Friday, 19 December 2014

Sibe chiffers

Managed a days birding up at Durness with Peter Stronach a couple of weeks ago. A December chiffchaff in the Balnakeil craft village was a pleasant surprise this far north and we also enjoyed the spectacle of 800+ Barnacle geese and 3 tundra beans feeding in fields near the farm. The highlight however was finding two Siberian chiffchaffs. I initially found one fly-catching near the church and after we had watched it for 20 minutes and got some decent record shots we drove back to Durness where Peter located a second bird back in the village near the garage. Both birds were very lively in the mild, sunny conditions with plenty of insect life for them to enjoy.  It was noticeable how much the birds appeared to change colour and tone as they moved in and out of the strong sunlight.  I wonder how long it will be before these birds become a full species in their own right? 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Raptor rapture

Jon Clarke- a birding friend of mine found a rough-legged buzzard a couple of days ago. Unfortunately the bird was located on a private estate with limited access so it had to be kept quiet. Having said that, seeing the bird entailed a 45 minute land rover journey over very rough terrain with the bird favouring a very expansive area of upland grouse moor- so it was not exactly 'twitchable'.  Fortunately Jon invited me along for a day in the field to try and see the bird as it was needed for my Scottish list.  Having left home at 05:30 I was almost forced to turn back in blizzard-like conditions on the high section of the A835. Fortunately I made it through to the meeting point and was only 20 minutes late. After an hour of exhilarating land rover travel, we arrived at our vantage point and settled in- desperately trying to keep warm in the blustery, icy conditions. 10 minutes later the bird came towards us flying low over the hill and disappearing swiftly as it glided down wind and out of site!  With pretty awful light levels and the briefest of views it was not what I would consider to be a 'tickable' bird although it was obviously the RLB- at least I had got the extensive, white upper tail coverts and pale head! We stayed on site until late morning so the survey could be finished then, after studying maps of the area, we decided to try and figure out where the bird had headed and what route it was likely to follow if it came back west. 

After a 20 minute drive across the moor we picked a spot overlooking an expanse of relatively sheltered and low-lying marshy ground, nestled between the rolling, heather clad hills. A series of fence posts around the marsh looked ideal for a RLB to sit on. We had the sun at out backs so settled down to stake out the site. We saw a couple of common buzzards and enjoyed frequent views of red grouse and before long an hour had passed. I had to keep moving to try and keep warm but felt a twinge of excitement when a 'buzzard' was seen hovering persistently for 45-60 seconds over the far hill. It was little more than a speck but we thought it probably was our target bird- the hovering action seem too persistent to be a common buzzard and the jizz of our distant silhouette just suggested RLB. 

Ten minutes later we got onto a pale raptor flying very low over the ground some 800 metres away. It looked good! The bird worked its way ever closer, initially low but then higher as it was mobbed by a pair of ravens. By now we were getting some good ID features- the rakish jizz, long, angled wings, long tail and the rather deep, 'elastic' wingbeats during the birds spells of powered flight. As it got closer and started soaring in the sunlight we could easily pick out the large, squarish black carpal patches on the underwing, the dark brown/blackish belly and the diffuse band on the trailing edge of the wings. The base of the tail looked incredibly white in the bright sunshine. The bird started to put on a bit of a show for us- circling ever closer, then gliding, then undertaking powered flight. At times it looked remarkably like a marsh harrier, on one occasion almost kite-like. The bird was now aware of us and could be seen clearly looking at us as it flew to within 100 metres or so of our position providing us with crippling views! I've had a great birding year and seen a lot of good birds but I think this was easily one of the best- although nowhere near the rarest it was such an impressive bird- everything about it is just exciting- plumage, flight action, habitat - it certainly ticked all my boxes for birding enjoyment and the views we had were just brilliant! I'll certainly be buying Jon a beer or two for that one! 
eye to eye!
simply stunning!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Bouncing beans!

Day 3 of weather standby and things are somewhat tedious. The wind had been a relentless Beaufort F8 generally from the SE but last night it slowly backed around to the east and increased to severe gale F9. This morning I was greeted with F8 conditions once gain- 5-6 metre seas with occasional big swell trains of 7-8 metres. The relentless easterly was averaging 36 knots according to the ships' instrumentation. Late morning and I saw three 'grey' geese flying across the waves and battling against the wind. As they flew alongside the bridge I took a quick fuzzy snap through the bridge window and realised they were Bean geese! A good record. I'll readily admit to having limited experience of bean geese- but having studied the photos. the small orange bill patch, relatively short, deep-based bill and relatively short-necked appearance had me thinking that they were the tundra race 'rossicus'. All exciting stuff and I watched them battle eastwards until they were lost from view. Some 20 minutes later the 3 birds came back down wind, circled the vessel, then made a very difficult and somewhat dangerous landing on the main deck. This was no mean feat in gale force winds and heavy seas! Two of the geese clattered into some gear on the deck and it was apparent that they were surprised by the heavy motion of the ship and the slippery nature of the deck. All 3 individuals appeared unscathed and after carefully checking their surroundings in that all too familiar nervous goose fashion they set about checking their feet- lifting each foot in turn and checking the webs with their bills. This was followed by a brief spell of flight feather preening before all three birds got their heads down and started sleeping. I'm sure they must be very tired from battling the gales during their migration. 

