Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Northampton Washlands aka Clifford Hill Gravel Pits - 19th March 2014

There's a site near me that is fantastic for birds! Actually that's a lie and I shall explain why in this post. The truth is there's a site near me that would be incredible for birds if it wasn't for a few sections of society. The Northampton Washlands  (otherwise known as Clifford Hill Gravel Pits to local birders) is a large wetland area which includes a large lake in the centre of an even larger basin. It is designed to act as a barrage lake for the nearby river Nene in order to prevent flooding in periods of heavy rain and in some years the sluices are opened nearly filling the basin but for most of the time the area is absolutely perfect for birds! Large expanses of shoreline provide a valuable habitat for waders, the lake itself holds important numbers of wildfowl, the adjacent hedges seem to be very popular with passing migrants (it doesn't seem a year goes by without Redstarts, Wheatears and Whinchats on the fences) and the large flat expanses of floodplain are very appealing to Golden Plovers. Unfortunately though not everyone seems to appreciate the need for disturbance to be kept to a minimum. A footpath leads along a short section of the eastern edge but the rest of the site has been opened up with permissive access along the top of the basin but this doesn't seem to enough for a lot of the people that use the area for dog walking or general recreation. For years we have watched people wander down into the basin with a blatant disregard to the chaos it causes. In fact not only have I watched people standing there open mouthed while the flocks of birds take off and whirl around them but I have witnessed countless times people driving their dogs towards them scattering the geese in terror while their owners stand there laughing. I even witnessed one women using her phone to film her dog doing it! Now I appreciate certain dog owners maybe reading this with outrage so lets make one thing clear. I love dogs! I was brought up around dogs and it was taking my parents dogs for a walk that got me into wildlife watching in the first place when I was a child. I love meeting dogs when I'm out even if they do jump up and make me muddy - it absolutely doesn't bother me. What does bother me though is when despite there being miles upon miles of footpaths leading across fields and recreational areas people insist on letting their dogs off the lead when on a nature reserve, especially when there are signs people have to pass telling them NOT to let the dogs off the lead! It's a real shame as not all dog walkers here at the Northampton Washlands are like it but I regret to say it's most of them. Of course it's not just the dog walkers so I don't want to be accused of singling them out. Part of the areas rules also includes not walking into the basin but I have witnessed walkers, runners, cyclists, kite and model aircraft flyers doing just that and also swimmers and people in boats in the water in warm weather. I genuinely have no idea what goes through these peoples minds when they do it. I know of a lot of birdwatchers that simply won't bother coming to the Washlands because of the level of disturbance, and to put it mildly sometimes I wonder why I bother too. You could be birding patiently on the bank one minute only for someone to walk down the bank and send all the birds scattering in all directions. Trying to remain calm despite the rage that can be building up inside truly tests the nerves!

So why am I bringing this up now? This has after all been happening for years but a couple of things brought a glimmer of hope but it looks like it doesn't seem to be working. Firstly work has been carried out at the site to really improve the wader scrapes and make the habitat even better for the birds so surely if people see money being spent they'll realise this place must be pretty special? Secondly even bigger signs have been put up than the previous ones and some of these even include pictures showing the people who obviously have difficulty reading the error of their ways! To show the depth of feeling for this important habitat the signs were actually paid for out of a local chaps back pocket! It is so frustrating to think that despite all these efforts they all seem to be getting ignored. The signs explain how important the area is to nature and even shows local footpaths where you can let your dog run as free as the wind aswell as telling you the areas where they must be kept on a lead (ie on the reserve). They even use colours showing the basin shaded in red so you know where not to walk! They even include telephone numbers so you can ring someone up and they can talk you through it! One set of signs has been placed on the entrance gates and others have been placed at a slant infront of you so you have no excuse not to see them! Have these steps worked? No they haven't! This evening (19/03/14) during the hour I was there I saw 3 groups of dog walkers and none of them had their dogs on a lead. I even watched one couple walk up to the reserve along a path in an area you can let the dog run free with their dog on a lead - they opened the gate to the reserve (a gate with the words "keep dogs on lead at all times") and promptly let their dog off. They walked around the reserve with a wander down into the basin (also not allowed) before returning to the bank while their dog ran everywhere. They eventually got back to the entrance gate, opened it up and you guessed it they put their dog back on a lead and walked away. I know lots of dog walkers that would be horrified by this behaviour but for some reason at the Northampton Washlands it's normal and  I can't understand why. Is it ignorance? Stupidity? Or just a "don't care" attitude believing they don't have to comply with the rules that makes them do it? Is it a feeling that they don't cause any long term disturbance? Well I can tell you, in fact quite a few people can tell you that they do! Most people visiting the site do one lap, which takes about an hour. So perhaps they feel that in that time they're not doing any damage if they head into the basin or let dogs run free etc. As a birder though I may stand there for hours and I watch group after group of people all doing the same thing and during this time I watch the birds being flushed time and time again before they invariably have enough and fly off. If someone can explain to me why the below signs are hard to understand I'll be glad to tell the person who put them up but they look pretty simple to me.

