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Argaty Red Kites

This week I visited Argaty Red Kites. Argaty Farm is close to one of the first Red Kite re-introduction sites in Scotland and they have really adopted the kites along with wildlife as a whole. They run daily feeds for the birds most afternoons which is a great opportunity to see wild birds close up.

The Bowser Family who run Argaty are big champions for rewilding and living in harmony with nature. You can learn more about their journey and that of the Red Kites by checking out Tom Bowser’s book A Sky Full of Kites.

The reason for my trip was to try out my brand new camera, the Canon R5. This camera is a big step up on my previous camera (A 2014 Canon 7d Mark ii) so I was desperate to get out and put it through its paces. I was especially looking forward to photographing birds in flight which is a difficult aspect of wildlife photography. The R5’s autofocus, including animal and eye tracking and fast burst rate should make it a lot easier to capture a sharp photo and the full frame sensor and 45 megapixels would help with image quality and after event cropping.

We arrived early and my friend and I took our place in the Photography Hide. Whilst we waited for the food to be put out we photographed a family of Tree Sparrows which were taking seed from a nearby feeder. The two chicks kept begging for food whilst the parents kept getting food from the feeder and bringing it back for them.

Tree Sparrows

Anticipating a feed, the Kites started to gather, soaring above the field. I fired off a few shots (well a few hundred – with 12-20 frames per second it doesn’t take long). It was a real joy using the new camera and so easy to focus on the birds compared to what I was used to.

Once our host had put out some food it didn’t take long for the Kites to come closer. This made for better shots as they had trees behind them.

And then they were stooping down, grabbing some food and flying off with it. They didn’t land as such, a fly-by-takeaway. Occasionally other birds, Crows, Magpies and Jackdaws joined in too, always cautious around the larger Kites.

All in all we watched the Kites for about an hour, steadily coming into feed. On a couple of occasions they displayed well, turning to lock talons. This offered spectacular action shots.

Not long after the actioned died down and the birds headed off through the trees.

Overall, it was great to see the Red Kites, our host Lynn was very welcoming and I was delighted with how the new camera performed. If you want to get up close to nature and see these wonderful bird of prey close up, I recommend a trip, but do book in advance, this is a popular day out.

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The River Devon in February

So my “habitat-focus” for this month is the River Devon. At just over 30 miles in length this is a fairly short river starting in the Ochils above Menstrie and Alva and entering the Forth about 5 miles away as the crow flies at Cambus. River’s are a rich habitat that attract a different range of wildlife and we are lucky in Menstrie to have this river pass just behind the village.

In February I set my camera trap up by the river and took a few walks to see what was about. My own camera got flooded by the rising water following rain and snow melt. Amazingly I was able to dry it out and it still works! But I am grateful to fellow Menstrie resident Barry MacPherson for his extra footage this month.

Wildlife filmed during February

I took a walk early in February one sunny morning before work and was pleased to see many of the classic river dwellers. First up was the Grey Heron in the SUDS pond.

Grey Heron

Continuing to the river itself and I see three Mallards flyover and land in the river. Further upstream I see some Goosanders too (too females and a male). I get a distant image of this bird.

Some Mute Swans are around the cycle path bridge most days and sometimes they gather in significant numbers – last year I counted 120. Just two today.

Next up are two classic river dwellers that are among my favourites. First the Grey Wagtail is often seen around here with its ridiculously long tail and bobbing motion. This is quite a confiding bird and allows some good photos. It is more interested in picking up insects around the rocky island in the middle

It is then joined by one of my favourite birds the Dipper. I often spot the bold white bib in the shadows or just the movement as it habitually bobs up and down or dives in and out of the water preferring to find its food at the bottom of rivers and streams. The combination of black, white and chocolate brown make this an unmistakable and striking bird. It is well named too.

The Yellowhammers have mostly been absent around the village over the winter preferring to go down to Tullibody Inch where I counted 120 last winter roosting together by a cereal crop field. But on this walk I see my first this far up stream of the year. A striking male cheeping from the top of a large Rosehip.

Heading back to the Menstrie side of the river I see a small group of Greylag Geese that have been hanging around over the winter. I count 7. Told from the truly wild Pink Footed Geese by bright their yellow/orange bill, farmyard honk and tendency to form smaller flocks these birds are often seen here all year round.

As I head back to Menstrie the hedgerow has one last treat for me. I hear the chirping of sparrows and am pleased to see that there are several Tree Sparrows around. The country cousin of the much more common House Sparrow distinguished by their solid brown cap.

Tree Sparrow

Towards the end of the month I took another walk one Sunday afternoon and saw many of the same birds but also some new species. It was a lovely spring day with a gorgeous blue sky which falls you into thinking winter may be passed for another year. On this time of year I start to look forward to migrants, it won’t be long before Sand Martins returning from Africa fly up this river. Or a Common Sandpiper takes its place on the bank here. Perhaps I might see a Wheatear flying through on its way up to the hillside above the village.

Not a true migrant but I am pleased to see a lovely Male Stonechat clinking to a read. I don’t often see Stonechat here more frequently by the coast in winter or up Menstrie Glen in the summer where they breed. I wonder if this has overwintered here or is just passing through.

Another fresh bird for this walk is a Reed Bunting. This is a male but it hasn’t yet got its full and striking breading plumage but there are hints of it.

I accidentally disturb a Heron which lifts up and flies a couple of hundred meters downstream before landing in a field on the opposite bank.

A Lesser Black-Backed Gull cruises by. A few overwinter here but most travel further south even to the continent. This is the first I have seen in Clacks this year.

A classic winter sight and sound is Geese flying over. On this walk I see some small flocks of Greylags, and one is close by for good photos of a fine pair. Here you can see the strong orange beak which tells them apart from Pink Feet.

Far more enjoyable for me is having hundreds of Pink Footed Geese fly over. This is a winter only sight as these birds will soon be heading north to Iceland to breed. Here you can see the smaller less colourful bill and dark heads which identifies these as Pink-Footed Geese.

I encourage you to watch the video at the top of this post to see and hear the geese further. See you next month for another habitat focus.

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A drive along the Lothian Coast

We recently took a drive along the Lothian coast from Musselburgh to Gullane. There are several good spots to stop and look out to sea and along the coast itself.

At Port Seton, a large flock on Ringed Plover flew down the coast but didn’t stop.

Ringed Plover

But then an even larger flock of Golden Plover was hard to miss as their golden backs caught the afternoon sun.

Golden Plover in flight

We watched them swirling for several minutes before they chose a patch of nearby rocks to settle on.

Golden Plover coming into land

Over time other smaller flocks kept coming in to join them and before long there were three to four hundred basking in the sun.

These are beautiful birds. I vividly remember seeing them in full breading plumage in Iceland and they looked amazing with their black, white and gold colours. A few of the birds here had hints of the black bellies remaining.

Golden Plover in Breeding Plumage (Iceland).

A rather tatty Pied Wagtail approached us on the beach.

Pied Wagtail

A migrating Wheatear had obviously stopped for a few days and it flew past landing by a rock and was soon flushed out an indignant (likely resident) Rock Pipit. The Pipit seemed quite clear that this was its patch of sand and seaweed and the Wheatear wasn’t welcome. The Wheatear would fly away only for the Pipit to follow, perhaps the Wheatear would have to carry on to Africa before it would have peace?

Rock Pipit and Wheatear

For some time I had noticed a white bird picking through the tide line along the beach and I had assumed it was just a gull. Something about its’ movements wasn’t quite right and I looked at it through my binoculars.

It took me a while to work out what this bird was as I had never seen anything like it before. Once I ignored the fact that this bird was all white/off-white it was obvious from its shape and structure and indeed its behaviour that it was a Bar-Tailed Godwit. I named it a Bar-Tailed ‘Odwit’ as Godwits were not meant to be white! This was an example of leucism, a genetic condition a bit like albinism.

This experience really highlights the dangers of relying on colours and plumage in identifying birds. Most people look for colour and plumage pattern to identify birds but it is much more reliable to go for size, shape (bill, legs especially), behaviour, song and calls, and habitat first. Relying on colour often leads to whole classes of birds (waders, warblers and gulls for example) becoming almost impossible to identify. Most waders are brownish and gulls are whitish so how to tell one from the other? And Warblers are the classic LBJ (little brown job) so identification becomes close to impossible. However, start to rely on size, shape, behaviour, song and calls and you will begin to see these birds aren’t that similar at all, and you can start learning the differences.

Looking back to the Golden Plovers I saw some other birds had joined them, a small group of Knot. This often happens, when large numbers of birds gather, others join them – in nature there is safety in numbers and that is no truer than when at the coast.

As I walked further along the beach I notices a couple of birds. One was a Dunlin and the other a Ringed Plover. The Ringed Plover with bright orange legs, smooth brown back and black/white face. The Dunlin, a first winter bird with a combination of scalloped juvenile plumage and greyer plainer adult winter plumage.

Ring Plover (L) and 1st Winter Dunlin

We returned to the car and carried on up the coast towards Gullane stopping again at Aberlady Bay. The tide was out and the first thing we noticed were the Geese. Hundreds of Pink-Feet and Greylags feeding on the mud and bathing in the river.

Pink Feet (mostly)
Greylags

Pink-Footed Geese are clearly wild geese migrating here for the winter from Iceland. Greylags are less clear, with a strong population of resident so-called “plastic” geese (ie not of wild origins) being supplemented by additional winter migrants.

A Black-headed Gull allowed close views from the bridge. Only the black spot behind the eye now, in its winter plumage rather than the full black (well brown) cap after which it is named.

Several Little Egrets hunted the river bed. This bird would have been a rarity a couple of decades ago but now, thanks to climate change, they are resident in the UK all year and increasingly common in Scotland. Egrets are from the same family as Herons but are all or mostly white. The Little Egret can be told from the rarer Great White Egret by its smaller size and dark black beak and legs. The even rarer Cattle Egret is still unusual in Scotland and has a yellow bill and rather different behaviours. All are very elegant birds.

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Birdwatching at Musselburgh Lagoons

As Autumn is kicking in I decided to take a trip out to Musselburgh in the hope of adding a few birds to my year list. The east coast obviously attracts a range of seabirds we don’t get in Clackmannanshire and can also have migrants travelling through. A Ruff, Little Stint or Curlew Sandpiper would be a good target for the day, or a rarer Scoter. A rare White-Winged Scoter has been seen in past years and a Surf Scoter has been seen in just the last few weeks so I am hopeful.

Our first stop was the mouth of the River Esk. Straight up we are surprised to see a Red-Throated Diver in the river itself close to where we parked the car. It was diving for fish and seemed healthy enough. We watched it for a few minutes and captured a few good photos.

Also swimming around in the river were a couple of Common Guillemots, nice to see the birds so close but not really a healthy sign for this seabird to be on freshwater. This is a widely reported problem along the East Coast of Scotland as I mentioned in my previous post.

Pair of Guillemots

We walked towards the seawall and picked up a Common Redshank feeding on the near shore.

Common Redshank

A few swans were feeding in the river itself, I checked for a Whooper which might be passing through but they were all the more common resident Mute Swans. Still a lovely bird in good light.

Mute Swan

A Lesser-Black Backed Gull flew past with a fairly mean look, whilst a winter plumage Black-Headed Gull fed in the shallows its red legs and bill standing out brightly.

There were lots of Curlew feeding behind the receding tide and some offered close views to fire off a few photos. With their impossibly long curling beak, and large size these birds are quickly marked out from most other waders. For beginners it is a good idea to learn your Curlews and Redshanks early on as they can act as a useful reference point for other waders.

A Reed Bunting lands for a drink in a nearby puddle.

Reed Bunting

Several Greylag Geese were relaxing on the far shore and they got up and moved into the river. Before long the river was alive with Greylags honking their farmyard honk. I looked through for Pink-Footed Geese but couldn’t see any.

Just then as if on order I heard Pink-Footed Geese flying over, high up, possibly just arriving from Iceland – I like to think so. These birds are common in the fields around where I live in Clackmannanshire each winter and I look forward to their imminent return. Their V-shaped flock is a welcome sign of Autumn and the passing of yet another season.

Pink Footed Geese arriving from Iceland

Looking out on the rocks I see the white flash of the rump of a Wheatear. These birds have been breeding inland but are now starting migration and fuelling up on the coast. I follow the bird until it lands and see a Rock Pipit trying to see it off the two facing off from separate rocks. This bird is a much drabber pipit with olive green tones almost disappearing into the rock it is standing on,

A frequent sound I have started to tune in to this summer is the “Eric Eric” of the Sandwich Tern and I hear it now. I see several birds offshore plunge diving for fish. The Sandwich Tern is quite a bit larger than its Common or Arctic cousins and has a bold black half cap almost like an eye-stripe. This is the nature of migration you gain the Geese but loose the Terns. This bird will soon be leaving for West Africa. I enjoy it’s acrobatics now as it may be the last I see this year.

We are now out on the seawall and I set up the scope. I am delighted to see a distant view of a Red-Necked Grebe my first year tick of the day as well as some Great-Crested Grebes. There are also lots of Shags flying backwards and forwards along with Eider Ducks and Gannets from Bass Rock feeding. They are too far to photograph but a small group of half a dozen Goosanders are much closer. These are sawbills and they keep diving for small fish. You have to love the punk hair-doo.

Goosanders

I subscribe to Bird Guides for the latest bird alerts and someone has reported a Surf Scoter off the seawall earlier today. Scoters are small black sea-ducks and most of the Scoters here are Velvet Scoters with a white tick around the eye. The Surf Scoter is much rarer and has a larger bill and white patch behind the head. We find someone with a scope who is on the bird and this affords good but distant views. Another year tick which is good progress for the day.

We leave the coast and walk inland briefly to the hides overlooking Musselburgh Lagoons. The first bird I see is a lovely Grey Heron resting on the shore looking over at a hundred or so Lapwings in the lagoon behind it.

Grey Heron with Lapwings behind

I notice several busy waders feeding around the water’s edge and after checking the features I am delighted to add Ruff to my year list. I count 11 in total which is a record for me. They offer up some great photos. This bird is what is called a passage migrant. They are not here to breed or for the winter, rather they are travelling from their breeding grounds in the north to their winter home in the south. There is a short period to catch them as they are just travelling through.

I notice a bobbing motion in the foreground and see a Common Snipe feeding. The long golden stripes down the back and over the head are diagnostic. These birds are often quite hard to see and rarely offer a good photo. Don’t mind if I do.

I can see a distant covey of Grey Partridge but not really close enough to photograph. I suspect I might be able to see them better from the other hide. We walk around and sure enough they are much closer. There are seven altogether in this family group and they are busy feeding. This partridge is in decline. compared to the introduced Red-Legged Partridge, so it is lovely to see them close up. A Pied Wagtail flies in behind them.

A small flock of Goldfinch fly overhead and land in the nearby Teasels

Goldfinch

We walk back to the car by the seawall again adding a couple of Brent Geese to my year list

Brent Geese

A good day which takes me to 180 bird species for the year, on track for 200 hopefully. Musselburgh Esk Mouth and Lagoons is a worthy birdwatching location especially rewarding if you don’t live on the coast.

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Boat trip to Bass Rock

Bass Rock is the world’s largest Northern Gannet colony. I have been wanting to visit it for ages and finally made it at the weekend.

