Wednesday, 17 February 2010

My Birding Weekend in Lothian

A day or two after what had been a great day at Strathbeg I was contacted by Mark Grubb on Birdforum, a birder from the Edinburgh/Lothian area. I had said prior to his email on Birdforum that I'd be down in Edinburgh on the weekend of the 16th and 17th of January. My sister lives in the city you see and had come up to visit, and my Dad and I were going to give her a lift back down on Saturday 16th. Nothing much else was going that weekend, so I also mentioned that it would be possible we'd stay the night in Edinburgh and then go birding in the area the next day. There was plenty about in the area at that time, most notably a long-stay Baird's Sandpiper on the East Lothian coast at Barns Ness, which we were eager to go and see.

It was the fact that I had mentioned going birding in the area that Mark emailed me. In his email he told me that he'd be very glad to show us the best places to go birding in Lothian and take us to have a look for the Baird's Sandpiper. It was very generous of him to offer. After all we didn't know the area well at all and would have to go through the efforts of getting directions to the limited birding spots in the area that we knew of. If we had Mark with us he'd know exactly where to go, as well as taking us to places we weren't aware of in the first place. Of course, I accepted his offer, and alerted my Dad, who was also fine with it. Mark then phoned us up and we made arrangements; coming to the conclusion that we'd meet outside an easy to access service station on the eastern outskirts of the city at 8:30am on Sunday 17th. As the weekend approached another thing also worked to our advantage. My sister decided that she would go back to Edinburgh on the Friday, as she wished to attend a good friends' party that evening. This meant that my Dad and I would then be able to birdwatch not only on the Sunday, but on the Saturday. On the Friday evening, we came to the conclusion that we'd stop off and see anything noteworthy that was about on the way to Edinburgh, as well as go to Vane Farm (Perth and Kinross) regardless of what was about. Checking birdguides, I found out that in Buckhaven, Fife (Fife being the county adjacent to Lothian) 3 Medittereanean Gulls were present. Med Gulls are obviously quite noteworthy birds (as well as a lifer for me), and convieniently Buckhaven isn't far from Vane Farm. Therefore we concluded we'd go in search of these gulls. So, we were all set, and ready to birdwatch in a completely new area to us.

Saturday 16th:

We left on our journey at about 10:30am, meaning it would be at least 12:30am before we arrived in the Vane Farm area. The weather wasn't great that morning, with consistent but light rain throughout Aberdeenshire and Angus. South of Dundee, however, the cloud lifted a little and the rain stopped, just fine for our arrival at Vane Farm at around 13:15, leaving us 2 and a half hours or so to birdwatch. Vane Farm RSPB is situated by Loch Leven, a 3 mile long and expansive freshwater loch in the southern parts of Perth and Kinross that is encompassed by hills. Vane Farm is perhaps most well known for the 3 re-introduced White-tailed Eagles present there, all of which are juveniles and were originally released with the Strathbeg White-tailed Eagle, Ralf. We weren't 'targeting' these Eagles as such, largely due to the good views we had had of Ralf the previous week, but were hoping to see them. After paying to get into the reserve (as well as buying the second edition of the Collin's Guide!), we headed down to the hides, which each had their superb loch-side settings and views of the central scotland countryside. Here are a couple of pictures I took at Vane Farm.

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.

We then, as decided on the previous evening, headed to Buckhaven in search of the 3 Mediterranean Gulls. Finding this place was rather annoying, as at the nearby town of Glenrothes there was the most appalling signposting system I have ever seen in my life. There were no signs to Buckhaven at all! This meant that we found ourselves lost, and we wasted at least 10 minutes trying to find signs to Buckhaven. Eventually, after much annoyance, we did find the signs, and arrived at Buckhaven 10 minutes later. Med Gulls are fairly regularly reported in Buckhaven's Shore Road car park, convieniently named as the car park was right by the sea. As we arrived we saw a birder looking out to sea. Getting our equipment, we approached him and asked him if any of the Med Gulls were present. The answer was a tad disappointing.

" I'm afraid there aren't any Med Gulls here right now. I've been here for the past 15 minutes, but no sign of any of them."

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."

How could he have lost this Med Gull so quickly? Surely if there's one there, it won't fly off that quickly, baring in mind it only took a few seconds for him to call us and then turn back? This was really odd.... We tried to relocate the bird, but even though we spent yet another 10 or so minutes looking, there was no sign of this so called 'Med Gull' that he'd seen. I was becoming suspicious if he had even see one at all. Was he making it up/imagining it. Or had really seen one for a second? I mean when you see them they're not that hard to mistake! Anyway, we gave up for the day, leaving for Edinburgh where we'd stay the night with an element doubt in our minds. Were we just unlucky? Rock Pipit, Shag and R-T Diver were all added to the year list here regardless, which was useful. Even so, a big day of birding beckoned the next day, and I was very much looking forward to it.

Sunday 17th:

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.

" So where do you think is best to take us first?" my Dad asked.

"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?"

That was absolutely fine with us, so we made our way to Linlithgow Loch, some 15 miles west of Edinburgh. The drive here took about 40 minutes, so we arrived at quarter past nine. Once we'd parked up, we headed down to the nearby loch. The path down to the Loch was really slippy, as was the path round it. The Loch itself was like an ice rink too, almost totally frozen. However, there was one area at the south-west corner of the Loch where it wasn't frozen, and this was where all the wildfowl on the Loch, and presumably the Smew, had congregated. After a bit of trouble with the ice, we finally made it to where the wildfowl were. There were many species in this little area of unfrozen water, with good numbers of Mallard, Coots, Moorhens, Pochards, Goldeneyes, Tufted Ducks, Teals, Wigeons, Shelducks (year tick), Mute Swans and Black-headed Gulls, as well as 3 Little Grebes, all very close in. Nestled in amongst all these species was the cracking female Smew. It was very clear amongst the other ducks, looking clearly smaller than most of them, with its striking chesnut crown, white cheeks and browny-grey back . It spent most of the time at the back of the unfrozen water towards the gulls and with the Pochards and Tufties, diving fairly regularly but overall showing very well. This was only my third Smew ever, and it was a great joy to watch it. I managed to get a couple of reasonable pictures of it too (I don't normally get good pictures!). I also have a few other pictures, including one of the magnificent Linlithgow Castle and Palace, which overlooks the Loch. A royal manor existed on this beautiful site, with Mary Queen of Scots being born here. We sat and watched the Smew for about 25 minutes, then headed eastwards back towards Edinburgh, with our next stop being a Mussleburgh Lagoons.

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.
Due to its very short distance from Whitesands, we were at Barns Ness shortly. In terms of its landscape, it was no different from Whitesands, save the lightouse and the sand being less prominent, and rocks being prominent. As we took a stroll across the beach itself there were tons of Rock Pipits, maybe 30 or more in total. Every few steps you'd flush one up and it would dart to the nearby rocks in an archetypal undulating flight. Both Purple Sandpiper and a Golden Plover were also present on the rocks, as well as a pair of Stonechats flitting about in the marram grass (all three of which were year ticks). We spent a majority of our time here looking at the Rock Pipits, and it was interesting to note that there were no Meadow Pipits amongst them. If there was a Water Pipit with them, it was proving elusive, but it wasn't surprising that it was proving difficult becayse there were so many pipits on the beach. After walking a good way up the beach we decided we'd turn back. We were nigh on leaving for Aberlady Bay when all of a sudden, as we neared the lighthouse, Mark spotted a slightly different look people hopping about not far away from us on the sand.

