Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Late January and February Birding

With a strenuous but pleasurable Lothian trip having been completed, I decided it would be good to take a weekend off birding and do something different. So a weekend passed with no birding, although a Dipper was a year tick on a walk by the River Don at Seaton Park. By the end of the next week though, I was itching to get out again, and asked my Dad if it would be a good idea to get out in the upcoming weekend. He obliged, and on Sunday 31st January, the last day of the month, we headed northwards for some birding. A Great White Egret had been spending a few days down on the River Ugie towards Peterhead, and a Mediterranean Gull had been seen up at Fraserburgh, so we thought we'd try to catch up on these two species, as well as check Strathbeg. The weather at this point was bitingly cold and there was quite a lot of snow present. However, the roads were relatively good and the weather reports for that Sunday suggested that it would be fine, so it looked OK for us to get out.

Our first stop, which intended to be fairly brief, was at Peterhead. On what was a rather delayed drive to this area due to slowish traffic and weather conditions, we came to the conclusion that it may be worth stopping at Peterhead Harbour to see check if there was any white-winged gulls about (Peterhead is good for white-winged gulls). Even though they hadn't been reported in a while, it was probably worth a try. By about 11:00am, we were down by the harbour's edge, where a mass of gulls mostly consisting of Herrings congregate each day in search of fish. As we we approached the area, we saw a man with a massive DLSR camera and lens in carefully photgraphing some gulls. He was definitely a birder, so we winded down the window. I asked if there were any white-winged gulls of any sorts about:

"Yes, there are. If you look just to your right at those gulls on edge of the harbour quay you'll see a second winter Iceland Gull at the very right-hand end."
Christ, this quickly? That was my reaction when I heard this. Taking the bins from below me, I raised them and scanned the side of the harbour wall, and sure enough there was a completely stand out Iceland Gull! There was no mistaking it. It was completely white with no blacks on the wings or back and no visible grey on the bird. It was quite a dirty white colour though. This was a life tick for me, and my second white-winged gull species that I had ever seen. For about 30 seconds my Dad and I had it through the bins on the quay, no more than 60 feet away and showing well. However, it quickly flew out of sight.
"It's most likely that it will have gone round the corner closer to the sea. It's often on the crossing there towards the very edge of the seawall. There's also an adult winter Iceland Gull hanging around somewhere here too, and another darker second-winter. I haven't seen the darker second winter yet today but I have seen the adult. Both birds are proving a bit elusive today though. I haven't seen the adult in a while. " the birder told us.

We decided we'd wait a little before, as we were keen to see if the other second-winter and the adult were showing. There were also tons of Grey Seals in the winter just in front of us. They were fantastic; maybe 12-15 in all. The birder had some bread at hand, as was throwing slices into the water for them. When he threw them in, the seals would suddenly go into a frenzy, diving towards the bread at high speed. This also attracted a hoard of Herring and Black-headed Gulls, but they were too slow and too afraid to risk diving down amongst the seals. It was lovely watching the seals and the gulls together. I managed to get several pictures of the seals, and I took a video of the whole scene. After about 15 minutes of doing this, we then headed round the corner to see if we could get better and more prolonged of the Iceland Gull we had seen on the quay earlier. Locating the crossing towards the sea wall he had mentioned, we found it again, huddled up against the side with a couple of Herring Gulls. The views from here were brilliant. It rarely moved, save for flying a short distance to another part of the crossing, which made it ever more enjoyable. It was never more than 20 yards from us, making for nice views through the scope. As I watched it I noted that it was more of an ivory white than the grey white of the commoner gulls, and was distinctly smaller than the Herrings. It also seemed to have more of a friendly expression in comparison to the Herring Gulls, and had dark eyes and a dark bill. We watched it for a good 20 minutes. After this time had elapsed, it started to snow quite heavily so we took cover in the car. Luckily, it didn't persist for too long, and it cleared again with in 5 minutes. At this point we then left and headed towards where the Great White Egret had been seen a few days earlier. I was delighted to have seen the Iceland Gull, despite not seeing the other two that were there. I prefer the second winters to any other form of Iceland Gull; its amazing how white and arctic like they look. They're also just great birds, and I felt very fortunate that we had decided on the way to the River Ugie to stop for a look at the gulls. Imagine if I hadn't seen them after all? It was also fantastic that they we saw one within a few seconds of our arrival at the Harbour. Here are some pictures I got of the seals, plus a link to my video on Birdforum of the seals and also a link to the post commenting on the Iceland Gulls that day in the birder who was with us at the time's blog, including pictures of the Iceland Gulls. The first picture, if you click the link, is of the second winter Iceland Gull I saw, as is the 4th and the 5th.

