For once, I don't have to write as if I'm describing a birding day that took place two months ago. It's a good feeling! More to the point, back on the 7th March I was out birding, patrolling two of my local patches, namely Girdleness and the Loch of Strathbeg, for those commoner species that I was yet to catch up with on the year and for anything else that may have strayed onto the Aberdeenshire coast. It was an ok day, and saw me reach a useful yardstick year list wise for late winter, namely 120 species. You'll find out what those 3 year ticks were in the course of this post.
My patch patrol began at Girdleness. Now, I have found a generally lethargy to check Girdleness this year. I have found from previous experience that can be very quiet when migrant activity of some sort isn't a foot. However, I knew there were a couple of commoner species that I would have a chance of seeing here. Fulmar, Kittiwake and Common Scoter had thus far eluded me, and I knew Girdleness was probably the best place to see them. Obviously there's going to be no trouble with these species during a year, but it is always good to see them as early as possible. We started checking Girdleness by having a look around Nigg Bay, which held good numbers of Eider, the commoner species of gull, and on the slightly more interesting note, up to 4 Red-throated Divers and a lone Great Crested Grebe. Both these species were of interest to me, as one of the 4 Red-throated Divers struck me as rather strange and interesting. It was basically all dark, with no white on it whatsoever. Black-throated Diver was quickly ruled out due to the fact that this bird was exactly the same size as its fellows and had the archetypal up-turned bill of a Red-throated. The stance seemed all wrong for anything else. In the end, I concluded that it was a Red-throated Diver going through a transitional phase from winter plumage into summer plumage. Also adding to the oddity was the fact that the Great Crested Grebe was at the Ness, as I have never recorded this species at the site before, and I've rarely been told of any sightings. Also from Nigg Bay, I was happy to see my first Fulmar of the year, one of the three commoner seabird species I was yet to see.
Moving on from Nigg Bay, I had a quick check in Walker Park just in case the first Wheatear of the year had ventured onto Girdleness, but as expected no such luck. However there was a nice Rock Pipit here. Meanwhile, from the Coo there were up to 20 Purple Sandpipers, as well few Redshanks, Curlews, Turnstone and yet again plenty of Eiders, but nothing really at all at sea. No Kittiwakes or Common Scvoters. Not even a Gannet. Overall, pretty quiet, but you're not going to see anything at all if you don't check these places. We had spent a good hour checking Girdleness, and we decided that it would be best to head northwards. As we had not seen Common Scoter at Girdleness, we concluded it may be a good idea to Blackdog which from Spring to Autumn holds massive flocks of Scoters, including Commons, Velvets and usually one or two Surf Scoters. It was likely a few would still be out at sea there, and the fact that I hadn't visited the area in many months meant it was probably worth going there. So we did so. Our stop here was very brief, as within a few minutes of arriving down by the beach and looking out at sea did I spot a single Common Scoter zipping past at high speed. It was interesting that there were none amongst the Eiders, as I was expecting that a few would still be remaining from the big flocks of last year. Put this way, our mission was accomplished at Blackdog, so it was straight up to Strathbeg, where we would spend the rest of the day.
Upon our arrival at Starnafin, we found a couple of the local birders staring concentratedly into their scopes, clearly with their eyes on something.
" What may we have here today?" I asked after greeting them.
" Well, we're just having a scan through the pinkfeet flock in the back fields. There's a single Brent Goose amongst them which should be easily locatable. There was a White-fronted Goose with them yesterday, which is what we're looking for. The Bittern was also seen on Friday. However, no result so far."
"Anything else around besides these geese?"
" Well, I strangely had a Barn Owl down at the Fen Hide earlier this morning."
