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Gairloch area of north-west Scotland

9- 16 July 2011

By Stephen Burch, England

This is a short report on a trip to north west Scotland made principally in an attempt to connect with northern dragonfly species (Azure Hawker and Northern Emerald). However, while birds weren't the top priority, I wasn't going to ignore any that came along in this splendid part of the world! In addition, we did a fair amount of walking.

To avoid the long drive north, we opted for EasyJet flights from Luton to Inverness which were fine both ways, with only a slight delay on the way back due to torrential rain with lightening at Inverness Airport!

Car hire
We tried Thrifty for the first time. Their price was considerably less than the others such as Avis and Hertz. Thrifty even confirmed in advance by personal e-mail that we would get one of my two preferred models of car - which is an unprecedented level of customer service compared with some other companies I could name!

They offered a meet and great service on arrival, which worked well. There was however something of a drawback on the way back in that the car had to be left in the long stay carpark which was a fair walk from the terminal (not good in pouring rain, even having dropped the luggage off first). Still I think all the car hire companies may do this at Inverness.

Dragonfly information
My main source of dragonfly information was the book by Dudley et al "Watching British Dragonflies" which has reasonably detailed information for Scottish sites.

The weather was somewhat better than forecast, but was still not very warm nor sunny. In fact sunshine was in very short supply, especially at the main dragonfly sites close to the mountains around Loch Maree. Often it was much better nearer the coast, away from the cloud generating mountains. This was of course northern Scotland in a far from good summer (so far at least), and so there was a fair bit of rain on some of the days.

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D with any one of the three lenses I managed to take - EF400mm f4DO, EF400mm/f5.6 lens or EF100mm f2.8 macro. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

1. Bridge of Grudie and area
This is a famous dragonfly site on the shore of Loch Maree, some 9 miles north of Kinlochewe on the A832. It was a big disappointment and in generally mediocre conditions had very few dragonflies. This place seemed to attract cloud like a magnet, and was often dull and overcast when it was nice & sunny elsewhere.

The pools on both sides of the road on the eastern side of the river were deserted, but the sheltered clearing on the north side of the road near the river was slightly more productive on the few occasions the sun shone, with some Golden-ringed Dragonflies, Common Hawkers and the odd immature Common/Highland Darter. The pools on the south side of the road, to the west of the river and pines, held a few Four-spotted Chasers in the brighter moments.

We visited here about 3-4 times, and spent several hours in total searching for my target species of Azure Hawker and Northern Emerald. On one visit we were most surprised to find two other cars present, both containing dragonfly hunters! They seemed to have more success than we did, and one had photographed a female Northern Emerald, and both reported sightings of males. However maybe due to a combination of bad luck and lack of persistence (& experience?) we saw not a hint of one, let alone secure a photograph!

Just once, when the sun came out briefly, some apparently smaller hawkers appeared along with the Common Hawkers. These seemed good for Azures, and I managed a few distant photos of one of them from a poor angle. However reviewing them afterwards it was concluded by various experts and myself that the photo showed a Common not Azure Hawker! More recently my doubts have resurfaced as a result of Jonathan Willet's excellent article in the Journal of the British Dragonfly Society (Vol 29, no 1, 2013). To my eye, the stripes on the thorax look wavy and this, coupled with the small size, tends to favour Azure, which is also Jonathan's view. I think all that can really be said is that I will never be sure, and a return visit is needed! [This we did in the better summer of 2013, and I am pleased to say it was more successful for both Azure Hawker and Northern Emerald!]

On the bird front, one visit produced a small flock of Crossbills, not identified to species.

Immature Common/Highland Darter A poor photo of a possible Azure Hawker which may only be a maturing male Common Hawker!
Female Common Hawker Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

In the same area, the Dudley book mentions sites along the road from the car park for the Loch Maree/Beinn Eighe visitor trails. In a brief visit here in reasonable conditions we were unable to locate the "boggy areas" to the south of the car park, and the roadside ditches both north and south of the car park produced nothing of significance.

The boggy area at the end of the short visitor trail seemed more promising but in only marginal conditions all I could find was the same selection of species already seen at Bridge of Grudie.

Further north along the A832, we did a good walk which started near Loch Bad an Sgalaig. The return leg down the river Abhainn a Gharbh Choire was very pleasant if a bit boggy, and had plenty of Common Hawkers and Golden-ringed Dragonflies. Also the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary shown above.

