PERTHSHIRE & ISLE OF SKYE, SCOTLAND
22nd JULY - 24th JULY 2017
Portree - Isle of Skye
More of a long weekend than a trip really.
As ever for Scotland, the planning is done in advance, but whether or not the visit actually occurs depends entirely upon what the weather forecasts are dictating. No point in doing a short trip if it was going to rain heavily.
Mid-week I was pretty unsure as to what was happening, lots of low pressure systems being predicted around the UK. By Thursday, looked like the best of the weather would be in the north-west of Scotland, so possibly on, and by Friday it was definitely looking like a good possibility.
For a change birds weren't the main target - was really interested in two things, namely Beaver and Common Dolphin. A bonus on any Scotland trip is the scenery.
At 450 miles each way (plus the additional mileage just blogging around), a fair amount of time would be spent in the car.
Winging it all of the way - other than the boat trips, nothing booked in advance.
Booked the boat trips at 9.00pm the evening before I set off, namely a whale cruise out of Gairloch for the Saturday & a wildlife watching trip out of Portree on the Sunday.
Portree - Isle of Skye
Travel up to Scotland late on the Friday night.
Saturday morning would be spent at Loch of the Lowes nature reserve, hoping to get Beaver at dawn (which should be just after 5.00am) - additionally Osprey also breed here. Forecast for this part of the country at this time wasn't great.
From there needed to head off to Gairloch for a whale cruise at 2.15pm. Wasn't that bothered about whales as such (normally Minke Whale is the default species, which I've seen plenty of before, though other species do occur), but was hoping this would be my best chance to get some decent images of Common Dolphin.
Overnight was intended to be at Torridon, en route to the Isle of Skye.
Sunday morning I was booked out on a wildlife watching cruise from Portree on Skye - White-tailed Sea Eagle & Common Seal were expected, Common Dolphin a slim/outside chance. Rest of the day pottering around Skye.
Monday I was going to take the Uig-Lochmaddy ferry (between the Isle of Skye and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides) as a non-landing foot passenger, basically to see if I could pick up any cetaceans or seabirds.
Tuesday was a spare day, with the intention of dropping into the Loch of the Lowes natures reserve on the way home for an evening stake out for Beaver - would also help to break up the journey.
Quiraing area - Isle of Skye
Day 1 - 22nd July 2017
An early arrival at the Loch of the Lowes Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve near Dunkeld, which is just off the A9 about 15 miles north of Perth. A good start in the carpark, with a female and three young (2 pale & 1 dark) Fallow Deer seen. Made it down to the hide for 4.45am, just as it was starting to get light. Not surprisingly, I was the only person there.
Beaver - Loch of the Lowes
Didn't really have a clue what I was doing trying to find Beaver, in the sense of which areas I needed to scan and how likely I was to see one, but as luck would have it saw my first at 5.10am, swimming across the loch, out in the open. Had a variety of views over the next hour and a quarter, usually swimming close in to the banks of the loch, with the last sighting at 6.25am, then nothing before I left the hide at 8.00am. A minimum of two Beavers involved in the sightings, and they always appeared and disappeared into the same inlet, so it had been worthwhile coming this morning - at least now I knew their behaviour, which would be beneficial when I came again on the journey home.
The forecast of heavy cloud cover had materialised and the light was so dull (no better at 8.00am compared to dawn). This, combined with distant views, meant the photos were really poor quality, so resorted to getting some video.
The Osprey nest was within decent range of the hide, certainly a much better set up compared to Loch Garten, but as with the Beavers, photography was thwarted by lack of light and distance. Two juveniles present, usually loafing about either on the nest or nearby trees, but always returning to the nest when the adults came in with a fish.
Osprey - Loch of the Lowes
The adult female was expected to leave any day now for the long flight to West Africa, and the male was taking sole responsibility for feeding the youngsters - even now he was reducing the number of feeds, to encourage them to start fending for themselves.
Didn't see a huge amount else from the hide - flock of 20+ Goosander, 3 Grey Heron, 2 Mute Swan and a flock of Canada Geese.