" This pipit is looking different to the others, and looks good for Water Pipit. What do you think?" he asked.

He quickly showed us where it was and they got their bins on it. There were a few features on this bird that made me think it could have been Water Pipit. Jut looking at it briefly, what really struck me was its paleness in comparison to all the other birds I had seen. It also had pale-browny rather than dark legs and and a whiter breast than those other pipits. It also struck me as bigger, ruling out any possibility of Meadow Pipit. My Dad and I agreed with Mark that this pipit could well be the Water Pipit, which was an exhilirating thought. After watching it on the ground for a few minutes, we decided that we had to make it fly so we could see if it had the diagnostic prominent white wing bars that Rock Pipit lacks. Mark decided he'd be the one that would approach it. As he did so it took to the air, and there they were, the white wing bars, showing clearly; it was the Water Pipit after all that Mark had spotted. Of the spinoletta race, this Water Pipit stayed in flight for quite a bit, before finding a rock to sit on. On this rock sat 3 Rock Pipits, which allowed for interesting comparisons. This bird was indeed that much paler than the Rock Pipits, and did seem that bit larger than them too. I noticed that the streaks on the breast seemed that bit more distinct than on the Rock Pipits, as did the supercilium, and the bill was paler. It was quite flighty, flitting from one rock to the next quite often and thus meaning we had to re-locate. We watched it in its different positions for a good 15 minutes, alerting a couple of birders that came by and that hadn't seen it yet. However, after this amount of time had passed, it eventually flew away, presumably to another side of the beach. I was very pleased to see this bird, as not only had it not been reported that day, but the views of it were great, and helped me for comparative purposes in the future. It was also a life tick for me, my third of the year. We decided that it would be a waste of time to chase it down again, and we only had a couple of hours left, which we wanted to spend at Aberlady Bay. So, contently, we moved westwards again.

Aberlady Bay has gained fame in the recent past for a Lesser Yellowlegs that stayed for a few months and showed superbly there. Just like with the Baird's Sandpiper, this bird had now left and hadn't been seen for over a week. Mark had taken us to Aberlady Bay to see if he could show us some Short-eared Owls, one of my most embaressing bogey birds. I was really wanting to be relieved of the guilt of not having seen this species, and of course to experience what it is like seeing this fantastic owl, so I was hoping it would pay off. After taking some lunch and becoming acquainted with Mark's brother Neil, we headed for a walk round the reserve (there are no hides at Aberlady). Aberlady Bay is a very expansive place, covering an area of 582 hectares. The area has panoramic views and varying coastal habitats, consisting of tidal sand, mud flats and salt marsh. At the start of the walk, you cross the mudflats by bridge, and it was here that the Lesser Yellowlegs stuck around. On the mudflats there was a multitude of duck and wader species, but nothing that you wouldn't see at other reserves. However, 2 Grey Plovers were amongst these waders, a year tick and probably the most notable species on the mudflats. Having checked the mudflats we continued on our walk towards the extensive dunes ahead. It was at these dunes where the Short-eared Owls were said to spend most of their time. As we walked towards the dunes, I kept my eyes meticulously peeled for Short-eared Owl, checking every bird that happened to take to the air in view. There were massive numbers of Fieldfares and Redwings in the flora amongst us, reverberating the area with a cacophony of their chitt-chatter calls. Every now and then they all took to the air as if they worried about something, and the sky would be full of thrushes. It was a wonderful experience to see these winter thrushes in such abundance. As for the slightly larger birds, most of them that I spotted in flight were just crows. There weren't even any birds of prey, let alone Short-eared Owls.

After about half an hour of walking and we were nearing the dunes and there were still no owls to be seen. That wasn't to say that I wasn't enjoying myself, as the area was absolutely teeming with bird life, it was fantastic! As we advanced yet closer towards the dunes, I was having a conversation with Mark's brother Neil about how I got into birding. And just when I thought that they'd elude me, a cry came from my Dad.
"Short-eared Owls! To your right!"

In a split second Neil and I had stopped speaking to one another and had our eyes on two Short-eared Owls! As I locked onto them in the bins, my jaw dropped at their sheer splendour. They were divine! Just amazing! In a ghost like fashion the two birds emerged from the ground and took to glorious flight, effortlessly and buoyantly patrolling the dunes on hugely long, narrow wings not far away from one another with wavered wingbeats in a spell bindingly slow-motion and unspeakble majesty. They were there the epitome of grace. I was lost for words. As I watched, absolutely enchanted by both these birds, I could see their fantastic love-heart shaped faces; their crisp, neon yellow eyes casting a mean but determined look as they went in search of a meal. It was just mesmerising, watching these magnificent birds in flight. Both birds stayed in flight for ages and showed absolutely superbly. I couldn't have been happier with my views of them. Two very lucky people situated on the top of a dune had both birds fly right past them on several occasions, which must have been fantastic. Eventually, both birds went out of view for the first time. But we weren't simply going to move on, we were wanting to see more of these owls. They're not the sort of birds that you want to just get a single prolonged view of, you want several views to maximise the enjoyment of the experience. So, we headed further into the dunes and waited patiently for them to take to the air again. They rose several times again, performing the same rituals again in an equally enchanting way. We had one of the birds on the ground too, which was lovely to see. We watched them for a good 45 minutes before continuing on our walk, and I must say, I loved every moment of it. I have no doubt that that experience with nature will be one I'll cherish. The perfect bird to reach triple figures (100) for the year on Mark's brother Neil is a keen photgrapher too, and he caught the owls beautifully in flight throughout the 45 minutes we watched them. I feel very priveliged that he has allowed me to use some of his pictures of the bird on my blog. Thank you very much Neil! The final picture show you the area in which these birds were flying:

From the owl watching area, we went over the dunes and took a bracing walk along the beach. According to Mark, when you turn the corner from the beach the very top of the mudflats appear where you can get good views of a variety of wader species. And he was right, as we turned the corner away from the beach, we saw the very top of the mudflats, and here were loads of waders. This group of waders consisted a sizeable flock of up to 200 Knots (year tick), around 20 Sanderlings (year tick), and maybe 15 Bar-tailed Godwits (year tick). There were also good numbers of Ringed Plovers, Dunlin Curlew and Redshanks. They were all very busy feeding, but the Knot flock, as they always are, were very flighty, performing their impressive arial displays frequently. After a good look at these waders, we then headed on our longish walk back to the car, with the Short-eared Owls showing beautifully on a couple of occasions, and a Bullfinch was heard and then seen as we got close to the bridge over the mudflats. As we walked back,the sun setted beautifully, shrouding Aberlady Bay in its brilliant rays and making the clouds a wonderful red... Here are some pictures I took at Aberlady Bay myself, mostly taken when the sun was setting.

