Monday, 30 December 2013

Marsh Sandpiper on North Uist, 30th December 2013

On the afternoon of 30th December whilst out birding with John Kemp we came across an odd, medium sized wader in a flood pool on the machair near Kyles Paible. North Uist. It was probably around 60 feet away and as we took in the salient details we considered that the bird was a yellowlegs; although its legs were not visible as it was wading in deep water and there was no other waders alongside for comparison. Shortly after it was flushed by some nearby Redshanks and it left along with a small group of them. As it flew away we scrutinized the rump area to look for the square, white patch of a yellowlegs but the white wasn't restricted to the rump and extended in a white flash up the back towards the mantle. The legs were also very long, extending well beyond the tail producing a very characteristic look in flight. The group landed nearby and the small size and rather dainty appearance of this tringa sandpiper could only mean one thing - a Marsh Sandpiper. To say we were staggered is perhaps an understatement and we spent the next hour trying to obtain some decent images to allay any doubts that may arise about the birds identity. Luckily for us as we were leaving it flew down to the shore and allowed quite close approach as it fed along the seaweed on the rising tide in the last of the day's light.

More photos and details of today's sightings can be found on Western Isles Wildlife

Masquerading as a Wilson's Phalarope
This is just the 11th record for Scotland and possibly the only one to have been found in the UK in winter. It's possible that the bird had been around for some time undetected but one thing is for sure we certainly weren't expecting to find this increasingly rare British straggler in mid-winter in North Uist.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

November is often thought to be the end of autumn and the start of a long winter but in reality the 11th month of the year has produced some great birds and the Outer Hebrides seem to come into their own during this time. Past years have produced such goodies as American Black Tern, Mourning Dove, Hooded Merganser, Pied-billed Grebe and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (unfortunately dead) to name but a few. 2013 was certainly not a let down as skipping through the recent sightings on Western Isles Wildlife show. It began fairly quietly with a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling remaining from October around gardens at Port of Ness and the odd Glaucous Gull. Then the Americans began arriving with a confiding White-rumped Sandpiper at Aird an Runair, Balranald on 3rd.

This lively individual had possibly just arrived as it was very vocal and quite flighty but soon settled down to feed amongst a mixed flock of waders allowing such close approach that I was too close with a 300mm lens at times. The bird had gone the following day but quite remarkably I bumped into it again; this time at Ardivachar, South Uist with a second individual. It took me a few days to figure out that it was the same bird from Balranald as the views weren't that good but eventually on the 9th I got close enough to photograph it at North Bay, South Uist.

The plumage looks spot on with the same arrangement of juvenile and winter plumage coverts, scapulars and tertials. The second bird that it was occasionally seen along side (shown in the last photo above) is quite probably a bird originally found by John Kemp at Ardivachar on 29th October.

The 9th November also saw a couple of other reports of new birds with an American Wigeon in the north-west corner of Loch Bee and a white Gyr Falcon seen briefly by Paul Boyer at Balemore, North Uist. Other birds in this early period included one or two Little Egrets touring the Uists, a couple of Waxwings here and there and the juvenile Surf Scoter (from later October) at Ardivachar.

The 11th was the last day that the Rosy Pastor was seen in Lewis but more incredibly was the day John Kemp picked up a female King Eider flying south past Rubha Ardvule, South Uist. He arrived early morning to seawatch from the point when he noticed an odd-looking Eider coming towards him. He rattled off a couple of images that although dark were sharp enough to recognise as a "Queen" Eider (see photo on Western Isles Wildlife). This is a very rare bird in the islands with only a handful of records with the most recent also being found by JK at Ardvule in early May, 2012 whilst looking for a small group of Stock Doves. They could be much more regular than we know as many Eiders are present off-shore although usually too far out to pick up much detail, especially if a female bird but the chances of picking up a migrating individual must be very slim indeed.

The following few days were fairly quiet although the Surf Scoter remained at Ardivachar; the Kingfisher (originally found by Rosie Quick in August and only the 8th record for the islands) was seen again, this time at Loch Druidibeg and about a mile from its original site on the Howmore River and 2 Red-necked Grebes were reported from the Sound of Barra. Other sightings included a few Glaucous Gulls, Common Scoters away from normal locations and a late Sooty Shearwater in the Minch between Ullapool and Stornoway.

