Tuesday, 26 April 2016

an almost ex-cormorant, Linlithgow Loch

I just can't bear the things we do to nature. Here's a cormorant today on Linlithgow Loch, a metre or more of fishing tackle trailing behind as it flies, entwined around foot and tail. 

I wonder whether it'll have a quick drowning, trapped below the water, or whether it'll starve over days, dangling from a tree.

Please take home your plastics. Please take home other people's too.







Chris Packham & Keep Britain Tidy - www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153888945738798.1073741855.88051928797&type=3





Friday, 18 March 2016

Scotland by Rail - Dalry (briefly) then RSPB Lochwinnoch. Wet.

from the tower, RSPB Lochwinnoch

I was at Dalry station, East Ayrshire, early one morning for an on-platform meeting. I had three possible walks to choose from afterwards, to form the content of my next Scotland by Rail blog post. And there would have been a cafe involved. But the rain started only half an hour behind schedule - 9.45am, heavy, due to stay that way for 12 hours. So after our meeting I postponed all outdoor plans, didn't even seek a cafe, and caught the next train back towards Glasgow, headed for Edinburgh then Burntisland. I broke my journey for an hour at Lochwinnoch where an RSPB reserve is only a couple of minutes from the station, then even more briefly in Linlithgow to buy a birthday present for a friend (Jim Crumley's Nature's Architect) from Far From the Madding Crowd, the best of bookshops.

Here's a short, wet, no-sketching Scotland by Rail blog post. 


RSPB Lochwinnoch nature reserve

Lochwinnoch station is 25 minutes from Glasgow Central and the reserve entrance is only two minutes west of the station along a fairly busy road (with pavement).

There's a small visitor centre at the head of the reserve ever-friendly staff and volunteers to tell you what you might spot that day. As good views as you'll ever get of small songbirds like these. Blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits. Robin, dunnock, blackbird, chaffinch, goldfinch. Collared dove. Loads of reed buntings. There are telescopes at the windows and brilliant views of all these birds on feeders just outside. 

from the photography hide

feeders from the photography hide

feeders from the photography hide. Birds constantly to-and-fro.

It's a loch-y kind of reserve and has a viewing tower to give you an all-around panorama of the wet areas. The majority of the water I saw was drizzling fast down the way but I could just see enough to spot plenty of mallards and a number of tufted ducks, goosander, coot, moorhen, mute swans. A family of three whooper swans were in the reedbed fringing - banana yellow beaks with black markings making each whooper individually recognisable to those who study them. They come to Scotland to escape the Icelandic winter. My first whoopers of 2016.

A male and a female smew were noted on the Recent Sightings board but I saw neither.

Lochwinnoch whooper swan

There's also a shop with all the usual excellent RSPB goodies - bird feeds and feeders; bird & bat & hedgehog & bee boxes; sustainable coffee & chocolate & biscuits; binoculars & telescopes; pin badges; lovely birdy crockery; etc etc etc. There's no cafe but there is a machine with hot drinks.

In better weather bring your binoculars for the lochside woodland paths and hides.

RSPB members get in for free, otherwise there's an entrance charge. Children can borrow an adventurer's rucksack containing spotting sheet and child-sized binoculars.

RSPB Lochwinnoch is great for cycling, it's on National Cyle Route 7 and the off-road Semple Trail. Cycling info here.

station poem, Lochwinnoch


How to get there

Dalry and Lochwinnoch are only about 25 minutes by train from Glasgow Central station.

Find the ScotRail timetable here.

Many thanks to ScotRail for their invaluable support of my Scotland by Rail work.

RSPB Lochwinnoch reserve - getting there.


sheltering in the tower

Friday, 4 March 2016

Joanna Newsom in concert, Glasgow, 2nd March 2016

Despite having a wife who plays viola in orchestra and sings in chamber choir, and a musically absorbed brother, mother, father, my own musical knowledge and vocabulary is very low. Spoken word is my main companion - Radio 4, Radio Scotland, Radio 4 Extra, audiobooks.

Anyway, Dad, Roan and I were in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday night seeing Joanna Newsom and band, touring Joanna's Divers album (featuring a character called Nightjar...). They really were seriously good. She plays harp and baby grand piano, and sings. The band of four, including her brother, play violin, viola, recorder, percussion, guitar, backing singing, etc etc.

