Friday, April 19, 2002. Week 3 Day 5. The Capercaillie. Mark and Ike. The Cresty.



The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. We get away about 5:00 and arrive at the carpark about 5:20. There are already about ten people here. A sign says they open at 5:30, so most of us wait. One couple opens the gate and goes on in just as a ranger comes down to officially open. He says, "Reset. Now come on in." And in we come.


For this early morning show, you walk around the first building and perhaps an eighth of a mile to the first hide, also known as the Osprey Hide. There is a closed circuit picture of an Osprey nest, also visible from through the glass doors, and another closed circuit picture of tall yellow grass, but no movement there. The Osprey is calling incessantly and a little annoyingly.

The group that now numbers about 30 has not come to see the Osprey, but the Capers (say "cappers"). Suddenly a big male walks right into the video picture, struttin' his stuff. "We believe this is the alpha cock," says the site manager. "He comes out first." [I understood them to say that the lek on closed-circuit tv is different than the lek we see through the glass doors].

Everybody struggles to use their binoculars and look through the closed glass doors out to the Capercaillie lek. And soon several people have him, but he's a long way off. "Look at the space between those two pairs of trees. It looks like a tree stump, but that's him." I look, but all I can see is a tree stump, which promptly walks out of my binocular image. Fantastic. Sharon had him even before I did. CAPERCAILLIE*!

Then they get a scope set up for the group, which now numbers about 65 people. We were hoping for about 15 people. Then they take you about six at a time to a forward photography hide. The bad news is that to be fair, and with this many people, they won't do this today. Also, with this many people, we might frighten the male Osprey, who is new this year and has been acting skittish. Stupid Osprey.

But Sharon and I both get good looks through the scope. It seems that of the 70 people that wind up being here at the time we are, about 40 have brought scopes. So I never set mine up. This is not exactly the religious Capercaillie experience I had pictured, but I'll take it anyway.

We go over to the Black Grouse lek again, hoping to catch their act, but either they never did it, or it's already over, it being about 7 am now. It is misty, and starts to rain, so we go back over near the RSPB Osprey Center, to walk a path in the Abernethy Forest, hoping for some more life birds.


We casually meet and make acquaintances with two English birders named Mark (on the right in the photo) and Ike,

but with their accents, Sharon thinks they said Mike and Ike. I hear her call them that, so I do too, but I get suspicious when Ike talks about his buddy "Mock." Later, we trade names and email addresses, and we get his real name. Mark is a train engine driver. Engineer usually has a different meaning nowadays. He's an excellent birder, and Ike is good too. Ike loves to talk, and he is very good at this.

They are looking for Crested Tits in particular, which we are too. And they have already seen Siskins, so they take us under their wing, if you get my drift.

Mark walks ahead of the other three of us, with his head cocked and ear tuned. Suddenly, "Siskin," he says after putting his binoculars up. Sharon gets on them, "A male and a female," she says, but all I can see is the female, which looks remarkably like a female Chaffinch to me. "There's a female Chaffinch too," says Sharon, bursting my bubble.

The three of them get their fill and move on, and finally I do too, but then I see a bird which looks a little like an American Goldfinch from this angle. Beautiful. He's hanging head down, so I can see the top of his head and his back. Nice black cap and bright yellow on his neck. I tell Sharon, and she says, "That's the male." And so in this way, we claim SISKIN*.

We get a Treecreeper, and all enjoy it flying from one tree to the next, working the trunk or limb for bits. We move on, and then pick up a pair of ducks which we heard were here on Loch Garten. "There's the MANDARIN," Sharon says. Beautiful.

We saw a pair with Nancy last spring. I get a couple of distant pictures and we go on.

I get a little excited everytime Mark stops and looks up with his binoculars. We leave Loch Garten and cross the bit of ground and forest between it and Loch Malochie. Just at the edge, I am talking but in some tiny part of my brain, I semi-hear Mark say, "Crested Tit, right there." It doesn't register. Then again, "CRESTED TIT*, right there."