Now I knew that only a few people had seen the Great White Egret, as well as knowing that it hadn't been reported for 5 days or so, so the chances of seeing it were fairly unlikely. However it was worth a check anyway, as any area like the Ugie Estuary is rather underwatched. It had been seen from the small bridge just south of Peterhead that has a view down to the Ugie from the road. We had to go across the bridge in order to make our way to Strathbeg, so there were no problems whatsoever in locating the area in which it had been seen. Because this area is quite a risky place to stop, we had to back off the road slightly and my Dad made me go out and check if there was any Egret viewable from the road. I checked the end in which you look towards Peterhead. No sign of any massive white egret as far as I could see. However a Red-legged Patridge rather convieniently came into the open as I was checking, which was a surprise year tick. I then scanned the river from the other side of the bridge, but yet again no such luck. It wasn't anywhere to be seen that was accessible from the road and it was very likely that it had gone anyway, so my Dad and I decided we head straight up to Strathbeg. But something was about to go wrong... Not long after we arrived at Strathbeg, it started snowing very heavily. And the problem was that it only stopped once for a minute or two... Very quickly the visitor centre windows became thickly condensated, meaning you could see virtually nothing out the windows whilst the snow was falling. It was more or less impossible to birdwatch. During the 5 minute or so break in the snow shower we managed to clear the windows of the condensation slightly, and managed to look out onto the reserve. A short time after we did so all the birds that were present on the reserve took to the air, flushed up by a hunting Peregrine (year tick) that was zipping in amongst the waders at high speed. There wasn't a great deal of waders; mostly Dunlins, Redshanks and Lapwings. A few Whooper Swans were present too, and the Pink-footed Geese flock was a mile off in the fields just beyond the edge of the reserve (weren't properly seeable through the scope). Having managed a brief check, it started snowing heavily again, and this time it didn't stop at all; it was continous. Quickly we decided that we would abandon mission, and get back to Aberdeen before the roads got too bad... It was a pity that the day was abandoned, but it was worth it for the Iceland Gull. Fab bird! With this outing, the year list was up to 108 species.
On the 6th of February, I found myself out birding for the first time in the month. However, I wasn't in the local area this time. During the week between my last birding outing and the 6th February, I had been noticing on Birdguides that a good deal of bird activity was taking place at Forfar Loch in Angus, about 45 miles south of Aberdeen. A Black-throated Diver, a drake Scaup and 1 each of Bean and White-fronted Goose had all been reported at the Loch, and I was tempted to go there in search of these species. With my mum being busy with work-related issues that day, I managed to convince my Dad that we should take a drive up there to see if the 4 species reported were present. When the day approached, however, the weather was annoyingly bad. The snow had cleared off, but it was grey and murky with fairly consistent light rain. This rain did stop at points, but even when it it remained very grey and sodden. The drive up to Forfar Loch was about an hour long, and was fairly smooth. We did have trouble, however, finding the turnoff to the Loch, but managed to eventually with the aid of a map. After getting parked up and getting our equipment, we set for a walk round the loch.
Forfar Loch is popular amongst its locals as a walking venue, and we could see this as many coated people trudged along the path with their dogs. It's a rather lovely area actually, with a nice mixture of woodland, grassland and freshwater loch habitats as you progress on the walk. The loch and its walk is about two miles long in total, and we started it from the south end, walking up to the north end and then in a circle back to the south end. All over the Loch, I could see huge concentrations of Anseriformes, mainly ducks, and of all sorts. There were big concentrations of Tufted Ducks particularly big at over 150 birds I'd say), Goldeneyes (80), Teals (50), Wigeons and Mallards, as well as surprisingly big numbers of Goosanders (25 maybe), Pochards (15), Shoveler (10) and Gadwalls(8). There were no geese present at the south side of the Loch, so I presumed we'd have better chances for the Bean and White-front at the north side. Our progression was fairly slow up to the north side, as we were checking the ducks meticulously for the single drake Scaup and also for the Black-throated Diver. Both of these birds were proving annoyingly non-existent though, particularly the Black-throated Diver which was said to have been the easiest to see. If the Diver was there it would have been obvious, and as we neared the northern edge of the Loch, I was starting to doubt that it was there. As well as the duck numbers, I was also relieved to see my first few Goldcrests of the year, with a few flitting about in the woods around half way up the Loch. It took us at least half an hour to complete the first half of our walk and get to the northern-most end of the Loch, which was more far more deserted than the southern-most parts. However, the fact that this side of the Loch was very close to the A90 meant that it was not by any means tranquil. However, that didn't scare off a host of winter wildfowl present on this part of loch. Nor did it scare a winter flock of 25-30 rather sweet Siskins that we found on the Silver Birches near the waters edge, showing well and moving hither and thither from tree to tree, calling loudly. Seeing these Siskins was a pleasant surprise, and a useful year tick for me too. Checking the wildfowl from here, the Black-throated Diver still wasn't to be seen. For me, that was our last hope, and now I was pretty much convinced it wasn't on the Loch. We had checked a majority of the loch for it, and despite thorough searches each time we stopped to look for it, it just wasn't there.
