Anyone following the Chelsea Flower Show this autumn (it’s normally held in spring) will be familiar with the name, Yeo Valley, makers of organic dairy products. Their organic garden won the People’s Choice Award for large show garden this year, not bad for first-time participants.
I had visited their garden, with my friend, Zoe, previously – it is situated roughly halfway between the homes of each of us – but the weather had been miserable on that occasion, and we didn’t get as much from the outing as we might have done. Our birthdays fall close to each other, and, for our October birthday ‘first Friday’ monthly walk, we decided to visit the garden, and make a day of it, visiting other places in the area afterwards. We went on the second Saturday, as in October the garden only opens to the public on Saturdays, and this was forecast to have better weather than the first.
In fact the weather was gorgeous. The autumn mist above us allowed the hazy sun to bless us early in the morning, and had disappeared entirely by lunchtime. My camera clicked away – I couldn’t restrain it. In the order I took them:
On 23rd November, I shall be ‘going to’ this talk by Sarah Mead and designer Tom Massey, on how the Show Garden came about.
At midday our allotted time was up, and we had seen just about everything there was to be seen. Zoe knew of a great fish and chips place, Salt and Malt, by the side of Chew Valley Lake, just a short distance away. Alas, I took photos of neither the view nor the fish and chips, but both were very good.
We drove round the Lake to the next car park, intending to do the short ‘Grebe Walk’, which would take us firstly through some woodland, and then along the lake to see, theoretically, grebes among other birds.
But on the return leg we saw nothing but reeds in the lake at that end. Whether this was deliberate cultivation for wildlife reasons, or because of Covid-related (or other) neglect we could not tell.
We walked on beyond the car park to see what we could see. We couldn’t get closer to the lake than this.
Zooming my camera showed me that the boats were colourful.
And, looking back, gave me the chance to see some unidentifiable birds.
We had no desire to find ourselves back at the fish and chip place, so turned back to where our car was parked, with a view to winding down from our day’s outing. The drive back to Zoe’s, where my car was, took us along a quite busy road, which serves as a dam of the lake, and which is actually a reservoir owned by Bristol Water, the fifth-largest artificial lake in England. The lake is also a nature reserve and an SSSI.
There were many people leaning on the rail, but the birds were unfazed.
Zoe and I had not quite finished putting the world to rights, so before I got into my car, we had a cup of tea in her garden, and I admired the mini-woodland she and her husband are creating there.
Monday, 3rd June. I spent my final morning at Avielochan, on my way to Inverness Airport. The Grant Arms Hotel, where I had been staying for the four previous nights, has a hide there for the exclusive use of its guests, and indeed ask you that if the little car park already has its capacity of five cars to come back later. I was fortunate in that I was the only person in the hide for the full 90 minutes I was there.
I was fortunate also to have shelter – it was drizzling when I arrived, and for nearly all the time I was there. This was the general view from near the hide as I arrived.
Avielochan was another place where there was to be the chance of seeing Slavonian grebes, though, sadly, again they were not in evidence. But I enjoyed my morning, obsserving a variety of more common birds, some of which are featured below. For a short while, not long enough to get my camera to it, I caught sight of an osprey flying around against the background of the hills opposite.
There was short path beyond the hide, but I didn’t say long. By now I was perishingly cold, even though the rain had temporarily stopped.
And in the event, this was all I saw of the Slavonian grebes.
Despite the weather, and despite the underlying sadness over the very recent loss of my lovely Lulu, I did enjoy my short stay in the Cairngorms National Park. The hotel was a friendly, welcoming place and made me feel very comfortable and looked-after, which I’m sure helped my general satisfaction at the mini-holiday. But I was happy to get home to Bella in the early evening. I feel pretty sure I shall return to Grantown-on-Spey before too long.
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.
Friday 31st May. On offer this morning was a walk in the local woods, led by Simon, one of the experts on hand in the hotel. With three other residents, I availed myself of it. We started at the local golf course,
where we saw nothing of interest, though Simon did his best to convince us that this was a rare Scottish wild cat.
