The title of this post makes it clear that my trip to the north coast yesterday was a fantastic one; and indeed it was, arguably my best ever day’s winter birding in the region. On top of yet another white-winged gull fest at Peterhead (totals to be revealed) , there were several other great quality birds around which made this a day to remember.
An early start saw us at the mouth of the Ythan Estuary, where we wandered into the dunes to search for the more or less guaranteed Twite flock that you can see here. It is rare to fail to see this flock, and yesterday was no expection as when we reached prime Twite territory (boggy terrain amongst the dunes, as pictured below) it wasn’t long until a flock of 38+ Twite were located. They were typically mobile, flying widely around for ages when flushed. This made good views and photos difficult, but I did manage the photo below. Happy with our quick success, we headed towards the mouth of the estuary itself. As we walked along the beach, a familiar soft purring call alerted us to the skies and we looked up to see a flock of 27 Snow Buntings fly overhead! I had by no means expected to see these here so this was a delightful sight. Despite being watched for over a minute, they did not land, instead heading across to the dunes at the Sands of Forvie on the other side of the water until they were too far away to get in the scope. At the mouth itself, there was a nice mix of waders including Sanderling, Dunlin, 100+ Knot and a few Bar-tailed Godwits. Wildfowl were also in evidence with 25+ Red-breasted Merganser being the best of it. A check further upstream at the Snub car park proved unfruitful, but Meikle Loch was more interesting with 4 Pochards (2 drakes and 2 females) present amongst a nice mix of wildfowl, the first I’ve seen of this declining regional winter visitor for some time in the area.
The Ythan area had provided a fantastic start to the day; especially with the unexpected bonus of the Snow Bunting flock. Heading northwards, another trip to Peterhead Harbour for white-wingers was irrestible, and my god was it worth it! I said in my last post that I would ‘never see more than 9 Iceland Gulls in a day again’ ; well I was wrong! Peterhead held an astonishing 13+ Icelands Gulls. As if this wasn’t enough, it was brilliant to catch up with 3 Glaucous Gulls for the year and to see my second Kumlien’s Gull of the winter; a near adult bird. This Kumlien’s was a more obvious bird than the third winter Fraserburgh individual, with noticeably marked brown on the outer primaries. