Trip to Assynt in the North-west Highlands

September 22nd 2013

Article originally published in the October 2013 issue of the monthly Nottinghamshire Birdwatchers magazine

TRIP TO ASSYNT IN THE NORTH-WEST HIGHLANDS

For the second year running we spent a week in Assynt staying in a cottage overlooking the Bay of Culkein close to the huge sea stack – Old Man of Stoer. It was July and we hoped that the birds in the area would still be nesting.

As we travelled up to Scotland I was goaded into stating how many different bird species I hoped to see. In an ‘off the cuff’ sort of way I thought that 75 would be a reasonable target. This target was to dominate the next seven days. The count was to start as we crossed the Scottish Border.

We stayed in Edinburgh for two nights and climbed up to Arthur’s Seat enjoying wonderful views over the Firth of Forth. Unfortunately I was unable to identify any Gannet around Bass Rock. But I needn’t have worried as they were in plentiful evidence during the week. On our way down from Arthur’s Seat we avoided a Municipal park with a small lake. I noticed that there were duck present but at this stage of the holiday I was not so obsessed with the list to make the detour. I was reminded of this relaxed attitude as the week progressed and new birds became harder to find.

Our third night was spent in Inverness. I had hopes of picking up a Goosander on the River Ness as it flows through the city but no luck. I only picked up Grey Heron.

Onward to Assynt via Ullapool. A day’s journey through impressive scenery. Every time I drive through the Highlands I become more convinced that English cartographers have shrunk Scotland in size. It takes hours to get anywhere. We stopped for lunch with good views of Stac Pollaidh. The mountains of the North West Highlands are very impressive rising almost vertically to great heights from the glacially scarred surrounding country. Throughout the week the mountains of Suilven, Canisp and Quinag dominated the Eastern horizon.

As we rounded Loch Assynt the list totalled 25. The twenty sixth was an Osprey hawking for fish on the outflow from the loch.
We arrived at our destination in the late afternoon. The cottage is in idyllic surroundings. It looks out over the sea and backs onto wet pasture. As the evening set in Snipe began to ‘chip’ and later I enjoyed their drumming display flight from the bedroom window.

My daughter and her partner stayed with us for the first week-end. As her ID skills have developed we have reached that tipping point where she possesses the greater level of knowledge. No longer are you the guide and tutor to your child! My excuse is that it is all down to young eyes and ears!!

The following day we picked up Lapwing and chicks. It took some time to find them but with my daughter’s help we enjoyed good views. The small garden surrounding the cottage had juvenile Wheatear present throughout the week. A novel experience watching Wheatear from the kitchen window. As an aside this is a bird that I have not seen very often this spring on our regular visits to Derbyshire. Perhaps I have been unlucky. But they were in plentiful numbers during the week.

Around the Bay we saw all the familiar Scottish coastal birds of Curlew, Common Sandpiper, Sanderling, Dunlin in their breeding plumage, Common Gull the most common gull around these coasts, Arctic/Common Tern [I can never tell the difference] Redshank, Rock Pipit and a splendid pair of summer plumage Black-tailed Godwit.

Further out to sea we saw Eider in smaller numbers than I expected and Shag and Cormorant. These were both in plentiful supply and I now feel more confident in telling these two apart. Red-throated and Great Northern Divers were a common sight in the bays. I failed to ID Black-throated which was annoying as they are present in some numbers at this time of the year.

Our coastal walks tended to be in the direction of the Point of Stoer. I was surprised to find sizeable breeding colonies of Razorbill, Guillemot and Kittiwake but no Puffin. Out to sea were single Black Guillemots with their brilliant red feet. From the headland we saw Manx Shearwater and Gannet in significant numbers. If I had a better Scope, and more time, I am sure my list would have included Petrel. One surprise was the large number of Great Skua both at sea and flying overland.

Around the cottage most of the common finches were present. In September during our last visit there was plenty of Twite. On this occasion I only counted two and must confess to difficulty in distinguishing them from Linnet which were plentiful. Another conundrum was the Feral / Rock Dove issue. After careful consultation with bird books I decided to count Rock Dove as a tick.

