Tuesday, 5 July 2016

American White-winged Scoter, Murcur, Aberdeenshire - 2nd July 2016

Britain's third accepted White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi), and really fine bird in a lovely part of the country, via an enjoyable twitch with @Cleckbirder and @DarraghHudson.

American White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi), Murcur, Aberdeenshire
Saturday 2nd July 2016

I say Britain's third, but Ireland also had one in County Kerry in 2011. Then there's the subspecies to think about. This bird (and the previous record at the same site in 2011) is an American White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi deglandi), or if you prefer, just plain White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi). The 2011 Irish bird and another at Musselburgh, Scotland in 2013, were Asian White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri), or if you prefer, Stejneger's Scoter (Melanitta stejnegeri). I hope that's clear. If not, here's a great primer on White-winged Scoter taxonomy from the late, great Martin Garner on Birding Frontiers.

This bird was first noted on 25th June 2016, a Saturday, allowing quite a few people to connect over the first weekend. It was in a large flock of mostly Common Scoter, with lots of Velvet Scoter and a few Common Eider mixed in, plus a Surf Scoter. Fortunately, the flock stayed faithful to the area off Murcur golf course all week, prompting the early start (well, late on Friday).

 Some of the mixed Scoter flock
We arrived on site around 05:15, and the conditions were perfect: mild temperature, sunshine but with light cloud, and negligible wind. We joined approximately seven other birders on the dunes, with the scoter flock spread out on the water in front of us - maybe up to 1500 birds. I set up my scope, and looked out. At the back of the very first group of c15 scoters I looked at was a larger bird, with a large white 'tick' mark around the eye, and a big white wing patch. It clearly differed from the Velvet Scoters around it. Eh, could this be it?! The bill had the restricted coloured tip to the upper mandible, which was pinkish (red/orange) rather rather yellow on the Velvet Scoter.

I needed to compare it with the Velvet Scoters in the wider flock, so I moved my scope away form the bird and back again. Each time, I realised the bird at the back looked different and matched the images and description of deglandi White-winged Scoter I'd researched over the previous couple of days. Of course, with all this moving around of my scope, I lost the bird! I couldn't say, "I just saw it, but can't point it out now".  Also, I wasn't confident enough about the ID to shout it out - I'd not seen one before - so I mumbled something about an "interesting bird somewhere at the back, drifting right" to my neighbours. Within a few minutes a birder near me said he had it, and pointed everyone to the area at the back of the flock, to where my bird would have drifted to by then. Yes, it was the same bird I'd seen, and yes, it was the White-winged Scoter. Sigh... If only I had the guts to say out loud what I knew inside.

 Spot the American White-winged Scoter...

Well, it was great to see it, and have it confirmed, and to know (if only internally) that I could pick the bird out independently.

My American White-winged Scoter notes

We moved up the coast to view from further north, avoiding looking directly into the sun. The bird showed very well from here, and the three of us each picked it out as we scanned the flock for a Surf Scoter. The brown/grey flanks of the White-winged Scoter showed well in the sun, compared with the solid black Velvet Scoters, and bird came close enough for us to appreciate the unique bill knob shape.

 The "crowd" by around 9:00am

Starlings, Murcur, Bridge of Don, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

There were a few other birds around: Curlew, Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit on the beach, Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Eiders in with the scoter flock, Pied Wagtails, Yellowhammers and Skylarks on the golf course, and the odd Gannet and Sandwich Tern flying past. But, Ythan Estuary was just up the coast, with its tern colonies and regular King Eider, so we gave up the Surf Scoter search and headed there.

 Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

Ythan Estuary is a nice site, especially when it's quiet. We scanned all the Eider we could see, but could not see a King Eider. At the river mouth, the Atlantic Grey Seals were making their mournful calls, and several swam up close to us out of curiosity. Cormorants were drying their wings and more Common Eiders flew in as the tide rose.


Atlantic Grey Seals, Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

Away from the river mouth were the tern colonies, with Common, Arctic, Sandwich and Little Tern all present. The best opportunity I'd had this year to reacquaint myself with these species.


Lion's Mane Jellyfish, Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

A great trip, with good company, good birds, and a top-notch lifer too. That takes my British list 396.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Great Knot, Titchwell, Norfolk - Thursday 16th June 2016

A quick blog about the Great Knot at Titchwell RSPB, and my hasty trip to see it.

Great Knot is a rare bird in the UK, with only four previous records (plus one in the Republic of Ireland). It breeds in north-east Siberia, Russia, wintering principally in Australia and New Zealand, but also throughout South-East Asia and along the coast of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. North Korea, South Korea and China have some very important migration refueling sites.

