The Isle of May

The Isle of May lies in the Firth of Forth, just under 5 miles off the coast. We had seen it from the Fife coast in April and as we had never been there before, decided to fit in a visit as soon as we could. The island is only about 1 mile long and about 1/3 mile wide. It is owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. The history varies a little as some say St Adrian and a number of followers settled on the island but were slain by the Danes in 875. The information provided by Scottish National Heritage concurs with those who say that Saint Ethernan ministered to the Picts of Fife from the island and died and was buried there in 669AD. A small stone church was built around 900AD to replace the previous timber one. Many pilgrims were buried in stone-lined cists between 600-1000AD. Around 1145 King David I founded a monastery with 13 Benedictine monks who built a bigger church and apparently introduced rabbits to the island. During the wars of independence in the 14th century the monastery was exposed to raiding warships and was abandoned by all but one monk. In 1550 the island was sold and a laird’s tower house was built from the remains of the priory. The village consisting of fishermen and their families lasted into the 18th century; the last villager being buried there in 1730. A considerable amount of smuggling went on and it was also a good place to hide from press gangs trying to find naval recruits. A boat runs trips from Anstruther, you can also take an open rubber speedboat from there or from North Berwick passing the Bass Rock en route. We took the Anstruther boat which takes about an hour to make the crossing (spotting a few grey seals) before mooring in Kirkhaven. You then have around two and half hours to explore before the return trip.

The path from the pier to the visitor’s centre and the rest of the island passes through an Artic Tern nesting site. I got dive-bombed twice even though I tried to be as unthreatening as possible.

We first took Holyman’s Road across the East Braes towards Rona and North Ness. The latter are restricted areas for wildlife only. The path runs through puffin burrows; 120,000 are on the island between April and August each year. I have never seen so many in one location.

and past the now disused Low Light which is a bird observatory. It was in use as a lighthouse from 1844 until 1887. We could see the North Horn.

The Beacon was the first Scottish Lighthouse in 1636 with a coal fire in a metal basket burning on top of the keeper’s house.

It was lit for the last time on 31st January. The island was by then owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board who commissioned Robert Stevenson to build the 24m high Main Light in 1816. It was automated in 1989.

The South Horn was built in 1886 and the North Horn in 1938. Heading south again we passed the loch where you can sometimes see
Eider Ducks and Fluke Street where the bird researchers live.

We then passed the ruins of the priory.

At the south end of the island view points overlook the cliffs where there are puffins, guillemots, shags, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes and gulls.

All too soon it was time to return to the boat and it began to rain as we boarded. The return journey took us round the other side of the island past cliffs covered with birds and a rock formation called The Bishop.

We then said goodbye to the Isle of May.

New Zealand: walking in the forest and on the beach

Driving north of Geraldine towards Peel Forest we passed through farmland where large numbers of red deer were grazing. When we arrived at the forest car park there was only one other vehicle there. We set off to walk the trail to Acland Falls. There are various trails of differing lengths and difficulty. Ours had a steep climb uphill and then down towards the falls.

Peel Forest has a large collection of native conifers, some of which are over 100 years old. There are numerous other trees, plants and ferns and the forest is home to several species of native birds as well as a few of the introduced ones. Amidst all the unfamiliar birdsong I heard the alarm call of a European blackbird. We did see a New Zealand fantail who came quite close as they are known to do but darted away before I could get a photograph. New Zealand Birds Online is a very useful resource for identification:

Peel Forest has a small community living there and a wooden church dating from 1869 which is described as ‘historic’. Churches built in the 1860s and 70s do not make it into my copy of ‘Old Cheshire Churches’ at home. On the way back southwards we passed a holiday park just north of Geraldine called ‘Grumpy’s Retreat’ which raised a smile. Our destination was a motel perched above Caroline Bay in Timaru. The beach here is among the ten most loved in New Zealand.

Dolphins, seals, sea lions and penguins are known to visit the beach. In the middle of the day, only some seals could be seen offshore and dogs being walked kept scaring the birds. Several gulls were bathing and drinking in the stream that runs through the beach and there were a few oystercatchers.These are the most common South Island Pied Oystercatchers. The other day we saw some of the Variable Oystercatcher which is often black and which is declining.

There is a coastal trail and we walked some of it via the dune boardwalks and over to the Timaru Lighthouse which from 1878-1970 was the main harbour light.
It is a public holiday long weekend here so the motel is fully booked but we have a great view of the bay. In the late afternoon we walked back down to the beach. The bridge across the road is called the ‘Matrimonial Bridge’ and is yet another festooned with padlocks. There were still quite a few people, dogs and only one drone down on the beach as the sun went down at 17.03.