Sign at the Northampton Washlands, Northampton

Sign at the Northampton Washlands, Northampton
Over the years we have unfortunately watched watched the wintering Golden Plover numbers decline and the main reason for this is the constant levels of disturbance. It's sadly not just here either, local reserves have also encountered the same thing with one reserve suffering mortality of it's livestock to a dog attack. The other thing of course is the irresponsible walkers and dog owners out there often act aggressively when challenged, which of course means not challenging them is the safer option, perhaps these are also the people that consider it to be ok to throw their dog poo bags into the bushes before they get back to the car or leave empty Coke bottles laying around when they've finished with them!

The really unfortunate thing is though is most of the ramblers/cyclists/dog walkers I meet elsewhere are perfectly responsible. The countryside should be there to be enjoyed by everyone. I apologise for this rant as this blog is normally kept a simple diary but sometimes things just need to be said! Let's hope through education and awareness we can come to some solution but depressingly I don't think it will happen. So what's the answer? We have a choice as to where we spend our time but the wildlife doesn't have that privilege and needs all the help it can get. Perhaps we should just close the place down to everyone, including me, and leave it to nature. I'd rather see that than let it carry on the way it is!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Firecrests, Black Grouse, Surf Scoters, Adders and a Glaucous Gull - 17th March 2014

It's been a while since the last post and now I think it's time for a catch up. The recent spell of good weather has made winter (well what we had of it) seem a long time ago and a lot of butterflies are already being seen. To start this post though we shall head back to the 23rd of February when a touch of local birding came up trumps. Jon, Kirsty and me decided to take it easy today and we didn't start birding until mid morning but a tweet saying a pair of Firecrests were still showing well at Thrapston Gravel pits meant we were heading straight there. We parked up in the town lake car park and walked along the river Nene towards the birds location stopping briefly to admire a couple of Kingfishers along the way and in no time we found ourselves on the footbridge across the river to be greeted by a handful of birders all looking pleased. We saw the Firecrests within minutes of arriving and we spent most of the day there trying (and failing) to get pics. The little gems kept flitting among the undergrowth and trying to get a clear shot was proving to be a nightmare and in the end me and Jon decided to wait in a sheltered area where the birds were frequenting. Kirsty walked off along the back of the hedge while we tried in vain snapping away but all the shots were either out of focus, behind branches or of their backs! While we waited patiently for the Firecrests to reappear we noticed Kirsty walk back to the gate near where we were standing and her smile said it all - below is her stunning picture!!

Firecrest, Thrapston Gravel Pits - pic taken by Kirsty Philpot
After leaving the site we headed for Lowick to see the long staying Great Grey Shrike that had been very elusive for a lot of the local birders. I have no idea what we have done to deserve such luck but as we walked along the footpath where it had been seen Jon pointed up into the sky and the Great Grey Shrike flew over our heads and landed in a tree right infront of us! Here's a ropey record shot of it.

Great Grey Shrike, nr Lowick, Northants
The week after (1st of March) we had a special trip planned into North Wales as some of the birds here were proving to be too good an opportunity to miss. After a very early start me, Jon and Kirsty and Sam were on our way to LLangollen with the hope of getting there at sunrise. Despite the highways agency trying it's best to stop us (night time road closures on the M6) we somehow managed to get to Worlds End at dawn and it was looking like it was going to be a beautiful day with hardly a cloud in the sky and a layer of sharp frost over the ground. The target here was lekking Black Grouse and the area certainly didn't disappoint! Just about wherever you were along the road you could pull over, wind the window down and hear the strange noise the male Black Grouse make when performing their dance. We didn't have to search too hard before finding a few in a clearing by the road and a lek of 11 birds could be seen higher up the hill. Further down the road though a lek was taking place right next to us. We had amazing views as we watched the show from inside the car and the bright sunshine also made getting pics possible too!

