The tranquil water of Loch Ken made a perfect mirror for reflections of the gently rolling autumn gold landscape of this quiet corner of Scotland. Along the trail a Red Kite in a nearby tree gave promise of some good things to come. Numerous Goldcrests and Chaffinches were spotted but a restless Lesser Redpoll remained elusive. From a loch side hide we enjoyed very close views of several Red Squirrels, feeding alongside Nuthatch and Coal Tit, when a cock Hen Harrier suddenly broke cover flying slowly past our grandstand position from left to right. Our morning walk also produced a pair of Willow Tits, a rather unexpected male Blackcap and dozens of White-fronted Geese, which landed right on cue, fresh in from Greenland. At nearby Bellymack Farm, we had lunch with at least twenty Red Kites sitting five to a tree, and whistling to each other in excited anticipation of their two o’clock feed. It was a joy to watch the effortless buoyant swooping flight of so many of these magnificent raptors at such close range. Moving on to Threave, we had Barnacle, Greylag and Pink-footed Geese in the same scope view, giving us a total of fifty-three species by the end of a productive first day.
A very wet and windy morning forced a change of plan and a last minute diversion to the shelter of a spacious hide on Wigtown Bay. With perfect weather for waders, we added Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank and at least thirty Snipe to our list, as well as Little Grebe, Shelduck, Common Gull and Rock Pipit. Once the rain began to ease, we headed north into the Galloway Forest Park, where the remote upland landscape of Glen Trool, cloaked in a moody atmosphere of low cloud, gave little hope of a soaring Golden Eagle, though several Ravens were still on the wing. Meanwhile, the burns, swollen to torrents by the heavy rain, washed away any chance of a Dipper.
The next morning stayed mainly dry for our visit to the Cairnsmore of Fleet National Nature Reserve. Along the way we stopped to admire a Fallow Deer stag, which stood its ground, eyeing us with equal curiosity. At the reserve, a lovely walk produced numerous Stonechats and Meadow Pipits, four Crossbills, a Lesser Redpoll, and a fleeting glimpse of a Peregrine, while Fieldfares passed overhead in noisy wave after wave, each one surely a hundred or more strong. After lunch, we walked the Papy Ha’ Bird Trail, where notable sightings included Grey Wagtail, Redwing, a Buzzard flushed from very close range giving super views and aerobatic displays by two Kestrels and also a Sparrowhawk, which seemed to be playfully taunting her entourage of mobbing crows.
Next day we arrived at Loch Ryan in time for hide tide and so the southern shoreline was awash with hundreds of birds at close range including Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Wigeon, Scaup, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Dunlin, Knot, Redshank, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and even a lingering Sandwich Tern. Further out we picked up Common Seal, Red-throated Diver, Slavonian and Great Crested Grebes, Shag, Eider, Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck and Guillemot, while a Black Guillemot had to be written off due to a downpour just as we found it. After a very classy lunch at The Bay House Restaurant, a walk at Wig Bay gave us Twite and a flock of up to a thousand Golden Plovers, which attracted the attention of a Merlin. Come late afternoon, a stake out at the West Freugh Airfield was very fruitful thanks to a family of Whooper Swans and a flock of White-fronts grazing in one field, while at least two Hen Harriers, a Sparrowhawk and a Barn Owl hunted over the airfield. At one point a female Hen Harrier flew very close, followed by a Barn Owl at equally close range. This beautiful owl then perched on a post with half stretched wings, giving magnificent views in the scope. For many this was bird of the trip.
In a week dominated by frequent showers, Thursday brought a bizarrely unseasonal interlude of record breaking hot sunshine throughout the day. We began at Southerness Point, where we scoured the rocky shore for Purple Sandpiper. Though we found none of these we did see Grey Plover, Greenshank, Rock Pipit, another lone Sandwich Tern and a Red-throated Diver close enough in to see the remains of its red breeding throat patch. At the nearby Mersehead reserve, we had a picnic lunch in the sun, with the shrill barking sound of Barnacle Geese not far away. Exploring the reserve, we must have seen at least two thousand Barnacle Geese as well as hundreds of Pintail, Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal and a male Merlin, which kindly perched in a tree. Several handsome Stonechats also gave very good views and individual birds seen only here included Green Sandpiper, Treecreeper, Linnet and Yellowhammer.
The weather reverted to type for our last day in the field in remarkable contrast to yesterday. Arriving at the Caerlaverock reserve, we were greeted on the car park by a couple of smart Bramblings. Every day at eleven o’clock the wildfowl are fed in front of one of the hides, a wonderful opportunity for really close views of graceful Icelandic Whooper Swans. Outside the hide hundreds of Pintail, Wigeon and Teal filled the blustery sky while the wet meadows were packed with Curlewsand of course Barnacle Geese, which seemed to be everywhere one looked, in their thousands. A scan of the merse from one of the tower hides also produced a mighty Peregrine Falcon, flying low and powerful and then perching on a post as if in defiance of the wind. Moving on to the woods beside Caerlaverock Castle, we found our only woodpecker of the trip, a “Great Spot” swinging from a nut feeder barely twenty yards in front of us. Returning to base along the Nith estuary, we had to stop to admire the spectacle of thousands of Barnacle Geese in a noisy fly past across the sky, and finally some Goosanders on the river. By now we had seen 108 species and not a single Coot!