30 Jun 2021

Black-browed Albatross, Bempton Cliffs RSPB

Once upon a time a Black-browed Albatross in British waters was a mythical creature. Prior to 1972 there were only a handful of records and only one long staying bird - one that frequented the Gannet colony on Bass Rock between 1967 & 1969 around the time the Gannets were breeding. It was not very accessible but when one turned up on Unst in 1972 it became a regular feature of trips north for generations of birders until it was last seen in 1995! Affectionally known as Albert (as in Albert Ross) I saw this bird in 1976.

More recently a bird has been seen regularly off Bempton cliffs. Some times its not stayed long before heading off somewhere else but this year it had been seen on two consecutive days. After catching up with Snowy Owl on Shetland after 45 years last Tuesday I decided to go for the double as I did in 1976. Snowy Owl and Black-browed Albatross in the same week. I didn't make the decision until 10.30 pm so didn't bother going to bed.

Setting off at 01.00 I arrived at Bempton in the dark to find the car park already quite busy. Unlike the previous day the weather was wet and windy and I shivered waiting for it to get light enough to scan the cliff face where the Albatross was last reported at 21.45 the previous night. Nothing! It soon became apparent the bird wasn't there and people started meandering away to other view points. Meeting up with Chris Griffin we wandered down the footpath to a couple of other viewpoints before heading back to where we started. By now I was getting hungry, thirsty and seriously cold so I decided to head back to the carpark for a comfort break, some food and a hot drink. No sooner had  I turned the engine on and poured myself a mug of tea the message came through it was back and had flown along the cliff edge! 

Abandoning both my tea and a half finished breakfast of a packet of Walkers finest prawn cocktail crisps I set off down the footpath to the clifftop where there was confusion as to where the bird had disappeared to. Luckily I was stood next to someone who found it sitting distantly on the sea and  I saw it through his telescope before it flew off round a headland out of sight.

For the next few hours it played hide and seek with the assembled birders - suddenly appearing and then being lost to view as it hugged the cliff. Several times it landed among the Gannets before moving off again  until eventually it settled for an extended period and showed well if distantly.

An incredible bird that evoked memories of going on a Pelagic from Simons Town, S Africa in June 2009. See here for trip report. Although I wasn't lucky enough to have it fly really close I got a few photos and a short video of it sat on the cliff.

Eventually I'd had enough. The cold, wet, hunger, thirst and lack of sleep were getting to me. Saying my goodbyes I headed back to the car for a second time with the thought of a nice warm mug of tea.....only there wasn't any. I'd stuffed the flask into a pair of waterproof socks in attempt to keep the tea hotter for longer but must have  accidentally left the lid loose as my socks were now full of tea. It could have been worse. Without the socks I'd have had a very soggy bottom that was nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off.

27 Jun 2021

Shetland trip June 2021 - owls, phals & skuas

Last year we'd planned a trip to Shetland primarily to see breeding species we only normally see on passage in our part of the UK. In addition we were hoping to catch up with orca and otter so plans were made for a 4-5 day visit., Unfortunately, as with most plans to  go away last year, it fell through but with the easing of restrictions we decided to go this year. 

With flights confirmed it was only left to book the accommodation. Initially we were going to stay at the Brae Hotel but at the last minute the self catering apartment at Sumburgh Lighthouse became available so we choose that. With breeding Puffins on our doorstep there was also the possibility of cetaceans being seen so it seemed a logical choice. 

The flight from Glasgow was uneventful and Fred, Malc & me met up with Andy at the airport as he'd arrived earlier. Andy had also been shopping to get a few basics provisions in - beer, milk, bread, butter and jam! 

Being so far north it hardly gets dark on Shetland so we still had time to explore Sumburgh head and reacquaint ourselves with an area we only normally see in autumn! 

Puffins were everywhere and proved to be very photogenic! We watched the interact with each other and saw a number of birds reinforcing their pair bond by 'bill clapping' - see video below.
For the last couple of years an adult Long-tailed Skua has been holding territory o nShetland and there were regular reports of it coming into bathe at Loch Clumlie  - a site where Red-necked Phalaropes also came in to feed. Our first couple of attempts at the skua were unsuccessful - it only comes in to bathe for a few minutes each day - but eventually we connected. Fred picked it up flying in behind us before it flew over and landed on a fence post about a mile away. What a beautiful bird! 

