Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Sensational spring & super summer

I have been a little remiss concerning my blog- largely due to my new found compulsion of sharing my birding exploits on twitter. (@pelagicbirder). Time to catch up. I suppose like many birders my favourite months are May and October. By May, even in the far North, most migrants have returned, there is a real chance of an overshoot rarity and it generally feels good to be in the field. This May was rather good for the quality of birds I was able to catch up with. I did a double dash to Aberdeenshire to connect with a very smart lesser yellowlegs and a couple of weeks later managed to twitch a splendid Pacific Golden plover. Things really kicked off two days later with the discovery of an amazing Black- billed cuckoo on North Uist. There was no time for pontification- a quick phone call to see who was up for the twitch, followed by the hard work of organising driving partners, accommodation and ferry bookings.  It's always tricky twitching the Scottish Islands and involves significant effort and coordination- some birders just get it done, whilst others whine about missed opportunities. Over the years such effort has resulted in me seeing some outrageously good birds and also suffering some very painful dips- but as in birding, as in life- I at least now know who will share the responsibilities of getting trips sorted as opposed to the lazy hang-ons that just wait to bum rides once the logistics have been sorted! The bird was stunning and a species I never really ever expected to catch up with, so the hassle of the trip was well worth it. 


A week later I drove up to Balnakiel to see a splendid Stone curlew- in Scottish terms a mega in it's own right. Having been unemployed for a number of months my birding budget was seriously depleted so I frustratingly held off going south to see a marvellous Gull- billed tern. A few days later however, the opportunity to share driving and costs presented itself and was duly seized upon. After an initial evening dip, followed by a night of camping, we chanced upon the bird that eventually did the most marvellous fly-bys! Happy days indeed and once more worth the effort of long drives and a night away living on cheese sarnies.



The summer continued in a similar vein- not huge numbers of birds to be seen but the quality was certainly of a high standard. The next really good bird to turn up was the magnificent male Black- headed bunting on the Isle of Skye. Over the years I have spent countless hours trying to find one in the NW Highlands so it was just reward to finally be able to see one visiting a garden feeder. Unfortunately I could only view it briefly from a private residence but it was still a magnificent bird to see. 


A further dash over to Aberdeenshire with some Highland birding friends allowed reasonable views of the White- winged scoter at Murcar. Although always rather distant it was great being able to finally pin it down after a number of hours searching through the huge flock of scoters that frequent this stretch of coast.  I finally got a short-term contract surveying cetaceans in the North sea and the highlight of my 3 weeks at sea was a self-found Ortolan that briefly alighted on the deck before flying off towards the Aberdeenshire coast- a really good find in Scotland. 


My final 'good bird' of the summer came during a brief visit to the Isle of Lewis in the shape of a splendid Buff- breasted sandpiper. Although I have seen a number of these in Cornwall this bird was a very nice addition to my 'Scottish list'. The bird was very confiding and once I had sat quietly on the turf for a few minutes it wandered over to within 5 metres of my position- an absolute treat! 



Thursday, 21 April 2016

King of the Highlands

Great find a few days ago in the shape of a stunning drake King Eider 20 miles up the coast from Ullapool. A few local birders have tried to find out who found and first reported the bird but unfortunately this has not been possible to date. The bird shows well when it moves into the near-shore areas with the small flock of eider, but on occasion is distant and it has also been known to disappear in the numerous rocky inlets that are characteristic of much of the coastline in the area. 





Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Bucket list bird at Balranald!

