Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Wood Sandpiper, Newton Marsh

This wood sandpiper showed really well at Newton Marsh today and brings my UK year total to 220.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Eyeballing a Black-browed albatross, Bempton Cliffs

Fortunately I had a job over in East Yorkshire this morning which required a very early start and meant that I was on site and working by 6:30am. The plan was, do the job and then call in at nearby Southfield Reservoir in the hope of seeing a Caspian tern which had been reported sporadically over the past few days. However things didn't quite go to plan and a few hours later I found myself on my way to Bempton Cliffs, having just received an alert that there was a black-browed albatross on the cliffs in amongst the gannet colony. I didn't need black-browed albatross for the UK having seen one on Unst, Shetland in the mid-1980's, but that was nearly 40 years ago and I just couldn't miss such a great opportunity to connect with this magnificent bird. 

I arrived at Bempton and headed for the viewing platform where it had been showing. Unfortunately it was no longer on the cliff, it was now sitting on the sea and drifting away from Bempton towards Flamborough Head. I saw it through the scope but it was very distant, so I decided to have a walk along the cliff towards Flamborough to see if I could get closer. I walked quite a way, nearly as far as Thornwick Bay, but I couldn't relocate it and eventually gave up and walked back towards Bempton.

I'd nearly reached the first viewing platform on the way back when I stopped to talk to another birder. We were lamenting the fact that it had disappeared before we had chance to get a decent look at it when suddenly he broke off and exclaimed "It's going over our heads!" as an enormous shadow passed over us! For a brief second I was eyeball to eyeball with a black-browed albatross but then it was gone. We watched as it flew along the cliffs towards the viewing platform and then circled around a couple of times allowing us breathtaking views against the cliffs of Staple Newk, before heading off over the platform and continuing north. What a view, what an incredible experience!

Caspian tern, Southfield Reservoir

Photo: Caspian tern.

On my way back from Bempton Cliffs I still had time to call in at Southfield reservoir where fortunately the Caspian tern was present and showing well (whatever my photos may tell you!). Amazingly there have occasionally been two birds present. 

Caspian terns are fabulous birds, this was only my third in the UK but I've seen lots abroad, including Florida, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Highfield Moss

I called in at Highfield Moss SSSI today, which is just behind the Travelers Rest inn at Lowton. It's a good site for many species of plant which are otherwise scarce in the area and is particularly noted for having a declining population of marsh gentians. Today I was surprised to find sheep's-bit in flower. This is the first time I have seen this plant at the site and as far as I know it's the first site record, it's certainly not noted in the SSSI designation for the site. It's also the first time I have seen this species in Greater Manchester. 

It's not all good news though, I failed to find the petty whin which I had gone to see and the site looks really degraded to me, the sphagnum has been trampled and obliterated in many places and dogs allowed to crash into the water, which has caused lots of damage.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about the Moss, A Natural History of Highfield Moss, Lowton

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Observations of a spoonbill nest in Yorkshire

Spoonbills have bred again in West Yorkshire this year, little more than an hours drive from home. It still feels very strange to be saying that, to the extent that I am still very uncomfortable about giving the exact location, even though it's not a secret and the bird information services and even the RSPB openly report on the event. Two days ago there were apparently 18 adults in total and one fledged young, but today I could only find about five adults and one chick, though the rest were probably roosting in the adjacent willow trees.

I've called in twice this year, the first time on 6th April when I was fortunate enough to see them copulating, and again today when I saw the resultant chick.

The moment of conception.......

.......results in this annoying little so and so. What a pain in the backside. Actually does this count as a fledged bird? It doesn't look as though it's got flight feathers yet to me. I'm not sure how many pairs breed here, there was certainly at least one other sitting bird near to this nest and if there is another chick more advanced than this then perhaps there are three nests. The birds in the two videos are clearly the same family, the willow trees look very different now that they are in leaf but you can see from the shapes of the branches that the youngster in the second video is in exactly the same position as the pair in the first video above.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Papa Westray

Our last day on Orkney and we saved the best until last. We took the eight seater 15 minute Loganair flight to the remote Orkney island of Papa Westray, which included a brief stop to offload passengers at the nearby island of Westray before resuming with the shortest scheduled flight in the world, all of one minute from Westray to Papa Westray. Beautiful scenery, breathtaking sandy beaches and turquoise seas and glorious weather. A 10 mile walk around the island taking in the RSPB reserve at North Hill and the oldest surviving stone house in northern Europe, Knap of Howar which was occupied 3500BC and is even older than the houses at Skara Brae which we visited last week and which make the pyramids and Stonehenge seem like modern developments. I managed to find my own white-tailed eagle, apparently only the 7th record this year on the island following no records at all last year, and we visited the monument to the site of the last great auk nest in the UK.

At home at Loch of Swannay

I'm not sure if Orkney has a "county bird", but if it's not the fulmar then I'll be requiring a good explanation of why not. Fulmars are everywhere on Orkney, even nesting on the ground on North Ronaldsay (see previous post) and there are even places where they nest on inland freshwater lochs. 

