Sunday, 30 May 2010

Wknd 29-30 May

With the 3rd "early" period for breeding atlas drawing to a close I headed out at dawn both days to complete NT47I (Longniddry Bents) and NT58Q (Sheriffhall, Balgone). Both were reasonably productive, with several Yellowhammer around the Bents, FF breeding proved, lucky also to catch Linnet FF into dense buckthorn, 43 species brought square total to 78 species, 13 confirmed. On shore at Longniddry c/p 2 was a fine female Greenland Wheatear, a single Arctic Tern on the rocks and a late Red-necked Grebe out on a glassy sea. Later added a few species around Athelstaneford, including Red-legged Partridge at Kilduff, but negative on Whinchat at Kae Heughs (family on Garleton last year).

Heavy rain on Sunday delayed start till 06:30hrs and continued for another hour. In Craigmoor Wood by Waughton many egg shells found, mainly Pheasant and Wood Pigeon but also that pictured which appears to be Tawny Owl (blunt and slightly blueish, not glossy); Tawny feather nearby and a likely spot but have not previously seen eggshell of this species [Post-script - now suspect Buzzard!]. Again Yellowhammer FF, and surprised to see a couple of Red-legged Partridge actually in the wood. 41 species brought square total to 58, 12 confirmed.

Best came last, when flushed a whitish "pigeon" from crop on The Bratt, seemed strangely bulky for Feral Pigeon which was the only match to white slightly patchy colour, but perched up distantly in a sycamore and revealed itself to be a stunning leucistic Wood Pigeon (record shot). A quick Google on arriving home immediately threw up a very close match, bird photographed near Docking on 18 December 2007, c/o Dave Appleton. Who knows, may well be the same individual, but the movement is in excess of what is typical for Wood Pigeon (slightly controversial topic, but most ringing recoveries show they move very little). [PS - photos of same/similar birds at Hatley, Cambs on 3 April 2010 and at Holkham, Norfolk on 13 April 2010; others bear no resemblence at all.]

Remarkably, this is the third "white" bird I've come across at Sheriff Hall, following apparent pure white Yellowhammer (sic) on 15 January 2005 and white House Martin on 21 August 2005 (links to LBN/UKbirdnet messages).

Sunday late afternoon back at Athelstaneford a colour-ringed female Pied Wag at farm buildings just SW of Cogtail Bridge by Athelstaneford Mains (c. NT539770), with mate. Frenetically gathering food hence near impossible to photograph, but lucky to get the two below:

Origin unknown as of yet though arrangement matches that used in Abbotsbury/Weymouth (Dorset) in 2009; Pied Wags have also been ringed at their winter roost in nearby Haddington. Postscript - got a response within an hour from ringers confirming ringed in Dorset last year [Metal L041710, ringed 10th December 2009 at the Weymouth Harbour Roost] and following hot on the heels of another of theirs seen at Fort William.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wknd 22-23 May

Saturday commenced with tetrad in NT47X, covering Bangly/Huntington - concluded on 48 species (11 confirmed breeding), including 3 Peacocks calling (apparently present there for at least 20 yrs, but I'm doubtful of status as "wild" birds). A Grasshopper Warbler was in song from Blakeny Knowe at dawn but no Quail heard.

Later whilst in Dunbar had a look at the Kittiwake colony at the harbour mouth, packed to the brim and noisy, with a great crescendo of noise every time a crow approached the stack. One top left marked with a left white colour ring, "d" for Dunbar, just visible [this bird banded as a chick on 10 July 2004].

Sunday went into Gosford to check on Spotted Flycatcher seen once last year in wood by the saw mill; the only flycatcher there was a female Mallard in the burn, watched feeding continuously on a dense cloud of mosquitos over its head for several minutes [BWP notes "ducklings, and occasionally adults, snatch insects from the air", but this seemed a little more serious], photos below. Did get Spot Fly in Fernyness Wood, a new location for me but perfectly suitable. Struggled for a while with Goldcrests and Treecreepers in search of proof of breeding but they were all unobliging; only success was raising Michael to peep into a crevice in a tree, giving him a great surprise when a Stock Dove flew of its nest hole. One Tawny Owl was heard, perhaps feeling peckish mid-afternoon? Unpacking rucksack after our four-mile trek discovered its remarkable weight had been due to a large stone that the kids had deemed "an interesting rock" on our last excursion!

