This was a morning’s worth of birding spent at the Ythan Estuary, where I hoped to see the King Eider. I had dipped this bird on a couple of occasions earlier on in the year, but the fact that it had been seen everyday at that point meant I couldn’t resist having another go. Beforehand however a check of the upper estuary was had as we stopped at the Snub car parks to see what was around. A lone Greenshank (yeartick) showed well very close to us. Better though was a Little Egret feeding and wading about by the Snub itself from the uppermost Snub car park, which had actually been seen earlier that morning but was a pleasure to see and a Scottish yeartick. Little Egrets are only ever seen on passage here so in Scotland they’re quite an exciting bird. It was quiet apart from this though, so we headed down to the mouth of the estuary to try for the King Eider.
On arrival we saw two birders with their scopes on what was presumably the King Eider. They were indeed watching the bird, and on being given directions I got on to the drake King Eider (yeartick). I was delighted, as always when I see this species. The Ythan holds a King Eider most years, but I'd dipped one last year (but saw it at Collieston), so it was great to see one on the Ythan. It was with a very large group of Eiders by the Grey Seal colony, and like its commoner cousins it was roosting. Rather disappointingly it was roosting for almost the entire time we watched it. Only once did it reveal its exquisite self and immaculate face and bill, momentarily stopping roosting and taking a few steps across the sand before returning to roost again, a brilliant moment as I was on the bird in the scope when this happened and views were close. I feel so privileged to live in a place where I can more or less see this rare and stunning species annually, something you just don’t get anywhere else in Britain. This was the fourth King Eider I have seen in the UK. To round off a very successful morning’s birding, a visit to Meikle Loch saw me having prolonged views of an adult Little Gull hawking low over the water, my second of the year, and my first Osprey of the year, which dramatically took a fish and then flew off. Below is a picture of the King Eider roosting – be warned, it’s bad, but I’ve got better coming in future posts!
April had been a great month with a great run of decent birding days, and the 23rd was no exception to this. It started fairly quietly, however. My first stop of the day was at Girdle Ness, where I spent an hour or so. A check of the Battery and the allotments was had but there was nothing in the way of passerine migrants, and a short seawatch proved to hold nothing but a few Gannets and Kittiwakes. At this point I was feeling that it wasn’t worth it. However, a check of Nigg Bay revealed a surprising total of 32 Long-tailed Ducks, a mixture of males and females. They kept on diving so all 32 weren’t on show all the time, but this was the peak count that I managed. There had been over 20 in the previous few days, but this was the most that the bay had held all year; a noteworthy congregation of a neat species.
From there we went all the way to the Strathbeg area, where we decided to have a check of the Loch of Strathbeg plantation. This always takes up time, and it probably wasn’t worth the effort for our totals, 3 Chiffchaffs and 15 Wheatears, the latter species loving the low ground leading up to the plantation and nice to see plentifully. On top of this we checked a field that Dotterel consistently turn up each year in the same area as the plantation, where 3 Corn Buntings (yeartick) were present. At Strathbeg itself things improved. About 45 minutes was spent at the Visitor Centre, where we enjoyed watching a few passage waders. Along with Dunlins and others, 6 Ruffs were sticking together at the back of the pools, each making the transition towards summer plumage, and a Greenshank was nearby. The highlight though was a Spotted Redshank (yeartick) in cracking, all black summer plumage, feeding busily alongside the Ruffs – what a beauty! Unfortunately due to the distance of the bird views weren’t all that great, so we decided to head over Tower Pool Hide to see if we could get better views of it, where we’d spend an hour and a half.
On arrival, a female Marsh Harrier flew in front of the hide, and at least 3 Sedge Warblers were around. As we wished, we managed much better and prolonged views of the stunning Spotted Redshank here and also of the Ruffs and Greenshank, as well as a few other Dunlins. After about half an hour at Tower Pool an Osprey flew over, sending the birds into frenzy. At this point a majority of the waders relocated, and I checked to see if the Spotshank was still with them, which it was. At the same time I spotted a Tringa type wader with a prominent supercilium extending behind the eye that was much smaller than the Greenshank nearby; a Wood Sandpiper. I was somewhat shocked by how early this bird was, as Wood Sands tend to come through in May here, not April. Nonetheless I was very happy to have found it and this find really gave the mix of passage waders some flavour. Good views were had of this Wood Sand for a long time as it fed with the sumplum Spotshank, the Greenshank and the Ruffs, great to see together. They were then spooked after about 25 minutes, at which point the Wood Sand flew out of view into some vegetation and didn’t reappear. We left at that point, telling the assistant warden of our sighting and heading off. I later found out that this was the earliest ever record of Wood Sandpiper on the reserve, so I was pretty chuffed.
