Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Dipping In Moray and Rhynie, Success At The Patch...

Yes, we all have them.... birding days in which we excitedly embark on a day's twitching, setting out an ordered agenda with several targets within realistically close distance of one another. We go out there with high hopes that we will manage to get everything we've gone out to see, nonchalantly presuming that even if we don't see all of our targets that we will at least be partly successful. However, once we've failed to see at least one of targets we start to dip all of targets in quick succession, and we end up having gone a long way for pretty much or even completely naff all.... Surely, even if you are birder that at least does the odd bit of twitching, this must ring a bell?

This is EXACTLY what I experienced a couple of weekends ago (18th March). I had my very own ordered agenda and was excited to make it reality. We planned to start the day at Colthill Farm, which is just south of Cults on the outskirts of Aberdeen, to try and see a group of 100 Bramblings that had been seen with a large flock of Chaffinches, then head up to Rhynie for highland species such as Crossbill, Lesser Redpoll, Red Grouse, and the main target, Black Grouse. After this we would move on up into the neighbouring county of Moray, checking Loch Oire near Elgin for an Iceland Gull that had been seen there, and finally go to Burghead on the coast for King Eider. It was intended to be a full on day, and thus required an early start. Enthusiasm had my Dad and I out of bed by quarter to 6, and we were out birding by 7. I was eager to make the day a good one, so I arrived at Colthill Farm feeling optimistic. When I got out of the car it was apparent that there were Chaffinches about, as I could hear them calling en masse, and it wasn't very long before I located a good number scattered in the several trees by the track leading down to the farm. I proceeded to check each flock very carefully for Brambling, but none of the flocks contained any. There were a few Linnets amongst them but they were they only other species I could manage. So that was dip number one...

It was a fairly long drive to the Cabrach hills near Rhynie, which we found completely covered in snow. Almost immediately I knew that this snow would act as an ill omen to my chances of seeing my target species - Black Grouse - and indeed it was. We had a thorough search for them, checking the very areas that we saw them in last year plus a variety of other areas, but failed. Having searched for about an hour, we went to the layby in which we had seen Great Grey Shrike the previous year before and set off to have a look in the forest for Crossbill, Redpoll, Siskin and such like. We were partially successful, managing to pick up my first Lesser Redpolls of the year - around 20 in all - my first Siskins for the Scottish year list, and 4 Mistle Thrushes were a surprising but welcome addition. There were no Crossbills however, and a look for the Great Grey Shrike that been seen in the area - presumably the same bird that wintered there last year - proved unsuccsessful. The amount of birds, let alone good birds, was negligible, so I left the area feeling gloomy. I lightened up a bit where I sighted a pair of Crossbills on a tree just as we were leaving the area, stopping the car to have a better look. These birds would be the only year ticks or reasonably good birds that I'd manage for the rest of the day.

Onwards and upwards to Loch Oire in Moray. We arrived at this site at around midday, not having much trouble finding it as it was only just off the A96 (the main road up to Inverness). The Loch was pretty, being quite expansive and encompassed by conifers, and it held a lot of gulls. The fact that there were loads of gulls on the Loch made me pretty confident that we'd find the Iceland Gull (s) that had been seen here, so rather too confidently I set up the scope and proceeded to check the gulls. This expectancy just made me more frustrated as I realised after about 5 minutes of searching through them that this was trickier than I thought and that there probably wasn't an Iceland Gull amongst the flock... Furthermore, Dad couldn't see it either. We kept on repeatedly checking for about half an hour, but it was clear that there was no Iceland Gull, even amongst the birds that were arriving whilst we were watching (which was incidentally quite a lot of birds!). We knew that all we could do was move on, and decided we'd return and have another check on the way back. The King Eider at Burghead really was our last hope, but was frankly the most difficult of all our targets to get as it had been seen once in Burghead Bay a few days earlier, having not been seen for over two months before this. As expected on our already awful run of dips we failed to see it, both from the area at the end of Burghead in which we had seen it in 2009 and from an extensive outlook of the bay that we managed to view by having a walk through Roseisle Forest. Finally, a second check at Loch Oire on our way back home was unsuccessful. The day had been plagued by failure, and I headed home hoping to put the frustrations it had caused me it behind me. The only positive I was able to pick out being seeing Crossbill at Rhynie. I would have been better off working the patches...

