Saturday, 28 April 2012

Loch Maree

Had a drive down to Loch Maree yesterday with fellow birder Richard Rafe. We went to have a look for Scottish xbill and then onto the west coast for a check on the divers and a brief sea watch. Early  excitement came in the form of the narrow escape for the male pheasant that started to run in front of the car! As is often the case with recognised sites, no xbills were seen or heard. In fact the whole visit was a bit of a let down- no migrants with the exception of small numbers of willow warblers. Even common woodland species were scarce on the ground. Temperatures of 4-5 degrees celsius, a very cold northerly air flow and fresh snow cannot be too inviting to passage migrants.

Loch Maree- few birds but stunning natural beauty!
gorgeous- but not exactly inviting to migrant passage!
Anyway a couple of black-throated divers were heard and seen distantly but that was it! A short stop for coffee and cakes in Gairloch was followed by a run up the 'road' to Rubha Reidh light house. Although one of  my preferred sea- watching sites on this stretch of coast,  I don't get here as often as I like because it can be a drag to get too, with a very long and narrow approach road. It was worth a brief look though, with 150 or so kittiwakes close inshore on the sea, a small movement of gannets and razorbills, an eider, 1 ringed plover, 1 fulmar an iceland gull, 3 great skuas heading north and 12 purple sandpipers on the rocks below the light house.  A fairly casual look for the white billed diver on loch Ewe failed to locate the bird as did further scans of the sea from Mellon Udrigle beach. 10 GND's were on the sea around gruinard island, an otter was seen in the sea and a white-tailed eagle drifted overhead bringing my year list up to 110.


Friday, 27 April 2012

Wild goose chase

25/04 Up early and an 80 mile drive from Ullapool to Brora via lairg to try and catch up with the Red-breasted goose. Despite appalling weather conditions forcing me to slow to 20 mph on a couple of occasions I eventually arrived and located the bird with 60 or so pink feet, 7 or 8 curlew and 3 whimbrel thrown in for good measure. Another much needed life tick!

Stopped off at 'The Mound' on the way back and relaxed for a while listening to a couple of singing blackcaps whilst watching a few teal, greenshank and common sandpipers.

Local rounds

I have spent a few days re-acquainting myself with some 'local' birding areas. Saturday (21/04) saw me spending a couple of hours walking up the river Broom valley. Plenty of willow warblers about, but that was about it on the migrant front, although a flock of circa 80 mipits were obviously mostly passage birds. A year tick popped up in the form of a lesser redpoll- a bird that was surprisingly scarce over the winter, with this individual feeding in the alders with a pair of siskin. A pair of redwing with a singing male was a good find as a few pairs have been known to breed in the general area. I had good views of all the common woodland species and fly-overs of buzzard and raven.

(22/04) An elusive white-billed diver has been reported over the last couple of weeks at a couple of sites in and around Loch Ewe on the west coast. Sunday seemed a good time to drive down the west coast in the hope of connecting with this bird. Little loch broom turned up a single great northern diver, 1 red-throated diver and 4 black-throated divers as well as 4 shelduck- an irregular species here. The head of the loch at Dundonnell also produced ringed plover, curlew, greenshank and red-breasted merganser. Slightly further on I counted 18 great northern divers dispersed around Gruinard island. It took a surprising amount of time to work through them all carefully as they kept diving just as I got them in my scope. I saw nothing suggestive of a white-billed diver, although one bird had a lighter bill which made me do a double take. 2 Great skuas and several gannets following a local fishing boat gave me a couple more year ticks. Half a dozen black guillemots, 2 cormorants and 4 shags later and the area was well and truly worked.

Little Gruinard had another 6 GND and 1 BTD in the bay, plus another greenshank, several ringed plover, and a very smart male reed bunting in the willow scrub. A small flock of lesser redpolls worked along the back of the beach in the tree line. More GND were seen in on the way to Mellon udrigle. The beach and dunes held a few wheatear, heaps of mipits and a couple of pied wagtails. A very nice Iceland gull flew over the beach which held 15 ringed plover and several groups of walkers. A single GND drifted offshore but the WBD remained elusive!

(23/04) I spent the morning doing 'computer work'- finishing my report from my last job, invoicing, catching up on emails etc. It felt like a waste of quality birding time in all honesty but had to be done! Lunchtime I met up with birding buddy Richard and we headed off to Achnahaird. We had a nice little birding session with common sandpiper, peregrine, sandwich tern, twite and a nice flock of golden plover bringing my year list up to 100. Other birds seen included redshank, greenshank, common sand. wheatear and ringed plover.

Not exactly a migrant-fest but enjoyable birding!

