Friday 30 November 2012

November BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

This is my second month of blogging the results of the union canal bird count I do for the BTO's WeBS scheme. My route is Linlithgow to Philpstoun. Read about the route and the reasons for doing the count in this previous blog post -

The count - Friday November 23rd, 2012

Started 9:10 am. Turnaround time 11:25 am. Finished 12:40 pm.

Weather was good, bright but quite breezy. A cool autumn day. - autumn or winter..? There are almost no leaves left and we have light frost a lot of mornings. Several times I've had to to break the ice on the bird water. Today the sun was a little too much in my eyes as I started out - it was easy to scan the fields on my left but not so easy looking across the canal on my right. I'm used to this. A peaked hat helps.

This month was my best ever in terms of numbers of birds seen. We've had a lot of rain and the flood field was at its fullest. I've never before counted so many birds there. I spent such a time standing watching that I felt I must eat breakfast as I continued my walk, rather than sitting on my normal patch of wall.

A few interesting sightings:

- Much more goosander activity than normal. I saw five individual birds -male and female- but also a group of six that flew past following the line of the canal then veering right to head towards Linlithgow Loch. Normally I'll see one or two lone goosanders on the water at most, sometimes a pair. A couple of months ago Kittie ( and I on an Aberdour drawing day saw a gathering of around 30 goosanders swimming in one of the bays.

- Three bird of prey species - buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk. I always see buzzards but rarely either of the others.
- When this kestrel moved in flight it was buffeted violently by the wind yet seemed to have no problem hovering motionless above fields as it scanned for prey. An old local name for the kestrel is windhover. A perfect title.
- The sparrowhawk was when I was only two minutes from home. Normally you have no more than a glimpse as one flashes past your bird feeders into surrounding hedgerow and gardens, but this one was perched and preening. It was far away but I made a quick sketch. Its warm cream and orange chest shone bright against an earthen scene - the slope of the railway embankment, dead grasses and undergrowth, bare branches.

- Just beyond the flood field I heard the call of skylarks. With my binoculars I could see two dark specks high above. It sounded like there were more. I don't recall ever seeing them on this count.

canal count notes plus sparrowhawk sketch, pen & pencil on cereal box

Waterbird count:

moorhen - 5
mallard - 3
tufted duck - 1 (female)
goosander - 11
black-headed gull -6

On the flood field:
oystercatcher - 59
curlew - 22
lapwing - 65
black-headed gull - 86
herring gull - 6
common gull - 32
mallard - 30
widgeon - 49
snipe - 4

All other bird species seen
and heard:

song thrush
long tailed tit
tree sparrow
reed bunting
house sparrow
blue tit
great tit
feral pigeon
collared dove

Total: 39 species

Thursday 8 November 2012

Linlithgow - Airngath Hill, circle walk, Saturday 3rd November, 12.30pm to 2.40pm

Something I love to do when out on a walk is to make a complete list of all the bird species seen. It makes me that little bit more observant and I end up with a page in my notebook (more often a scrap of paper) that I can look back at and compare the next time I take that route. The British Trust for Ornithology's BirdTrack is an easy-to-use online system where you can record these complete lists. The information is really valuable in the understanding and protection of our wildlife and countryside.

So, last Saturday I decided to treat myself to an afternoon break. It was a nice day and I'd been indoors all morning. My brother's 'Hallo-Fawkes' fancy dress party was that evening and I'd nearly completed the owl mask I was going to wear. I made a circular walk through Fiddler's Croft at the east end of the Loch, up the tree-lined avenue towards the Grange then turning right at the top into the thin stretch of wood along the south side of Airngath Hill.

A deer a little upslope -antlers starting to grow- looked alertly then bounded away, white rump bouncing. I stopped in the woods to climb two trees, both horse chestnuts, one still living but lying on its side. I got far further 'up' this one than under normal circumstances! My circle was completed by coming down the country road past the Bonsyde Hotel and skirting back into Linlithgow.

Birds seen:

coal tit
blue tit
great tit
siskin - three or four, in large hedgerow at the east end of Fiddler's Croft.
song thrush - in Airngath Hill woods. Probably two. Beautiful fawn-white-tan colouring.
pied wagtail
tufted duck
greylag goose
great crested grebe
little grebe
common gull
black headed gull
mute swan

30 species... only two hours. You don't realise just how much is out there until you really start to look.

Of course, the walk being over I then have to come home, write it up, prepare it for my blog, log my bird list online - a two hour walk becomes rather longer.

Friday 2 November 2012

Inchcolm Island, in the Firth of Forth

Last weekend Jennifer and I went to Inchcolm Island for the first time since either of us were children. Jennifer was last there on a holiday club trip from school and my last visit was the birthday party of a friend - we played pirates on the boat across and on the small swing of beach below the Abbey. This time we were with her parents, making the trip thanks to vouchers I'd been gifted.

