Friday 4 July 2014

Scotland by Rail - Montrose - dolphins, nesting terns, water rail chicks

Mains of Usan. pen, brush, ink, water. A5

27th - 30th June 2014

A long-planned, long-awaited sketching weekend in mum's caravan in Montrose, me and mum, travelling by train. From Burntisland change at Kirkcaldy, change at Dundee, arrive in Montrose only a little over two hours later.

We had two full days and two half days. Each day going somewhere different, each location would be easily do-able as a daytrip by rail and foot or by rail and bike.

Arrival evening

As is our norm we arrived, turned on the caravan, offloaded our baggage then immediately up onto the dunes to see what was new. This time of year the dunes are covered in wildflowers and grasses and home to moths, beetles, bumblebees, butterflies and hundreds of little light sandy grasshoppers that flicked from our feet as we brushed past.


quite some numbers of these, out during the day

2-3cm wingspan, fluttering along the waterline, settled on seaweed

caravan-ceiling moth. I think that's right

A large flock of common terns were on nests on a factory roof, reassuring as a previous gravel nest spot is no longer available. We watched their angry mass mobbing as herring and lesser black-backed gulls tried to take snatch a quick raw-egg-supper. Beside the memorial grave of Second World War naval-dog Bamse we peered with binoculars through the factory security fence and found one lone ringed plover nesting among pebbles, easier to distinguish pebble than plover.

Common terns have a muddy black tip to their beak, 'common as mud'. Arctic, generally, don't. Well it works for me.

oystercatcher and chick on edge of tern roof

terns on the beach

As many eiders as always, a lot female, some still caring for communal creches of ducklings. The spick and span white-black-green feathering of any males was looking scrappy, beginning to moult post-breeding. A few curlews stalking the muddy wet sand and plenty of oystercatchers scampering long-legged along the water's edge. Every so often a sandwich tern creaked overhead.

I stayed out for a couple of pages of quick observational sketches - eiders, terns, goosanders, oystercatchers. Then tea, chat and bed - each with our window ajar, wanting to hear the sounds of outside.

oystercatchers on the shore, pencil in sketchbook

First full day

The Scottish Wildlife Trust's Montrose Basin Reserve visitor centre is a couple of miles from the caravan park, less from the station. From station it's pavement and cycle path the whole way. The visitor centre is excellent with panoramic windows, lots of telescopes and binoculars to use and enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff and volunteers to discuss and point things out. There are teas and coffees, from a machine but good, a nice little shop and interesting display boards. In fine weather you can picnic outside and if you get fed-up of the indoor viewing area (which you won't) you can walk a short distance to a hide. Entry is £4 for an adult, £7.50 for a family, or you could become a Scottish Wildlife Trust member and entry will always be free. Totally worth it.

Outside was wet ... dry ... wet wet ... dry ... wet wet wet wet ... wet. We spend our whole day between centre and hide, looking, chatting, me sketching birds and mum painting grasses and vistas (inc. heron and pheasant).

We saw a threesome of stoats bounding and tumbling together along an overgrown fence-line. A crow grabbed a gorgeously fluffy eider duckling and over many minutes slowly pecked the life out of it, not equipped with sharp enough tools to make a clean job. Two metres beyond the visitor centre windows are feeders filled with seed and peanuts. Finches -gold, green and chaf- flock to them alongside tree and house sparrows and most of the tits. Sometimes a great spotted woodpecker flies in, though we didn't see any. Below are robins, blackbirds and dunnocks pecking up anything spilled. A family of mother, father, chickling pheasants were doing the same, safe here from anyone out to fill them with shot. Not totally safe though - when a mallard pair came along the pheasants became alert, a mallard might grab a small chick.

trying to get used to telescope sketching

When we were down in the hide, windows open, soup from our flask, working, I glimpsed a water rail! Darting across a clearing between two reed banks. The exclamation mark is how I felt. Similar to a moorhen only more leggy and with an ox-blood red beak half the length and curve of a curlew's, you hear them squealing and grunting pig-like among the reeds but they're extremely shy and you seldom see one. After a pause of many minutes there it was again, this time moving stealthily, crossing the clearing in the opposite direction. Then, following shortly after... three black fuzzballs on legs (again an exclamation!), then a second adult bringing up the rear.

Second full day

An along-the-coast walk from Scurdie Ness lighthouse to cliffs below Usan hamlet, cycling the initial two
caravan to lighthouse miles in order to give more sketch time. As we were locking up our bikes three, four, six, ten, more, bottlenose dolphins were in the estuary mouth, swimming, rolling, sometimes jumping. As close as you're likely to get without being in a boat. We watched for a long time. They were still going when we dragged ourselves away to get started.

Scurdie Ness lighthouse, from the south

We seem never to get very far: birds, insects, mammals; flowers and grasses; that lovely red pebble; the possibility of geodes along the shore. All waylay us.

A ringed plover hobbled away, dragging its wings and opening its tail - faking an injury to attract us towards it, away from its eggs/chicks. We moved away from the pebbles, fearing we might step on a nest space.

spot the ringed plover

Okay, that was unfair, it was exiting stage right (orange leg visible). Spot it here instead.

We spend several hours working from rocks, looking across of bay of eiders to the ruined farm building at Mains of Usan. A few of the cows in our field ventured closer and closer throughout, inquisitive, wearing sleek black coats.

sketchbook in pencil

ink drawing

Mains of Usan - artist Susan

A surprise - a hare on the shingle:

beach hare

harey bottom

Our turnaround and lunch spot was below the fishing hamlet of Usan. We ate first, then painted and sketched.

the frantic movements of an artist at work

sea stack in sketchbook

Page one of four. Pages two, three and four outlined in ink but rained off, tbc in the studio.


Back at the caravan

On the final morning my eye was caught by a melanistic house sparrow. Melanism, leucism, albinism all cause fascinating variations from standard plumage.

The BTO is running a long-term study of abnormally coloured birds.
See a selection of the photos here, really quite amazing.
Email your sightings to

a melanistic house sparrow (darker feathering than is usual)
most noticeable when seen beside a regular house sparrow, as here (a sparrow's-width left of the dark one)
having a dust bath

lady eider, pencil in sketchbook

How to get there

Montrose is easy to get to on the Glasgow & Edinburgh - Aberdeen rail lines, trains are frequent.

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