(24/04). The morning was spent driving to Inverness for chores. A couple of red kites over the A835/A9 were a momentary distraction and fuelled my need to get out in the field once again. Leaving Inverness late morning, the rain came on in a way that had me cursing under my breath. I decide that the only option was to visit the hides at Munlochy bay and then Udale bay- both on the Black isle. I only got as far as Munlochy as five minutes after arriving I saw a wonderful great white egret- a self-found lifer! After rubbing my eyes and cleaning my glasses in disbelief I got the bird in my scope and convinced myself that yes it actually was a GWE! Although generally recognised as a 'scarcity', in this part of the world it is a very good bird that requires a written description for acceptance by the Scottish birds rarities committee (SBRC). A few moments later I had sent texts and made a couple of calls to local birders and then put the news out on the national bird news service. Over the next few hours a dozen or so birders turned up to see it. It was good to meet several birders for the first time and put 'names to faces', however I felt rather nervous when one of them sent texts to two previous highland county recorders and the incumbent county recorder! I suddenly had a horrible feeling that maybe, just maybe I had made a horrible mistake and that it was a much more common little egret- but no! everyone watching the bird confirmed that it was a GWE- phew! Fortunately the local WDCS (whale and dolphin conservation society) field officer - Charlie Phillips,  turned up with a nice 600mm lens and got some nice shots despite  the range and heat haze! I drove home feeling exhausted but elated and after sampling a small beer (honestly) I wrote and submitted my description of the bird to the county recorder. The only thing to do then was take great pleasure in updating my UK life list! Later that evening news broke of another potential lifer for me- a cracking red-breasted goose at Brora. I made a plan and went to bed with the intention of getting up at stupid o'clock and going on a twitch!

great white egret (photo: Charlie Phillips).

Friday, 20 April 2012

Patch reality

Arrived home last night via Malta, Gatwick and Inverness airports. My first hours stroll around the local village patch this morning turned up 2 swallows, 2 linnets, single wheatear, 4 willow warblers, 2 chiffchaffs, 2 bullfinches, and 2 LBB gulls at the river mouth. 7 year ticks in one stroll slightly offset the shock of birding in the real world! Great to be back though and wonderful to see trees! This evening I wandered along the golf course/coast path for 40 minutes in the light rain and cold breeze.  A shelduck and two black-throated divers flying over head were nice surprises with the divers being another year tick. The golf course held flocks of obviously 'new in' birds, including 20+ pied wagtails and 60+ meadow pipits. A number of pairs of oystercatcher and ringed plover are obviously back on territories. The only other bird of note was a single turnstone creeping over the shingle. I have just updated my BTO bird track records and now it is beer o'clock!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Woodchat v bush chat

Today (15/04) was just amazing! At one stage there were 10 migrants flitting around the heli-deck- 2 subalpine warblers, 2 woodchat shrikes, 1 orphean warbler, 2 turtle doves, a redstart, a rufous bush chat (robin) and a large hippo warbler sp. which I thought was probably an olivaceous- although I would really like for someone to put me right on that ID if possible?! Apart from the turtle doves everything was either being chased by or mobbing the shrikes. It was a manic birding session for me as at one stage I had a shrike, a subalpine and the RBC in my view finder! The most amazing contest was between one of the woodchat shrikes and the rufous bush chat, with the shrike repeatedly swooping at the chat which indignantly held its ground whilst frantically flicking it tail and wings- an awesome sight!

It took me about 10 minutes of watching 'the' shrike in action before I realised that there were actually two birds, with the lower photo showing a bird with a significant white patch behind the eye and less staining on the flanks and belly.  A few moments later both birds were on view at the same time.

A rufous bush chat (robin) is a bird that I have always wanted to see and I was not disappointed with this bird- it has a wonderful tail flicking action and was remarkably confiding when the shrikes were not harassing it. 

rufous bush chat

And finally some desperate shots of the very shy hippolais sp. that refused to show itself clearly.


Battling bee-eater

Pretty grim conditions yesterday (14/04) with gale force 8/9 (40 knot) winds coming out of the west and rough seas, light intermittent rain and the occasional flash of forked lightning. Not the best conditions for a migratory sea crossing! Whilst on watch I noticed the shape of an interesting looking bird making sweeping turns across the wind and waves and realised that a bee-eater was struggling towards the ship. It was flying strongly, but erratically, as it approached the ship and looked very small and insignificant against the backdrop of the rough seas and 3 metre waves. I could barely hold and focus my camera in the buffeting wind but did get a few 'record' shots.......

bee-eater struggling over the waves in a force 8/9 blow!
The bird flew over the heli-deck and made a couple of high speed circuits of the vessel, trying to find a suitable place to settle but was blown back out over the sea on each attempt.

checking out our satellite dish...
The bird dropped out of sight in the lee of the vessel but despite my attempts to relocate it on the lower decks, it was not seen again. A real treat to see this bird, although rather too briefly and in less than ideal conditions, but a great way to bring up the forty species mark for the voyage!
and dropping over the side......

