Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A March Weekend's birding (20th-21st)

This weekend just passed I decided that I should get out birding again. After all late March is just the time that the first spring migrants arrive on the coast, so what better than to give the 3 local patches a check? We chose the Saturday to do this, but reports on Birdforum from Mark (Fat Paul Scholes) and Andrew Whitehouse’s weekly patrols round Girdleness were not seeming hopeful on the migrant front, with neither them reporting of any migrant activity. Furthermore there were no reports of any migrants from elsewhere in the county on either the local ABZ Rare Birds service or Birdguides, so the chances of Wheatear, Sand Martin and the like being seen was minimal. And it proved to be at Girdleness, which was very quiet. A walk from the sycamore to the Torry Battery and back proved unfruitful, with a few Robins, Pied Wagtails and Blackbirds being the only birds on this walk. Walker Park, a place that regularly holds Wheatears, had nothing in it at all save a couple of Rock Pipits, and the sea was too still for anything to be seen but a few Guillemots passing by. However, there were definitely signs of spring at the Ness, with the songs of Skylarks filling the air. Not only that, but it generally seemed a lot warmer too. A stop at the Ythan also proved very quiet with a scattering of wildfowl and waders such as Mute Swan, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Shelduck, Redshank and Curlew present in good numbers, but not much else.

It’s just before midday, and I’ve already checked two of my three patches. There was still a possible 4-5 hours birding before sundown, but there was little point in birding for more than a couple of hours longer. Arriving at Strathbeg, we were greeted by one of the wardens. As always, we asked him what was about. From the sombre tone of the post thus far, you can probably guess what he said.

“There isn’t too much about today really, but still a nice variety of the common species.”

He was right to think as he did. There really was not much from the Visitor Centre at all, just really those species that we had seen on the Ythan plus a few Herons, Moorhens and what not. A Peregrine, however, was seen sitting distantly in the fields behind the pools. The Pink-footed Goose flock could just be seen through the scope towards the north of the reserve as well. It’s always worth it having a check through the goose flock, so after what was a brief stop at the Visitor Centre we made our way to Fen Hide to have a proper look at the geese. Arriving there we found a nice assortment of the commoner wildfowl, with a few Pochards amongst the copious Wigeons and Tufted Ducks. There were a few Goldeneyes present too, and I particularly enjoyed watching them. There were 3 individuals very close to the hide, consisting of 2 males and a female. It was a fascinating and beguiling sight to watch these 3 individuals as the two males were displaying to the females, both of them tossing their head back such a great distance that it nearly reached their backs and then stretching their necks up with their bill pointing upwards. I have seen this before on several occasions, but it was particularly good to watch it today as the Goldeneyes were no more than 25ft from the hide and I was looking at them through the scope. Looking through the geese we found 9 Barnacle Geese amongst the numerically superior Pinkfeets (c.400 birds). 121 was also a splendid number, and I presume pre-migratory gathering, of Whooper Swans. We sat in Fen Hide for over an hour, just enjoying watching the common species. Yet at the same time I felt that there was a sort of soporific calm and a general languor to the occasion. When there is little of note to see all one can do is watch those birds that are present. Otherwise, they can do little else. It was nearing two thirty when we decided that, having checked the three local patches, we’d call it a day and head back home relatively early. That was the first time this year that I came home early, and the first day that I felt it really was very quiet on the bird front. Oh well, what can you do?

But there is something I’m hiding from you. I was disappointed that we arrived back home earlier than usual on Saturday. Now, what I haven’t told you is that on Friday night the report of a Great Grey Shrike in the moorlands west of the village of Rhynie had come in from Birdguides. Rhynie is situated on the north-western most borders of Aberdeenshire. Here is how the exact details to the bird’s location read:

‘One perched on top dwarf willows 200m southeast of the Forestry Commission car park west of Rhynie, although this was seen yesterday (Thursday)’

