Birds in the british landscape Archive

Osprey tall spray and evening sun. Pandion haliaetus

Ospreys midsummer evening fishing

Young Gannet closeflying lesson at Troup Head. Morus bassanus

Gannets storm riding at Troup Head.

Barn owl itch in middle of morning oak. July Suffolk. Tyto alba

Summer Barn owls in Oak trees

Barn Owls can be seen hunting the rich field margins of Little Haugh and Halls farms in the long summer evenings. The hedges are punctuated with old oak trees, many with hollows where the owls can nest and roost in.

Osprey with up right flat wings pulls trout from water. Cairngorm NP. Pandion haliaetus

Osprey June action at Rothiemurcus

By June Ospreys breeding in the Spey valley need increasing amounts of food for their growing young. The Osprey fishing loch at Rothiemurcus is a reliable place for them to catch fish and a great place to see these spectacular birds in action.

Corncrake calling from the side in wet yellow flag. Crex crex

Corncrakes in the Hebrides

Untidy and neglected would be an opinion, especially compared with farms on the mainland. Field corners are overgrown, there are patches of yellow flag iris in the damper places and old farm machinery seems to be left where it broke to slowly rust away. In spring and early summer the small fields divided by stonewalls and sheep fencing are a patchwork of colour, shades of green and drifts of wild flowers. The Outer Hebrides also have a surprising mix of landscapes, the Uist islands that I know best have sandy west coast side with dunes, flower rich machair and miles of gorgeous white deserted beaches. The east coasts are rocky, rugged with small secret coves often only accessible by little used paths. The islands differ as well; Benbecula between north and south Uist is bewildering maize of boggy peat and fresh water lakes.

I first visited the Outer Hebrides as a hitchhiking teenager and was trapped in a tent on Benbecula for several days in an unseasonable summer storm. I have returned several times since and have always been much luckier with the weather. My week in a cottage on North Uist in early May this year was wall-to-wall sunshine, even when rain was forecast it refused to appear. As well as the draw of the empty beaches with their tropical colour pallet where Rye my spaniel fruitlessly chases the seagulls the wildlife and especially the birds pulls me to the far northwest.

Farming the thin sandy soils of the Outer Hebrides has always been a challenge and the predictable totally unpredictable weather only adds to the challenge. Much of the land is under the croft system and crofters usually have one or more other jobs to make a living. The less intensive more traditional and untidy land use is one of the main reasons why the islands are so rich in birdlife.

Corncrakes are enigmatic little birds that look like miniature partridges’, they migrate to Africa every winter and used to breed throughout the UK. Now they are only found on the Scottish west coast and Hebrides, modern intensive farming destroys their nests before the young can leave. Many birds are impossible to see in thick vegetation, corncrakes are also expert hiders but then call loudly causing legendary frustration for bird watchers who can be seen staring fruitlessly at nettle beds where a corncrake is hiding and calling loudly only metres away.

Spring was late this year and the corncrakes arrived at about the same time I did in May. The Balranald RSPB reserve in the west of North Uist is managed using traditional crofting methods and is very rich in wildlife. Small fields round the visitor centre always attract corncrakes, that always attract bird watchers. The first corncrake was consistently calling from two yellow iris beds and as usual totally invisible. The large coach loads of birdwatchers are brave, ignoring fences and notices and tried to find the corncrake. However, the corncrake was wise to this behaviour, when approached by many birdwatchers it took to the ditch and unseen hid in the pile of old pallets and lobster pots by the visitor centre.

Of course coach tours will not have their timetables disrupted by a bird, the frustrated birdwatchers are loaded up and the coach leaves. The retreating engine noise signals to the corncrake that it is safe to come out. The emboldened little bird walks through the fence, feeds a while in the short grass then walks back to the iris patch and resumes calling to a possible mate that has yet to arrive. This game is fun to watch a few times, but I head to South Uist. The corncrakes have been here a week longer and the small crofts are quiet during the day, there are no coaches.

