Wednesday, 29 February 2012


A dire day on the bird front- 1 bonxie, 4 Cory's and 11 distant gull sp. Wonderful sea conditions though, so a chance to get the workboat in the water and also a chance to get reasonable views of Tripoli.

fast workboat 'up on the plane'

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Early bird

I was on deck at 06:00 this morning with dawn fast approaching. A smallish dark bird made me jump when it exploded out of its' hiding place between packing crates and flew out of sight to the heli-deck. With a racing pulse I quickly got to a better vantage point in the hope of a 'goody', only to find that I had flushed a starling! Not the most attractive of birds at that hour but 'trip tick' No. 8. To be honest after a week at sea only 8 bird species is rather pathetic even by my own standards. Things must improve- surely?

Anyway the sun came up and so did the Cory's again- I counted at least 18 today. Have been checking them closely when feasible- which has not been often, in the off chance that one or more of them are the fabled 'Scopoli's shearwater', which apparently is thought to be a species in its' own right by some, although often treated as a race of Cory's by most. I just don't think I could separate them in the field if I am totally honest, as the finer points of the I/D criteria would need pretty good views! Anyway, other than that there was little else to blog about other than a handful of LBB & YL gulls. Highlight of the late evening was a distant, juvenile Great skua which appeared to be moulting and looked decidedly manky. Still, it's a decent bird for here it would seem.  Still not seen a single cetacean.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Classic Cory's!

After a spot of lunch I resumed my watch on the aft deck. After 20 minutes or so a few gulls congregated over the towed gear, wheeling and dipping into the wave troughs. Suddenly a much more dashing bird fell into a wave trough in my line of sight, only to disappear before I could get my bins on it. It reappeared  further to my left, this time banking in a high arc over the wave crest showing white underwings with a dark border- shearwater sp.! Although I again lost the bird in the wave troughs for 10 or 15 seconds I eventually got my trusted Opticrons on it and immediately recognised it as a Cory's shearwater- brilliant! I watched the bird for a minute or so, trying to anticipate where it would reappear from behind the swell and wave crests. Amazingly it started shearing towards the ship so I even managed to shoot off a couple of frames- not startling images but considering the moving platform, distance and light I think they are good enough to show the I/D features. During the next two hours I counted a further 10 or 11 of these lovely birds. For me the sight of a large shearwater working its way in a stiff breeze through white-cap conditions epitomises what sea watching is all about! Happy days!


Well the weather is on the up again today- a north-westerly Beaufort 7. Lots of broken whitecaps, an underlying 3 metre swell and 27 knots of wind and variable light - hopefully perfect conditions for a spot of shearwater activity! Having spent 4 hours or so on deck during the morning looking for cetaceans (without success), the stiff breeze was becoming rather irritating. The situation was compounded by a general lack of birds- a handful of distant gulls, including a couple of adult, winter plumaged Med. gulls was the only distraction. A well earned lunch break was on the cards.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

More gull photos.


I admit it- I am not a fan of the large-white headed gull complex! In all honesty this is largely due to the fact that I often find the identification of these birds rather tricky at sea- this is largely due to the fact that my perception of individual birds can change so drastically due to factors such as light, angle of view and of course distance. The other factor limiting my ID abilities is that I have avoided studying these birds throughout much of my birding career!  Whine over- it was good to actually see some birds today! A collection of gulls early morning was a great start. Most of the birds appeared to be lesser black-backs of the race graellsii although some birds appeared very much darker and very uniform across the mantle and upper wings which was rather suggestive of the fuscus race 'Baltic gull'. I will have to read up on their distributions when I get home as I am not too sure that the fuscus race are known to be distributed this far west? A few yellow-legged gulls were nice to see and even in the very poor light a prominent black band on P5 could be picked out. Bird of the day though was a rather distant Med. gull. The other highlight of the day was a very distant great skua- a real treat!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Another quiet day

A few very distant and therefore unidentifiable gulls were seen today. If I was a betting man I would log them as med. gulls but they were very difficult to I/D conclusively. On the migrant front another house martin spent a few minutes circling the vessel and interestingly I saw it catch a largish moth. Other than that the only bird seen was a nice white wagtail which alighted briefly on the deck before continuing its northward passage.

