Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Edinburgh Ptarmigans

Prior to my second last full day in Europe, Laura and I were debating where we would spend the day. We both love hiking and checking out new areas, but had exhausted most of the options that were accessible by bus/train for a reasonable cost and within an hour or two of her place in Edinburgh. Laura suggested that maybe we try hiking in the Pentland Hills, located just south of the city, for a change of scenery. Immediately I remembered that Red Grouse (a.k.a. British Willow Ptarmigans) inhabited those hills. While the ptarmigans are fairly common in barren, upland areas throughout Scotland, I had never seen one before and was eager to search for them! They also happened to have one of the coolest voices out of any bird, sounding almost cartoon like.

We took a city bus out of the downtown and were at the west edge of the Pentlands in about 20 minutes.

Our route through the Pentlands

It was a gray, foggy day, but fortunately it was nearly dead calm (a rarity in Scotland!) and without rain. In short order we added many of the common U.K. birds to the day list as well as a few slightly more unusual ones that I was happy to see (Lesser Redpoll, Eurasian Treecreeper, etc). At one plowed field I could barely make out the shapes of several hundred European Golden Plovers mixed in with some Northern Lapwings and Eurasian Curlews.

Eventually we came to a little walkway leading out into a lowland raised bog called Red Moss, one of very few remaining lowland raised bogs in the area. It was eerily calm here and I snapped a few iphone photos. Meadow Pipits (mipits!) were everywhere here, and a Common Buzzard patrolled from a tall snag at the edge of the bog.

Red Moss - Pentland Hills, U.K.

We stopped at several reservoirs that supply the City of Edinburgh with water. My first Chiffchaff for Scotland was singing away in some bushes and a Pied Wagtail was doing its namesake behaviour over a little bridge. The lake was smooth as glass, making it easy to pick out the Little Grebes, Eurasian Coots, Tufted Ducks, and Common Goldeneyes on the water. Two fishermen were in a boat, and from the looks of things they were having a very successful morning!

As we walked up to the hide located on the edge of the lake where I took the above photo, we noticed a large flock of medium sized birds feeding at the edge of a field. They were Fieldfares! And a lot of them - maybe 200, plus another 200 starlings. This was a long-awaited lifer that I had missed in England a few weeks earlier - they had likely already departed for the north. But here in Scotland this large flock was still hanging on. Fieldfares and Redwings are winter visitors to much of the U.K.

We continued walking to the end of the road and eventually found a trail that seemed to wander into the hills.Time to search for ptarmigans!

Right away we added a few more day birds. Skylarks were fairly common and several Northern Wheatears perched on a rock wall parallel to us. As we walked, we kept flushing the wheatears further along the rock wall. Instead of turning around and looping back, they kept flying a few meters further along until we would flush them yet again. It is kind of funny how many birds will do this...

Northern Wheatear - Pentland Hills, U.K.

Here are a few landscape shots showing, fairly accurately I must say, what the scenery was like!

Pentland Hills, U.K.

Pentland Hills, U.K.

As we were following the trail through the fog we both stopped around the same time, hearing a bird call. Laura asked me if I had heard that, as she thought it might have been a ptarmigan. We listened, and a few seconds later it called again! That was it! Here is an example of the vocalizations that this species gives...what an awesome call! The bird was down the slope in fairly short grass. By this point the fog had cleared enough that we could see fairly well to maybe 50 meters away. I scanned but could not find it in the haze, so I decided to walk down the hill towards it. By triangulating its call I approached closer eventually spotting a small lump rising above the vegetation.

Red Grouse (Willow Ptarmigan) - Pentland Hills, U.K.

 I called Laura down and we watched and photographed the ptarmigan.

Red Grouse (Willow Ptarmigan) - Pentland Hills, U.K.

What a cool bird! We ended up seeing a half dozen on the hike and hearing several more. For an Ontario birder like me, whose idea of Willow Ptarmigan is a bird that nests on the barren tundra in the artic, it was a bit weird seeing these ones in the same fields as sheep, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I guess the vegetation and climate is similar enough in both places.

We continued on, following the trail east towards the town of Penicuik, on the eastern edge of the Pentlands. While cresting a hillside, the fog melted away and the sun even came out for a few minutes. Bird song picked up, and we found a large flock containing Fieldfares, Bramblings, Linnets, Greenfinches, with Song Thrushes and Meadow Pipits being common as well.

Further along, the trail passed alongside a sheep farm, and the local dog came out to check us out.

The fog was visible in the valley that we came from, creating a dramatic scene and a cool spot to do some "touristy" photos.

After several additional hours of hiking we finally arrived in Penicuik. New day birds along this stretch included Mistle Thrush, Sparrowhawk, and Great Spotted Woodpecker, to name a few. And a photo of a law-abiding citizen in Penicuik.

We completed about 15 km in just over five hours, hiking through the Pentlands. We weren't able to cover a few other great spots in the hills due to the time, including a waterfall and stream passing through a canyon where Ring Ouzel and White-throated Dipper could be found, as well as several of the larger Pentland hills in the same area. I would like to return to the area later in the year at some point as Common Cuckoo, Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat, Dotterel, and a few new warblers could be seen.

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