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.
Thank you for reading,

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The First Birding Day of the Decade

1stJanuary 1st 2010, a new year and a new decade of birding. With your year list back at zero, you have a whole year ahead of you in which to see as many birds as you possibly can. At the very start of a new birding year you find yourself wondering just what delights the year will hold, what you'll see, and how many species you'll find. For these reasons I have always found the beginning of a birding year exciting. As soon as you get up on the first morning of the year, you know you can quickly get your new year list up to about 10 species just spending 15 minutes or less looking through the window into your garden. When I woke up on that morning, as soon as I opened the blinds I saw Town Pigeon and Herring Gull. Then, a brief look in the garden quickly added House Sparrow, Woodpigeon, Blue Tit, Carrion Crow and a few other common suspects. By the end of the day, I was up to 10 species without leaving the house, with Fieldfare and Redwing both seen. As we had relatives round at the time I couldn't get out birding for over a week. However, this didn't stop a steady supply of commoner birds. Within the first week of the year I was able to get up to 30 species in Aberdeen alone, with the more noteworthy birds being seen in the town including a Buzzard over the garden, presumably brought in by the snowy and harsh conditions at the time, Song Thrush and Long-tailed Tit also in garden, Grey Wagtail over my school and Snipe over the house, strangely my first wader of the year. I was quite satisfied with that little total, considering all 30 species had been seen just within Aberdeen city. Once my relatives had left and one week of school had passed, I finally managed to get out birding (10/1). We planned to spend the day primarily at Strathbeg, where a good number of winter birds were reported to have been present. On the way, however, we stopped at Girdleness. This was provided us with a lot of the commoner species that you'd expect to see by the sea including Eider, Lesser and Great Black-backed Gull, Guillemot, Cormorant, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and other common waders, as well as Gannet, Mistle Thrush and Kestrel. The stop here was brief but quickly got us up to 47 birds for the year. It was satisfying too, purely because all the birds we had seen at Girdleness were new for the year and thus had more significance. Strathbeg would also prove to have that satisfying factor... even more satisfying than we were expecting it to be.

Getting out of the car at the car park by the Visitor Centre we found big numbers of passerines feeding on the feeders. These included lots of Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, the odd Robin, Wren, Greenfinches and notably for the year a small number of Corn Buntings, Yellowhammers and the regular Tree Sparrows. The fact that all these birds were round the feeders seemed to imply that there was going to be lots more winter passerine activity at Strathbeg that day. Entering the visitor centre we saw a birder looking out onto the pools. We asked him what was about:

"There's plenty about today. Big numbers of winter wildfowl, Ralf the juvenile White-tailed Eagle and a ring-tailed Hen Harrier are all around. I've seen the latter two birds both within the last 10 minutes so they should both appear again soon. Other birders who have wandered out to Tower Hide also say they've seen two Snow Geese whuch apparently aren't quite visible from here and consist of one pale morph and one blue morph and massive numbers of Linnet with good scatterings of other winter passerines amongst them."

Hearing this we could see we were potentially in for a good day. And we were! No sooner had the birder said this did we find the ring-tailed Hen Harrier quartering the fields with a degree of majesty and sending the surrounding winter wildfowl up into the air. We watched this fine creature for a minute or so before it flew over the Visitor Centre. So, this was a very nice way to start our search of Strathbeg, as I thought Hen Harrier would be a tricky bird to see for the year. Yet, we had managed to see it within less than a minute of getting into the Visitor Centre. With the Harrier out of sight for now we watched the copious winter wildfowl in their hoards as they fed. There were big numbers of all of the commonest winter ducks (Mallard, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Teal and Wigeon) as well as Whooper and Mute Swan, Grey Heron, Greylag Goose and a couple of Barnacle Geese amogst those geese visible from the hide, as well as a few other slightly more notable species as a small party of winter Reed Buntings and a Hooded Crow . These were, of course, all year ticks for us and got me in the range of 60 species. Yet there are two species that I saw from the Visitor Centre that I am yet to mention. As the birder had said, the White-tailed Eagle had been present throughout the course of the morning, and about 15 minutes after our arrival he came into view, sending almost everything in the are up and causing absolute mayhem. You could undertsand just why they'd be scared as he was an absolutely massive bird both in terms of his bulk and his long 'barn-door' like wings. Not only that, but he was intent on harrassing the other birds, ducking, diving and jolting as he towered over the other birds, aiming to satisfy his pallet with a meal of winter wildfowl. The birder in the Visitor Centre told us that he had seen him eating a Wigeon earlier on, so he was definitely in for the kill. It is some spectacle watching Ralf, not only because of what havoc he causes, but because of his sheer size, splendour and resplendence. Like any eagle, he is just a joy to watch, even if you have seen him before (this was the 4th time I had seen him). He's just such an imposing and potently magnificent creature. We watched him harrass the wildfowl on and off for some 20 minutes, getting superb views of him both through the scope and the bins. It was just fantastic. At one point a female Sparrowhawk (another year tick) also joined Ralf on the search for something to eat, increasing the already terrible panic that the wildfowl were experiencing. With great views of both White-tailed Eagle and Hen Harrier already, I couldn't have hoped for a more satisfying start to both the day at Strathbeg and the year. Eventually the havoc stopped as Ralf settled himself down on a post, sitting there like a king as he browsed the area. Soon after this, I was delighted when I found a group of up to 20 incredibly stand out Snow Buntings on the sloping hill visible from the visitor centre. Most of these beautiful little birds were adult winter females, but there were a couple of whiter looking winter males amongst them. They were only seen for a couple of minutes, and then flew out of view. I suspected that there would be more of the viewable on the walk up to Tower Hide, as well as many more winter passerines. So, having given the Visitor Centre a great look and managed to get the year list up to 66 species, we made our way to Tower Hide. So far, it had been absolutely fantastic. I couldn't have hoped for better. It was a real haven for birds out there. Little did I know that on the way to Tower Hide that things wouldn't only get better, but that I'd experience one of my most amazing nature spectacles ever...

Leaving the Visitor Centre behind us I could see that the whole of the area was absolutely full of winter passerines. There was so much to see, and thus our progress to the hide itself was very slow. No sooner had we entered the path to Tower Hide did we stop and look at the birds. It was ridiculous just how many were present, in flight, on the ground around us.... just ridiculous. It was a festation of these small but very nice little birds. If I had to give rough calculations as to numbers of particular species just at the start of the path, I'd say there were over 60 Linnets, 30 Snow Buntings (most of these from the flock that I'd seen at the Visitor Centre), 20 Reed Buntings, 5 Corn Buntings, 35 Yellowhammers, small numbers of Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches and 20 Twites. The latter species was a very useful year tick, and all 20 were initially heard before seen sitting on a tree. It was great having all these passerines everywhere around me; in front of me, behind me, close to me, further away from me. Such a contrast of these strangely copious species! It really felt like I was amongst nature. Our proceedings were slow as were constantly looking at these passerines. By the time we were half way towards the Hide, the numbers of passerines had increased further. Including those that we had seen at the beginning of the path, the totals were now up to well over 150 Linnets, at least 30 Reed Buntings and 45 Yellowhammers, 25 Twites, 10 Corn Buntings and 35 Snow Buntings. Linnets were indeed the predominant species, but I must say the numbers of the other species were also rather astonishing. I had certainly never seen such a gathering of winter passerines before in my life! There was also a largish flock of Pink-footed Geese in the fields beyond and several in flight as we watched the winter passerines. We checked this flock, but no sign of any Snow Geese as the birder had mentioned back at the Visitor Centre.

About 3/4 of the way to the hide, my Dad and I decided we would speed up, as we had given the passerines a good look. Just as we were about to do so and my Dad was having a last look at the geese, I suddenly saw the figure of a harrier for a second rise in front of me. The view was so brief I wasn't quite able to tell what it was.

" I think the ringtail is just in front of us here," I told me Dad quietly, " I only saw it for a split second but it looked Harrier like in shape."

