Scotland, 15th-19th March 2014
On this short trip to Scotland with Dave Norgate we hoped for some of the Scottish specialities and some good Scottish coastal birding, as well as the odd rarity.
SATURDAY 15th: Successful twitching
I drove overnight to the Mull of Kintyre where an American Herring Gull had been seen for a while, usually at dawn and dusk. We hoped to arrive at dawn but there were plenty of other birds in the area that we could see first if not. Once it became clear that arriving for dawn was not feasible we decided to head up to the Black Duck at Strontian, a species I had seen twice in 2000 but not since. I had heard that it sometimes frequented a small pond in someone's front garden so we looked out for such ponds as we drove up the road. Despite the lashing rain we soon found it and it really was a small pond, but big enough to house the Black Duck and its Mallard partner.
As we waited for the Corran ferry we were treated to a fine display from at least 3 pairs of Black Guillemots at the pier. On the way to the gull we stopped and birded several sites but didn't see anything better than the 2 Snow Geese at Tayinloan and a total of roughly 600 Greenland White-fronted Geese at various places between there and Campbeltown. Other highlights included both large divers and of course lots of Hooded Crows (plus several hybrids) - and a plant tick, the naturalised American Skunk-cabbage.
As we approached Campbeltown we noticed a sign to the airfield and Dave recalled that the American Herring Gull had been seen there before, though not recently. We still had plenty of time before dusk so decided to head up there first. A large flock of gulls was located and on first scan we didn't see anything among them. We noticed some more birders further down so decided to join them, only to find them looking at the American Herring Gull! Sounds like they hadn't had it for long and before I could get my digiscoping camera set up it flew, disappearing over the brow of a hill. It reappeared once or twice during which time we managed to see enough on it to convince us that it was indeed the correct bird, but the only photos obtained were some ropey flight shots. After more searching without any views the remnants of the flock moved off so we headed down to the harbour to see if it came in to roost there. Sadly, especially for those not fortunate enough to have been at the airfield earlier, it didn't. In fact it wasn't seen again the next day or subsequently - so it seems that the five of us at the airfield were the last people to see it. Here are the shots:
American Herring Gull, Campbeltown, 15th March
Two of the birders at the airfield before us had spent most of the day there without seeing the American Herring Gull, so our arrival shortly after they had located it was very fortunate! They had seen a total of 5 Iceland Gulls, all but one of which had moved off before we got there - we saw a single Iceland Gull there.
SUNDAY 16th: A change of fortune
We drove overnight to Speyside, pausing for some kip in the car every now and then. Just east of Spean Bridge I noticed a mammal cross the road in front of us. It paused at the verge just long enough for us to confirm my initial suspicions, that it was a Pine Marten. This is a mammal I have consistently failed to find in numerous trips to Scotland previously so I was very pleased to see one at long last.
We turned up at a site where a rogue Capercaillie had been seen recently, with some outstanding photos having been taken of it. These rogue birds that turn up from time to time are supposed to be easy to find - from what I gather they find you rather than you having to find them! Well this bird didn't find us, or if it did it didn't do a good job of announcing that fact to us. We tried a couple of other sites too but with no success.
Eventually we gave up and headed up to Cairngorm where we looked for Ptarmigan from the car park. As I scoped the mountainside I glimpsed a white thing that could only have been a Ptarmigan flying across, disappearing among the rocks when it landed. There were lots of patches of snow breaking up the rocky mountain side but they and the rocky patches in between all looked the same so directing Dave to where I'd seen it land was difficult. There were two tiny spots of snow where the bird had landed and after what seemed like ages Dave managed to follow my directions to these spots of snow. Only then did the spots of 'snow' start to move and we realised they were in fact Ptarmigans! They were so far off though that you couldn't see any detail at all - they were just tiny white spots that moved, and not like Hares!
We headed up to the Findhorn Valley where I kipped in the car while Dave looked for Golden Eagles. It was so windy he could barely stand up but eventually he and another pair of birders picked one up. He woke me up to see it but I was fairly unimpressed with the Golden Eagle that must have been further off than the Ptarmigans had been earlier! Good to see it displaying though, and it landed on the snow briefly (you could just about make out that it was an eagle-shaped dark spot).
