Sunday, April 29, 2007

Alone in the Superunknown

Good long walk round Newtonhill and Muchalls today. They tell me it's spring, but it was f-f-f-freezing! Few more migrants in though... incl. a single Sedge Warbler singing in brambles along the Elsick Burn, a few more Willow Warblers, a Common Whitethroat singing along the Muchalls track. More importantly, in terms of birds-I-should-bump-into-during-the-year-but-aren't-guaranteed was a single fly-by Whimbrel.

Offshore - the usual auks, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars. 3 Red-throated Divers went north, and a trickle of Northern Gannets. There were maybe 50 Atlantic Puffins dotted around on the water - mostly just loafing, or fishing (it's the miracle of the loafs and the fishes), but one of them spent 20 minutes being ripped apart by a Great Black-backed Gul
l. As I was watching, a Great Skua flew in from the south, deviating neither to the right nor the left, went straight to the Gbb/Puffin love-in at low level and took over. The gull, obviously a bird of experience and discretion, knew it was beaten and flew off without a fight. Thinks it's hard? Didn't stand a chance. the Great Skua spent another 20 min enjoying the Puffin. I bet the Puffin's ghost was having a good cackle.

A Barn Swallow flew over the allotments (only one I saw today - v thin on the ground), and I met a couple from Muchalls who's neighbour had seen a Common Buzzard catching a pigeon on their lawn. Did I know her, Christine? The one with the new gate. Opposite the noticeboard? No I didn't, but I went to Muchalls anyway. And indeed saw the new gate - it's a corker. No interesting birds though. As the Puffin was too distant, i didn't get any photos of dead birds either, but I hope these rabbit entrails go some way to redress the balance.

And this picture looking south from Muchalls. Here be Eiders.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Winter Wren, Newtonhill April 2007

Recorded with Remembird. Sonagram from Syrinx. If Carlsberg made birdsong, it would probaby be the best birdsong inthe World.

Click here to listen to 'Winter-Wren-NE-Scotland-April-2007'


And does anyone want a shot at identifying this one?

Pre-work birding

Diane's friendly warning in my ears... any children I wake up, I'm taking with me apparently. So I was extra quiet, and got out unaccompanied. Calm dawn, and a few Willow Warblers singing around Newtonhill. In fact they're very mobile and flighty, and v likely fresh in. Then as I was walking down the burn a bird comes flying up towards and past me, and it's the first Common Whitethroat of the year. It sat down briefly in a dead willow behind me. For the first and perhaps only time in my life I pray.. please DON'T let it be a Spectacled Warbler! Can you imagine the irony?? Chances of getting that past BBRC? Fortunately(?) it was just a Common Whitethroat.

Not a whole lot more migrants about, although as the morning warmed up the House Martins started hawking about over the railway viaduct. Apart from the outside chance of a good migrant, what I like most about these calm spring mornings is hearing the Common Eiders 'ooh'ing in the bay, and the sight of small numbers Atlantic Puffins dotted around the flat sea.

On the rocks off the cliffs, I spotted a couple of these yellow-billed Common Eiders - note how they're paired up. Also 4 spanking Ruddy Turnstones (but that's enough of their fetishes). A single Manx Shearwater went north in the few minutes I looked out, and 7 Northern Gannets.

Photos of yellow-billed Eiders. Phone cam sorry, hence not great. But you can see the yellow bits.

Btw who's original any more? Not me, apparently. Well worth a trip to the IBWO Skeptic blog where Tom kindly linked to yesterday's storytime, but check out the third comment down (especially) by anonymous. Also the summaryof David Sibley's talk, posted here. It's like we're reading from the same script.

Take a look at my patch - it's the only one I got.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Storytime - an Ivory Para-bill (ho ho ho!)

Argh! Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.... you gotta love ’em. I suppose the fairytale ending to the recent Ivorybill saga is that one pops out on a branch in front of someone with a camera for a couple of minutes, or the robobirders get an image, or something. But at the moment it feels like it’s the only bird in the world that is impossible to get onto properly. They can be calling from both sides of you (apparently) you can hear them repeatedly, but you can’t see one. It’s in a club of 1 of species that can be that bad to see. So until the day when the question is resolved, I’m taking a tour of this club of 1, from a birding perspective. Here goes...