We booked on a fast RIB boat trip organised by the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick. This “Three Island Seafari” trip also visited the Lamb and Craigleith but it was quite late in the season to see much birdlife on these Islands but Bass Rock itself did not disappoint.

Since the boat we were on was a RIB and it was quite windy we did get very wet but I guess that just made it a bit of an adventure. But I did have to work hard to keep my camera equipment and binoculars dry. Slower, more sedate boats are available.

Before reaching Bass Rock we saw some Common Guillemots and a Razorbill. There are a lot of Guillemots and Razorbills close to west coast shore at the moment and in rivers. Over the last few weeks I have seen Guillemots in the Forth around Stirling, for example. Whilst the cause is not yet fully understood it is not natural, healthy behaviour and sadly many dead birds have been found too.

Grey Seal

On a happier note we got a nice close-up view of a Grey Seal around Craigleith. Along with a few Shags and Cormorants drying their wings.

Shag in classic pose

As we approached Bass Rock the air started to fill with Gannets, our largest native seabird. Quite a sight.

We also came across several juvenile Gannets in the water, not yet able to fly. Juvenile Gannets have the same basic shape as the adults but their plumage is completely different which means many people don’t realise they are Gannets at all. After a life of being cared for by two parents they leave the nest weighing more than their target weight and are unable to fly as a result. It will be a few weeks before they master this skill.

Juvenile Gannet

Once at Bass Rock itself we saw the cliffs covered in Gannets by the thousand – a truly spectacular sight, with all the accompanying sounds and smells.

We were able to pick out more Gannet chicks (known as guga’s) some still with their downy covering others moulting this off. Some were practicing their flying skills.

As we continued around the island every available nest site was occupied with thousands of Gannets. At the peak of the season Bass Rock is home to over 150,000 Gannets, over half of the European total!

Gannets are actually highly territorial birds on the nest, albeit protecting a very small area. If a guga (Gannet chick) falls from the nest outside the territory the parents will no longer recognise it as offspring and therefore they will no longer care for it and it will perish. There is a clear line between their territory and that of their neighbour and if that line is crossed, warnings will be given and if they are ignored a fight will erupt. Mostly the fighting Gannets will fall into the water to continue the fight. These fights are often to the death as a Gannet beak is a formidable weapon. We saw one dead gannet being eaten by a Greater Black-Backed Gull following such a fight. We also interrupted a dramatic fight in progress.

As our boat approach the Gannets stopped fighting each other to get away from us and I felt we effectively broke up the contest. This was probably good news for the weaker bird.

As we left the Island we again saw countless Gannets leaving the rock going out to the fishing grounds across the North Sea.

A magnificent bird and great experience. Recommend a visit.

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Bottlenose Dolphins at Chanonry Point

I have been meaning to visit Chanonry Point, to see the Dolphins that are famous for coming really close to shore, for several years. But for one reason or another I have never made it before last week. A week in a camper van with my wife in late July provided a fairly open opportunity and it was one of the first things we slotted into our plans.

We aimed to arrive at the end of Chanonry Point about an hour after low tide. The Bottlenose Dolphins are known to chase fish into the bay and use the combination of the long spit of land and the tide currents to pin the fish. A rising tide starting about an hour after low-tide is the ideal time. A healthy population of about 200 Bottlenose Dolphins live in and around the Moray Firth so sightings are quite regular.

We took the walk from the centre of Fortrose rather than drive out and park in the pay and display carpark at the end. Chanonry Point has become very popular in recent years and parking can be a problem especially for a camper van so allowing time to walk out removes another potential issue.

I estimate there were about 100 people gathered hoping the dolphins would show when we arrived. It certainly wasn’t quiet but nor was it overcrowded as the split of shingle was long enough for us to spread out. After about 30 minutes or so some people started to drift away.

I took some time to photograph the Common Terns flying past and Herring Gull loafing nearby.

About an hour and 45 minutes after low tide I was delighted to see a distant fin break the water betraying an approaching dolphin. The crowd murmured with excitement and subconsciously moved down to the shore.

Before long, we were having excellent views of a mother and calf less than 10 meters away. Adult Bottlenose Dolphins grow up to 4 meters long and are mostly dark in colour, the calves are shorter and much lighter in colour. These two dolphins stayed close to the shore where the rising tide met the current of the river for the next hour or so.

Before long some other dolphins joined the show further out but moving much faster with more energy. These were chasing fish, mostly Salmon, which provided a great meal for the effort. As well as catching and eating the Salmon they would also appear to play with the fish, throwing them into the air and catching them. Sometimes this is to train younger dolphins how to hunt but sometimes it appears to be just for fun. I guess Dolphins aren’t taught not to play with their food.

The show continued for about 2 hours and at one point a particularly active dolphin kept jumping out of the water. This was a good opportunity to practice my photography. You had to guess where the Dolphin would appear and be ready to take a burst of photos as soon as it reappeared. I was positioned low down on the shore, knelt down, to try and get a more interesting background, risking getting wet knees from the incoming tide. After taking a lot of photos of disappearing tail flukes I captured this shot which I was fairly happy with.

All in all I would recommend a trip to Chanonry Point if you are around the Black Isle. Wildlife encounters are often distant and brief and this was certainly special in being close up and sustained for a couple of hours. I think it would be a great place to go for a picnic with children and hope for the best.

Below is a brief video showing how close the Dolphins come to the shore. I hope you are able to enjoy the Moray Firth Dolphins and join the watching crowd soon.

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Wildlife watching on Mull

At the end of June/start of July we had a week on Mull and our main focus for the week was wildlife watching as most our holidays are these days. This post shares three great locations where we explored the wildlife of Mull.

Grass Point

We had a couple of hours after getting off the ferry and before getting access to our cottage so we drove down the road to Grass Point (just south of Loch Don). This is a great habitat for Hen Harrier and Short Eared Owl. Sure enough within 30 minutes of leaving the boat we saw a Ringtail. This is the name used for female-type Hen Harrier based on the white band on the tail. I say female type rather than just female as the immature males look similar too.

Hen Harrier

We carried on down to the view point at Grass Point itself and walked to the top of the cliffs to view the sea. We saw several grey seals in the sea along with a distant view of an otter hunting, it eventually came to the shore and disappeared up a river bank.

We also saw several Rock Doves on the cliffs. These are genuine wild birds on Mull rather than the common feral pigeons found nearly everywhere on the mainland.

As we walked back to the car we heard and saw Whinchat, Chaffinch and Stonechat. A confiding male Stonechat perched on a foxglove which bent over under its weight.

Male Stonechat on Foxglove

We walked along the road to the end and had a look around the small bay. A Lesser Redpoll landed on the roof of a nearby house, it flew before I could catch a photo but nice to see the red forehead.

A Willow Warbler sang from the nearby scrub. I find Willow Warbler impossible to tell from Chiffchaff by sight but the song is very different, sounding a bit like a Chaffinch without the flourish at the end.

Willow Warbler song
Willow Warbler

Loch Scridain

The next day we headed over Glen More, a lovely road, to Loch Scridain. Descending from the highpoint we saw a couple of cars parked with tripods with scopes out looking at the cliffs above. A brief chat later and we had our own scope on a couple of resting Golden Eagles. After about 20 minutes one took off disturbed by a Kestrel and gave a brief view. As the photo below shows, an Eagle has much longer wings and primary feathers than a Buzzard, oh and a Golden Eagle hardly ever flaps it wings by comparison to a Buzzard. You can tell this is a Goldie (not White-Tail) from the smaller head and narrower wings compared to the White-Tail’s thicker barn door profile.

Golden Eagle

Carrying on down the B8035 turnoff north of the loch we soon found ourselves in excellent meadow habitat so we stopped and scanned for birds. We very quickly saw a quartering Short-Eared Owl followed by two Hen Harriers which was excellent. It must be a good vole year. A Skylark popped up near the car allowing close views.

Skylark

We also saw a Whinchat resting on a distant fence.

Whinchat

We continued to drive along the coast scanning for Otters and were soon rewarded by a mother and two cubs. These are wonderful animals and always a special encounter. They have great smell but less good eyesight so staying down wind we watched them for 10-15 minutes from the road side.

Returning to the main road (A849) to Pennyghael we scanned the marshy area again for Short-Eared Owls or Harriers. None this time but a few Redshank, Curlew and Lapwings put in a show. Driving along with the windows open (always drive with the windows open if you can!) we heard a Buzzard calling from a stand of trees. Investigation soon revealed a nest which was actually visible from the road itself although you would probably miss it driving.

Buzzard on nest (taken from road)

Further down the road we looked out to a small island with some Common Seals hauled out. Taking time to watch we noticed that one was actually in the process of giving birth. We watched for about 20 minutes but after this, the mother to be went into the water (opting for a water birth perhaps).

Common Seal in labour

Lochbuie

Another great day out we headed down to Lochbuie. Just after leaving the A849 at Strathcoil we saw a few impressive Red Deer Stags.

Red Deer Stag

A relaxed drive along Loch Spelve revealed close up views of a few birds we had been seeing all week. Most of Mull’s coast seems to have a resident Grey Heron and it is fun to watch these birds feed and nice to practice photographing them in flight, because they are so huge they are an easy target to practice on.

The main geese on the Island are Greylags and we frequently saw families together. Geese with young will avoid Otters who will occasionally take a gosling so having them close to the shore is a clear indication not to bother looking for Otters (and the reverse is true, if you see them heading away form the shore and you are not the cause might be worth a quick scan).

Whilst here we also glimpsed some Canada Geese which were much less common on Mull than the Greylags.

Canada geese

Along with Oystercatchers the other birds we found at almost every stretch of coast were the noisy Common Sandpipers. These migrants from Africa breed on our coasts and rivers in the summer. They are vocal birds when alarmed, vocal birds when taking off, the pair near our cottage were vocal birds whenever I was trying to sleep.

Common Sandpiper

We drove out the far side of Loch Spelve and were a bit surprised to see a Peacock in the middle of the road near the end. It acted as if it owned the road, calling loudly whilst displaying its magnificent tail feathers.

Getting back to wildlife, we continued down to Lochbuie stopping for some lunch. We had a lovely walk along the coast to the beautiful beach beyond Moy Castle.

Social distancing in action on Mull

Nearby rocky crags had lovely wildflowers growing out of the cracks. Not my specialty but I think this is English Stonecrop.

English Stonecrop

Another distinctive flower of Mull was the Iris meadows found around most river mouths. Corncrake are occasionally heard from this habitat but not by us this week.

Iris

Goldfinch and Lesser Redpolls flew around the nearby field and briefly landed on the nearby fence.

On our return to the main road after leaving the shored of Loch Spelve the road rises to a small pass. It was early afternoon now and the sun was beating down hard and the thermals were getting established. Whilst driving we saw a brief raptor pass behind some trees. We pulled over and before long were watching a Golden Eagle along with 9 Buzzards soaring in the thermals. The Golden Eagle was having a hard time being mobbed and had actually lost one of its tail feathers.

Golden Eagle with missing tail feather

Whilst on Mull we also enjoyed a fantastic boat trip whale watching from Tobermory and also a day photographing Golden Eagles and other birds of prey.

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Photographing Golden Eagles on Mull

For the last few years I have tried to set myself a wildlife photography objective for each holiday we go on. It is just enough to give me a focus and more often than not I am able to achieve the objective. On past holidays I have targeted Pine Martin, Otter, White Tailed Eagle and Short-Eared Owl for example. When we went to Mull – Eagle Island – a couple of weeks back I set myself the goal of photographing Golden Eagle, a bird which I have often seen but rarely within close photographical range.

I gave my chances of success a big boost by booking a day with Philip Price of Loch Visions Wildlife Photography. I had a positive impression of Loch Visions before the day because Philip had kindly moved my booking not once but twice because of Covid disruption.

After meeting at the ferry (I was already on the Island but Philip wasn’t) we drove to a favoured location of Philip’s which required a decent drive, some of which was off road. We then set off on a walk for about 20 minutes burdened down not just with our photography gear and lunch but also two large beanbags to sit on that Philip had brought with him – no slumming it here. The weather at this stage was not very promising as it was thick cloud with visibility restricted to about 30 meters.

As we climbed onto our target ridge Philip told me to get ready with my camera as it was possible we could see the eagle at any point from now on. I don’t think either of us expected much but as we stepped over a small skyline Philip made out an eagle’s outline through the mist.

Golden Eagle through mist

I fired off several shots not hoping for much because of the heavy fog. I was delighted with the result above after heavy processing with the dehaze filter in Adobe Lightroom.

The eagle knew we were there and kept looking directly at us but we stood still and didn’t approach further otherwise it was sure to fly away. After about 15 minutes the Eagle decided to move on by itself.

We continued to the spot Philip had planned and settled down for the day. Philip’s photography ethos where possible is to set up for a whole day in one remote, off-road location and be patient. This is a completely different mindset compared with many wildlife and photography guides where you move from one place to another by car to see as much as you can in the day. The location Philip had chosen was excellent and one I will definitely go back to. Out of respect for Philip and the birds I won’t share it here. But finding out about this location was the first clear benefit of booking a local knowledgeable guide.

For the next few hours we chatted and waited for the cloud to clear. This time was not wasted as Philip talked me through his photography top tips, many of which will help me improve my photography significantly. Learn to shoot in manual, it will take a bit of time to get used to but will be worth it. Manually fix Shutter Speed with Aperture with Auto ISO unless a sunny day and the light is changing in which case fix ISO on a representative area of grass or rock manually. These tips were really helpful and my second benefit from booking Philip.

As the cloud began to clear we started to see some Gulls, Rock Doves (genuinely wild birds unlike Feral Pigeons) and Hooded Crows through the mist. I tried to put into practice what Philip had shared and capture some bird in flight shots but the I kept failing to focus. After a very frustrating half hour Philip had a break thru as he diagnosed a problem with my lens. Some swapping with his kit proved beyond a doubt that there was a problem which was stopping me from focusing in certain conditions. (Later when I got home and did some research online I upgraded both my camera and lens’ firmware which helped). This was a real win for me as I had largely given up on birds in flight photography and blamed my own skill level. It was relieving to know the problem was not me but my kit (third benefit).

Working carefully not to trigger the autofocus problem I managed to get some passable shots of Rock Dove, Hooded Crow (one with Slow Worm) and Common Gull. I might now be ready if the eagle flew past.

A farmer came onto the hill to move some of his sheep and we watched through the clearing fog. Then suddenly the eagle took off from a hidden part of the nearby ridge, close to the farmer, and flew away. I fired off some shots but none of them were great when I looked back later, partly because I wasn’t quick enough, partly because the fog was still heavy and partly because the bird was flying away. It was lovely to see it again though. Philip concluded based on size that this was the female of the pair (slightly larger than the male).

We settled down for a few more hours. By now the sky was clear and we had a delightful view of the coastline and bay below. This really was an exceptional spot.

We also started to see some other birds of prey, namely Buzzard and Kestrel. Whilst not my target for the day it was great to put into practice the lessons Philip had shared with me. I captured what is probably my best ever photo of a Buzzard and Kestrel in flight. This confirmed my photography skills were improving under Philip’s tutorage (benefit 4).

