Trip reports

East Yorkshire RSPB Local Group Holiday Trip to Dumfries & Galloway October 2010

Male merlin perched on mossy hummock, Shetland Isles

Friday, 28 January 2011

East Yorkshire RSPB Local Group


October 2010

East Yorkshire RSPB Group's adventures in Galloway.

Friday 22nd October
Despite an unscheduled visit to Hunmanby and a diversion around Sutton Bank to avoid road works we made good time to our last pickup point which was in Thirsk where we also took our mid-morning break, dispersing across the town to patronise a number of coffee shops and tea rooms. We passed through some heavy rain as we crossed the Pennines to reach our first destination, RSPB Mersehead near the village of Caulkerbush, by early afternoon where we were met with dry, if dull and cold, weather. We also met up with Margaret Boyd who had to cut her holiday short and make her own way to and from Scotland.

The reserve at Mersehead is based around an active farm with one labourers cottage converted into a small but functional visitor centre and the other cottages acting as staff accommodation. There are two principal habitats on the reserve, partially flooded farmland and the saltmarsh. We began with a walk across the saltmarsh and along the beach. The first section was along a cart track bordered with gorse and with fields to our left and saltmarsh backed by deep purple-brown hills to our right. The walk started with the commoner farmland birds including a good number of house sparrows around the farm, a flock of linnets along the track and a couple of yellowhammers. Except for the occasional passing heron and cormorant the saltmarsh proved quiet. The beach was even quieter. Despite opening onto the mudflats of the Solway Firth, there were was little to be seen. High tide had been at 12 noon but the waters edge was so distant, and the light so poor, that it was impossible to make anything of the occasional distant blobs which were probably a few oystercatchers.

At the end of the beach, which was notable for the number of crushed cockle shells, was an RSPB notice board and a footpath through a narrow shelter belt. It was here that we started to pick up some smaller birds including blackbirds, robins and redwings. On reaching the main farm track we could return along this to the visitor centre or cross it to join the path to one of the two hides on the reserve. This path also lead through a narrow shelter belt but here the trees seemed in better condition, many of those on the first path were dead or dying. All were draped in lichens. This woodland produced a small flock of blue and long-tailed tits and, for some, views of a treecreeper.

The view from the hide was of open, if shallow, water which gave us our first wildfowl. The commonest by far were wigeon with possibly a couple of hundred birds on the water or grazing at its edge. Far smaller numbers of teal, mallard, shoveler and pintail were also found although it was surprising that there were very few coot and no moorhen at all. A second hide, nearer the car park and visitor centre, gave different views over much the same stretch of water. We began to pick up flights of barnacle geese. In addition to the flock we passed on the way into the first hide there were geese just beyond the hedge behind the pool, and a further skein which had landed in a field behind the visitor centre. When these big flocks go up it is difficult to make an accurate assessment of numbers but counts by staff suggested that there were about 7,000 barnacle geese on the reserve. We left Mersehead at 5pm for the half hour drive to our accommodation, the Urr Valley Hotel on the outskirts of Castle Douglas.

Saturday 23rd October
Today was to involve a long drive as we headed to Wigtown via the Forestry Commission Visitor Centre at Kirroughtree near the village of Planure. The route was along the A75 which at times skirts the shore of the Solway allowing excellent views of the bays, mudflats and castles of the area. Unfortunately the weather was not that kind with low cloud and light showers obscuring our views of the range of hills known as Cairnsmore of Fleet. They appear to be good raptor habitat and could have held golden eagles had we been able to see them. We did not miss out on raptors entirely as we did see a couple of buzzards and a peregrine falcon while Ken and Angela Belk saw a sparrowhawk near the visitor centre. We followed the shortest of the walks through the woods, the Bruntis Trail, named after the two small lochs we passed. The footpaths were in places steep and of loose shale and buried rocks which were also wet and covered in leaves. Not far into the wood we came across a small clearing which was full of birds. The first to be identified were the tits, with a flock dominated by long-tailed and blue with a few coal and great making up the numbers. With them were treecreepers and nuthatches although the latter were notable for their calling rather than their appearance. The woodland here was mixed with both broadleaved species and larch. This area also attracted a few goldcrests but was best remembered for a flock of about 30 siskins. They were particularly flighty but seemed to be following a short circuit which kept bringing them back to the cones at the top of some of the taller larches. A little further along the path we came across a mammal I was hoping we would see but not fully expecting to appear, the red squirrel. The first was sitting on a low overhanging branch for quite a while as we queued up to see, and try to photograph it. Shortly after, and probably no more than a few hundred yards further along the track, we saw another two. If approached cautiously both could be seen well but they were a little timid.

