Group outing: BTO Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey of Skye

This time last year, an ‘expedition team’ from Rye Meads Ringing Group took part in a UK-wide survey, on Skye.
Looking west from Dunvegan with MaCloed's Table in the distance after a hard days surveying. Sally Harris

Group outing: BTO Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey of Skye

This time last year, an ‘expedition team’ from Rye Meads Ringing Group took part in a UK-wide survey, on Skye. Alan Harris recalls the trip.

Three inches of snow on the car at 4:30 am didn’t bode well for the long drive north. Who had spent the night hours of 16 January 2016 scraping up the quarter inch of snow in the surrounds and piling it up on our car God only knows.

Two hundred miles on and the fog was thickening and I remembered my Dad’s observation many years ago. ‘It’s grim up North’. I think he was talking more Cambridge, but the sentiment fitted. And there was more lying snow; I anticipated the Pennine crossing with some trepidation as we approached Scotch Corner (famous as home of the inventor of Sellotape, and where pigs used to lay eggs*). As we gained height up the A66 we burst through the fog and into a bright early morning winter wonderland. Stunning sunny snowscapes accompanied us for the remainder of the day; destination a frozen Fort William.

My wife Sally and I planned to spend a day birding around the foothills of Ben Nevis. Great plans thwarted by freezing fog. We skidded along the icy foreshore for a practice run at surveying and I surprised myself by finding a Greenshank and an Iceland Gull.  My wife undertook a comprehensive survey of all the waterfront eateries, complete with extensive commentary on the various menus. At the pier head I capitulated and we had a cuppa and an all-day breakfast in Morrisons. From the tone of her silence I could tell it wasn’t quite what she was thinking of……

The rest of the day’s expedition target was the Black Grouse - we had more chance of seeing bigfoot. Three hours in a cloud mass conifer forest (for a Wren, a Coal Tit, a Hooded Crow, and yes, a probable bigfoot) didn’t float her boat. The four hours in Wetherspoon’s was much more up her street.

Next morning was an early start to get up to Skye for a rendezvous with the rest of the team, Sarah, Rob and Matt. High up overlooking Glen Garry an annoying tailgater turned out to be the rest of our unit, with Sarah at the wheel. Crossing the Skye Bridge we stopped and, after a catch up (they’d been in eastern Scotland ringing Crested Tits and Dippers!) Sarah, our leader, led us south down the Sleat peninsula for our first Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey (NEWS). En route my wife pointed out all the hostelries and outlined possible food and beverage combinations.

This first survey was a ‘gentle introduction, a nice easy section, mostly from a track above the shore’. Wrong; this was a proper hike up and down interminable boggy ravines, some mild rock scrambling and a delicate rocky traverse round a wave-swept undercliff. Knackering, in fact.  Brilliant birds though, more Great Northern Divers than most of us had seen in our lifetimes, a surprising number of Woodcock considering the treeless nature of the terrain, and, just reward, our first distant White-tailed Eagles. Matt got wet feet.

As I trailed into the car park two hundred yards behind everyone else, waterproofs chaffing in places I had long forgotten the names of,  I realised I was probably past my peak by some margin, and wondered at the prospect of keeping up in the days to come.

Our home for the week was a cracking bungalow at Crossal, advertised ‘with fantastic views of the Cuillins’. Not a word to be uttered in my wife’s presence; the Cuillin range, according to her, had photo-bombed all of her holiday photos a few years previously. Thankfully cloud cover erased them from view and memory but for one day of the trip. That first evening she really came into her own; food and drink. We relaxed, knowing that whatever the weather threw at us, we would be well provisioned. Somehow, Matt got wet feet.

And the weather did throw itself at us, with heavy rain and gale force winds. At Talisker the impressive cliff waterfall got halfway down before being blown back up over the cliff! Not all bad though, I concluded, when being blown uphill by a 50 mph wind, I merely raised a leg, blown upwards, planting that foot and raising the other so on, it was like being on a conveyor. I casually watched a Golden Eagle going past downhill into the wind and thought to myself; yeah, this is good. Other times though, hanging on to terra firma on the slippery, wet grass of a cliff top was grim work indeed.

As we surveyed in small groups of two or three, or as a full team, we covered a good amount of sections, and got a fair share of rewards – Otters on the foreshore, regular eagle encounters and for some, pet rescue cetacean style.  A cry of ‘Porpoise’ had Matt scanning the inlet, only for Rob to point out that it was beneath his feet, flipping about on the tide line. ‘Maybe he’s trying to tell us something’. Yeah, it’s wet out there. There was only one thing to do, pick him up and march him out into the bay. Matt (and Rob) got wet feet.

The evenings were surprisingly social affairs, Sarah having worked on Skye and the Harris family having holidayed there meant that we had some old friends to see. Great times.

Then there was the fateful morning that Rob emerged from the shower and announced ‘No water’. Never mind that, I thought, put some clothes on. We spent the morning on the phone to the owners, or outside with our arms down wells, or dredging the nearby burn in search of the source of the magical turquoise pipe, all the while the local Goldies put on a show quartering the hillside. Sally made tea (how?), Matt got wet feet. By evening the brilliant owners (from afar) had organised a plumber who had sorted it all out and we could relax again.

Our one ‘overseas’ excursion had Matt all excited, being a keen devotee of pelagics. A ferry crossing to the neighbouring island of Raasay and….. more survey sections!

In a blisteringly cold, sleety wind we made the crossing. It wasn’t like we’d decided when to go, or were err….. driving the ferry, but it felt like pioneering stuff! The bemused locals sat cosily in their cars as we scurried around the top deck trying to spot birds and getting all over-enthusiastic. Two Little Auks were the stars, and after disembarking we separated to cover as many sections as possible. My own plot gave me Black-throated Diver, White-tailed Eagle and coincidently a freshly-dead Little Auk which I slipped into my pocket to show the others later.

Soon we got a call. At the end of their section Matt and Rob had a pair of Goldies soaring low above their heads, really close. With our own first sections completed we were eager to get round to see them. I totally forgot that I’d put the dead Little Auk in my pocket so when I felt in there for a sweet and felt an unexpected furry incumbent I let out a girly yelp. Duh. We left that sad little corpse out for the Goldies in case there was a bit of the Kerry Katona about them and they fancied something from Iceland.

By the end we had surveyed 105 kilometres (62 miles) of coast and completed 37 sections. It had been very enjoyable and worthwhile. I visited places I’d never been to before and I saw familiar haunts in wintery conditions. All the team were great company and best of all, hard-working and determined – it was an excellent week.

* Scotch egg

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