Common Buzzard
Kestrel

By 3pm we had been on the hill for about 6 hours and Philip had to leave to catch the ferry. He encouraged me to stay for a couple more hours in the hope the eagle would return, which I was more than happy to do. I had started to settle into the slower rhythm of Philip’s approach and enjoy the mindful downtime as well as the location. I was learning patience which is perhaps the hardest lesson of all (benefit 5). Even without another sighting of the eagle and a close-up photo, Philip had been excellent value for money and I thanked him for his time.

Over the next 90 minutes I didn’t see anything apart from a couple of distant Kestrels and an RAF helicopter flyby. But I was enjoying this alone time in nature. Then about 4.30pm I started to be aware that lots of gulls and hoodies were mobbing a bird out of sight over the distant ridge. This carried on for at least 10 minutes which gave me the impression this must be a sizeable bird being mobbed – our eagle perhaps? Then joy of joys I saw the Golden Eagle rise above the ridge and give me some good but distant views. The two Kestrels were particularly aggressive in mobbing the Eagle as it moved through their territory.

I believe there are 4 different species of bird in the photo below – the Golden Eagle is one but can you name the other three?

4 species – can you name them?

With all the focusing practice during the day I was aware that my last battery was running low but I was still hoping to get closer shots. The Eagle continued to approach along the ridge at one point briefly landing.

My last battery died. I was disappointed as the eagle was close now but also happy in a way to be able to put my camera down and enjoy this magnificent bird with no photography agenda. I watched instead through my binoculars.

It was thrilling to see this bird get closer and closer until I became acutely aware that she was staring directly at me and now completely filled the view of my 8.5 magnification lens. I lowered my binoculars and looked out at this magnificent bird about 10m from me. Corny but true to say… we shared a moment.

Now I am not a big cryer but as the bird circled back around where I sat I actually choked up. Not because my camera was lying useless at my feet (although this would have been the photographic opportunity of a lifetime) but because this was such a pure encounter with such a wonderful bird in such a spectacular location, and I just couldn’t believe how blessed I was to experience it.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Philip and would strongly recommend a booking with Loch Visions. It was great to experience a wonderful location, patiently and improve my photographic knowledge and skills, whilst spending time with the spectacular Golden Eagle.

The three other species of bird in above photo were Hooded Crow, Kestrel and Curlew (left hand bird).


Over the rest of the week I did have other opportunities to photograph Golden Eagle and I share a few of the better shots here. That said I do hope one day to have another close-up opportunity with plenty of battery life left in my camera!

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Whale Watching from Tobermory, Mull

We have just come back from a lovely week on the Isle of Mull and I will be sharing some of the nature highlights in three separate posts in the coming few days. First up is a wonderful whale watching trip we took with Sea Life Surveys from Tobermory. We took the four hour “Wildlife Adventure” option which cost £60 per adult.

Over the years I have been lucky to enjoy several wildlife watching boat trips. I have seen Sperm Whales from New Zealand, Pilot Whales from Tenerife and Humpback Whales from Iceland along with several UK dolphin trips. Each trip is special in it’s own way but I can honestly say this trip was as good as any I have done abroad and the best I have done in the UK.

First, the modern, fast boat meant we could make the most of the four hours and travel from Mull via the Ardnamurchan Peninsular to the north of the Isle of Coll and subsequently travel up to the south of the Isle of Muck before returning to port. We pretty much travelled from one sighting to the next with very little downtime. Second, the boat was generously staffed with, in addition to the captain, a dedicated wildlife guide and a knowledgeable volunteer who both explained what we were seeing. They also tuned in to individual interests (for example, not everyone had my appetite for seabirds) and shared more information with those who wanted it. Lastly, we were very fortunate with the conditions as we had very little wind, flat water and this meant any cetaceans (aquatic mammals) were easy to see a long way off.

Altogether we saw four different species of marine mammals – Bottlenose Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke Whale and Common Dolphin. The following video shows some of the highlights of the trip,

Highlights featuring Bottlenose Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise and Common Dolphins

Common Seals

As we travelled from Tobermory we saw several seabirds – Black Guillemot, Common and Herring Gulls and lots of Shags. We also passed a rock with some Common Seals (aka Harbour Seals).

Harbour Seal with pup

Bottlnose Dolphins

Before we left the coast of Mull we spotted Bottlenose Dolphins near a yacht which was ahead.

Bottlenose Dolphin ahead of yacht

Soon we were surrounded by a pod of about 7-8 Bottlenose Dolphins. This was a lovely experience as the dolphins interacted with the boat riding the bow wave when the boat was moving fast and swimming around when the boat slowed down. Bottlenose Dolphins are known to stay in close-knit family groups and the volunteers took several photos of dorsal fins to submit to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust for identification. These were large dolphins (up to four meters) and great fun to watch as they sped between boats and rode the bow wave.


Harbour Porpoise

After about 20 minutes with the Bottlenose Dolphins we moved away and headed to the north of the Isle of Coll. At this location two currents from either side of the island meet and there is also a great variation in the depth of the water. This means that there are upwellings of currents which makes great conditions for sea birds and mammals.

As we approached the area we saw several seabirds including Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, Common Guillemots (including Bridled), Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes and Great Skuas. Before long we saw a pod of several Harbour Porpoises. These behaved completely different to the Dolphins, making no effort to associate with the boat but just continued to feed and gently go about their business. There was also a clear size difference with these porpoises being one of the smallest of marine mammals (only up to 1.5 meters).

Harbour Porpoise

Minke Whale

Before long we also saw the much larger Minke Whale breaking the surface several times before diving. All in all we saw 2 or possibly 3 separate Minkes. Much larger than anything we had seen to date (7-10 meters), and only from a respectful distance, it was great to see these whales. Again we didn’t interact with these, the second smallest baleen whale.

Minke Whale

Common Dolphins

If our trip ended at this point I would still have rated it very highly, however our captain had spotted some dolphins to the south of Muck and we were soon off again. Before arriving, our guide had identified them as Common Dolphins (aka Short-Beaked), based on their behaviour. A Great Skua flew right over the boat and circled around as we arrived among the dolphins.

These dolphins interacted differently with the boat, frequently jumping out of the water (porpoising) and jumping onto their side. It was also a much larger pod with several dozen individuals together. Unlike their Bottlenose cousins Common Dolphins are not loyal to a family group and frequently join together in different pods and sometimes into groups a thousand strong.


Golden Eagle and Raven

After another 15-20 minutes with the Common Dolphins we returned to Tobermory via the Ardnamurchan Peninsular. As we travelled past the most western point of mainland Britain we saw several Ravens flying over the ridge and then two Golden Eagles. These were distant views through the binoculars but a fitting end to a great wildlife watching experience.


Final thoughts

This was a great trip and I would strongly encourage you to book yourself on a whale watching trip from Mull. We were very fortunate to see four species in one trip and clearly, with nature and Scottish weather, this cannot be guaranteed. I found it really helpful to see Common and Bottlenose Dolphins as well as Porpoise in one trip and am now confident I could confidently identify them from land after this educational trip (in fact I did later in the week from a coastal viewing point). Lastly, it was also excellent that the animals chose to come close to us or kept their distance, which was then respected by the boats. It is a privilege to see these magnificent animals in their habitat and important that their welfare is respected.

Featured

A trip to the Fife Coast

The Isle of May is a wonderful destination in season (May to July) and it is worth birding on the Fife Coast too as you approach Anstruther for the boat for a couple of east coast specialities. I thoroughly recommend a trip and in this post will share some of the things to look out for.

We had a trip planned a a month ago for migration season but it was cancelled due to high wind so it has been great to reschedule for mid-June. It is always worth booking a couple of dates in case the wind stops the boats from running.

East Coast Specialties

Before heading out to the Isle of May (1pm boat) we checked out the Fife Coast for a few hours or birding.

First target was the Corn Bunting. Sadly because of modern farming practices this bird has declined dramatically over the last 50 years and is firmly on the UK’s “red list”. This dumpy LBJ (little brown job) has a wonderful song and is known for flying with its feet dangling behind it. Corn Buntings cling on in Fife with an estimated 110 pairs established on the East Neuk. As we left Crail and approached Kilminning we scanned wires and posts and were delighted to see one conveniently perched in a nearby a lay-by. We pulled in and used the car as a hide as the trusting bird greeted us with its “jangling keys” call.

Corn Bunting singing

Our other main target was the Yellow Wagtail. This summer breading migrant is restricted to the East Coast in Scotland so I can’t see it at home. A local birder told us that there were 3 pairs between Crail and Anstruther so we stopped in a lay-by and scanned the nearby fields. After five minutes we were delighted to see a male and female pair flying over and landing nearby on the kale crop.


Gannets

We took the fast boat out to the Isle of May from Anstruther. Whilst bouncing over the waves we saw several Gannets flying past in long lines. This is our largest sea bird and it is a wonderfully specialised bird, perfectly suited for plunge diving into the sea to fish. Recent research shows that they may actually change the shape of their eye lens to stay focused underwater when chasing prey. The nearby Bass Rock is the worlds largest Gannet colony with over 150,000 birds breeding here and they patrol the east coast from this base fishing to feed their young.

Gannets with Bass Rock in background

Grey Seals

Our boat approached the Isle of May from the north so our first contact was with the connected Isle of Rona.

We soon saw several Grey Seals both in the water and hauled out on the rocks. The Isle of May is a preferred breeding ground for Grey Seals with about 8,000 landing on the island each autumn and over 2,500 pups being born here each year. There were far fewer this June day but still plenty to form a descent welcoming party.


High rise living

Our boat travelled past the west coast cliffs before landing. The seabird colonies of Britain’s coast are really our equivalent of the Serengeti -a true wildlife spectacular. If you haven’t experiences the sights, sounds and even smells of a sea cliff bird colony book yourself on a trip as soon as you can, you won’t regret it

The cliffs around the Isle of May are home to thousands of Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and a few Fulmars. In this high-rise living each bird has it’s niche. At the bottom you have the Common Guillemots taking the lowest few stories of this seabird city.

Next come the Kittiwakes, looking quite like Common Gulls (found inland) but these gulls are only found at sea (or in Newcastle!). They come ashore to breed and they maintain a small territory from their neighbour on the crowded ledge where they lay their eggs and raise the young chicks.

Mixed in, and resting on the very highest levels of the seabird skyscrapper are the Razorbills. This is a beautifully marked bird with yellow gaping mouths, white marked bill and clear white line to the eye. This is one of the rarest auks in the world with less than a million pairs and they pair for life.

Lastly taking their place on this seabird city at the Fulmars. Most people would think that Fulmars are a gull species but their tube-noses tell a different story. This bird is actually closely related to the Albatross. The origins of their name comes from the old norse for “foul gull” due to their habit of vomiting stinking stomach oil on unweary intruders. I stayed well clear for this image, taken after landing, grateful for the reach of my camera lens.


Nature can be cruel

Whilst approaching our landing point we saw a bit of a commotion. A Great Black Backed Gull was struggling on the surface of the water whilst an anxious Kittiwake parent flew back and forth above. The Great Black Backed Gull is a top predictor in this habitat and easily capable of taking a Kittiwake chick and indeed this is what had happened here. Nature can be cruel at time but all birds have their place in this balanced echo system.

Bring a Walking Pole!

If you visit the Isle of May between May and July it is advisable to bring an umbrella or walking pole with you – something to hold above your head. There are over 2,000 Arctic Terns breeding on the Island and this species will defend their territory vigorously. This means they will fly at your head or whatever is your highest point (hence the walking pole). They will also use invasive walkers for target practice and I myself was promoted to a lance corporal and then full sergeant thanks to a series of deposits on my right shoulder. Arctic Terns live an amazing life with the longest migration of any living creature (from Arctic to Antarctic each year). We saw a few Common Terns along with the much more abundant Arctic Terns during our visit.


Puffins!

The Isle of May is famous for Puffins and fair enough, there are over 46,000 of them here during the breeding season, and they look lovely. This tiny auk has a classic profile when the bill is in full breeding colours. They nest in burrows so it isn’t possible to see the chicks but the adult coloured bill is a sight to behold. These birds are everywhere on the Island and it is wonderful to see so many almost everywhere you look. The classic image of the puffin is with a mouthful of Sand Eels and this is quite an easy image to capture when so many birds are present.


Other Breeders

Don’t overlook small birds on the Island. In mid-May you may come across an exciting migrant, but in June you can still find resident Pied Wagtail and indeed Rock Pipit flitting amidst the larger more dominant seabirds. Like it’s cousin the Meadow Pipit the Rock Pipet is a classic LBJ but with duller colours and slightly larger size allow you to distinguish it.

Rock Pipit

Whilst fewer in number the Oystercatchers on the island make up for their low numbers with volume. As they fly overhead they make quite a noise and if you approach their nest they will try to distract you by taking a prominent location nearby and chirping their alarm call anxiously.

Oystercatcher
Youngsters

Birds come to the Isle of May to breed and that means there are lots of youngsters around.

The chicks of Lesser Black Backed Gulls are lovely little fur-balls and can be found quite close to the path.

On the cliffs and rocks near the shore, Shags have also successfully bred. The green scaly serpentine sheen of the adult contrasts with the brown fluffy young.

Most of the Eider Ducks have already left the island in June but a few females were still on nests peaking up above the vegetation and others had formed a small creche on Island’s small lochan. The males have long-since left, leaving the females to fulfil all the child-rearing duties.


The Isle of May and Fife Coast is a wonderful place to visit and I hugely recommend you go. May to July are the best months to visit (May for the migrants as well as sea birds and later months for full on sea bird action). You can get to the Isle of May from Anstruther and also South Queensferry and North Berwick. The Nature Reserve maintain an excellent blog on latest goings on which is worth a look at any time of year but certainly before you go.

I can’t wait to go back next year.

Featured

A collaboration in Bird Art

Apart from blood relatives the person I have known longest in my life is my great school friend Jamie. When I was thirteen my family moved to Cumbria and I turned up at a new school, as a geeky teenager, knowing no-one! It didn’t take too long for me to make friends with Jamie and our friendship was a lifeline for us both at a difficult age and time.

Over the years our families holidayed together and I even lived with Jamie and his dad Tom (a wonderful man who passed a way a few years back) during my holidays from Uni. Jamie and Tom were really talented artists and I was somewhat hopeless at such things. But it was great to see them at work and the walls of their home were covered in amazing paintings. I will always remain grateful to Tom and Jamie for giving me a safe place in the world at this key time in my life.


The Art and Science of Wildlife Photography

I still don’t consider myself “artistic” as such. Well certainly I cannot paint or draw. However, in wildlife photography I have found a creative, even artistic, outlet that I really enjoy and can share with others.

For me there is both a science and an art to wildlife photography.

The science is all to do with camera settings, aperture and shutter speed, depth of fields and the exposure triangle. The art is all to do with fieldcraft, getting close to the subject, composition and capturing the subject’s character.

My style of wildlife photography is quite representational, with close identification photos of the bird or animal being my mainstay, so in my own head at least I wouldn’t really consider them art.


A journey in collaboration

Jamie and I have repeatedly grown apart and then closer again over the years (both geographically and relationally) but we have always remained connected as if by a friendship bungee cord.

Recently Jamie got married and moved to London and set up as a full-time artist. This presented an opportunity for us to collaborate to create some great Bird Art together. My role was definitely as junior partner, I gave Jamie access to all my wildlife photos. Jamie started painting some of them and, whilst I am unashamedly biased, I think they are great.

He has kindly given permission for me to share some of his work here and I would really encourage you to check out his work.

