Category Archives: Other UK

Late Oct 2019 – Scilly Season

Not a tour, but a family holiday – and Scilly is conveniently a great place for birding in October! The Isles of Scilly are perhaps best know in birding terms for the number of American landbirds they have historically attracted in Autumn. We stayed on the island of Tresco, but we made several trips over to St Mary’s too.

Late October is not the best time, and sure enough all the ‘Yanks’ which had previously appeared cleared out a few days before we arrived. Still, there were more good birds to find, and one rarity at least had the decency to linger long enough for us to catch up with it.

The day we arrived, our first stop was to see the Blue Rock Thrush which had been hanging out on the rocks around the Garrison and Peninnis on St Mary’s. It was very mobile and could disappear for long periods but conveniently, it was located just before our plane took off and we were able to catch up with it after only an hour or so of casing up and down the clifftop path (it had taken others several days to see it!).

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – not especially blue, but on a rock!

The Blue Rock Thrush was not especially blue – it was a young bird, a 1st winter. But it was flying around and feeding on the rocks, which is what a proper wild Blue Rock Thrush should be doing.

After that, we still had a bit of time before our boat over to Tresco, so we walked down to Lower Moors. The Spotted Crake helpfully appeared just as we arrived, in the ditch beside the path. This bird had been very obliging on previous days and it didn’t disappoint today. We watched it down to just a couple of feet, and at one point it passed right beneath the wooden footbridge on which we were standing. Amazing views of what can be a very secretive species, possibly my best ever.

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Spotted Crake – absurdly close views at Lower Moors

The following day we found ourselves heading back to St Mary’s, when a report emerged of a Chestnut-eared Bunting on Peninnis first thing in the morning. It had flown off but we went over anyway just in case it was refound – it wasn’t! We did find a rare bunting ourselves, also on Peninnis, but unfortunately it was just a Yellowhammer. Rare on the Isles of Scilly perhaps, but not quite so unusual back in Norfolk!

Monday was spent on Tresco. A Citrine Wagtail appeared on St Mary’s and a few bits and pieces on St Agnes, but we didn’t manage to find anything unusual. The Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been at Borough Farm for a week or more was still present, and it was good to catch up with that. It could be surprisingly elusive, but it remained in the same group of trees for much of our stay.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher – was present on Tresco for most of our stay

There are almost always good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers at this time of year, and a quiet day on Tresco gave us the chance to catch up with a few of those too.

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Yellow-browed Warbler – there are generally a few on Tresco at this time of year

Things hotted up on Tresco on Tuesday. After a quiet start to the morning, one of the few other hardy Tresco regulars, Steve Broyd, called to say he had found an Isabelline Wheatear up on Castle Down. We raced up to help him pin it down, as it was very mobile initially but eventually settled down around a favoured area of rocks. It would remain here for several days and we got fantastic views of it over subsequent days. It has been a good autumn for this very rare south-eastern European species this year.

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Isabelline Wheatear – it has been a good year for this species in UK

Birders from St Mary’s coming back from seeing the Isabelline Wheatear later that day found a Waxwing on the wires at New Grimsby. It was a lovely sunny day and it was flycatching from the telephone wires. When it flew off, it couldn’t be refound until it was found feeding in an apple tree in one of the nearby gardens the following day.

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Waxwing – flycatching from the wires behind the quay in New Grimsby

It was back to St Mary’s the next day. The Citrine Wagtail seen a couple of days previously had settled down at Salakee Farm and had been showing down to a few metres yesterday. When we arrived in the morning, it was a bit more distant and and we were looking into the light. After spending some time exploring St Mary’s, which also gave us the chance to catch up with the Dartford Warbler on Peninnis (a ‘Scilly tick’ for us), we returned in the afternoon and were treated to views of the Citrine Wagtail down to a few metres as it fed in the long grass in the corner of the field.

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Citrine Wagtail – showing down to a few metres as it fed in the long grass

The following day, it was back to scouring Tresco for something new. Those efforts were rewarding with the finding of a 1st winter drake Ring-necked Duck on Abbey Pool. It was present all day, although it spent some time tucked in the edge of the vegetation asleep, but could not be found subsequently, although the weather was not particularly conducive to finding it again!

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Ring-necked Duck – this 1st winter drake spent the day on Abbey Pool

It was a lovely sunny day and the Yellow-browed Warblers were particularly active and vocal. There were three regularly around the Rowesfield area and it was interesting to watch one today behaving very territorially, chasing the others off from its favoured sallows.

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Yellow-browed Warbler – this one was chasing the others from its favoured sallows

The next two days were very windy and wet at times, so if there were any new arrivals they would be very hard to locate. Things improved dramatically on 27th, which was largely clear and sunny at times, with much lighter winds. Starting off on the regular circuit of the island, the first thing that became apparent was that there had been a big arrival of Siberian Chiffchaffs. After one up at Borough Farm, there were three together in the sallows at Rowesfield crossroads. There were plenty of Common Chiffchaffs in too, great to compare them side by side.

