Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Bucket list bird at Balranald!

Some three and a half years after seeing a magnificent white morph Gyr in Greenland (see post for Oct 12th 2012) I finally got one for my Scottish list! It took a lot of work including a 3 day dip last January and several more hours during another Barra dip for the American herring gull. Perseverance eventually paid off last week - after another slightly shaky start. The bird had been 'showing well'- a phrase I have often come to dread and upon arrival an hour or so was spent around Balranald, checking fenceposts and rocky hillocks to no avail. The all too familiar 'dip' aura seemed to fill the air so we drove a circuit back to the main road and around the minor road to Hougarry. Suddenly a heavy, broad-winged, white bird, flapped lazily across the road some 100 metres or so in front of us and landed on a post, splaying its barred tail and wings. Someone muttered 'whats that!' and I replied 'thats the bird'! as I immediately recognised the in-flight jizz from my Greenlandic encounters. Imagine that- a tick-able Gyr from the car!! Well as expected there were a few moments of chaos as I put the car on a verge and we quickly got views and record shots from hastily snatched cameras. The bird was aware of us but seemed reluctant to move on, so better photos were obtained, scopes were set up and after much swearing and gasping we eventually settled down to enjoy crippling views of what is certainly the best bird I have ever seen. Another car coming the other way stopped so close to the bird that we were amazed it did not fly off, but later the driver explained that the bird was perched some 5 metres or so from a swan carcass that it habitually visited to feed. We decided that it was then prudent to move on to allow the bird to feed so headed for our accommodation to have a wee drink in celebration. 
jaw droppingly impressive!
Although elated I knew that the following morning was going to be potentially stressful- we had six birding friends due on the morning ferry- two relatively 'local' from the Highlands and four travelling up from Lothian. To really enjoy the bird it was important that everyone got to see it. The next morning back at Balranald we quickly got onto the bird. It sat on a post for an hour and text messages revealed that the rest of the crews were still in Uig on the Isle of Skye. Eventually they sailed but the bird was becoming increasingly restless- preening, wing stretching and I just knew it had been on the post far too long. Still it sat on the post but momentarily flapped its impressive wings when it was mobbed by a couple of very noisy common gulls. I was feeling very nervous at this time. More sending of texts revealed the ferry was on approach to Loch Maddy and then the unmentionable happened. A tourist and his wife asked what I was looking at through the scope and having explained the birds presence I stepped away from my scope to let them have a look. The guy stood back and said 'I can't see it' -it just flew away! Yikes! after almost 2 hours of 'eyes-on' the bird, it had flown at the precise moment I wasn't watching so I didn't have a clue which direction it had gone- pure stress! Fortunately the guy concerned was able to tell me that he thought it had gone 'over that hill'. Having texted the travelling birders that the bird had flown I set off on foot to hopefully 'refind' it before the crowd arrived. One of our party stayed at the junction to provide directions and also to cover the immediate area incase it came back. Another of our party checked the coast and dunes and I headed North. After 20 minutes of yomping with my camera and scope I realised I was almost back at the loch where the bird had been feeding the evening before. A quick scan and I relocated the bird on a distant fence post. I texted everyone to let them know that we had it relocated and 30 minutes later everyone arrived, got stunning views, brilliant photos and even video footage. A truly magnificent bird, a wonderful location and a great bunch of birders made for my best ever twitch. We even had a supporting cast of eagles, harriers, short-eared owls, corn buntings, glaucous gull and a great white egret! Thanks to Steve Duffield of Western isles wildlife- who has spent a lot of time over many months pinning this bird down in order that lots of visiting birders could connect with it- including me! 

At home in the sleet!
sorting out a local 'thug' buzzard!
some serious birding talent here- and all smiling! 


  1. Great write up Andy and a memorable trip that won't be forgotten in a hurry. Hopefully catch up with you at the next biggy.

  2. Great post Andy, A very enjoyable read & superb pics.