Time-lapse of Curlew Painting

Treecreeper

Use the sliders (one webpage version of this blogpost only) to compare the original photograph and the subsequent painting by Jamie Oldham.

Treecreeper in Menstrie Wood

I took this picture of a Treecreeper in Menstrie Wood. It was busy feeding so it was possible to follow it from tree to tree. It flew down to the bottom of a nearby tree which meant I was able to photograph it at eye level which always makes a better shot. The shiny bill and huge claws are the standout features I wanted to capture. I love how Jamie has used gold-leaf in the painting and captured the silvery bill.


Nuthatch
Nuthatch at Argaty Farm

Last January I took a session with some friends at the Woodland Hide at Argaty Farm. I really like Nuthatch as a bird which was once rare in Scotland but now seems widespread. When the Nuthatch landed on this gnarled wooden log I fired off several shots and this was one of my favourites. Jamie has really captured the essence of this bird with its dagger bill, sparkly eye and black eye stripe.


Puffin
Puffin on Isle of May

Capturing a bird in flight is always more challenging than from a perch. You have to crank the shutter speed up to 800 or so and tracking the bird and using the right autofocus settings can also be a challenge. But if you go to the Isle of May in May or June you will have about 46,000 puffins to practice on. The challenge was to spot a bird far off loaded with sand-eels and track it as it came into land for the classic image. My photo had quite a distracting background and I like how Jamie has simplified the image to let the bird be the star.


Blue Tit
Blue Tit from my Garden

This was a photo I took during the start of lockdown when I decided to spend 10 minutes a day taking a photo within 10 steps of my house. It was very therapeutic to capture a different bird each day and discover that nature was right on my doorstep. I believe Jamie chose this photo as someone had commissioned a painting of a Blue tit. He has really nailed the stunning plumage of this common bird and again the gold-leaf really makes the painting sing.


Long-tailed Tit
Long-tailed Tit at Argaty

This Long-tailed Tit arrived in a large flock when I was at the Argaty hide (see Nuthatch above). There were at least a dozen of these birds taking turns at the feeder and I spotted this log as a place where they waited their turn. I liked the simple out of focus background which created a cleaner shot. This photo was published in Bird Watching magazine which was great bonus for me. I really appreciate how Jamie has captured the badger-head plumage of this bird, and again used gold-leaf to set the log alight.


Red-legged Partridge
Red-legged Partridge, Glen Clova

A few years back we took a holiday around Easter to Glen Clova. It was teaming with wildlife and it was a great opportunity to practice my wildlife photography. I don’t normally like taking photos of the backs of birds as it is usually a failure of fieldcraft for the bird to be moving away already. However, I was reasonably happy with this shot as the bird was checking me out whilst also showing its plumage in the fading light. Jamie’s painting creates a lovely focal point of the red eye whilst capturing the essence of this lovely bird.


Siskin
Siskin in January Light

This is the first photo I took with the possibility of Jamie painting it in the back of my mind. I was out bird watching with a friend on a winters day looking mainly for waders at Skinflats pools. The day was drawing to a close and as we returned to the car I heard a flock of goldfinch and siskin nearby. The evening light was lovely and golden and this was a photo I was especially pleased with as it really captured the acrobatic feeding of this bird. I loved Jamie’s painting so much that I promptly bought it and it is now in pride of place in my lounge.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and please do check out Jamie’s artwork. One last credit, big thanks to Jamie for designing my logo, again from one of my photos of a White-tailed Eagle.

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A drive up Sheriffmuir

May and June are great months to take a drive up Sheriffmuir as you are straight into moorland/upland habitat where you see a different range of wildlife to the lowlands. As a bonus the car acts as a great portable wildlife hide. In spring and summer, lots of birds come here to breed. Local migrants (Stonechat, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks), move attitudinally (from lower down farmland or the coast). But you also have a nice range of long distant migrants too (Whinchat, Wheatear and Cuckoo) which have travelled from Africa or Southern Europe.

At this time of year many birds are taking prominent perches on fence posts and tree branches and if you drive the car slowly with the windows open you will see many close up as well as hear them. Try to keep your arms and camera lenses inside the car at all times, pointing at a bird outside of the window is a sure way to flush them.

If you want to increase your chance of seeing Long or Short-Eared Owls go at dawn or dusk.

Short-Eared Owl

Blackhill Woods

Parking at the lower Dumyat Carpark by Whitehill and Blackhill Woods (grid reference NS 809976) provides an opportunity for an early walk. In these woods you can easy see all the normal woodland species (Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, Jays etc) but this year I have been pleased to find at least 3 singing Wood Warblers. These are delightful birds with a much more lemony yellow colour than other warblers and a strong black eyestripe with parallel yellow stripe above the eye. However it is their spinning coin song that really sets this bird apart.

Wood Warbler’s “Spinning Coin” song

Cocksburn Reservoir

If you continue your walk you come out of the woods and can take a walk around the Cockburn Reservoir. This is a great place to see all three species of Hirundines (Swallow, House Martin and Sand Martin) as well as Swifts. On occasion in the evening I have seen several hundred birds flying over the insect rich water and it is great to improve your identification skills of these birds when all four species are present together. Ospreys frequently fish here too during the summer so keep an eye out for them.

In the shrubs around the loch it is a good place to look and listen for Sedge Warbler along with Reed Bunting.

Sedge Warblers have a loud incessant song but you might have to be patient to see them as they tend to stick to cover. However early in the season they often launch into quite a dramatic song flight circling at first 2-5m from the ground and then parachuting down to a perch singing throughout.

Sedge Warbler
Sedge Warbler Song

The Reed Buntings often take prominent perches and with their slightly annoying repetitive call which is hard to miss. The males have a strong black cap and white collar, females are plainer but often the pairs are together.

Male Reed Bunting on a Perch
Reed Bunting Call (Male)

Top of Track to Lossburn Reservoir

Continuing your drive up the Sheriffmuir Road a good place to stop is where the track from Menstrie via the Lossburn Reservoir reaches the road (NS81994).

The map shows a thin conifer plantation here but it was felled a few years ago. However several tall trunks remain looking a bit like leftovers from a bombing raid. These make great perches for the Male Cuckoo that has made this his territory. Listen for the well known male calling his name and use that to guide you to where the bird is.

Male Cuckoo
Cuckoo in remaining tree on Sheriffmuir

Anywhere along this road you are likely to see a Meadow Pipit taking a perch on a fence post or wire or potentially in song flight

Meadow Pipit on fence post

Around isolated trees further down Menstrie Glen you may find the rarer Tree Pipit. The Meadow Pipit is the default pipit until proven otherwise. To find a Tree Pipit watch for a display flight starting and ending in a tree and if views allow look for thin pencil (not bolder felt tip) markings on the bird’s flanks and a thicker bill.

But I find their songs also help distinguish – compare the more mundane Meadow Pipit song to the tree’mendous Tree Pipit song.

Meadow Pipit song (simpler)
Tree Pipit song (more complex)

Lade Walk

Continuing up the road and crossing the small river over a humpback bridge park shortly after where the road bends left (NN 828016). The stream is likely to have several Sand Martins and Swallows flying around. It is also a good place to watch for Dippers and Grey Wagtails in the stream. A great place to have a packed lunch if you have brought one too.

Walk north up the road for a short way and you will see a recently lade path (called Lade Walk) by a newly planted tree plantation. You can walk to the end and then return via the road making a short circuit of 1-2 miles.

The new plantation is an excellent place to look for Whinchat as they love an abundance of small perches and the young trees provides this. Rule out the more commoner Stonechat by remembering that the Whinchat have a bold stripe above the eye whereas the Stonechat has a bold white collar.

Male Whinchat

The plantation is also a good place to look for Northern Wheatear which frequently perch in the top of the small trees and on prominent boulders. The male has a bold black mask around the eye (like a bank robber) but both sexes are sleek and elegant birds.

This is also a good place to look for Buzzards (pictured below) often flying or perched on the telegraph poles as well as Red Kites and Kestrels. Cuckoos can be seen and heard here too.

Pheasants and Red Partridges can be seen almost anywhere on Sheriffmur. Both are beautiful birds albeit not native to Scotland and frequently the bird have been released for shooting or descended from those that survived game estates.

Red Partridge

Small Plantation near old Inn

Continue past the old Sheriffmuir Inn (now a private house) and this stretch of road is excellent for seeing and hearing Curlew, Skylarks, Stonechats and Wheatears. Park before the road bends left at a small tree plantation (NN 832026).

The fence lines here should be scanned for Stonechat before you leave the car. There is regularly a pair established here singing to defend their territory. Listen for their alarm call which sounds like tapping two strong together.

Stonechat alarm call

Once out of the car listen, what can you hear? You may hear a Cuckoo from the small stand of trees. Approach slowly and quietly and you should be able to get good views.

You might also hear the constant outpouring of a Skylark high in the sky above its nesting territory. They have been known to sing for 30 minutes without stopping!

Skylark in song flight
Skylark

Another bird to look and listen to is the Curlew which has probably spent the winter on the coast but has come here to breed. You may see them flying but try not to follow them to the nest as that is very stressful for the bird. You are far more likely to only hear them although that is really the wrong phrase to use. The Curlew has a wonderful and varied song truly evocative of this habitat in summer and a great way to end a visit to Sheriffmuir.

Curlew peaking above the heather on Sheriffmuir
Curlew
Featured

Highland Birding in May

Having been working from home and locked-down for over a year I took the first opportunity of relaxed restrictions to book on a Heatherlea “Birding the Highlands in May” holiday. It was good to get out enjoying Scotland’s wildlife with fellow birders and a couple of experienced guides. As a bonus it also gave my birding year-list a much needed boost from 134 to 158 (bird species spotted in Scotland in 2021).

The first bird of the holiday proper was the Snow Bunting (pictured above) which was great to see along with several Ring Ouzel viewed following a short walk from the heart of the Cairngorm National Park which was my base for the week.

In this post I will share some of the many highlights from the week, but out of respect for the birds (particularly the sensitive breeders), and Heatherlea’s guides (who have spent years building up a strong knowledge of where to go) I won’t reveal specific locations.


Scottish Bird’s of Prey

Over the week we saw 9, possibly 10, birds of prey and the density of such wonderful birds in stunning Scottish scenery was my first highlight of the week.

I saw my first bird of prey before I arrived at the hotel in Nethy Bridge seeing a Red Kite (1) from the car after I left the A9. The Black Isle was one of the early release sites in Scotland for Kites and it is good to see they have spread this far south. We saw two others during the week as well, including one around Braemar which may have travelled from the more recent Aberdeen release site.

On three occasions the guides took us to first-class raptor watching locations. At the first we saw a distant White-Tailed (2) and Golden Eagle (3), this was on the first day, and you just know you have arrived in the Highlands when you see your first eagles. At our second location we were really spoilt seeing two White-Tailed Eagles, two Peregrine Falcons (4), several Buzzards (5) and the highlight for me a Kestrel (6) chasing a Merlin (7) up close and offering sustained views. To me the drama of this moment surrounded by the beautiful Scottish mountains was a real highlight along with seeing the elusive Merlin close enough to make out the plumage details through my scope. Later the same day at another spot we watched for hawks and saw sustained and close views of a Sparrowhawk (8) chasing linnets and distant views of a probable Goshawk pair displaying. It was impossible to be certain of ID and these may also have been Sparrowhawks so the wait goes on to add Goshawk to my year, and indeed life, list.

Last, but certainly not least, was getting my first views of the year of Western Osprey (9). We found flying and fishing osprey on five separate occasions and also had scope views (respectful distance always maintained) of two separate Osprey nests.

The Osprey is a wonderful bird, full of character, and it was great to see it fishing, resting on a perch and nesting. The come-back of this once persecuted bird is a good-news story for Scotland and one to be celebrated. The fact that we encountered so many, at least seven different birds, at different locations, speaks to the quality of Scottish habitat.


All Four Scottish Grouse

During the week we saw all four species of Grouse found in Scotland – Red, Black, Ptarmigan and Capercaillie.

We had several close views of Red Grouse from the van driving across upland habitat and also had scoped views of a Black Grouse Lek with 9 males displaying.

Red Grouse

We had to work much harder for the Ptarmigan walking a couple of miles from the road to get distant scope views. Upon returning to the van we found a pair close by – typical of the characterful Ptarmigan! Being a hillwalker I see this bird frequently often only seeing them at the last minute but this was a real highlight of the trip for several English birdwatchers in the group.

We were delighted to get close views of a both a female and male Capercaillie. This is a rare bird in Scotland, as there is not enough quality and undisturbed Caledonian pine forrest in this country. It is therefore a very hard bird to see without the help of professional guides and cannot be guaranteed even then. I was delighted to see this iconic bird and add it to my life list.

Female Capercaillie crossing the road

Spring Migrants

With so much quality habitat in Scotland it is no wonder we had some good views of various recently-arrived spring migrants.

Top of the list for me was hearing and getting close-up views of a male Pied Flycatcher. For me seeing and hearing a bird really helps me to learn its song which in term massively increases the chances of me noticing them again. This is a lovely bird and over the last few years it has been making the most of schemes to install nest boxes in highland woods.

We also had good views of Wood Warbler, which looks a bit like Willow Warbler but with striking black eye-stripe and additional lemony yellow tones. It also has a lovely distinctive “spinning coin” song which is the main way you know one is around. This seems to be a good year for Wood Warbler although perhaps this is temporary due to them being held up by a cold snap and maybe they will shortly continue north but hopefully many will stay put.

Wood Warbler
Wood Warbler “Spinning Coin” song

It was also great to see and hear Cuckoo which is of course a spring migrant having returned from wintering in Africa. We heard several males singing “cuckoo, cuckoo” during the week but I was pleased to also see my first Cuckoo of the year sitting on a wire. I will try to get closer views in the next month or so nearer to home.

Cuckoo

We saw several Northern Wheatear too in a mix of habitats – farmland, marsh and high moorland. This is a striking bird with a dark eyestripe, especially strong on the male – somewhat like a bank robber’s mask. Some of these birds will be here to breed but others are just travelling through and were of the larger Greenland subspecies.

We also spent time by lots of rivers and would frequently hear the sound of Common Sandpiper flying past. We had one very close view on a wet morning of a soggy Common Sandpiper from the car too.

Common Sandpiper song
Soggy Common Sandpiper

At the other extreme from Spring Migrants was seeing one of the winter thrushes -Redwing – staying put for the summer, a potential rare breeder in Scotland. Similarly we also saw a pair of Slavonian Grebe a very rare breeder in Scotland.


Boat Trip to Troup Head

We had a boat trip to RSPB’s Troup Head. It was a great morning surrounded by huge numbers of Gannets and Common Guillemots but also Eider Duck, Razorbills, Puffins, Black Guillemots, Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes and other Gulls, Fulmar, Grey Seals and several Great Skuas.

Very annoyingly I made the rookie mistake of not selecting a faster shutter speed for my camera so didn’t get any good photos from the day but I share a few of the less blurry ones here. Fortunately I have a trip planned to Isle of May shortly so will hopefully make up for this mistake then.

The sights, sounds and smells of our sea cliff bird colonies is a wildlife spectacular which I would thoroughly recommend anyone experience.