A parable... let’s suppose I have a friend. No! That’s tooooo far- fetched. Let’s assume someone else, maybe you, has a friend who is a keen birder. This friend knows his local area very well and is very familiar with the normal common birds that occur on his patch. There’s lots of Common Whitethroats there. He’s seen thousands over the years there. He can identify them expertly on jizz on very brief views, because he sees them all the time. Then one day in the middle of May migration he rings you up and says he’s been out looking for good birds and has seen a *very* rare bird, say a vagrant Spectacled Warbler (something very different from a Common Whitethroat, but possibly confusable on brief views) in a dense patch of scrub. Actually he only saw it in flight, but he’s adamant that it was too small to be a Common Whitethroat, and he saw the face pattern. The news is on BirdGuides so you and your pals all go round to see this Spectacled Warbler, and you take your cameras, and when you first arrive at the site you see a Common Whitethroat, but that’s OK cos you know there’s lots of Common Whitethroats around, you wander round trying to relocate the bird. More people arrive and time drags on. And then something funny happens... there are a number of claims of the bird being sighted. Unfortunately, it’s only ever seen in flight. It appears to be very elusive. And scared of people. Most Spectacled Warblers are a bit elusive, not always easy to see, but with a bit of patience very good views can normally be obtained. Like most Sylvia warblers, as it happens. But not this one. Lots of people getting excellent views and photos of Common Whitethroats. But all the views of the Spectacled Warbler are either millisecond-brief, and/or flying away. Whenever a bird comes out into the open to be grilled at close range by the masses, it turns out to be a Common Whitethroat. In fact the behaviour of this Spectacled Warbler is quite at odds with the reported behaviour of Spectacled Warblers. And another thing – most of the people looking for this bird see nothing. I mean, they see Common Whitethroats quite well, and they see Common Whitethroats quite poorly, but they don’t see anything they feel is the Spectacled Warbler. Meanwhile, your pal, and a couple of other people, who aren’t any better at birding than the other would-be observers, are claiming to have seen the Spectacled Warbler flying away several times. Multiple sightings by a small number of people, zero sightings by the majority.

Now, I’m kind-of being careful not to refer to any particular incident :-) but scenarios like this do happen, all over the birding scene. From a birding point of view, there are a lot of things here that don’t add up. The unusual behaviour of the bird, the unusual non-random spread of successful observers, the failure of anyone to see the bird on the deck, the non-normal distribution of length of sightings. Cos as birders, we ‘know’ that birds don’t behave that way. If the bird was still present, then anyone with sufficient patience and an average supply of luck would eventually get tickable views. The reason why this is not happening is that the bird (if it was ever present, of which more in a tick) has gone, or died. Whichever, it’s not there, and all reports after the initial claim are erroneous claims by a small number of observers.

Again, maybe the fairytale ending is that in the evening, after all the twitchers have gone away, your pal does actually get a decent photo of the Spectacled Warbler – it was present all along, and what we birders ‘know’ was wrong. A moral: not to listen to the naysayers and doom mongers, and a triumph for real field birding and to have the courage of your convictions. In fact, I can’t think of a situation where that has ever happened. What happened instead is that your pal got a video of what he thinks is the Spectacled Warbler in flight. He passes it round you all for a look, and in fact it could possibly be one. Actually, it could be a Whitethroat too, and some people point out features that favour Whitethroat, whereas others think it’s too small and has too much rufous in the wings to be a Whitethroat, and favour the possibility that it was a Spectacled Warbler. Whichever way people lean, they all accept there is some doubt, EXCEPT your pal, who against all reason, given the very poor quality of the images, is adamant that there is no possibility this was a Whitethroat, that it had to be a Spectacled Warbler. He submits it to the rarities committee, but the evidence is inconclusive. Your pal continues to search for the Spectacled Warbler, and for a few weeks he keeps getting frustratingly brief views of the bird in flight, or behind branches - enough to encourage him to keep looking, but not enough to clinch the identification. Of course you support your friend, you help him out as much as you can, but eventually, if you're a real friend, you point out that the bird has not been seen for some time now, and that for his own sake, it's time to LET GO!

So... how did he get to this stage? First, perhaps not fully relevant, but may be a factor, is that we see what we are looking for. Your pal was out looking for a rarity, and he saw a bird flitting across a gap between two bushes, and he was in a mindset where a rarity was possible, so he hadn't identified this bird and it looked small and looked like a Spectacled Warbler. So why wasn't it one? Well actually no reason. It could have been one, although given the balance of probabilities it was probably something commoner, so he's going to have to be sure. Frustratingly he didn't get a better view, although he explained what he saw to another birder passing by who also has a look round and this person also thought they had a brief view of 'the bird' moving off through some dense foliage, obscured. Now your pal had a problem. He had scribbled down his notes, honestly, about what he saw as soon as he could, and he reviews them after a couple of hours searching round for the bird, and he is convinced that he saw a Spectacled Warbler. He has described a diagnostic feature - the face pattern. But he needs help, so he makes the decision to release the news. Now an unconscious process starts; his description of the bird starts to develop feature 'creep'. As more people ask him about the bird, everything becomes a bit more definite. He doesn't even realise he's doing it. He's not lying, but in his own mind he is satisfied he saw a rare bird, and he wants it to be confirmed. After a bit of light questioning by the Bird News Services, the news is released as Spectacled Warbler. People arrive and start looking, and some people ‘see’ it, briefly, flying away, behind a branch etc. All very unsatisfying.

