As one might expect at this time of year, there was plenty of winter wildfowl on the Loch, with good numbers of Goosanders (a year tick), Pochards, Goldeneyes, Wigeons and Teals etc. There was also a very pale Buzzard perched on a post (unfortunately not a Rough-legged!), but no sign of the Eagles. A good number of passerines congregated at the feeders by the first hide we went to; mainly Chaffinches, but with good numbers of Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Blue and Great Tits etc. A birder in the hide with us pointed out a fabulous winter female Brambling amongst these other passerines. I was very glad to see this bird, as it was only my second one ever (with my first being seen the week previously). It was great to see it both on the feeders and on the ground, completely stand out from its commoner relatives This view was more prolonged than my first, as it was present more or less the entirety of the time I was in the hide. The Brambling was the highlight of just under an hours visit to Vane Farm. In the end, there wasn't a great deal there apart from the commoner birds. Despite this, I enjoyed my stay anyway.
That wasn't to say that they weren't there though. It was really a case of finding at least one of the Med Gulls amongst the multitude of black-headeds that were on the sea close in, and that was perfectly possible due the mobility of all the gulls in the area; they could fly in at any point. As we looked I made sure I meticulously checked ever gull in sight, whether it was in flight, on the sea or not. Despite this searching though, we weren't seeing any Med Gulls. The weather was harsh too, with a chilling shore wind buffeting against our faces constantly. About half way through my vist there I found myself with incredibly cold fingers and my eyes were beginning to water with the cold (something I'm susceptible to when it comes to birding). As the sun began to set, we still hadn't seen any Med Gulls, and due to both the weather and the worsening light conditions, we headed back towards the car, leaving the birder who had been with us to continue watching. Just as we were to get in however, we heard a cry from behind us. It was the birder alerting us of something. Had he found a Med Gull? Excited, we returned to where he was. I asked him as we arrived back if he had found one. His response was really strange:
"I absolutely sware that I had a Med Gull there sitting on the sea amongst the Black-headed Gulls here on the sea. It was completely white-winged," he said, " I only had it for a second but I called to you so you could come and see it. As soon as I turned back it had disappeared though, and I haven't seen it since."
We stayed that night in Old Craighall Services on the outskirts of Edinburgh near Mussleburgh. Convieniently, we had orgainised to meet Mark here at 8:30am, meaning all we'd have to do is have breakfast and go and meet him outside. So, at that time, we waited for him to arrive. Sure enough, he did, and we greeted.
"Well, I was thinking we'd start at Linlithgow Loch. As you might be aware there's been a long-stay female Smew there. From here we'd then head to Mussleburgh Lagoons, and then Barns Ness, ending up in Aberlady Bay by the afternoon. Does that sound like a reasonable plan?"
After what had been a very pleasant early morning stop at Linlithgow Loch, we arrived at Mussleburgh Lagoons close to half ten. Musselburgh Lagoons, at the mouth of the River Esk, were formed in 1964 by the South of Scotland Electricity Board. They constructed an expansive concrete sea wall encompassing four large lagoons. These were used for the dumping of ash from the nearby Cockenzie Power Station, which you can see from the seawall. When we arrived there we found the four lagoons completely frozen over. This had already been anticipated however, so we headed straight to the seawall for a look offshore. Arriving we found good numbers of duck species such as Wigeons, Eiders and Teals. More notably amongst these common species were several Long-tailed Ducks and Velvet Scoters, both year ticks. Long-tailed Ducks were a tricky one last year and my views had been brief, so it was great to see them showing well at Mussleburgh Lagoons. Also off the seawall were a few Great Crested Grebes (another year tick). Whilst looking out a flock of 5 Twites were just behind the seawall too. After about half an hour here, we were nigh on leaving for Barns Ness when my Dad said:
"Just found a Slavonian Grebe. It's in line with the Cockenzie Power Station, near the Great Crested Grebes."