Obviously this sounded a bit vague to someone like me who wasn’t familiar with the Rhynie area. On the Friday evening that this Shrike was reported, my Dad and I discussed whether it would be a good idea to go and look for it on the Saturday. However my Dad seemed to think it wasn’t a good idea. Combining the fact that Great Grey Shrikes can be elusive, that no one had seen it on Friday and that Rhynie was a long way off course from any of our local patches, we came to the conclusion that day could easily be wasted if we headed up there. So instead, we opted to check our local patches, which you know provided very little. If we were to go and see the Shrike on the Saturday, it would have to be reported on Birdguides whilst we were out. Despite me checking my phone quite often to see if it had been reported, however, nothing came through. As we headed back home on the Saturday afternoon my Dad said that if the bird was seen that day we would go and see it the next day. I check Birdguides and ABZ Rare Birds when I get home; still no updates on the Great Grey Shrike. I then proceed to go onto Birdforum, where the previous night I heard that a birder living close to the area in which it had been seen was going to have a look for it on the Saturday. This birder (Fiona, known as Tree Sparrow on Birdforum) was my last hope if I was going to go up and see this bird. I checked the ‘Wild in Aberdeen – City and Shire’ thread, and suddenly my sombre temperament metamorphosed into a feeling of pure delight. Fiona had seen it! It was still there after all. What’s more, she even had photographic evidence of the bird’s presence! This was fantastic, so I alerted my Dad and he agreed that we would go up and see it tomorrow, so long as I sort out the directions. That night on Birdforum, to make things even better for me, Fiona very kindly offered to show me and my Dad the bird, and later in the evening I found myself on the phone to her and organising meeting times and being given directions to where to go. After finding out how to get to the exact location of the Shrike, it was eventually concluded that we would meet at 8:30am outside the car park from which the car park was seen. This would mean an early start the next day.

6:30am, and the alarm clock is ringing. Both my Dad and I are out of bed very quickly, and are soon having breakfast. The birding equipment still hadn’t been put away from the previous day and Dad had made some food for us, so after breakfast and getting ourselves washed and our teeth brushed, we were out the house and travelling towards Rhynie by 10 past 7. Travelling past Loch of Skene, I picked up a Great Spotted Woodpecker dipping across the road, which was a year tick and took the year list to 122. Several Buzzards were enjoying the early morning thermals too, and were seen on a majority of the journey up to Rhynie. The drive was very efficient, and we found ourselves in the Rhynie area at around 5 past 8. Finding the appropriate turn off, we soon found ourselves driving right into the heart of the countryside, encompassed by the looming, heather-covered moors, some of which had a small scattering of snow on them, presumably the remains of the snow caused by the previous month’s hard weather. We progressed down the road for what seemed like quite a long time when eventually after 5 or 6 miles we saw the Clasindarroch Forest to our right. To the left was a fairly expansive lay-by where a Land Rover was parked. Beside it stood a woman who had her binoculars fixatedly on the willow bushes in front of her. It was Fiona, and my first impression was that she was watching the Shrike. As we got out the car, we greeted her and she said:

“It’s still there, perched on the largest of the willow bushes.”