After this we headed up to the coast, taking in the American Coot at Loch Flemmington on the way. A Red Kite and a brief Slavonian Grebe were the best we could find between Arderseir and Inverness, so we quickly nipped up to Dingwall to dip on the Ring-billed Gull.
We found some accommodation in Aviemore so we could be up early to have another go at the Capercaillies in the morning.
MONDAY 17th: Still no Caper
I'd seen some moths in the headlights in some sheltered spots as we were arriving at the Capercaillie site yesterday so we arrived a bit earlier today to give me a chance of catching some of them. This we did and subsequently I identified them as species I had not previously seen. One of them, Early Flat-body Semioscopis avellenella, is fairly widespread across the UK (not in Norfolk) but the other, Marbled Button Acleris maccana, is only found in the Scottish Highlands.
Early Flat-body Semioscopis avellenella (left) and Marbled Button Acleris maccana (right), Tulloch - Nethy Bridge, 17th March
While we failed to see any Capercaillies again two single Crossbills flew over which, from their calls, were not the same species. We suspect Scottish Crossbill for the second, but can't be completely sure of that as we didn't manage to sound-record it.
After another failed attempt to see Ptarmigan we headed up to the coast again, via Lochindorb. Here we enjoyed watching and photographing scores of Red Grouse, but we didn't see much else.
At Burghead we spent a considerable time studying an interesting first-year male Common Scoter that had an exceptionally extensive amount of yellow on the bill, especially for a first-year. At times it was looking like a really promising candidate for Black Scoter but eventually it (presumably - we can't be completely certain it wasn't a different bird) flew much closer and with better views we were able to determine the extent of yellow more precisely. Now I felt that neither the extent of the yellow nor the shape of the bill were sufficient to rule out Common Scoter. It still might have been a Black Scoter, but if we couldn't nail it at this distance we weren't going to nail it at all, and it certainly wasn't looking as exciting as it did from further away! Mind you, if it turns into a more obvious Black Scoter as it matures and someone else finds it, then we're having it!
Birding numerous sites along the north coast was enjoyable with loads of Long-tailed Ducks everywhere, but it wasn't as good as we'd hoped. The strong winds didn't help - it was difficult to see anything on the sea! Dave found the best thing in a toilet block at Findochty - another new moth, though this time one that does occur in Norfolk, just scarcely enough that I've not seen one before: Mottled Grey.
Eider, Buckie, 17th March
Mottled Grey, Findochty (left) and Red-throated Diver, Portknockie (right), 17th March
rainbow, Cullen, 17th March
We were as successful at finding accommodation in Fraserburgh as we were at finding Capercaillies, so another night was spent sleeping in the car - something I'm definitely getting too old for.
TUESDAY 18th: More Long-tailed Ducks, more Long-tailed Ducks, more Long-tailed Ducks and a Queen
I've had some amazing birding at Fraserburgh before, with Ross's Gull, numerous white-winged gulls, loads of duck and all sorts. This morning was not so exciting, unfortunately, so we headed off to the Loch of Strathbeg. We didn't give it a very thorough look, apart from anything because we were too early to get in to the centre. I briefly saw a distant large grey bird with long straight wings drop out of sight, but only saw the upperwing, the pattern of which could have matched Grey Heron. I'm 99% sure it wasn't a heron though - it looked just like a Crane in the few nanoseconds that I watched it. I know they've had a few Crane records here but not sure if they're still around? This area also produced our only Tree Sparrows and Corn Buntings of the trip.
Shags, Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, 18th March
We found the Glaucous Gull at Peterhead but as we worked our way we struggled to find much more than Long-tailed Ducks. OK, there were a few other bits and pieces, but it was harder work than we'd hoped. Still, I love seeing lots of Long-tailed Ducks, so it was pleasant enough - and I especially enjoyed the close drake in Boddam Harbour.
We wanted to spend tomorrow birding the Lothian coast but we didn't want to miss out Fife, so we shot down to Largo Bay to get there with enough daylight left to be worthwhile. Foolishly we decided to stop en route to look for the Newburgh Ring-billed Gull, but it was high tide and it was not there.
