Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A Nice Day for Ducks

'A Nice Day for Ducks' is a phrase usually used in association with wet weather. However, my usage of the phrase does not intend to have this connotation. I am using the phrase in the context of me actually managing to see some good duck species on my birding outing this Sunday just past (20th Feb). Hitherto this weekend I had been unable to get out all month due to two consecutive weeks worth of more or less non-stop rain, which admittedly was very frustrating. However, I did manage year-ticks in the city in the form of a Peregrine Falcon over the house (only my second over the house) and a Sparrowhawk. It was relieving to finally get out this weekend, and with some decent winter birds at my local patch of the Loch of Strathbeg such as Green-winged Teal and Hen Harrier, I knew that that was the best place to be.

However, before getting to Strathbeg I wanted to stop off at a couple of places. Firstly, I wanted to check Johnstone Gardens in Aberdeen for a drake Mandarin Duck that had been seen there a couple of weeks earlier. Like with all Mandarins, I knew its origins would be debateable, but I was keen to check it out and see if I could shed any light on its origins. I arrived there at 9:30, and what with it being a small area, had the whole area covered within 10 minutes. Unfortunately it didn't seem to be present with the Mallards and Moorhens in the area, and thus I never saw it. Maybe the fact that it had disappeared is indicitave of it being a wild bird... I will never know, but such behaviour certainly suggests it to me! My next stop was at my other local patch of the Ythan Estuary. A check of the main part of the estuary revealed that several waders were wintering in the area, with a rather impressive 110 Knots (yeartick) mixed in with an equally impressive 130 Dunlins, 40 Golden Plovers, and several Lapwings, Curlews and Redshanks. Apart from the noticeable variety and totals of commoner waders, there was very little else on the Estuary. On the nearby Meikle Loch, several Goldeneyes and Tufted Ducks were swimming about, as was a female Goosander, a new species for Meikle Loch. On the way to Strathbeg, we stopped several times to intensly check fields with gull flocks in them in the hope that there may be something more interesting amongst them -I was letting out the inner larophile within me! Unfortuantely, I was unsuccessful in finding anything more interesting than the usual variety.

We arrived at Strathbeg on the verge of midday, going into the visitor centre and having a nice chat with one of the local birders about what was around and other things avian. We were informed that there wasn't too much about from a nice assortment of commoner ducks, but I didn't let this discourage me from looking for the scarcer birds that I knew were lurking somewhere on the reserve - namely Green-winged Teal and Hen Harrier. As I checked the pools I noted a pair of Shoveler (yeartick) amongst the Wigeons and Teals in their hoards, as well as several pairs of absolutely stunning Pintails, the latter of which seemed to spend a lot of times with their rear ends sticking in the air and their heads submerged in the water. I checked as closely as I could for the Green-winged Teal, which was very tricky due a majority of the ducks being very distant, but failed to find it. However, as I came back across the Pintails I had seen earlier I noticed a much, much smaller duck appear from a dive beside them with a red head. I immediately declared 'I've got a redhead Smew', vaguely aware that one had been around for the winter but that it hadn't been seen in several days. I informed my Dad and the birder we were speaking to where it was, and they subsequently caught onto it and thanked me for re-finding it. If I was able to re-find this Smew without it being seen before, maybe there was more to find that was yet to be seen that day, I thought to myself...

I was right. Having birded for about half an hour from the Visitor Centre, I was taking a short break from scanning the pools when I noticed out the corner of my eye that a large, pale coloured bird was flying to the left of me. I turned round and, to my delight, locked onto the male Hen Harrier, one of my targets for the day. Yet again, I immediately alerted every one else of my sighting. Only very briefly was I truly mesmerized by its magnificence and beauty, as I saw it zoom southwards close to the side of the visitor centre building. Now, I find that you can never settle with just brief views of a male Hen Harrier, you have to get good, prolonged views! So my Dad and I quickly went out of the Visitor Centre to see if we could re-locate it. We checked the field in front of the car park feeders, and sure enough, there was the male Hen Harrier alongside a Buzzard. It was the epitome of elegance, sleeker and much thinner than the Buzzard beside it. The Buzzard soon flew out of sight, meaning we were left to watch the rather windstruck male Hen Harrier quartering the field. The wind forced it to go at some speed, but I was still able to become enchanted by this maginificent beast, what with its ghostly grey plumage and general flamboyance! I watched it for about a minute before it eventually flew westwards and out of sight. I thus went back to the Visitor Centre over the moon and rather spell-bound - male Hen Harriers are just beautiful! We had lunch in the Visitor Centre, during which I managed to see 2 Ruffs (1 down from my total of 3 on my previous visit) and continued to watch the redhead Smew. We then decided that we'd head to Tower Pool Hide to get closer to the ducks and have another stab at finding the Green-winged Teal. I was on a role, having already re-found two of the better birds in the area. I just needed to try and re-find this Green-winged Teal now.

