UK 2002 SIX-WEEK LUTMAN MOTORHOME BIRDING TRIP

 

Tuesday, April 16, 2002. Week 3 Day 2. Mull This Over.

Map

THE PAUSE THAT DOESN'T REFRESH

It's eight am and I have finally done what I swore I would do on our last big trip. I finally taped the pause button in place on my microcasette recorder. "Why?" you ask, though I think you know. It would be the middle of the day, and I would be talking into it and I would notice that the recorder's wheels aren't rotating. I look at the pause button, and it has slipped to the PAUSE position. Then I have to rewind just a few inches, play what's the last recorded notes, and only then do I know whether I've missed one minute or a half-day worth of comments.

GETTING TO THE FERRY

It's a perfect morning. Few clouds, sun shining, crystal clear air, a little cool. We can see Susan's black and white cat following, as Susan heads for the showers.

There is one particular bird that is responsible for our side trip to the Isle of Mull. This bird flew these parts years or decades ago, I'm not sure which, and was reintroduced some years ago. Now there are at least several pairs of White-tailed Eagles flying the bay waters.

We are out of camp at 8 am, and enjoy a Pied Wagtail and a half-dozen Yellowhammers on the way. Sharon points out that the sheep here have horns and very long wool. We figure because it gets colderrrrr up here.

We get to the ferry loading point at 8:15, buy our tickets (70 pounds plus a 7 pound charge for using credit card rather than cash. Hu-wut? I read this on my receipt as I'm walking out of the ticket office. I'd have paid cash if I had known, and that must be the Scot in me talking). Our return trip is for five pm, but if we get our bird relatively soon, we'll take the three pm trip back.

While we wait, and other vehicles begin to get in line, Sharon (who else?) spots five BLACK GUILLEMOTS. They are close to the dock, and as they swim, they rotate their neck and head forward into the water to see if there is anything to dive for. If there is, they dive. If not, they continue this activity. Other birds in the harbor are Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and Pigeons. Sharon has also spotted a gray and black splotched seal. I have spotted the Caledonian MacBrayne.

THE TRIP TO MULL

By 9:45, everybody has loaded. We drove straight in from the rear, will drive out the front at the other end, obviously [but not so obviously, a section of the prow of the boat will lift up to allow us to drive off the front].

We're excited to be leaving, but there is time to watch a Cormorant become a SHAG as it jumps slightly forward and upward just before it dives down into the water in one fluid motion, a characteristic of Shag. At a minute or so after ten am, we shove off.

Sharon points out the Roman Coliseum on the hill behind the harbor, something I noticed a few minutes before we loaded. We pick up several LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS, whose backs are a dark shade, between soft gray and black. Sharon also was the first to pick up a pair of COMMON EIDER in the harbor. As we leave Oban Harbor, and head out toward more open water, we pass the ruins of Duhart Castle. This was wrecked by the Campbells in 1691, but restored by a Maclean in 1911. It makes a great picture, standing there alone.

As we are in the more open water, about halfway through the 50 minute trip, we pick up several individual winter plumage Guillemots (Common Murre in U.S.), but it takes us a while to work them out.

ON MULL

We dock at Craignure (photo actually taken later, as we leave)

and drive off, parking immediately next to the information center. I stay with the motorhome while Sharon goes in and gets information regarding where we might see our bird, but while I'm waiting, I run over and look at how the front of the ship rotated up and back to let us all out.

She comes back out with a marked-up map, and we head out for excitement. I pass a petrol station, where diesel is 89 pence per liter. About $5.75 or so per gallon. I check the gauge, notice that we are half full, and relax. We won't need to buy here.

Just think of all the money I could make by filing a couple of five-gallon cans with $1.49-per-gallon unleaded on the corner near our house, flying it over here and selling it at a bargain rate of $5.60!! Wait, I forgot to factor in the cost of the flight plus the trip to Mull and back. So, hmmm, I'd sell it at, ummm, about $105.60 per gallon. Oh.

