Monday, 17 December 2012

I'm dreaming of a white (Gyr) Christmas

Any birder living in Uist at the moment would be forgiven for thinking that Christmas had come early with all the reports of white-Gyr's during the last month. The first sighting came on 18th November when one was seen at Bornish, South Uist. This was followed by one that hung around for a couple of hours on the morning 1st December at Balranald, North Uist. Initially it was presumed to have been the Bornish bird although when one was found dead at Eoligarry, Barra the same day the situation became more tricky.

Gyr at Balranald, December 1st  (Brian Rabbitts)

 Next came a sighting of a bird perched at Ardivachar, South Uist, 3rd December and it looked like this bird was on its way south until there was a sighting at Balranald and Loch Paible, 11th December. Again it was presumed that the bird of the 11th was the same as the bird of 1st and 3rd December although thanks to digital photography it would appear that this was not the case. The photo below shows the bird from the 11th December that is renewing its inner primaries although the bird above (1st December) does not show the inner primary moult.

Gyr near Loch Paible, 11th December (John Kemp)
There was another sighting from Loch Paible, North Uist yesterday, 16th December and then one today from Kipheder, South Uist. From the superb photos by John Kemp it's quite obvious that the Gyr on the 11th December is a different bird to the one photographed today from the south end of South Uist that shows a full set of fully grown primaries.

Gyr, 17th December (John Kemp)

So I suppose the question remains, just how many Gyr's have there been? That's at least 3 in the last month and there's one thing for sure; I'm glad I'm not a medium sized gull or wader in Uist at the moment! More photos can be found at Western Isles Wildlife.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Gyr Falcon on North Uist

"Better have a look at that white blob on the fence post" I thought as I walked back towards the visitor centre at Balranald this morning and so glad I did. The probable plastic bag, that can often be found adorning various fence lines, shrubs and is widely distributed throughout the coutryside actually turned out to be a fantastic immature, white Gyr Falcon. Even at the great distance that this bird initially was the huge bulk was apparent. It actually appeared larger than a Common Buzzard and much more powerful. Unfortunately it didn't stay for long and a few flaps of the broad-based, pointed wings saw the bird disappearing low into the dunes to the south.

 JK had been disappointed at his unsatisfactory veiws of (presumably) this bird 10 days ago at Balranald when he had distant flight views of it for seconds. He braved the omens from this new report of the bird last seen heading south and drove up from South Glendale, at the very bottom of South Uist. I headed to the very south end of Balranald first noting a Peregrine and Merlin before finally hearing the sound of alarming Herring Gulls which once more revealed the presence of this butey. It perched on a post over-looking the mouth of Loch Paible before again heading south.

It flew across to the dune ridge at Knockintorran and perched on a post apparently on top. JK by this time wasn't far away so I directed him to the where-abouts of the bird. I saw him arrive; I could see the bird still perched but our twitcher from the south couldn't, so he started walking towards the dunes. I looked down to tie my boot and woosh, it was gone! Not my boot but the falcon had, once I had looked up again. It hadn't come my way but the phone call to JK didn't lift his spirits much although he needn't have worried as a few mintues later he was watching it; this time quite close, perched on a fence post. You can find more photos of this bird on Western Isles Wildlife
It's hard to imagine how something so large, white and gernerally causing pandemonium can disappear so easily but Gyr's unlike Peregrines hunt mostly in level flight and so at least here they probably often stay quite low to the ground. They also travel at some lick too, with a couple of flaps covering large areas of ground. Hopefully this bird will have better luck than the one found dead at Eoligarry on Barra in early December which was presumably the individual seen on South Uist in November. Amazing to think that there have been 2 Gyr's in Uist in the last month.

Saturday, 24 November 2012


Eaval, lying on the south-east side of North Uist reaches only 347m above sea level so you might think that there's not much to it, but rising like a rocky pyramid straight out of the boggy moorland this hill provides some of the most stunning views in the Outer Hebrides.

