Climbing ivy and cups of coffee

~ A week on the shores of a far-flung Scottish loch ~

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Making the most of a week bereft (at least mostly) of lectures, myself and housemate (or in my case, caravan buddy) took a spontaneous trip to western Scotland; the aim was to allow some head space to crack on with university assignments and dissertation writing, whilst occasionally venturing out to absorb the scenery and bustle of wildlife which populates the area.

In reality, though, the week was always much more likely to end up as an excuse to get out an explore some fresh wilderness, to get the cameras out and to marvel at the diversity of habitats and wildlife on show as the season eases into the clutches of autumn and winter.

14th to 15th September | heading North

We boarded the National Express from Falmouth at 9am on Saturday morning. 24 hours later, after a four-hour stop in the clammy depths of London, we stepped off the coach into a bright and chilly morning in Dumfries and Galloway. Feeling a tad jaded from this tortuous endurance test, we still had another two hours aboard a bus to deliver us to the journey’s final stop…

 

Our destination for the week was Kirkcolm: a quaint little village on the south-western edge of Loch Ryan, some 50km west of Dumfries and Galloway:

15th September | rest and recovery

Despite our sleep-deprived state, the feel of fresh un-air-conditioned air was enough to entice us out for a first explore of the area after our arrival midday. Jack has a deep connection with the Kirkcolm, where his passion and interest in the natural world was ignited in his early teens. It was great to have the insiders tour of his favourite spots, sharing some memorable experiences of previous encounters with amazing wildlife.

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Jack scanning the western shore of Loch Ryan, with Ailsa Craig just visible on the horizon

Our first stroll from the village, with moody and overcast skies overhead, took us into a tangled copse of autumn-tinged beech woodland. The towering smooth-barked trees were gripped with sprawling ivy creepers; the forest floor spattered with rotting logs in which a riot of fungi were working away with decomposing hyphae; the colourful canopy was a chatter of bird calls and song as nuthatches, treecreepers, tits, warblers and finches. We even glimpsed a buck Roe Deer in an adjacent field, and a Buzzard taking flight from nearby.

Not a bad introduction!

 

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Beech leaves being slowly drained of their chlorophyll and other pigments, turning first yellow then a rusty red as resources are drawn back into the tree for the winter

A second walk late afternoon gave an overview of the diverse estuarine habitat within walking distance of the house: we recorded over 43 species in less than an hour! Birdlife exploded from ever angle, from high-flying flocks of Curlews and Golden Plovers overhead, to bobbing strings of Wigeons and Red-breasted Mergansers out to sea; and chattering feeding flocks of Twite amongst the loch-edge umbellifers and mayweeds.

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our first afternoon’s bird list
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Oystercatchers taking flight

The highlight of that first day came in the form of a Merlin. Its arrival was heralded by an explosion of Starlings, plovers and finches from the field adjacent to the loch. Alarm calls ringing out and flocks amalgamating for defence, we were likewise on the alert. Then out of the grey sky its sleak form powered down and low over the pasture, narrowly missing a Starling before continuing on its way southwest over the loch.

16th September | the storm

The day of Hurricane Ophelia dawned menacingly calm. There was a static feel to the air, with high-level dust clouds moving ahead of the storm front high in the atmosphere. The amazing result of this dust whipped up from the Sahara and carried many hundreds of miles north was a superb orange globe hanging high above the south-east horizon.

 

We headed out to the estuary for high tide, the wind slowly picking up from the south-west. A flock of eight Whooper Swans had descended in the fields opposite, grazing amongst the cattle herd and noisy kerfuffle of bickering Starlings.

As we neared the loch, a herd of Curlews (yes, that is their collective noun!) took off and headed out over the water. Seconds later a pair of Peregrines appeared out of nowhere. Honing in on a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits amongst the flock, the male and female Peregrines took it in turn to mount steep attacks on the unfortunate targets. The male Peregrine made contact with one godwit, which hit the water surface instantly – wings flapping away uselessly after a powerful knock from the falcon. For the next 15 minutes, the female Peregrine repeatedly wheeled around, stooping low over the godwit but apparently unwilling to make the plunge to retrieve the panicking prey. Eventually she went for the grab, and plucked the sodden godwit from the surface, tracking back towards the shore with its prize. As she cleared the main road the godwit slipped, landing headless some 100 metres on the tarmac from our riveted eyes. What a drama! As if the storm wasn’t enough excitement. We left the pair to it, who eventually plucked their prize off the road headed east.