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Siberian Chiffchaff – one of three at Rowesfield crossroads

At least one of the Siberian Chiffchaffs at Rowesfield crossroads was rather vocal, its call a rather plaintive ‘iihp’. It was even singing on and off in the sunshine – not something you hear in the UK very often. Fantastic!

Any other day, that would have been the highlight of the morning but today there was more to come. Walking along the edge of the old heliport, a bunting flew up from the long grass beyond the fence and started to call – a distinctive ‘ticking’. Thankfully, it circled round and dropped down into the top of the brambles behind me. A Rustic Bunting!

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Rustic Bunting – a nice find on the edge of the old Heliport

Unfortunately the Rustic Bunting flew over into the sallows on the edge of Abbey Pool with a Reed Bunting and didn’t show itself for the birders who were just arriving from the boat over from St Mary’s. It was seen again, back in the original spot, together now with three Reed Buntings in the early afternoon and we found it there again at dusk.

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Rustic Bunting – still present the following morning

The Rustic Bunting was still present the following morning, with the Reed Buntings in the same place on the edge of the Heliport, but unfortunately it was now time for us to leave. We caught the boat back over to St Mary’s that afternoon and bid our farewells to the Isles of Scilly.

There was a sad side to what was a wonderful week. I have been visiting Tresco regularly for 24 years now and over that time I have seen some great birds up at Borough Farm. The farm had been leased out and worked traditionally for bulbs, flowers and vegetables, but a couple of years ago the Tresco Estate took it back under its own management. The estate has long eschewed traditional mixed farming in favour of focusing on intensive beef cattle, meaning the other fields around the island have already been turned over to improved grassland.

It was sad to see this year that Borough Farm seems to be heading the same way – the once weedy fields are now mostly covered with grass, the hedges have been cut right back and then browsed heavily by cattle. Apart from the one corner where the Red-breasted Flycatcher was, which still has some taller sycamores, there were very few birds there this year. It seems surprising to see ongoing ‘dewilding’, intensification of loss-making modern agricultural practices, particularly in this part of the world, at a time when many other estates are looking to ‘rewilding’ as a better way forward.

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Borough Farm – sad to see it in the process of being ‘dewilded’

I am not sure how any more years I will continue to go back to Tresco. It is still a beautiful island, but not as beautiful for wildlife as it used to be. The only good news is that there are plenty of other islands in the Scillies to explore which have not been so extensively ‘tidied up’, where there are still weedy fields and overgrown hedges. Is it time to join the growing exodus of birders who have moved on from Tresco to explore other islands?

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Tresco – sunset, looking over the channel towards Bryher

 

19th Dec 2017 – Border Crossing

Not a tour today, but a short expedition (with our cameras) over the border into Suffolk to catch up with a couple of good birds which have been showing well there in recent days. It was a glorious, sunny winter’s day – perfect weather to be out at this time of year, particularly after a few days in the office catching up on admin!

First stop was at Oulton Broad in Lowestoft. Just a couple of seconds after we pulled up in the car park, the Great Northern Diver surfaced. It was diving by the boats over the other side of the bridge at first, but quickly started to make its way towards us and then spent a few minutes just off the quay where we were standing. At one point, it was only about 5 metres away. These are stunning birds, normally seen at a distance out to sea, so it was great to see it so close.

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Great Northern Diver 3Great Northern Diver – showing very well at Oulton Broad

We watched the Great Northern Diver fishing for an hour or so. It disappeared round beyond some boats for a while, then made its way back to the water in front of the quay again. We didn’t see it catch very much for all its efforts. At one point it surfaced with what appeared to be a small shrimp. On previous days it has been seen catching crabs here.

Great Northern Diver 5Great Northern Diver – with what appears to be a small shrimp

Eventually the Great Northern Diver started to work its way out into the middle of Oulton Broad, resurfacing further away after each dive. We decided to continue on further into deepest Suffolk!

Our next stop was Hazlewood Common, on the edge of the Alde estuary on the outskirts of Aldeburgh. There has been a flock of Redpolls feeding in the weeds on an overgrown parsnip field here in recent weeks. As we walked down the track, a couple of Lesser Redpolls were hopping around on the ground where a photographer had been putting seed out to try to tempt them down.

We joined the small group of people standing on the edge of the field. Most of the Redpolls were feeding out in the field, but after a few minutes they flew up and circled round before landing in the hedge. It wasn’t long before we noticed a strikingly pale bird in the hedge with the others – it was the Arctic Redpoll we had come here to see.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 1

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 2

Coues's Arctic Redpoll 3Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – strikingly pale compared to the Lesser Redpolls

We spent some time watching the Redpolls here. The birds would fly back down into the field to feed and they fly up again, sometimes up into the taller trees back towards the road, sometimes into the bushes further down, but most often into the hedge close to where we were standing.

Over the next hour or so, we were treated to some great close-up views of the Arctic Redpoll. At one point, it perched up in the top of the hedge preening, which gave us a chance to get a good look at its white rump with a large unstreaked section in the middle, one of the defining characteristics of Arctic Redpoll.