Eaval looking across Loch Obasaraigh

Probably the easiest way to get there is to head to the end of the Loch Euphort road before striking out across the moor towards Burabhal. It's not long before you reach probably the trickiest part of the whole walk......a river crossing on stepping stones. If the levels of Loch Obasaraigh are high or there's a high tide then the rocks allowing you to skip across the river can be covered. Today with all the recent rain many were submerged and others very slippy; not helped by otters regularly using these rocks to spraint and pee on, so creating nice, green, slippy patches. I managed to make my way across without any mishaps and continued around the north-east side of the loch. Once around the east side you begin to climb Eaval. My only company on the way out (apart from Rowan the dog) was a heard of Red Deer and a few Rock Pipits. As I reached the upper slopes of Eaval a Golden Eagle came shooting over the summit heading in a stooping glide towards Burabhal and the Lees. Shortly after this I was on the top and what a view you get.

Eaval summit

Looking north from the summit
Looking west

Looking south (Ruabhal is the highest point on Benbecula!)
The Minch from the summit

Two cheese rolls later and a cup of coffee I headed back the way I had come. A Raven was calling in the distance and a Rock Pipit was feeding on the grassy slopes but apart from a couple of Fox Moth larvae it was pretty quiet as it often is out here.

Fox Moth caterpillar
As I got to the east shore of Loch Obasaraigh I noticed some very fresh otter spraints along a small stream, not far from otter prints I'd seen on the sandy shore as I headed up. Rowan the dog went first as we circumnavigated the loch when I heard a "plop" in the loch waters. I noticed a small ripple leading away from me and wondered if I'd just missed an otter. I hung about for a while but nothing showed so continued around the next rocky headland. I glanced behind and there heading quickly through the water in the direction from which we'd come was a large, dog otter. I grabbed my camera and just in time noticed it heading up stream. Unfortunately the camera was on the wrong setting and the otter was wary of me so although I managed to take a couple of shots, he soon spotted me and disappeared once again.

A mile or so later we managed to slide our way back over the stepping stones once again without any mishaps, noting fresh otter spraints on a rock here too. A good walk with some stunning views and classic Hebridean wildlife.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Over-looking Skye

For too many years I've been whizzing through Skye on my way to or from the Outer Hebrides with occasional visits to the Black Cuillin for some superb mountaineering but very little in the way of birding. This weekend I went to Sabhal Mor Ostaig for a mini SOC conference arranged by Bob McMillan (of Skye Birds) and Jane Cleaver from the SOC. The line up of talks on Golden Eagles, White-tailed Eagles, Corncrakes and Manx Shearwaters all sounded pretty interesting and very relevent to the immediate area and although Gaelic Bird Names by Tristan ap Rheinallt maybe relevent it didn't stir much in the way of exciting anticipcation in wrong I was! All the talks were excellent and fascinating but the delivery and dry wit of a Welsh man telling us about Gaelic bird names and their relevance to past bird distribution really was my first revelation of the weekend as to how interesting - (yes, that was the word I wanted to use), the subject actually is. The second revelation came the following day when we spent a couple of hours with Bob McMillan birding between Broadford and Portree. In the couple of hours we managed to pick up 8 Slavonian Grebe, Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, a couple of small groups of Whooper Swans (flying over), 6 White-fronted Geese, no less than 8 Golden Eagles and around 40 Waxwings; not forgetting 2 otters and numerous Fieldfare and Redwing. It really was a good morning out.

I'll certainly be heading back to Skye before too long and hope to start taking tours that include this fascinating isle in 2014.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pipit conundrum

On the 31st October I photographed this pipit at the south-west end of Benbecula around Borve Point.

Having heard a slightly unusual pipit call in flight that was similar to Rock Pipit but "thinner" and less emphatic I began examining every bird that I came across as I walked around the south-west tip of Benbecula.  As I rounded the headland I noticed this striking bird feeding amongst the Rock Pipits gathered on the seaweed and rocks. It immediately struck me due to its strong supercilium, generally pale upper parts (compared with Rock Pipit), very distinctive supercilium and rather pale under parts. The wings bars were well defined and the streaking more clear cut than in the Rock Pipits (around 10 in all) present. The legs were also rather pale and the outer tail feathers appeared white. I was hoping for Water Pipit but the bird really didn't strike me as such. After some time I thought that this indivual may be a Scandinavian Rock Pipit that hadn't attained full winter plumage or was a very well-marked individual.

To me the upper parts appeared too olive-grey for a Water Pipit; the wing bars rather grey (rather than white); the under parts although quite distinctly streaked didn't appear clean enough for Water Pipit and there was some yellow suffusion on the belly.