 

Our subsequent wonder along the loch was slightly less dramatic than the intense 30 minute predator-prey chase, but it was very atmospheric to watch hundreds of waders, ducks, geese and finches set against the moody dark clouds and bright red sun in the  backdrop. Three Swallows and a House Martin passed overhead, and I sympathised with them knowing the imminent challenges facing them to the south. A Pintail amongst the Wigeon was a new species for our trip list.

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Jack capturing the moment. A busy gathering of some 40 Cormorants, 100 Wigeons, 120 Oystercatchers, 35 Shags, Pintail and handful of Turnstones were huddled together on the shingly spit
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Wigeons in a surreal-coloured loch – not the colour you’d ever have thought possible at 12pm!

The rest of the day was spent attempting to crack on with the secondary purpose of the trip: work. For me, this was focussed on the slow process of analysing the shearwater tracking data I gathered during the summer on Bardsey.

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A common combo for the week: laptop, coffee, and a distracting cluster of bird feeders through the window

By mid-afternoon, I’d had enough of battling with the quirks of the software program ‘R’, and we all headed to the south side of the peninsula to take a look at Hurricane Ophelia’s brutal force. We stopped in Port Patrick, where the raging south-westerly had whipped up a fierce sea – cancelling several of the Irish ferry crossing – and battered the cliffs with 20-foot waves. The air was full of salt spray, and gulls stood grim-faced into the brunt of the weather. The odd Gannet whipped past on bowed wings, soaring across the gale in on their incredibly efficient long, thin wings.

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The quaint little town of Port Patrick had a very Cornish feel to it, especially in a battering south wester’

17th September | the aftermath

Ophelia had passed through by dawn. It had been a wild night though: gale-force winds ripped through and battered the adjacent woodland with fierce gusts; sheeting rain persisted for most of the night. I headed out as dawn emerged to explore the woods and assess the damage. A carpet of colourful beech leaves lay half a foot deep, spattered with twigs and branches ripped from the trees above. A couple of beech trees had succumbed to the stronger of gusts, laying toppled and horizontal on the forest floor. I spotted a Roe Deer through a tangle of Rhododendrons, eyeing me cautiously – it gave no intentional of moving on so I left it in peace.

 

Jack joined me after breakfast to take a wander up the stream through the wood. The canopy had by now become busy with a chatter of bird activity, as thrushes, tits, goldcrests, woodpigeons and finches emerged after successfully seeing out a horrendous night. It must be a little terrifying roosting in a tree and it’s being battered by a force 9 storm. We were investigating one of the newly-fallen Beech trees when a Red Squirrel came pattering up the monstrous trunk towards us, quite un-phased by our presence.

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A fresh fall of autumn leaves post-Ophelia

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After breakfast we decided to head down to the loch for high tide. Loch Ryan opens to the north-west, where the rotund lump of Ailsa Craig sits some 14 miles from the entrance. As such, the loch is relatively sheltered from the prevailing south-westerly storms that batter the adjacent coastline. Even so, the night of gale-force winds and low pressure had added to an already high tide and deposited a ring of bright bivalve shells high up on the beach. Offshore, a handful of Red-throated Divers bobbed about amongst the waves, and flocks of Oystercatchers, Curlews, Redshanks and Turnstones roosted higher than usual on the rocky shingle.

 

 

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Ailsa Craig and a passing flock of Herring Gulls
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The beach was carpeted in thousands of Cockle and bivalve shells after the a high tide and particularly sizeable swell overnight

It was Jack’s birthday, and so the afternoon was spent enjoying a meal at a lovely restaurant in Stranraer with his friends and family. I made the tactical decision of taking my binoculars along, and choosing a strategic seat with a view to the loch. During the meal I managed to amass a pretty impressive bird list which included rafts of exquisite Eiders, a flock of Greater Scaups, Red-breasted Mergansers, skeins of several hundred Pink-footed Geese and best of all a ringtail HEN HARRIER!

There can’t be many restaurants in the UK that can boast this superb bird of prey on their birdlist?

18th September | grieving over a guillemot

After actually getting on and doing some work in the morning, we felt like we’d earnt our mid-morning walk by 10am. We took a short-cut from the village down to the loch edge – a walk which takes in an amazing diversity of habitats in a very short distance: mixed conifer and broadleaf woodland overshadows riverside scrubland and rank grassland, which merges into to boggy Juncus marshland, adjacent to green fields of pastureland, and beside the estuarine ecosystem of mudflats, rocky beach and dune-like slacks sandwiched behind the shore.

