All rigged out for hard birding at Nigg Ferry (Carol Miller)
With 13 attending the trip and the weather decidedly mixed and cold, the omens weren’t exactly favourable, but we all made the Arabella rendezvous in good spirits, Sparrowhawk already seen, though no swans or geese in the fields. The first arranged stop was at Nigg ferry where the waters were very choppy and some of the hoped-for grebes and sea duck were distinctly missing. However, Red Kites, Buzzards and a Raven all hung up above the cliffs in the wind and Razorbill and a few Gannets on the water were claimed quickly. A nearby walk to the beach for passerines produced very little, so it was off to the RSPB Nigg Bay hide as high tide approached. It fairly belted down, but we were soon ensconced in the hide and there were clearly many hundreds and eventually thousands of birds moving about and showing well, though the light was often very dull. Pintail – especially the males – were showing well and two groups of Brent Geese, totalling 52, took the eye. Waders were to the fore, passing in substantial groups, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Oystercatchers and eventually Dunlin allowing good views. Given the very high tide and the suitable habitat it was surprising that Teal and Snipe were absent. Quite a few of our number said that this had been their best-ever visit to the site, so we left for Balintore well satisfied. There, from the large car park, we looked out to a very active watery scene and little was easy to nail down, but a Long-tailed Duck was at distance and two Snow Buntings passed in front, with Rock and Meadow Pipits also present. No sign of Purple Sandpipers, but Angus’s recommendation of the harbour being a likely spot was taken up and we soon were enjoying superb views of the Purps being drenched by spray lashed up over the harbour wall, plus good numbers of Turnstones and a few Ringed Plovers. Dave’s spotting of a very late Arctic Tern at the same place was perhaps the most remarkable bird of the day, it drifting off after 5 minutes.
Tarbat Ness Lighthouse and party at Tarbat Ness (Carol Miller)
It was time to head for Portmahomack and in the front car park we saw some 7 Red-throated Divers, but little else. Lunch was uppermost on folk’s minds, so we drove to Tarbat Ness for a late one. Nothing much doing from the car park, but the wind-blown walk to the point gave us Yellowhammers, a showy Stonechat and a very fine Merlin rounded the lighthouse. We gave the sea a 30-minute watch and had our only Black Guillemot, juvenile Gannets and little else. A walk back, past the plantation and down to the bothy, didn’t really get us much more bar Linnets as the wind was up at its highest, but it had been dry far more than it seemed likely to be. Chat back at the cars revealed that most of us had unknowingly driven past 200+ Whooper Swans before Portmahomack, so we ended the day with a slow drive back to the relevant fields behind Sue and Hugh and, for the majority, the last of our 57 species for the day.
Mixed waders, Ringed Plovers and Purple Sandpipers and a lone Purple Sandpiper (all Al McNee)
The uncertainty over on whether this outing would actually happen – with the leader no longer stranded on Fair Isle! – ten SOC members met at Findhorn Bay LNR car park. After a quick exchange of news with Gordon McMullins and Richard Somers-Cocks, dedicated patch-workers of the Bay who had already seen some species of note out on the flats, the party drove to the “Back” (i.e. Moray Firth) Shore to look at the sea. Unfortunately, with a fierce, cold, north wind and high seas, this proved to be an eye-watering experience. Some distant Gannets, a few Common Eiders and one or two Common Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks flew past but we quickly resolved to move back to the Bay and conditions slightly more conducive to bird-watching.
By this time the tide had come further in and some, at least, of the birds were recognisably close from our vantage point. Small numbers of Pink-footed Geese were present although a dawn start would have been necessary to see the thousands which roosted here overnight. As well as Mute Swans some Whooper Swans were identified when they deigned to remove their heads from under their wings – we suspect they had just migrated in from Iceland. Mallards and Wigeons abounded but we were unable to pick out the Shovelers reported earlier or the Pintails which now winter here in big numbers.
Many waders were too distant for confident identification but Curlews, Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits were seen clearly and a flock of Golden Plovers was well illuminated by the low sun. A Sparrowhawk was noted by one observer who was looking the other way but as the tide rose birds moved away rather than towards us and we decided to move to the River Findhorn. A large car park, with a height barrier, gives access to a pleasant walk along a wooded riverside where we were out of the cold wind. On this occasion few birds were to be seen or heard here – in April/May it is full of singing Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps – and we admired (?) the forests of Japanese Knotweed and occasional, menacing stems of Giant Hogweed. An orange blob on a rotten log turned out to be a Slime Mould called Tubifera ferruginosa (literally – “iron-coloured tube-bearer”) – who says the SOC have eyes only for birds?
