Saturday 12 August 2023

Twitching Tales Part 2; You can't Forster Bird to Tern Up! 29 July 2023

Back at the start of April this year a Forster's Tern had been found by a dedicated patch watcher at a small reservoir in Somerset. The bird only stayed for a few hours before disappearing. Just over two weeks later presumably the same bird appeared again, this time at Poole Harbour in Dorset. The Tern remained in the area for a month but was difficult to see and sightings were very sporadic. For some reason we never made the trip, probably because there was always something else that seemed easier to twitch at the time but also because the bird had chosen to roost at Brownsea Island which involves a boat ride to reach and expensive landing fees imposed by the National Trust to visit. On the 15th July the first-summer bird was found again at Lychett Fields on the outskirts of Poole but for the following week was as elusive as it had ever been. Then, thankfully, the Forster's Tern settled into an established pattern whereby it would visit a roosting spot at Shipstal Point, part of the RSPB's reserve at Arne. Now birders were able to connect with the Tern much more readily. So on Saturday the 29th we finally travelled  down the dreaded A34 & M3 to take our chance of adding what would be a lifer to our list.

The Forster's Tern had already been reported as being present when we left home just after seven o'clock that morning. The drive would take around two and a quarter hours and I thought it would be pretty easy going on quiet roads. And it was, all plain sailing, until we neared Bournemouth and the traffic suddenly became very congested and we slowed to a crawl. I know that we are all constantly complaining about traffic but I'm intelligent to know that I'm part of that problem so shouldn't really be moaning about it but I do wonder where everybody else is going and why do they have to be on the road in front of me. I also know that they're unlikely to be travelling to the place where I'm going to. Anyway it took us almost an hour and a half to travel the last fifteen miles or so, and by the time we reached Arne it was already half past ten!

Luckily the Tern was still being reported so we'd hopefully connect with it without any trouble. The walk to Shipstal Point takes around twenty minutes and we were making good progress until I glanced behind me to see how Mrs Caley was doing, just in time to see her head butt the floor! She had stumbled over one of the many tree roots that lay across the path and had lost balance and hit the deck. Unfortunately her nose took the brunt of the floor and the bridge of it was now bleeding from where it had grazed the rough track. Obviously this stopped us in our tracks and I felt bad for maybe walking too briskly for her to keep up. It's far too easy to get over excited when pursuing a life tick. Fortunately a kind gent was following us and he luckily had a first-aid kit in his rucksack. Some antiseptic cream and a couple of plasters sorted Mrs Caley's nose out but she'd be bruised and in pain for a while. Steadfastly she decided to carry on rather than go for a sit down and a drink in the cafe. My wife is a good soldier.

Just after Mrs Caley had taken her fall, we met a couple of friends of ours who were returning from seeing the bird. They told us it had left the roost but was fishing in the channel and was giving great views, almost flying over their heads at times. We reached the beach ten minutes later and there was no sign of the Tern. Curse our luck!

We'd been told that the Forster's Tern had consistently flown up and down the channel so was "sure" to be back. I looked at my phone and saw that the time was eleven-twenty, the bird had last been reported almost an hour before but Steph and Rob had told us that it had still been present just twenty-minutes ago. We sat on one of the conveniently placed benches that overlooked the channel. I was concerned for my wife who had developed a headache but she said that she felt ok otherwise. It was a warm day too and we were sat in quite a sun trap with no shade. Luckily we had some painkillers in the bag. An hour passed with no sign of the target bird.

I must have scanned the roosting Terns and Gulls a hundred times and every passing bird was scrutinised as well. Other birders were present of course but all those that had seen the Forster's Tern earlier understandably drifted away. A chap joined us and we chatted about past twitches, especially those that ended in dips since this one wasn't going to plan, and year listing amongst other things. Another hour passed with little happening apart from the identity of a few juvenile Common Terns being questioned. We saw three Whimbrel fly in and rest for a while and then leave noisily. I found a couple of smart Bar-tailed Godwits in amongst the more numerous Black-tailed variety but because of the heat shimmer didn't bother trying to gain even record shots. At half-past two we began to question our own sanity in even bothering to twitch birds.

