Wednesday 28 November 2018

Grey then Black & Red turning back to Grey later. 15th October 2018

Another grim and grey dawn accompanied by a strong breeze yet again had us scratching our heads over breakfast. The main purpose of our visit to West Cornwall every year is to bird the valleys and in particular the Kenidjack and if it's very windy then that becomes a difficult task to say the least, especially if the wind is from the west as it was today. Of course it's westerly winds that bring American migrant and vagrant birds into this part of the world so it's a double edged sword really, you want it but you could do without it! Westerly winds are good for seawatching at nearby Pendeen Light though so we headed there in the murk to see what might be flying past.

Apparently North-westerlies are best and these were South-westerlies so apart from the usual Gannets there wasn't actually much going past at all when we first arrived. We found a comfy spot to sit and gazed out at sea Poldark style, but definitely not stripped to the waist, I didn't want to scare the birds away did I? Or die of hypothermia either. Visibility was poor but in the next hour we did manage to wheedle out an Arctic Skua and a Bonxie (Great Skua) out of the gloom as well as a few Guillemots and Razorbills that were streaming past. Shags were present as always on the sea but the only real excitement was provided by a gang of Great Black-backed Gulls that were hounding an unfortunate Kittiwake for its fish catch which it very sensibly relinquished to the bigger birds that then set about each other squabbling over the snack.

Great Skua

Great Black-backed Gulls in pursuit of Kittiwake

I had a quick walk around the rocks to the south of the lighthouse looking for a couple of Black Redstarts that had been found the day before but couldn't see any. This wasn't going too well at all. I did surprise a Wheatear from the lighthouse wall but that was away to the south before I had chance to lift the camera.

The wind had appeared to drop a little and the day had brightened slightly so, despite my misgivings,  we decided to head into Kenidjack. In any case the weather wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was last year when we'd had ex-hurricane Ophelia to deal with. Parking outside of The Old Milking Parlour, which had been our favoured place to stay but sadly no longer available, we walked into the valley passing "Neddy" in his paddock and arriving at the engine shed. Yesterday there had been lots of birders here and quite a few birds, today it was just us and practically nothing! There was very little along the sewage works hedge either save for a couple of Chiffchaffs and a few Dunnocks and the resident Goldfinch flock. The Kestrel that had allowed close approach the day before was still perched in the same stunted tree and obligingly posed for a couple more portraits before taking wing and disappearing across the field.

There was little of note anywhere as we walked the valley and even the donkey paddock sallows were quiet with no sign of yesterdays Yellow-browed Warbler. The resident Choughs at least put in an appearance but were very high up as was a Buzzard that drifted over. Thankfully there was a bit more activity at the stream and the rocky beach at the cove. A Grey Wagtail was startled out of the rushing water by us passing and Robins and Wrens scurried around the bracken covered hillsides. There was even a Chiffchaff, surely recently arrived, taking flies from the waterside vegetation. The best birds were on the rocks at the beach in the form of three Black Redstarts including an absolutely stunning male. Male Black Redstarts are gorgeous birds with a bright red tail contrasting with sooty grey body plumage, Add in two vivid white wing patches and you have quite a looker! 

male Black Redstart
The two accompanying juvenile type birds, also beautiful in my book, have more subdued lighter grey-brown plumage but still sport the conspicuous red tail, the characteristic behind the name, redstart meaning red tail.

juvenile type Black Redstart
All of the Black Redstarts were actively hunting and catching flies and other insects. They would often launch into the air to snare anything that came within reach. I spent quite a lot of effort trying to capture these flights but was ultimately unsuccessful. The birds are quick, flying up and returning back to their rocky perch within a second or so. But it was fun!

Out at sea there were Shags and Seals in the water and, of course, Gannets were passing back and forth further out. A pair of noisy Oystercatchers alighted on rocks at the shore resting only momentarily before departing noisily.

We were happy, well Mrs Caley was, just sitting watching the waves crash in, it was still reasonably breezy and the sea was still quite rough.  I was busy trying to photograph the Black Redstarts again! One of the juvenile type birds had settled quite close to where we sat and I concentrated on trying to photograph that bird as it purposely chased after its insect prey.

Incredibly we'd been in the company of the Black Redstarts for nearly two hours! Time does fly when you're having fun and it was after 3 o'clock when we headed back up the valley. It would be dark in just a few hours and as we walked we debated on what we could do until then. All of our plans were very firmly put to bed though when the mobile phone flashed up a message informing us that a Grey Catbird had been discovered near Lands End! If I had been asked to list a hundred birds that I had hoped to see on this trip I would never have listed a Grey Catbird, in fact if you'd have asked me to name five hundred I wouldn't have thought of that one. To be honest I had to wrack my brains to even think what a Grey Catbird was, other than being a bird of course. I vaguely knew that it was a North American species and I could very vaguely remember that one had been found in Anglesey some years ago but past that I knew nothing about that species. At the car I consulted my Collins bird guide and was surprised to see the Catbird only getting a small insert in the "accidentals" section at the back. Must be really rare then! 