I raised my binoculars in the direction of the willows in which she had said the bird was in, and sure enough, perched proudly on the top of the willows, was a fabulous Great Grey Shrike. It was a fantastic feeling to become acquainted with this bird, and so quickly after our arrival too. It was a terrific bird, easy to pick out even with the naked eye due to its diagnostic and distinctive features. No bigger than a Mistle Thrush, it had the archetypal stand out long tail that a majority of Shrikes obtain, whilst its back and the cap of its head were uniformed with a fantastic dove-grey and its breast a clean white. A black mask was also visible around the eye and its cheeks were white. I must say, it was rather sweet. However, bear in mind that this species is a small but efficient killer. Half of the Great Grey Shrike’s prey biomass consists of small rodents, making it, in a way, carnivorous. The fact the bill is hooked in a raptor like fashion would suggest this. It seemed pretty content sitting on the willows there. I presumed it was on the hunt/in search of prey as I could see its watchful, keen and somewhat mean looking eyes staring at the ground below it as it sat on the topmost branches of the willow. About 5 minutes after watching it my thoughts were confirmed as it abruptly rose from the tree and caught what was most probably a flying invertebrate before returning to its perch. It was a fascinating creature, and a lot of the time it seemed to just stay on the same perch, waiting for more food but at the same time being vigilant of what was going on around it. When a group of people returned to the car after about 20 minutes of us watching the bird, it became scared and took off, flying to a more distant willow bush and propping itself in the usual manner on top of its new perch. Whilst it was in flight, I noted the black and white visible on the tail and wings. What a fantastic bird! Having a look at the closest treetops in the Clasindarroch Forest behind us, I was able to connect with a few Common Crossbills and a few Common Redpolls, which surprisingly took the year list up to 125 species. The moorland was alive with the calls of these birds, as well as that of Siskin, the jangling song of Skylarks and the sweet calls of the first Lapwings and Curlews that had come to nest inland for the spring on what was a lovely, sunny morning. Here are a couple of pictures of the Shrike and the bush in which it was perched. Thanks to Fiona for the two pictures of the Great Grey Shrike and to Ken Hall for a picture of the willows in which the bird was seen on. The pictures aren’t that close up of the Shrikes, but I will link you to some closer up pictures of the bird at the end of the post.
As the Great Grey Shrike was more distant now we decided we’d leave it be for a while and head in search of a speciality species that was known to be present in the area – Black Grouse. Now, Black Grouse has always been a species that I have never seen, solely because hitherto my trip into the Rhynie area I had never been anywhere that was fairly reliable for them (yes I haven’t given the Highlands proper justice!). However, now was my chance to connect with this wonderful species. With Fiona hopping into our car, we left the car park, took a turn off and headed down a road in which she said she had seen Black Grouse before. A little way down this road she told us to park up and scan the moors. We did so, waiting patiently and looking meticulously for any medium-sized, sturdy gamebird that decided to venture behind the boggy grass that dominated in front of the tall heather behind. 10 minutes pass... no sign of any Grouses, but a few Curlews and Lapwings. Another 5 minutes pass and there is no change. But wait! Just as we were thinking that we may have to move on a little, I spot the back of a black coloured, medium sized bird behind a piece of bog. I stare through the scope fixatedly at it, and alert Fiona and my Dad of it. I was almost certain it was a Black Grouse, but for confirmation’s sake I needed it to appear from behind the bog. It did so, and there before me stood an astounding male Black Grouse. My reaction as it appeared was one of complete and utter joy. It was a beautifully ornate bird, with an almost fully jet black body. Going down its neck I noticed it had an exquisite, glossy green blue sheen and I could see its blood red, comb-shaped eyebrows, the latter feature being akin to that of the Red Grouse but much more vibrant looking and noticeable. It was an absolutely tremendous looking bird. As I watched flabbergasted at the beauty of the Black Grouse, my Dad pointed out that he had spotted another male not far to the right of the one which I was watching. Zooming out a little on the scope, I managed to get both birds into my field of vision. The one which I had originally been watching was busily feeding, whilst the other was just standing there. It felt almost like a dream to watch them, as not only is Black Grouse my favourite grouse species but one of my favourite birds. They were divine. After about 5 minutes of watching them, they suddenly took to the air. This was a stupendous sight, and I couldn’t help noticing their prominently exposed, long, lyre-shaped tails. I could also clearly see the white flash of the birds’ underwings and wing-bars, which were outstanding due to the darkness of the rest of the birds’ body. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay in flight briefly or not flight far. Instead, they flew completely out of sight. What extraordinary birds!

With their disappearance, we decided that we’d drive on a little and get to an area where there the land was less boggy and the heather was closer to the car. We eventually found somewhere to park, and were just about to set off into the heather when Fiona exclaimed that she had re-found the two male Black Grouses that we were watching earlier. This time, the viewing conditions were far more ideal. Both birds were closer to us, and were not in a field in which they could conceal themselves behind boggy grass; they were right in the open. As a result of this, I found myself watching them for another 15 minutes or so again. Once this time had passed, Fiona and I left my Dad to continue watching them and hopped over the fence next to the road and into the heather. The aim, of course, was to see if we could flush up any Red Grouse. Despite covering a lot of the heather, neither of us was successful. So after watching the two male Black Grouses a little longer we started to head back to the car park to see some more of the Shrike. Just as we were doing so, Fiona told my Dad to stop the car, and she pointed out a female Black Grouse in front of some heather. This was a comparatively dull bird to the males, but was interesting to see nonetheless. I observed just how much smaller this female was than the males, and I could easily see how one could rule out Red Grouse as this bird lacked the rufousy plumage of Red Grouse. Instead, it was a tawny brown colour and was barred all over. It also lacked the exquisite tail that the males obtain. We watched the female for 30 seconds or so before it disappeared behind the heather again. We then continued our return to the car park. Here is a picture taken by Ken Hall of a male Black Grouse that he saw in the area whilst looking for the Shrike. Thank you very much for letting me use the picture, Ken!
Arriving back, we found the Great Grey Shrike back on the perch in which we had originally seen it. I proceeded to look at it through the scope, trying to take a few pictures but failing to do so. Just as I was trying to take a picture, a van pulled up beside us, and out of it came a man with binoculars in his head and a young girl also surprisingly with binoculars. Who could this be? Well, the man seemed to know who I was.

