A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Scottish Highlands - Day 3 (10th April 2015)

With our last day dawning as sunny as ever, we decided to get up early and head back to the location where we saw the male Capercaillie the day before in the hope of getting further sightings of this magnificent Scottish speciality. We were in luck - down the path just in front of us we spotted a female Capercaillie flying up to the top of one of the towering pines lining the trail! We enjoyed great views of her beautiful chestnut coloured plumage and richly patterned feathers before she became completely invisible and out of sight at the top of the tree.

Interestingly we encountered masses of Capercaillie poo in the area mainly along the sides of ridges and trails, indicating that the birds may choose to follow these indents in the substrate as natural pathways.
Capercaillie Poo
Caper poo!
It’s amazing to think of these huge birds roaming through the landscape and it’s especially sad that they are now becoming a rare sight in their last stronghold of the Scottish forests, mainly due to disturbance, habitat fragmentation and habitat loss. It was great to have seen both a male and female on our trip, and it was a perfect end to our visit to these ancient Scottish forests.
Red Squirrel, Scotland
The squirrel from the previous day was still about!
Scottish Forest
Still relatively early in the day and our target species achieved, we decided to head north to Lochindorb to see if we could locate the divers that breed on the huge expanse of water. Driving down to the loch, the surrounding heather next to the road was full of Red Grouse, the birds allowing a fantastically close approach using the car as a hide. Normally used to distant individuals flying away in the Derbyshire peak of the Goyt Valley, I made the most of this excellent photographic opportunity to get some pictures.
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Red Grouse, Lochindorb
Arriving at the loch, we scanned the choppy waters for any signs of the divers, and eventually Alex managed to pick out the pair distantly on the other side of the bank. Assuming they were Black-throated, we had second thoughts as the pair approached closer, the sides of the head looking just too solidly grey, more similar to the markings of Red-throated Divers.
We moved round for a better angle, and eventually as they drifted closer I could make out the red tint to the throat underneath and the smooth pale grey sides to the head and neck – two cracking summer plumaged Red-throated Divers.

Enjoying a nice lunch by the side of the loch, we headed further north to try and catch up with any Hooded Crows, not having seen any on our journey so far. Approaching Inverness, we encountered various hybrid Hooded x Carrion Crows, slightly too dark and blotchy to be considered pure. Hooded Crows can usually be found North and West of the line splitting Inverness, so we travelled westward to visit the famous Loch Ness, with hopes of finding more than a Hoodie at the back of my mind.
Hybrid Hooded x Carrion Crow
One of the hybrid Hooded x Carrion crows
Thankfully after stopping next to one of the ploughed fields which held an absolute abundance of corvids, we tracked down two pure birds, easily identifiable by their light grey shawls and darker heads. Quite underrated, these birds are subtly beautiful, and it was great to see them just on the very outskirts of their natural range.

Unfortunately Loch Ness drew a blank in the search for any lurking mythical sea creatures….
Loch Ness
With time pressing on we made our way back down to the fantastic B&B in Cumbernauld from a couple of nights earlier as a stopover point before our trip back to the North West the next day, and we enjoyed our second meal at the delicious Beefeater nearby – a fantastic end to what was a truly brilliant and memorable minibreak.

With such Scottish treasures as Capercaille, Ptarmigan, Crested Tit, Pine Marten and summer plumaged Red-throated Divers under our belt, and all our targets for the trip achieved, I’m now looking forward to our next journey north of the border to track down Scottish Crossbills and hopefully to take a trip on the boat at Portsoy to get views of the regular White-billed Divers that frequent those waters. Massive thanks to Alex for doing all the driving - a fantastic trip and most definitely well worth the effort! 

The bridge Carrbridge is named after!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Scottish Highlands - Day 2 (9th April 2015)

Awakening to a hearty breakfast at the B&B, we were glad we made the decision not to go for the Loch Garten Caper Watch for dawn as one of our fellow guests had spent a frustrating morning there with no sightings of these stunning Scottish birds apart from on the remote cameras!

With absolutely beautiful weather forecast, we decided to make a quick stop looking for Crested Tits again. With plenty of suitable habitat, we walked through the forest, listening out for that distinctive call and raising our bins to any small birds flitting around the tree tops. 
Red Squirrel, Scotland
Our second Red Squirrel of the trip!
The ‘chip chip’ call of a Crossbill flying overhead was the only sign of bird life, the small feeder at the side of the path deserted from any avian visitors!

Then suddenly “Caper!” Alex pointed straight ahead and we both watched in awe as a male Capercaille came flying right past us and away in to the trees!

Absolutely amazing and completely unexpected!

