ARRIVAL AT KIRKCUDBRIGHT
We meet this evening at our hotel in the Scottish harbour town of Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kirr-coo-bree), with an informal get-together in the bar around 7.00pm, followed by dinner.
Centrally located, close to the coast and with the scenic Southern Uplands just a stone's throw away, Kirkcudbright makes the ideal base from which to explore Dumfries and Galloway. Night Kirkcudbright
Days 2 - 5
THE GALLOWAY COAST & HILLS
We have four full days to explore and enjoy the key birding spots of Dumfries and Galloway. We may decide to visit some areas more than once or 'mix and match' the running order of our below itinerary locally in order to make best use of the weather and what birds are about at the time of our visit.
LOCH RYAN, THE RHINS & THE MULL OF GALLOWAY
A full Scottish breakfast will set us up for our first day of birding as we head west to explore the Rhins, a hammerhead of land that forms the western tip of Galloway. A rewarding spot for birdwatching at any season, the Rhins is notable for its wintering seaduck on Loch Ryan and its summer seabird colonies on the cliffs at the Mull of Galloway - the southernmost tip of Scotland. There's a lot to see here so we might spread our birding over two days!
North of Stranraer, Loch Ryan is a large sea loch that gazes out towards the isolated granite island of Ailsa Craig, which floats like a pyramid on the distant horizon - a summer home to 70,000 breeding Gannets, and from whence the rock for Olympic curling stones is hewn.
Eider and Greater Scaup are the dominant seaduck on the sheltered waters of Loch Ryan, but winter brings smaller numbers of Common Scoter, Goldeneye - males now throwing their heads back in spring courtship display - and Red-breasted Merganser, too. Red-throated Diver, Slavonian Grebe and Black Guillemot are also likely and the shore attracts hordes of gulls in winter. We'll be looking especially for any 'white-wingers' such as the hulking Glaucous or sleek Iceland Gull. The attractive Mediterranean Gull is also worth watching for - come March, adults may already be looking resplendent in their breeding plumage of jet-black head and blood-red bills.
Touring the loch we should bump into the small flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese that spends the winter here. The area known as ‘The Wig’ is a favourite spot for these attractive small geese - and often holds a small flock of yellow-billed Twite, too. Black-necked Grebes (formerly regular in winter on the loch) can still be found on passage in March, and we'll check the fields inland for Pink-footed Geese.
To the south of Stranraer, plants such as thrift, sea campion and dog violet will be springing up on cliffs of the Mull of Galloway and bottle-green Shags may already be nesting. In March, Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes start to visit the cliffs, flying to and fro and staking an early claim to the best breeding ledges. Black Guillemots can also be seen around the coast, their bright red feet often visible in the clear water - paddling furiously! Offshore, we may see brilliant white Gannets heading for Ailsa Craig, while onshore the maritime heathland holds Peregrine, Kestrel, Stonechat and Rock Pipit.
The sandy shores of sweeping Luce Bay host overwintering species and some of the smaller lochans here have recorded scarce birds such as Smew - and even Lesser Scaup in the past!
We round off our visit to the Rhins watching for Hen Harriers. Although their numbers are sadly diminished now compared to the larger roosts of days gone by, we may be lucky as these wide-ranging predators slink back 'home' for the night. Barn Owl is also possible before we head to our hotel for dinner.
DEE VALLEY, LOCH KEN & THE GALLOWAY HILLS
The picturesque Dee Valley lies just to the north of our hotel and makes for another rewarding day out. We may start by checking out some of the smaller lochs for wintering wildfowl such as Goldeneye and Goosander, with a stop along the way to look for Dipper.
If the weather is favourable, we will venture into the hills and scan the skies for the few remaining pairs of Golden Eagles that still haunt the wilder and more remote uplands of southwest Scotland. Despite their size the eagles can be elusive - but there will be plenty of Common Buzzards and Red Kites for sure! We should hear ‘cronking’ Ravens and see them tumbling and flipping over in characteristic spring display above the slopes - and maybe a Peregrine or Hen Harrier, too.
Dropping down to the gentler green pastures below, we'll skirt around the shores of Loch Ken. A winter home to orange-billed Greenland White-fronted Geese, these suspicious birds can sometimes be a little tricky to find in the gently rolling terrain of the lochside margins - but from viewing platforms and roadside lay-bys we usually manage to pick them out.
Bird feeders on the reserve attract Nuthatches (uncommon but increasing in Scotland) and the scarce Willow Tit - two species with little more than a toehold in Scotland. Here is a great chance to get to grips with the latter’s subtle identification fieldmarks: bull neck, pale wing panel and dull black cap. Normally they are very difficult to separate in the field from their close relative, Marsh Tit - but here we will have no such worries as the latter does not occur! Other more common woodland species to watch for in winter include Great Spotted Woodpecker, Siskin and Bullfinch - and we may be lucky to chance upon a Red Squirrel or an even Otter.
SOUTHERNESS POINT & RSPB MERSEHEAD
East of Kirkcudbright, we head to Mersehead RSPB reserve and the Solway coast. A series of well-situated hides affords wonderful views of the geese, which includes a large chunk of the entire Svalbard population of Barnacle Geese that winter on the inner Solway in southwest Scotland and Cumbria. The wetlands will be packed with birds at this time of year and we should find large flocks of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail and Eurasian Teal. With luck we may also see Hen Harrier hunting here.
The Solway is one of the top places in Britain to see wintering Greater Scaup and we will make the short onward journey to the Nith Estuary at Carsethorn, which is often frequented by large rafts of this species.
The Solway's shores are also an important area for wintering waders, with Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Turnstone all present. Sometimes the odd Whimbrel or Greenshank lingers here for the winter and a small flock of confiding Purple Sandpipers can usually be found on the rocky foreshore at Southerness Point.
Inland of the coast, fields around Lochmaben regularly hold large flocks of Pink-footed Geese, and the scarce Tundra Bean Goose is also on the cards - providing we search diligently! Wooded lochans afford another opportunity to chance upon the uncommon Willow Tit and wintering wildfowl 'oddities’ can sometimes include Smew and Long-tailed Duck. Four further nights at Kirkcudbright
The holiday concludes after another traditional Scottish breakfast at our hotel in Kirkudbright, but - depending on travel plans - there may be time for some final birding this morning before we say our farewells and journey home.