As we circled round to the other side of the Loch and started heading southwards again, we managed to find a small congregation of geese by the bank of the loch and decided to check them. They were close by, about 20 of them, almost all of which were Greylag Geese. However, there was one goose that was a different species, and it wasn't a Pink-footed or Canada Goose. Swimming beside a Greylag was a clearly smaller and darker goose, with a short dark, orangey bill. There was no mistaking the Bean Goose, even though it was in the water. It was a very pleasant surprise for us to have come across the Bean Goose, as it was arguably the most difficult of the four target species to see. It felt kind of ironic too that we had found it before the other 3 target species (Scaup, B-T Diver and W-F Goose) which we thought would be easier to find. It was a fine looking bird, this Bean Goose. It was clearly a rossicus (Tundra) type Bean Goose, having a very short dark bill with a small orange patch towards the tip, a very dark head and shortish neck. It spent a couple of minutes in the water, and with the Greylag it had been beside, then came out and sat on the river bank, where it revealed the orange legs that are diagnostic of a Bean Goose. On the river bank, it spent a lot of its time feeding, occasionally stopping as it stood upright and alert in response to sound or to preen. Despite how busy it was, it showed superbly, at down to 30ft, and you could see each and every one of its features through the scope. The views were definitely better than the two I had seen the previous February at the Ythan, as the weather at that time was horrendous and both birds were jam packed amongst a big flock of Pinkfeets. It was lucky that we had seen this particular Bean Goose without any Pinkfeets being present, as it made it considerably easier to identify. If it was amongst a large flock of Pinkfeets, we might have been able to miss it. If I had had my camera, I would have been able to get a picture of it, but the fact that I left it at home meant I couldn't. A pain! Nonetheless, it was good to see this Bean Goose. It was a very useful year tick, one that was not guarenteed!
After about 10 minutes of watching this goose, we progressed further southwards, checking for the 3 other target species as we went. About half way back, there was no sign of the Black-throated Diver still, meaning there was no doubt that it had eluded us. No other geese appeared to be amongst the wildfowl either, and the White-fronted Goose was most likely to be with them. This meant that was minimal chance of seeing 2 of the target species. However, when we were nearing the final quarter of our walk we came across a small group of Tufties. Amongst these we were happy to find the drake Scaup, obvious as it was with no tuft on its head and grey rather than white on the baBoldck. Scaup had managed to elude me last year, so it was a nice feeling to catch up on this species again. As we were watching the Scaup, a familiar, diagnostic high pitched, short whistling call came from close by. Taking our eyes off the Scaup, we turned to see 2 fantastic Kingfishers zipping away from us across the Loch, leaving a glint of azure as they passed. These beauties never fail to impress me. After about 30 seconds they went out of sight, and we left the Scaup to continue the final quarter of our walk. On this final quarter there wasn't much of note, but we spent quite a bit of time admiring the commoner ducks, each with their assortments of multi-coloured plumages. It looked as if a lot of the ducks plumages had been finely painted on them... its just something to watch ducks, whatever species. Undoubtedly one of my favourite families of birds. The walk round the Loch had taken just under two hours, and I must say was a very enjoyable one, even though we missed out on Black-throated Diver and White-fronted Goose. We had managed two of the species, as well as 3 year ticks that I hadn't expected in the form of Goldcrest, Siskin and Kingfisher. In total, there were 5 year ticks, meaning after this trip the year list was up to 113 species. As well as managing to see some nice year birds, it was a lovely walk anyway. I also really liked the contrasting habitats, the abundancy of the ducks on the Loch, and how well the ducks were showing. It was fantastic. On the way back towards Aberdeen, we stopped off at Montrose Basin to give it a small check. However very few birds were present close to the hides, and considering the size and length of the Basin, those birds that were on it were a very long way off. The most notable species here was 3 Little Grebes. We were back in Aberdeen in time for a nice cuppa.
It was a couple of weeks before I went out birding again, and I'm very glad to say that this next day was my most recent birding outing, meaning I'm going to be up to date by the end of this post and will be able to post things soon after they happen. It was on the 20th February that I was out again,in search of a few species but that had been present in the county over the last week or so. Due to snow the week before and the ice caused by this as it melted a Bittern had been showing on and off outside Fen Hide at Strathbeg, and a good number of Great Northern Divers had been seen off Rattray Head. More importantly still, all over the UK a mini-invasion of Waxwings had taken place, which still continues as I write this. Aberdeen has always been a good place for Waxwings, and a small number of them, maybe 35 or so, were being reported in different parts of the city. The nearest flock to me were reported less than a 20 minutes walk from the house, in the Upper Hilton area, Hilton Campus being part of Aberdeen University. The streets around here are rich with cotoneaster berries which the Waxwings love to eat, and a flock of up to 17 had been reported around this area. Part of the aim of the birdwatch was to see if we could see these Waxwings, as well as go up to Strathbeg to look for the Bittern and check what else was about. We did not start the day in either of these places though, we started at the Loch of Skene, a smallish loch a few miles west of Aberdeen. The countryside around Loch of Skene holds a number of re-introduced Red Kites, and these kites often stray to the Loch itself. I thought the area might be worth a check as I hadn't been since the summer, and also I was hoping to see Red Kite and a few woodland species such as Jay, Great-spotted Woodpecker and Treecreper for the year. We arrived at the Loch of Skene at 10:00am after a bit of hassle getting out of town. There is a place you can park which is a very short walk down to the loch side, and as ever, we parked here and found ourselves quickly by the Loch side amongst the pine forest that fringes the Loch. The forest and the Loch were looking very nice, with snow thinly coating the ground and the trees and the sun shining brightly. Here are a few pictures of the loch.