Out owling later collected a Barnie off A1 by Monksmuir, probably dead at least a month, apparently an adult male; checking my BOMP site found it empty for the first time since I started visiting in 2005, though fresh pellet since my post-hard weather check in Feb suggestive that failure to breed might be due to loss of just one of the pair?

Also came across this Tawny Owl seated on the road at Yellow Craigs above Haddington; seemed to be stunned, and allowed me to pick up and place on wall; one feather out of place and briefly closed eyes while I took photos, apparently sleepy, but then suddenly flew off strongly. Tricky to age, but I don't see anything in the visible flight feathers that suggests juvenile and it made no sound, though this might be the other explanation [postscript - on re-examining I now believe it is a juv, the narrow subterminal bar is apparent on last secondary, moreover large white tip on tail feathers are consistent, cf. the Ibercaja photo guide]. Interesting, a bird on the road at nearly the exact spot previously on 22 February 2009 - perhaps it's a habit of a particular individual [now doubtful]? Have also previously seen Barn Owl sitting in middle of carriageway just outside Longniddry.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Scoter scoping

Monday morning - sea flat calm and those strange optical conditions where distant birds can seem magnified - scanning from Seton harbour was able to clearly see the seals on Craigielaw Point about 4 miles north-east (black dots in mobile phone photo above, only x27 zoom), the expanse of Gosford Bay nearly nearly devoid of birds save for the odd Razorbill and a female Sparrowhawk coming over the Forth from at least 2 miles out, a single imm Black-throated Diver initially straight out from the harbour but soon well west towards Inchkeith, and finally right round in the west 420+ scoter, apparently mainly Common Scoter, attended by many gulls on sea off Portobello beach about 5 miles west.

Postscript - 1330 scoter reported there later on Monday (IJA), so presumably the full bunch of Common Scoter resident off Port Seton since start of May. This causes me to wonder, further to recent Surf's up speculation, why do scoter in general apparently congregate off Musselburgh in May - one might have thought as weather becomes more settled they could go further out to sea, but clearly something drives them into more sheltered waters at this time of year - perhaps food supply? An old, but sufficient, map shows that sea depth is very similar in both locations, not exceeding 4 fathoms (c. 8m) to some distance offshore. Equally many Velvet Scoter fly west up the Forth at dusk, presumably to roost on calmer waters, though this is also baseless speculation!

Another afterthought - checking my own records for Gosford I have noted a Common Scoter peak late spring every year except 09 - c. 310 5/6/05, 410 4/6/06, 550 6/5/07, 360 24/5/08, 1070 2/5/10; another explanation for the apparent progress into the Forth might be more simple - these are mainly migrants coming up the east coast (trektellen graph shows a massive late April peak in this species at UK sites, dominated by Dungeness) and they simply settle in the Forth at the most accessible location, i.e. initially Gosford Bay. After spending some time there, they simply head further in, to Musselburgh which is a more natural end point to their incursion into the Forth, and remain there until their eventual departure to their far northern breeding grounds. Of course, many immatures may stay all summer, and given breeding males are known to arrive back by late June there is a very narrow window to determine whether they are truly gone (indeed this is completely masked by bird report totals, which report monthly maxima, any early June minimum thus being hidden by any early return). Worth keeping an eye on them to see if this can be detected.

A further look in local bird reports shows a consistent trend of high numbers for Gullane throughout the year with exception of May/June when consistently high numbers off Musselburgh; the inevitable conclusion that actually these are basically one and the same, notwithstanding being enhanced by a few migrants, so I'm back to square one and at a loss to explain the trend. Any comments?

Anyway, even if the migrants incursion had been a better theory for Common Scoter, it does not greatly help with the others, e.g. why does the Surfie behave the same way, progressing to Musselburgh, if indeed this is the Fife bird which has been resident in the Forth over winter? Plenty more to discover...

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Wknd 15-16 May

Back to atlas on Saturday with TTV in NT47Z (Mungoswells) - highlights of 44 species (10 confirmed) were displaying Lapwings, f Wheatear and pr + single Grey Partridge. Mammals represented by vixen running towards me, totally oblivious until yards away, the mouse in her mouth, a stoat and a gathering of 19 sleepy hares in a single field.

Afternoon checked Begbie Wood for Tree Pipit, negative but rich song of Garden Warbler and breeding observations taking total for NT47V to 33 confirmed! 25+ Sand Martins at their colony on the Tyne at West Lodge, 3 f Goosanders also fishing.

