Friday, 28 December 2012

The velvet touch

Poor weather has prevented me from travelling east to twitch a couple of interesting rarities and so I have spent time working the local area. At this time of the year I rely heavily on gulls, grebes and divers  and the occasional sea duck to brighten the short dark days. It was a real bonus to find two velvet scoters in Ardmair bay about 3 miles north of the village. Although not considered a great rarity, these birds are very uncommon along the NW coast. I trolled through my old field notebooks and realised that I have not recorded this species here for a good number of years! The session also turned up a slavonian grebe, 7 great northern divers, 1 black-throated diver, 3 little grebes and a few goosander and red-breasted mergansers. The velvet scoter were diving for crustaceans about 30 metres out from the shingle beach and by waiting for them both to dive I was able to walk down the shingle to get a couple of snaps even though the light was very poor. Nice birds for the local area!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Kernow birding

Just back from family pre-xmas visits in Bristol and Cornwall (Kernow). It's a long way to travel from the NW highlands of Scotland so I always incorporate some rather intensive birding along the way. Having done my bit in Bristol, it seemed an ideal opportunity to head up to Slimbridge WWT to catch up with the long staying long-billed dowitcher. It was a bright, cold, frosty morning as I headed up the M5 and I made good time, arriving at the visitors car park at 08:10- an hour and twenty minutes of daylight to use before the WWT opened at 09:30. I spent the time getting my scope and bins ready then enjoyed the varied flocks of wildfowl flying overhead. Birds were everywhere, something that always takes a while to get used to after a spell in the avian desert of the NW highlands! Having eventually got into the reserve, I was miffed to find that the hide to the south lake was closed for refurbishment- this had not been mentioned when I had rung up to enquire about access a few days before my visit. This was a serious blow as the LBD had often been seen from that location. My chances of connecting with the bird had been reduced by 50% and I immediately set off under a dark cloud to see if it was viewable from the alternative hide that overlooks the tack piece. The fresh wind was bitterly cold and blowing straight in my face as I carefully worked my way through the several thousand waders and wild fowl. I just started working through a flock of godwits in anticipation of getting on the LBD when a buzzard flew in and flushed everything- the godwit flock flying off high towards the south lake with no sign of my target bird. I had the all too familiar 'dipped out' feeling and trudged off to the Zeiss hide where as if in compensation I had great views of a bittern standing out in the open in bright winter sunshine. Of course I had opted for scope rather than camera so a cracking photo. opportunity went begging. I re-checked the tack piece with no sign of the LBD and as it was now late morning I headed out of the reserve to begin my drive to Cornwall. I watched a flock of geese land in a field next to the overflow car park so decided to have a quick look. I quickly got onto a small number of (european) white-fronts, and a dozen or so Bewick's swans. As I turned around I noticed a flock of waders in the opposite field so started working through them with the scope- unbelievably I got onto the dowitcher some 30 seconds later! I enjoyed the bird for 15 minutes or so before the whole flock was flushed and flew off to the south. I was a happy birder as I headed down the M5. Traffic was light and I made good time so had a quick look at Mounts Bay before heading to Helston. 

Over the next four days I spent innumerable hours working through the divers in Mounts bay before I finally got reasonable views of the Pacific diver. Having seen it a couple of times distantly, I was finally satisfied with views that I considered were good enough for me to add this to my life list- especially as it was associating closely with 3 black-throats that offered good comparisons. I also recorded dark-bellied brent goose, velvet scoter and common scoter, great northern divers and two very nice little gulls. Between intense scope sessions I wandered around the Marazion marsh where my best find was a firecrest- a cracking bird in my book! I also got on to a cracking black-necked grebe at college reservoir, Falmouth.
snipe- Marazion marsh
grey heron- Marazion marsh
Further time was spent at the Helston water treatment works near the boating lake and also at the Loe pool. I was pleased to find a black redstart, at least a dozen chiffchaffs and two more firecrests at these sheltered locations. The light was generally poor but I did scrape together a few photos.

