I’m currently in Scotland on a sabbatical from work. Mr O and I are surveying parts of the north-west coast south of Ullapool for the BTO Breeding and Wintering Atlas project. It’s a wonderful area; dramatic mountain and coastal scenery, combined with a welcome slow pace of life.
So far, we’ve surveyed 13, 2km squares. Some have included coastline and small settlements, but most have been in remote moorland areas. For some, there’s been quite a trek in before reaching the square and starting the survey. This has usually involved yomping over rough heather moorland, which is very tough going, particularly on the knees! Once in the square we’ve had to spend two hours identifying and counting all the birds we see or hear. Most of the squares have no tracks or paths, if you’re lucky there are a few sheep tracks, but mostly it’s wandering up and down rank heather and boggy tussocks.
The rewards for all this exercise (and at times grumbles) have more than made up for the effort and pain. The scenery is spectacular – views to distant mountains and craggy coastlines. The silence has only been broken by the song of skylarks and meadow pipits. The chance to find rare and unusual birds second to none.
Today, although officially a day off, we decided to try to cover a square along the stunning coast of the Gairloch peninsula. Although a gale was blowing as we left our rented cottage, we decided to risk it. The drive to the Rua Reidh Lighthouse is along a single track road hugging the coast. As we arrived the wind strengthened and the rain started, but we set off, in hope that the predicted high winds would abate as forecast. We walked up, down and along cliff edges, wind blasting and buffeting our backs and rain lashing down. We carried on, the square in sight but with still a kilometer or so to go. It’s then we realised our limits – there was no point in carrying on, no right minded bird would be showing, the survey would be pointless. So we turned, faced the wind and trekked back through the heather.
As I write this, the sun is now streaming in through the window, but the wind is still blowing a gale. Several yachts and a cruiser have sought refuge in Loch Ewe. Even on this sheltered loch, the waves look rough and no one is crossing from Aultbea to the small Isle of Ewe. Our boots and jackets are drying by the Rayburn and soup is cooking on the stove. No barbecues for us tonight on what the news tells us is the hottest day of the year so far!