Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Dumfries and Galloway Adventures. Part Two

I’m presently reading Galloway and the Borders by Derek Ratcliffe, and number 101 of Collin’s New Naturalist Series.  It’s relevant to this trip of course and it ought to be remembered that without the likes of DR we may not have been in a position to watch Peregrine Falcons at Threave, or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.  It was DRs work in the 1960s that led to the findings of the link between pesticides and eggshell thinning in raptors.  This problem had led to a rapid decline in many raptor species.  DR was brought up in Carlisle and as a young man ventured over the border into Dumfriesshire and Galloway where he took a keen interest especially in the Peregrine Falcons and Ravens of the uplands.  Years later monographs for Poyser followed, concerning the Peregrine Falcon and Raven.  DR lived to see many changes in the area, not all for the better, afforestation being one concern.  The present plans by the Forestry Commission to extend the planting of none native trees in the area by a substantial amount would not have gone down well with DR.  Derek died in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2005 just after completing his book Galloway and the Borders.  I believe at the time he had been on his way to Lapland, an area he loved, and I would recommend his book Lapland (Poyser) to anyone interested in that area.  Thanks Derek Ratcliffe.


18th July.  We set off this morning for Castramon Woods, one of the largest semi natural broad leaved woodlands in the area.  The oak trees were once used for charcoal and bobbins.  As my journey had been delayed by several weeks we were aware that our target species would not be easily found and so it proved.  Sam did catch sight very briefly of a Wood Warbler, but we were unable to find Pied Flycatcher, Redstart or Tree Pipit.  Some Woodland species were seen and included Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Great Spotted Woodpecker.  In any event the walk through the woods was a delight with the sunlight giving backlighting to the leaves and having a stunning effect in places.  It was midmorning and already very hot.  It would be difficult to be greatly disappointed in such wonderful surrounds, but what little disappointment we did feel was very quickly dissipated at our next stop.

We stopped at a Bridge over the River Fleet in expectation that we might find Dipper.  We never did find that species, but we did find Golden Ringed Dragonflies, long on my wish for list of species to see.  Once picked out from the bridge we managed to find a path down to the river bank and we settled here to watch.  It wasn’t easy to judge how many Golden Ringed Dragonflies there were but we reckoned at least three or four, which included both male and female.  This was to be nature watching at its best as we watched males patrolling, perching, courtship, male and female in tandem and flying high and possibly into the trees to continue mating and females ovipositing.  Whilst not the largest Dragonfly species in the UK, it is the longest and perhaps the most beautiful.  Unfortunately perching always took place on the other side of the


river so photographs weren’t possible, but this was all about watching anyway and there was also a pair of Grey Wagtails to keep an eye on.  All the time the sun blazed down and we were fortunate to have tree cover and shade to drop into.  The river reflected a multitude of green, umber and red hues and as we watched a Kingfisher flew along the river below and only a few feet away from us, lit perfectly by the sun and showing the blueness of plumage at its best.   I’m not sure if it was heat, hunger or thirst that finally dragged us away, but we did eventually move on.  We’d had all this to ourselves and it is this aspect of nature watching I love.  This was special.

We did stop off for a bite to eat and then moved on to Cardoness Castle.  This is a 15th century tower house with slots for dropping burning tar on unwelcome guests and a prison for those who got in!  It also offers an excellent view of Fleet Bay and we had good sightings of Siskin and Bullfinch here.  Next stop was a walk at Carrick which seemed to have excellent habitat for warblers.  Sam had been told that it was unclear if Lesser Whitethroats still nested here.  We can confirm that they do having found four of them along with Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff.  After the walk it was time for a break before dinner.  The heat was exhausting and approaching 30 degrees and I can’t remember where we had seen the Red Kites, but perhaps it doesn’t matter as they are all over the place up here.