We found Ruddons Point and sheltering as much as we could from the wind we looked through the Eiders and Scoters hoping to find King Eider and Surf Scoter, both of which had been reported off here during the last week or so. Lots of birds, which was very enjoyable, but at first no sign of our targets. A big surprise among the Curlew was a Whimbrel! In 24 years of birding in Norfolk the earliest I've ever seen a Whimbrel is 13th April, though I have seen birds earlier than that on the south coast (only earlier in April though). A Whimbrel in Scotland in mid March was very unexpected! I wondered if it was wintering there, and indeed that does seem to be the case as a bit of research has uncovered another report of it on 1st March - in fact there seem to be a few odd reports of wintering Whimbrels in Scotland in recent years.
There were lots of Eider close in but it was further out beyond the main flock that Dave picked out the King Eider (or rather Queen Eider as it was a female). He did well as it was hard to see, spending more time hidden behind the waves than it was in view. I spent quite a bit of time watching it as I wanted to pick out all the salient ID features but the distance and wind prevented me from seeing all of them. The head/bill shape was pretty obvious - more so than I expected to be honest. I think the dark bill made it more obvious - I'd not realised the colour of the bill was an ID feature before. I could just about make out the smiling gape line, but discerning the flank markings was beyond the capabilities of my eyes+scope.
It is over 20 years since I visited Ruddons Point, though I've watched Largo Bay from elsewhere more recently. I had a vague recollection of there being some kind of access issue with the caravan site through which Ruddons Point is accessed, but we found it ok and weren't troubled for being there. On driving out I remembered what the issue was - they lock the gate! Fortunately there was someone else there ahead of us who seemed to know the site owners, and they managed to drag someone out to open up for us. After checking from Lower Largo we headed off to Lothian, staying in a tatty and dirty Travelodge (but at £33 per room it was quite sufficient for our needs!).
WEDNESDAY 19th: Surf and home
A drake Surf Scoter had been seen from various sites in Lothian over the winter, mainly off Musselburgh or Portobello. We started at Portobello at first light, finding plenty of Velvet Scoters and a Slavonian Grebe, but no Surf. Most of the Velvets seemed to be gathering further east so we decided to head off towards Musselburgh. We stopped at Joppa and had a quick look from here. The Velvets were close in here but we still couldn't find the Surf. Then I picked up a Scoter flying in from the east heading straight towards us. A hotchpotch of black, white and orange - surely this was the boy! It was indeed and in no time the handsome drake Surf Scoter had plonked itself down in front of where we were sitting.
Surf Scoter, Joppa, 19th March
Velvet Scoters, Joppa, 19th March
The other sites I was looking forward to birding were hard work as the ever-strengthening wind was rendering anything on the sea almost impossible to see. Almost everywhere there was evidence of viz mig - not big numbers but the odd Meadow Pipit here and the odd Pied Wagtail there, birds trickling through constantly. We had been hoping to walk out to where the King Eider near Gullane had been reported but the wind was so strong we decided there was no point.
Gannets, Bass Rock, 19th March
Herring Gull (left) and Great Black-backed Gull (right), Dunbar, 19th March
We birded a few more sites on the east coast down to Northumberland, picking up things like Red Kites and Dipper but not much in the way of birds on the sea. Then as time was getting on and we had to be in work the next morning we headed off home.