The 17th saw the re-appearance of the white Gyr, this time at Craig Hastain; very close to the original sighting at Balemore. It put on a superb show for around 5 minutes, first surprising the observer (me) by heading straight for them and passing within around 30 feet before circling round and putting on a turn of speed in pursuit of something. Luckily it returned and allowed me to get a few shots before disappearing in the direction of Baleshare. At the time of writing it has not been seen again although with so few observers and such a large amount of space it's not really surprising.

It's probably more surprising the number of birds that are found in the islands and bumping into a goody involves a certain amount of luck which brings me to the American Robin. Originally seen in a garden at South Loch Eynort on the same day as the Gyr photos above but suppressed as the house holder didn't want crowds of binocular-wielding people hanging around their quiet neighbourhood. Luckily Ian Thompson happened to be out conducting a BTO thrush survey along the road at South Loch Eynort when this trans-Atlantic thrush popped out of a ditch. What a surprise that must have been for him; and the house owner as the cat was now well and truly out of the bag.

The robin spent most of its time in a recently dug over veggie plot where it was finding a plethora of worms but occasionally made a trip to the roadside where I was lucky enough to see it on the 23rd. On the way home on 23rd I stopped at a small roadside loch at the north side of South Uist to have a look at the wildfowl gathered here in the failing light. In amongst the Tufted Duck I spotted what appeared to be a female Lesser Scaup but with dusk fast approaching and all the birds taking to the air and flying off to Loch Bee I was undecided. Returning to Loch an Daill the following morning I was delighted and relieved to see that the ducks had returned and there it was, a female Lesser Scaup. It was showing all the requisite features with the square head shape, peaked rear crown, mottled flanks and some grey vermiculations on the upper mantle. Too far away for a photo I persuaded JK to come and have a look as I thought it looked like the genuine thing which he did and was also pleased to see a good, solid, no messing, female Lesser Scaup. JK managed to digi-scope a few images in the glaring light that show the small, black tip restricted to the nail (see Western Isles Wildlife) of the bill and even a poor shot of the open wing which rounded off the full suite of characters eliminating any doubt of a hybrid aythia.

The 24th also produced a report of a male Snowy Owl on St. Kilda which must be getting quite hungry by now unless it's enjoying the local mouse population and rounding off a very good month.

The scaup, robin and egret continued to entertain to the month end and with some luck might see it through to start a good New Years day bird list.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Needletail Swift in Tarbet, Harris

I arrived in from a day tour yesterday only to find the crippling news that there was a White-throated Needletail in Tarbet, Harris. With only 10 previous occurrences and the often fleeting or far flung nature of the past records (the last 22 years ago) it seemed too good to be true to think that it would hang on another day but that it did.

It was first seen on 24th June, hawking over Loch Direcleit although not identified until the following day when Mark Cocker and Adam Gretton first spotted the bird whilst leaving a shop in Tarbet without their binos to hand. Adam later relocated the bird over at Direcleit and it showed throughout the evening either there or over Tarbet in the drizzle or rain; often hawking low over the trees in town.

The following day after an initial false report it was spotted once again over Loch Direcleit before a breif visit to town. It then relocated to the loch and showed superbly for around the next 1.5 - 2 hours as it frequently hawked over the admiring crowd. It promptly did a bunk just before the Stornoway ferry crowd arrived but was relocated later in the afternoon at Plocrapol a few miles south. In a horrible twist of fate the swift sadly collided with the only small wind turbine in the area and was killed. Although these small turbines are promoted as being no problem and need very little planning consent they obviously aren't totally bird friendly as I've also found 2 dead Common Gulls, incidently under ones in Uist in the last few months. A sad end to a truly mega bird.

For more sightings in the Outer Hebrides please visit: Western Isles Wildlife

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Corncrake shows well in the road!