Inchcolm Island and Abbey are owned by Historic Scotland. The island sits in the waters of the Forth, four miles from the Forth Rail Bridge in the seaward direction. We were booked on the 12.15pm sailing of the Maid of the Forth, a 225-seater blue and white ferry boat that departs from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, right beside the railway bridge. It's quite awesome, to set sail and get closer and closer, and eventually pass right alongside those massive red iron legs. Legs that support the weight of up to 200 trains a day. Think of the thousands of men who constructed it, 130 years ago! ... 57 lost their lives in the process.

Directly after passing under the bridge we're alongside Inchgarvie Island which is made as much of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements as it is of rock. Memories of war. Cormorants and shags were perched all over and eight or more herons stood solitary but together on one small area of island wall.

Inchgarvie & Forth bridges

herons on Inchgarvie

looking to Inchkeith, from the Maid of the Forth upper deck, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

The weather was perfect - a clear and crisp autumn day with no more than a ripple of waves. From the open-top upper deck I saw guillemots and gulls and more cormorants and shags. A pair of eiders floated close beside us and a few times gannets in threes and fours flapped past in their dark juvenile plumage. I did only one quick sketch, showing Inchkeith island with a white and red lighthouse in front, a boat behind that, and another further off to the side. The Forth is always busy with boats. It's a working river. Conical Berwick Law peaked its head above the outline of the island. 

After 45 minutes we were arriving at Inchcolm where the beautiful 12th Century abbey offered itself up for our explorations. It's a peacefully impressive ruin, quite small. I imagined monks strolling the cloister and tending to their gardens of herbs and medicinals. You can walk up the narrowest spiral staircase I've ever seen until you reach the top of the abbey's square squat tower and have views all around. East, south, west and north: East Lothian; Edinburgh; the bridges; the Fife coast; and out to sea beyond Inchkeith.

Inchcolm Abbey cloister, photo by Jennifer Alexander

Inchcolm Abbey, photo by Jennifer Alexander

We only had an hour and three quarters until the ferry returned so we didn't spend too long at any one spot. We wanted to see as much of the island as we could. It took about an hour of fairly brisk walking to get along all the paths and not-paths, to see each of the many leftover war emplacements. We walked on top of some of these bunker buildings and I noticed on one of the roofs a colony of unknown (to me) small succulent-leafed alpine plant. Thriving among the pitted concrete. It's amazing how nature always finds a way to fight back at man's creations.

Most exciting is the brick-lined tunnel running about 100 metres through the hillside that makes up the east of the island. There's a kink in the middle so when you enter you think you're going to be walking into complete darkness. It was built around 1916 by the Royal Engineers, used probably to take ammunition to the far east of the island.

Inchcolm ammunition tunnel, photo by Jennifer Alexander

deserted building on Inchcolm, more wartime ruins beyond

Jennifer on Inchcolm, the Forth bridges beyond

The buildings are mostly open to the elements, there's no glass in any of the windows and possibly never was. All that we went into had signs of having been used by nesting birds - droppings decorating the floors, nest piles in corners. In a couple of the buildings were the remains of gulls: one long-dead juvenile lay on its front, wings half spread, beak half open. I turned it over with my foot and was surprised to feel how light it was. A collection of feathers but not much more. Despite the weight, the skeleton must have still been inside because bodyshape and skin were unbroken. It was just completely dried out. A desiccated gull. 

It's not only birds - grey seals come to Inchcolm too, to have their pups. October and November is the right time of year but we didn't see any young, just a few dark adults enjoying the waves. With visitors around most days of the week I'd have thought they wouldn't want to birth there.

Our explorations used most of the time available to us so I didn't have long to sketch, only 20 minutes before our ferry came back. Jennifer looked round the visitor centre and I got two quick pencil studies done. This sort of sketch can still prove very useful. I often write colour notes and sometimes add watercolour at a later date.

Inchcolm sketch, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

Inchcolm sketch and bird list, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

I kept a list of all the birds I saw on and from the island:

pigeon - by far the most numerous bird here. There were hundreds on the less-walked rocky areas.
pipit - meadow pipit I think, down on the seaweeds and rocks at the water's edge.
lesser black backed gull
black headed gull
gannett - juveniles - out at sea
guillemots - out at sea
razorbill - just one, out on the water. Looking so similar to a guillemots at this time of year, only the stub-end beak and white wing line distinguish between these two chunky auks.

15 species seen.

How to get to Inchcolm:
From Edinburgh you can get to the ferry easily by rail - take the train to Dalmeny station. It's only a ten minute walk from there down to Hawes Pier.