The final stop of the day was the Ythan, where I went for seconds of the Bonaparte’s Gull that had been there. It had been seen from Waulkmill Hide near the top of the estuary in the morning, so we made our way there hoping that it’d still be present. It couldn’t have been easier. As soon as we arrived we located a gull flock and at the front of them was the Bonaparte’s Gull. It was the closest gull to us, no more than 30ft away. Unlike on the first time I saw it, I felt that this time I was really able to admire the diagnostics of this bird – the darker grey mantle, notably short bill and pinky legs as well as the size difference in comparison to Black-headed Gull. Interestingly, I noted this time that the Boney’s Gull had a very small black patch on the head that I was certain was absent during my previous sighting (when I had good views of the head as well), clearly signifying the first developments of its summer hood. For a while the gulls were further away, but they soon returned to sitting very close to the hide. At this point I decided to photograph the Boney’s, but the problem was it that it had been raining since we had got into the hide. Regardless, I managed a few OK shots, the results of which are below. Even in the rain, watching the bird was enjoyable, and we spent half an hour doing so. Whilst doing this, the presence of 7 Whimbrels (yeartick) was noted. Eventually though, the rain got too heavy for birding so we headed home after a great day.
Bonaparte's Gull, Ythan Estuary (23/4/11)
On hearing about the presence of 5 White-billed Divers (!!) on the sea off Portsoy in North-western Aberdeenshire, I was desperate to get out and see these birds. However, they had turned up on a Monday and a school week to go through so I had a painfully long wait before I could get out. Thanks to the Royal Wedding (although I had no ambition to watch this whatsoever!) we had a day off school, so that Friday morning we headed off bright and early to Portsoy to see if we could see any White-billed Divers. Unfortunately numbers seen off Portsoy had gone down during the week, reducing to the sighting of one bird two days before we went. This was slightly less hopeful but due to how far away it was we knew that very few would have checked it. The drive took over an hour, with 3 Red-legged Partridge (Scottish yeartick) seen on the way. Once we had arrived we wended our way down the picturesque fishing village and parked down the harbour. White-billed Divers had been seen from the higher ground just west of the harbour, and from where we parked this was visible, so we made our way up there.
The light was great and the sea was calm so we fancied our chances. A 5 minute full scan from us both of the sea didn’t reveal any White-billed Divers, but 2 summer plumaged adult Great Northern Divers were present in different areas of the sea and were a delight to watch – fantastic birds! We kept on scanning but without success. About 25 minutes in though, I scanned across a group of Guillemots far out and in doing so caught onto a spectacular summer-plumaged adult White-billed Diver!! Wow, what a stunning bird!! The eye-catching feature of course to this stunner was its massive, upturned yellow bill which stuck out like a sore thumb even at great distance contrasting with its jet black head. I instantly exclaimed to my Dad that I was on a White-billed, and we were quickly both on it. This White-billed Diver was huge, and I mean huge! It was noticeably larger and bulkier than a Cormorant swimming nearby, and Cormorants are big birds! Summer plumaged White-billed Diver had been a dream bird for me to see in the UK, so I was struggling to believe my luck. My Dad and I watched it for 30 seconds, completely in awe of its beauty, but it quickly dived. We panicked after a minute of looking in the same area as the bird didn’t seem to have resurfaced. We tried our hardest to re-find it for the ensuing half an hour or so, but were unsuccessful. My dream had been short-lived, but it had come true and I had been successful in seeing one so I was over the moon. Our hope of re-finding the bird decreased as the wind began to pick up and the sea became choppy. However, we kept on getting onto the Great Northern Divers that were out there and enjoyed nice views of these. 15 minutes after seeing the White-billed, Dad was watching one of the Great Northerns whilst I was taking a binocular scan, when I noticed a small white-winged gull right in front of me.
‘ICELAND GULL, right in front of us!’