We're staying for 10 nights in a house on the shores of one such loch, Loch of Swannay and the amount of birdlife here is just amazing. From dawn until dusk (currently around 03:30 to 23:00, though it never seems to go truly dark) we are surrounded by the calls of breeding waders. Curlews are the most predominant and seemingly all around the house, their bubbling song is with us constantly and they are permanently accompanied by the calls of at least one or more of redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing or common sandpiper.

Photo: Curlew.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

White-billed diver fly past at the Brough of Birsay

I arrived at the Brough of Birsay car park at about 7pm this evening. The sky to the north was black as a rain shower passed by, but thankfully it was dry and sunny where I was standing. Almost immediately I saw it, a large diver flying from east to west. I expected it to be the 1st summer great northern which I have seen here on several occasions recently, but on raising my binoculars it took an instant to realise that I was wrong! The birds ivory bill glowed in the bright sunlight and against the dark background and it's jizz was just so different to great northern, more like a giant red-throated diver with bill held slightly upwards. It was clearly a white-billed diver in full breeding plumage! It powered it's way past me and around the brough before veering southerly as it passed the island. What a sight! It looked like it might be dropping into the bay between here and Marwick head,  but I couldn't be certain and the bright setting sun in that direction made searching for it virtually impossible. Edit: two days later it was reported again in this bay.

The Brough of Birsay is on the north west tip of mainland Orkney and is about 7 miles from our accommodation. It's a tidal island which is accessible for about two hours either side of low tide. We had a gentle walk over at low tide on the 12th and everything seemed good, lots of seabirds, lots of flowers and a bright sunny day. Three days later it was a different story...

I've been going to the car park for the Brough most evenings hoping to see a dolphin or two, or even a whale. They are seen from here pretty regularly but not during my time on the islands. However on the 15th the tide was out and despite it being an evening of moderate winds and squally showers, I decided that I'd walk over to the island and have a look from there. I had a quiet amble around, splitting my time between looking out for cetaceans and watching the breeding seabirds. Puffins had been noticeably absent during our previous visit but tonight I noticed that there were plenty flying around the island and they seemed to be landing on the north side. I made my way over and saw a few on the grassy slopes. It was 8pm and I decided to stay here for a bit and watch them. Over to my right I could see that the causeway was already covered by water, the wind had dropped a bit and it was a beautiful evening..... shit! The causeway was already covered! I was now facing the possibility of spending the night on the island. By my reckoning the earliest I would be able to get off would be about 5am tomorrow! Forget the puffins, I legged it down to the causeway. The sea was rushing in fast but I reckoned I could make it. For about 10m I was ankle deep in fast flowing sea water but then the causeway raised a bit and I was one the otherside. It was a close shave. Fifteen minutes later would have been too late and I would have spent a very uncomfortable night on the island. Far too close for comfort.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The Old Man

Hoy is quite different to the rest of Orkney, with relatively big mountains and spectacular sea cliffs, and the Old Man of Hoy is one of the highest sea stacks in the UK. In truth you don't need to visit Hoy to get the best views of the Old Man, it's far more spectacular from aboard the Hamnavoe, the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. From the top of the cliff and close up it doesn't look as tall and in fact it is dwarfed by the impressive towering cliffs of St John's Head which rise to over three times the height of the Old Man.

Birds here are the usual Orkney favourites, with fulmars dominating and a full suite of sea birds including great and Arctic skuas. Of particular interest today, many male emperor moths were on the wing and flew past us at speed, refusing to land. Other interesting invertebrates included several green tiger beetles.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Stormies, Quail and Oysterplant at Brough Ness, South Ronaldsay

Photo: Oysterplant.

The forecast was pretty dire today so we planned a day in Kirkwall and various craft shops. In the end the forecast was wrong so we cut short our shopping trip and headed for the extreme southern end of Orkney, Brough Ness on South Ronaldsay. 

With great views over the Pentland Firth, we spent much of our time scanning the sea hoping for orca or any other cetacean. Our luck was out today, but I did manage to pick out a couple of storm petrels close inshore, and on one of the beaches we came across some nice patches of oysterplant in full flower.

After a stop in the Skerries Bistro we took the inland route back to the car an had curlews, redshanks and oystercatchers flying around us and about a kilometer east of Burwick we heard a very close but typically invisible quail calling.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Not so rosy at Yesnaby

Spectacular scenery and bracing winds at Yesnaby today, a truly memorable and exhilarating experience. However perhaps only my birding friends will understand the pain of getting home to find that an adult rose-coloured starling was found while we were there on one of the headlands visited. Not that I'm too bothered about rose-coloured starling because I've seen lots in recent years, but it would have been nice to add it to my self found list. It could have been worse though... a lot worse.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

North Ronaldsay

Photo: Arctic skua, North Ronaldsay.

There are only two ways to get to North Ronaldsay, the remotest of the inhabited islands of the Orkney archipelago, either fly or go by boat. The boat goes once a week and takes about three and a half hours from Kirkwall whereas the plane goes three times a day and takes 15 minutes, but can only carry eight passengers. We chose the latter. 

