Sunday, 17 October 2021

Shetland Day 1: No Time To Dip

After a mercifully smooth overnight crossing to Lerwick, our first day on Shetland (Saturday 2nd October) started with the customary hearty breakfast, after which we were itching for some twitching of the excellent selection of rarities in relatively close proximity around the central portion of Mainland.

Red-backed Shrike, East Burra

Red-backed Shrike
Red-backed Shrike
Breaking ourselves in gently with a distant King Eider scoped at Girlsta and a Great White Egret ticked almost without stopping at Sand Water, we made our way to Lower Voe. Here a Red-breasted Flycatcher dodged the raindrops as Goosanders, Mergansers, Razorbills and Tysties fished in the sea loch. Shetland planners appear to have been asleep at the wheel when approving many of its settlements but Lower Voe isn't one of them: an attractive village in a stunning location, with plenty of cover for birds to skulk in.
Red-backed Shrike
Red-backed Shrike
Red-backed Shrike
Hopes of a two-Shrike day were then fulfilled with a Woodchat showing (eventually) at Aith, and a Red-backed Shrike performing (eventually) at East Burra. Whilst waiting for the latter, our team's top sniffer dogs Bradders and Howard came up trumps by relocating an Arctic Redpoll which had been seen only briefly earlier that day.
Red-backed Shrike
Red-breasted Flycatcher, Lower Voe
Razorbill, Lower Voe
Views and photos enabled an identification as Hornemann's, and I was fortunate enough to capture a definitive fluffy white butt-shot through a very narrow gap in which it was showing, but only by almost balancing my lens on another birder's head, such was the acuteness of the viewing angle.
Woodchat Shrike, Aith
Woodchat Shrike, Aith
Woodchat Shrike, Aith
Our penultimate stop of the day was at Noss, where an Eastern Yellow Wagtail showed immediately on arrival, and although mobile I was able to get some respectable photos after a bit of ungainly jogging up the road to catch up with it. This was all proving too easy, but a report of a Semi-palmated Sandpiper at Pool of Virkie brought us back down to earth by being absent not just from the beach where it was first found but from another small pool to which it had later relocated. 
Red-backed Shrike, East Burra
Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, East Burra
Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, East Burra
Further frustration was provided courtesy of an unfortunate birder who had driven into a ditch blocking our exit from the pool and creating my first even Shetland traffic jam. We did the decent thing and helped push him out, and although it was our first dip of the trip there were no complaints: it had been a cracking first day with a haul or rarities that only Shetland could produce.
Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Noss
The Eastern Yellow Wagtail gave a buzzy call and showed a long hind-claw

Oh go on then - one more of that lovely Shrike
(With thanks John Stobart for the idea for the blog post title, inspired by a Bond movie tweet last week.)


Friday, 15 October 2021

The long road north: day 2

I'm a bit behind on the long road north to Shetland blog-wise as two of my fellow travelling companions, Howard and Jono, are also writing up our Shetland trip and are already well into the island phase while I'm still on the A1. So it's time to pick up the pace with a canter through day two (October 1st). This started with a brief stop at Musselburgh where a planned scan for a Surf Scoter was cut short by biting winds and a sudden loss of enthusiasm from all of us, even the normally irrepressible Bradders.
Knot, Musselburgh
Guillemot, Musselburgh
So we pressed on over the Forth to Fife and Chateau Lethbridge to collect the fourth member of the team. 'Chateau' turned out to be only a slight over-statement, and as we pulled up to the stately stone gates we started to feel like we should probably be using a side entrance for below stairs staff. But the Lethbridges put us at ease with a warm welcome and Mrs L even packed us off with a bag of fresh allotment veg, providing just about the only vitamin C we subsequently consumed north of the border.
Tree Sparrow, Loch of Strathbeg
Pectoral Sandpiper, Loch of Strathbeg
The boot of Bradders Volvo - christened Agnetha for her Swedish heritage and the dulcet tones of her satnav voice - was now clinking to the brim with high quality optics, so we were glad of her space-age collision avoidance technology to keep it all safe from harm. 
Greater Yellowlegs, Loch of Strathbeg
Greater Yellowlegs, Loch of Strathbeg
There wasn't much in the way of rare bird news to tempt us to stop in the lowlands, and we ignored Jono's unsubtle hints that a mere 40 mile detour might take us within striking distance of something tarty like Jackdaw for his growing Fife list. Instead we pressed on, overshooting Aberdeen to Loch of Strathbeg in the hope of catching up with a trio of American waders reported there the previous day. 
Greater Yellowlegs, Loch of Strathbeg

Greater Yellowlegs, Loch of Strathbeg
In ascending order of rarity, the Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs and Greater Yellowlegs all did the decent thing and gave good views in balmy conditions, while Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese provided an evocative soundtrack.
Lesser (left) and Greater Yellowlegs, Loch of Strathbeg
Lesser Yellowlegs, Loch of Strathbeg
As the sun started to drop we headed back south for the ferry to Lerwick, boarding MV Hrossey without incident. The morning would see us arrive on Shetland: the anticipation was building, but it had been a promising start to the trip already.
Whooper Swan, Loch of Strathbeg
Whooper Swans, Loch of Strathbeg