After a day or so of unsuccessful searching, the majority of the twitchers start to mumble among themselves that actually no one has seen this bird very well, that the video could be anything, even a Muscovy Duck, and start to wander off muttering the possibility of the ‘s’ word, i.e. string or, more charitably, the bird has gone. In fact, most people on the outside, who haven’t been to see the bird and in many cases are miles away in another country, are of the general opinion by now that a mistake has been made, and some say so quite rudely. Maybe they even set up a blog to slag your friend off. Your friend, however, has now invested so much of himself and his energy into this bird, that he cannot accept this – he needs it to be accepted, partly through saving face, partly because he’s having an internal crisis of confidence. He crosses a line from conviction to delusion, and keeps going back searching for a bird that is frankly, not there. Quite possibly there never was a Spectacled Warbler. The moral of the story, as rarities committees around the world will tell you, is that very brief sightings and honest field notes based on brief sightings of birds in flight are liable to be inaccurate because your brain ‘overlays’ the image on your retina with the ‘interpretation’ based on experience and expectation.

And there is a final twist to the story. When news was released of the Spectacled Warbler that your pal thinks he found, some birders a couple of hundred miles away realised that it was spring, and migration was happening, and they should be out birding, and maybe they could find their own Spectacled Warbler. So they headed to likely looking piece of habitat, some coastal scrub at a migration hotspot or something, and as they got out of the car the first bird they saw was a Spectacled Warbler! Or, at least they thought it was. It was flying off, only a millisecond view, but they saw it was small and saw a diagnostic feature, lets say the face pattern again, so they had a good look round and saw the bird in flight again a bit later – this time they saw the extent of rufous coloration in the wings, and release the news. Indeed, this report looked better than your pal’s sighting, because they have seen more of the bird and produce immediate honest field notes. Twitchers came, they searched, but no one saw it apart from the two pals and their uncle, who came along afterwards – always in flight, brief views. Everyone saw lots of Common Whitethroats– sometimes well, sometimes poorly, but whenever a potential Spectacled Warbler came out into the open, it was a Whitethroat. But it didn’t matter, because the original report had legs, it was a firm sighting backed up by a sighting of the same species elsewhere – an influx! Only later, when your friend’s original sighting on his patch a couple of hundred miles away had been widely disparaged, did rumbles start to mumble(!) about this second sighting too. ‘Another example where no one can get a clear view of the bird’ and damagingly ‘it’s too much of a coincidence that these last 2 birders would see the species they were looking for as soon as they arrived on site’ and ‘most damagingly ‘if the first record was bollocks, what are the chances of the second one being a mistake too’? In hindsight, it becomes obvious – without confirmation of presence of Spectacled Warbler at either site, it stretches credulity to think of the second report as anything other than a Disney-esque story. Of course, a group of birders keep searching for this second bird. Maybe they’re still there, working towards the Disney-esque ending when the princess wakes up and everyone cheers. Maybe they're right.

Now, this tale is MADE UP. FICTION! But it is based (without even mentioning Ivory-billed Woodpecker) on my 20 years experience of the birding scene, as a twitcher, patch-worker, occasionally ornithologist, of scenarios and behaviour that have been seen, in greater or lesser form, time and time again. Usually with no harm being done in the big game of birding. Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book covers some of these issues more succinctly and with more wit. But then, coming as an outsider to the whole Ivorybill episode (of which the video is only a small part), some of the same little cameos would appear to be being played out. All the alarm bells are ringing:

1) rarity behaving atypically,

2) rarity seen briefly soon after arrival at site, but very elusive afterwards,

3) all views of rarity are brief, or distant, or handicapped by lack of optics or photos,

4) birds seen well, for long periods and photographed, are of the common confusion species,

5) small number of observers with more than one sighting, majority with none.

In the apparent continued absence of confirmation of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the USA, it is possible to postulate a potential alternative scenario whereby the species is in fact not present, and that all the reported sightings fit a well rehearsed pattern of genuine error compounded by human psychology of reward behaviour. In fact there would be nothing at all unusual, on the basis of my experience, for these post-2004 Ivorybill records to all arise out of woodlands where there are no Ivorybills. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that Ivorybills don’t exist or that the observers are necessarily wrong.