Other Highlights

I was delighted to get a second life tick during the week with Corn Bunting. This is a bird I have looked for before but never spotted and is in worrying decline across the country. It has a lovely “jangling bunch of keys” song which used to be widely heard throughout our countryside but due to agriculture intensification is now a real rarity.

Corn Bunting’s “Jangling Keys”
Corn Bunting on wire

We also saw several mammals including Red and Roe Deer most days along with Brown Hares which appeared more common in the Strathspey than Rabbits.

Brown Hares

Last but not least was spending a week surrounded by some wonderful Scottish scenery.

Views from Bealach na Bà, Applecross

All in all it was a great week, I saw 123 species of birds and heard three more. If you are a keen birder wanting to have a packed week seeing the best of Scottish birdlife I would happily recommend Heatherlea.

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A walk in Menstrie Woods

Menstrie Woods at the foot of Dumyat has a lovely mix of wildlife living within it. I have taken a walk here most weeks over the last year. I particularly enjoy the high path that goes from the woodland play park up into higher woodland.

May is a great time to visit as all the bluebells and wild garlic is coming into flower and it looks and smells amazing. It is harder to see the birds as the trees are in leaf but they are all singing and the forest music is turned to maximum.

In this post I will share some of the highlights of what I have seen over the last few months. Most of the pictures and all the videos are from within the wood, a few are of species I have seen in the woods but better quality pictures taken elsewhere.


Returning Migrants

A recent arrival to the woods are the returning Blackcaps and a real favourite of mine. Whilst some do winter in UK (not in Menstrie Woods), most head to Southern Europe or North Africa. They arrived back in the first half of March. The chances are the first thing that will alert you to them being around is their alarm call which sounds like two stones being banged together, similar to a Stonechat if you know that sound.

Blackcap Alarm Call

Be patient and if you are lucky they might come out of the undergrowth and you can see this lovely bird. Often the male bird seems to get the naming rights and that is the case here – only the male has a black cap, the female’s is just as fetching but brown.

Male Blackcap in Menstrie Woods
The Female Blackcap

If you wait around you might hear the male’s song which sounds like he is practising to be a Blackbird, a bit scratchy and unaccomplished at first but then he hits his stride and gets the hang of it with a deep Baritone polish.

Blackcap Song

Roaming flocks

When you are walking around the woods you might suddenly realise there are a lot of birds around you. If so you may have come across a roaming flock. Groups of birds travel together to find food and for safely – the more eyes, the better for spotting predators. The flock will almost certainly include Blue, Great and Coal Tits but may also include Long-Tailed Tits, Goldcrests, Chaffinches and one of my favourite birds, Treecreepers.


Winter Visitors

Over the winter, we also had quite a few Siskin and Lesser Redpoll travelling around the woods and these are great birds to spot. Once you know the Lesser Redpoll’s flight call (which sounds like morse code), you find out it is actually quite a common bird.

Lesser Redpoll flight call

The Siskin is a stunning yellow bird, particularly the male, whilst the Redpoll has the red dot on the forehead after which it is named.

Male Siskin
Lesser Redpoll in Menstrie Woods

Tree Climbers

There are three birds that you are most likely to see climbing trees in the woods and they are each wonderful birds.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker will be heard drumming on most walks in the woods from January to April. But their call can really help to find them too.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Drumming
Great Spotted Woodpecker Call
Male Great Spotted Woodpecker

It is easy to tell the sex of a GSW as the male has red on the back of the head whilst the female has black. Juvenile’s have a red cap on the top of their heads too so are easy to distinguish from the adults.

The Treecreeper is well named as you will always see it creeping mouselike up the side of trees. It is very well camouflaged, matching the bark until it moves side on and you can see it’s white belly. Treecreepers move up a tree and then fly down to the bottom of another before moving up the next one. They never climb downwards (unlike our next bird). They have fantastically long claws to hold on and a long silvery bill for digging out insects.

Treecreeper

The last of the tree climbers is the Nuthatch. This bird has advanced up through Scotland during the last 20 years (demonstrating the impact of climate change) and is now common here. Nuthatches visit the feeder at the bottom of the woods but can also be seen climbing up and down the trees. The long black eyestripe appears as an extension to its dagger-bill.

Nuthatch

A war zone

Of course we also have mammals in Menstrie Woods including both species of resident Squirrels. From my experience the native Red is found more further west in the woods and the introduced Grey’s nearer the village itself. It is great that our native Reds are making a come back in Menstrie and elsewhere in Scotland and they may have the Pine Martin to thank. Reds being smaller can run further on smaller branches than the Greys and therefore escape the Pine Martins more often than their larger North American cousin. This maybe enough to tip the balance in favour of the Reds where Pine Martins are present.

Grey and Red Squirrels in Menstrie Woods

Roe Deer

We also have a herd of Roe Deer in the Woods. They are quite sensitive to noise but if you go on the top path you are quite likely to see them, if only their white behinds bouncing away. If you sit still high in the woods they may well come quite close to you before noticing you.

Roe Deer in Menstrie Woods

Pandemonium

Often we are the cause of most disruption in the woods. But if you learn to step lightly and be quiet this ceases to be the case. After that, every so often you might be in the woods and notice a real commotion.

You might hear some loud screeching, even screaming. Far from subtle, you could be forgiven for thinking someone was being tortured – you are hearing a band of Jay’s. They are beautiful, shy and very intelligent Corvids (member of the Crow Family) but they do make a racket.

Jay call
Jay

Another reason for possible pandemonium in the woods is that a bird of prey is travelling through. This could be a Sparrowhawk darting between the trees or perhaps a Common Buzzard. Either way it is likely all the smaller birds will alarm call and dive for the nearest cover.

The Buzzards often perch in the Woods

Funnily enough the Jay has a wicked sense of humour as it has learnt to incorporate a Buzzard call into its’ own repertoire. I like to think it does it just for fun to see all the other birds react in this way.

Common Buzzard
Jay impression of Common Buzzard
Featured

An alternative Big 5 – the White-Tailed Eagle

Hopefully you have seen Scotland’s Big 5 – Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Golden Eagle, Otter and Harbour Seal. If you haven’t why not set these as a target for a wildlife holiday around Scotland or to see all five during the rest of the year. Doing so will take you to some wonderful places and you will have some fantastic wildlife encounters.

Scotland’s Big 5 is a great list but some of my best wildlife experiences have been outside of these five so I thought I would share my alternative Big 5 species over the next few months. No need to choose between the lists, put both sets together and you will have a tremendous ten to aim for.

First up for me is the White-Tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle, and this wonderful bird will be the subject of this post. Let me share 5 reasons why the White-Tailed Eagle is in my alternative Scotland’s Big 5.


1. This is a huge bird

Both our resident eagles – White-Tailed and Golden – are huge birds but with a wingspan of up to 2.4m the white-tail is Scotland’s largest resident bird. Just think about that, this bird has a wingspan which is wider than a tall person is tall.

A simple rule for me is if you have seen a bird of prey and you are wondering if it is a buzzard or an eagle, then it’s a buzzard. Once you have seen an eagle, except for distant specks in the sky views, you will simply know you have seen an eagle. People often tell me they have seen a Golden Eagle on a fencepost or telegraph pole and I hate to tell them they have actually seen the “tourist eagle” (that is a Common Buzzard). Once you have seen the flying barn door of a White-Tailed Eagle you know you have seen an eagle because it is massive.

Look at the size of this bird compared to the Hooded Crows tagging on for some scraps left over from a fish this eagle has caught.

White-Tailed Eagle and Hooded Crows

2. They are actually quite easy to see

Go to Mull or Skye, fantastic hotspots for eagles, and you are likely to see a White-Tailed Eagle if you drive around the coast, take your time, stay mindful and keep your wildlife eyes open. But drive anywhere along the west coast of Scotland and you have a good chance of seeing this bird too. I have had some great impromptu sightings when driving around the coast and some of my best photo opportunities have been brief but spectacularly unplanned encounters such as the photo below.

White Tailed Eagle flying alongside the car on a drive on Skye

3. And you can see them close up

For a spectacular up close wildlife encounter it is hard to beat the White-Tailed Eagle. Is this close enough for you?

Close-up!

I mean seriously, look at that bill? Look at the eye and the individual feathers. You couldn’t really confuse that with a Buzzard could you?

You can have a close up encounter with a White-Tailed Eagle like in the above photo by booking on one of the boat trips organised to see them from Mull or Skye. Some wildlife purists don’t like this form of wildlife tourism. On the boat trips they do feed the birds by throwing out fish for the eagles to fly in and take which is how they guarantee close-up views. But fishermen have been throwing out scraps for eagles for hundreds of years and we all feed blue-tits in our gardens so I don’t have a problem with it. For a first encounter, one to get the kids enthused about wildlife or just to try your hand at bird photography definitely a great place to start. Or you can visit them at Mull Eagle Watch a fantastic community based project.


4. They are a conservation good news story

There are a lot of birds in decline across the UK but the White-Tailed Eagles are coming back, and coming back from extinction in Scotland.

White-Tailed Eagles were persecuted to extinction in Scotland when the last bird was shot in Shetland in 1918. Whilst there was a stronghold over the North Sea in Norway, and these birds occasionally visited, they were only a rare visitor until conservationists took action in the 1970s.

Often eagles have two chicks but normally only the first born survives, the second is largely an insurance policy if the first egg fails. Conservationists took the second chick from nests in Norway and hand reared them before releasing them in Scotland. Birds were released on the Isle of Rum in 1975, Wester Ross (1993-98) and on the East Coast (2007-2012). You often see wing tags on these birds left by conservationists and with a good photo this can identify the story of the individual eagle.

In 2013 they bred naturally in Scotland for the first time since the 19th Century. There is also evidence of the Scottish and continental population mixing and cross-breeding which is important for long-term success.

So remember when you see this bird you have many hard working conservationists to thank.


5. They can turn up anywhere

Don’t get me wrong, if you want to see the White-Tailed Eagle go to the west coast of Scotland, preferably one of the Islands like Mull or Skye, as this is their stronghold.

But now we have Sea Eagles breeding we have juveniles. And young White-Tailed Eagles travel for several years before pairing up and establishing a territory. And this means they can be seen almost anywhere. It isn’t likely you will see an eagle flying over your garden, but it is possible.

I should note that juvinille birds do not have the white tail or lighter head, but are all dark brown. But they still have the characteristic barn door profile, huge bill and long primary feathers (“fingers” at end of wing) to mark them out.

They have been spotted in the Ochils above where I live in Clackmannanshire – most likely an east coast released bird. And they will also head into England too. And since six birds were released on the Isle of White in 2019 and another seven in 2020 they are likely to become more common sights across England too. Recent sightings include North Yorkshire, Kent and Somerset.

And if you want to follow them online some of the birds have satellite tags so you can see where they have been travelling.

The lovely White Tail, barn door profile and long primary feathers are great features for identifying this bird

I will be sharing another of my Alternative Scotland’s Big 5 soon.

Isle of May

Last week I took my annual pilgrimage to the Isle of May. I go here once or twice most years and for sheer numbers of seabirds it never disappoints.

I had planned the visit to coincide with some friends going but this was really just an excuse as we were mainly going to do our own thing on the Island but we could share the boat trip together. That was if I had booked the same boat as them. They had booked on the Isle of May Princess and for some reason I had booked the faster Osprey RIB. It was quite windy so the journey out was bracing but the crew provided full waterproofs which kept me (and my camera) dry enough.

This was going to be my last day out with my trustee Canon 7d mark ii camera which I have owned since 2014. I have had a huge amount of pleasure from this camera but have decided to take the plunge and move over to mirrorless and will be getting a Canon EOS R5 next week. I decided to really make the most of photography on this trip and try to capture some good images and take the time necessary to do so. In this post I will share a bit more about my photography process than just the nature (thereby paying homage to my 7d).

As we approached the Island we saw some Grey Seals hauled out on the rocks and one inquisitive individual approached the boat. I used spot focus and a fast shutter speed to focus on the seal and freeze the motion of the animal and the water.

Grey Seal

There were lots of Puffins and Common Guillemots in the water too. One Guillemot caught my eye rising out of the water and flapping its wings, I fired off a burst of shots hoping one would be in focus. It is quite hard taking photos from a moving boat of a moving bird, keeping the bird in the shot and using a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the moment. I find this a tricky bird to process in Lightroom too – if I expose to see the eye the bird ends up very light brown and not how I feel the bird really “is”. So not much eye in these shots which I don’t really like as that really is the focal point of the head which is the focal point of the bird. If anyone knows a solution to this leave a comment and help me out.

As we came into the small harbour there were several gulls and terns around. I noticed Herring Gulls fondly displaying to each other and a pair of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls watching dispassionately from their rocky perch. This was easier conditions to take photos as now as the boat was on calmer water. With the displaying birds I shot a burst, the shot I chose has one gull with bill open and raised, this seems to capture the moment well for me

After we had disembarked and received our briefing from the reserve staff, my friend pointed out a pair of Arctic Terns mating and I fired off an another burst of photos. Again the key here was spot focus on the eye of the bird and a fast shutter speed to freeze the moment. The wing position adds to the composition for me. I have often felt that terns have angel like wings particularly with the light shining through them.

I left my friend and went up to the small loch on the island. There were some Puffins on the water and this was much easier conditions to photograph than on a moving boat. I tried to get as low down as possible for this shot (not looking down on the birds too much – the unsatisfactory “superior” view). I also chose to include 3 birds as an odd number is more pleasing in composition. I like the fact that each bird is offering a different side or angle. The Puffin is a crazy bird. If I had designed it you would tell me to try again for a more believable bird.

Another Puffin caught my eye from a distance. It had some sand eels in its mouth and I took lots of photos that would be pleasing on a tourist postcard but didn’t really excite me.

Meanwhile another Puffin looked directly at me and I found this more comical and arresting. The wind was blowing the sand eels into the air and ruffling the feathers. This was shot on my widest aperture to throw the background out of focus and isolate the subject.

I walked on to the top of some cliffs and spotted a pair of Razorbills nearby. Like the guillemots this is a hard bird to do justice too. If you expose for the eye you end up with quite a light bird which is not very true for me. I settled for clean sea backdrop and varied the distance between me and the birds to throw the background out to varying degrees.

Also nearby were some nesting Herring Gulls. They kept coming in to land and I tried to capture them in flight. I find my hit rate for in focus birds in flight is quite low with this camera and I am looking forward to the more advanced autofocus in my R5 which should make this much easier. I was happy with one of the shots showing the clear eye ring even on the viewfinder proving this one was sharp.

I carried on to the north of the Island and spotted a small creche of Eider Ducks. Three females with a similar number of chicks. Normally I would approach the shore to get a low down shot but this would have involved stepping over lots of puffin burrows. The shot is never worth putting above the welfare of the birds themselves. Then I noticed a Grey Seal taking an interest in the birds. This made an interesting interaction shot.

Walking on the low path back I heard a Rock Pipit and stopped to pick it out. It was low down among Sea Campion flowers. In situations like this you can get a foreground as well as a background which can serve well to put the bird in a strong habitat or environment. This required me to get low enough to create the effect but not so low that I lost any of the bird. Being a small bird I placed it to one side looking into the frame.

Walking back to the visitor centre again I came across the Arctic Terns. Lots of people were taking photos looking down on the birds (that superior view again). Instead I got low down to try and create some foreground interest and get on eye level with the bird. I also tried to select shots where there was at least a glint in the eye which otherwise (black eye on black head) rendered the eye almost invisible.

