Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Med gull medley

Not a lot happening here in the southern Med. The weather has been settled and bird movement has been very light. The only species of note continues to be Med. gulls and so I have been honing my ID skills for this species in order to find one in the north of Scotland with ease on my return- this may sound absurd but there are probably more Ivory gulls than Med. gulls in the north of Scotland just now! Seems as though I will be at sea for xmas with the survey running late. The good news however is that I should be home for hogmanay- a chance to have a long conversation with my good friend Mr. Glenlivet- followed by a rough day getting the 2014 year list off to a flyer!

Anyway, the gulls are ship-shy, rarely venturing closer than 70-80 metres so here are my best effort, cropped shots. 

1st winter
2nd winter
ad. winter
ad. winter
ad. winter

Monday, 9 December 2013

Mediterranean Mandarin.

Currently embarked to a vessel operated by a Chinese company with 94% Chinese crew- very helpful and friendly but certainly an experience! I'm one of only 3 'westerners' onboard. Aside from getting used to the menu, trying to use chop sticks in heavy seas and the obvious language challenges, my only gripe is the appalling internet connection- so bad I can only load my gmail in HTML format! Have been trying to update this blog for days but the pages keep dropping out - adding photos. is a real challenge......but here goes...

A trickle of vis. mig. is still ongoing with pied wagtail, robin, black redstart, and song thrush all recorded on deck. A brief encounter with a large, dark-headed sylvia warbler on the deck (could have been an  Orphean) was the highlight bird- unfortunately my 10 second view did not offer much scope for a firm ID. Rather surprisingly I have also recorded a number of flocks of cormorants all flying due south- I had not realised that this species undertakes such obvious migrations- unless these flocks are merely undertaking localised movements?

Sea birds have been largely restricted to a few of the larus sp. gulls including lbb, yellow-legged and herring. A few gannets have also been counted and a single bonxie this morning was a bonus. 20 or so Med. gulls have been the real star birds thus far- even in their winter plumage the adults look very smart.

Friday, 29 November 2013

American Robin- South Uist

I have had a good spell of time in the field over the past couple of weeks. As per usual my local patches have produced nothing outrageous, but I have had some fun putting together a number of BTO bird track lists. Great northern divers, woodcock and a merlin have been the nicest birds locally. Slightly further afield I went on a mini twitch to Findhorn in order to see little egret and green sandpiper. Although not great rarities these are difficult species to catch up with in the north of Scotland and indeed both of these birds were 'ticks' for my fledgling 'Scottish list'.

On a similar note, although I saw an American robin a decade ago at Godrevy, Cornwall, the chance to get one on my Scottish list required a trip to the outer hebrides. This is rather arduous at this time of the year with short days, poor light generally and the need to undertake an overnight stay due to the infrequent ferry crossings. Anyway, if birding was too easy I would have seen every species by now and probably feel totally bored with the whole twitching scene!

Having teamed up with fellow Ullapool birder Richard Rafe and BTO (Scotland) atlas guru Bob Swann, we undertook the drive to Uig, Isle of Skye for the ferry to Loch Maddy, North Uist.

American robin on a very dull day.
I got onto two late Leach's petrels on the way over which was rather surprising and we had good views of a white-tailed eagle at Loch Maddy. An hour later we were fortunate to pick up the American robin from the car as we pulled up at the site! We then enjoyed good views of the bird before it was flushed by a kestrel. With an hour of 'daylight' left, we moved over to Ardvule point for good views of sanderling, another white-tailed eagle, peregrine, snipe, turnstone and 60 or so purple sandpipers

The following morning after a night in b n b, we had a look for the female lesser scaup at Ard Mhor. Again the light was poor and the bird was rather distant but we eventually got the key ID features sorted as it fed with a flock of tufted duck and widgeon. With only another 90 minutes or so before the return ferry crossing we quickly covered a few more coastal sites and picked up long-tailed duck, grey plover, gadwall, pintail and several great northern divers. After boarding the ferry we were treated to a very unseasonal manx shearwater and on our approach to Uig another pair of white-tailed eagles were seen interacting below a large cliff face. Now it is bag packing time again as I head off for my next bout of sea time. 

lesser scaup- honestly!
Bob and Richard enjoying a very uncrowded American robin twitch!!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Sad pigeon skulks with 2 day hangover?

- or perhaps I should not try and be a smarty pants and just say 'Mourning dove on Rum for 2nd day'!

