Sunday, 2 June 2013


It's a long way to paradise, but my God it's worth the effort

The real arrival starts in our minds as we take the ferry across the sea loch to the wilderness and at the halfway line we allow ourselves to contemplate a list of holiday fauna for here the real change occurs and it marks the arrival at somewhere quite special. Black guillemot is usually the first bird to reveal itself at this moment but it being the nominally 'rush-hour' ferry we didn't get a decent view however we were into the swing and by the time we'd gently meandered first the middle reaches and then the deeper upper stretches of a stream-like single track road for a couple of perfect, still, sunlit hours twenty-five species had been noted; the initial highlights, with no effort nor optical aid, six species of thrush including an immaculate male stonechat and dashing, flashing white wheatear; roadside-probing snipe and wing-stretching red-breasted merganser
Of course we've been here before, to this remotest of places, but never stayed so close to the sea and with a view to die for, no, make that 'to kill for', the first night met with much contented snoring, mostly by journey-fatigued long could a dog sleep if left undisturbed? Parps thinks as long as it can go between wee's, he may be right
Experience told us we could expect the best weather at this time of year, this being backed-up by meteorological fact from mountain climber's weather records, and the next week would take full advantage of that. There would be no holy grail as such but, with all sorts of spectacular opportunities at hand, almost anything was possible
Twelve hours of the journey were sunlit but as we stepped from the car - drizzle! After a somewhat disjointed night's sleep with first Parps and then The Dog, followed by Scamper and Monty, unsettled for various semi-human and canine reasons we awoke again to reinstated glorious sunshine and largely blue skies. I felt The Dog had probably spent all night at the helm of the high-powered telescope, and probably slept in his clothes in fits and starts, but reported nothing of note next morning and with nothing more than the customary Burton dew-dripping nose to show for his efforts
The gulf stream would be warming the clear inshore waters over white sand and volcanic rock. We were set only a stone's throw from the centre of a crater which, once one is aware of it, dominates the geology locally with the majority of it's outer ring still obvious and prominent. In amongst, relics of viking occupation reveal themselves if you know where to look, and what for
Here natural and social history fall into the sometimes heaving sea to spectacular effect
Parps ran-in and shouted in a whisper, as only an 11 year-old can, "Have we got anything mice can eat? We've found his hole and everything!" The cheese was raided.
The mouse turned into a field vole having extensive runs and burrows in the enclosed garden within the croft, some feeding remains and latrines lay evident in some of the entrances to their underground fortress, safe from kestrel by day and short-eared owl by night
Field vole evidence
Within ten minutes of leaving for our favourite spot one of the main attractions pitched-up on a ridge to the right and soared on locked wings towards us against the glow of blue until, sighting an airspace intruder and partly closing it's wings, it increased speed directly overhead as it sought to send the noticeably more diminutive buzzard back from whence it came. At that moment a further irritation was apparent, a small, lighter predator reflecting sun off its wings as it attempted to batter the larger of it's two raptor cousins locked in a haze of antagonism into a wider berth in protection of it's, no doubt active, breeding territory. Nowhere else in Britain was this possible and certainly no longer in northern England where the last pair of golden eagle met it's end just a few years ago when one of the partners disappeared
The most common bird-feeder visitor at home used to be greenfinch but now they are much reduced by a disease apparently spread between uncleaned feeders. Here their diminutive genus and colour-related finch the siskin holds that title and it is not unusual to pick-out two or three distinct pairs foraging at well-stocked bird tables festooned with perforated silver cylinders offering niger, that goldfinch magnet in the english Midlands
As I look out now the sun has turned to an all encompassing, visibility-shrinking thick blanket of misty drizzle. Above these words it says 08.25 and yet, with an already niffy spaniel snoring by the bed, it could be 4am. It never really gets dark this far north, indeed only 30 hours ago The Lady Burton was convinced the green glow stretching over island mountain ranges to the north was the Aurora Borealis. She was too polite to wake me after a 13 hour drive, which was partly fair but at the same time disappointing, but it was only the first night and the sun might just shine again yet over the forth-coming week
Words often come back to haunt you. "No holy grail", I said and then - the holy grail. The Dog was aware from keeping in touch with the upper reaches of Britain that corncrake, the member of the rail family so close to extinction just a decade or so ago and then down to around 600 birds, had been heard in iris beds central to the aforementioned volcano. We had never seen nor heard one but knew from the hideously embrassing antics of one Mr Oddie before he was apparently, finally and not soon enough, ditched by the BBC, what to listen for with the chances of a viewing, without a couple of packed lunches and a box of matchsticks, almost nil. We pulled-up at the local shop fronting the sea loch and tiny harbour and, while three-quarters of our number went to fill a cardboard box with provisions, I allowed myself to drift-off in the warmth of the now strong sun through the car window secretly hoping for the sound of the odd sedge warbler in the slowly emerging phragmites or, perhaps, a whitethroat in the scrubby bramble
The first call I didn't even register, it was so alien as not to be real. The second and I was upright with a start scrabbling for the pocket bird guide as back-up to confirm that rasping 'crex crex' call to be diagnostic beyond doubt...and so it was. Of course, when the three that had wandered returned, I had to confess I had indeed aurally encountered the great mysterious landrail and thankfully they were convinced but also confident they would hear it. They did not.
Later came a revisit to post a card and they all heard it louder and clearer than before, and right outside the shop. A sort-of corncrakes and cornflakes affair you might say (...or you might not!)