Tubifera ferruginosa - a Slime Mould (Sue Seright)
Eventually we emerged from the trees and crossed a dry ditch where we were warned to be careful on future visits to be aware of the tide. A Goosander flew upstream and landed on the river but we dared not advance across the saltmarsh to the advancing tide-line – just as well as, by the time we regained the “dry” ditch it was already infilling rapidly and one member had to be piggy-backed across by a welly-wearer! A lesson well learnt for future visits to this site.
"Advancing tide strands SOC party" (Pete Gordon)
On Sunday 10th October Dean MacAskill led a group of 12 SOC members to some of the hot birding spots on the east coast of Sutherland, beginning with a walk along the beautiful sands of Dornoch Beach towards Dornoch Point. We had several species of note including 1 Bar-tailed Godwit, 1 Common Tern, a growing flock of Linnet, 8 Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Divers and 2 Reed-bunting. The two highlights, however, were the enormous number of juvenile Gannets just off-shore, and 1 adult, dark phase Pomarine Skua which was harassing the gulls for a free lunch.
Dornoch Beach (Sue Seright)
Next stop was Embo near the pier where we had wonderful views of a flock of Sanderling along with Turnstone, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Pied and White Wagtail and a cheery flock of Starling.
On to Loch Fleet to be greeted by 2 pale-bellied Brent Geese, a Red Kite and a gorgeous rainbow.
Our final stop was Brora where we battled with the increasing wind to see a small, but delightful, flock of 8 Little Gulls bouncing about over the choppy waters.
Our count for the day was about 43 species. It was lovely to welcome 2 new birders to our outings – Fiona and Caroline. We all owe a huge thank you to Dean for generously sharing his local patch with us, and finding some very special birds for us to see.
Loch Fleet (Carol Miller)
SOC Outing 16 September
A small, but select, band of three birdwatchers attended the second outing of the Highland winter 2020/21 programme. The weather was sunny and warm with light winds. We met at Alturlie and had a good range of birds on the foreshore as the tide dropped. Sadly, we didn’t see any pale bellied Brent Geese although there were good numbers of Greylags and Canada geese. The highlights here were a group of six Black-tailed Godwits that landed very close to us on the beach offering excellent views. A dark phase Arctic Skua was seen harassing a Common Gull out in the firth. The Arctic Skua turned out to be a “lifer” for one of the party.
We then went to the pools at Alturlie where we had good numbers of Teal, Mallard and Wigeon and a single Shoveler and good views of a hunting Sparrowhawk being mobbed by Starlings and a Buzzard. Other highlights were a calling Chiffchaff and a common darter dragonfly sunning itself on the path.
Following a coffee break we went on to Ardersier where we added House Martin, Eider, Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit to the list.
We had planned to visit other sites further along the coast but there was too much to occupy our attention at Alturlie.
We had a total of 46 species for the day which was very enjoyable.
On Sunday 5 September about 40 SOC Highland Branch members and friends enjoyed a day pelagic trip out of Arisaig on MV Sheerwater (correct spelling!). Typically, the weather changed after a long benign spell with overcast conditions and a freshening southerly. Nonetheless, the party enjoyed a great day exploring the waters off the Ardnamurchan peninsula and around Muck and Eigg. For many it was the first experience of ‘chumming’, trying to create an oily, fishy slick behind the boat to attract seabirds and petrels. We enjoyed some success, with about six Storm Petrels on the Oberan Bank and a mixed bag of seabirds including Arctic and Great Skuas.
Conditions weren’t ideal for cetaceans but we did manage to see a pod of Harbour Porpoise and a Minke Whale. The highlight however, was a large Basking Shark which afforded us some terrific views. A great day out for all, especially after the recent lockdown. Everyone did a lateral flow test before the trip and masks were required inside the cabin.
Thanks to Ronnie and the crew for a great day out and maybe next year, we will bump into a rarity!
Many thanks also to Bob McMillan (trip organiser) for this report, and the photographers: On the boat (Sue Seright), Manx Shearwaters (Colin Leslie), Preparing to chum and Basking Shark (Martin Benson); also Peter Stronach for his video of the Basking Shark.
Get your 2019 bird list off to a great start by taking part in our bird race on Saturday 12th January 2019. Just a bit of fun and definitely NOT competitive with the short day length making it all the more exciting!
The object of the day is to go out birding – with a friend or friends – and try to find as many different species as you can. It is up to you and your team to decide who will drive and where you will go. It is even OK to venture into Moray….
