Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Black Isle’s colourful delights

December 5th, 2015

DSC03114WE DROVE north last Sunday on Granny duty. Weather was suspect for the journey so we chose the coast route via Aberdeen and on through Banffshire, and Moray and Nairn to the Black Isle, avoiding the high road over Cairn o’ Mount and The Lecht.

We enjoy that part of the north-east, mostly flat coastal plain. It’s a contrast to the hills we look out on every morning. In the absence of high hills there’s an abundance of sky and light.

There was a snowfall on Sunday night and about an inch lying in the morning. Once we’d seen the grandchildren off to school the day was ours. The sun came out and we had a sparkling day just driving where the spirit took us.

Birdwatching
I’d often passed the RSPB’s Udale Bay bird hide near Jemimaville, on the B9163 to Cromarty, and went up this time determined to spend some time in it watching birds.

The RSPB website describes the nature reserve as a peaceful bay that comes alive with the sounds of wintering birds. They couldn’t have put it better – I spent an engrossing hour watching the wildfowl.

The tide had just turned as we parked, starting to come in and pushing the birds up the mud flats towards the hide.

A large pack by my standards – because I don’t see big numbers flocking up the glens – of oystercatchers pattered up and down between the tideline and the springy salt meadow grass.

There must have been more than just the one lapwing that I saw for, like the oystercatchers, they come down from the glens to overwinter at the coast.

I heard their calls before I was able to put the glasses on curlew, mallard, and whistling wigeon. Scavenging herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and hoodie crows patrolled the mud banks. Black headed gulls were in their winter plumage for they moult their spring and summer chocolate-brown caps and metamorphose into white headed gulls.

A heron flapped ponderously by. Overhead, two packs of pink footed geese circled round the top of the bay. One headed off up the Cromarty Firth and I watched the other spiralling down in their telltale way, spilling out of the sky like falling leaves, whiffling the air from beneath their wings and touching down with noisy splashes. Masters of their aeronautical skills.

Across the road from the hide six greylag geese were feeding on stubbles almost at the roadside. Like all geese they are normally wary of close contact with humans but presumably these had got used to birdwatchers going in and out of the hide and realised they didn’t pose a threat.

Winter visitors
The Doyenne sat in the car watching a knot of knots (forgive the pun) running ahead of the tide up the shore. They are winter migrants; dumpy, busy little waders which believe in safety in numbers, feeding and flying en masse. She watched them as they rose as a compact cloud, white at first and then dark as the birds turned and wheeled in unison in the sunshine, showing their pale rumps and tails and then their grey upper parts.

Black, white and chestnut shelducks were sitting out on the water. Unlike other British duck species whose plumage is generally drab in the duck and colourful in the drake, both shelduck sexes share the same boldly contrasting plumage pattern.

The highlight was spotting a bar-tailed godwit, another winter visitor which I don’t often see. At a glance they could be mistaken for a curlew except for their straight bill and the distinctive barred tail in flight.

After an hour it was getting nippy on the fingers holding the binoculars, so we carried on to Cromarty and I warmed myself up with a steaming bowl of Cullen Skink.

We drove back via Culbokie to get a picture of Ben Wyvis, the local Munro. The afternoon sun on the snow emphasised the mountain’s dramatic features.

Shortbread
Tuesday’s weather forecast was so pessimistic we decided to take the coast road home again. It was an opportunity to call at Dean’s of Huntly where you get one of the best plates of fish and chips I know. They fry the fish in their own-recipe beer batter which is light and crispy when cooked.

We’d first discovered it by following a sign to Dean’s café & bistro, not realising it was part of Dean’s shortbread factory. It’s well worth a visit not just for the shortbread of course, but for good food in a bright, spotless restaurant with friendly, pleasant staff. There’s a viewing gallery to watch the shortbread being made and an excellent gift shop.

Hearing weather reports that Cairn o’ Mount was open we turned off at Kintore and headed for Banchory to miss rush hour in Aberdeen. Driving out of Echt the sky lit up in a quite stunning sunset – an evanescent 180° arc of intense, breathtaking colours that started to disintegrate as soon as it was complete, fading away in just minutes.

What an end to a day that was so unpromising at the start.

Written on Saturday, December 5th, 2015 at 11:33 am for Weekly.