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,