On arrival at Tower Pool hide Dad used the scope and searched for the Green-winged Teal first. He wasn't able to find it on his first try, but we were both able to count a pretty surprising total of 28 Pintails, more than I have ever seen before! Once I had the scope, I proceeded to look as meticulously as I could for the Teal. About 10 minutes passed with no success whatsoever, when suddenly, as I was checking some of the closer ducks to us I alighted upon a group of Teals that contained an indivdual without a horizontal white stripe that looked somewhat bulkier than its fellow Teals. I waited for it turn round, and noticed a vertical stripe. "YES!', I thought to myself as I saw this bird; I had just found the drake Green-winged Teal after a few days of it not being seen, my third re-find of the day! I was elated, and quickly got another birder in the hide onto it and let my Dad see. What ensued was very good, prolonged views through the Swarovski of the drake Green-winged Teal down to about 120ft at its closest. Views of this bird were far, far better than the views I got of the drake in Kinneil Lagoon (Forth) back in December (I didn't just see it roosting and it wasn't at great distance)! It differed from the Kinneil bird somewhat, with a seemingly larger yellow vent than its commoner cousins, a slightly larger and bulkier appearance, and most importantly its vertical white stripe was indistinguishable in comparison to most Green-winged Teals - it was very thin and wasn't a very prominent white at all, but was still noticeable. If this bird had been at distance, it may well have been a trickier ID! It was brilliant to see this Teal, as not only was it a lovely bird but it was also a very useful year-tick that took me till the last few days of December to see last year, a species that I could have very easily missed this year, and only my third ever! We watched it for about half an hour, and then left, receiveing news from a couple of birders that they had seen two White-fronted Geese at the Ythan on Saturday. We ended up going back to the Ythan to search for these White-fronts, but were unsuccessful, despite finding and checking several Pinkfeet flocks. It really was a day for ducks, despite dipping on the Mandarin at Johnstone Gardens! Below are the duck totals for the day:

1 drake Green-winged Teal, 28 Pintails, 1 redhead Smew, 2 Shoveler, 2 Gadwall, several hundred Wigeons and Teals, 1 female Goosander

Overall, it was a fantastic and fulfilling day - I had managed to re-find three birds before anyone else at Strathbeg, I had seen both the targets that I had come to see (Hen Harrier and GW Teal) and saw some other lovely birds! Furthermore, the yearlist increased to 98 species. A very successful winter days birding! Excuse the absence of photos in this post, the light was poor and most birds were too far away to photograph. Don't worry though, there will be photos soon!

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 12 February 2011

NEWS: Fair Isle Trip Report (October 2010) Now Published!


This is my third 'page' that I have published, and that's right, it's of my Fair Isle Trip Report from October 2010, which I can only describe as so good that it took absolutely ages to write about! The trip report includes in-depth analysis on each day spent on Fair Isle and the birds seen on those days, plus my very own photos of the birds and the landscapes there.

To read the report please click the tab below my title photo that says 'Fair Isle Trip Report'. I would really appreciate any comments or feedback you may have on the content on the report and your thoughts on it. However, you aren't actually able to comment in the actual page itself, so....

Thank you very much, I will look forward to your thoughts and I hope you enjoy the report!

Joseph Nichols

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Birding In Perthshire and The Fife Coast

This weekend just past saw a drastic change to the usual way that I go about my birding. Most of the time I engage in hardcore local patching, but on Sunday (30th Jan) I did the opposite from this - I twitched. This was partly due to the fact that it was quiet in Aberdeenshire and I was hoping to get to 100 by the end of January, but mostly because I wanted to do something that I had always wanted to do - go to Scone Palace in the county of Perthshire to see if I could see a bogey bird of mine, the Hawfinch. Scone Palace is arguably the best place in Britain for Hawfinches, with fairly large numbers present there each winter. On birdguides last week the Hawfinches at Scone Palace were reported regularly, and what with Hawfinch being a bogey bird and a species that I had always wanted to see, I couldn't resist the temptation in organising a day down that way. Convieniently, there were some birds in the nearby county of Fife that I could also go for; namely Black Redstart at Crail and Mediterranean Gull at Buckhaven. With these extra birds being around not far away, I managed to convince my Dad to make a day of it.