The Phalaropes showed pretty well and it was great to see these dainty little waders on their breeding grounds. It's one of the big success stories for breeding waders on Shetland.

Before we'd set off for Shetland we had a rough itinerary of what we wanted to do. That included going on a seabird tour around the island of Noss with Phil Harris of Shetland Seabird Tours (see here). Even us hardened birders were impressed with the sheer scale of the cliffs and the spectacle of thousands of Gannets plunge diving alongside the boat! With Kittiwakes, Bonxies, Fulmars and auks thrown in it was a superb experience and one guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. However, it was sad to see a dead Gannet hanging fro ma piece of rope it had become entangled in whilst trying to bring it to its nest. Almost every nest had pieces of discarded fishing net, nylon rope or plastic incorporated into it. A sad indictment of what we are doing to our oceans

Bonxie (Great Skua)

One of our other 'target' species was Snowy Owl. These used to breed on Fetlar and I last saw one in 1976! A male has been resident on Ronas Hill on Shetland mainland for the last 3 years and this year was joined by a female and it was hoped there would be a breeding attempt. Unfortunately it didn't happen and the female moved to Unst. We decided to make the long journey north to Unst as there were also a couple of other birds we wanted to see  - singing Marsh Warbler and an albino Great Northern Diver at Norwick. 

The Marsh Warbler was singing but didn't show itself and we saw the albino Great Northern Diver distantly whilst talking to local birder Dave Cooper. Dave also gave us some more information on the possible whereabouts of the female Snowy Owl so we set off to search.............3 hours later, having covered a lot of rough ground we couldn't find it although we knew from Dave that it hadn't been seen for a few days.

What a fabulous spot though. Breeding waders galore - Whimbrel, Golden Plover and Dunlin with Redshank on the boggier areas. We were also treated to close up views of an Arctic Skua that decided to land right in front of us. Sadly this is another bird thats declined massively in Shetland with only a handful of pairs now attempting to breed.
Arctic Skua

Breeding plumaged Redshank

Whimbrel calling

Having failed on Unst we got more information about the Ronas Hill male Snowy Owl and was told that early evening was best as it moves around hunting. With almost 24 hours of daylight on Shetland this time of year we decided to give it a go one evening so arrived at  Collafirth Firth Hill and started preparing for what we'd assumed would be a long evening. The bird hadn't been seen for awhile and was ranging over a large area. As soon as we'd got out the car Malc pointed out a white blob on the hillside about 1 km away and Andy got his scope on it. After a few moments whilst he, apparently, waited for it to move its head, he announced - I've got the F##c&&ng Snowy Owl. Disbelief and subsequent jubilation all round as we all took turns to look through his scope. 

With Andy deciding to stay with the car the rest of us set off up the hill to get a closer view. We had to descend into a valley and climb the other side where the Owl was sitting on a ridge. We couldn't see it from where we were so Andy kept us informed of its movements. It was actively hunting and flying along the ridge before perching up on various rocks whilst it scanned for its prey. It's been hunting Mountain Hares and wader chicks.

At the top of Collafirth Hill grabbing food before our trek.

Martian landscape - an impressive boulder field for a Snowy Owl to hide.

Keeping low we approached the ridge the bird was last seen on and sure enough it was still sat in the place Andy had described. Taking it in we watched as it flew again before landing on a large boulder. What a majestic bird.

Eventually it flew over the next ridge and Fred & I followed it getting more good views as it started moving around its preferred hunting grounds. 

Me at the top of the boulder field in Andy's down jacket as I'd forgotten mine! 

View back towards Collafirth Hill where we'd parked the car.

We saw two Mountain Hares actually on the 'tops' and a leveret further down as we drove the car back down the rocky track leading up from Collafirth Hill.

It's a harsh environment and with no Lemmings or Voles to feed on the Owl must struggle in winter. It was a tired, sweaty but happy team that eventually got to bed at around 1 am! 

Another bird we wanted to catch up with was Corncrake and we were given a couple of sites. After several attempts we did hear a singing male at one of the sites but it remained resolutely invisible in its weedy field.