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Coues's Arctic Redpoll 5Coues’s Arctic Redpoll – showing off its largely unstreaked white rump

Arctic Redpoll is divided into two subspecies, exilipes which breeds widely in northern Eurasia and North America and hornemanni which breeds in Greenland and neighbouring parts of Canada. This bird is an exilipes, also known as Coues’s Arctic Redpoll. Apparently, according to historians, it’s first name should properly be pronounced ‘cows’ after its namesake, Elliot Coues, a 19th century American army surgeon and ornithologist. This is the correct pronunciation according to his descendants, but there is even some question over how he would originally have pronounced his name! A similar issue arises in his native US over Coues white-tailed deer, which is still widely pronounced as in ‘coos’. We didn’t worry too much over the pronunciation, and just enjoyed the Redpolls!

As well as all the Arctic Redpoll, there were 20+ Lesser Redpolls and at least two Mealy Redpolls in the flock. Birds were coming and going though, and the flock was not always (or ever?) altogether. There were some nice Lesser Redpolls, including a couple of pink-breasted males.

Lesser Redpoll Suffolk 2017-12-19_2Lesser Redpoll – a smart pink-breasted male

Lesser Redpoll Suffolk 2017-12-19_3Lesser Redpoll – a more typical small, brown Lesser

The Mealy Redpolls did not pose for photos but we did at one point have all three (sub)species of Redpoll in the scope together, when they flew up to preen in the top of one of the tall trees, Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Mealy Redpoll and Lesser Redpoll. A very interesting and useful opportunity for comparison.

Unfortunately, the days are short at this time of year and after a rather leisurely start this morning and a good session with both the Great Northern Diver and the Redpolls, the light was now starting to go. It was time to head for home.

Sept/Oct 2017 – A Week in Shetland

Not a tour, but a week spent up in the Shetland Isles between 27th September and 4th October. The weather was not great – gale force winds on several days, and lots of rain – but it was still possible to get out birding most of the time. It was an opportunity to go and check out some new sites, as well as catch up with some of the more unusual birds which were around while I was there. Here is a selection of photos from the week.

Breeding as close as Scandinavia but wintering in SE Asia, Rustic Bunting is a very rare visitor to Norfolk. They are much more regular in the Northern Isles, but even so there was a bit of a deluge over the last week. I managed to catch up with two. The first Rustic Bunting on the Mainland was found up at Melby, Sandness. I saw it on several occasions but it was always quite flighty, when I was there.

Rustic Bunting 1Rustic Bunting – seen around the wet fields at Melby, Sandness

The second Rustic Bunting I saw was at Lower Voe, which I stopped off to see on my way back from Esha Ness on my last morning. It was initially rather elusive, moving round between gardens and the beach, but eventually settled down to feed along the side of the road where it showed very well.

Rustic Bunting 2Rustic Bunting – my second of the week, at Lower Voe

The other rarity highlight was the arrival of several Parrot Crossbills towards the end of the week. This is an irruptive species, moving out of Northern Europe in search of pine cones. We were fortunate to have a very obliging group in North Norfolk not so long ago, over the winter of 2013/14. But it was still nice to catch up with some more Parrot Crossbills this time – I saw at least 6, in the spruce plantations at Sand, making very light work of any spruce cones they could find.

Parrot Crossbill 1

Parrot Crossbill 2Parrot Crossbills – there were at least 6 in the spruce plantations at Sand

Esha Ness is a stunning location and well worth the visit anyway, but I did eventually manage to locate the juvenile American Golden Plover which was hanging out with the flock of Eurasian Golden Plovers. It was generally rather distant though, hunkered down at first against the gale-force winds, before flying off into one of the fields to feed.

American Golden PloverAmerican Golden Plover – hunkered down in the wind

The juvenile Little Stint was much more obliging, landing in the road right in front of the car, before running over to feed around the shallow pools in the grass nearby. A Curlew Sandpiper feeding in the grassy fields with the Golden Plovers looked rather out of place.

Little StintLittle Stint – feeding around the shallow pools with a Rock Pipit for company

There were lots of scarcities too – a good arrival of Little Buntings, seen at several sites….

Little BuntingLittle Bunting – this one in one of the quarries at Sumburgh Head

…and numerous Red-breasted Flycatchers too.

Red-breasted FlycatcherRed-breasted Flycatcher – one of many, this one also in a quarry at Sumburgh

Yellow-browed Warblers, perhaps not surprisingly these days, were numerous.

Yellow-browed WarblerYellow-browed Warbler – several were seen most days, this one at Quendale

There was only one Red-backed Shrike around during the week, a juvenile for a couple of days at Fladdabister. It was often to be found hunting in a couple of small gardens, right outside the front windows of the houses!

Red-backed ShrikeRed-backed Shrike – this juvenile was at Fladdabister

I also saw two Great Grey Shrikes during the week, one by the beach at Grutness and the other at Dale of Walls.

