It was with a distinct pang of regret that I left the Grant Arms Hotel after breakfast on Wednesday, 16th June. As during my previous stay in June 2019, I had felt so well looked after. For anyone who would like a holiday in the Cairngorms – not just for wildlife purposes – I cannot recommend it highly enough.
But it was time to make my way southwards. Indeed, I needed to descend (map-wise that is) through Scotland rather more speedily than I had travelled on my way ‘up’, as I wanted to spend a couple of hours at RSPB Loch Leven, given that it was so near to Kinross Services. So I took the faster A9 road, and stopped for no photos, much as I would have liked to. As the previous week, I plugged Steve Richards’s latest podcast into my ears, having downloaded it at the hotel, and was pleased to find that he had taken, not for the first time, one of my comments or questions to respond to. Moreover, he had mentioned my journey northwards. (And the following week he did the same again, this time referring to my journey southwards. He enjoys including personal references to his listeners who contact him.)
After stocking up on fuel and food provisions at Kinross Services, I made my way to Loch Leven, and spent a couple of hours there, in three hides, each quite close to the others. As I moved to, between, and from the hides, I enjoyed looking at the the wildflower meadows as much as I did at the birds.
Way in the distance I spotted one of my favourite birds, a lapwing, aka peewit from its call.
And then I noticed one ferreting around much closer to the hide.
It stayed quite a while. I moved to the next hide. As with the others, I had it to myself.
There were several artificial ‘islands’ where birds could nest safely.
I took a final picture as I made my way back to my car afters two hours. I needed to move on.
Another enjoyable crossing via the Queensferry Bridge, though in rather faster moving traffic this time, and then I disobeyed my satnav’s instruction to avoid Edinburgh by using on the motorways surrounding the city to the south, and went instead across the top, parallel to the Forth, though sadly not actually seeing much of it. I had only visited Edinburgh once before, on a management course some 50 years previous (!) and I was pleased to see a little of it as I drove through in the very slow, sometimes stationary, traffic.
It was a lovely, but by now tiring, drive further along the Forth/North Sea coastline to Berwick-on-Tweed, where I was very happy to flop for the rest of the evening in my pre-booked B’n’B. It always amuses me when places give you a key to the front door, ‘for if you come in after 11 o’clock’. I wasn’t going anywhere after such a long day!
Sunday, 2nd June. The verdict as to what I should so on my final full day was unanimous: ‘Strathdearn’, they said, which is also known as the Findhorn Valley.
I made several stops along the valley As I got back in the car the first time, ‘Henry’ and ‘Clara’, out for a walk, asked me was I looking for waders. I replied I was looking for anything, in a very amateurish way. The waders were all over the fields they said.
I succeeded in seeing nothing for a while, except some colourful cows,
evidence that sheep had once inhabited this field,
some actual sheep,
and some oystercatchers too far away to get a decent picture. I liked the colours in this newish wall round a farmhouse.
And then it started raining. Many years ago, when I was working in Whitehall on public housing subsidies, it had been alleged to me that it rained sideways in Scotland. Here’s the proof.
It calmed down, and I came to a little layby. ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’ were there with telescopes and heavy rainwear. Of course I pulled in. Birdwatchers always compare notes, though I had nothing to offer. The hope was to see a golden eagle. I stayed just a short while, which they clearly did not think was very professional of me, but I was keen to reach the car park at the end of the road for lunchtime, and I was now only halfway along.
I had stopped at a broad bank and had been watching the first oystercatcher making desultory nest-building moves, before the second came along and appeared to tell her there was no point. ‘Marie’ and ‘Hamish’, who said they were keepers (self-appointed or not, I was not sure) came along in a Landrover, and said they were concerned that a pair of dippers had been disturbed ‘just under that bridge’ in their nest-building recently. They seemed satisfied that I was not guilty and after some pleasantries drove on in the direction I had come from.
I continued on my way, and just before the car parking area, I encountered this meadow pipit, with caterpillar.
This was my view as I sat in the car starting to eat my lunch. I was really, really hoping to see a golden eagle or some other raptor.
Then I stopped chewing, because I could see two tiny protuberances at the top of the mountain. With my binoculars I saw this.
I was spellbound.
In due course ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’ came along, and asked me if I had seen the ravens. (As it was ‘Jock’ who asked me, I had to ask three times what he was asking, his accent was so strong.) The ravens were way up on a hillside behind me. I had been so mesmerised by the red deer (and nice and warm in the car as I ate) that I had not yet turned round to see them, on a far horizon.
I learned that ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’ came up to the Highlands from Dunfermline and Airdrie as often as they could to look for birds.
All of a sudden ‘Jack’ got very excited. ‘I don’t believe it!’. He had just been idly looking through his telescope, and there was … a ring ouzel. I had never seen one in my life, and I had previously met people who had travelled many miles unsuccessfully to see one. It is a mountain relative of the blackbird, and has a white bib. I was invited to to look at it through their telescope. I then tried to find it with my camera, in vain. So I took some general pictures of the gully, hoping I might pick the bird out on screen later.
Here’s one of the photos.
