Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Great Big Scotland Trip [3 of 3]

Day 7 - Findhorn Valley / Lochindorb

Friday was another travelling day. We kept our eyes peeled for birds as we drove over the mountains. We managed some Raven and another Osprey, but nothing better. We decided to visit the Findhorn Valley and picked up a Peregrine for our troubles, but had no luck with Golden Eagles.

Where are we ...

A bit of good gen from a fellow birder saw us visit Lochindorb. Another Hooded Crow was noted on the way, then we had a pair of summer-plumaged Black-Throated Divers [year tick 197!], after much frantic scoping of the water. We didn't manage much else that day, but had plenty to look forward to on Saturday and Sunday in and around Boat of Garten.

Black-Throated Diver

Bird of the day - Black-Throated Diver

Day 8 - Loch Garten / Glen Feshie / Loch An Eilean / Loch Vaa

It was almost inevitable that at some point we would have one of those days where nothing goes right. Saturday was that day. My Dad and I rose at 5:00am and made our way to Loch Garten for the Capercaillie watch. Sadly, it didn't show, but this was not a huge surprise so late in the year. Apparently, mid-April to early-May is the prime time to see these birds.

May I say a big thank you to the person who dropped their guts during our spell in the hide. Dipping on the horse of the forest was bad enough, without having to deal with your stench too! Shame on you, whoever you are!

Afterwards, we had a short walk down to nearby Loch Malachy and picked up more Spotted Flycatchers and Redstarts, but no Crested Tits, which were our prime objective.

After breakfast, we had another look for Crested Tits in the forest, but to no avail. We had scant consolation in a couple of trip birds near Boat of Garten, namely Wigeon and Little Grebe. Then disaster struck. The boot of my Dad's car wouldn't shut properly and we were grounded for an hour or two until a mechanic armed with some WD40 was able to fix the problem. We still made it to Glen Feshie, picking up another Osprey on the way, but had to abandon any serious birding due to time constraints. A quick stop off at Loch An Eilean yielded a Goldcrest for the trip list that didn't exist, but Loch Vaa, which is reported to hold breeding Slavonian Grebes turned up nothing better than the by now mundane Goldeneye and Common Sandpiper.

Relatively speaking, it was a pretty dismal day. On the other hand, it seems daft to declare any day a disaster when you have seen Osprey, Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher!

Bird of the day - Goldcrest [Oh dear!]

Day 9 - Loch Garten / Nethy Bridge / Cairngorm

Another early morning vigil at the peanut feeders at Loch Garten failed to produce any Crested Tits. News that the Capercaillie had showed that morning didn't help to lighten the mood either. A bit of gen took us to Nethy Bridge where a walk through the forest brought us more Redstarts, Spotted Flycatchers, a Treecreeper, Willow Warbler, Yellowhammer and Common Buzzard, but no Crested Tits. We had one last punt on the feeders outside a small cafe that smelt like a bacon sandwich, but our luck was not in. It was a pity we didn't need to life tick Chaffinches as they're were hundreds of them outside this putrid eatery! We finally had to admit defeat. A pity, as I had thought this was one of the Scottish specialities we were very likely to pick up.

Mist over Loch Garten

We decided to spend the remainder of the day up Cairngorm. We drove the majority of the way up, then caught the funicular railway to the summit. Here we saw many more Ptarmigan and what could only have been a Ring Ouzel [lifer 221!] [year tick 198!] flew over, but we did not get good views of it. I was in two minds whether to tick it or not, but there was no doubt as to what it was so I did, though it made me feel a bit grubby. It didn't really feel like a lifer to be honest.

Trust me, that's a Ptarmigan!

Apparently, several people had had good views of Ring Ouzel from the train so were quite vigilant on the way back down, but we didn't see any. We had a short walk to see if we could get better views of this elusive bird, but failed to do so.

