Scotland pt.2

As I said at the end of the previous post, finding the Ringed plover’s nest seemed to get the ball rolling for our nesting…

As we were driving back to the cottage, happily discussing our find, we decided to delay our return by taking a quick drive down a side road that we hadn’t explored yet. It was a small road which led to some holiday cottages and went past a few lochans. We were driving past one of the lochans when I thought I spotted a gull sitting on a tiny island in the middle of the water. I told Dad to stop and reverse back a bit to bring it back into view, and sure enough there was a Common gull clearly sitting on a nest in among some heather on the tiny island (just big enough for a person to stand on). We pulled over, hopped over a fence and leapt from the shore to a little clump of vegetation, which served as a stepping stone to get to the island.

A nice little spot for a nest.


Very pretty! About the size of chicken eggs.

Dad and I have found a couple of Common gulls’ nests before but never in the UK, only on a birding trip to Finland. And despite the name, the Common gull is not a very common gull in the UK so we were very pleased with our second nest of the day, and the third of the trip.

Later that day we took a boat trip to Handa Island, which is home to nearly 100,000 seabirds during the breeding season and has some very pretty white-sand beaches with clear blue waters.

Nice huh?
This Razorbill was caught in some strong winds.

We saw thousands of Razorbills, Guillemots and Black guillemots nesting on an off-shore stack and along the cliffs. There were Puffins about too but they were too difficult to spot without a telescope. There were also good numbers of both Arctic and Great skua nesting on the island but visitors are, understandably, not allowed to approach the nests. However, as we were walking back to the beach to catch the last ferry back to mainland, I noticed a little fluffy thing hopping across the footpath. And all of a sudden there wasn’t just one, but seven, little Red grouse chicks crossing the path and generally bumbling around, with two anxious looking  parents leading the way.


‘Cheep! Cheep!’ he says.
Mother grouse keeping watch.
Father grouse checking us out.

The chicks had clearly already fledged so no nest to be found but still a great little encounter, and also really surprising that the chicks hadn’t already been scoffed by one of the many Great skuas about!

The following day we thought we’d check another local beach and see if we could find ourselves a second Ringed plover nest, since we’d got the technique down. We strolled along the beach waiting for a Plover to run from under our feet to the shore, and it didn’t take long for one to oblige. This time we didn’t even bother with an initial search of the area where we thought the bird had flushed from, we simply retreated to a suitable distance and waited for the bird to, hopefully, return to a nest.

Luckily we had a good view of the beach from where we had parked the car, that made the waiting much more comfortable as it was a particularly windy day. It didn’t take long for the bird to return, and, as it settled in a suitable looking spot for a long while, we were pretty sure we were in luck.

This one had four.

On our penultimate day we decided to have a proper search of our cottage’s garden for nests. There was definitely a Wren and a Willow warbler nesting somewhere within the grounds, but both evaded us. Over the week we had seen Lesser redpoll flying over and often dropping down into the stunted pine trees that bordered the garden. We had poked our heads into the spiky trees a few times looking out for a tiny little cupped nest (about 7cm diameter), but thought it was probably a bit of a long-shot as the NRS get less than ten records a year for this species, which is on the red-list for conservation.

However, as I was searching around for the Wren’s nest Dad saw the Lesser redpoll go down, yet again, into the pines, and this time he had seen exactly which tree it had dropped into. He called me over, pointed out the tree, and we approached. After a few seconds of inspecting the tree dad exclaimed, ‘Got it!’ The bird was still incubating and didn’t flush until we were practically face-to-face with her.

A very well hidden, tiny little nest.
Five lovely eggs.

A perfect last find for a wonderful holiday. The rarest nest we’ve ever found! The NRS got only five records for Lesser redpoll last year and none from the Highlands, and even though we weren’t able to monitor the nest over a long period the data will still be very valuable for such a vulnerable species.