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As we wondered along, we could hear a riot of birdlife in the treetops as feeding parties of tits, goldcrests, treecreepers and warblers poked around for insects amongst the branches; thrushes were calling after making landfall overnight, and noisy flocks of crows milled around. A pair of Roe Deer foraging in a nearby patch of scrub allowed us to creep within metres of them as they foraged on ruffage and blackberries.

 

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A Robin framed behind a stand of Bracken
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Looking north-west to the entrance of Loch Ryan. You can see the myriad of superb habitats abutting the loch edge – a superb location

On arrival at the shingle beech, I spotted a Guillemot a little way offshore. I directed Jack onto the bird, but whilst watching it quickly became apparent it wasn’t in the best of states: it started flapping a single wing languidly and paddled around in slow circles, drooping it head. We couldn’t just stand and watch it drown, so stripped down and plunged into the loch. Jack waded out furthest to grab the bird, and after retreating to the shore we decided to head immediately back to the house and find some form of fish to try feeding it. As we rushed back, I felt it give a last kick of life before its body relaxed and went limp. It had passed.

 

It was a sad moment, but focussed my mind on the broader picture across the country: I wondered how all the young seabirds like auks and shags would fare in their first winter. Repeated series of storms like we experienced over the winter of 2012/2013 can seriously affect overwinter mortality rates in seabirds: finding food becomes nigh-impossible in a turbid sea, battling against strong winds and ferocious waves. I hoped that Ophelia and Brian weren’t the first of a conveyor belt of serious low pressure systems to hammer the British shores this winter. Finger crossed for some calm respites.

19th September | thrush migration begins

The previous evening I’d seen tweets and reports online hinting that thrushes were beginning to arrive in a broad front cross the north-east of the country. In the calmer winds and clear conditions overnight, I headed out several times to try and pick out the distinctive ‘seeep’ calls as Redwings powered south – the true harbingers of autumn for me. I heard a couple, but it was in the early hours the following morning that it became obvious that thrushes really were on the move: Mistle Thrushes, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and flocks of Redwings milled about in the canopy of the woodland, with several flocks passing overhead too.

By late morning the weather had turned atmospheric, with moody skies bruised in shades of greys and blues, sheeting rain and a fresh south-westerly breeze. We headed out nonetheless, and the usual route along the loch, the marshes and back up through the woods was as enjoyable as ever.

 

We passed a local who drew attention to the ‘dreich’ weather: a term used by Scots to describe conditions as gloomy, damp, dark, grey, melancholy, lacking light & colour. We jus thought it was atmospheric.

Birdlife wasn’t as abundant as on previous days, with birds likely taking cover. A few Snipe exploded from our feet near the marsh, and the usual flocks of Wigeons and Light-bellied Brent Geese bobbed about offshore.

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Beech leaves blazing bright in autumnal colours

In the afternoon, Jack and I took a break from work (we told ourselves that regular breaks were healthy for faster progress…) and went for another explore in the nearby woods. My attention was drawn to the diversity of fungi decomposing the roots, logs and leaf-fall on the woodland floor: polypore bracket fungi clinging solidly to trunks; sprawling masses of honey fungus attracting clouds of midges and flies; delicate mycena bonnet-mushroom emerging from cracks and crevices, and a whole host of other fruiting shrooms of different shapes and colours.

 

As we’re both very keen boulderers, the thick bows of Ivy encasing some of the beech trees was too much to ignore. We had a great time clambering up the creeping roots, tentatively reaching the highest points we thought would support us before slithering back down. If you never had the adventurous streak of tree-climbing embedded in your childhood, then you should seriously consider taking up the past-time.

There is nothing quite like climbing trees, and it’s notion as a ‘childish’ pursuit shouldn’t put anyone off. I found consolation reading Robert McFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’ to see that he too immensely enjoyed clambering up a good tree, and presented the various attributes that each tree species presents to the climber.

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20th September | caves and cloud banks

It was a day of real contrasts. Morning dawned still but chilly, and with a moody sky overhead after drizzle overnight. The grey layer of cloud gave way to bright sunshine by midday, warm and stimulating a burst of colour in the autumnal landscape. As the afternoon progressed, though, a chilly south-west whipped up and rolling banks of dark clouds moved in. Storm Brian was on his way.

