Monday, 4 April 2011

Tastes of Spring And The Spoonbill Story

After such a long winter, I admit that it feels like a miracle.... the spring birds have arrived! Well, at least they are starting to! This was particularly evident on Saturday (2nd April) when I went out for a day's birding at the patches. I initially aimed to visit all three patches, starting at Girdle Ness and moving northwards. However, this plan went out of the window as it started to rain torrentially on arrival. We pondered for a while as to what was best to do, hoping that the rain would stop. In the end we concluded that we'd give the Ness a miss and head up to the Ythan Estuary in the hope that the rain would have cleared by then. To our luck it had, and we were finally birding.

Now, a drake King Eider was found on Wednesday at the mouth of the Ythan and was also seen on the Thursday near Inches Point. A drake King Eider is obviously a stunning bird and a rarity, so my aim whilst I was at the Ythan was to see if I could track it down. We started our search by checking from Inches Point, where there was a large congregation of Eiders (up to 80), with several other Eiders in the distance as well. In addition, there were 10 Long-tailed Ducks (half of which were drakes) and a noteworthy total of 35 Red-breasted Mergansers. I meticulously scanned the large group, but unfortunately it wasn't amongst them. I also scanned the more distant birds both to the south of and north of the Point, even roosting birds in the extreme distance, but it wasn't amongst any of them. I had checked upwards of 200 Eiders, so I knew that the best (if not the only) bet was to head round to the mouth and hope there were a good amount of Eiders there. After an annoyingly long wait in the car due to a sudden rain shower, we made it down to the mouth. Disappontingly there weren't a large amount of Eiders here, only a group of about 50 roosting on the shoreline, but looking through the bins soon revealed that there was no King Eider in with them. We walked and round to the fisherman's hut, but unfortunately there were barely any Eiders there either. A last ditch attempt was made for the bird as we had a check of the sea to see if it was sitting there, but alas, it wasnt. This was somewhat disappointing, but nonetheless I knew that all other birders looking for it were experiencing the same frustration as us and there were some other birds to keep us entertained as well. It was an absolute pleasure and a sure sign of spring to see that the first of the Sandwich Terns (yeartick) had arrived back at the ternery, an estimated 15 screeching away and flying hither and thither amongst the plentiful Black-headed Gulls. Furthermore in the dunes, as the clouds suddenly gave way to beautiful sun, 7+ Meadow Pipits were flying about and several Linnets were singing their hearts out, something that just wouldn't have happened a couple of weeks ago. By the time we were back at the car it was nearing 13:00 and with it being high tide we gave the rest of the Estuary and miss and meandered northwards towards the Loch of Strathbeg.

On the way we stopped at Meikle Loch, where the 2 Great-crested Grebes remained and 5 Shovelers (4 drakes and a female) were present, and at St Fergus for a check of the usually guaranteed Pink-footed Goose flocks. There wasn't a huge amount there (no more than 300 including all the different flocks), but nonetheless they were all checked and didn't have anything else amongst them. Apart from seeing the Sandwich Terns, it had been a frustrating day, so I was hoping that Strathbeg would come up trumps and offer me some good birding. To my delight, it did. I arrived at the Visitor Centre at about 3:00pm to find that one of the regular Strathbeg birders was on site . They told me that they they were watching two drake Garganey and that the female was also around. Garganey was my principal target whilst at Strathbeg, so this was great news. The scope was set and I was duly directed to where the Garganey were, which was just to the left of the Savoch Tower on the Low Ground, and I had found myself watching two drake Garganey (yeartick) within seconds of arriving. The two of them were swimming along fairly close by to one another, once or twice swimming right beside each other, amongst an array of other ducks which included Gadwall, Pintail and Shoveler amongst the numerically superior Teals and Wigeons. Garganey aren't that tricky to get at Strathbeg at the right time of year, but nonetheless whenever I see them there I can't help but feel utterly delighted. The drakes are absolutely beautiful - the chesnut brown head and broad white supercilium contrasting with a silvery grey plumage is a stunning combination! Unfortunately the two drakes were too distant for any photos, but nonetheless I enjoyed splendid and prolonged views down to about 150ft of them both for about 10 minutes before they both suddenly swam behind a clump of reeds and therefore out of view. My birding day had suddenly taken a turn from frustrating to rather satisfying!

Shortly after this a couple of other familiar faces joined us and we all tried to relocate the Garganey. After about 20 minutes we discovered that both drakes were roosting on a small island amongst some Teals, standing out from the teal due to the prominent flash of their white superciliums. Further inspection of this roosting group of ducks revealed that the female Garganey was also roosting amongst them, distinguished from the female Teal in the group by its far paler plumage. It never woke up though, so views of it roosting was all we could manage. After this discovery the lot of us proceeded to chat rather busily amongst one another about vis mig and recent local birding. We got rather carried away, pretty much to the extent that we all stopped birding for a short period of time. One of us had a scan (not me!) whilst the rest of us were chatting, and what followed was quite something!!