The last occurrence of Great Knot in the UK was as recently as 13-15th July 2014, at Breydon Water  in Suffolk. I remember it well - Breydon Water  that is, not the bird. I went on the 16th and stared at an empty expanse of mud for hours... The arrival of this year's bird was a brilliant opportunity to get this one back - a chance I thought I'd lost. The bird was first reported at 13:00 on 15th June, and I headed down to Titchwell from work at lunchtime on 16th, the earliest I could.

The Great Knot was with a large Red Knot flock. Find that flock and the bird should be obvious, being taller and darker. I parked up in the car park at Titchwell RSPB, and as I was getting my stuff out of the boot, a leg fell off my scope's tripod. Um, I now had a bipod. Ah well.

I was told the flock was currently on the beach, and headed there. At the end of the boardwalk birders told me to head east for 500m, towards the small crowd of twitchers. There was sea fret and I couldn't see 100m. Into the unknown then, at a running pace, though I hoped the mist would help keep the birds in place.

And they did - the flock was on the shoreline; and there, in the middle at the back, was the sleeping Great Knot. In the scope the coppery mantle, flecked with black, white and grey, stood out brilliantly - looking no unlike a roosting Turnstone. Occasionally the Red Knots would shift around as a wave encroached, but the Great Knot seemed more relaxed (or perhaps, more tired). I wondered if the bird's longer legs meant it was less concerned my the rising tide. Now and again the Great Knot would show its dark face with its darker eye. The bill was clearly longer in relation to the Red Knots, and the bird's size - bigger and taller, though in part due to its longer legs - and more rounded body were the obvious first impressions.

First view of the Great Knot on Titchwell beach - Thursday 16th June 2016

The flock flew after I'd had around 20 minutes on the bird, breaking into sub-groups. News came through it was back on the freshmarsh, so we all headed inland, including the breathless group who'd arrived seconds too late to see it on the deck.

The Red Knot flock, with the Great Knot takes flight on Titchwell beach
Thursday 16th June 2016

The light was still poor from beside the Parrinder hide on the reserve, but at least the mist was thinner. The Knot flock had settled on the sand bar, in among the Black-tailed Godwits, Avocets and Oystercatchers. The Great Knot clearly wanted to sleep some more and kept its position while the Red Knots around it shifted their positions every now and again. I got prolonged views of the bird's rotund body, with its spotted breast and flanks, and its patchy-plumaged mantle. I also had a few good view of the face  and neck, enough to scribble the most basic sketch, but not (with the dull light and distance) enough to get a decent photo.


Great Knot in the crowd, Titchwell RSPB - Thursday 16th June 2016


Avocets mating as the Great Knot pretends not to notice - Thursday 16th June 2016

Great Knot notes - Thursday 16th June 2016

I drove home mostly in glorious sunshine. There were occasional dark clouds, some carrying rain, others carrying ominous exhortations to "take our country back". The EU referendum was a week away, and Norfolk's roads were littered with posters encouraging us to sabotage our nation for the sake of ...what? I don't know, but all the wrong people were happy with the result a week later...

People, what have we done?

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

I had an interesting and enjoyable weekend from Friday 10th to Sunday 12th June 2016. It started after work with a gig in Leeds, then a music festival in Leicestershire, a morning on Portland Bill and a trip to Somerset.

The trip to Portland was, of course, to see the young Great Spotted Cuckoo, which had been around Southwell on Portland since 13th May. So, nearly a month later, I'd finally found a free day to get down to it. I'd arranged with fellow West Yorkshire birder Joel to be picked up, post-festival, from my brother-in-law's in Derby at 05:30 Sunday morning. In normal circumstances, this isn't such an early start, but after countless beers and bad kebabs at Download, and going to bed at 02:00, I'm glad I wasn't driving. Thanks Joel.

On arrival at Reap Lane at 09:30, we found a handful of birders staring into bushes around 20 metres away. Looked promising. The bird was roosting, apparently in its favourite roost site. Unfortunately it wasn't easy to see the whole bird, with the head obscured, except for the few occasions it preened. Hence, my photos are somewhat lacking!

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 (Canon SX40)

Great Spotted Cuckoo, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016
(Digiscoped: Opticron GS 665 and iPhone 5)

A large, shaggy bird, with typically dropping wings and a long tail. The wings were a dark chocolate brown covered in white spots. The tail was the same brown colour, with white edges and tips. Dark brown hood on the head (which could be seen briefly as the bird preened and shifted position), with a dark eye and bill. Underparts a dirty cream colour, with a yellowish neck, throat and upper breast. Large, scaly pale grey legs.

