Friday, 30 December 2011

The end is nigh...

Well it's nearing the end of 2011 and what a year it has been for me. I would call this my first "proper" year of birding, looking more closely at what it is I am seeing in the wider countryside and making records instead of sticking to garden birds and a casual interest elsewhere.

The majority of the year from January to August was spent in Northern Ireland on a mid year industrial work placement from college with the Northern Ireland Forest Service. I was based in Castlewellan which allowed me to get out and see some wonderful areas whilst working and on my days off with Dundrum Bay / Murlough NNR being my "local patch". Whilst over there I had a week's holiday in County Kerry in the Republic which meant some stunning scenery and visits to places such as the Dingle Peninsula, Killarney National Park and the Skellig Islands. The rest of the year was spent back at home in Conon Bridge with two trips down to the Northumberland coast, based in the Alnwick area, within that time which is a wonderful stretch of coastline for birding and it really struck a chord with me.

Murlough NNR with Slieve Donard in background.
So as I sit here on the last day of 2011 my year list stands at a modest total of 119 species putting my life list up to 124. A lot of the birds I had seen before but this was the first time I had actually started making records. A fairly low number compared to other more experienced birders but a list that contains some very special memories and moments. I'm sure I probably saw a lot of things that went under the radar of my level of ID skills but I enjoyed every minute of it and I can see myself slowly getting better.

So let's talk about some highlights. The year started off with the coldest winter on record in NI as in other parts of the UK with lots of snow that drove fantastic numbers of birds into our garden. My favourite being the Lesser Redpolls. 6 regulars in total which kept visiting all the way up to when we left in August. I was also lucky to see Red Kites regularly from the house as we were inside the re-introduction area for this species which reminded me of home on the Black Isle another re-introduction area from the 80's where they are also regularly seen.

Cold Winter - N.Ireland
Lesser Redpoll - Carduelis cabaret
I will also never forget those Spring days spent down at Dundrum Bay with many Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps and the difficulties of getting a grasp on how to ID the two former species. A pair of non-breeding Whooper Swans were also reported and seen regularly in the bay throughout late Spring / early Summer, another species I hadn't seen before and definately didnt expect to see at that time of year. Another species that will forever remind me of my time in NI is the Pale-bellied Brent Goose which seemed to be everywhere along South East coast.

Whooper Swans - Cygnus cygnus

I have to admit one of my favourite groups of birds is the Corvids and I was quite pleased to be able to see all 8 UK and Ireland breeding species this year. Jays and Magpies are very rare in this area and according to the guides their ranges do not extend this far North however in N. Ireland they were a regular occurence. A major highlight, maybe even the highlight of the year was on the trip to County Kerry in South West Republic of Ireland that allowed me to see my first Choughs and their aerial acrobatics, superb to say the least!

Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
The Jackdaw roost at Castlewellan Forest Park was also always special to see and it had a beautiful but deafening feel about it.

Jackdaws coming in to roost - Castlewellan

The trip to Country Kerry in the Summer not only had the Chough and many other highlights but also the ultimate seabird experience from a boat trip to the Skellig Islands. This allowed me to have some brilliant close up views of thousands of Gannets, Fulmars, Razorbills, Common Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, Shags and the charismatic Puffins.

Fulmar - Fulmarus glacialis
Puffin - Fratercula arctica
Razorbill - Alca torda
The Black Guillemots were also a common sight at Newcastle Harbour, a few miles down the road from the house which was always nice to see.
Black Guillemot - Somateria mollissima at Newcastle Harbour
Come August and my Northern Ireland birding had come to an end and it was time to move back North, my eyes now opened to the addictive hobby and what can actually be out there in areas I wasn't aware of.

Come Autumn and I was lucky enough to visit Northumberland for a week to visit my dad at his new hotel not far from Alnwick ( Such a beautiful stretch of coastline, a birders paradise and my girlfriend and I visited many different areas. There were plenty of Eider ducks about (which is probably why it is on the NTBC's logo) with the adult males looking stunning. My first Sanderling on Low Newton beach and my very first Short-Eared owl spotted on the road just outside Seahouses made the trip very memorable and I can't wait to get back there.

