Friday, 27 June 2008

Back on the beach

After being stuck in all week due to volume of work and weather, I was determined to get out this morning. It was dry but overcast and had rained heavily the night before, so I stuck on my walking boots and went down to the beach (no tales of jeopardy and mortal danger today I'm afraid!).

The tide was out, which made it a great day to explore round the rocks and rock pools that scatter the edge of the beach. This one made me think of a giant rock caterpillar that had crawled out of the sea to drink at the rockpool:

Rock at Armadale

No scrambling about on them though, because they're covered in seaweed. I think this is serrated wrack, but I'm still trying to make sure of that:


I went down to the edge of the water and watched the gulls for a bit:

Gull over the sea 2

Gull over the sea

The rain had swelled the Allt Beag and the Armadale Burn and they'd cut bigger channels down the beach than usual:

Gull on the burn

And then the weather started to clear. The next two photos were taken from the same spot within a minute of each other - just pointing in different directions:

Clouds over Armadale beach

Armadale Bay

Caithness and Sutherland do big skies very well:

Ardmore point

Unsettled sky

And finally, I can't go down to that beach without photographing a ringed plover, can I? Today's mission was to get a good shot of one on the move, since they're the coastal equivalent of Road Runner:

Ringed plover running

Sunday, 22 June 2008

In search of puffins

One of the readers of this blog happens to be my Mum (Hi Mum!). She absolutely adores puffins, so as she can't make it up to stay with us before they leave again this year, I decided to go in search of some to take some photos.

Right on the border between Caithness and Sutherland is a peat moor called Drum Hollistan. Thanks to looking at the schedule for the excellent Caithness and Sutherland ranger walks, I knew there was a big puffinry on the coast and I had a rough idea of how to get to it, so on Friday I went to have a look for it, since the guided walk to it had happened before we moved here.

I parked in the layby on the border and squelched off down the track towards the coast. Half a mile or so later, there was the stack, just as described, with the puffinry on it:


From what I could see, I had three options for getting close to it. Look at the photo below:

The edge of Drumhollistan Moss

I could either walk round to that little sticking out bit on the right and lie flat on my stomach (dismissed as too dangerous due to the gusts of wind that day), shimmy down a ridge to get to the green pyramid-like bit on the left (ditto), or walk down what looked like a gently-sloping valley with a couple of steep bits to get to a small rocky beach near the base of the stack. I chose option 3.

If I tell you that the picture above shows the way I climbed back up and that seemed like a stroll in the park compared with getting down, you'll have some idea of why this was a mistake!

I didn't take any pictures on the way down, I was too busy clinging onto my camera bag (which protected my camera from a 4 foot fall onto rock when I put it down on what I thought was moss and turned out to be mud - just before I was about to jump down onto the same spot) and swearing. 48 hours on my arms and legs are still aching and it's made me have a serious think about how far I'm prepared to go in search of a good wildlife photo. Thanks to my inexperience, I put myself closer to serious injury or death than I ever want to be on Friday and I don't intend to do it again.

Just to give you an idea, here's the last bit of the climb down, where the stream gets to the beach. I'd climbed down all the way from the hilltop you can see behind it.

Rocks near Wester Clett

It was a lovely spot though:


However, it didn't get me as close to the puffinry as I needed to be to get any decent shots. So I'm sorry, but these (cropped out of bigger pictures, where they appear as small blobs!) are as good as I've got for now:

Puffin 1

Puffin 2


Next time I have a free-ish day, I'll try either Duncansby Stacks (just up past John O'Groats) or drive right round to the west coast and take the boat to Handa Island, where they're so tame that they'll come up to your feet.

One final picture from that set and it's a bit of an optical illusion. If you look at the land, it seems that the picture is tilted, sloping down to the left. If you look at the sea on the horizon, it's actually straight.

On the slant

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Splosh, splosh, splosh

So this morning's walk didn't go *quite* to plan.

Usually when I get to the bottom of the path down to the beach, I turn left towards the sea. Today, kitted out in my trusty wellies, I turned right, up the Allt Beag river.

Lesson one - never slide down a river bank without first checking there isn't a bramble in your path on the way down.

After I'd de-prickled my backside, I decided I didn't fancy climbing back up that way again and waded upstream to see what was there. All the crofts run down to the stream, but because the land falls away quite steeply towards the bottom, often the only visitors are sheep and I hoped there might be some exciting wildlife down there.