Grey Wagtails, Pease Bay, 19th March
Rook, Bamburgh, 19th March
Eiders, Amble, 19th March
The following species were seen:
- Mute Swan Cygnus olor
- Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus - 20+ Arderseir 16th and 30+ Loch of Strathbeg 19th
- Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus - large numbers seen in NE Scotland between Inverness and Borders
- Greenland White-fronted Goose Anser (albifrons) flavirostris - about 600 Mull of Kintyre 15th in several flocks between Tayinloan and Campbeltown
- Greylag Goose Anser anser - at least some seen were wild birds
- Snow Goose Anser caerulescens (or Chen caerulescens) - 2 adults (white and intermediate phases) with Greenland White-fronts at Tayinloan 15th
- Canada Goose Branta canadensis
- Barnacle Goose Branta bernicla - 100+ Loch of Strathbeg 19th
- Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
- Wigeon Anas penelope
- Gadwall Anas strepera
- Teal Anas crecca
- Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
- Black Duck Anas rubripes - 1 male paired to a female Mallard Strontian 15th
- Pintail Anas acuta - 1 female on Loch Oire 17th; also at least 1 Ythan Estuary 18th
- Shoveler Anas clypeata
- Pochard Aythya ferina
- Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula - large numbers near Kampen - several flocks along the river
- Eider Somateria mollissimma - small numbers at many coastal sites; the largest numbers were on the east coast with 100 Peterhead, 300 Ythan Estuary and 200 Largo Bay all on 18th; elsewhere max was 60 Buckie 17th
- King Eider Somateria spectabilis - 1 female off Ruddons Point, Largo Bay
- Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis - although nowhere near as numerous as I have found this species along the same coastlines previously, seeing lots of these is always a highlight of visiting Scotland in winter; seen at 17 sites totalling 141 birds, the best being 40 off Portgordon 17th
- Common Scoter Melanitta nigra - 1 Campbeltown 15th was the only west coast record; generally small numbers on the north and east coasts with 100 Largo Bay 18th far and away the best count
- Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata - 1 drake Joppa 19th
- Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca - seen in larger numbers than Common Scoter but with a different distribution: only seen in Fife (60 Largo Bay) and Lothian (160 at 4 sites)
- Goldeneye Bucephala clangula - at least 127 at 19 sites
- Goosander Mergus merganser - 1 Loch Morlich 16th was, surprisingly, the only inland record; otherwise 3 west over the sea at Lossiemouth and 2 Banff rivermouth 17th and 2 Newburgh and 2 Largo Bay 18th
- Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator - small numbers all round the coast: 96 at 15 locations
- Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa - 1 in plantation at Lochindorb Lodge - the only partridge seen all trip!
- Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus - Dave had one between Loch Lomond and Corran; otherwise 4 Caingorm 16th & 17th and 50+ Lochindorb 17th
- Ptarmigan Lagopus muta - 2 very distant birds seen from the car park at Cairngorm
- Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
- Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata - over half of the divers seen were this species, but divers in general were much thinner on the ground that I had expected
- Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica - 2 Loch Gilp (Dave had a third) 15th
- Great Northern Diver Gavia immer - 1 Loch Linnhe and 1 southern Mull of Kintyre 15th, 1 Peterhead and 1 Largo Bay 18th - a much poorer showing than I had expected
- Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis
- Gannet Morus bassanus
- Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
- Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
- Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
- Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
- Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
- Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus - 1 Longman (Inverness) 16th, 1 Portobello 19th; Dave saw 1 Largo Bay 18th.
- Red Kite Milvus milvus - 1 Arderseir 16th, 1 Coldingham Moor and 1 Arkendale (Northumberland) 19th
- Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus - 1 Cairngorm 16th
- Buzzard Buteo buteo
- Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos - 1 Findhorn Valley 16th
- Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
- Coot Fulica atra
- American Coot Fulica americana - 1 Loch Flemington 16th
- Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
- Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria - 150 Loch of Strathbeg 18th
- Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
- Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
- Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus - 1 with Curlews Ruddons Point 18th
- Curlew Numenius arquata
- Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
- Turnstone Arenaria interpres
- Sanderling Calidris alba - 115 Ruddons Point 18th
- Dunlin Calidris alpina
- Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima - 1 Peterhead and about 30 Boddam 18th - we were surprised to see so few
- Greenshank Tringa nebularia - 1 Loch Feochan 15th, 2 Lossiemouth 17th and 1 John Muir CP 19th
