Sunday, 29 April 2012

Seeking Southerlies

I had some time available for birding this weekend. Walking home from work on Friday this Blackcap in the Hermitage seemed to herald a hot migrant-filled weekend. A quick look at the synoptic charts soon put paid to that hope.

Instead, I decided that, since the weather patterns were set against a deluge of migrants, I would try to mop up some of my many missing Lothian year ticks. I popped into Blindwells on Saturday morning and added House Martin and Grasshopper Warbler. Several dog walkers seemed to be encouraging their pets down to the waters edge unfortunately so any hope of Garganey seemed unlikely. At Ferny Ness I failed to pick up any Red-necked Grebes but a quick stop at Seton had me jamming into two Brent Geese - I have missed this species in the county several times over the last few years so this species definitely felt like a bonus. At the latter site Sandwich Terns were much in evidence - some species at least are able to battle the headwind.

Today I birded a few of the sites further east, but it was hard work in the cold conditions with scant reward. An early start at Spike Island produced 4 Whimbrel. Returning to the car a Brambling lifted my spirits. At Scoughall I studied the gulls following the potato planting but could not pick out anything unusual so had to content myself with a seawatch to add Puffin and Guillemot to the tally. Three smaller terns passing northwards turned out to be Arctic Terns - another species I missed out on seeing in the county lasyt year.

I then headed to Barns Ness for a quick look for the Wryneck seen on Friday. No joy although it was seen later in the afternoon apparently. Up to Johnscleugh for a moorland route home - not exactly a short-cut, but a good plan to notch up Red Grouse, Common Sandpiper and (below) Red-legged Partridge. The Ring Ouzels will have to wait another day as I ran out of time before I could head to Faseny. All in all an enjoyable tour.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Juvenile Glaucous Gulls on Berneray

West Beach on Berneray must be one of the most spectacular beaches in Britain - in fact it is so beautiful that it was once used to illustrate a Thai holiday brochure. Of course, the temperature does not reach that of steamy South East Asia and, as if to emphasise the point, a couple of juvenile Glaucous Gulls were parading around close to a stranded seal carcass. On size and head-shape I would suggest the larger bird above is a male and the bird below a female.

These birds were heavily bleached and in a quick flight view of their patchy upperparts I think I might have identified them as 3CY rather than 2CY. Up close their bare parts seem to confirm the younger age class. Though, since these are the first Glaucs I have clapped eyes on in several years I am not claiming any expertise...

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Carrion Crow vs Shore Crab: fight, fight, fight!

If you have ever wondered who would win in a fight between a Carrion Crow and a Shore Crab then here is your answer. Unsurprisingly, it is the intelligent, adaptable, avian predator-scavenger that comes out on top.

Photographed at Barns Ness in East Lothian last Sunday morning, this crow carefully manipulated this female crab onto its back and then twisted its tail off. After swallowing the tail the crow continued foraging, leaving the hapless crab to scuttle off, possibly mortally wounded.

I was left wondering whether the crab would survive, whether the crow had been hoping for an egg-mass under the crab's tail, whether the handling costs of dealing with the rest of this meal were just too high for the crow, or whether this behaviour would benefit the crow by eliminating a competitor from its patch.

Reaching for Birds of the Western Palearctic I find that crabs are not even listed as a food source for the Carrion Crow - the only Crustacea mentioned are woodlice and crayfish. Presumably there were no published studies of the diet of shoreline crows, as I am sure crabs would feature regularly. Certainly having been fortunate enough to have been working on BWP at the time Volume VIII was written and I can certainly vouch for the thoroughness of the research.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Balranald Redshank

The drive in to Balranald RSPB on North Uist is a classic location to photograph Redshank and other waders on the rocks and fenceposts. This one was one of the early-birds on territory - most seemed to be content to be poking around the extensive shoreline of the island.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Rock Doves rock

If it wasn't for the ubiquity of the feral pigeon living as a commensal species in human-altered habitats, people would rave about the delicate beauty of the wild Rock Dove. This pair were photographed from the roadside earlier this month at Clachan on North Uist. Unlike the feral pigeon, these Rock Doves were skittish and vanished almost as soon as my car my car came to a halt.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Lesser Black-backed Gull mobbing White-tailed Eagle

An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull is mobbing a (probable 2CY) White-tailed Eagle last week. Life in the Uists must be a constant barrage of mobbing from gulls and shelduck for these massive eagles.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Great Black-backed Gull mobbing White-tailed Eagle

I have posted an aerial shot on this theme previously, taken in Harris in 2011, so I thought I would add a North Uist shot from 2012. Spectacular stuff, even when watched from a distance.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Otter on Berneray

This uncropped shot was taken during one of the most exciting wildlife encounters I have ever had - an otter choosing to come ashore right alongside to eat a fish. Of course, there is always a challenge - in this case heavy rain and dark cloud. After twenty five minutes of close-up otter action I had several hundred images. Only after the otter sank back into the sea did I realise that I was soaked to the skin and frozen!