black redstart- Helston sewage works
It was great to see so many chiffchaffs competing for the flies around the settling tanks. A blackcap was another bird I don't normally see in the winter months.

firecrest- Loe pool, Helston
a wee cracker!
The weather kicked off over the next few days so birding was difficult but I managed coastal walks on the lizard and at Pendeen watch. I decided not to go for the sub-alpine warbler in St. Just, as looking into peoples gardens is my least favourite type of birding. The lizard provided reasonable views of a chough and there were plenty of kittiwakes and common guillemots heading west past Pendeen watch.

rough seas off the Lizard

chough- Housel bay, the Lizard
Guillemots over rough seas at Pendeen watch
I decided to stop off in Exminster for the rose-coloured starling on my drive back to Bristol airport. I was just about to give up on the bird after waiting in the churchyard for over 2 hours when it flew up from a non-viewable garden and skulked in the tree tops for a minute or so before disappearing from view.

1st winter rose-coloured starling- honestly!
 All in all an excellent trip- some great birds seen and the family kept happy as well! 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Three-toed sloths

Just back from a short business trip to Suriname where I had to present some seabird data to a collection of NGO's, oil company executives and Surinamese officials. With the job done I had a spare morning and was invited to the green heritage fund Suriname where a lovely lady called Monique and a group of volunteers take in and care for wild animals that are 'homeless' following the ongoing rainforest destruction around Paramaribo. This is largely due to small-scale slash and burn activities to clear the forest for cattle grazing and to create plots to build homes. Many of the animals are very slow moving three-toed sloths- especially orphaned babies that are taken to the centre after being found in felled areas of forest and that have lost their mothers during the panic associated with fleeing areas of burning trees. Other animals taken in include lesser and giant ant eaters. The animals are usually very traumatised upon arrival but quickly respond to gentle handling and being fed goats milk from a pipette. Many animals are re-released into secure areas of forest following varying degrees of rehab. It was a real privilege to assist Monique and her volunteers and get some 'hands on' experience of these endearing animals. A very special experience for me and also a big reality check concerning yet another low-budget volunteer set-up that is trying to protect endangered fauna. What a lesser world it would be without such dedicated people! If you win the lottery you can always donate online to this lesser-known organisation that also does great work looking out for the local river dolphins and bird life.

what a smile!

me- holding the baby!!

just lovely!

baby 'Lola'

once weaned the youngsters start on leaves
lesser ant eater

photo credits- Marijke Deboer.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Wonderful waxwings

The influx continues with a conservative count of 600 birds in a single flock of waxwings today. I suppose most birders have caught up with them already this autumn unless in the very south of the British isles. Although not particular scarce during influx years I find them incredibly captivating so make no apology for posting further photos. of todays birds.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

King eider

Have not seen the sun on the north west coast for 5 or 6 days and the rain has been rather persistent so I felt the need to travel to the east coast to catch up with some sun and a few good birds. Dropped in to pick up Marcus Conway (ebirder) enroute, then headed on to Burghead where the semi- resident king eider has been seen on and off in recent times. I last saw what was presumably the same bird in December 2010 just off the point. On arrival we made a quick check of the inner harbour but the bird was not there on this occasion. Shortly after checking a few flocks of eider from near the point Marcus was quickly on the bird amongst the main flock some 500 metres east of us and just north of the 'maltings'. We quickly relocated and enjoyed some nice views of the bird- although still showing some evidence of his 'eclipse' plumage he is still a cracking bird. Fortunately as the tide was high the bird was within a couple of hundred metres for most of our encounter. (and the sun came out!).

the 'King'

The Moray firth always seems to hold good numbers of birds and we also enjoyed seeing a little auk, common and velvet scoter, long-tailed duck, red-throated divers as well as a few knot, redshank and turnstone.
long-tailed duck
common scoter

Sunday, 4 November 2012


There appear to be signs that it could be an 'influx year' for these charming visitors. Having watched the growing number of reports on 'Rare Bird Alert' concerning these beautiful birds over the full length of the British isles,  I finally found 18 birds on the local golf course yesterday and was treated to at least 75 birds around the village this morning- guaranteed to brighten up anyones autumnal birding day! Let's hope an invasion of nutcrackers and two-barred crossbills follow!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Birding downs and ups