On the Loch itself there was a fair amount of winter wildfowl, all of which were congregated a long way away. This group mostly consisted of Goldeneyes, with a good number of Teal, Wigeon, Mallards and Tufted Ducks amongst them too, as well as a small group of Greylag Goose and a couple of Pochards. After a check of the wildfowl, we then proceeded to scanned the circumference of the Loch and its countryside for Kites. We did so slowly for about 10 minutes, but with no success. In the woods around us, no Jays, Great Spotted Woodpeckers or Treecreepers were present, just a few Goldcrests and some Blue, Coal and Great Tits. Another birder turned up shortly after our look for the Kites, asking if anything was about. We told them there was nothing besides the usual, but said we were in search of the Kites. He told us that he had seen one close to the nearby village of Monymusk a couple of days earlier, and that it was probably worth a drive round the countryside near the Loch of Skene to maximise our chances of seeing any Kites. Thanking him, we took his advice and went for a drive round the area. During the drive we drove slowly so as to ensure that we'd miss very little. We had several stops to check birds of prey that we found sitting on various posts, but these all turned out to be Buzzards unfortunately. It was nice to stop in the area, however. From here, we decided that we'd move on, and go in search of the Waxwings in Aberdeen.

It was about 11:15am when we found ourselves in the Hilton area in search of the Waxwings. We intended to check a majority of the streets in the area, with Hilton Street (the area they had mostly been seen in) being our first try. If we failed here we would head to Picktillium Avenue and Cattofield Terrace, where they had also been reported. Hilton Street is the biggest and most busy of the streets where the Waxies had been seen, and as you go down it you can see the Hilton Campus of Aberdeen University to your left. As you go past the gates surrounding the Hilton Campus, you will see a row of trees and cotoneaster bushes ripe with berries, and it is in this area that the Waxwings had been seen feeding in the past. The flock were said on birdguides to have been mobile, moving between their food source on Hilton Street and the nearby streets. Luckily the traffic on Hilton Street at the time was very quite, meaning that as we approached the cotoneaster bushes we were able to drive very slowly. As we meandered down, I made sure I checked every true and each part of the bushes for any signs of Waxwings. About three quarters of the way down the row of cotoneasters and trees, no Waxwings seemed to be present, and I was starting to think we should head to the surrounding streets in search of them. Just as we were about to give up on Hilton Street however, and we reached the final couple of rows of cotoneasters and trees, I saw a group of rather plump, crested birds sitting high on top of one of the trees. Bingo, it was the Waxwings. There were 18 of them, each sat their proudly and calmly with all their beautiful diagnostics showing brilliantly... their reddish buff colour, the large crest on the crown, the narrow black eye-mask, the narrow yellow tip on the edge of the tail... They're wonderful birds to behold. The fact that any sign of movement such as backing up or getting out would scare them off meant that we had to crane our necks slightly to see them and weren't really able to use our binoculars, but due to how close they were I could still easily make out their diagnostics. In the past, I have had many encounters with this species, having had very good views in my garden, on my street and at school on good winters for the species. The fact that there has only been a small invasion this year made this sighting of Waxwing particularly worthwile, as there was a big chance that I wouldn't have seen them this year, and these birds were one of the only flocks present in Aberdeen. After a minute or so of watching the Waxies from a position that would, after a while, cause repetitive strain injury (yes it was quite sore!), I came to the conclusion that one of us would have to get out of the car so we could get views of them without feeling uncomfortable and through the bins, as well as get a photo. So, as quietly I could, I opened and closed the car door. Just as I did this and was about to get my bins on them, they very suddenly took off from the tree, wheeling round onto the other side street and then turning back and over the Hilton campus gates, calling that archetypal, pleasant Waxwing trill as and twisting and turning in a Starling like fashion as they went. Damn though, why did they have to fly off when I got out? I guess I was just a bit too loud for them, the mobile little critters... I wasn't even able to get a photo of them.Nonetheless, even though the view of the Waxies was very brief, I was satisfied, as we had found them very quickly, and they're fantastic looking birds. Due to the quick sighting of these birds, we were able to get travelling towards Strathbeg by 25 past 11.