Thursday, 7 October 2021

The long road north: day 1

It's been three years since I made it to Shetland after a planned trip last year was cancelled due to the constraints of the pandemic, so this year's visit was awaited with great anticipation by the whole team.  This consisted of driver and organiser-in-chief David Bradnum, RSPB Rainham stalwart Howard Vaughan and 'Wanstead Birder' Jonathan Lethbridge who we were due to pick up in Fife on day two. Bob Vaughan, the 4th member of the team from my previous two visits was sadly absent on this occasion (we missed you, Bob).
American Wigeon (right) with Eurasian Wigeon

Shetland by bike would have taken more time and energy than I possess, so the low-carbon birding theme of the year was suspended temporarily as I drove up to Huntingdon on Thursday 30th September to meet David and Howard en route. With luggage and optics safely transferred to the capacious boot of Bradders's Volvo, we were away and the first rarity of the trip was soon under the belt with an American Wigeon picked out from several hundred of its close relatives at a Cambridgeshire gravel pit. 
American Wigeon (right)
Next stop was Blacktoft Sands where Howard was instantly recognised by the volunteer warden - an occupational hazard for a popular and long-serving member of RSPB staff. Our target species - a White-tailed Lapwing present for several weeks - was the nearest, indeed the only, bird on the pool outside the First Hide, and also the first 'mega' rarity of the week-and-a-bit which lay ahead.
White-tailed Lapwing, Blacktoft Sands
This was already starting to feel too easy so for our next stop we decided to up the difficulty level and stop at Druridge Pools on the Northumberland coast, a familiar spot thanks to my August family holiday in the area earlier this year. Viewing the pools is not easy so it wasn't a total surprise that we couldn't find our target species - a Pectoral Sandpiper - but the spectacle of large flocks of Pink-footed Geese wheeling over the dunes was a delight to three southereners who rarely get to experience such a thing in our home counties.
White-tailed Lapwing, Blacktoft Sands

There was time for a quick look at the sea before heading for our first overnight stop at Wooler, and Druridge Bay held 20+ Red-throated Divers and several flocks of Common Scoter. Scanning with my dinky MM4 scope I went past a diver which merited a second look as it had the uptilted bill of a Red-throated Diver but the bulk and colouration of a winter-plumaged Great Northern Diver. I shouted to the others to have a look at it and confirm my suspicions that it was a GND and they replied in the affirmative. I continued to scan and a few minutes later the guys hailed me in a way which suggested they were looking at something interesting. 

They had continued to watch the diver and were now leaning towards re-identification as White-billed, a much rarer species. It was distant but the features seemed to add up so we put the news out as a 'probable' in the hope of giving at least the locals the chance to get there before dark. Shortly after David and Howard picked up a couple of regular Great Northern Divers which made them even more confident that the earlier tentative identification was correct. 
Pink-footed Geese, Druridge Pools
We had lost sight of the White-billed by the time the first locals arrived, and headed for the well-appointed hostel at Wooler booked in advance with typical efficiency by Bradders Birding Tours Ltd. (Don't google that BTW hoping to make a booking, as it doesn't actually exist - it's just our affectionate tribute to our driver's phenomenal logistical abilities, which generally involve him sorting ferries, accommodation etc whilst we merely wire occasional tranches of cash to his account).

The leisurely journey north split over two days has become a deliberate part of BBT's Shetland strategy, allowing any east coast goodies to be swept up on the way to Aberdeen, and thus far it seemed to be paying off. But what would day two bring?

Saturday, 18 September 2021

A Friday Wryneck

I had cycled to Portland Bill four times this year prior to the end of August, but invariably on a weekend or a holiday when there was plenty of time to complete the 55 mile round trip. While sorely tempted to make a midweek dash for the Chough which appeared there back in early May, I worked out that it would be dark before I got there, so took the drive of shame for that particular bird. 

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

I knew I could 'do' Lodmoor by bike after work, as I had successfully twitched both Black-winged Stilt and Bonaparte's Gull there. I had even managed to get to Barton-on-Sea over the Hampshire border on a school night for a Black Guillemot, which was about the same distance as Portland Bill, albeit on a flatter route. But I had yet to attempt twitching Portland by bike after work. As September began, the nights had started to draw in, and it felt like there might not be many more opportunities to try. But the presence of a Wryneck at the Bill - two in fact - on Friday 3rd September provided one such opportunity.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

News on the Wrynecks had come through in the morning and updates had been a bit sparse thereafter, but an exchange of messages with Martin Cade confirmed they were still there mid-afternoon at least. So I was away sharply after finishing work and, in pleasant conditions, began the familiar slog through Wool, Winfrith, Warmwell, Weymouth and Wyke Regis before dropping down to Ferrybridge to ruin the alliterative string of place names en route to the Bill. I pushed myself pretty hard and completed the 27 miles in just over 2 hours, the quickest I had managed for that particular journey.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