The chatting came to an abrupt halt, and suddenly the talkative atmosphere gave way to bewilderement and excitement. I can remember most of us saying 'WHAT?!' to the statement we had just heard, but we all turned to our optics to confirm the sighting. They were right, as sure enough there was a Spoonbill, standing right in the open just behind where the Garganey were! This was astonishing stuff, as just minutes earlier we had all been looking very intensely in the exact area where this Spoonbill was standing whilst looking at the Garganey! How a bird as large and obvious as a Spoonbill had managed to evade us all was ridiculous, so we all came to the conclusion that it must have flown in why we were speaking to each other, or alternatively that it had been hiding in the reedbed close by and appeared from there. One thing is for sure, it certainly wasn't there when we were looking at the three Garganey! The bird was messaged out on the local text service promptly, and we all proceeded to have good views of this magnificent and fantastically unique bird. As all Spoonbills do, this Spoonbill was 'spooning', elegantly sweeping its bill from side to side for food purposes. It spent quite a lot of its time doing this, sometimes just standing there, revealing its fabulous spatula-shaped bill. I got the camera out and proceeded to take a few distance record shots, but knew my best bet was to go round to Tower Pool Hide if I wanted better views. We were just about to when my Dad spotted the wintering redhead Smew amongst the ducks on the further pools, although it was quite a distance away from the Garganey and was fairly inconspicuous as it was roosting a long way off. Very happy with our visit so far, we said goodbye to the birders in the Visitor Centre and headed off to Tower Pool Hide for better views of the Spoonbill and to have a look for anything else that may be around.

On arrival the Spoonbill was located immediately and just happened to be one of the nearest birds to us, at no more than 100ft away. The light was ideal, so I proceeded to spend an hour or so simply photographing the Spoonbill as it went about its buisness, as well as getting sensational views of it through the scope. Luckily for me, it didn't fly or move very far at all. Of course, a degree of patience was required in that I had to wait until the bird stopped spooning to take the photos, but otherwise it couldn't have been more perfect! It was a treat being able to photograph this majestic bird, and I knew that I would have a lot of work to do when I got home in terms of sorting out all the photos I had taken! Here are the best photos that I managed. Apologies if you can't see it very well or the pictures appeared blurred, in photo terms it was pretty distant and consequently I had to heavily crop them all! For larger versions of these images, see my flickr page ( - flickr spoonbill)

Spoonbill, Loch of Strathbeg, 2/4/11

The Spoonbill wasn't the only thing to keep us entertained at Tower Pool Hide either. The 3 over- wintering Ruff were still present, as were 6 Dunlins. Unfortunately the 3 Garganey could not be seen from here. Dad found a Black-tailed Godwit (yeartick) whilst I was taking photos of the Spoonbill, which I had a cursory look at and enjoyed seeing immensely, what with it being yet another spring bird! However, this didn't quite match the sudden arrival of upwards of 35 Sand Martins once I had stopped taking photos as they gracefully zipped around above the pools, calling as they went and their brown backs and white breasts glinting in the beautiful evening sunlight. This was somewhat of a revelation to me, and having witnessed this beautiful spectacle I really did feel that spring had arrived! It was around 6:45 by the time all this had happened and the sun was starting to set, so we decided to call it a day. I ended the day on 120 species for the year, with 5 new year ticks.

This weekend I really felt that not just spring, but my birding this year, came to life! After a long run of uneventful and frustrating winter days out and even a frustrating start to the day through dipping the King Eider, things have finally improved with the three Garganey and more importantly the day-maker, the Spoonbill - a lovely bird and a fantastic one for the patch (my third sighting on the reserve, I had 3 together in 2009)! A great days' birding. Things look set to improve as well as early next week I am going to be down in Norfolk and Suffolk spending a few days birding!! One of the birds on my agenda is the Short-toed Treecreeper at Landguard NR, so I'm pretty excited! Tune in next time for the report of my first day spent in the Norfolk and Suffolk area.


  1. Hi Joseph
    Thanks for you comment
    And well done with the spoonbill. What a rarity! I'm wondering where this bird could have come from. A passage migrant maybe?

    Good luck with birding


  2. Yeah well done on the Spoonbill, more or less common down here ;)
    Makes up for missing the King Eider! Although I'd rather see the Eider.
    Good Luck in Norfolk/Suffolk, you could detour to Oriental Turtle Dove on your way :)

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  4. Hi guys,

    Thank you both for your comments! Yes it was a passage migrant Lucas, but where it came from exactly is unclear.

    Thanks Ashley, I know Spoonbill isn't the rarest of birds! Had another try for the King Eider today but failed again - a 1st winter Bonaparte's Gull made up for that in the afternoon! ;)