Monday, 28 February 2011

Lothian list: February update

Another month passes with little birding time under my belt sadly. Only just managed to scrape together a meager nine county year ticks over the four weeks to bring me up to a running total of 97 species. This low total is about twenty five to thirty species below the current front runners on Bubo listing (TO'C: 124 species; MH 121 species). On that site a total of 139 species have been logged in the county since the beginning of the year.

I do fear that I will need a lot of luck to catch up with Shorelark, Great Grey Shrike or Green-winged Teal in the county in the next 10 months. On the other hand, most others will be easy to see - I have yet to catch sight of Sanderling, Razorbill or Jay this year, for example...

Here is my latest addition, two of the five Goosanders that I found a couple of days ago at Alnwickhill Water Treatment works. This is also a site tick for me - I am sure they must drop in fairly regularly but most ducks do not seem to hang around for long on these filter beds. Of course they are quite hard to see as the gap between the wall and the metal gate is only just wide enough for the scope or camera and panning left or right is just not possible!

Another notable sighting was this flock of 14 Waxwings from the back door yesterday. I am glad they decided to visit just as I popped outside to hang out the washing...

Friday, 25 February 2011

Hooded Crow - Galway Bay

Unlike many, I'm quite a fan of crows. Yesterday's post of a hybrid reminded me that I took some shots of a pure Hooded Crow at Galway Bay in December. From field views, I had always assumed that a Hoodie has clear grey uppertail coverts - but it seems not, instead they are dark centred. Maybe this increases the apparent length of the bird's tail, or makes it more difficult for other birds to judge the Hoodie's size?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow

This hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow was also part of yesterday's flock but I only picked it up in flight and then it landed beyond the range of decent shots. I might pop back to the area in the next few days to see if I can get better shots, but since I have only seen this bird twice in the last three years I think there is a low chance of success. However, as it has predominantly Carrion Crow plumage it is probably not easy to pick up unless actively searching through the crows for something different.

Presumably this bird would be better described as a Carrion x hybrid as presumably it is a second generation hybrid.

White-winged crows

I managed a brisk walk around the Hermitage and Braids at lunchtime. Nothing beats patch birding really, even on days like today when the Dipper bombed off downstream as soon as I rounded the corner and the highlight was an all-too-brief view of a male Kestrel failing to catch a Chaffinch - maybe voles are proving scarce after the hard winter? As I passed a patch of scrub that I have checked repeatedly but unsuccessfully over the last few years for winter Redpolls and Bramblings, I grinned to myself, having seen both species already this morning from the comfort of my kitchen!

Once again, the area was finch-less, but never mind, on a patch there is always something of interest to watch.

Today it was a feeding flock of 70-80 Carrion Crows, which is a reasonably good size of flock for this species. These birds will probably be a loose association of birds without territories, and quite possibly would include a good proportion of 2nd calendar year birds.

Of these birds, I would estimate that somewhere between 5 and 10% showed clear signs of feather de-pigmentation (leucism) in their flight feathers. I am not sure whether this is a typical figure for this type of flock or whether the prevalence is higher at certain times of year or among birds of certain ages. Once I started looking it seemed that this flock contained an example of just about every pattern of feather de-pigmentation that I had seen in Carrion Crows before, from isolated asymmetrical patches, symetrical white flashes on parts of the wing, full broad white wing-bars through to almost fully white wings as in the bird shown above.

The next five pictures show five other birds from the same flock with different extents of de-pigmentation. Note that the bird shown above  also features in one of the the photos below, and the photo to the right also shows a more normally plumaged bird.

Finally, here is another Carrion Crow from the same flock. Most of the de-pigmentation on this bird is not visible when the bird is feeding.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Iceland Gull revisited

A quick walk up Arthur's Seat yesterday lunchtime conveniently took in Dunsapie Loch for another look at its Arctic resident. According to BirdGuides, there were seven Iceland Gulls seen around the country yesterday but I am sure none of the others were quite as angelic as this one...


I had been worried earlier in the month that this youngster was having trouble holding its own against the other gulls in the daily scrap for bread. Looking at it now, it clearly is not going short - its waistline seems to have increased several sizes in a few weeks.

This is probably down to its new found aggressive feeding technique where it harries and harasses other smaller gulls until they drop their morsel for the Iceland Gull retrieve. A skua-like tactic that is clearly paying off.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Canada Goose x Greylag hybrid

Saw this hybrid Canada Goose x Greylag Goose at Dunsapie Loch today so I thought I would post the photos here. Looks similar, but maybe not identical, to a bird seen recently by SW (see Sedge Warbler blog). It seemed to be part of a definite pair with the Canada Goose in the picture, so maybe there will be some even odder-looking birds around next year. I suppose that could depend on how fertile this interspecific individual is...

"Imagine that, that bird's parents were two different species", I said to my youngest. In return I received a pitying look that said "I know the feeling..."