Once again, we conceded defeat and set off for Carlisle and our last day of birding. It was at this point that I took up my new hobby - spotting Eddie Stobart trucks. For those that don't know, each cab brandishes a woman's name, like Rhona Virginia and Caitlin Morgan. The blame for this new dirty habit lies solely at the feet of Dave 'Leapy' Lyons who pointed out this fact on the way back from Devon earlier in the year. As a result, I now have an Eddie list comprising some thirty-something names! I'm sure Leapy has many more.

Day 10 - Solway Firth / Neumann's Flash

The Solway Firth added nothing other than a few trip birds, namely Great Black-Backed Gull, presumed female Bar-Tailed Godwits and some Common Tern. Other than that it was just the standard gulls and Oystercatchers in the main, but we noted a few first-summer Grey Plover, a few more Whimbrel and one or two other things. The hoped for Pomarine Skuas did not show.

The Solway Firth

Many thanks to Kay for keeping us posted regarding the Black-Winged Stilts at Neumann's Flash in Cheshire. We decided this was worth a look and it turned out to be one of the most efficient pieces of birding on the trip. We went to the wrong hide initially, but were able to add a Reed Warbler to both my Dad's year list and our trip list, which, as I have said many times before, we were not doing!

Once in the right spot, we had no trouble viewing the birds [lifer 222!] [year tick 199!]. I even got some reasonable pictures. Definitely a good way to end the trip.

Black-Winged Stilt

Bird of the day - Black-Winged Stilt

It was only whilst sitting in my local curry house that evening, waiting for my Prawn Bhuna, nursing half a pint of Cobra, that it really began to dawn on me all that we had done and seen during the past week or so. A wry smile spread across my face as I sat there in quiet contemplation. Amazing scenery, some monumental birding, good food, good wine and a fair few swigs from the hip flask.

The fact that we dipped on a few things means we have good reason to go back some day too. Oh, and for the record, here's that trip list that we didn't do!

Bar-Tailed Godwit, Black Grouse, Blackbird, Blackcap, Black-Headed Gull, Black-Tailed Godwit, Black-Throated Diver, Black-Winged Stilt, Blue Tit, Brent Goose, Buzzard, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Coal Tit, Collared Dove, Common Gull, Common Sandpiper, Common Scoter, Common Tern, Coot, Cormorant, Cuckoo, Curlew, Dipper, Dunlin, Dunnock, Eider, Gannet, Goldcrest, Goldeneye, Goldfinch, Goosander, Great Black-Backed Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Grey Heron, Grey Partridge, Grey Plover, Grey Wagtail, Greylag Goose, Guillemot, Hen Harrier, Herring Gull, Hooded Crow, House Martin, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Jay, Kestrel, Kittiwake, Lapwing, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Linnet, Little Grebe, Long-Tailed Duck, Long-Tailed Tit, Magpie, Mallard, Meadow Pipit, Mistle Thrush, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Osprey, Oystercatcher, Peregrine, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Ptarmigan, Raven, Red Grouse, Red Kite, Red-Breasted Merganser, Red-Legged Partridge, Redshank, Redstart, Red-Throated Diver, Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler, Ring Ouzel, Ringed Plover, Robin, Rock Dove, Rook, Ruddy Duck, Sand Martin, Sandwich Tern, Scottish Crossbill, Sedge Warbler, Shag, Shelduck, Siskin, Skylark, Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Stock Dove, Stonechat, Swallow, Swift, Teal, Temminck's Stint, Tree Pipit, Tree Sparrow, Treecreeper, Tufted Duck, Turnstone, Velvet Scoter, Wheatear, Whimbrel, Whitethroat, Wigeon, Willow Warbler, Wood Sandpiper, Woodpigeon, Wren, Yellowhammer

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Great Big Scotland Trip [2 of 3]

Day 4 - Dinnet Oakwoods / Loch Kinord

We stayed at Kildrummy Castle Hotel for four nights and enjoyed good views of Red Squirrels on the lawn most mornings and evenings. The owner has asked me to email him any reasonable photos that I was able to snatch, with a view to adding them to their website. I managed to get a few decent shots, so hopefully some of them will be used.

