Sunday 20 March 2016

Birding Scotland

Usually a visit to Scotland affords the opportunity to photograph a host of unusual birds in close proximity, normally on return the output consists of several blogs, each with a raft of photographs. This time it was a total reverse, the birding was exceptional and the photography virtually non-existent. We managed to clock up a notable 116 species  during the week, these included the Scottish icons - Golden Eagle, Black Grouse and Crested Tit, two life ticks - Willow Tit on the way up and a White-billed Diver on the last day.

The weather was remarkably fine and dry with lots of bright sunshine, I believe on the Thursday that Inverness was one of the warmest places in Britain and the Scottish Daily Papers had banner headlines stating that Glasgow was warmer than Barcelona! Really nice for a holiday but the unseasonably good weather meant that the overwintering birds such as Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese were already on the move. The sea ducks were happy to bob about far offshore, though we did manage to come up with American Wigeon, Scaup and Green-winged Teal in addition to the more usual Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks.

Having stayed overnight just north of Newcastle our first visit on our continuing journey north was Cresswell, next to the coast north of Ashington. A Long-billed Dowitcher was in residence, we didn't manage to find it but resolved to give it another go on the return south. Next stop was Seahouses Harbour, the departure point for the Farnes, but our visit had a simpler explanation - we needed breakfast. In the harbour several Eiders posed for a picture and a Great Black-backed Gull made a great fuss over a crab with the upper parts already devoured.

Onward, we finally found a great truck stop restaurant, the Cedar CafĂ© at Grantshouse in the borders - great value for money. Fortified by the full Scottish we carried on up to Musselburgh, one of our regular stops. Target this time was the oft returning Surf Scoter. Try as we might, we failed to locate the bird amongst numerous Velvet Scoters. In the river mouth the usual Goldeneyes and we noted our first Long-tailed Ducks. Bar-tailed Godwits and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were present in numbers, the list was growing. Mid afternoon we set off for our final destination - Grantown-on-Spey and seven nights at the Grant Arms Hotel.

Our first day was spent on the Moray and Nairn coast, starting at Nairn itself, on to Netherton Farm at the south end of Findhorn Bay where we found the reported flock of Twite, approximately sixty of them on the wires and in the bushes. At first we thought they were Linnets but closer examination with the scope revealed the tell tale yellow bills. At least an obliging Yellowhammer resulted in a reasonable shot for the day

Burghead Bay was not very productive, just a few Red-breasted Mergansers offshore, lots of visitors to Roseisle Forest meant that a search for Crossbills wasn't on so we left for Burghead itself. For the first time since I have been visiting Burghead the harbour was devoid of birds, very disappointing, and round on the beach at the headland and maltings - zilch.

With the weather set fair and information from the sightings board at the hotel giving details of Eagles we decided to start the day in the Findhorn Valley. We arrived suitably early, long before any birds were flying but before the local bin lorry had started the round. I always advise people not to visit the valley on a Monday as it is bin day and the driver of the truck doesn't hang around on a single track road, a nightmare if you happen to meet head on. The school buses are much more considerate to visiting birders, pulling over as soon as they see you. We arrived by the wooden bridge and set up shop, scopes and cameras at the ready. Our first customer was an unexpected Red Kite, probably one of the Black Isle birds on tour. A significant pause and then we were rewarded with the flyby of a juvenile Golden Eagle, very difficult to get focus but I did manage a record shot. Further fly bys of two other birds, or perhaps the same bird doing circles, both distant but no more photos.

In the river two Dippers were calling to each other and finally the male started to sing, unfortunately he remained in the shadow of the bank.  We finally cut and ran and ventured out on the Farr Road, just a few days before our visit the road was blocked by snow and indeed the snow plough was still parked up on the top, however we made it through but never saw a single bird during our transit.

Time for a visit to the Black Isle. At Udale Bay we stood in the layby next to the hide and scanned the huge amount of birds in front of us, Wigeon and Teal being the most numerous species. We searched diligently and after some time managed to locate the revisiting drake American Wigeon, not an easy bird to locate and fatal if you take your eyes off it as it disappears as if by magic. Happy with the tick we travelled further along the coast past Jemimaville to Ivy Cottage layby. Out on the sea, at a fair distance were rafts of the overwintering Scaup, not in a big flock as I had previously found them and far too far off for any shots. This was developing into a pattern - lots of birds a long way away!

