Monday, 25 February 2013

From Desert to Glen

It was school half term and Johanne had to renew her first aid certificate so as fate would have it we found ourselves on the mainland and staying at the Dolphin Bay Suites in Ardeseir for a few days. The views from the apartment around 15 miles east of Inverness were great with flocks of Common Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks to entertain (well me at least) but planning ahead I had in mind to set up a trip or two with Western Isles Wildlife to explore the Highlands. Therefore the draw of a Desert Wheatear wintering at Rattray Head seemed a very reasonable place to start an exploration of some of the Scottish Highlands I wasn't so familiar with. Under great duress I headed across country on 23rd February to try my luck with the wayward wheatear. I arrived at the carpark near the lighthouse at Rattray Head around 10 am. and wandered onto the beach in reasonably calm if somewhat cold conditions. The thermometre was reading around 1 degree C. but with a breeze off the sea it felt somewhat colder! I scanned the beach opposite the lightouse and saw nothing so I ventured around the dune to the south and was greeted with a sweeping, almost desolate looking stretch of sand which was pretty un-inspiring so I returned to spot the wee wheatear hopping amongst the seaweed and debris back where I'd started. I crouched down on the beach to find the wee bird heading straight towards me and within minutes I was floundering to sort out my camera settings as this lovely bird was hopping withing yards of me. Failing completely to secure anything of any use I watched the bird for a while and noted that it repeatedly returned to a particular perch. It was obviously not a shy individual so I popped myself down a few yards from the stick: within minutes it was hovering around my head and I was failing to get the shot but once I'd settled the bird returned time and time again allowing me to sort out a decent shot or two

Following on from this excellent encounter I headed to St. Combs where as luck would have it someone had reported a King Eider the day before. St. Combs is only a few miles north of Rattray Head and basically on my way home so it would have been insane not to try and have a brief look. I headed into the village and the first obvious view point over the sea. The immediate impression was of an almost bird-bereft sea-scape but a little patience showed that various seaduck species were present and bobbing off-shore; amongst which was a fine drake King Eider. The bird was distant and as I'd buggered my digi-camera after dropping it in a rock pool after photographing the Harlequin at Balranald I just enjoyed the bird through my scope.
The following day was family day so what better thing to do (living on an almost tree-less island) than enjoy some mature Caledonian Pine Forest. We all headed for Aviemore and  went for a stroll in the woods. OK I had a tip off but wasn't really expecting this:

Not only was I not expecting it but the rest of them weren't expecting a full on charge from a huge, turkey- sized, pumped up grouse either! Brillaint!!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Harlequin Duck makes 100

Some days you have good ones and some days not so good but Mr Rabbitts certainly hit the jackpot when he found a 1st winter male Harlequin Duck at Traigh Iar, Balranald yesterday. There are 11 previous records from Scotland and 6 from the rest of the UK which makes this bird the 18th to be found in the UK. There are 3 previous records from the Outer Herbides including the first for Scotland, a male north of Berneray, North Uist on 13th February 1931. A long gap then followed until the second for the Outer Hebrides, a female was found at Coll, Lewis in January 2004. The third record for this archipeligo was also a drake seen off St. Kilda in May 2007 by just a couple of lucky obersvers there on the day.

This 1st winter male is currently hanging around a series of rocky outcrops and a small rocky island south of the coastal car park at Aird an Runair, Balranald. The first photo was taken yesterday against the light in the late afternoon. Unfortunately on clambering back off the slippery rocks my digi camera fell into a rock pool and now, not suprisingly is buggered. The rest of the shots taken today were obtained by holding a digi camera to the eye-piece of my scope so please forgive the quality. The bird spends most of its time a good distance from the shore so securing a decent shot is somewhat challenging. Even so, what a belting bird.

This turned out to be my 100th species in the Outer Hebrides this year and my 282nd species in the Outer Hebrides since January 2005. They do get harder!

Monday, 11 February 2013

A couple of hours on North Uist

The drizzle began to clear, the fence had been repaired and the requested agenda emailed off; so it seemed like a good time to go and look for the reported small Canada Goose at Balranald. 15 minutes later I turned into the access road towards Balranald stopping en route to scan Loch Scaraidh which had been home to an immature, female Ring-necked Duck. Originally being found on Loch Hosta in early November 2012 this stray from America moved to Loch Scaraidh sometime in January during a particularly cold spell that left Loch Hosta mostly frozen. Sure enough she was still present and bobbing around amongst a growing flock of Tufted Duck. Neighbouring Loch nam Feithean held plenty of wildfowl too with over 100 Teal present as well as 7 Shoveler, Wigeon, Mallard and Tufted Ducks although it was strangely bereft of geese. Scanning across the machair from the road didn't reveal many geese either so I headed to Hougharry, just around the corner. The bay was nice and sheltered today and so the calm conditions made locating the distant, immature, male Surf Scoter reasonably easy. This bird also arrived in November 2012 being found on the freshwater, Loch na Reivil at Hougharry. Even in juvenile plumage the large, bulbous bill appeared to show a faint hint that it might develop into something a lot more gaudy with time. 

Immature Surf Scoter, Loch na Reivil, December 2012
 It still doesn't have the colourful bill of an adult but there does appear to be some colour developing and the pale, face markings have now disappeared. The plumage is largely black and at one point today I did think I saw a goasting of a white nape patch although it was distant and even with the scope on 60x magnification it was difficult to pick out the bill pattern.

Now it was time to try my luck with the goose. I drove along the rough track leading to Aird an Runair and soon became aware that there were a lot of geese scattered over the machair. Mixed flocks of Barnacle and Greylag Geese could be seen all over the place. Just then an immature Peregrine came hurtling across, low to the ground. It landed on a fence post for a while before its excited head bobbing led to an unsuccessful  dash at a large flock of Rock Doves. Twite, starlings and doves scattered everywhere, filling the sky with panicked birds before calm was restored and the Peregrine left the scene. I began concentrating on the geese once more but no amount of scanning was revealing the quarry. I could see that there were some Barnacles just over a rise not far away. I parked and walked carefully across to a gate to be greeted to my delight by a reasonably close Richardson's Canada Goose. Well at least that's what some people call them whilst others would say that there's so much interbreeding between them that you can't safely assign them to race.

 It was certainly small with a short, stubby bill and sqaure-looking head. Birds resembling this individual in structure, appear most years in North Uist and are always seen associating with Greenland Barnacle Geese. Hybrids between Canada and Barncale Geese, showing mixed feature are also occasionally picked up in the islands. Descriptions are submitted to BBRC and there's quite a file of pending indiviuals of various races building up. Maybe a suite of characters may enable them to make decisions in the future but what-ever they decide these are pretty good looking for Canada Geese.