We advanced slowly in hope that we'd flush the bird. We managed to successfully and confirmed that it was definitely the ring-tail. With its rise everything else in the area suddenly took to the air and chaos started. The geese, the huge amounts of winter passerines, the fairly large number of woodpigeons, all filling the skies and their panick-stricken calls reverberating through the area. It was an amazing experience. Hundreds of frantic birds, everywhere! We followed the ringtail as it was in amongst the huge hoards of other species. At one point it glided for a bit, and to my sheer delight as it did this it was joined by an absolutely magnificent male Hen Harrier! They were a pair on the hunt! No wonder they had been attracted to the winter passerines, as there were ridiculous numbers of the little birds. These two birds were no more than 30 ft away from me, so I just stood there, utterly flabbergasted by what was going on and watching the sheer beauty and splendour of the male Hen Harrier. Such a perfect bird it was; a fantastic, ghostly grey, long-winged bird with stunning yellow talons and eyes, flying at some speed in amongst the havoc with its mate. It was a magical experience watching it; my first ever male Hen Harrier. I continued two watch the two birds as they hunted together. It was a scene of complete franticness and chaos, a massive festation of birds. It was surreal! Yet there was something else that would make this experience even more memorbale and surreal than it was already and exacerbate the chaos for the other birds. As I was watching the harriers, my Dad suddenly exclaimed


I was already bewildered and astonished by what had happened thus far, so looking up to see a miniature falcon far smaller than that of a Kestrel fly fast above our heads was ridiculous! There was no doubting that it was a Merlin, as it was way too small for any other bird of prey. The bird was a female, and shared that same common factor with the two Hen Harriers that were also present; it was in for the kill! As this was only my second Merlin ever I had to take my eyes off the Hen Harriers. It was going at a very quick speed, and was in there within a few seconds, looking for a food. As my Dad and I followed it through the bins I seem to recall that it caught one passerine. It stayed in view for a good minute, before eventually flying out of sight. I then turned back to the Harriers to find that the female wasn't in sight and the male flying towards the pools. With these birds of prey having left the area, successful or not, the passerines, the geese and the pigeons all settled down on the ground again, and the chaos died out. WOW! My Dad and I looked at each other when everything was over, utterly astonished. We knew we were thinking the same thing, that being: 'That was AMAZING." And it really was just surreal. Having hundreds of birds all in the skies at once calling their little hearts out, with a pair of Hen Harriers and a Merlin hunting at the same time. It was like being in paradise, being able to observe that piece of natural brilliance. It really highilights just how fantastic nature can be. It was basically a bird fest. Magical. An unforgettable moment; a moment that will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time! We then moved on and completed what would have been a short walk to the hide if it hadn't have been for the nature spectacles I had witnessed on the way. Just as we were about to enter Stock Dove was a welcome newcomer to the year list. At Tower Hide itself Ralf the White-tailed Eagle was showing more brilliantly and closer than he had been before, sending the wildfowl up several times. When he wasn't present though we managed to have a good look at the other birds. Here 3 slightly less common ducks were very nice to see and useful additions for the year: several Pochards, several Shovelers, a Gadwall and a few cracking male Pintails. Good numbers of Coots and my first Little Grebe of the year were also seen here. We spent another hour or so at Tower Pool just enjoying watching Ralf and the winter wildfowl, as well as taking a late lunch. By the time we left the hide and headed back to the visitor centre it was 2:30, and the year list had increased to 78 species.

When we arrived back at the Visitor Centre again we told people of our fantastic experience, and a few were keen on re-finding the Merlin. We were also told that there had been a Peregrine around, which, if we had seen, would have equalled 6 bird of prey species seen at Strathbeg, but we didn't see this in the end. However, a delightful thing to see was a Water Rail wondering onto the ice in the closest pool to the Visitor Centre. This was the third Water Rail I had seen ever and the second on the reserve. It stayed out in the open for a good couple of minutes as there wasn't any reed protection in which it could hide itself in, with many people managing to get pictures. I stupidly forgot my camera though, and thus wasn't able to take a picture. Before w lefte decided that it may be worth looking more closely at the birds on the feeders, as earlier that week at least 2 Bramblings had been seen there. We spent about 15 minutes looking at the birds round the feeders, focusing on where the Chaffinches were, as this would be most likely where they would be. And oh my, we were lucky! As we watched a group of Chaffinches on the ground, I spotted a clearly different bird, with orangey sides to a white breast, a dark head and a streaky brown back. There was no mistaking it. It didn't have the all orange breast of the male Chaffinches and the grey head or the browner colour of the female; it was a Brambling! A winter female, it fed gladly with the Chaffinches on the ground where some seed had been laid out for them. It was a beauty of a bird, and clearly stood out from the others. I was particularly happy to see this bird, as not only had I found it, but hitherto that day Brambling had been my main bogey bird. It was a lifer. It stayed feeding there for a few minutes, giving other birders a chance to see it, and then flew off, showing the tell tale white rump. What a very satisfying way to end the day! Yet even that wasn't it. On the way back as we entered Aberdeen a Woodcock darted across the road, a species that had managed to elude me last year and was a very useful year tick.

I ended that day on 82 species for the year, with 52 new species seen since I had set out that morning. What a fantastic day! Merlin, two Hen Harriers, Water Rail, Brambling, White-tailed Eagle, Twite, Snow Bunting, Woodcock, Pintail and great numbers of other winter passerines and wildfowl, all in one day, as well as 3 other species of birds of prey. What a kick start to the year! Will it be a sign of great things to come? We will see in future entries! Next time I shall chart my birding weekend down in Lothian.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, 4 February 2010

Review of the Birding Year 2009

2009, it must be said, was a legendary birding year on my part, probably my best ever. The amount of new birds that I saw was just phenomenal, and I saw some great sights that I’d never think that I’d see. This document will tell you about my birding year on a whole - its high points; its low points, and a personal reflection on the experiences which I hope to vividly describe.


Due to the bitterly cold winter and the hectic happenings that took place at school, it was a slow start to the birding year. Inevitably in the latter half of the Christmas Holidays I managed to see the commonest species without having to leave Aberdeen (e.g. Herring and other gulls, Town and Wood Pigeon, House Sparrow, the Tits, the finches), and was quickly up to 16. The first birding trip of the year took place in the middle of the month and the year list increased to 44. All three local patches (Girdleness, Ythan and Strathbeg) produced their common species, all of which felt extra special on the day as they all counted! The most notable of these early year ticks were a group of Red-legged Partridges seen on the road to Collieston in the Ythan area and Red-throated Diver and Purple Sandpiper at Girdleness. The commonest winter waterfowl species (Eider, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Pink-footed Goose, R-B Merganser, Shelduck, Mute Swan etc. ) were all seen including the three commonest birds of prey (Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk), the commoner waders (Oystercatcher, Redshank, Lapwing, Dunlin, Golden Plover) and other commoner species. This was the only time I got out during the month, but I was fairly satisfied with my totals even though most birders would see this as a rather petty total.

February and March:

February was that bit better than January, with some interesting birds seen. Managed to get out birding just once yet again as I was still busy with school work and the weather was still cold. However, before this outing I was blessed with the arrival of one of my favourite winter species outside my house. It had been a great year for Waxwings on all over the country that winter, and I was absolutely delighted when I spotted a flock of 15+ of these birds (4th February) on the cotoneaster bushes in the garden. The past few winters had been good for Waxwings and each year I’d had them visiting these bushes which are ripe with berries that they like to eat, and it was lovely to see them there again. The views were brilliant and, as the bushes ware fairly close to the house, you didn’t have to use the bins to see them, but I used mine anyway. No other Waxwings visited again that month unfortunately, or for the rest of the year.