We finished the day at Alturlie Point but couldn't find anything exotic.

Tuesday morning was tick chasing at two undisclosed sites, the first Black Grouse that we had located previously and in the early morning we hoped to get some photographs. The birds are extremely wary and getting close is difficult, and because of their nervous nature we didn't really try. We had to be satisfied with distant shots in poor light conditions - still, finding these birds by your own efforts produces a feeling of satisfaction that puts a spring in the step.

On down to the coast to look for Whooper Swans as the regular haunts were unoccupied, a herd of 40+ birds had been reported at Ardivot, on the road between Elgin and Lossiemouth. Sure enough they were there but a long way up the field rather than on the muddy pool adjacent to the road.  As a bonus the herd contained just one Bewick's Swan, a bird that I haven't recorded on the east coast before.

Juvenile Bewick's doing its best to hide.

Next up was a session with some Crested Tits on some remote feeders, the feed being donated by the local community, not only that, some kind soul has donated a bench so you can watch in comfort.  A full supporting cast of Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Siskins and Yellowhammer gave us something to record. Odd to note that the Goldcrests visit the fat ball feeders here. A couple of tame Red Squirrels drifted in and out and a surprising number of Robins were chasing each other around the clearing.




Wednesday found us going out before breakfast, another attempt at the Black Grouse. Unfortunately the day dawned with a thick mist hanging over the landscape. We parked up and sat in the car, Red Grouse were calling as were circling Greylags, searching for their chums on the ground. I thought I caught the distinctive sound of our target but we failed to sight a bird.

Back to the hotel for breakfast, after which we decided to try to get above the mist by visiting Cairn Gorm. Sure enough Martin's prediction was spot on, as we drove up to the car park at the base station the sun was high in a clear blue sky. We made our way, slowly, up the path to the northern corries, a repeat of last years quest. On our way up the call of Red Grouse was obvious but nothing from the Ptarmigan. There had been considerable snow melt in the week prior to our visit and the current mild weather meant that the snow line was at a considerably higher altitude. Having decided that I had climbed enough I put my rear end on a rock, Martin decided to climb a bit more and departed. He had made no more than twenty yard when the "screwdriver" call of a male Ptarmigan was plainly heard, it repeated the call just once and I began scanning the distant ridges. I finally found the bird, feeding away in an exposed patch of heather, we needed to get closer but after getting about half way to the bird I decided to quit, the clincher being that Martin was now knee deep in frozen snow. We descended, back to the car park to search the picnic area for some Snow Buntings, alas they had decamped, probably for somewhere higher up the mountain.

The only one we saw and heard.
They always oblige
Thursday we repeated the Eagle watch in Findhorn, seven hours scanning the tops for any sign, we were rewarded with one distant flyby of a Goldie, another bird just possibly a White-tailed Eagle but so far away that it couldn't be confirmed and two Peregrines. Well at least we were both showing signs of being out in the sun.

Not a cloud in the sky!! - No eagles either.

Friday we left in search of a bird that has been at the top of my list for the last two years. The White-billed Diver or the Yellow-billed Diver or Loon if you wish. Whatever the common name, it is Gavia adamsii and one had been sighted near Sandend. On the way we had our first real precipitation of the week, heavy drizzle, but as we dropped down to the Aberdeenshire coast it stopped and the sun made an effort to break through. As we made our way down to the viewpoint at Findlater Castle I remarked that I felt we had a 20% chance of getting the bird. We set up scopes and scanned the sea, plenty of Auks about, Fulmars on the cliff  and sundry other black dots to be checked, good numbers of Black Guillemots to be found, shifting into summer plumage early. Martin found a diver which I managed to get on - WBD! It promptly disappeared and for the next hour it came and went but gave us sightings good enough to confirm the tick. Finally it drifted closer with the tide and in really good sunshine displayed that large ivory coloured bill - spot on. Full of the joys of spring we made our way to Portsoy, the usual venue for the WBD to congregate, normally well offshore. We added sightings of Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern Divers - all four before lunch!

