Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Stroke of luck with Cuckoo Divert

Friday update from RBA
Autumn walk at Lickey Hills

Last Thursday brought the news a Yellow-billed Cuckoo had been located in Cornwall no doubt swept up the back end of Hurricane Gonzalo. The normal crew were all set for a Saturday early hour twitch only for me to suffer some chronic stomach ache causing a last minute cancellation. The feeling of not being able to go and letting the boys down was not good but it did feel much better when the Cuckoo was not located at all during Saturday or at all again ! Very lucky !

Late afternoon we headed up to the Lickey Hills on the edge of Birmingham for nice woodland walk with the wife. I was hoping to find my first Bramblings of the winter however I had to settle for some very close view of Goldcrests and Treecreeper. 

With the constant south westerly winds the influx of wintering thrushes has yet to really get going. From my 4th floor office I have picked up a few Fieldfare, Redwings and Starlings going over but nothing dramatic. Let's see what next week brings.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Grey Phalarope in Northants on Sunday twitch

 The confiding bird modelling for photographers

Red Kite
Owl Meadow

As is always the way a Grey Phalarope turned up just a few miles from work while I was away in Scotland to continue it's inclusion on my bogey bird list. Having spent Saturday on a course in Worcester the temptation of twitching a reported Phalarope just over an hour way got the better of me on Sunday. 

Arriving on the causeway of Pitsford Reservoir the locals tipped me off to drive round to the county park and walk from there. After grudgingly paying the £2.60 parking fee I set off east around the reservoir path. With no signage of Pintail bay in sight I was hoping more than being confident of finding this arctic breeding wader. 

Finally after a good mile walk I found the bird in a small bay being watched by a handful of photographers and birders. Despite it being very windy I managed to get a few shots that I was rather pleased with. I was quite capitulated watching this wader and spent a good deal of time observing the bird.

As I was leaving a local birder, Dave James said hello as he recognised me from Twitter. I told him I was heading to a local site to look for Short-eared Owls but kindly he offered me some alternative advice which paid dividends as the light faded. I picked up a Shortie flying along the hedge line on the far side of the meadow. Beauty ! With the final light gone I headed back up the A14 and M6 having had a top afternoon out.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Grant Arms Hotel - Superb Venue

Grant Arms Hotel
Montage image from the trip
Maps and famous visitors
Corridor full of information services
Sightings Noticeboard
Alan on the lookout
The final morning before heading home

Following this amazing trip I would like to give a mention our superb tour organisers and hotel.

Alan and Ruth of the Biggest Twitch made it a trip perfect in terms of birding, organisation, transport and company. I'd urge any one to look up their latest website for full details about all their trips. The pairs birding knowledge and expertise always adds to your own learning experience. All our meals were taken as a group and we all shared some great laughs throughout.

The Grant Arms Hotel offers a unique wildlife specialist experience. Nothing was too much trouble for the hotel team and it gave every visitor their best chance to see the local wildlife. The hotel had a specialist corridor with maps and guides, a library and a conference room which held talks every evening. My room had a range of local maps, magazines and guides - all very useful.

The staff were very welcoming and helpful. The phone alarm calls came in handy when getting up at 6 am. The food and service were excellent and the menu offered plenty of local favourites including Haggis. The staff in the restaurant friendly, helpful and the speed of service was very good. The Hotel is well located for visiting the nearby birding sites and has plenty of parking. My room was spacious, bathroom clean with a good shower. £4.20 was a bit expensive for a pint or a whisky but that's hotel prices.

Crested Tits at Anagach Woods - Day 4

Crested Tit
Crestie on the floor feeding

Only way to finish a great days birding in the Highlands

Whilst Capercaille views were always going to be limited (given their diminishing population) I had hoped for some great views of Crested Tits but that had not been the case so far. This wasn’t going to the case for long though as Alan took us for a Pine Forest and river walk in the afternoon. Coal Tits could be seen every where in the woodland and it wasn’t long until we picked up a pair of Cresties. Crested tits are quite plain in colour compared to other tits, but have their stunning identifying crests and striped faces makes them a most distinctive species. We all stood and observed the Crested tits feed actively, clinging to trunks and branches and occasionally getting on the feeders when allowed. In the background yet another Red Squirrel was helping himself at the Squirrel feeding box.
We then walked down to the River where a couple of Goosander were taking shelter from the strong current . A great way to spent an afternoon in Scotland.

