Saturday, 28 March 2015

Roll with it

22 March 2015

The Cairngorms

Before we headed north I had hoped we'd be able to see Ptarmigan, a species I have only seen once before, and maybe a Golden Eagle, but this would mean driving into the Cairngorms and having a lot of luck with the weather and the birds. Gary had been unsure, suggesting we stick to the coast. However our luck had stuck on Saturday and after a fabulous day we were sat overlooking Portsoy and seven brilliant White-billed Divers in the late evening sunshine with just one decision to make - where to spend the night. 

We discussed the options; Brora for the other Harlequin, stay near Portsoy or Aviemore and the Cairngorms. When Gary suggested Aviemore I immediately agreed and set off towards the car before he had time to change his mind. We packed up and began the drive south into the mountains. An hour and a half later we were driving through Aviemore with the most stunning scenic backdrop across the high snowy tops, lit by a beautiful sunset. We found a smart, new Motel at the far end of the town and checked in for the night. We found an excellent Indian restaurant a short walk along the road where we enjoyed a hearty evening meal.

We were up early after a clear and very cold night. First stop was Tulloch Moor where a screen usually affords views of a Black Grouse lek. The screen was there but unfortunately the Grouse were not - not the ideal start - had our luck run out. We did enjoy three Goldeneye zooming around with their whistling wings very audible overhead in the still, quiet air and a Redpoll flew over. 

Tulloch Moor - from the screen
We drove down to Loch Garten to check the feeders around the car park. Gary was confident we'd find Crested Tit here, but after about 45 minutes we'd seen just a smart, though rather grey, Red Squirrel, lots of Chaffinch and Coal Tits.  

A much redder Red Squirrel

We wandered back to the car park and were about to give up when some photographers arrived. They asked if we'd seen Crested Tit on the feeders and as I said 'No' a small bird flicked in from the left - a Crested Tit! We moved closer and grabbed a couple of images, then settled down awaiting its return. 

Crested Tit
Coal Tit
We had assumed it would be back, but 45 minutes later we had seen just Coal Tits, Chaffinches, a Treecreeper, a Great-spotted Woodpecker, Blue and Great Tit and two Red Squirrel, but no Crested Tit. A group arrived and stood behind us, loudly calling out every bird that appeared. I was starting to think there was no chance it would be back, when I noticed a small bird flitting in from the bushes behind the feeders. Finally after an hour we had a Crested Tit back on the feeders. The light had at least improved, but the bird did not perform like the first one. However a few more images were taken before it flew back into the forest.

With time moving on we decided to push on to Cairngorm. We made our way to the car park and then set off walking the path to the right, up into the Col to find some snow and hopefully a Ptarmigan. As we climbed higher we found several boisterous Red Grouse which were starting to be territorial.

Panoramic view of Cairngorm from the car park
Looking up to the Col
The path to the Col
Red Grouse

Snow was in patches, and there was no obvious snow line. This suggested any Ptarmigan might be too high up and a passing birder gave negative news on his way back down, reporting too much disturbance. He did tell us that someone had seen birds at the top, having taken the funicular railway up to the cafe. We briefly discussed our options, and considered joining him on the train up to the top. However as I stared across the Col at some larger snow patches I just couldn't believe there wasn't a chance, so I set off across the mountain towards the crag above. Having crossed two streams and a large area of frozen snow I looked down to find a white feather at my feet - a Ptarmigan feather! Motivated I pushed on across the next area of snow and further up the increasingly steep slope. Half way across I noticed a snow ball looking back at me near some rocks - result! Over the next 45 minutes we enjoyed fantastic views of a brilliant pair of Ptarmigan feeding around our feet - what cracking birds.