I had some concerns about their abilities to subsequently take off as the ship is a jungle of masts, wires and railings. However, late this afternoon the birds launched themselves into the air and flew off into the wind. Two minutes later they re-landed on the deck and as I write they appear to be settling down for a night on deck! Hopefully they will resume their migration as soon as the conditions improve.

time for a snooze!
rough seas and heavy swell

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Owls all at sea

Gale and severe gale force winds have put a stop to migration. After a couple of days of brisk northerlies which brought down thousands of fulmars, kittiwakes and gannets plus a smattering of little auks it now feels very quiet with just the occasional common seabird passing by. However, a couple of days ago I was treated to four short- eared owls flying over the sea and heading WSW. Quite a weird sight seeing these lovely birds on passage over the waves. I saw them all in the first hour of daylight so my photos. are not the best but they will have to do. I saw two single birds then two together and it was interesting to see them occasionally harried and mobbed by the herring and great black backed gulls- as if the owls did not have enough to contend with! Although their buoyant flight was relatively strong one bird almost ditched as it banked sharply to avoid an aerial assault from a herring gull. Hopefully they all made it ashore. I'm eagerly anticipating the wind going back around to the North and East as I'm sure a red flanked blue tail or dusky warbler could be on the agenda.

southerly gale F8 with 6 metre waves

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

North sea birding.

After a brilliant spell of Scottish autumnal birding I find myself back at sea - a big reality check as the North sea can be very daunting at this time of the year- and I'm looking at being here until late December! Anyway, gotta earn the dosh to pay for next years trips to Shetland and the Hebrides!

Still some light vis. mig. ongoing with wrens, robins, goldcrest, starlings, black redstarts, a woodcock, brambling, redwings and fieldfares all recorded on the deck or flying south past the vessel. Bird of the trip so far was a very tidy grey phalarope sitting on the sea about 5 NM east of Peterhead a few days ago. Today saw some good seabird passage with several thousand fulmars, hundreds of kittiwakes, scores of gannets, two pomarine skuas and 40+ little auks all heading south past the ship. Hopefully there is still time for a 'big' sibe to grace the deck of my vessel- or maybe even a firecrest! Here's hoping. I was quite content seeing several 'blue' fulmars today though.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Hermit thrush, North Uist

Just back from a rushed, ferry schedule limited twitch for the Balranald Hermit thrush. I travelled over via the Isle of Skye and ferry from Uig yesterday- saw the bird for 30 minutes or so in the company of Al Mcnee and Bob Mcmillan, then dashed down the road to get a bed in the Howmor hostel. This wee thrush was a delightful bird and my second 'Catharus' of the autumn! With the 'mega alert' going off for tran-satlantic birds from Barra to Orkney it has been a manic 36 hours but in the end it was obvious that I could only twitch one of them being on a limited budget and with limited time.  An hour of birding this morning turned up grey plovers at Kyles Paible and storm petrels in the Minch which rounded the trip of nicely. I just tuned out the alerts concerning the chimney swift and grey-cheeked thrush at the extremities of the Hebridean archipelago and just had a word with myself about being satisfied with one really good bird! 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Torness Booted warbler- fieldcraft lessons for 'twitchy twitchers'

A few days ago I twitched the Booted warbler and Siberian stonechat at Torness point power station. Having picked up Bob Swann in Dingwall we drove down the A9 to Aviemore, where we swapped cars allowing Peter Stronach to drive the rest of the journey. We arrived about 08:50- birds were moving, the light was ok and as we drove down the approach road to the visitor centre a number of birders could be seen wandering about- not good as no one appeared to be actually on either bird. However, having parked up and exited the car, a quick sweep of the nearest sycamore revealed a few birds flitting about- a robin, a dunnock and the Bootted warbler! Although views were brief and against the light they could be classed as 'tickable' if things did not improve. Slight removal of 'twitch pressure'! After an hour of searching for it again without success, we moved off to get crippling views of the Siberian stonechat. The wee bird was incredibly tame and often approached us as if it thought we were a herd of animals flushing up insects. We returned for excellent, albeit brief views of the Booted warbler. The bird was incredibly cryptic and slow- moving amongst sycamore leaves and often proved to be very elusive- but all that was needed to get on the bird were half decent fieldcraft skills- i.e. get the sun at your back, work the habitat slowly and methodically and check everything that moves whilst keeping the noise down and not getting too close to the favoured habitat - it's not rocket science!! Anyway, as obvious as good fieldcraft skills are, they were  proving increasingly difficult for a growing number of frantic birders who started to try and chase the bird down- not a good plan as it only made the bird more difficult to pin down in an orderly and 'bird friendly' way. It also flushed every other bird on site so then all the sycamores had to be checked through again to rule out the agitated robins, dunnocks, gold crests, brambling etc. If it wasn't so irritating for the rest of the 'informed' birders on site it would be laughable! As if to prove a point Bob, Peter and I relocated the bird several times by using said fieldcraft skills, whilst the 'adrenalised twitchers' failed miserably. We did of course put them onto the bird on each occasion. It was also pertinent to note that some very well respected 'known' birders, all drifted away when the nonsense began- they all recognised that the bird was in danger of being flushed off and that 'good views' would not be attained again.  Enough said. Record shots duly taken and happy faces all round! 