Sharon is on it already. A great little Tit, reminding me a little of a Bridled Titmouse, grey and brown in color, with the nicest little crest on this "Cresty." Then, "There's another one," somebody says, probably Sharon. We see it, then we see one pop into the top of a small broken-off tree with nest material in its mouth. Sharon looks it up in her book, and says, "Nests in the tops of broken off trees." Fantastic.

We enjoy them for about five minutes, and show two more newcomers the location, then we take off, still looking for Scottish Crossbill, our last lifer we are hoping for here. We make it all the way back out to our motorhome, without seeing or hearing any Crossbills. Dangit. We do, however, trade a lot of information (mostly one-way, in our favor) about bird sites. Mark gives us his email address, and we promise to email him the photo I took of him and Ike.


By 11:30 we are back out at the Black Grouse lek, hoping, hoping. But Mark and Ike are already there. Ike says, "'e droives too fahst!" Then he goes on to say he was pretty sure he saw a black bird by four trees, but by the time he got Mark stopped, and backed up, it was gone. Ike was frustrated. Another thing about Ike, he currently holds the record for the most difficult to understand English I've ever heard. But... I like Ike.

They finally have to go, "We've got to beat the Glasgow rush hour traffic," Mark says, and off they go. We take one more look, then give it up.

We go back to camp about noon to do a laundry and take a couple of naps. We have more on our plate for this evening. [At first I read the directions for the dryer incompletely, so every time I check the clothes they are cold and wet. The owner here had told us that the dryer was slow but this is ridiculous. So I finally reread the instructions and find that the way I have been setting it, it was always on the "cool down" phase of drying. So I start again and finally get the laundry dry after about 3 hours. Acutally, the rugs never do get dry but we take take anyway.][Bob here, in interruption mode: I just read what Sharon wrote, and she rather kindly neglected to tell you that I forgot to pass on to her what the owner told me: you have to put in one more 20p coin than you think, because the machine ALWAYS uses the last coin for cooldown. Even if you only put in one coin. After I told Sharon this, and she made the adjustment, she was at last able to finish the drying].


After dinner, we get our flashlights and drive back to the Abernethy Forest trail. We walk down, then finally locate a nice boggy area where Woodcock may be, and wait. We hear lots of nice ducks on Loch Garten,

watch two or three bats keeping the insect population down, then make our way back out again. No Woodcock here tonight. Home again, home again, this area marks the point farthest north for our trip. In a geographical sense, it is the halfway point.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: The Scottish Crossbill is almost impossible to tell from the Parrot Crossbill, which is also present in Abernethy Forest. It is our "good" fortune not to have to try to determine which one we saw.

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

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Capercaillie, Siskin, Crested Tit
Today's Total: 3
Trip Total: 39

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 3 lifers + Mandarin (Duck)
Today's Total: 4
Trip Total: 113


Saturday, April 20, 2002. Week 3 Day 6. Leaving Inverness/Loch Garten Area.


It is 10:17 and we are just pulling out of the fine Loch Garten Caravan Park. We will give the Black Grouse lek one more try, in late morning this time, as two birders saw one bird on the roadside yesterday about this time.


When I got up this morning, had breakfast and cleaned up, I began the morning ritual of getting my course map (the all-of-Great-Britain-on-two-sides-of-one-piece-of-paper map) to plan the day's travel. That was all fine except for the "began" part which was delayed by yours truly. I looked in all the places that I had put it in the past, going from the most usual to the most unusual, but it just wouldn't show itself.

Even Sharon got into the act. We finally decided independently that it must have fallen out of the motorhome last night when we went looking for the Woodcock. Then I said, "I don't think so. I think I have put it some place I've never put it before, when my mind was on something else. This got Sharon to thinking, and she checked the "we're-done-with-these-books-now cupboard, above the bed," and there it was. OK, that's six reasons now why Sharon is on this trip wi' me.


We stop at the Osprey Center carpark, make one pass through it to see if there are any Crossbills around (no), then take off. Only first, we see a nice male Siskin at one of the feeders.