A few hours later and the wind had dropped to a force 4. More birds were seen heading around and onto the ship including a turtle dove, 2 swallows and an orphean warbler. This bird looked very tired and bedraggled and almost presented itself in the open- but not quite! I was still delighted to finally get a half decent photograph of this handsome warbler.

western orphean warbler with severe wear of the tail feathers

The rest of the day turned up another single turtle dove, and interestingly a mixed flock of 5 house martins and 3 swifts - the first sighting of this species during this voyage. Unfortunately the swifts and house martins were all flying down-wind and heading due east! Sea watching produced 5 cory's shearwaters and a small shearwater sp. (probably balearic). 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Migrant mix.

Strange days recently with regard to visible migration. Yesterday and the day before (11-12/04), I didn't see a bird (wind Beaufort 3 NW) other than the resident seabirds with a nice line of 10 cory's shearwaters being the pick of the crop. Today (13/04 - wind Beaufort 5 SW) has been rather frantic, with the following noted:- 1 sardinian warbler, 2 house martins, 3 turtle doves, 1 yellow wagtail, 2 chiffchaffs, 4 willow warblers, 1 orphean warbler, 2 subalpine warblers and a cracking male pied flycatcher- my 39th positively ID'd bird species for this voyage.

I finally managed reasonable shots of turtle dove and subalpine warbler, but unfortunately the juicy pied fly and orphean did not want to play with my camera!

Turtle dove- 1 of 3 today

subalpine warbler 

just a few more days of survey to go then I can think about some proper birding back in the UK!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012


Saw my first ever sunspot a couple of sunsets ago so have posted a (filterless) photo here as I suppose that it counts as a life tick! :- The 'spot' is at approximately 5 o'clock in the photo.

sunspot, lower right
Visible migration has changed tempo with far more swallows heading north (6 yesterday and 7 today). Other migrants have included 3 blackcaps, 1 chiffchaff, 2 yellow wagtails and a subalpine warbler. It feels as if there is a tangible urgency to passage now, with all the birds appearing more 'restless' and reluctant to stop off on the ship. All the observed birds today have stopped on the decks for only a matter of seconds (as opposed to hours or even days in some recent examples) and all looked around in an agitated fashion before resuming their northward flights. Conditions onboard are unchanged and we are not expecting any difficult weather and yet the birds have noticeably changed their behaviours. 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Hi Jynx! & the bogey bird.

Every birder has or had one so they say- some have several- I have a number! I am of course referring to the 'bogey bird'- a species that, for a given individual birder, remains stubbornly difficult to connect with. The species in question is not necessarily a rare species, it is just difficult to be in the right place at the right time to see it! This can be especially so for species that typically turn up in the UK as passage migrants, or seasonal visitors with a restricted range. Species like alpine swift, arctic warbler and roller come to mind, although even the humble quail or little ringed plover can be hard to catch up with- unless you live in a 'hotspot' for the species concerned. This inability to connect with your 'bogey' may go on for years, sometimes even decades and the species in question can become a bit of an obsession- mine certainly is! It is sometimes frustrating when you learn that, with apparent ease, other birders connect with the species you have sought for so long. This is especially so when they did not even set out to see the bird in question and even worse when they don't really appreciate the fact that they have it on their list! Then of course there is the real torment of dipping out and being informed that 'your' bird has just been seen by dudes or grockles 20 minutes before you arrived! You have to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes!

For me, being at sea during many key spring and autumn migration times has proven very frustrating!  Of course this is all part of the 'fun' of birding. I think that over the years my birding exploits would have been rather boring if I had not dipped on heaps of birds. For me, part of my birding adventure continues to be wondering and hoping if I am going to see a particular target bird when I venture into the field.

The wryneck (Jynx torquilla) is my bogey bird extraordinaire!  I have lost count of the times I have dipped out on this species. I have narrowly missed them in the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Yorkshire, Aberdeenshire and mainland Shetland. Take last autumn for example- I dipped out six times in five days looking for four individual birds. Admittedly I was a day late on Portland, then the next day on the south Devon coast path I missed a bird by three hours. Over the next three days I dipped on two separate occasions at Porthgwarra and twice more in the Nanquido valley. On one occasion I was at the Hayle estuary enjoying very nice Baird's and buff-breasted sandpipers when the text message came through saying that the Nanquidno bird was showing well from the '5 bar' gate near the mill. As I knew the site well I set off immediately and less than an hour later I walked down to see the bird, only to find a 'birder' and his two young sons actually in the field and stomping through the undergrowth in an obvious attempt to flush the bird from cover! When said 'birder' saw me by the gate he sheepishly came over and explained that the bird had been feeding in the open but that they wanted to get closer views, and so had climbed over the gate which caused the bird to dive into the brambles and that they were trying to get it to come back out! Although my mind was full of expletives I somehow just mumbled something about 'better luck' next time and headed down the valley muttering to myself the whole time about 'everyone knows heavily flushed wrynecks often sit in deep cover for hours'. I sat on a rock and looked at the sea for a very, very, long time............ 