We called into the Lossiemouth estuary on our return journey but could find no rarities amongst the huge flocks of gulls. A local birder mentioned that there were two Iceland Gulls at the pig farm at Hopeman and they were easy to find. We knew that they were about but didn't feel confident enough to search through a huge amount of gulls to find the likely candidates. We parked in the layby opposite a large and smelly puddle and found the first bird within a minute or two and with the help of other birders found the second - result.

Postscript: It just shows that you often see what you want to see and fail to analyse the facts correctly. A mini bus load of birders had identified two Iceland Gulls and we took it for granted. It transpires that the wonderfully white specimen is actually a leucistic Herring Gull!!

The real deal.

We left for home early on Saturday morning, again staging our journey. As we made our way towards the A9 at Aviemore we found a locomotive of the Strathspey Steam Railway on the track below Drumuillie, obviously an early morning excursion and in the best tradition of my trips to Scotland, I duly recorded the event.

We arrived at Joppa to commence another search for the elusive Surf Scoter, no sign so we had another go at Eastfield and dipped there too. Finally, with the help of two friendly birders we finally got our scopes on the bird at the mouth of the River Esk.

To round it all off we paid another visit to Cresswell and again thanks to some very friendly local birders, managed to find the Long-billed Dowitcher in the company of Common Snipe and an adventurous Water Rail

All in all a splendid birding trip, 116 species, two life ticks and a host of year ticks. Shame that very few of them offered photographic opportunities - still there is always another time.

Friday 11 March 2016

Willow Tit

It is usual on our journeys north to have a stopover to try to find something different, this time Martin had come up with RSPB Fairburn Ings near Castleford in Yorkshire. The Willow Tits come to the feeders close by the visitor centre and as it would be a life tick for both of us we couldn't turn down the opportunity. So at 0500 we set off north for our week in Scotland and arrived at Fairburn sometime before 10:00 and I noted that our first Willow Tit was spotted by Martin at 10:04 - not bad.

The locals were somewhat puzzled by our antics, standing next to the feeders, cameras at the ready, they must have thought something good was about.. Several times we had to explain that we didn't have the bird in Sussex and that we were keen to record them. Additionally, there were plenty of Tree Sparrows, another bird scarce on our patch and the friendly Bullfinches visiting the feeders were something I hadn't witnessed before. The fact that we were ignoring a Smew elsewhere on the reserve compounded their amusement.

I don't like photographs of birds on feeders but this time I will have to make an exception as these birds were a bit quick - a raid on the feeder and then vanishing in a few seconds. Lots of receding bum and bare branch shots.

Before we left I studied the British Birds article on the "Separation of the Wiillow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain"  and it basically boils down to song and bill markings. The Willow Tit has an unmarked upper mandible and the Marsh Tit has whitish marks on proximal area of upper mandible. Ha! - no matter - as we were reliably informed that there are no Marsh Tits in the vicinity and every bird on the reserve carries an individual ID. Simples.

Nice to meet Lee who put us on to the feeders next to a nearby viewing screen, at least we could sit down there and a constant stream of Tits, Reed Buntings, Greenfinches and the ever present Tree Sparrows coming to the liberal amount of feed, kept us entertained.


Great to visit another RSPB reserve where the staff are friendly, keen to help with location information and where the policy seems to be to get the birder close to the birds. Unfortunately our fixation on the Willow Tits meant that we were unable to visit other parts of the reserve but it is certainly one for the future, being ideally located adjacent to the A1.

Thursday 3 March 2016


A bit of a dilemma, with nothing planned I had an easy start to the day but it all changed when Martin rang and said that there was a Red-throated Diver on Arlington reservoir, did I want to go. I replied that if we were going out I would prefer another go at the Arundel Firecrests. After two hours of staring at a bramble patch at WWT Arundel we were both secretly thinking "should have gone to Arlington".  When a Goldcrest turned up spirits lifted then Martin spotted a Firecrest and finally we were in business. Catching a small bird like the Firecrest is fairly difficult and the reject rate from the large amount of shots that I took is too large to own up to.

Anyway, I finished up with some reasonable  shots and there is always the chance the RTD will hang around until tomorrow. Nice to meet Mick Jenner loitering in an undisclosed location.