Wednesday, 29 August 2018

A few late August highlights from Pennington Flash

An eclipse drake garganey and at least two juvenile Mediterranean gulls were the highlights at the end of August and both are very predictable birds for this time of year. No less predictable is the continuing and alarming decline in waders. At the time of the Sabine's gull which was as recently as August 2015, there were two or three green sandpipers present throughout the month while in August 2013 it was possible to see six or seven green sandpipers at the Flash. In August 2018 there was a single bird on the 1st and another for a couple of days in the middle of the month, and that's it for green sandpipers this August.

In fact all waders have declined at the flash in recent years. It's now a red letter day if you find a dunlin or a redshank at the flash, and double figure counts of either are almost unheard of these days. Even common sandpipers are not that common. The peak month for common sandpiper is July, but this year we had just one or two birds where in previous years there have been close to double figures or more. On the 8th July 2006 I saw a flock (yes a flock) of 28 common sandpipers at Prescot Reservoirs in St Helens, and on the same day there were a further 12 at Eccleston Mere, imagine that at the Flash these days! It's cause for celebration if you see one now. Wood sandpipers are the stuff of legend these days.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Bonaparte's Gull, Hilbre Island

I resisted the temptation to twitch the Bonaparte's gull that appeared on the north Wirral shore a few days ago, but when it relocated to Hilbre Island yesterday, the opportunity to add it to my Hilbre list was too great and I headed out today and found it showing well from the obs balcony. It's an adult in non-breeding plumage.

Also today, around 500 Sandwich terns and six little egrets.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The dreary flows and an exciting crane

The highs and lows of birding, I drove back from Melvich to Inverness today and started off driving past Forsinard RSPB in the Caithness flow country, a place which I had been looking forward to seeing, but which I found dreary, overrated and disappointing, not a bit haunting to me, which is how I often hear it described. I find this a bit surprising since usually I love blanket bog. I guess that since I'd just spent a week surveying near Melvich, the last thing I needed was another vast expanse of birdless M17 Trichophorum cespitosum – Eriophorum vaginatum blanket mire. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood.

However fortunately much better was to come. Just a couple of miles south of Brora a common crane flew over the A9 right in front of me and quite low down. It was torrential rain at the time and it looked like it was trying to land. I was able to stop but it had disappeared behind a small hill and I couldn't relocate it. I drove on to the next parking spot and jumped out of the car, again in torrential rain, and spotted it in the distance, flying away from me but again looking like it was trying to land. Once more I got in the car and drove on another 1/2 mile past a few wheat fields until I could see a grassy field in the distance. I guessed that this is where it might be and pulled into a gateway to view the field. Sure enough the bird was in the field allowing me to fire off a couple of photos before it flew again, and this time I lost it for good.

It reminded me of a famous incident a few years ago when there was a much rarer Sandhill crane on Orkney which eventually flew south and was followed a good way down the east coast of Scotland by birders.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018


Mountain aven Dryas octopetala, I reckon that I could easily make a case for this being my favourite plant, and what finer location to see  it in than at sea level at Bettyhill, with the beautiful Torrisdale beach as a back drop?

Bettyhill is a famous botanical site on the extreme north of Scotland in the county of Sutherland, and is particularly noted not only for its rare flora, but also for mountain plants which here occur right down at sea level such as these mountain avens.

Sunday, 5 August 2018


Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

I knew that orca had been sighted in the Caithness area in the days before I left home for a week in the far north of Scotland, thanks to a series of messages being posted on the "Caithness and North Sutherland Cetacean sightings" Facebook group, but catching up with them was always going to be a challenge. They seemed pretty wide ranging, often going north into the Orkney archipelago as well as all around the coast to the west and south. I resigned myself to the fact that they were just the stuff of dreams, something to look out for while I was in the area, but not a serious proposition.

The town of Lossiemouth is on the most northerly point of the south coast of the Moray Firth near Inverness, and it can be hard to believe that from here there is still enough land left in the UK for you to be able to drive north for another four hours, but that's exactly what I was faced with today as I left my hotel and started my journey to Melvich on the extreme north coast of Scotland.

When I set off I had no intention of looking for orca, they were something I might look for on another day, today was just a day of travel. However, soon I received news that a family party of seven orca had been seen passing Duncansby Head near John O'Groats and later they were seen feeding to the north of Freswick Bay. I was tempted but would they hang around? It seemed the perfect day for viewing, with good light and relatively flat calm seas with just a light breeze, so I decided that it was just too good an opportunity to miss and I set my SatNav for John O'Groats.

Photo: Orca, bull #34 of the 27s pod.