Black Grouse, World's End, Wales

Black Grouse, World's End, Wales

Black Grouse, World's End, Wales

We finally tore ourselves away from the amazing spectacle and headed to Pensarn on the North Wales coast with the hope of seeing some of the drake Surf Scoters that had been present. We found the town and after various wrong turns we found the promenade and the cafe and set up the scopes. Within a few minutes I had two very dapper looking Surf Scoters in amongst thousands (and I do mean thousands, I have never seen so many Common Scoter in my life!) of Common Scoters. Their white flashes on the head shone like a beacon in the glorious bright sunshine and the light wind also helped considerably too. Every now and then they'd turn their heads and the huge orange bill would gleam in the sun! These absolutely made my day being a lifer and I got this very ropey record shot below. In fact it's so bad I'm not sure why I'm even sharing it it's so bad but I guess it's a record, the birds were too distant for even effective phonescoping so this is a still from a vid. If you look carefully you can just see the white flashes on the birds heads.

Dodgy record shot of Surf Scoter, Pensarn, North Wales
We then headed around the coast after a tip off from a Facebook friend (thanks Matt Potter!) to look for Purple Sandpipers and after scanning a few of the Turnstone flocks we found a small flock of 7 Purple Sandpipers right by the side of the path. Once again they looked great in the light.

Purple Sandpiper, Rhos-on-Sea, North Wales
I also couldn't resist getting a phonescoped video of one too, as always play on the best quality possoble.

From here we headed inland to LLanbebedt-y-cennin for Hawfinch. We arrived in the village and headed to the church but despite all the Yew trees having calling Hawfinch in we didn't really get a view good enough for a shot. I had a tantalising glimpse of a couple perched in the top of some trees but it was short lived as they flew shortly after. We headed to the local pub to relate what a great day it had been and warm ourselves with some pub food.
During the weeks after The weather really improved and the first large numbers of Butterflies were seen, as were the first of the summer bird migrants. As I sat in the garden on the 9th of March I had a surprise in the shape of a Yellow Wagtail flying above me calling it's head off! It turns out this bird beat the previous county record by 24 hours as until this the earliest ever recorded in Northants was on the 10th of March 1975. Also a stonking 2nd winter Glaucous Gull turned up briefly at Clifford Hill gravel pits while Sam and me was there. It had a preen and then shot off almost as quickly as it arrived. A record shot is below.

Glaucous Gull, Clifford Hill Gravel Pits, Northants
 As the weather was continuing to be good we then decided to go for a very special reptile - the Adder! On the 16th of March me, Jon and Kirsty headed up Ketton Quarry in Leicestershire arriving nice and early and got straight to work in trying to find the snakes. Unfortunately a cloud went over the sun and the temperature dropped significantly so we headed off the Stamford to have breakfast and then headed back to find fellow Northants birders Frank Porch and Sharon Johnson already there and they had already found an Adder. Great stuff! We spent a while snapping away at them before exploring the area as the amount of Brimstone's flying around was staggering! Lots of Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and Commas were present too.

Brimstone, Ketton Quarry, Leicestershire

Comma, Ketton Quarry, Leicestershire
On a stump a couple of Common Lizards were sunning themselves too and showing very well indeed! Even allowing me to start doing macro shots while they basked.

Common Lizard, Ketton Quarry, Leicestershire

Common Lizard, Ketton Quarry, Leicestershire
We then returned to the Adders and tried to get some more pics. They're very difficult to get clear shots of as they spend most of their time in the undergrowth but here's the days best efforts. In total we saw at least 3 males and 1 female and we are looking forward to coming back soon to see them again.

Adder, Ketton Quarry, Leicestershire

Adder, Ketton Quarry, Leicestershire
We left here and spent the rest of the birding day at Rutland Water taking in the views of the Garganey in lagoon 3 and Jon very kindly let me use his lens at the feeding station. I love taking pics of some of the common birds at this time of year when they're all looking at their absolute best.

