Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Back for the Albatross

I thought I'd seen the last of the black-browed albatross at Bempton Cliffs, at least for this year, but then a green warbler was found nearby at Buckton a few days ago and the albatross suddenly became part of a good supporting cast which also included the white-tailed plover at Blacktoft. The request was that birders going for the green warbler should park only in the Bempton Cliffs car park and that being the case it was unthinkable that we should not have another look at the albatross as well.

After about an hour at Buckton it was obvious to me that the green warbler had departed overnight so I decided to spend my time more productively by watching the gannet colony and hoping to see the albatross.

When I arrived at Staple Newk it was sitting on the cliff out of view from either of the nearest viewpoints, but after a wait of about 90 minutes it flew out, circled around a couple of times and then headed out to sea and I lost it. Perhaps not as exciting as my previous visits but always an awesome sight.

I've not yet managed the incredible views that some people have had, though I did see it down to a few meters on my first visit, but even so I think I've done pretty well with this bird. I've now seen it on each of the three occasions I've been for it, and compare that to a guy I was standing next to who was hoping to finally see the bird today at the seventh attempt. I'm not even sure he saw it today, I don't remember him still being there when the bird flew and it was only really viewable for about a minute before landing miles away on the sea.

White-tailed lapwing, Blacktoft

The white-tailed lapwing is still at Blacktoft RSPB and today was showing from the Townend hide. The light was much better than last time I was here so I managed a few slightly better photos. It's clearly heavily moulting and I guess that it's likely to stay at least until the moult is complete.

Also today an otter swam across one of the channels to the left of Singleton hide, the first I have seen at Blacktoft.

The snipe is clearly the star of this photo!

Monday, 13 September 2021

They're back!

They're back! Winter is here. 85 pink-footed at Marshside today including this flock, just a day later than my earliest ever.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Hummingbird hawkmoth

Hummingbird hawkmoth at Robin Hood's Bay today, the first I have seen in the UK for several years.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

White-tailed lapwing, Blacktoft

There's been a white-tailed lapwing at Blacktoft RSPB for the past week or so and today I finally got the opportunity to call in for a look. It's the seventh for the UK and my third following birds at Seaforth (2010) and Leighton Moss (2007). The Seaforth bird was a pristine spring adult, occasionally showing down to 10m or less, and todays bird doesn't come close to that, but even so it showed very well, though occasionally it disappeared behind one of the islands or tall vegetation.

There was a brief sighting of what was presumably the same bird in Kent in early June, but nothing since and these records were the first for eleven years, so when it turned up at Blacktoft about a week ago there were queues to get into the hide. However, when I arrived this morning at 10:30 the car park was barely half full and though the hide was busy, there was space and certainly no queues. 

It brings the wader count on the reserve to an impressive 52 species and by Blacktoft standards it's actually not that rare. Back in the 1980s I saw two firsts for Britain here, Hudsonian godwit and Red-necked stint.

Other waders today included 2 little stints, 2 spotted redshanks, 4 green sandpipers and about 30 dunlin. On the way home I called in at Southfield reservoir where there was a black tern which was my first of the year.

Year list: 238 (White-tailed lapwing, spotted redshank, black tern)

It's heavily moulting and is actually quite a tatty looking individual, although to be fair my photos don't do it any favours!

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Black redstarts, Winter Hill

Black redstarts are pretty frequent at Winter Hill mast compound and in the past week there have been up to four birds present. They can be very elusive and in a three hour search today I managed to see two for a few minutes, but not well enough to be able to decide if they were juveniles or females. This particular bird was flycatching off the wall of the building.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Hobbies at Oswestry

Photo: Hobby © Roland Neumann.

Working near Oswestry today and a rather dull morning was enlivened by a family party of hobbies which flew right overhead, no more than perhaps 15m above me. They were playing and calling, twisting around in the sky chasing each other. They didn't just go over, they stayed with me for three or four minutes circling around and giving me one of my greatest ever hobby experiences before disappearing over a nearby woodland. I didn't have my camera with me which was initially disappointing but perhaps it was just as well, because I could fully concentrate on the unfolding experience without watching it through a view finder and worrying about the next photo. 