The Anagach Woods were established in 1766 by James Grant of Grant (more later), but they look very natural, and provide excellent habitat for local fauna.
As we walked through the woods, for much of the time to the right was acidic boggy land with stunted trees that could be 200 years old.
To our left, classic Caledonian forest, (the BBC’s ‘Springwatch’ is currently coming from just a few miles away) allowing lots of light through to nourish berry-bearing plants, good food for native species.
We emerged from forest into more open land, and I learned that this native tree was called bird cherry.
We reached the River Spey, and went on to a bridge. (Of which, annoyingly, I did not think to take a photo when we later went down to the path on the right hand side.)
You don’t often get the chance to see a mallard’s orange feet so clearly.
On the far side of the bridge I was able to see this bird, identified for me as a spotted flycatcher.
I said that I couldn’t see any spots, even when it obligingly turned round for me.
But spotted flycatcher it was, I was assured.
From the bridge I was also able to wonder at these wild lupins, through which we were to wander minutes later. We also saw a very newly fledged grey wagtail.
Once down there, along the bank we watched a fledged pied wagtail being fed. Its parent was too quick for me.
Further along was a dipper, again it was thought, newly fledged, not least because it was showing a marked reluctance to dip.
And then there were two, sibling fledglings. Believe it or not.
As we started to walk back, completing a loop, it started to spit. I was able to notice and admire these patriotic finials.
By the time we were back at the hotel, via the Post Office in my case, it was pouring.
And still was in the afternoon, so instead of pursuing my rural intentions, I did that standby of wet afternoons, the local museum.
Which was small and perfectly formed. I learned that the Clan Grant had been around for a few centuries when Sir James Grant of Grant, he of the Anagach Woods, and known as ‘the good Sir James’, decided, in the mid-eighteenth century, to create a town on the River Spey. It didn’t become quite the boom town he had hoped, because it was too distant from anywhere, but it throve nevertheless, especially once it had become such a sought after place for holidays and leisure a hundred years later.
I learned about the superclan (that’s my word) Chattan, and its motto ‘Touch not the cat bot [without] a glove’, meaning that they were fierce fighters. This was a confederation of clans and large families with origins at least as far back as the fourteenth century. The wild cats engraved on this large 1600s brooch, the Cromdale brooch, suggest it may have a connection to the Clan Chattan.
Alone in the museum, for 15 minutes I got quite emotional as I took up the invitation, below, to try the clàrsach, which was perfectly in tune, picking out tunes and even singing with it. (In the evening, I spent some time researching the cost of and how to play the instrument, I had been so moved by the experience, but have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I am unlikely to be any more successful with this instrument than I have been with any requiring the co-ordination of more than two fingers!)
Tearing myself away – I felt I could have stayed there for hours – I perused the rest of the museum, which featured various professions and achievements of the town’s residents, including the inventor of the flush toilet. (No pictures!)
I was fascinated by these next two images when I came to see them on screen. The light was flickering a little on the display of the curling stone, but my eyes did not see the complete darkness the camera did as it took the photos on burst.
Finally, the 1970s are clearly history to some, though I can remember the day we converted to decimal coins as if it were yesterday. Ironically, I was working in H M Treasury in Whitehall at the time. The lady on the sandwich kiosk was having a terrible time with the new coinage, and the queue was very long indeed!
Thursday, 30th May. It would have been nearly three months since my trip to southern Africa, so a few weeks ago I fixed a short, four-night break in this small town in Morayshire, on the northern edge of the Cairngorms. In the event, just a few days after burying my lovely cat, Lulu, killed on a country lane near to where I live, this was not the best of times to leave poor Bella behind, not was I really in the right mood to explore this new, for me, part of Scotland. But all was booked – flight, hire car, hotel – so I left home, hoping my sadness and guilt would not intrude too much.
