Christmas this year was going to be spent in an isolated cottage on the shores of a sea loch called Loch Sunart on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula not too far from Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland. I am from the highlands but on the eastern side of Scotland so this was going to be a new experience for all of us as we were also picking up my daughter Polly from Glasgow University, on the way through.
Arriving in Glasgow we rendezvoused with Polly and headed quickly for the lively 'Stravaigin' pub/restaurant ( stravaigin is a Scots word meaning to wander aimlessly about) and many in Glasgow seem to do this naturally, usually under the influence of alcohol. Stravaigin is also where my daughter does part time waiting in between studies at the University. It was fairly swinging in a packed Stravaigin when we arrived with everyone seemingly celebrating the oncoming festivities and the long drive was soon forgotten as a few Deuchars (local beer) revived my spirits along with a great meal.
The next morning we set off from Polly's flat, leaving a rainy Glasgow and a stop at a garage on the west side of Glasgow brought a first for me as I noted a cold fish finger baguette on offer as we filled up with diesel. Sheer class. It is less than a hundred miles to Fort William from Glasgow but once we had left the city behind and driven through water covered roads around Loch Lomondside it could be another world with mountains rising to the sky on all sides and bleak, windy, rainswept moors and deserted roads. We traversed the wilds of Rannoch Moor with the West Highland railway away to our right and descended through the oppressive and atmospheric Glen Coe, scene of an infamous incident in ancient Scots history when the Clan Campbell returned the traditional hospitality of the resident Clan Macdonald by massacring them. My grandmother to her dying day maintained a distinct antipathy to anyone called Campbell. Such were the tribal or clan loyalties evident in this part of Scotland until comparatively recently. We pressed on down the glen into Fort William with our destination being the Corran Ferry a few miles west of Fort William. Here we could make the short ten minute ferry crossing with the car over Loch Linnhe to Ardgour in western Lochaber. We were now in Clan Cameron country.
|Corran Ferry looking towards Ardgour|
I do not intend to go into the day by day detail of what we did but just concentrate on the highlights and boy was I in for a pleasant surprise but more of this later. The weather throughout was, as expected grim, with rain on all but one day but this is the West of Scotland and it always rains in winter and this winter as we all know is even worse than usual. Achleek cottage was roomy and yet cosy with an open log fire and a huge kitchen.We settled in.
|View from Achleek cottage door|
|Ben Nevis with Fort William below|
A pleasant surprise came immediately as I left the cottage, with a flock of around sixty Siskins feeding in alders by the lochside. The single track road follows the contours of the loch very close to the shore all the way round and is ideal for using the car to look for Otters. I was out of luck today and eventually arrived in Strontian and parked by a small area of saltmarsh to look at some Greylag geese. Yes, real wild ones, none of your Farmoor Reservoir, southern softie ferals here! There were also some Curlew and Oystercatchers fiddling about on the saltmarsh, the only resident waders at this time of year
Looking at them I became aware of some Mallard emerging from under a bank and dabbling in the flooded vegetation. One looked darker than the rest. I looked at it in the bins. For a moment I was flummoxed. What was it? A hybrid of some sort? Mallards are notorious for this after all but no this was not a Mallard pure or hybrid. It suddenly registered. This was an American Black Duck and a drake what's more. It was paired to a female Mallard and quite happily feeding and coming ever closer on the incoming tide. I did not shout expletives, I was not stunned or started shaking but quietly did a mental jig of joy and called my wife to share my excitement. I took images as fast as I could with the camera. I was aware of the problems and pitfalls of hybridisation with Mallards as the two species are so closely related but with no reference books or articles to help me just took as many images from as many angles as possible and made copious notes, all to be consulted later. I knew the speculum was an important feature but the duck was constantly feeding, mainly with its head under water and it looked unlikely to flap its wings. I waited almost two hours, which frankly was no hardship with such a rare bird in front of me, until finally it gave up feeding and started preening and I at last saw the crucial speculum. Blue with no white on the inner side and only the thinnest of white lines on the trailing edge. It looked good, very good but I was still cautious. Now of course it was too dark to get an image of the speculum for future reference. Never mind. My day closed with the duck asleep and darkness descending at only four in the afternoon. I returned to the cottage and after some discussion with Angus at Birdline Scotland we agreed that it was a genuine, pure Black Duck and he would put the news out on Birdline Scotland. Reeeeeeeeeeesult. Christmas had now come early for me. I also noticed that there was a hybrid male Mallard with it which was also paired with a female Mallard, so presumably the Black Duck has been here for some time and has already bred.
|Saltmarsh at Strontian favoured by the Black Duck|
|The drake Mallard top right is probably a hybrid Mallard x Black Duck.|
The Black Duck is next to it
I cannot say that the birdlife or animal life was prolific at this time of year but the creatures I saw were of high quality and more importantly rarely seen in Oxfordshire so I was not complaining and let's face it a Black Duck and Otters in unbelievably beautiful and isolated surroundings was worth a thousand Fieldfares in vast, flat Oxfordshire fields or a Caspian Gull on a Didcot landfill site. After Christmas Day we made various family journeys to local sites of interest and always in sensational surroundings. We visited the ruined 13th century Castle Tioram at Dorlin on Loch Moidart, featured in the films Rob Roy and Highlander 3 and a walk around the deserted bay and out to the castle produced Common Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard and a nice flock of fifteen Rock Doves. By the way on the whole holiday we did not see one Woodpigeon. Who would have guessed that?
|Sensibly dressed wife with now very cold daughter|
|Looking for jam sandwiches which were on the doorstep|
|Garbh Eilean Hide|
|Sightings board at Garbh Eilean Hide|
|HAPPY NEW YEAR|
For interest I saw the following birds and mammals during our holiday
White tailed Eagle/ Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Common Raven/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jay/ Great Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Northern Diver/ Little Grebe/ Goosander/ Red breasted Merganser/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Eider Duck/ Common Goldeneye/ American Black Duck/ Mallard/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Eurasian Teal/ Oystercatcher/ Eurasian Curlew/ Ringed Plover/ Dipper/ Common Pheasant/ Red Grouse/ Grey Heron/ Cormorant/ Shag/ Rock Dove/ Common Starling/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Redwing/ Robin/ European Stonechat/ Dunnock/ Siskin/ Common Chaffinch/ House Sparrow/ Rock Pipit/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Long tailed Tit/ Wren/ Goldcrest