Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Reeling in the years

There are some birds which sing sweetly, some melodically, some with a catchy tune, and then there is the grasshopper warbler or gropper as it is known. This is a typical lbj, plain brown, skulks a lot, rarely seen but with a call unlike any other bird outside it's immediate family. More of what it sounds like later though.
The main thing was two at least were "singing", or reeling as it is referred to, at a place called Ellenbrook fields jut beyond St. Albans. They are not a major rarity, they breed in the country in small numbers and are one of those markers of Spring definitely being here. So, I took a half day off work and after dropping Judith at the tube I drove over there.
After parking at Notcutts garden centre I walked across the fields towards where the birds had been seen. Ellenbrook fields is actually part of the old Hatfield aerodrome and is a quite open area at one end with low bushes, trees and rougher grass at the other. As I walked over you could hear chiffchaffs, willow warblers and blackcaps all singing away. I also picked up both lesser and common whitethroat in the hedgerow, both year ticks.
Anyway, onto the main course. I got to a red and white gate and spotted two other birders staring at a patch of brambles. Then I caught the distinctive song. It is described as being like a fishing reel being pulled out. It is certainly distinctive and unmistakeable. It also goes on and on and on. The best thing is not to describe it but to show this short video!!

What normally happens though is that you hear the birds but don't see it. This one wanted to be seen though and over the next hour I suppose showed reasonably well 6 or 7 times!

This was a typical view, it always managed to get behind at least one branch but you could see it clearly. You could also see it throwing it's voice as it tilted it's head one way and the other and the sound moved with it.

As more birders started to arrive I left it still reeling away happily in an attempt to lure in a mate! As a bonus I also got my first cuckoo of the year there.
To cap off a good morning I very briefly stopped at Woodoaks farm on the way back to the house. There is a locally famous dung heap there that is a bit of a magnet for attracting migrants. Steve Carter had spotted a yellow wagtail there earlier, and when I got there 3 or more were flitting around the heaps and the field by the side, looking splendid in the Spring sunshine.

Unlike our pied and even grey wagtails, these are another migrant species marking out the start of Spring as they move up the country.
A good morning all round, lovely weather, good birds and I'm now back ahead of my brother-in-law Martin on the year list!!!

Friday, 1 April 2016

Mulling it over part 1

For the Easter holiday we decided to go on a break to our traditional haunt of Scotland. This time we went to the West coast, to the otter capital of the Isle of Mull. We'd been before so had a good idea of the best areas, but it's always good to find new things.
We set out early on Thursday and drove up to Oban for an overnight stay. Not much to comment on apart from a solid recommendation for EEUsk seafood restaurant on the quayside - really good!!! The hotel was on the seafront as well and we had the delight of a pair of black guillemots pottering about outside.

We got on the ferry around midday for the short 40 minute journey over to Mull.

We stayed in Ardura cottage about 10 minutes drive from the ferry terminal at Craignure. Highly recommended both for location and the cottage which was clean and well kitted out. It was run by the local farmers and was in the wilds. The field outside had oystercatchers, curlews and meadow pipits

an 18 month old bull
and many stags coming into the fields especially when the sheep were being fed.
 The geese by he way are "true" wild greylags as opposed to the semi-feral birds you find down South, which also goes for the "true" rock doves you get here as opposed to the scruffy southern pigeons which everyone stills ticks!!!

During the 6 days on the island we didn't have an itinerary as such, just getting away from the hustle and bustle, spotting wildlife where we could and enjoying the wild scenery. In fact, the scenery is probably the highlight. The weather we had was mixed - some sun, lots of rain, lots of moody clouds and still snow overnight on the tops so the views were always changing. The selection below hopefully give a feeling of what it is like.

The only actual "trip"we did was a short boat trip over to Fingals Cave. This was somewhere we wanted to go before but weather had stopped us. This time though it was fine and clear and a short boat hop from Fionnophort took us to the island, passing Iona on the way.

The island is known for its volcanic rock formations, which are actually three separate layers of different ages almost like a sandwich with the most interesting geometric forms in the middle.

you could also walk along a very slippery causeway to get to the cave itself, which is tidal and goes back about 60 yards. We only went a short way in though.