It was annoyingly 1:00pm before we reached Strathbeg, as we stupidly took what, with out snow, is the fastest route to Strathbeg as very few cars go down it, but it proved slower as the roads hadn't been gritted. We didn't head straight to Fen Hide, but spent some time at the Visitor Centre, which was pretty much devoid of people, save one of the old wardens who we had a nice chat to. There wasn't too much going on from the Visitor Centre either, what with a majority of the pools being frozen over. However, where there it wasn't frozen there were birds, namely a few Black-headed Gulls, some winter wildfowl and some waders. Apart from that though, there wasn't much going on wildfowl wise. At one point however, we were gifted by fantastic views of a ring-tailed Hen Harrier which we first spotted a long way off towards the actual Loch. Gradually, it flew closer to us, going to the pools at Tower Hide, and eventually flying at the very most 20ft away from the visitor centre windows! It was so close. Magical. Without looking through the bins, the views were fantastic. I could see its eyes, its features, everything. I was stunned by my views; definitely my best Hen Harrier views ever. I tried to get a picture of the bird as it was going past, but it appeared as a blur due to how fast the Hen Harrier was going! Just shows had bad my photography skills are... Anyway, after about half an hour here, we headed through Crimond Airfield, parked up and went to Fen Hide. Someone else was clearly at the hide, as they left tracks all the way to the car park and by foot. Entering the hide we found a local birder that we had met on man occasions staring out onto the hide. He greeted us as we came in:

" If you're looking for the Bittern, its nae showin. Been here a few hours now and it haven't seen it once," he said in a broad Doric acent.