The day started well when a male hen harrier drifted past as we were taxiing down the runway at Kirkwall. North Ronaldsay itself failed to produce the hoped for June mega today, but we had some excellent birding non-the-less. The highlight was probably the six great northern divers, three of which were in breeding plumage, but there were many other highlights including the summer plumage sanderling, turnstone and dunlin on the beach and the masses of Arctic terns and fulmars, the latter nesting everywhere including on the ground (see separate blog post). 

Ground nesting Fulmars on North Ronaldsay

On of the features of our visit to North Ronaldsay today was the ground nesting fulmars. All along the drystone walls near the sea and even occasionally just on the grass right out in the open there were fulmar nests. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it before. Occasionally you'd be walking along looking out to sea and you'd inadvertently walk within inches of a nest, much to the chagrin of the occupier. I guess that the reason they nest like this is of the lack of cliff habitat available, but just as importantly the lack of predators on the island.

Ring-necked duck, Peedie Sea, Kirkwall

Ring-necked duck at Kirkwall, Orkney yesterday, showing that not every aythya with a tuft is a tufted duck. Ring-necked ducks often have tufts as they enter eclipse. Ironically this was the only partial eclipse that we saw today. The partial solar eclipse that was meant to be visible from Orkney around lunch time was completely obscured by the clouds.

This was my third ring-necked duck this year, but I'm always pleased to see this species.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Whale watching and seabirds at Marwick Head

Photo: Minke whale.

A dull grey day with occasional drizzly rain couldn't dampen the excitement at Marwick Head. Perched on top of a spectacular sea cliff we watched at least two probably three minke whales feeding. The cliffs below held sizable populations of guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and a few puffins, all crammed into every available space and if any of them dared to leave their ledges they were harassed by marauding bonxies and arctic skuas. On our way back to the car a corncrake called from an iris bed but refused to show itself.

Skara Brae

We spent a couple of hours at Skara Brae, the Neolithic village on Orkney which at 5000 years old is older than the pyramids or Stonehenge. It was discovered in 1850 when a severe storm blew away part of a sand dune which buried the village and it is pretty much in the state it was in when it was discovered. 

Not much to report from a wildlife point of view, just a couple of bonxies which flew over and the usual waders round about, curlew, redshank and oystercatcher.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Broch of Gurness, Orkney

At Broch of Gurness today, an amazing flock of 71 black guillemots. I don't think I've ever seen such a large flock before. Most of the bird action today was from the kitchen window or the garden of our accommodation at Loch of Swannay, with hen harrier, short-eared owl, 4 red-throated divers, great skuas, bubbling curlew, displaying redshank, oystercatcher and common sandpipers and a calling cuckoo.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Skipi Geo

Our first day on Orkney following a cetacean free crossing on the Hamnavoe this morning and our first stop was the Brough of Birsay and Skipi Geo, where we found a small arctic tern colony in amongst the glorious thrift on top of one of the stacks.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Whale watching at Duncansby Head

Duncansby Head at John O'Groats is one of the top cetacean watching places in mainland Britain and is where I saw a pod of orcas in August 2018. Tonight we are staying near Thurso in preparation for our ferry over to Orkney tomorrow, so what better way to pass an afternoon than a walk along the cliffs to the stacks and then down to the nearby beach at the Bay of Sannick.

This is as wild a place as any I have been, there is a tremendous feeling of remoteness here. The cliffs are full of seabirds, mainly fulmars but also four species of auk, kittiwakes and shag, and they are harassed by patrolling bonxies.

But in my opinion it is that stretch of sea between the mainland and Orkney, known as the Pentland Firth, where the real excitement is, because this is where the whales and dolphins are usually seen.

It didn't disappoint today, I had a nice view of a minke whale breaking the surface several times in amongst a large raft of auks, before finally arching its back and deep diving. Perhaps surprisingly given how many other species of cetacean I have seen, this was my first minke but my seventh species of whale overall, following blue, fin, sperm, southern right, humpback and northern bottle-nosed.

Also today, a nice view of a Risso's dolphin which was about my fourth or fifth sighting of the species.

Saturday, 5 June 2021


On our way north Elaine and I stopped off for the night at Grantown on Spey and we took the opportunity to visit nearby Loch an Eilein and the Caledonian Pine forest at Rothiemurchus. I first called in here in July 1979 with my Dad on our way home from our first visit to Ullapool. On that day we managed to see crested tits and Scottish crossbill, in what were simpler times, when we counted any crossbill in the Rothiemurchus area as Scottish. 

These days I'm not even sure what a Scottish crossbill is, but the most recent study of similar habitat in Abernethy from 20 years ago, suggests that there is a 74% chance that the 10 crossbills I saw at Rothiemurchus today are in fact parrot crossbills, with an 18% possibility that they are common and only an 8% chance that they are Scottish. The only way to be certain is to record the call, but unfortunately I couldn't manage that today.

Also today, a single crested tit, a male redstart, singing tree pipits and several siskins.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Great Reed Warbler, Nottinghamshire

A great reed warbler singing at Besthorpe Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire was my 5th in the UK but not even a county tick, and in fact four of the five have now been in the midlands.

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