Then just as we turn left at Loch Garten, heading for the lek, Sharon says, "Just a minute. There's a shorebird on that big rock by the water." I get on it, and we both notice that it's bobbing its tail up and down, just like the Spotted Sandpiper of the U.S. I start carefully checking our books, and it doesn't take us long to get our first lifer today: the COMMON SANDPIPER*. We learn later than they're just starting to come in, meaning to migrate in for breeding season, and that the North American counterpart (cousin, I like to say) of this bird IS the Spotted Sandpiper.


The morning started beautifully, but now it's overcast with heavy clouds, and there is a cold wind. It's extra cold at the Black Grouse lek, because there are no birds here. Off we take, southward. As we're driving, I look at the GPS and it tells me, by the dotted "track" which is left, like breadcrumbs on the screen, that we've been on this road before. It was when we went to the Cairngorms.

We stop at a Tesco in Aviemore, and bump into Chris and Norman, the birders we met at the base of the bottom ski lifts on Cairngorm. Chris tells us where there is a great little store near here that has ready-made dinners like venison stew, and we make notes. We'll buy our staples here, but buy our meat at the store they found.

After Tesco, we drive the mile or two to the store, and it's located in an old stone school. It's called Rothiemurchus Old School Shop. There's a gift shop and food store. We pick up a ready-to-cook package of Beef Bourginon. We also buy a package of venison jerky for lunch later. Plus some souvenirs in that part of the place. All the beef and venison comes from animal herds that are raised on the property. We ask if the beef is from Highland Cattle, and the answer is no, it's "Aberdeen Angus top quality beef." Then we're off again.

We hit the A9. To the right and north is Inverness, to the left and south is Perth. Our direction. And left we go. Lots of the sheep here have the twisty horns.

We come to Perth and Kinross County, "The Heart of Scotland," and then a wonderful tiny castle across the river via a metal people bridge. Sharon says, "This must be the gatehouse to Blair Castle," and I can't believe that it's only the gatehouse. But less than a minute later, we pass beautiful white Blair Castle, across the valley and standing out in the misty morning.

Sharon says this is the estate where they developed Aberdeen Angus beef cattle for the world.

We come to Pitlochry looking for fuel, and find it. There are still daffodils, and Sharon says she will always associate daffodils with Scotland, as they have been absolutely everywhere.

We stop at Layby 50, and have lunch with two fellows fly fishing over the wall and down in the river from us. I learn from Sharon that the trees I thought were dead when we first came into Scotland are actually wintering Beech trees. Then we're off again.


As we approach a key intersection, I pull over and discuss with Sharon what the wheel chair owner of Oban Divers Caravan Park told us. If he told the truth, and if the birds are using the same lek as two years ago, and if we're lucky, we might get close enough to Capercaillie to get video of their lekking activity. We talk it over carefully, analyzing the probabalities, and how we'd feel if we put in this effort and time and don't see them closely. That vs. the grand slam home run we'd hit if we DO. In the end, we decide that this was my number one target bird of the trip, so we're gonna try.

We have two days "in the bank," and it's something like this that calls for spending one of them. Having made the decision, I already can feel that I like it. I made a general plan for all 42 days, but as we go on with the trip, we may eliminate one stop because we already have seen all that spot's potential birds, at earlier stops. This results in saving that day "in the bank." In other words, we're ahead of schedule by that much. So we make the turnoff and head southwest for Aberfeldy, on to Kenmore, Fearnan, Lawers and finally the single track road with passing points, headed north toward Bridge of Balgie (the name of a village). "Unsuitable for coaches, caravans, and HGV," the sign says, but that doesn't let us out because we are a motor home, not a caravan, which is their name for a trailer being pulled by another vehicle. The initial climb is very steep, and it continues to mist and rain a little. After a couple of miles, we come to the Ben Lawers Visitor Center. We go in and talk with Katriona (kuh-TREE-oh-nuh). Well Sharon talks with her while I'm playing with the Can-you-name-this-bird-by-its-song display.