Rob and his son Thomas, who we've met many times over the past few years arrived. Rob told us that it was their fifth attempt to see the Forster's Tern, all of their four previous tries ending in failure. And I thought I was unlucky! At least we could recount a few successful twitches that we'd met each other at.

Another hour passed and the Clash song, "Should we stay or should we go now" was buzzing around my head. I checked and rechecked previous timings of sightings of the Tern and tide times to see if there was a pattern. There wasn't. The tides are so minimal within the harbour that birds wouldn't be affected by them unless feeding outside on the coast. The Forster's Tern could be seen at just about any time of day. Every time a birder left through boredom, our own expectation levels rose a little because of the "five minute rule", that period when a bird is sure to turn up after someone leaves. It's a myth obviously, but it must have worked at least once for it to have become "a thing" that is always mentioned at twitches. I'm not sure that rule would ever apply to us though, since it never seems to work in our favour. However, I'm superstitious enough to not voluntarily leave a stakeout for a bird unless I really have to. That "you should have waited another five minutes" rule would definitely apply to us!

Around four o'clock a few new birders arrived, presumably because they'd had better things to do all day. Some birders exhibit outrageous good luck and I was hoping that at least one of the newcomers who were now excitedly going through the same Terns that I'd scrutinised a hundred times already, were blessed with the Midas touch. As I was dwelling on that thought, it happened! A young chap shouted, 'What's this flying in from the left?' I was onto the bird in a shot and couldn't quite believe it. It was the Forster's Tern! After almost five hours of patient, and sometimes very impatient, waiting we had our bird. The Tern flew low over the water and made a beeline straight towards the other roosting birds. I held the camera up and semi-focused on the bird just as it stalled and rose above the water, presumably looking for a spot in which to land. It banked back around and then settled in amongst the other birds. My shots weren't great but I'd gotten my record.

Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri)

Everybody present was now greatly excited, our varying waits were over and we all got as close as we could to the waters edge to try for better views and photos. I collected Mrs Caley and the scope and focused that on the Tern so that she could get better views for herself. The bird was very distinctive with a black patch around each eye in an otherwise all white plumage apart from a black wedge at the end of each wing.

The Forster's Tern had landed about fifty metres away which is right on the limit of my lens. The Tern spent a few minutes preening, brushing up after a long day fishing somewhere around the harbour. The two black patches over the eyes lent it from the front on, a look of a very wide parting, reminiscent of Max Wall or indeed, Old Caley! 

Initially I had trouble capturing the bird in profile but after a few minutes the Tern settled down. There was good, direct comparison with fellow resting Sandwich and Common Terns, and Black-headed Gulls. After all the careful scrutiny of every Common Tern, especially the juveniles, and trying to turn one into the Forster's Tern, now that the real article was stood on the spit there was no doubt at all as to its identity and I wondered why folk got so excited when seeing birds that were clearly not it. I guess we all have to gain the views, to gain the experience, in order to identify birds correctly. Practise in the field is far better than leafing through guidebooks.

The Forster's Tern then rewarded our lengthy wait for it to appear by tucking its head into its nape and going to sleep. There didn't seem to be much point in hanging around any longer, we'd gotten our bird even if I didn't get the photos that others had managed earlier. It was our second twitch in just over a week for a true mega bird that hadn't quite gone to plan but the outcome was that we had added both target birds to our life lists so, after allowing the dust to settle, there are definitely no complaints from me. The Old Caley life list nudged up to 412.

Year List addition;

272) Forster's Tern

Sunday 6 August 2023

Twitching Tales Part 1; Let's Fly a Kite and Watch it Disappear! 21 July 2023

These accounts are not tales of woe, far from it, because for the most part the twitches were successful. However, each was fraught with tension and neither went as planned, mainly due to my own misjudgement but also because of a bit of bad luck. So however you read this blog, I am grateful for seeing the target birds even if it doesn't seem so!