A mile or so later, Sharon picks up a Swallow and a couple of Pied Wagtails. In town there were Grey Wagtails and there are gulls everywhere. We get to Salen, take a left on the "double track," meaning two-lane paved road, then watch it turn into a road very characteristic of Scotland. "Single track with passing points." Meaning one lane of pavement, with small turnouts every sixteenth-mile or so alternating left and right sides. I think this type of road works well if there aren't many vehicles on it. Which there aren't. And the quality of the pavement is smooth and excellent.

We get a HOODED CROW, which is a subspecies of the Carrion Crow, but looks so very much different that we're counting it as a trip bird - an exception to our don't-count-subspecies-separately rule for trips. There are sheep everywhere on Mull, as there have been back on the "mainland."

I finally locate the sheet I tore out of an RSPB magazine where I learned about our target bird. I look over it and get the RSPB phone number. We call on the cell phone, but they refer us to the Scotland RSPB number. We call it, and they refer us to the FE (Forest Something-or-other) number, and to ask for David Pool ("Pyule". I just love the Scottish accent). We call, and I ask him for locations to see our bird. He steers us towards a ferry point and tiny village called Fishnish, which is quite a ways back towards Craignure, by the time we make the phone connection.

A PAIR OF EAGLES

We talk it over and decide to go back. We reverse course, drive back to Fishnish and make the turn, then head down, down almost to sea level. But on the way, suddenly we see first one, and then two large brown raptors. "Buzzards?" I ask myself out loud, as we jump out of the stopped motorhome. "Too big," says Sharon, and I agree. Also the wings are squared off, not pointed, and the "fingers" rule out Buzzard I think. Also, the wings stick straight out to the sides, rather than angle every so slightly forward. On a false assumption I've made (that we are MUCH more likely to see Goldens here than White-tails), I decide that they are immature Golden Eagles, and I say so to Sharon. "Are you sure?" she asks, hopefully. I'm pretty sure, and I tell her so.

"Call David again and ask him if there's a chance that's what they are," she says to me. We park and watch some more, me hoping for our bird and Sharon thinking maybe we saw it. Sharon finally takes the byule by the horn and calls David while I'm outside scanning. I can hear our half of their conversation, and watch her face slowly light up, culminating in a big thumbs up to me, through the windshield. [David says to me that it is unlikely that there would be a golden eagle so close to the road as they are quite shy, but that there IS a young pair of sea eagles in our area so it likely that what we saw was that pair.]

On that, we discuss carefully things we each thought we saw, and I finally have to agree that we just saw our bingo bird, two immature WHITE-TAILED EAGLES*. The reasons are

1) Goldens are skittish and wouldn't be down by the road,
2) We both saw the beginning of a white tail at the base of the tail,
3) David knows that there is a pair active around Fishnish.

Bingo! But I'm upset because I didn't get to have the excitement that comes with realizing that you are looking at a life bird at the time you're looking at it. "Get Over It," - The Eagles (get it?).

Hey, I think I am already.

ON AROUND MULL

We see a Buzzard, then decide to resume our trip partway around the isle. On the way out of the side road to Fishnish, Sharon notices a white bird high up in a tall evergreen, and it turns out to be a Grey Heron. Great Blue Herons nest high in trees in California, so why not Grey Herons here?

We pass the Knock Salmon Hatchery (at the village of Knock. Sometimes "village" can be just one or two buildings. Or maybe I shouldn't be calling them villages). We are seeing Meadow Pipits all over, and we keep looking for a dark one. A Ringed or Little Ringed Plover turns up with the Meadow Pipits. Suddenly I have to pull over because there is a shorebird to our left and up the hill, that I haven't noticed in Great Britain yet.

We carefully analyze the pattern of gold, black and white, and it turns out to be four beautiful breeding plumage GOLDEN PLOVERS*. A red station wagon honks his horn behind us, because in my excitement, I've stopped and blocked the single-track road, rather than continuing to a passing point, then pulling over. If I had done that, we'd have missed these birds, but I still feel a little guilty. The vehicle passes us, and in the back window it says www.mullbirds.com.