Maybe Ivorybills don’t exist. Maybe they do persist at the edge of extinction in very small numbers in areas of good habitat and have mysteriously developed behaviour patterns that make them virtually impossible to see. What I’m getting at is that we could get the same pattern of sightings (or ‘sightings’ – your choice!) in either case. Until the killer photo, please.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Wet wet wet

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Rain that is. it was pissing down and cold when I headed out this morning. Spent 3 hours 30 min (ish - who's counting?!) walking round Newtonhill getting wetter and wetter and colder and colder. Then when I got home at lunchtime it brightened up and we had a lovely afternoon, compounding the crime by having to interact with the kids in the back garden. Virtually no migrants, though a couple of fine looking male Barn Swallows back at the farm on Cran Hill - I apologised to them for the Aberdeenshire weather. Of mild interest was one of the local White-throated Dippers shimmying across the tideline on the beach, hopping along the wave edges to fed like a Sanderling. Lots of Northern Gannets offshore, about 100 adults and one 2cy bird (unusual?). A female Yellowhammer was gathering nest material on Cran Hill, pulling individual strands of wood fibre like horse-hair from a dead gorse branch - that's going to be one jaggy itchy nest. All the usual dross, and stumbled on a roe buck with two hinds walking bold as brass across cow field - my soggy green army coat made me look and smell like a pile of rotting leaves, so they didn't notice me.

In the recent spirit of sexual deviancy and posting pictures of dead birds on one's blog, I offer this thing. Does anyone want a shot at identifying it? For scale, the tip of my DM is top right.

There's a hole in my DM. Which was strange, cos shortly after I realised that I looked to the sky, where an elephant's eye was looking at me from a bubble gum tree. But all that I knew was the hole in my shoe that was letting in water (letting in water... letting in water).

I guess this is always worth a re-run too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Brown or South Polar?

I guess I don't keep very up to date with the news services, but is this slipping under the community radar? The two unusual Skuas in Scilly and Glamorgan in 2001 that were identified on the basis of a combination of mtDNA and plumage as Brown Skua (Votier et al., 2002) have been subjected to reanalysis following isolation of new South Polar Skua mtDNA sequences from the Antarctic peninsula (Votier et al., 2007). This has shown that Brown and South Polar Skuas cannot be reliably distinguished on the basis of mtDNA, so although the birds were definitely NOT Great Skua, they could have been either Brown or South Polar. And let's face it, betting men, they were probably South Polar. So if you had it ticked off in your Birdwatch 'Complete Checklist' of British Birds, you might have ticked too soon. Shame really - no one did anything wrong here, it's just science. You get data, make conclusions, then get more data to test those conclusions and see if they stand up. Sometimes they don't - c'est la vie.

'Southern' Skua, Scilly 2001. Photo by Dave Hatton.
Previously published in Birding World vol 15 page 386.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Living in Lancaster County

Newtonhill's permafog climate took a wee break this morning, throwing just a light mist out. I did my usual circuit of Elsick Burn taking in the seacliffs, then off down to Muchalls to lower the tone. It was a very boring walk out, and trying to seawatch against the sun in the mist was like staring at a white wall, with low-contrast Kittiwakes flying about. A pair of Eurasian Tree Sparrows in Muchalls, and a fly-by Black Guillemot there too, kept the patch year list ticking along, but that's the best you can say for it. There were 4 House Martins flying around the clifftops here too. They nest on the cliffs here, following the old ways just like their House Martin ancestors did in the days before houses were invented. They're like the Amish of the House Martin World.
On the way home, a Barn Swallow had arrived at the farm along the Muchalls track (wasn't there on the way out) and similarly a Willow Warbler had started singing in the Secret Garden.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Family walk in Fetteresso forest, round the back of Stonehaven. See, we're so oil-obsessed up here we even name our forests after oil companies. All sea-misty in Newtonhill but glorious sunshine and 20oC as soon as you escape. Forest was inhabited, nay infested by Coal Tits, Eurasian Siskins, Goldcrests and Winter Wrens. We walked up to a viewpoint from whence I could look over the valley and spy Cairn Monearn, which as I'm sure you're aware is the crowberry hilltop where Britain's second (Scotland's first) Eskimo Curlew was shot, 152 years ago (nearly) by Cusack Smith on 6th September 1855. Apparently it was so fat the oil was running out of it. And the curlew was pretty portly too... Boom Boom!

