Scotland by train

By Amy Robjohns

Driving has always felt like a chore for me, and with the need to try to reduce carbon emissions, I like to use public transport instead whenever possible. Birding by public transport is not always feasible as some sites are too remote, but when it works, it allows me plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view. I also enjoy exploring new places from time to time and seeing new species.

In 2015 while visiting my friend Helen at Exeter Uni, I suggested we looked for Cirl Bunting. We found Labrador Bay easy to reach – we hopped on the train down to Teignmouth, took a short ferry ride to Shaldon, followed by a pleasant wander along the coast path. It was a success and it whet my appetite for more adventures! In 2016 my friend Harriet and I visited Seahouses and the Farne Isles by train and bus, which went well except for a diversion via Edinburgh!

Puffins on the Farne Isles

Another chance to visit Scotland came in 2019. Corncrake has long been high on my wish list so in 2019 I finally arranged a trip to the Inner Hebrides to this end.  While making the final arrangements, a King Eider popped up at Nairn and I figured a “slight” detour could work… On the evening of 29 April, I begun the journey north – train to London, underground to London Euston and then awaited the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness. Arriving just before 10am, a 15-minute train journey to Nairn and a short walk through the town was all that remained before embarking on the tricky task of finding the eider. Nairn was lovely – plenty of birds to enjoy, and dolphins! Eventually I found the eider flock and sifting through them managed to pick out the King Eider. There were also many Long-tailed Ducks, Great Northern, Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Arctic and Pomarine Skuas.

Caledonian sleeper.

“Slight” detour in this case meant taking a long journey from Nairn to Inverness, Inverness to Glasgow Queen’s Street and finally to Oban – about 8 hours by train – ready for an early morning ferry the following morning. The scenery was lovely, and it was a good opportunity to begin reading Benedict MacDonald’s “Rebirding”. I awoke to fog and low cloud but was excited for the next stage of the journey. Before taking the ferry, there was time to enjoy the Black Guillemots around Oban Harbour; not a common bird down south.

The crossing to Mull went smoothly, with a small number of seabirds including Great Northern Divers noted, though it was a shame not to have good views of the island due to the fog! West Coast Motors run 3 bus routes on the island and by chance the first bus to Fionnphort was the same bus used for day trips so the journey came complete with free commentary! Finally, one last ferry across the Sound of Iona, and we arrived on Iona.  

Why Iona? It’s a tiny Island with (almost) no cars, straightforward to reach, easy to walk around multiple times in a day, has a wide range of accommodation, and of course Corncrakes. I’d read online that a good site for Corncrakes on Iona was behind the fire station – about 2 minutes’ walk from the slipway, in theory. Alas, no sign. A local on the ferry had warned me that the corncrakes hadn’t arrived yet. The northerly winds weren’t ideal, and migration had slowed. It was1 May though, with plenty of hours to explore…

Map of Iona.

After dropping off my rucksack and enjoying a nice hot chocolate in the Heritage Centre café (highly recommended!), it was time to go searching. Chatting to the staff at the café, they suggested heading east towards the hostel as one of them had heard a Corncrake the previous night. 20 minutes later: “Crex crex… crex crex… crex crex” – hooray! Two males were calling from a garden adjacent to the hostel, and one sounded frustratingly close but was typically hidden from view. I waited by the gate, hoping it might pop its head out. As I did so, the owner came over, explaining he’d seen Corncrakes multiple times and invited me into the garden. Moments later, the closer Corncrake appeared, calling, and wandering around the lawn! Fantastic to watch – I didn’t expect to enjoy such a good sighting! Later, that Corncrake walked under the gate, and annoyed photographers by getting too close to focus.

Corncrake

Feeling satisfied, I went off to explore more of the island, and continued to do so the next day. I was fortunate to enjoy a spell of beautifully calm weather. It was pleasing to stumble across a third Corncrake sat on a drystone wall! Corncrakes aside, it was also lovely to see flocks of Twite (another rare species down south), numerous Wheatears almost everywhere, Willow Warblers aplenty, and so on. Dun-I, the highest point on the island gave panoramic views of the whole island, Mull, Tiree and Coll.

Dun-I, highest point on Iona at 101m.

Sherryvore B&B is located at the most westerly edge of the island and is a well-placed base for a birder, with views of the golf course and bay. This bay appeared to be the best for wader variety. It was also a short walk from the only loch on the island.

Bay at the Back of the Ocean, a very short walk from the B&B.

This was also my base when I returned in September and it became my seawatching hide where I enjoyed hundreds of Manx Shearwaters, Skuas, Sooty Shearwater, divers, and on the golf course highlights included Golden Plover, Wigeon, and best of all Ruff – I’m told the first for many years!

Ruff (right of Great Black-backed Gull) – watched from the comfort of the B&B!

The slight downside of my return trip was stormy weather – strong winds (c30-50+mph every day). My journey home was delayed due to cancelled ferries, resulting in missed train connections. Thankfully we were picked up by the Tiree & Coll ferry, so I was able to link up with the Caledonian Sleeper last minute but arrived home about 12 hours later than planned. My advice – don’t book advance train tickets if your journey also involves ferries! Paying full price means you can get a refund if you are not able to use the ticket.

But don’t let that, or train delays, put you off. Exploring by public transport is worth it, and an adventure in itself!

@amythebirder

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