Sunday, 28 March 2010

In Search of Early Spring Migrants and Bogey Birds

Ok, ok.... I know I said I wouldn't post again until after I get back from Portland. Afraid not! For a couple of reasons I found myself casually lured to get out birding. Firstly, a period of nasty, misty weather had brought in the first spring migrants at Girdleness. These included Chffichaff, Blackcap and Wheatear, and most notably a Black Redstart. Secondly, there had been a Bewick's Swan seen at the Ythan, which has always been my worst bogey bird and is a rare sight in Scotland. I mean, if you have your worst bogey bird present only 10 miles north of where you live and have some early spring migrants just outside town, what else are you going to do but go out and have a look? So on Friday afternoon after school, I headed down to Girdleness in search of spring migrants. We started our search by checking the Battery, where Mark Lewis had originally seen the Black Redstart which I mentioned. We gave the area a thorough check, but there was no sign of a Black Redstart nor any migrants.

Thinking methodically, my Dad and I decided that the best idea would be to have a walk across from the Battery towards the sycamore tree (nearer the Harbour for those that aren't Aberdeenshire birders). After all, the area is thick with bushes that would likely shelter migrants from the bitter wind and intermittent light rain. I have also seen Black Redstart at Girdleness before, and at the time I saw the bird in the past it was on the rocks which this walk goes past. The walk is of a fairly reasonable length and allows for a thorough check of half of Girdleness for any birds that may be present, so I constantly kept my eyes peeled on the bushes for any passerine that decided to show themselves. Satisfyingly, a passerine showed itself shortly after I started walking - my first Chiffchaff of the year and first spring migrant of the year, showing well. This was later followed by another Chiffchaff towards the sycamore. Besides these Chiffchaffs however, I didn't see any other notable spring migrants with the Black Redstart proving elusive and thus far no Wheatears. By the time I returned from the walk it was about quarter past five, which left me without an hour and a bit to check the rest of the Ness. From the Battery I headed to Walker Park in search of my first Wheatears of the year. There had been some seen here earlier in the day, but when I gave it a careful scan I could see nothing but a Meadow Pipit and an Oystercatcher on here. A look out at sea proved very little save a few Kittiwakes (my first of the year), and checking the rocks between the foghorn which I seawatch at and Nigg Bay there was no Wheatears either. They must have been passing through, presumably. At Nigg Bay there was little to report either, despite a Snow Bunting having been seen for the previous two days there. There was a Kestrel here and a singing Song Thrush though. Overall the early spring migrants that had been seen earlier in the day had proved annoyingly difficult to find. On the positive side though I had seen my first Chiffchaffs and Kittiwakes of the year, which was a sign of spring and meant my year list had increased to 129 species.

Now I only had yesterday (Saturday) morning to search for the Bewick's Swan at the Ythan. Ken Hall had reported it on Wednesday, saying that it was in a field between Waulkmill Hide and the Collieston crossroads with a juvenile Whooper Swan. Whether it was still there or not was for us to find out, so at quarter past 9 we headed to the Ythan. We arrived roughly at quarter to ten, and instead of checking the estuary first we went straight up to check if the Bewick's Swan and the juvenile Whooper which it had been with were in any of the fields viewable on the road down from the Collieston crossroads to Waulkmill. Half way towards Waulkmill there were no signs of any Swans whatsoever and I was starting to think that it had maybe moved off. But I was in luck. About 3/4 of the way there though I spotted two Swans at the back of theclosest field to the car at the time. The car came to an abrupt halt as I exclaimed that I had thought I had found it, and looking through the bins I could see a juvenile Whooper Swan and beside it an adult swan that was visibly smaller. I had found the Bewick's Swan. As I locked onto it I felt a real sense of relief. I had finally set my eyes on what had been the most embaressing species that I hadn't seen before. There was no mistaking this fantastic bird, as it seemed quite a bit smaller and wasn't standing as tall as its commoner cousin , even though the Whooper was a juvenile. It was so easy to compare too. I could visibly see that it had a much shorter and thicker neck than the Whooper, with the Whooper Swan's neck seeming positively thin and very long. As well as this, I also noted that the yellow on the bill was far less extensive and more contrasting than on the Whooper Swan, whilst the black was more extensive (just the opposite to Whooper which has more yellow on the bill). The views were ideal for the aforementioned comparisons, with the birds probably at most 50 yards away from us in absolutely excellent light conditions. The two Swans seemed perfectly happy hanging around together; it was as if they were oblivious to the fact that they were a different species. They spent a majority of their time meandering round the field, stopping frequently to feed or in reaction to any sounds they had heard. We watched them for about 20 minutes, then decided to move on. I felt very happy that I had seen the Bewick's Swan, as not only was it relieving to 'clean up' on what was my worst bogey bird but the views of it were top quality. Here are a couple of distant photos I got of the two birds plus a picture of the field it was in. I think the first one shows the comparison in size particularly well (it is the bird on the right in both pictures).