On the way back down the hill a crossbill sp. (actually, it had a small bill,I'm going to call it a Common Crossbill) female perched high in the spruces, but was chased off before I could get a call recorded. I did record this ?interesting sequence of 2 Coal Tits song-duelling across a path - one going a fast 'pitchoo pi-tchoo pi-tchoo' answered on the other side by a slower 'wee-woo wee-woo wee-woo'. The background talking is Peter looking for dinosaur poo in the woods. See what I have to contend with? Worse was, he found some! Between you and me, I think it's dog. But bless, he doesn't know, and he's so proud of it now, sat on his bookshelf.

On the way back, a Barn Swallow flew across the road - first for the year for me :-O

Armchair difficult splits and other exciting things

Friday 13th

Up and about early, spotted what I thought would turn out to be 2 Eurasian Siskins in the alders up at the other side of the burn, top of the bank. Bins up and turns out not Siskins (three cheers for my sharp spotting skills), but a couple of Redpolls. Patch year tick! But bollocks! Some idiot has spl
it them. Now I’m going to have to identify them properly. Of course they would be Lessers... OK, scope time, jeeezus. Actually, one of them was distinctly cold looking with a greyish base colour to the supercilium, nape and ‘shawl’, continuing onto the mantle, and big obvious white greater covert wing-bar. Potential flammea Common Redpoll. Getting complicated, cos I can’t think what the wear and fading should be like – probably Lessers should have pale/white wing bars by now? And I couldn’t see the rump. The other bird was a pink male, actually darker and buffier, with a brown rump, quite a typical cabaret. The first bird dropped out of sight, but I think they were +/- the same size. I can’t claim one of each. Well I can, but only for the purposes of year listing – no one would believe me. And rightly so. Bollocks again. Without the rump of bird 1, there’s nothing more I can do, and actually pretty certain they were both cabaret.

Mill Garden: two European Goldfinches, a pair, doing the ‘pivoting’ display one singing, just like this. (from BWP)

With a bit of a south-easterly going on, of course the mist was in, visibility down to 400 m. So of course I tried seawatching! Couldn’t see a lot. A Red-throated Diver flew north, close in. If it had gone north far out, I wouldn’t have seen it. Strung out just along the edge of the surf, for about 1000 m to the south of me, was a line of 500+ Black-legged Kittiwakes feeding, sat on the sea pecking at bits of crap floating by. All adults except for 4 1st-summers. And 1 Common Gull. A few Northern Gannets going north, and the breeding cliffs full of Common Guillemots and Razorbills. I really need a Black Guillemot to show up: was one of the first birds I saw on my ‘new’ patch (14th April 2002).

A wander round Cran Hill and hurrah! My first dead shrew of the year – a Common Shrew predictably lying on the path with no real sign of injury and (mmmmm... sexy) it was still warm. Three minutes later, I continued on my way. {:-O

Cran Hill really should have had a Ring Ousel on it, but I was basically blundering about in the fog with not much chance of seeing things. Some Skylarks gamely tried to sing a bit, but they were backing a losing horse today. I pished a stonking male Eurasian Reed Bunting out of the gorse and even took a recording of its wonderful calls.

Reed Bunting, null points
I walked round to Backburn Farm to get my first Barn Swallows of the year. But they aren’t in yet. That’s it. Chips n’ hame.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thursday 12th April

Taking the car for its MOT and Service in Stonehaven, grrrr.... but brought my bins with me for a look at the beach. Could be an expensive birding trip. Could be a boring one too, from the first look at the sea, with about 50 Herring Gulls on the water, 30 Common Eiders. And a Mallard. Ooh, and 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. But that was it. In the distance, a Bottle-nosed Dolphin broke cover, but seeing it was in danger of getting me interested in something, it went away again. Toddle round to the harbour, a bigger flock of 200 Herring Gulls, with a few Black-legged Kittiwakes and Northern Fulmars feasting on raw sewage offshore. 50 Common Scoters flew south in a flock, and also a Red-breasted Merganser here. Then a bit of action as a House Martin flew over, going north along the coast. Traditionally, I get Sand Martin (Bank Swallow) and Barn Swallow before House Martin, but not this year. Still, I’m not proud and I have no dignity, so I’ll take this one. A Peregrine Falcon over the harbour too.