Refreshed after dinner we were off to Rockcliffe for a walk to Castlehill Point where there was once a Roman Fort.  A beautiful area with great coastal views and a wonderful estuary.  The wind from the sea was picking up a little and this seemed to be a ‘wind of change’.  We found the Common Scoters again along with the likes of Oystercatcher, Curlew, gulls including Kittiwake, Guillemot, Rock Pipit, Dunnock, Wren, Robin, Song Thrush, warblers, tits, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrow.  When we got back to the village we climbed to the Mote of Mark.  The site was occupied in the 5th and 6th centuries and it is thought may have been destroyed by the Northumbrians.  Don’t we get everywhere?  With a beautiful view over the Urr Estuary it was a wonderful way to end another great day.

View from Mote of Mark

19th July.  Having gone to bed last night listening to heavy rain it was a pleasant surprise to wake to a bright dry day, in fact the forecast thunderstorms never did materialise today.  We set off for the Loch Ken area.  There were of course a few Red Kites as well as Common Buzzards.  Bird wise it was a quiet time of year, but we enjoyed the walk to the hide and whilst we sat there the number of bird species seen did add up and included our first Willow Tit of the trip along with the likes of Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Long tailed Tit, Jay, Nuthatch and a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers with the male, female and two juveniles all present at the same time.  We agreed to move on and as I stood up I caught sight of a bird flying in and suggested to Sam that he might want to sit down again as it was unmistakably the shape of an Osprey I had seen.  We were aware that an Osprey had fed here the day before and we believed the likelihood was that this was the same bird returning.  Sam eventually read the ring number and it was the male adult bird from Threave.  Black 80 was first seen at Threave in 2008 following the construction of a nesting platform in 2007.  The bird was identified back then and traced back to RSPB Glaslyn, at the time the only successful Osprey breeding site in Wales.  Black 80 has been breeding at Threave since 2009.  Anyway, we weren’t going to rush away now and we soon watched this Osprey dive, take a fish and then fly off.  Another star sighting of the trip and especially rewarding for Sam as he has so much connection to the Threave Ospreys.   Once again we had the whole area almost to ourselves.


All Osprey images of Black 80 and heavily cropped.

The latter part of the day was spent exploring the Galloway Forest area and hills.  Ravens were seen and we took time to watch the Red Deer.  The Feral Goats weren’t found.  We rounded the day off with another hearty meal and a relaxing evening, my last of the trip.

Red Deer

20th It was time for my return home today but not before a morning tour beginning with a short visit to RSPB Mersehead a favourite reserve of mine.  We knew there wouldn’t be much birdlife so we only visited the centre.  Yellowhammers were among birds visiting the feeding station and we learned about the successful breeding of the Barn Owls.  Next stop was Southerness and I must learn more about that very old Lighthouse.  We drove around to Paul Jones cottage but didn’t go in.  I’ve known of Paul Jones for many years as I was always made aware of his attack on Whitehaven harbour during the American War of Independence.  It’s an interesting story as is the story of Sweetheart Abbey and New Mill.  We visited the Abbey and the old mill workings before moving on to Drumcoltran Tower, a 16th Century tower which is in the grounds of a working farm.  Some of the final wildlife I saw in the area was dead.  We found two dead bats in the tower, species yet to be determined…I think Sam is working on that, and a dead Goldfinch which appears to found it harder to get out of the tower than get in.  Some time was then spent in Dumfries town prior to my bus ride to Carlisle.

Sweetheart Abbey

My thanks go to Sam who had done lots of ground work prior to my visit and without whom the visit would not have been possible.  I can recommend him as a tour guide.

Since childhood I have visited the Cumbrian side of the Solway, but I am far less au fait with the Dumfries and Galloway side, so made some new discoveries during what was a great trip.  I’ve set myself the task of learning much more about the area and its history, hence my present reading of the book by Derek Ratcliffe.  I also have a book first published in 1955 The Solway Firth by Brian Blake.  Throughout my life I had cursory glances at this book which was always on the bookshelves of my aunt and uncle in Whitehaven.  I never read it fully.  Some years ago just prior to her death, my aunt gave me the book.  I intend to read it now.  Interestingly it was written during the years when Derek Ratcliffe made his early visits so I will find the Solway area as he did at that time, if only on the written page and in photographs.