The music, and Joanna's voice, is odd, intriguing, mesmerising... took me a lot of hearing it at home before I began to think I liked it. The words are poetic and the meanings seem deep. Mythology, history, mystery. I thought of a medieval troupe, or from fantasy, travelling their tales.

Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes was supporting.

Here's a sketch:

Friday, 19 February 2016

Scotland by Rail - Musselburgh - lagoons and sea wall, no owls

watercolour & ink & a lot of rain.  (spot Berwick Law?)

Scotland by Rail - Musselburgh
(with artist Kittie Jones - www.kittiejones.com.)

A great visit if you're interested in birds and a great visit if you're not. (but why are you not??)

Towards the start of the morning and the middle-end of the afternoon the train to Musselburgh is a packed one, packed with students on their way to and from Queen Margaret University. When you all get off the QMUers will turn right and you should turn left.

Taking that left turn follow the main road (Whitehill farm Road, becomes Stoneybank Terrace), houses on either side, for five minutes until the River Esk is below you on the right. Find your way down to the river and follow it. Musselburgh is one of those quite-far-from-the-town-centre stations but don't worry, it means you get to accompany the Esk on its final kilometre of land life and watch as it emerges into -merges into- the wide waters of the Forth.

As soon as you reach the river there are chances of dippers, goosander, maybe a kingfisher, but a bit further on there are small islands by the river bridges and birdlife was abundant. It's the sort of spot where people feed the birds (Hovis White? hopefully not.) and there are all the expected - mallards, mute swans, coots, moorhens. But others too - Canada geese bugling softly, goosander, tufted ducks, assorted gulls, little grebe. Also five or six really tame goldeneye, which if you've never had a good view of, you should. Try coming here. They stunning males already seemed in courtship mode, flipping darkly shimmering green heads upside-down to neck-achingly rest on shining white-black backs. (See my Pitlochry blog post by clicking here.)

the River Esk


Sea wall

We were walking on the right-hand side of the Esk and when we reached the sea we turned right. Left and left is an option for another day. You're at the start of a long long stretch of shoreline and really can make your own journey in either direction. We only travelled another kilometre or so, along sea wall then sitting sketching from the bird hides overlooking Musselburgh lagoons, then exploring the scrub and grasslands. Short-eared owls had been showing here for days and days - five birds or more! - but we saw none.

From the sea wall we saw Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Scoter (7), Cormorant, Dunlin, Eider, Grey Heron, Herring Gull, Lapwing, Redshank, Tufted Duck, Curlew, Great Black-backed Gull, Greylag Goose, Long-tailed Duck (1), Mallard, Oystercatcher, Red-breasted Merganser, Rock Pipit, Shag.

Esk joins Forth. Spot Arthur's Seat


Musselburgh lagoons

On the lagoons there were fewer species but in huge numbers  - Bar-tailed Godwit 300+, Redshank 120+, Curlew 120+, Oystercatcher 2,000+. And others in smaller numbers, including Greenshank 1.

The lagoon hides are open to all (but also open to the skies - not good in rain!), just approach quietly and settle, get out your flask and watch. Binoculars will really add to your experience. In total through the whole day we saw 52 different bird species.

pencil in sketchbook from one of the three lagoon hides

Musselburgh lagoons, before the rain came
teal & a shelduck

oystercatchers, Musselburgh lagoons, sea beyond.

lapwing flight & teal

gulls & oystercatchers

teal & a shelduck
godwits, redshank, black-headed gulls, curlew, oystercatcher

oystercatchers & Berwick Law

The whole area is great to explore and although it's pretty heavily visited (joggers, walkers, dog walkers, birders, photographers, sketchers [2] ) you can find secluded spots to stop and sit alone. The amount of discarded bags of dog dirt was shocking though, all around the grassy areas and thrown into so many patches of pathside tree and shrub.

To get home we walked to Wallyford station, about two kilometres from the lagoons so a much shorter walk than back to Musselburgh. For the last kilometre you choose between housing estate and busy road. We chose busy road but liked it - roe deer gracefully picking their way through scrubland over on our left.


How to get there

Musselburgh station is only eight minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley.

Find the ScotRail timetable here.