Saturday 5 August 2023

WhoDunnet? Monday 12th June 2023

Whenever we're in Scotland we like to visit a seabird colony. Up until a few years ago we preferred to go to Handa Island for a day out but became tired of that trip for a number of reasons. So in recent years we changed our destination to Dunnet Head on the north coast. Dunnet Head is the most northerly point on the British mainland and the towering cliffs there hold impressive numbers of many types of seabird. The viewing isn't as good as it is on Handa, and I do miss the boat trip, but it's a lot easier to reach Dunnet Head and you're not bound to staying there for the duration while you wait for a boat to come and rescue you and take you back to the mainland. You also don't have to be lectured at length about what you can and can't do before being allowed out near the cliff edge.

Dunnet Head lies around 150 miles from where we were staying near Boat of Garten. The drive takes a little over three hours, primarily along the A9. We left early hoping to reach the cliffs by ten o'clock. The going was good, and we only stopped to scrutinise a low flying raptor which turned out to be a Red Kite and not the Hen Harrier that we'd hoped for. We pulled into Dunnet Bay just before ten and took the road through Brough towards the cliffs. We reached the turn to the Head and noticed a Road Closed sign. My usual practice is to ignore such signs and carry on until I either find the road actually open or if it really is closed then it's easy enough to turn around and find another route. 

The road was blocked completely by a council highways van parked across it. I pulled up alongside the van and wound my window down. I asked the chap sat in the van, how would I get to Dunnet Head. The answer was a curt, 'You can't'. I was temporarily gobsmacked and asked the chap what he meant. He said that the road was closed because of roadworks. Trying to remain calm, and partially failing, I told him that I'd just driven for three hours to visit the Head and now he was telling me that I couldn't go there. His reply had annoyed me ever so slightly. I asked about an alternative route, 'There isn't one' was the reply. I couldn't believe it and not trusting myself, turned my car around and sped off back the way I'd come. I pulled up in a siding and calmed myself, all the time cursing our luck, that we should choose a day when the road was closed. I checked Traffic Scotland's website and couldn't find any mention of the Dunnet Head Road being scheduled to close. So, against Mrs Caley's wishes, who wisely said that it was just bad luck and we'd just have to accept it, I drove back to ask the man in the van a few questions. The road was shut apparently because three days before a driver of a camper van had managed to drive over the foot of one of the men working on the narrow road. The man required hospital treatment and would be off work for sometime. The police were called and the outcome of their investigation was that the road should be closed whenever work was taking place upon it. So, between eight in the morning and five to five-thirty in the evening, there would be no access to the Head. The seabirds were off limits. I pointed out the fact that the road closure wasn't posted anywhere and was told that the road is actually owned by the MOD and they could do whatever they liked whenever they liked. The road was shut to traffic and that was it. We were welcome to walk the three and half miles each way if we really wanted to go. At that point I had to laugh. I'd have cried otherwise.

Luckily there are other options in the area when it comes to seeing seabirds. Much of the Northern coast of Scotland is blessed with high cliffs although most are remote and accessible only by walking many miles. For the less willing to yomp over miles of moorland, there is Duncansby Head near John o' Groats which lies around ten miles from Dunnet Head so we made our way there. Unfortunately many other folk had obviously had the same idea and the road up to the lighthouse was akin to an Oxfordshire highway, loaded as it was with other road users. The parking area was just a couple of camper vans short of chaotic gridlock, vehicles were strewn everywhere. Duncansby Head, on the face of it, looks very similar to Dunnet Head but it doesn't feel quite the same. I guess the road closure at Dunnet had deflated my balloon somewhat and I struggled to raise the enthusiasm as we walked along the clifftops. I tried to make the best of it however, and if you love Fulmars, as I do, then Duncansby Head isn't so bad because there are Fulmars everywhere. I'd never seen so many in one place before.

