Another early departure meant I had the road to myself and what a road it was with many bays and inlets, birch woodland and then the A 894. The plan was to photograph Handa as it was 1980 when Thelma and myself last visited when it was an RSPB reserve. It would have taken up most of the day to visit it again with the little boat ride to and from it and a walk of 4 miles around the trail with various stops for the massive sea cliffs full of birds and the lochans and of course the many Great Skuas nesting. It was 6 miles off the main road and back with no wildlife surprises on route. After this it was a drive up Durness missing out Cape Wrath area as time was running out and I had to be in Caithness by Saturday to complete my main task with an article on that area.
No stops meant I was up there in good time and drove passed Durness to Balnakeil looking out into the bay and onto Faraid Head. A birder was on the beach flushing the waders as he was trying to photograph them which was great for me as many came and landed feet from the van below me. There were large numbers of Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling with the odd Turnstone most in summer plumage. The birder walked towards me so I quizzed him on what was about and I had bumped into Bob McMillan from Skye. I had only emailed him a few weeks ago regarding eagles!
It was nice to know he was on a year list as it was his 70th birthday this year and he wanted as many birds as possible in the Highland region.He was here for a Little Ringed Plover hoping it was with this mass of birds but he had already covered the marsh the other side of Balnakeil farm where he had found Ring necked Duck with the Tufted Duck. We spoke for a good ¾ hrs about harriers, eagles and birding in general and then I went off to search for the marsh.
The first pool seemed dead other than a White Wagtail but the second one was a real gem with reed bed, shallow pools and plenty of edge for waders. The Ring necked Duck was about the first bird I found along with 3 pairs of Tufted. Bob had seen the Ring necked trying to rob a Tufted of his partner but all seemed friendly now. In fact so friendly I noticed a duck depart from the water.
I was joined by a birder from Falkirk who was on holiday. Not here but 2 ½ hours away at Dornoch. In fact this was his third trip to this spot as he thought the marsh was the best thing since sliced bread. I told him of the rare duck and all the time he was here he did not find it. Ups! That must have been the Ring necked flying away! The birds he was really after were the Yellow Wagtails.
The last time he was here he had found a normal, a Blue Head and even a Channel Yellow Wagtail. The yellow Wagtail only breeds in one location in Scotland at Torness Power Station on the east coast so these Scandinavian and Low country birds were well off course. The Blue headed was still here and it turned up by the outflow to the marsh. The other interesting species here were a pair of Wood Sandpipers. This species is now breeding on the flow country not far away so were these birds just feeding up before using this acid waste land to breed? A Water Rail was calling from the reed bed along with a singing Sedge Warbler. It was too far north for Reed Warblers so Reed Bunting was the only other bird found in these reeds this day.
With a lime rich water due to all the sea shells ducks were well represented with Shoveler, Gadwell and Teal. A Black headed Gull colony was here which makes a change from the acid loving Common Gulls. This meant even Wigeon breeding was possible as they use these gulls as cover to protect the young once hatched. More White Wagtails were here as well as a flock of Whimbrel with over 50 counted in 3 groups.
The big sand dunes pointed to Faraid Head with its breeding Puffins and other sea birds but it was time to move on as Caithness was calling. I drove passed Smoo Cave and its big car park taking a shot of yet another amazing beach! I passed down along Loch Eriboll with a raised beach worth stopping for and onto the Kyle of Tongue. I drove the loop around the shallows with mixed habitat from moorland, woodland, river edge and estuary stopping on the big car park on the bridge across the estuary.
I had just enough time to cover part of the Flow Country by driving down Glen Naver cooking my tea in a large opening with Redstart alarming and Cuckoo belting out. I turned on to the minor road across the Flow and found a quarry for the night with Red Deer all around and hopefully not that Cuckoo! Work really starts tomorrow in Caithness!