Duncansby Head lies a mile or two to the north east of John O'Groats, a small, scattered village famous for being the most northerly inhabited point of mainland Britain. The scenery here is dominated by the islands of Orkney, less than 10 miles away to the north, whilst to the south lie the oddly shaped Stacks of Duncansby with their mighty cliffs and seabird colonies. It's a very wild and remote place, where the Pentland Firth meets the North Sea and though never matching the west coast for seascapes and rugged beauty, it has a remoteness almost unique in mainland Britain. None of that matters to me now though, Duncansby Head will be forever associated with surely the most dramatic and exciting wildlife experience of my life.

However all of that still seemed a long way off and the orca were still a dream, because at the moment that I set the SatNav for John O'Groats I was still a good two hour drive from where I needed to be. Would the orca stick around for that long?

Photo: Orca, bull #34 of the 27s pod.

After a long and thankfully uneventful drive I finally arrived at the car park at Duncansby Head and found that there were no obvious signs of whale watchers never mind whales. After such a long drive it would have been reassuring to have seen people looking out to sea through binoculars or telescopes, but if they were here then they were keeping a low profile and it looked like I'd have to do it alone. Unsure of what to do next and not even certain that I was in the right place for viewing, I headed to the highest point on the headland, the place that gave me the widest field of view, across the Pentland Firth to the north and the North Sea to the east.

The sea wasn't quite like glass, but it was probably as flat as it gets up here and the light was perfect. Surely if orcas were out there I'd see them? But no, there was nothing, not even a dolphin or a porpoise. All I could do was sit it out and wait and hope...

I didn't have long to wait! Suddenly I noticed something large moving through the water close in to the cliffs. I held my breath - surely not? Then I saw the dorsal fin.... incredibly it was two orca swimming right towards me! I allowed myself a moments celebration to fully take in the experience before realising that I could get a lot closer, I abandoned my vantage point and ran down to a fence at the top of the cliff, some 100m closer to the water. The orca were still coming towards me, pursued by a boat full of camera wielding tourists.!

Orca pods around the UK are given numbers to identify them and I have since learnt that these were two bulls from the 27s. Each individual of the pod is also given number and these are bulls #34 and #72.

Photo: Probably bull #34 of the 27s.

These photos don't really convey well the size of these animals, it's only when you have something familiar to compare them with that it becomes obvious.

Note the guillemot flying towards the orca, which helps give a sense of scale to the photo. The RSPB website gives the a wingspan of a guillemot as 64-73cm and its body length as 38-45cm. That dorsal fin must be at least 2.5x the length of the wingspan of the bird, making it around 1.8m (6ft) and making this probably a full grown adult male orca, which I'm fairly sure is bull #34. The males can grow up to 9.8m!

One of the orca (#34 I think), twisted over and then arched out of the water before raising and slapping it's tail. From reports on the Facebook group I knew that there should be seven orca in this pod, but there was no sign of the others. It almost felt like these two bull orcas were taking the boat away from the rest of the pod.

When the boat came up alongside this animal, its size was very apparent, it was huge, maybe half the length of the boat.

I've seen humpbacks behave like this in Australia.

Photo: Bulls #72 & 34.

This is a photo that I never thought I would take anywhere in the world, let alone in UK waters and from the mainland. To see an orca break the surface is one thing, to see it underwater like this is just a staggering experience, and especially so from mainland Britain. I have to pinch myself to remember that I was standing on the mainland when I took this photo, not on some remote Scottish island group, or on a guided boat tour miles out at sea, no, I was standing alone on the Scottish mainland. Like I said, staggering, the greatest wildlife experience of my life, enhanced because although I knew that they had been in the area, it felt like I'd found them for myself.

The nearest animal is bull #72 which at the time that I took the photo was estimated to be about 20 years old. Look at the size of the animal behind it but further under the water. This is bull #34 which is estimated to be 25 years old.

Eventually the orcas disappeared around the headland and I thought that I had seen the last of them and I had a walk to the stacks. However, on returning to my vantage point a little later, I noticed a boat stopped a respectable distance from what I took to be dolphins about half a mile out at sea. Closer investigation revealed that they were actually the orcas again, but this time all seven were together, and the animals which I had thought were dolphins were actually baby orcas with dolphin like curved dorsal fins. I watched them for about another 20 minutes until it started to rain and I decided that I needed to continue my journey.

What a fantastic day. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned that I called in briefly at Findhorn near Lossiemouth this morning and jamed onto a group of birders watching a stunning adult Pacific golden plover in full summer plumage. That's been almost forgotten now...

Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

Photo: Orca, bull #72 of the 27s pod.

Don't forget me! I was good too! Only my third ever Pacific golden plover in the UK and what a cracker, easily the best looking individual I've seen. This bird was at Findhorn, right at the start of my adventure today. Next time I see one of these will probably be back in Australia later this year.

The Stacks of Duncansby.

Duncansby lighthouse with Orkney behind.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Leucistic sandwich tern on the Ythan

This fabulous leucistic sandwich tern was with terns on the Ythan estuary in Aberdeenshire today. This bird was hatched here but has also been seen on Ainsdale beach in August 2017.

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