Red Squirrel at the hotel

Having unexpectedly ticked Long-Tailed Duck on Sunday, we dispensed with the idea of travelling up to the Moray Firth and instead took things relatively leisurely on Tuesday. We travelled over the moors towards Tomintoul and checked out some good Ring Ouzel habitat, but to no avail. Despite there being no trip list, we did manage to add Siskin, Dipper and Common Sandpiper to it!

On the non-birding front, I spotted some tadpoles in a puddle at the side of the road. In view of the excellent weather, those little critters had better hurry up and turn into frogs, as I fear that puddle won't be there for much longer! Further up the road and back into the moors, we had better views of Red Grouse, another Wheatear and some Mountain Hare, which were nice to see.

Mountain Hare

Red Grouse

Dinnet Oakwoods are supposed to be excellent for Spotted Flycatchers, a potential year tick. We managed a Redstart, but nothing else of note. Loch Kinord was also fairly quiet, but we heard Cuckoo, saw Tree Pipits, which are quite numerous in Scotland as it happens, and Goldeneye on the loch itself.


Tree Pipit

Ironically, the best moment came that evening as my Dad and I enjoyed a drink on the balcony of the hotel. There was quite a bit of bird song and as we were quite high up I was able to scan the tree canopy. Suddenly, up popped the bird that had eluded us earlier in the day - a Spotted Flycatcher [year tick 190!]! Birding at its best!

Bird of the day - Spotted Flycatcher

Day 5 - The Cabrach / Bennachie

We had always intended to set Wednesday aside as a non-birding day. However, despite continuing at a somewhat more leisurely pace, we continued to take advantage of some good habitat not too far from base camp. Our first excursion was around moorland, where we added a Stonechat to the non-existent trip list. There was a real champagne moment when a male Hen Harrier [year tick 191!] flew in front of us and showed well for several minutes as it quartered over the fields to our right. A hastily grabbed photo didn't turn out too bad either. What an exceptional bird!

Hen Harrier

Still reeling from this chance encounter, we continued down the road and stopped again near a river. We listened for Ring Ouzel, but heard a Cuckoo instead, which I picked up in a tree not too far away. After a few minutes it was flushed by some Chaffinches that took offence to its being there.

We carried on a bit further, spotted some more ideal habitat and listened again. This time I picked up a Ring Ouzel singing to our right. It didn't sound too far away, but we couldn't spot it. We made our way along the river and through a few fields and got closer and closer to the bird, but I think it must have seen us and stopped singing. The next time we heard it, it was on the other side of the river and we had to give up the chase. Frustrating. We did have another Cuckoo overhead, however.

One of the locals was intrigued to know what we were looking for. As we chatted to him, he gave us some interesting gen regarding another of our target species. More about that later.

That afternoon we had a pleasant walk around Bennachie. Here we saw Roe Deer and a Tree Pipit or two. A Hooded Crow [year tick 192!] was a pleasant surprise. We initially thought it might be a hybrid, but could see nothing to suggest that it was.

Bird of the day - Hen Harrier

Day 6 - The Cabrach / Loch Muick / Lochnagar

It was an early start on Thursday. My Dad and I rose at 6:00am and were soon back along the road we had travelled the day before. We were following up the gen that we had received the previous morning, which turned out to be spot on when we picked up a few Black Grouse [lifer 218!] [year tick 193!] along the road, then spotted in the region of 20 more enjoying a lek further back in the fields.

Black Grouse

That morning, we headed for Lochnagar. We took the minor roads via Loch Kinord again and as we rounded one corner, I noticed two or three bright red birds drinking from a puddle at the side of the road. I managed to blurt out, "Crossbills!" and we parked up a bit further down the road. Dad got his scope whilst I dashed back to see if they were still around. Fortunately, they were still there in the trees bordering the road. They looked good for Scottish Crossbill and their calls were quite different to Common Crossbill as far as I could make out.

Dad arrived with the scope and we were able to get pretty good views, despite a speeding white van sending a large part of the flock into hiding. We were confident enough that these were Scottish Crossbills [lifer 219!] [year tick 194!]. Having compared the following pictures to those of Common Crossbills taken in Devon in February, I am even happier regarding their identification. Other birders who saw the pictures agreed that we had been fortunate enough to locate this Scottish speciality.

