Trip Report: Scotland, NW England, and Oxford, March 20-25, 1995

Mark Oberle, 2690 Briarlake Woods Way, Atlanta, GA 30345-3906, USA;

I had a medical meeting in Oxford March 23-34, so I allowed a few days to acclimate by birding in Scotland and Britain. Late March is too early for most spring migrants and, in fact, late for some winter birds. Many wintering species might be best seen in eastern England, but since I had never tried for the Scottish specialties, I arranged to meet Alan Greensmith for three days of birding in the North. Alan (14 Woodfield Ave, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey SM5-3JB; tel 0181-773-2150) was leaving for Borneo to add to his impressive life list (6,220+), so I was lucky to catch him before he left.

March 20

Alan rang my cousin's bell in Holland Park, London, at 1:45 am. It had snowed the day before, and promised to be cold as we headed north. We avoided the rush hour traffic in most of the English cities and slept in a road side rest area at dawn for an hour. On the A9 2 miles south of Dunblane, a flock of 1,500 PINK-FOOTED GEESE grazed near the motorway. North of Dunblane a flock of wild GREYLAG GEESE flew over the motorway. The Greylags in eastern England are more likely feral, whereas those in Scotland are migrants from northern lands. At the pass near Dalwhinnie, snow was on the ground. But we noticed a few RED GROUSE. Then we saw one flock and then another....altogether 300+ Red Grouse in several flocks flying or resting in protected hollows. Although classified as a Willow Ptarmigan subspecies, these are quite distinctive since the British form does not turn white in winter.

Between Aviemore and Carrbridge, and around Loch Garten, we checked the caledonian pine forests for crossbills without success. There are only about 120 square km of this forest type, and only 300-1250 pairs of endemic crossbills are left. In late afternoon we decided to check out the Capercaillie site. This species is found in UK only in the Rothiemurthus and Abernathy forests. The best known location is in the pine woods around a golf course off B9102, east of Granton-on-Spey. We approached the forest from farther south.

Although many people try for days to find the species, we lucked out and flushed 1 male and 2 female CAPERCAILLIE from trees within 100 yards of entering the forest. Later a male flushed from the ground. We checked various stream crossings and finally found a DIPPER at Nethy Bridge. The wind had picked up and it started sleeting lightly, but we checked out several more pine forests for crossbills before heading to a bed and breakfast in Carrbridge (Craigellachie House; 047-9841641). The proprietors, Eddie and Margaret Pedersen, had seen crossbills and all the endemic grouse in the general area. Few guests in late winter. After fish & chips in Aviemore, we retired in the lingering twilight, with the smell of peat smoke in the air.

March 21

We drove to a lek at 5:45 am, 0.8 miles up B9007, and immediately heard BLACK GROUSE in the distance. At 1.0 miles I found a male strutting just below some snow patches. He displayed for 10 minutes and then flew off into the pine plantation across the highway. March must be early in the spring for this lek. Up the road we came out of the trees and found a lone Red Grouse on the road. We walked a well-marked trail just east of Loch Garten and found Crested Tit. Three big-headed, SCOTTISH CROSSBILLS flew overhead, calling. After breakfast, we drove to Cairn Goorm ski area, a breeding site for Dotterel in summer. There was a Snow Bunting and a Hooded Crow, but Rock Ptarmigan were too well camouflaged against the snow to be visible.

We drove south, stopping occasionally along the way. 5 miles south of Perth, we got off the A9 to check out a flock of Pink-footed Geese and Alan found a Greenland race White-fronted Goose. At Caerlaverock Wildfowl Trust reserve near an old castle, the friendly warden gave us some tips. Most of the excitement in the region was over species such as Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup from North America. In the main "hide" Whooper Swans danced just outside the window. Lapwings, Meadow Pipits and Skylark came close at another hide. But the highlight was a flock of 1300+ BARNACLE GEESE. We drove to Southerness Lighthouse, where there were Oystercatchers (Sea pies) and Ringed Plover, but no pipits or sea ducks. We then ended the day with a walk at the Rock Cliffe beach below a trailer park.