The Wryneck at the Obs Quarry was reportedly 'showing well' so I went straight there. Digi-scoping expert Paul Hackett had been there a while and broke the unwelcome news that there had been no sign of the Wryneck since his arrival. Weirdly, given the experience of several decades of regular dipping, I hadn't considered the possibility that I might not see the Wryneck. To make matters worse, I had underestimated how quickly the sun would set and it was dropping fast - not great when looking for a warmth-loving, ant-eater of a bird as the base of the quarry was now in full shade. At least one of the resident Little Owls was out enjoying the last few rays so that was something.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

A flattened patch of grass on the lip of the quarry suggested that this might be the best place to look for the Wryneck, so I flopped down there for a breather and decided to call Pete Coe who I guessed might know something of the birds habits. It transpired that he hadn't been down to look for it but before he could finish his sentence explaining as much, a movement caught my eye - it was the Wryneck which promptly sat up in front of me. I alerted Paul, and we enjoyed good views as it made its way around the quarry, perching in brambles and the branches of a dead elder.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

I was delighted, the gamble had paid off and another cycling rubicon - the post-work Portland twitch - had been crossed. Most of the journey home had to be completed in the dark, but after the traditional pit-stop at the Preston chippy, I didn't mind that at all and slept like a log that night with the year-list up to 203.

Little Owl, Portland Bill, 3rd September

Friday, 17 September 2021

Binge biking

Since returning from the family holiday in mid-August my cycling/birding seems to have settled into a pattern of big bike rides on a Saturday or Sunday (sometimes both) and not much in the week as pressures of work and shorter evenings reduce the opportunities to get out and about. And as my non-motorised year list gets longer, so the number of species I can realistically see in what remains of the year gets smaller. That said, we're now well into autumn migration, bringing the opportunity to catch up on a few species I missed during last winter and the spring.

Black-necked Grebe, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Among these was Ruff, a species I knew I would see eventually so hadn't made a particular effort to catch up with. I was in need of some serious exercise as the last weekend of August approached, so the Lodmoor/Portland combo seemed like a good option, and I had a good chance of at least one year tick with a striking white-headed Ruff at Lodmoor, presumed to be the same bird which has returned over several winters. 

Black-necked Grebe, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Spooked by what seemed like an exponential increase in dangerous driving over the summer months, and tales of friends of friends falling victim to similar, suffering various fates up to and including death, I have been a bit more wary on the roads for the last few months, so took a slightly longer than normal route to Weymouth to avoid the main drag as far as possible. The Ruff was indeed present at the end of the 18 mile journey to Lodmoor, and feeling fresh I pressed on the additional 10 miles to Portland. 

Black-necked Grebes, Abbotsbury, 30 August

The Bill seemed busier than usual and the reason soon became apparent as a hideously noisy powerboat - the first of many in some kind of dick-waving sea race - thundered past. I couldn't stand the noise so after my second Arctic Skua of the year, which gave a double-take with a 'wtf' look on its face as it trundled past the speed-freaks, plans for a leisurely sea-watch were abandoned.

I guess these budget-Bransons will have spaffed more carbon by the time they crossed Lyme Bay than I've saved all year by swapping car journeys for the bike

I had done 55 miles by the time I got home so I felt like I'd earnt a rest day on the Sunday. Until...news of four Goosander at Silverlake - about 14 miles from Wareham - reached me via Geoff Upton. Goosander is a tricky species in these parts, as they tend to secrete themselves in inaccessible stretches of rivers and gravel workings. 

Pintail, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Silverlake was as good a site as any to see them but having discussed with Geoff earlier in the year, he had advised that they were still very hit and miss. This foursome were newly arrived though and potentially a bit sleepy as they seemed to be roosting up on the edge of an island.

The four Goosander at Silverlake, 30th August 

Within minutes I was off, and was watching the Goosander before other birding friends who knew I needed this species for the year-list had even had time to relay the news. Flushed with success, I noticed that a couple of Little Stint were still at Abbotsbury, as they had been all week. I wouldn't normally consider cycling that far for such a common species, but they seemed nailed on, I was over half way there already, and it was the weekend after all.

Mute Swans at Abbotsbury, 30th August

The sprint to Silverlakehad taken more out of me than I realised, and the onward journey to Abbotsbury, though pleasant, was tough going, at least until I reached to top of the Ridgway and could free-wheel the last few miles to the Swannery. Handing over my £10 entry fee, I was shown to the Meadow Pool hide by a helpful warden only to find the Little Stints had moved on! 

Black Swans at Abbotsbury, 30th August

It was the third time this year that I had cycled to Abbotsbury and not seen my target bird - though in all three cases (Whiskered Tern, Roseate Tern and Little Stint) I would eventually catch up with the species in question. A trio of Black-necked Grebe close-in at the Swannery provided some consolation, and a few Wheatear and a flock of Yellow Wagtail on the way home helped overcome the disappointment of dipping the Stints. 

Whooper Swan, Abbotsbury, 30th August - not tickable as thought to be an escape

The satisfaction of doing over 110 miles on the bike in a weekend overcame any lingering regret at returning from Abbotsbury emtpy-handed, and the green year list had moved up to 202 as August drew to a close. 

Yellow Wagtail, Abbotsbury, 30th August