By 8.00am headed back to the carpark for breakfast, before setting off on the three and a half hour drive to Gairloch on the north-west coast of Scotland for the afternoon whale cruise. Had got as far as Dalwhinnie when a text came through at 9.00am saying only six people had booked onto the cruise and a minimum of eight was needed for it to be viable - option was either to cancel my booking and get a refund or carry on to Gairloch and take a chance that another two people would book. To be fair to the cruise company, if I'd booked a few days earlier, I probably would have got an early warning that there was a chance it might not go out.
Not really a problem, just had to rejig things - decided to cancel and detour to Skye via Spean Bridge, Invergarry and Kyle of Lochalsh to make the afternoon sailing of the Uig to Lochmaddy ferry, in the hope that I could pick up Common Dolphin from that.
Great scenery en route, with plenty of stops including one for the picturesque Eilean Donan Castle, which was heaving with tourists in glorious weather conditions. A lot easier to get onto the Isle of Skye nowadays - last time I did it, maybe 25 years ago, you had to get the ferry over.
Made Uig by 1.00pm, but as it happened the ferry was late anyway, and wasn't expected to depart until after 3.00pm, so I had plenty of time for lunch. At £12 for a return ticket as a foot passenger, it had to be worth a bash to look for dolphins.
Common Dolphin - Uig to Lochmaddy ferry
Ferry was packed being the first day of the school holidays, and there wasn't much space on the outside deck. A calm sea, with just small amounts of white water, it didn't take long from leaving Uig to pick up a pod of dolphin, possibly common, but they were distant and going away all of the time. Other than that, on the outward journey also had single Porpoise, the odd Grey Seal and just a mile or two from Lochmaddy a Minke Whale.
Almost did a trip to North Uist in May just gone, and looking out over it from the harbour, looks like its definitely worth a bash in the next couple of years.
Common Dolphin- Uig to Lochmaddy ferry
Heading back to Uig, twenty minutes into the sailing I picked up a pod of Common Dolphin - initially distant, gradually they came closer to the boat giving great views for everyone on the outer deck. Still horrendous to get photos of with the lens having such a narrow field of view. Another smaller group of dolphins found five minutes later showed even closer, and was some compensation for the Gairloch cancellation.
Additional sightings included another Porpoise and a Basking Shark in Uig Bay. Didn't see a huge variety of birds, Red-throated Divers were in both harbours, 7+ Black Guillemot at Uig, but otherwise just the expected auks, gulls, terns and Gannets. Only a small number of Manx Shearwater seen.
All in, a decent return from what was just a scheduled ferry service.
Fairy Glen, near Uig
Back on land, had a quick look at the Fairly Glen, just outside of Uig, before visiting Portree. A pleasant walk around the harbour area in beautiful sunshine, worked out where I needed to meet for tomorrows cruise, followed by the obligatory fish and chips.
Drove onto the Old Man of Storr, before calling it a day.
Day 2 - 23rd July 2017
An early start again before 6.00am, to try and fit in as much as possible. Looked like it was going to be another superb day, mostly blue sky and small amounts of cloud.
First off a quick look at Staffin Island whilst passing, but no sign of Bonxie.
The Quiraing - Isle of Skye
Turned off the main road, and started the steep climb towards the impressive landscape of The Quiraing - scenery here is in a world of its own. Parked up at the carpark at the top for breakfast - a few people wild camping and some were already kitted up to set off hiking. I assume this area later in the day will be busy with coach loads of tourists, so it was good to see it whilst it was still very quiet.
Raven - Isle of Skye
Birding wise, it was actually really good. Highlight was Raven, which seemed to be everywhere, at times harassing the local Common Buzzards - had crippling views of a family group of three, including one sat on top of a sheep. Other decent quality birds included Ring Ouzel, Stonechat and Twite. At Staffin also saw a small flock of genuine Rock Dove perched on top of the church roof.
The drive back towards Portree was great for the views, especially the Old Man of Storr. No time to do the climb up today, but well worth it if you get the chance - I did it when I was last here and the panorama is memorable.