Birdwatching by the motorway and the scenic route home

I woke on Friday morning to find some rather wet snow outside. It had melted by sunrise. We drove up to Edinburgh to spend the weekend with a friend and stopped for a break at Johnstonebridge Services. On the way in we had to stop to allow some geese to cross the road. I was photographing them as they hunted around for melted puddle to get a drink when a guy sitting in his van told me that they are always around and in the summer have their goslings with them. They are not wild geese but are clearly resident in the vicinity.goose-at-johnstonbridge-13-jan-2017-1-of-1
I do a lot of bird-spotting rather than watching as I am driving or sitting on a train. Today we had seen a large starling murmuration just south of Carlisle. There are usually ducks at the pond at Tebay Services and I have photographed them on previous occasions. They are mostly Mallard with a few interlopers.
Ducks at Tebay 26 Mar 2016-1
In summer bird food is sold at Tebay to discourage people from feeding them bread which is not nutritious for birds. The guy in the van at Johnstonebridge also told me that Black-headed Gulls nest on the island in the middle of Killington Lake so later in this year I will make a stop there to see them. Fortunately we heard in time that an accident had closed the A702, so left the motorway at Moffat and drove up the A701 as the sun was setting.
We spent Saturday showing our friend around some of the parts of Edinburgh she had not seen on a previous visit. Sunday morning saw us in North Berwick> The Scottish Seabird Centre is here, down at the harbour but we did not have time to go there today. These Herring Gulls came over to see if we had anything to eat, better than the piece of plastic one was waving around.
The Bass Rock is home to the largest colony of Northern Gannets who are named after them: initially Sula bassanus now Morus bassanus. In summer you can do a boat trip around the rock in an open boat. Choose a calm day to do this as it can get a but rough on the side away from the shore. We did it many years ago and it is something I would like to revisit in the summer.
From North Berwick we drove to Haddington, over to the A68 and then the A7. The snow had disappeared from the lowland areas.
There was still some on the Eildon Hills where the hill sheep were scraping it away to find grass. Descending into Langholm we encountered mist.
Mist, cloudy greyness and rain were our companions for the remainder of the journey.

Aquitaine: Parc Ornithologique du Teich

Today with another blue sky and sunshine, we visited the Parc Ornithologique du Teich. We were last here in 2014 in August so this was our first September visit. Our friend dropped off at a nearby station and just like home, ended up on a rail replacement bus. At the reserve, were surprised to get a discount as RSPB members, despite not having brought our membership cards. Most of the storks seen on our previous visit had now abandoned their nests and left, apart from a few stragglers.
There were a few turtles in the ponds near the entrance and this one was quite well camouflaged.
We walked around the whole reserve, picnicking en route and stopping at most of the hides. There were some serious bird photographers with tons of kit but I just strolled along looking at all the birds.
This sign appeared to be attempting to appeal to our Australasian friends.
The day turned out to have been hotter than forecast so after stocking up for the evening meal we headed back to the house to cool off.

Shoes, sunshine and birds in London

Leaving home yesterday evening as the sun was setting and the moon had risen, made me wonder whether I will stay up until 2am on Monday morning to see the lunar eclipse. Sleep has been in short supply for the last few nights as the dog has been unwell. Our train was late into London last night and we had to get up early so that James could get to the course he was attending on time. I may have to wait until the next lunar eclipse. Once he was at Imperial College I had a coffee and waited for the V&A to open. I had not been in the museum for many years and had a ticket for their exhibition ‘Shoes: pleasure and the pain’.
Shoes V&A 26 Sept 2015 (1 of 1)

Sadly no photographs were allowed inside the exhibition but it was a great display of shoes throughout the ages and on their construction. Every so often someone would exclaim ‘I had some of those’. I assume they were not referring to the antique Egyptian, Chinese and Indian footwear. Afterwards I looked at some of the other exhibits including European Fashion from 1750 and an installation by Barnaby Barford called ‘Tower of Babel’ It is composed of 3000 individual bone china buildings, each measuring 10 – 13cm tall and depicts a real London shop.
Barnaby Barford Tower of Babel V&A 26 Sept 2015 (1 of 1)

Barnaby Barford Tower of Babel 2 V&A 26 Sept 2015 (1 of 1)

It was such a fabulous sunny day that I decided I had had enough of museums and decided to head for more open spaces.

V&A 26 Sept 2015 (1 of 1)

Eventually, after getting past all the tourists outside Harrods, I spotted some deckchairs for hire by the Serpentine in Hyde Park and sat there watching the world go by. This included a new sport not seen previously. People wearing wheeled narrow boards somewhere between roller skates and skateboards in size were propelling themselves along with Nordic walking poles. Selfie sticks were also everywhere and the park was very busy. Soaking up the sun, reading and watching the birds (magpies, geese, swans and pigeons) passed a couple of hours without any difficulty.