The Assynt Field Club website proved to be a really useful reference guide. We met up with David and Avril Haines who live locally. They regularly check out the Bay of Culkein. David maintains the bird section of the website and they both had excellent local birding knowledge which they generously shared with us.

When we met David and Avril at the Bay of Culkein they pointed out a nesting Ringed Plover about twenty feet from where we stood. We were amazed at the bird’s cryptic camouflage and its ability to melt into its setting. Day after day we went down to the beach to check it was still there. Even though we had worked out its position on the beach it still took us time to see it materialise in my scope. Visitors would come down to the beach, children would play and somehow this tiny wader would survive repeated disturbance, completely reliant on brilliant camouflage. Other plover broods were seen running along the tideline. Their camouflage tactic seemed to be to freeze until the danger had passed.

The holiday was almost over. The weather had been amazingly warm and dry and as it was high summer we also benefitted from the ‘simmer dim’ with the nights never becoming completely dark. As well as a good clutch of birds we enjoyed the butterflies including Dark-green Fritillary. We also benefitted from the late spring as many of the early summer flowers were still at their best and the Machair at Oldshoremore near Kinlochbervie was a lovely sight.

By the end of the week we were five short of the target and my list had settled at a worrying plateau. As we headed back south. I picked up Red Kite south of Inverness (71).

Our lunch stop was at RSPB Insh Marshes just off the A9. I was only able to add Siskin (72) to my list. At this point in my eagerness to reach my target I would have given a king’s ransom for something as common as a Coot or Moorhen but this reserve lived up to its reputation of having no birds present during the summer months and was as quiet as an English woodland in July.

We then spent our last night in Scotland at a B&B overlooking the Firth of Forth at Aberdour. The trip down from Assynt had been blisteringly hot and all I wanted was a long cool shower. Idly looking out over the Firth from our bedroom window with just a towel wrapped round my waist, I was amazed to see not only my first Puffin of the week but also a large raft of Common Scoter. (74). Who has seen those two birds from their bedroom window? Thoughts of a shower were forgotten as I dashed downstairs to the car to get my scope. Perhaps 75 was, after all, a realistic target. The list was on the move again.

I hit my target of 75 later that day. By this stage I was completely obsessed with finding the 75th bird. Anything would do. The target was reached with a very mundane eclipse Mallard in Aberdour harbour. I could have leapt into the water and given the bird a hug.

By the time we passed over the border I had added Bullfinch and Jay. My grand total for the week was 77 birds.

So what did we dip on? Well surprisingly no Grey Wagtail or Dipper. Magpie seemed entirely absent in the Highlands and David Haines confirmed they are rare in the area. Green Sandpiper should have been a tick. We didn’t see or hear Goldcrest or Chiffchaff though Willow Warbler sang from our garden. The nearest we got to Golden Eagle was a live video feed of a local nest at Lochinver Tourist Centre.

The highlight of the week was watching nesting Ringed Plover on Culkein beach and marvelling at their ability to melt into the background.
We have already booked the same cottage for 2014!

James Pam

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Recent Sightings

White-tailed Eagle

Single bird over Culkein Drumbeg (DAH).  Possibly same bird seen over Bay of Stoer (Charlie Leeson) (14/08)

Red-throated Diver

Seven adult birds Clashnessie Bay and three Loch Dhrombaig (DAH) (14/08)

Marsh Harrier

Juvenile bird quartering ground, Raffin area (DAH) (14/08)

Eider

Adult female with juvenile, Bay of Stoer (Charlie Leeson) (14/08)

Red-throated Diver

Four adult birds, Clashnessie Bay (Anne Nicol) (13/08)

Redshank

At least two birds calling but flying unseen in low mist over Clashnessie Bay (DAH) (13/08)

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Single adult bird, Clashnessie Bay (DAH) (13/08)

Harbour Porpoise

Three animals off Clachtoll Broch (DAH) (13/08)

Map