Thursday 26 April 2012

Loch Ossian, Loch Treig, a bothy & back. Then the stars.

at least one a greenshank... but not the call..., pencil in sketchbook

After a good sleep with only three of us sharing the 12-bed dormitory I did my yoga stretches outside the hostel and watched the morning birds on the loch. (One I identified almost definitely as a greenshank but getting onto the computer once home I realised the call I heard was not greenshank but some other wader. I'm not sure what.) 

Loch Ossian, early, outside the hostel, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

I still had time to sit outside the hostel and sketch the loch pine islands before we set off at 10.45. The 20 km we walked took us eight and a half hours, with the return leg much quicker than the outward. From turnaround-point we were only three hours - the coming of dusk combined with gentle drizzle ensured we hardly stopped. If you're a reasonable walker and not prone to halting every time you see or hear a bird you could do it much more quickly, probably as a day trip arriving on the lunchtime train and departing on the teatime one. 

after-lunch coffee-spot, Loch Treig, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm
me sketching at Loch Treig (see watercolour above), photo taken by Paul Phillips, 10th April 2012

bothy, pencil, pen, ink, 41x14.5cm

Our walk was a there-and-back, following a route I took more than ten years ago on my Duke of Edinburgh Award gold expedition. From the hostel we walked to the station then north-west by very boggy track to the long stretch of water that is Loch Treig. Our lunch spot was on the shore before walking west up a beautiful narrow V-valley to a three-room, two-storey bothy at grid reference 296678. Someone had left rice and dried apricots in one of the rooms. Welcome finds for the hungry walker arriving late.  

Staoineag bothy perches on a grassy rise in an idyllic spot - the valley opens here into a bit of flatland with the river Abhainn Rath meandering slowly through. The deep peat-brown water looked like treacle and I felt a dipper should come whirring along it looking for rocks to bob up and down on, or that a kingfisher should flash past. A white sphere sun was trying to break through clouds over the bothy as I sat on the grass down by the water and drew... bothy rising above me, trees rising above bothy, dramatic cloud sky rising above trees.

Kittie sketching, west of Loch Treig -

We had various sketch and food and coffee stops, chatting a lot of the day, discussing what we were seeing around us, discussing the world more distant. When only a kilometre or so from home we watched a 24-car goods train power uphill past the station towards the large metal signs that mark Corrour Summit - the highest spot on the West Highland Lines at 1350 feet (411 m). The train slowed then began to trundle downhill for Loch Treig and Tulloch and beyond. It seemed a toy in such a vast remote landscape. Perhaps it was just an optical illusion but the caterpillar of carriages seemed to bend a little as they crossed the summit, sloping down on either side of the marker signs.

11.20 train to Mallaig having just passed Corrour Summit marker signs

goods train passing Corrour Summit below horseshoe mountains

Other than immediately around the hostel we saw only a very limited amount of wildlife throughout the day. Of course there were the ever-present meadow pipits and corvids and a few buzzards but excepting those our main sighting was four red-breasted mergansers on the water at the westerly tip of Loch Treig. We didn't even see any deer on the moors. It felt like deer territory.

The day finished with a late evening treat when we walked from the hostel to look up at the stars. We stayed out a long time as the sky got clearer and clearer: there was Orion's Belt; there was Venus - atmospheric moisture giving her an eerie green halo; one of my confusions was sorted - previously I thought Cygnus was that large 'W' on its side but in fact that's Cassiopeia; satellites regularly scribed their routes across the sky and completely by chance I saw a shooting star through my binoculars. Talking of binoculars... pick an area of the night sky and look up through a pair. It's amazing how many more pinpricks of light suddenly appear. Imagine what it's like to have a telescope and zoom in still further...

sky at night, Loch Ossian hostel

Monday 16 April 2012

Three days in the Scottish Highlands - Loch Ossian youth hostel

looking down on Loch Ossian youth hostel

Recently I spent three nights in the Scottish Youth Hostel Association's Loch Ossian hostel. It's an eco-hostel with its own wind turbine. It has reed-bed-filtration toilets and no showers. Access is by train to Corrour Station then a one-mile walk to the hostel. You have to bring all the food you need and remove all the rubbish you create. There's no mobile phone signal unless you're on Vodaphone. 