And yes, the bird is there. Yes it is. Here is a tiny segment of the main photo, enormously enlarged.
And here’s a tiny segment of another photo.
Clearly there is a blackbird with a white bib.
I was chuffed! Thank you ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’. I’d never have seen either it or, probably, the ravens had you not been there. But that’s the birdwatching world (of which I do not count myself part). They love sharing their sightings.
Another car came along, but I was moving on. I had more plans. Again using the map and information provided by the hotel, I was making for RSPB reserve Loch Ruthven. But not before this common gull had greeted me beside my car.
And I had zoomed in on this ruin back along the Findhorn Valley.
There was what turned out to be a very narrow one-track road over some moorland to get to the reserve. The sun was coming out, and it made this ‘blasted heath’ a little more attractive.
The road was only 7 miles long, but it took a while to travel it. There was a delightful small loch at the end of it, Loch Farr. But I stopped only long enough to take a picture of it, as I had a few more miles more to do.
This was the view as I parked the car at RSPB Loch Ruthven.
And these a couple of views as I walked along the path to the hide.
THE bird to see there is the rare Slavonian grebe. Half the UK’s breeding population is found at this loch. (I know, there are countries called Slovakia and Slovenia, but no Slavonia. I don’t know why the grebe is so-called! … Ah, I do now. Spellcheck didn’t underline the word, so I thought I’d better look it up. Slavonia is a region in Croatia. So now I know. Well, I still don’t know how the bird got its name. In the US it’s called the Horned grebe.)
Anyway, I didn’t see any. Neither did ‘Janet’ and ‘John’, who were already in the hide, and didn’t say hello. They left after after ‘Janet’ said to ‘John’, ‘Shall we give up?’ I was happy just to sit there and see
and various other birds of which I didn’t get decent photos, and to enjoy this abstract.
As I left, ‘Nick’ came in. We exchanged shy smiles and as I made my way back along the pretty path I found my self thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ve met him before. Is he on the telly, or is he in in the Somerset Wildlife Trust?’ I didn’t work it out.
Saturday night and Sunday morning. (23rd/24th February 2019). We’ll gloss over the sheer panic I had felt for two hours on the Friday afternoon when a trespasser on the railway at my local railway station made me miss my long-haul flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, and I saw my two-week safari in three countries melting away before my eyes. I’ll just thank Naturetrek for speedily booking me onto a flight 3 hours later, and for having arranged the timing of the whole journey such that I was still able to take the intended onward flight to Windhoek, Namibia, (formerly South West Africa) at the same time as my prospective 14 companions.
At Windhoek, we were met by Neil, the proprietor of Safariwise, and the other leader/guide, Jakes, both Afrikaans-origin Namibian nationals. They drove us in two vehicles to the Waterberg Plateau, halfway to Etosha, where we would spend the night. From my leaving home to arrival at our lodge there, it had been some 27 hours.
Here is a map to explain our itinerary.
From Waterberg we were to go onward to central Etosha for two nights, eastern Etosha for another two, and onward to the north-east border of Namibia to stay for one night in a lodge in Kavangoland, on the Okavango River, with Angola on the other bank. We would then move for three nights to a lodge at the western point of the Caprivi Strip. From there we would make a day visit into Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), after which we would move on further east within the Caprivi strip for a night in a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River, and then spend two nights in Botswana itself in Chobe National Park. Our last two nights would be spent just over the border in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) and we would fly back home, via Johannesburg, from Livingstone, near Victoria Falls.
The following, Sunday, morning, we started as we went on most days – getting up very, very early, with a pre-breakfast walk. This makes sense because it is around dawn and dusk that wildlife is most active. Like us, the creatures do not like to move around in the middle of a hot day. (Daytime maxima during the fortnight varied from 33°C to 38°C, night-time minima from 18° to 22°.) We followed a track near to our accommodation, which was considerably higher than the surrounding plain, but still with the plateau looming over us.
The sun was not yet up.
A word on captions. I only started systematically noting the names of the birds I photographed about halfway through the trip, so certainty about the names is not always guaranteed, depending both on whether I was able to check them out after the event, and also on whether I noted them correctly (the latter going for the second half of the trip also). Anyone with better information than I is very welcome to make corrective notes in the comments!
After breakfast we set off for our next destination, Etosha National Park. This is one of the two vehicles we travelled in. Everyone had a window seat, most also having the chance for a better view if they stood when the roof was up.
As we travelled our guides kept their eyes skinned for anything of wildlife interest and stopped for us to look and take photos as appropriate. The rule seemed to be that the longer we were taking to get anywhere, risking our next meal, the more significant the creature had to be for us to stop! I was just amazed at what Neil and Jakes noticed and immediately identified as they drove along.
We diverted to a sewage works – not for the last time in the fortnight! I was the only traveller not principally and passionately interested in (and knowledgeable about) birds, my interest in wildlife, and the countries visited, being more general. And I was to learn that sewage works are fantastic for birdwatching, as they are made up of a series of ponds which attract waders and other birds.
Neil and Jakes also removed some illegal traps set to catch birds at the sewage works.
We had lunch at a safari lodge en route. We did not starve in the 14 days!