Great Grey ShrikeGreat Grey Shrike – this one at Dale of Walls in the rain

There were good numbers of commoner migrants passing through, especially earlier in the week. Redstarts were regularly seen, sometimes in slightly incongruous places.

Common RedstartRedstart – this one on the pavement by the road in a housing estate

There were several Spotted Flycatchers around too, but I only saw one Pied Flycatcher during the week, in one of the plantations at Kergord. It can’t have been easy for them to find food, in the wind and the rain.

Spotted FlycatcherSpotted Flycatcher – trying to find a sheltered spot to feed

Bramblings and thrushes, particularly Song Thrush and Redwing, were arriving too. I was slightly disappointed to only see a handful of Mealy Redpoll, as I left too early for the arrival of the Arctic Redpolls just after I departed.

BramblingBrambling – birds were arriving during the week

It was also nice to catch up with some of the commoner birds. The Wrens on Shetland are a separate subspecies, zetlandicus, darker with longer bill and legs compared to the ones at home.

Shetland WrenShetland Wren – a distinct subspecies

Rock Doves are common around the crofts and fields. It many parts of the UK, they have interbred with Feral Pigeons, but the ones here still look pretty pure.

Rock DoveRock Dove – seen around the crofts and fields

Twite are also still fairly common here, with small groups encountered on most days.

TwiteTwite – small groups were seen on most days

Most of the seabirds which breed here over the summer months have now departed, but there were still plenty of Black Guillemots around the coast. This one was particularly obliging, catching crabs just off the beach at Melby.

Black GuillemotBlack Guillemot – several were seen around the coast

It was a very enjoyable week up in Shetland and I will definitely be going back again next year!

17th Apr 2017 – Bempton Cliffs

On our way south from Scotland, we broke the journey and then stopped off at the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs on our way home. It was much nicer weather here today, sunshine and lighter winds. We had intended to stay just a couple of hours but ended up stopping here for much longer, marvelling at all the seabirds on the cliffs. It is always a fantastic combination of sights, sounds and smell!

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6O0A6283Bempton Cliffs – all the seabirds gathering on the cliffs for the breeding season

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Puffins stole the show. They are not as easy to see well here as some other places, as they don’t seem to nest on the cliff tops, although they do apparently sometimes come up onto the grass to collect nest material. We saw several lower down on the cliff faces or flying in and out from the cliffs. We explored all the viewpoints, hoping for a closer one, and eventually our persistence paid off with great views of several Puffins at the top of the cliffs.

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6O0A7570Puffins – we eventually found some on the top of the cliffs where we got great views

Getting photos of Puffins in flight was much trickier. They are small birds and move remarkably quickly in and out of the cliffs.

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6O0A7426Puffins – trickier to photograph in flight!

The other highlight was the Gannets. Around 20,000 nest here and they are seen everywhere along the cliffs and over the sea. However, while we were there they were coming down onto the top of the cliffs to collect grass for nest building. At one place in particular loads of Gannets were gathering very close to the fence, giving us views down to just a few metres.

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6O0A7191Gannets – coming down to collect grass on the clifftop

We stood for ages watching the Gannets here, as the birds flew in along the clifftop and hovered down to the grass. At one point we nearly had our heads taken off by a Gannet which misjudged its approach and came in very low behind us – we could hear the panicked flapping as it tried to pull up at the last minute, eventually just skimming over as we ducked!

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6O0A6347Gannets – some came very close as they flew in

The were lots of other auks on the cliffs. Razorbills are very smart birds up close, and we had great fun trying to photograph them flying in and out of the cliffs at high speed.

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6O0A6877Razorbills – looking very smart, in summer plumage

There were plenty of Guillemots too, much browner than the Razorbills and without the more dramatic bill markings, but great birds nonetheless.

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6O0A6726Guillemots – there were plenty of these on the cliffs too

The Kittiwakes were particularly noisy, with many pairs squabbling on the higher bits of the cliffs, their calls sounding appropriately just like their name!

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6O0A6089Kittiwakes – very noisy, squabbling on the cliffs

The seabird interest was rounded off with a few Fulmars gliding effortlessly along the cliff face.

6O0A6182Fulmar – gliding effortlessly along the cliffs

There is not a great variety of different species here on the cliffs, but it was great to see so many of them really close up. And what a spectacle the whole thing is!

There were a few other birds here, not just the seabirds, although we didn’t spend a lot of time looking around the area. On our walk down to the cliffs in the morning, a Grasshopper Warbler was reeling away, tucked down on the other side of a hedgerow out of sight. After watching the seabirds for several hours, we came back to the visitor centre for some lunch. It was nice to see so many Tree Sparrows here – an increasingly scarce species further south. As we ate our lunch outside in the sunshine, a Short-eared Owl was hunting over a field beside the car park.

6O0A7646Tree Sparrow – great to see good numbers still here

It had been a great way to finish our trip, calling in at Bempton Cliffs. It is a fantastic reserve and well worth a visit. We could have stayed much longer and eventually had to tear ourselves away so we could get home in good time. We will certainly be going back sometime soon!

