Saturday, August 12, 2017

Scotland #4 - grouse, still alive

After Shetland we headed back to the mainland and spent a few days in the beautiful Cairngorms National Park. We were based at the Grant Arms Hotel - I was invited by Birdwatching and Wildlife Club to give a talk and do a walk for their guests. It was a lovely experience - many thanks to BWWC for the invitation.
Most time was spent with the families (we were joined there by my brother's family). After a week of brilliant weather up in Shetland, we were greeted by miserable weather in the Cairngorms. Still we made the best of our time. Birding options were limited, and frankly it's not the best time of year for birding the year. On Sunday, almost a week ago, we spent a great morning birding with Peter, local birding ace, in a large circuit around Grantown-on-Spey where we stayed. My brother had never seen a Capercaillie before, so that was our first target. Not an easy bird in August, but we faired well - first a beaten male, who obviously had a tough lekking season; then a close encounter with a female with two large chicks right on the road outside of Carrbridge. As usual, my camera failed on me and refused to produce sharp images of the male. The beautifully-patterned female was too close - so only portraits possible:

Then we tried for crossbills, checking some spots near Loch Garten in RSPB Abernethy Forest, without success, but had some Scottish Crested Tits. Always nice birds to see.
Our last spot was Lochindorb, that was completely empty - not a single bird in this heavily disturbed lake. The grouse shooting moors around the lake were packed full with stupidly-tame Red Grouse. Unnatural density of this game bird. Not a single harrier, falcon or eagle was to be seen. Sad testament of the ruthless persecution of Scottish raptors. It was lovely to see Red Grouse, my first actually, but sickening to think that today, Inglorious 12th, many of them will probably get killed on these moors. 

We did see a single Short-eared Owl hunting voles over the moors - lovely bird but my camera wouldn't focus properly. I have said this before, I really need to get a new camera. If anyone from Canon is reading this, my birthday is in October 馃槈

Juvenile Cuckoo

Speckeld Wood

Loch Morlich from the top of rainy Cairngorm Mountain

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Then it was the long drive back home to Norwich. I drove the car with my brother, while our families flew out from Inverness. We stopped for some birding in Northumberland - Coquet Island was full of birds but we were too late for a boat trip so scoping at 1.3 km is somewhat disappointing. Still we saw Roseate Terns and two lingering Puffins

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Scotland #3 - seabird extravaganza

Back home in Norwich already, but I have some more Scottish tales to tell. On July 31st we went out to sea with my mate Phil from Shetland Seabird Tours. We left Lerwick harbour and headed towards Noss NNR. Phil boat is great - small enough to get close to water level, but sits very well on the water. 
Noss is an impressive rock and has even more impressive gannet numbers - in fact 22,000 pairs breed there. The sea was somewhat choppier than normal but we all did well, especially Libby who fell asleep halfway through the trip...
The gannets there know their duty and showed up when they were invited by Phil. I was so unprofessional and forgot my small lens onshore. At these distances, my 500 was useless, so all these photos were taken with my phone. Phone photos should never be displayed on a computer screen, I know. But all in all they're not too bad I think, for phone photos at least.

Quite a few Bonxies joined the feast too:

As did the local Great Black-backed Gulls:

Most breeding gannets had Masked-Booby-like fluffy chicks still in the nest:

Lots of non-breeders too

Shags, made in 2017

On the way back we stopped for some seabirds away from the cliffs. We encountered some feeding concentrations of puffins and Arctic Terns. Closer views on Sumburgh Head but lovely to see them at sea:

Most Common Guillemots had already left - only few seen

Several Black Guillemots (Tysties) were loafing in the harbour - losing their summer plumage:

 Some more Arctic Terns in the harbour:

And a few Common Eider families: 

Back on land, one of the few Common Terns on Shetland was especially obliging just in the carpark:

Many thanks to Phil for the brilliant tour. Great fun and quality birding. Highly recommended to anyone visiting Shetland. Till next post...

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Scotland #2 - Stromie Nights

During two of the three nights on Shetland I joined the local ringing team on their routine storm-petrel sessions. I was very keen to join because the only previous stormie session I took part in (Spurn August 2008) was minimal with only two birds. So I really wanted to participate in a busy Shetland night session. We worked in RSPB Sumburgh Head, with all necessary permits obtained. The A-Team included Roger, Phil, Will and Paul among some others. Both nights were successsful: first night produced about 140 European Storm-petrels, and the second night about 170. Nights were still pretty short (trapping between midnight and 0300 only) so it was busy and we worked hard. Most of these birds are non-breeders. Interestingly, there was a huge turnover of birds with only two birds retrapped from previous sessions this season. They are lovely wee birds. Little is known about ageing them. I tried to make some sense of the variation in different patterns - more on this to follow.

European Storm-petrel

There was some variety too. On the first night Will heard a Swinhoe's Storm-petrel, but we never caught it. I really enjoyed handling Leach's Storm-petrels. On the first night we caught two, and on the second night another six (equal to Shetland record). They are super birds. So large and powerful compared to the toy Euro Stormies.

Leach's Storm-petrel

Some variation in rump pattern on these too:

I paid a day visit to Sumburgh Head with the family too. Light was harsh but Puffins are always pretty. Great to see so many from up-close.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Scotland #1 - Orca Superb

I have a long back-log to catch up with, so without further ado, here we go:

A week ago we left Norwich and started a three day long road-trip to Shetland. We stayed one night with our good friends in Filey, Mark and Amity. A quick morning birding session at some of Filey's best wetlands produced, well, not too much. Merlin was a good local bird 馃槉 And Mark was really impressed by eBird. Bird recording is actually great!
After another day on the road we stayed overnight in Edinburgh. Then another short ride to Aberdeen, to catch the ferry across to Lerwick. Beautiful weather made staying on the deck pleasant, for a while until the kids demanded food. There were Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises in the bay, some Goosanders, Kittiwakes etc. 
We were extremely lucky with the weather during our entire stay on Shetland. After we left the ferry and drove down south to our hosts in Sumburgh, we became aware of an Orca pod heading south from Lerwick along the coast. When we got to Roger and Agnes's. it was soon time to head out and intercept them on the nearby headland. 2 minutes walk from the house, 3 minutes wait and - boom! Orcas spotted. They swam in extremely close in, hugging the coast, into the smallest inlets, searching for seals. Adrenalin was rushing. Cameras were clicking. What a fantastic show. So much more impressive compared to the distant views I had in Vancouver last year.
It was a group of four individuals - a huge bull, a female he seems to fancy in recent times, another female and a cub. The bull is well known here - his local name is Busta. He's been seen in Shetland for about 20 years now. This pod travels regularly between Shetland and Iceland.
At first we all watched them from a small hill overlooking the bay, but quickly I deserted my parental duties and scrambled down a cliff to get closer to water level. They passed so close to me. I heard them breath. They splashed water with their tails (to disorientate seals) and I felt the spray. Simply breathtaking.

This fin means BIG TROUBLE 

Tasty Tystie snack in the background

Tail splashing

They passed so close to shore, searching for seals hiding in the tiniest crevices, practically climbing on rocks:


Before heading off south they started jumping our of the water together, apparently just for fun. Incredible.


Then they toured the entrance to Pool of Virkie, right by the airport. They were enjoyed by many admirers on Sumburgh head too, before heading up north along the west cooast.

We were so fortunate to encounter Orcas barely two hours after landing on Shetland, and even more by experiencing in such intensity. Simply one of my best wildlife experiences ever. Wow. It's been almost a week since, but Adrenalin is still rushing when I go through my photos.

More spectacular Shetland experiences to follow soon, so stay posted.