Friday, 27 August 2021

Coneheads and Maidenhair at Arnside

Arnside Knott is one of our favourite walks, with views that just seem to get better and better, looking over the Kent estuary, Morecambe bay and the Lake District. The outward leg starts off as a coastal walk from Arnside and the return goes over the Knott before dropping back down into the town. It's one of the top spots in Lancashire for wildlife, which includes butterflies such as high brown fritillary, northern brown argus and Scotch Argus and it's very rich botanically with plants such as fly orchid, dark-red helleborine, maidenhair fern and Teesdale violet.

A few years ago I found a population of short-winged coneheads crickets on the saltmarsh at White Creek. The only other place I have seen these insects in north west England is at Marshside, Southport.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Ainsdale Beach

This wonderful adult male wheatear on Ainsdale beach today made a pleasant change from all of the juveniles I've seen recently. I can't say I've ever seen such a stunning autumn male before, the black mask bordered by white eye stripe and throat contrasting wonderfully with the ochre coloured breast and brown back, and note the black wings with pale fringes. Just beautiful, at least the match of any spring wheatear. Presumably the deep colours make this a Greenland race bird Leucorhoa. There were also three juvenile wheatears nearby. 

Apart from the deeper colours, Leucorhoa is also said to be larger with longer wings and a more upright stance and these photos seem to show the latter though size and wing length are harder to judge.  

Unfortunately though, I don't think that it's possible to be certain of the identification of Leucorhoa in the field.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Stac Pollaidh

My last day in the beautiful North West Highlands and it was the best day of the lot for weather. Before today I hadn't seen much of the mountains here due to mist, low cloud or drizzle, but today it all cleared up and Inverpolly was revealed in all of it's glory.

When it's like this it truly can be described as the most beautiful and spectacular part of the UK and despite the large increase in tourists this year, virtually all of it is still remote and devoid of people. Today I decided to make the most of the weather and go to the place where I was likely to get the best views of all, the summit of Stac Pollaidh..... or to be more accurate, as close to the summit as I was prepared to go.   

Stac Pollaidh is not a very high mountain, at 612m, 2008 feet it's nowhere near the height needed to qualify as a Munro but it is a very spectacular mountain largely because it rises from relatively flat and low lying ground. The actual summit is a very difficult and dangerous scramble, one the the hardest in the UK apparently and is not a place that I am remotely interested in getting to. Fortunately there is a ridge just below the summit which allows incredible views which are good enough for me and most other people.

Rhue Lighthouse

After visiting Stac Pollaidh I still had an hour to kill before I needed to leave for Inverness airport so I headed for Rhue Lighthouse just about four miles north of Ullapool on Loch Broom. 

I was on my own for most of the time, just sitting on the edge of the rocks looking out to sea. It was still and calm and very relaxing, a very pleasant end to my trip. An otter fished close by and a summer plumage red-throated diver was in the bay. Further out there were gannets and a black guillemot, but I didn't see any of the harbour porpoise that I had seen here from the ferry yesterday.


Thursday, 19 August 2021

From the Ullapool to Stornoway Ferry

No visit to Ullapool is complete without a day trip on the ferry to Stornoway and back. It's not as good a dedicated whale watching trip, but at £20 a head as a foot passenger it's a lot cheaper and offers the chance of seeing a few decent cetaceans and seabirds. Today I caught the 10:30am ferry from Ullapool, we arrived at Stornoway at 1pm and left at 2pm, back in Ullapool for 4:45pm. If you want to go ashore you've hardly got time to get past the ferry car park at Stornoway before you need to be back on the boat but then that's not what I was here for. I was here for the boat journey.

The plan is pretty much the same as on the whale watching trip, look out for large groups of sea birds feeding and if you find one you may well have hit the jackpot. The only problem is the ferry just ploughs on, sticking to it's set course and speed and doesn't really care too much about what you have seen. It's not going to stop to let you have a closer look, you have to rely on birds and cetaceans being close enough and obliging enough for you to get a decent look at them. 