Sunday, 15 April 2012


We have just returned from a week on North Uist, Berneray and Benbecula - a truly beautiful part of the world and a fantastic place to watch wildlife. As expected we saw plenty of raptors, including close and prolonged views of this Merlin - a second calendar year bird still in its juvenile plumage.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Black tale Godwit

This is a black tale alright - a grim story that exposes the cut and thrust of self-found year listing in Lothian. It shows the lengths that normally mild-mannered birders will go to to add another number on their list - without even a cursory glance at the rules or thought for the moral or ethical niceties of this ungoverned, and some would say ungovernable, sport. It is a story of how one man's lust for listing has resulted in behaviour that others will call cheating, or even, if pushed, (godwit-forbid) stringy duff dude birding. And just who is this stringy cheat, well, I have to name names, it is me.

So what is this horrific behaviour and how did it come about. Well let's rewind to yesterday. I find myself in possession of a new lens and decide to take it to Musselburgh. Pretty much the first birds I see is a group of Bar-tailed Godwits on the breakwater. I point my lens. I press. Godwits shuffle. Godwits flutter. Chimplike I gleefully capture shots of a Bar-tail leaping into the air, and I am joyful that I have resolved feather detail on the camera screen rather than the amorphous blur I have become used to of late. At no point do I knowingly detect the Black-tailed Godwit in amongst the Bar-tails until today when I first looked closely at the shots. It is the bird with the black, rather than barred tail, funnily enough (centre rear above, fourth from left below).

So what's the crime? Well the crime is that I am tempted to add it to my year list, and worse still I am tempted to add it to my self-found year list. In fact I am so tempted that I have done it*. After all, I saw the bird and I identified the bird and I was genuinely surprised to see it there. So, what do you think? Tick and run, or suck it up and keep looking for a real one.

* For now.... I'll probably remove it!...

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Life through a new lens

My new lens arrived today to replace the well-worn Sigma 70-300 that had gone a tad soft to say the least... Well, the Canon prime or 100-400 zoom are firmly out of my budget so I have picked up a second hand Sigma 120-400 instead. Compared to the 70-300 it is a big lens and I daresay it will take some getting used to. Despite the poor weather conditions I was pleased with its performance on a brief outing today. I think that the image stabilisation function is going to be a real boon... it certainly managed to pick up some feather detail on this Blue Tit in the garden. So maybe, if the weather improves again, there might be some decent images on this blog in future?...

Down at Musselburgh, I pointed it out to sea and was pleased that this crop shows it can resolve some detail on these distant Long-tailed Ducks. I normally have more requirement to make record shots of distant birds than compose frame fillers, after all. While more reach would always be nice I think that I would struggle to go birding with a bigger lens - after all I don't want to leave my scope behind!

And its first use in anger... this yellowish-legged 4CY Herring Gull at the Esk mouth was just begging to be photographed.

This male Shoveler, in the sea with the Wigeon and Goldeneye at the Esk mouth was a year tick. I notice that the AF has not picked up the bird, but hopefully I'll improve?

Finally, this nice pair of Red-breasted Mergansers decided to pose for the new lens!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Birding while gardening: Crossbills and hunting Peregrine!

Yesterday's clear skies tempted me out into the garden and I spent the day rejuvenating various raised beds for this year's growing season. I was trimming back leggy herbs when I was startled to hear the explosive 'jip' call of Crossbills. An almost daily experience on my North Wales patch but only the second time I've seen them from the garden here in Edinburgh (single bird 5 July 2010) - another real garden rarity hot on the heels of yesterday's Snow Bunting and Fulmar! As I stood up the flock of 9 Crossbills passed low over the houses and then headed off down the hill giving me a nice view of a selection of red, green and yellowish rumps bobbing away into the distance. The Hermitage of Braid looked like a possible destination, although of course they may not have stopped...

For much of the day my head was down as I worked on the soil, but in general the sky seemed lacking in birdlife. With the wind direction slowly swinging to northerly, the clear blue skies, cold air and warm sun seemed an odd combination for this time of year. It was not until late afternoon that raptor activity hotted up. Several Common Buzzards in the air included some hanging fairly low over the garden and a couple in the distance indulging in aerial display. A single Sparrowhawk sighting over the course of the day must rank as one of the lowest hawk-per-minute sighting ratios from the garden. Best of all was something that I have never seen before from here - a Peregrine at full speed hunting pace directly overhead, and then just failing to hit a feral pigeon. Half an hour later it was overhead lugging prey - clearly persistence pays off (see top photo).