We woke up very early that morning (around 6:15) and were on our way by 7:00, as we had several places to go to and going any later would mean we wouldn't have enough daylight to get everywhere we wanted to go. The drive down to the Perth & Kinross area was nice and smooth, and we were in the area by 8:20. Before moving on to Scone Palace to try for the Hawfinches we took a detour. This detour was taken so we could see some Waxwings reported just off the motorway (A90) at a roundabout near a little village called Longforgan. Shortly after we were off the motorway we arrived at the roundabout, and in some trees surrounding it sat a total of 90 Waxwings, trilling away and busily flitting from branch down to 40ft. I hadn't seen any Waxwings since early December, so it was fantastic to see them again and pick them up for the year at Longforgan. The sun was still rising as we arrived, so all my photos from my proper camera were very poor. The photo below was taken on my Kodak compact digital camera; pretty poor really, but good enough for a record shot of all the birds!

Waxwing, Longforgan, Perth & Kinross, 30/1/11

After a short while we headed off towards Scone Palace, and we were there by 9:00am. I had been told that the best place to see them was outside the palace grounds in the woodland (called Old Scone Wood) in and around the side entrance to the Palace. They had been reported the day before in and around an archway that was apparently at the end of the side entrance. With the necessary directions, it wasn' t too difficult to find the side entrance. We parked within the vicinity of it and proceeded to walk slowly down the side entrance and towards the archway, listening and looking out for Hawfinches. I could instantly see as I walked down the road that this was absolutely perfect habitat for Hawfinch - vast, mixed woodland comprising mostly of ancient fir and yew trees, all massively tall and ideal for the birds to spend time in. I was obviously aware that this was going to be a challenge, what with the elusiveness of this species and the sheer amount of woodland they could be hiding in. It was indeed a challenge. Over an hour was spent looking for them in and around the archway with no success whatsoever - I had to content myself with a variety of tit species, including Long-tailed. Interestingly there weren't any common finch species present in the wood, so if I was to come across any finches I came to the conclusion that they'd likely be the Hawfinches. After this hour had past, we were very close to giving up and my Dad suggested that we should move on. However, I decided I would check the area one more time before we went; this is where I got lucky. As I was checking one last time, I flushed up a small group of birds. As soon as they took flight I locked onto them in the bins, and I could immediately see that I had just found the Hawfinches. I quickly lost sight of them as they flew behind a tree, feeling relieved and delighted but desperately hoping that they'd fly by my Dad so he could catch onto them for 100% confirmation. Luckily he did, as very quickly after they disappeared from my view I heard him impetuously shouting my name. I quickly joined him, and he told me that he saw them head to the left of the archway and that he counted a total of 15, so we headed off to see if we could re-find them.

From this point onwards we continually refound them. Frustratingly, however, our views were poor and were almost entirely of the flock in flight - they certainly were proving very flighty and hard to observe! Despite the annoyingly brief views though, they completely stood out when we did see them: the very big and conical shaped bill, large head and thick neck, the short tail and the diagnostic broad, white bands on the underwing all very prominent on each individual. Rarely have I seen a species of passerine with such distinctive proportions. They even called as they went; a hard and sharp clicking 'pix!' that was somewhat reminiscent of the first note of a Robin's call ('tic'). We had at least 6 views of the 15 Hawfinches in flight before I finally managed to get views of them actually sitting somewhere. The lead up to this moment is going to stay with me for a long time to come. My Dad and I had managed to flush the flock further into the wood, and after a short while managed to hear them. We traced the sound into a clearing in the wood, and started walking around this clearing, keeping our eyes peeled for them. I was given a pretty big shock when, whilst I was looking, the Hawfinches very suddenly exploded out of the nearest tree to me at great speed. There was much more than 15 this time as wll! I had no idea that they were there, but I was left mesmerised for a few seconds after this experience - a once in a lifetime moment, I feel! The flock, which had now increased in number, landed on a lowish tree for about 5 seconds, at which stage I managed my only views of the birds not in flight and counted a total of 30+ Hawfinches, which I thought was an astonishing number! No sooner had the birds touched down again and they were in flight, this time zooming off away from the clearing and well out of view. That was that. I left Scone Palace a very happy man, delighted to have finally come across this bogey species, seen my first lifer of the year, and most of all to have found such a large number of them after all that effort!