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A Rook silhouetted against the moody sky
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The dry skeleton-stems of Umbellifers reaching skyward

I was up early, knowing that migrants would have become grounded in the night after a starry start to the night and drizzly descent of low cloud in the early hours. The whole area was brimming with birdlife.

Visible migration was finally kicking off! Loose Skylark flocks with burbling calls arrived in off the sea; Fieldfares yack-yacked as they dropped from the sky into the woods; Curlews and Golden Plovers passed over in tight-knit parties high above; Starlings evident in black, chattering clouds over the fields.

 

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Turnstone – I think an Isopod went down the wrong way

It took a couple of hours to walk the three-kilometre route along the estuary and back through the woods, with birds everywhere you looked. The highlight for me was watching a noisy flock of some 50 Twites busily feeding away on seedheads: burdocks, mayweeds, teasel and plantain. It was nice to appreciate their subtle pink rumps and yellow bills with such good views.

 

My final bird list of over 40 species for the eventful wander included two Arctic Terns offshore, Greater Scaups and Eiders, newly-arrived Stonechats, Chaffinches, Robins, Greenfinches and Wheatears along the shoreline, and flocks of Meadow Pipits overhead.

We tried to resist the enticement of the bright sunshine to focus on work for the rest of the morning, but finally succumbed just after lunch. It was our last day in the area after all…

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One of the fantastic things of spending the week around Kirkcolm was the abundance of wildlife springing from every corner of the area. We had seen something different and captivating each day, right on the doorstep of Jack’s house. And on one of our lasts sojourns from the village, we were yet again surprised with some superb encounters: the lane leading to the marsh and shore of Loch Ryan was alive with birdlife, all emerging in the sunshine after a damp morning.

Goldcrests, Treecreepers, Great Tits, Nuthatches, Robins, Long-tailed Tits; these mixed feeding parties worked the lichen- and moss-covered branches in a frenzy of high-pitched calls. A stand of alder trees looked unassumingly quiet, but was in fact covered in a flock of some 50 Siskins and Redpolls which were prizing open the seedheads one-by-one. The bright red berry-laden hawthorn hedge was a bustle of thrush activity, with Redwings, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes giving away their presence with calls of alarm as we passed. We even bumped into yet another Roe Deer – a beautiful doe that seemed quite comfortable with our presence…

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We walked north along the shore, towards the steepening cliffs where a wave-cut platform abutted onto a stand of forest. The beaches’ geology here changed from the shingle shore to sculpted buttresses of conglomerate sandstone – sedimentary layers compacted in contrasting layers giving clues to the past climate and conditions this area would have experienced.

As the skies darkened overhead and brisk southerly wind whipped up, we reached the far end of the shore where the cliffs were puckered with tunnels of caves; these amazing formations were great fun to explore, the caves connected in a network of tunnels running perpendicular to the coast. Stepping-stones of rock platforms descended the shore and into the loch, leading the eye to Ailsa Craig’s vague outline to the north, like the top of a volcano transplanted onto the ocean’s surface (and, interestingly, that’s more or less what it is! A volcanic plug of granite).

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As darkness approached, we retraced our steps along the shore and retreated to the house.

21st September | southward migration

We arise with Orion still hanging bright in the eastern sky.  Bundling together our possessions a little last-minute, we depart from Kirkcolm a little after 6am with a full day of travel ahead of us. The two-hour bus journey back to Dumfries and Galloway is pleasant, with light bursts of sun breaking through the eastern sky shortly after sunrise.

It became apparent that we weren’t the only beings heading south. Flocks of thrushes erupted from the roadside hedgerows, and joined others already on the move in the grey sky above. This continued throughout our day’s journey: once aboard the train from Dumfries, we moved parallel with countless hundreds of Redwings as they moved over the landscape. Higher in the sky, v-shaped skeins of Pink-footed Geese were on the move too, and passed over in their hundreds.

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Pink-footed Geese high above Dumfries station

It was an enjoyable beginning to a day stuck aboard stuffy trains, being able to ‘vismig’ from the coach windows and appreciated the scale of autumn migration. It was nevertheless a long day to get back to Cornwall – Falmouth is a long way from anywhere. But we eventually made it back at 7pm, after a series of late arrivals meant we missed our connections. The air felt fresh stepping off the train in Penryn, but mild and moist – a classic Cornish combo that pervades the air for most of the winter.

We were home.

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