Monday, 8 July 2013

Ye Tak the High Road . . . .

Birdman and Dragonhunter's Highland adventure Part 1

Saturday July 6th

A 4.30am start and we were on our way in broad daylight. Typically I had been awoken by a neighbours house alarm at 2.20am so hadn't even had a half night's sleep. Not really many birds up and about in the early hours so our trip list was a a meagre 20 species by the time we reached the Scottish border, though tiredness didn't help when trying to ID quick glimpses of passerines in particular, and even the most common of birdsongs was causing temporary brain-farts. Had we been keeping a roadkill list it sadly would have included 3 badgers, 4 hedgehogs, 2 rabbits, a red deer and a lesser-black-backed gull.

Some 5 hours on and we arrived at our first destination, (the Findhorn Valley) for a bit of raptor watching. Though the scenery was spectacular, the birding wasn't. Peregrine and buzzard (3 times each) and kestrel (twice) was all we had to show for a decent shift, though I firmly believe we let a golden eagle slip away when a large raptor dived in behind trees as we were driving up. I got a better view than Steve (though brief) and the lasting memory was the underside of the tail being vivid white and black. 'Unusual for a buzzard' I thought, and only later did I look it up in the fieldguide to see it was more than likely a young 'goldie'. Bummer!
Another potential big miss came when Steve had a large dragonfly which I failed to get on, but the fact it was flying down a steep-sided acidic hill stream meant it may well have been a golden-ringed. Seems it wasn't our day for anything gold. And my best miss-ID of the morning (though not of the trip; that comes later) came when I thought I had the dragonfly flying up the stream towards me only for it to reveal itself as a House Martin (I blame the lack of sleep).
On the up-side we did get a spotted flycatcher and a flyover twite here putting the trip-list into the forties.

Stunning view along the Findhorn Valley

Anagach Woods was our second stop, Crested Tit and Scottish Crossbill the targets, and also (according to my research) a possibility of all three of our main dragonfly targets ie Northern Damsel, Northern Emerald and White-faced Darter.
In the event the sunshine disappeared by the time we got there, we found the boggy pools ok but the only dragonflies seen were a couple of foraging common hawkers and a few large-red damsels.
No sign of crossbills either, but Crested Tits were in abundance, maybe half a dozen seen or heard giving us our first target species of the trip :)

Our last stop was Loch Garten. We stopped off at the dragonfly pond first and within seconds had our first target species, and a lifer for both myself and Steve, as petite Northern Damselflies weaved their way through the pond grasses in small numbers. Gettin!

Northern Damselfly - A lifer for yours truly

And another

Noticeably smaller than the commoner blue damsels, they fly low
amongst emergent vegetation

. . . where they also mate.

A female Northern damsel, not a great pic but shows off
those cracking apple green eyes

The sunshine was back now though it was getting quite breezy, and 80+ four-spotted chasers danced around the pond. I've never seen so many, a treat to watch. A single common hawker paid a brief visit, otherwise only damsels in the form of large-red and emerald were present.

Off to the Osprey centre and said birds were showing well, one perched in the open outside the nest and the other flew in giving Steve some cracking photos.

Even I managed a recogniseable osprey photo

More Crested Tits here too, with two coming to the feeders by the entrance for brilliant views.

Though the cresties were a bit more flighty

After a walk in the woods our trip-list reached the fifty mark, and a first for me when we encountered a couple of large mounds created by Hairy Wood Ants, a closer look revealed a living mass of these incredible creatures, and the floor was wick with them. I also spooked a basking common lizard close by which I just glimpsed as it quickly scarpered back into its hole.

Hairy Wood Ant nest, with obligatory protruding stick where
some folk can't resist having a poke about
(hope they were bitten more than once for their trouble)  
(NB - I later tracked this exact nest down on the NBN gateway website and discovered it is actually a nest of the Scottish Wood Ant formica aquilonia a definite lifer, having discovered a colony of the afore-mentioned Hairy Wood Ant formica lugubris locally in Chopwell Woods)

Next we located the white-faced darter pond (after a lengthy struggle with directions) but late afternoon now and the cloud cover was thick so nothing at all to be seen, but now we'd found it we would make a return visit tomorrow.

So that concluded our wildlife spotting for the day. Into Aviemore for some scran, chip butty for me and brains in batter (Haggis) for Steve, A quick trip to the base of the mountain we would be climbing tomorrow did nothing for my confidence; it looked an immense task for someone as unfit as me, and setting up camp in its shadow gave me a sinking feeling every time I looked at it.

Cairngorms Base Camp - Our target mountain in the background.
Believe it or not, tommorrow I would be right on the top !!!

Tent up, we sat supping a couple of cans of Guinness (though other stouts are available), the occasional fart keeping the midges at bay. And it was here that I made a startling discovery (or did I?) as I went through my days photos on the LCD display on my camera, deleting all those which were out of focus (most of them) I was just about to delete one picture when I noticed it had different markings on S2; a U shape like an azure attached to the segment base-line with a thin black stripe! Like a Variable Damselfly? In the Highlands? Well they've colonised parts of Scotland now but mainly in the south and far west, though past records do exist from the highland region. I checked other features like the fuller black markings on the final segment (though I actually looked at the wrong segment Doh!) and though it didn't have the broken antehumeral stripes this isn't a definitive feature. I'd convinced myself (and Steve) we had a variable damselfly.

I went to bed on that thought, but it wasn't that which kept me awake all night, or the thought of the morrow's climb, it was the noises, the smells, the cold and the general discomfort of the hard ground which did that. Roll on 5am and that bloody great mountain . . . . .

PS Here's the damsel photo in question. I uploaded my trip photos with eager anticipation when I got home and looked at this one first. To my dismay, now that I could see the whole insect rather than having to scroll it through the LCD viewfinder it didn't take long to see that it was no more than a dodgy looking Northern Damsel. Bummer!

Dodgy Damsel (top)  Standard Northern (bottom)
Had ME fooled anyway :(

But hey, just confirms what I'm finding this year that there's a massive range of variations from insect to insect of the same species. A bit gutted (especially as we'd told everyone what we'd found) but it's all part of the learning process. But I WILL find a variable Damsel in my home borough one day (though I doubt I'd be the first person to have VD in Gateshead) :O




  1. Can't wait 'till 5a.m. !!!!!
    Excellent account, I had to scratch myself twice (bloody midgies).
    I struggle to check out the LCD screen on the camera and always wait until images on computer.
    ..........and we've ALL mis-IDed and House Martin for a Dragon !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Were you "Wild Camping" while you were there. (No implications meant)
    and finally was that Johnny Five, as in Short Circuit, enjoying close up views of the Ospreys ??????

    1. Aye John, I should have checked it again in the morning when I wasn't so exhausted, would probably have realised then that I was looking at the wrong tail segment for a start D'oh!

      Yeah we just pitched up on a grass verge beside a car park, and you are right, that is indeed Johnny 5, has to do Osprey watch now the film work has dried up :)