Shetland has its own species of Bumblebee. Funnily enough called Shetland Bumblebee. I'd never see none before as all but one of my previous visits has been in the autumn. I managed to find several this trip which was a nice bonus.

Shetland is a wonderful place in spring. The sheer number of breeding waders is amazing. There were Snipe 'chipping' and drumming everywhere. Oystercatchers were omnipresent and Wheatears were seemingly singing from every field. Wild orchids seem to be on every roadside verge with Northern Marsh orchid being the commonest species we saw.

Male Wheatear

Black Guillemot, Lerwick Harbour.

We didn't see Orca as the regular pod had decided to decamp to Caitheness before we arrived. We did see several otters but usually in pouring rain so  I didn't get any photographs. All in all it was a great trip with great company and it was nice to meet up with a few friends who live on Shetland. I can see a spring trip coming up again next year.....

8 Jun 2021

A Red-neck in Northumberland.

A Red-neck in Northumbelrand? Probably not in the same context as a red-neck in the deep south of America and this particular red-neck probably originated much further north and east in the arctic tundras of N America and Russia. Red-necked Stints are very rare birds in the UK & Ireland with 12 records up to the latest record in  2011. Of those only two stayed long enough to twitch in the UK and  I was away for both of them (I don't twitch Ireland).

2011 Aug 1 to Aug 3
3 days
Reenroe Beach, Ballinskelligs, adult summer, 1st to 3rd August, photo.
2010 Aug 27
1 day
Ferrybridge, adult, 27th August, photo.
2007 Sep 6 to Sep 7
2 days
Ventry, juvenile, 6th to 7th September, photo.
2007 Aug 27 to Aug 30
4 days
Carne Beach, adult, 27th to 30th August, photo.
2002 Jul 31 to Aug 1
2 days
Ballycotton, adult, 31st July to 1st August.
2001 Sep 21 to Sep 22
2 days
Somersham GPs, adult, 21st to 22nd September, photo.
2000 Jul 18 to Jul 21
4 days
Pool of Virkie, Mainland, adult, 18th to 21st July, photo.
1998 Jul 2 to Jul 5
4 days
Ballycotton, adult summer, 2nd to 5th July, photo.
1995 Aug 12 to Aug 13
2 days
Wansbeck Estuary, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, adult, 12th to 13th August, photo.
1994 Aug 31
1 day
Fair Isle, juvenile, recently dead, 31st August, photo; now at National Museums of Scotland (NMSZ 1994.127).
1992 Jul 29 to Aug 3
6 days
Cley, adult, 29th July to 3rd August.
1986 Jul 22 to Jul 29
8 days
Blacktoft Sands, adult, 22nd to 29th July, photo.

Records courtesy of Rare Bird Alert.

News broke Saturday evening of an adult bird on the Blyth Estuary in Northumberland. With a family BBQ planned the next day I couldn't go on Sunday and having already started my 2nd gin and tonic there was no way I could drive Saturday evening - even if i could have got there before dark. I made plans to go Monday after an early morning appointment on positive news the bird was still there.

Sundays BBQ was enjoyable and it was nice to have most of the family all together again after over a year of restrictions. News that the Red-necked Stint was showing well most of the day had me worrying that it might not stick until Monday but there was nothing I could do about it! 

Thankfully the bird was still present Monday morning and the news came through early enough for me to  pac the car before my appointment at 7 am! 

A few hours later I was parking up and following the instructions given as to where to watch the bird. Unfortunately from the south side of the estuary it was always distant but those who managed to find away across to the north side of the estuary had superb views. From what  I could see on the map on the phone the only access was via a private drive and I didn't have time to try and find somewhere to park up and walk round to the other side so contented myself with the views I got and a few record shots.

Un-cropped photo showing how small the Red-necked Stint looked from a distance. It was easier to see when it was standing in the water and once it was on the gravel it virtually disappeared! 

There was also a Little Stint present which made  nice comparison with the Red-necked Stints body shape being more reminiscent of a Baird's Sandpiper being relatively longer bodied and shorter legged. All in all a nice day out and I'm glad the bird hung around for an extra day.