Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Day 13 - Day Trip with Speyside Wildlife

Today we’re getting picked up by Duncan from Speyside Wildlife for a day of nature touring. Our instructions have been vague. Just show us the best you can on the day given the conditions. Not too much walking, some walking is OK.  Our first thing on the agenda, after some introductory chat that is threatening to delay departure we’re enjoying the conversation so much, is to decide what we’re doing. As we’d booked an extended day, we could have gone over to Wester Ross and seen the best over there but we’ll drown in the rain over there today. It’s also forecast rain here in Speyside. The only dry place looks like it’ll be the Black Isle so we decide to focus our attention there. All day as we wander around we can see the dark clouds over in the west. It certainly looks like they’re copping it.
We have a very enjoyable chat on the way out to the Black Isle. Some about the environment, including that the Elephant Hawk-Moth relies on the Rosebay Willow-herb.  A comment about the patchwork of heather across the heights draws an explanation about the management of the heath for game birds. The heather is burnt in sections that creates soft bite for the birds and longer areas for shelter and nesting. I had no idea at all that a fire regime is used.  We discuss the management of the environment and controversy about the shooting industry around game birds, suppression of predators to protect introduced species such as pheasant and partridge. It turns out we have similar political leanings so across the day we enjoy both environmental and political discussions, some conversation about Scottish History and the referendum recently conducted. We have a great time together.
Our first stop is another Tescos. Pens for me and Hubby wants water. Then we head straight to Munlochy Bay Local Nature Reserve where we watch the birds starting to arrive at the beginning of the autumn migration. This is usually non-breeding birds or local resident birds who are moving from sites further inland down to the coast.  We get our first sighting of Greylag Geese here as well as some other common species such as Oyster Catchers and Grey Heron. We spend a little time studying Carrion Crows and Hooded Crows and those in between. The two species interbreed so you do get birds that are a bit muddled in their features. A flock of Starlings is on the wing wheeling this way at that. Duncan draws them to my attention as a joke. They’re a terrible pest at home. Known as rats with wings, but that doesn’t stop me dreaming of seeing the huge flocks of a million or more birds that congregate on the Somerset Levels in winter. Birding in the cooler times of year must be wonderful over here. We revisit my previous experience with Jackdaws. The views here are lovely too, so we’re glad of the stop on that front as well.
I’ve let it be known that my favourite birds are the small ones, like gold crests or spotted pardalotes and I don’t much care if what we’re seeing is rare or not, everything is new to me so I’ll be pretty happy seeing most things. Consequently our next stop is up a back road by a farm where a pig is snuffling about in a lush green field. We’ve hit a hot spot of finches and we spent a while checking out who’s here. Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Yellowhammer, a Twite or two and also some Linnets. There’s a robin over by the fence and a few Tree Sparrows are around too. It’s really useful having someone along who can tell me what is what and their diagnostic features. So much easier than deciphering who’s who in a book.
Our next stop is RSPB Udale Bay. We’re slow to make our way into the nice warm bird hide, admiring the flocks of Oyster Catchers. Wow. You rarely see more than two or three at a time at home. It’s a mazing to see so many. You really need a spotting scope in locations like this and it’s especially useful to have along someone who is a whiz using it and getting the target birds in the scope view.  As well as Oyster Catchers I learn the difference between the Herring Gulls and the Common Gull and Great Black Backed Gull. Over on a distant spit of land are some Redshanks, a Bar-tailed Godwit and just readying itself to go to sleep, a Whimbrel. We listen to the curlews cry. I admire the Lapwings and their whispy plumage. Then there’s some Black Headed Gulls with just a few remaining stripes of black on their heads as they go into eclipse plumage.
In a distant field there’s a flock of Canada Geese. These are not native to Britain but they’ve naturalised here and although the subject of varied opinions they are certainly beautiful birds.
We spend quite a time here at Udale Bay. New things arrive and others are found among the crowd. Mute Swans arrive and I’m pretty sure it was here we also saw, Widgeon, Scaup and an Osprey in flight over the fields. The Osprey was brought to our attention by a retired couple from the north of England somewhere. They are friendly and spend about 7 months of the year travelling about in their caravan following the dry weather and amusing themselves watching for the birds along the way.
Out on the open water waaaay off in the distance we spot a small flock of Red Breasted Mergansers. Further out still bobbing in the swell is something else I can’t quite make out. Duncan has a look. Common Eider in transition from breeding plumage to its winter dress.  We get an even better look at the Common Eider a little later as we drive, necessitating a quick pause for a photo.
As lunch time comes around we agree that we will just pop into the bakery in Cromarty and pick up something to eat as a picnic. Hubby goes for a pasty causing some bemusement from the lass serving when he asks what’s in it. Apparently they don’t have the variety of pasty fillings here that we do at home. His second choice is a macaroni pie. I get a cheese and red pepper quiche. We each get an authentic baked custard tart and I get a Rhubard pie for Ron (translation: later on).
We head to a grassy area by the shore looking across towards Nigg Bay across the Cromarty Firth and keep our eyes peeled for birds around the area. Star appearance is a little flock of Ringed Plover that are continually disturbed by people walking past with children and /or a dog. Eventually they decide they’ll settle up right in front of us. Pretty little things.
After lunch I go for a quick little wander nearby to look at Cromarty then I’m collected by Duncan in the van and we head down to Chanonry Point via Navity and some fields where some assert Christ’s second coming will occur. Presumably among the fields of barley. Well it’s as good a spot as any I suppose.  
Duncan has a surprise for us in the route he’s chosen. We head down to the point via spectacular views across the Inverness Firth and the Moray Firth with the twin points of Fort George and Chanonry Point reaching out to one another. There’s a legend that there was a wizard called Michael Scott and he found it rather inconvenient to travel the three days around to get to the other side of the Firth. So he enchanted some little people to labour and build a bridge and they duly set to work. Well there was another fellow, basically a travelling salesman and he saw the work progressing, painful load after painful load and he was pretty chuffed about it of course due to benefit the work would bring. As he was leaving he wished the little people God speed with their work. You never mention the deity’s name to the little people. The spell was broken and the bridge left unfinished as it is today.