I was using Mark's scope at the time, and I quickly latched on to the grebe, which was indeed a Slavonian. Slavonian Grebes are regular at Mussleburgh, and one of the species I thought we might see. It was immediately identifiable with its smaller size in comparison to the G-C Grebes, its red eyes, its jet black cap on the top of its sloping head and its blackey-grey back. In 2008 Slavonian Grebe had managed to elude me, so this was a very pleasing bird to see. It dived frequently, but when it did show, it showed well. It wasn't visible through the bins as it was some way off, it was only scopable. This meant the views weren't as ideal as they could have been, but still of a good standard. We watched it for 10 minutes or so, and then decided we'd head off further eastwards towards the coast at Barns Ness. Here's is a kind of crappy record shot I got of the seawall at Mussleburgh Lagoons.Now, something I didn't mention earlier in the post was that the long-stay Baird's Sandpiper hadn't been seen for 4 days or so, meaning that are chances of seeing it were quite unlikely. However, there was no harm in going to look for it anyway. Not just that but Mark told us that a Water Pipit was being seen fairly regularly there too, making it even more worth it to go there. Another thing I haven't mentioned is that the Baird's Sand wasn't actually present at Barns Ness itself but at the very close by at Whitesands Bay, and it was to here that we headed first. Located in the extreme east of Lothian, Whitesands, as the name explains, is a bay. It has a small beach with the archetypal golden sands and big piles of seaweed mopped up against the waters edge. Looking further eastwards, you can see the lighthouse at Barns Ness, which has a very similar but more expansive beach than Whitesands Bay. In the picture below, I must say the view reminds me of looking from Aberdeen Beach towards Girdleness.
Just to the left of what you can see here, the Baird's Sandpiper had been seen in the past with a good number of Dunlins and other wrders on the shore line amongst the seaweed. After travelling down several tracks, we managed to get to the carparking area, and set down to the beach very close by. There were a lot of birders about, presumably all in search of the bird. Of course, we already knew that it hadn't been reported for a few days, but what was the harm in checking? As we approached the beach, we quickly found the small group of waders that the Baird's had been amongst, and got the scopes on them. Most of them were Dunlins (which happened to be a year tick), with a few Turnstones and good numbers of Redshanks amongst them. But, as expected, there was no Baird's Sand amongst these. We took a 10 to 15 minute walk across the beach, just like most birders were doing, checking every wader we saw hopping about in the seaweed, but no such luck. Well, I thought, at least it was worth a try. With this, we headed towards the nearby Barns Ness, which was according to Mark was worth a try as there had been a Water Pipit lurking about there.
The drive from Aberlady to Mussleburgh was pretty short, so we arrived back at Oldcraighall Services quite swiftly. Here we said farewell, giving him countless thanks for taking us on what had been a fantastic days birding.... That day we had been to four fantastic places, each with their own good birds, what with the lovely Linlithgow Loch's Smew, Mussleburgh Lagoons' Slavonian Grebe, Barns Ness' Water Pipit and of course Aberlady Bay's fantastic Short-eared Owls, as well as a whole cast of other lovely birds. It was a great day, and well worth the trip both for the birds, and seeing the places themselves. It had definitely been a pleasant introduction to the birding places of Lothian. We ended the trip with an increase from 81 the week before to 104 species, with a total of 23 species being added to the year list over the two days. If I had to pick a bird of the day, a moment of the day, and the place I most enjoyed going to, I think you'd be able to guess! Of course, it was all down to the Short-eared Owls at Aberlady Bay. Aberlady Bay was a beautiful place, teeming with fantastic birds, and seeing the Short-eared Owls there was both relieving and mesmeric... My Dad and I spent a lot of time on the journey back to Aberdeen going over the experiences of the day, and overall, the reaction to the day seemed very positive! The drive back was smooth too, and we were back in Aberdeen within 2 and a quarter hours. And that is how my lovely birding weekend in Lothian ended.