He passes us and we finally leave our new plovers. Around a couple of corners, the mullbirds vehicle has pulled over, and we pull in beside him. We apologize for blocking him, and after reminding us that we should use the passing places, we start talking about birds. He also saw the Golden Plovers and identified them as such.

We ask about Rock Pipits, and he says, "There are Rock Pipits all over the place." After we tell him of our inability to distinguise "darker" from "normal," he gives us more details, then says, "The Rock Pipits will mostly be on rocks, and the Meadow Pipits mostly in the meadows." [Duh!]

He says further that he is checking on nests of White-tailed Eagles and Golden Eagles, but declines to give us any location specifics because of the concern for egg thieves active here. We can certainly understand that. He gives us his business card, and he's Alan Spellman, a man who knows Mull birds.

We finally part company, and Sharon and I continue on around the corner till we decide we have to turn around to make it back for the return trip to Oban at five. First though, an oncoming sheep's outline reminds us of our cat Coti's belly, back in San Jose.

We check the pipits along the way now that we are better-armed, and guess what, we soon spot a sure-enough ROCK PIPIT* on a rock. "How much darker it looks," we say to ourselves. As we continue back, we notice what must surely be a White-tailed Eagle nest, but there are no eagles on it right now and we'll respect Alan's desire not to give specific locations.

FERRY ME BACK TO OLD OBAN

We zoom back to Craignure, stopping on the way to admire a field of Highland Cattle,

and get in line for the ferry, which comes along about quarter till five. By 4:53 they've unloaded, we've all loaded, and Sharon and I are walking up the steps from the vehicle deck to the passenger decks. The Caledonian MacBrayne boat takes us back to Oban, now under cloudy skies. As we sit outside on the back of the boat, Sharon ticks off the three lifers we got on Mull. I catch her at number two.

BACK HOME

Susan and the parapalegic owner of the caravan park are watching a workman digging holes in a large flat area we assumed was destined to be a bowling green. But Susan says a "cowboy" forgot one part of the agreement that was made when the area was being prepared. He forgot to clearly mark where the pipe cover (think of a sewer drain cover on a city street) was, and now it's below the grade of what is to be a place for another couple of caravans to park. The workman is using a metal detector trying to find the pipe cover, but there is so much metal in the red gravel of the area, that the detector alarm just goes off all the time.

I ask her what she means by cowboy, and she says someone who doesn't know what he's doing, but thinks he does and plows forward anyway. Later, the owner asks me if we ever hire incompetent workers in the U.S., and I had to tell him the truth and say that the only incompetent workers in the U.S. were Scots. No I didn't.

The owner then describes a time, two years ago, using our map for exact locations, when he drove his car up over a hill about 30 miles from here or so, and figuratively bumped into lekking Capercaillies at one o'clock in the afternoon. I find this hard to believe, but tuck this thought away in case we don't see any up by Aviemore, near Inverness.

By 7 pm, we are back in the motorhome and Sharon's warming up last night's dinner for herself, and heating up raviolis for me. We are pleased as punch to have had such a successful three-lifer day on Mull, and I turn in thinking about the beginning of white on that young Eagle's tail.

FACTOIDS OF THE DAY:

1) At the far end of Mull, you can take a ferry to Iona Island, where all the kings of Scotland were buried till the 11th century and where Christianity was first brought to Britain.
2) A munro is a Scottish mountain over 3000 feet high, reminding me a little of the wonderful movie "The Man Who Climbed Up a Hill And Came Down a Mountain." Ben More, on Mull, is the only island munro outside the Isle of Skye. "Ben" means mountain or mount. I've always wondered how Marilyn Monroe chose her screen name.

SLEEP IN: Oban Divers Camping and Caravan Park (2nd night), near Oban, Argyll and Bute County, Scotland

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): White-tailed Eagle, Golden Plover (European Golden Plover in U.S.), Rock Pipit
Today's Total: 3
Trip Total: 34

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 3 lifers + Black Guillemot, Shag, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Eider, Hooded Crow (technically the same species as Carrion Crow, but I'm countin' it as a trip bird)
Today's Total: 8
Trip Total: 105

 

Wednesday, April 17, 2002. Week 3 Day 3. To Inverness

Map

Birders: No intentional birding and no lifers today. Two trip birds in this day's report, during our travels to the Inverness area.

