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,


  1. Brilliantly written sounds like you had a great trip and saw some brilliant birds.

  2. Nice one matey. I love SEO's one of my favourite owls. If you are interested I could show you and your Dad some of the fantastic birds we have in Durham. Perhaps in the future you could come down and I could show you the birds. Winter:
    -LEO, Barn Owl, SEO all in one location at the moment.
    -Black and Red Grouse
    -Med Gulls
    -Corn Buntings

    -Black and Red Grouse
    -Corn Buntings
    -Merlin? - Perhaps
    -Green Woodpecker, Pied Flycatcher, Wood Warbler, Whinchat.
    -Yellow Wagtails.
    -Waders (Had some real rare waders over the years: UK1st Red-necked Stint)

    Just a thought? :)

  3. Also I forgot to mettion:

    Goshawk - Feb to Marsh
    Peregrine - Spring - early Summer
    Red Kite - All year round!

  4. Jonny, thanks very much. It was a fab day. And Andrew, cheers to you to. That's very nice of you to offer, and I will think about accepting. Bare in mind though that I've got loads of bird trips coming up this year, so it may not be this year if I do go and visit you. I'll speak more about it elsewhere. Cheers.


  5. well written m8. Great one on seeing the SEOs aswell! I have yet to see the blighters lol. Looking forward to your future posts pal and good birding! :)

  6. Very well written and a very interesting read Joseph. funnily enough my only sightings of Short Eared Owls were at the Ythan Estuary some years ago. Are they still present there?

  7. Hi Joseph , high quality post as usual, i really like your enthusiasm towards birding and your writing brings that out in leaps and bounds , well done with the S E Owl and Water Pipit truely great birds to see. regards Rob

  8. Thank you very much for your comments everyone. John thank you, and no, I have never seen one there. The Sands of Forvie has always looked like it could hold some, but I haven't seen one reported from there in a very long time. The buzzards have really defeated them. They're not really a common sight up here at all.

    Rob, it's very nice of you to put it that way. Thank you! Birding is such a passion for me, life wouldn't be as fun without it.

    Cheers folks, and I'll be working on the next blog post shortly.