I still had about 20 minutes until my boat was due to leave. I walked south to the cliff overlooking a sea stack. By this point I had taken lots of photos of lots of birds and I wanted to try a few different shots. I picked out a Kittiwake for a very close shot (just the head) and was pleased with the thin red eye ring, I zoomed out and took a photo of a crowded ledge of Guillemot.

I am aware that we often find ourselves taking close up field-guide type photos of wildlife. In focus and clear but… uninspiring. I am trying to vary this up more now. I like the idea of taking a range of photos – yes there is a place for a good portrait. But what about showing some behaviour or interaction, or showing the bird in its wider environment with a zoomed out shot, or doing the opposite and picking on a detail in a closeup. This just gives you a lot more options and ways to be creative – remember this by trying to take EPIC photos (Environment, Portrait, Interaction, Closeup). If the subject, distance, conditions don’t suit one of these, try one of the others.

The idea of being stranded on the Isle of May for a night was quite attractive but I did have a boat to catch. It was time to leave but as I decided to head back to the boat I noticed I was stood about 1 foot from an Eider Duck on a nest of soft down right by the path. Well if you insist, one more photo.

As the boat pulled away from the dock Actic Terns wheeled in the sky. Their noisy screeches and sudden turns (excuse the pun) could not be more of a contrast with the still, missable, camouflaged Eider. Isn’t nature wonderful!

If you haven’t been to the Isle of May yet, what are you waiting for?

Sheriffmuir in May

My favourite habitat at this time of year is the moorland in and around the Ochils. What seems mostly dead in winter suddenly comes alive with long-distant migrants arriving along with more local birds which expand their territories into all that available nesting ground. You can actually see a huge amount of wildlife just by driving the road from Blairlogie up to the Sheriffmuir Inn and back but I have also done several walks over the last month up Menstrie Glen and around the slopes of Dumyat.

So let me start by rejoicing – the Cuckoos are back! And what a welcome sound and sight they are. There don’t seem to be quite as many calling males as previous years around Menstrie itself but further afield there are loads. On a drive further afield last week we must have seen 5 and heard many more. I was able to get some good photos of a female (slightly brownish) and a male.

We had a couple of males in Menstrie Glen last year and I could hear them from the house if the weather was right. This year I have had to go up the Sheriffmuir Road to hear or see them. A good place to see them is in the old plantation at the top of the track leading to Lossburn Reservoir, they like the taller dead trees to provide a song post.

This location has been rich this year. Earlier in May I pulled up to the parking area and saw some birds fly into the top of the Scot’s Pine calling “Chips Chips”. These are Common Crossbill which I don’t see too often this close to home. They made quite a racket as they tucked into the pine cones, seeds falling as they went.

After a while they flew off and I wandered to the top of the landrover track and heard a grasshopper sound coming from the grass nearby. Unlikely to be a grasshopper in early May so I went to investigate and got fleeting views of a Grasshopper Warbler. With a bit of patience I was able to take a picture of this drab looking but charismatic sounding bird. Grasshopper Warblers are notoriously hard to photograph often hiding in bushes and shrubs and this is the first photo of the species I have successfully taken so that was a good photo tick for the collection.

Grasshopper Warbler

In mid April one of the first birds to arrive on Sheriffmuir are the Wheatears. I saw them in late April on a walk up Dumyat. The males seem to arrive first and establish a territory normally by taking a bold perch on a rock or fence post. The females arrive later and I guess get to inspect the males strutting their stuff. A beautiful bird with a black eye stipe. Easily told in flight by the white sugar-cube on their rump (or “white arse” from which their name is allegedly derived).

On the same climb up Dumyat I also had fleeting views of another migrant my first Whinchat of the year. I wasn’t quick enough to get a good photo but a few days later inspecting the plantation below the old Sheriffmuir Inn I counted 3 singing males without leaving the boardwalk.

Whinchat (male)

This is another striking bird with bold white stripe above the eye and buff orange breast. A real favourite of mine.

The other bird I see here is the Stonechat, and where you see one you almost always see a pair. Stonechats aren’t migrants but they do move from the moor in summer to the coast or agricultural ground in winter. The male has a bold black head, reddish breast and white collar. His alarm call is like two stoned banging together. The female is more muted in colour. They often wag their tail enthusiastically.


Two breading birds we have in the Ochils are the Lapwing and Curlew. Both spend the winter at the coast but come to higher ground in summer to breed. Both species have suffered on agricultural territories but seem to be doing okay, if not spectacularly, here. The evocative call of the Curlew can be heard up Menstrie Glen and around much of the Ochils. The lapwings are more found on marginal farm land but if you keep your eyes pealed you can see their distinctive flight or hear their crazy “analogue modem” calls.

At the smaller end of the scale the moors are covered with Meadow Pipet and Skylarks. On a sunny day the soundtrack of the moor is dominated by the Skylark singing from a tussock of grass with its crest raised (first picture below) or in its distinctive flight getting higher and higher. We have loads of Meadow Pipits (two photos below) in the Ochils too. Easy to overlook but great birds to have around. And if it wasn’t for these birds we wouldn’t have the cuckoos which rely on their baby sitting skills to make an early return to Africa.


Ravens can be seen over much of the Ochils with their massive bill and buzzard sized wingspan. If you look to Dumyat from Menstrie they are often flying around occasionally doing complete barrel rolls for fun it would seem, or as a possible defence against birds of prey (they often share nesting sites with Peregrine).

Raven

Increasingly we are seeing Red Kite in the Ochils too and over the last year I have even seen them from Menstrie. This month I saw two Kites from around the old Sheriffmuir Inn and was pleased to capture a couple of shots. One of the birds was tagged I noticed.

Fortunate for the rabbits and hares around here the red kites tend to take carrion rather than kill their own prey.

Hare

A little bit further afield I have been privileged to see one other special site on moorland this spring – Black Grouse Lekking – not too far from here. The sites of these impressive birds (all males) facing off, strutting their stuff along with all the sounds that go with it (bubbling, squawking, nasal chirping).

Black Grouse on Lek

A few points worth noting. First, whilst Black Grouse have occasionally been seen in the Ochils, these photos were not taken in the Ochils. Second, afraid I won’t share the location of these birds as they are vulnerable, protected by law and it would be irresponsible to share. Lastly, I want to assure readers that there was no disturbance whatsoever of these birds – the photos were taken from my car on a public road with a long lens. If you do want to see these birds the RSPB do guided walks near Aberfeldy but be prepared to get up early.

A wildlife visit to Harris and Lewis

At the end of March into early April 2022, we had one week on Harris and Lewis and it was a great opportunity to catchup with the wildlife of the Outer Hebrides.

We stayed in Uig on Skye the night before our ferry and were pleased to see a Great Northern Diver still in winter plumage fishing off-shore. This is a diver you are much more likely to see in winter before they head north (the clue is in the name) and it is told from other divers by its big chunky bill and steep forehead.

We had an early ferry, and whilst it was grey and wet waiting around the port, I was able to tick off a few more species. Eider Duck and Black Guillemot giving distant scope-only views. Kind-faced Common Gulls alongside mean-faced Great Black-Backed Gulls. Pied Wagtail and Turnstone foraging around the seaweed clad shore. A flock of 50-60 Starlings taking off and flying over my head moving inland.

Ferries to the Outer Hebrides are a great opportunity for some sea-watching. I always wonder why everybody is inside when they could be kickstarting their holiday with views of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets. I hope for a Skua or a Dolphin but not today. As we approach Tarbert on Harris I do get a brief view of a Peregrine hunting off a small rocky skerry.


The joy about heading to the Scottish Islands is that some of the rare birds here are now common and vice versa. I met one birdwatcher on Skye who had once travelled 50 miles to twitch a Magpie! The first swan I see is a Whooper striking with its yellow bill and straight neck “alert” posture. A much more refined bird than the Mute Swan in my opinion.

Similarly the pigeons here are true Rock Doves rather than our bred (inbred?) Ferrel Pigeons. Look how consistent these birds are to each other compared to what you see in town waiting to steal your sandwich.

Birds are starting to carve our territories and fenceposts make a bold-statement for any parading male. This Pied Wagtail and Stonechat are good examples.

However what strikes me soon after arriving is that the Wheatears have arrived. I haven’t seen any on the mainland yet this year but I count 15 Wheatear in two days here. These are all males which arrive first and establish their territories in advance. The females take a more leisurely journey and then get to pick their mate on arrival with the males competing to win her affections. Wheatear is old English for “White Arse” and the bird is told in flight by a white sugar-cube on it’s rump. But it is the black eye mask on the male, like a bandit, that always stands out for me.


We take a coastal drive and I am delighted by close-up views of a Greenshank. I hear it first but am grateful that it lands nearby and I can photograph it from the car.

Greenshank

The Greenshank appears much more refined to me than the more common and bolshy Redshank which I keep seeing around the coast and sometimes inland on marshes.

A Cormorant on a rock allows reasonable views, this is a sub-adult still with quite a lot of white showing. The full adults tend to be darker with only a small white patch around the gape of the bill.

Cormorant

There are lots of Red-Breasted Mergansers around the coast. These are the punk rockers of the duck world with a far out hairdo and bright red eyes (from the night before?). These are sawbills with thin serrated bills which are ideal for catching small fish which they chase under water. This bird is very common on the west coast of Scotland but nonetheless special for that.

At one particular inlet I am astonished to count 27 Grey Herons at one time – there is practically one every 10 feet. I don’t think I have ever seen such a dense collection of herons before and I can only guess that a Heronry is nearby and the fishing here at this time of the tide must be excellent.


Over the week as a whole the weather is quite mixed with a couple of lovely sunny days but a lot of grey and wet ones too. I am keen to see Birds of Prey and whilst we are not overwhelmed with sightings, as we would have been on Mull for example, we did get to see most target birds.

Over the week I had a remarkable three sightings of Merlin all too brief for a photo but nonetheless special for that. We also had a brief glimpse of a female Hen Harrier. We see quite a few Peregrine including this beauty which gave sustained views from a bike ride on South Harris.

Peregrine

On a drive around south Harris we were delighted to catch views of this Golden Eagle. This was the only one we saw during the week but the weather conditions were far from ideal for raptors flying so I am sure on a finer week more could have been seen.

Golden Eagle

Towards the end of our stay we hadn’t seen any White-Tailed Eagles, but on a drive out to Great Bernera we were pleased to get distant views of a flying White-Tail, at one point it came down on an island and we made out a second bird on the ridge. It was terrible light, raining and quite distant, so not great for photos, definitely a record shot.

Two White Tailed Eagles

There are obviously Mammals to see on Harris and Lewis too. Whilst we looked for Otters we didn’t see any. But we did come across a couple of Otter spraints marking territories.

Red Deer were abundant round the Island too and on a few occasions we pulled the car over and took some pictures.

And we saw several seals around the Island too, both Grey out to sea and Common in more sheltered inlets. On a cycle around South Harris we were pleased to see several Common Seals out on the rocks but also playing in the water.

I should add that the beaches on South Harris really aren’t bad at all either!


The top of Lewis had a wild feel to it with long flat moorland terrain mixed in with marshes and a few small lochs. At the northern point is the Butt of Lewis which is the last stopping point for birds migrating to Iceland.

We saw lots of Golden Plover on the machair and some were clearly the Northern Subspecies (altifrons) in their full summer breading plumage with a smart black-dipped-in-oil look continuing up onto their face. The first time I saw birds like this I was actually in Iceland in July and they were on their breading territories, it is nice to be taken back there and I wish these birds well for their upcoming migration.

Over the day several skeins of pink-footed geese arrive from further south whilst others head out to sea. It is quite emotional watching them leave – will all of them make it?

The very northern tip hosts an impressive lighthouse surrounded by descent cliffs.

Butt of Lewis

Looking across the cliffs there are so many Fulmars which are great to see. As well as a few Black Guillemot and Kittiwakes.

People confuse Fulmars with gulls but they are actually members of the tubenose (petrel) family and they pair for life.

Fulmars really come into their own when they take to the air. Fulmars are fantastic flyers, masters of exploiting the air currents over the waves and around the cliffs. They mostly fly with stiff locked wings and it is this that most easily tells them from gulls. I spend a happy half hour photographing them in flight – a lovely experience.

A nearby rock is covered in Shags and a few Cormorants and looking around the surf you can also see birds swimming on the surf between the rocks on some apparant suicidal mission.

Out to sea Gannets are flying past. Grouped together in tight squadrons showing near military precision these are impressive birds, our largest seabird.

Gannets

Some are plunge diving I was really pleased with the following picture showing a gannet with a beautifully fanned out tail, I have never noticed this before.

Gannet Diving

Walking around the tops of the cliffs there are several Ringed Plover feeding. These birds always seem busy to me and whilst it is raining now I stoop down low to get a clear background and therefore a cleaner photo.

Often around Lewis, Skylarks have provided a wonderful backing soundtrack. When these birds sing they are fully committed and sometimes continue for 20 minutes or more, and this is normally in flight too. It is as if they are saying “Pick me, I can fly and sing at the same time!”

Skylark singing

Here, sheltered from the wind there are a few resting on a cattle feeder.


Our time in the Outer Hebrides is coming to an end but we are in for one more treat. We head back to Stornoway Harbour and before catching our ferry we are pleased to see a first-winter Iceland Gull among the ubiquitous Herring Gulls. Whilst the murky light doesn’t do the bird justice when you see this bird up close it is ghostly white – one of only two birds found in Britain with all white wingtips (the other being the larger Glaucous Gull)

The last time I saw an Iceland Gull was on Islay in 2018 – but they say good things come in twos. A week later another Iceland Gull turns up a short bike ride from my home. I share a couple of pictures of this bird here so you can see how white it appears, particularly the wing tips.

On the ferry home I was happy to add a Great Skua and I also see a couple of Common Dolphins too. A great week on the Outer Hebrides, I can’t wait to go back.

January in Menstrie Woods

Over the new year I thought it would be good to have a bit of a series on the blog and I am going to follow a habitat or two during the year. So we start with Menstrie Woods. Everything featured in this post was taken or recorded in January 2022.

Come back next month to see a February focus. Think of this as our local Winter Watch.

Video Footage

This month, I set the wildlife camera trap up high in the woods by a fallen tree also fairly near a source of water. At the end of the month I had a nice selection of different animals putting in an appearance as you can see from the selection below. The very last clip is the best so do make sure you check that out.

January in Menstrie Wood

We are very lucky to have Fox, Badger and Pine Martin in the wood. Just knowing they are there really cheers me up.


A walk in the woods

One Sunday, I took a long walk in the woods with my camera to see what was about. It is difficult to get birds on the camera trap, as they are too small, so the camera is a better bet to share about the birdlife.

We weren’t long in the woods by the wooden play park when we heard a Great-Spotted Woodpecker calling. This wasn’t the drumming sound but a short sharp “Kick! Kick!”. We looked up and saw it in the tree and followed it for a few minutes. A great start to the walk.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Call

We started up the hill to the higher woods on the small path. It is slippy all the way but worth it to get away from the main track and gardens and see what is about in the heart of the woods. A mixed tit flock flew through including Blue Tit and Coal Tit but also the lovely Long-Tailed Tit.