Chaffinch, Rutland Water

Goldfinch, Rutland Water
Today (17th of March) I have been wandering the local reserves. I didn't see much out of the ordinary but as always it was nice to be out. I did spend some time pondering what this year will be like? The weather will play a big part as butterflies are high on the itinerary so lets hope the next few months are kind. I'll leave this post with a rather nice looking Small Tortoiseshell seen this afternoon at Grange Park.

Small Tortoiseshell, Grange Park, Northampton

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Red Flanked Bluetail, Three Goshawks and a Hawfinch - 16th February 2014

With the pressures of work and the fact that it was also the WeBS weekend it was looking unlikely I would be able to travel too far on the weekend of the 15th and 16th but after a phone call from Jon Philpot one day and then John Friendship-Taylor on another I managed a bit of jiggling about at work and I sorted some adequate time off. My WeBS survey of Billing Gravel Pits was completed after work on Saturday despite the high winds and flooding which then freed me up on the Sunday. John Friendship-Taylor had mentioned that he really wanted to see the Red Flanked Bluetail that had been wowing the crowds near Marshfield in Gloucestershire so early in the morning Jon and Kirsty picked me up and we headed off, picking up JFT on the way. We had arrived on site by mid morning and as we got out of the car we were greeted by fellow Northants birder Neil McMahon who had brought a couple more county birders to see this cracking little bird too. We parked up and started to walk along the valley towards the area the bird was frequenting. One of the many good things about birding/twitching is it does tend to send you to some beautiful places that in the normal case of affairs you wouldn't find yourself in. This was no exception as we walked along a pastured valley with dry stone walls, a babbling brook and inquisitive sheep together with some amazing weather finally giving a break from the recent high winds and horizontal rain. Soon enough we saw the line of birders all facing towards a hedge and we waked round to join them, connecting with the Red Flanked Bluetail almost as soon as we got there! We waited for a while as it flew from bush to bush before it then settled down and preened for what seemed like an age before it then darted around once more going from bush to bush. We noticed that it did frequent an area down by the path where a few photographers had staked themselves out in wait, so after getting good views we headed down to join them. It became apparent that the trick was simply to wait here for the bird to come to you (the photographers had baited the area with mealworms!) and although you had to wait for half an hour or so between it's visits the views were incredible. We positioned ourselves and waited for the bird which seemed to fly into the nearby bush, grab a mealworm during a burst of shutters, and then fly to a another nearby bush to hide for a while before coming back and it continued this cycle all the time we were there giving some great views!

Red Flanked Bluetail, nr. Marshfield, Gloucestershire

Red Flanked Bluetail, nr. Marshfield, Gloucestershire

Red Flanked Bluetail, nr. Marshfield, Gloucestershire

Some other not so rare birds were also performing well in the area too with a pair of Grey Wagtails around the brook and farm building behind us and Common Buzzards and Ravens soaring over our heads making the most of the glorious weather.

Common Buzzard, nr. Marshfield, Gloucestershire

Raven, nr. Marshfield, Gloucestershire.
We finally tore our way away from the Bluetail as by now time was getting on and we wanted to have a look at the Forest of Dean before it got too late. We arrived in the forest by midday and heading straight to the New Fancy View watchpoint in the hope of displaying Goshawks. We couldn't have picked a better day for as the amazing blue skies and almost wind free conditions carried on from the morning. We set ourselves up on the decking and scanned the tops of the trees for soaring raptors.

The View From New Fancy Viewpoint, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

It wasn't long before another birder pointed out to the right and there we saw a Goshawk flying above the tree tops. I have to admit by now it was early afternoon and I wasn't really holding my breathe for us seeing one but it wasn't long before we saw another one which came even closer and then another two displaying further right. Unfortunately they were too distant for the SLR to pick up but John Friendship-Taylor quite amazingly managed to get a record shot of one by phonescoping!

Goshawk, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire - pic taken by John Friendship-Taylor
We then moved on and headed for the ponds for a wander round in the afternoon. Lots of Little Grebe were dotted around but still proved rather difficult to photograph as they kept diving everytime a lens was pointed in their direction and while the rest of the guys were paying attention to a group of Siskins I tried to get a shot of a Nuthatch that kept visiting the bird table near the car park.

