It’s the twentieth of March and on our way to Scotland, we cross the north Pennines, where the birds of beautiful upper Teesdale are full of the joys of spring; the bubbling calls of Curlews and the “peewit” of dive-bombing Lapwings breathe new life into the fresh upland air, while a Dipper sings in flight between Low and High Force, before posing on a rock in mid stream. On the moorland above the valley, the handsome Black Grouse cocks are warming up at their lek, and although the hens don’t seem very interested yet, we humans are well impressed by their feisty show.
North of the border, we begin at the RSPB Ken – Dee Marshes reserve, not far from Castle Douglas, where early sightings include a couple of Roe Deer, and a single Pink-foot, feeding in the company of Greylag Geese on holiday from Iceland. Deeper into the reserve, we enjoy close views of a really cute Red Squirrel, followed by even closer views of Nuthatch, a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and a pair of Bullfinches, with Blue, Great, Coal and Willow Tits on the same feeder, right in front of the hide. Meanwhile, Greenland White-fronted Geese are waiting for us back at the car park! By now it’s nearly lunch time at nearby Bellymack Farm, where fifty plus graceful Red Kites ‘drop in’ for lunch every day by swooping down at speed to snatch meaty morsels dished out by the farmer.
The RSPB Mersehead reserve is the winter retreat of thousands of yapping Barnacle Geese and amongst the throng is an unusual leucistic individual. Other good birds here include Shelduck, Shoveller, elegant Pintail, lots of singing Skylarks, the first Sand Martins of the year and a stunning Pheasant with an iridescent sheen highlighted by the sunshine, alongside Tree Sparrows and Yellowhammers outside the window of the Visitor Centre. Moving on to Southerness lighthouse, the rocky shore produces numerous Turnstones, Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Purple Sandpipers, Redshanks and a single Greenshank. Just inland, a lively gathering of 100 or so small birds, consists of a fifty fifty mix of Linnet and Twite, providing a text book comparison in the scope, while perched side by side on roadside wires. The Linnets have a grey beak and a white wing panel while the ‘winter’ Twite have a yellow beak as well as a diagnostic unstreaked buffy throat.
Caerlaverock is justly famous for spectacular flocks of Barnacles, filling the fields in their thousands and erupting into a football crowd like roar after a goal, whenever they noisily take to the air en masse. During the morning swan feed, a strange but smart looking duck catches our eye among the Whoopers. With the pale grey back and glossy green head of a Scaup, but with a bump on the back of the head like that of a Lesser Scaup, it is in fact a ‘Tufted Scaup’ hybrid. During lunch in the warm spring sunshine, a lovely rosy pink Lesser Redpoll is being hen-pecked on the feeder by ‘the missus’. West of Caerlaverock, the Nith estuary produces our second leucistic bird in the form of a completely white Redshank, apart from the orange bill and legs, and amazingly, back at the hotel, there is a female House Sparrow with a white body except for the cap and wings! What on earth is going on around here?
Driving west to Loch Ryan there is a glorious blue sky all the way, but as soon as we arrive at the coast, the sea is shrouded in mist so thick, even the massive Stranraer to Larne ferry is invisible! With the fog horn booming we wait for the ‘viz’ to improve and speculate on what else might be out there. As the sun burns through, the first “Chiff Chaff” song of spring helps to lift the gloom and birds start to appear along the shore such as Ringed Plover and Eider, followed by more birds out on the loch including Slavonian Grebe, Black Guillemot, Red-breasted Merganser, Shag, a Great Northern Diver, numerous Red-throats, a pair of Long-tailed Ducks, a drake Common Scoter, the odd Gannet and plenty of Wigeon, Goldeneye and Scaup. Back on the shore, a lively Stoat repeatedly pops up among the rocks and bounces along as if on hot coals. With numerous gulls along the beach in Stranraer, we pull over for a closer look and incredibly right by the minibus is a chalky-white immature Iceland Gull all the way from Greenland! After lunch, we also see pale-bellied Brent Geese from Greenland and several times, ‘strings’ of black and white Razorbills fly by, on one occasion with a couple of chocolate brown Guillemots as well. Inland from the loch, we find fields full of Pink-feet from Iceland and then White-fronted Geese and among the five hundred or so of these Greenlanders, there is a Bar-headed Goose, but undoubtedly not from Tibet!