Dad looked up, and he too connected with this first-winter/juvenile Iceland Gull (yeartick), a very pale, coffee-coloured bird. This cracker wheeled round in front of us briefly, giving us stunning binocular views down to 20ft. At this point I noticed the diagnostic ‘kinder’ face in comparison to Glaucous Gull and mostly black bill. It then flew right over our heads (!), flying east towards another bay alongside a Herring Gull which it was considerably smaller than. We continued to watch it through the bins until it eventually disappeared out of view. A self-found Iceland Gull and a summer plumaged White-billed Diver in the space of 15 minutes – this was ideal birding! That Iceland Gull was also only my second ever, so I was absolutely delighted to have found an elusive species and a very valuable yeartick. After more searching for the White-billed with no success, we left the higher ground of the harbour and headed round to an area called Links Road, where one bird had been seen on Wednesday. A check of here didn’t reveal a White-billed Diver but did produce 15 Long-tailed Ducks, always nice to see.
We then headed towards Strathbeg to give it a routine check. Before checking the reserve we checked the ‘Dotterel’ field at the north end of the reserve as it was getting to the time when this species could turn up there. There weren’t any Dotterels present, but a Corn Bunting was unbelievably confiding, as shown in the pics below. It was then round to the reserve, where things were quieter than last time. From the Visitor Centre the 6 Ruffs were still present, as was the Greenshank from Tower Pool Hide. An Osprey was having a wash here too, always great to see. Reed Bunting, Common Tern and Willow Warbler were all Scottish yearticks. New in from last time were a Whimbrel and a Bar-tailed Godwit from Tower Pool Hide. We had arrangements early evening, so the day ended on that note, going home thinking this was the ideal way to end April, but there was more to come...
Having been out on 29th, only a rarity would get me out birding again the next day. And it did. That morning, 11 Dotterels at the Ythan came through on the local text service. At the nearest opportunity we got out and sped up to the Ythan. The birds had been seen in the stubble fields at the crossroads to Collieston (‘Collieston Crossroads’), so we went straight there. They were said to be on the left hand side of the road in an expensive field right by the road, so we managed to park up here and view the field. It didn’t take long to get onto the 11 Dotterels (yeartick), which were grouped close together at medium distance (100ft). It’s always fantastic to see these birds, they’re so enigmatic and they’re bright rufousy breasts are striking. Unfortunately due to heat haze and the fact we were facing the sun views were not great, but good enough to enjoy. At least 5 more brightly coloured females were picked out, and all 11 birds were watched for 20 minutes scuttling along the stubble, occasionally standing tall and alert and sometimes sitting down. Eventually they all sat down and went out of view behind a verge. We moved the car to a different location to get a different perspective of the field and to see if we could better views. The birds were still out of sight despite us changing position, but we were able to pick out the supericiliums of 5 birds very low in the short stubble. This just goes to show how adept these birds are at hiding themselves!
Satisfied and happy, we were about to check the estuary when another message comes through the text service: ‘Adult drake Surf Scoter off Murcar Golf Course’. The quality birds just wouldn’t die down! It was on the way home so we headed straight to the golf clubhouse at Murcar and strode towards the dunes. On finding a good viewpoint, we scanned the sea and close in found a group of 50 Common Scoters and in with them the stunning drake Surf Scoter (yeartick) that had been reported. The weather was glorious and the Surfie was only 100ft offshore, so I knew we were in for treat. When first seen it was roosting, and frustratingly it kept on roosting for almost half an hour so we could only see the white patch on the side of its head! Finally it stopped and revealed it’s wonderful self – you can never enough of that huge and unmistakeable red, yellow and white bill! From this point onwards it didn’t roost once so we got ideal views of this startling bird in perfect light on a still sea for a prolonged period of time: side views, face on views, feet views, the lot! It dived on a few occasions, but generally resurfaced quickly. It was unbelievable to see it so close and was incredibly enjoyable as well as lucky, it’s an incredibly rare occurrence to have ideal conditions off Murcar/Blackdog and to get views of the flock down to 100ft like that – they’re normally miles off!
What a month it had been, if you add seeing the Boney’s Gull and the Norfolk trip before all the birds mentioned in this post, you can see this was a fantastic month’s birding. Also, what a great two days birding to round off the month! I think it will be hard to match the quality of April this year!
Thanks for reading,