Little Grebe, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.

Nuthatch, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.

After a while a local birder arrived to see what we were looking at, we explained we were just enjoying taking some pics of the local birds but as we had a little daylight left we asked about some of the local specialities and he mentioned the local Hawfinch flock! Now living in Northants means you don't get to see Hawfinch very often so depsite the lateness of the day we decided to give it a go. We arrived at the area to be greeted with lots of Chaffinch, Blackbirds and Magpies but no Hawfinch. The local chap also arrived too to see how were getting on but there was no sign. A Greenfinch appearing at the top of one of the surrounding trees raised the blood pressure enough to cause a little excitement but soon it's identity was realised and the excitement fizzled back out. The local chap left and despite a thorough search we decided to have one last look round. As we walked away from the Yew trees we noticed a large bird had flown into the top of one of the tall trees and John Friendship-Taylor quickly got the scope on it to show a magnificent Hawfinch! We all got good scope views before it flew out of the tree and then high above our heads before heading deep into the forest behind us. Jon Philpot was quick on the trigger and he raised his camera as it did so and fired a burst of shots. We couldn't believe our eyes when we checked the results! It's only mid February and he had already probably just achieve the birding groups shot of the year! The pic is below. It was another fantastic day when we really did have luck on our side!

Hawfinch, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire - pic taken by Jon Philpot

Saturday, 8 February 2014

American Coot, Black Duck, Sea Eagles and a Purple Sandpiper, Scotland 2014 - 8th February 2014

Monday the 3rd February - Traveling to Scotland.
A couple of weeks ago I was having a phone conversation with a good mate of mine called Matt Whitelocke who lives up in the Highlands of Scotland and the subject of weeks off work became the topic. It turned out quite coincidentally that we both had the same week off work at the beginning of February and as the American Coot had been showing well up near Inverness a trip was starting to form. My wife bought me the tickets (it's my birthday during the week so it was an early present) and on the 3rd of February I found myself on an Easy Jet A320 on it's way to Glasgow.

The view from the plane on the way to Glasgow
I arrived at the airport and met up with Matt mid morning and we left to head up to his house in Fort William, stopping on Rannoch Moor for obligatory pics along the way.

Rannoch Moor
Then we had a spot of lunch in the superb Clachaig Inn in Glencoe (the Heather Ale here is always a draw whenever I visit) and then we headed to the Fort. We did a spot of birding around the area too and as the sun went down we took a look along the shoreline of Loch Eil. Not much could be seen as we drove around the outskirts constantly scanning with bins but as we drove along the south side Matt all of a sudden slammed his brakes on and performed a dramatic emergency stop! "What's that in the trees behind us?" he said and as I looked in the side mirror all I could see was an elongated black shape, I had to twist my neck to see it as it was so close but by then Matt had the car in reverse and we moved back and under the tree in question. I couldn't believe my eyes! I was actually eyeballing a male Black Grouse which looked superb as it looked back at me from a branch only 8ft above the car, it's red bump on the head and beautiful lyre shaped tail feathers looked incredible from this range. There were another 2 male Black Grouse behind it on the flimsy Birch branches too! Unfortunately such was my surprise that I just sat there all this time with my mouth open as oppose to getting some pics. By the time I reached for my phone to get a snap (yes they were that close) they had took off and were whirling their way across the adjacent land and over the brow of a hill. Unbeknown to us, we had just had the first piece of luck which then continued into a lucky streak that lasted all week and culminated in quite possibly the best weeks wildlife watching I have ever had!

Tuesday the 4th February - American Coot and Purple Sandpiper
As the main purpose for my trip was to see the American Coot which had set up home on Loch Flemington we made this the priority of the first full days birding. We woke up nice and early and after a spot of breakfast in Inverness we arrived at the site. An alert on our phones confirmed the bird had been seen early in the morning which was a relief so we settled down in the car park with the white stones and patiently waited, and waited, and waited. 2 hours passed without a sign of it but we were reluctant to leave the area to look for it as all the sightings had been from this pull in. Sods law dictates that the minute yo walk away from somewhere the bird will step out the minute you turn your back. We did spend some time taking pics of the local Moorhens and the Long Tailed Tits proved very photogenic on the bird feeders of the house opposite.