The walk through the woods took about two hours after which we took lunch in the car park before driving the short distance to Wigtown. My original plan had been to visit the nature reserve at Wigtown Harbour Pools and then walk towards the town and along the old railway to the Martyr's Stake. At the Pools we were met by Elizabeth Tindal who is a Countryside Ranger for Dumfries and Galloway Council with responsibility for all their sites in Wigtownshire. As we assembled in the car park we became aware of a bird of prey perched in a pine tree between us and the hide. It was clearly a falcon and a dark brown one at that but it also had an unusually pale nape which did not fit any of the common species. After a while we came to the conclusion that it had to be a merlin. Elizabeth took us into the hide, which is open all the time, where we could view the pools to one side and Wigtown Bay to the other. As at Mersehead, the main wildfowl were wigeon, teal, mallard, pintail and shoveler although the numbers were smaller with only the teal in large numbers. After a bit of searching a few little grebes were found while a kingfisher made a once only dart across the open water. Just to make sure we had all seen it, the merlin tried to fly into the hide.

Looking the other way, where a falling tide was revealing a little bit of mud beside a creek which wound its way into the bay, the view was more open. Most of the birds were more distant with small flocks of lapwing and curlew feeding on the saltmarsh and a few redshanks coming to the banks of the River Bladnoch. At the mouth of the river was a flock of half a dozen ducks. They were elongate and low in the water. Some were grey with reddish-brown heads, the others white with dark heads. These also had
chestnut bands across the upper breasts confirming them as red-breasted mergansers. Unfortunately they remained distant.

In a late change to the published itinerary we accepted an invitation to visit the newly opened RSPB reserve at Crook of Baldoon. The warden Paul Tarling met us at Wigtown and led us along a country lane and then a farm track to the new reserve. We parked in an old farmyard which overlooked the extensive saltmarsh and mudflats of Wigtown Bay. We had only just left the car park and started to walk north, towards Wigtown, when we became aware of a desperate chase going on behind us. A meadow pipit was darting and dipping, swooping and swerving to avoid the attentions of a merlin. The chase ended when the pipit dived into the centre of a small, solitary hawthorn bush yards from our coach. However, the merlin was in no mood to let this pass and perched on the bush, moving position a few times to try to flush the pipit but it was not going to happen. The bush was too dense for the small falcon to climb into. We moved on and a few minutes later became aware of a second life or death chase, this time a pipit, probably the same pipit, being pursued by two merlins. The pipit again headed for cover but the eventual outcome of the chase was not seen.

With the afternoon sun now behind us we scanned the mud for waders and were repeatedly rewarded with a spectacular show of white and gold as a flock of over a thousand golden plovers rose, circled and settled again; their colours contrasting against the greens, browns and purples of the woods and moors of the Cairnsmore of Fleet at the other side of the bay. After a while it became clear what was causing the plovers to take flight. There were peregrine falcons patrolling the mudflats. We picked them out perched either on drifted trees or on the ground or making flights towards the flock although there was never the same violent chase we had seen with the merlins and the meadow pipit. Although the other waders were at the now distant waters edge we could make out a few hundred each of lapwing, dunlin, oystercatcher and shelduck.

Sunday 24th October
Sunday morning broke cold and frosty. We were to remain local today, never being more than five miles from Castle Douglas. The morning was to be taken up with a walk through the RSPB Ken-Dee Marshes reserve. The car park at this excellent, but little visited reserve would take a couple of minibuses but not our coach, so we had to be dropped off near the Mains of Duchrae Farm. We had not fully disembarked before a blur of dark brown skimmed down the road, inches from the surface before turning violently left and into a small garden. Feral pigeons, sparrows and starlings scatted as what was clearly a female sparrowhawk sped through.

Immediately to the south of the farm are grazed fields and it is these which hold the geese. The reserve attracts both Canada and greylag geese, but the bird we were after was the Greenland race of the white-fronted goose. After a few hundred yards walk north-west along a farm track there is a short footpath leading onto a viewpoint from which the geese fields can be scanned. To our right, on the brow of a large mound, we saw the top halves of a handful of brown geese with heavily streaked breasts and white around the base of their bills. These were definite white-fronts. As we watched, small flocks of white-fronts flew in clearly showing a very broad white 'V' across the tail, totally different to anything seen on any other goose found in this country.