Even though the encounter lasted no more than 30 seconds, we both enjoyed incredible views as this turkey-like Scottish speciality noisily crashed through the forest, the white on the tail clear to see against the jet black feathers. What an experience! Completely elated, we had anticipated Capercaillie to be the hardest of the 3 to track down, but we had completely jammed in on one without even trying!

With no sign of the Crested Tits we decided to head off for bird number two of my targets – Ptarmigan. Stopping off at a roadside site for Capercaillie on route drew a blank, so we headed up the slopes to the Cairngorm ski centre car park. The views even from here were absolutely stunning, with the snow covered mountain tops shining in the sun, the glorious lochs below glistening in the light.
Taking the small tram up to the summit, we were met with a biting cold air and absolutely fierce winds! Battling through, we gingerly made our way up the slope, careful not to slip on any of the treacherous sheets of ice covering the rock. With Alex’s previous 3 visits up the mountain resulting in Ptarmigans straight away, we were slightly concerned as to how long it was taking us to track them down.

Large numbers of white and speckled Ptarmigan feathers scattered across the mountainside reassured us that they were here, it was just a matter of finding them!
Snow Bunting, Cairngorms
Several Snow Buntings joined us for company, then just as we had reached the top – Ptarmigan! A pair were sheepishly dodging through the rocks just below us, the male’s beautiful red eye crest shining out in the sun. We followed them down the rocks and watched as they darted out of sight, eventually heading back up the mountain slope and battling against the winds! I was struck by just how fluffy their little feet were, and it was amazing to see them at such close quarters!
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Battling the fierce winds on the slope!
Heading carefully back down the mountain, it was a complete surprise to stumble across a second male and female! Where had they been during our hours search! These two seemed much more settled, happily pecking at the green shoots peeking out from under the snow and allowed a much closer approach. 
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Eyes streaming from the harsh winds, we enjoyed excellent views as the two went about their business, happy for us to get as many photos as we desired! The female in particular was especially smart, still retaining most of her winter plumage with fantastic speckles of olive and gold dappled within.
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Ptarmigan, Cairngorms
Eventually tearing ourselves away from our white wonders, we headed down the rest of the slope – no way near as hardcore as the guy that passed us by wearing knee-length shorts!

After a quick lunch in the aptly named Ptarmigan cafĂ©, we headed back down, enjoying views of the beautiful loch overlooking the mountain and wondering whether any snowy owls were lurking in the distant peaks….
With Crested Tits still yet to find, we drove back to Loch Garten again, this time parking in the Loch Garten Nature Reserve Car Park and following the trail round to the small Loch Mallachie. Plenty of tits were chattering in the trees above, with Great and Coal Tits all dashing about, then Alex suddenly exclaimed “I can hear a Crestie!”. Pricking my ears and listening to the sounds of the forest, sure enough we could hear that distinctive call – coming from right above our heads!

For a few panicky moments I just couldn’t get on the bird, Alex trying his best to give better directions than “It’s on that branch” – there were lots of branches! Eventually I locked on to it, perching flat against the trunk and perfectly still, hence why I had such trouble locating it. Eventually tilting its head from side to side, the beautiful little crest was wonderful to see, and we watched as the bird proceeded to fly around the tree tops for several minutes, its call betraying its location.
Crested Tit, Scotland
Crested Tit, Scotland
I’ve seen Crested Tits in both France and Spain before, so it was great to finally catch up with these delightful little birds in the UK!

A walk to the loch revealed several Goldeneye nest boxes, but with no sign of any divers we headed back to Aviemore for a delicious tea at the Pizzeria for our final night.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Scottish Highlands - Day 1 (8th April 2015)

Having booked a few days off work, me and Alex headed up to Scotland during the Easter break to try and catch up with some of the Scottish specialities that can be found in the Highlands. With Crested Tit, Capercaillie and Ptarmigan all lifers for myself, I was keen to get up there and experience the wonders of the Scottish forests myself.

Stopping off at an excellent B&B in Cumbernauld on Tuesday night, this stopover broke up the mammoth journey considerably, and it was just over a 2 hour drive to the first site of the incredible Findhorn Valley. One of his favourite places, Alex was keen to target Golden Eagle here, and we travelled through the rugged terrain with our eyes peeled for any signs of large eagles taking advantage of the brilliant spring sunshine.
Findhorn Valley, Scotland
Findhorn Valley
A pair of Wheatear darting around the pebbles by the side of the huge river were the first of the year, although it was too early for our visit to coincide with the return of the areas Ring Ouzels. We spent an hours wait enjoying up to 3 Mountain Hares scampering along the opposite mountain slopes, their brilliant white winter coats giving away their location, whilst a pair of Peregrines treated us to their acrobatic movements high above. Several Buzzards mewed playfully in the breeze, and before long an eagle was spotted by the small crowd of birders gathered, soaring in the opposite valley. Despite the distance, it was unmistakeable as a majestic Golden Eagle, several white patches on the wing visible even from far away.

