Thursday 30 May 2013

Localness 30 May 2013

Went up to Hes East this morning to see if any Sanderlings had dropped in overnight. Sadly not, but the female Common Scoter was still present and showing well. Only my second ever in the York area, so nice to see. A flock of 12 chipping Crossbills flew over west as I watched the scoter - a nice surprise. Little else of note though plenty of Swifts about.

Hit the North - final installment

We had a fantastic boat ride off South Uist, via Barra, to Oban. We saw:

Great Northern Diver- several
Red-throated Diver - 2
Pomarine Skua - 1 pale phase adult
Bonxie - 3
Storm Petrel - 2
Arctic Tern - lots
Manx Shearwater - lots
Black Guillemot - lots inc 17 in Oban Harbour
Swallow - c10 around the boat whilst fogbound

Short-beaked Common Dolphin - 2 pods of c50 and c15
White-beaked Dolphin - c10
Bottle-nosed Dolphin - 3
Harbour Porpoise - 1-2

Emperor Moth- 1 landed on the boat near Barra.

Back on the mainland, the sun was shining and it was c26C by the time we got to Glasgow - wow. On we went to Hartlepool where we successfully twitched a showy Thrush Nightingale on the putting green. Quite a subtle bird, ignoring the streaky flanks and spotty throat, it was quite dull dark brown lacking the mellow rufous of Common Nightingale. The tail was was dull rufous and in the dull evening light didn't really contrast with the back. I failed to count the primary tips although I did try! The yellow gape line was distinctive and the bird lacked Nightingale's eyering.

Post Script.
So, the northwesterlies picked up and an impressive movement of skuas happened the following day. Then the male Snowy Owl turned up again right where we had been. And then worse, the Harlequin was refound. Bugger. Nevermind, I wouldn't have traded it for our view of the first Long-tail and those close Poms plus finding that Lark...well, maybe!

Monday 27 May 2013

Hit the North part four - Sunday

What a cracking day! The rain had cleared and the wind had blown itself out leaving a light easterly. We had high hopes as the wind was at last swinging round to the west this afternoon, so we felt there was just a chance we might get some skuas. The lack of westerly had really scuppered the main goal of our trip and with the double whammy of the Snowy Owl and Harlequin doing vanishing acts, we were struggling to keep our collective chins up.

Up early, we had a quick look at some Redpolls near the hostel which we could not work out, and then headed on to Benbecula. On arrival at the regular site, a pair of female Red-necked Phalaropes were showing beautifully next to the road. They were quite flighty and we enjoyed good views of them for the next couple of hours. The Corncrake also put in an appearance in the same place as the other day. A couple of Hebridean Linnets showed well - quite drab birds with a slightly more metallic call - a bit Twite-like perhaps.

We headed north on to North Uist to while away the hours until the wind changed. We decided to walk the best part of the Committee Road, which proved a little quiet to be honest, though nice views of the usual SEOs, Hen Harriers, Stonechats and Buzzards was enjoyable. A pair of Arctic Skuas  - one of each, dark and light - careered down the pass heading north. Presumably just the local birds scouting for food, but impressive nevertheless. Reconvening at the end of the road, Andy felt the draw of a cuppa and cake, but the lure of the machair was too much for the rest of us and the outside chance of the Snowy having reappeared meant we parted ways for a few hours, promising to meet up at the car park near Greinebetoht.

We headed east to Sollas and then north on to the machair. We were scrutinising everything that moved - our key targets were Great Yellow Bumble-bee and Snowy Owl. Several black-belled Golden Plovers were enjoyed at close range in the fields and then we picked up two large raptors - White-tailed Eagles crusing around - an adult and an immature - nice. A few Arctic Skuas cruised by and a gang of Bar-tailed Godwits huddled on the rocks by the bay. As we walked along, Philip suddenly said 'Skua'. We all looked up, presuming we would see one of the local Arctics passing overhead. Instead we all immediately knew what we were looking at - a stonking adult Long-tail, not more than 20 feet over us. It gracefully glided east showing us all it's features including it's unfeasibly long tail. What a bird! Possibly the bird we had come to see, yet catching us completely by surprise - what a moment. Tony was brought to his knees and there were high fives all round. What was less than half a minute, left us all completely exhillarated, the anxiety of the last couple of days evaporating in an instant. We had all been too captivated to get a photo, simply savouring what was a truly sensational moment. We rang Andy to see if he had seen it come over him down the coast, but sadly not.

This superb shot by Mark Darlaston has been borrowed from Hebrides Wildlife and is exactly as we saw this stonking migrant

Floating on air, we glided across the dunes to meet Andy, enjoying the sight of Arctic Skuas pinching eggs and scoffing them in a field and big gangs of summer plumaged waders zipping around. We met up with Andy who was remarkably nonchalant about the whole event but slightly upset that he couldn't find a cafe!

