I had received an email about this day from Anne Cotton at the BTO – The British Trust for Ornithology, which is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. It was to be a training day to learn how to identify birds of upland areas. I really wanted to go but felt I couldn’t afford the petrol to drive the 92 miles to Kinlochewe. But then Gwen said that she too wanted to go – so we did…
The weather hasn’t been brilliant up here recently – we have had none of the heat which the rest of the UK is experiencing, thank goodness! – but we were both of us somewhat unbelieving when the BBC weather website announced that it was going to be just 9° in Kinlochewe that Saturday, but at least not raining. So undeterred, we took kit enough to meet all circumstances of weather and terrain short of a trip to the Arctic in the middle of winter! However, it was but 11° when we met at The Glac at 8.00 in the morning for the run down to Kinlochewe, which is a picturesque village nestling under Ben Eighe in the Torridon range in Wester Ross, somewhat inland from the coast. The AA software declares that the journey would take 2 ½ hours, but in fact it took us an hour and three quarters, with little traffic on the road at that time of day.
The first person we saw when we entered the Village Hall in Kinlochewe was Derek, the physical trainer from Lochinver! He is doing a PhD in the study of golden eagles, and his supervisor had suggested that it might be a good idea to learn about other birds who live in the same territory as eagles. Very good advice of course, but at the end of the day – or rather while we were out on our walk – it was the eagles for which Derek was looking!
The day started with Bob Darvill of the BTO who gave us a talk about upland birds. This whole day was all part of their “What’s Up” project which is monitoring upland birds, their habitats, their numbers, etc. Bob’s best advice to us all was to use our ears before using our eyes or binoculars when seeking out birds. To this end, they were giving away a double CD of bird calls, which Derek, Gwen and I grabbed as quickly as we decently could!
Bob couldn’t of course cover every species of bird of this habitat, but took us through a goodly list of the ones most likely to be seen or heard. Strangely, numbering among the latter is the lowly wren. I would never have believed that they lived out in such wild places, being one of the most common garden birds in the UK! However, once told that they exist out there, I did indeed hear more than one on our walk, and will know to listen out for them in future. Bob covered birds such as the dipper; dotterel; ring ouzle; grey wagtail; ringed plover, the ubiquitous meadow pippet, wheat ear and common sandpiper – which again surprised me as I would normally expect that to be seen on a beach! Ptarmigan and red grouse numbered among the bigger birds, and also buzzards, kestrels, short-eared owls and naturally, eagles.
This was more than just a “talk”. Bob went over these birds with a fine tooth comb until we really knew about them, their calls, their plumage and how to identify them. Of course, I can’t remember all the details, but I honestly do know now that when I see or hear any of these birds in the wild, I will know for sure what I am looking at.
After a break for tea and coffee, we formed into groups of five or six and having introduced ourselves, Bob took us through the birds again asking us to identify them or their calls. This was a very good idea as it helped to break the ice among the 26 or 27 people who had turned up for the day. We had of course exchanged pleasantries in the kitchen and what-have-you, but now the atmosphere in the hall became noticeably more relaxed, paving the way for the walk during the afternoon.
We had all bought our own lunch and having eaten it, prepared to set off out in the hopes of seeing some of the birds we had learned about. Gwen and I put on gaiters more with the thought of keeping ticks at bay, but if we had known that the walk took us on a concrete path, we wouldn’t have bothered. Similarly, if we had ignored the Beeb’s dire warnings about temperature, we wouldn’t have worn so much clothing! It had been quite cool in the hall, but we both got hot walking the path, which took us up to the a nearby valley along a very pretty river. I missed seeing the common sandpiper, but I have seen them before, and also the flycatcher, which I am sorry to have missed. But I did see the ring ouzle as it flew across our path and down into the bracken, looking for all the world like a blackbird as the angle was wrong for seeing the white neck ring which gives it its name. We had learned though, that that is what a ring ouzle looks like – a blackbird with a collar – but you don’t find blackbirds at high altitudes! I was especially pleased to have seen a ring ouzle at last.
We had set off from the car park in two teams, but they sort of ebbed and flowed as people stopped to look through their binoculars, especially up at the ridge running along to our right parallel to the path. It turned out that an eagle’s eyrie was known to be in use on the cliff face, and Derek for one was determined to find it. The first sign though was sight of the parent birds soaring together above the ridge. They could be made out with the naked eye, but were really clear through binoculars. I haven’t seen an eagle for several years – we used to have one come into our strath looking for rabbits, but then the rabbits went and so did the eagle! I also don’t get out and about enough to see these things. But there they were, and a bit more patient searching revealed their nest complete with almost fledged chick. Naturally, we stood watching the chick for quite some time – through our binoculars I must quickly say, as we were nowhere near the nest itself which was high above us on the cliff face. You need a license to go near eagles’ nests in this country, but even if that hadn’t been the case, and even if the eyrie was in any way accessible, we would not have dreamed of disturbing the chick.
Tearing ourselves away from the eagle’s nest, we walked on up the path for a few more yards, still scouring the ridge and there, to everyone’s surprise and pleasure, were two young merlins swooping and flying around each other practising the skills they will need later in life to hunt their prey. Their favourite food is meadow pippet which I imagine take a bit of catching as they are nifty flyers! We were wondering who had bribed the merlins to put on this display especially for us:-) Bob pointed out that it was his ears which had drawn his attention to the birds, thus proving very much the point he had been making about bird calls…
It was hard to turn away, but time was beginning to press and we turned back to the car park. I realised then quite how far we had walked as it seemed to take quite a long time to get back, or maybe it was just that I was really feeling the need for a cup of tea by this time!
The day’s activities ended with Anne giving us the details of the BTO website and how we can register thereon any observations we make in the future. She also spoke a bit about the Breeding Bird Survey which is one of their most important activities just now – Gwen takes part in this programme and I gather it is not a very easy task and takes someone with a lot more knowledge than I! They would like people to do surveys of birds seen in upland areas, but as you need to be above 750 metres before you can begin to note the birds you see to take part in this, I doubt I will be able to help. Many of the folk who came to this training day are avid hillwalkers, and I am sure will make valuable contributions to the enterprise.
As for me, I now know a lot more about these birds than I did – and I was the first one to spot and identify the blue tits in the trees by the river…