Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cartwheeling White-tailed Eagles

Very distant record shots of a behaviour that I have long wanted to witness - mutual talon-locking and aerial cartwheeling in White-tailed Eagles. I photographed these immature birds in the Outer Hebrides a week or so ago. After a bout of calling and rapid flying from a single bird another individual appeared and then quite unexpectedly the birds locked and cartwheeled rapidly downwards. The cartwheeling lasted only a couple of seconds and I was lucky to grab these shots. Next time, overhead please...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Common Gull with Golden Eagle for scale

Ever wondered just how big a Common Gull is? Well, here's a handy picture with a Golden Eagle for scale. Taken in Harris, Outer Hebrides two weeks ago.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Common Buzzard kicks Golden Eagle in the head

This was probably one of the more surprising encounters last week on Harris, Western Isles - for the Golden Eagle that is. The Common Buzzard caught the eagle unaware and scored a direct hit! I'll bet that doesn't happen too often...

Once bitten, twice shy, perhaps...

Self-found lifer: White-billed Diver

I spoke to Ken Shaw briefly after a Lothian SOC meeting a few weeks ago. "If you are in the Outer Hebs for 10 days in mid-April you will definitely see White-billed Diver", he confidently asserted. He shared his gen willingly, letting me know the various best vantage points on Lewis for this species that has transformed from mythical rarity to scarce migrant in the last decade or so. Since Ken was one of those involved in the hours of seawatching required to reveal the regular presence of this species off Lewis and elsewhere in Scotland, I listened and took careful notes. Nevertheless, as I set off a couple of weeks ago for the Outer Hebrides, I couldn't help but feel that my chances of success were lower than predicted - after all family holidays are not always compatible with hours of seawatching off exposed and remote headlands...

Sure enough the trip to Port of Ness and Skigersta drew a blank, thanks in part to the poor weather on the day we made the haul up to the Butt of Lewis. As most of the holiday was spent on North Uist, I knew that its shallow bays held little chance of White-billed Diver which seems to prefer deeper waters for feeding. Instead, Great Northern Divers fished these waters and I spent time carefully checking each of at least 50 individuals encountered in the Sound of Harris and North Uist's shores. Small numbers of Red-throated and Black-throated Divers added to the mix, but as the trip drew to an end I knew that the Lochmaddy-Uig ferry was my only real chance of connecting.

As it turned out persistence paid off. Colin McF and I spent the journey constantly scanning for birds. Three-quarters of the way through the trip, somewhere off Waternish Point of Skye, a massive diver came into view. Having such fresh experience of so many Great Northern Divers certainly paid off as this bird's bulk was instantly striking - appearing another 50% bulkier than any other diver seen on the trip, and dwarfing the Red-throated Diver we had seen a little while earlier. The bird's neck appeared particularly powerful, and what was more, the bird had a massive pale yellowish-white upturned bill... a winter plumaged White-billed Diver!

Quickly I pulled out the SLR and started firing away trying to switch between AF and manual focus to try to ensure some recognisable shots of the increasingly distant target. The shot above has captured the upturned bill and also shows hints of the neck collar. Unfortunately all of the bird was not visible all of the time though due to its size its head could be picked out most of the time.

The shot below shows the distinctive head pattern of the species with a pale side to the head and darker cheek patch.

This shot gives some idea of the bulk of the bird and the thickness of its neck. It is facing away and downwards and is just dipping its bill (which is just visible to the left of its body) into the water as it dips its head to look for prey.

What a great bird - a brief but conclusive sighting (the photos do not do the bird justice obviously and were taken once the bird was beginning to be lost from sight as we passed - initial views were much better as the bird was spotted just before we drew level with it). For me, this is a personal target met as I have been hoping to self-find a lifer in Scotland for a few years and I knew that this species was most likely to provide the best opportunity but it was certainly worth the wait.

So, many thanks to Ken Shaw for his prediction, which provided the determination to keep searching until the end. Now of course I would like to see a summer plumaged individual and hopefully not be on a rapidly moving ferry when I do so...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Even smaller raptor: Merlin over garden

More of the same again - fantastic hot sunny weather, plenty of time in the garden and raptors overhead. Today's haul, espied between bouts of gardening and barbecuing, included a single Peregrine moving North, a couple of Common Buzzards moving around in circles, a female Sparrowhawk moving rapidly through the garden in search of prey, and this Merlin (sixth species of raptor over the garden this month!) watched powering northwards at 2:30pm. Fairly high up (the pics are big crops) watched through bins, then photographed and then scoped until it disappeared from view over the city still powering North. (Does everyone do the gardening with a scope set up?...).