We will all gather at the end of the day for a post-race get together over tea/coffee/whisky (buy your own) at The Snow Goose where we can collect in the results, present some prizes and have a chat about how your day has been. It will be great to have groups taking part from outwith the immediate Inverness area – maybe with outlying teams from Skye, W Ross, Sutherland, Strathspey and so on - and they can submit their records by phone.
A special ‘What’s App’ messaging group will be set up for the day so we can all keep in touch with our latest ‘finds’.
Don’t worry if you are on your own and would like to join a team, as I can put you in touch with other SOC members taking part.
Unfortunately………we have to have a few RULES……..
Have Fun and Happy Birding!
(written by Carol Miller)
A survey of the feral population of Barnacle Geese in Speyside last year on the 11th June revealed ten pairs breeding at Cromdale. Five pairs had 20 young in total in a creche, and one pair had a nest with eggs. Four pairs were not breeding or were failed breeders and there was a single non-breeder.
At the other population at the Highland Wildlife Park on the 18th June there were 27 pairs present. 7 pairs with eggs, 1 pair with 3 young and 19 pairs which were either non-breeding or failed breeders. There were 3 singles.
Photos below show one a female incubating on a nest trying to look unobtrusive, a a nest with five eggs and a creche with a mixture of broods.
Written by Peter Stronach
Golden Pheasant have never been proven to have bred in Highland (BoS 2007), although there have been previous records. In the most recent Bird Atlas 2007-11, there is a single summer record and a single winter record from different areas.
In October 2017, Sam Borthwick had an adult male Golden Pheasant feeding on the verge next to Mid Morile, Woodend in Strathdearn. Later on the 8th November 2017, a male Golden Pheasant was seen feeding somewhat amazingly on the verge of the A9 on the Moy Estate!.
This year there was a sighting on the 22nd September from Nick Weston, see the tweet below...
A brief survey of the area on the 26th September by Peter Stronach identified at least five birds present. There were two males, one adult and a 1CY, and three females, two of which appeared to be adult and were ringed. One of the females had a single flesh coloured ring on the right leg and nothing on the left, the other had a green ring on the right leg and flesh coloured ring on the left.
The birds were seen feeding on the grassy verge of the main Strathdearn road before retreating to the thick Rhododendron undergrowth adjacent, giving good views if you stay in your vehicle.
The best place to view the birds is a lay-by on the Strathdearn road directly adjacent to the Kyllachy Estate at 57.305126, -4.019580 or NH7844025666, if you stay in your car and look northeast along the road and check the grassy verge for feeding pheasants. There is currently (Sept 2018) a lot of construction traffic, so early morning at the weekends is probably the best time to try.
If you see these birds, please record numbers, sex and age of the birds and any rings seen, and send any data to the highland recorder. Also if you know of or have seen any Golden Pheasants in other areas of Highland please let us know.
Written by Peter Stronach
The Hoopoe in Cromarty is still present today, feeding as always on the short grass of the links and that surrounding the lighthouse buildings. It has been seen feeding mainly on Leatherjackets, the grub of the European Crane Fly, which live under the surface of the short grass turf.
The Hoopoe was first seen on the 7th September by Susan Patterson, who reported the sighting by email. It was typically elusive with the bird disappearing before Susan could get her camera onto the subject!. Luckily it reappeared, and has been seen by lots of lucky observers.
Hoopoes are a scarce migrant into Highland and occur annually, with at least one every year for the last 20 years. The numbers however vary from year to year, with 26 in the last ten years (2007-2016), it averages at just less than three a year. Most are only seen fleetingly, and its one of those species that is just as likely to be seen and found by non-birding members of the public.
There are two peaks of occurrence in the year for Hoopoes arriving into Scotland. In spring most occur in a period from April to mid-June with a peak in numbers in early May. In Autumn most are from September through to the end of October. Total numbers overall in spring and autumn are roughly equal.
However the picture is changing with Hoopoe becoming more of a bird associated with autumns than spring in Scotland since 1980. There are also signs that despite increasing observer coverage that the number of Hoopoes arriving in Scotland since the mid 1990's is declining, and this may reflect a further reduction on the west European population (BoS 2007).
Spring birds are overshooting breeding grounds in France and Iberia in suitable high pressure migration conditions. Autumn birds with more of an easterly bias are more likely to originate from Northerly populations and have been blown of course by easterly winds on southern migration.
written by Peter Stronach
A couple more photos from the recent Shetland trip with SOC Highland branch from David and Kathy Bonniface.
We are the Highland branch of the Scottish Ornithologists' Club!