Susan's husband Rob, short for Robin, recommends a cruise on the Moray Firth that they have taken before, in the Inverness area. We take off northward, passing a Sea Life Rescue Center, where the motto is SOS, for Save Our Seals. We are listening to a Scottish group singing a song called the Stamping Ground. Sort of a Scottish Bluegrass group and great listening as we drive through Scotland.

BESIDE THE LOCHS

We pass over a bridge that seems to pass over water connecting two lochs, one being Loch Linnhe. Sharon spots a castle tower on an island, but by the time we wind through all the turns and highway changes, we can't find it anywhere.

The day is overcast with rain clouds, but without rain, so far. "Welcome to the Highlands," says a sign as we pass into a new county.

I am looking to exchange an empty Calor propane tank, and I follow road signs to a caravan park. The good news is they have a 6-kg in their lockup area. The bad news is that there isn't a soul around. A sign says, "Just find a site. I'll be round to collect later."

We continue on, zipping along one of the lochs, when Sharon asks what duck has two long white stripes down the side. It turns out to be two RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS. We pass the Dragons Tooth Golf Course, and I'm reminded that golf started in Scotland. Only they called it Dammit then. Sometimes, of course, you still hear a golfer give this early name after the little white ball takes certain unusual trajectories.

We pull into a Shell station, and they don't have our propane tank either, but they recommend a place not too far ahead that does have our size. As we pull out from the station, a sign reminds us to drive on the left. Now think about this: If you land in London and rent a vehicle, you have to drive clear up to northern Scotland to see this sign, reminding you to drive on the left.

When we get to Fort William, Sharon notices some birds in the water, and I find us a carpark to stop in. We get a pair of Common Eiders, but I notice a new gull in the mix. Called COMMON GULL here, it is known as Mew Gull in the U.S. A winter Black-headed Gull is just starting to change to breeding colors. We find a Safeway and stop in for some re-groceryfying. We buy some green beans from Kenya, then pass the American Tape section (see? Scotch tape in America, but ...), but we're all set there. I like their customer-operated sticker printer scales.

You put your potatoes, for example, in a plastic bag, put that on the scales, press the "potatoes" picture, and out comes a sticker showing the weight and cost. Then you stick that on the plastic bag, or in Sharon's case, you just stick it right on the bananas, like a Chiquita sticker.

I am fascinated, wondering how a three-wheel automobile parked in the Safeway carpark handles corners.

I call Elite Motorhomes, the renter of our rig, then RDH Motorhomes, the builders of our rig, and describe to them the microwave problem (it dunna work). They say to bring it on in. It's about an 8-hour drive from here, so we opt not to do that at this time. Sharon has all our goodies stored away, so we're off for a place that hand-makes cloth used for making kilts, blankets and so on.

But first, I locate the proper distributor to exchange our empty propane tank. Ann Brown is very helpful, and with her husband, is a world traveler. They've been to America three or four times, South Africa, on and on.

"How do you pronounce Loch L-I-N-N-H-E?" I ask, and I pronounce "Loch" as "Lock." Ann says, like a first grade teacher correcting a pupil, "You don't say Lock, you say Locchhhhh, like the Germans." You don't let the back of your throat close. This is one of those things that if you have heard that sound before, you know what I mean, but if you haven't heard it before, you can't possibly know what I'm talking about.

It's 12.25 pounds to exchange tanks, and we're off again. Here's a message for daughters Tara and Shandra, and for Maureen. They don't have circus peanuts here. The closest things are little bananas made out of the same marshmallowy stuff, but they're yellow, the bananas are about 1/3 the size of a circus peanut, and they taste a little like bananas. They're great but I can't find them very often. Oh yes, and the smell makes Sharon sick.