Last Saturday I travelled east to the Moray firth in an attempt to find a barred warbler that had been located the day before at Chanonry point.  After an hour of searching the scrub and marram grass behind the lighthouse I just had that feeling that it was not going to be- and sure enough it wasn't. A very tame female bullfinch hopped out of the gorse and started feeding almost under my feet- she appeared to be a very tired migrant 'just in' and a sparrow hawk and kestrel were also distractions, but I still had that 'dipped out' taste in my mouth. A couple of gannets, guillemots and red-throated divers completed the tally for the couple of hours spent at the point. 
An hour later I enjoyed good numbers of wigeon, teal, curlew and knot from the new hide at Udale bay on the Black isle. A little grebe and a few bar-tailed godwits were welcome additions to the day list but the best birds were a flock of c180 scaup out in the bay to the NE of Jemimaville.

Monday and I was back on the road heading to Brora. A local birder had made an excellent find the previous afternoon in the form of a white-rumped sandpiper. I spent nearly 4 hours scouring the coast enjoying great views of sanderling, purple sandpipers, redshank, and red-throated divers and distant views of a number of long-tailed duck, common scoter and a slavonian grebe were also welcome. Having checked all the shoreline and with the 'dipped out' taste starting to return, I went to check one last bay, one last time. I arrived on a small elevated section of dunes just in time to see a mixed flock of redshank and oystercatchers take flight. Through my bins I noticed a single small wader flying with the flock and although it was in silhouette I felt my pulse race! The birds re-settled on a stretch of rocky shoreline and I couldn't see the small wader although I knew it was there. I quickly got my scope onto the general area and was suddenly thrilled to see a very small bird walking away from me and felt sure I had glimpsed a white rump between the loosely folded wings before it was hidden from view. I needed better views to be sure though, and was rather horrified when the mixed flock flew a few hundred metres offshore and settled briefly on some rocks before returning back to the shoreline. I finally got onto the bird properly and enjoyed nice, albeit distant views of another lifer!  

Monday, 22 October 2012

Mega twitch

From a birding perspective I have been increasingly restless since my return from the Isle of Lewis. Birding locally has been very quiet with absolutely nothing of note. I drove over to the Black isle a few days ago for a 'mini-twitch' as a rather unseasonal dotterel had been found amongst a flock of several hundred golden plover. The bird was rather distant although through the scope it looked very neat. This was followed by a run up the coast to Tarbet ness in the hope of finding an 'eastern' migrant. The weather was fine and although no major find was on the cards we got onto a number of birds including a couple of blackcaps, a couple of chiffchaffs, two goldcrests and a whitethroat- not too bad considering the date and latitude! Other interesting birds on account of the fact that they are never encountered in the west, included a tree sparrow, three magpies and a number of yellowhammers

Tarbet Ness lighthouse
Anyway, still feeling rather unfulfilled, I planned my first major twitch since April (when I went for the Blagdon squacco heron). I left Ullapool at 0400 on Sunday morning with fellow birder Richard Rafe, in the hope of connecting with the Olivaceous warbler at Kilminning castle in Fife. We could not have asked for a better day to go- despite an hour of occasional fog banks near Pitlochry and Dundee the journey was as good as they get. The sunrise was gorgeous and we arrived on site at approx. 08:20. Half a dozen birders were onsite working through various trees and scrubby areas but having parked the car we were almost immediately on the Eastern olivaceous warbler- pure luck as I glanced towards the bushes where the sun was shining! The bird was fairly active and showed well although it proved difficult for me to capture with my camera. Mind you I was not so brazen as some folk and kept a reasonable distance from the bird so as not to risk flushing it! 