Finally back at Port Seton prom, no sign of Surfie, but a dense group of 100+ Common Scoter just offshore with many more still milling about further out. Kittiwakes and hirundines passing in strong N wind. Eiders on rocks below.

Sunday around WeBS opened car door at Drem pools to be greeted by pleasant sounds of both Quail and Grasshopper Warbler in song, both presumably returnees from last year; for once, the Mutes had managed to at least hatch some, with 4 cygnets tucked up in nest, two visible below.

East Fenton was waterbird-less, with the small Canada over at Chapel, but 2 f Wheatears on rubble by entrance. Chapel exceeded that with 3 f and a bright male, but all probably nominate race. Lapwings still in residence at Brownrigg with pen Mute Swan still sitting there on an all-stick nest, also cob coming to see me off below, and just a single gosling with 48 adult Greylag, suggestion some major predation. A Lesser Whitethroat was in constant song for nearly an hour, presumably a fairly recent arrival. At Whitekirk church, just 4 active House Martin nests and the Tree Sparrows indeed still in residence as next door neighbours to one of these.

En route back spied Raven, then 12 Pinks still on Aberlady salt marsh and finally two black golf ball young Moorhens being tended on the tiny pool at entrance to Craigielaw, breeding confirmation at last for NT47P.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Surf's up

The adult drake Surf Scoter was found on Monday evening whilst scanning off Port Seton from the wall by the children's playground at Wrecked Craigs, on the sea off Long Craigs with a small group of Velvet Scoter (6m, f), and has been present at the same location or closer to Wrecked Craigs each morning since (to Friday). How nice to finally see it there, having been scanning the sea here for 6 years now, sometimes daily. Presumed same was seen off Ferny Ness on 12, 14, 17 and 20 April - though the current location is more than a mile WSW so would be a stretch to see it from c/p there. Had last looked on Saturday and several times since 20 April, but I may well have missed it and it has no doubt occurred here previously. Nevertheless, under the punkbirder's self-found rules can't count this bird on my Lothian/Scottish/British lists as it is a refind, under section 5 "rarities that return to a known site each year" can only be counted by the first person to locate in any season.

I had previously seen a drake off Musselburgh, where regular in May for many years, and I was curious to work out if it is likely the same bird. Having made a summary of the spring Firth of Forth records since 1989 (pdf link) I think it is quite clear that the Musselburgh drake is a "returning" individual, having been absent only in one year since 1997, and no doubt one of the birds which formerly wintered in large numbers off the Fife coast opposite, mainly at Ruddon's Point and Largo Bay. As with Gosford Bay, where counts reached a peak of 11 individuals in late 1980's (6 adult drakes) numbers have diminished more recently in Fife, with last count of 4 drakes in 2003, max 2 since. Looking at Gosford records it seems this regular Musselburgh drake quite often calls in en route back there, this being the 4th instance of that in last 6 years, assuming it now goes on to Musselburgh again [PS - now confirmed, it was back there Saturday morning, 15 May! PPS - back at Wrecked Craigs midday! PPPS - 2 drakes off Musselburgh on 17 May, so my theory goes out of the window! Perhaps the second drake to arrive is the one which was at Seton, and this may not be the long-term Musselburgh visitor, but who knows?!].

Latest date in Musselburgh has been 11 June 2006, but I don't think we know where it goes thereafter - a record from Lunan Bay, Angus for 31 May 2007 could potentially have been the same heading north; records for scoter moult flock off NE Scotland (Murcar & Blackdog) generally inconsistent with arrivals in May whilst bird still at Musselburgh. BWP mentions a bias towards mid-summer in records from northern Scandinavia: "but in Finland and Sweden most May and June (Baltic, end April and May; Lapland, summer), suggesting stragglers may migrate with Velvet Scoters M. fusca, with which they often associate. (British Ornithologists' Union 1971; Bauer and Glutz von Blotzheim 1969; Bruun 1971.)" - consistent with the late May departure from Lothian; if travelling with Velvets then interesting that this species is typically very late in departing: "return movement from early March, but spring passage later than in M. nigra and Eider Somateria mollissima, and large flocks in Danish waters until mid-May when peak passage occurs Sweden and Finland. In USSR, one of last ducks to return, reaching Tobolsk late May and Yamal mid-June (Dementiev and Gladkov 1952)"; by contrast for Common Scoter: "Return movements late February to April in Atlantic and North Sea, April–May Baltic, and northern breeding grounds re-occupied mid-May to early June"; much of this movement apparently noctural, and also overland across Denmark and throo Gulf of Finland to White Sea.