Booted warbler

Siberian stonechat

Friday, 17 October 2014

Highland selfie!

With Highland being one of the largest recording areas in Britain and arguably containing the lowest density of active field birders, the chances of getting self-found birds should, in theory at least, be fairly high. Unfortunately there is often just too much habitat to cover effectively and this must allow many 'good birds' to go largely undetected. With countless days and 1000's of hours in the field my self-found list is woefully poor- my only good finds since moving to the Highland region in 1997 being grey phalarope, great grey shrike and great white egret. It was therefore with great delight that I found a hoopoe at Alturlie point last week- not a great rarity by any means but extremely satisfying within the context of the highland birding scene! Hopefully more 'good' finds will be forthcoming before too long!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Shetland Nature- triple mega birding!

I have been fortunate to visit Shetland on a number of occasions although always in a work related roll and always with little or no birding time. Finally, I managed a weeks' dedicated autumn birding with 'Shetland nature'. Shetland is far bigger than many birders realise and can often be a daunting place in terms of transport, accommodation, remote habitat and extreme weather. To optimise my birding experience I decided to have a stress-free birding break with Brydon Thomason's 'Shetland nature' and very capable guide Chris Rodger. All my transportation and accommodation was taken care of, Chris had intimate local knowledge of when and where to find the best birds, so I could just get on and enjoy the birding with no worries! Although preceded by two weeks of easterlies the wind had veered to gale force plus from the SW the day before my arrival. Despite the initial challenging conditions I was able to connect with 3 megas! First up was the splendid Swainson's thrush at Norwick, followed a couple of days later by the double delights of White's thrush and yellow-rumped warbler!! 

A supporting cast of rare and scarce birds including Rustic bunting, eastern subalpine warbler, wryneck, barred warblers, yellow-browed warblers, bluethroat, Arctic redpoll, red-breasted flycatcher, common rosefinch and Temminck's stint made the week one to remember for a very long time. Although not the scarcest bird by any means, it was fantastic to finally see a wryneck in Britain- my previous 12 dips over the last two decades have finally seen off my bogey bird! Happy days indeed and I can't wait to get back to these wonderful islands. 

Swainson's thrush
White's thrush
yellow-rumped warbler
barred warbler
wryneck- at last!!
Arctic redpoll

Monday, 15 September 2014

Gairloch pelagic- the Minch.

A boat trip in the Minch is always fun and with recent reports of Orcas and Sabines' gulls to whet the appetite I jumped at the chance of a place on the Hebridean whale cruise 'Orca 1'- a large fast RIB designed to cover big distances at speed. The weather and sea conditions were ideal- flat calm with good visibility although the light was very flat due to the hazy conditions. Within 15 minutes of setting sail we were surrounded by a pod of circa 500 common dolphins that obligingly played around the vessel providing outstanding views. A short while later we watched a minke whale- the first of 5 encountered during our trip. Harbour porpoises seemed to be every where. Birds were not as abundant as I had hoped but we recorded sooty shearwaters, manx shearwaters, an arctic skua, a possible long-tailed skua and 3 pomarine skuas. Great skuas were abundant as were over 50 storm petrels. Unfortunately no orcas or Sabs. were seen but we also saw a pair of bonus white-tailed eagles on the return leg and a flock of 28 black-throated divers

sooty shearwater
sooty shearwater
common dolphins
common dolphin
common dolphins
minke whale
white-tailed eagle

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Easterlies bring on the migrants.

A few days of light easterly winds in the southern North sea have brought a steady, albeit light passage of passerines. Yesterday I recorded between 50 and 60 individual birds on and around the main deck. Species composition was varied and interesting although no scarcities have turned up- yet! Below is a cross section of snap shots of the more appealing individuals. Fortunately there is also a substantial population of flying insects around and on the vessel, allowing most individuals to refuel before continuing their push south. 
Pied flycatcher
Spotted flycatcher
Tree pipit

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Sou'westerlies slow North sea vis-mig.

A couple of weeks ago swifts and common terns could be seen heading south on a daily basis. Along came 'ex-Bertha', followed by nearly two weeks of Beaufort F6-F7 winds from the SW and migration has visibly stalled. With lighter winds swinging around to the North and North-east things are slowly picking up. I'm now witnessing a steady procession of sandwich terns, the occasional Arctic and Pom skua, a few flocks of dunlin, turnstone and probable GP's. A grey heron did a bonus flyby today and on the deck I have seen a few pied wagtails, two garden warblers and a solo reed warbler……I'm eagerly anticipating every day now as the autumnal delights of the birding world start to move south for their winter retreats. 

sandwich tern
garden warbler
garden warbler
reed warbler
reed warbler