Monday, 24 October 2011

African anthus armchair tick?

With the flock of 3 Richard's Pipits at Aberlady I managed some good looks at this species for the first time (although, predictably enough, my shots are nowhere near as good as some of those on Birding Lothian). As I mused that I have managed to catch up with very few large pipits over the years I remembered this unidentifed Anthus that I photographed in Hluhluwe, South Africa in April 2007.

On that trip I had been overwhelmed by amazing mammals and jaw-dropping birdlife - larks and pipits had been firmly relegated to their little brown job status and this photograph has remained unidentified ever since. It would definitely be a tick for me, but the challenge is can the species be determined from this single image? The contenders, in descending order of likelihood could be African Pipit, Long-billed Pipit, Buffy Pipit and Plain-backed Pipit. Any ideas?

Whether it is identifiable or not, its presence was eclipsed by a pair of Martial Eagles mating nearby and a close fly-past by a squadron of White-backed and White-headed Vultures. No offence to the pipit, but watching amazing raptors to a backdrop of white rhino is birding KwaZulu Natal style!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

East coast migrants due tomorrow...

Well that's what the weather charts are saying. I birded at Torness this morning. The only obvious migrant landbirds appeared to be a sprinkling of Robins along the foreshore. I have never been confident that I am able to tell the difference between continental and local Robins. So this bird could have arrived from across the North Sea, or not... Only other migrant passerine was what may have been a (lapland?) bunting, but it flew through without calling. Always exciting to watch something coming 'in off' even when no ID is possible.

Seawatching was more productive with a single juv Long-tailed Skua heading north, the only identifiable skua out of around a dozen. Not a close view (as seems to have been my luck with skuas this season), but its Kittiwake-size, tern-like flight action and dithering progress all classic jizz for this species. Also offshore at least 3 Little Gulls in among the Kittiwakes, a Manx Shearwater heading south and a couple of Puffins on the sea. Diver movements were poor with just three Red-throated Divers seen in 2 hours (one shown below).

Finally some raptor action as I popped into Barns Ness on the way home - a nice adult Common Buzzard being mobbed by a pair of Kestrels.

Note the newly growing primary coming through on the bird's left wing. Also two different ages of secondaries visible. Nice solid terminal tail band on this bird.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Tynninghame ticks

Decided to check the north side of Tynninghame bay this morning, so arrived just after dawn. This area is pretty scenic - here is the view across the bay towards Dunbar - and the birdlife is pretty rich and varied.

I thought an early walk would beat the crowds, and in general this was true with the joggers, dog walkers and ramblers arriving an hour or so after me. I had not reckoned on the wildfowlers, however, who were in situ long before me I would imagine and were clearing off - at least one with a bag full of Wigeon (?). How depressing - just can't understand the desire to use precision firearms on ducks...

Birdwise, I was hoping for migrant raptors, but no obvious candidates materialised, although I did get views of Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and this juvenile Peregrine.

The passerines stole the show, however. The finch list was burgeoning (Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Siskin, Linnet, Twite, Redpoll sp. and Crossbill) and the bunting haul was not bad either (Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer and 3 flyover Snow Buntings). Best of all though, a couple of Lothian year ticks: a handful of Jays ferrying acorns and 5 Greenshanks. The latter are in the shot below.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Icelandic Redpoll

A year ago I was up on Fair Isle. Just like this holiday week I was treated to a week of northerly winds, although this year I have had the prospect of jury duty thrown in to keep me in Edinburgh. As a result I had to turn down Rich T's offer to join him on a quest to see Siberian Rubythroat on Shetland - hope that you are seeing it Rich. 

With northerlies, Fair Isle was a great place to see redpolls of a variety of forms, as previously blogged. The bird above is one that confused me a little at the time. I had already seen a couple of Hornemann's Arctic Redpolls (which I see have been accepted by BBRC as one bird, so maybe I should send my pics in to them), so it was clear that despite its massively white rump this bird was not in that camp. I was hoping to shoehorn it into the Coues' Arctic Redpoll phenotype but it is too brown for that particularly on the mantle and cheeks. Instead it seemed that the best diagnosis was a pale islandica an Icelandic Redpoll which is or is not synonymous with the Greenland Redpoll rostrata, depending on your point of view. Which are or may not be synonymous with Mealy Redpoll depending on your point of view. Which may or may not be synonymous with Lesser Redpoll... etc. Reading Martin Garner's recent blog posts on Icelandic Redpolls, it turns out it is a pretty rare form in the UK (thanks to the difficulties in establishing its identification and its validity as a form), so I thought I'd post a pic here. Actually, I think that most of the redpolls on Fair Isle last October week were probably islandica. I also suspect that a number of exilipes Arctic Redpolls recorded in the UK are likely to be birds of this form.

Northerlies are still the theme of the week this week, although looks like they are swinging east for the beginning of next week just in time for school starting up again. Looks like Peter R's trip up from North Wales to the East Lothian coast is going to be well timed - hope you find some goodies Peter.