The photo above is looking south from the ferry towards Skye, you can even make out the Old Man of Storr and in the foreground you can see a flock of gannets feeding. A couple of minutes scanning through these and a minke whale revealed itself briefly about four times. Not a great view but decent enough to get a positive identification.

Bits and pieces from Inverpolly

I shouldn't really use the label "Bits and pieces from Inverpolly" when I'm talking about some of the most beautiful of British birds in one of the most spectacular parts of the country. Today I counted five black-throated and seven red-throated divers all in summer plumage on various lochs as I drove to Ullapool and back for my ferry trip. These really are up there amongst my favourite birds, completely different species to the winter plumage birds we see around the coast. I think you should get an extra tick for summer plumage divers. 

My very first trips to Inverpolly back in the 1970's were specifically to see these birds on their breeding grounds and they still give me a thrill to this day.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Rose-coloured Starling, Stoer

Two days ago I stopped off at the tiny village of Stoer just north of Lochinver, hoping to see a rose-coloured starling that had been reported a few days earlier. I didn't see that bird but while I was looking a white-tailed eagle flew over low and provided some consolation. Today I returned and found the starling showing well on feeders in one of the gardens. Not a bad village list for me so far!

It's a rather bedraggled looking individual not helped by the dull, drizzly weather. At first I thought that it was an adult but I now consider it a 1st summer due to the brown rather than black nape.

Only my third 'adult' rose-coloured starling.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Whale watching in the Minch

When I made plans to visit northern Scotland in the middle of August, my main hope was that I would see a few whales and dolphins because late summer is a peak time for seeing them. It was always going to be a longshot because as somebody said, "there's a whole lot of nothing out there" and I expected long periods of seeing nothing except the sea, but my attitude is if you don't try you don't see so get out there and give it a go. I certainly won't see them sat at home.

There are three requirements when it comes to seeing cetaceans. Firstly you need to go to the right places, secondly you need to go at the correct time of year and finally you need a huge slice of luck. With this in mind, today was always going to be the big day, a trip out into the Minch with Hebridean Whale Cruises from Gairloch. It was the right time of year and if anybody could get me to the right places it was these guys. Now I just needed the luck.

Just getting on the trip was a mammoth achievement because the bookings go so fast, especially this year when due to Covid restrictions they have been running less trips. For three weeks prior to the bookings becoming available online I had checked five or six times a day, morning, noon and night, it was almost an obsession, hoping to be able to book for today, the 17th August and the only day I could really make this week without disrupting my entire holiday. Finally, just after midnight last Thursday, the dates appeared and at 5:30am the same day I booked my place. Less than 12 hours later the trip was sold out.

I've been on plenty of whale watching trips in the past, especially off Australia and New Zealand, but it was obvious right from the start that this was going to be a trip unlike any other that I have been on. All of the other trips allow you to wander freely around on a largish boat in your own clothing, often with small children wandering around and the Australian trips in particular provide you with a cup of tea and a slice of cake, all very civilised. Not this one. First we had to don full waterproof gear as provided by the company, thick padded stuff to keep you warm as well as dry, and over that we had to put on a life jacket. 

Then there was the seating arrangements. There was only space for 12 people to sit and on our trip we only had 10 to allow a bit more space between us, though I really don't think that Covid could have survived this trip! They weren't normal seats, it was more like sitting on a horse with the seat between your legs with a small hand rail on the back of the seat in front for you to hold onto. There would be no wandering around on this boat, no toilets and certainly no tea and cake or small children. This boat was built for speed.

It was a four and a half hour trip covering a large area of the Minch, the sea between mainland Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. Our route took us from Gairloch to the north end of Skye, then up to the Shiant Islands off Lewis and a little further north beyond that, before turning and heading back to Gairloch.  Fortunately I remembered to plot the route on an app on my phone and we covered about 72 miles in total.

Wildlife in the oceans tends to be concentrated around food sources and so large parts of the trip involved moving at high speed, bouncing over waves with spray crashing over the boat as we made our way to and from favoured feeding grounds. On the way back especially we must have endured a full 45 minutes of this, every 30 seconds spray covered the boat, it was like taking a never ending shower with all of your clothes on and it was relentless. Relentless, wonderful and exhilarating, with breathtaking scenery as we made our way past the islands. It was worth the money for the journey back alone, real high octane stuff, the kind of thing that some people pay good money for minus the whales and dolphins!