We admired the bird through the scope, powering through the air until it disappeared out of view behind a ridge. Content with our sightings, we headed back in the direction of Aviemore to the next site of Boat of Garten, hoping to connect with one of the Crested Tits that had been frequenting the feeders in the weeks prior, stopping only to admire a Red Squirrel on route.
Winter Mountain Hare, Scotland
A (very!) record shot of the winter plumaged Mountain Hare across the valley
Parking in the small car park and taking the short walk to the feeders, I was disappointed at the sheer lack of bird life amongst the trees, just a few Goldcrests, a pair of Great and Coal Tits and a single Chaffinch bobbing in the branches overhead. A considerable wait later and nothing had ventured to the feeders, the prospect of encountering any Crested Tits becoming increasingly bleak. The large pool opposite distracted us with several waders and ducks, although no Slavonian Grebes were present, a species that previously bred on the flash until recently.

With no luck at Boat of Garten, we headed over to the RSPB Osprey viewpoint at Loch Garten to see if any were showing there. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been seen for a few days, so instead we went to check on the newly returned Osprey on the popular nest from the viewing station, before taking a walk down the road to listen out for the trilling call of Crested Tits – sadly to no avail.

Calling it a day with these seemingly elusive birds, we stopped off for a tasty bite to eat of battered chicken at Papa Rocks in Aviemore before heading over to the Rothiemurchus Estate for the Speyside Mammal Hide experience in an attempt to catch up with the beautiful Pine Martens that are a regular feature at the hide and are guaranteed to pull in the crowds.

Joining our guide at the meeting location along with the other 10 people booked in for the visit, we quietly walked up the gravel track to the hide as dusk approached, a fantastic male Woodcock roding overhead right on cue - apparently a regular sight during the nightly walks.

Inside the cosy and heated hide, our guide gave us a brief talk about the Pine Martens that frequented the site, and after explaining that both a male and female visit the feeding station, with at least one Pine Marten being seen every single night since the winter, we became increasingly optimistic and hopeful that our luck would be in.

Sure enough, after half an hour or so waiting in the hide, the call went up that a Pine Marten had been spotted! The female quickly scampered past us below the window and proceeded to head round to the other side of the small mammal seed area, giving great views before turning round and heading to the main feeding platform at the front. Effortlessly clambering up the post, we could all admire her chocolate and cream coloured coat as she tucked in to the peanuts laid out for her, completely oblivious and unconcerned at her many admirers watching from the darkness of the hide.
Pine Marten, Scotland
Pine Marten, Scotland
After giving a good show for all those assembled for a lengthy amount of time, she artfully climbed the branch running up to the adjacent tree and on to the trunk where an egg had been lodged as a treat. Clasping it in her jaws, she hurriedly bounded down and off in to the darkness, her prize firmly secured. Before long, she was back for the second egg, again giving excellent and prolonged views for everyone watching – really an amazing experience and I couldn’t have asked for more for my first ever Pine Marten sightings!
Pine Marten, Scotland
Pine Marten, Scotland
About to take the egg!
After disappearing with her treasure, we didn’t have to wait long for the smaller male to appear. He too came around the back of the hide (apparently this is the first time the guide has known them do that) and gave fantastic views feeding on the platform munching on the peanuts, before bounding off in to the undergrowth after a good ten minutes or so.
Pine Marten, Scotland
With a supporting cast of a badger (only my second ever) and small mammals including a vole and some Wood Mice, this was an unforgettable experience and one I’d highly recommend as a must for anyone going to the Highlands! Definitely one of the highlights of my trip!  
Badger, Scotland
Badger, Scotland
Badger, Scotland

To book, visit the Speyside Wildlife website.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Citril Finch chaos hits Norfolk - 10th May Holkham Pines

Seeing that something huge had clearly broken on the internet, but with no details as to what bird, I checked my phone in anticipation, expecting a Mediterranean warbler or a rare tern.
Citril Finch RBA

Someone once asked me what the least likely bird from Europe to turn up in Britain again would be, and after a bit of thought I’d replied Citril Finch. Sedentary and living in the high mountains of the Pyrenees and over to the Black Forest, there has only been one previous record in the UK, of a male bird on Fair Isle back in June 2008 that stayed for around 5 days. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have thought there would be another one any time soon.

But here we were, over in Cheshire, with a Citril Finch remarkably flying around the dunes and pines of north Norfolk.