Despite the disappointment of the previous weekend, I found myself out again this Saturday just past, this time for an afternoon check of the Ythan Estuary. I had planned to check the Ness (my local patch Girdleness) and Strathbeg on the same day, but rain until around 2 in the afternoon prevented from visiting these places. Despite the shortness of the day and only being able to check the Ythan, I had a good time. The estuary itself was largely pretty quiet, but there was a notable amount of Red-breasted Mergansers around. A total of 10 were counted from The Inches alone of which two 2 were drakes, looking rather resplendent as they swam alongside their mates, and another 4 (all females) were near Inch Geck. Furthermore, 15 Golden Plovers were seen flying southwards over the Inches. From the topmost Snub layby there were plenty of Black-headed Gulls, but nothing apart from a few Common Gulls and Herring Gulls was amongst them. Meikle Loch was slightly more productive, with the wintering Great-crested Grebe and Goosander still being present and two Whooper Swans being a noteworthy sighting, two birds that will surely be heading away from the area soon. Finally, we headed to Collieston for a spot of seawatching. On arrival we quickly noted the return of the Kittiwakes (yeartick) to the cliffs, a delightful thing to see. Very little was going past at sea, just the odd group of Gannets, Guillemots and Razorbills. Once it was apparent very little was flying past, I scanned the sea to see if I could pick out anything interesting. I started by checking a group of Eiders and auks not too far offshore, which proved to be worth it. The ducks were all Eiders, and behind them were a group of 6 Razorbills, but behind these Razorbills were two noticeable smaller, plumper auks. No sooner had I noticed them did they disappear under a dip in the sea, but I knew that they weren't Razorbills or Guillemots. I waited for a small amount of time until they finally appeared in view again, and saw that they had white faces and red bills.... two Puffins (yeartick). This was certainly a pleasant surprise, and I proceeded to watch them for a few minutes bobbing up and down as the gentle sea lulled them back and forth. I was quite pleased with my spot, as this record was my earliest ever of Puffin in Aberdeenshire. Shortly after watching the Puffins, we decided to head home having given the Ythan area a good check.

So, even though the day's twitching in Moray and Rhynie on the 18th was a total failure (with the exception of Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll as two yearticks), I enjoyed a good day at the patch on Saturday, with two year ticks. I am hoping that those Puffins that I found are a sign of some better birding to come. I will be heading out again this Saturday with the hopes of my first passerine spring migs at Girdle Ness and Garganey at the Loch of Strathbeg. Spring will very soon be here properly, and I can't wait!

Thanks for reading,


Friday, 11 March 2011

Intense Local Patching

The last couple of weekends saw the weather turn from abysmal to rather glorious, and the fact that I had very little to do meant that I had the perfect excuse to get out and engage in some intense local patching on both of them. My aim of course on these days would be to try and find something unusual, something I am very keen to try and do this year considering I found very little of note last year save a White-fronted Goose at the Ythan and an Egyptian Goose on Meikle Loch. I had birds like American Wigeon, Snow Goose and Iceland Gull in mind as possible finds, but of course I knew in my heart of hearts that the chances of finding any of these was very small. Indeed, I didn't manage to find anything unusual on either of the weekends, but I still enjoyed two nice days out. The first of the two days out was on February 26th, in which I aimed to catch up with a group of Twites that annually winter in the dunes at Ythanmouth and scour the majority of the Ythan Estuary to see what else I could turn up. I arrived at the Ythanmouth car park at around 10:30 and got ready to head off into the dunes. A Song Thrush and 4 Yellowhammers were two welcome distractions and year ticks almost as soon we got out of the car, as were a group of Linnets and a singing Skylark on the way into the dunes - all sure signs of spring and an absolute joy to see for the first time in the year. It wasn't long before we were in the area that we normally see the Twites - a particular grassy and bogey area relatively near the shore that is the only area of the dunes that this almost guaranteed flock of Twites seems to hang around in.