With this, the birder took out his DSLR and showed us some fabulous photos of the Barn Owl he had been talking about. Anyhow, it was sounding quite good at Strathbeg today, the right place to be. Having been shown the photos, we set up our equipment on the geese flock, and scanned through each bird. In total, I'd say there were maybe about 350 Pink-footed Geese there, which is a reasonably good number. Whilst scanning, I managed to pick out around 20 Barnacle Geese, and sure enough, the Brent Goose amongst them. Both species were stand out amongst their more copious cousins. The Barnacles were widely spread amongst the flock, whilst the Brent was roughly situated in the middle of the flock. The latter of the two species, was a year tick, and meant that I had reached my yardstick of 120. It was of the Pale-bellied variety, and was feeding contently beside a Barnacle which it seemed somewhat smaller than. It was a satisfying and pretty bird to watch. Apart from these 21 geese, they were all Pinkfeets.
" I reckon that if the White-fronted Goose is on the reserve that it'll be in the fields towards Rattray," said one of the birders.
He had a point, so, as no-else had checked, we quickly headed off to drive down the road towards Rattray to check if any geese flocks were present. About half way towards Rattray, we sure enough spotted a big group of Pinkfoots in the fields. However, they were quite distant, and the scope was needed to make out if there was a Whitefront amongst them. Yet again, the majority were Pinkfoots, with maybe 10 Barnacle Geese amongst them this time. The flock as a whole was a lot bigger too, with 1000+ birds in all I'd say. Finding a single White-fronted Goose would be hard. However, we checked nonetheless, and after around 20 minutes of meticulous searching, there seemed to be no sign. We were just about to leave for a check of Fen Hide when suddenly a huge racket came from the fields. The geese were taking to the air. Why, I wasn't sure, but it was a majority of them. It was a fantastic site, seeing all these wonderful birds filling the afternoon sky, filling the previously quiet fills with a cacophony of noise. We kept an eye on them, hoping they would come our way and land on the field closest to us. And bingo, they did, although the field in which we were by was expansive and some geese landed further away than others. Nonetheless this made for fantastic and much closer views, thus increasing our chances if there was a White-fronted Goose amongst them. But alas, despite some wonderful views and having checked every goose in the field, we could still not pick out a White-fronted Goose. It simply wasn't there. It was going to be difficult anyway.
Fen Hide was our last stop of the day, and it was here that we decided to sacrifice the last couple of hours of our birding day. Yes, that's right, we were looking for the Bittern once again. As expected, it wasn't showing on our arrival, and so the long wait commenced. An hour passes. Niente, rien. Why do they have to be so elusive? I guess it's just the way of the game. During this hour, however, a fine ring-tailed Hen Harrier makes a brief appearance, and the diagnostic piglet-like squeal of the Water Rail was heard on a couple of occasions in the reeds in front of us, but didn't show. Also, several Whooper Swans, winter wildfowl and geese are present on the Loch, with 25 Greylag Geese amongst the numerically superior Pinkfeets. Another half an hour passes. Still, nothing. The sun was starting to set... Just perfect for the Barn Owl which the local birder had seen earlier that day to come out. We wait another 20 minutes to see if both the Barn Owl and the Bittern show themselves. But no. It was time we headed off. The Bittern had eluded us once again, but who's to say there won't be another chance to see one later in the year? On the way back to the car from the Fen Hide we flushed a Woodcock from the undergrowth by the path, a surprising and strange sight.
On that note, the day ended. I have not been out birding since, but hope to get out birding again this weekend. However, on Sunday I took a walk in a local wood just outside Aberdeen, and stumbled across a couple of Jays, which has brought my year list to 121. I'll probably just check the local patches again this weekend, knowing me. If I'm lucky, a few of the early spring migrants may be at Girdleness. We'll see what the day holds, and I'll post in here about my day regardless, even if I see very little. The next big birding event is my trip to Portland, where I'll be from the 6th April to the 12th after staying in Somerset for a while with family. I now have a whole itinerary of target birds and places to go. Hopefully I'll see a good amount of birds in Portland and the surrounding birding places there, and be able to kick start the spring.
Thanks for reading,