Stardust boats - Portree Harbour
Arrived at Portree harbour in plenty of time, with the boat due out at 10.00am. Two boats were going out at the same time, and I was due on the smaller one that was doing the slightly shorter two hour cruise - I'd booked that one on the assumption that I would have already seen Common Dolphin on the Gairloch trip. Larger boat would have been better with hindsight, looked more stable and the top deck would have been a better angle for photography.
Common Dolphin - Portree Bay
Eight people on board and set off in what were still great conditions. Hadn't gone that far and were still in the bay, when I picked up a pod of Common Dolphin in the distance, that we'd already passed feeding near the fish cages on the northern shoreline. Told the skipper, and after changing course everyone on both boats were treated to brilliant views over twenty minutes or so, including dolphins leaping out of the water. Great experience.
Common Dolphin - Portree Bay
Thought it was hard photographing them from a relatively stable ferry yesterday, today on a small rocking boat was a nightmare. The longer lens was a liability, no sooner had you virtually got a lock, they were back underwater. I wasn't fast enough and just hoped I'd got something useable. Appears as though I was better at finding dolphins than photographing them. Glad I took some video, you realise just how quick they are, and how difficult it is.
Stardust II - Portree Bay
Moved onto the White-tailed Sea Eagle site, which was on one of the southern headlands at the entrance to the bay. Sure enough an adult was sat on the cliffs, and a fish thrown out of the sister boat initially failed to generate any interest, even when a Great Black-backed Gull tried to steal it. Eventually the eagle did take off, circled around a few times, obviously thought about making a dive before a change of heart, after which it flew back to the cliffs.
White-tailed Sea Eagle - Portree Bay
I've seen a fair few White-tailed Sea Eagles over the years, but always an impressive and imposing sight.
Common Seal - Raasay
Next stop was a Common Seal colony on an offshore island from Raasay - reasonable numbers loafing about, including a few youngish looking ones. At least three Grey Seal also present, detached from the group of Common. Look quite docile until one yawns, and you can see the teeth.
Grey Seal - Raasay
Not much seen on the journey back, best bird was a Black Guillemot which gave good views photography wise, on the approach to the harbour.
The boat trip had been great value at £20 - admittedly I'd been very lucky with the weather as well as dropping on the dolphin pod (far from guaranteed), but to see dolphins, a sea eagle and plenty of seals in great scenery over two hours, you couldn't really ask for any more. Link for the boat tours if anyone fancies giving it a go is at the bottom of the report. Portree Harbour - Isle of Skye
Lunch at the carpark in Portree, and a chance to have a bit of a break after a hectic day and a half. Some good views from here of Rock Dove, as well as a fly over flock of 18 Grey Heron.
The original plan had been to stay on the Isle of Skye until Tuesday, but having gained a day with the cancellation of the Gairloch whale cruise and with things having gone so well, decided I'd head down to Loch of the Lowes tomorrow morning to give another bash at Beaver and Osprey photography. The weather forecasts for Dunkeld were for bright sunshine all day, so should be a total contrast to the grim light conditions I'd faced on the way up.
Slow relaxed drive south towards the bridge, highlight was the 35+ moulting Red-breasted Mergansers on Loch Ainort, with a couple of Hooded Crows also giving excellent views here, feeding along the shoreline.
Hooded Crow - Loch Ainort
Stopped off at Broadford Bay, and with the tide out, waders were presumably dispersed over a wide area. A few gulls bathing in the fresh water, including Lesser Black-backed Gull, at least two Common Sandpiper present, and also a few Rock Dove on the beach. Kept on checking the mobile Starling flock as well, just in case I could pick up the adult Rosy Starling that had been nearby at Harrapool in previous days, but no luck.
The cloud cover was starting to increase now, and made the decision to head back early to the Loch of the Lowes nature reserve, arriving there at 7.30pm. Reasonable light at first, but by the time the Beavers appeared, it had gone really - as it happened, views were more distant this evening compared to yesterday morning anyway.
All to play for tomorrow.
Day 3 - 24th July 2017
Another very early start, and in the hide for before 5.00am, having already seen a female Fallow Deer in the carpark. As expected, it looked like it was going to be a bright one, and I had the full day if need be to get improved Beaver and Osprey shots.