Below are a series of photo of a British Rock Pipit taken on the same day.

I found one or two websites that showed the variation within both Water Pipit and Scandinavian Rock Pipit although such a strongly marked bird with grey upper parts at this time of year appeared a little odd. If you have any comments please feel free to get in touch:

Monday, 22 October 2012

Close encounters of the Otter kind

Whilst out birding today I spotted an otter in the distance on an isolated rock quite close to the shore line of a tidal loch. I hoped that with a bit of luck I could get a reasonable view of it if I sneaked along the shore from the east and maybe rattle off a couple of photos; although the sun was going to make life difficult if I got the chance with the camera.

As I approached, low along the shore I saw 2 ottters, a mother and cub on the same rock I had seen from the distance. The female was just heading off on another fishing trip having dropped something off for junior. I took this as my chance to get past the youngster so that I might be able to photograph it from the west, looking east. As I crept along the rocky shore I could hear the youngster start to call and although I couldn't see it due to the bright glare of the sun to the south I figured the cub had seen me. I hurried along and over onto the shore edge, positioning myself at the base of a boulder with my legs draped over a smaller rock in front. It was a rather unusual position, almost like being in a reclining chair made of rock but pretty comfortable. Initially there was no sign of any otters and I began to wonder whether they'd detected my movements and left for a quieter location. After a few minutes I heard the squeak of a youngster, shortly followed by the adult appearing on the favoured rock, approximately 50 feet away. I froze in my reclining position with camera poised, firing off a couple of images. Mum then slid into the water and swam towards me, passing within 12 feet of where I was. I dared not move and anyway trying to photograph her in the glaring sunlight was going to be pointless so I just let her swim by.

She returned a little later with a cub although as she passed by she obviously noticed something odd on the! She gave a couple of snorted huff like notes as I sat motionless. She obviously wasn't quite sure what was on the rock and as I hadn't moved she came closer with a cub in tow. They both watched from the water for a while as I snapped a couple of images and then continued to approach.

Quite incredibly mum and cub both came out on the rocks, just 10 feet from where I was, mum shaking the water from her fur coat before looking straight at me and the camera. I continued to fire off shots not daring to move as she gave some of the best views I've ever had. Both mum and cub came so close at one stage the camera was having trouble focussing before they slipped back into the water.

I have seen otters many times but this was something else and really quite magical. Mum swam back to the original favoured rock with a cub, followed by a second and then a third. All clambered out, sniffed around, sprainted and then returned to the water before heading off out of view, hugging the shoreline.

If you happen to be visiting the Uists and would like to look for otters please take a look at the website: Western Isles Wildlife.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How many AGP's?

juvenile American Golden Plover, Baleshare, Sept. 2010
The autumn of 2012 is likely to be long remembered for the 3rd British record of Semipalmated Plover which was found by John Kemp at South Glendale on the 7th September. This individual followed hot on the heels of 3 Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Spotted Sandpiper as well as several Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers. In total (so far), this autumn has produced 7 species of American waders in the Outer Hebrides compared with 9 species in 2011; just 4 species in 2010; 6 species in 2009 and 8 species in 2008.

It therefore hasn't stood out for variety and indeed hasn't stood out for numbers in particular, apart from American Golden Plover that is. In 3 out the past 4 years (2011, 2009 and 2008) around 6 American Golden Plovers have been found throughout the Outer Hebrides during the autumn although just 4 were reported in the relatively poor autumn for American waders in 2010. In 2012 a minimum of 15 American Golden Plovers have been logged including 6 adults (for more details please visit the recent sightings on: Western Isles Wildlife

Why 2012 has been so good for American Golden Plover is a bit of a mystery although it could purely be the year when lots were blown off track as has happened with other species in the past e.g. Semipalmated Sandpiper in 2004 and White-rumped Sandpiper in 2006. What is for certain is that there has been an upsurge in records during the last 30 years with annual totals in Scotland peaking at 12 in the 1980's, 31 in 1990's and 22 from 2000 - 2004 (Birds of Scotland). It was removed from the list of species requiring descriptions by the BBRC in 2006 and from SBRC in 2010. Observer awareness and better understanding of identification criteria have almost certainly led to the increase in records. Coverage in the Outer Hebrides is also increasing during the autumn and the county almost certainly now leads on records of American Golden Plover in Scotland if not the UK.

juvenile American Golden Plover, Kilpheder, Sept 2012
adult American Golden Plover, West Gerinish, Sept 2010

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Semipalmated Plover in South Uist!!