40 hours after emptying my seabag, drinking an exceptionally large g-n-t and working through 3 weeks worth of (largely) junk mail, my phone 'beeped' during a woodland local patch sortie and there was an sms message- 'mega highland- mourning dove, Isle of Rum'- yikes- I wasn't sure of the number but knew that there had not been too many previous records of that Bird in Britain! A little later whilst sat on the computer trying to figure out the logistics of Scottish, west coast ferry links, my phone rang and local birder Richard Rafe was on the phone to say that Bob Mcmillan (see the excellent skye birds link was going for the bird and was I keen to go?!! .....
the approaches to Kinloch, Rum
the next morning we left Ullapool at 06:00 for the drive through Kyle of Lochalsh and over the Skye bridge to Armadale, where, having met up with Bob we boarded the ferry for Mallaig- already running 20 minutes late. As the ferry approached the pier in Mallaig a queue of 35+ green-clad, scope-carrying birders could be seen (im)patiently waiting to board and get to Rum. The crossing was rough and somewhat slower than anticipated and a few folk looked decidedly green by the time we approached Kinloch on Rum. The captain's announcement told everyone that we had to be back at the pier and ready to board at 14:15 - as I stepped off the ferry I looked at my watch and realised that I had 2 hours and 7 minutes to walk around the bay, locate the bird and walk back for the return sailing. It was tight but certainly doable as long as the bird cooperated and showed.......anyway after following the 'Mourning dove' signs kindly erected by the locals (not sure who but many thanks!) I arrived behind the bulk of the other birders and put up my scope in anticipation. A nervous 30 minutes passed before the first poor view was obtained- through a fellow birders' scope and largely of a silhouette that really looked like a collared dove- I was not too impressed. I quickly got tired of the hustle and bustle of the scrum as tired birders, some of whom had travelled overnight from as far a field as Cheshire, Luton and Suffolk desperately tried to get on the bird. I walked back around the house and shortly afterwards one of the rangers walked around me to a different vantage point and then waved for us to join him- the bird was now offering better views and I could clearly see the dark spot on the neck- the bird was skulking, the light was poor, I got no photos. but I was happy to 'tick' the bird. I enjoyed the view for 10 minutes or so and then decided to have a solo walk back ahead of the rush to see what else was about- the woodland just looks as if it ought to hold a scarce migrant or two. Anyway, I didn't find anything of note other than a half-heard 'probable' yellow-browed warbler. Everyone was in good spirits on the way back to Mallaig, some birders slept before the long dash south to PG for the Hermit thrush. I enjoyed watching the kittiwakes and looking back at the imposing outline of Rum. A thoroughly enjoyable and fun twitch!

dramatic scenery and light!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Siberian stunners!

I readily admit to being spoilt with the quality of some of my migrant visitors over the last few days! At sunrise a few days ago I noticed a small bird foraging in a 'dunnock' type manner on the main deck. With the rapidly improving light I got my bins. on it and knew it was something quite special! I grabbed a couple of shots and then realised I was looking at a Black-throated accentor! It foraged for a short time then flew over the side of the ship and was gone! A short time later a gorgeous bluethroat landed on a packing crate, flicked its' wings and tail, then dropped over the side and was on it's way south- no photograph that time.
black-throated accentor
black-throated accentor
Yesterday I had a couple of yellow-browed warblers that were particularly showy and seemed to enjoy posing for the camera- if only it was this easy on my local patch! Interestingly one of these birds had a fairly noticeable median crown stripe- just shows that they all need careful checking- especially in strong sunlight and way up in a canopy!
yellow-browed warbler
yellow-browed warbler
There has been a good supporting cast of goldcrests too, with two birds providing some drama yesterday. During a sparrowhawk sortie the two birds panicked and flew into the wheelhouse- the officer on watch called me to assist. I managed to trap them individually in corners and gently took them back down to the deck to be released. I continued with my watch and 30 minutes later the two goldcrests flew towards me. One landed on my arm and the other on my coat pocket- amazingly they looked at me for 5 seconds or so, as if they were saying 'thanks'- they then flew off and continued feeding amongst the packing crates. They remained very approachable for the rest of the day and I could hear their contact calls for a number of hours as I walked the decks. 

goldcrest- showing off!
Later a real stunner showed up and again flew into the sanctuary of the bridge- a Pallas's warbler! I have seen a few of these on vessel's during autumnal migrations including a bird off Norway about 5 years ago. Until a couple of weeks ago I had not seen one in Britain, but did get a fleeting glimpse of a self-found bird at St. Abbs during my recent twitch there. Anyway, this bird was very flighty and impossible to catch, so to avoid stressing it out I left it in peace. 30 minutes later it was near exhausted and slowly overheating on a window ledge. It too was then gently taken to the aft deck to join the goldcrests.  Funnily enough after a brief period of recuperation in a shaded spot it flew to a blue tarpaulin and just seemed to glare at me as I took it's portrait! Such a lovely species and definitely one of my all time favourite birds! Just wish I could find them on a 'local patch' 

Pallas's warbler- simply gorgeous!
pallas's warbler- apparently not too impressed with my rescue attempt!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Little and large

