The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
 Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires. 

The land's sharp features seemed to be
 The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
 Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
 Seemed fervourless as I. 

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom. 

So little cause for carolings
 Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

Our Expeditions


13th January

Figgate Park and Duddingston Loch

Throughout the whole of last week I had been seeing reports on Twitter of a pair of Otters showing off in the pond in Figgate Park, Edinburgh. Naturally I decided that it would be a great idea to get John and I down there for our Sunday outing to see them for ourselves. The weather prediction was optimistic- windy with sunny intervals with little chance of rain, so it was all systems go! We had breakfast in the ASDA Superstore at Brunstane, a place we last visited a few years ago. The food was ok but we found the service a bit unfriendly (7/10).

About Figgate Park, Edinburgh

Soon after, we had parked Baileyfield Road and were entering the park and being amused with the sight of a small, pimped-up works container whose sides had been adorned with beautiful spray-painted birds. We walked round the pond to the wooden feeding platform. On the pond, by the island, a pair of young cormorants  were squabbling over the the rights to a rocky perch. A wee Blue Tit tweeted from the bushes just above us while a few Mallards loitered near us watching for any feeding opportunities. (Also see “Pictures of the Week 1”, below).

Juvenile Cormorant Blue Tit Mallard

A family of Mute Swans occupied the centre of the pond. The cygnets were nearly fully grown, their plumages nearly all white with only a few tinges of pale brown. (See “Pictures of the Week 1”, below).  Behind, in the distance, we could make out hordes of early-morning climbers on the peak of Arthur’s Seat , the remains of an ancient volcano. Meanwhile in front of us, the Blackheaded Gulls were getting frisky. Could the Otters be nearby?

Mute Swan Robin Arthur's Seat Black-headed Gull

The Tufted Ducks were looking a bit sheepish and a young Moorhen looked more nervous than usual. As we moved around the pond towards the boardwalk, we scanned the water for any signs of Otters but we couldn’t see any. We met a respected fellow nature watcher who informed us that a pair of Otters had been seen the previous day on Duddingston Loch, which, apparently is linked to the Figgate pond by the Figgate Burn. However, we then noticed that people had crowded to one end of the boardwalk and were scanning the reeds for, could it be the Otters? Well no, it was a Water Rail  that had captured their interest. I managed a few nicely-lit shots of the rarely seen bird, but it didn’t make up for the no-show Otters. A very friendly female Blackbird appeared, probing the area around our feet. I had to move back slowly before I could get a decent focus. It obligingly posed as I snapped I quick couple of shots.

Tufted Duck Moorhen Water Rail Female Blackbird

So, sad to say, the Otters didn’t make an appearance. We did see a lot of nice birds, the Water Rail being the most pleasing.

Pictures of the Week 1:

Common Cormorant Mallard Drake
Juvenile Mute Swan Water Rail

Duddingston Loch, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

Having dipped on the Otters at Figgate Park we thought they may have moved up the burn to Duddingston Loch . We parked in a public car park off Old Church Lane, which is more or less at the foot of the peak mentioned above. We walked to a quiet spot by the Loch, past a flock of grazing Canada Geese, and parked ourselves beside a wall to shelter from the stiff breeze. We could see that there were many birds on the water that were sheltering in calmer water by the edge of the Loch. After a patient wait for some sunshine, a handsome wee Coot popped up through the water. We were checked out by a large Herring Gull as I attempted to get a picture of a Little Grebe that was fairly near the water’s edge.

Canada Goose Coot Herring Gull Little Grebe

We decided to walk along to Hangman’s Rock . I fancied some shots of the water birds side-lit by the low winter sun, and, from the path, we may have seen some birds in the bushes. On the path ahead of us, a pair of Jackdaws were cautiously feeding, before I managed to put them up. Beyond them, Mute Swans and Canada Geese were gathered at an area where tourists gathered for a rest and snacks. Amongst the expectant birds were a gorgeous cock Pheasant and a hybrid goose, a Canada and Greylag cross  (See “Pictures of the Week 2”, below).

Jackdaw Mute Swan Pheasant Greylag Canada Goose Cross

From Hangman’s Rock I had a commanding view of the Loch but could see no signs of the Otters. On the water, near the shore, Mallards, Tufted Ducks, Goldeneyes and Wigeon were moving in and out of the shadows making it tricky to capture any decent shots (see also “Pictures of the Week 2”, below). A familiar call from overhead signalled the approach of a Buzzard that hovered above us for a short time. On the walk back to the car I heard another well know bird call, that of a male Bullfinch that was nibbling on the twigs of the bushes that lined the edges of the Loch. It was our final picture of the day.

