticism and there are no frills, but the flight is short and cheap. However, this time we travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper on a deal which was only slightly more expensive than a flight.

I'd suggest anyone travelling from the south has a look for the deals on the Sleeper. The cabins are small but the whole experience was very good.

Crossing the bridge over the river Findhorn a few miles south of Inverness.

The weather in north west Scotland in late winter can be very rough but also excellent and there were some really sunny days and good sunsets.

Big Sand village from the beach

Sunset over Longa Island

 Beinn Airgh Charr from Loch Tollaidh

 A rock formation at Mellon Udrigle across Gruinard Bay towards Beinn Ghobhlach

The wildlife was also good again; most of it was not rare but it was good to have lots of views of the regulars - curlews, oystercatchers, eiders, hooded crows, buzzards, siskins, coal tits, greenfinches, goldfinches, bullfinches. We were also lucky enough to see a white tailed eagle flying over the house.

The wildlife highlights were the visits from pine martens. Pine martens are fairly common in the area but we were visited every night of our stay. Most of the visits were caught on a trail camera and, while seeing a pine marten can never be guaranteed, with patience (and a regular supply of peanut butter and jam sandwiches) around here the chances of a view are high. The pine marten in this photo was not very concerned when I opened the back door or lay down about six feet away ....

... and the trail camera caught this one night.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Islay 2

There are so many wildlife opportunities on Islay that almost anywhere is good. We visited the RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart in the north west of the island.

The centre has some information and overlooks fields to the south of the loch. It also has a hot drinks dispenser – perhaps not the best coffee and hot chocolate, but very welcome after being out in the wind and rain.

I decided, as the weather was not too good and the birds would be too far away to get any decent photos, to take the scope but leave my camera in the car.

We had good views from the hide of scores of teal, curlew, black tailed godwit, grey plover, and it was good to see the early part of the migration of Barnacle geese from Greenland.

My decision to leave the camera appeared well justified as the nearest birds were too far away to appear as more than specks in a photo. Many of the ducks and waders were disturbed by a distant female hen harrier which came a bit closer to the hide, then closer, ….. and closer!

Fortunately my wife did take her camera and got these photos, which I think are pretty good considering the conditions.

If the weather is really bad on Islay the island provides a few other places to shelter. These are the distilleries and you have the choice of nine.

I recommend visiting all to appreciate the differences. We managed only eight because Caol Ila was closed. Each distillery has something different to offer in whisky, location and information.

Bruichladdich was the most welcoming with four whiskies and their own gin lined up for tasting. I recommend the tour around the distillery – interesting and well paced.

It was good to see the process from start to finish and the clear liquid being collected prior to testing and putting in barrels.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Gairloch January 2012 2

The end of our week in Gairloch had classic winter weather – chilly, clear and therefore excellent light. As the weather in NW Scotland is often not forcasted very well and is also changeable you need to grasp every opportunity, even more so when there is only about seven hours of daylight.

On one of the good days we did the circular walk (from the excellent WalkHighlands website. There is a link on the Websites list on the right) around Loch Kernsary which is south east of Poolewe. This is an easy six miles though I think it is best done clockwise as the last few miles are on hard farm track or tarmac.

Very quickly after the start you are in open moorland with a good view back towards Loch Ewe. This is the first view of Loch Kernsary stretching away to the south east with mountains of the Letterewe Forest as a background.

Walking by the loch side, either on open hillside or through birch wood, is typical of a lot highland Scotland but in the distance is the farm of Kernsary. Such areas are not unusual but it is always a little surprising to find these areas of woods and grassy fields.


We had a rest close to Kernsary and were fortunate to see a sea eagle flying over the loch. My wife took the opportunity of doing a quick watercolour of the view down the loch.

Although the walk back towards Poolewe is a bit more difficult on the feet than the walk out there are some good views. This is looking southwards down the Inveran river with Beinn Dearg in the distance.