To the west of the main road running down South Uist there is a network of lanes and tracks though the flower rich machair leading to the small farms and crofts that pepper the landscape. The lanes also give access through the dunes to the empty white sand beaches and the tropical turquoise blue Atlantic. The machair and small fields are alive with bird life, many birds live on the island year round others are migrating through. Small groups of whimbrel that look like a delicate curlew were feeding on the short grass, they spend the winter on African coasts and travel back to breed in the far north of Scotland and Iceland. Lapwings already had young and spend the long May days using their acrobatic flight and insistent calls to chase off the gulls that were trying to catch and eat their chicks. Handsome black and white oystercatchers strut around or sit on their eggs in shallow scrapes on the machair. Occasionally the mottled brown birds sitting on fencing wire were not meadow pipits but increasingly scarce corn buntings.

I drove slowly along the single track passing place lanes windows down listening. The corncrake call is loud and can be heard over the sound of the car, it is like a stick drawn down an old washboard, this call can disturb people’s sleep on quiet summer nights. But, I see it rather than hear it. The corncrake is in a small field feeding in the short grass, I stop the car and it runs for cover in the corner among fenced of round black silage bales. After a few minutes it starts the rasping call, I wait and a little head comes out and calls through the fence, a few minutes more and it walks through the fence and breaks into a run then flies to the far corner with yellow flag iris and starts to call again. In the quiet I can hear the distant call of other corncrakes. I drive round to the iris corner, spring has been late, the iris are short and I can see the corncrake a few metres away calling with its head held high. Beyond the iris bed there are two very smart golden plover, they breed in the heather covered hills to the east of the main road and come down here to feed in the insect rich fields. I glance up and notice the shadows have shifted, my watch shows it is much later than I thought. Rye’s insistent stare confirms that it is nearing suppertime and I need to return to the cottage on North Uist.

Loch View Cottage is nestled into a network of sea-lochs. The view from the cottage is constantly changing as the tide flows in and out interacting with the light from the long spring days. Sheep graze the fields round the cottage, they also graze the road verges on the other size of the fence. Lilian the cottage owner asked me to keep the gate closed so the sheep didn’t start grazing the garden. Later that evening I walked Rye down the road a hen harrier was quartering the fields. The farmer was also down the lane trying to catch the lambs on the road side of the fence and put them on the field side, he explained that their mothers would then follow them back. He gladly accepted our help, Rye is no sheepdog, sheep are bigger than her and she is afraid of the them but, lambs are afraid of everything and one look at us made them stick their head through the fence, get trapped and get caught. The light was fading and the harrier had been replaced by a short-eared owl, I open the gate and went back to the cottage.

Although I had come to the far west to see the wildlife on reflection the tolerance and kindness of the people living on the islands is an equal draw. A self-catering cottage stocked with enough food much of it home made by Lilian to keep me going for days. Crofters and farmers are happy to stop, talk and give me advice and free access to their land. Unfailing politeness and patience on the narrow passing place island roads. A relaxed elastic attitude to time, all of these and more make for a compelling destination.



Osprey 2nd try at leaving the water almost clear. Sept Cairngorn NP Pandion haliaetus

Last Osprey of summer struggling with large trout

By the end of August most Ospreys have started their migration south from the Scottish Cairngorms. Some of the adult males birds wait to make sure this years young are able to catch fish. This Osprey has caught a trout at Rothiemurchus and needed two attempts to pull it out of the water.

Grey Heron coming out with brown trout. May Cairngorm NP. Ardea cinerea

Grey herons in the the Rothiemurcus landscape

Rotheimurchus Fishery is a hotspot for herons. The loch side hides allow really close views

For more information click on the link.. 

Osprey pulling large trout from a Cairngorm loch. Pandion haliaetus

May Ospreys behaving at Rothiemurchus

Rothiemurchus fishery is the place to watch ospreys fishing a few metres away. The water level hides are perfect for photography.

For more information click on the link.

Barn owl turning to look round, sunny june evening after rain Suffolk. Tyto alba

Barn owls summer 2016

After a poor breeding year in 2015 the Barn owls at Halls farm and Little Haugh farm in Norton Suffolk are having a good year in 2016. There seems to be a high vole population and the owls are  hunting very successfully.

We will start to check the breeding boxes over the next few weeks , come back to hear the results.

Barn owl flying wing pattern. April morning Suffolk. Tyto alba

Spring Barn owls in the Black Bourn valley Suffolk