Monday, 25 January 2010

Early to mid-winter birding in Aberdeenshire and the end of the birding year

As the month of November progressed the weather gradually became more wintery. The days were colder and shorter, thus meaning less birding time. However, I did manage to get out for a few more birding trips that winter, the first of which was pretty minor. On the morning of 21st November, I headed down to the dunes at Ythanmouth in search of a flock of Twite that I had seen there in the previous two years, thus why I was presuming that this was a reliable spot to see the species in the winter and that they were almost guarenteed. Here are a few pictures of the dunes and the area in which I was looking for this flock of Twite.

The first picture shows the particular area in the dunes where I have seen the Twite flock on previous years. Its a longish walk, but has been worth it in the past. It was certainly worth it this time too. Once again, we managed to locate the flock right in that area without much difficulty, flushing them up with in a couple of minutes. Twites, of course, aren't the most beautiful of birds, but quite tricky and therefore very satisfying to see. I was actually caught by surprise when I spotted them, as they rose from the ground right in front of me (where they had been completely camoflauged) very abruptly, calling their sweet but rather worried sounding call of 'Twite' as they rose to the air all together. There was about 35 of the birds, and they appeared flightless and restless. We had to do quite a lot of walking to track them down, and flushed them up several times, only for them to move to other parts of the area. Eventually we were fortunate enough to see them feeding on the ground, although we had to be very quiet so as not to scare them off. The views were fantastic as we were incredibly close, no more than a few feet. I clearly noted the buff breasts and pale bills on many individuals, and they appeared very dark and grey in comparison to a Linnet or any other finch. I tried to get some pictures, but unfortunately they flew off when I moved to get the camera out... oh well! Nonetheless they were nice birds to see, and bought my 2009 year list to 178. They were the only notable birds that I saw on that brief morning outing.

3 weeks later, on 12 December I was out birding again after what had been a rather busy period of studying for school. Winter had really now. It was very cold (at best a few degrees above freezing) now, and all water sources were basically frozen. Ice was also at large too, so it was quite tough to walk about the place without feeling as if you were going to slip over. Anyway that winters day I planned to spend the majority of my birding time in Loch of Strathbeg, as I hadn't visited the reserve since seeing the Glossy Ibis all the way back in early October and I knew the winter waterfowl would be in abundance. I was particularly keen to see a Long-tailed Duck, a bird that was managing to elude me that year. I had discovered a few days earlier that this species had been reported on the reserve, so there was a good chance of seeing them. Strathbeg wasn't my only port of call, however. I firstly stopped off at the Ythan Estuary, which was actually really worth it.

Before going to the main part of the Estuary, my Dad and I took a brief stop at the edge of Newburgh, where the aforementioned village opens out into the countryside and the beginning of the estuary. On most of our trips to the estuary my Dad and I will stop off at this little beginning part of the Estuary, not normally for long, but it sometimes proves useful, as it did that December day. As my Dad and I were watching some waders, we heard a high pitch, loud whistle. This call I had only heard once before, back in July at Meare Heath, Somereset; the whistling 'Ziii!' of the Common Kingfisher. It was instantly recognisable, and as we heard it our attention was instantly turned towards locating the bird. Sure enough, pretty close in, there was the beautiful, jewel like azure flash of a Kingfisher. It was flying incredibly fast, and because we were in the car, we could only turn so far before it went out of view. We maybe only saw it for about 10 seconds, but nonetheless was a brilliant sight though. You can rarely beat a glimpse of a Kingfisher; in my opinion its one of the greatest bird spectacles to observe. This was my second Kingfisher ever (and my first in Scotland), with my first being down in Somerset as I've said. For a long time it had been a bogey bird, but you'd be surprised that they're not so common in Scotland. Also at the Ythan of note was a group of 5 Little Grebes and good numbers of winter ducks. You don't normally see Little Grebes on the actual estuary itself, so I presumed that these grebes, as well as the Kingfisher, had been brought down to the estuary due to the hard weather.