In summary, I feel it is very likely that this male Surfie has been visiting Lothian in late spring for the last 14 years, and must be at least 15 years old since was adult at first sighting. I can't find a longevity record for this species, one source says "very little is known about the lifespan", but those for closely related White-winged and Velvet Scoters are 12.0 and 15.6 yrs, respectively. So whilst we can't prove anything it's likely that this bird is thriving in the Forth and reaching a ripe old age. Would be very interesting to compare with deduced ages of other long-term returning birds, perhaps those in Sound of Harris?

Incidentally, too far offshore for photos (initially central in photo above, on sea off Long Craigs rocks visible extending out from right, c. 1km NNE of the corner of prom), but see this selection from California to appreciate the beauty of this species.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Wknd 8-9 May

Late with posting this time due to being out on nocturnal visits Sunday night - finding 7-9 Tawnies in 4 tetrads around Colstoun (all upgraded to P/T); disappointingly no other nocturnals heard.

At the opposite end of the day, dawn over Berwick Law above, did my BBS transects near Whitekirk - route from Barebanes Wood to New Mains then back via the golf course. This was my 6th annual visit to a patch of mainly arable land - turf and rape - which I probably would not otherwise visit; nevertheless I'm yet to go and not see something of interest - over the years have had 67 species including Quail, Whinchat and several Wheatears on golf course, formerly Spot Fly and Garden Warbler at News Mains, but neither recently, plus Lesser Whitethroat and migrant Crossbills (and not including Gannets visible in the 100m+ plus recording band on the Bass Rock 3 miles offshore!).

Was interested this year to see how Wren was faring - max annual count having been consistently 12+/-1 to 2009 - count of 6 therefore indicative of a decline. On the other hand 4 Grey Partridge seen, first since 2007. Most interesting was a pair of Shelduck flying up from Peffer Burn valley, first registration of this species. Link to summary counts for all years (pdf).

In previous years have noted Tree Sparrows occupying a House Martin nest on Whitekirk church tower; still present this year, with a bird perched on ledge immediately below remaining nests, holding a feather watching the martins busy above it - after a long while appeared despondent, dropped feather and continued to sit motionless - I guess may have been turfed out?!

Saturday took us to East Links by North Berwick; vismig non-existent with just a single Swallow in 3 hrs; one Black-throated Diver showing well on sea just offshore and views of Cormorants and Shags at nests on The Lamb; also Buzzard with prey over inland though presumably too early to have juveniles in the nest. Earlier at Wrecked Craigs, Port Seton, at least 520 Common Scoter remained offshore in a single flock.

Friday heard the "twok twok" call of Nuthatch behind Church Walk in Longniddry but could not confirm - this would have been my first record in the village.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Wknd 1-2 May

Sunday afternoon saw us in Gosford trying to boost some breeding evidence for NT47P; noisy young Herons, seemed to be 4 occupied nests; 5 Greylag broods all tiny (pic) b9, b7, b7, b4, b2, and 3 still sitting; 2 Nuthatch heard south of ponds with another 2 recently near Hungary House.

Later in Gosford Bay a congregation of 1070+ Common Scoter, mainly off Port Seton, with over 50 Sandwich Terns close in or on rocks, courting via feeding small fish and dropped wing display. 8 Red-throated Divers flew NE, including a flock of 5, not much else moving.

Saturday revisited the Ringed Plover site east of North Berwick to find it deserted, most likely predated though the tide was up to very close to where eggs had been seen. By contrast with last wk no vismig apparent, though one Common Tern fishing by The Leithies.

In previous wk early vismig at Gullane Point produced 4 Tree Pipits W, amongst 30+ late Mipits, plus 3 Swift. Most interesting, some hirundines were observed "cutting the corner" heading straight west offshore low over the sea, i.e. towards Kinghorn in Fife, and not following the Lothian coast - confirming my suspicion that Gullane should be a much superior site for spring vismig than my usual patch further round at Ferny Ness. A Lesser Whitethroat was rattling, pr seen, plus 3 singing Common Whitethroat and a couple of Sedge Warblers. 10+ Grasshopper Warblers reeling was also a good showing, together with 7 on the main reserve the following day perhaps a new record?