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Garden finches

The 'real birding' has yet again failed to materialise this weekend, so like the birds I have been foraging for scraps in the garden. Luckily the scraps were definitely worth feasting on – a nice healthy selection of finches at the feeders. The hide has been a very successful, if somewhat unconventional, piece of suburban garden furniture. I'm not quite sure what the neighbours think of it!...

First up, one of at least nine Bramblings that have been drawn in to the baited area. I hope that some of the males hang around for a few more weeks so that they have a chance to wear away those pale fringes to their head and mantle feathers.

After a very slow start, the niger feeder has been increasing in popularity. Only a single Goldfinch has visited as yet, but with at least three others in the area I am hoping it is only a matter of time before the whole charm descends.
Lesser Redpolls are the most frequent niger feeders. At least three have been on the feeder at any one time, with another six or so on the ground beneath. No sign this weekend of last week's Mealy Redpolls. They clearly do not realise that I set up the hide for them!

The Lesser Redpolls seem to be pretty regular now and one of the males has taken to singing from the birch tree. Not quite full song-flighting, but a good start for February. Here he sorting out his tail feathers in between bouts of singing. This undertail is at the pale end of the spectrum for this form, but Lesser Redpoll he is.

Another species that has been feeding in the garden this weekend is the Siskin. Just this individual so far, but with another dozen or so in the trees nearby, surely it is only a matter of time before there are swarms of them on the feeders.

Finally, the Chaffinch, a species that has kept a remarkably low profile this weekend. Here is male and female photographed yesterday by the youngest in the family - well done!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Not so redpoll

The garden has been alive with finches the last couple of days and at last the niger seed has brought the redpolls in. Most have been fairly typical Lesser Redpolls (if such a statement could ever be accurate...) and there have been a small number of Mealy Redpolls with four of the latter at any one time being the highest count. Currently, these two are considered separate species, so that is a garden tick (70 species!). I was pretty excited by the latter and dug out my old canvas hide. I don't think it has been assembled for 25 years, but dusted off it is doing the job. No unequivocal Mealy Redpoll rump-shots from it yet, but good shots of Lesser Redpolls and some also-rans.

According to BWP a redpoll with a yellow or orange, rather than red, cap is exceptional, although commoner in captivity. Well, I can't comment on how common this feature is but in a relatively small sample of redpolls (<20 birds) here are two showing this exceptional head colouration! The first is a paler bird, almost flammea like in its plumage with a distinctly yellow cap. The second bird, more typically cabaret has an orange cap. Both birds were seen in direct comparison with others with more normal red or deep pink caps. Any comments?

Edit: according to the Worcester ID paper, these caps are not uncommon on first year or female redpolls. 

Here is a screen grab of a Mealy Redpoll on the niger feeder with a Lesser Redpoll. Not a great shot, but it is a digiscoped shot through double glazing - presumably you can see why I dug the hide out!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


I have had my nose well and truly to the grindstone with heavy work commitments for the last week and little chance to look out of the window. Changed that today with a half term day out with the family. We were going to climb the Pentland Hills, but with a low cloud cover in the morning they didn't look particularly inviting, so we headed coastwards for a wee jaunt up Berwick Law and a bit of a potter down North Berwick's High Street.

Not a birding trip, but great fun and good views from the summit. Nontheless, did manage three Waxwings at the centre of the Tranent roundabout as we came off the A1 and en route managed to spy a Raven and a Peregrine bombing over.

North Berwick shore is, of course, a reliable site for Purple Sandpiper on the rocks below the Seabird Centre, so I couldn't leave without a wee squint in their direction. Here are three of them with a couple of Ruddy Turnstone. The birds in this area seem to be fairly habituated and within a few seconds of me sitting on the rocks the Common Redshanks were soon feeding away close by. I didn't have long, but even a few minutes of watching these fantastic birds at close quarters felt refreshing...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Back garden raptors: Sparrowhawks

Thought I would post up a couple of shots taken late last August-early September of Sparrowhawks over the back garden. They probably go over and hunt through the garden every day, but nothing beats hanging out in the late summer sun waiting for one to go over. Of course, at that time of year the House Martins are around and their alarm calls herald the appearance of each and every hawk. The first picture is of a nicely coloured adult male. The fresh flight feathers and disorganised breast barring of the second bird indicate it is a juvenile, and its larger size indicates that it is a female.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sparrowhawk disturbed at Magpie kill

I had to do the school run pick-up on foot this afternoon, so I popped my camera into my backpack just in case. As soon as I was out of the door it started spitting with rain, and as the leaden skies darkened I was regretting the extra weight.

As it turned out taking the DSLR was a good decision... I was cutting through a narrow lane when suddenly I heard an urgent rasping call. Right behind me there was a Sparrowhawk pinning a Magpie to the ground. For a few seconds the Magpie was twisting and fluttering to get free, all the time making the same distraught call. The Sparrowhawk was fully in control with one set of talons fixed to its prey's head and the other holding a wing. The hawk mantled its wings over its prey and then started to pluck the Magpie's breast and in a few moments the prey was quiet.