If you think all this sounds too basic, think again. Waking on the shore of a beautiful loch amid vast moorland and mountains is worth any minor discomfort and inconvenience.

Corrour station
A day trip is possible by leaving Glasgow Queen Street at 8:21 am to have seven hours walking from Corrour before catching the 6:25 pm train home. Check ScotRail's website for the latest timetables.

Even better is to stay at the hostel and explore the area in greater depth. At the end of three days there with my friends Kittie ( and Paul we still had a lot of ground not covered. I'll write about our walks in a few separate postings rather than in one very lengthy piece.

To start, a little about bird life around the hostel:  

As well as hordes of chaffinches and a few coal tits on the hostel peanut feeders were two siskins - delicate fork-tailed birds of the finch family. One a black-capped male, the other a dappled green-grey female.

Kittie & Paul above Loch Ossian, pencil & watercolour in sketchbook, 14.5x41cm

Canada goose sketch, pen on paper, 14.5x20.5cm
The low echoing honking of Canada geese sounded regularly outside the hostel. Probably they were nesting on the little pined islets. 

Sometimes as a goose swam it would stretch its neck forward and back, forward and back, low on the water. Either a courtship act or a threatening gesture to rival birds.

Canada goose, Loch Ossian

Canada goose sketches, pen on paper, 14.5x20.5cm

Canada goose, Loch Ossian

Meadow pipits accompanied us on our walks always. Moorland is their territory. From rock or heather perches they perform their song flight - they fly swiftly upwards before gliding back to earth in a parachuting motion with tail stiffened upwards and triangle wings.

Another regular sighting was the hooded crow - a close relation of the carrion crow. They're seldom seen in West Lothian where I live so I always love to be in their habitat. Contrasting light grey waistcoat body and black head and wings puts me in mind of mediaeval soldiers wearing tabard and helmet.

Grey herons are amazing to watch, it seems incredible that such a large bird can stay aloft. Here by the hostel they glide silently towards the islets on downcurved wings, rearing up at the last moment to leggily land in the tops of Scots Pines where a clattering racket immediately starts up. When they take flight again they make strangled cries - people hearing this sound in the skies at night used to think witches were passing overhead. 

from Loch Ossian hostel, a heron about to land, pencil & pen &watercolour in sketchbook, 14x20.5cm

Tuesday 3 April 2012

An ornithological treasure hunt around a pink watermill...

Last weekend I was in Cumbria for the set-up and opening of my friend Kittie Jones' excellent exhibition of new British Birds prints at The Watermill, Little Salkeld.

The Watermill, Little Salkeld

I decided to make a complete list of all the bird species I saw whilst there – it's fun to do and makes the eyes become keener. Here's what I saw: 

Bullfinch, Buzzard, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Collared Dove

Common Gull, Cormorant, Curlew, Dipper, Dunnock, Feral Pigeon, Fieldfare, Goldcrest

Goldfinch, Goosander, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Grey Heron, Grey Wagtail, 

Greylag Goose, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Kestrel, Lapwing, Magpie, Mallard, Mute Swan

Nuthatch, Oystercatcher, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Redshank, Robin, Rook, Sand Martin, 

Shelduck, Shoveler, Song Thrush, Starling, Tawny Owl, Woodpigeon, Wren...

... 47 species in under 24 hours, and in an area of less than 4 square kilometres! It's amazing how many different birds are around when one really starts to look. 

 Dippers often disappear against a backdrop of swirling flowing water.

Dipper near nest area.

Dipper territory, under rail bridge.

Particularly exciting were sand martins swooping low for insects over the River Eden -only returned in the last few weeks from wintering in Africa- and a flock of fieldfares chack-chack-chacking noisily as they flew overhead. Very soon all fieldfares will have left our shores as they head east for the breeding season.

Here in Britain breeding is already well underway - below an old stone bridge of the Settle-Carlisle railway line a pair of dippers are nesting. I watched them bring white grubs every few minutes to feed their young. Nearby a tawny owl has a nest in a hollow in the remaining stump of a storm-felled tree.

Back in my own garden in Linlithgow the blue tits are building and a robin already has three eggs.