Image result for Grey Catbird
Grey Catbird
Twenty minutes later I was squeezing our car into a tight gap next to the A30 just short of the Lands End complex and hurrying as fast as we could to join the thirty or so birders already present at the site on Treave Moor. It's incredible how quickly the local birders galvanise themselves here. Our first mistake was to follow a couple of fellow twitchers into a field that overlooked a ditch on the wrong side (naturally I didn't realise that at the time). The original finder of the bird (we learned) plus a few more birders were located on the other side and about 50 yards away. A call went up from that group, "It's showing!" but we couldn't see it! So, as quickly as we could, we made our way around to the other group which took quite a detour and joined them. Of course the Catbird had now disappeared again. The attention was centred on three small willow bushes that stood next to a bracken and bramble obscured ditch and where the Catbird had last been seen. There were now forty or so twitchers present and all were stood less than ten yards away from the willows. I must admit to feeling a bit guilty and uncomfortable at that point, after all here was a bird that had made it's way all the way from America to Cornwall and must be pretty stressed out and exhausted and yet a number of people, including myself, were focussed on the single aim, with no concern for the bird itself, to for see and tick the rarity. Perhaps that's a reason why I've never been a hardened twitcher of rare birds. Anyway while I was wrestling with my own conscience the time had moved on and it was now well past 5 o'clock, and less than an hour and a half of daylight remained. I was now, so charged up and my nerve ends frayed, I fully understood the use and origin of the term "Twitcher"! It was like the feeling I get in the last few minutes of a very tight match involving my football team when events could turn either way. To be fair though that is a bit different since agony and joy can happen closely together and happiness or disappointment follows but only at the end of the game, at a twitch it's agonising until a bird shows then there's joy and immediate relief.

More birders were arriving as the light waned and then at 17:30 the Catbird popped up in the right hand willow! I had a two second view of the dark grey back of a thrush sized bird low down in the branches and then it was gone. You could sense the relief rippling through the crowd from those that had clocked it but also increased anxiety from those that didn't, including Mrs Caley who, being shorter, hadn't been able to see the bird owing to the bracken in the way. We stayed hoping for a better look and maybe half an hour later the Catbird flew out of the willows and up and over the bramble covered fence on the far side of the ditch. I saw it fly quickly but lost it when it disappeared over the other side. Mrs Caley sadly had missed it again so my glee at adding a "lifer" to my own list was dampened somewhat. Apparently the Grey Catbird had perched openly in a small sallow about ten yards or so further away but I hadn't seen it do that, so I was more than a bit "gripped off" myself when I saw some photos later that evening! As some folk celebrated with handshakes and fist pumps others became more frantic and some more than a little bit disconsolate. A good friend of mine who lives in Cornwall had sadly missed the bird so Mrs Caley was in good company. I hoped that the Catbird would stay the night and be seen the following day so that all those who hadn't seen it would have another chance and that I could get a much better view than the fleeting glimpses I'd had so far. There would also be plenty of other birders making the long trip down into Cornwall in the hope of seeing it.

Monday 19 November 2018

Elvis, the King! Ythan Estuary, 13th June

Only 3 days of the holiday left, totally knackered after Monday's walk up the mountain and Tuesday's expedition out west.  Time to take it easy? No chance! Not when there is another star bird within easy reach of our base in Speyside. Even though we've seen "Elvis" the drake King Eider almost every year since he first appeared at the mouth of the River Ythan near Aberdeen and a couple of times at his winter quarters at Burghead in Moray, we just had to go and pay homage to him once more.

"Elvis", June 7th 2011
The Ythan Estuary is an internationally important area for many breeding seabirds, in particular terns of four different species and also acts as a staging ground for post breeding Eider ducks. Also present at the mouth of the tidal river is a large colony of seals which attract a lot of attention from visitors although a lot less of mine. My focus is always on the birds and as well as getting views of Elvis it's great to watch the antics of the terns as they fish and to attempt to photograph them as they do so. The greater area also serves as a magnet to migrating birds at various times of the year and we've ticked Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs and Barred Warbler here in the past as well as the King Eider. A terrific place for birds and I'm very envious of the local birdwatchers.

We arrived mid-morning, having checked previously that high tide was around midday, the terns and the ducks go fishing on a turning tide and should come in closer for better views at that time. As we walked along the soon to be covered compacted sand a returning birder went out of his way, despite my best interests to avoid him, to tell us that the King Eider was "asleep on the far bank just by the lump of polystyrene". My pet hate is other birders telling me where stuff is before I've had a chance to look for myself! If I ask nicely then I'm happy to be told where a bird might be but, come on, give me a break, finding a bird for oneself is half the fun. Killjoy! Yes, I'm a grumpy Old Caley at times, I know. Anyway on arriving opposite the loafing Eider flock, out of spite I naturally tried to look everywhere but next to the lump of polystyrene, and then, when I did look, just couldn't resist it of course, I couldn't find the King! It took me 15 minutes to pin him down, he was asleep in a small huddle of his cousins nowhere near to the spot that I was pointed towards. So maybe I got the buzz of "self finding" him anyway.

