Birdwatching in Balerno

The haar was in when we left Edinburgh at 9am; that maddening fog that’s apt to hug the east cost at this time of year when the warm air passes over the cold North Sea. “Either it will burn off or we’ll drive out of it when we get inland,” J. said to me, optimistically. We were driving south west of the city, bound for the village of Balerno, our entry point into the Pentland Hills. Right enough, less than an hour later, boots carefully laced up in the car park up by Harlaw Reservoir, I was smearing sun cream on my face. There weren’t many about, but those we passed all had the same congratulatory greeting: “We’ve got a good day for it”;Fine weather for a walk”; “No better place to be on a day like this”.

We started by the red moss of Balerno, a raised bog of sphagnum moss, speckled with bog cotton, flying Lilliputian white flags of surrender. On the footbridge across the narrowest channel of the reservoir, J. pointed to a couple of dead pines, two bare toothpick trunks pointing to the sky. “An Osprey has been seen perched up there, no luck today though.” There wasn’t much to be seen on the still water, a single swan in the distance, and a little grebe close to us – sometimes called a dab chick, J. told me. Despite the lack of birds, it was wildly pretty and peaceful: light breeze, no clouds, sun climbing, trees and hills reflected on the water’s glassy surface. On we walked, up a gradual incline lined either side with the mature beech trees, song thrushes swooping into the farther fields as we approached. At the top, a stile opened into grazing pasture filled with sheep, and their cute bleating, bouncing lambs. “Look,” J. nudged me, just in time for a two second sighting of a female cuckoo fly for cover into the trees. All around us were meadow pipits, singing their hearts out, rising from the field to fly off in jerky movements. “The cuckoo will have usurped the pipits’ nests,” J. explained. “Beautiful birds, horrible habits.”

Made more watchful by the sightings, we walked slowly on. A pair of mistle thrush bounced around close to where we walked, and we saw the flash of a weasel as it slipped through a break in a dry stonewall, or as J. called it, a ‘stain dyke’. Something about the size of a robin, with an orange red breast but a darker head and back, had me flummoxed. “A stonechat,” J. told me, “listen, it should make the sound of two stones being tapped together.” It wouldn’t perform for me.

We had our sandwiches by Logan Burn where it spills from the hills in a waterfall. Watching the dippers fly up the stream – all tiny black bullets, and then fly back down again, pure white breasts on show – became almost a meditative practice. It was a sheltered spot; orange tip butterflies flitting like confetti in the light breeze, the female (without the orange tips) landed on my bag of dried mango. I held still and it rested there, happy to be examined. We could hear more cuckoos from that spot but no sightings. “Is that one?” I pointed up, excited at the potential identification. No, it was a kestrel; not impossible to mix up the two – not for a beginner anyway. There were grey wagtails around the water, which, belying their name, are yellow breasted. Apparently there are yellow wagtails too; they are a more intense yellow. (This can be a confusing game!) It was hard to move from our sunny, restful spot – especially with tea and flapjacks – so we sat on, turning to watch sand martins disappear into little holes in the loose sandy soil on the banks of the stream.

Progress is slow when your task is to take notice, not simply to clock up miles, and the longer loop we had intended to walk didn’t happen. We got as far as Loganlea Reservoir where a big grey heron waded majestically at the edge in the high grasses, as if to say: this is my spot, I’m the boss here. Reed buntings bounced about in the gorse at the water’s edge and a buzzard circled above us, seeing things we couldn’t. On the dander* back I spotted a bird wearing a fascinator – the sort you’d see at a royal wedding. J. told me it was a lapwing – easy enough for me to know again, unlike the wheatear that I had trouble identifying a second time. “Remember, it stays close to the ground; lovely colours, blue-grey above, with black wings and white below with an orange flush to the breast. Fine wee bird.” But there was something finer to come.

Right back where we had started, at the Harlaw Reservoir, the best was waiting. Initially we thought it was a big gull, but no, there was the osprey. “See how its wings are angled?” J. pointed out, and suddenly there were two, flying high, orbiting the water, thinking about dinner; a six-foot wing span display of hope. In a final magic touch, a roe deer crossed the path twenty yards ahead of us, disappearing silently into the birch and Scots pine. Tired legs, happy heart.

*dander: a gentle meandering walk with no particular haste or purpose (usage N. Ireland)


2 thoughts on “Birdwatching in Balerno

  1. This was such a lovely description of a well observed walk that I’ve come back to it again to re-read and take it in. The picture of the place is building in my mind. Thank you!


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