Friday, 7 March 2014

Ardnamurchan - a week in the wild west

Stag cottage, Glen Hurich -  

The Highlands, Best Birdwatching sites by Gordon Hamlett -

Saturday the 22nd, Rachel and Andrew arrived at Geltsdale at 8am all set for our venture north to the wild west of Scotland on the district of Ardnamurchan for the week. After ramming the car full of luggage we were on the move...briefly as mum appeared on the drive way to tell me my main rucksack was still in the living room! After finding room for it making Rachels view in the back even more restricted we headed off for Carlisle to do the weeks shopping along with a quick visit to the bank. As we got to Tesco we headed straight to the peanut butter section for pine marten bait and the fish-mungers for wildcat bait. A highlight was seeing a guy there with a tattoo of a dragon on the back of his bald head. Should of got a rabbit because from a distance it would of looked like hare!

With the shopping in the car and a dead pheasant I scooped up and route the car was officially brim full as we headed north to bonnie Scotland. Big highlights were a merlin and single red kite both just north of Argaty. We scooped up another pheasant on the A82 and a good trip up and usual excellent landscapes as we landed at our location of Stag cottage in Glen Hurich. We baited the area and within half an hour of dusk the pine martens appeared with at least 3 animals on the first night providing hours of entertainment..pure magic.

Piney at the window...
Day two was a bit moist but a fantastic wildlife hide looking out towards loch Sunart was only a few miles away so we headed down to do a shift in there. Little grebes, RB mergansers, shags, canada geese, displaying rock pipits and common seals to start. A pair of WT eagle appeared later on both been adult birds. More great piney action on the night as we began to recognise individuals by behaviour and appearance in particular unique markings on their cream bib. 

Day three and low winds and a spell of fair weather encouraged us to go further afield as we headed west, along the wilds of Ardnamurchan peninsula. We stopped at a traditional goldie eyrie view point on route and got a pair of birds in flight which was a promising sign. In the birds territory stood a newly erected wind turbine (out of place monstrosity). We continued on the longest 30 mile stretch in the country and made our way to the point of the great ocean where we took in the spectacular views and did a bit of sea watching while we had lunch. Naturally scarce oceans at the surface at this time of the year as we recorded guillemots, razorbills, shags and GBB Gulls. As a big surge came in it flushed half a dozen purple sandpipers into view on the shoreline. We moved round to the spectacular Sanna bay and ardnamurchan ring-dykes to take in the mass variety of landscapes all around us. On the journey back at dusk we kept a keen eye out for the very rare sight of wildcat eye shine but no joy, as looking for this rare mammal in this present day could be like chasing rainbows.

Looking across to Ben Hiant and the sound of Mull...
Day four and we focused more local and another sensational area to cover is the temperate rainforest's of the sunart oak woods. Even in February it is a great experience with the variety of mosses, tree ferns, lichens and fungi. We visited Ariundle oakwood NNR and had a walk through the forest floor towards the open uplands. A small group of lesser redpoll and a few treecreepers seen and a dipper on the nearby river. It was disturbing to see a number of dog poo bags hanging up in the tree by the path...A key sign to how out of touch with nature a percentage of the population are. The planet has evolved over millions of years to break down waste and harness its goodness and in one of the wildest areas of the UK and some people make the decision to put it in a plastic bag and hang it on a tree. 

The evening spell involved the important task of getting camera traps set up in the surrounding area around Glen Hurich. We deployed 5 traps in the vicinity in different areas with one on the woodlands edge on a deer track, one in a young birch woodland, one in a spruce plantation, one in lodgepole pine and one in our back garden surrounded by rough grassland. We would leave them there until Saturday and see if we can pick anything up on them.

Day five and sunny spells forecast so we set off to cover the planned locations to the north. The first port of call was loch Moidart and castle Tioram which is a very scenic location with the islands of Caledonian pine forest a real stand out. On the wildlife front we had rock doves coming out of the castle walls and ravens tumbling above the cliffs, wigeon in the shallows and a WT eagle soaring over the distant Morvern hills. 
We moved on further north and came to a car park which had 'raptor view point' written all over it. We pulled in and with in 10 seconds we had mewing buzzard and within 30 seconds two juvenile golden eagles appeared out of nowhere in flight coming towards us in pursuit of a woodcock! An attempt was made to tag the wader but it was unsuccessful potentially to do with the inexperience of the first year bird. An adult WT eagle joined appeared shortly afterwards gliding over the stunning glens and mountains in view all around.
We carried on north in excitement of what else we could see on our travels and more goldies were seen roadside as we joined the A830 and headed east towards Glenfinnan and the head of loch Shiel. Worth it for the classic highland landscapes alone although the harry potter bridge was about as impressive as Gelt bridge so we headed back on our selves as the light closed in and arrived back in Strontian for a meal at the badger bar to round off another cracking day. 