Down on Chanonry Point we rather miraculously find a parking spot among the crowds of vehicles and people and make our way to the protected side of the point out of the wind. We’ve been moved to get out our hats and I’ve got my cosy neck warmer thingy on. Duncan promises not to show me Dolphins. This is a running joke between us as when we were corresponding about what my priorities pretty much the only restriction was, don’t show me dolphins. I’ve got nothing against Dolphins, I just don’t figure I needed a guide for them. They have their own website.  Anyway, with promises to get me to turn my head away should any dolphins appear we head down to the beach that is part sand and part gravel.  The great highlights here are watching a skua rob a passing gull; a grey seal that pops its head up to stare at some young lasses walking on the beach; watching sandwich terns, arctic terns and gannets fishing. The gannets are always fun to watch as they plunge at speed, bills first into the water over and over. 
Finished at the point Duncan has something else he wants to show us given that we’ve been discussing superstition among the many interesting topics today. We’re going to the Munlochy Clootie Well. This is an ancient tradition thought to go back as far as AD 620 or more and is the site of a spring at which healing rituals are conducted. Pieces of cloth are tied to the branches of the trees round about and a prayer is said for whatever particular benefit is requested. We pick our way along the path careful not to touch any of the tokens. It’s a fascinating manifestation of people’s belief in things we cannot prove or see. It starts out with just an item here or there but as we go on there are masses and masses of clooties everywhere. An outpouring of people’s most dearly held longings. It is simply extraordinary. The clooties have to be an item associated with the person for whom the ritual is being conducted so there are socks, t-shirts and all manner of fabrics. At one point Scottish flags have been attached. Perhaps a prayer for the recent referendum?
We have said we will call it a day at 6pm and so it’s about time we started making our way back to Carrbridge. We’ve made it back by 5:30, so Duncan suggests we just pop down to another nearby location to see if we can’t spot a Dipper and a Cross Bill. We dip on the Dipper and on the Crossbills but that just means we’ll need to come back doesn’t it. By the way to dip on something in birding terms means you don’t see it.  We’re glad we came down here though because the bridge from which we’re scanning the river is lovely and the river is extremely pretty. Rain is threatening and we really need to make tracks. Duncan is quietly appalled when we explain that we’re dining at Andersons in Boat of Garten, due to the time it will take us to get over there. If we’re ready to go straight off he can lead us to the intersection and ensure we don’t get lost. No worries. We jump in our own car on arrival at our accommodation and we arrive for dinner just a trifle after our reservation time. A quick change in the car (those beach skills really come in handy some times) and we’re doing our best to look composed as we casually enter the restaurant. 
We started with complementary bread which was particularly delicious and contained a restrained amount of sweet fruit pieces. Outstanding.
Hubby, to start: Casserole of Tiger Prawns, Chorizo and Mushrooms bound in a warm garlic and herb butter, seasoned leaves, crusty bread £7.50, follow with 8oz Sirloin Steak, served with roast vine tomatoes, handcut chips and vegetables £19.95
Me: To start I chose the Chicken, Pistachio and Scottish Wood Pigeon Terrine, Fig Chutney, Homemade Oatcakes, Shoots and Leaves.  £6.95 Delicious. Especially the fig chutney. I’m a bit over paying over $40 for a steak so I opt for Scottish sea reared trout fillet on Smoked Haddock, samphire and Green Pea Risotto, Sauce vierge (Plum tomato, black olive, garlic, parsley, basil, lemon olive oil) fresh peashoots. From the seasonal menu £15.95.
We really should skip dessert but we don’t this time. We share a Sticky Toffee Sponge Pudding, Butterscotch sauce, Homemade vanilla ice cream £5.95 which is dark and rich and treacly but not very spongey. Nice, but I prefer sticky date pudding really.
Dinner completed we waddle out and head home noting that it really wasn’t necessary to change our clothes. Oh well. Never mind. We’re more than happy to finally put our feet up. We open the door to our room and burst out laughing. What the? I always bring a pillow from home when I travel but I’ve never come across this as a response before! This causes much amusement on my part for quite a while. Incidentally, I love the tartan throw across the bottom of the bed. I think I'll have to keep my eyes open for an appropriate fabric and adopt that at home.
PS - at some point today, we don't remember exactly when, we saw a stoat dash across the road into the undergrowth next to the drystone wall.  This prompted me to ask about another exciting event I have failed to record before. We were driving along and a streak of black dashed across the road. This was apparently a feral mink! How's that! So now we've seen a stoat and a mink. Who knows what else may in store for us over coming days. 

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