Scottish Crossbill

What a stunner!

With our spirits buoyed, we continued to Lochnagar. Ironically, we had another Black Grouse on the way there, so we could have had a lie-in after all!

Before you begin the ascent to Lochnagar, you walk alongside Loch Muick for a mile or two. This yielded us a summer-plumaged Red-Throated Diver and an Osprey [year tick 195!] fishing in the loch. The Osprey was mobbed by several Common Gulls, but still continued to plunge into the water after a fish, before heading off down the valley. The first Osprey I have witnessed out in the wilds, away from the nest.

Loch Muick

Red Deer at Loch Muick

My Dad and I headed up towards the dizzy heights of Lochnagar. This area is supposed to excellent for breeding Dotterel, but we were unable to find any. However, we decided it was worth a scan of the ridge and I picked up a pair of Ptarmigan [lifer 220!] [year tick 196!] flying right to left, which made the journey more than worthwhile.

The view from the top

On the way back along the loch, the Osprey flew over my head, posed momentarily in a tree for me, then disappeared once more as the Common Gulls gave it a hard time once again. Two more Red-Throated Divers were also seen and I was able to get reasonable shots of them too.


Red-Throated Diver

Show us your throat ... thanks!

Look out for the final instalment of ... The Great Big Scotland Trip, coming soon to a screen near you!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Great Big Scotland Trip [1 of 3]

On Saturday 10 May 2008 my Mum, Dad and I headed up to Scotland for ten days of intense birding. We took the decision to avoid compiling an official trip list, as we did not want to fall into the trap of chasing Bullfinches and the like when there were better birds to be had. Despite this, we saw more than 120 species and in order to keep this account at a manageable size, I have avoided listing some of the more ordinary spots that we had along the way.

Picking up a Black Tern [year tick 180!] at Upton Warren on Friday morning after umpteen other failed attemps set me up for the trip nicely.

Day 1 - Fairburn Ings / Harewood House / Holy Island

Travelling up, we decided to stop at Fairburn Ings, apparently a reliable site for Wood Sandpiper. On arrival we checked the sightings board, but were disappointed to see that it had not been updated for a few days. The staff there weren't able to proffer much information either, so we had a quick walk to a couple of the hides and picked up a Tree Sparrow [year tick 181!] and a Ruddy Duck for the trip list that we weren't doing!

Our next stop was in the area around Harewood House. After a pint and a few sandwiches at a nearby pub, we took a walk through the grounds and picked up good numbers of Red Kite, plus a Red-Legged Partridge and a Curlew in the neighbouring fields.

The Angel of the North

Our final stop was on the coast looking out to Holy Island. Here we picked up a pair of Whimbrel [year tick 182!], plus Eider, Sand Martin, more Curlew, some summer-plumaged Grey Plover and a Seal out in the water.

Looking out to Holy Island


We arrived at our bed and breakfast just in time to grab a shower and enjoy a meal, before toasting our year ticks with a wee dram. A good start to the holiday.

Bird of the day - Whimbrel

Day 2 - St Abb's Head / Gullane Bay / Gosford Bay / Prestonpans / Vane Farm

We awoke to find that a curtain of mist had closed in around the east coast. Unperturbed, we set off for St Abb's Head, where the cliffs hold an impressive seabird colony. We stopped to listen for Quail in the fields on the way, following up on a bit of gen we had to hand, but managed nothing better than a Whitethroat.

The mist draws in ...

Once at St Abb's Head, we were scuppered by the mist and despite hearing the nesting seabirds, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. We took a walk to the inland loch nearby and were fortunate to pick up a Kittiwake [year tick 183!] on the water. We could hear a Sedge Warbler, but couldn't see it, but we did manage to find a Chiffchaff and a Wheatear. Realising we were not going to get much more, we decided to set off for Gullane Bay.

