Category Archives: D500

Loch Fleet / Coul Links, stunning coastline…under threat

When we moved up here the very first place we visited was the Loch Fleet reserve. Located on the east coast of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands, it’s a stunning area of coastline where the tidal Loch Fleet meets the sea. The main tidal channel was clearly going to be somewhere I knew I would be spending some time as, within minutes of walking on the beach I was seeing Red Breasted Mergansers, Goldeneye and lots of Eider Ducks. There were inquisitive seals popping up in the water and checking us out and I even managed to spot an otter fishing in the channel. A short walk produced flocks of waders whirling across the water.

What a stunning place.

Loch Fleet

Loch Fleet

As a photographer, one thing I missed in the locations I visited in the South East of England was the ability to sit or lay quietly at the water’s edge to try and get good shots of coastal birds. Not a problem here, especially early morning in the winter. I am still refining my technique to see just how approachable (or not) various species are. Mostly the birds behave as expected – they see a human shape from several hundred yards and are already starting to head away from you. So I can’t explain why, when friends came to visit with a dog, when the dog was splashing around in the water after weed we were throwing, a pair of Eider seemed drawn to it and came really close…..bizarre!

Eiders are our heavist duck and can be found all year round. The male being a lovely black and white with an attractive green/yellow collar and beak. The female is brown and black but look closely and there is an intricate pattern to be found, both are lovely looking birds. To endear them even more they have a rather comical “ooooh” call which always gets a smile. They are also fairly social so it’s not unusual to see large groups or rafts of them as they feed together. They are diving ducks and will dive down to the sea bed to collect molluscs and crustaceans. Getting close to them while they are in the water is proving quite difficult, but by contrast, when they are flying they will happily fly really close to you as long as you are standing still.

Eider Duck (Male) - Loch Fleet

Eider Duck (Male) – Loch Fleet

Female Eider Duck in flight, Loch Fleet

Female Eider Duck in flight, Loch Fleet

I find these birds quite difficult to get really good flight shots of due to them often flying in pairs or groups so it’s harder to get all subjects in focus or to isolate a single bird such as this –

Male Eider Duck taking off, Loch Fleet

Male Eider Duck taking off, Loch Fleet

Occasionally they do line up well and fly in front the mountains in the distance which gives some lovely background colour –

Male Eiders in flight

Male Eiders in flight

I spent some time yesterday with the juveniles that were fishing close in, diving down looking for crabs. I had to lay prone on the stony beach, far from comfortable but they at least just treat me like a rock and ignore me. They stayed mostly distant but at a couple of points came almost too close to focus on. It’s a shame they didnt catch any crab at that point! Also a shame it wasn’t a lovely male, maybe next time.

Eider Portrait (juvenile)

Eider Portrait (juvenile)

Once they do catch a crab they seem to grasp it by a leg and shake it until the leg comes off, rinse and repeat. When the leg comes off they have to be careful not to lose it to a rival as they will happily try for an easy meal.

Here’s one that has undergone that treatment and is ready to eat –

Eider with crab

Eider with crab

Another fantastic bird that is abundant here is the Red Breasted Merganser. I’m finding them hard to get close to but they do fly past often. In this image the female leads with the male behind –

Red Breasted Mergansers in flight

Red Breasted Mergansers in flight

Red Breasted Merganser (male)

Red Breasted Merganser (male)

I’ll be spending some time trying to get images of them fishing, I know where to go, just need the right tides coinciding with reasonable weather and some time off work.

Winter is fast approaching and also brings a few migrants to the area. I’ve only spent one here so far and had a chance to photograph a couple of species I’ve not managed to get in front of the camera before. The first is the Goldeneye. Are you seeing the “diving duck theme” yet? I said the first two I mentioned were hard to get close to, the Goldeneye for me so far is by far the hardest. They appear to have a scare area of five hundred yards so once again the only way to be close is to hide somewhere and let them come to you. I’ve only once been lucky enough for a good look at these stunning subjects. I’ve not seen any yet this year but will most definitely be trying to get some shots of them diving and feeding.

Goldeneye (male)

Goldeneye (male)

The other winter visitor (last year), and moving away from ducks, was the pair of Shore Larks (also known as Horned Larks). Small and attractive looking birds that were feeding along the pebbles and low tide areas. They were really difficult to find initially (and thanks to the birders that pointed us in the right direction) and although known to be quite accommodating, were actually a little flighty. I went for the “i’m a seal” option and crawled on my belly to get close to their general area, then waited for them to come my way. This worked once but, just as they were reaching a good distance to get images (they are small so they do need to be quite close), another person decided the best way to approach them was to just try and walk right up. I know I can be a bit strange sometimes but after watching me crawl 50 yards on my stomach did they really think I was doing that for fun? Seriously wonder sometimes. Still – lovely birds (see below) and I hope they may return again this year.