Tufted Duck Wigeon Buzzard Bullfinch

It had been an enjoyable trip, our second week away from the coast. The Water Rail kinda saved the day. Our teas were washed down with some tasty slices of Sponge cake, one of my own creations. Positive comments were offered from John, so I’m pleased. I’m less pleased with the Otters though! I have seen Otters many times, particularly on the River Clyde at RSPB Baron’s Haugh , but you can never see too many Otters.

Update: I write this on the Tuesday after and I’ve read Twitter messages from people who have posted pictures of the Otters on each day from the Wednesday before to Tuesday, except on Sunday - typical! I suppose it could’ve been down to the high density of people in the park.

Pictures of the Week 2:

Coot Pheasant
Greylag x Canada Goose Cross Mallard

7th January 

Hopes Reservoir ,  MAP , PDF  

The weather prediction was for dull weather throughout, but with rain in the west and the prospect of coastal mist. Luckily though I had been following Twitter reports of a big Redpoll flock at Hopes Reservoir high in the Lammermuir Hills in East Lothian, a new place for us. So following our usual breakfast in Dalkeith Morrisons (8.5/10: nice but a poor fried egg and drippy teapot let it down) we travelled the winding route through narrow country roads, the last of which was single track, eventually reaching a dead end at a spacious car park. As we started our walk from there, along a well prepared path down a gradual slope towards the Reservoir, John commented how quiet it was with only the occasional calls of the Red Grouse interrupting perfect silence. Eventually we reached a wooded area where I spotted a Robin and, high in the trees, a small bird that could have been our first sighting of a Redpoll. silhouetted against the grey sky but it might have been our first Redpoll of the visit.

Red Grouse Robin ?

In the same tree I caught a brief view of a female Bullfinch, also poorly lit. Just as we entered the wood I managed a picture of a pair of Pheasants, a cock and hen. Some trees had trunks covered in pale green lichen . Eventually we reached the Reservoir dam. Hopes Reservoir covers approximately 40 acres of land and was opened in 1933. I have read that part of the dam wall was built using rubble from Calton Jail  in Edinburgh, which was demolished in 1930. We scrambled along a narrow mucky path on the north side of the reservoir. Below us on the water there was a solitary Cormorant fishing, but that was all we saw.

Bullfinch Pheasant Lichen Cormorant

Below is the a picture that captures the overcast conditions and yet shows the appealing view from the west end of the Reservoir as we looked back to the dam.

Just as we were about to give up ever finding the Redpolls we noticed a small gathering of birders on the south side of the water. They seemed to be scanning the water, but we went on to find they were looking at a large Redpoll flock. The majority of the birds were Lesser Redpolls. They have warm brownish tones around the head, mantle, and wings that often distinguishes them from other Redpoll species. We could see one of those other species, the Mealy (or Common) Redpoll. It shows a bit more cold and greyer plumage than the Lesser.

Lesser Redpoll Mealy Redpoll ( Common) Lesser and Mealy

We saw one bird that stood out from the rest due to its very pale tones. It was a Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (sometimes called the Scandinavian Arctic Redpoll), which breeds in Northern Europe eastwards into Siberia. We studied the flock (see the “Pictures of the Week”, below) for a half hour
in ever-deteriorating light before deciding to move on. As we returned to the dam I snapped one of the dozen or so Mallards present off the water and also a passing Buzzard.

Coues Arctic Redpoll Mallard Buzzard

On our way down the Reservoir-side road we came across a patch of Silver Birch trees that hosted Birch Polypore fungi. These were a variety of shapes and sizes. The game birds had been calling throughout our walk and we got a fairly close view of one, a Red Grouse, as it flew past us at speed after we had caught it unawares close to the road. The car was still a mile off but the view was idyllic (see the “Pictures of the Week”, below).

Birch Polypore Red Grouse

We saw further Red Grouse as we plodded on towards the car. One of these, a hen, was very reluctant to move from where out had been feeding on the road. John noticed that some kind soul had left a trail of seed (or maybe they were not so kind - they shoot the grouse in that area!). We managed to put up another game bird, a Pheasant, that sped into the vegetation on the opposite slopes. Our final picture of the day was taken by John from the passenger seat of the car as we were leaving the estate. A few bold Pheasants were loitering on and around the road, just asking for their pictures to be taken (see also the “Pictures of the Week”, below).

Red Grouse Pheasant Pheasant

Despite the weather we were very satisfied with the sighting and pictures. Once again we achieved our main goal - finding the Redpoll flock and more specifically the Coues Arctic Redpoll. Apple Lattice Danish pastries washed down with strong tea ended the very enjoyable afternoon. Hopes Reservour was new ground for us and we’ll definitely return there.