It was then away from Perthshire and onto the Fife Coast, where we would spend the rest of the day. Our first stop here was the town of Kirkcaldy for an Iceland Gull that had been reported at the Esplanade there. Precise directions meant that we found the location fairly easily, and we arrived just after 11:00 to find a group of gulls sitting on the sea very close offshore. It became apparent very quickly that there was no Iceland Gull amongst these gulls. We scanned the whole area of sea for any other gulls and were able to find several groups, but it didn't seem to be amongst them either. We did manage a Rock Pipit (yeartick) here, though. Despite dipping here, I was determined that the rest of the day would be successful, so we headed up the coast to our next destination; Buckhaven, famed amongst Scots birders for holding a few resident Mediterranean Gulls. Buckhaven was only 15 minutes away, and having been before in 2010 (I managed to dip last time), I knew where to go - Shore Road, a small road with some modern housing looking out onto the Firth of Forth. On arrival at Shore Road I immediately took to scanning the grass for one, and low and behold, in the second group of Black-headed Gulls I checked there was one Mediterranean Gull - a Scottish tick for me and only my 4th ever sighting of one! My Dad parked up, and I proceeded to get out the car to try and photograph it. As I did so, it flew up onto a lampost, allowing me to get some shots of it. Below are the best shots I managed of it (light wasn't good at all though) - note the thick, prominent red bill and the all-white plumage of the bird. Interestingly, you'll also see that this bird is ringed. I wasn't able to get a picture showing the details on the ring, but I am currently enquiring as to the location that the ringing took place in. Will be interested to find out more...

Mediterranean Gull, Buckhaven, Fife, 30/1/11

This fantastic creature flew from its perch on the lampost after about 5 minutes and proceeded to land on the sea very close offshore. As I tracked, I set eyes on yet another Mediterranean Gull, meaning there were now two Med Gulls. The second individual was not as far developed in terms of phasing back into breeding plumage as the first, but was still a fantastic bird. What ensued was fantastic views of these two Med Gulls bobbing gently up and down on the sea for about 20 minutes. They were the closest birds to me, no more than 25ft offshore. Here are some photos I managed of both of them.

Mediterranean Gulls, Buckhaven, Fife, 30/1/11

After taking photos of these beautiful gulls I checked the Firth of Forth for any seaducks, grebes or divers that may be around. This was worth it, as it provided plenty of seaducks in the form of over 80 Velvet Scoters (yeartick), 40 Common Scoters (yeartick), and 15 Long-tailed Ducks. Having seen the Med Gulls so well and having also coming across the nice variety of seaducks, I left Buckhaven feeling rather good. I was soon to be disappointed again though, when a check of Lower Largo in Largo Bay for the drake Surf Scoter that had been seen there proved unsuccessful. I was hoping for grebes and divers here as well, but there was very little apart from a raft of Velvet Scoters. It was around 2:00pm, and there was only one more place left on the itinerary for us to go to - Crail for the Black Redstart.

Crail is about 30-35 minutes away from Lower Largo and is one of the northernmost places on the Fife Coast. The Black Redstart here had been seen in a bay called Roome Bay. There was no problem finding this, and on arrival I headed down to the cliffy area of beach in which it had been seen. A photographer and several birders were already down on the beach, so it was clearly still present. Once down there I quickly caught sight of the Black Redstart; a truly stunning male, with the diagnostic greyish black plumage, red tail and bold white wing patch. It was a very mobile bird, clearly nervous of everyone around it as it constantly vibrated its brilliant red tail. It regularly flitted from rock, perching upright every now and then before flying again. This made it pretty difficult to photograph, and what with the light conditions my results weren't good. It was a magnificent bird and a very valuable year tick though! Other year ticks in the area included a fine Grey Wagtail and a Meadow Pipit. Below are the two best photos I managed of the Black Redstart + a picture of Roome Bay.

Black Redstart, Crail, Fife, 30/1/11

It was around 15:45 when we left Crail, and with nowhere else to go we decided to call it a day. Despite two dips and the yearlist only increasing 9 species from 81 to 90, it was a very successful day - you wouldn't say no to 30 Hawfinches, 2 Med Gulls, 90 Waxwings and a male Black Redstart, would you? Winter birding at its best, and a fantastic way to end January!

Thanks for reading,