Archive - January 2019

27th January:

Fairlie and Portencross

Bright, sunny weather was predicted for Sunday in West Central Scotland, however it was to be cold and very windy. Lots of birds had been seen in previous days around Fairlie in Ayrshire so I decided to go there in the hope that the strong winds would not have moved them on. We started the day with a breakfast in Largs Morrisons (9/10: excellent food but the service was unfriendly and slow) then drove down to the car park at Fairlie overlooking the sands.

Fairlie   About
As we surveyed the sands, it was apparent that the wind was stronger than we’d expected and there were few birds to be seen. Only a lone Great Black-backed Gull showed up. The tide was at its lowest ebb and the sea was half a mile out. I had the idea that the birds may have moved half a mile south to the other side the Ore Terminal. There are controversial plans afoot to develop that area, much to the annoyance of environmentalists . We drove to the start of the approach road of the Hunterston Nuclear Power Station  and walked in to Hunterston Sands. We did see a few very distant Wigeon on the Sands, but the only decent shot I got was of a wee Robin (see also “Pictures of the Week”, below). Undeterred we next decided to move further south.

Great Black-backed Gull Ore Terinal Robin

Portencross  About

We relocated to Portencross, a hamlet near Farland Head and the site of a scheduled monument of national importance, Portencross Castle. The wind was fierce and bitterly cold but we resolved to walk the coast northwards towards Hunterston. Immediately I saw some Chaffinches and a Blue Tit sheltering in bushes of a driveway entrance. John pointed out charming purple blooms on an evergreen shrub.

Portencross Castle Chaffinch Blue Tit TBC

As we left the hamlet, a striking panorama opened up before us. The violence and persistence of the wind made it all the more engaging. To our left was the rocky shore and raging waters of the Firth of Clyde, with the boldly sloping rock sediments of the island of Little Cumbrae . On our right was the steep wooded cliffs of the hill known as the Three Sisters. Also, near the base of the cliff at the Three Sisters there is the Holy Cave  which is associated with St Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow.

We took temporary shelter from the bitter breeze behind a rocky outcrop, hoping to catch a few shots of any passing birds. It wasn’t long before we were rewarded with a nice view of the underside of a Herring Gull that paused, hovering, above our heads in the gale (see also “Pictures of the Week”, below). I next managed a few shots of a Buzzard also hanging in the air currents before it plummeted ground-wards and out of sight, probably grasping at its prey. John the drew my attention to a Cormorant passing along the shore, flying against the wind with apparent ease. We then literally pushed on a further few hundred metres before realising that we were unlikely to get any more sightings, so we chickened out and headed back to the shelter of the car. I decided to head back to Fairlie as the tidal waters might have returned enough to bring some birds within range. On the road out of Portencross John took some pictures of flowering Snowdrops. It seemed a bit early for these but the winter has been mild thus far. An interesting fact is that Snowdrops don't have petals and are actually composed of six white flower segments known as 'tepals'

Herring Gull Buzzard Cormorant Snowdrop


I parked the car at a roadside car park just past the tall wooded embankment that shelters the old  Hunterston ore terminal . I clambered up the embankment to view the large basin of water inside the terminal grounds to determine if birds were sheltering there. Indeed they were. Hundreds of mainly Wigeon filled the entire waters. As the sunlight was behind the birds and it was impossible to get any closer, due to the perimeter fence, I walked along to the end of the promontory, casionally getting a view down to the Fairlie sands below. There I spied Curlew, Mallard and Teal foraging for invertebrates in the damp sands. (  I sat in a very warm and sheltered car, catching some zzzz's..JP)

Wigeon Curlew Mallard Teal

Just as I came off the bank down to the shoreside path, dog walkers put the birds up but in doing so enabled a nice shot of a Curlew in flight (see “Pictures of the Week”, below). As I returned to the car, a Rescue Helicopter passed overhead heading towards Largs. A short time later a couple of ambulances raced along the A78 also towards Largs. Later I found  out that there had been a capsized boat off the island of Cumbrae resulting in people in the water. On a house near where the car was parked I noticed the quite surreal sight of a gorilla wearing a military helmet. Just exactly why this life-sized figure was on the roof is a mystery. We drove the short distance to the car park at the Fairlie Sands. The wind was still vicious and the birds we saw were struggling to feed. A pair of Mallards were dabbling in the mouth of the Fairlie Burn. The female seemed to have a unusually large beak. Several Black-headed Gulls were rooted to their positions on the seashore, no doubt waiting for the wind to subside.

Mallard Black-headed Gull

We walked a short distance along the charming shore path scanning for birds sheltering from the gale. There were few birds. Three Redshanks moved gingerly along the shore. Also, a Common Gull  probed seaweed, guarding it from the Redshanks. Overlooking the scene from its high vantage point, a Magpie grasped the swaying branches. In an adjacent tree a lone Starling was our final picture of the visit.

Redshank Common Gull Magpie Starling

It was a windswept visit in which we tried our best to find the birds. We made no great discoveries  but we did manage pictures of the braver birds as well as discovering some interesting facts about the area. We supped tea inside the car this week comforted by a pair of chocolate cream eclairs - each! ( They are small!! JP)

Pictures of the Week:

Robin Herring Gull

Curlew Redshank

20th January 2019:

Stevenston Point and Troon

It was another depressing Saturday evening when I learned of the weather predicted for Sunday - dull and wet throughout Central Scotland, with only a small chance it might clear from the west by mid-afternoon. We headed west then, to Stevenston Point, via a pair of excellent breakfasts in Stevenston Morrisons (9/10: -1 for slow service).