I got out birding properly a week after my Waxwing encounter, where I spent the day at the Ythan and Strathbeg. Stopping at the Ythan there were no birds to note particularly apart from those I had seen the month before. As I was leaving the area however, I came across a birder looking at a big flock of maybe 200 or so Pink-footed Geese. Getting out the car I asked if he was looking at anything in particular:

“It’s strange that you ask actually. I’ve been watching what I think are two Tundra Bean Geese, but I can’t be sure. I’ve reported it and texted a few people about it and was wondering if you were responding to the report.”

“We didn’t get any reports,” I replied, “We just thought we’d stop by to see if you’ve seen anything interesting. Where about are these Bean Geese then?”

The incredibly strong and cold wind made it hard to view the geese through the scope, but the birder managed to show my Dad and I these geese that he was looking at. As these two geese were right amongst a flock of standing Pinkfeets, we couldn’t see the orange feet which would separate them from Pink-footed. They seemed to be considerably bigger though and didn’t have the frosty blue-grey backs of the Pinkfeets, as well as have longer bills. It would have been easier to identify them if the wind hadn’t blown the scope about, but eventually we all came to the conclusion that they were Bean Geese. To confirm though we would have to wait until the birds were in flight. Eventually, the flock did take off for a second before landing again, with the two geese we had been keeping an eye taking to the air too. It was specifically these two geese that we were watching, and to my delight we found that both geese did have orange feet! This was great news, and meant that I had seen my first lifer of the year. The birder who had spotted them was very pleased with his find and took our names so as to show that he wasn’t the only person to have seen them. We had spent an hour watching the flock with the birder, an hour that was definitely worth it. We weren’t expecting to see the Bean Geese at all. It’s such moments in birding as these that I enjoy, when you just fall upon nice birds without having a clue that you’re going to see them! At Strathbeg I managed to see some useful species that I hadn’t seen as of yet, including Whooper Swan, Reed Bunting, Peregrine Falcon, Gadwall and a fine drake Pintail. I finished the month on a fine 66 species, with Waxwing and Bean Goose being the main highlights of the year so far.

March saw some harder weather with considerable snowfall. School and work for my Dad was also more hectic than ever, with me having to sit and revise for several test. As a result I didn’t make it out once that month and the year list total didn’t rise. It had been a slowish start in the first few months of the year. However, as April arrived so did spring in all its warmth and glory. What birds would it produce?


On the first weekend of April (to be precise the 4th) I was out for my first ‘Spring Birdwatch’, and was hoping to see the commoner spring arrivals (e.g. the hirundines, a few commoner warblers). However I was only out for the morning due to other arrangements that day, which to a degree lessened the amount of new species that I saw. Only five year ticks were seen that spring morning. The first Swallow of the year was a welcoming sight and a real sign of the nicer weather, as was a Chiffchaff viewed just outside Waulkmill Hide and a Blackcap at the second stop off area near the main part of the Estuary. On the way to Collieston for a brief look out at sea a few Grey Partridges took us by surprise as they took a risky and sudden flight across the road as we passed by. At Collieston I managed to see my first Gannets of the year with approximately 35 birds passing in 20 minutes. It was rather embarrassing that we hadn’t seen any Gannets for the first few months of year, so it was a relief to see them then. 71 species of bird had now been seen as of 4th April.

With the arrival of the Easter Holidays a few days later my Dad and I (my Mum and sister were busy with work –related issues) had prepared a trip down to Roadwater in Somerset, a village close to Exmoor National Park. My Dad’s parents own a cottage in this village, and we visit it annually so as to be able to visit them and other relatives (I don’t have any relatives in Scotland you see). I’ve been going there for years, and I must admit it’s a beautiful area, filled with nice woodland and rolling fields. The aforementioned habitats are home to some birds that are difficult to see in Scotland such as Green Woodpecker and Nuthatch. As we were only spending a few days in the area my Dad and I didn’t get out to do any proper birding, but, because of the many beautiful countryside walks you can take from Roadwater, we had outings each day. One particularly long walk across Exmoor was good for birds, providing us with quite a few upland species. At least 5 Ravens were seen and we heard their guttural croaking fairly regularly on the walk. As well as this we managed to flush up a few Common Redpolls from the heather which were nice to see. Other walks proved slightly less interesting but Willow Warbler and Yellowhammer were welcome additions On the way back to Aberdeen my Dad and I thought it might be worth it to stop off at WTT Slimbridge, a place my Dad had I always wanted to show me and that is obviously renowned not only for the wildfowl you get there but its collection of wildfowl too, both of which I saw and greatly admired. However I would comment that the place was a little clogged up with visitors that strayed into the hides after looking at the wildfowl collection. At Slimbridge I managed to pick up quite a few new species for the year, including Shoveler, Greylag Goose and Canada Goose, Black-tailed Godwit, my first Sedge Warbler of the year and up to 5 Little Egrets. The latter obviously aren’t a common sight in Scotland but I see them at least twice a year in places like Strathbeg (these are usual lone birds however), and obviously I see plenty of them when I’m down in England. With this visit to Slimbridge and the long walk up in Exmoor the year list was now at 80 species.

On 26th my Dad and I spent a day at Strathbeg and managed to see a lot of lovely species that hitherto I hadn’t seen that year. The visitor centre, Tower Pool, Rattray and the hides at Crimond Airfield were all checked, and by the end of the year the year list had increased by 14 species and was now on 94. All the birds seen were the expected spring arrivals such Ruff, Sand and House Martin, Sanderling, Common and Sandwich Tern, Marsh Harrier, a stunning Osprey over the visitor centre and a fine male Wheatear. However, there was one species that I saw that day that I haven’t mentioned. This species was a lifer for me, and was seen right at the end of the day. It took frustratingly long for me to see however, as it was only really viewable through the scope and kept on disappearing out of view at points. It was very busy in the visitor centre, with all the visitor scopes being used. Not much was going on for a lot of the time, and people were just watching the wildfowl. Just as were about to leave, however, a cry came from one of the birders:

“I’ve got a female Hen Harrier here! It’s a long way off but is currently quartering the fields towards Savioch!”

Now Hen Harrier, at that time, was one of the biggest bogey birds that I hadn’t seen, and I was desperate to see this ringtail. However, because of the amount of people in the place that were using the scopes, I wasn’t able to catch onto the bird. Just less than a minute after this person’s cry it went down again. Those that were at the scopes had all seen it, including my Dad. I hadn’t however. There was then a long wait for the bird to re-appear. 20 minutes pass. Nothing.... I was becoming very unhappy, thinking that this was going to be my first major miss of the year. But I was relieved when I managed to get onto a scope and the bird rose again. I quickly caught on to it, and watched it as it patrolled across the reeds and showed brilliantly! It was a beautiful bird to have seen, and one less bird to feel embarrassed about! That was how the month ended. Overall I’d say it was much better than February, which was the runner up in terms of quality, not because I saw rarer birds or anything, just because I went to different places than usual and saw some really nice birds. Hen Harrier had now nicked in as bird of the year.