More raptor action today with falcons from both ends of the size spectrum turning up. This delightful merlin put in an appearance midday and spent a few hours dashing around the ship's superstructure before eventually roosting on the foremast. At least one unwary redstart was caught during this tiny falcon's rounds.
merlin with redstart
Later in the fading light a real thumper came down from the north and briefly landed. I had a good long look at this bird- initially I thought it was a Saker, then I thought it was a lanner. From a plumage perspective it seemed to share characteristics of both species. In the end I relied on the structure of the bird to cinch (I think) the ID as a saker- the tail was very long and extended way beyond the tips of the primaries. I'll be delighted if someone can assist with the ID though.

saker (probably)
Also added yellowhammer, twite, stonechat and goldcrest to the ever-lengthening migrant species list for the trip.
A migratory, roosting bat species was also a bonus find- desperately trying to shelter from the wind and rain in a coil of line.
bat sp.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Raptor rumble

With good numbers of tired, mal-nourished and dehydrated, slow-moving passerines all over the decks it rarely takes long for the passage raptors to notice this floating slow-food takeaway! Over the last few days I have observed 3 kestrels, 4 red-footed falcons and a single sparrowhawk cause mayhem through the ranks of chaffinches, pied wagtails, redstarts and red-breasted flycatchers. Unfortunately the RBF's seem to be the preferred prey item of the sparrowhawk that has been resident for 5 days and undertakes at least 3 or 4 successful hunting sorties every day! 
red-footed falcon (juvenile/1st winter)
Contrary to the ample food supply available, the sparrowhawk and one of the kestrels decided to have an aerial altercation concerning the ownership of one of the menu items- in this case I was not sure of the ID but it was certainly an LBJ to go!
kestrel (upper) and sparrowhawk
sparrowhawk on top!
red-footed falcon (juv/1st winter)
red-footed falcon (juv/1st winter)
red-footed falcon- at speed!  (juv/1st winter)
red-footed falcon

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Black sea- vis. mig. portraits

Wow!- busy, busy!, with lots of migrants on the move over the last few days and with the following species recorded on the deck (not in any particular order) :- pied wagtail(12+), black redstart (1), blackcap (1), redstart (20+), willow warbler (20+), chiffchaff (30+), red-breasted flycatcher (10+), spotted flycatcher (3), robin (8+), wren (1), blackbird (2), song thrush (6), chaffinch (12+), meadow pipit (1), lesser whitethroat (2), red-backed shrike (1) and flying past- lots more of the same and scores of swallows and a dozen or so skylarks! Also had visits from sparrow hawk and two red-footed falcons.

Here's a selection of some portrait shots:-
red-breasted flycatcher
red-breasted flycatcher
black redstart
lesser whitethroat
redstart (male)
red-backed shrike
spotted flycatcher

Friday, 11 October 2013

Black sea port of Varna

Arrived on the ship Tuesday and waiting for the fuel barge to arrive meant a six hour wait in port- a chance to have a brief look about. Not many birds evident- a couple of dozen black headed and yellow-legged gulls and a few pied wagtails on the wharf. Interestingly a good raft of wintering coot in the harbour- probably in excess of 400 birds- the biggest gathering of this species I have ever seen. A fly-by kingfisher was a bonus bird.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Autumnal gems

Back off to sea in a few days so just enough time to undertake a final twitch and intense birding session  before bag packing and airport mayhem. First stop was the Frankfield loch in Stepps, Glasgow. I arrived at 08:40ish and having eventually found somewhere to park I walked the short distance to the loch and started working through the ducks. Some 10 minutes later I was on the drake blue-winged teal- a smashing duck looking much nicer than I had expected after its 'eclipse' phase. The white crescent was particularly neat and striking and the bird was feeding within a nice flock of teal and a few shoveler which provided good comparisons. A group of 12 snipe sat out in the open were also worthy of scoping as they jostled for a position on a length of semi-submerged planking.

Next stop, St. Abbs in the borders- I really wanted to see a potential lifer in the shape of the Sardinian warbler that had been frequenting the scrub at the north end of the Mire loch. I was not disappointed- after 2.5 hours of carefully watching the scrub, the bird eventually popped out allowing good views for 30 seconds or so- much to the obvious relief of the 20 or so birders that had been waiting - for the most part, very patiently. Of course as is the usual theme at any twitch these days some birders exhibited very little field craft sense- talking loudly, clattering tripods, walking in front of the gathered crowd etc. Probably best not to dwell on the bad manners of a few for too long! On the upside I met some really nice, pleasant birders at the site, who readily swapped info. and added to the overall enjoyment of the occasion.