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

The cliffs house the usual species but they are more difficult to see owing to the viewpoints being less handy. We did find our first Razorbills of the year, along with Guillemots and Puffins. I resisted the urge to take loads more photos.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Rock Doves were on the cliffs in good numbers. The consensus nowadays though is that in the UK pure Rock Doves are only found on Skye and on the Outer Hebrides but I was happy to add them to the year list. We had a day out scheduled to Skye later in the week so would hopefully see some "real" ones there anyway.

Rock Dove (Columba livia)

A Rock Pipit had a nest secreted right next to one of the busy footpaths. This could either be regarded as a wise decision because the presence of people would keep potential predators at bay, or an unwise one since the young in the nest wouldn't get fed so regularly. After watching the Pipit stood on a fence post noisily scolding everything and everyone that passed close by, I surmised that its mate must have been sat on eggs because the sentry wasn't interested in delivering any food yet.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

Hooded Crows are handsome and intelligent birds. They are also, like the rest of their family, cunning and capable of much wrong-doing. The ones here appeared satisfied picking through the sheep pastures for insects and the like. When they have their own chicks then they will become more interested in other food sources. I added a few flight shots to my holiday portfolio although the heat shimmer of what had turned into a warm and sunny day on the cliffs didn't help at all.

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)

It was getting too busy for our liking and the carpark was in danger of disappearing under the sheer weight of cars, vans and motorcycles, so we chose to leave, we had to for our sanity. Crucially we hadn't had any sign of any Skuas, the birds we had most wanted to see on this trip so we headed back to Dunnet Bay and to the pier at Dwarwick feeling a little bit deflated. There we unpacked our picnic lunch and I erected the scope so that I could scan the bay. Instantly I noticed a Diver, a long way out, but clearly a large Diver species. It looked like a Great Northern Diver in non-breeding plumage except something didn't quite fit. Now, I admit that I'm not the best at identifying Divers in plumages other than full adult but I've seen quite a few juvenile Great Northern Divers and this bird lacked the obvious white notch that I always look for and that Great Northern's generally have. I checked my Collins App on my phone and realised that I was probably looking at a White-billed Diver. I looked back through the scope but couldn't relocate the bird. Knowing that it had probably just dived under the water, I waited for it to resurface, except it didn't. Somehow the Diver had managed to disappear. So, and because I was far from confident of the identification, I filed it as "one that got away".

Black Guillemots swimming in fairly close to the small pier were easy to see and identify. I like birds that are named as "it says on the tin" and Black Guillemots are just that, they are black and white and they are Guillemots. Mind you, what's a Guillemot supposed to do or look like?. And come to think of it why aren't they called Black and White Guillemots? Anyway they're smart birds and on good views they also have fabulous bright red feet and an equally bright red gape to the bill. There were as many as seven of the birds in the bay.

Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)

There were also (Common) Guillemots in the bay and I spotted one with a fish, striking much the same pose as one I saw from the Puffin Cruises boat on our trip to Coquet Island a few days before (see here).

Guillemot (Uria aalge)


We continued with our lunch, soaking up the beautiful surroundings as well as the fine weather. We had sat at this same spot in the winter once, when the conditions had been far less amiable, and had seen a Little Auk swimming fairly close in shore. This time I spotted a larger bird, it was another Diver, not the big hulking bird that I'd noticed way out in the bay earlier, but a much more slender Red-throated Diver which, judging by the fact it did a wing flap, had just flown in to the bay. I secured a quick record shot.

Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata)

Another Red-throated Diver was slowly swimming into towards the pier. As it approached I could see that it hadn't quite developed into its breeding plumage, so it lacked the deep red throat, leaving it draped in a pattern of light greys. I walked back to the pier and made my way to the end where I would have the best view of the incoming Diver.

There was a train of buoys held together by ropes about thirty metres off the pier and the Red-throated Diver was quickly closing in on them. I've had a few close views of Red-throated Divers before but always in less optimal conditions so I was willing this bird to keep swimming towards me as I knelt on the pier half-concealed behind a concrete bulkhead. I attempted some restraint in firing off photos but it was difficult to resist.