- Redshank Tringa totanus
- Woodcock Scolopax rusticola - 1 Nethy Bridge 16th and 1 heard Tulloch 17th
- Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle - at least 3 pairs displaying at Corran pier, 1 Loch Gilp and 5+ Campbeltown 15th, 2 Burghead and 1 Buckie 17th; the vast majority were in full breeding plumage but at least 2 were still looking wintry, presumably first-year birds
- Razorbill Alca torda - small numbers on the Moray and Grampian coasts; 20 in breeding plumage at St Abbs 19th
- Guillemot Uria aalge - small numbers (but more than Razorbill except at St Abbs) at most coastal locations
- Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
- Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
- Common Gull Larus canus
- Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
- Herring Gull Larus argentatus
- American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus - 1 first-winter Campbeltown 15th
- Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides - 1 second-winter Campbeltown 15th
- Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus - 1 first-winter Peterhead rivermouth 18th
- Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
- Feral Pigeon Columbus livia
- Woodpigeon Columbus palumba
- Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
- Green Woodpecker Dryocopus martius - 1 heard Tulloch 16th
- Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
- Peregrine Falco peregrinus - 1 Findhorn Valley 16th and 1 St Abbs 19th
- Magpie Pica pica
- Jay Garrulus glandarius
- Jackdaw Corvus monedula
- Rook Corvus frugilegus
- Carrion Crow Corvus corone - in the range of Hooded Crow 3 west of Tarbet and 3 Campbeltown 15th (also see hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow)
- Hooded Crow Corvus cornix - Easily the commonest corvid in the west (Loch Lomond, Stontian, Mull of Kintyre, etc.) with at least 187 seen; also several Hooded Crow x Carrion Crow hybrids seen - at least 13 in the west plus in the east at least 2 Arderseir
- Raven Corvus corax - 1 heard Cairngorm and 15 Lochindorb 17th
- Goldcrest Regulus regulus
- Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
- Great Tit Parus major
- Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus - we thought we heard some as we were driving between Loch Garten and Nethy Bridge on 16th, but not giving the call I'm most familiar with; I had some doubts but Dave was more confident!
- Coal Tit Periparus ater
- Skylark Alauda arvensis
- Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus - seen at Lettele
- Treecreeper Certhia familiaris - 1 Loch Garten 16th
- Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
- Starling Sturnus vulgaris s
- Dipper Cinclus cinclus - 2 Pease Bay 19th
- Blackbird Turdus merula
- Fieldfare Turdus pilaris
- Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
- Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
- Robin Erithacus rubecula - several seen at various locations
- Stonechat Saxicola rubicola - 2 Lochindorb 17th, surprisingly the only birds seen
- Dunnock Prunella modularis
- House Sparrow Passer domesticus
- Tree Sparrow Passer montanus - at least 6 Loch of Strathbeg 18th
- Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea - 1 Mull of Kintyre 15th, 1 Aberlady Bay and 2 Pease Bay 19th
- Pied Wagtail Motacilla (alba) yarrellii
- Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
- Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus
- Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
- Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula - 1 Carrbrridge 16th
- Greenfinch Chloris chloris
- Linnet Linnaria cannabina
- Crossbill Loxia curvirostra - 1 near Loch Garten 16th, 1 near Nethy Bridge 17th
- Scottish Crossbill Loxia scottica - a probable flew over near Nethy Bridge 17th - the call was distinctly deeper than the Common Crossbill that flew over shortly before, but did not seem right for Parrot Crossbill
- Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
- Siskin Spinus spinus - 4+ Loch Garten 16th; also heard at Sound of Shuna 15th and Loch Vaa 16th
- Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis - 6 over the carpark at Cairngorm 17th
- Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
- Reed Bunting Emberize schoeniclus
- Corn Bunting Embeiza calandra - 6 Loch of Strathbeg 18th
- Mountain Hare Lepus timidus - 2 Cairngorm 17th, one of which also seen 16th
- Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus
- Weasel Mustela nivalis - 1 near Campbeltown 15th
- Pine Marten Martes martes - 1 east of Spean Bridge in the early hours of 16th
- Otter Lutra lutra - what we think could only have been this species ran across the road near Sandhaven after dark on 17th
- Seal sp. - we are pretty sure we saw both Common Seal Phoca vitulina and Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus but I didn't identify any of them with 100% certainty
- Red Deer Cervus elaphus - 22 Loch Lomond/Corran area 15th
- Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus
- Early Flat-body Semioscopis avellenella - 1 netted pre-dawn near Tulloch 17th
- Marbled Button Acleris maccana - 2 netted pre-dawn near Tulloch 17th
- Mottled Grey Colostygia multistrigaria - 1 in a toilet block at Findochty 17th