We pass Great Glen Cattle Ranch. It's huge, and has sheep as far as you can see. Minutes later we are standing in Spean Bridge Mill, which is the name of the town AND of the mill,

and Sharon is loading up. You never saw anyone so happy.

I notice all the tartan patterns and the bright yellow one for the McLeod clan catches my eye. I think this is where the expression "loud" came from, in describing something you wear.

About an hour later, I get a couple of pictures of Sharon holding almost all of our new stuff, the friendly young sales lad, Thomas, dressed in a kilt holding a certificate.

It's Mrs. Santa Claus and her helper. I estimate that we spend about forty percent of our estimated souvenir budget here today. "Somebody stop her," says I. "But they're for Christmas presents," says she.

We go over to the production area, and a nice loud, yellow pattern (McLeod?) is being made, but the operator is taking a break. I'll just finish it for him while he's gone...

One time Sharon and I were birding, when a lady walks by, noticing what we were doing. Then she asks, "What's the name of that black bird with the red wings?" Sharon answers, "Red-winged Blackbird?" The lady says, as if in a Laurel and Hardy movie, "Yes, that's the one. What's that bird's name?" In a similar manner, we ask the young salesman, "What's the name of the sheep with the black face?" And with a straight white face, he says, "Black-faced Sheep." I have to bite my tongue not to say, "Yes, that's the one. What's his name?" But I hold back. Then he continues, "the one that's all white is a Cheviot."

One of the things we bought in the weaver store is a Bagpipe and Drum CD, and Sharon loads it up. How can you beat this, so to speak? Driving past the lochs of Scotland, listening to Drum and Pipes.

LOCH NESS

We pass the Loggin Swing Bridge, then leave Loch Lochy, picking up the Caledonia Canal for several miles, till we reach Ft. Augustus. It's here, driving northward, that Loch Ness begins. It was a dark and scary night...

We pull over next to the loch and have lunch (soooo, that would be a late loch lunch), then continue on to the ruins of Uquhart Castle, on ground that juts out into Loch Ness.

To our left of the castle, a boat carves a nice wake as it is pointing in to shore.

We continue on to the Loch Ness "Visitor Center,"

which reminds me of the tourist shops on Lake of the Ozarks in mid-southern Missouri. All kinds of useless, unnecessary plastic objects. We load up on them, but skip the 6 pounds apiece to see some movies, all of which we have surely seen on TV before. So we get out with minimum damage and continue on.

But first, I watch some kids playing on Nessie

and then I get her reaction. I think I see a missing tooth.

By 4:30 pm, we reach the Inverness city limits. As we drive into town, I ask Sharon, "What do you call a poor person buried in a well-kept cemetery?" and she comes right back with "Turf Serf." Which I really gotta admire, but she couldn't be more wrong. It's "Peasant Under Grass," as I watch the one millionth pheasant of the trip disappear in the rear view mirror.

OUR CAMP

We locate the Daviot Camping and Caravan Club Site, where we will stay tonight. It's not far out of Inverness, so Sharon can go to her third AA meeting, giving her the Triple Crown of meetings in all three countries of Great Britain. Sharon tosses some seeds and bread crumbs, and a little Robin works and works on the bread crumbs.

We rest a bit and have dinner, then strike out for Inverness. On the way Sharon spots a little calf chasing rooks, while across the road a rook has a field all to himself. He has obviously chased away all the calves on his side of the road, winning the battle there.

THE SCOTTISH MEETING

We get a little lost in the city, but soon find the way to her meeting place. I park outside and work on the computer while she goes in. As I'm sitting there, I see perhaps twenty people go into the church through the door. After a bit, an old man rides by on his bicycle, waving and smiling. I do the same, and keep working. About five minutes later, he passes by from the other direction, smiling and waving again. I do the same, and he pulls over and waves to me again, to get my attention.

I move up to the cab and roll the window down. "Don't park here. The kids, you know! The kids'll wreck your vehicle, they will. Better to park down by the front (I think he means waterfront). There's a park there. No kids." "I'm just waiting here for my wife, who's in there," pointing to the church door. "Ah yes," he says," I'm a church man myself. If these kids spent more time in church, they wouldn't have the need for the drugs so much." So I say, "You're probably right there, but she's in an AA meeting." "Ah, yes, that's very good. How do you find the roads of Scotland?" he asks. "The bad roads of England are much worse than the bad roads of Scotland, and the good roads are about the same," I say back to him.