The westernmost freshwater rock pool on the UK mainland, just above the salt-water line
In the afternoon it was Parps' turn for a revelation. In literally the westernmost freshwater rock-pool in Britain, 23 miles further west than Land's End, but above the saltwater line in the shadow of a lighthouse he found a population of around 20 palmate newts courting and egg-laying on dead grass in the mid-afternoon sun. Quite a number of gravid females occasionally clasping their hind limbs while their naturally adhesive clear eggs glued the folded-over blades together. So many eggs were laid that it was difficult to find unfolded grass in the peat-coloured pool by the time hunger got the better of us. The pool contained only eight things; water, rocks, skeletons, frog tadpoles, dead grass, a plastic bag, the odd shrimp and newts, surely and eleven year-olds paradise
Male palmate newt
 Again the sun shone today and a moorland walk exposed the brightest and chattiest chats of stone and whin as we wandered toward the sea. From wave-lapped shoreline rock, distant views of a primitive avian throwback, seemingly modelled in clay rather than feathers, could be picked-out against the occasionally glinting sea as it was intermittently present above the waterline. All afternoon and evening it dived for sand-eels and later was joined by this spring's already fledged juvenile. Identification was difficult at a range of around 400-500m but eventually the pale (not mottled) back, the up-tilted bill, the flat chest and lack of pale flank patch set these apart as red-throated divers, a speciality local breeding species along with it's black-throated and slightly more curvy cousin yet to be tracked-down
This brought to mind the occasion we encountered great northern diver with young on Skye, a bird not known to breed in these parts according to all respected guidance but we have found over the years, this probably being our tenth visit, that the guide books are wildly inaccurate due to the simple fact that certain species are, as they say, 'locally common' but to include such species in distribution maps would result in a pin cushion appearance and all round confusion. For instance, yellowhammer, canada goose and linnet are not here according to the books but we regularly find them, and this is the attraction of course, the uncertainty of the findings, or rather, the certainty of the unexpected
The sea was choppy beyond the shallow bay protected by dark rounded rocks, the produce of ancient volcanic activity, which lie in and against the water like massive dormant hippos preventing the sea taking too many liberties with the delicate dune systems behind. Further out the surface was rolling, small fishing boats could be seen swaying this way and then that, making the cetacean hunt futile, but necessary nevertheless - one never knows!
The Lady Burton and The Dog seek-out mammal fins on the sea at prolonged sunset 
Pondering the highly likely prospect of moving here upon retirement we today hit the wall at 65 bird species adding only good ol' pheasant. The raptors have been elusive this time with only two ticked and at least four or five that haven't shown their dramatically-honed forms this spring...and today the air, the moors, bare grass and rain-rounded rock hills - the view - are consumed by a typical Highland foggy drizzle. Albeit, as I write, the gloom begins to lift
Cetaceans are on the mind daily but the sea had been a touch too choppy for viewing and the trip organisers locally had no sightings of minke whale until the second week of May, but they are increasing as the days of spring pass. The impression is that the indicators of that ebullient time of year are at least three weeks, maybe a full month behind those in Warwickshire. When we return there the watersides will be at least a waist-high tangle of perennial vegetation and the lawn, my goodness the lawn, will be in severe need of of a no1 all over. A good two hours needed to set aside there then!
The often silent, sometimes almost morbid, trip home has been illuminated early-on by glimpses of otter on the past two visits between eight and nine a.m. This year was little different except that the view was much more prolonged giving the happy throng time to extract themselves are various items of optical equipment from the car and absorb the calm antics of this lively breakfasting predator of sea-loch urchins
We also managed to add black guillemot and grey seal before the ferry hit the halfway mark on the return. Meanwhile Scamper, the fluffiest of Cockers and always strangely perturbed by hi-viz jackets on male humans, threatened to eat large chunks of the ferry conductor - and failed. He's not scary at the best of times
...and here endeth the tale
(ow The Lady Burton seeks accommodation for the summer holidays. We ARE getting boring!)

1 Herring gull
Lesser black-backed gull
Common tern
Red breasted merganser
Sand martin
House martin
Song thrush
10 Mistle thrush
Blue tit
House sparrow
20 Greenfinch
Lesser redpoll
Collared dove
Hooded crow
Meadow pipit
30 Skylark
Common Snipe
Common sandpiper
Greylag goose
Canada goose
Willow warbler
Sedge warbler
40 Golden eagle
Manx shearwater
Pied wagtail
50 Whinchat
Common whitethroat
Common gull
Great black-backed gull
Red-throated diver
Rock pipit
Great tit
Reed bunting
60 Teal
67 Black guillemot
Red deer
Field vole
Common pipistrelle bat
Common seal
Grey seal
Palmate newt
Common frog tadpole
Small white butterfly
Peacock butterfly
Green-veined white butterfly
Dung beetle

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