Pictures of the Week

Redpolls Lesser Redpoll
View Pheasant

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December 2018

30th Skateraw/Barns Ness
23rd Musselburgh

16th Tyninghame Bay
9th Aberlady/Kilspindie/PortSeton

2nd Musselburgh

November 2018
25th Doonfoot/Irvine Harbour
18th Skateraw / Belhaven Bay
11th Troon / Irvine Harbour
4th Stevenston /Saltcoats

October 2018
28th Ardmore Point
21st Troon/Pow Burn
14th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
7th Musselburgh

September 2018
27th-30th St Andrews
23rd Balgray Reservoir
16th Musselburgh
7th Barons Haugh
2nd Aberlady
August 2018
26th  Stevenston
19th Turnberry
12th Troon
5th Musselburgh
July 2018
19 - 22nd Orkney
15 -18th Orkney
8th Gullane Bents, Aberlady
1st Troon Gailes Marsh
June 2018
24th Doonfoot
17th Barns Ness
9th Baron's Haugh
3rd Saltcoats, Stevenston, Irvine

May 2018
27th Ardmore Point

20th Aberlady
13th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Troon
6th John Muir Country Park
April 2018
29th Barns Ness
19th Leighton Moss
15th Musselburgh
6th Skateraw/Belhaven Bay
1st Aberlady
March 2018
25th Barns Ness/Dunbar Harbour
18th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
11th Maidens/Doonfoot
4th Strathclyde Park
February 2018
25th Ardmore Point 
18th Musselburgh
11th Skateraw/Belhaven Bay
4th Pow Burn/Troon Harbour
January 2018
28th Maidens
21st Musselburgh

14th Aberlady
7th Musselburgh
December 2017
31st Belhaven Bay
24th Skateraw
17th Troon/Irvine/Ardeer
10th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
3rd Doonfoot/Loans
November 2107
26th Musselburgh
19th Barns Ness
12th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
5th Musselburgh
October 2017
29th Skinflats
22nd White Sands/Barns Ness
15th Skateraw/Belhaven Bay
8th Musselburgh
1st Stevenston/Saltcoats
September 2017
24th Tyninghame Bay
17th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
10th Barns Ness
3rd Pencaitland/Musselburgh
August 2017
27th Troon/Irvine Harbour
20th Belhaven ....Barns Ness
13th Musselburgh
6th Skateraw
July 2017
30th Musselburgh
23rd Doonfoot
16th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
2nd Aberlady
June 2017
25th White Sands/ Barns Ness
18th Skateraw/Belhaven Bay
11th Musselburgh/Port Seton
4th Barns Ness/Musselburgh
May 2017
28th Tyninghame Bay
21st Belhaven Bay/Dunbar
14th Barns Ness/Torness
7th Pow Burn
April 2017
30th Doonfoot
23rd Stevenston/Saltcoats
9th Musselburgh
March 2017
26th Maidens/Turnberry
19th Dunbar
12th Musselburgh/Port Seton
5th Hogganfield Loch...Belhaven
February 2017
26th Seafield/Belhaven/Dunbar
19th Skateraw/Belhaven Bay
12th Stevenston/Saltcoats/Irvine
5th Pow Burn
January 2017
29th Haddington/Belhaven Bay
22nd Doonfoot
15th Saltcoats
8th Musselburgh
1st Hogganfield Loch
December 2016
18th Belhaven/......Torness
11th Skateraw/Barns Ness
4th Torness/Belhaven/P.Seton
November 2016
27th Doonfoot
20th Kilbirnie.......Irvine
13th Musselburgh
6th Stevenston
October 2016
30th Gullane/...Musselburgh
23rd Troon
16th Musselburgh/Port Seton
9th Pow Burn
2nd Doonfoot
September 2016
24th Port Seton/Musselburgh
18th Tyninghame Bay
11th Musselburgh
4th Stevenston/Ardeer Quarry
August 2016
21st Dunbar/White Sands
July 2106
31st Skateraw
24th Aberlady
17th Barns Ness
10th Musselburgh
3rd Musselburgh
June 2016
26th Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk
19th Musselburgh
5th Kinneil Lagoon
May 2016
29th Belhaven/Barns Ness
22nd Stevenston
15th Doonfoot
8th Musselburgh/Port Seton
1st Lochwinnoch/Muirshiel
April 2016
24th Pow Burn
17th Musselburgh
10th Musselburgh
3rd Musselburgh/Port Seton
March 2016
27th Hedderwick Hill
20th Musselburgh
13th Doonfoot
3rd Ardmore Point
February 2016
28th Pow Burn
21st Musselburgh/Joppa
14th Stevenston/Irvine Harbour
7th Spott,Skateraw,Belhaven
January 2016
31st Musselburgh
24th Yellowcraig
17th Strathclyde Park
10th Skateraw/Torness
3rd Balloch
December 2015
27th Banton/Hogganfield Lochs
20th Figgate Park
13th Musselburgh
6th Torness
November 2015
29th Lochwinnoch/Stevenston
22nd Aberlady
15th Musselburgh
8th Musselburgh
1st Hound Point
October 2015