Great Spotted Cuckoo notes, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

The cuckoo eventually flew, looking like a small falcon, towards the Observatory, and we didn't see it again despite heading down that way. During a brief sea-watch from beside the Lobster Pot Café we had 3 Manx Shearwater, 10+ Fulmar, and Guillemot and Gannet.

 Portland Bill, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

Some moths were still left in and around the moth trap at the Obs, including Small Elephant Hawk-moth, Privet Hawk-moth, Cream-spot Tiger Moth, Common Swift, Small Magpie, Heart and Dart, White Ermine, and Light Brown Apple Moth.

Common Swift Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

 Cream-spot Tiger Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

Light Brown Apple Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

 Privet Hawk-moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

Small Elephant Hawk-moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016  

 Small Magpie Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

 White Ermine Moth, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016 

In the chalky, dry grassland around the Obs were Meadow Brown, Common Blue and Painted Lady butterflies. An unringed White Stork was reported at Steart Marshes WWT reserve. Although not directly on the way home, it wasn't too much of a detour, especially for a potential lifer for both of us. So we headed off to Somerset, with a spider Enoplognatha ovata hitching a lift with us.

Enoplognatha ovata, Portland, Dorset - Sunday 12th June 2016

On arrival, we find the White Stork had just flown high north east around 45 minutes ago, and hadn't come back. Disappointing, especially after the bird had been present for around two days. Well, we were here now, the weather was glorious, and the reserve looked really promising (and very new), so we went for a wander.

 Arty shot of a pylon at Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

We mostly had our eyes to the skies, scanning for thermalling storks, but did manage a few insect sightings too.

Black-tailed Skimmer (male), Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

Common Blue (female), Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

The scrapes were quiet, probably due to the state of the tide (out, we suspected), but we did enjoy the Little Egrets, noisy Oystercatchers with young, and mating Little Ringed Plovers.

Little Ringed Plovers, Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

We drew a blank on the White Stork, and the info in the sightings book wasn't helping either (a report of the White Stork from earlier and sightings of the college bus...), so headed home. A successful day, regardless.

Sightings log, Steart Marshes WWT, Somerset - Sunday 12th June 2016

A pleasant end to a tiring couple of days. Here are a couple of other sightings from the weekend.

Neil Young and Promise of the Real, Leeds Arena - Friday 10th June 2016

Lawnmower Deth and Kim Wilde, Download Festival - Saturday 11th June 2016

Before the downpour, Download Festival - Saturday 11th June 2016

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Cairngorms, Scotland, 28th May-3rd June 2016 - Part 2

Continuing the little diary of my family holiday in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Click here for Part 1.

We managed to really pack a lot in on Tuesday 31st May. We spent the morning and early afternoon cycling from Cromdale to Nethy Bridge along the disused Speyside Railway in lovely sunny weather.

We took in Anagach Forest again, and crossed the Spey at Speybridge, watching Grey Wagtails and Common Sandpipers on our break.

 Anagach Forest - Tuesday 31st May 2016

 Common Sandpiper, Speybridge - Tuesday 31st May 2016

The fields along the valley bottom were full of Redshank, Curlew and Lapwing, and the track-side gorse had singing Yellowhammer. On the way back, a group of House Martins were coming down to a road-side pool of mud for their nests, allowing some great close views.

 House Martin, Speybridge - Tuesday 31st May 2016

My daughter and I had tickets for the dusk watch on the Rothiemurchus Estate, starting at 21:00. This left us time to get to Laggan, about 25 miles west of Aviemore, to try and see a singing Icterine Warbler, which had been reported there for the last two days.

We could hear the bird before we were fully out of the car - singing it rich song, which seemed to include all kinds of mimicry: Curlew, Lapwing, Swallow, Reed Warbler, Song Thrush, etc... I had no trouble hearing the bird, but my hearing being what it is, I did have trouble finding its exact location. No such trouble for my 11-year-old daughter, who quickly pointed it out in a nearby tree.

 Icterine Warbler, Laggan, Highland - Tuesday 31st May 2016

We had some great, prolonged views of the Icterine Warbler in the fabulous evening sunshine - a UK tick for both of us! It was particularly great to spend some quality time with my wonderful daughter, and was nice the chat with some locals and other opportunistic birders who were holidaying in the area too. I scribbled some notes and we headed off to Rothiemurchus for our mammal watch.