Sea Duck galore - Day 4

Possible Baltic Gull
Surf Scoter
Surf Scoter among Velvets/Common flock
Slavonian Grebes
Part of Eider flock
Purple Sandpiper and Knot
Purple Sandpiper & Turnstone
Another fantastic café stop

Sea watching out on to the bay
At the close of the previous day I'd had a quick check on Rare Bird Alert to see if anything else was reported locally and I almost fell off my chair when I saw a King Eider and Surf Scoter had been spotted ! Alan, as always, was already planning the journey so I didn’t need any second alarm call to get me up and ready the following morning.
Sea watching can be a lot of fun but you do need to expect to get wet and only have distant views. However neither of these two applied to this Highland experience. As soon as we arrived in Burghead we were treated to some fantastic views of Long-tailed Duck, Eiders and Scoter. There was also a huge flock of Kittiwakes with a possible candidate for a Baltic Gull. A flock of Knot also swooped through and landed on the beach.  To be able to watch a flock of mainly male Long-tailed Ducks fly past in off the sea was brilliant.

We couldn’t locate either of our target birds so we drove a couple of miles to a sheltered woodland spot which looked straight on to the calm water of the bay allowing simply amazing views of the various sea ducks. This spot allowed us to look at these sea ducks in detail I’d not seen before and we quickly picked up a flock of Velvet and Common Scoters. On the edge of the group was a fantastic looking Surf Scoter ! Get in ! Just brilliant to see one of these birds but to see it so clearly was a very special treat. Alan said in all his years birding he had never seen one so close. Peter then located the Immature King Eider on the other side of the flock. Being an immature bird he wasn’t as eye-catching as you would expect looking at the Collins guide but a great bird to see all the same. Numerous Slavonian Grebes were on view allowing once again lifetime best views.
After a superb session we headed back into Burghead to watch from the other side of the harbour. As soon as we were off the mini-bus we found a Purple Sandpiper, 2 Knot and numerous Turnstones. Off shore hundreds of Gannets passed by with a Pomarine Skua.
Needless to say it was then another superb lunch stop in another of Ruth’s hidden gem cafes. A top class morning.

Evening with the Pine Martin (Mardens) - Day 3

After a brilliant day, Alan announced we would be leaving the hotel for an evening of wildlife watching in a custom hide. An early evening meal was taken at a superb Italian Restaurant on the edge of Aviemore before we drove to the Speyside Wildlife hide.

The hide would be best described as a type of conservatory with two sides and windows all around the edge with dimmed lighting. Reported success at the hide was mixed so we needed to just keep very quiet and hope for the best. We were expecting Badgers would be the first mammals to show themselves but to our surprise a male Pine Marten appeared up the bank then across to the feeding table. The Pine Marten quacking bagged the Hen’s egg that was available and then scooted off with his meal. He returned 20/30 minutes later so we all got some fantastic views. We all tried to grab an image and video however it was difficult due to the low levels of light.

 Despite a member of the public (who was sharing the hide with us) having a massive coughing fit and someone else tripping over in the dark a second Pine Marten came into view on the other side of the hide. The Martin was standing just a yard in front of us on the other side of the glass feeding on a selection of nuts.

Pine Martens were once found throughout the UK but suffered a dramatic decline in the 19th century due to woodland clearance, trapping for fur and predator control by gamekeepers. In the last half of the 20th century, however, populations recovered in Scotland and are now established in most areas north of the Central Belt, including the northern fringes of Glasgow and some other parts of the Central Belt.  The species is still rare in the UK and absent from most of England and Wales.