12-16th Apr 2017 – Easter in Scotland

Not a tour, but we spent three days in Scotland catching up on some of the local specialities over Easter, with another day either side journeying up and back from Norfolk. As I haven’t been up to Speyside for a few years, it seemed about time for a return visit.

Arriving early for our overnight stop on the way north, we decided to have a quick look up on the moors. We were quickly rewarded with good views of at least 10 male Black Grouse. They were not doing much this evening, but we had high hopes for more activity the following day! Heading on higher up, we found our first Red Grouse of the trip too, though they too were keeping their heads down from the blustery wind.

It was an early start the following morning, to get up onto the moor for dawn. As we drove over the ridge and looked down into the valley below, we could see a scattering of black dots in the grass – 19 displaying male Black Grouse on the lek. They are far enough away here so as not to disturb them, so we got out of the car and could immediately hear their bubbling calls. We got them in the scope and watched them running round, flapping their wings and leaping in the air, with their body feathers puffed out, tail fanned and white undertail feathers fluffed up. It was quite a sight! There were a smaller number of grey-brown females there too, looking slightly non-plussed by all the action around them.

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6O0A5073Black Grouse – great to watch them displaying on the lek

A little further along, we managed to find a single male Black Grouse closer to the road, so we could get some photos. The Red Grouse up on the tops were now calling and displaying. There were also displaying Common Snipe in the valley and several Curlew and Golden Plover on the moors. It had certainly been well worth the stop here. Then it was on with the journey up to the Highlands.

One of our main targets for our stay here was Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for our stay was not ideal – windy with blustery showers. Not great for hiking up to the Cairngorm plateau. The best day appeared to be on our first full morning there, but it didn’t look good first thing with snow overnight on the tops and low cloud lingering. Thankfully, after breakfast, the cloud base lifted and we could see a short window of opportunity.

We had hoped we might find a Ptarmigan on the slopes below the fresh snow this morning, but it didn’t help that there were lots of people walking up despite the weather today, it being Easter weekend. We got up to a plateau above 1000m where it was safer to stray from the path and a bit of exploration was quickly rewarded with a Ptarmigan running away from us over the snow. We followed it slowly and were eventually able to get quite close to it. A smart bird!

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6O0A5511Ptarmigan – on the Cairngorm plateau above 1000m

The view was impressive up here too, with all the snow on the mountains. However, we could see some darker cloud approaching, so we decided to call it a day and head back down. We were glad we did, as it started to spit with rain for a time and the tops disappeared again into the cloud.

Scotland April 2017 Cairngorms ascent_4Cairngorm Plateau – still with plenty of snow

On our ascent, we had seen a few Red Grouse, but on the way back down we were able to appreciate just how many of them there were on the moors here, and watch them displaying.

6O0A5354Red Grouse – plentiful on the moors lower down

Back down near the car park, a Ring Ouzel flew up from the shorter grass below the ski lifts.

6O0A5570Ring Ouzel – this smart male was feeding around the ski lifts

Crested Tit is one of the other key target species for any visit to the Highlands and we were not disappointed. They can be harder to see in the summer months, and familiarity with their distinctive call certainly helps in locating them. We heard quite a few Crested Tits, when we were in the Caledonian Forest, and got great views of two pairs. The second pair, we watched collecting nest material and the male courtship feeding the female. They are certainly full of character!

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6O0A5922Crested Tits – great birds to watch, we found this pair collecting nest material

As well as the Ospreys at the RSPB’s Loch Garten reserve, we saw several elsewhere. The best moment was probably one flying past the window of our B&B while we were eating our breakfast one morning!

6O0A6028Osprey – a female, calling from the nest, while the male was presumably off fishing

With just a couple of days to play with in the Highlands, and the best morning reserved for the hike up into the Cairngorms, we were always likely to be at the mercy of the weather with our other targets. On our second morning, despite cloud and showers, we headed up to the Findhorn Valley to look for eagles. As we drove up, we could see dark clouds over the head of the valley and when we got there the wind was whistling in and regular sleet showers were blowing through. Not ideal!

We sat in the car for an hour, scanning the hills, but a brief brighter interval produced just a couple of Common Buzzards. Two Wheatears were feeding on the grass in front of the car park and a pair of Common Gulls were hanging around there too. It seemed unlikely there would be any eagles this morning, so we decided to move on.

As we headed down the valley, it brightened up a little lower down. We made our way up over the hills and down the other side to the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven. Between the showers, we walked along to the hide. We could see three Slavonian Grebes out on the water, but they were all rather distant while we were there. There are still a lot more to return here yet. A summer plumage Red-throated Diver was fishing on the loch too, along with a few ducks – Goldeneye, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard.