And we never did see the bumblebee or the owl!

We drove round the coast clockwise to Loch Maddy where our thirsts were quenched by a well-earned pint. Time was getting on and despite the glorious sunshine and fine ale, the wind had started to swing round so we felt we best head off to Balranald. The journey was fairly uneventful though we added a few Red-throated Divers and another immature White-tailed Eagle on the way round.

At Balranald, we seemed to be the only birders who had been keeping an eye on the forecast as we had the seawatching spot to ourselves. After a few minutes of scouring distant Manx Shearwaters and Eider flocks, a pair of lumbering Pomarine Skuas hove into my scope view. I shouted directions and the pair of pale morph giants came past relatively close low over the sea - awesome. Full spoon action! 15 minutes later, I got on two fast-flying dark birds quite distantly. They looked like skuas, even long-tails. As they got closer the distant apparations revealed themselves as a pair of long-tails. They never came close but that didn't matter. Throwing a couple of Arctics and a Bonxie into the mix and we had had our four Spring skua species day! Awesome. As we packed up to leave, Tony picked up five more adult Poms, coming in past the headland. The wind had gone west and the skuas had come!

Full spoon action

Strangely, even better was to come. We wandered back, feeling a little elated. The Canada Goose that Tony had mentioned earlier was looked at a little more closely and we realised it was a Lesser Canada Goose- we had walked right past this earlier, our minds being so focussed on seabirds. But this wasn't the finale!

Small but perfectly formed. Possibly the wildest Canada Goose I have ever seen in the UK

Just past the Canada pool, a small streaked brown bird flew past low over the ground- seemingly a small lark. I joked that it looked like a Short-toed. It pitched nearby into a ploughed sandy field. Phil got on it first with his bins - I couldn't see it momentarily, then it moved. Bloody hell! It was a Short-toed Lark. I checked the breast and the primaries - not a Lesser, sadly, but wow - our own Short-toed Lark. And what a cracker! It showed brilliantly well, walking around in the sandy furrows right in front of us. No other birders were around by this point. We rang the news out straight away. Ok not that rare- but it was our rare!

'Our' Short-toed Lark. Blinding!

Lots of photos and video were taken. What a day! The pub called - we had a booking at the excellent Pollichar Inn at the very tip of South Uist, so south we went. The day wasn't done and on leaving the pub at 10pm to drive back to the hostel, we noticed two Otters just offshore, happily fishing for their dinner. A fab end to an amazing day.

Hit the North Part Three - Saturday

It was very windy today! We spent a few hours around Smeircleit on the southwest tip of South Uist. Tony was on fire and on approaching the last pool before the sea announced "This looks good for Teal" and sure enough there were a couple of Teal and a smart drake Green-winged Teal - nice! I headed back to collect the others who were seawatching and had found a pale-billed diver. Despite searching we could only find Great Northerns including a pale first-summer which presumably was the bird. A few Red-breasted Mergansers headed past and a Corncrake craked from the iris bed near the Teal  pool but otherwise not much going on.

Green-winged Teal refuses to look at Pied Wagtail.

We spent the afternoon driving round South Uist and then Benbecula. We had an awesome Otter at Loch Druidibeg, right at the end of the road. It as fishing and crabbing in the channel, bringing it's catches up on the rocks and eating them. A plucky Raven followed it along the channel cleaning up the leftovers. I managed to miss a Merlin at this site frustratingly!

We pottered round Benbecula, with the highlight being a first-summer Iceland Gull we bumped into on the west coast somewhere. The guys will have got some nice shots of this.

Later on, rain stopped play and so we had a couple of pints in the pub and then headed back to the hostel to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. Oh Joy!

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Hit the North part 2 - Friday

Up and at 'em early, we sped up the road noting Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers hunting the South Uist landscapes, and Tufted Ducks and Greylag Geese haunting the lochans. Over the causeway and on through Benbecula we headed until we found ourselves at the start of the so-called Committee Road which turns northeast off the coast road on North Uist towards Sollas. This is a great spot for raptors and one we would scour later on. We drove on up to Sollas where our first birding of the day would begin.

