Wednesday, 13 March 2019

A Stag Do That Rocks! 23rd February 2019

It was barely getting light when the noise of geese got me running to the window and looking upwards. A few seconds later some 200 or more Pink-footed Geese flew right over the hotel and pushed the year list up to 127. Flocks of Pink-foots are winter residents in the Northumberland coastal area and these would be heading out into fields to feed or maybe onto a marsh nearby.

The Waren House Hotel had served us well and after a hearty breakfast (at which we had a choice of what to eat) it was "moving day" and we would wind our way slowly up to the Cairngorms area of Scotland still some 220 miles further north (not allowing for diversions on the way, of which there would no doubt be a few).

But first we would visit the Harkness Rocks close to Bamburgh. Locally known as the Stag Rocks since, for some unknown reason, a white stag had been painted onto the rocks and is maintained regularly by the adjacent lighthouse keepers. I had discovered the Stag Rocks for myself last February after staying at another local hotel and had had a fabulous time watching and photographing one of the most enigmatic of Wader species, the Purple Sandpiper. I have a feeling that a visit to the rocks will be become an annual tradition in the Old Caley diary.

The Stag painted onto the rocks
Last year it was a beautiful clear and sunny morning but blisteringly cold with a bitter wind blowing in from the East courtesy of the "Beast from the East", read about it here Purple Patch. This time around it was equally clear and sunny and it was also very breezy but the temperature was into the low teens celsius, about 15 degrees warmer than the year before! We began by scoping the sea from the car park. I was hoping to add a few more "marine" species to the year list. The sea was reasonably choppy so finding birds on it was a bit tricky but I soon had a trio of winter plumaged Slavonian Grebes just offshore from the rocks but at least 100 yards away, too far away for any photos but another year list addition. As per the evening before Eiders and Common Scoters were present in small numbers and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers picked their way along the surf line. 

Common Scoter
We spotted a flock of 20 or so Oystercatcher feeding at the outer edge of the rocks. The bird I was most wanting to see, and one that we'd missed out on last year, was the Long-tailed Duck and I soon found a fine male just off the rocks. Long-tailed Ducks can be hard to observe since they always seem to be diving and you never know where they'll resurface. By the time you find them again they're ready to dive once more and promptly disappear and you have to find them again! Eventually though we both had decent scope views but again it was far too far out to get an image. A small flock of four Curlew flying overhead were at least in range of my lens.

We walked along the cliff path towards the lighthouse and I noticed a flock of small waders flying past low to the sea and then settling on rocks by the lighthouse wall. These were the Purple Sandpipers that we'd come to see. 

Purple Sandpipers and Turnstone
Purple Sandpipers
We descended the small cliff down to the rocks and crept slowly to the wall. The Sandpipers were feeding at the waters edge along with a few Turnstone. Leaving Mrs Caley with the scope I crawled along the rocks until I was closer still and settled down to take a few shots of the birds in the surf. It is fun to watch them running backwards and forwards with the tide, occasionally having to fly up to evade the larger waves.

I noticed a couple of Fulmars and some Razorbills flying past, both year list additions and a  few Kittiwakes too. When I returned my attention to the rocks some Purple Sandpipers had crept in from my right and were now feeding within 20 metres of me allowing me to rattle off some nice shots. Mostly though I was just content to watch them prying into miniature cracks and voids within the rocks after stranded morsels to eat. I mused on the notion that surely "Rockpiper" would have been a better name than Sandpiper for these birds since I always see them on rocks and never on sand. On the rocks Purple Sandpipers are completely at home and surprisingly well camouflaged blending in effortlessly. Fortunately in keeping with many small wading species they are restless, scurrying endlessly over the rocks so can be seen more easily.

By sitting still the "Purps" had become comfortable in my presence and a few of them had encroached to just 10 metres or so. This is why I had fallen in love with this place and I envy anyone who has this on their doorstep. It's a far cry from Oxfordshire although we do get close encounters with wading birds at Farmoor where the concrete embankments rudely imitate rocky shores such as here. 

One particularly inquisitive, or so it seemed, Purple Sandpiper put on an excellent show for me and after just a few photos I actually put the camera down and just watched the bird at length, not even needing my binoculars to do so. I wish now that I'd had the foresight to take a video via my phone.

We'd been at the rocks for about an hour and we needed to get on the road northwards so a few more quick shots and then I shuffled backwards along the rocks to the lighthouse wall and we departed back to the car, this time choosing the lower path that traverses the landward edge of the rocks. 

I scanned the sea once more but there was now no sign of either the Long-tailed Duck or of the Slavonian Grebes. The Common Scoters were still present and I walked out onto the rocks to get a closer view. The closer I got to the sea, the more slippy the rocks became and keeping a firm footing was proving tricky. Too tricky since a few moments later I was laid on my back staring up at the sky! Thankfully my ample posterior had taken most of the blow and the optics were undamaged. You need claws not boots for walking on slippery rock surfaces! When I regained my composure and managed to upright myself I furtively took a few frames of the Scoter raft (I'm sure I could hear chuckling from their direction) and retreated back to Mrs Caley.

Common Scoter chuckling away!
Just shy of the path back up to the car park a pair of Rock Pipits were feeding in a small water course that gushed out of a pipe set into the cliff. They were obviously used to intruders into their territory and stood their ground as we approached only flushing when we actually had to cross the stream.

Rock Pipit
The year list now stood at 133 and I was hopeful of adding a couple more on the drive north. Firstly we went searching for a juvenile Common Crane near Wark on the English/Scottish border and failed to find it. Next after a coffee stop at Loch Leven RSPB reserve near Kinross we looked for some Waxwings and failed to see those too. Lastly a drive through the Trossach's failed to turn up any Eagles or anything else for that matter owing to heavy rain that had set in. Oh well, things can only get better once in Speyside, can't they?

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