Monday, 16 February 2009

Wild goose chase

Still in Scotland, I'm heading south-west today towards the Solway Firth - so no prizes for guessing the target birds. But first, leaving Edinburgh before dawn on the scenic A701, a stop at a regular spot at Tweedsmuir, not far from the source of the River Tweed, was well timed - a Dipper was living up to its name well in the swirling currents downstream from the bridge.

The next pit-stop was in the centre of Dumfries, in the riverside car park from where great views can often be had of another torrent-feeder: Goosander. Today there was just one female in sight, but often several drakes can be watched here too fishing in the waters below the weir.

It's a short drive on to Caerlaverock, where thousands of Barnacle Geese always make an amazing sight to a London birder like me. What's more, there's the added attraction of other geese, including the occasional vagrant Canada or Cackling Goose, in among them. Yesterday a Taverner's (Cackling) Goose was again present here, although there was no sign so far today. A minima Cackling Goose had also been seen intermittently, though not since 30 January - so what fantastic timing to be in the Avenue Tower when it was refound with a couple of thousand Barnacles. None of the standard European field guides deal with these small 'Canadas', and even Sibley's excellent North American guide isn't comprehensive - but the supplementary notes on his website, blog and elsewhere go some way to making sense of all the forms (more than 100 subspecies having been named by one author!).

After indulging in some close-up wildfowl photography and finding an Aythya hybrid while checking the Tufted Duck for Lesser Scaup (I'd seen one here three winters ago), I was amazed to bump into Ken Shaw back in the centre - long time no see, and it was good to be able to show him the latest Birdwatch on display which featured the 'Chum Odyssey' article he had co-authored with Russell Wynn.

Having told Ken my plans for the day he gave me some very useful tips on locating two other Yanks further north in Argyll, and a couple of hours later I was carefully checking the fields near Drongen in east Ayrshire for goose flocks. The white morph Lesser Snow Goose seen recently wasn't at its regular location at Treesmax Farm, but with perseverance I found it tucked away with Greylags and a few Pink-feet not far away. Thanks to permission from the farmer at Drongen House to walk his land, I ended up getting decent views of this bird, in a flock numbering some 600 or so grey geese, and with a tag-along contingent of four Whooper Swans.

Heading west, it took more protacted scanning to finally pick out the distant female Ring-necked Duck at Martnatham Loch, finally located in company of a female Tufted Duck and, briefly, a female Common Goldeneye. Several Goosander showed well rather closer, but time was running short so I headed for Troon - arriving too late for the Iceland Gull or anything else of larid interest, but it was good to see the site and adjacent Barassie Shore, which looks to have great gulling potential. Some 265 miles and 13 hours later, I called it a day back in Edinburgh.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Along the Firth of Forth

On our first of a few days in Scotland, we headed out to the beach at Gullane on an unseasonally mild February day. This was about kids, sand and rockpools rather than birds, but along the Firth of Forth you are never far away from them. As we walked down to the beach the sea buckthorn was still covered in berries, now well past their best, but 15 or so Fieldfares were still finding enough to eat. A line of 25 Pink-footed Geese headed north high overhead, calling, purposefully towards the eastern end of the Fife peninsula. Offshore, a few scattered groups of Common Eider were dotted about, and among them the occasional Shag and a drake Velvet Scoter - my first of the year.

West of Aberlady a party of eight Greylags flew in, and along the shore towards Longniddry were scattered groups of Pink-footed Geese along the shore as the tide came in. There were none of yesterday's Waxwings at Prestonpans, and no real time for photography either - but here are a couple of grab shots of commoner species, Oystercatcher and Common Eider.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Diving on a Sunday afternoon

Other commitments unfortunately meant little time for birding this weekend, but en route to Islington this afternoon I made time for a brief stop at Stoke Newington Reservoirs. Continuing his run of good form at the site, Mark Pearson had recently found a Great Northern Diver on the west basin - an excellent bird to turn up this far into urban London, and perhaps the same individual that was reported until recently at Walthamstow Reservoirs in the 'wrong' end of the Lea Valley..

There was no sign of it on the west basin today, with just a summer-plumaged Great Crested Grebe and a few gulls on view, so I drove round to Lordship Lane to check the east basin from the bridge - and sure enough, it had moved across the road. Although distant, it was just about possible to make out through binoculars the pale 'scaly' edges to the upperpart feathering, indicating juvenile plumage. In 'rolling preen' mode, the bird was drifting further away when I grabbed this poor record shot with a 300 mm lens and 1.4x converter. Better images can be seen on Mark's excellent website,

Also on the east basin were another Great Crested Grebe, this time in non-breeding plumage, and five gull species - Black-headed and Common were the most numerous, along with eight or so Herring Gulls, a single adult graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull and even a second-winter Great Black-backed Gull, a species I have rarely seen here in the past.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Winter delivers

Having given up on the motorised slalom event that is the ungritted slopes around Muswell Hill, I trudged through snow and ice this morning to get to the office, diverting my route to take in the best birding spots in Alexandra Park. Having had 18 Fieldfares over the site yesterday from the office window, and a drake Northern Shoveler on the boating lake on the way home, I thought it was worth a look again this morning.

The shoveler was still present today, even though the lake has gone from about 50 per cent to 98 per cent ice cover overnight; two Greylags were also a site year tick there. I went on to the crossroads of paths next to the deer enclosures to check the plane trees where the Bramblings were found last winter, and there was a female Kestrel sitting there hunched up while a flock of finches sat in the tree-tops nearby, calling. Initially, they were mainly Greenfinches, but when the Kestrel flew they mobbed her, and more finches began to appear and join the throng. Eventually, there were some 15 Greenfinches, six or seven Chaffinches, four or five Goldfinches and, tagging along with them, a cracking pale grey and white Mealy Redpoll. On colour alone the redpoll appeared very Arctic-like, with almost no brown tones in the plumage (and also no pink), but it had quite prominent dark flanks streaks and a typical Mealy bill and 'face' profile.

Elsewhere in the park, I had my best-ever local views of a Kingfisher at the tunnel reservoir, sitting preening in the sunshine on a snowy branch, and a Chiffchaff in the play area compound in the south-east corner by the filter beds. These and a few other additions take my patch total for the year to 50 species, with a few common birds still to locate.

Monday, 2 February 2009


What the BBC describes as the heaviest snowfall to hit London for 18 years has transformed the view outside my window this morning. There are no buses on the roads in the capital, half the tube network is down and hundreds of schools are closed - just because it has snowed for less than a day. The good folk of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia must be laughing themselves stupid.

Later in the day, in continuing heavy snow, a flock of 18 Fieldfares emerged from the gloom over Alexandra Park and flew east past the Birdwatch office window - a rare sight in these parts. A pit-stop at the park's boating lake late afternoon revealed a drake Northern Shoveler - my first locally this winter - and 10 Common Gulls. I survived an unnecessarily scary drive home (why do local councils have gritting lorries if they don't use them?) to be greeted by a female Blackcap again in the beech tree, along with two Mistle Thrushes.


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