Then I describe the trip we are taking, and when I talk about Mull, one of the Inner Hebrides, he says, "I was born in the Outer Hebrides, but now I live here." We continue talking, and he changes the subject faster than you can tick off new birds in Papua New Guinea. We talk about the September 11th attack, Israel, Palestine, Birds, Camping, the church, alcohol, more on drugs, our holiday, and the kids who'll surely wreck our vehicle tonight.

I explain again our plan, and he finally gets it, "Oh, I thought you were going to sleep here tonight. Well, hope you continue having a great holiday. And hope the good weather continues for you." I say thanks, and he moves on. His right eye was unmoving, but I didn't realize it and for the first five minutes I looked at that one. Then when it finally dawned on me what the situation was, I switched to his good one. He somehow seemed more animated after that... My bad.

About 9 pm, I hear a nice Song Thrush, sounding again like a Mockingbird a little. And about the same time, perhaps six or eight meeting-goers come out the church door to have a smoke.

THE PEOPLE VS. AOL

A couple of nights ago, I accidentally sent two reports, 4 and 5, I think, with the same command, so they went out almost at the same instant. AOL interprets this as either 1) somebody unauthorized has gotten hold of my account and is sending junk mail advertisements, or 2) I am sending junk mail advertisements.

So they disabled my account right at the end of my sending out the second report (Report No. 5) and displayed a message saying so. I know I have to talk to a real person at AOL to explain what happened, to promise I won't do it again, and so on. I have a frustrating time trying to connect with AOL to unblock my account, and I have no success, thanks to our poor cell phone (It's NOT Sco'ish) that does its characteristic play-dead trick in the middle of my third phone call, and after a long series of being on hold events.

I expect Sharon to be in the meeting from 8 to 9:30, because that was the story in England and Wales, but she comes back out about 10 because they asked her to chair the meeting. Only they asked her to "TAKE the meeting," their exact words. And she says she did everything. No secretary to help with notes.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: Grocery stores sell "Free Range" Eggs, so-called because the chickens are not cooped up (get it?), but have large fields to roam around in. Below are the words printed inside the lid of a half-dozen egg carton I just got out of the fridge:

These eggs have been laid by hens fed on a healthy, balanced diet kept in accordance with the RSPCA Freedom Food Scheme. This aims to ensure that the birds have freedom from:
Fear and distress
Pain, injury and disease
Hunger and thirst
Discomfort
And have freedom to express normal behavior [I love this one].

The "Lion" mark is your guarantee that these are quality eggs laid by British hens vaccinated against salmonella.

SLEEP IN: Auchnahillin Caravan and Camping Centre, Daviot, Highland County, Inverness area, northern Scotland

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): none
Today's Total: 0
Trip Total: still 34

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): Red-breasted Merganser, Common Gull (Mew Gull in U.S.)
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 107

 

Thursday, April 18, 2002. Week 3 Day 4. The Cairngorms. The Snow Meets Heather.

Map

GOOD MORNING

Something weird is going on with the motorhome control panel. It shows our auxiliary battery slowly draining, though hooked up to 240 volt AC, it should be charging UP or at max, not draining down. Have to watch this. I think the auxiliary battery charger isn't working.

On the telly, on a show like Good Morning America, there are pictures of this fellow in a deep sea diver's suit, the suit weighing about 135 pounds, still "running" the London Marathon, which was begun this past Sunday. Every day at the end of the day, he took it off, then put it back on the next morning. He says the stiffness in the mornings were the hardest. Anyway, he finally finished in five days and a few hours. Made about a hundred thousand pounds for charity. I bet he crab-crawled most of the way.