Continuing along the high path, I was delighted to see first one and then a second Treecreeper high in the trees. Watching them I could see their characteristic behaviour whereby they would climb up a tree and then fly down to the bottom of another before repeating the process. I was able to get a few reasonable shots showing them well in the warm light. You can see their huge claws useful for their climbing activities.

Next up we came to some nice fungi on a fallen tree. I have noticed this before but it looked better this time in the warm light. The moss and the fungi seemed to have reached an accommodation with each other as nature often does.

A few Roe Deer ran from below me through the woods circled around and once they had the high ground slowed down. With several trees in between us I couldn’t get a great shot (but this one will do). They are fairly cautious creatures and they always seem to know I am there before I see them. I guess I make too much noise. Closer views on the video above if you want to see them better.

The next thing I hear are the screams and screeches from a couple of Jays. This horror sound track is quite distinctive whilst the bird is quite secretive and skulking.

Jay’s Screaming

Certainly these birds are easier to hear than see. For a bird that I think of as pink with a lovely blue wing-bar, it is mostly the white I notice when they are on the move. Once you know they are about it is possible to get some distant views but they don’t really allow me to approach and with trees always between us and them constantly hoping and flying about it is very hard to focus. Here are two shots that certainly won’t be winning any awards. Perhaps I need to find time to just sit in the woods to get closer footage of them. I might wait for a warmer month for that.

We start to descend back towards the main path at the Blairlogie end of the wood. A flock of Redwing are moving above my head. These are lovely winter thrushes easily missed but often found foraging on the ground in the winter. As well as the red flank (not really the wing) the bold creamy stripe above the eye is diagnostic.

Redwings

We get back to the path and walk back towards Menstrie. Just before the highpoint (after if you have Menstrie behind you) there is a feeder to the south of the path. I often sit here and see what turns up. Robins, Chaffinch, Long-Tailed, Coal, Blue and Great Tits are all seen today. Plus I have also seen Woodpeckers, Tree Creeper and Nuthatch here too in the past.

Just before I leave I am delighted to see a Nuthatch high in the branches clinging to the tree. I follow it and fire off several shots of this enigmatic bird as it creeps up and down (only a nuthatch creeps down a tree).

The last bird I see is a Grey Heron. Not really a woodland bird but where there is water you find a Heron looking for small fish or frogs as it is today. I always feel pleased when I can take a photo of a bird and leave it without causing it to fly off. I manage this with the Heron today.

Grey Heron

I really enjoyed checking out Menstrie Woods this January, I hope you enjoyed it too. Come back next month to see what is about in February.

A walk around Gartmorn Dam

So my wife and I started the new year with a walk around Gartmorn Dam, a retired gravel pit nearby in Clackmannanshire. We walked clockwise from the carpark and, in between wishing all the anti-clockwise walkers a “Happy New Year”, we managed to get the birding year list off to a flying start. Of course we also worked off a few of the mince pies as well.

Nature started in the car park with a Great Tit singing “Teacher Teacher” to get our attention. You can tell the sex of a Great Tit by the thickness of the black stripe down the belly. This was a male with a thick continuous black stripe.

Great Tit (male)

Nearby a Blackbird chose a fence post to keep an eye on us. This was a mature (yellow eye ring) adult male (black not brown).

Blackbird (male)

Walking away from the car park I heard a almost apologetic “huw huw” and I looked up to see a brief view of a Bullfinch but I was not quick enough for a photo.

At the small pier on the loch side a young boy is walking with his parents armed with a bag of bread. The mute swans take note and start swimming over.

Mute Swan

We walk around the north shore first. At one point I walk off the path and disturb a few Common Snipe. These are shy birds and rarely reveal themselves unless you get too close.

A Grey Heron flies over my head, its feet dangling behind it, before landing on the central island.

As we continue we see several Goosanders diving for fish. The male with its bottle green head and the female, equally attractive, with a reddish brown head. Both have a long hooked bill with strongly serrated edge, essential for catching fish on its diving forays.

Reaching the far end of the loch a few Wigeon are gathered on the shore. The males standout with their central yellow head stripe, pinkish breast and grey back. The blandish females mainly told by association and the similar size and shape.

Wigeon

An impressive Horse Hoof fungus clings to a birch, more Shire Horse than Shetland Pony this one.

Horse Hoof Fungus

A curious Robin lands on a branch to check us out. My first of the year and always a pleasure.

Robin

An alarm call rings out and the Robin and scarpers as a Sparrow Hawk flies overhead and then threads a line through the trees and out of sight.

As we walk towards the farm at the East end of the loch I notice a large flock of Canada Geese feeding in the field. Along with Greylag’s these are plastic geese (introduced and resident) rather than the wild Barnacle, Pink Feet, Brent or White-Fronted Geese which migrate here each winter. I try not to despise the Canada’s because of their ancestry but not too hard.

Canada Geese

On their own near the farm are two other geese. With its carrot bill on is clearly a Greylag, the other a Canada. I wonder why these aren’t with the flock, perhaps they have been injured by a wildfowler?

Greylag and Canada goose

Reaching the South East corner we start heading back West. A Cormorant is fishing nearby. They rest so low in the water they sometimes appear all neck and head with no body.

Cormorant

A small Moorhen is skulking in the reeds but as we approach swims across the gap.

Moorhen

At this point I can see a large dog running across the field where the Geese had been grazing, no owner in sight. Sure enough the whole flock take to the air and fly to the middle of the loch for safety. A couple of Herons emerge from the same field, too spooked by the dog. I feel a bit sorry for the Geese after dissing their pedigree beforehand. The dog is now the focus of my distain or more accurately the irresponsible owner.

Another impressive fungus catches my attention.

We continue back towards the Dam wall, passing some Tufted Ducks. People often think these are Goldeneye as they do have a golden eye but the black back and white side with clear head tuft is a male Tufted Duck, the Goldeneye being told by the white spot on its cheek. The Tufties are one of our most common ducks, after Mallards of course.

Tufted Duck (male)

Stopping at the garden with bird feeders, a lovely Coal Tit moves around the nearby shrubs, impressive claws on display as it watches me.

Coal Tit

My first Tree Sparrows of the year are on the feeder. These are the country cousins of the town dwelling House Sparrows and a lovely bird with all brown cap.

Tree Sparrow

The bottle green heads of the Mallards catches my eye followed by the skulking of a distant powderpuff of Little Grebe. I have also seen distant Great Crested Grebes on the water too but too far for a good photo.

Mallards
Little Grebe

A couple are feeding the Swans and Black-Headed Gulls which causes a commotion as more and more birds join the throng hoping for a handout.

I take the opportunity to practice my birds in flight photography skills. If I practice on a gull I might be ready when that Goshawk finally shows itself.

One of the Swans sets off chasing another. The less aggressive Swans take their place and their food.

We are back at the car now and as we are driving we notice a few Grey Squirrels chasing each other before pausing on the tree trunk to allow a photo and then they are off again.

My final year tick of the walk (on the 1st January anything is a year tick) is a Jay on the road. Altogether 36 bird species on the walk.

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca penelope)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
Goosander (Mergus merganser)
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
Feral Pigeon (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))
Common Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)
Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
Common Magpie (Pica pica)
Eurasian Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
Rook (Corvus frugilegus)
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
Coal Tit (Periparus ater)
Eurasian Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Great Tit (Parus major)
Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula)
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Dunnock (Prunella modularis)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)
Pied Wagtail/White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

My 2021 Year List

Listing isn’t for everybody! But I do receive an extra motivation by trying to see as many bird species as I can. For me listing is both a means and an end.

As an end in itself, it is great to try to beat last year’s total or indeed see more in January than I did last year for example. One of the UK’s leading bird watching magazines supports people to try and see 200 birds in a year and this is an achievable but for most a stretching target (I saw 205 this year in UK). If you are going to start listing yourself I would recommend an app like Bird Track or for me I use, and thoroughly recommend, eBird.

But even for people who aren’t too motivated by listing I would argue that it can be a very useful tool for learning and gaining stronger ID skills. By forcing you to look out for new birds it expands your knowledge. For me this year I scanned lots of flocks of Black-headed gulls, for example, hoping for one with white wing tips and thereby see my first Mediterranean Gull (and indeed you will see in October I was successful). Or even at a more basic level, you have to separate your Song from Mistle Thrush or Common from Herring Gull and with that you strengthen your knowledge and skills.

So in this post I will share my list for the year with a few memories and photos.


January (65 ticks)

The good thing about listing is that when the days are shortest and weather toughest even a House Sparrow or Blackbird can be a year tick again. So I started the year with some fairly relaxed birdwatching around where I live and added 65 of the most common birds to my year list.

A January highlight was finding a flock of 80-100 Yellowhammers joined by 40-50 Reed Buntings when out for a run. They gave a strong dash of colour in an otherwise grey day and month.

24 – Yellowhammer
1Pink-footed Goose – Anser brachyrhynchus
2Mute Swan – Cygnus olor
3Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos
4Eurasian/Green-winged Teal – Anas crecca
5Goosander – Mergus merganser
6Little Grebe – Tachybaptus ruficollis
7Common Woodpigeon – Columba palumbus
8Common Moorhen – Gallinula chloropus
9Eurasian Curlew – Numenius arquata
10Black-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus ridibundus
11Herring Gull – Larus argentatus
12Great Cormorant – Phalacrocorax carbo
13Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea
14Eurasian Sparrowhawk – Accipiter nisus
15Common Kestrel – Falco tinnunculus
16Common Magpie – Pica pica
17Eurasian Jackdaw – Corvus monedula
18Rook – Corvus frugilegus
19Great Tit – Parus major
20Eurasian Blackbird – Turdus merula
21European Robin – Erithacus rubecula
22House Sparrow – Passer domesticus
23Common Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs
24Yellowhammer – Emberiza citrinella
25Common Reed Bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus
26Rock Dove – Columba livia
27Eurasian Blue Tit – Cyanistes caeruleus
28Long-tailed Tit – Aegithalos caudatus
29Eurasian Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes
30Song Thrush – Turdus philomelos
31Dunnock – Prunella modularis
32Greylag Goose – Anser anser
33Canada Goose – Branta canadensis
34Eurasian Wigeon – Mareca penelope
35Tufted Duck – Aythya fuligula
36Common Goldeneye – Bucephala clangula
37Eurasian Coot – Fulica atra
38Common Gull – Larus canus
39Common Buzzard – Buteo buteo
40Common Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis
41Carrion Crow – Corvus corone
42Goldcrest – Regulus regulus
43Common Starling – Sturnus vulgaris
44Dunlin – Calidris alpina
45Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris
46Pied Wagtail/White Wagtail – Motacilla alba
47Eurasian Siskin – Spinus spinus
48Common Shelduck – Tadorna tadorna
49Grey Partridge – Perdix perdix
50Common Pheasant – Phasianus colchicus
51Northern Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus
52Black-tailed Godwit – Limosa limosa
53Lesser Black-backed Gull – Larus fuscus
54Eurasian Tree Sparrow – Passer montanus
55European Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis
56Coal Tit – Periparus ater
57Eurasian Bullfinch – Pyrrhula pyrrhula
58Lesser Redpoll – Acanthis cabaret
59Great Crested Grebe – Podiceps cristatus
60Redwing – Turdus iliacus
61Meadow Pipit – Anthus pratensis
62Eurasian Nuthatch – Sitta europaea
63Eurasian Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus
64Common Redshank – Tringa totanus
65Great Spotted Woodpecker – Dendrocopos major
January Year Ticks

February (17)

With a lot of the easy birds taken in January I saw another 17 species in February. I had a lovely day visiting Skinflats which added Short-eared Owl, Merlin and Peregrine but alas I didn’t have my camera with me. So you will have to settle for this lovely image of a Short-Eared Owl taken on South Uist last year.

71 – Short-eared Owl
66Eurasian Treecreeper – Certhia familiaris
67Mistle Thrush – Turdus viscivorus
68European Greenfinch – Chloris chloris
69Red Knot – Calidris canutus
70Great Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus
71Short-eared Owl – Asio flammeus
72Merlin – Falco columbarius
73Peregrine Falcon – Falco peregrinus
74Rock Pipit – Anthus petrosus
75White-throated Dipper – Cinclus cinclus
76Grey Wagtail – Motacilla cinerea
77Common Snipe – Gallinago gallinago
78Gadwall – Mareca strepera
79Red-breasted Merganser – Mergus serrator
80Common Raven – Corvus corax
81Water Rail – Rallus aquaticus
82Red Grouse/Willow Grouse – Lagopus lagopus
February Year Ticks

March (2)

And now the hard work kicked in with just 2 year ticks in March.

With a lot of fairly easy species taken, lockdown still restricting movements and it being too early for most of the migrants to make it as far north as Scotland this was a fairly quiet month for me. However on the last day of March I did see my first migrant Sand Martin flying overhead followed a few weeks later by a visit to the riverbank where they nest. Migration had begun!

84 – Sand Martin
83Eurasian Skylark – Alauda arvensis
84Sand Martin – Riparia riparia
March Year Ticks

April (43)

April was a very productive month as we were able to travel again and the migrants were arriving thick and fast. I added 43 year ticks in April.

A self-found Ring Ouzel in the Ochils, a local Gargany at Black-Devon Wetlands, and my first ever Yellow Wagtail were highlights for me. A great month of birding.

93 – Local Ring Ouzel
107 – Male Gargany
124 – Male Yellow Wagtail

It was also great to be able to travel to the coast and see lots of seabirds for the list. By this point in the year I had started birdwatching with a new friend who was much more experienced that me. This really helped me identify birds at distance which previously would have been beyond me too.

85Red-legged Partridge – Alectoris rufa
86European Stonechat – Saxicola rubicola
87Common Pochard – Aythya ferina
88Stock Dove – Columba oenas
89Common Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita
90Eurasian Blackcap – Sylvia atricapilla
91Tawny Owl – Strix aluco
92Common Linnet – Linaria cannabina
93Ring Ouzel – Turdus torquatus
94Northern Wheatear – Oenanthe oenanthe
95Eurasian Green Woodpecker – Picus viridis
96Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
97Willow Warbler – Phylloscopus trochilus
98Smew – Mergellus albellus
99Little Egret – Egretta garzetta
100Western Marsh Harrier – Circus aeruginosus
101Bearded Tit – Panurus biarmicus
102Greater Scaup – Aythya marila
103Bar-tailed Godwit – Limosa lapponica
104Common Sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos
105Whooper Swan – Cygnus cygnus
106Eurasian Jay – Garrulus glandarius
107Garganey – Spatula querquedula
108Northern Shoveler – Spatula clypeata
109Common Eider – Somateria mollissima
110Velvet Scoter – Melanitta fusca
111Common Scoter – Melanitta nigra
112Grey Plover – Pluvialis squatarola
113Common Ringed Plover – Charadrius hiaticula
114Little Ringed Plover – Charadrius dubius
115Common Guillemot – Uria aalge
116Razorbill – Alca torda
117Black-legged Kittiwake – Rissa tridactyla
118Sandwich Tern – Thalasseus sandvicensis
119Northern Fulmar – Fulmarus glacialis
120Northern Gannet – Morus bassanus
121Long-tailed Duck – Clangula hyemalis
122Ruddy Turnstone – Arenaria interpres
123Sedge Warbler – Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
124Western Yellow Wagtail – Motacilla flava
125Common House Martin – Delichon urbicum
126Rock Ptarmigan – Lagopus muta
127Collared Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
April Year Ticks

May (32)

May was also a productive month thanks in large part to a holiday with Heatherlea in the Highlands where I saw my first ever Capercaillie. I did also add a local Wood Warbler, and a life tick in Corn Bunting and a vagrant Pied-Billed Grebe.