From the Ythan we headed up to Strathbeg. Arriving at the Visitor Centre I could sense that the place was abandoned. There was no-one watching the area. However this was rightly so. The pools in front of the Visitor Centre were completely frozen and devoid of birdlife; nothing at all. I had never seen the area like this before. My Dad and I concluded that all the birds would be on other parts of the Loch, so we left the Visitor Centre and headed to the hides round the main part of the Loch. And we were right. Arriving at Bay Hide, there were big concentrations of winter wildfowl of which you couldn't see at the Visitor Centre, including many species of duck, 2 species of Swan and 4 species of geese. I was interested in noting the amount of birds in this concentration of wildfowl. I managed to come to the conclusion that there were well over 400 birds in the goose flock (a majority of them Pink-footed with a couple of Barnacles amongst them), 20 Greylag geese, 300 Wigeons, 100+ Teals, 50 Mallards, 5 Goosanders, 20 Tufted Ducks, 15 or more Pochards, a few Pintail, 30 Goldeneyes and up to x60 Whooper Swan, the latter of which was probably more common that day than Mute Swan which was also present in fairly large numbers. However, there were no Long-tailed Ducks presebt amongst this mass of wildfowl. Despite Long-tailed Duck's absence however, it was lovely to sit there watching all these birds as they communicated to each other and got on with their lives, the loud whistle of the Wigeon and the whooping of the Whooper Swan particularly prominent. As I watched these birds I could think of no other location that matched the sheer density and variety of bird species of Strathbeg. It was just fantastic! After spending a good hour or so at Bay Hide, we decided to go over to Fen Hide at the otherside of the Loch for a different perspective on things. Here the big concentrations of winter wildfowl remained. I managed to get a better look at the goose flock which had been distant at Bay Hide. A few days earlier a couple of Snow Geese had been reported amongst the flock, a fairly regular visitor in the early/later months of the year, so I was specifically looking for these now I had a far closer view of the flock. Unfortunately, despite a good scour of the flock, there were no Snow Geese to be seen. Futhermore there were no Long-tailed Ducks at this side of the Loch either. However, I was about to see something that would make my day that bit more enjoyable than it already had been.

As I sat munching on my slightly late lunch, I heard a bird call like that of a strangulated pig coming from the reeds right in front of the hide. To any birder this is an unmistakable call. It was that of a Water Rail. Because the call was coming from the reeds right in front of us we knew the Rail was in there, and were eager to locate it. We had to be patient; we even heard it scuttling in the reeds as we waited, but we got our reward. Eventually the small, plump, long-necked form of a Water Rail appeared from the reeds, walking slowly and cautiously across the ice no more than a few feet away from us, its distinctive long grey neck and red bell showing beautifully in the winter sunny. It was just great to watch it! Coincidentally, the first Water Rail I had seen was also at Meare Heath, Somerset in July of that year just like that of the Kingfisher, and was also my first for Scotland and my second ever. This pretty little bird stayed out on the ice for a half a minute before suddenly taking to the air in a low weakish flight across to the otherside of the reedbeds, where it disappeared again. The beauty of me and my Dad seeing this bird was partly the experience of watching it alone. It truly felt like our bird. Not only that but I think Water Rails are the most striking and nice-looking of the rails and crakes, excluding that of the Corncrake. The others tend to be rather more dull I think. Not long after the Water Rail had disappeared did a couple of other birders come along. We told them of our sighting and they were eager to see it. However by the time we left it hadn't appeared again. We spent the rest of that day just looking around other parts of Strathbeg. By the time we were finished it was nearing sunset, so we headed back home. It had been a lovely winter days birding.

By the time I was out birding again Christmas had passed (bird-wise for Christmas I'd got a cracking Moleskine pocket notebook to write my birding days out in and a subscription to Birdwatch magazine). My Dad and I had chosen the 27th December to go on a trip in search of one particular bird; a rare bird that had been reported for the duration of December at Burghead in Morayshire. This bird was a drake King Eider. I had seen two King Eiders before at Girdleness back in 2006, but they were both females. Seeing a drake would be an entirely new and exciting experience for m, although we'd have to drive a long way to have any chance of seeing it. The nearest big place to Burghead is Elgin, which is about 95 miles or so north of Aberdeen. Its a long drive, and would take even longer to get to due to the snowy weather that took place over that period. The hope really of this day trip to Morayshire was to reach 180 species for the year, which happened to be my target. If I saw the King Eider the list would go up to 179, and from there Long-tailed Duck (good numbers are seen from Burghead and up and down the Morayshire coast) would then make 180. That was the aim really, and of course to get fabulous views of both species. So, early that morning we left for the long drive up to Burghead. On the way we decided we'd stop off at Peterhead where 2 Iceland Gulls had been reported in the harbour there. Iceland Gull in actual fact was a bird I hadn't seen before, so seeing it at Peterhead would not only be an extra bird for the year list, but would have the satisfaction and exciting feeling of being a bird I had never seen before. At Peterhead Harbour we had a good scour for these two gulls but unfortunately despite the huge amounts of herrings and black-headeds there were, we couldn't find two white-winged gulls amongst them. We even went round towards Battery Park and the Ugie in search of them, but still only the more common gulls were present. This was a tad disappointing, but it wasn't our main stop for the day and it was still possible that I'd see both the drake King Eider and Long-tailed Ducks at Burghead.