6O0A5850Slavonian Grebe – one of three out on the loch today

With the weather improving a little, and after lunch back at the car park, we decided to have another go at the Findhorn Valley. As we arrived, the head of the valley was still in cloud and another wintry shower blew through. But we could see some blue cloud coming in from behind us and we hadn’t been back five minutes when a 1st winter Golden Eagle appeared over the ridge at the back of the car park. Unfortunately it didn’t hang around and we just got a quick look at it as it disappeared back over the top. A short while later, the Golden Eagle reappeared much further down and we watched as it flew across the valley being mobbed by a Raven. A Peregrine was flying around the hill behind us too.

It seemed unlikely we would better that today and with the day getting on, we headed back down the valley. We took a different route back and stopped off by another loch on the way. It was very windy and  the wind was whipping up the water so it was quite choppy. Scanning with the scope in the lee of the car we were able to locate a single Black-throated Diver, a stunning bird in full summer plumage.

There were various other birds which we caught up with on our travels around Speyside. We heard lots of crossbills, but they were rather flighty and often hard to see. We had nice views of Common Crossbill in the forest and of a family which came down to the small deciduous trees alongside the river in Carrbridge, presumably to drink. There were more crossbills in Abernethy Forest, and we heard both Common and Scottish/Parrot Crossbill flight calls from birds passing overhead. Some larger billed birds resembling Scottish Crossbill were feeding in the trees around the car park at Forest Lodge on a couple of occasions but did not hang around long enough for us to get a prolonged look at them.

6O0A5621Common Crossbill – along the river at Carrbridge

Exploring along various rivers produced a few additional species too, including Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail. However, the pick of the bunch was Dipper – it was great to watch them feeding in the shallows, dipping under the water.

6O0A5830Chestnut-bellied Dipper – the native British subspecies of Dipper

Mammalian interest on this trip was provided chiefly by the Red Squirrels which we saw at several sites. Two Mountain Hares were seen at the top of the Findhorn Valley. We also saw the herd of (re)introduced Reindeer in the Cairngorms and a few Bank Voles running around under the feeders at Loch Garten.

6O0A5599Red Squirrel – thankfully not uncommon around the forest here

After that, unfortunately our short visit to Scotland had to end and we started to make our way south…

29th Jan 2017 – Ducking & Divering

Not a tour today, but a quick visit out of county to explore some sites in southeast Lincolnshire. It was a lovely sunny winter’s morning, but we knew to expect some rain in the afternoon, so we had to make the most of it.

For the last ten days a White-billed Diver has been delighting the crowds along the river Witham near Woodhall Spa. This is a true arctic species, breeding along the coasts of northern Russia and normally wintering along the coasts of northern Norway. Small numbers are regular off Scotland or the Northern Isles, but it is very rare this far south and particularly away from the coast. To see one up close on an inland waterway is a very rare event.

The White-billed Diver has been feeding along a 7 mile stretch of river and can move remarkably quickly up and down its length, so it can be a long walk at time. We stopped first at Kirkstead Bridge but were told it was heading north so drove round to Stixwould Station instead. This was the right thing to do – we lucked in and the White-billed Diver was diving just off the bank here.

6o0a5574White-billed Diver – a juvenile, feeding along the River Witham

White-billed Diver is a large bird, the size of a goose. However its most striking feature is its enormous bill. It is not really white (nor is it yellow – its North American name is Yellow-billed Loon), but rather a pale ivory. The neat scaled pattern of the upperparts immediately identify this bird as a juvenile, born and raised in the arctic in summer 2016.

6o0a5583White-billed Diver – allowed really close up views on the river

The River Witham is quite narrow which allows for very close-up views of the White-billed Diver. It was diving continuously and at times would surface closer to the near bank, despite the crowd gather to watch it. We followed it up and down the river for a while. A stunning bird to see.

After watching the White-billed Diver, we made our way round to the gravel pits at Kirkby-on-Bain nearby. There was a small crowd gathered here watching the Ring-necked Duck. A resident of North America, it is a regular visitor here in small numbers. This was a smart drake, similar to a male Tufted Duck but with a more patterned bill, peaked crown and two-toned grey and white flanks.

img_0285Ring-necked Duck – a smart drake

The Ring-necked Duck was loosely associating with a small group of Tufted Ducks and diving constantly. There were several Common Pochard on the same pit and a female Scaup appeared with them too. A nice selection of diving ducks! On another pit across the road, a juvenile Glaucous Gull was loafing with a small mixed raft of gulls.

It was still lovely sunny winter weather while we at Kirkby-on-Bain, but as we made our way south it clouded over and started to spit with rain. We wanted to visit a site for Long-eared Owls at Deeping Lakes. The birds roost on an island here, away from disturbance and it wasn’t long before we were watching them through the scope. They were tucked well into the vegetation today, which made them a challenge to see, but eventually we counted three in total.

img_0305Long-eared Owls – three, hidden in the trees

There were lots of ducks out on the water here and we spent some time watching the Goldeneye in front of the hide. The birds were displaying, fascinating to watch as the males throw their heads back and kick their legs out, the females responding with their heads laid flat to the water. We even watched a pair mating.