A family walk today at Aberlady revealed a Little Egret, which is now almost expected at the site (how things change so rapidly!). Also first Fieldfares of autumn.

Likewise a Goosander at Alnwickhill has gone from near Mega to regular over the last few months.

We stopped at Ferny Ness to eat ice creams. Maybe there'll be some decent birds on the sea - maybe even Stephen W's Black-necked Grebe reported earlier. Sadly not, just a couple of tossers scaring the wildlife away. Yet more pressure on local biodiversity.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Gorgeous Geese

I realise that this is really letting the side down, but I'm a birder based in Scotland and have never really got into wild goose watching. I have tried. I have sat on the bench at Aberlady at both dawn and dusk to watch the departure and arrival of the Pink-footed Geese. I have watched White-fonts and Barnacles, Brents and Beans. Two years ago to the day I spent a week on Islay with the family hoping that the magic of the barnies would enthuse not only me, but also G and the kids. Well it didn't really work out that way, so I just had to make do with ticking this cracking Cackling Goose in amongst the Barnacle Geese instead (on the assumption it is a genuine trans-Atlantic vagrant)...

On the other hand, I do quite like grilling the feral flocks of geese that are knocking around Edinburgh, checking for oddities. This week I bumped into this odd rufous-tinged Canada Goose.

I had already seen pictures of this bird on Stephen W's blog so was not too surprised to find it at Musselburgh. The unusual coloration of this bird could be the result of staining or some genetic variant. Personally, I was hoping this bird would match some of the interior forms of Canada Goose, such as Todd's, but having had a good trawl of the net I realise that this is not the case. Instead I am now swayed towards Stephen's original diagnosis, which is that the bird is showing staining. This red-brown iron oxide staining is well-known and fairly common in some forms of waterfowl such as swans and snow geese, but is apparently uncommon in Canada Geese - certainly I cannot find any individual with as extensive staining as this bird. Here is an example showing limited staining of the cheek patch, for example.

The earliest reference to an analysis of this staining dates back to 1918 (Ferruginous stains on waterfowl by Frederic Kennard Auk Vol. 35, No. 2). This study, by Kennard, concluded that red-brown staining in wildfowl was the result of iron oxide deposition on the feather surface as a result of digging for food among mud and decayed vegetation. It also noted that Canada Geese were much less likely to be stained than Snow Geese due to their differing feeding habits. (Interestingly, this Canada Goose was the only one observed feeding in amongst the Pink-feet by Stephen...) More recently the staining in Snow Geese has been shown to correlate with summer breeding and feeding origin. If this Canada is showing staining, then I wonder what its summer home is - maybe somewhere up the River Esk, which is pretty rich in iron oxide in places.

There were three other oddities in the flock at Musselburgh - Greylag x Canada Goose hybrids. I managed pictures of two of these. The left hand bird in each photo - but what a rogues gallery these pics are - hybrid geese, feral geese, herring gull, feral pigeon - surely no-one is still reading! See also Stephen W's hybrid geese.

Finally, a real wild goose. A Pink-footed Goose photographed this morning at Musselburgh. Standing on its own at the breakwater, it looked lost and out of place. Some Carrion Crows seemed to think the same, and were giving it occasional tweaks to see if it could become an easy meal. Note that one of the crows had highly leucistic or depigmented wings - how refreshing after all those geese!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Musselburgh Pom and Med Gull

Bookended the day with a seawatch off Musselburgh morning and evening. Good numbers of gulls around, particularly Kittiwakes moving west in the evening. Stephen W watching further along the coast at Ferny Ness scored with a Sabine's Gull just after I headed for home - don't quite know whether or when it would have passed Musselburgh but it was one of the species that I was looking out for today.

My main targets were skuas and although I was pretty certain that I saw three species today, only a couple of Pomarine Skuas in the morning and a single Arctic in the evening were clinched. It might well have been a good day to be watching from Hound Point. It is a few years ago now, but I've had all four species from there in the space of a few hours.

Best bird of the day however goes to a winter adult Mediterranean Gull seen feeding among a group of Black-headed and Common Gulls. While Mediterranean Gulls are no longer unusual at Musselburgh, this is the first I have seen here this year and also the first that I have picked up in the scope while seawatching - normally I have seen them loafing or at most coasting. Hopefully it will be a more frequent sight as numbers continue to build year on year it seems. Not the plumage of today's bird, here is a pic taken in the South of France this summer.

Unlike this bird photographed on a hot summer evening in the Med, today's birding was decidedly Arctic, both in temperature and supporting cast - Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye, Slavonian Grebe as well as the Velvet Scoters, Goosander and Red-breasted Mergansers... Brrr...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Bonus bonxie

A family walk this morning rather than a birding trip, but since the destination was Whitesands and Barns Ness it would have been churlish to leave the binos at home. We walked the coastal path and looked for fossils in the rocks - the limestone beds being particularly rich in corals and crinoids. A brief squint out to sea in magnificent light against darker skies revealed a Great Skua scything north against the wind. A nice gingery individual, I wondered whether it was a 1st year bird - either way it was my first sighting of the year. Not a bad haul over the last couple of days with Red-necked Grebe, Barnacle Goose, Ruff, Little Egret, Crossbill and Richard's Pipit all added to the Lothian yearlist already - certainly about time I did some catch-up after a few months without birding time. The best sighting of the day, however, was my lens hood sitting on the Brans Ness shingle where I must have dropped it two days before - what a find!