The rest of the island was fairly quiet but there were some nice shags in breeding plumage on the rocks, which leads us not the rest of the wildlife we saw on Mull, which will be covered in the next blog post.

Mulling it over part 2

As well as stunning landscape on Mull, you also get a really good selection of wildlife. There are 3 stars of the show in the island which most people want to see - otters, golden eagles and white-tailed sea-eagles. All 3 of them are present in good numbers and with the right local knowledge, a bit of luck and a fair bit of patience you can get some good sightings. Like everything to do with wildlife though nothing is guaranteed.
The hardest of all the 3 to find are otters. Although they are now relatively numerous and widespread in the UK, in most places they are very shy and quite nocturnal. On Mull though, they have to lost some of their wariness and can be seen at any time of day, more dependant upon the state of the tide. Having been there before and also knowing other people who go there a lot we had a fair idea of how and where to see them.
Over the 6 days we were on the island we saw otters on 5 occasions at two different locations - Penyghael and the shores of Loch na Keal near Ben More. Each time was at a relatively high tide and we saw the otters fishing vigorously.
The best sighting was at Loch na Keal, where on two occasions we had a mother and youngster fishing just off the beach.

The first sighting we had was as a result of a tip-off from two walkers who told us about two otters close to the shore nearby to where we were parked. A swift pouring away of a cup of coffee and a racing start to the car got us half a mile down the shore where we could see two otters about 50 yards out in the water.

Finally one, the mother, came up from a dive with what turned out to be a large crab in her mouth and she rapidly made her way to the shore, followed by her youngster squeaking excitedly in her wake!
She came up onto a rock where with a little bit of scuttling around we could get a sight of them. Otters are often easily spooked but we were probably 50 yards away still, downwind and they were very focused on the crab!

It didn't take long for them to totally dismember the crab and go back into the water.

The last we saw was the cub still pestering its mum for food before they did that classic otter trick of totally disappearing.
The others sightings were of a single otter, probably a dog otter as it looked a lot larger, again fishing but this time a lot further out so no photos worth showing. Overall though a very satisfactory set of sightings.
Eagles were seen on virtually every day we were on the island, with at one point 5, probably golden, eagles all in the air at one time on the north west coast. Most of the time they were relatively distant fly-by's. At the start of the holiday you always take me tim to get your eye in, so to speak. "eagle" as a bird drifts past, "no, wait, it might be a buzzard", a crow comes up to pester it and the size difference is not great, "it's a buzzard". Eventually you realise that even at great distance eagles are MASSIVE and the mantra we stick to is "if you think its an eagle, it isn't, you'll know if it really is one".
This is a fairly typical first view you get, clearly a raptor, but which one.
Not a great photo but thus us the angle you need to start to identify them. Big birds, really square wings, almost like planks, with quite square ends. You can also see the wedge shape of the tail and with a bit of imagination the golden head - this is a classic golden eagle.

Compare this to the photos below.

Again you have a VERY large bird with very square wings, if anything even more plank-like, but the key feature to look for is the tail. It is a totally different shape, more rounded and this beautiful adult bird shows the characteristic white-tail, this making it the eponymous white-tailed sea-eagle.
We only once managed to get one not in the air, with this one sitting in a tree neat a nest site. Even at extreme range you could see how massive it was.
 Cropping in shows you a bit more detail around it's enormous yellowish bill. There were crows and buzzards mobbing it, which looked tiny in comparison, especially when it took off and drifted away from us over the hills.

Other birds present, and in some numbers, were the divers on the lochs. Mainly they were great-northerns but there was the occasional black-throated as well. They were just coming into breeding plumage as well, and on a couple of occasions we even heard the divers with their haunting call.

 We were also lucky to be on the island on the day the wheatears arrived. These birds are one of the classic harbingers of Spring, and for the first three days, not a one was seen. Then on Tuesday, suddenly, you couldn't move for them. They were everywhere, on the rocks, on the moors, giving song flights - lovely.

So, a really good weeks break. We got to see most, if not all, of what we wanted to see, the weather was generally kind to us and we ended up feeling much more relaxed and refreshed than when we went.