The whole trip was just a wonderful experience from start to finish. When we arrived back at the harbour I could barely walk when I got off the boat!

Minke whale probably juvenile.

We saw at least two minke whales, an adult and a juvenile. The animal at the top of the post is the adult. Juveniles don't accompany their parents and these two probably aren't related, they've just been brought together by a convenient food supply. We watched them feeding in amongst the gannets for a good 30 minutes, occasionally lunge feeding. The juvenile surfaced right by the boat on one occasion, so close I could hear it's blow. What an experience.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Thurso to Ullapool

Highlight today was this fabulous adult white-tailed eagle which flew over head at Stoer, just north of Lochinver. This is the first sea eagle I have seen on the Scottish mainland, most of the others have been on the Hebrides with a single sighting on Papa Westray, Orkney earlier this year.

It's a beautiful drive from Thurso to Ullapool and includes many of my favourite places such as Strathy Point, Bettyhill, Tongue, Durness and Inverpolly. Today I concentrated mainly on the north coast of Scotland because over the next few days I'll be staying in Inverpolly and will get plenty of time to see that area. 

Strathy point in Sutherland is a headland which can be good for cetaceans but not today for me. 

I was pleased to see these twite at Strathy Point.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Sinclairs Bay

A very enjoyable day today spent at Sinclair's Bay, just north of Wick. I started off at Keiss beach which is just wonderful, with miles of beach which was more or less devoid of people, or at least it was while I was there first thing this morning. A really nice selection of waders on the beach including sanderling, bar-tailed godwit, grey plover, dunlin, ringed plover and most surprising of all, a juvenile ruff.

Small groups of swallows were heading south west for the duration on my visit and in total probably numbered a few hundred, whilst on the sea there were three species of diver, two each of red-throated and black-throated and three great northerns. A pale phase arctic skua harried the terns on the beach.

Later in the day I parked at Ackergill and walked along the coast to Noss Head lighthouse via the ruined Castle Sinclair.

Arctic skua with Noss Head in the background.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

Thurso to Duncansby Head

What's not to love about a fulmar chick??? Reminds me a bit of a dodo actually. The St Kildan's used to eat these in their thousands every year and put their oil to use in a variety of ways. Fulmars are such an integral part of any seabird colony these days that it would be easy to assume that they have been around forever, but actually up until 1878 St Kilda was the only known breeding site for fulmars in the UK.

Not much to report today, I spent 90 minutes on a boat sailing around the island of Stroma and then Duncansby Head where the cliffs are now largely devoid of seabirds. Plenty of gannets over the sea and a few great skuas and black guillemots, but not much else. Then it was on to Scrabster where the highlight was a good look at the great yellow bumblebees on the ferry road, before walking a few miles around Holborn Head scanning the sea all of the time. Finally this evening I spent time near Old Wick Castle again scanning over the sea, but not a cetacean to be seen anywhere all day.

Great Yellow Bumblebee, Scrabster

Great yellow bumblebee is the rarest bumblebee found in the UK. It's only found in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and the extreme north coast of mainland Scotland, especially Caithness which is where I am at the moment. These bees were photographed at Scrabster, near the Orkney ferry terminal.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Bottle-nosed dolphins, Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point on the Black Isle near Inverness is one of the best places in the UK to watch bottle-nosed dolphins from land. Today there was a pod of about 20 dolphins which contained at least three calves.

I've just started a week long tour of northern Scotland hoping to see a few whales and dolphins and this was a great start. I'll be spending a few days in the north east around John O'Groats before heading west along the north coast of Scotland to Durness and then dropping down to Ullapool. It can be all very hit and miss with cetaceans and I might spend the next seven days watching the sea, but I've got three boat trips planned which should give me a better than average chance, plus hopefully I'll see a few decent birds as well. Whatever happens it should be a great experience. Today at Chanonry Point, three summer plumage red-thoated divers flew past, a black guillemot, 20 gannets and a few each of Sandwich and common terns.

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