The weather forecast for the five days was not great, but the worst was meant to be as I arrived, gradually improving over the period. So it was pleasing that, when I picked up the car (I’d booked and paid for the tiniest car possible, and they gave me a 2019 Astra with just 1350 miles on the clock) at Inverness Airport around midday, it was not actually raining, though there was a bitter wind. The hotel – more later – had sent me a load of information, so I had already made my plans for the afternoon. While waiting for the car, I had bought a sandwich, and drove along the Moray Firth to Nairn, when I parked by the small harbour and ate my lunch, looking at the northern side of the Firth through the windscreen. In the distance is a red ship, at, I think, the neck of the Cromarty Firth. It didn’t move all the time I was there.
Well wrapped up against the biting wind, I wandered around for a few minutes.
It was pleasing to see this sign on the harbour wall, but why only swans?
In the information from the hotel was a tip that there was a public car park, giving access to the beach, at the end of a road through a campsite, which otherwise I would have assumed to be entirely private. I went over the dunes …
on to the nearly deserted beach, and enjoyed the natural decorations.
I was wondering about the precise sizes of the oystercatcher and the black-headed gull …
… when a herring gull photo-bombed the picture and answered my question.
After a few minutes it started spitting, so, not wanting to get drenched, I set off to make my way back to the car. But it soon stopped, so I was able to take more pictures, of which this is one, looking back to Nairn.
It was now my intention to go to a place described as, ‘A beautifully scenic spot – the ruined Lochindorb Castle lies in the middle of Lochindorb, surrounded by heather-clad moorland and scattered woodland.’ Followed by a long list of birds which might be seen there and thereabouts. But well before I got there it was teeming with rain. I got out to take a couple of pictures on my way.
Approaching the loch I stopped to take this picture of the ruined castle.
And was delighted when a mother and six offspring ran across the road in front of my car. Fortunately I lunged for my camera. Had I not, but just driven on, one, then another, further offspring might well have been crushed. I managed to get this picture with all nine safely reunited.
I drove on, scarcely stopping anymore. There was no point with the rain lashing down. I just got this picture of the increasingly mountainous scenery.
I was pleased to arrive at the Grant Arms Hotel, in Grantown-on-Spey (pronounced ‘Granton’).
I had chosen it because it advertises itself as a wildlife hotel. It had already sent me a great deal of information, as I have said. As a guest you become a member of its ‘Bird Watching and Wildlife Club’. There is a library, masses more information about walks and suggested outings, and real live human experts on hand twice a day for tips and information, plus a few guided walks from the hotel, and evening talks about twice a week. They also have celebrity-led weeks from time to time.
The hotel itself is comfortable, traditional in furnishings, serving excellent food, and for me was very good value for money, as they charge per person not per room. I felt very well looked after.
Queen Victoria stayed there, incognito I read elsewhere.
Not incognito, and some time ago, another royal couple stayed there…
There was just one talk during my stay there, and it was that first evening. It was on Yellowstone National Park in the Fall. It was very interesting to make comparisons with my own stay there in the snow of February last year.
I hadn’t been to see the local starling murmuration this winter, so yesterday mid-afternoon I decided to rectify that. It’s always chancy, and for a good display the ideal weather is clear skies. Yesterday there was mainly thin cloud, but I knew that the birds would soon be migrating back to their north European breeding grounds, and I might not have many more chances. The Avalon Marshes starling hotline informed me that the previous night the starlings had roosted at both Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath, each accessible from the same RSPB car park at Ashcott, (recently created, to the great relief of those using the nearby country road from which the reserves are accessible.)
Once there, I decided, I’m not sure why, to go east along the rhyne (pronounced ‘reen’) or drainage ditch, making for Ham Wall, rather than westwards to Shapwick Heath. I made my way slowly to the main viewing platform, 400 metres down the path, enjoying what other birds were to be seen on the reserve, as night started to fall.
Glastonbury Tor in the distance
The water levels are carefully managed with sluices
En route I observed Stephen Moss, naturalist, author and TV producer, and President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust, with a small group of people, and I reckoned I must have made the right decision as to direction. Once I was at the platform, the Avalon Marshes representative advised going on another 600 metres, as a thousand starlings had already made their way in that direction. “There’s another half million due, and earlier on in the season there were a million here, but they’ve started leaving. We have had as many as five million in years gone by.”