‘Joseph, isn’t it?” he said as he got out the car, “Gus Guthrie, and this is my daughter Alex. You know us off Birdforum.

What a coincidence! I had just bumped into and met the only other young birder I was aware of in North-east Scotland, and the only person that also had a birdwatcher as a child. I greeted them both warmly, and showed them where the Shrike was. They were soon watching it. It was great to see Alex watching the bird, as she is only 11 years old. I think it is special for someone of her age to be so interested in birds and take such delight as myself in seeing the Shrike. We talked quite a lot as we watched the bird, and were very fortunate when the Great Grey Shrike came to the closest willow bush to us. It didn’t stay there long however, and after that disappeared out of view for a few minutes. At this point Alex and Gus left, as they were hoping to go up to Burghead in search of the King Eider. We wished them good luck and at this point set off for a walk in Clasindarroch forest. The walk proved rather annoying, as we surprisingly found ourselves walking in quite deep snow and occasionally losing our footing as our feet sunk deep down into the snow. However, on this walk up to 30 Siskin were noted, as well as a few Redpolls and a few Crossbills. The walk took half an hour or so, so it was just before midday before we returned to the car park to watch the Great Grey Shrike for the final time. Here we met another few birders who had come up from Aberdeen to see the Shrike, and we watched it with them. It was far more distant this time though. After about 20 minutes or so Fiona left, and we thanked her for what had been an incredibly pleasant morning’s birding. We soon followed her, and headed back to Aberdeen very, very content. As we were travelling back towards Rhynie, we briefly saw a Red Grouse scuttling from the side of the road into the nearby heather, which took the year list to 127 species. Anyway, I had not fully expected to see either Great Grey Shrike or Black Grouse to be quite honest, so it was a real surprise and delight to see them both. I think that both species are lovely birds in their different ways, and I couldn’t have hoped for better views of them. It was fantastic. There was a good cast of other birds that I wasn’t expecting to see that day too, including Crossbill, Redpoll, and Red Grouse. And to round it all up, the scenery was spectacular. Here are some pictures of the moorland round the Rhynie area, as well as a link to some top quality images of the Shrike on Birdguides from Alan Sinclair.
I think that my day in the Rhynie area now stands me in really good stead for my Portland trip. And it just so happens that the next thing I will be blogging is that of my Portland trip. I’m really looking forward to the trip, and have written a whole itinerary of target birds and places I could visit. I will hopefully be doing birding in Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset, and my aim is to have seen around 150 species for the year by the time I get back. That should be possible, providing I have a good time. If I do, I’m sure I’ll have lots to report, and with having lots to report, will find myself not up to date with this blog once again!

Thanks for reading,



  1. Great update once again mate :) Fantastic job on seeing the GGS and Black grouse, both fantastic birds and ones i really wanna see! About time i got myself up to Aberdeen eh? lol ;)

  2. Cheers Taylor for the kind words. I was chuffed with the day, and both birds were fantastic. Certainly a day to remember. When you do get to Aberdeen (if you do that is lol) I'll make sure we meet up with one another.

  3. As usual really great read soo jealous of you getting the shrike goona try for mine again this weekend and the black grouse some of my fav birds :) keep up the good work

  4. Thanks Jonathan. It's unlucky you dipped on the Shrike near last weekend. However, there's still hope that you'll see it this weekend, so best of luck.

  5. Nice work mate, all us Southern birders hate you jammy sods up north, you seem to get much more exciting birds than us! Out of curiosity, have you ever seen a Black Grouse Lek, my Dad and I bumped into one on the side of the road in the pennines ages ago, its the only time I've ever seen them!

  6. Lol Liam, we're not that bad up this way! Plus, my whole family is from England. Before I was born they moved up from Essex. It's just me that was born in Scotland. Mind you, that has no relevancy to the birds. You get exciting birds too, you know. As a matter of fact, I've never seen a Lek. Although I hope to when I take a shortish trip to Speyside in a couple of months time.

  7. Hi joseph, well done on seeing the GGShrike and Black Grouse , top quality birding alround and another well written post
    atb Rob

  8. Thanks Rob for your very kind words. I really enjoyed seeing both species. I doubt I'll ever see those two in one day again!