From here we headed to Meikle Loch, where frankly I didn't expect to see much. I was wrong in my prejudgement. Shortly after we arrived a flurry of wildfowl took to the air. Amongst them I spotted ia big, sandy coloured bird with hugely prominent white wing bars. My initial reaction was 'What the hell?!', but I soon regained my senses and discovered what species I was seeing. It was an Egyptian Goose. It was sort of extraordinary when I latched onto this bird, as I have never seen one in Aberdeenshire before, let alone on the Ythan Estuary or Meikle Loch. There was no mistaking it, and was too big/sandy coloured for it to be the other wildfowl species that has prominent white wing bars - Ruddy Shelduck. It's head was also too pale for Ruddy Shelduck and I could see a shade of green towards the wing. Annoyingly, it flew some way from its originally location on the Loch and landed in the fields behind. Here it annoyingly went of view. However, a few minutes later it flew back onto the Loch, sticking at the very back. This meant views weren't all that satisfactory, but through the scope you could easily see that it was an Egyptian Goose. It stayed near the back of the Loch for another few minutes and then flew off completely, heading south-east. What a strange bird to see! When it had disappeared, my mind puzzled as to why this bird was in North-east Scotland and of its origins. Was it a bird that was part of the established stronghold of Egyptian Geese in southern England and had migrated up to Scotland? Was it an escape? I doubted the latter, as it was incredibly flighty and only stayed on the Loch for about 10 minutes. Later that day I reported the bird on Birdguides and Birdforum and my Dad on ABZ Rare Birds. Just today, I got a response from an aberdeenshire birder on Birdforum who told me that the only other record of Egyptian Goose in North-east Scotland ever was a bird at New Deer in 2009. He told me that this possible made the sighting very significant, which makes me feel quite excited. On the other hand, he did mention that it is hard to know whether the credentials of such a bird would be suitable for one of the birds from the established strongholds in Norfolk and southern England. Having checked Birdguides I have noticed that an Egyptian Goose was seen last week in Shetland, so I'm half inclined to think that it may be the same bird that was seen in Shetland. However, it could also be one of the birds from a small stronghold in the Gosford Estate, Lothian. These are just possibilities. Its actual origins still remain clouded in ambiguity... My Dad and I aren't the only people to have seen it, as one person reported that it was seen on the Estuary itself an hour and a half after we'd seen it fly off. It hasn't been seen since, as far as I'm aware. An interesting one... I did year tick it, which now means that my year list is on 131 species.

From Meikle Loch we headed to Collieston where we stopped briefly for a look out at sea. There wasn't too much going past at all apart from a few Fulmars, some Guillemots, a couple of Gannets and a Kittiwake. The rocks by the sea there regularly provide Wheatears, but there were none there when I looked. From here, we went on a walk from the car park at the north end of the Ythan Estuary and into the Forvie National Nature Reserve, an area of coastal moorland which can provide migrants and the like. Unfortunately there were no migrants present here, but the area wasn't completely devoid of birds. Dozens of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were singing and taking to the thermals of the area. It was a lovely to see them enjoying the early spring sun. Because the weather was so nice, I thought it would be a good idea to take a few pictures at Collieston and the Ythan. The first two are from Collieston, whilst the latter is a view looking west from Forvie.

Now that really is all I'm going to post in here until I get back from Portland! I hope I have a lot to report to you, as I'll be going to several places in Dorset, Hampshire and on the first part of my holiday, Somerset. Before I go to Portland I'm going to be spending a week in Somerset with family. On one day (maybe next Saturday) I hope to go to Chew Valley Lake, where Ferruginous Duck and Lesser Scaup have been seen recently, and on the other day I hope to go to Ham Wall/Shapwick Heath where a Great White Egret has been seen recently. When staying in Portland it is likely that I'll spend quite a bit of time in the areas round the observatory, but I will almost certainly visit places like Ferrybridge, Portland and Poole Harbour, Arne RSPB, Radipole Lake and Lodmoor RSPB. I may also visit places in Hampshire if Portland is quite quiet (for example Blashford Lakes). I have got my target birds for the trip, but I won't mention these to you until I get back. Anyhow, I'm leaving for England on Tuesday. I'm immensely looking forward to staying in Portland, and hopefully will enjoy reporting back my trip in here.

Thanks for reading and happy birding,



  1. Cheers David, you're writing and blog is still coming on strong too!