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North West Scotland [part 5]

My journalist fried had told me about an abandoned settlement down the road with an amazing beach and a heronry. This was a 6 mile round trip so an early start would leave me plenty of time for other areas to explore. I started off looking at the track I was walking on. ‘I could drive down here’ I thought with tarmac and few ruts but there seemed few turning places so I kept walking. I started off with an Hazel/Birch woodland on a steep side with the regular Willow Warbler singing along with plenty of Cuckoos. The first loch I found had Mallard and a few willows around its edge but moorland was the main habitat with occasional trees with plenty of Meadow Pipits and Skylark.

Many areas of heather looked good enough for breeding Merlin and Hen Harrier but I did not see any. Same went for eagles but an early start is not the usual for eagles to get up and hunt. They like thermals to save energy from always flapping those big wings. A Stonechat had young in a nest and alarmed at me on the way in and back again. Loch Slaggan was the largest of the 2 lochs on this walk and the pair of Red throated Divers were flying around calling having just come off the sea. Willow carr was dense on my side of the loch with Reed Bunting, Willow Warbler, Common Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler here.

There was no sign of the heronry or even the Grey Herons that were supposed to be here but if there was only 1 or 2 breeding pairs they may have failed this year especially as White tailed Eagle has been reported taking young herons! With so much coastal and loch fishing available they would have to nest somewhere in this area and some have been noted nesting in reeds if trees are not available. What seemed to be a large plantation was visible with mainly broadleaved trees but with also Scots Pine planted. This would help improve the area with Short eared Owl enjoying the many voles here. A Raven flew over calling so I called back keeping him here for a few minutes.

The first of the ruins came into view and better grazing is always found around these communities with Twite, Pied Wagtail and Wheatear the classics. The beach opened out into the mouth of Loch Ewe with its Great Northern Diver, Red breasted Merganser and a few Eider. Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper were breeding around here with Dunlin and more passage Ringed Plover on the beach. The return journey was completed in record time and then it was back on the road passing Little Loch Broom and finding a real gem on the roadside!

I had tried to plan an itinerary for this trip placing locations in order so I would not miss them. Well this one nearly slipped by until the large car park and sign for the National Trust for Scotland. I had read about it in their guide book but no grid reference had meant that I had not found it on my maps! This is the Corrieshalloch Gorge and what a miss it would have been. Clear felling had taken place all around the Trust’s land as well as in the gorge leaving only 1 stand of conifers. Regeneration of some conifer trees had taken place in the gorge but wind blow would soon sort that out. There was an amazing flora on some of the ledges.

With binos I found Yellow Saxifrage, Alpine Sorrel, mass of Garlic, hawkweeds and Golden Saxifrage but I must have missed loads as I took in the view of this 60 foot casam. The swing bridge was fun trying to spot the classics like Dipper and Grey Wagtail way below. The young plantings were full of Willow Warbler and Tree Pipit and with such big ledges were there any peregrines using the area. Ravens were certainly in the area and in the remaining conifers were Crossbill and Goldcrest. The circular walk gave you a chance to scan the area for raptors and certainly there was Buzzard and Sparrowhawk while both eagles could turn up in the area.

Soon it was onto Ullapool and the shock of missing a Ringed billed Gull which I was told about later up the coast! Here I tried to view the ‘wood pasture’ on the Achall Estate driving up a private road as far as the loch. Here I found intensive heather burning for Red Grouse and the pasture was a long way up the loch on the far side seemingly away from the road. No birds were found here for obvious reasons! A quarry I had just passed looked good for Peregrine but now I knew it would have no chance!

Back on the road I had a few locations to look out for and I was seeing some of the ‘Geo-park’ from the road with Knockan Crag full off the areas geology but it was another walk I was interested in. I had 2 choices with limestone country and caves. I decided to do the first with brilliant results. The River Loanan has 2 tributes One of which is named ‘ the Bone Caves’. A small car park has a large building beyond it belonging to the Inchnadamph Estate and a path heading up the Glen allt nan Uamh. You are greeted by a waterfall with water as the main stream was completely dry on my visit while a large spring was pumping out of the limestone dropping only 30 yards into the main stream.

You know things are good when the first bird you see is a female Marlin flying over open limestone crags with a small cave entrance below. Next was a male Ring Ouzel alarming at me and in no time I had at least 4 pairs. Rich pickings then! A Grey Wagtail was feeding in the only water available for it while ravens honked above the main caves. Both Wheatears and Meadow Pipits were plentiful while it just happened the Raven had a nest above the caves with at least 2 fledged young begging for food.

The caves themselves once held early man with many bones of now extinct species in Britain found like Eurasian lynx, brown bear, Arctic fox and reindeer (dated to as long ago as 47,000 years ago). In 1995, explorers found the bones of a polar bear: this is the only evidence of polar bears so far found in Britain! Amazingly up to 52 species of bird have been identified from their remains including sea birds. None of their bones were radio carbon tested to judge the age of their bones so it is hard to say how long they have been in the cave but most would have been between 12,000 and 47,000 years old due to the layers of soil they were found in.

Certain species would indicate other habitats present here like woodland with Woodpecker or Bullfinch although the Bullfinch can feed on heather seed high up the hills in winter. It has been suggested that the sea birds had been caught by raptors while flying over the area pushed in with high winds. [Even a Common Guillemot turned up at Geltsdale due to high winds pushing them into the Solway and beyond with Gannets found well inland after storms!]

It is a steep climb from the valley bottom to the caves themselves but well worth it for the view alone. Standing there is an amazing experience feeling the time travel through your bones to the by gone era of Wolves, Lynx and Polar Bear as most of the birds are still living somewhere in the British Isles. A/the Ravens nest was on the ground by one of the cave entrances but there were sufficient droppings to show this was also the location for this year and the young birds showed it had been a success.

I dropped back down to the valley bottom only to see another visitor look skywards and there was a male Golden Eagle displaying! What a find in May. A new book about Golden Eagles claims that display is also the enjoyment of living as these eagles live so long [25 years +]and territories are often ‘built in stone’ not changing from year to year. The Grey wagtail was still enjoying this spring water and now that the car park was nearly empty it looked like a great place to spend the night. An evening walk down the glen side brought me my dipper not far from the van and tomorrow I will try another limestone valley.

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