May, it has to be said, hosted not only the best birding day of the year but one of my most enjoyable days birding ever, and is definitely worth an extended account of! This day, which was May 2nd, was once again spent at the Loch of Strathbeg, and it was just phenomenal! The fact the only 10 new species were seen that day makes it sound petty, but oh, amongst those 10 birds were some brilliant species! The reason I had gone up to the Loch of Strathbeg was to see a Great White Egret that had been reported there. Great White Egrets have obviously starting to lose their status as a vagrant nowadays, what with the many reports of this species in the past year or so. Neither I nor my Dad had seen one before, and the prospect of seeing one was very tempting and exciting. When we arrived up there we didn’t go and have a look for it straight away, we checked the visitor centre first. The bird of note on this first visit to the Visitor Centre was a charming Little Ringed Plover. Little Ringed Plovers are a difficult bird to see and was a very useful year tick for us. In fact, it was only my third LRP ever. There were also up to 3 Marsh Harriers quartering the reeds. We then headed to Fen Hide, where the Great White Egret had been seen. As we arrived there we met with a photographer that we’d seen on a number of occasions.

“Presuming you’ve come to see the Great White Egret. Well, it’s just at the back there towards the reeds.”

And he was right. There was a fantastic, very tall all white heron pecking about in the water, viewed down to about 30 metres, the Great White Egret! I had never seen any water bird so magnificent as this in my life. It was just amazing! The conditions (excellent light and very close views) we had were just ideal, I couldn’t have hoped for better! At first it was viewed alongside a Grey Heron (and three Whooper Swans) for comparative purposes, which was rather a treat. When standing it looked hugely bigger and more magnificent than the Grey Heron, that’s for sure! As it pecked about in the water and waded with its hugely long legs, I noted that its bill and legs were basically black but the bill also had a yellowish colour round the base. It was just brilliant watching it; I couldn’t have been more content. We sat there for half an hour (by which time the photographer had some superb photos) just watching it beside the Grey Heron when all of a sudden it took to the air, flying in a very dignified and flamboyant manner into the reeds, where it disappeared. 25 minutes later it reappeared, and was viewed at the edge of the reeds where it walked about a lot. It stayed there for another 10 minutes and then flew back to where we had originally seen it, this time seen catching fish. It was just astounding watching this beautiful bird. My experiences of it are truly unforgettable. This was my third lifer for the year, and my Dad’s first. So within the first hour and a half of birding at Strathbeg I had seen Little Ringed Plover and Great White Egret, how could it possibly get better? Well the answer is that it did get better. We didn’t go back to the visitor centre straight away but headed to the north side of the Loch. Here two separate flocks of 30 Whimbrels were seen, which were lovely to see and was of course was a very useful year tick. Also at the north side of the Loch up to 8 Wheatears were seen and 4 Corn Buntings, the latter of which was a year tick. Rattray was also checked but nothing of note was seen here.

By mid afternoon we arrived back at the Visitor Centre, where we found a good number of birders all with their eyes on a particular species of bird. ‘What now?’ I thought to myself excitedly.

“Whilst you were elsewhere on the reserve,” said one of the wardens that had seen us earlier, “A Green-Winged Teal joined the teal flock. It’s easily viewable through the bins and scope just in front of the hide with the other teals here. It’s a drake, and is easily recognisable from its commoner relatives by a white stripe down the side of its body. You’ll see it there once you get set up.”

Green-Winged Teal was yet another lifer, and when I looked through the scope at the teal flock I could clearly see the white stripe down the side that the warden had mentioned. Quite frankly it wasn’t a lot different from the teals, but was a beauty of bird to watch as the Common Teal is a fine-looking bird in its own right. It was mostly roosting but at one point it did show its face and stood by the other teals. That was now two life ticks in a day plus a Little Ringed Plover. It was a fantastic today so far, it really couldn’t get any better. Or could it?

“It’s been a great day here at Strathbeg,” said one of the wardens, “On top of this teal and the GW Egret there are two Snow Geese and a Pectoral Sandpiper at Tower Hide as well.”

‘This is just surreal!’ I thought, ‘How can it get better than this?’ With this news we headed straight to Tower Pool Hide. Once we arrived there we met once again with the photographer who had been photographing the two Snow Geese for the past hour or so, and checked the Pink-footed Geese flock (still sizeable for the time of year at over 200 birds) for the Snow Geese. With help from the photographer, we soon found them nestled at the core of the flock. They were outstanding things, one being a blue morph and the other a white, and were both together contentedly feeding with the Pink-footed Geese. This was the third ever time I had seen Snow Geese in Scotland, and the first time at Strathbeg. Most of the time we watched them they were just on the ground, but it was some sight when they took the air with the other geese as a Marsh Harrier sent them up. It was interesting when in flight actually, as they stuck close together and never strayed apart from one another. It was rather lovely actually to watch them in the skies together, both the blue morph and the white morph together. After a good look at the Snow Geese we turned our attention to the reported Pectoral Sandpiper that was also in Tower Pool Hide. Pectoral Sandpiper, unlike Snow Goose, was actually a lifer for me. The photographer told us that he hadn’t seen it for a good hour or so and that it had flown off, and that if we wanted to see it we would have to be patient. That wasn’t to say it hadn’t flown back in, however, so we had a careful check of the whole area for it. However after 15 minutes solid searching there was no such luck, so we continued to look at the Snow Geese and other birds, with one notable bird being a fine female Spotted Redshank. Having spent well over an hour in Tower Pool, we were about to head off back home for the day when all of a sudden the photographer said:

“Ok, the Pectoral Sandpiper has just flown in roughly in front of the Savioch Tower.”

Sheer delight! Using the scope, I managed to locate the Pectoral Sandpiper amongst a small flock of Dunlins. A fine looking bird it was too, clearly that bit larger than the Dunlins with a short, slightly decurved bill that was slightly paler than the Dunlins, a grey-brown back and grey, streaked breast that extends further than a Dunlin’s. I also noticed a prominent, creamy supercilium grey breast is sharply demarcated and stops at the centre of the breast, leaving the belly a pure, unmarked white. All the above is characteristic of a Pec Sand and is essential for differentiating them from Dunlin’s in the field. The Pec Sand generally seemed a lot paler and a good bit bigger than the Dunlin’s. If I had been the first to see it they would be the two main grounds to my conclusion. The views of this Pec Sand could have been better but it wasn’t exactly distant, and it was a nice looking wader.

By the time I had left Tower Pool and started to head home it was about 5pm. It had been the most ridiculously good birding day ever, and really an unforgettable one. I had 3 lifers that day: Great White Egret, Pec Sand and Green-Winged Teal, as well as my third sighting ever of a Little Ringed Plover, two Snow Geese, 30 Whimbrel, 3 Marsh Harriers, 4 Great Crested Grebe and a female Spotted Redshank. As a result of this day the year list was now over the 100 mark on 105 species. It was absolutely unforgettable! Would future days in the year beat the quality of 2nd May?

On the 11th May my first Swifts of the year were seen outside the house, and a walk by the River Dee on 17th May provided me with a useful amount of year ticks including Garden Warbler, Dipper, Jay, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Pochard and Whitethroat. On the search for a possible Pallid Harrier the weekend afterwards at Forvie Sands near the Ythan proved unsuccessful but did produce me with a cracking migrant in the form of a Lesser Whitethroat. I ended the month on a respectable 113 species. This cracking month was just a taste of the great birds I would see in the coming months of the year.