Long Tailed Tits, Loch Flemington.
Then a couple of other birders turned up who, unlike us, didn't have all day to look for it. Having more than a couple of eyes to search an area is obviously a good thing and we agreed that we'll stay in the layby and they'll head around the Loch to search for it - a wave was agreed as the sign for whoever saw it first. Fortunately after 20 minutes or so I looked up and saw one of the other birders frantically waving and we rushed round to meet them. The American Coot was feeding right around the other side of a small headland to where we were and we got fairly good views as it nipped in and out behind some bushes. We took a few record shots but was a little disappointed that it wasn't closer (it had been showing right infront of the layby we had parked in until today it seems) and we walked back towards the car. We sat for a while chatting about where to go next and as I spoke to Matt I saw a black bird swimming into the bay out of the corner of my eye. I shot out the car and saw the American Coot calmly swimming right infront of us before heading over to the far side. By now most of the others had seen the bird and left but we decided to wait for a bit longer in the hope that it would come closer, and come closer it did! In fact it started swimming along the shoreline before walking out and calmly walked towards us! By now there were only 4 of us there but even so the sound of shutters going off was staggering as the bird walked around showing itself off in the sun. We managed to get some fantastic images of the bird, 2 of which are below.

American Coot, Loch Flemington

American Coot, Loch Flemington
After some advice from a local guy (who we later discovered was Marcus Conway - the ebirder) we left the site and made our way to Burghead Harbour. The area was just beautiful and the calm weather meant the sea was very easy to watch. Lots of Long Tailed Ducks were just off the harbour wall and in fact a couple of Long Tailed Ducks were present in the harbour itself giving excellent views.

Long Tailed Duck, Burghead Harbour.
 We continued to scan the sea and saw quite a considerable number of birds. Joining all the Long Tailed Ducks were numerous Eider, Great Northern Divers, a Black Throated Diver and lots of Common Scoter flying across the water and a few Black and Common Guillemots were thrown in too. On the opposite side of the harbour a small cluster of Turnstones could be seen so with Purple Sandpiper in mind I went through them with the scope and sure enough right in the middle could be seen a tiny Purple Sandpiper sleeping away! The Turnstone did a quick fly around after being spooked by something and landed on the wall we were standing on nut it soon shot off back to where it had started and quickly fell back to sleep. We walked back towards the town in order to reach the other side of the harbour for a better look and as we did so I noticed a Shag feeding within the harbour. I waited until it dived and crept up to the side to wait for it to surface and when it did it surfaced right underneath me! I'm not quite sure who was more surprised to see who but I was considerably more on the ball than I was with the Black Grouse and got a shot of it while it swam away.

Shag, Burghead Harbour.

As we reached the other side of the harbour the Turnstone flock could be seen all huddled together still on the wall so I got the camera ready and very slowly got closer and closer. I'm not sure if my fieldcraft skills were really need though as I got so close it was crazy, they didn't even look concerned! By now the Purple Sandpiper had rather conveniently stepped out of the group and was fast asleep to the left of the Turnstones. A nice looking Redshank was also in the mix and gave a good size comparison.

Purple Sandpiper (asleep), Redshank and Turnstones, Burghead Harbour
Obviously seeing a Purple Sandpiper so close is great but I really wanted to see it awake. After a short while the little group shuffled around a bit and the Redshank stepped out. Luckily this was enough to wake the Purple Sandpiper up and I got a couple of shots before it puts it's head back under it's wing.

Purple Sandpiper with Redshank behind, Burghead Harbour
After we got the pics we wanted we left Burghead and drove around to Roseisle beach. Unfortunately be arrived a little too late in the day to see any Crested Tits but the sea was simply stunning! Beautiful mill pond quality and coated in a raft of incredible looking Velvet Scoter! We stayed for a while as the sun went down just taking the place in! As darkness fell we headed back to Fort William so plan the following day.

