Sunday, 24 February 2013

Return from Shetland

After several more celebratory beers, plenty of birding banter and a very sound night’s sleep on the ferry back to Aberdeen, it was time to hit Speyside for the day. The road to the Cairngorms was an excellent drive, culminating in a steep ascent to the Lecht ski centre near Tomintoul – a site I’d never visited before. I’d read that Ptarmigan were possible from the road here, but the habitat on the slopes looked heathery rather than scree-covered as far as the eye could see… which meant that we weren’t short of Red Grouse again! A handful of Snow Buntings were loitering around the buildings, but not coming down low enough for photos, so we headed on towards Grantown-on-Spey, and then south towards Boat of Garten.

I’d previously had good views of Crested Tit at a small feeding station by the side of the road in to the village from the A95, so reckoned it was worth a quick stop. Good call! We heard Cresties calling almost immediately, and soon one or two birds were coming right in to the feeders, along with Coal Tits and a very pale floor-feeding Treecreeper.


We headed over past the Loch Garten reserve and on towards Tulloch Moor, where the road is now closed. You can still access the grouse lek viewpoint on foot, but the road through at the west end has been breached by floodwater or a small stream. Lovely sunny weather for us, but (probably unsurprisingly, at mid-morning) no grouse. We decided to switch grouse species, and head up to the Cairngorm ski centre.

Here, the carpark was apparently full, with a park-and-ride service operating from half way down the road. As all birders surely would, we ignored that completely and went up to the top ‘to have a look’ - and immediately found a space with a view. A rather expansive view, stretching about 3km across to Cairn Lochan above Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain… surely some Ptarmigan must be visible somewhere? Indeed there were, thanks to John’s keen eyesight – though certainly the worst views I’ve ever had of this species! If Bob had been with us (another London birder and 500+ lister who still needs the species!), we would’ve been doing our best to claim UTVs, though confusion species for an entirely white grouse at 800m + in the UK are few and far between.

After a much-needed cup of coffee, we descended back into the ancient pine forest, and spent a memorable afternoon wandering a variety of trails. Amongst the highlights were a pair of Golden Eagles and more nice views of Crested Tit, and then a pretty awesome sunset over Loch Insh before we headed a couple of hours south down to the ancestral home of Clan McLethbridge, where an authentic Scottish spread of Chinese take-away and French wine was devoured. At least the after dinner drinks were (relatively) local – a part-bottle of Bruichladdich Octomore stood absolutely no chance of survival.


Next morning, a short drive took us to Ruddons Point, overlooking Largo Bay – another new site for me. With continuing clear skies, sunshine and still conditions, the sea was like a millpond so viewing the seaduck, divers and grebes was a pleasure. In particular, drake Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Duck showed excellently, while a Red-breasted Merganser provided entertainment trying to down a particularly large flatfish. “Why the hell did we evolve to have this stupid thin sawbill?” Eventually, Jono picked up the drake Surf Scoter way off in the distance, just west of Lower Largo village, and we were able to point it out to fellow returning grosbeak-twitchers Nick, Claire and Tony while exchanging notes on our respective trips.

After about an hour or so’s bay-watching (definitely no swimsuit-clad lifeguards anywhere to be seen), the weather clouded up rather suddenly, and we took our cue to head on south, via a very tidy Morrison’s breakfast in Glenrothes. I was keen to break the journey somewhere to get a bit of a rest from driving, and the North Pennines seemed perfectly placed. By the time we’d got there, it was mid-afternoon, and we were back in full glorious sunshine – awesome! Even more awesome, we immediately found 24 Black Grouse in exactly the fields I was hoping for at Langdon Beck, showing really well to give some of the best views I’ve ever had of this species. And with scenery like this to enjoy them in, it was pretty hard to beat…


After one more immature male Black Grouse in roadside fields down in the valley, we’d finally reached the end of our birding, four and a half days after setting off on the trip. Just a few hours later, we were back in London – but still talking about one of the best twitches any of us have ever enjoyed, in fact more like a short holiday which will live long in the memory. Cheers guys!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A short trip to sunny Scotland…

… commenced a week ago on Friday, when John, Jono, Nick and I got the tedious bit of the drive north out of the way before midnight with a remarkably fuss-free 5 hours up to a cheap stop in Carlisle. Pulling into the carpark there, it dawned on me that we’d barely scratched the surface – still another chunky drive to Aberdeen, then a 12 hour ferry crossing, and then a bit more driving to do. Oh well… at least the Grosbeak was still there!

Saturday was far and away the quietest day of the trip birdwise, featuring some great scenery around Glen Quaiche (near Amulree) and Glen Shee – but both sites failed to give up their grouse. Well, their interesting grouse, anyway – there was certainly no shortage of Red ones. “Bird of the Day” for me wasn’t even a bird, it was the excellent number of rather cute and fluffy white Mountain Hares around Glen Shee! Oh, and breakfast near Cumbernauld was pretty awesome, too.

And so to the mighty MV Hrossey (the boat, for the uninitiated). I’ve never taken this route onto Shetland, having always flown up in the autumn to maximise birding time. However, I may be converted… it’s actually really comfortable, and given a group of four, the additional cost of a cabin is minimal (diesel fumes a no-cost option, it would appear). And of course, there were other birders to chat to, and beer that needed drinking – so it was good to meet Stef McElwee for the first time and hear about Shetland in the spring, while Justin L and Andy W were familiar faces from Norfolk, though they only showed briefly before collapsing exhausted after the monster drive north!