June was host to a full two days of birding in succession of one another during a weekend, starting on the 13TH. At the start of the first day I headed back up to Strathbeg to have a look at 3 Spoonbills which had been showing well in front of the Visitor Centre. These wouldn’t be my first Spoonbills, as I had seen two previous to this. When we arrived there we located these birds instantly. The views were astonishing at no more than 20 metres away. All of the birds were in fine adult plumage, and spent a majority of time roosting in the summer sun. However the best moments of viewing these birds was when they stopped roosting and started walking around the place, with one bird ‘spooning’ using its extraordinarily fine spatula-shaped bill. We spent the whole of our time at Strathbeg watching these birds, and also came across a Little Gull, an unexpected year tick that was clearly much smaller than the Black-headed Gulls it was beside. The rest of the first day was spent down by the cliffs at Bullars of Buchan in search of Puffins. After a good walk and a good deal of searching we managed to find 6 of these birds, 3 of which were on the water close to the cliffs and 3 wedged amongst the far more abundant Guillemots and Razorbills. After a nice first day, the second day of the weekend was spent in the countryside west of Aberdeen in search of moorland species. Spending most of our time in the Clachnaben and Cairn O Mount area, Cuckoo was both heard and seen, and 3 Spotted Flycatchers and a Whinchat near the top of Clachnaben were pleasant surprises. A family of Red Grouse shooting up through the heather at Cairn O Mount was also a good and needed addition, and my second party of Redpoll of the year was also seen. These two days were the only two birding outings of the month but had proved very useful, and took the year list up to a nice 137 species.


As I had joined Birdforum and made a blog on the site you can get more information on the happenings of two attempts I had at looking for the Little Bittern at Ham Wall via the link at the end of this monthly account. If you want to know more about any other details from this point in the year onwards they will also be linked. The monthly accounts will also be shorter as the actual days have been blogged.

July of course is the month in which Spring truly comes to the end and the birding world quietens down slightly. However this July was a cracking month for me and a good month for Aberdeenshire with some top quality birds seen. On the 8/7 a mega rarity in the form of a Stilt Sandpiper was spotted by warden David Parnaby at Loch of Strathbeg. The Stilt Sandpiper is a very rare vagrant from America and had only been recorded 17 times prior to this bird in the UK, so as soon as the weekend came (10/7) we headed up to see it, and were successful. Lots of people were there to see it and were obliged with fantastic views of the bird. This Stilt Sandpiper really looked most like a mixture between a Curlew Sandpiper and a Snipe. I noted a rufousy head to bird, clear diagonals down back a striped belly, and an overall brown impression. It had a habit of stretching its neck upright in which it revealed its curled bill, but most of the time it was just roosting and feeding quite happily. Even better was that at points it was feeding beside a Pectoral Sandpiper which was also present on the reserve, my second ever. Comparing these two waders, I concluded that the Pectoral Sandpiper was actually a good deal bigger than the Stilt Sand, suggesting that Stilt Sandpiper isn’t as appropriate a name as it might suggest.... Of course, like with any mega-rarity that one sees, I felt a feeling of immense satisfaction and pride at seeing the Stilt Sandpiper. It just felt sensational to see a bird that had only been seen 18 times ever in the UK! Not only that, but it was great to see it beside the Pectoral Sandpiper, a bird I had only first seen back in May. On the same day as the Stilt and Pectoral Sandpiper, Manx Shearwater was added to the year list when visiting Rattray and at the Ythan a cracking Little Tern was seen. Unfortunately the day after we saw the Stilt Sandpiper a Caspian Tern made a brief appearance for a couple of hours at the Ythan, showing very well in front of a handful of serendipitous observers that happened to be in the area at the time. A link to a picture of the Stilt Sandpiper is below.

A few days after seeing the Stilt Sandpiper I found myself back down in Roadwater, Somerset for the second time that year, this time for a much longer period of time than before, thus not only giving me the chance to look for some of the typical English woodland species that you don’t get in Scotland and also allowing me to have a couple of days at Ham Wall RSPB, where a long-stay Little Bittern was being seen and twitched by many people. Several walks in the countryside round Roadwater were very useful and managed to provide me with Nuthatch and Green Woodpecker, my main targets in the woods round the area. A Tawny Owl also flew across the road one night on the way back from a nice pub dinner. Searching for the Little Bittern at Ham Wall RSPB did prove to be unsuccessful, but amazingly I managed to see 4 life ticks, all of which were bogey birds. These were a Bittern, Cetti’s Warbler, my first ever Kingfisher (which was so relieving as it was my most embarrassing bogey bird at that point!) and a stunning Water Rail. Reed Warbler was also a useful year tick here. As I had joined Birdforum and made a blog on the site you can get more information on the happenings of two attempts I had at looking for the Little Bittern at Ham Wall via the below link. If you want to know more about any other details from this point in the year onwards they will also be linked. I ended the month having had a total of 5 lifers and the year list on the total of 149. I must admit it was a fantastic month, and was incredibly satisfying!


A few days into the month a trip up to Strathbeg provided me with a good amount of new waders for the year, most notably Wood and Green Sandpiper, as well as Common Sandpiper and Snipe. Hooded Crow was also seen here. I was not out again until very late in the month due to arriving back at school and other plans. I went just a couple of days after my 15th birthday on 27th, and had a couple of real birthday delights. These were my first ever views of the juvenile White-tailed Eagle that had been hanging around in Strathbeg for the past year and had hitherto eluded me. Seeing it was the most breathtaking experience I had ever witnessed (read more on link), I even saw it taking a wash! Not only this but I had slightly distant views of a definite marsh Tern that turned out to be a White-winged Black Tern but was originally thought to be a Black Tern. The latter would have also been a lifer but I was very glad to hear that it was actually a White-winged Black Tern! A link to the account of the latter day, which I’m sure will interest you more than the first, can be seen below. By the end of August the year list had reached 159 species.


September, of course, is known to be one of the best months of the year for birds, with migrants flooding in from the continent elsewhere with the odd rarity amongst them. However, this is providing the wind conditions are right, or in other words in an easterly direction. I was out a lot that month to maximise my chances of seeing migrant passerines/whatever else may turn up, but the winds were in the west for the whole month, meaning it was pretty quiet! Grrr! I had to really eek out birds, and those new birds for the year that I did see weren’t any species of passerines. It really was an appalling month for the little blighters! On the 5th my Dad and I managed to spot 2 Curlew Sandpiper and 3 Little Stints at the Ythan, two very useful birds for the year. However these were the only new year ticks that day. I was next out on the Scottish Birdforum Bash, where Birdforum members from across Scotland (and sometimes England) meet up in a certain Scottish location and spend a few days birding together. Where they meet is decided on Birdforum itself, and it was decided that this Birdforum Bash would be held in Aberdeenshire. As I had now been a member of the forum for two months I pounced on the chance to go as I was eager to meet the people. Also the more people, the more chance there would be of seeing some good birds. The outcome of the weekend (12/13th September) in terms of birds didn’t consist of anything overly amazing, but we managed to tot up a total of 104 species in two days, which wasn’t bad. Also it was lovely to meet each and every one of the Birdforum members. The highlights of these include fabulous views of Red Kites at Loch of Skene, good views of the White-tailed Eagle at Strathbeg and a Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Ythanmouth. For more info on the day see these two links (each day of the Bash has its own entry):

From this point onwards I wasn’t able to make any full days out as I was very busy with school work, but I was able to make it down to Girdleness on a good number of occasions after school for some sea-watching. On these trips I managed good numbers of Manx Shearwaters, Brent Geese, and other things each time, but unfortunately nothing rarer than those two species. If you go back to go back to my first post on this blog (linked below) you can read more if you wish:

The month ended rather disappointingly and I hoped October would be better. By the end of September the year list had risen to a respectable 166 species.