Later (£350 later, to be precise) (and bitter) I was back in Newtonhill and the wind turning to the south, bit of a harr. Off out again. Blimey, I should have put a coat on. All the usual birds out and about, but no migrants. With the harr moving offshore though, there were things moving about. The cliffs were chocka with seabirds – Common Guillemots packing out the ledges, Razorbills packing out the crevices, and Black-legged Kittiwakes plastered to the shelves. Lots of auks just off the rocks too, including 17 Atlantic Puffins. Long lines of Common Guillemots, flocks of 50+, mostly going south, about 1000/h, and a smaller number going north. And some Razorbills doing courtship flights in pairs. Bootiful. 3 Common Shelducks flew south – this was actually.... AK-tchly... not guaranteed for my patch-year list, so... so... so... what? In the words of the Anti-Nowhere League ‘so what so what you boring little [word that not even the McKinney would post]’. It was 7pm and time to head home: I really should have put a coat on. That reminds me, does anyone remember when Viz tried to introduce a new swear word into the English language, that they could print on the front cover without the censors at WH Smith knowing what it meant and taking it off the shelves? The word in question was ‘fitbin’ (‘interj. the rudest word in the English language, so rude that its meaning has been encased in 500 tonnes of concrete and dumped in the Irish Sea’). As I recall, from my imperfect knowledge of popular culture, it totally failed to catch on, and perhaps became a milestone in Viz’s decline. Unlike early era Viz(!), with that tall vicar (Paul Whicker?) who taught me my favourite swearword ‘******bb**’.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grahzny bratchnies

Problem with this holiday, celebrating the birth of the Easter Bunny, is that you never know if it's going to be a wee bit early for good birding. A March Easter is a waste, whereas a late April Easter is eyes down for ticks and fly-bys. Whoever decides when Easter is going to be (I don't know how they decide it, but apparently the Pope or similar pays someone to decode a formula) really needs to get it sorted. Why can't it just be 3rd weekend in April each year, and then we know to keep the diary free and our bins clean. Now Mayday is a good example - keep it simple, keep it birdy. To my mind it demonstrates that the socialist proletariat are the top birders whereas the church and bourgeoisie are a bunch of dudes. In fact, I'm pretty certain that 'petit bourgeois' translates as 'low-lister'. I think I read about it somewhere, probably in the glossary of Clockwork Orange. Hey, now I understand why Lenin was in such a rush to push through the Revolution in 1917. October was getting on, and if he left it too late they wouldn't get their autumn holiday in migration season.

So, my droogs, O my brothers, an early April Easter full of all sorts of ambivalence. But at least it was a nice day. A pair of Grey Wagtails on the Elsick burn, with the male in full song, and a White-throated Dipper here too. Everything was in full song today. I couldn't hear myself think again, but this time in a good way. Among the Robins, Dunnocks, Winter Wrens etc... a Bullfinch was a patch year tick.
Off the seacliffs, there were 60 Razorbills and 40 Common Guillemots. The Razorbills are more obviously paired up, swimming around in twos even within the flock, with lots of mutual preening and bills clicking against each other etc. The Guillemots on the other hand, are more singletons and mixed, but there is some sort of group display going on where several of them at one time will face towards the cliffs and point their bills more-or-less up to the breeding ledges at 30 degree angle. Bit of behavioural study there. Also 80 Black-legged Kittiwakes on the water. Offshore, a couple of European Shags on the water, and in 30 minutes, 5 Red-throated Divers went north, with one fishing on the water, so that passage has begun. Also 2 Common Scoters north, three Eurasian Teals north, a Little Gull south (good! this is pushing the patch year list on).

Back through Newtonhill, a Peregrine Falcon over...more of which in a minute, but also several Peacock butterflies onthe wing. Blah di blah greenfinches etc... then up to Cran Hill, where the Peregrine was stooping at the pigeons. Two people out in the garden at the big house, one of whom may have been the owner of the pigeons, was calling the Peregrine a bastard(!) and pointed to a bird heading off into the distance saying it was lost now. I was urging the Peregrine on... but looking up, eye was caught by another raptor heading through overhead at speed. High up but King Ell - NORTHERN GOSHAWK! This makes NO sense. Not a visibly migratory species... should be incubating by now. What is this one up to? My first patch tick of the year. Perplexing, but they all count.

Round Cran Hill, where you can tell it's spring because there are Common Linnets crawling out of the woodwork. Not sure where they've been hiding, but they're back - everywhere today, 40+. But mostly, Eurasian Skylarks. For those of you not fortunate to live within the breeding range of Skylarks, take a listen to this (below) from today. Bird in the stubble 10 m away, takes off, climbs to 50 m above my head, then comes back into the stubble. Nothing I can do about the wind (crappy RememBird microphone), but everything I can do about it being good to be alive.