Geese V&A 26 Sept 2015 (1 of 1)

Later I met up with James and now the only decisions are where to eat tonight and what to do tomorrow.

Third island of the summer: Rathlin

On Thursday we managed to cover several of our passions in one day. Visiting a new place, antique maps, bird watching, walking and beachcombing. On our last visit to Northern Ireland we had discovered a gallery in Portstewart that sold antique maps. The proprietor had said that he had more in his warehouse and to call him on our next visit, so this time we rang up and arranged to meet him on our way to Ballycastle. His warehouse was in the Glens of Antrim and on the edge of Breen Wood nature reserve. He told us that this was the oldest oak wood in NI (although there is another which also makes this claim) and that it has a fairy ring. However, this will have to be explored on another trip as we had a boat to catch. We did buy a small print of ports on the north and west coast of Ireland, which is similar to one I have of ports in the northeast of Scotland and agreed to visit the shop and see some of his older maps of Ireland the following day. A few miles further on we arrived at Ballycastle and after a coffee caught the ferry to Rathlin Island. Surprisingly, we had never been there before despite James growing up in County Antrim and us having visited at least once a year for the last thirty years.

Ballycastle Harbour

The sea was calm and we were soon there and set off to walk to the West Lighthouse and Seabird Centre. The roadside verges and fields were full of wildflowers and at the highest point of the island, is a cairn. The Puffin Bus, ferrying people to and fro passed us several times. At the lighthouse, there are steps down to the viewing platform overlooking the cliffs and stacks, which are covered with birds. Guillemots and fulmars are everywhere and on a grassy slope at the bottom of the cliff are the puffin burrows which they return to every year. We saw some although they were too far away for a good photograph even with the telephoto lens. We had never seen them before as on a trip to Staffa several years ago, they had left the week before.

Fulmar with chick Rathlin

We had our packed lunch, with a visit from a racing pigeon that had flown off course and then set off on the return journey.

Back at the harbour, it was time for an ice cream from Jack whose shack was at the back of his van and then a spot of beachcombing.

Jack the Ice-cream vendor's shack

On the beach I found five tiny coloured periwinkles but was horrified by the amount of plastic waste deposited there by the tide. It was then time to catch the ferry back to Ballycastle and head for home.

A day in Birmingham

The hottest day of the year ended with thunder and lightning in the evening but no rain. It was still pretty warm when I set off early this morning to travel to Birmingham for a conference. The train got busier as commuters got on at Wolverhampton and Coseley but we were soon at New Street. I had not been in central Birmingham for some time and always said that New Street was my least favourite station. However, it has had a makeover and is a much more pleasant place to be in. The conference centre was only about half a mile away and is part of the complex containing Symphony Hall. Next door is Francine Houben’s post-modern Library which looks very striking and I am only sorry that I did not have time to look inside.

Birmingham Library (1 of 1)

The conference was stimulating and I caught up with several colleagues that I had not seen for a while. When I emerged at the end of the day, it was raining so I scuttled down to the station to get the train home. After Wolverhampton it was less busy and I saw that the sheep in fields had been shorn, a sign of summer. Wildlife spotted included a trainspotter with camera and tripod who was supping a cup of tea on the platform at Stafford and a flock of Canada geese feeding in a field north of the town. Finally, I saw a rainbow before we drew into Crewe.

Birds, books and an old friend

The RSPB’s Hobbister Reserve was our first stop today. We walked around the moor hearing several birds and spotting a skylark (too far away to photograph) and a wheatear (nearer but bobbing around too quickly for me to get a shot). We met a few other people, one of whom was keen to find out if we had seen a hen harrier. Unfortunately the raptor total was zero. Nearby there was a large peat-cutting operation which turned out to be for Highland Park Distillery.

Hobbister 9 June 2015 (1 of 1)

At Ophir, we looked at the unusual circular Nordic church remains and walked along the shore of the bay for a while.

Remains of circular church Orphir 9 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Orphir Bay 9 June 2015 (1 of 1)

We then headed into Kirkwall via Highland Park (the most northerly distillery in the world) and nearby Scapa for the distillery photo book. We had lunch in town centre place which was not busy. It had free wifi and two guys had obviously overstayed their welcome as they were asked to move to the public library as ‘a cruise ship is coming in’. After lunch we were wandering around town and unexpectedly bumped into a friend from Aberdeen who unbeknown to us, was working here. We spent a great couple of hours ensconced in a coffee shop catching up. When she had to leave to get on with work, we wandered off to the secondhand bookshop we had spotted on arrival and found some more reading material.