Shore (Horned) Larks

Shore (Horned) Larks

The winter will also bring back flocks of waders, amazing to watch as the tide pushes them off their roost and they wheel in the sunlight –

Dunlin Flock

Dunlin Flock

As you walk along the shore here you’ll see the heads of inquistive seals popping up and checking you out. There is a haul out further inland on the sandbanks nearby and the laybys on the road afford decent views at low water. I have, so far, had one magical moment with a common seal. Whilst out at the mouth of the loch, I noticed a seal had hauled out on the beach behind me, the first time i’ve witnessed this here. I was hoping to get an image or two but with an approaching dog walker coming right towards it, and past me, I expected the seal to hurry back into the water. The dog owner was a regular here and said she hadn’t seen them do that in a long time. Sure enough the seal did head back into the water well before the dog came close. No drama there but I did expect that to be the end of the encounter, but no. A few minutes later there it was again. My wife and I backed up the beach and inched along the dunes at a respectable distance. I then did my much used “seal impression” and was on my knees then belly to slowly move a little closer.

The seal was very comfortable and decided to just have a lazy nap, with one eye half open, just 40 feet or so away. I was using my larger lens so was treated to a wonderful hour with this animal that must be amongst the masters of relaxing.

Common Seal doing the "banana"

Common Seal doing the “banana”

Sleepy Common Seal

Sleepy Common Seal

Dreaming of fish

Dreaming of fish

Common Seal Yawn, it's a hard life!

Common Seal Yawn, it’s a hard life!

This was one of those moments that will stay with me for a long time, such a priviledge. My seal impression must work then! I crawled in reverse back up the beach then slowly stood and left it to enjoy it’s nap.

I hope my images go a fraction of the way to showing you what a stunning place this is. Packed with wildlife, it’s a mix of pristine environments that deserves to be left for the wildlife. This is why I’m astounded that planning permission for a golf course (at Coul Links a short stroll down the beach and pretty much on top of this location) – has even gotten off the ground. Of all the places to choose, and believe me the whole area is quite beautiful, why would someone decide to try and build it on a triple protected (Ramsar Site, SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and International Special Protected Area) and have the audacity to say they would “improve it”.

I understand the need for local jobs,commerce and to bring money in but why choose here?

My understanding is that the Highland Council went ahead with approval despite being advised to reject it by their planners. The decision has now been “called in” for review by the Scottish Government. I seriously hope they send the right message here. To even be allowed to consider this site given the level of protection really makes me think that the deeper the pockets of the planner (a billionaire american no less. Remember Trump’s similar promises?), the shallower the law.

There are many organisations fighting this proposal including The RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Buglife

These bodies have a wealth of information about why they are opposed to the development which, if you wish to learn more, I urge you to have a look at, they can explain it much better than I in a few short words here. Apologies for ending on a sour note but there is still hope for this site. If we can’t fight when a triple protected site of environmental importance is under threat then when can we?

 

 

 

 

 

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New location, new life.

I was sat right at the water’s edge of Loch Fleet, the smell of the sea, beautiful crystal clear water, flocks of Sanderling and Dunlin whirling around the mouth to the sea and the ever present call of Oystercatchers, when it really hit me. I live here now, this is my local area. As I’m thinking this in a slight state of disbelief, a Common Seal surfaces in front of me and i’m treated to a flypast by Red Breasted Mergansers and Goldeneyes.

Loch Fleet meets the sea

Loch Fleet meets the sea

I guess I should go back a bit and explain. My wife Maria and I have been talking about moving away from the south east of England for some time. For us, just too many people, too much traffic, not enough space, so I started looking at jobs in Scotland. The logisitics of what would be required were pretty daunting to be honest but we were determined to make a significant change. Then whilst at work I was given an idea. I didn’t know If it could possibly happen but at worst the answer would be no. Why couldn’t I keep my existing (IT based) job and work from home in another location. A plan was hatched and I started asking questions to see if it was possible. When I get the initial nod from my line manager I’m starting to think this could be possible. A few weeks later when I’m sat with my senior managers explaining the pros and cons and how my plan would work I was given the go ahead and I realised our lives are about to significantly change.

Fast forward a few months, we’ve sold our house and are yet to find anywhere in Scotland to live. We are living with family and all our possessions are in storage. We spent the summer up and down to Inverness and looking at properties in a wide area around the Cairngorms and all the way to the west coast. The main requirements being quiet and secluded with space and wildlife (especially for photography!), decent internet connection and within a couple of hours of an airport. I’m a creature of habit and this really did turn our lives upside down. Moving is stressful enough without actually wondering if you’ll ever find a property. One we did find one we ended up not being in a position to make an offer and lost it.

During this time family, friends and work colleagues were really supportive (for which I am really grateful). It was an emotional rollercoaster to say the least.

I remember people saying “things happen for a reason” and I feel now that we are settled in the Northern Highlands that really feels true for us. Whilst the house we lost felt like a disaster at the time, we really did find the right place in the end. Nestled in a very quiet secluded location on a single track road but only 3 miles or so from town (Tain) with everything we could want locally. A trip to Inverness (heading south!) is a 45 minute drive. Perfect.