I hear them talking though, and I go over to listen. Sharon has asked if we might see Black Grouse anywhere, and Katriona gives us a "quite dependable" site, back through Kenmore, back through Aberfeldy, turn southwest, then go about ten miles or so. Between a farm house and a river, on the right side of the road. "But you have to get up AWFULLY early," she keeps saying. Then Sharon asks about Capercaillie. I expect her to name the same place as the wheel chair guy, but she says, "That's a bit more hit-or-miss," and names another place. We ask her specifically about "our" location, but she doesn't know anything about it, except that the road to get there isn't very good, from here.


We talk this new information over carefully, and decide we DID get looks at Capercaillie, but haven't seen Black Grouse, so we rechange our plans again to go for the Grouse tomorrow morning. We saw a caravan park in Aberfeldy on the way, and it had a vacancy sign on it, so it's about face for us. But first we buy the OS (Ordnance Survey) map of the lek area, for about 7 dollars. It shows every road and field mark you could hope for. In short order, Sharon picks us up a couple of GREY PARTRIDGES in a green grass field, and when we stop, they run leisurely into a plowed dirt field.


Also on the way back to Aberfeldy, we take a slight detour to the "3000-year-old" Yew tree, under which Pontius Pilate was reportedly born, as his father was on assignment here from Rome. Over the years, people took chunks of the tree for souvenirs (the way SOME people pull rocks out of old walls) [Only tiny rocks, REALLY], children played inside the resulting disfigured tree and even made fires in it. Today there are only two raggedy-looking pieces of trunks coming out of the ground, and the tree is protected by a concrete and rail enclosure "before it disappears entirely." The tree itself is scraggly-looking, but stands about ten feet tall at its maximum. It's not very impressive now. The claim is that it's the oldest living thing in Great Britain, and possibly the world. California's bristlecone pines might have something to say about that.

We successfully check into Aberfeldy Caravan Camp, then do a practice drive for the lek and find the farmhouse, the bridge, and even a place to park the motorhome while we scan through the windshield watching for movement. Then it's back to camp. A typical four-connector electrical hookup point looks like a Star Wars robot.

We are set up next to a classic red British phone booth,

and it's raining and blowing a bit. The heater's on (love that thang) and Sharon is brushing her teeth.

I go out to record a typical caravan setup in Britain, which is to say the "trailer" and its attached much-more-than-just-a-tent.

Will tomorrow be a Black Grouse day or a black Grouse day? If it's stormy like this, will the cocks go to the lek or stay out of the rain? I drift off wondering if we'll finally see them.

FACTOID OF THE DAY: Capercaillie and Black Grouse actually hybridize very rarely. The resultant bird is called a Rackelhahn and is usually male. Capercaillies also hybridize with pheasants, but I don't think there is a specific name for the resultant birds.

SLEEP IN: Aberfeldy Caravan Park, Aberfeldy, near Pitlochry, Perthshire and Kinross County, central Scotland

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Common Sandpiper
Today's Total: 1
Trip Total: 40

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 1 lifer + Grey Partridge
Today's Total: 2
Trip Total: 115


Sunday, April 21, 2002. Week 3 Day 7. Spectacular Bird. Glamis Castle. Vane Farm.



Four am comes early at 4 am. Whew. We're up and around, and take off at 4:25 for the lek. It rained a little last night, and I slept well. I woke up at 2:30 and thought, "Ah, another hour and a half to sleep," and zonked back off. Five am and we are in place. It's raining and blowing a bit, but the cabover portion keeps the rain off the windshield when we're parked like this. Sharon has gone to the back and is trying to take a nap.


My binoculars are expensive enough that they let in lots of light. I can just begin to make out differences in darkness, though none of color yet. I can see dark heather plants, distinguishable from the lighter tall grass.

Suddenly I see a black shape walking from left to right. Steadily. It's the first thing that's moved. I don't allow myself to get too excited because it might just be a Rook. But I can't help it. It don't look like no stinkin' Rook.

"Sharon, I've got a black bird moving from left to right." She is up and riding shotgun in fifteen seconds. The movement is gone now, but we both hear the sound we've been playing to ourselves for a week now. The correct sound. Great sound!