Birding near St Abb's Head

Seawatching at Gullane Bay was pretty good. No sooner than I had got the scope up, I dropped onto two Velvet Scoters [lifer 214!] [year tick 184!] flying right to left. Gannets were plentiful, as were Eider, and we also picked up Guillemot [year tick 185!] and Red-Breasted Merganser. Working to a tight schedule, we then headed further round the coast to Aberlady Bay, but noting that the tide was well out, we thought we would be better off continuing to Gosford Bay instead.

Gullane Bay

Gosford Bay was very productive too. We had more Grey Plover, Red-Breasted Mergansers, Dunlin, Sandwich Tern and Eider. Then, whilst checking out a raft of what we thought were Common Scoters, I suddenly spotted something much better - a Long-Tailed Duck [lifer 215!] [year tick 186!]. I think there may have been quite a few there, but they were distant. Attempts at a photograph were sadly unsuccessful.

Gosford Bay

After some lunch, we continued to Prestonpans. The first hide we visited was deserted and nothing appeared to be about, but we walked a short distance and found a couple of other birders in the next hide, plus a sightings sheet. I was pleased to see reports of a couple of Wood Sandpipers and within minutes we were watching this elegant bird [year tick 187!] as it fed with a pair of Redshanks. Then I spotted that a Temminck's Stint had been reported too. We asked the birder to our right about this and he said he hadn't seen it, but apparently it had been around within the previous hour.

It didn't take long for us to decide to invest half an hour or so looking for this bird, which has been on my birding wish list for some time. As it happened, it only took a few minutes until I spotted a small wader on the far shore of the pool we were viewing. I had a job to locate it with the scope, but once I had, I was ticking my third lifer of the trip [lifer 216!] [year tick 188!]. What a stroke of luck! On the sea we had good numbers of Velvet Scoter so my Dad was able to pick up another year tick too.

Wood Sandpiper at Prestonpans

Poor picture of Temminck's Stint

A brief visit to Vane Farm was unproductive, though I think I heard a Garden Warbler in the trees bordering the water. Apparently, a Garganey was present, but as we had seen one in March, we didn't go chasing it. We had hoped a few Pink-Footed Geese may have still been there, but it wasn't to be.

That evening we stayed at the Travelodge at Glenrothes and enjoyed a meal with our friends from Milnathort, David and Jackie Chalmers. I also introduced the concept of Guinness and black to Scotland that evening, something that I'm sure they will be eternally thankful for.

Birmingham City were relegated that afternoon, but I didn't let that spoil what had otherwise been a brilliant day.

Bird of the day - Temminck's Stint

Day 3 - Fife Ness / Montrose Basin

Monday morning saw us at Fife Ness, a site that regularly picks up rarities on passage. The reception was a little frosty to say the least, as I understand there has been tension between the golfers and the birders in the past. I suppose this is to be expected if, say, a Bluethroat decides to take up temporary residence on the golf course and the birders are unable to restrain themselves from trampling over the greens and fairways. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon which way you look at it, we were not troubled with such stuff.


We added Shag, Reed Bunting and Ringed Plover to the trip list that we weren't doing, and I managed to take my best ever photograph of a Sedge Warbler after pursuing the little blighter for ten minutes or more.

Sedge Warbler at Fife Ness

Montrose Basin was notable mainly for its absence of birds as my photograph demonstrates. You might just spot a Curlew in the foreground and a few corvids further back. My Dad managed to get another year tick in the shape of Grey Partridge here, however. Finally, stopping on the moors as we made our way towards Aberdeenshire netted me a Red Grouse [lifer 217!] [year tick 189!].

A deserted Montrose Basin

Bird of the day - Red Grouse

More exciting stuff coming soon in the next instalment of ... The Great Big Scotland Trip!

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Wyre Forest

Sunday was spent in the Wyre Forest, in the company of my Dad, Dave 'Leapy' Lyons and birding chums Kay and Max. We had a very enjoyable few hours and saw most of the birds we expected to, plus a little bonus along the way.