So, as this is a wildlife blog, what’s it like? A quick explanation of the area. Single track road for a few miles with lots of “wet” woodland to either side. Down a small private road, our property borders a farm field (low scrub, heather and young pines) on one side, croft land on another with lots of mature pine trees. We have a couple of neighbours with large mature gardens similar to ours – mature pines, some low scrubby bushes and hedges. We have a large area of grass front and back and a large pond at the back which seems “natural” (unlined) as the ground in lower areas is quite boggy.

Over the fence

Over the fence

Well we were hoping for Red Squirrel (and were told they had been seen here) but this is looking unlikely despite being plenty of pine forest very close. I’m told there are Pine Marten around although I’ve not yet caught any on the camera trap. There are deer which are mainly seen on the croft / farm side of the fences, mainly Roe but I have seen a young Sika also.

If you are one of those that “follows” me you’ll be aware I do like to encourage as much as I can into the garden to be able to watch and photograph. I almost have a blank canvas so really putting some planning into what to plant to encourage the most wildlife.

So who are the stars so far? I’ll let the images talk –

Coal Tit

Coal Tit

Constant traffic from these little birds, almost fearless, will come right up to you.

Perching Coal Tit

Perching Coal Tit

The mouse like Treecreeper is always present. This really is a bonus, thinking of some interesting ways to photograph them in the future. This one found a juicy morsel underneath the pine bark despite the freezing conditions.

Treecreeper with spider

Treecreeper with spider

Another bird that is here in high numbers are the Chaffinch, large flocks visit the feeders are and ever present flitting through the branches. A large flock of around 40 birds present during the snow, feeding on what i had put out to help all through the harsh weather.

Male Chaffinch in snow

Male Chaffinch in snow

One of my (if not one of the nation’s) favourites that visit a few times a day in a small flock is the Long tailed Tit. Such beautiful little birds. Stand still when you hear them and you may be rewarded with extremely close views.

Long Tailed Tit

Long Tailed Tit

There are of course all the usual garden culprits, lots of Blackbirds, Robins, A few House Sparrows, Starlings and Dunnocks, along with Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great and Blue Tits, Hooded Crow (probably my only real Scottish visitor so far  – and no images yet), the inevitable Wood Pigs (my new name for Wood Pigeons).

I’ll keep the images to a few of the more interesting ones –

It took a larger niger seed feeder to encourage the Siskins down and I am pleased to say they are here everyday at the moment. Feisty little birds with an ego much bigger than they are…

Siskin male

Siskin male

Here’s a bird I never thought I’d be photographing in my garden..

Grey Heron in snow

Grey Heron in snow

The wintry weather also brought in a few very welcome visitors. I took a half day off to see If I could get any images of the redwings that I had seen the previous day although it had been a fleeting visit. Really pleased I did, I was treated to a very memorable session with the birds sometimes almost too close to focus on. They were there for the apples I put out through the winter.

To get images like these I lay flat on the snow, cover my body with a bag hide, wear a balaclava and make sure I make no sudden movements. Not always needed of course but what better way to photograph your subject when it doesn’t even know you are there?

Redwing in snow

Redwing in snow

I was honoured to have this chosen as image of the week on Birdguides website.

Redwing with apple in snow

Redwing with apple in snow

Another bird I hear regulary (but have not yet seen) is the Tawny Owl. Every evening we are treated to a chorus of calls from the nearby woodlands. Looking forward to seeing If I can encourage them to the garden. I have a great spot for an Owl box so will put one up to hopefully attract a nesting pair next year.

It’s now April and I’m reliably informed that spring is late this year. Other than the skeins of geese that regularly flew over, the only migrating bird i’ve spotted from the garden was a fantastic Osprey. Not a bad sight when you are sat at your desk working! I’m really looking forward to seeing which migrants will be joining the regular garden birds. I’m hoping for Spotted Flycatcher and Redstart but only time will tell.

Apart from the migrants I am seeing lots of nesting activity. There are Blue Tits in box the boxes I made and put up (i’m not that “handy” so was fairly pleased with how they turned out), Coal Tits nesting in the wall of the house (there was a decent hole where a pipe previously was which I meant to investigate and fill up – oh well that can wait until the end of the season now) along with House Sparrows and Starlings under the tiles near the chimney.

Blue Tit using home made nest box

Blue Tit using home made nest box

The birds are also loving the wool I’ve put out to help them –

Coal Tit collecting wool

Coal Tit collecting wool

We are starting to feel like we are settling in and it really does take some getting used to. 5 months in and we are still getting moments of “I can’t believe I live here!” We have so many places to explore (Cairngorms, loads of coastline, lots of uplands, woodlands, Channonry Point for dolphins) I can only guess at what I might be lucky enough to see. I’ll be sure to update you when i’ve visited some of these places and have some images to share. I’ve also not yet met many photographers but guessing as the summer season starts I might see a few more lenses out and about.

I started by mentioning Loch Fleet and I guess that’s a good place to end as well. This is fast becoming my new “local” spot and I’ll be concentrating on this area in my next blog update.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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