Word quickly spread and numbers of birders built slowly. As there was no word of the Radde's warbler we decided to look for it and unbelievably located this bird only an hour after getting on the mega! It was a wonderfully marked individual and a lovely bird in its' own right. Speaking to other birders we learnt that the red-breasted flycatcher was also seen that morning so we headed off from the throng to try and locate it. After initially heading over the road to the wrong site we then headed back to the correct area and Richard quickly got onto the bird. It flitted through the sycamores in typical fly-catcher fashion but gave good views. Unbelievably I got three UK life list ticks in 3 hours! Sweet birding indeed and a truly memorable morning when everything just fell in to place! Happy days indeed!

eastern olivaceous warbler

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Butt- revisited

manx shearwater
Just enjoyed a few days birding back at the Butt of Lewis with fellow Ullapool birder Richard Rafe in the hope of turning up some migrant species. The ferry voyage over the Minch was quiet with just a few great skuas and a couple of manx shearwaters of note. The Machair at Eoropie held up to 700 golden plover during our 4 day stay, with mixed flocks of lapwings, interspersed with starlings and twite. Birding was rather hard work with cold blustery conditions and a scarcity of birds on the ground, although Port Nis resident birder Tony Marr put us onto a very nice 1st winter red-backed shrike on our first morning so things started well! A number of common redpoll were also good to see.

red-backed shrike
red-backed shrike
Eoropie beach looking North (ish)
The next few days we scoured the area around the Butt of Lewis, Eoropie, Loch Stiapabhat and Port of Ness. Highlight birds included snow bunting, gadwall, whooper swan, lesser whitethroat and hen harrier. On our final day a turtle dove in Port of Nis was a good find. An hour later, on our arrival in Stornoway ferry terminal, Tony rang me to say that he had just seen a barred warbler- one of the target birds of my trip as I have never seen that species in the UK- nothing like dipping out to remind me of the joys of birding! ;)

golden plover flock
golden plover over the machair
who needs house sparrows when you have twite on the roof!
harbour porpoise in the Minch
great black-backed gull- Annat bay, near Ullapool

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My Bucket list bird!!!!!

1971 was the year when at the grand old age of eleven I became a compulsive birder. Over the previous year or so I had quickly outgrown my 'observers series' bird book and would longingly troll the shelves of any decent bookshop looking at more serious volumes. (I obviously developed my nerdy bookworm tendencies about that time!). Christmas 1971 was pretty awesome, as my parents bought me my most longed-for book, a brand new copy of P.A.D. Hollums' 'The popular handbook of British birds'- the volume still sits on my 'bird book' shelf to this day. The book was a revelation and I spent every spare moment of indoor time studying the birds and learning as much as I could. For some inexplicable reason I was always drawn to plate 32 and repeatedly looked at the gyr falcon- in particular the white morph Greenlandic birds. I wanted to see one of those more than any other bird on the planet and the fascination with white-morph gyrs has continued to this day. I saw my first white- morph bird in a zoo some years later and although the bird was totally awesome, I felt a profound sadness that such a splendid individual was caged and just sat hunched on a fake tree branch. Anyway, 3 days ago I took a tourist boat out of Ilulissat, Disko bay, Greenland. We spent almost 3 hours amongst the ice flows and bergs watching countless iceland and glaucous gulls flying amongst amazing scenery. Whilst casually scanning the ice I noticed the head of a bird which I immediately knew was really, really, special. It flew up briefly and I saw it was a magnificent gyr falcon- a white morph!! - that  had been feeding on an immature glaucous gull. The bird showed really well for about 5 minutes, flying around the boat and landing on several ice flows and small bergy bits. Everyone onboard was very excited, including three of Demarks top birders! I was so excited I took plenty of rubbish snaps- shaking the camera, impatiently focusing and generally flapping- but I didn't stop smiling throughout the encounter and did manage a couple of shots to remind me of a truly beautiful bird- and one quest I can now remove from my bucket list too! Now I just need to find one to add to my UK life-list!

the WOW factor!


Friday, 28 September 2012

Iceberg alley

You may think that once you have seen an iceberg you have seen them all..... but like mountains or even large trees....they are all rather unique and rather special- especially with the changing Arctic light and the calving action that sometimes happens as you are watching- if you are very lucky!

wave eroded platform on large berg

photo- Tim Ritz (