It is now clear that a Merlin overhead last August was not the one-off that I thought it was at the time. Here is a shot of the August individual harrassing a Common Buzzard in the typical pugnacious fashion of the species.

[See Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors "Merlins are usually solitary... and will frequently go out of their way to harass other birds in migration. A Merlin's aggressive behaviour may be used as a field identification point and as a means of identification. At Cape May, high-flying Merlins are usually detected because they are harassing another raptor."]

Other sightings today included a Brambling, 2 Waxwings and a Redpoll over the garden - a wintry selection for such a summer-like day. Also, at least 3 Goosanders up at Alnwickhill Water Treatment Works.

More smaller raptors

Weather-wise a stunning day, but maybe a little too still and lacking in rain for good numbers of migrants... Though I am not complaining as I managed a couple of barbeques and took the opportunity to sort out some long-overdue gardening. Chiffchaffs singing all day in the neighbourhood - they will move on before long. Also a Willow Warbler singing at 7:00 am just up the road, while another realised that it had miscalculated its destination and upped and was off flying at about 15m off the ground strongly due North. Presumably it wasn't planning on keeping that up for long on a hot sunny day...

Raptors were in evidence today with multiple sightings of at least 4 Common Buzzards and 2–3 Sparrowhawks. Here is a nice male Sparrowhawk. It could be the same bird that I photographed last year, but if it is it has developed a nice red eye in the meantime.

After yesterday's Kestrel, I assumed that another sighting of one passing over the garden today would be the same individual, but the photos show otherwise. Then later on another passed over moving due North at a reasonable altitude - this latter bird at least presumably a migrant.

This is the first of today's Kestrels. A female-type bird perhaps, in comparison to yesterday's male. It would be nice if they found each other and hung around...

Finally, a couple of Common Buzzards with feather characteristics that should make them reasonably easy to identify in the short term. The first has a missing tail feather and the second is missing the tips to primaries 7 and 8 on both wings. If I do not see these birds again in the near future then maybe it would be evidence of passage?

All very well, but there are a few other raptors found in Scotland that could in theory pass overhead - a White-tailed Eagle was seen again in East Lothian today for example. I think it will take some luck to see one of those from here, so maybe I'll have to take a visit to Highlands and Islands instead?...

Friday, 8 April 2011

More raptors

I managed to see a new species for the garden yesterday - Sand Martin (73rd species). Well, to be honest, I have seen several Sand Martins over the garden over the last few summers but never more than fleeting 1 second glimpses. While under most circumstances that is long enough to identify this species' distinctive flickering flight, I have never considered these views to be either sufficiently definitive to be worthy of elevation to Garden List Status. Yesterday that status changed as a line of 4 Sand Martins appeared one after the other dashing westwards just above the rooftops and long enough for me to get my bins on them. Since then I have seen more of this species passing by. The burden of proof required is now lower and I have twigged that since they are low fliers - they will hug the contours even if they are are rooftops...

A couple of nice raptors also passed over today. First a male Kestrel powered low over west and thoughtfully circled once for good measure. With just a handful of sightings each year, usually of distant birds, these are the best shots I have managed from the garden (!). Note that the tail of this bird appears to resemble that of Lesser Kestrel. Other photos show that today's bird had one tail feather longer than the others and its protrusion accounted for this illusion.

The other raptor was this nice Common Buzzard. It is probably the palest bird that I have seen from the garden - quite unlike most other individuals that I have seen in the area. It looks to me like a 2nd calendar year bird with its smart juvenile flight feathers and coverts.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

More skywatching...

I opened the curtains to a Chiffchaff in the front garden, which was pretty surprising as there are never any birds in the front garden... A Stock Dove overhead at lunchtime was a garden rarity and a thirty-minute watch at 5:00pm revealed the first Common Buzzard sighting for a week or so as well as a low pass from a Grey Heron into the sun presumably making its way from Duddingstone to Alnwickhill.

I found another shot of this weekend's Osprey on the camera, which I thought I should post...
... as well as a Raven passing over Alnwickhill...

...and a very distant Peregrine (at an undisclosed site) trying to make a meal out of Feral Pigeons.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

2nd winter argentatus Herring Gull?

Heard my first Willow Warbler of the year singing this morning - probably my favourite Scottish songster. To me that seems earlier than normal, but I think that lots of migrants are coming through early this year. There is a big westerly in the offing though, so that'll soon sort them out! A Chiffchaff was in the back garden momentarily this evening but the main action then was a passage of 125 Meadow Pipits NW overhead in an hour. From records elsewhere there seems to have been a major coastal movement of that species today. This seemed quite a big passage here so late in the day - I wonder whether poor weather earlier in the day had held them up.