2. Loch Clair and Loch Coulin
This site is to the SW of Kinlochewe on the A896, and is described in the Dudley book as a site for both Azure Hawker and Northern Emerald. Loch Coulin is supposed to be better site and is reached by a fair walk in from the A896 along a private road and then track which first goes past Loch Clair. On our outward tramp the weather was reasonable and the scenery magnificent. However the dragonflies weren't, and all we found was more Golden-ringed and Common Hawkers, with the odd Large-red Damselfly. In fact the site didn't seem right for Northern Emerald as we didn't see any bog pools at all. Something of a 'dud' site then!

By the time we returned the weather had worsened, but I did manage these shots of a settled maturing male Common Hawker (my first non flight pics of this species).

Common Hawker - presumably a maturing male.
Panorama of Liathach and Beinn Eighe from Loch Coulin

3. Aultbea
Moving on from the generally somewhat disappointing dragonfly sites, there is more of a birdy theme to the sites described below. Aultbea is a small village about 13 miles north of Gairloch, where we were based in self catering accommodation (see bottom of page for further details).

The immediate surroundings of the Drumchork Lodges were good for both Redpoll and Siskin, and also this very obliging Golden-ringed dragonfly that my wife found in the garden one morning, before it had warmed up properly.

Golden-ringed dragonfly Golden-ringed dragonfly
Golden-ringed Dragonfly in the garden (click to enlarge).

Down the hill there is a side road that runs through the village and skirts the shore of Loch Ewe very closely. This was an excellent place to view Black-throated Divers (up to two pairs) that had already moved down to the coast from their breeding lochs. These may well have been failed breeders, as we did find one pair with two young on one inland loch. I also had some success on the photographic front one evening, although the sun was not in a good direction by any means:

Black-throated Divers Black-throated Divers
Black-throated Divers close offshore (click either to enlarge)
Common Gull on the beach

I also came across a Twite by one of the scattered houses in Mellon Charles one evening.

4. Poolewe & Loch Kernsary
We did a good circular walk from Poolewe one day, which followed a path down the eastern side of Loch Kernsary, before skirting the southern shore and returning to Poolewe along the River Ewe. To my surprise there was a reeling Grasshopper Warbler by the path alongside Loch Kernsary, although it kept well hidden.

Panorama from the southern end of Loch Kernsary

In a brighter spell, the stretch of track near the south west corner of the loch, near a wood, was very good for both Golden-ringed Dragonfly, and several immature Common/Highland Darters trying to warm up on the track. By the River Ewe we saw several Common Hawkers, and also this fly over White-tailed Eagle that even turned around and came back to have its (distant) photo taken (giving me time to switch from a dragonfly setup to a bird one!).

Fly over White-tailed Eagle

5. Redpoint Beach and Loch Gairloch
Redpoint beach is reached from the B8056 off the A832 just south of Gairloch. We did a circular walk that took in both beaches and Red Point. There is some machair just inland near the farm, where we saw some Twite. On the beach there was a moderately obliging Great Skua, as shown below. This whole area is very scenic with great views of Skye, including the Coulins in the distance.

From Gairloch harbour we went on a 2hr boat trip with one of the operators (Gairloch Marine Life Centre). In good weather I think they venture out of the bay into the open sea for whales etc, but on the day we went there was a stiff breeze and rain later - sufficiently poor to keep the little boat in the bay. Apart from a young Otter and a couple of Dolphins we didn't see a great deal. The birding 'highlight' was a close approach to an island that had various breeding sea birds, including Common Terns, Gulls, Cormorants and Shag.

Great Skua on Redpoint beach Otter from boat trip on Loch Gairloch

6. Gruinard Island
This is a well know site for White-tailed Eagle. When we pulled into the viewpoint off the main road, there was another car present sporting two 'scopes (mine had been sacrificed for an extra lens), which turned out to be very useful. They quickly put me on to the Eagle - not sitting on the top of the island, but in a much more difficult location to spot, lower down near the shore and extremely distant. From the same viewpoint, I was also able to confirm the identity of both Great Northern (1st or 2nd summer plumage) and Red-throated Divers through one of the available 'scopes!

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Drumchork Lodges at Aultbea Excellent self catering lodge at Aultbea. Well equipped and comfortable, with good views to the west over Loch Ewe. Very quiet and secluded. Informal booking arrangements and good value for money. Recommended.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 


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