On maximum zoom, in the far distance from the viewing platform, a great white egret, a species that has just begun to breed in the UK.
I walked on the extra distance, taking more photos.
When I’d gone the 600 metres, I was not alone – this was about a third of the people gathered there.
I moved slightly away and lower, to the bank of the rhyne, where there were fewer people. It wasn’t long before I became aware of birds streaming way up high over my left shoulder. They were all making their over to the north and doing a bit of their murmuring there, but at a low level and not very photographable. But I got a few pictures over the next 20 minutes or so.
Then they were gone, into the reeds, for the night. The moon was up, behind the cloud,
and it was time to wander back to the car park, along the rhyne.
Tardy small groups of starlings continued to fly over my head for a little while to join their roosting companions. How do they know where to go? What more pleasant way to spend a late afternoon? Why don’t I visit one of the UK’s most famous nature reserves, just 20 minutes from where I live, more often?
I’ve just rung the starling hotline again. Yesterday the starlings only roosted at Ham Wall. Good call.
I had not looked round Lockerbie itself yet, so on Friday morning took a stroll round the town centre on foot, including a visit to the library for information on the Eskrigg Nature Reserve nearby. Lockerbie’s handsome buildings are also of red sandstone. The parish church, which was closed, was enormous.
So was this building, which I assumed to be the Town Hall, though, other than a minuscule plaque commemorating the town’s (and others’) disaster of 1988, there was no other sign attached to the building at all. I had to go inside to confirm that my assumption was correct.
Nearby were these and five other sheep
I decided that my day would be best filled by a trip to Caerlaverock, to visit the Wildlands and Wetlands Trust reserve, and the castle if there was time. This decision had the advantage of taking me though more glorious countryside.
Having studied the plan of the WWT site over coffee, I started my tour of several of the hides. At one, I was grateful to a couple who visit most days for pointing out where the linnet and the redshank were to be seen.
Swallows discussing whether they should be thinking about returning south for the winter
Lapwings and starlings
Martins’ nests, either beloved or hated by householders, but very welcome at the WWT
I believe the correct collective noun is a ‘murder’, but I prefer, here anyway, just a ‘row’ of crows (with a cow behind them)
A chiffchaff, or a willow warbler? Or something else? Comments welcome please.
The reserve is on the edge of the Solway Firth, so that’s the Lake District in the distance.
It is bounded by farmland on one side.
Unlike the Lockerbie sheep, these were living.
I had been told that there was ‘nothing’ to be seen at the Sir Peter Scott hide, by which my informants must have meant nothing unusual. I took pleasure nevertheless in sitting there after lunch watching swans, mallards and moorhens. And learnt that when mallard is occupying a place where moorhen wants to be, it gives way, smartish.
Then I decided to do the ‘summer’ walk, not available the rest of the year because of overwintering fowl. It was delightful,
especially as for at least five minutes two blackbirds insisted on showing me the way as I strolled along.
The swans I’d seen earlier also seemed to want to keep an eye on me.
I enjoyed looking not only at wildfowl but plants as well.
I was nowhere near a hide when it started raining again, so my new umbrella came in useful. By the time I got back to my car it had stopped, but I heard the castle calling.
There turned out to be a wedding going on there, but visiting was not restricted. Glaring guests just didn’t appreciate how discreet one was trying to be. (One was not dressed suitably.)
In one tower, there were some young swallows practising their flight in anticipation of their long journey to come. As long as I kept still, my presence didn’t seem to worry them.
Accompanying the wedding was a bagpiper.
Hers was not the only kilt around, but I didn’t dare point my camera at the others, much as I’d love to have done.
The next day, it was time to go home to the cats, by train from Carlisle. Somehow my camera forgot it was no longer on holiday, until we had left Cumbria anyway.
So ended my trip up north. My next big trip is in September, wildlife in the Pantanal, Brazil, largely by river boat, but perhaps I’ll find a pretext for posting photos again before then…