THE RSPB OSPREY CENTRE

We head out about 7 am, and our first stop will be at the RSPB Osprey Center. The temperature is comfortably cool. I heard some breezes earlier, and the skies are grey, with some mist still burning off. There are nice sections of blue sky. We arrive in the RSPB carpark, and talk quite a while with Rowan, the friendly and helpful girl working there. We learn that this is the place to come, tomorrow morning at 5:30 am, to see my number one desired bird of the trip, the Capercaillie (say capper-KAY-lee).

I tell her the list of other birds we're after and she gives lots of advice for each. We see Coal Tits and Chaffinches so far, but none of the lifers we're after yet. We drive the few miles over to a reported Black Grouse lek, but there are no grouse to be seen or heard. Too late obviously. Sharon does manage to spot a nice bird which we ID as a Redstart. We continue on this loop and see two men in rubber gear, standing about waist deep in the wide, shallow, slowly flowing river. They are fly fishing.

CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN

At about noon, we leave all this behind to head up the mountain in search of Snow Buntings (Rowan was hopeful) and Dotterel (she was doubtful). We wind our way up to the Visitor Center, but the two ladies there are actually sales people and don't know much about the birds. They recommend the ranger at the car park at the base of the ski runs. We drive further up the mountain, and arrive at the base. There is a funicular-type train painted a sporty purple that says CAIRNGORMS on it, with the letters rotated so that each is vertical, on the side of the angled car. So the effect looks like a sort of stair step from each letter of the word down to the next.

We locate the ranger door and go in but there's no one there. A sign says go to the information booth in the day lodge, which we do. We talk with a helpful red-haired fellow, whose apparent goal in life is to tell people, "You can't do that." We ask him about Dotterel, which breed on top of the mountain, but he says you can walk up, about a five hour hike one way for a healthy person. Then, of course, there's the five hour hike back down.

Can't we take the train up?" we ask. "No, when they finally allowed us to put in the mountain train, we had to agree not to allow people to ride it to the top, then walk up to the peak. The environmentalists insisted."

So then we say, "Can't we just ride the train to the top and look around?" and this is where he switched from gentle guidance to outright lying. "No, you have to walk up." We then ask about Snow Buntings, and he says we should see them around the parking lot here, but they'd be much more likely up at the snow line, which is about the middle stop of the train. "Can't we just take the train up and get off there?" we ask. "No," he continues his big lie," you can't. It's part of the covenant of the train." Or maybe he doesn't like people without red hair. "Not even for handicapped people?" I ask, pointing to Sharon's stick. "It's not in our control," says the red-haired liar.

TRUDGERY

We head out and get all our gear, then begin the long walk up. About halfway up to the middle train station, which is the snow line, the trail perks up its angle steeply, and we go slower. As we stop once to take a breather, we hear, then see a couple of birds fly above us and land on a couple of rocks. We take a look, Sharon with her binoculars and I with the scope. We talk out loud of what we're seeing, but they're not quite Meadow Pipits, which we figure is the most likely.

We finally make it up to the middle station and what I feared is true. The middle station cafe is closed for the season. Some snow does meet the heather here, but there is plenty more heather showing above us. "The one on top is open," a fellow cheerfully tells us about the cafe situation. We believe that the Snow Buntings, if they are to be found, will be where outdoors picnickers leave a few crumbs and bits about.

We ask if we can ride the train back down from here. The checker says no, only if we have tickets. I ask him if we can buy them on the train. No. Can we ride down, then buy them? No. Can you call down and ask your manager? They'll just say no. Can't you think of anything at all you can do for us? You have to buy your ticket down below. Are you related to the red-haired guy in Information? Well, I didn't really ask him that. Sharon complains about that guy, who said we had to walk up if we didn't want to ski. "That's not true. You can get a spectator's ticket and ride up and back." Now we're really frosted, only as it turns out, the lie we were told in the day lodge information booth by the red-headed fellow got us a new lifer.

BUT WAIT!

We go over to contemplate our walk back down, when a friendly, sympathetic, white-haired skier comes over and whispers that he's talked to the young checker fellow, and he's going to turn his back while we get on the train. Nobody on the train checks your ticket going back down.