Stevenston Point:

It was indeed dull on the Point, but the rain had just about stopped as we arrived. To our delight, we saw some Sanderling on the rocks just off the north side. The usual Shags were coming and going, and the Sanderlings were disturbed by the comings and goings of the occupants of the cars parked on the Point. Other fliers we saw were a couple of pairs of Red-breasted Mergansers, the drake chasing a female.

Sanderling Shag Sanderling Red-breasted Merganser

A big Carrion Crow and a Herring Gull flew over the rocks and offshore a Cormorant flew by, skimming the surface on its way south. Another of the “usual suspects” was not hard to find - the Oystercatcher. They were taking a high tide roost on the rocks off the end of the Point. Occasionally one would relocate as the conditions changed.

Carrion Crow Herring Gull Cormorant Oystercatcher

On the rock where we saw the Sanderlings earlier I could see a few Purple Sandpipers  pecking at the surface for tiny morsels of food. Not far away, a yawning 2nd-year Herring Gull was finding the grey day a bit of a bore. Meanwhile, a Ringed Plover flew in, disturbing a Redshank from its slumber. We noticed that there were small areas of blue sky peeping through the gloom so we decided to move to Troon where a pair of Water Pipits had been seen. On our way off of the Point John spotted some Greenfinches in the roadside bushes, so I pulled in to allow him to snap a few images. These birds have had a hard time in recent years due to an epidemic of a parasitic disease, Trichomonosis . Numbers plunged by 60% in 10 years but now seems to be improving in a few areas.

Purple Sandpiper Herring Gull Ringed Plover / Redshank Greenfinch

Pictures of the Week 1:

Herring Gull Greenfinch
Curlew Redshank


On arrival at the Harbour car park I could see a large flock of about 100 Dunlin roosting on the rocks. They were very static with only a few individuals showing their bills, the rest having tucked theirs snuggly under their wings. In the midst of the flock sat a juvenile Herring Gull watching me taking pictures. We started walking south to where the Water Pipits had been seen. We startled a Curlew that had been sitting in silhouette on the rocks. It few north to a bit less busy area of rocks. As we cautiously edged our way along the tricky damp and slippy path at the base of the Ballast Bank, John noticed a patch of green vegetation clinging to the stonework. It is yet to be identified.

Dunlin 1st Cycle Herring Gull Curlew T.B.C

At the south end of the Ballast Bank we came upon an area of seaweed on the rocky shore where we found a few birds busily picking their way through the weed. A couple of male Pied Wagtails and a Rock Pipit were having a field day catching flies and creepy crawlies until a flock of manic Starlings descended onto the smelly piles and displaced the smaller birds. I enjoyed trying to catch shots of the Starlings jumping into the air as they tried to catch flies.

Pied Wagtail Rock Pipit Starling Starling

Eventually we reached the Titchfield Road car park where John pointed out that there was a juvenile Grey Heron on a large rock. I moved across the rocks to get a better lit shot and very obligingly the bird moved its head into the light so making a nice pose. We pushed on through a public garden where a pair of House Sparrows were interacting. The female carried a white feather in its beak, the male trailing behind her. Over the sea wall a pair of Ringed plovers were enjoying the sunshine, allowing me a chance for a decent shot. As we neared our intended destination we came upon small number of Turnstone foraging the rocks just below the sea wall. They seemed unconcerned by the many people passing above them, certainly less concerned than me, as I was worried that the beach ahead seemed to be filling with dog walkers and children, usually not a good mix for nature watching.

Juvenile Grey Heron House Sparrow Ringed Plover Turnstone

Among the Turnstones I had spotted a significant number of Dunlin going about their business, before a dog put them up. The flock disappeared north. Less worried by the ever-increasing crowds, our second Pipit species  of the day, a Meadow Pipit, was dotting about the grass verges by the roadside. We thought we had little chance of seeing the third, the Water Pipit, until I noticed that the beach was laden with a massive blanket of stinking seaweed - with very few people near it. And what do Pipits just love to scour for invertebrates - seaweed. Reinvigorated, we moved to the sea-side of the weed in order that the sun was behind us, and walked back north along the shore, scanning the seaweed as we went. John fairly quickly located a Water Pipit. It was quite mobile, but I managed a few fairly decent photos. Mission accomplished! We headed back along the promenade that nice feeling of success. As an added bonus, while we rested just before the Ballast Bank, John discovered an unfamiliar duck. I got as close to it as I could, although it was silhouetted by the sunlight, but the pictures show its main features. Later we identified it as a hybrid from a drake Mallard and Eider duck. I also found out from a Facebook comment that it had been seen there over the last couple of years.

Dunlin Meadow Pipit Water Pipit Mallard x Eider Hybrid

Back at the car we treated ourselves to strong tea and, for a bit of a change, a selection of mini- Danish pastries. They were very fine. So the visit started in dull conditions and brightened as time went on.

Pictures of the Week 2:

Pied Wagtail Turnstone
Starling Water Pipit

13th January 2019:

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

6th January 2019:

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

Back To Top