Here are some Great Skua pics from Orkney 2009. The first is a typical adult, the second a paler cap-less bird harassing a Gannet (three shots of the same bird) and the last a juvenile.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Richard's Pipit the third

Ian A found a couple of Richard's Pipits in Aberlady dunes yesterday afternoon. After Ian's initial sightings the birds had been looked for by others but without success so it was looking like they had moved on. On the other hand there is a lot of habitat at Aberlady to hide a couple of Richard's Pipits so I decided to pay a visit this morning. There would be plenty of other birds around - maybe the Little Egrets that have been hanging around the bridge and certainly some of Stephen W's 9500 Pink-footed Geese...

After a couple of hours of very enjoyable birding I decide to head home having slowly worked around to the spot whether the pipits had been seen the day before. I turned around and almost immediately noticed an enormous pipit flying around and almost dwarfing some neighbouring Skylarks. It was only then that I realised that it was calling - a distinctive and repeated sparrow-like 'shreep' - a Richard's Pipit!

True to form it quickly disappeared, bounding rapidly through the air and off over several dunes. Obviously I decided to follow it and was surprised to flush it close by - at the time it did not occur to me that that was the second bird...

I continued, carefully skirting dunes to try to get a view of the area the bird(s) had disappeared into. Scanning ahead I noted a large long-legged passerine on top of a hawthorn bush and through the scope could see that it was a 1st winter Richard's Pipit - I hadn't been expecting to see it through the scope in this habitat.

The bird moved over another rise, so I followed carefully to find it atop another bush to be joined by not one but two others!

The three birds moved again, hovering and then landing at the edge of a marshy dune slack. I settled down with my scope to watch them preening and feeding. Soon only one bird was visible as the others had disappeared into the vegetation.

They seemed settled but then all three lifted yet again before landing in the next damp hollow. I shifted carefully and this time they flew over my head and then back around towards the path. By this time other birders were on the scene so I gave directions and we waited. No further sign before I had to leave although as we waited we heard a Richard's Pipit call - this time from an overflying bird - could that have been the fourth of the day?...

 So, a Lothian, Scottish and a Lothian-self-found tick to boot - not bad for a morning's stroll!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sunrise over Barns Ness Lighthouse

Headed out to the east coast before dawn arriving just in time to see this fantastic view of the sunrise over Barns Ness Lighthouse.

As I was travelling east along the A1, I had a good view of the cement factory 'windsock'. Sadly the plume was heading rapidly out to sea rather than in the other direction. Of course, an even better sign for grounded migrants is the plume heading westwards and also rendered invisible by low cloud and light rain...

Birdwise, I was pleased to stumble into another (or the same) Short-eared Owl a little bit further NW along the coast from yesterday's sighting. Today's bird rose up from rough grass and then gained height over the sea before drifting inland to allow the mobbing gulls to be replaced by corvids (fuzzy pic below...).

More exciting was a brief sparring encounter with a Peregrine. The latter then buzzed a curlew that was feeding on the shore before reappearing close by for a rapid flypast.

Migrants were few and far apart with a few small skeins of Pink-footed Geese, a total of 6 Lapland Buntings, 3 Redpoll sp., 5 Blackcap and a probable Yellow-browed Warbler which allowed a few silent glimpses as it flitted in the canopy. Fingers crossed that the wind heads east sometime soon...

Friday, 14 October 2011

Scandinavian Short-eared Owl

First day of my holiday and I managed a quick trip down to the coast after 4:00pm. By the time I got there the light was already beginning to fail but nevertheless I decided to check the bushes and bay at Skateraw. No obvious migrants around so I settled down to scope the gulls in the bay. I had just started working through them when suddenly they lifted in a dread. I was hoping for a skua or raptor (an Eleanora's falcon had been seen earlier in the week along the coast) and was delighted to find a Short-eared Owl working hard against the breeze heading toward the shore. A nice yeartick for me, its dark under wingtips and dark carpel patches above made separation from its longer-eared relative fairly straightforward. Fresh in from Scandinavia, no doubt, it crashed down onto the nearest bank of shingle and sat, looking nervously from side to side. I carefully slipped away to leave it to recover. Liuckily as it was getting dark, the constant stream of walkers, dog walkers and so on had ceased for the day.

Apparently it has been a great day for Asio owls along the east coast with up to 50 in off the sea at Titchwell in Norfolk. I think I'll pop back tomorrow for seconds.

Here is a Short-eared Owl, photographed in Orkney in 2009.

And here is a Long-eared Owl from closer to home... hmm.. one of my better photos?...