Female still in winter plumage
Male with his red eyebrows and mottled spring shades

Panoramic view of the path to the col, Cairngorm
With just enough time to give the Findhorn Valley a look we returned to the car seeing several more Red Grouse including a very close and incredibly camouflaged female beside the path. 
Stunning adult male Red Grouse
The only way to shoot our only endemic (sub) species
A very tame and well camouflaged female in the low heather

We stopped briefly at Lake Morlich, mainly to retrieve a map from the car boot. As I pulled up beside the lake a Diver disappeared under the water just offshore - as it surfaced I was delighted to see a stunning pair of Red-throated Divers resplendent in their summer dress. Across the lake we found four Tufted Duck, 3 Whooper Swan, 6 Teal and a pair of Goosander.

Panoramic view of Loch Morlich
We continued on to Tomatin turning off the main road into the Findhorn Valley. I have once previously visited this site and my recollections were of a bleak, forbidden and desolate place. Today with the sun finally starting to break through the clouds I found a far more beautiful, and welcoming valley than I remembered from that cold, gloomy and windy day. We drove to the far end and parked. A small herd of Red Deer high on the opposite hills and several white Mountain Hares were soon picked out, though birds were initially fairly slow - Ravens and a distant Kestrel to add to the Grey Wagtail and Common Buzzards we saw on the way down.

Looking up the Findhorn Valley from the car park
Looking back up the road
Having seen the Mountain Hares on the opposite slopes I scanned behind us and was delighted to find one hiding not far up the hill. We grabbed the cameras and stealthily approached, grabbing a few images before it retreated higher up. A second one sat up in the rocks and allowed a slightly closer approach. Safely back at the car park we started to scan the skyline above the hills. Gary soon picked up a large raptor and as I got on it with the scope we quickly agreed it was an adult White-tailed Eagle. As we watched it circling a second bird joined it - a 3rd winter White-tailed Eagle! We watched them circling around for about five minutes before they split up and drifted away over the hill top. 

Mountain Hare

As I found more Ravens and with just ten minutes before we had to leave Gary called another large bird of prey down the valley. It was very distant and initially we tried to convince ourselves it was a Buzzard, until it turned towards us to reveal hugely upturned 'hands'. As I called Golden Eagle it turned to reveal distinctive white underwing stripes and a white tail base. After a few minutes it landed on top of the hill, so we quickly packed up and drove back down the valley in the vain hope it might get up again. Just after setting up scopes it miraculously took flight, gave two circles and went over the hill and out of view. We were both delighted with the day, hardly believing our luck. 

Some more Mountain Hares were feeding in a large grassy slope - however these had all moulted from their winter coats to summer brown, leaving us to wonder whether the snow melting causes the hares to moult, or whether the moulted hares find the brown grass areas while the white ones seek out pale rocky slopes?

Panoramic view of the Findhorn Valley
We packed up and drove back towards the main road. A conveniently located lay-by behind the hill where the Eagle flew caused me to pause. Gary had to look through the windscreen as I scanned the skyline from the car window. Despite this inconvenience (binoculars don't focus well through curved glass windscreens) he saw two large birds crossing the valley; one was a Raven but the other was clearly a bird of prey and as I looked through the screen I had no doubt what it was - an adult Golden Eagle. I got the scope on it and enjoyed reasonable views as it drifted behind the trees. Thinking our day had ended on an amazing high I was about to put the scope away when the eagle reappeared and incredibly turned to fly straight down the road towards us! It began circling again showing off its wonderful golden nape in the evening sunshine. We enjoyed great views before it turned and flew away behind the trees, finally bringing our day to an unbelievable end. 

As we left the Findhorn Valley Lenticular clouds, looking like myriad flying saucers, filled the air and as we arrived in Aberdeen the sunset through them was truly spectacular, but unfortunately we could not stop on the dual carriageway to photograph it.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Clowns and Divers

21 March 2015


March can be a relatively static and consequently dull month in the Kentish birding calendar. It's not that there isn't much to see, just that the various wintering scarcities have been here all winter and have been seen many times. The winter birds are leaving and the summer birds have not yet arrived, so with little turnover there is little new to be found. I fancied something different and with Mac busy at a garden designers conference and a sponsored walk all weekend I suggested to Gary we headed north for something a little different.