Some three and a half years after seeing a magnificent white morph Gyr in Greenland (see post for Oct 12th 2012) I finally got one for my Scottish list! It took a lot of work including a 3 day dip last January and several more hours during another Barra dip for the American herring gull. Perseverance eventually paid off last week - after another slightly shaky start. The bird had been 'showing well'- a phrase I have often come to dread and upon arrival an hour or so was spent around Balranald, checking fenceposts and rocky hillocks to no avail. The all too familiar 'dip' aura seemed to fill the air so we drove a circuit back to the main road and around the minor road to Hougarry. Suddenly a heavy, broad-winged, white bird, flapped lazily across the road some 100 metres or so in front of us and landed on a post, splaying its barred tail and wings. Someone muttered 'whats that!' and I replied 'thats the bird'! as I immediately recognised the in-flight jizz from my Greenlandic encounters. Imagine that- a tick-able Gyr from the car!! Well as expected there were a few moments of chaos as I put the car on a verge and we quickly got views and record shots from hastily snatched cameras. The bird was aware of us but seemed reluctant to move on, so better photos were obtained, scopes were set up and after much swearing and gasping we eventually settled down to enjoy crippling views of what is certainly the best bird I have ever seen. Another car coming the other way stopped so close to the bird that we were amazed it did not fly off, but later the driver explained that the bird was perched some 5 metres or so from a swan carcass that it habitually visited to feed. We decided that it was then prudent to move on to allow the bird to feed so headed for our accommodation to have a wee drink in celebration. 
jaw droppingly impressive!
Although elated I knew that the following morning was going to be potentially stressful- we had six birding friends due on the morning ferry- two relatively 'local' from the Highlands and four travelling up from Lothian. To really enjoy the bird it was important that everyone got to see it. The next morning back at Balranald we quickly got onto the bird. It sat on a post for an hour and text messages revealed that the rest of the crews were still in Uig on the Isle of Skye. Eventually they sailed but the bird was becoming increasingly restless- preening, wing stretching and I just knew it had been on the post far too long. Still it sat on the post but momentarily flapped its impressive wings when it was mobbed by a couple of very noisy common gulls. I was feeling very nervous at this time. More sending of texts revealed the ferry was on approach to Loch Maddy and then the unmentionable happened. A tourist and his wife asked what I was looking at through the scope and having explained the birds presence I stepped away from my scope to let them have a look. The guy stood back and said 'I can't see it' -it just flew away! Yikes! after almost 2 hours of 'eyes-on' the bird, it had flown at the precise moment I wasn't watching so I didn't have a clue which direction it had gone- pure stress! Fortunately the guy concerned was able to tell me that he thought it had gone 'over that hill'. Having texted the travelling birders that the bird had flown I set off on foot to hopefully 'refind' it before the crowd arrived. One of our party stayed at the junction to provide directions and also to cover the immediate area incase it came back. Another of our party checked the coast and dunes and I headed North. After 20 minutes of yomping with my camera and scope I realised I was almost back at the loch where the bird had been feeding the evening before. A quick scan and I relocated the bird on a distant fence post. I texted everyone to let them know that we had it relocated and 30 minutes later everyone arrived, got stunning views, brilliant photos and even video footage. A truly magnificent bird, a wonderful location and a great bunch of birders made for my best ever twitch. We even had a supporting cast of eagles, harriers, short-eared owls, corn buntings, glaucous gull and a great white egret! Thanks to Steve Duffield of Western isles wildlife- who has spent a lot of time over many months pinning this bird down in order that lots of visiting birders could connect with it- including me! 

At home in the sleet!
sorting out a local 'thug' buzzard!
some serious birding talent here- and all smiling! 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Lovely Cornwall

Not been 'home' for a good while so with a family visit long overdue It was good to get back to Cornwall. I had very little dedicated birding time but it was still good to get a few hours at Penzance, Marazion and Hayle- I had forgotten how easy the birding is down south! ;) A few snaps below with the Black redstart being my bird of the week. Just for the interest of 'locals' I spent a day at the Eden project and recorded a number of birds in the 'biomes' - grey wagtail, blue tit, chaffinch, robin, wren, dunnock, blackbird, chiffchaff etc. Of greater interest was a fleeting glimpse of a chunky green/yellowish warbler with a significant bill that certainly looked like a 'hippo' sp.- worth checking in the 'rain forest' biome if you visit! -I didn't take my bins or camera in ;(

Black redstart- Penzance
Black Redstart
Little Egret, Newlyn 
Stonechat, Marazion.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Fantastic February

With the major crash in Oil prices, exploration survey work is at an all time low so I have not had any pelagic birding work for some months. Instead of moping about at home I have decided to use my time and savings to catch up with some new birds for my Scottish list. Financial constraints have meant greater use of hostels and buses that although sometimes inconvenient, have still allowed me to get a few ticks. Following several dips over the past few years I finally got to see a cracking bittern at Montrose basin. The bird kept me waiting for 30 minutes or so but it was well worth the wait when it eventually flew past the hide.  The memory of a major dip after sitting in a hide for 3 days at Kinnordy loch last year were almost forgotten! 

Bittern, Montrose basin.
Five days later I successfully twitched an Avocet on the Kyle of Tongue and also grabbed a self-found Great grey shrike near Laxford bridge on the way up.  Although I have seen a few GGS in Scotland before it always feels good to find your own birds!

Avocet, Kyle of Tongue.
Great grey shrike, Laxford bridge.
Following reports of marsh tit on bird track I managed to get some specific site details from a good birding friend in lothian. As this bird is so rare in Scotland there was a fair bit of interest in a cost sharing twitch, so I headed down with two other Highland birders and successfully saw two birds. A report of Caspian gulls near Torness meant that we also got to find a 1st winter bird near Dunbar land fill site so amazingly I got two Scottish ticks in one day! 