A male Snowy Owl has been knocking about round the machair of the north of North Uist and the south end of Harris for a couple of years. It hadn't been seen here since Wednesday, but we thought we should try, as the wind was completely wrong for skuas to be passing by at Balranald. We spent a lovely morning checking out the dune and machair system. Loads of birds seen including Twite, Arctic Skuas, Wheatears, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Little Terns and Cuckoo. The machair vegetation was still very low and so very few flowers were seen. We looked hard at every bumblebee we saw but could not find anything other than White-tailed and Common Carders. We thought we had nailed the Owl only to find out after patient stalking that we had been watching a fertiliser bag in the middle of a field...Well it was hazy! The Owl apparently hangs out around on the machair between Greinetobht and Sollas, often sitting on the fences. It gets booted all the time by photographers (surprise surprise) and then disappears for a while, presumably on to a nearby island. This is what happened apparently on Wednesday - thanks lads!


We headed round to Balranald for lunch checking out some roadside Whooper Swans along the way. This species seems to be colonising the Hebs with a number of pairs now breeding.

With the wind offshore, I had no hope for skuas and apart from the local Arctic Skuas dashing around, I was not to be surprised and we saw nothing much at all on the sea, beyond some Eiders.

Eider. Nice bird, but not a Harlequin :-(

We scanned the rocky coves hard to see if last month's Harlequin had reappeared, but sadly not. A Corncrake was calling near the old church but remained hidden. The main highlight was the spectacle of birds around the machair here, including displaying Dunlins, Snipe, Redshank and Lapwing, and the background song of Skylarks and Corn Buntings. Perhaps lowland England was once like this (but maybe without the Dunlins!).

We headed on to Benbecula and at the well-known phalarope site, Andy found a smart drake Garganey which pleased a nearby tour group. They returned the favour by picking up our first Red-necked Phalarope, which showed fairly well but briefly. A nearby Corncrake eventually gave itself up and showed in the long grass. Also present here were Shoveler and Wigeon, plus more Twite and our first Hebridean Linnets.

Corncrake - Benbecula. Skulky gits.

A drive round the area revealed more calling Corncrakes, but they were keeping their heads down in the strengthening wind. We ended the day munching 75p pizzas that we picked up from the 'reduced' stand in the Co-Op! Yorkshiremen on tour...

Hit the North - Outer Hebrides Trip - 16-20 May 2013 - Day One York to Daliburgh

With a crack team of Joanne Thomas, Philip Precey, Andy Gibson and Tony Martin assembled, we headed north on our little skua beano. Having had our appetites for tail projections whetted a couple of years ago on the Outer Hebrides, I had always wanted to return. The passage had been epic during the week, but sadly it looked like we would be disappointed as the weather was swinging round to the northeast from the desired west. Nevermind, at least there was the resident male Snowy Owl to check out, and all the other good stuff that hangs out up there.

We headed up on Thursday stopping for a collosal bacon buttie on some random road having missed the A66 Scotch Corner turn off the A1. We then heard a Wood Warbler out of our window somewhere near Oban. We had made great time and so stuck the motor in a layby and checked out several of these vibrating beaties effervescing from the hanging oak woodlands next to the road. We also noted Siskin, Nuthatch, Common Sandpiper, Buzzard, Willow Warbler and Blackcap here.

On to Oban we hooked up with Philip who had arrived by train. We checked out the usual Black Guillemots, Hooded Crows and gulls around the harbour, before getting on to the ferry. We cracked open the beers as we eased out of Oban harbour and up the Sound of Mull. The sun was shining and the weather calm and we spent an enjoyable hour checking out the raptors over Ardnamurchan, including five White-tailed Eagles, a pair of displaying Goshawks (!), a pair of Golden Eagles and a couple of Peregrines, along with several Buzzards. Wow! Amazingly, one of the pair of adult WT Eagles we saw locked talons with an interloping immature and the pair spiralled down towards the forest - awesome.

The Team. L-R: Jo, Tony, Andy, Philip

The rest of the trip was spent scouring the waves for wildlife. Highlights included a brief Minke Whale seen by Tony and myself, plus a single adult Pomarine Skua, 100s of Manx Shearwaters and Arctic Terns, c20 Harbour Porpoises and stacks of Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Gannets and Fulmars. As we approached Lochboisdale on South Uist, we started picking up Great Northern Divers, several of which graced the inshore waters. We piled off the ferry and headed the short distance to our digs- a hostel at Daliburgh. For £15 a night, the rooms were great and facilities (including free WIFI) were really good. Before crashing out, we went for a walk down the road past the pub. The undoubted highlight was a cracking view of a smart male Hen Harrier, the first of many we would see on the islands. We noted Hebridean Song Thrush, Sedge Warbler, Hebridean Starling (which looked remarkably like Spotless Starling), Willow Warbler, Sand Martin and Tufted Duck. A pint of ale in the local pub (which was a bit crap) was enjoyed before bed.

Great Northern Diver. We saw c50 of these during our five day trip, but sadly failed to find a White-billed, despite carefully checking as many as we could.