With the initial reports all being of flight views we were a little hesitant – would the bird stick around and would the vast majority connect? It was certainly a hell of a long way to go. A certain Christopher Bridge had already informed us that he was well on his way (always sneakily twitching the birds that matter!) and as countless others did the same, 2 or so hours after the initial report I finally managed to persuade Alex that we needed to set off and see this bird. Immediately.

After a relatively straightforward 4 hour drive to Holkham, we were encouraged by the fact that the bird had been showing well on the deck at intervals throughout the day – I had a good feeling about this one.

Arriving at the extortionately priced car park on Lady Anne’s Drive just before 4pm, we started the long 1 ¾ mile treck through the pines and to the western side of the trees. A steady stream of birders passed in the opposite direction, evidently having connected and heading home happy whilst we hurriedly walked on, hoping that the bird would still be around!

After what felt like FOREVER (but in reality was probably only 20 minutes or so), we turned a corner and a passing birder gave us some encouragement to spur us on – the bird was showing right now and it was only a few metres more along the path. Heading over the bank, we were greeted by a huge mass of birders, scopes and cameras, all firmly focused on the small hollow where this mega Alpine vagrant was clearly favouring.

Thankfully a kind birder let us look through his scope, and just like that, Citril Finch, in the UK. Mega. Peering through the foliage, we were greeted by great views of this delightfully bright finch, a beautiful spring male with sunshine yellow underparts and a fantastic sooty great shawl around the neck.
Citril Finch, Holkham Pines, Norfolk
Enjoying brief views as he fed contently in the sand, all of a sudden: “It’s flown. In that tree, it’s gone”. The bird must’ve decided it had had enough for the time being, and had sadly disappeared, presumably off in to the extensive dunes to the west.

Exceptionally relieved we had managed to connect, 5 minutes later and we would have missed it by moments (one toilet stop could have ruined everything!), but I was a little sad that we hadn’t managed to get a record shot – very reminiscent of our initial encounter with the Red-throated Pipit the weekend prior!

After a search in the nearby dunes, me and Alex decided the best option would be to wait back at the hollow, as the bird had been following a pattern and had been returning throughout the day. Sure enough, after around half an hour or so, the cry went up of “It’s back! In the tree with the Chaffinch”.
Holkham Pines, Norfolk
The hollow the Citril Finch was favouring
Proving exceptionally hard to see and evidently very camouflaged amongst the sun dappled leaves of the Sycamore, it took an absolute age to get on the bird (I was very glad I’d already seen it at this point, many that hadn’t must have been going out of their minds!) and the majority of us couldn’t see it until after it had flown to the floor and begun to feed again.
Citril Finch twitch - Holkham, Norfolk
Whilst the numbers had died down by the late afternoon, there was still a considerable crowd present
Enjoying great scope views for around 20 minutes or so, we watched the bird at length and I managed to take some record shots of this amazing little alpine finch as we watched it happily mooch amongst the weeds.
Citril Finch, Holkham Pines, Norfolk
Citril Finch, Holkham Pines, Norfolk
There is always some speculation about rare finches and whether they may be escapees – it was only after a lot of research in to feather isotopes that the Fair Isle bird was accepted, having proved to originate from the Black Forest area in Germany. However, the absence of any rings and the fact that our bird was in the most natural habitat as possible that mirrored the alpine forests of its usual range (not a feeder in someone’s garden or anything dodgy!) really strengthens this individuals credibility of being a wild bird.

Indeed, whilst Citril Finches are largely sedentary birds and are often described as only short distance migrants, studies have shown that birds do move between breeding and wintering ranges, with the longest distance travelled by an individual bird measured at a remarkable 615km.

As Norfolk is only 732km from the Black Forest (the closest Citril Finch population to Britain) it is more than likely that this individual, like the Fair Isle bird, also originated from there, having got caught up in a weather system, Indeed, a female was similarly trapped in Finland during the spring of 1995 having been travelling amongst a flock of Siskin.
Black Forest to Holkham Map
The distance from the Black Forest in Germany to Norfolk
Having seen a Citril Finch briefly feeding on the ground on our trip to Northern Spain last April, I never would have imagined that we would be seeing one here in the UK just over a year later! A great bird for those who weren’t able to get up to Fair Isle 7 years ago and proving that you never know what can turn up!
Citril Finch, Northern Spain
Citril Finch from Northern Spain
Present until dusk and seen very briefly around 6am on Monday with no further sign since, the bird has sadly probably now moved on. With Britain’s only record of Red-breasted Nuthatch also coming from Holkham Pines, having overwintered there in 1989 through to the May of 1990, it’s anyone guess what the next mega to hit land there will be – White-crowned Black Wheatear anyone?!
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