As we walked further northwards we moved out of farmland and into woodland although not before noticing the occasional buzzard or red kite drifting overhead against an almost cloudless blue sky. The woods are a mixture of larch and broadleaved species with a couple of small plantations on the way in. Once in the woods we started to pick up the mixed tit flocks we had seen yesterday. We also noticed a strong and regular movement of thrushes, mainly fieldfares but with a few redwings, up the valley. We had just passed a point known as Orchard Wood when we became aware of a small flock of siskin feeding very low down on an overhanging branch. It was while we were watching these that we picked up a movement in the leaf litter below an embankment of beech trees. Something reddish was scurrying through the reddish leaves. More red squirrels. They showed quite well and I think everyone got the chance to see them clearly, including those who missed them yesterday.

It was while we were moving off from here that a few other small birds passed us. Some were clearly chaffinches but one caught my eye as it flew to my right and away behind me. My views were very brief but I was left with the impression of a small bird which may have been black and white. I did not see it land but I left my scope and retraced my steps for a few yards but to no avail. At this point the group had become stretched out along the path so it was not until we reached the footbridge to the first hide that we were all together again and Margaret Boyd suggested, without prompting from me, that she might have seen a lesser spotted woodpecker. She had seen it in about the same position that the bird I had seen would have flown to. However, neither of us had good enough views to be certain so we had to put that down as a possible rather than a certainty. What a record that would have been had either of us been able to see it properly and confirm our suspicions. But for about a hundred teal and a snipe the hide was quiet so we made our way back to the coach and lunch.

The coach was already waiting for us when we got back to the car park so we had lunch here enjoying further views of the geese before making the ten minute drive to Bellymack Farm near Lauriston. This is the famous red kite feeding station. We arrived well in advance of the daily 2pm feeding to find an ever growing crowd of watchers. Most of us looked on from the car park rather than the hide as bucketfuls of food were brought out and distributed, some onto the ground but most onto a raised platform. Even before this happened there were kites circling the sky above us with a few crows and farmland birds. While scanning a distant hedgerow Linda McKenzie gave a shout of surprise as she came across a flock of half a dozen waxwings. Although distant they were clearly standing erect, pinky-brown in colour with a small crest. However, they did not stay for long and did not reappear although everyone, bar two, saw them. Once the food had been put out, mainly local road kill, the kites quickly started to swoop, first over the ground and later, once this had been cleared, over the platform. The kites would come in waves with quiet periods between as those which had snatched something drifted off, often nibbling at the food in flight in the manner of a hobby. It was difficult to judge numbers but I made a few rough counts of 70 to 80 kites. A number of kites bore coloured wing-tags and at least one had a radio-transmitter aerial on its back.

We left Bellymack Farm shortly after 3pm and made our way into Castle Douglas for a short walk along the banks of Carlingwark Loch. Near the car park there was a large flock of black-headed gulls and about a dozen mute swans. Looking right towards the main road we also made out a couple of little grebes. Walking towards the start of the footpath to the left, known as lover's lane, we glimpsed another pair of small grebes. It was easy, on first glance, to assume they were little grebes again but these did not have the powder-puff rear ends and their heads were too flat and the beaks too long. Having seen them only a few days earlier at Filey, it was Bernard Turnbull who suggested they were red-necked grebes. They were clearly small but had the body shape of a great-crested grebe. They were however predominantly brown. Careful checking of the head markings and other features confirmed our identification. We followed the path for a short distance before the cold and gathering gloom ended the walk.

Monday 25th October
The last day of the holiday broke even colder and frostier than yesterday. Margaret Boyd had departed for home the previous evening and we were to drop Anne Elgood at Dumfries railway station for her onward journey to visit family in Edinburgh. We had only one location on our mind today, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust's excellent reserve at Caerlaverock, the jewel of the Solway. Within a couple of miles of the reserve I noticed a small flock of birds flying into the hedge to the right of the road. At first I though they were more starlings or fieldfares but when the coach drew close to them it was clear they were pale and perching erect. More waxwings. Luckily Angie Bird got on to them so it is only Margaret Boyd who failed to see either flock of these special winter visitors. Sorry Margaret.