149 – Female Capercaillie
130 – Wood Warbler
144 – Corn Bunting
128Barnacle Goose – Branta leucopsis
129Whinchat – Saxicola rubetra
130Wood Warbler – Phylloscopus sibilatrix
131Common Cuckoo – Cuculus canorus
132Red Kite – Milvus milvus
133Snow Bunting – Plectrophenax nivalis
134Red-throated Diver – Gavia stellata
135Black-throated Diver – Gavia arctica
136Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
137Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix
138Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos
139White-tailed Eagle – Haliaeetus albicilla
140Great Skua – Stercorarius skua
141Black Guillemot – Cepphus grylle
142Atlantic Puffin – Fratercula arctica
143European Shag – Gulosus aristotelis
144Corn Bunting – Emberiza calandra
145Whimbrel – Numenius phaeopus
146Common Tern – Sterna hirundo
147Arctic Tern – Sterna paradisaea
148Black Grouse – Lyrurus tetrix
149Western Capercaillie – Tetrao urogallus
150Common Crossbill – Loxia curvirostra
151European Pied Flycatcher – Ficedula hypoleuca
152Common Redstart – Phoenicurus phoenicurus
153Tree Pipit – Anthus trivialis
154European Golden Plover – Pluvialis apricaria
155Slavonian Grebe – Podiceps auritus
156Common Whitethroat – Curruca communis
157Common Swift – Apus apus
158Sanderling – Calidris alba
159Pied-billed Grebe – Podilymbus podiceps
May Year Ticks

June (4)

We had a lovely month in June with a trip to the wonderful Isle of May to see lots of Seabirds but of course none of these were year ticks. I did add a Spoonbill on my local patch (no camera again) and a lovely holiday to Mull added Hen Harrier and Barn Owl.

162 – Barn Owl
160Eurasian Spoonbill – Platalea leucorodia
161Hen Harrier – Circus cyaneus
162Barn Owl – Tyto alba
163Manx Shearwater – Puffinus puffinus
June Year Ticks

July (0)

Summer tends to be quiet for bird watching and this was the case for me with a big fat Zero in year ticks. We did enjoy some wonderful whale watching though as well as some great views of Golden Eagle.

Golden Eagle on Mull

August (2)

Another fairly quiet month but with two days staking out a likely spot (location not given due to sensitivities around this species) my friend and I did have distant views of a Honey Buzzard

164Ruddy Shelduck – Tadorna ferruginea
165European Honey-buzzard – Pernis apivorus
August Year Ticks

September (13)

September added some fruitful sea watching with a life tick Pomarine Skua being a highlight at Hound Point. I also had a trip to Lancashire where I twitched a Pectoral Sandpiper. We also had an epic (and wet and cold) trip to Bass Rock to see the Gannets.

166Northern Pintail – Anas acuta
167Common Greenshank – Tringa nebularia
168Pomarine Skua – Stercorarius pomarinus
169Arctic Skua – Stercorarius parasiticus
170Little Gull – Hydrocoloeus minutus
171Pectoral Sandpiper – Calidris melanotos*
172Great White Egret – Ardea alba*
173Marsh Tit – Poecile palustris*
174Ruff – Calidris pugnax
175Spotted Redshank – Tringa erythropus*
176Brent Goose – Branta bernicla
177Surf Scoter – Melanitta perspicillata
178Red-necked Grebe – Podiceps grisegena
September Year Ticks

(* denotes seen in England only)


October (19)

In October we had a lovely week in Norfolk which added lots of ticks, I didn’t cover it on the blog as not really part of Scotland. I also took the opportunity on driving back from England to pick up two mega birds Long-Toed Stint and White-Tailed Lapwing both of which were life-ticks.

White-Tailed Lapwing

A trip to Musselburgh did add a life tick in Med Gull which I mentioned at the start. Keep looking through Black-Headed Gulls for long-enough and you will find one with white wing tips and stockier blood red bill.

196 – Med Gull (left)

At the end of October I was on 197 and the 200 goal for the year was very much within grasp.

179Pied Avocet – Recurvirostra avosetta*
180Grey Phalarope – Phalaropus fulicarius*
181Yellow-legged Gull – Larus michahellis*
182Caspian Gull – Larus cachinnans*
183Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis*
184Rose-coloured Starling – Pastor roseus*
185Little Stint – Calidris minuta*
186Cetti’s Warbler – Cettia cetti*
187Egyptian Goose – Alopochen aegyptiaca*
188Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus scolopaceus*
189Common Crane – Grus grus*
190Purple Sandpiper – Calidris maritima
191Eurasian Woodcock – Scolopax rusticola
192Brambling – Fringilla montifringilla*
193Stone-curlew – Burhinus oedicnemus*
194White-tailed Lapwing – Vanellus leucurus*
195Long-toed Stint – Calidris subminuta*
196Mediterranean Gull – Ichthyaetus melanocephalus
197Twite – Linaria flavirostris
October Year Ticks

(* denotes seen in England only)


November (5)

I tracked down a Glossy Ibis reported on the side of a main road south of Edinburgh only for the bird to upsticks soon after and fly to my nearby patch.

198 – Glossy Ibis

My friend and I visited the coast for a remarkable Little Auk passage and being on 199 it seemed rude not to try for a 200th. So a quick visit to Slamannan Plateau afterwards added my 200th bird of the year – Taiga Bean Goose. Here is a picture from January 2020 when I added them as a life tick.

200 – Taiga Bean Goose

We also twitched the Isabelline Wheatear which visited East Linton which was also life tick for me, on an absolutely baltic day the bird must have been questioning it’s life choices in coming to Scotland.

198Glossy Ibis – Plegadis falcinellus
199Little Auk – Alle alle
200Taiga Bean Goose – Anser fabalis
201Isabelline Wheatear – Oenanthe isabellina
202Jack Snipe – Lymnocryptes minimus
November Year Ticks

December (3)

With so many birds already seen it is quite hard to add year ticks in December but I managed 3. A Great Northern Diver at Burntisland as somehow I had missed them all year. I finally added the White-Winged Scoter at Musselburgh albeit very distant views. My final bird of last year was a Snow Goose and it was this year too after a couple of wild goose chases I caught up with this beauty near Airth.

205 – Snow Goose with Pink Feet
203Great Northern Diver – Gavia immer
204White-winged Scoter – Melanitta deglandi
205Snow Goose – Anser caerulescens
December Year Ticks

Summary

I have really enjoyed my bird watching and wider nature watching this year. That has included sharing about it on this blog so thanks for following!

For next year I am going to try for 200 birds in Scotland (rather than UK), I made 186 this year so that is a significant step up but hopefully achievable. I would also like to get my UK life list to 250 (currently on 233) with a total of 28 birds added this year as shown below.

206Garganey – Spatula querquedula
207Little Ringed Plover – Charadrius dubius
208Western Yellow Wagtail – Motacilla flava
209Wood Warbler – Phylloscopus sibilatrix
210Corn Bunting – Emberiza calandra
211Black Grouse – Lyrurus tetrix
212Western Capercaillie – Tetrao urogallus
213Pied-billed Grebe – Podilymbus podiceps
214European Honey-buzzard – Pernis apivorus
215Pomarine Skua – Stercorarius pomarinus
216Little Gull – Hydrocoloeus minutus
217Pectoral Sandpiper – Calidris melanotos
218Spotted Redshank – Tringa erythropus
219Grey Phalarope – Phalaropus fulicarius
220Yellow-legged Gull – Larus michahellis
221Caspian Gull – Larus cachinnans
222Little Stint – Calidris minuta
223Long-billed Dowitcher – Limnodromus scolopaceus
224Common Crane – Grus grus
225Stone-curlew – Burhinus oedicnemus
226White-tailed Lapwing – Vanellus leucurus
227Long-toed Stint – Calidris subminuta
228Mediterranean Gull – Ichthyaetus melanocephalus
229Glossy Ibis – Plegadis falcinellus
230Little Auk – Alle alle
231Isabelline Wheatear – Oenanthe isabellina
232Jack Snipe – Lymnocryptes minimus
233White-winged Scoter – Melanitta deglandi
Additions to my UK Life List

RSPB Vane Farm, Loch Leven

We took a drive out to Loch Leven, near Kinross today to get some fresh air. I haven’t visited since they re worked the carpark (now a pay and display for non-members by the way).

They have a much larger feeder area now which is well worth walking around for the common woodland birds. Nothing rare or unusual but was nice to get brief views of Treecreeper and Greenfinch along with the more common tits and finches.

Treecreeper

Chaffinch’s were very active giving their “pink pink” call. I always think of it as the male replying to the question, “what colour are you?” but the females have the same call too but not the same colour.

Nice pink Chaffinch on a branch before approaching the feeder

There were lots of Goldfinches too both in the branches but also coming to the feeders in big numbers.

We did also see some Greenfinches too but not close enough to photograph. Walking to the right as you arrive you can go through a small gate and come to some more feeders behind a screen. Here we were pleased to see several Red Squirrels around – always a pleasure.

Red Squirrel’s are the cutest

Below the feeders Blackbird and Dunnock were feeding along with a few Chaffinches. Some of these Blackbirds are probably migrants that come from the continent in the winter, there was a big influx about a month ago of birds joining our local residents.

Female Blackbird
Dunnock,

A constant stream of Tits were coming and going from the feeders too – in order of size Coal, Blue and Great. The smallest is the Coal Tit quite acrobatic hanging off the feeder.

The Coal Tit would make a sharp exit if the Blue Tits turned up.

Lovely Blue Tit (probably male?)

but then would have to give way to any Great Tits that took their turn at the feeder. A very clear pecking order among birds.

Female Great Tit

Moving through the reserve we headed down to the hides. As an aside the new paintings on the steps are lovely and well worth stopping to appreciate particularly on the return when they appear whilst you are still in the tunnel. Very much brighten up the place.

At the first hide there was nothing nearby within photography range. But with the scope looking out to the Loch we could see Mute Swans, Mallards, Goosander, Teal, Goldeneye, Tufted Ducks, Coots, Black-Headed Gulls and Cormorants.

A magpie perched in the top of a nearby tree.

Magpie

We carried on to the second hide and three Buzzard were soaring near the ridge. Their mewing calls were heard before we saw them. A kestrel hovered over the field.

At the distant hide there were quite a few Mallards and Teal but also a couple of Goldeneye and a lovely male pintail. The pintail was especially beautiful through the scope but too far to photograph.

Mallard (foreground), Teal (background)

Just then a white flash caught my eye and a Little Egret flew over. I manage to get a couple of photos.

It circled around and then came into land stretching its wings before adopting its normal posture.

Walking back to the carpark we saw a Grey Heron too stalking the marsh.

Grey Heron

After returning to the car we got good views of a Buzzard on the ground.


Esk Mouth, Musselburgh

Firstly, I should apologies for not posting for a while, work has been crazy busy. I have been out bird watching frequently enough and happily got my bird species list for the year up to 204 (a new record for me) but not really had the time to photograph or write.

Looking ahead to January I plan to do a monthly post on the wildlife in Menstrie Woods. I thought it would be nice to follow one place through the year and see what this reveals. Of course I will also be posting about trips further afield too.


On Thursday a good birding friend and I had a day visiting Burntisland in Fife and Esk Mouth at Musselburgh and took a few pictures so thought I would share a quick post on that.

Grey Seal checking me out

We had hoped to see a Black-Necked Grebe at Burntisland but there was no sign only Little Grebe and two distant Slavonian Grebes visible through the scope. However this Grey Seal was exploring the inner harbour and kept popping up to take a look at us.

More of note we had scope views of Black-Throated, Red-Throated and Great Northern Divers. The GND was a year tick for me. With my more experienced friend pointing out the differences I am getting better at identifying these birds at distance. The Red-Throated Diver normally raises it’s bill into the air which is quite a reliable sign. The Great-Northern is very different, a larger bird with a massive bill and steep forehead. I was happy as a three diver day isn’t that common for me.

We spent a bit of time looking for the Humpback Whale which has been in the Forth the last few days but soon gave up and drove around to Musselburgh. We arrived just before high-tide which is ideal as it pushes the tidal feeding birds up against the shore or they fly into the nearby scrapes.


As soon as we got out of the car we noticed a small flock of Redshank waiting for the tide to retreat so they could feed. The winter sunlight gave them a warm look.

Half a dozen Turnstones were feeding around the Redshanks and living up to their name on occasion.

Ruddy Turnstone

We walked out as far as the first bench which overlooks the sea wall and got our scopes out. Our target for the day would require us to search through the Scoter flocks in the distance. Scoters are mostly black, sea ducks which are seen in quite large numbers around Scottish coasts each winter. The two common birds are the Common Scoter all black with a largely black bill and the Velvet Scoter which has a more yellow bill and a small white tick below the eye (the male that is). At Musselburgh it is the Velvet which is the more common ironically. However, two much rarer birds can be seen here each winter. The Surf Scoter has a larger yellow bill and the drake has a large white patch on the back of the neck. But the mega rare American White-Winged Scoter has been here the last few years too. This has a smaller pinkish bill (compared to Velvet) and a white tick that significantly goes above the eye. I have never seen this bird despite trying about 5 times and was keen to add it to my life list before it vanishes altogether.

Some careful scope work did find the White-Winged Scoter albeit rather poor distant views. We also had slightly better views of the Surf Scoter too. Both were far too distant for photos so I will point you to this amazing photo by Andrew Russell which has Surf Scoter, White-Winged Scoter and a male and female Velvet Scoter in the same shot. See if you can tell which is which from my descriptions above.

Mission accomplished we walked back to the river mouth. A single Oystercatcher rested on the seawall.

Oystercatcher

A Pied Wagtail flitted around the beach. This always strikes me as an active little bird, searching for insects as it works along the shore. A Carrion Crow flew in and inspected the breach.

There were several Mute Swans in the river looking gracious in the generous winter light. And on the other side of the river a large flock of Wigeon were swimming upstream. The males have the bold buff yellow stripe down the centre of the head with chestnut brown heads and grey backs. The females are simpler more cryptic colours as in most ducks.

Another winter duck which always catches my eye is the Goldeneye and there was a large number in the river. The male has a black-green head with a bold white spot on the cheek and pied black/white back and sides. The female is attractive too but with a browner head and planer back. Oh and they both have a bright golden eye of course.

A large flock of Black-Headed Gulls were roosting on a gravel bank island. A Black-Headed Gull has black wingtips as shown below from this one on the harbour wall. It also has a thin bill with a black tip. Oh and in winter it doesn’t have a black-head only a comma behind the eye.

Black-Headed Gull

Where there is a large flock of gulls it is always worth scanning for a rarer gull and recently I saw a Mediterranean Gull here. Searching through a gull flock isn’t for everybody. Gulls have a fantastic array of plumages as birds take 2-4 years to achieve full adult plumage which does complicate matters. Here we were looking for the tell-tale all white wing-tips and also a much thicker bill. Sure enough a great Med Gull was preening and when you knew what to look for, it really stood out.

We were about to leave when the sound of air rushing over the wings of a first winter Mute Swan flying up river gave me enough warning to capture a final couple of photos.