First up, my Dad, Leapy and I went to see the Little Owl not too far from my house. This was a year tick for both my Dad and Leapy. Mission accomplished, we headed for the Wyre Forest, arriving during a heavy shower. The forecast wasn't great, but we managed to survive the day with only a couple of soakings.

Kay and Max arrived shortly afterwards, just as the rain began to ease. A walk along the disused railway line got us several Garden Warblers, a Yellowhammer and a Cuckoo. Once past Lodge Hill Farm, things picked up a bit.

First of all, we homed in on a calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and got pretty good views of it high in a silver birch. This was a lifer for my Dad and a welcome year tick for Kay, Max and Leapy. Then Kay and I bagged a Wood Warbler [year tick 178!], a lifer for her and a year tick for me, but as we were doing so, the rest of the party had latched onto a Redstart. Sadly, I didn't see it, but shortly afterwards my Dad and I had a pair of Tree Pipits whilst the others were gorging themselves on the Wood Warbler. Frantic stuff!

We took a walk down to Dowles Brook, noting Grey Wagtail fairly easily, but we were unable to find the Mandarins or Dippers on this occasion. Walking back through Knowles Coppice we had a listen for Pied Flycatchers without success. With a bit of time to spare, we decided to head back to Lodge Hill Farm as it had been so productive earlier on. This time I got lucky with the Redstart [year tick 179!], but sadly we couldn't track down anymore Tree Pipits.

May I say thanks to Kay and Max for being such good company. It was nice to spend some time with you and I hope we can do it again soon.

Earlswood Lakes, Bittell & Upton Warren

Noting an influx of Black Terns on Sunday, I headed to Earlswood Lakes this morning at 7:00am and was joined by my Dad a bit later on. An hour's scoping brought me no more than a few Common Terns and a Grey Wagtail. We decided to head for Bittell, but that too was fairly quiet, though we did note Sand Martin, Swallow, House Martin, Swift and more Common Terns.

My Dad had to head home at this point, but heavy rainfall last night made me think it might be worth a trip to Upton Warren. After all, it was nearly a year to the day that I had a Wood Sandpiper there.

Sadly, it was pretty quiet there today. I had some brilliant views of Reed Warbler and enjoyed watching the Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers for a time. A singing Lesser Whitethroat was also nice to hear, but I couldn't locate it on this occasion.

It turns out that quite a few goodies did drop into the Midlands during the night, but it seems I just picked the wrong sites. Not to worry, you can't win them all!

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Final Chapter

Sad news, my fellow birders. My nesting Mistle Thrushes finally abandoned their nest yesterday following a traumatic week.

Things started going downhill at the beginning of the week. As you may remember, the birds had laid four eggs between Saturday 12 April and Tuesday 15 April. All was well on Monday afternoon, despite my concerns regarding a few Jackdaws that had been showing a little too much interest in the nest that morning. All four eggs were in place, but I was becoming increasingly concerned, as I had not seen one of the parent birds for a day or so.

There was mixed news on Tuesday. When I returned home from work, one of the eggs had hatched and a rather forlorn looking chick greeted me as I peered into the nest. Sadly, I could only see two other eggs. The sight of a Jackdaw enjoying an unidentified meal on the roof of my house didn't bode well. Worse still, there was still no sign of the other parent.

The next day, the newly-hatched chick had disappeared. It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out that it hadn't decided to fledge the nest a few weeks early! What happened to it remains a mystery, but I strongly suspect another bird enjoyed a hearty breakfast that morning. Very saddening.

Suddenly, on Thursday morning, the second parent returned. Two eggs still remained in the nest and things were looking up. However, my excitement was short-lived. It appears that he [I think it was the male, but I can't be certain] had simply returned in order to collect the mother-to-be. It seemed that they had finally given up the ghost and moved on.

I like to think that the male had spent a day or two constructing a new nest and that they are now making a fresh attempt at bringing up a family. This evening I spotted a Mistle Thrush on the front lawn. I don't know for sure whether it was one of the nesting birds, but I expect it is likely. It showed no interest in the nest and simply appeared to be rooting around for something to eat.

Wherever they are now, I wish them all the best.