WE WALK UP A MOUNTAIN AND COME DOWN A TRAIN

The train arrives, we get on, ride back to the bottom, then get two round-trip spectator tickets. We have to wait a half-hour while they do a maintenance test, so we go back to the motorhome to get what we want to have at the top. Sharon gets us a small group of mountain goats that, oops, turn out to be a group of reindeer. After World War II, a Scandanavian fellow noticed that the habitat here is similar to that of the reindeer there, so he had some brought over.

We talk with a couple, Norman and Chris, who have also driven up the mountain in their motorhome. Norman is an avid birder, but Chris doesn't seem to be. They've just come from the top of the train, and they saw a pair of Snow Buntings. We talk some more with them and trade other bird locations.

ROUND TRIP TRAIN, AHHHH.

Finally, just before 2:30 pm, we go over and catch the train up. What a great ride. At the middle station, the checker is relieved by another worker and he gets on with a homemade ski-bike. He notices me, winks and nods. I admire his bike and he says it gets him down the mountain, and his favorite thing is that it's nearly worn out so if it breaks apart, he hasn't lost much.

We arrive at the top, get out and go to the outdoor picnic area, on a concrete patio next to the building. No birds. We make our way around the building. No birds. We decide to eat something from the cafeteria, then check again in a half-hour or so.

"Got any chicken?" No birds. Only I didn't really say this.

We can see out two windows as we eat sort of cafeteria style, so if we get any bird movement, we'll notice. The male Snow Bunting in breeding plumage is white with black wings, basically. A beautiful little bird. As we're almost finished with our desserts (Cadbury egg for me), I see a flash of movement out one of the windows. "Black and white bird!!!" I yell, and Sharon looks in time to see a second, darker one. They drop down below visibility, and I scramble over, but Sharon sees the darker one rise back up, fly around the corner into visibility of another window, then land on the roof above us. But I think the black and white male is still on the ground.

We've got to confirm and get looks long enough to confirm. We take along pieces of Sharon's dessert, a cake that was stale to begin with. Outside we go but we don't see anything at first. We make our way back around the building, when Sharon says, "They're they are! The SNOW BUNTINGS*!"

And there they are, on a patio. The male is almost 100% in his breeding plumage, but has a little bit of attractive winter rust color still on top of his head. A handsome little guy. They fly around the building. We go to the picnic area, and there they are. I get a couple of photos of the male,

and Sharon throws some bits of the cake onto the concrete. They are definitely interested and come over, but stay up on the snow. She tosses a goody up there, but it's too close to them, and we watch them fly up, up and away, and they are gone.

We were very lucky to have seen them.

We take the train back down, load up and the parking lot is sort of carved out of the side of the mountain. As you are driving down the road on the edge of the carpark, it seems like you are an airplane on takeoff just before you turn right,

staying on the road. It's at this point that Sharon begins looking through her book, and we start discussing the possible Meadow Pipits. Sharon has the new thought that maybe they were Twites. We both review the characteristics of the not-quite-Meadow-Pipits, and based on what we saw, we claim TWITE* as a life bird. [The twite lives and is seen at such high elevations and the dark color matches what we saw].

We make it back to camp, and it's early enough that we have one more go at the Black Grouse lek, but find nothing there except long-distance Curlew views. We head back to camp for dinner and Sharon has sticky toffee pudding for dessert. She says it's scrumptious. I update the day's happenings on the computer, and we turn in, looking forward to an early day tomorrow. When I asked Rowan about the chances of seeing Capercaillie, she estimated 75%. Oooh, I'm so excited I can hardly sleep.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: In the 70s, there were about 20,000 Capercaillie in Scotland. Now there are about 900. We hope to see one tomorrow.

SLEEP IN: Loch Garten Lodges and Caravan Park, Loch Garten, near Aviemore, Highlands County, northern Scotland

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Twite, Snow Bunting
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 36

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 2 lifers
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 109

To Next Report (7)
Back to Previous Report (5)
Map
Back to UK2002 Trip Reports
Back to Birding Trips
Back to Homepage