Click here to watch 'Skylark-NE-Scotland-April-2007'

Amen and all that cal.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Overpriced tour of Aviemore region,part 2

So, I'm still on yesterday. Due to my patchy and random checks of other blogs, I only just realised that the McKinney and Miss Cole passed through Aviemore last week, and got 0.5 s more views of Capercaillie than I did. I think I've been to undisclosed location next to undisclosed town too. I recognise those trees(!) and have had similar views of caper there.

Later we spent a well-worth-it £23 to take the family up the Cairn Gorm funicular...

...and on the way back, pulled into the forest near Rothiemurchus to teach Peter how to pish up against a tree. Aware that we might bump into some crossbills at some point, I'd brought my RememBird thingy, thinking it would be pretty cool to get a sonagram and get Scottish Crossbill back on my list in proper fashion. But in a foolish act of sharing earlier in the day, I'd taken the RememBird off the nockies and put it in my bag so Lizzie could adjust the bins for a lookie. So imagine my distress when a pair of crossbill (sp) flew overhead and I reached for the bins and realised that the RememBird was still in the car boot. By the time I'd run back and got it, the crossbills were gone gone gone. We had a good time looking for them, though.

Lizzie looking for Scotbills

Peter looking for Scotbills.
Note Lizzie's forest nature table, with 9 pine cones, a bit of twig with lichens, and a small model Stegosaurus skeleton

Got the Stegosaurus. Are you on it? It's just below the twig with the lichens

The great forest of Caledon. Home of Crested tits, unidentifiable crossbills and annoying large chickens

On the way home today, lots of Red Grouse displaying on the moors between Speyside and Tomintoul, and an Osprey fishing over the River Dee about 5 miles west of Banchory.

More family photos in Lizzie's Pink Plastic Warehouse.

Loch Garton, April 2007. It doesn't always look like this.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Gimme gimme gimme Pied Chicken

One man one goal one mission,
One heart one soul just one solution,
One flash of light yeah one god One Vision.

Well, I'm back in the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel and that blinking flip one-man swing band is on. And for no adequately explored reason, he's just started singing 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. Argh! Another dirty secret of mine is that without ever buying an album, I'm covertly a huge Queen fan(!). There', I said it. Actually, growing up in North Wales in the 80s, as I did, it was more or less de rigeur. Lots of things were de rigeur in my social circle in North Wales - tinkering with
motorbikes, supporting an English 'fans' club like Everton or Man City, smoking pot, drinking Wrexham lager, and liking Queen. I guess not saying de rigeur was another one. I didn't do all those things, but I did like Queen. Sometimes when Diane isn't in the car I put on a 30th generation copy cassette of their greatest hits and rock along at volume 11. Funny coincidence, but i was actually thinking of that and my title for today's post at 3.30 am today, before this entertainer started singing. And what brought on this early morning reverie? I was getting up at 5 to go Capercaillie-watching at RSPB Loch Garton, and had used the old American Indian trick (learnt it from The Simpsons) of drinking pints of water before going to bed so you wake nice n early with a bursting bladder. Only it worked too well.

Funny, about 25 people there, including a family with 2 very young kids. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of taking kids along to these things, but there was a comic moment cos one of them was wearing trainers that light up as you walk along, which you hardly notice during the day, but in the pre-dawn gloom... the warden was telling us they were keeping the lights off in the hid cos the female Osprey had arrived back yesterday so they were being a bit discrete until she settled. As he was saying this, th
e hide was lighting up like a disco every time the kiddie moved. I'm sure the birds didn't give a toss, and the kids were by far NOT the noisiest thing in the hide, too. That's what really annoys me - is it really that hard for adults to shut up for a bit. I couldn't hear myself think. Actually, for the first hour and a bit, the capers were a no-show, and just before 7 I couldn't stand the bustle any longer (my problem, not other poeple's) , thought maybe a bit of solitude was in order, even if it meant dipping caper, and headed off into the forest to do a bit of birding before going back to the family hols. So I'll have to post archive footage of what I saw here in 2005. Sorry, it was done holding the Coolpix up to the scope by hand in the half light, so not too good, but all the same... phwoargh!

There's also a video that I fully intend to post

and here.

Yesterday we were at the delightfully overcrowded Landmark Centre, home of big water slides, and also a treetop nature trail. As we got to the place where they feed the Red Squirrels there's a sign telling you to be quiet. Seeing this, our Peter (age 2) starts shouting 'Quiet!' at the top of his voice, and the squirrels didn't give a damn either. So you see what I have to put up with. Has anyone else noticed how our Peter looks and walks like our postman?