Many thanks to ScotRail for their invaluable support of my Scotland by Rail work.


Sunday, 31 January 2016

Scotland by Rail - Dunnottar Castle - cliff walk from Stonehaven

Dunnottar Castle, a seriously good day out by rail. Only two and a half hours from our capital city to Stonehaven, then an hour walk to the castle.

train sketches - Burntisland to Stonehaven

 A beautiful journey by train up Scotland's east coast - the Forth Estuary and three Forth Bridges - the Fife coast; the wide bay of Burntisland, where I stay; the River Tay and Tay Bridge (look down at the remaining pillars from the collapsed old bridge); the coastline on the approach to Arbroath (look out for the miniature railway on the sea-side just before the town. In summer you often see a train pulling families along it); the red-sand Angus farmland; Montrose Basin - fantastic wetland site with Scottish Wildlife Trust visitor centre (if you're really really really lucky you might spot an osprey or even a sea eagle from the train. I've watched an osprey diving for fish whilst I was standing on platform 1). And then you're alighting in Stonehaven.

Montrose Basin - spot an osprey?

And three and a half hours after leaving Edinburgh you've walked along seabird cliffs above sweeping bay and are looking across to Dunnottar Castle on its almost-island clifftop plateau.

Dunnottar Castle, biro in sketchbook


From Stonehaven station

Take the main road east into the town centre passing lovely old houses, plant-filled front gardens - hardly any have yet been slabbed to replace wildlife with car. Fifteen minutes sees you in the town centre where you can start with a café break or choose which to visit after you've done your walk.

From Stonehaven town centre the walk is under two miles. Other than a first short uphill section out of the harbour it's really not strenuous.

Walk down to the shore path and turn right, following the sea until you reach the harbour. Overlooking the harbour is a 16th Century storehouse building which now houses the Tolbooth Museum - free entry. When you've explored continue along the inner harbour wall, buildings on your right, harbour on your left, until you see a brown sign to Dunnottar Castle on a wall somewhere. Follow the direction it points you in, through housing until you're on the steep path up to the clifftops. The sign isn't totally obvious so if you aren't clear just ask someone.

From up here it's easy. Head towards the hilltop war memorial along a well maintained path between two fields. When you get to the brow of that hill you'll see Dunnottar Castle, two bays away. If you're not keen on cliffs you can follow a fairly quiet country road to the castle car park instead.

Dunnottar Castle is open to visitors daily, currently costs £6 per adult. Check online and by phoning before you make your journey. There are toilets in the castle (though when we were there they closed ten minutes before castle-closing time) and in the summer season there's a picnic van on site (by the car park).

Slug Road

Stonehaven shore

Stonehaven harbour
follow this monument to reach Dunnottar

keep eyes open for peregrines

first glimpse

Dunnottar Castle

pen in sketchbook

The Whig's Vault. Pretty bad. Read the words in the next photo.



Great wildlife all along the shore and cliffs. Here's everything we saw between (and including) the harbour and the castle:

Black-headed Gull
Carrion Crow
Curlew - 30+
Fulmar - 90+
Guillemot - 1
House Sparrow
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Oystercatcher - 70+
Shag - 5
Hooded Crow/Carrion-Hooded hybrid - 2
Cormorant - 7+
Feral Pigeon
Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Peregrine - 1
Rock Pipit

Total number of species -  21

AND - dolphins! Four or more, fins rising and falling in the choppy waves. There for ten minutes or more. (At times whales have been seen from here too)

And quite a few grey seals.

dolphins were out beyond those rocks


A page from my book

We had it typically 'Scottish' this time - wet mist and drizzle. The castle looked stunning in it! But look at pages 35 - 36 of my book for a sunnier scene.

Landscapes & Birds of Scotland, an Artist's View cost s £20 from Jeremy Mills Publishing or ordered through your local bookshop. Signed copies available directly from me or from lovely independent bookshop Far From the Madding Crowd, Linlithgow.

page 36

page 35


How to get there

Stonehaven is two to two and a half hours by train from Edinburgh Waverley, just under an hour from Dundee, and under twenty minutes from Aberdeen.

Find the ScotRail timetable here.

Many thanks to ScotRail for their invaluable support of my Scotland by Rail work.