Lucky for me Johanne agreed to take Friday 7th September off work and look after the youngest, Freya. This freed me up so that I could try my luck at finding some stray birds in North Uist as the weather was set to be calm and sunny following the remnants of the hurricane and westerly winds from the past few days. Lapland Bunting over the house at Carinish brought the garden list to 94 species (since January 2012) and bode well for a good day out. I ventured north to Berneray and although there was plenty of stuff about it was all common. I spent some time scrutinising Ringed Plover and at one point even thought I heard a Spotted Redshank-like call although my dreams of finding a Semipalmated Plover were just that and I moved on checking various wader sites and stand of tress until I got a call from John Kemp saying that he'd located Andrew Stevenson's sandpiper from the night before, at Ardvule and it was a Spotted. This was enough to persuade me to give up the ghost and head for Ardvule in South Uist.
An hour later I arrived at the headland to be met with plenty of waders but no Spotted Sandpiper. A couple of other people turned up including Andrew and after some searching the mood became relaxed and there was far more chat than searching going on - that is until my phone went. John Kemp was on the line " You need to be down here"
"Where's that then John" (me)
"South Glendale"
"What have you got?" (me)
"A Semipalmated Plover"
I was expecting Sandpiper to follow Semipalmated so much, that it took a short while for this to register although "showing well" got the gears in motion and once sharing the news with the somewhat stunned audience present I hurtled off south.
John was on the scene to direct me and before long we were at the site scanning through the plovers. A few maybes were flagged up when I noticed a small, dark plover heading straight for us - and it was the bird! I don't know how John felt but I was pretty much on cloud nine and couldn't help but admire John's composure and analytical approach at nailing this bird. What a belter. OK not particularly stunning to look at but a 3rd for Britain and a difficult species to identify to boot; plus this one was showing well! It wadered towards us and probably came within 15 yards of where we were stood allowing all the relevent features to be seen and indeed photographed. MEGA.
Over the next couple of hours we got great views of the bird and heard it call a couple of times once it took to the air with a very distinctive "Chu-eett".

The fours shots above show the relevent features distinguishing this bird from Ringed Plover:
Pale area at base of bill where the white from below the mask extends above the gape line of the bill; plus distinct webs between the toes, especially the outer and middle toe.
It was generally darker and slightly smaller than the other Ringed Plover although some Ringed Plover (presumably Arctic ones) also were equally dark above. The breast band was dark and narrow and one of the easiest features used to pick this bird out at a distance amongst Ringed Plover. The white reaching above the gape line was visible through the scope on 30 - 40 magnification at around 60 feet and possibly more although initially it was a difficult bird to pick out from the Ringed Plover. The beak was also rather stubby and although the latter two photos show a paler base to the lower mandible this was very difficult to see. Even more difficult to see and not actually noted in the field, although visible in the digi-scoped photos was a narrow, dull yellow eye-ring.
The most distinctive feature was the loud "Chu-eett" call. This was heard on just three or four occasions but drew attention and was why it was found in the first place. Jk recalls that he had been walking near the bay with Sue, his wife the night before when he heard the call and asked what was that. Sue obviously replied that's a Semipalmated Plover! He returned the next afternoon and the rest is history. Well done John a real birder's bird.