Eider - Somateria mollissima

Towards the end of the year and I decided to start this blog and I am enjoying it so far and a handful more ticks which have been mentioned in previous posts including Long-Tailed Ducks, Yellowhammers and Crested Tits had rounded everything off nicely. I could go on forever about what I have seen this year but this post is already long enough! Big thanks to my girlfriend for putting up with me all year as I bombard her with everything bird (I think she enjoys a bit of birdwatching really) and creating some special memories from around the country.

Looking towards next year and it will be a busy time with college but I definately will continue this addictive hobby of birding and maybe even add a few more birds to the life list whilst enjoying all of the others too. I wonder if that Greater Yellowlegs is still at Loch Fleet? (Never been on a twitch before). I am looking into getting involved in ringing birds and with some local bird groups and conservation projects. So much to do, so little time!

Anyway thanks to anyone who has taken the time to read this, it has been quite a journey this year in birding terms and on a personal level and I hope you had a good christmas and all the best for 2012.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Crested Crackers...

Had the chance to get out for a short walk today after the festivities and burn off a few calories. We took the dog up to Abriachan (NH 54036 35334), a community owned woodland located high above the Western shores of Loch Ness which is undergoing a lot of positive changes and is a great place for the family to visit. On the drive up 3 Whooper Swans were seen on Loch Laide which included a 1st -winter. A walk through the mixed conifers from the car park produced numbers of Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Treecreeper, 1 Buzzard and a lovely male Great-Spotted Woodpecker. The highlight of the walk was 2 Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus another life tick for me (seem to be getting quite few of those in the remaining weeks of 2011 but unfortunately no camera today) and a bird which was part of the reason for coming to Abriachan. I love it when a plan comes together.

Hope you had a good Christmas!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Foulis and Ferry Point...

My girlfriend and I finally had a day free from any coursework, college or work but the weather was wet and fairly miserable so we decided to go to the Storehouse of Foulis for coffee and a bite to eat. Afterwards the weather had brightened up considerabley so we decided to go for a walk down at Ferry Point giving me a chance to do a bit of birdwatching too.

The tide was just starting to go out and large numbers of grey geese were coming in to land, again too far away for ID and the light was really poor. A quick scan around at the point held the usual gulls, Redshank, Wigeon, Carrion Crows and single male Goldeneye.

We then decided to take a walk up the East side of the River Peffery. Wood Pigeons and Blackbirds were numerous as were Robins. One of the residential Buzzards put in an appearance flying over our heads. Great Tits, Blue Tits and Chaffinches were also present. Then came the ticks. Teal on the river and Treecreeper and Goldcrest in the surrounding trees were enjoyed but the highlight of the walk came from a small group of 6 Yellowhammer, not only a site tick but a life tick for me and a bird I had wanted to see for sometime but did not expect it today.

Anyway this is my last blog til after Christmas so Merry Christmas, hope you have a good one!

Yellowhammer - Emberiza citrinella

Thursday, 22 December 2011

To Cromarty and back again, a birder's tale...

I had decided yesterday evening to check out some areas on the North Side of the Black Isle. After waking up a look out the window showed the weather to be very wet and gloomy but I didn't want to waste the day and decided to go out anyway.

After filling up at Tesco in Dingwall I headed back across the Cromarty Bridge and took the first left towards Cromarty. First stop was to check the fields around Findon Mains. I have been hoping to see some White-fronted and Pink-footed geese this winter and this was one of the places I was advised to check out by a fellow member of the Highland & Moray Birds Forum. Unfortunately there was no sign so I moved on.

The second stop of the day would be Newhall Point (NH 70952 67152). The weather was starting to brighten up a bit by this point and on the road down to the point I noticed a flock of approximately 50 Curlew feeding in a field and stopped to have a quick look in one of the passing places. Whilst parked a Sparrowhawk swept over a nearby hedge and flew straight up the road towards the car and over the top, a great view. 20 minutes spent scanning the area around the point produced a handful of Redshank, 2 Carrion Crow, 1 Oystercatcher, 1 Herring Gull, 4 Mallard, 12 Wood Pigeons, 1 Robin, 1 Fieldfare and a handful of Blackbirds.

