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,



  1. Really sorry you missed out on your trip in Moray, but that is the way it goes sometimes. it is frustrating when others keep seeing species you are interested in but there is no sign when you turn up. The Icelands, Adult and 2nd winter, have been seen almost every day at Loch Oire. I've been searching Loch Spynie for reported Scaup for ages but only found Tufties until I struck lucky last week on a horrible day,weatherwise, when I got really good views of a male on the loch making up for all of my previous disappointments.

  2. Hi John,

    Thank you for posting, it is nice to hear from you. Yes, that's often how birding works as you say, but frustrating experiences such as these just help you to appreciate the better days more. It's good to hear nonetheless that the Loch Oire Iceland Gulls are being seen daily, I get the impression on the day that I was there they had joined the group of gulls in the fields on the other side of the A96 just by the turn off to Loch Oire.

    Hope to hear from you again soon,