Friday, 24 February 2012

33 degrees North, 14 degrees East

Somewhere between Malta and Libya. It was a much better day today. The wind has dropped to a pleasant although chilly F4 Northerly, the swell is less than 2 metres and the sun shone. Despite the vastly improved conditions my time on watch only produced 3 (very distant) lesser black-backs. The good news though was my first returning spring migrant- a house martin came flashing across the waves, flew briefly under our helideck then headed north across the sea! Hopefully if pelagic seabirds are scarce on this job the void might be filled with good numbers of passage migrants heading back to Europe and the British isles!

Sou'westerly 8!

It has been hard going so far. We have been deploying our sea gear in a south-westerly Beaufort F8 gale for the best part of 3 days. The ship has been rolling heavily and everyone onboard is suffering from the effects of poor sleep and a general feeling of fatigue. To make matters worse I have not seen a feather in 3 days! Near unbelievable but not that surprising considering the mass of white waves and 4-5 metre swell. Have not had so much fun since doing my BTO upland winter tetrads, during two of which I also failed to see a single bird!!

Things are improving today however with the wind dropping away, the sea settling down and visibility improving..........

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

-'ve Maltese falcon

Back to work for me after a long miserable winter with no contracts. The vessel has been sitting in Valleta harbour all day whilst the rain pours and pours. Spent the day settling in to my cabin and sorting out the computer files and reams of paperwork required for my pelagic trip. If we get port and customs clearance we could sail at midnight and will then be heading for the southern med. off the coasts of Tunisia and Libya. Hopefully the low pressure will move off and I can start some seabird work tomorrow. :)

Saturday, 18 February 2012

So far Snow good.

Snow, hail, rain, cold NW winds and more hail. Very quiet on the birding front with just a couple of very nice adult Iceland gulls hanging about the harbour and beach area. A male sparrowhawk spooking the starlings at the local supermarket car park was the only other bird of interest.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Rain again.

Another poor, dull day with NW winds and intermittent rain. Everything seems hunkered down apart from the 3 Iceland gulls at the pier and a few oystercatchers and turnstones on the beach near the river mouth. A couple of greylag geese flew angrily away from the campsite as I trudged along the foreshore in driving rain.

Passerines were in very short supply with just a single pied wagtail and a handful of starlings seen on the tideline.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Buff-bellied pipit- not!

A group of top-notch east coast birders managed to pin down the putative bbp and it was re-identified as a very pale meadow pipit showing some unusual behavioural traits. A shame that it was not another 'mega' for the Highlands but I am mightily relieved that I didn't go for it this morning as another 160 mile drive would be an expensive trip for a mipit!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

West to East

Drove around to the east coast today with Ullapool birder Richard Rafe in the hope of seeing a few different species as the west coast is particularly quiet at the moment. Following the drive to Elphin we headed east for Lairg, picking up buzzard and kestrel on the way but not much else, with all the small lochans being frozen over. We checked a known crossbill site but that came up negative, with this species tending to be rather mobile throughout the general area. Loch Shin in Lairg produced a single drake tufted duck, at least 5 little grebes and a few goldeneye

By the time we got to 'the Mound' we were bathed in glorious sunshine and had splendid views of teal, shelduck and a dozen or so redshank. The tide was way out on Loch Fleet so having scanned the fields to the south for the recently seen tundra beans (no sign- but several splendid cock pheasants) we parked up and walked the track along the channel out to the sea. A solo great northern diver and a red-breasted merganser were watched briefly. At the estuary mouth there was a nice flock of 120 or so knot and these gave lovely views when they took flight in the sunshine. The sea gave distant views of long-tailed duck, common scoter and eider. Much of the far shore held mixed flocks of oystercatcher, curlew and the odd dunlin. The shingle near the dunes produced a small flock of ringed plover
distant common scoter & eider

A short drive later we were at Embo pier enjoying similar species but with considerably closer views of l.t. duck and c. scoter. Another, similar sized flock of knot as that seen at Loch Fleet were present, with 5 dunlin and a single ringed plover. Two distant red-throated divers were scoped offshore and a couple of razorbill swam just of the rocks. Although this site used to be good for purple sandpiper I have not recorded any here for some time now. Time was getting on so I decided to give Dornoch point a miss and headed down the A9.