Before it reached the buoys the bird dived and I waited for it to resurface. I fully expected it to reappear further out so when it popped up just ten metres out from the pier I was surprised to say the least. I beckoned Mrs Caley over so that she could enjoy the bird at close quarters as well. Now I set the camera into action. It's moments like this that make birding so exciting. A beautiful bird so unconcerned (or disinterested) by our presence that it goes about its own business so naturally. It's also why I love Scotland so much, the opportunities for encounters like this come along with much more regularity than at home in hectic Oxfordshire.

Red-throated Divers are one of those birds that I actually find tricky to capture on an image. The soft grey tones of the bird defeat the camera and resulting photos always seem to be a bit soft. There are other birds that give similar problems when photographing, Waxwings for example. At such close range though, I'm not complaining, the images will always serve as a memory of a wonderful fifteen minutes when just Mrs Caley and myself enjoyed watching a superb bird in a wonderful setting. Life feels good at times like that.

The Red-throated Diver drifted out into the bay again and was joined by a full breeding plumaged adult, presumably the same bird we saw earlier. The more striking bird refused to follow the others lead though and stayed frustratingly just out of reach for decent photos.

Incredibly the younger and less timid Red-throat swam directly in again. It was like it wanted close views of us as much as we did of it. I went and sat on the slipway next to the pier to get some more level views. However, that ploy was soon dashed by a couple walking down towards the water along with two boisterous dogs that plunged straight into the bay. The bird dived and the show was over. But what a show it had been!

We reclaimed our picnic table, not that there was anyone else around to challenge us for it. A pair of Wheatears had nested in a void created by rocks used for the construction of the jetty and we watched the protective parents taking food into the nest. By keeping a distance I could make out two quite well grown chicks waiting patiently for their next meal.

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Being unable to visit Dunnet Head we decided to keep to the second part of our plan and drive back south through the Flow Country to look for other rare birds. Firstly though we stopped off at Melvich for a much needed coffee and the ideal accompaniment, an ice-cream. It was a warm day. and astonishingly the temperature was in the mid-twenties celsius by the mid-afternoon, which is very unusual for the top of Scotland. It was while sitting in the sun that I decided that because I'd come to the north coast specifically to see Skuas that we may as well wait for the road to reopen at five-thirty and go to Dunnet Head and grab our Bonxie year tick. There was still a couple of hours to wait though so we headed back to the pier at Dwarwick again and see if the Red-throated Divers were still in the bay. Little did we know that the very next morning a rare bird would be found just half a mile from where we sat (and we'd return to see it three days later).

The carpark at the pier back at Dunnet Bay was deserted now so we reclaimed our previous pitch. There was no immediate sign of the Divers but a few of the Black Guillemots remained although further out than before. A long way out in the bay, while scanning the hillsides opposite on the off-chance that an Eagle might be thermaling, I noticed two large Divers. By zooming right up to the maximum on my scope I then had a decent view of the two non-breeding plumaged birds. The first bird I scrutinised was clearly a Great Northern Diver. I had learnt a few good identification pointers by studying wintering birds at Farmoor over the last few years. There was a sharp notch cut into an otherwise dark half-collar around the neck and the bird held its head and large bill level to the water. Great Northern Divers look "tough", menacing almost, and this bird certainly looked impressive. I moved onto the other bird. Although superficially similar, there were differences. The bill and head were pointing slightly skywards in Red-throated fashion. But the bird was at least as big as the Great Northern Diver just a few metres away from it so it couldn't be the smaller species, and besides the plumage didn't fit. Crucially the neck lacked the triangular indent to the neck which was generally paler than the other bird. I knew that I had re-found the possible White-billed Diver, that I'd seen earlier. This time I was sure that I had the rarer bird.

It was only then that I remembered that a White-billed Diver had been reported in Dunnet Bay a few days before. I had obviously found the same bird independently. I checked BirdGuides and saw that there had actually been three previous reports of the bird. Somehow I hadn't collected and retained that information before travelling to Dunnet. If I had then I'd have made a beeline to the bay to look for it! Still, now I was sure that I had a White-billed Diver. My first ever and the 410th bird to make it onto my UK life list. 