Monday, 3 September 2012

The Moth Man that Wanted to be a Beaver

The lure of a day looking at difficult to identify macro moths at the Aigas Field Centre in Beauly accompanied by our very own Hebridean Moth Man was hard to resist; and so on a wet and windy Friday 31st August I found myself with Moth Man heading across the Minch on a rocky ferry. Birds and cetaceans were in short supply although perhaps the force 7 and poor visibilty didn't help much although Moth Man did manage to catch a breaching Minke Whale at the moment I turned to scan the white water on the other side of the ferry. Apparently it almost cleared the sea surface and made one hell of a splash as I'm sure you can imagine (as I had to) a 30 foot whale would do!
We drove through the highlands and got to our wild camp ground on the edge of the River Beauly not far from the field centre in plenty of time for me to hammer the pegs for the tent into the rocky ground well before darkness descended upon us. We enjoyed the local birdlife including Great Spotted Woodpecker, Bullfinch and Long-taild Tits (all rare birds in the Outer Hebrides) before setting our respective moth traps and retiring to the two-man tent. The next day started well with Moth Man out before dawn checking the traps to make sure no moth would escape or be eaten before we had chance to examine them, whilst I reclined on a rock that lay underneath the tent and my back. I was just about drifting off when a large clatter brought me round. This was shortly followed by a few choice words and I imagined that Moth Man had dropped his trap that he had apparently decided to move in the dark. Happy with this scenario I drifted off to sleep. As it turned out Moth Man had discovered a rather deep hole and stuck his foot in it. This resulted in a rather nasty fall and loss of skin to the hand and knee area. He put on a brave face and drunk some of his cold coffee from the day before although he did seem happier after I made him a bacon butty and a fresh cuppa. The traps were fairly quiet although mine held 2 Anomalous and Moth Man had his first Barred Chestnuts as well as various micros that he warbled on about for a while. We arrived at the field centre early and enjoyed poking our noses into the pre-set traps with one sheltering a superb Angle-striped Sallow. Unfortunately I don't have a photo of this beauty but will try and include one, once I get one from Moth Man. Some of the other delights can be seen below:
Barred Chestnut

Barred Chestnut

Blue-bordered Carpet

Dotted Carpet

Rosy Minor

There were many others that I failed to photograph which were very nice but I couldn't resist capturing a few micros which were well worth a look and unfamiliar to us from the islands.
Epinotia tringonella

Epinotia tringonella

Eudonia truncicolella

Ypsolopha parethasella

After lunch we had a talk about Pine-tree Lappet which is very rare and was trapped at Aigas on my last visit here in 2010. They actually caught two of these massive moths at the time and as fortune would have it, one laid eggs. These had been reared over the intervening years and lovingly cared for revealing an unexpected life cycle. The catterpillar basically takes two years as a larva and then pupates to become an adult moth in its third year whilst it's closest relations genetically can apparently manage three generations in one year. It is described as a pest of conifers in some parts of Europe and how it came to be in Scotland is very much a mystery. At the moment it occurs at such low density that it is no threat although once the Forestry Commision got wind of its existence they weren't keen on admiring it for its beauty and are to be convinced to its harmlessness; quite understanably.
Anyhow following a couple of short talks we headed off for a walk around part of Aigas estate which is when Moth Man realised that actually deep in his heart he wanted to be a beaver. Before I could mutter Ypsolopha he was down on his knees gnawing away avidly at the base of a tree close to a beaver's lodge.

Moth Man turned Beaver
Eventually I managed to prize him away from his new found lust with the mention of leaf-mining micros and news of an Acleris laterana. This seemed to do the trick and we quickly returned to base where we were rewarded with close, if somewhat brief views of a Hobby.
The course came to an end with discussion on the separation of Lempke's Gold Spot and Gold Spot and Mark Young promising to show some genitlia to Moth Man if he'd like to visit. The rain then started and we drove through Glen Shiel and Skye in awe at the most dramatic flash floods, as the water cascading down the mountain sides. Amazingly as we approached Uig the clouds parted and the sun peaked out just before dusk; behind was Armagedon!
Our second and final night was spent in Uig Woodland where I camped and Moth Man mooched. The morning brought us decent catches in our moth traps with pride of place going to Ypsolopha vittella which neither of us had seen before.

Ypsolopha vittella
We caught the morning ferry to Lochmaddy in somewhat drier and less windy conditions than we had come across in. Lots of Kittiwakes were seen around Skye along with reasonable numbers of Manx Shearwaters and auks. The mid-Minch itself was pretty quiet until we were just over half way across when a small flock of 6 Storm Petrels were seen dancing above the waves to the north of the ferry. These were followed by another 2 singles before a brief sighting of a close Risso's Dolphin. Finally as we entered the outer harbour an adult White-tailed Eagle was watched to the north, hanging on the wind before casuing pandemonium amongst the gulls feeding around the fish farm. A fine end to great couple of days.

Angle-striped Sallow