Thursday, 30 May 2013

The curse of the corncrake

I first heard a distant corncrake in the late 1970's- a single bird calling from a cereal crop field in Dorset on a lovely late spring evening. Naturally the field was vast and there was no way I was ever going to see the bird but it was a lovely experience. Fast forward 30 years or so and I found myself in the outer Hebrides for the first time in June 2000 for a fly fishing holiday on the island of South Uist. I caught a few trout, enjoyed a few drams and heard a lot of corncrakes- they were everywhere it seemed, with birds calling from every strip of grass, every patch of nettles and every drainage channel full of flag irises. After dinner, most evenings I would pick up my binoculars and try and stalk a bird in the hope of seeing one. When a bird called I took a few very slow, quiet steps along the adjacent tracks towards it, waited patiently when it stopped it's monotonous 'crex crex'  call, then repeated the process- over and over and over again! Often I felt as if I was tantalisingly close to the bird, only for it to evaporate through the vegetation and then start calling much further away. The task was exasperated by the way in which the bird would be able to 'throw' it's voice, often aided by swirling air currents- sometimes giving the impression that the bird was much closer than it probably was. Initially this was just a bit of birding fun- but I needed to see a corncrake before I could add it to my 'life list'. Anyway, the holiday ended and I still needed to tick off a corncrake. Since 2000 I have visited South Uist on 6 or 7 occasions and have also visited North Uist, Benbecula and had several extended visits to Lewis- all these islands holding good numbers of corncrakes in the summer months. I have spent countless hours over the last decade or so on each of these visits trying to see this wretched bird with the 'fun' going out of the encounters many moons ago. Recently I returned to Lewis to spend a few days birding at Eorpie, port of Nis and the Butt of Lewis. On the first evening I heard a corncrake calling from the edge of loch Stiapabhat. I enjoyed views of garganey, gadwall and a black-tailed godwit and tried to ignore the rather annoying 'crex crex' call. The following day as well as enjoying some decent weather and good birding, a couple more corncrakes were heard- but I had given up trying to see one. A day later I stopped to try and get some phone signal near the tea room when yet another corncrake started calling from a patch of rough vegetation. I checked my sms rare bird alerts, casually strolled towards the vegetation and to my disbelief a corncrake lifted its' head above the leaves and launched itself into the air- it flew quite high past one of the crofts giving good flight views and leaving me once again totally bemused at the ups and downs of birding. Later I had the added bonus of a glaucous gull and a fantastic experience when an adult long-tailed skua settled on the rough pasture just west of the lighthouse- happy birding days indeed!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Patch rewards

I love the excitement and exhilaration of twitching a new bird, but obviously with temporal and financial constraints it is just not feasible to do this as much as I would like. Having said that, I get a massive amount of satisfaction from finding 'good' birds on my local patches. This is especially so during 'spring' and 'autumn' migration times as you never know what will turn up. I readily admit that my record of finding rare and scarce birds is rather poor but aside from that, finding 'year ticks' is the bread and butter of much of my birding.  Recently and contrary to a very late highland spring, a trickle of migrants have been pushing through and aside from the regular willow warblers, sand martins and wheatears I have enjoyed a flurry of white wagtails (alba), a single osprey and a handful of whimbrel- birding at its' very rewarding best!

osprey- pretty uncommon in the extreme NW

Monday, 6 May 2013

out for a duck (2)

After the Strontian fiasco it was inevitable that I still felt the need to go on a major and hopefully successful twitch! The only bird of real interest and that remained do-able in terms of distance, was the Harlequin duck at Balranald on North Uist. After looking at the ferry and b n b  options I decided to go for it the following day. After a 3.5 hour drive I arrived in Uig on the isle of Skye at 07:15 and settled down to wait for the ferry. A couple of hours later I enjoyed the first manx shearwaters of the year and a bonus great skua. I arrived on a very windy but dry North Uist and after swiftly checking in to the b n b I started out across the machair towards the coast. On reaching the coast I was surprised not to see any other birders and realised I would have to settle down and search for the bird in a westerly force 6/7 and rough seas. Unfortunately the tide was also way out leaving a mass of exposed rocks behind which any number of sea ducks could hide- things did not look good!

coast just west of Balranald
Anyway, I won't go into all the details but needless to say that I finally got onto the bird after a very stressful 4.5 hour search- the umpteenth distant black speck on the sea finally proving to be the bird!

difficult finding a sea duck in that!!
distant record shot as they say!!!!
After watching the duck for 30 minutes or so I eventually lost it in the surf but my visit was certainly worth it as the bird was seen the next day and has not been reported since! I also enjoyed some other good birds including ring-necked duck, corn bunting and hen harrier.

corn bunting

whooper swan

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Out for a duck (1)

After my long sea stint I couldn't wait to get out on a twitch and see some decent birds and hopefully push along my British life list. Naturally, being based in a remote part of Scotland this entails considerable travel and so my options for 'twitchable' birds were very limited. I did a 320 mile 'day run' to Strontian in an attempt to locate the black duck that has been hanging around for months/years. Naturally I arrived on site a couple of weeks too late with the bird probably re-located to a nice quiet breeding area. If you are going to dip you may as well do it in style so I consoled myself with a few year ticks- grey wagtail, cuckoo and willow warbler and enjoyed the scenery! 

Corran ferry

Corran light

Fort William below the Ben Nevis range