Our trip to Rothiemurchus was for one reason only: to see Pine Marten. By no means, guaranteed, it was certainly one of the best opportunities to see this scarce and elusive mammals. After walking from the meeting point, past a herd of twelve Red Deer, we entered the hide for our three hour session. Our guide, John Walters, explained the Pine Martens tend to arrive before it's fully dark, with the Badgers arriving after dark (which would be well gone 23:00 at this time of year at this latitude). He went out and filled the feeding stations, which included smearing lots of peanut butter around, and leaving a raw egg for the Pine Marten.

Wood Mice scurried around the rocks outside the windows as we waited. Around 21:45 a Pine Marten came bounding out of the forest and on to the feeding table! What a slinky and canny creature it was. It went to the table and proceeded to eat, though constantly wary of movement and sound in the wood. It was, apparently, a youngster. He didn't stay around for long - once it had the egg in its jaws, it was off - but we all managed to get really good views and acceptable photos (my cheap camera isn't great in low light, but I'm more interested in the experience than the photos).

 Pine Marten, Rothiemurchus, Highland - Tuesday 31st May 2016

We had a wait of an hour before the Badger family turned up, and it was worth it. John, explained the family politics and the individual characters of the Badgers. I'd never seen such close and prolonged views of Badgers before and it was fascinating to see them feed and interact. Well worth staying up late for. The whole evening was great: the sunset, the scenery, the Icterine Warbler, the Pine Marten, the Badgers, and the lovely company of my wonderful daughter. Happiness.

 Badgers, Rothiemurchus, Highland - Tuesday 31st May 2016

The following day was meant to start with a lie-in after we'd got back so late the night before, but the cockerel outside our window put paid to that.


No matter, because we'd hit the jackpot for Highland weather; for Wednesday 1st June it was again forecast as hot, sunny and still. So we decided on a trip up the raptor heaven that is Findhorn Valley.

 Findorn Valley, Highland - Wednesday 1st June 2016
Look at that sky!

 I've visited the valley on several occasions, and I can't recommend this place enough. Come on a sunny, still day in late Spring and you'll be treated to fabulous views, perfect walking conditions, fascinating wild flowers, and almost certainly some sightings of large raptors.

The air is so fresh, and the water of River Findhorn clear and cold. Wild Goats graze along the valley, from the very highest peaks to the river banks, and large herds of Red Deer roam the mountain tops.

 Red Deer, Findorn Valley, Highland - Wednesday 1st June 2016

 Wild Goat, Findorn Valley, Highland - Wednesday 1st June 2016

The first birds you notice are all the Oystercatchers, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Jackdaws, Common Gulls, and Swallows. I scanned the mountain sides for Dotterel and Ring Ouzel, to no avail. But I did pick up Ravens and three Kestrels.

A guided birding group joined us by the wooded bridge at Dalmigavie, and together we picked out Common Buzzard, Osprey, and two Peregrine Falcons. After moving further up the valley to the small car park, I picked out an obvious eagle species further up the valley. It was soon joined by another, larger eagle! This was perfect, allowing us all to compare the two. A Golden Eagle and a young White-tailed Eagle

We spent Thursday in Inverness, starting with a boat trip to see the Bottlenose Dolphins in the Moray Firth. We headed out on the Dolphin Spirit and things didn't go entirely to plan. No Dolphins! Three Atlantic Grey Seals, Black-throated Diver, and a few Guillemots were the best of the wildlife. The weather, again, was great, and the staff on the boat were nice and helpful, so no complaints there; but it was slight disappointment. We had a nice day in Inverness anyhow.

Kessock Bridge, Beauly Firth, Inverness - Thursday 2nd June 2016

Later, back on Speyside, I went for an evening bike ride through Anagach Forest (yes, I really can't get enough of those old forests).

  Anagach Forest - Thursday 2nd June 2016

  Oystercatcher, Grantown-on-Spey - Thursday 2nd June 2016

Friday was our last full day on Speyside, and the weather finally started to crack. We cycled to the shops in Grantown (Spotted Flycatcher, Willow Warbler, and Dipper en route). 

I can't go on a UK holiday without a trip on a heritage railway, so we spent the afternoon on the great Strathspey Railway. I can really recommend it. Please excuse the train photos...

 British Railways No. 46512 (Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0), Aviemore - Friday 3rd June 2016

BR Class 117 DMBS SC51367, Boat of Garten - Friday 3rd June 2016

So, a great holiday. The long journey home was made better by the bright sunshine, a stop off in lovely Dunkeld, and even a Merlin flying over the car on the A9 at Dalnaspidal!