Last week the family and I headed for the West coast of Scotland. We picked up a camper van in Perth and drove to Arisaig (nr. Fort William), before heading across Skye to Plockton, Applecross and on to Gairloch. Frankly it was an absurdly beautiful holiday, with equally absurd weather; the temperature never dropped below 18 degrees C and the sky was often completely cloud free.
Having a camper van gave us the freedom to stay wherever we chose, and wake up with views you would pay a fortune to a hotelier to experience. On the first morning, we woke up looking out at this:
Though this was a family holiday, I had hopes of encountering as much of Scotland's iconic wildlife as possible. However, the short attention span of my 4yo daughter and my son's obsession with fishing meant that any encounters would be down to luck. But again, the beauty of a camper van is that you can increase your chances by being in the right place at the right time (more of that later).
The first thing that struck me was how different the profile of avifauna was when compared with home. Naturally the coast threw up birds I would never expect to see at home, but I saw no buntings, tree sparrows and much fewer tits than a walk round Thrintoft would uncover. Instead, the fields and shores were bursting with meadow pipit, linnet, siskin and skylark.
Audibly, there were very few whitethroat and blackcap and not a single chiffchaff or garden warbler. Willow warbler trickled their song from what seemed like every tree; I was astounded at the density of these little birds and the habitat they took up, not confined to deciduous stands of trees, but present in gorse bushes on the shore and in the otherwise sterile coniferous plantations.
Perhaps the most pleasing observation was the number of cuckoo. A bird now absent from home, but here doing well, it's no exaggeration to say we heard them wherever we stopped. Indeed, on the first morning Joe and I saw three birds on the short walk to the rocks to fish. Though it's sad to consider their disappearance in much of the country, it gave me some optimism that they are at least doing well here and that if we understand what's driving the decline, the population is big enough to recover and begin to spread South again.
On Skye we visited the small port of Elgol. A guidebook recommended it was a good place to fish for youngsters. It wasn't, but the weather was great and the sea was warm so the kids stripped off and played in the sea. I took the opportunity to climb the heather covered hillside in search of birds and ticked off all the usual moorland species, but was unable to find hen harrier. Back at the camper van a male wheatear landed just in front of me before disappearing into the bank, I made a mental note of where it was and when it flew off, tried to locate the nest. I found a hole about two inches in diameter and peered in... to my surprise, when my eye adjusted to the dark, there inside was the hen bird sat on eggs looking back at me!
We crossed the South of Skye again and headed to Kylerhea to spend the night. The promise of otters and sea eagles was a big draw, but we set the kids' expectations that we'd need to be very lucky. After we'd finished a barbecue supper, we all wondered down to the loch-side. Within seconds a harbour seal popped his head up just 30ft from where we were stood! We were suddenly aware that there were seals everywhere, both grey and common. Then we were aware of the midges and took refuge in the camper van. The van was close enough to the water to watch for otters and after a short while, we made out the distinctive shape of two otters fishing close to the shore. I'm hoping that now I've seen a wild otter and my duck is broken, I'll see more than just footprints on the banks of the Swale!
After another encounter with otters in the morning, we headed off Skye to Plockton for lunch. The jewel of the highlands really is that, and we spent a lovely afternoon crabbing off the pontoon.
On next to Applecross, over a frankly terrifying pass and down again to the shore. The couple that hired the van to us assured us that red deer come down from the hills at dusk to take food from campers, but we didn't see any. However, when the landscape is as beautiful as this, who cares?
Our final destination was Gairloch wherein we stayed on a campsite for the first time. I was reluctant to do so on the grounds we would see less wildlife, but was so wrong! Within a few minutes of parking up I counted ringed plover, common sandpiper and skylark within 40ft of the van! Accustomed to people, the birds here were pretty accommodating. I managed to grab some shots of sedge warbler...
and Great Skua.
From Gairloch we took a glass bottom boat out into the natural harbour and learnt all about the shellfish, seaweeds and crustaceans that live there. I was more interested in the birds and found red breasted merganser, goosander, common tern...
and a fishing heron.
I glowed with pride as my 6yo son answered all the questions that the guide threw at us that many of the adults aboard couldn't! He's certainly got an interest in learning about wildlife but is unable to transfer that to the reality of finding it in the wild; it's very frustrating!
In conclusion, it was a fantastic holiday. We didn't see eagles or harriers and our schedule didn't allow a visit to the machair and corncrakes of Uist, or the fritillaries and skippers of the woodlands around Oban, but fantastic nonetheless.
I cannot wait to return, but equally was excited to return to Thrintoft and reacquaint myself with the wildlife here this weekend.