After dinner in Dumfries, we decided to overnight farther south in the Lake District. Along Lake Ullswater after dark, we played an owl tape at 6 or 7 places. Finally, at the intersection of A592 and a gravel road half a mile north of the Cherry Holme guest house in Glenridding, a TAWNY OWL replied. It kept hidden behind treetop branches, except when we could see it fly overhead. But then a female came in and sat obligingly on a branch while we watched it for five minutes by flashlight. She may have responded to a female location call. The Tawny Owl is one of the species whose scary call gave owls a nefarious aura among our European ancestors (owl calls must have been particularly ominous during the lean month of March). We checked into the Cherry Holme B&B (07684 82512) where Mrs. Pitchford was glad to arrange an early breakfast.

March 22

We left at 7 am and stopped at Brotherswater, a small lake south of Ullswater. There had been a Ferruginous Duck there earlier in the winter, but we found only Tufted Duck, Crested and Little Grebes. At the beautiful pass to the south there was an ominous double cloud deck, and only a Meadow Pipit sang. We missed a turn on the motorway south and lost almost an hour. The temperature reached 50 degrees F at Leighton Moss sanctuary east of Silverdale. We walked to various hides and heard Bittern and Water Rail. Leighton Moss has about half of Britain's nesting Bittern population, and the Bitterns occasionally fly above the marshes. The best hide was accessed from a public walkway just east of the headquarters. The water level was too high to entice either species out. Jack Walsh, a black fly entomologist we met in the hide, said that when the marsh is edged with ice, the rails are more likely to be forced out in search of food. Two Bearded Tits did fly over an open spot, and a pair of Bullfinches feasted on cherry buds along the trail. The food trays at the headquarters offered great views of several species including nuthatches and Marsh Tit. Jack Walsh led us to a wooded cliff face east of Silverdale, called Woodwell. The hornbeam trees on the entrance road had attracted Hawfinch, but the only unusual bird there was a Tawny Owl calling at 2 pm! After dinner on the road, Alan dropped me off at Exeter College, Oxford.

March 23

Before my meeting I walked to Park Farm on the fringe of Oxford and saw Corn Bunting, Reed Bunting and a flock of 40+ Snipe. 39 degrees F as I started, but the day warmed nicely.

March 24

44 degrees as I started walking at Port Meadow at the end of Walton St in Oxford. Along the brush in the eastern edge, a Chiffchaff sang. Others had seen Sand Martins earlier in the week, so spring migration was beginning in ernest. At the lunch break at Oxford, Prof. Leo Kinlen and I walked the grounds of New College, and he taught me some of the various tit calls that had confused me earlier.

March 25

The last birds I noticed on the bus ride to Gatwick were a pair of feral Canada Geese! In 3 days of birding in clear weather I saw 92 species. The rains returned as the plane left UK.

If I had had more time, some other species I would have looked for on this trip were Redwing (a winter visitor that probably was more easily found in SE England), Twite and Rock Pipit (again more likely in winter along southern coasts), Bean Goose (a small winter population in SW Scotland may no longer occur there; Bean Goose is more likely in winter in eastern England), Jacksnipe, Willow Tit, Hawfinch, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and Water Pipit (all very local in winter). On April 3, Alan Brampton ( sent the following e-mail:

"Ever since you asked, I seem to have been seeing Fieldfare - 400+ yesterday, and one from the office window today - together with the first (Barn) Swallow of the year. To add insult, Saturday turned up a Water Pipit at Farmoor - splendid spring plumage job - my first for Oxfordshire. Please suggest other birds that might turn up - you seem to have a knack! Cheers. Alan Brampton"
I saw 93 species on this trip. Contact me at the address above for details.

Background Notes

Scotland was somewhat cold in late March, with temperatures in the 30's to low 40's. So I was glad I wore polypro and had rubberized, lined boots. As usual, most refuges were not well signed. If I had been on my own, a detailed site guide book would have been helpful. Two that seemed particularly useful are: the Pan/Ordnance Survey's Nature atlas of GB, Ireland and the Channel Isles, 1989, Duncan Petersen Publishing: this book is a general nature site guide but has many detailed local maps; Birdwatching in Britain: a site by site guide by Nigel Redman and Simon Harp, Christopher Helm Press, London, 1987. Exchange rates fluctuated widely at $1.58-1.68 per pound.

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