Day six and we were keen to get a good view of the large expanse of moss on the south side of loch shiel to see if there was anything working the area there. Going off resources there was a couple of view points from the conifer plantation to the south so we gave it a go and walked the forestry track for a couple of miles receiving no clear views of the moss left us confused. Weather the trees were too overgrown now or had we not gone far enough? Anyway we enjoyed views of crossbills singing, fox scats, goldcrest in song and saw the first frog spawn of the year it was nice woodland stroll. 
We headed back to the FC hide looking over Sunart to see what was going on. Nice views of common seals and mergansers as we had our lunch before heading back to Glen Hurich to see the far side of loch doilet. 
As we settled back down in Stag cottage for the night with the pine martens routinely sat on the window sill feeding I had a quick glance outside and some stars were showing so I brought the camera out to do some starscapes I noticed a strong glow to the north and saw a few columns...storming aurora! We managed a nice view and a few shots before the solid could moved in from the west to stop play for the night. A strong display was apparently visible as far south as Norfolk and great to see aurora all over the UK media and interest as a lot of people got to see the lights.

Stag cottage aurora...
Day seven and you just couldn't write the script for this...we were up early to catch the morning ferry from Lochaline to go to Mull as Rachel had a job interview there and we would cover the island in general as well. We set off from the bottom of the valley at about half 8 and noticed a solid covering of snow on the higher ground and didn't really think too much of it as we stated climbing the steep ascent. A bit further up the hill and we were in the thick of a healthy covering of snow and we were going nowhere in a hurry as the car wouldn't grip. We worked on the grit piles and managed to make small progress but we were still 500 yards from the top of the hill! Fate does not exist of course but a bit of good luck does as a road gritter turned up and cleared the track nicely as we managed to get a couple of hundred yards up the slope until we got stuck again on an even steeper ascent! We managed to reverse it into a passing place and get the grit fired on again and also hope that the gritter came back on it self. Hell fire god was been a grand lad today as the gritter came back ten minutes later and cleared the stretch completely as we got under-way and headed for Lochaline to get that ferry!
We missed the 1045 boat but were set for the next one as we got an adult WT Eagle at Fishnish as we made our way across to Mull and after Rach's interview we headed south and within minutes got onto two harriers, adult and juvenile female birds. Heading to Pennyghael and back we managed seven harriers in total and also three golden eagles with one bird getting chased away and another picking up the remains of a mountain hare and carrying it along the scree slope before landing and doing some really intensive feeding as we viewed it in the scope...another memorable encounter. Healthy numbers of stonechat seen and huge number of red deer as always present on the landscape. A black guillemot at Craignure guillemots and razorbill seen on the ferry crossing back to Morvern.
A tidy up of the house along with Braveheart and more pine marten action was had as we got prepared for leaving day in the morning.

Day eight and on the morning we rounded up the camera traps and with the bait only been taken at one location it didn't look two promising in terms of capturing species. We hit the road south and as it was a fine day we planned to do a few stops on route back to Cumbria. We stopped at a traditional golden eagle eyrie at morvern and had a quick scan but no sign of the birds with buzzard, stonechat, wrens, raven and red deer seen. The next stop was glencoe to take in the sights and visualise the beauty of it if it had not been destructively over grazed. 
The next stop was one of the worst decisions of my life was we called into Sterling to visit the castle there. After having a weeks worth of unbelievable nature experiences like pine martens, eagles, aurora and sensational landscapes all for FREE!! (spent money on facilities in the area, fuel, food etc) we paid £14 each to walk around a modernized village hall for fifteen minutes. They also had the cheek to try and charge us £4 to park the car chance, its not happening...thanks for the free parking. 
I apologize to frijj and frenchy for the decision to go there but hope you enjoyed all the other spectacles we had during the week. We arrived safely back in the north of England and I would like to thank them both for a great time.

Andrew checked the traps in the days to follow and there was no joy with any mammals yet alone that hugely slim chance of wildcat which is easily one of the rarest species on the planet now. Feral cats have had an impact in recent years but yet again it boils down to mass persecution by gamekeepers in the last two centuries as yet another species leads to extinction. Is it time for the return of the Lynx to British landscapes?

Thanks for looking...

Stag cottage, Glen Hurich -


  1. Sounds like a great week Ewan!