It was off to Scotland by train on Monday 23rd May, a trip delayed by a year due to COVID, and it was with much excitement (and some trepidation) as we left Plymouth. The train journey overall was an expensive option as usual but we decided to have a splurge and travel up to Fort William from London on the Caledonian Sleeper service, something we have wanted to do for a while now.
The reason for some trepidation was due to the purpose of our trip, namely to look for Chequered Skippers for my UK butterfly list and I was a little nervous as it is a long and expensive journey from Plymouth to Fort William and looking for the Chequered Skippers would require decent weather conditions, something that is often in short supply in the UK and especially in Western Scotland. The weather forecast wasn't looking particularly great as we left Plymouth but there wasn't much I could do about it other than hope and pray.
The journey from Plymouth to London was uneventful with 7 Red Kite seen (a group of 5 and 2 singles) along with my first Common Tern of the year flying over some small lakes near Reading.
The sleeper train from London to Fort William was a brilliant experience, we had a thoroughly enjoyable and fun time. We left London at 21:15 and arrived at Fort William the following morning at 10:00 and the journey just flew by. Sleeper trains are a bit of a misnomer as from previous experiences of travelling on sleeper services we haven't slept very much. Surprisingly though we both had a relatively decent amount of sleep this time, no doubt helped by the wee dram of whisky we imbibed before retiring to bed.
Waking up in the morning we were met with absolutely stunning scenery as the train journeyed through the Highlands between Glasgow and Fort William, helped somewhat by the blue skies and sunshine - I forget just how beautiful Scotland really is.
From the dining car window as we sped along eating our breakfast I saw quite a few Red Deer and Buzzard along with a Snipe flushed from the side of the train track but the best sighting was of a male Black Grouse flying across the moorland, a very nice surprise.
Arriving in Fort William at just after 10:00am and the skies were looking promising with lots of blue on show and plenty of sunshine although there were big blobs of black clouds dotted about too. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and then caught the bus up to Glen Nevis where armed with some helpful local knowledge I began my search for Chequered Skippers. The skies were beginning to become more black than blue but within 5 minutes of stepping off the bus I found my first Chequered Skipper, a little worn looking but beautiful none the less. I had been in Fort William barely 3 hours and had found my target relatively easily and despite being very pleased I did feel a little deflated!
Walking further up the Glen and we found at least another 3 individuals, much smarter looking than the first one found, and I was struck at how small and fast and difficult to follow they were.
We carried on further up the Glen but with the sunshine eventually disappearing behind the clouds we never found any more Chequered Skippers although a Peacock and a male Orange Tip were also noted.
A Cuckoo was heard calling in the distance and a Wood Warbler was heard trilling away but remained hidden deep within the foliage of the trees. A Dipper was seen briefly along the river and high overhead Buzzard and Raven were soaring over the mountain tops.
Moths were also regularly disturbed from the vegetation, mostly Brown Silver Line and Common Heath but a Speckled Yellow was a nice find and even better was a smart Argent and Sable, my first one ever. There were quite a few Common Butterwort seen too along the roadside, a parasitic plant of bogs.
The following day after a good nights sleep we picked up our hire car and drove down to Oban in the pouring rain! The weather forecast was for the rain to stop and for sunny spells to develop and indeed it did. We had a wander around Oban where I saw a distant Hooded Crow feeding in a garden but the highlight were at least 8 summer plumaged Black Guillemots around the old harbour walls which were amazingly tame as I watched them while getting soaked in the heavy showers.
With the weather continuing to improve we visited nearby Dunstaffnage Castle which was very interesting and from where I saw 3 Hooded Crows, a Greylag Goose, Swallows and 3 Treecreepers.
We headed back to Fort William and stopped off along the way at Glasdrum Woods, a nature reserve famous for its Chequered Skippers. The weather was beginning to deteriorate again and the sunny spells were beginning to get less frequent but a walk along the very wet and muddy path underneath the power lines was abuzz with insects when the sun shone and I found a Small Heath, a male Orange Tip, a Green Veined White, around 6 Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary and at least 10 Chequered Skipper which all showed beautifully while a Garden Warbler and Willow Warblers sang away in the scrub - perfect!
After an hour the sun totally disappeared behind the clouds and it was time to return to Fort William but it had been a great day out indeed with amazing views of the Skippers.
Thursday 26th May was another day of rubbish weather with heavy showers and a strong and chilly wind. Firstly we drove up Glen Nevis for a walk and after waiting a while sat in the car at the upper car park for the rain to stop we began our walk up the valley. It was very beautiful despite the mostly grey skies and along the walk I heard a Wood Warbler singing with brief views of a presumed female feeding close by giving occasional peu calls. Another male was later heard singing too but a Tree Pipit showed well as it songflighted over the hillside. It was too cool and windy and cloudy for butterflies so we headed onwards to Glenfinnan to see the Jacobite Monument and the famous train viaduct. Very fortunately we timed our visit perfectly and watched the Jacobite steam train travelling across the viaduct too.
We also climbed up inside the Jacobite Monument but it was too windy to go out onto the balcony so we just popped our head out of the hatch for a look at the view. Very little bird life was seen but a Sand Martin was flying low over the Loch on the stiff wind and a pair of Red Breasted Merganser and 3 male Mallard were out on the water.
Our last stop of the day was at Neptune's Ladder, a series of 7 lock gates on the Caledonian Canal and very fortunately we were able to watch a boat going up through the lock gates which was very interesting. A Raven over being mobbed by 2 Hooded Crows and a flyover Grey Heron were seen in the continuing strong winds before it was time to return the hire car and head back to the hotel.
The next day and it was back on the train for the journey to Edinburgh to meet up with friends Julie and Matt. The journey was stunning again through the amazing scenery although the train was absolutely packed out due to Scotrail having issues with their services and cancelling a train but along the way I saw a few Red Deer, a Snipe, a Common Sandpiper, a Mistle Thrush, Hooded Crows and Ravens.
Saturday 28th May was spent in Edinburgh with Julie and Matt. I resisted the temptation to visit Musselburgh to do some birding and instead had an enjoyable wander around the Edinburgh Botanical Garden (which was free).
Grey Squirrels were seen scampering over the lawns and Swifts wheeled around overhead. A Chiffchaff was singing away and a male Bullfinch flew past before disappearing into deep cover. We enjoyed watching a lone Moorhen busily feeding 4 small chicks at the pond while 5 well grown and independent chicks loafed about nearby looking like teenage delinquents - presumably the Moorhens first fledged brood with the lone Moorhen now being a widow/widower.
A nice surprise was finding Northern Marsh Orchids flowering in amongst the Alpine plant section like some exotic looking weeds.
A boozy afternoon followed our visit to the Botanic Gardens and Sunday 29th May saw us heading back to Plymouth by train via London with the usual Red Kites seen along the way.
Arriving back in Plymouth and it had been a very enjoyable (and expensive) trip, I managed to get some great views of the Chequered Skippers despite the less than ideal weather conditions we experienced and now I have completed my UK butterfly list I must confess to being a little bit lost as to what to do next (although there is technically still Cryptic Wood White to see in Northern Ireland).