We had a pretty decent selection of wildlife whilst taking our day trip today (Western Isle Wildlife) in Uist and Benbecula with 2 Otters, Red Deer and both Grey and Common Seals. Flowering plants included Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid (hebridensis), Heath Spotted Orchid, Early Marsh Orchid, Northern Marsh Orchid, Round-leaved Sundew, Common Butterwort and Marsh Cinquiefoil amongst others. Birds featured 3 Red-necked Phalaropes (2 females fighting over a male), Short-eared Owl, Hen Harrier, White-tailed Eagle, Red-throated Diver and perhaps most suprising of all 2 Corncrakes with one in flight followed by one holding territory in the road.

drying off in the road after a shower

holding territory in the road

off he goes down the road!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Skua Passage

The 11th May dawned wet and calm in contrast to the forecast that had predicted north-westerly winds around force 5 - 6. In the light of this I got back in bed and took a rather relaxed approach to the day. Eventually I got on the road just after 9 am and headed out to Aird an Runair not expecting a great deal in the light winds. How wrong I was! As I arrived 2 Long-tailed Skuas scooted past the headland and before I could get out there 43 Pomarine Skuas in 2 flocks (20 and 23) past by. I could hardly believe that there was such a movement in such calm conditions but with the hope of securing some photos I positioned myself on the rocks at the south-west end of the headland.

Arctic Skua

Pomarine Skuas


Pom flock

Poms close in

Between 09:30 - 13:00 I managed to count 27 Long-tailed Skuas, 488 Pomarine Skuas (with a the largest flock being around 40), 25 Arctic Skuas, 21 Bonxies, 140 Whimbrel (in 4 flocks) and a drake Common Scoter heading north in the company of a drake Tufted Duck. All this in relativley light winds and comfort - if only all sea-watching could be so good! For more infomation on todays sightings in the Outer Hebrides please visit the website: Western Isles Wildlife

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The North Wind Shall Blow

At last we seem to be out the other side of winter and heading for some warmer weather in the Outer Hebrides. The last week of April and first day or two of May were very cold for the time of year. The 2nd May was notable for a good fall of snow in Lewis and Harris in the evening creating a lovely wintry scene on 3rd May with snow covered hills. This inclement, cold weather held up masses of northbound migrants and our guided tour of Lewis from 27th April - 3rd May witnessed some excellent numbers of waders and wildfowl as well as producing some classy surprises.

The tour started well with probably the bird of the trip (well at least for me) with the discovery of an adult Rough-legged Buzzard hovering at the side of the Pentland Road where the Breascleit and Carloway roads meet. Most Rough-legged Buzzards that occur in the UK are along the east coast or in the northern isles. Most are juveniles with adults being rare; so the occurence of one hovering over the desolate Lewis moors was really something special.

adult Rough-legged Buzzard

The following day we encountered good numbers of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plover and Pink-footed Geese as well as a huge flock of around 600 Icelandic Redwing on the outskirts of Stornoway. The gale force westerly wind and wintry showers certainly made birding difficult and the forecast wasn't showing much in the way of improvement the following day. In fact on the 29th April we headed for the Butt of Lewis in north-west 8, gusting to severe gale 9. The tide was a big one and the swell wrapping around the top of Lewis was incredible making searching for divers rather difficult. Despite the weather and likely due to it we had a very interesting day.

The machair at Fivepenny and Eoropie was covered in summer plumage Golden Plovers with over a 1,000 present whilst a flooded pool close to the road held 65 stunning Black-tailed Godwits. It was whilst watching these that a flock of Redshanks dropped out of the sky to join the godwits. Shortly after we spotted the squat figure of a snipe-like wader. Further investigations revealed the bird to be a Long-billed Dowitcher moulting into summer plumage. This American wader is one of the more regular trans-Atlantic vagrants to turn up in the UK although spring records are much rarer than autumn ones. At least 2 Long-billed Dowitchers have been wintering in the UK this year so there's a fair chance that this bird was one that had successfully wintered on this side of the pond and then headed north as it would have done in its native America.

Long-billed Dowitcher with 2 Redshanks (Tony Marr)

Following all the excitement around the arrival of the dowitcher we moved up to the Butt where we found good numbers of migrant Meadow Pipits in amongst which was a fine, summer plumage, male Lapland Bunting.

Next stop was Loch Stiapabhat which held a decent variety of wildfowl and remarkably our second North American bird of the day, a drake Green-winged Teal that was intruigingly accompanied by a female (Green-winged?). Differentiating female Teal and Green-winged Teal is not for the faint hearted and we left with the pair of ducks slinking off into the emergent vegetation.

Golden Plover at Eoropie
Great Northern Diver in Sound of Taransay
Butt of Lewis
Spring had indeed sprung with masses of migrants trying to battle north but who knows what would have been in Lewis to greet us if the weather hadn't stopped many of these northbound migrants. Thanks goodness the weather isn't wonderful all the time! For more information on tours and recent sightings please visit the website Western Isles Wildlife