An already excellent day ended with another view of an otter swimming and catching a fish in Loch Ewe.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Gairloch January 2012 1

Just spent an excellent week in Gairloch; Scotland never fails to provide a memorable experience.

Soon after we arrived so did the rain and gales. About 25 hours later the rain stopped and the rest of the week was much better with cold, clear, sunny days and frosty nights.

As we are members of the NTS we usually visit Inverewe Gardens when we are in Gairloch. Even in winter Inverewe is worth a visit and predictably very quiet. We met only six people and two of those worked there.

Inverewe Gardens are spectacularly good in themselves, but being on a peninsular in Loch Ewe the gardens have, or are close to, a number of different habitats – woodland, muddy shore, rocky shore, open sea, moorland and mountain and this is reflected in the wildlife seen.

A hide which overlooks the the loch is always open and can be used without going into the gardens usually has a good range of sightings.

The wildlife highlight for us while in the gardens was seeing two otters swimming in the loch and coming out on to the seaweed covered rocks in the photo.


Two other shots from a good day in the Gardens.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Islay 1

Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, so far south that much of the island is further south than Glasgow or Edinburgh. You can fly into Islay but that limits what you can take and the ferry from Kennacraig is a relaxing way to take in some of the views.

The Paps of Jura

Arrival at Port Askaig

We visited Islay in October last year with two friends and were based at Portnahaven on the south west tip of the island.

This is the view from the front of the house towards Orsay and the Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse built by Robert Stevenson in 1825.

This was the second time we had visited Islay and on both occasions we were surprised by the number of birds you could see very easily from just driving around, eg goldfinch, buzzard, chough, hen harrier, redshank, gannet, eider, raven - a lazy bird watcher's paradise.

The mild climate, even in winter, means it has a large number of resident birds and its location in line with westerly winds means it has many migrant visitors. From the front of the house we saw well over 20 species including a peregrine pursuing a small wader. The speed and turning of the wader was amazing, but to see a bird as big as a peregrine mirror the wader for close to two minutes was one of the best birding views. Although I would have liked to have seen the falcon succeed, I was a bit relieved to see the wader escape.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012


As a youngster I had taken some photos with my Mum's camera but the first camera that was mine was a Halina 35X -

- a 35mm fully manual camera with a f3.5 - f16, 45mm lens with a fastest shutter speed of 1/200s. Looking back I'm surprised I ever manged to get any decent shots with it as, for a good while, I based the exposure on the information sheet provided with 35mm films. However it worked and kept me going for a few years.

I moved to an SLR with a Zenit E and on to Practica, Pentax Spotmatic, Pentax KX. This series of cameras took me from '70s to the early '00s.

My photography stopped for a few years until I decided to get a Panasonic FZ28 a little over two years ago. This is an excellent bridge camera and some of the photos (for example, the two photos in the first post) on here were taken with this camera. Although the FZ28 is a great camera I felt I wanted more of what I had with the older 35mm SLRs, so I looked at a number of DSLRs.

I eventually settled on a Pentax K5 for a number of reasons -

the backwards compatibility that means all Pentax K mount lenses from about 1975 onwards can be used, though some or all of the auto functions may be lost,

the in-camera image stabilisation which means any lens is image stabilised,

the wide dynamic range,

the weather sealing, and

I had a few K mount lenses from the late '70s and '80s.

I don't know the reason for the current lack of prominence of Pentax - they were very early with introduction of TTL metering, one the first manufacuters to have automatic exposure and in the mid '60s were producing more cameras than all their rivals combined. Now it is unusual to hear anything other than Canon or Nikon.

I've have owned the K5 for a few months now and it is a very easy to use camera that can produce excellent quality photos (I'm talking about the camera here, not my abilities). I'm experimenting with the old lenses I haven't used for about 30 years. This one is from a local pond taken with a 70-210mm Sigma lens I bought in about 1980.