More and more light now. Sharon sees something fly, and locates two birds far up the hill, in an open space among the heather. We get the scope out and set it up to her right and next to the dash. She looks and I look and we're pretty certain.

But then Sharon says, "There's more,They're right here! To our right." And there are two BLACK GROUSE* cocks displaying to each other MUCH closer to us.

Every thirty seconds or so, one will sort of jump, sort of fly up and down in a forward arch. We understand this is to reveal the white part of their underwings. An amazing flurry of black, lots of white, and a tiny bit of red, the red over each eye. We get fantastic video of their activity for perhaps thirty minutes.

During this time, one of the males seems to have "won," and keeps displaying, while the other one, further away now, just stands and watches. Then what we call the alpha male stops displaying and starts feeding. "Is he done?" we ask. Then we hear a call very similar to a Willow Ptarmigan (called Red Grouse here). A rapid comic-like "keck-keck-keck." "That's either a Red Grouse or a female Black Grouse. I don't know what they're supposed to sound like," I say.

We see a big bird fly past a pole and drop down into a little crease just beyond a fence. Sharon saw a red flash, but a dark bird. I didn't see any red, but thought I saw a brown bird. Finally the bird shows itself and it's a female Black Grouse, brown in color.

When the two males heard the females calling, and then saw them fly in, they both started displaying again and running towards each other. To duel, I guess. They pick up right where they left off earlier. Little hop flights. And the world's coolest combination of calls. A low, soft purring kind of sound mixed with an occasionally whispery call, plus occasional loud calls. [When they fly at each other, we can hear a loud hiss they make.]

I take a picture of one through my scope, and it's a bit blurry, but I'm not unhappy with it, considering.


This. This experience. This thing right here. THIS IS WHY I DO IT.


As we continue watching, an Oystercatcher flies in to join one already near the grouse lek. The Oystercatchers mate, then get right back to their feeding. A little before seven am, we finally start the motorhome and slowly leave the scene.

On the way back into Aberfeldy, we see these four tiny deer, with white tails. You'd think they have to be babies, but when do four babies ever go wandering off alone? They have to be adults. Later we find out that they are Roe deer, and they'll attack you if you get them cornered.

We begin to leave the area, and Sharon gets another pair of Grey Partridges. After a bit we're cruising along the Loch of Lowes, having passed a golf course just before. Suddenly, I see these two birds on our left, between the road and a hedge in front of a stone fence. I assume that it's another pair of Grey Partridges, but just as we get up to them, I see a different mark. This is a lifer if we can get Sharon on it. I check traffic and come to a stop. We get out but can't find them anywhere. Then we check our books, and it shows they aren't in Scotland. Must have been my imagination, which is world class.


We pull over for breakfast, in a little layby, and just as we're finishing, Sharon says, "What are those?" I look up to see two birds running directly away from us. I get binocs on them, and just then they turn and run across the road. "RED-LEGGED PARTRIDGES*!" I yell, and Sharon agrees 100%.

Bird location maps aren't always perfect.

We drive on and come to the Strathmore Golf Course, Strathmore being the central California town where Uncle Calvin (Mom's brother) and Aunt Arline live, not to mention kids, grandkids and great grandkids.


We move on and at ten am, we are waiting for the Glamis Castle gate to open at 10:30. Sharon has a nap, trying to make up some of that missed sleep.

At 10:30 I drive the motorhome through the open gate, along the daffodil-bordered entry road, and to the castle carpark, in back.

It's still overcast. This is the castle where the Queen Mum, who just passed away at 100 years of age, was born. Princess Margaret was also born here. (The first royalty born in Scotland for many, many years and our guide said they had a representative from London at the birth to make sure the child wasn't switched with a Scottish baby). Maybe even a century or two, if I recall correctly.

There is a wonderful painting of the Queen Mother when she was 26, and she was beautiful, with striking blue eyes. We tour the castle and make some souvenir purchases, uh, 'scuse me, Christmas gift purchases. Then about 1 pm, we leave the grounds, but not before I get a tilted view of the castle front,

and the small, walled garden, next to the private residence portion of the castle.