After a pretty sound sleep, we arrived in Lerwick in the half-light at 7.30am, and hit the road straightaway. We’d opted to take our own car across to avoid faffing about with luggage and paperwork so were first on site at North Collafirth, starting at Forsa Farm where the previous day’s grozzer report had come from. After about half an hour, and the rest of the 20-strong crowd arriving, things weren’t looking too promising so Justin took one of our CB’s back down to Greenbrae, the next plantation along. Once he’d realised that you have to press the button on the radio, and that just talking to it isn’t enough to contact people on the other end, we soon got a happy message, and very shortly afterwards Pine Grosbeak was sitting happily on my list.


Undoubtedly a pretty awesome bird, it never posed fantastically well for photos in the two hours or so that we watched it, refusing to come down low enough to get a nice angle. But who cares?! The target was safely in the bag after less than an hour’s birding, and as the weather improved steadily, first one, then another two Otters appeared down in the voe below us, apparently play-fighting on the far shoreline – brilliant!

Now we had plenty of time to enjoy some regular birding, initially with a tour around South Nesting Bay looking for divers. One Great Northern had us going for a while with a somewhat upward-pointing bill, and sunshine bleaching out the colour, but our stringing skills weren’t up to the task. We ended up with at last 15 Great Northerns and a couple of Red-throats, as well as a heard-only Shetland tick in the form of Red Grouse.

Much of the rest of the day was focussed on rare gulls, first with a 1st-winter Ring-billed at Scalloway, and then 3 Glaucous and a single Iceland at the Shetland Catch factory in Lerwick.


The range of regular Shetland birds up here was also great to watch under bright blue skies and glorious sunshine, featuring lovely Long-tailed Ducks, plenty of Black Guillemots (or Tysties, as we should call them on Shetland), Ravens and a couple of Kittiwakes.


All excellent stuff, and just before darkness started falling, we even had time to dip a Blue Tit as well… surely an impressive achievement in a UK context, and certainly a first for all of us!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Eastbourne Bonaparte’s Gull

Don’t think I’ve ever been to Eastbourne before… and given how painfully slow the drive down there was this morning, I probably won’t be rushing back! But a certain dainty little American gull made it more than worth while for Rich and me today, showing extremely well at times, inside minimum focus range for the big lens boys.

Not really too much else to say about it, so I’ll crack on with a few pictures:


Good to see Steve A, Richard and Mick down there as well – the latter gets top marks for effort in getting down to gull’s eye level! I’d expect nothing less!


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Arctic Norway & Finland Trip Report (March / April 2012)

… and about time too, I might add!

Several people have been asking me recently about the trip I did with Jono and my Dad up to the far north of Finland and Norway last year – I guess Tormod’s speaking tour around the country with Martin Garner may well have much to do with this! The trip feels like ages ago now, but the memories are still fresh and fantastic. We saw some stunning birds, beautiful landscapes… and actually didn’t have to spend that much money (in what can be a terrifyingly expensive part of the world) to do it. Nor did we come across many other birders, or need a guide to find most of our target species – if you’re prepared for the weather with good gear, it’s not a difficult proposition to do an awesome self-drive trip.

So, here’s the long-awaited trip report, which includes details of the logistics as well as the birds. Click on the grosbeak to open… very topical right now, given events on Shetland!


Also, for a recap on other photos from the trip, browse my previous posts >here<.

If anyone wants more information about any of this, don’t hesitate to leave a comment with your contact email address here, and I’ll get back to you.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Dip-dippity, dip-dippity, dip-dip Dip-per!

No prizes for originality this weekend – Jono and I trod a predictable path to Thetford yesterday, for the long-staying Black-bellied Dipper. No apologies for that, though, since it was absolutely superb! Very confiding, and brilliantly charismatic. We stayed at least three hours, and I could’ve happily been there longer still.

As is usually the case with Dippers, its favoured area was shady and rather dark, so photography wasn’t easy… I might well be tempted back on a brighter day. But I’m pleased with a few of the shots, and the whole experience was a great antidote to work and stress in London.


One of the great things about this bird was the amount of behaviour you could watch, up close and personal, and attempt to capture on film (OK, disc!). It was feeding pretty voraciously on some sort of larvae (anyone know what? please comment if so), which had to be extracted from black twig-like shells, before being swiftly despatched.


And then, in quieter moments, he was… preening and stretching…


… swimming and bathing…


… yawning and blinking…


… and even singing! Ok, no photo of this – but here’s a recording from the excellent Xeno Canto archive, of a Scandinavian bird wintering near Amsterdam:

All in all – a stunning little bird, and well worth the trip. Anything I see this year will have to go some to beat it!


Any other birds this weekend? Yes, actually quite a bit! The notebook includes Long-tailed Duck (still on the Girling Res in N London – wish I could get close to that, it’s a cracker), Black Redstart, Great Northern Diver, 3 Slav Grebes and at least 4 Velvet Scoter on the Blackwater, and a typically distant and mobile Great Grey Shrike in Herts, where there was also an excellent array of old-fashioned farmland birds: Corn Buntings, Yellowhammers and Grey Partridge in abundance. If only more of the countryside was managed the same way…

Finally, this Grey Wag was rather confiding at Rowhedge near Colchester… often a companion to Dippers on picturesque breeding sites, this one was in less salubrious surroundings, around puddles on a derelict wharf!