Weekend Trip To Solway 20th-22nd February 2015

We set off on our journey to Solway, driven by Jay, with a party of 34 eagerly anticipating the weekend ahead. After a short stop on the motorway, we soon crossed the border into Scotland, and by late morning we were pulling into the RSPB reserve at Mersehead. The reserve is well known for its flocks of Barnacle Geese, and we were not to be disappointed. Soon, telescopes were trained on a small flock, giving excellent views of this small goose feeding in the adjacent fields, but the best sightings came when the birds took to the air, with small formations flying over, calling as they did so; a truly breath-taking sight in the bright sunshine. There were plenty of other birds on offer, with both Tree Sparrows and brightly-coloured Yellowhammers easily viewable from the Visitor Centre. A walk out to the hides produced a nice array of ducks, with Pintail, Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall, while some lucky group members also managed to see a Green-winged Teal. There was also a small flock of Twite, and a Goldcrest showed well close to the far hide.

Our next stop was at Carlingwark Loch where there had been reports of Ring-necked Duck. Scanning the loch from the eastern shore, we could only find Goosander, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and Little Grebe so we took the footpath along the south shore, eventually arriving at the small hide. Shortly after the first few people had entered the hide, two female Ring-necked Ducks were seen, but they quickly swam into the reeds where they were virtually impossible to see. There followed a nervous wait for those who hadn’t seen them, but, after about ten minutes, they reappeared and showed extremely well for all present.

Moving on, we stopped just below the Red Kite feeding station near Laurieston. The birds would have been fed earlier in the afternoon, but we were still able to count about 30 birds in the air, some swooping low to the ground in the hope of collecting a tasty morsel. They really were an amazing sight, their plumage features highlighted by the low sun. One or two Buzzards hung around, hoping to profit from the left-overs!

The final stop for the day was on the mountain road from Laurieston to Gatehouse of Fleet where we stopped to look for raptors, but the cold wind drove all but the hardiest back to the shelter of the coach. Red Kites and Buzzards were the only sightings before we headed on to our hotel in Newton Stewart.


The next morning was cold and clear, and those who went out for a pre-breakfast walk needed to take great care as the pavement and side roads were like an ice rink. Shortly after reaching the River Cree, a Kingfisher was heard and then seen, perched on a low branch over the water, and a pair of Goosander was fishing just downstream. After an excellent breakfast, we boarded the coach and set off for Portpatrick, and a short stop en route allowed us to see both Whooper and Mute Swans, together with our only flock of Pink-footed Geese.

At Portpatrick, everyone was delighted with the close views of Black Guillemot in the harbour. There was a lot to watch as the birds chased around, displaying and calling to each other, their red gapes and feet providing a stark contrast to the mainly black plumage.


In one corner of the harbour, a Rock Pipit was searching for insects on the floating vegetation, while looking seawards provided passing Fulmar and Gannet as well as diving Shag and Guillemot.

From there, we moved to the southern shore of Loch Ryan where a nice flock of Scaup were just offshore, together with Pintail and Wigeon. Driving round to the east shore, we found a good vantage point to look down on the loch, and we were soon enjoying nice views of Long-tailed Duck, the males resplendent as they showed well the feature that give them their name.

There was plenty more to see from here, as we found Slavonian Grebe, Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Scoter and Eider, all in good light (though a brief shower sent some members scurrying for the coach). A scan of the spit revealed a few Curlew and Turnstone mixed in with a large roosting flock of Oystercatcher, and a number of Shelduck.


Our next stop was at a loch which we had not visited before, where a Smew had been reported recently. We knew that the road would be quite narrow, but how would the coach manage? Jay assessed the situation as best he could, and then said that he would go for it! There was little room by Soulseat Loch to stop the coach, so he made the tightest of reverses into an even narrower road and the group walked back to the loch to look for the bird. After a short while, we spotted it near the far bank – it was a redhead – and everyone managed to get a look at it before being ushered back to the coach. The stay at the loch also provided the opportunity to observe Great Crested Grebe, some Greylag Geese and a single Pink-footed Goose.


Our journey then took us to the western shore of Loch Ryan where several stops were made to scan the loch before we eventually reached The Wig and the chance to stretch our legs. It was a pleasant walk between the fields and the sea, and a large flock of finches feeding on the ground and occasionally taking to the air had us considering the differences between Linnets and Twite, both of which were present. Slightly further on, a flock Pale-bellied Brent Geese gave excellent views as they cropped the short turf, and Grey Plover on the spit added to our day’s total of waders.


The final destination of the day was the airfield at West Freugh, where we soon found a nice flock of White-fronted Geese (of the Greenland race) and were able to see the distinctive orange bills and legs, together with the heavy black markings across the belly. The bird we really hoped to see here was Hen Harrier, and, after a short wait, a grey male gave excellent views as it quartered the surrounding fields; we were later able to compare the differences in plumage as two ringtails hunted the airfield before we set off back to our hotel for a well earned meal and rest.

The forecast for the following morning was not good, but it was dry for those who chose to take a walk by the river before breakfast, and their efforts were not unrewarded as a Dipper perched somewhat briefly on a pipe in the river before flying off downstream.

However, by the time we departed, the rain had set in, and that was to be the pattern for the rest of the day. A pause by the River Cree allowed those who had missed Little Egret at Mersehead to catch up, as a bird hunkered down on the bank, not obviously enjoying the conditions. A circuit of the roads to the west of Loch Ken provided close, but unfortunately, brief views of Whooper Swans (the coach had to move on to make way for traffic) and a stop for a huge mixed flock of Fieldfares and Redwing was similarly curtailed. There were small numbers of ducks and geese (Greylags) by the loch but the main attraction on this section was the terrific display of Snowdrops in amongst the trees.


With no let-up in the rain, we relocated to Southerness Point where, with waterproofs donned, the group walked the short distance to the lighthouse. A combination of wind and driving rain was pretty unpleasant, and we paused just long enough to take a “team” photo before most people withdrew to the shelter and warmth of the Paul Jones Hotel for a drink (hot chocolate might have been favourite, but I’m not sure what might have been added to fortify it!) A hardy few walked along the shore, with the wind at their backs, and were compensated for their efforts with Purple Sandpiper and Sanderling, sheltering wherever they could among the other waders. There was little shelter for the watchers, though, and they eventually joined the rest of the group in the pub. Our final call was at Carsethorn (via Kirkbean) where, at the height of the tide, there were no birds but impressive waves breaking on the shore.

There was no prospect of any improvement in the weather, and some reports of snow in the Lake District and Manchester area, so we set off home a little earlier than planned. Thanks are again due to the organisers, to our driver Jay, and to all those who joined in to make this a really satisfying trip.

Photos courtesy of Robert and Marie

Brian D

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