On the approach to Caerlaverock it became clear that there were good numbers of barnacle geese around with large flocks lifting from the fields. Once on the reserve we made a quick visit to the Folly Pond hide where the main birds were wigeon and teal. However, with time pressing we moved into the Peter Scott hide for the 11am feeding of the swans. The pool held about 60 mute and 70 whooper swans along with most of the mallard and other ducks we were to find on the reserve. As the warden walked out with his wheelbarrow of grain a feeding frenzy ensued with the nimble ducks darting in between the swans to hoover up the offerings.

After this the group split up and we each made our own way around the site which has two main hides at the end of hedge bound pathways, these elevated observatories giving excellent views of the reserve and the fields beyond. The Saltcot Merse hide overlooks the Solway giving views beyond the fields and onto the estuary. At times viewing can be difficult if the sun is in the wrong position. I was surprised by the lack of birds here with only a handful of curlews and a couple of sky larks on the saltmarsh. Looking back towards the visitor centre however, the vivid green fields were covered in geese, all barnacles.

The Avenue Tower hide at the eastern end of the reserve overlooks more open fields and again these were full of barnacle geese. Flocks contained hundreds if not thousands of birds. WWT counts suggest that up to 14,000 barnacle geese were on the reserve over the weekend of our visit. It was from the Avenue Tower hide that we picked up a couple of pink-footed geese, a bird I had expected to have seen in greater numbers during the holiday. Certainly in October 2009, when I made my preliminary visit, there were larger numbers both here and at RSPB Mersehead. It was while in the Avenue Tower hide that we saw our only stonechat of the holiday. This was a real surprise as the estuarine habitat should have been ideal for them. However, while at Crook of Baldoon Paul Tarling had explained that there had been over a foot of snow for much of the winter in this part of Scotland and that the stonechats had not survived. The last addition to the holiday list was a spotted redshank from Campbell hide taking the total to 92. We left Caerlaverock at 2pm and, after a break at Leeming Bar and a quick stop to drop off Margaret Clark in Thirsk, we made our way home to East Yorkshire.

We stayed at the Urr Valley Hotel on the outskirts of Castle Douglas which is perfectly situated in mid Galloway for easy access to many excellent bird watching sites. The staff coped well with a party of twenty-six, although we appeared to have the run of the hotel with only one other couple seen on any evening. My thanks go to the staff at the hotel for their hospitality towards the Group during our stay.

David Woodmansey

The bird list:

1) Little Grebe
2) Red-necked Grebe
3) Cormorant
4) Grey Heron
5) Mute Swan
6) Whooper Swan
7) Pink-footed Goose
8) White-fronted Goose
9) Greylag Goose
10) Canada Goose
11) Barnacle Goose
12) Shelduck
13) Wigeon
14) Gadwall
15) Teal
16) Mallard
17) Pintail
18) Shoveler
19) Pochard
20) Tufted Duck
21) Goldeneye
22) Red-breasted Merganser
23) Goosander
24) Red Kite
25) Sparrowhawk
26) Buzzard
27) Kestrel
28) Merlin
29) Peregrine Falcon
30) Pheasant
31) Moorhen
32) Coot
33) Oystercatcher
34) Golden Plover
35) Lapwing
36) Dunlin
37) Snipe
38) Curlew
39) Spotted Redshank
40) Redshank
41) Black-headed Gull
42) Common Gull
43) Lesser Black-backed Gull
44) Herring Gull
45) Great Black-backed Gull
46) Feral Pigeon
47) Wood Pigeon
48) Collared Dove
49) Tawny Owl
50) Kingfisher
51) Great Spotted Woodpecker
52) Sky Lark
53) Swallow
54) Meadow Pipit
55) Pied Wagtail
56) Waxwing
57) Wren
58) Dunnock
59) Robin
60) Stonechat
61) Wheatear
62) Blackbird
63) Fieldfare
64) Song Thrush
65) Redwing
66) Mistle Thrush
67) Goldcrest
68) Long-tailed Tit
69) Coal Tit
70) Blue Tit
71) Great Tit
72) Nuthatch
73) Treecreeper
74) Jay
75) Magpie
76) Jackdaw
77) Rook
78) Carrion Crow
79) Hooded Crow
80) Raven
81) Starling
82) House Sparrow
83) Tree Sparrow
84) Chaffinch
85) Brambling
86) Greenfinch
87) Goldfinch
88) Siskin
89) Linnet
90) Bullfinch
91) Yellowhammer
92) Reed Bunting