As I waded on, two major flaws became apparent. The first was that you shouldn't try and walk up a river the morning after it's rained all night. The second was that in my eagerness to explore I'd forgotten that my sense of balance is dodgy on land, let alone in a river full of slippery rocks and I was carrying a bag with all my camera equipment in it.

Lesson two - a stout branch is your friend, whether it's a dead one you pick up to use as a walking stick, or a live one overhanging from the bank that you manage to grab before you land on your arse in the water.

About half an hour of scrambling later it became obvious that there was going to be no easy way out. The crofts were all fenced off at the bottom and although I could get out on the bank for stretches, the way back was blocked by gorse. Nothing for it; I'd have to follow the river for the half mile or so to where it went under the main road and then I could climb out by the bridge.

Lesson three - don't jump into rivers without an exit strategy.

The only problem was that parts of the Allt Beag are quite deep and my wellies were only knee-high. I did quite well sticking to the banks until I reached a spot where two trees had grown directly opposite each other on the banks and the only way forward was in the centre. I waded out up to mid-thigh, held my camera over my head and pressed on...

Lesson four - Monsoon cord trousers don't like river water much. (Thank goodness they were £4.99 from Age Concern...double thank goodness I wasn't wearing jeans, I might have sunk with the weight!)

Past those trees I could see the road. But I could also see a barrier across the river - one of the croft owners had sheep-netted right the way over to stop his/her sheep paddling through into the neighbours. Fortunately, the sheep had decided to go anyway and forced a sheep-sized hole under one of the rails.

Lesson five - sometimes it's good to pretend to be a sheep.

Eventually I reached the bridge and was able to scramble out. After emptying my wellies out for the third time in 90 minutes, I squelched back home and jumped into the shower.

And the really annoying thing? I didn't take a single photo down there! I also lost my pedometer somewhere along the way, but at least I kept all my camera kit dry.

So to make up for the lack of pretty river pictures, here are some birds from the garden instead.

Sparrow on fencepost:

Sparrow 1

Wren - apparently they're quite rare in Scotland, it's too cold:


Greenfinch (or, to be accurate, greenfinch's bottom):


Female chaffinch:

Female chaffinch

Sparrow on wire (OK, it's not the best shot, there's too much detail missing in the black, but I love his pose):

Sparrow 2

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Some live wildlife for a change!

We woke up to glorious sunshine this morning, so I decided to get out with the camera while the sun shone and worry about work this afternoon. Good decision, as it turned out, because the sun went in around 11 and it rained on and off for the rest of the day. Still, I went down to Port a' Chinn again and this was the view from the top:

Port a Chinn

The rabbits were out and about (the lines across the picture are sheep netting):

Rabbit 2

Rabbit 1

and I don't know who was more surprise, me or this rock pipit when it landed on a tractor tyre about 10 feet in front of me:

Juvenile thrush?

I climbed back up from Port a Chinn and went down to Armadale bay to check on the ringed plover family. Thanks to the wind over the past few days, the nest had been covered over with sand and I found one dead chick. But both adults were still around and getting very agitated when I went towards one area of the beach, so I'm hopeful that the other three chicks are live and kicking, although I didn't find them. I got some better shots of the parents this time:

Ringed plover 2

Ringed plover 4

I also saw this bird - wasn't too sure what it was and thought it might be a juvenile oystercatcher, but turns out it's actually a sandpiper:

Juvenile oystercatcher? 1

Sunday, 15 June 2008


Poulouriscaig is a Clearances village. It was a tiny hamlet of 7 houses, built some time in the 1800s and abandoned around about 1934. This is the most intact house left of the 7:

Ruined croft

And just to show you how different the weather can be within 100 yards of one spot, this is the same house from the reverse angle about 5 minutes later - clock that sky!

Ruined croft

There are sheep grazing out there, but I'm not sure how much human contact they have. These were curious until I got closer than 20 feet away and then they bolted.

Sheep at Poulouriscaig

The walk out there is tough (for a townie!) - it took me about an hour each way even though it's only 1.5 miles away. But with skylarks singing at me all the way and views like this, which is back towards Armadale from the highest point on the track, you don't really notice the aching legs.