By now the Sparrowhawk had started plucking and I slowly crouched to try to get some steady shots in the poor light. I knew I only had a few minutes before I would have to continue on my way but I thought I would be able to get some record shots of the hawk starting to feed.
Unfortunately, at that moment another pedestrian appeared - arghhh... what terrible timing. What's more, they didn't seem very interested by the sight, in fact they were clearly revolted and just wanted to get past as quickly as possible. Given the narrowness of the lane, it was clear that this would flush the raptor and of course it did. The Sparrowhawk picked up its prey and headed off down the path although it was struggling to remain airborne.

Now I suppose that this hawk was unlucky that its prey did not fall either side of the walls running along this path, in which case it could probably have fed on a lawn undisturbed. On the other hand with the number of people constantly moving around a city like Edinburgh I cannot help but feel that this type of disturbance must be a commonplace and maybe daily event in the lives of our suburban birds.

From these shots, the bird looks to be in its 3rd calendar year. Its tail in particular has several brown retained juvenile feathers, the tips of which are showing severe abrasion. As for sex, the bird appears to be a female: the upperparts are not grey enough for a male; the cheeks show some rufous brown streaking rather than solid rufous; the supercilium is extensive above the eye; the barring on the breast is dark rather than rufous; the bird is bulkier than the Magpie.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Square-tailed armchair tick

Thanks to a comment made by BirdBoyBowey in a BirdForum thread, a previously unrealised tick came my way today in the form of a Square-tailed Nightjar (also known as Mozambique Nightjar) I photographed this bird in Imfolozi in South Africa in April 2007. I'd seen a few Fiery-necked Nightjars on the night drives but this one was the first to allow close-range photography - it seems that in my excitement I didn't bother to identify it! That said, the spotlight does make some of the bird's ID features a little more difficult to see, but surely that all white outer tail feather is unmissable!... Must do better next time...

Now off to a SOC talk by Ken Shaw - now he is not the type to make this sort of error, so I had better listen very closely...

Monday, 7 February 2011

First winter herring gull

I have never really mastered digiscoping - as these shots testify - but this young gull at Torness beach, East Lothian, on Sunday morning was well beyond the range of my SLR. It is a first winter Herring Gull (now in its second calendar year) with a solid dark panel on its scapulars caused by two rows of unmoulted juvenile feathers. Could this be a sign that it is a bird from the far north with a suspended moult of these feather tracts? Or is it a local bird that hatched late and has arrested its moult?
With photographs of this quality we will certainly never know...

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Bean and seen it

Meat Loaf didn't sing 'One out of three ain't bad', because, let's face it, he would have been lying. But in terms of Lothian life ticks it would pretty much sum up my weekend if he had. 

Saturday morning and I was passing Linlithgow so I popped in to look for the Smew on the loch. I only had about 20 minutes as I had to get to a meeting elsewhere but I thought it would be long enough to see this regular wintering bird. Nothing doing, and serves me right for not having done my preparation - I'm sure that if I had bothered to find out a little bit about the bird's regular areas on the loch I could have focussed my attention a bit more effectively. Never mind, now that I have dipped on this one, I'll be back... but maybe I won't wait 5 years this time.

Having learned my lesson I made sure the both the OS map and six-figure grid reference were with me for the Taiga Bean Goose near to Whitekirk, East Lothian. A new Lothian species for me, and easily my best views of what often seems to be a particularly shy species. It was keeping company with a single Greylag Goose (rear view below) and a small group of Whooper Swan (right) and Mute Swan (back) and all seemed reasonably relaxed about the nearby cars of birders. Unfortunately the weather conditions were not ideal with grey skies and rain falling.
As the Taiga Bean Goose fed it became clear that it was limping. It is possible that the bird is injured in some way, and it is also possible that an injury might be the reason that it has stuck in this non-traditional wintering site. Either that or some kind soul tried to physically nail the bird down for the week so that weekenders would have a chance to see it!...

What was also slightly strange was the presence of a single Pink-footed Goose (right) in a neighbouring field. By turning through 180° it was pretty much possible possible to compare the finer details of the two closely related species - an added bonus for sure. This must be what the virtual-reality-field-guides of the future will be like! Just to prove that this was some sort of demo of some cyber-ID experience, the Bean Goose then got on with a series of stretching and preening manoeuvres.  Each of these showed a different feature of the bird to best advantage, whether the orange legs and feet, or the extent of the orange band and blaze on the bill, or the dark tail narrowly bordered with white, or the white uppertail coverts combined with a black rump and back. Being far more familiar with Pink-footed Geese, this latter feature looked stunning when the Taiga Bean Goose wing flapped (unfortunately I didn't get a shot of this as I was un-fogging lenses at the time... ).

As for the third potential Lothian tick, I failed to connect with the mobile Great Grey Shrike that has been frequenting the same general area as the goose. Now, that is definitely another reason to return.