Whilst standing at Newhall point I could hear a racket as the numbers of geese were building up at my next stop, Udale Bay. Whilst making my way along the road to Udale, more Redshanks and Oystercatchers were seen on the shoreline as well as Blackbirds and House Sparrows in the hedgerows and a Pheasant crossed the road in front of me.

Udale Bay is an RSPB reserve five miles West of Cromarty. It is an extensive area of mudflat, saltmarsh and wet grassland and attracts thousands of birds especially at this time of year. The best time to visit is an hour or two either side of high tide and today I had timed it just right. Views of the reserve can be obtained from the layby (NH712651) but there is also a hide if you wish. There was masses of birds on the reserve as the tide was going out including the hundreds of Geese heard earlier. Unfortunately the geese were too far away for me to ID with just binoculars but I was informed by another birder there that it was pretty much all Greylags and Pink-footed. A couple hours spent watching produced good numbers of Grey Geese spp., Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Shelduck, Redshank, Dunlin, Lapwing and Bar-tailed Godwits. There was also Mute Swans with juveniles, Carrion Crow, Hooded Crow, Starlings, Herring Gull, Greater Black Backed Gull, Lesser Black Backed Gull and Black Headed Gull. A count of 66 Curlew were in the field across the road from the layby. I am confident there were more species but without a scope it was difficult.

Udale Bay RSPB Reserve
I then made my way to Cromarty, parking at the habour and having a quick spot of lunch in the car. There was a mass of gulls in the Harbour and 10 Jackdaw. A small number of House Sparrows, Chaffinch and a Robin were in the hedges. I headed East from the Harbour along the beach. 16 Oyster Catcher were huddled together on the tide line and a little further on and a closer look produced a flock of 43 Ringed Plover.

View from Beach of Sutors of Cromarty
Oystercatcher - Haematopus ostralegus

By the time I had reached the end of the beach I had counted 5 Cormormants and 1 Red-Breasted Merganser feeding out in the bay and 2 Pied Wagtails on the shoreline. A single male Eider duck flew East out towards the North Sea. I retraced my steps back along the beach snapping a few of the gulls to test my ageing skills later on when something caught my eye about 50m from the shore. It was a group of superb looking Long-tailed Ducks. A group of 5, 4 males and 1 female. This species was a life tick for me and made the outing to Cromarty more than worth it. To top it off, two grey seals were also making an appearance in the background.

Male Long-Tailed Duck - Clangula hyemalis
Long-Tailed Ducks - 3 Male 1 Female

By now the clouds were getting very dark again and the wind was picking up. I made my way home via Dingwall so I could have a quick check at Ferry Point. A half hour spent scanning the shore produced c100 Greylag Gees, c80 Wigeon, 42 Redshank and c200 Dunlin. There were also Oytercatcher, Mute Swans, Mallards and 4 Goldeneye. The usual gull species were about and songbird species hanging around the carpark.

All in all a good day, a day I very nearly surrendered to the weather but I am very glad I didn't.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Tits with long tails...

A second and quick post on this Sunday afternoon as the snow continues to fall. Cold weather is driving the birds to the feeders in good numbers with all the usual suspects. A couple of Siskins have remained from the other day and they keep popping in and out. Goldfinch numbers are growing slowly with 3 seen today (the first solo one seen only a couple weeks ago). The highlight of the last couple days though has been a flock of Long-Tailed Tits which have been flitting in and around and feeding on the peanuts, with a count of 14 earlier today. The cold weather seems to push them into the garden each winter but they never hang around for more than a few seconds at a time. I did however manage a couple quick (fairly awful) shots yesterday but the light was almost gone at around 15:50. I've never seen them so numerous in the garden before with the biggest group usually 4 or 5, here's hoping they hang around for a while. Now I really must get on with that coursework!

Long-Tailed Tits - Aegithalos caudatus

Inverness Area (Sat 17th)...