On to the Nigg bay hide we bumped into local BTO man Bob Swann doing his webs count. A sparrow hawk had flushed the waders just prior to our arrival and we were treated to an aerial flyby of an estimated 3500 knot doing wonderful turns over the bay. Bob advised us that he had seen bean geese at Loch Eye earlier and as I had missed this species all winter we headed off for a look. On arrival at loch Eye the geese proved difficult to scrutinise as they settled a few fields away from us, spooked and flew off when we attempted to scope them. A small number of geese remained after the main flock had flown and Richard amazingly got his scope onto the heads of two tundra beans stood nervously watching us from over the crest of the next rise-brilliant! We spent 10 minutes going through what geese could be seen in the failing light and picked out a few pink feet with the greylags. I was delighted to see some beans at last bringing my year list up to 85. A couple of mute swans on the loch were a distraction during the walk back to the car as this is a species rarely seen in the Ullapool area. A single red kite at Contin was noted as we headed back up to Ullapool. Upon arriving home I checked the Highland and Moray bird forum to find that a probable Buff-bellied pipit had been found at Dornoch and we had driven right past it! The joys of birding!!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Achnahaird & Polbain

Took a drive up the coast today. A lone Barnacle goose with Greylags at Ardmair was a nice surprise for this area. Achnahaird was busy today with disturbance from a team of photographers and several dog-walkers so birds were thin on the ground with just a single Great northern diver in the bay and a few common gulls on the beach. A solo skylark feeding in the flotsam was a welcome year tick (81). Following the circular road around to Polbain turned up two Iceland gulls on Loch Camas. Back at Ardmair a distant little grebe was the only bird other than very distant Herring and GBB gulls.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Inverness airport run

Took some friends to the airport today for their lunchtime flight to Birmingham. That's a 150 mile round trip so the day was gone before I even realised it and I felt a tad frustrated at not getting any proper birding done. However, I managed a half hour parked at the end of the runway for a brew and to watch the local birds. I'm not really a year lister but since contributing to the BTO atlas and bird track projects my year list is generated automatically so during my 30 minute stint I added pheasant, stonechat, reed bunting and yellowhammer to bring my year list up to 80. Considering I live in an area that is rather impoverished with regard to bird species diversity, my year list struggles to get up to 150+ so I'm off to a flyer this year!
Also had great views of buzzard and kestrel so the day was not a complete wipeout!.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

White-winged gulls

Weather wise another cold, poor day, with light rain and very low light levels. A number of Iceland gulls are still frequenting the harbour however. Apart from that the birding front is very quiet.


Have finally taken the plunge and opted for more I.T. nonsense by impulsively setting up this new blog. I'm not too sure what I am doing and it will certainly be an ongoing work in progress. I started birding in my back garden in 1971 (aged 11) when I first realised that some of the 'sparrows' were rather good looking and had lovely blue and yellow feathers! (Blue tits of course). Became heavily involved in the twitching scene in the very late 70's and early 80's. Most memorable day was on Portland Bill in April 1981- Woodchat shrike, Black Kite, Hoopoe, Firecrest, Pied fly, etc etc. At that time I did some pretty big twitches for the likes of Lark sparrow and Oriental pratincole but with time I became increasingly disillusioned with the growing twitching scene. Now I am a committed 'local patch' birder in the NW highlands of Scotland. I occasionally twitch a good bird elsewhere (went for the Greater sand plover at Dornoch and the Loch Fleet Greater yellowlegs last year but have not twitched a bird this year). I am a professionally qualified marine biologist and work as a freelance seagoing surveyor, specialising in seabird, marine mammal & fisheries work. As such I spend weeks, sometimes months at sea looking at marine fauna and seabirds in some wonderful locations. I hope to share some of my pelagic trips on this blog. Between pelagic stuff I will probably bore you with 'highlights' from my local patches around Ullapool, which can be rather mundane although they can occasionally turn up an interesting bird.