 This was a great way to end a very rememberable day.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Quest for Golden Eagles at Findhorn Valley - Day 3

Findhorn Valley

Digiscoped Golden Eagle
Three Eagles together

Eagle Spotters
Red Deer Stag

After a great morning watching the Ptarmigan it was off to the Findhorn Valley for a bit of Eagle watching, or so we hoped. Parking in the same position as we did on the first day we only had to wait around twenty minutes until we picked up over first Golden Eagle on the top of one of the ridges. We watched as he flew around the ridge top occasionally settling allowing us some better views.

We then picked up two adult birds and a juvenile all flying together straight in front of us. My poor digiscoped shots don't do justice to what I was watching. Later in the session I picked up a juvenile bird that came over the ridge and soared downwards hunting for prey. The backdrop made the bird look totally amazing. I must have watched this bird for 3-4 minutes in the scope before finally it went out of view.

This was a fantastic experience and it was great to see such amazing views of a bird I've wanted to see since being very young. I've embedded a stunning video showing these superb birds in flight.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Ptarmigan at CairnGorm - Day 3

View from the top of CairnGorn

Another cake break
Red Grouse on the Moor

On what proved to be our busiest day of the break we started by making the short journey over to Nethy Bridge where we quickly located Black and Red Grouse whilst a Lesser Redpoll flew over. The Black Grouse were quite distant but the Red Grouse could be seen within just a few yards.

During the day we started to notice an increase in thrushes including a number of Redwing and Fieldfare that had freshly arrived. 

After a quick pit stop for breakfast it was off to the Cairngorn Mountains. The scenery was magnificent throughout the journey and we passed through the Ski resort of Aviemore. As we drove up CairnGorn a helicopter appeared to fly around the summit, not quite the welcome we were hoping for. Thinking the worst we headed up the mountain to the viewpoint where another birder informed us that she could see seven Ptarmigan, good news. However upon looking ourselves there was a brilliant 83 Ptarmigan. A rare sight indeed to see this many birds in one spot. On recent visits to the site other birders had reported on seeing 1 or 2 birds, so we were very lucky. The ptarmigan is a game bird that I could best describe as a plump partridge crossed with a chicken. 

The views from the top of the mountain was brilliant and a rare treat. We all retreated inside the Ptarmigan restaurant for yet another piece of cake and a hot chocolate.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Moray Firth - Day 2

Chanonry Point
Pink-feet fly pass
Wheatear and Rock Pipit
Common Gull
Udale Bay Nature Reserve
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Flock of Scaup
End of a great days birding

After an over indulgent breakfast, quite a common theme, we headed north to the Black Isle. The Black Isle is not an island, but a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water – the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south and the Moray Firth to the east.

Our first stop was Chanonry Point a beautiful setting by a light house. A Wheatear could be seen in the same scope view as a Rock Pipit giving us a great start whilst the jetty held Shags and Turnstones. A nice flock of Dunlin treated us to some super views before landing close by on the beach whilst out in the bay there was Red-throated Divers, Razorbill, Guillemots, Black Guillemots and a selection of gulls.

After crossing the bridge to Udale Bay Nature Reserve the tide come in pushing large numbers of waterfowl and wading birds. A small spit of land was simply covered with Oystercatchers, Knot, Wigeon, Lapwing, Bar-Tailed Godwits, Golden Plover, Grey Heron and three Pink-footed Geese. Out on the water there were no less than 7 Slavonian Grebes and a small flock of Red-breasted Merganser. In the stubble field behind our first Hooded Crow was on display. This was the first of many throughout the rest of the trip.

Heading round the coast we came across a flock of 200+ Scaup, an awesome sight whilst there were good numbers of Long-tailed Ducks. The male birds looked awesome in flight along the coast.

A pub lunch on the harbour allowed us to see a large flock of Kittiwakes fly past and 400+ Eider whilst two Rock Pipits flew around the parked cars. With the rest of the party tucking into lunch I located Harbour Porpoises just out of the harbour which were then past by a Great Northern Diver. We did try a late afternoon twitch for a Hoopee but it had moved on hours before but there was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose off shore.

On the evening Alan gave us and the other hotel guests a talk about their tour of Finland and Norway. Most definitely a place to visit in the future !