I briefly contemplated driving, but once I checked the cost of an Easyjet flight we soon booked. In the end the flights, hire car and airport parking cost less than just the cost of the diesel and meant a relatively reasonable start time and not feeling exhausted after a long overnight drive. 

We arrived in Aberdeen about 09:30 picked up a brand new upgraded car from Enterprise and drove the short distance to Seaton Park where a first-winter male Harlequin duck had been wintering. It had disappeared from time to time, but we arrived to news of its presence and after a short walk, slightly distracted by a pair of Goosander and a Dipper, we were soon admiring this super duck. 

Drake Goosander
Goosander pair
We enjoyed views for the next hour as it fed in the strong current. Two fishermen arrived on the bank at the same time as two dogs went for swim, and it all proved too much for the duck which set off upriver. We wandered back to the car park enjoying better views of the Dipper.

First view across the river - Harlequin!

Amazingly strong feet for crawling over submerged rocks


Rather than head off we decided to try the Harlequin's other favoured spot just below Papermill Drive. We navigated ourselves through a housing estate and found somewhere to park. The river above held about a dozen Goldeneye and probably the same pair of Goosander. We wandered down to a rapid and immediately found the Harlequin sat atop a rounded rock in the flow. Over the next hour it gave a stunning performance feeding in the torrent just a few metres away and in fantastic light. A Grey Wagtail showed briefly and we found some Otter footprints along the bank.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away, leaving the duck to feed quietly by itself. We set the satnav and headed north west to a small fishing village that over the last few years has gained fame as a late winter moulting site for White-billed Divers. Up to three had been reported in the week so we were hopeful as we arrived. We started at the harbour wall, but despite being a calm, wind less afternoon, there was a significant swell with waves breaking over the wall. Not ideal for scanning the sea.

Portsoy panorama with Gary centre searching for Divers
I looked along the coast and noticed a road that ran up onto the lower cliffs just to the west of the harbour. Surely this would provide a better vantage point? We navigated by nose around the narrow lanes and found the coast road, leading to a small car park on the cliffs and found some well positioned benches overlooking the sea. 

Portsoy Harbour
With the increased height we began to scan the sea. Almost immediately Gary said 'I've got a Diver; and it's a big one'. I think he knew what it was but let me look through his scope - a stunning first-winter White-billed Diver! We trained our scopes on the bird and watched it loafing around for some time, before I decided to resume my scan. 

White-billed Diver - phonescoped with iPhone 6 through Swarovski ATX95 at 70x
I picked up two distant large Divers to the east of the harbour, but even with my magnificent Swarovski ATS95 at 70x magnification I could not be certain whether they were White-billed or Great-northerns. About 30 Long-tailed Duck were feeding close in, a Red-breasted Merganser flew by, 30 Razorbill fed and 20 or so Eider were floating around the harbour mouth. Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets were moving too and fro offshore, but I stayed focused on scanning. The sheer brilliance of our Swarovski scopes was soon demonstrated when I found a very distant flock of four large Divers. At 70x I was convinced they were White-billed's and eventually one awoke to reveal its huge, upturned banana of a bill. Gradually all four woke up and all revealed the same impressive appendage - amazing. As I watched a fifth floated past further out. I continued scanning as Gary found another close bird further west than the first (which was still there), so now seven in total. 

Amazing bill!
At this point unbelievably we hadn't seen a certain Great-northern Diver, but with persistence we found two, one of which was close to the original White-billed and allowed useful comparison. Being a first winter it too showed a pale bill, and alone at distance it could easily have fooled us, but the shape of its bill and lack of upturn was distinctive and the jizz subtly different - a useful lesson. As the evening started to draw in we enjoyed our last views of the closest White-billed and discussed what we would do tomorrow.