Thursday, 23 March 2017

The,"Caledonian Sleeper" - slow train to the Highlands.


Pinewoods and snow from my bunk
Every night except Saturday a long sleeper train leaves London Euston station for the North. In the middle of the night the train is quietly reconfigured at Edinburgh; one section leaves for Inverness, one for Aberdeen and mine for Fort William.

This morning  I had my breakfast, porridge with honey, as the sun rose over Loch Lomond and the train snaked through pine woods below snow covered mountains to Crianlarich.

Then coffee on Rannoch Moor where the winter landscape compares with the "Trans-Siberian" where it pulls out of the Urals into the west Siberian steppe in the early morning. At Corrour it only needed  Babushkas selling piroshki and beer to make it Siberian.

For comfort, convenience and affordability this is the best route to Scotland. It beats flying as ,"walk on cargo", it saves the cost of an hotel, saves a day and you get a romantic adventure, what's not to like about it? For climbers and  winter hill walkers it gives access to some of Scotland's most isolated high mountains, bothies and the wildlife.

Corrour
Just before ten o clock we slid beneath the north face of Ben Nevis into Fort William station; on time, well fed and refreshed.

If you have a smart phone (I only have a dumb one)  Scottish Natural Heritage have produced an app for you; see "The View From The Train" to accompany your West Highland train journey, at -  http://snh.gov.uk/enjoying-the-outdoors/viewfromthe train/

Monday, 6 March 2017

Navigating very roughly by the moon.

When we were walking through the forest to the black cock lekking site
Hamza asked me where East was so that he could site his hide appropriately for the dawn light.

I don't have a smart phone with GPS and the compass was in my back pack.  so where was East?


It was three days after the new moon, so a crescent moon was visible. It's a little blurred in the photograph because the camera was hand held.

You can use the moon to find South and if you can do that you can fnd East very roughly but well enough for the direction of sunrise.

After the new moon the sun and moon are not together and the moon must be East or West of the sun. In Northern latitudes,if you draw an imaginary line between the two horns of the moon and extend it to the horizon, the point where your line meets the horizon is South of your position.

Give it a try some night and check it with your compass, it might save your life if you are lost in the bush. Of course you have to be able to see the moon, it won't work with an overcast sky or in a woodland of tall trees. Always carry a compass!

If you disagree with my reasoning add a comment.

Black grouse country..... a mini expedition

Black grouse country

Black grouse are widespread in Europe from the Alpes Maritime to N. Russia. Here in Scotland they are reasonably common throughout the highlands on the edges of woodland where the trees meet the moorland. In Spring they have a spectacular mating ritual, the "lek".

Hamza in his hide , 4.00 am at - 5 C.
Before dawn the male birds fly in to lekking sites where they strut around and have mock flights to try to impress females (grey hens) , they watch from the sidelines. Like human females the grey hens like a man who can dance!

Because they are widely dispersed in the landscape they need to meet up like this to select mates and to mate, think of it as "speed dating" out doors.

The birds are very loyal to their lek sites and the one we visited last week for Hamza to get some video images I have known for the last 15 years, every year they come back to the same close cropped upland lawn on the forest edge in the early morning.

Black grouse,the only one we saw
This year both we and the birds were too early for filming, they arrived in the dark and departed in the dark. It was too early in the season.

Next month when it's light at 5.00 am Hamza should be more successful and in case you are wondering he does have a licence to film schedule 1 protected species.

Happy hens..... outside for the first time in three months.


After an outbreak of the H5N8 strain of avian flu in England in November the hens have been indoors until the end of February. Last week they were let out but we have to take a whole range of bio-security measures.

Feed and water have to be in the hen houses or protected or wire cages tom prevent access by wild birds.

We also have to minimise visitors from other poultry keeping premises, control vermin and provide facilities for boot washing and dipping and disinfectant.

Although they were very happy to get out they were a bit disorientated and tried to nget back inside to the nest boxes they have been using. Hens have a very powerful drive to get to their chosen nesting places and will navigate complex mazes to do so.

I am keeping them in their field houses until mid morning, that way they are forced to use the laying boxes provided for them and will soon get used to the change.

There is a down side, the eggs are dirty because the hens now have dirty feet so eggs need to be washed.




Monday, 27 February 2017

Otter family at breakfast time on the trail camera



video


There was a new moon last night and a four metre high tide this morning at ten minutes to seven. High water would have driven the otters out of the sea some time before. They appeared on the trail camera at ten to eight running along the bank of a small freshwater pond on Trevor's campsite (Ardnamurchan Campsite).

You know yourself what happens when you've been in the sea, you need a freshwater shower to get rid of the salt, it's the same for otters and they use this pond regularly even though it's only ten metres from the nearest tent site.

I've been trying to get a video clip of them for over a month, All I have had has been grass blowing in the wind or stray sheep, until this morning, when I had 18 clips of grass blowing followed by one of the otter family.

You have to be patient and persistent even with a trail cam. If you are here on holiday and want to see otters here are a few tips:-

  • Get out before dawn or dusk
  • Move slowly scanning the shore in front of you
  • Spend more time sitting still than moving
  • Otters will be out of the water at low tide and high tide
  • Look for footprints in wet sand and spraint on green topped rocks or mounds above the high tide mark
  • You are most likely to see otters swimming when the sea when the water is flat calm the bow wave gives them away.
Good luck!

The barn owl is back with impressionist photography



Is this a new genre in wildlife photography? ...... impressionist?.......modernist?.........surreal? or..... too much partying?  You can just make out the gates, the car headlights and the owl, it's  in the top right corner as it's leaving. It won't be in the next BBC Countryfile calendar.

Hamza was returning home  at 3.00 am and again saw the white owl in the sheep house, he stopped, reversed  and took this photograph. It was another wet and stormy night so the owl is obviously sheltering up on the rafters.

Judging by the white streaks on the rafters it's been there a few times recently and there is a good chance that it will decide to use our hi-tech nest box.

Watch this space!

Friday, 24 February 2017

Sheep stells in the Upper Coquet Valley

Sheep stell  
The Scottish Borders are not quite, "arctic - alpine" in their climate and vegetation but winters can be severe with deep drifts and freezing temperatures, often for days on end.

A hill ewe's reaction to cold wind and snow is to seek shelter in  the lee of a wall, a rock or tree. snow then drifts over her.  Because they are sheep they do things together and many can be lost after a few days of burial.

For hundreds of years shepherds have driven their ewes into drystone walled "stells" for shelter.

The stell like this one at Windyhaugh  in the upper Coquet Valley can be up to 20 m in diameter and are capable of holding several hundred sheep safely until the storm is over. Stells are usually located at low level and near a burn (stream) and emergency food supplies.. The walls are about 1.5 m high and provide shelter all around the whole inner circumference.

At lambing time some ewes may need attention at
 the birth of the lambs or for a lamb adoption  the stell is then a useful holding pen.
Windyhaugh Farm with snow on the way
* Haugh is a Northumbrian word for the flood plain of a stream or river.