The last weekend before Christmas and that means heading into the city to buy all those last bits and pieces for the following weekend. It was decided that I would meet my girlfriend in Inverness (where she lives herself) at 11:00 so that left me with a few hours before the nightmare of christmas shopping to get in some birdwatching, which involved leaving the house at 7:45 in the dark with a very heavy frost on the ground instead of snow that seemed to have fallen nearly everywhere else in the country (which is now falling very heavily whilst I write this).

After thumbing through Gordon Hamlett's excellent book Best Birdwatching Sites in the Scottish Highlands and the RSPB Highland Group's - The Top 52 birdwatching sites in the Highlands a couple nights before I decided to check out a couple areas just outside the main city. The first stop would be Milton of Culloden. This spot is an area of shore East of the Kessock Bridge just off the A96 to Nairn. There is a small layby to park at just after the railway bridge (NH 70545 46745) and you can then walk back towards Inverness either along the shoreline itself or along the the old shore road which is now closed off.

Looking back towards the city and the Kessock Bridge
The best time to be there is a couple hours either side of high tide and unfortunately I did not have that luxury due to plans later on and the tide was right out, but I decided to stroll along the beach and try my best. Upon exiting the car there were plenty of Herring and Black-headed Gulls and Carrion Crows flying around and feeding on the shore. It was obvious there were many birds at the tide line but they were just out of range for my level of ID skills. A mile long walk along the shore produced numbers of Curlew, Redshank, Oyster Catcher, Mallard, Wigeon, Lapwing and 48 Shelduck. I decided to walk the old shore road back which goes through some broadleaved woodland adjacent to farmland. This produced 30 Starling, 6 Blackbird, 2 Rook, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, a single Song Thrush, more Carrion Crows and 3 lovely plump looking Fieldfares in a neighbouring field. The highlight of the walk had to be a cracking view of 2 Treecreepers who were very obliging, allowing me within a couple metres to take some photos (see below).

Treecreeper  - Certhia familiaris

I returned to the car and drove about a mile further East along the road headed to Alturlie Point another spot described in the books mentioned earlier. Alturlie forms part of the Longman and Alturlie Point Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is part of the Inner Moray Firth Special Protection Area (SPA). By now it was 10:15 which didn't leave me long but I stopped at a couple of the laybys dotted along the road and scanned the area which produced similar species as earlier as well as 2 Rock Pipits and a close view of a Curlew at one stop. At the top of the road where it gets very close to the water's edge a good view of a male and female Red-Breasted Merganser rounded the morning off nicely.

Quick turnaround and back into the City to meet my girlfriend and the shopping wasn't too bad in the end!

Curlew - Numenius arquata

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


Woke up this morning to a very dull overcast wet day, but it was quickly brightened up by the appearance of 6 Eurasian Siskins (Carduelis spinus). This species is fairly common throughout the mixed woodland in the area but are not so common visitors to my garden feeders. There were 4 females and 2 males one of which had very striking plumage for this late on in the year.

Other birds seen around the garden today were 12 Greenfinch, 23 Chaffinch, 1 Goldfinch, 4 Blue Tit, 2 Great Tit, 2 Coal Tit, 4 Collared Dove, 2 Dunnock, 1 Robin, 7 Starlings, 5 Blackbirds & 4 House Sparrow.

Other birds of note were a Red Kite soaring above the field across the road giving good views. It was a wing-tagged bird with blue wing-tags but couldn't quite make out the code on them. 2 Buzzards also spotted over the same field and 36 Wood Pigeon on the telephone wire adjacent to the field.

Unfortunately the Siskins didn't stay long enough for me to get some photos but here is one of a stunning male to brighten up your day.

 Male Siskin - Photographer: drumbatter100 -

Monday, 12 December 2011

Gotta start somewhere...

Finally after some time I have decided to get my own blog. Not sure what I am doing but we'll see how it goes. I do enjoy reading blogs especially those of Beadnell Birding and Another Bird Blog and I highly doubt I will ever be as entertaining as them but I'll give it a go.