..........I headed on deck this morning and this LBJ came over the waves, sat over my head for 30 seconds, flitted to the main mast for 20 seconds more, then continued flying north. I'm not sure but I think I heard it laffing!!! I'll get it on my UK life list one day- hopefully! Happy days!! :)

Wryneck- simply stunning!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Migrant fest!

The way things transpired with our work plan yesterday, meant that I could have my first lie-in of the voyage and so my alarm went off at 08:00 instead of 05:30. (local time). Normally this would be bliss, however as soon as I walked on deck I realised that this was not a day for loafing. Light southerly winds had encouraged far more visible migration than in recent days and a mixed bag of goodies were flitting around the deck. The spell between 08:30 and 12:00 gave a count that included 2 willow warblers, a probable (westernorphean warbler, a chiffchaff, 3 yellow wagtails, 2 turtle doves, a great grey shrike, a swallow, a subalpine warbler, and a short- toed lark

western orphean warbler?
I have never seen an Orphean warbler before so was rather pleased to get a shot even though it was through some safety netting on the helideck.

Great grey shrike
The shrike was rather canny and refused to turn around for a better photo and it also stayed put on the furthest extremity of the helideck before dropping off the stern and flying out over the sea.

turtle dove (head partially shaded)
leggy yellow wagtail 
The turtle doves, although a little nervous were relatively approachable and seemed to be quite comfortable sitting in the heat of the day and unbearably bright sunshine. More interesting for me however, was watching the yellow wagtails strut their stuff on the decks as they chased flies. They just looked so leggy!
The next LBJ caused me quite a bit of strife in trying to suss its identification. I knew it was a 'new' bird for me and after much deliberation I eventually settled for short- toed lark (after getting an ID assist from my Ullapool based, birding friend Richard Rafe), - based largely on the way in which the tertials extended to the ends of the primary feathers, couple with the slight 'capped' effect. I have never seen a short toed lark before so two WP ticks in a day at sea is pretty good going for me! Hopefully I'll get these birds on my UK life list sometime!

short-toed lark
tertials extending to primary tips despite extensive wear

Unfortunately we had a scheduled helicopter arrival at 13:00 which 'encouraged' most of our visitors to continue their journey onwards for europe. I did however see a yellow wagtail and the lark settling down under the helideck in the failing light and I glimpsed what was probably the orphean too.

Today has been fairly similar. This mornings tally included 6 turtle doves, 2 yellow wagtails, 2 kestrels, 1 sedge warbler, 1 willow warbler, 1 wheatear, 1 subalpine warbler, 4 feral/racing pigeons and a skylark. The orphean warbler put in a brief appearance too.

willow warbler
Mayhem is the only word I can use to describe the reaction of the migrants with the arrival of two kestrels that repeatedly circled the ship and occasionally settled to watch the antics of the small passerines. Interestingly, the turtle doves all took off en-mass when the falcons arrived, but the bulkier feral pigeons hardly gave them a second glance and remained sitting on the heli-deck throughout the repeated fly-pasts. 

The wheatear seemed comfortable out in the open and occasionally crouched in the heli-deck netting during the frequent falcon sorties.


A very enjoyable couple of days- apart from the fact that there were no seabirds or cetaceans.

Stop press: The Orphean warbler is deceased- caught this evening by one of the marauding kestrels- and there I was hoping it was heading for the Scottish highlands!  :(

kestrel eating orphean warbler

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


Visibility has fallen steadily over the last 48 hours or so, making any sort of observational work difficult. Before the fog really got a hold we had fairly blustery conditions with a SE wind of Beaufort 6. I watched a distant, long-winged, brownish bird banking hard in the wind, then arc high over the wave crests. I could just make out a pale 'horseshoe' on the rump and convinced myself I was watching a cory's shearwater. I felt rather peeved when the bird eventually came much closer and revealed itself as a gannet- just goes to show that even when you think you have the basics of seabird ID sorted it is still possible to make mistakes! Ooops! Two great skuas were rather more straightforward as they did a relatively close flyby.

Three hours later we were in calm conditions with fog banks rolling in. Today visibility has generally been less than 200 metres. The only birds seen were a subalpine warbler, and a chiffchaff that stayed onboard overnight and new in was a rather damp looking sedge warbler- moving around some stored equipment like a small rodent and occasionally leaping out for a protein rich moth! Great to see this bird at length in the open and unable to dive into thick cover like the ones at home! Interestingly, I noted that this bird would 'crouch and freeze' in a head down posture between moth attacks. Not sure if this is normal Acrocephalus behaviour or a ready adaptation to the lack of cover?

crouch and freeze posture