October was probably the best month of year, but in far different ways in usual. I spent very little time birding in Aberdeenshire that month, as in the October Holidays I first spent a week in northern Suffolk, taking a day’s birding in North Norfolk, and also spent a week in Corsica. Before all this though, I went to see a cracking Glossy Ibis that was in a field just outside the village of St Combs near Strathbeg. This bird was a juvenile, and showed very obliging at less than 20 feet. It was my 11th lifer of the year.

The week afterwards I was down in northern Suffolk, and visited North Norfolk on the 15th. Here I visited Cley Marshes, West Runton, Holkham Pines, Thornham Harbour and Holme Dunes. The day was fantastic with a cracking 3 lifers (Short-toed Lark, Grey Phalarope and my first Barn Owl, the latter of which was a real bogey!) as well as a cracking Black Redstart, several Bearded Tits, a Cetti’s Warbler and a Spotted Redshank all at Cley and a ringtail at Thornham Harbour (plus much more!). It was an unbelievable day and was one of the best days of the year. After this visit to Northern Suffolk my Mum and I then headed abroad to the mountainous island of Corsica where I stayed in a hotel just outside Calvi on the north-west coast of the island, where I spent a week. Each day was spent birding, and for the trip I was in search of specialities such as Marmora’s Warbler in the abundant maquis shrub of the island, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, Audouins Gull, Corsican Citril Finch, and most importantly the endemic Corsican Nuthatch. In the end I managed to fail on seeing all the aformentioned species but I saw some really lovely birds including absolutely loads of Red Kites, 4 Black Redstarts, Dartford and Sardinian Warbler, Eurasian Crag Martin, and a world lifer in the form of two cracking Cirl Buntings in Asco village. Despite missing out on the target birds the sights and places I saw were just breathtaking and such fun, and I saw some great birds anyway.

Arriving back in Aberdeenshire after what had been a brilliant two weeks away I found that I had missed a fall of rare passerines. This was very frustrating, as I managed to miss the biggest fall of Firecrests ever recorded in Aberdeenshire, as well as quite good numbers of commoner rarities such as Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and very annoyingly a Radde’s Warbler at Girdleness. How ironic could it be that all the passerines turn up when I’m away? However, on Halloween I was very happy to go down to Girdleness and see a Richard’s Pipit that had been spotted there. This bird showed well and was yet another lifer for me. It made me feel better as it meant that I hadn’t missed all the migrant passerine activity! I ended what had been a fantastic month’s birding on 173 species for the year (which of course is minus all the birds I saw on Corsica!). What a month in comparison to September! I won’t forget October 2009, that’s for sure! If you haven’t read about it already, go the Archives here on my blog for more information on October’s birding, including a full account of the Norfolk Day and all 7 days spent in Corsica.


When November arrives the hecticness of the autumn dies down and turns gradually into winter. Throughout November I could feel the winter weather coming and the birding world starting to lie low. However November was a great month in its own right. I managed to get out birding on two occasions, and one of these, as you will have probably read, I was involved in the case of the misidentified Dove that was first thought to be an Oriental Turtle Dove but actually ended up being a Turtle Dove. Despite the dove not being the rarer species, I was incredibly happy to see the Turtle Dove as it was only my second ever, and my first in Scotland. It was a very valuable year tick too. On the same day as this Dove I got fantastic views of 8 Snow Buntings at Girdleness and a Black-throated Diver was a welcome addition. On the latter of the two outings that month I simply went in search of some Twites in the dunes at Ythanmouth and was successful, seeing a flock of up to 30 of the birds. It was getting very hard to see new birds for now, and I had now reached 178 species for the year. My aim for the year was 180, would I reach it?


The last month of the year also just had two birding outings but each day was pleasurable in there different ways. The first was spent at Strathbeg in search of Long-tailed Duck, a bird I hadn’t seen that year. I unfortunately didn’t see this species there but did manage to see my second Kingfisher and Water Rail ever, getting fabulous views of the latter species. As Christmas passed my Dad and I could only find one way that we could achieve our aim for the year. There had been a King Eider reported in Burghead, Morayshire, about 95 miles north-west of Aberdeen. We decided, on the 27/12, that we would take a day trip and go up to see this bird. Long-tailed Duck was also more or less guaranteed here. I’m delighted to say that on our arrival we saw both of the two targeted species, getting unimaginably good views of the King Eider and seeing several Long-tailed Duck! That was the last time I got out that year, and I had managed to achieve my aim to the exact number 180! It couldn’t have finished better for me!


Overall, I must say 2009 was my best birding year on record so far. I recorded a total of 17 lifers, a phenomenal record for me, (18 plus the Cirl Bunting in Corsica) and saw such a wide range of fabulous species from all different sorts of habitats. Visiting Corsica, Ham Wall RSPB in Somerset and North Norfolk all contributed immensely to the year total and were all beautiful places too, particularly Corsica, which was just astounding! However, in terms of the best birding place I went this year it had to be Strathbeg. Time and time again that I went it produced quality birds. I managed to see 8 of the 17 lifers that year there alone. The Ythan and Girdleness also produced some lovely birds too. Which bird though, really stood out for me that year? And what was the best day of the year?

It’s obvious that the rarest bird I saw was the Stilt Sandpiper. Well, I enjoyed seeing a lot of birds that year. Some lifers were less exciting than others (take Pec Sand, WWB Tern and Green-Winged Teal) The Bean Geese were great to see early in the year, as were the Waxwings in the garden (waxies weren’t lifers though), and the two ringtails I saw through the course of the year. The Snow Geese (also not lifers) were also fantastic to see, as were the Lesser Whitethroats at Forvie Sands, the 3 Spoonbills at Strathbeg, the Stilt Sandpiper of course, the Water Rails that I saw, the Bittern, the White-tailed Eagle sightings, the Glossy Ibis, the Barn Owl and Grey Phalarope in Norfolk, the Richard’s Pipit and the King Eider... But it must be said, out of all those birds, there was only one bird that really stood in terms of the joy I experienced in seeing it and the views I got, and that goes to the Great White Egret. It was just such a beautiful, elegant bird, and the views were just so close! Yes, the experience of first seeing the White-tailed Eagle ran it close, but it didn’t quite have enough to beat the pleasure of the Great White Egret sighting! As for the best day of the year, well there can only be one winner. Yes, the day on 2nd May, where I saw Great White Egret, Snow Goose, Green-Winged Teal, Pectoral Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover all within one day! It was just a phenomenal day and was completely unforgettable. The Norfolk Day was definitely the runner up, but it didn’t quite have the joy and sheer chaos of the day at Strathbeg in early May. I will leave you with a few stats and a link to my full 2009 year list. Thanks for reading what has been a long Review of the Year!

Aim: 180 species (TARGET ACHIEVED)
Bird of the Year (Rare): Stilt Sandpiper
Bird of the Year (Most enjoyable year): Great White Egret
Number of Lifers: 17 (18 + Cirl Bunting)

Day of the Year: 2nd May (Highlights: GW Egret, GW Teal, Snow Goose, LRP, Pec Sand)
Year List -