Looking over some photos taken at Musselburgh yesterday just now I had forgotten about this Herring Gull that failed to cooperate fully with the camera. I would tentatively age this bird as a 3 calendar year (2nd winter) and think that it could be an example of a far northern argentatus individual?

This first shot gives an idea of how pale the bird was compared to other Herring Gulls.

Unfortunately the skies then greyed considerably and the wind whipped up... This next shot shows its upperparts and bill pattern which were reminiscent of a Glaucous Gull, though the headshape looks like Herring Gull.

As the bird preened it showed almost snow-white underparts as well as head and neck. Careful scrutiny showed that this plumage was not adult type, but instead had much reduced dark markings - possibly showing leucism or extreme bleaching - or are possibly consistent with northern argentatus.
The outer primaries were as dark as a typical young Herring Gull, but the secondaries showed little sign of a dark subterminal band. The tertials had reduced brown markings yet the tail had a reasonably strong narrow subterminal band. These features can be seen in the open-wing shots below in which the bird in question is uppermost in both.

Here is a final shot of the bird as it headed inland towards Musselburgh looking like a strange pale hybrid. While it could be that this bird has some Glaucous Gull genes mixed in, I think it more likely that it is a pale northern argentatus Herring Gull. Of course, adult northern argentatus birds end up darker backed and paler wing-tipped than our local argenteus Herring Gulls, so it is slightly unintuitive that they should be the other way around as younger birds...

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Osprey: Garden/Patch/Year/Lothian/Lothian-self-found Tick!

Just putting the last of the sets into this year's onion bed when I thought I'd have one last look for Osprey overhead. After all, they are moving North in good numbers across the country at the moment and I reckon that any that happen to come in from the direction of the Pentlands could be tempted to head towards Alnwickhill Water Treatment Works before maybe heading towards Duddingston Loch. That flight path would bring them into view from the garden. Of course, many a futile moment has been spent searching the sky for this erratic migrant over the last few years, but today, at last, I struck gold with one almost directly overhead dwarfing the nearby gulls.

Having confirmed the ID with through binoculars, I dashed to the house and bellowed "Osprey!" and grabbed the SLR. The bird was moving North rapidly in a fast glide and while G got onto it with the bins it was already a mere large dot to the naked eye before the kids got into the garden. At this point it was being harassed by a gull (sp?) and with a few powerful strokes headed over in the direction of Blackford Pond before apparently turning to power across Edinburgh city centre. A great bird - not bad to get a self-found county tick from the back garden!

Friday, 1 April 2011

Blurry Bewick's Marches on to Lothian List

As March drew to a close my Lothian Year List sat at 110 species, up thirteen species on last month. In terms of self-finds pride of place would go to Northern-type Eider on the 3rd (BBRC-listed although the identification of this form is under debate - my photos certainly won't help) and patch tick Iceland Gull on the 24th. Other good finds included Kingfisher, Waxwing and Snow Bunting.

Other observers have seen considerably more species in the county so far this year. TO'C is topping the Bubo listings with 133 species, out of a total of 149. Luckily I still have plenty of species to bump into over the next few months. For example, the species recorded by most other listers that I have yet to see this year in the county include Golden Plover, Sanderling, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Jay and Green-winged Teal. Only the latter should prove to be a difficult task.

I should mention that I managed to add not only a county tick but a Scottish tick to the list this week - a Bewick's Swan that has been hanging around near Tyninghame for the last week or so (i.e. long enough for a slow-off-the-mark twitcher like me to have a chance to see it). To be honest, I am pretty certain that I have seen this species elsewhere in Scotland before, if not within the county. However, for some reason, large wildfowl do not really really make me tick (pun intended) and do not seem to register for long in the memory bank.

The Bewick's Swan is named after Thomas Bewick, an eighteenth and nineteenth century engraver famed for the accuracy and precision of his work. I wish the same could be said for my photos of the bird. My excuse is that every time I photograph a bird named after Bewick the result is blurry... Here is another attempt, taken at Slimbridge in December 2009. Admittedly it was almost dark when this shot was taken, but if I can't take a decent shot of a Bewick's Swan at Slimbridge then there is little hope for me...

Here is my final blurry Bewick - a Bewick's Wren photographed in California a year ago. Now in this case I can't blame the light quality, and the bird was close at hand for a decent period of time. So what is the reason for such a blurry shot, err... well, in this case I do know... it was a life-tick wren and therefore an ultimate little brown job, so the blur is pure excitement!