Settled in for the stakeout, but hampered by the rising sun shining straight into the hide. No sign of Beaver until just before 6.00am, when one came in from the right, close to the hide, before making landfall somewhere to the left of the hide. Did have a scan from the path, but couldn't pick it up - best photos so far, but frustratingly, taken against the light not as good as they could have been. Saw the same Beaver later swimming back to the usual inlet about fifteen minutes later, and that was it for the morning, with no further sign.
Osprey - Loch of the Lowes
A chance to give the Ospreys more attention. Two juveniles and parents still around, and with a couple of intruding birds, at one point six were in view at the same time. The breeding birds would see off the intruders, as well as any Grey Heron that strayed too close.
Fallow Deer - Loch of the Lowes
By 8.00am decided to go for a drive, heading east along the loch. Ended up being pretty decent, with a herd of 20+ Fallow Deer being found where the woodland cleared to fields. Carried on to Loch of Butterstone, but that was difficult to view from the road - between there and Loch of Craiglush, had an Osprey circling just over the road in great light, but nowhere to pull in, so no chance of any photos.
Back at the hide, the sun was starting to swing around, but it coincided with a period of quiet activity. Adults were still feeding the young, but less frequently, in order to encourage them to fend for themselves.
Great Crested Grebe - Loch of the Lowes
Additional birds included three very distant Red Kite, Common Buzzard, a pair of Great Crested Grebe with two young, 20+ Goosander, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Siskin.
Broke off for lunch at midday, had a quick look around the visitor centre, then off into Dunkeld for an hour to get something to eat and a cold drink - by now it was 22 degrees in glorious sunshine, with just fluffy white clouds in the sky.
Osprey - Loch of the Lowes
Facilities at the Loch of the Lowes hide were excellent, with huge glass windows which opened fully inwards, were about as good as it gets for photography. Scopes were also provided for visitors use during opening hours, as well as a screen in the hide showing live footage from the nest webcam. The visitor centre was open and volunteers were present from 10.00am, but the hides and loos were opens 24 hours a day. Lots of families filtered through today, and it was great seeing the kids get a buzz from watching wildlife.
Had to make the decision as to whether to head home now, or give the Beavers another bash tonight. Decided on the latter - the light should be great in the evening, provided they showed early enough.
Fallow Deer - Loch of the Lowes
Back in the hide for an afternoon session, and not surprisingly more of the same. Highlight was watching one of the young Ospreys attempting to fish, practising dives constantly. Never actually came up with any fish, but all good experience for it - was mainly dropping into what was presumably shallower water of the loch near to the far bank, so just out of range for quality images.
Afternoon merged in early evening, and at some point I was going to have decide what time to set off for North Yorkshire - the sooner the Beavers showed, the better.
Beaver - Loch of the Lowes
Just after 7.00pm, someone in the hide picked a Beaver amongst the water lilies, and a few minutes later, it cruised past in front of us in great light. At last I had some photos I was happy with. Had a scan of the trees from the footpath near to the hide, just in case it was viewable, but no joy.
A real bonus seeing one so early, as a fair proportion of the drive home could now be done in daylight.
A great few days, Scotland is always an excellent place to visit. The weather was spot on, the scenery was some backdrop, and the wildlife really showed well. There was a fair bit of driving involved, but not the worst hardship in these landscapes.
Main targets were Common Dolphin and Beaver, both of which I had brilliant views of. Had four dawn or dusk sessions for Beaver, and saw them on every one.
Photos from the visit will end up in this album - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p297156442.
Sign of Beaver activity - Loch of the Lowes
Stardust Boat Trips - http://www.skyeboat-trips.co.uk/
Calmac Ferries -https://www.calmac.co.uk/uig-lochmaddy-northuist-ferry-summer-timetable
Scottish Wildlife Trust - Loch of the Lowes - https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/loch-of-the-lowes/
Loch of the Lowes - Facebook page - https://en-gb.facebook.com/Lochofthelowes/
Visit Scotland - https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/isle-skye/
Skye - Visitors Guide - https://www.isleofskye.com/