Hmmm, not good news. Well, it's always a matter of patience with Bitterns, so we would have to wait. As we waited, my Dad and I both took a wholesome lunch and watched the winter wildfowl on the Loch, mainly consisting of the commoner duck species, and a few Whooper Swans. What provided the most entertainment on our stay at Fen Hide though was not 1, not 2, but 3 ring-tailed Hen Harriers, all quartering the reeds at the back of Fen Hide. It was a great sight. They didn't fly together that much and were spread out, but on several occasions they were all up together. This kept me very much entertained, but I was still kind of annoyed that the Bittern wasn't present. During my time there a few bittern like birds were spotted in flight, but despite the hope that they were all the bittern they ended up all being Grey Herons. After about an hour and a half, we headed off, leaving the birder that had been there before us behind, to the nearby Rattray Head. After risking going down the extremely potholled and slippy track to the area, we made it , the commoner seabird species which I hadn't seen (Fulmar, Kittiwake and Common Scoterafter an annoyingly long time. The aim here was really to have a brief look out at sea and see if we could catch up on a few of the seabird species that had thus far managed to elude us for the year, with the main target being Great Northern Diver. Surprisingly, even after nearly 20 minutes of seawatching) weren't passing at all. Instead, it was the slightly more notable species that were passing, with at least 10 Long-tailed Ducks passing during the 45 minutes or so that we were out there and 2 Red-throated Divers. But what of Great Northern Diver? Well, I am happy to say we quickly located at least 5 birds of this species sitting on the sea not far offshore. They clearly weren't any other species of diver, as they had very thick bills, were very dark billed, and compared to a nearby Shag, and one of the Red-throated Divers that passed, they were considerably bigger. Great Northern Diver is one of those annoying birds for me. Last year, for example it managed to elude me, and when I have seen them in the past, they are only lone birds seen briefly in flight. The fact that a good number of them were sitting on the sea not very far offshore meant I was really able to get good views and watch these rather nice Divers for some time. It was a pleasant experience, and meant that I had seen two of the 4 main targets for the day. It was about 4:15 by the time we'd finished sea-watching, and we decided that on the way back to Aberdeen we'd stop off at the Ythan. Here I was surprised to get two year ticks in very quick sucession, one in the form of a Canada Goose and the other in the form of two Grey Partridges in the fields near Forvie, making it 4 year ticks for the day. This meant that by the end of what had been a decent day, I was on 117 species for the year, and I still am to this very moment. I very much enjoyed the day; the weather was nice and it was fantastic to see the three Hen Harriers together, as well as the Waxwings and the Great Northern Divers The next day I decided I'd take the dog for a walk back up to the Hilton area to see if I could get any pictures of the Waxies, and I succeeded, although they were rather far away. I had to use the zoom, hence why its quite hard to tell that they are Waxies. See below:

So that my friends, is me FINALLY up to date. I can now post things quickly after they take place, rather than talk about birding days that took place a month or more before! With that, you can also expect quite a lot of my posts to be quite a bit shorter, unless the day in which I'm writing about is a fantastic one. On Sunday, I should be going out birding, so expect a post then or a couple of days afterwards if not. Next month, I will be staying in Portland, which will probably the next major thing I write about in here, and in May I will be going to Norfolk. So in the coming months I should still have a lot to write about and a lot to see! Stay tuned if you wish to keep up to date with my birding adventures.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Great account once again m8! Im glad you caught up with the tundra Bean goose, Waxys and other targets ( all birds i wanna see! ) :). looking forward to your upcoming posts and Im sure you will have a great time in my home county and in and around Portland!

  2. Cheers TJ for the encouragement. Really looking forward to Portland, and with a bit of luck you should catch up on all those birds eventually.

  3. Hi joseph top quality post , well done on seeing the Iceland gull , waxwings and the Tundra Bean goose , your year list is going well

  4. Cheers Rob. I am very glad with my year list so far. Its a good yardstick to have before the spring arrives. Need to do an account of my latest day out soon. Bare in mind school work is bogging me down right now so may not have the time just yet.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Nice photos and sightings Joseph.