Roseisle Beach at Sunset
Wednesday the 5th of February - the Black Duck Discovery
After much debate on the previous night we decided to head to Mallaig today to see if any white winged Gulls were present and bird along the west coast on the way. We didn't have to wait long before seeing any white winged Gulls though as Matt pulled out of the road to his house we drove along the A830 and just infront of the Police Station could be seen a large puddle on an area of wasteland. Quite a few Gulls were milling around but even from the car I noticed one of them was very pale. We turned around and parked up and gave the Gulls a scan. Sure enough one of the birds was a nice looking 1st winter Iceland Gull and as we watched it another Iceland Gull, this time a 2nd winter' came in and joined it!

1st (left) and 2nd (right) winter Iceland Gulls, Fort William
 We headed along the road opposite the police station and got very close to the 2nd winter bird using the car as a mobile hide.

2nd winter Iceland Gull, Fort William.
We then had to dash off in order to catch the Corran Ferry. We drove along the road that heads to Strontian with the intention of then heading along the coastal road to Mallaig. I had visited Strontian last year (see previous post) as a Black Duck was there but despite visiting 4 times we only saw it distantly in flight. We decided to have a look in the bay as we passed and from getting out the car we could see a collection of Curlew and Ringed Plovers along thin grass bank that heads into the Loch. A tourist was already there and he had decided to try and get a photo of the Curlew on the bank and as he got closer he disturbed a small collection of Mallard that were under the bank below him. As they swam out into the Loch I couldn't believe my eyes, right in the middle of them was the Black Duck!

Black Duck with Mallards, Loch Sunart, Strontian Bay
It peeled off from the rest of the group and made it's way towards the grassy bank and then hid itself in one of the many hollows there. I managed to get a shot of it though as it came infront of where we were standing.

Black Duck, Loch Sunart, Strontian Bay

 So it had returned! I quickly got the news out via the many rare bird news services and pretty much spent the rest of the day answering questions from people on Twitter who were planning to come up and see it. This bird has been returning here for 7 years or so but for me and Matt find it for the first time this winter was quite a nice surprise. We finally left Strontian after staying considerably longer than we intended and headed up to Mallaig but unfortunately despite a thorough search we couldn't find any white winged Gulls anywhere. We stayed out until darkness and then headed home to fill out the description form for the Black Duck that had been sent by the local bird recorder and had few celebration pints too!

Thursday 6th of February - Isle of Mull and Black Duck Revisited
Today had been earmarked for a trip to the Isle of Mull. This is a stunning place to visit and the wildlife and scenery in such a fairly small area is without comparison with anywhere else in Britain (that's my opinion anyway). We got up nice and early again and got to the Corran Ferry in darkness. As a few people had asked on the previous night about the Black Duck we decided to make a quick detour to Strontian to give out the news if it was still there. When we arrived in the car park we found 5 birders were already there after completing a 3 hour road trip to reach the site before dawn! We waited for the sun to come up and as the light got better the Black Duck could be made out quite clearly in the scope feeding by an island at the mouth of the bay. We noticed the day before that it seems to have teamed up with a female Mallard and had seperated from the rest of the group with her and today was no different and both the Black Duck and female Mallard were an obvious pair as they fed together. We popped the news onto Birdguides and tweeted it to @rbnUK and we made our way to the Isle of Mull. Unfortunately by now the heavens had opened and it was chucking it down. We decided to head up to Tobermory first for breakfast and to see what birdscould be seen from the shelter of the car. The best birds of the town though were the pair of Dipper that whirled up and down the stream that heads into the harbour. They put on quite a show as they flew up and down but they certainly wouldn't pose for photographs as the minute anything like a lens was pointed at them they were off!

Meeting some of the locals, Isle of Mull

 Luckily the weather improved considerably so we left the town and headed west. As we went over a ridge we had a tantalising glimpse of a Golden Eagle which then flew down a small valley out of sight scattering the local Raven population, and some were obviously pretty wound up as they flew around with their throat puffed out. We continued along the road taking a few scenic shots along the way, noticing another Golden Eagle which once again promptly disappeared from views scattering corvids off the cliffs.

Raven, Isle of Mull

Isle of Mull
 Then as we drove along the west coast I noticed a bird soaring above us, we jumped out of the car and saw a magnificent Golden Eagle which was then joined by another one as they rode on the wind. They hung there on the wind right above our heads for quite a long time and we managed to get some shots and a ropey phonescoped video as they did so.

Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull
It's best to watch the below video in YouTube itself. Blow up to full screen and set the highest playback quality you can

The birds then shot off out of sight, and to be honest that's probably not a bad thing as we would have been there all day admiring these incredible birds if they hadn't. There's just something about seeing Golden Eagles in the wild, it's much more an experience than just an everyday sighting especially if you are lucky enough to see them well. They are quite simply the true epitome wilderness. Anyway I shall stop myself there before I get to romantic. We then headed along the coast road towards Loch Na Keal. This is one of the best places to see White-Tailed Eagles and as you head around the corner you can't help the anticipation rising within you. Eagles are of course a rule unto themselves so there's no guarentee they're going to be there but if you do see them it can make the whole trip worthwhile. We scanned the cliffs and islands stopping regularly along the road as we did so and about half way down I looked towards the far end and I could see some of the Gulls were getting spooked and it didn't take long to work out what it was. A White-Tailed Eagle was flying over their heads! It flew back to the shore and landed on the beach. After a few minutes it took off and another White-Tailed Eagle could be seen flying into the same area. The new Eagle landed on the beach while the other flew around the Loch. I watched it fly through my binoculars and as I did so I noticed it drop towards the water and my blood pressure increased ever so slightly as it flew over the surface before extending it's huge talons and then bam! It then flew back up into the air with quite a sizeable fish! I'd like to say I kept my composure after witnessing this but I'd be lying if I did, in fact if I'm brutally honest I bounced up and down like a kid on a pogo stick while shouting "yes, yes, yes" over and over again! How lucky I felt to be able to witness that! The Eagle then headed back to the beach and joined the other one on the shore so we jumped in the car and headed down for a closer look. As we got out of the car both could be seen but with fantastic timing the White-Tailed Eagle with the fish took off and flew infront of us as it headed round to the right and out of view no doubt to enjoy it's meal in peace. I rattled off rather a lot of shots and if you look closely you can see the fish in it's talons as it flies passed.

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

White-Tailed Eagle (with fish), Loch Na Keal, Isle of Rum

White-Tailed Eagle, Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull.
By now the rain was starting to come back down so after a spot of lunch we headed back to the ferry. Quite how we managed to get there in time I have no idea as Matt sped down the roads and drove onto the ferry just before they raised up the ramp and set off back to the mainland! We then headed back to Strontian as there was still a bit of daylight left and found the tide had gone out a long way and the bay had hardly any water in it at all. I had noticed that the Black Duck liked the channel that enters the bay on the right so I crept along the bank to be greeted by the Black Duck right infront of me! I took a few shots before it swam across the channel with it's female companion in the pouring rain.

Black Duck, Loch Sunart, Strontian Bay
As a nice touch we were told over Twitter that the White-Tailed Eagles we saw are well know and a ropey Phonescoped photo shows the bird that was on the beach (not the one with the fish) is know as "Yellow Black Spot" or "YBS" for short and the bird with the fish is known as "Dad". It's amazing what you can learn by sharing through social media!

White_Tailed Eagle (YBS), Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull

Friday the 7th February - the Trip Home
Regrettably today saw the end of my stay and me and Matt headed back to Glasgow so I could catch the evening flight back home. We stopped along the way and got some good views of Black Guillemots, Slavonian Grebes and Eiders in the various bays we visited. Numerous Rock Pipits were along the beach at Cuil Bay, and the bay itself was a pretty stunning backdrop with the now glorious weather and Great Northern Divers gliding along out to sea.

Cuil Bay

Rock Pipit, Cuil Bay, Scotland.

We had a quick stop off too at the "rest and be thankful" and admired the local Hooded Crows.

Hooded Crow (prob hybrid ), rest and be thankful car park, Scotland

The view from rest and be thankful, Scotland.
A Common Buzzard also put on a show as I headed back.

Common Buzzard.
And so that's it. We had a meal at a pub near the airport and then I had to leave to catch the plane home. It had been a fantastic few days and the luck certainly seemed to be on our side. Thanks of course go to Matt Whitelocke and his family, not only for allowing me to stay with them but also thanks to Matt for letting me play with his new lens. There will always be a special place in my heart for this area though, especially the Isle of Mull. Lets hope it's not too long before I get to return!

Me on the Isle of Mull - pic by Matt Whitelocke