Back to Loch Garton - the female Osprey flew in and perched on the nest for a while. Wander round was more impressive - Common Goldeneyes and Eurasian Wigeons on the loch. 4 species of titmouse, errr... some Fieldfares flying over. Common Treecreeper, Goldcrests... etc. Not bad for half an hour.

Too...tired... to...go.... on... will finish off this post when we get home. It'll be worth it - contains perhaps the World's most inept attempt ever to nail Scottish Crossbill with a sonagram.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Four Seasons Hotel... Aviemore. There's posh. Sat in the bar; there's some sort of 'Easy Listening'/Swing act going on. Actually I'm finding it very hard listening. Whatever happened to banging jukeboxes? Only noteworthy bird event today, lots of Red Grouse on the moors along the Ballater-Tomintoul road. Displaying and everything. Sweet.

Monday, April 02, 2007


Ill-met by moonlight, illegal combatants. Welcome to another instalment of your detention without trial. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e. here and now.

Sunday morning, 1st April... after my Spongebob-esque breakfast of peanut-plant, tomato sauce and onion sundae, I headed out into... well hell... a pleasant sunny morning in Newtonhill. By jingo... thermals, and a commotion among the gulls soaring over the village revealed a Peregrine in among them, high up. As I was watching, 2 Common Buzzards circled in, calling, and then a third, which they appeared to gently hustle off to the north at lower level. But before it had gone, another 4th Buzzard flew in from the south and circled for a few minutes with the ‘resident’ two, before heading back to the south. Not sure what that was all about. And as the pain in my arms became unbearable, a Sparrowhawk came through as well, also circling high, so I had to cripple myself some more, in case it did something interesting, which it didn’t. And then a Common Kestrel hunting. Raptor frenzy.

Down at the Mill Garden, hey, an ASDA trolley dumped in the burn. Impressive – our nearest ASDA is 2 km away in Portlethen – has someone really pushed it all the way here just to dump it – motivated to provide a new perch for the Dippers? Blue Tits, Great Tits, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Wren, Dunnock, Robin etc. 2 Yellowhammers in the gorse.

Down to the cliffs. A Grey Seal had caught a fish and was being circled by 8 Herring Gulls looking for scraps. Off the breeding cliffs, there were 80 Razorbills and 40 Common Guillemots on the water, and an Atlantic Puffin, with 40 Black-legged Kittiwakes and 15 Common Eiders. A few Razorbills up on the cliffs too, checking out the niches. And more of the same further offshore, full of life with Northern Gannets, auks and Fulmars back and forth, a real ‘summer sea’. Apart from the adult winter Red-throated Diver, but counterbalanced by my first Manx Shearwater of the year. And three Bottle-nosed Dolphins splashed northwards, close inshore. Beautiful plumage.

As I said (op cit) it was nice and sunny, and with some butterflies out – several Small Tortoiseshells and a Green-veined White, mostly among the celandine. But an even more reliable sign of spring... the post-winter reappearance of Semi-naked Man, who spends his summers walking round the local countryside in his trainers and shorts. Strangely compulsive viewing. To put it in context, this is rural Aberdeen in a cold spring; I was in two t-shirts, my fleece and army coat, and was still feeling the chill. He was carrying a vest in case it got cold! Semi-naked Man – we salute you!

Monday Morning, 2nd April. After a comedy breakfast of big bananas and Cadbury’s Flakes eaten in suggestive manner, I got out for a couple of hours before Lizzie went to see the Bratz (don’t ask) concert at AECC. Wow. It got colder with the wind swung round to the NW. But there were a couple of Skylarks singing over the fields, that weren’t doing it yesterday. And a lot of Meadow Pipits flying about, for no adequately explored reason. High tide down at the beach, with 16 Ruddy Turnstones. Turnstones look thick. Sorry Turnstones, but you do. ‘Stones... seaweed; turn them over!’ ‘Mmmmm.... corpses.’ ‘Doh!’.

I rattled along to the sea cliffs. 150 Razorbills on the sea, and two shagging on a low shelf just onshore. They’re keen. Mind, she was a particularly attractive Razorbill, with a naughty pout and a sultry ‘come hither’ look in her dark exotic eyes. 45 Common Guillemots, 9 Atlantic Puffins, 60 Kittiwakes, 13 Northern Fulmars. Then I went home, stopping only to make extensive and very boring notes on a Grey Wagtail. If you confess that you hate Freedom and have been actively conspiring to undermine western society by distributing communist literature advocating popular revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, I WON’T post them here. Your choice.

Tomorrow, we’re off on holiday. If I can find some internet that isn’t too expensive, then you’ll get the gory details. A teaser... it had better bloody well involve the Scottish subspecies of Crested Tit.