As we are driving back up the long, long ("lang" in Scottish) entry road, Sharon notices a huge flock of birds to our left, on the ground. When I stop, I can see maybe a hundred fly away a little distance. "Fieldfares?" says Sharon. Can't be. They've all migrated. Haven't they? But guess what, I count 350-400 FIELDFARE*.

This bird is the exact shape of the American Robin, and has a similar behavior. Hopping on the ground, listening for worms, and digging them out of the dirt with their yellow beaks. What a great surprise bird for us. We slowly drive further up the entry road, and encounter another one or two hundred.

We hit the road, making it to Dundee, which is flush with yellow daffodils. "Welcome to Perthshire and Kinross," a sign says to us again. We stop for a break a little before 2 pm. Parked here beside the road, there is a field of mustard to our left. Beyond that are electrical power lines. Beyond that is a cultivated field. Beyond that is a line of trees. Beyond that is the Firth of Tay. There are hills beyond that and sky beyond that, and nice white clouds are beyond that. Let's see, then Mars beyond that. Jupiter is out there somewhere. Then ...


We take off, headed for Inverness, and when we're about thirty miles out, Sharon calls a likely caravan park for tonight, and gets directions to get there. While she's talking, however, I notice a road sign that says, "RSPB Vane Farm," and I turn off. We get over there, as it's only a couple of miles off the road.

We go in to see if they are seeing any new birds, and there are two interesting things. First, there are several thousand Pink-footed Geese around, with one or two Red-breasted Geese in with them. And second, there are Tawny Owls around here at night, and Vane Farm is open for nighttime visits. We decide to spend a night here, where I'm hoping we can use 1) luck and perserverance to find the big flock, and 2) use Sharon's spotting skills to pick out the one goose in a thousand.

A friendly Scottish lass named Ainsley starts marking up maps, to send us on our wild goose chase. Then she puts us in contact with Colin Shaw, a ranger who knows the birds. He saw the Red-breasted about a week ago, but another (unknown) person saw it yesterday in fields near Cleith, a little south of here.

We later ask Ainsley if there are any caravan parks in the area and she marks on the map which we buy, Gallowhill Caravan and Camping Park, near Kinross. Gallowhill is not to be confused with Gallowshill, you know, a couple of miles away. We decide to drive down to Cleith, check those fields, then work our way back to the camp. We do this, with no luck at all. A few geese here, a few there, but no big flocks anywhere.

We drive over, check in to the camp, and pick up the key that opens the door to both the toilets. The friendly owners also tell me that a big flock of geese has spent every evening on two fields right next to the camp, for about the last two weeks!


The weather is turning cold and nasty. We decide not to go for the owl, enjoying the coziness of our motorhome, sheltered from the inhospitable blustery, rainy conditions outside.

But as we're having dinner I look out the window to the right, and I feel like the lady up in the yellow biplane in the movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" That is, there are about a hundred geese just rising from beyond a hill beside us and they are first flying right at us, then they smoothly increase altitude and pass over our motorhome. It feels like we are right in the middle of them. We jump up and open the motorhome door, then watch them fly out of sight, in the windy cold.

This information is extremely valuable. We can mark the line they flew on the map, and make guesses at their start and ending locations tonight, then concentrate tomorrow morning's search on those areas.

Finally it's off to sleep, feeling the wind buffet our motorhome around as I drift off, sleepy and hoping to dream of Capers and Black Grouse.

FACTOIDS OF THE DAY: 1) "burgh" is pronounced "burra" in Scotland. Like the Pittsburra Steelers. 2) "Grousing" in America is a slang term which means complaining.

SLEEP IN: Gallowhill Caravan and Camping Park, near Kinross, Perth and Kinross County, Scotland.

LIFE BIRDS (Never seen or heard by us before): Black Grouse (candidate for best-bird-of-the-trip), Red-legged Partridge, Fieldfare
Today's Total: 3
Trip Total: 43

TRIP BIRDS (First time for trip, but already on our life list): 3 lifers
Today's Total: 3
Trip Total: 118

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