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6o0a5805Goldeneye – displaying in front of the hide

It was also nice to see several Goosander here. At one point a smart salmon-pink drake swam past close to the hide.

6O0A5857.JPGGoosander – a salmon-pink drake

As we made our way back to the car, it started to rain a bit harder. We wanted to have a look at Deeping High Bank, which thankfully meant we could do some birding from the shelter of the vehicle. We had been alerted to the presence of a Scaup along the river here and we spotted it down on the water with a group of Tufted Ducks as we drove along. It was a 1st winter drake, but still the emerging grey upperpart feathers of the Scaup stood out next to the darker back Tufted Ducks.

6o0a5918Scaup – a first winter drake

We had hoped to look for some Short-eared Owls along the bank here but the deteriorating weather put paid to those ambitions. We had to make do with an obliging Great White Egret instead.

6o0a5941Great White Egret – feeding on the far bank of the river

As the rain set in harder, we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had been a very pleasant and productive visit to Lincolnshire, perhaps a place to visit again in the future.

20th-28th Oct 2016 – Tresco Revisited

The Isles of Scilly are a great place to go birding, particularly in October. While not as good as they used to be, possibly due to a changing climate and a now more northerly atlantic storm track taking more transatlantic vagrants further north, exciting birds do still turn up. St Mary’s is the main island, where most birders have historically stayed, but I have been visiting Tresco for almost twenty years now. This October half term was no exception and once again we spent a week on the island.

6o0a5350Little Bunting – the first bird at Borough Farm, Tresco

The tone was set on the first full morning, on 21st October. Walking round the fields at Borough Farm, a small bird flew up from a weedy strip and landed in the hedge the other side. It was perched face on, but the fine black streaks on the breast and chestnut cheeks confirmed it was a Little Bunting. It has been a good year for this species in the UK, a scarce visitor from the north-eastern European taiga on its way to its wintering grounds in India and SE Asia. It is always a nice bird to find.

The Little Bunting hung around in the same field for several days. We had to wait until 24th October for our next good find. Walking around the fields at Borough Farm with fellow Tresco regular Steve Broyd, my son Luke and another of the visiting birders, we happened to be discussing how it is a good many years since there had been an Olive-backed Pipit on Tresco. They seem to still be regular on the other islands, but for some reason they don’t seem to turn up here (perhaps it is the lack of habitat, more on which later…). A couple of minutes later and a pipit flew up ahead of us from some weeds and dropped straight back down out of view. There had been a Tree Pipit here a couple of days previously so we had to check it out properly – as it crept into view, we could see it was indeed an Olive-backed Pipit, with a bold pale supercilium and pale spot on the rear of the ear coverts.

6o0a5949Olive-backed Pipit – the first we had seen on Tresco for many years

6o0a5410Tree Pipit – had been around Borough Farm a couple of days earlier

The Olive-backed Pipit flew up into the hedge and perched in the branches preening, where we could get a good look at it. Then it dropped back down into the field further along. When we had first seen it, we had noticed a second bird in the same field. As we walked a little further up the track, a Little Bunting flew out and landed in the hedge behind us.

6o0a5739Little Bunting – a second bird at Borough Farm

We had just seen the first Little Bunting fly back to its favoured field – could this be a second bird? I saw this bird again in the same place in better light early the next day and it looked much duller than the first Little Bunting. However, it was not until late that afternoon that our suspicions appeared to be confirmed and we found two Little Buntings feeding together.

6o0a6045Little Bunting – two birds together at Borough Farm on 25th

That may not be the end of the story. Looking closely at the photos, it appears that neither of the two Little Buntings on 25th October was the bird which we had first seen earlier in the week – it seems that there may have been three Little Buntings in total at Borough Farm that week!

The other highlight of the week on Tresco also appeared on 25th. There had been a Pallid Swift seen on St Mary’s the previous afternoon, but there was no sign of it there that morning. It had been mostly bright and sunny but early in the afternoon, a bit of cloud descended. I happened to bump into Steve Broyd along Pool Road and, as we stopped for a chat, Steve announced that he could see a Swift heading our way. Sure enough, it was a Pallid Swift, possibly the St Mary’s bird relocating but perhaps not impossible that it was a different one.

6o0a5885Pallid Swift – spent the afternoon of 25th October over Tresco

The Pallid Swift spent a several minutes hawking over the fields along Pool Road. As it banked and turned, it caught the light and we could see its overall brown plumage tone, the prominent white throat patch and pale face highlighting the dark ‘alien’ eye. Reeling off a few photos, I managed to capture the spread tail, with the outer tail feather (t5) short, not noticeably longer than the next one (t4). All good features of Pallid Swift.

It drifted off higher as the cloud blew through and spent an hour or so flying up and down over the trees on Middle Down. Then later in the afternoon, we found the Pallid Swift again over the other side of the island, over Old Grimsby.