The drive to Burghead was annoyingly long at an hour and a half from Peterhead (a good 50 or 60 miles). We took a small and quite snowy route towards Elgin which made us take longer. The weather was generally pretty good though and there was a clear melt in the snow of the previous week or so; it was more icey now really. It was around midday when we reached Elgin, and Burghead was about 10 miles north-west from there, so arrival time was at about quarter past 12, leaving us with plenty of time to birdwatch. The small town is basically built on a Peninsula which projects north-westwards onto the Moray Firth. To get to where the King Eider has been seen you have to progress through the town until you get to what appears to be a dead end. At this dead end however, there is a small track which you take down to the waterfront, and then a track from there that takes you to a place where you can park the car and look out at sea. My Dad and I didn't have much trouble finding this, but getting across the small track without the car slipping off the road due to the ice was difficult. Eventually we managed to get across however, and managed to start looking for the King Eider. 'If it is there' I thought, ' Then it should be fairly obvious'. Like all previous records of King Eider in Britain, this bird was being seen amongst a flock of Common Eiders. Once we found the Eider flock, it was either a case of it being there or not being there. And oh, it couldn't have been more satisfying! The Common Eider flock was very close in, no more than 50ft away, and amongst them was one of the most stunningly colourful ducks I had ever seen, the drake King Eider, showing absolutely superbly! It couldn't have been better for us! We didn't have to put any effort into finding the bird whatsoever, it was just there for us to see, and we didn't even have to get out of the car either. We had fantastic views. Just seeing it through the bins gave great views, but seeing it through the scope was just undescribably brilliant. As I watched I made notes of the birds stunning plumage. It had a scarlet bill, pale grey nape and almost black back, the latter of which was distinctly different from that of its common relatives. I also noted that it didn't have the sloping forehead of the Eiders. What really struck me though was how small it was in comparison to the Eiders. It was no bigger than a large Velvet Scoter, and the Eiders looked proportionally massive in comparison. Some of the time when watching it had its back to us, but regularly you could get perfect views of the whole of the bird in the slanting afternoon sun. Watching it through the scope was like being right beside the bird! It was just a magical experience. At one point it flew a little way, and during the time of absence (yes, it hadn't gone far but we really couldn't be bothered getting out of the car due to the bitterly cold weather!) we had a look out for other birds at sea. I had a possible Great Northern Diver a long way out, and, I'm very happy to say, we had a flock of 4 Long-tailed Ducks, which meant we had achieved the target of 180 species for the year! Eventually the King Eider returned and the small portion of the Common Eider that had flown off with it returned to where they had originally been, yet again giving superb views. I couldn't have been happy with the outcome of the day! After an hour or two of watching from Burghead we decided to have a quick check off the beach at the nearby village of Findhorn. Here the only birds of note really were 4 Golden Plovers in the car park and a single male Stonechat. I was absolutely delighted with the outcome of the day and went home happy and feeling that it was worth the drive all the way to see it. I wasn't expecting the fabulous views I got of the drake King Eider, so it was well worth it for that reason! Here is a couple of pictures I took when I was at Burghead, one of which you can faintly see through my camera the Eider flock the King Eider was amongst. I also have a beautiful picture of the actual King Eider itself, courtesy of Marcus Conway ebirder, who took the photo. Thank you very much for the photo Marcus!

And that, my friends, took me up to the end of the 2009 birding year. It had been absolutely fantastic year. I had achieved my aim to the exact number, and seen some quality birds! In the next entry I will be doing a Review of the Birding Year explaining just why it was so fantastic, and then after that, will get on to talking about this years birding so far. Yes, I'm slowly getting up to date!

Thanks for reading folks,