Guaranteed Twite territory..... (image taken in 2009)

Within less than a minute a flock of finches were flushed that immediately revealed themselves to be the Twites when I heard their diagnostic call, surely the shortest time I have ever taken to find them. The flock landed on the ground about 60ft away from us, and I quickly set the scope up and proceeded to count them, getting very good views of them in the process. I managed a total of 38 Twites, the highest count I have ever managed here what with my previous highest total being 35 in 2009. As to be expected the birds were camera shy, flying way off into the distance as I attempted to photograph them and not reappearing. Despite their disappearance from this point onwards, I was still glad to have seen the birds and managed my highest total yet in the area. Job done, so it was onwards to check the mouth of the Ythan. I felt larophilia once again take control of me as I scanned meticulously through several groups of gull, clocking several Great black-backed and Lesser black-backed Gulls amongst the numerically superior Black-headeds, Common and Herring Gulls but nothing particularly interesting. The most success came on the wader front as a long scan of the mouth provided a total of 7 Grey Plovers (yeartick), 11 Ringed Plovers (yeartick), 15 Sanderling and upwards of 25 Bar-tailed Godwits, not bad counts at all. The whole outing took 2 hours and meant it was nearly lunch time by the time we returned to the car. Lunch was had looking over the estuary, where the best either of us could manage was up to 80 Dunlins and a single Peregrine. We rambled on to Meikle Loch, where two Great-crested Grebes and the female Goosander that I had seen there the week before were the most notable birds, the former being a Meikle Loch tick.

Having given the Ythan a prolonged and careful check, we decided we'd end the day by heading up to Peterhead for a bit of seawatching. A brief check of the harbour provided no gulls apart from a few, let alone any white-winged gulls, so it was straight onto Battery Park to see what we could pick up. A few holes in the yearlist were filled at this point, with several Razorbills, 2 Fulmars and 6 Gannets all being new. The highlight here however goes to a more noteworthy bird than the abovementioned species. As my Dad used the Swarovski, I caught onto a large, dark diver going north at medium range in my old Opticron scope. It was immediately obvious that this was my first Great Northern Diver of the year, and I quickly got Dad onto it. He had the privelige of seeing the bird better than I did, but I was still pleased with this spot and was glad to catch up with what has proved to be quite a tricky species to get for the year in the past. The day ended on the note, and I went home glad to have caught up with a nice array of commoner passerines and seabirds and also to have successfully seen the Twites at Ythanmouth and the Great Northern Diver at Peterhead. This outing took the yearlist up to 109 species.

To all intents and purposes, the 26th was quite a quiet day despite the number of year ticks I had managed. However, last Saturday's birding (5th March) was as dead a doornail in comparison to the 26th. The day started with a check of the Ythan, which provided very little apart from a total of 40 Golden Plovers and 60 Dunlin amongst the copious Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews. The Great-crested Grebes from Meikle Loch the week before seemed to have disappeared; however there was now a total of 2 female Goosanders rather than just the one. Next stop was St Fergus and Scotstown head, an area where I don't normally visit. My aim was to have a check of Annachie Lagoon, which has held quite a good number of noteworthy birds in the past. Near the gas terminal we sighted a very large group of around 800 Pink-footed Geese and proceeded to search for any other geese species that might be amongst them. Unfortunately I wasn't able to eek out anything else from amongst the masses of these elegant geese. Plenty of Buzzards were enjoying the sun as I headed towards Annachie Lagoon - one was even seen eating a rabbit amongst the geese! Annachie Lagoon itself wasn't that lively, holding a few Common and Black-headed Gulls. However, 3 Bar-tailed Godwits were nice here. A check off the sea from this point resulted in 2 Red-throated Divers close offshore plus a larger group of divers much further offshore that could have been Great Northerns but were too distant to ID. A late lunch was had looking over the Loch of Strathbeg from the south end, where yet another very large group of Pinkfeets was checked but proved to have nothing else in with them. The only yeartick of the day was had here however, with lovely views of 4 Stock Doves feeding near the car. Finally, a check of the pools from the Visitor Centre at Strathbeg, which held a similar variety of birds to the last time I had been there - several Pintails, 4 Shovelers, 6 Gadwalls and a nice selection of other wildfowl. Otherwise, however, it was very quiet, so we headed back home early after a rather unproductive day. What can you expect at this time of year, though?

I am unlikely to be out birding for a little while now as I am going to be busy in the coming week or so. When I do get out though I hope to go up to Rhynie in the north-west of Aberdeenshire to see if I can connect with some moorland species - particularly Black Grouse, a species I have only ever seen once before, and at that location!

Thanks for reading,