One of the drawbacks of staying on Tresco is that it is not so easy to get to one of the other islands if something good turns up. There were lots of quality birds on St Mary’s and St Agnes, but unfortunately none lingered long enough for us to get over to see them this year – or even survived long enough. A Pale-legged or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler might have been the bird of the trip if we had seen it but was sadly found freshly dead on St Agnes on 21st, apparently having flown into a greenhouse window.

Two Red-flanked Bluetails were on the islands also on 21st, one on St Mary’s and one on St Agnes, but neither was present the following day. A reported Siberian Stonechat on St Mary’s the following day was misidentified and it was only later that evening, after it had departed, that it was correctly identified as a Caspian Stonechat from photos. A Rustic Bunting was also only seen very briefly on St Mary’s that same day.

A report of a probably Dusky Thrush on St Mary’s on 26th at least came out early enough for us to catch the boat over. Unfortunately it was only seen by one observer and promptly disappeared before we – or anyone else from St Mary’s – could get there. We did have a very pleasant day on St Mary’s, the highlight of which was seeing two more Olive-backed Pipits in fields at Old Town.

img_7974Olive-backed Pipit – two were on St Mary’s on 26th but there had been three on 25th

A possible Asian House Martin reported on St Mary’s late on 27th was relocated at Innisidgen on the morning of 28th. We were due to leave later that day anyway, so had to make a quick decision and managed to get an earlier boat over to St Mary’s. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it had been identified as just a regular House Martin – we did see a little group of four House Martins along with about half a dozen Swallows.

A possible Eastern Yellow Wagtail was reported at the riding school that morning, which was just a short walk away, so we went to have a look for that. It was showing very well, but unfortunately was just a Yellow Wagtail – it called like one of the western races while we were there and had a dull yellow wash under the tail and a bright yellow patch on its breast. However, otherwise being rather grey, it could perhaps have been a Grey-headed Wagtail instead, the Scandinavian race of Yellow Wagtail. There had been an Eastern Yellow Wagtail on St Mary’s several days before we arrived, but that had obviously departed.

6o0a6343Yellow Wagtail – one of the western races, possible Grey-headed?

Although we didn’t find any other rarities during the week, there were plenty of other birds to look at while we searched the island. A selection of photos of some of the other highlights are included below.

6o0a5654Short-eared Owl – two showed very well, flushed from a roost at the woodpile on 24th

6o0a5227Black Redstart – one or two most days, but with larger numbers on 24th & 28th

6o0a5303Common Redstart – this 1w male spent most of the week at Borough Farm

6o0a5462Redwing – good numbers of thrushes passed through earlier in the week

6o0a5313Ring Ouzel – two came in with the other thrushes on 21st

6o0a6126Yellow-browed Warbler – seen daily, present in very good numbers this year

6o0a5319Goldcrest – as usual, there were plenty around the island

6o0a5781Firecrest – 1 or 2 were seen on several days

6o0a5334Pied Flycatcher – a late bird, lingering in Abbey Wood for several days

6o0a5613Curlew Sandpiper – on Abbey Pool all week, sometimes with two Dunlin

6o0a6286Jack Snipe – one or two were on Abbey Pool

6o0a6243Greenshank – 22+ on Tresco, but this one confiding bird was on St Mary’s at Lower Moors

Borough Farm has been one of the best places for birding on Tresco for the last few years, and this was the case again this year, hosting the 2-3 Little Buntings and Olive-backed Pipit while we were there, as well as many commoner birds. Most of the rest of the estate has been vigorously tidied up – now looking as smart as a home counties golf course! Gone are the weedy bulb fields along Pool Road, for example, replaced by improved grassland for cattle grazing which is regularly mown or replanted. Several of the hedges were removed to make larger fields and the remaining ones are regularly flailed to a nice smart square shape. Unfortunately, all of this renders this area all but useless for birds. Other parts of the island have been similarly tidied up. Tresco used to be one of the best islands for rarities, but now struggles in comparison with St Agnes or St Mary’s. Lack of habitat is probably one of the main reasons.

tresco-2016_9Tresco – the fields along Pool Road, now improved grass and tidy hedges

tresco-2016_11Flailing the hedges – one of the regular activities designed to keep the estate ‘tidy’

Borough Farm is the only remaining place on Tresco where there are still traditional bulb fields and the combination of weeds and overgrown hedges, including some large sycamore hedges, act as a magnet for any birds visiting the island. Unfortunately Tresco Estate has decided to take back the farm later this year. At this stage, we do not know what the estate plans to do with the land but given that they gave up growing bulbs many years ago it seems unlikely it will be kept in its current state. Probably it will be tidied up and put down to grass, in line with the rest of the estate.

It was therefore very sad walking round Borough Farm for the last time this year, looking at the fields and reminiscing about all the great birds I have seen here over the last twenty years, not knowing what it will be like in the future. Perhaps it is finally time to call it a day on my visits to Tresco?

p1330769Borough Farm – the contrast is clear, weedy fields and overgrown hedges

p1330780Borough Farm – the Olive-backed Pipit and one of the Little Buntings were in here

p1330770Borough Farm – the Olive-backed Pipit also spent some time in this field