Seeing a new bird obviously lends the observer a moment of elation. Finding your own rare bird is probably one the best birding experiences that there is, even if it's only a re-finding. However, when the bird is very distant and photography is futile, there is also a feeling of anticlimax. We all want the best views of birds, lip smacking ones, but of course that's not always possible. Two years ago I was shown a Sooty Shearwater at great distance while aboard the Ullapool to Stornaway ferry which felt a very underwhelming tick at the time. Luckily I went on to get great close-up views of another while on a pelagic trip in Falmouth Bay. Hopefully I'll go on to get a similar close view of another White-billed Diver one day. But for now, I'll happily take what I have!

At a little before five-thirty we left the distant Divers and proceeded to the road up to Dunnet Head. I was dismayed to find the road still blocked by the road workers van. I parked up behind a couple of other vehicles (camper-vans) waiting to go up and got out of the car. I was wary of engaging the worker again after the mornings shenanigans so I walked cautiously up the road and noticed a small white car, half on the road and half off it. The driver had clearly tried to drive around the van but hadn't been able to do so and had seemingly half run off the road. At that point I could hear raised voices and although intrigued, I thought that I'd stay well out of it. A chap walked towards us so I asked him if he knew what was going on. Apparently a couple, the occupants of the stricken car, had taken exception to being prevented from continuing up the road. They had taken their frustration out on the road worker and had actually smashed a side window and dented a door on his van. Then they'd gotten their own vehicle stuck while trying to drive round the van. The police had been called and nobody was moving until they arrived. So once again we were unable to drive up to the head. We decided to wait and see what happened though. The police did arrive and thankfully they quickly organised getting the car out of the way. When I saw the couple who had lost their heads, I was astounded. They weren't a day under eighty years old! And I thought I could be tempestuous. Despite their advancing years the pair had managed to cause considerable damage to the workers van. They must have been seriously annoyed to go to such extreme lengths.

It took another twenty minutes before the works van finally moved out of the way. Then the "work force" of just two had trundled down from their site in a small digger to get their lift home. Finally the road was clear. We passed the veteran vandals who were still be quizzed by the police and made our way towards the head. When we drove slowly along the narrow road we saw that the road had been shut so that a trench could be dug, apparently for new optical cables to the houses at the head. The trench wasn't even in the road but a few metres away from it. I wondered why they couldn't just operate a stop/go system and allow traffic to pass. At least that way there wouldn't be a smashed van window to repair.

Anyway we reached the carpark at Dunnet Head some nine hours after intending to. As if by magic the nice sunny warm day had morphed into a rainy cold one but I still leapt out of the car and raced to the viewpoint to finally add both Great and Arctic Skuas to they year list. Except that the cliffs and the skies above them were empty. Totally devoid of any flying seabirds apart from a few Fulmars. Not a Skua in sight. All that waiting had been in vain, there weren't any Skuas there at all. I couldn't believe my rotten luck!

On a serious note, the lack of Skuas was indicative of the massive problems that seabirds are facing in light of the outbreak of bird flu. So many birds have already been lost and it seems as if the Skua population is facing one of the biggest losses, presumably because of their predatory nature and they propensity to catch and eat stricken individuals of other species. One early report has suggested that up to ninety percent of  Great Skuas have died in the North of Scotland. Hence there are very few left around.

We drove home far later than we imagined we would. I felt happy that I'd found the White-billed Diver, and that we'd had outstanding views of the Red-throated Diver and other birds, but that joy was still a little soured by the lack of any Skuas and by the kerfuffle of a day that we'd had. If we visit Scotland again next year then I think we'll be putting Handa back into our itinerary again since the seabird populations there have been less affected by the bird flu virus. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Year List additions;

246) Razorbill, 247) Hooded Crow, 248) Rock Dove, 249) White-billed Diver