The Northern Harrier on North Ronaldsay proved difficult and took two trips and nine days of effort including the travel days. We finally got the bird at last light on our 4th 'field day' By then, seeing the bird resulted in feelings of relief rather than excitement for this recent addition to the British list. The next day we scoped the bird for over 40 minutes as it sat in the rain and although always distant it was a very good bird to catch up with. 

Northern harrier, North Ron.
Aside from new 'ticks' it was also good to get self-found common crane and smew in addition to great views of lots of commoner species. A great birding month! 

Common crane, North Ron.


Saturday, 19 December 2015

Bugs life plus

Just finished my survey time off Senegal so here's a selection of some of the fauna that I saw during the voyage.
Grasshopper with a smile!
locust

African Monarch

Pomarine skua

Sudan Golden sparrow

Sei whale

Fraser's dolphins

short-finned pilot whales

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A siege of egrets?

I admit I had to go online to find a collective term for egrets. I found that a group of herons are referred to as a scattering, a sedge or a siege- so I assume these apply to egrets too? My ship has been working mid way between Dakar, Senegal and the Cape Verde archipelago- for the past 10 days or so we have been circa 150+ nm from the nearest land and remarkably I have seen over a 100 egrets flying over the ocean. The birds have usually been in small flocks of 2 to 4 birds with a single flock of 8 being the largest group. All the birds have come up from the south and south west and been observed battling their way into the NE F5/6 winds that have been prevalent during my time here. Many of the birds have landed on the ship and taken advantage of the many wind-blown insects that have accumulated on the decks. I can't work out where these birds have come from or where they are trying to get to- I assume they have rounded the 'bulge' of west Africa to the SE having been displaced over the ocean and are desperately trying to get back to the coast of Mauritania or thereabouts. I have identified cattle egrets, a couple of great white egrets and what I think are probably intermediate egrets on account of their greenish lores and dark-tipped bills. All other species observed on migration here from blackcaps, redstarts, kestrels and swifts have all been heading south- as expected at this time of year- so a bit of a migration/displacement mystery to add to the many that I have encountered over the years, but a spectacle to be enjoyed anyhow. 

a chart showing my recent position






probable intermediate egret
probable GWE (left) and intermediate (right)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Cape Verde shearwaters

Some years ago (I'm too polite to say exactly how many) a group of intrepid birding greats including the likes of Tony Marr, Dick Newell, Richard Porter and Robin Jolliffe undertook a series of pioneering trips to Dakar, Senegal. These very capable birders embarked on a series of pelagic trips and recorded thousands of the fabled Cape Verde shearwater (Calonectris edwardsii) in the waters off Senegal. Additional, impressive passage counts of more familiar species such as Sabine's gulls and Pomarine skuas were also recorded. Years later, the immense potential for superb sea watching off Senegal continues to steadily gather momentum. 

Over the past few years I have spent a number of occasions with Tony, sea watching at the Butt of Lewis. During our many birding conversations we often discussed the possibility of me finding the  elusive Cape Verde shearwater, whilst undertaking my numerous surveys off the West coast of Africa. Despite much time scrutinising sea birds off the likes of Morocco, Mauritania and further south Gabon and Ivory Coast I have never managed to find one of these birds. Over the last week I have been working off Senegal and have enjoyed watching Cory's shearwaters on a daily basis- a few birds may have been candidates for Scopoli's shearwater  and I have also seen two great shearwaters and a solitary Manx shearwater. A few days ago whilst studying the Cory's I noticed some 'large shears' that although superficially resembling Cory's, appeared a tad smaller and slimmer (by about 10%?). These birds appeared slightly stiffer-winged, and possibly had slightly faster wingbeats- I'm trying not to string anything here! With better views the birds appeared to have more chocolate brown tones to the head as opposed to the generally diffuse greys of the Cory's. These birds also have more brown on the underwing. In certain light conditions the birds appeared rather 'capped'- something the Cory's never showed. Upon closer scrutiny it was apparent that the birds had thinner, grey bills although this has proven difficult to utilise as a useful field characteristic except when the birds ventured very close in and under very good light conditions. Generally though, the lack of a typical Cory's massive, yellowish bill can be a useful indicator under the right circumstances and with birds that 'cooperate'! With increased practice I have managed to pick up a few birds at greater distances, based on the faster flight action and generally slimmer/darker jizz, although readily admit it is not easy! Having managed a few photographs I was delighted to see that they were indeed Cape Verde shearwaters- a seabird 'lifer' for me. 



Identification is fairly straightforward at these distances!