"Elvis" the King Eider asleep in the loafing flock of Eiders
Some more birders arrived and when one approached and asked the whereabouts of the King I was happy to tell him! Because he asked. For the next hour the King Eider hardly moved except to shift his position slightly. 

Then without warning he suddenly took to the air and flew straight towards us before turning upstream. Luckily I was prepared when he took off, thanks to Mrs Caley who forewarned me that he was about to do so, and managed a series of nice flight shots. Good enough even for Birdwatch magazine to ask for the proofs and publish one in their July issue! Not so amateur now!!

Elvis returned almost immediately and on landing appeared disappointed that the other ducks hadn't joined him in his quick tour around the estuary. He settled down again amongst the Common Eiders, tucked his head in and went back to sleep. Too much exertion for one day!

"Come on you lazy lot, let's party!"
Later that day I saw a tweet from a friend of mine who lives in the North of Scotland that he had been to see the King Eider that very same day and at the very same time! It appears that Dave was one of the birders who stood watching just along the beach and saw Elvis go on his flight. Shame I was in grumpy mode, since we've only ever spoken on the phone and missed the opportunity for a chinwag! That's two near misses now so hopefully next time I'll get my act together! Sorry Dave.

The high tide arrived but the King Eider didn't shift, that short sortie must have worn him out, but at least a few terns got up and began plunge fishing. The most obvious were Sandwich Terns, the biggest of our breeding terns which breed on the Ythan in good numbers. They are quite happy at showing their prowess at fishing at close quarters and make for dutiful photographic subjects.

Sandwich Terns
The very similar looking Common and Arctic Terns were also active. These two terns, while sharing many plumage characteristics differ enough when seen flying well to identify easily, once practiced. The Arctic Tern is very front heavy and flies almost "moth like" or even, at a stretch like an owl, but with pointed wings of course. The species that I most wanted to see, the Little Tern, was more elusive and mostly stayed well out over the other side of the river when feeding. For now though I was happy to take photos of the more common species.

Arctic Terns
Black-headed Gulls were also "dip-feeding", their method of catching small fry, and a few came in close to our position. Not able to dive in for fish like the Terns, these Black-headed Gulls had adapted well to picking fish off at the surface and were quite successful at it.

Black-headed Gulls
The Seals, Grey Seals I think, were very active and would drift by on the rising tide and peer inquisitively at us stood on the bank. I like to think that they're thinking things like "wonder what it's like up there?", "they're a scary looking bunch" and "bet it's shit!".

Grey Seal
The Common Eiders were also becoming more active but most were flying out to sea rather than staying to fish for clams on the river bed. Perhaps the tide was too strong and fast for fishing today. Cormorants were also flying downriver and out to sea.

A few Little Terns at last decided to fish on our side of the estuary. I've had a lot of fun trying to photograph these very small seabirds in the past and enjoyed grappling with them again now. I totally failed this time to get any images of them in dive mode but did manage some of the birds flying past and overhead.

Little Terns
The larger tern species are easier to track and there were now all 4 of the residents fishing fairly close to the beach. Interestingly I thought I saw a Roseate Tern fly out to sea but it was way over on the opposite side of the river. I was alerted to it by it looking gleaming white and sleek next to the other terns but at the time I was unsure. I also neglected to take any photos since it was so far away. That proved to be a mistake because later in the day a Roseate Tern was indeed called from the exact same spot so in all likelihood it was what I saw.

Common Terns
The non-breeding Oystercatcher flock that resides here on the estuary numbered over 100 birds and these were startled into mass panic by an unseen predator, filling the sky with shimmering black and white. The Eiders didn't move a muscle though, I guess they are too large to become prey for any hunting Peregrine or similar.

Other birds gracing the estuary and seen flying to and fro were Curlews and Red-breasted Mergansers. Usually there are a lot of House and Sand Martins here too but they were few and far between on this visit.

Red-breasted Mergansers
After watching the terns for a while longer we decided it was time to go but not before attempting to get some nice frames of a Swallow that was flying high over the carpark. My record of obtaining decent images of Swallows is pitiful and these were only slightly better than the norm.

There is a green keepers hut by the carpark since there is a golf club next door, and on the roof a beautiful Yellowhammer perched and sang its song. I photographed a Yellowhammer in the same spot and in the same pose several years ago and have seen them in recent years too. Seeing as it's unlikely to be the same bird (small passerines are fairly short lived) then it must be habitual for these birds to choose this singing perch year on year and is no doubt a hotly disputed song post.

We drove to the RSPB's Loch of Strathbeg reserve but in truth the exertion of the previous days had caught up with us plus it had started to rain heavily so we barely gave the place a second glance except for a quick look at the resident Tree Sparrows. I didn't even bother to take any photos. We were done in!