Now all I need to do is go up to that point at dawn with a tripod for the golden hour...

Googling Poulouriscaig to find out about it has tipped me off about a hidden waterfall through one of the caves in Port a' Chinn. Looking at the map, there appears to be a pretty big loch hidden in the hills as well, but I'm not fit enough for that walk yet.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

A new location

The weather's been changeable this week and I've been working, so I've not been out much. On Wednesday I turned right out of the gate instead of left and went to Port a' Chinn, which is a little cove hidden away at the far end of Armadale:

Port a' Chinn, Armadale

The beach is rocky and an absolute bugger to walk on, but the colours in it are fantastic:

Beach at Port a' Chinn

There's a lot of wildlife around here - neighbours have told me that this is where I'm most likely to see an otter if I go in the early morning and the ripped-apart seabird I found (gory ribcage and all - it was a pretty fresh kill) would seem to indicate they're right. But the only thing I saw on Wednesday was a family of Eider ducks crossing the cove:

Eider ducks at Port a' Chinn

At the risk of becoming known as the wildlife photographer who only photographs dead wildlife, I also found two dead birds at the foot of the cliff. It was a really blustery day, so I'm guessing they got gusted into the rock and killed instantly. One was a guillemot (and I identified that and the Eider duck by myself, so I'm learning!):

Dead guillemot

and I don't yet know what this is, but I've asked on the birdwatching section of who were the ones who worked out the ringed plover for me:

Unidenitifed dead bird

I now have a car (hooray!) and Mick starts work next week, so I can beetle off once I'm done with work and chores and go exploring a bit more. I want to go to the Caithness/Sutherland border, where there's supposed to be a stack with puffins nesting on it, and I want to drive down to Brough and see if the seals are still there. Three orca whales were spotted by a fisherman 3 miles out from Thurso last week, but my lens isn't that powerful ;o)

The next expedition though, if the weather holds, will be this afternoon to Poulouriscaig, an abandoned settlement on the coast a mile and a half up a track from Armadale.

Monday, 9 June 2008

It's there, I know it's there...

Firstly, I'm proud to reveal the owner of those eggs:

Ringed plover

- a ringed plover. It's a pretty rotten shot, but they're not very big and they can run like the clappers!

This is where I think the otter lives:

Who lives here?

If you look at the bank, you can make out paw prints. I've spoken to some more of our neighbours now and they say they think there is one there, but there's certainly one at the other beach at the end of the road. I haven't been down there yet, so that's next on the list of places to explore. The downside is that for the best chance of seeing one, you need to go down there around 5am or earlier, and I'm not the best mornings person in the world...

I was looking at natural patterns last night. It was about half past nine when I got to the beach and the sun had lowered over the headland. So we got stripes:


and we got waves in the sand:


Friday, 6 June 2008

Missed opportunity

Another note to self: when going to the beach, even if it's only to stretch your legs and the light is no good for landscape, take the blooming camera!! I didn't today and wouldn't you know it, spotted two porpoises in the waves at the far end of the beach.

OK, so I didn't know whether they were dolphins or porpoises at first, but found this handy link, which explains the differences quite nicely.

Also seen on the beach today: the skeleton of something that might have been Daffy Duck (duck's bill, lots of black feathers still on the skull and collarbone), a couple of dark blue crab shells, part of an oyster shell, lots of gulls and whatever it is that's sitting on those eggs I took a photo of - it's NOT an oyster catcher. I still don't know what it is, but I'm trying to find out.

I'm now 95% certain that we have an otter in the burn. There's a stretch of bank with paw marks on it right next to a dug-out hole under some overhanging bushes. I'll have to get up really, really early one morning and check it out.

Today's botany lesson

If you sit on a stinging nettle with thick cord trousers on, it can still sting you.


Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Sunshine on the beach

With weather like this, who needs the Caribbean?

Armadale Bay

We've been here three days now; the first day was foggy, yesterday it rained, but today has been glorious - as you can see:

From the middle field

We went down onto the beach and walked to the far end and back this afternoon. Although we didn't see any oystercatchers, we did see what I think are some oystercatcher eggs:

Oystercatcher eggs

and, sadly, a sheep that had wandered off the cliff:

Dead sheep

And I got to practise my tracking shots on the gulls again so that when I run into a buzzard, I stand a decent chance of getting a good shot!