Having enjoyed the incredibly handsome sard. I spent the rest of the time birding the area- a really nice site to look for migrants and I enjoyed a couple of yellow-browed warblers, a spotted flycatcher, two redstarts and a number of willow warblers and chiffchaffs. I saw a ybw fly briefly between the tops of the trees and in the strong sunlight I thought I had a glimpse of a yellow rump- I immediately thought of  Pallas's warbler but I wasn't sure and could not relocate the bird so kept quiet about that-damn! I need a Pallas's too!

Following a night in b n b I headed off for the 300 mile drive back to Ullapool- a long drive but worth every mile. Time to pack my seabag..........

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Brown shrike surprise!

Since my return from offshore Ireland I seem to have done an awful lot of local patch birding with very little reward. A merlin and a white-tailed eagle being the only birds of note. No migrants other than mipits, pied wags. a few dunlin and sanderling and the occasional wheatear. On the plus side I have put together 20+ BTO bird track 'complete lists' and also submitted a fair few 'casual records' so it does not feel that my time in the field has been completely wasted. My much anticipated 'west coast' pelagic was a big disappointment with a real shortage of birds and aside from a dozen or so storm petrels, a single sooty shearwater and a single arctic skua were the only birds of note. Eventually my frustration level peaked and I had to twitch a bird! 

First off was a 150 mile drive down to Arisaig to try and catch up with the American golden plover that had been found a few days before my visit. Arriving on site, I was a little surprised to find that there were no other birders present and more worryingly there was no golden plover flock in the field next to Traigh golf course. After 15 minutes or so, I heard a single golden plover calling as it flew in to the field- a little bit of encouragement at least! Two hours later, after working the whole area, I was just getting ready to admit another dip when I noticed a dark bird quite far away from the road and rather far up the incline- this was the AGP feeding in the grass with another golden plover, half a dozen greylags and a few wood pigeons. I got the scope on the bird and enjoyed it for sometime before dashing off to get the ferry over to the Isle of Skye- the previous day a number of Sabine's gulls had been seen in Broadford bay and this was another species I really wanted to see. Unfortunately I did not connect with any but did get good views of a very confiding knot.

American golden plover
American G.P. with European cousin
knot- Broadford bay, Isle of Skye
Having studied the weather forecasts intently over the last week or so I decided to have a weekends birding in Aberdeenshire with fellow birder Marcus (ebirder) Conway. Everything looked pretty good  for finding our own 'sibes'. We left Inverness at 05:30 and headed over to the Forvie NNR/Collieston area- a favourite birding area of ours. I picked up a couple of tawny owls en-route- sat on fence posts at the road side and with increasing daylight a few buzzards, pheasants and wood pigeons provided some entertainment during the drive. Arriving onsite we heard but could not see a barred warbler in deep cover- encouraging though! We also watched a chiffchaff briefly and felt confident as a few migrants were obviously about. 10 minutes later Marcus was quickly onto a yellow-browed warbler in the tall conifer next to the church. Shortly afterwards we had good views of a lesser whitethroat- another tidy bird. We met a couple of 'local birders' and after a brief chat about what was about we went our separate  ways -we headed for the coastal bushes via Forvie and they headed off to work the 'gulley'. Forvie was dead but we had bonus birds of pom. and arctic skua and sandwich tern from the headland. Back in Collieston we saw another yellow-browed warbler in the willows by the old hotel then heard a 3rd calling from a thick hedge. Shortly afterwards we met the 'locals' again as they were 'looking' for a Brown shrike that they had found earlier in the 'gulley'. The bird was apparently very skulky and flighty and was proving very difficult to get onto. We joined forces and after another 90 minutes or so during which time we had brief flight views, the bird was eventually pinned down to a hedge at the back of some cottages. We had good views through the scope and also on Marcus's 'live view' camera. We watched this newly arrived mega catching insects and even disgorge a pellet. By now the news was out and frantic birders were turning up to twitch the bird. The whole scene quickly started to feel a tad  manic and as we had had good views of the now 'very elusive' shrike we headed off in search of some more of our 'own birds'. We didn't find anything to match the mega but the following day we found another couple of yellow-browed warblers- at Cruden bay and Whinneyfold gulley. A brambling was a nice bonus bird. All in all we had a great weekends birding looking for migrants and ending up with a bonus mega as well! 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Black country blues

Thanks to a 3 hour Aer Lingus flight delay in Cork I missed my connecting flight home so have to spend a night in a rather seedy Birmingham airport hotel......won't mention the name in case they take legal action but the initials are H.I. - can't believe I had to wait in my room for 4 hours while they sorted out a problem with the electronic door key- eventually I demanded a different room! Anyway, a chance to post some final snapshots from my Porcupine sea bight survey ( and have a beer or three!). Hopefully I will make it home tomorrow and get back to some much needed local patch birding.

long-finned pilot whales 
one of my last recorded Cory's- simply stunning!
a delicately dancing great shearwater
a nice comparison- fulmar & great shear
common dolphin- underwater shot!