Scotland pt.1

Last week my partner (Roxanne) and I went on a trip to Assynt, a region in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, with my father and his partner. We were staying in an old crofter’s cottage in a remote former fishing village called Culkein. The surrounding landscape of mountains and moorlands, rugged coastline and sandy beaches, interwoven with lochs and sea lochs, made for stunning views…

The mountain Quinag or Gaelic Cuinneag (meaning milking pail) has three peaks. These two are Sail Gharbh (Rough Heel) and Sail Ghorm (Blue Heel).
Picturesque bay on Handa Island. Not really how I’d imagined Scottish beaches!

And excellent birding!


The local area had some great species. As soon as we arrived both Arctic and Great skua were seen from the cottage, Great skua was a new species for me so I was particularly pleased. And the nearby beach held Rock pipit, Oyster catcher, Dunlin and Ringed plover.  Roxanne was the first to spot Ringed plover and was awarded ten points from Dad. The points seemed arbitrary but Dad assured us he was keeping track.


The first Ringed plover of the trip that Rox spotted. More from this bird later.

The road behind our cottage turned into a very rough track, which went through moorland and led to a medium sized loch. Our first bumpy drive down it was slightly reckless as we knew it was a dead end but were unsure if we’d be able to turn around anywhere along it, and Dad will be the first to admit that reversing isn’t his strong point… But we went for it anyway and luckily there was a suitable turning place, and lots of good birds!

Along this track we got our first nest of the trip: a neat little Meadow pipit’s nest, which was nestled underneath a clump of heather.


We revisited the track every morning hoping to locate more nests. Great skuas and Arctic skuas were holding territories and always appeared to be sitting on a nest, but frustratingly we must have been a bit too early as they were just sitting about in suitable sites.

Another bird that kept us returning to the track was the elusive Golden plover. A pair of Golden plover definitely had a nest nearby because on more than one occasion the pair were doing all they could to confuse us and lead us away from their probable nesting site. Golden plovers’ nests are notoriously difficult to find (less than ten records a year for the NRS) and the closest we got was finding the shell of a predated Golden plover’s egg.

With mine and Dad’s early mornings reserved for nesting our afternoons were free for more relaxed activities. On one afternoon we took a scenic drive around the area and I was able to get this pic of a Red deer in front of Quinag, which I think is almost good enough to go on a souvenir calendar or tin of shortbread.


However, after three early mornings of bouncing the hire car down the potholed track and finding no new nests, I started to lose my sense of purpose and could be found laying in boggy moorland photographing mosses and lichens.


Roxanne thinks they look like underwater photographs of marine plant life. But I was imagining them as alien landscapes.




By the fourth morning we had done some fantastic birding, seen quite a few mammals, visited a view pubs, and were just generally having a great time. But between Dad and I there was an unspoken, not worrying, but nagging feeling, that we hadn’t found any new nests. So we decided on a change of location for our early morning excursion. Instead of going down the usual track we decided to visit a local picturesque beach and see if we could find a Ringed plover’s nest (Rox’s ten pointer from the first day).

We walked along the top of the beach, which was a mix of sand a pebbles and ideal for Ringed plover. And sure enough after a minute of walking we noticed a Ringed plover running away from a suitable looking nest site towards the shore. This exactly what a Ringed plover is supposed to do when flushed from a nest: run, not fly, in a relatively straight line towards the shore, whilst alarming. We had a quick search around but couldn’t find anything so decided to fall back and watch to see if the bird would return, maybe we were looking in the wrong spot.

The waiting game.

We sat and waited with a good view of the beach. After a short amount of time the bird started to slowly return to the top of the beach and, to our surprise, settled in the exact spot we’d just been searching…

Surely, with our well trained eyes, we would have spotted a nest there, we said. Perhaps, like the Skuas, this bird was having us on and just testing out of spot to see if it would be suitable for a future nest. But after at least a good half hour of the bird remaining in the same spot we decided to go and check it out.

Oh, there it is!

How could we have missed that?!

Admittedly the eggs are pretty tiny (about 3cm long) and very well camouflaged against the sand and pebbles.

Not much in the way of nesting material, just a bit of a scrape and few tiny stones.

This find seemed to get the ball rolling for our nesting, and over the next few days we had some great discoveries. So stay tuned for the next post and you’ll get to see the first chicks of the trip (actual cute and fluffy ones, not like the usual bald and scrawny ones!), AND the rarest nest my Dad and I have ever found!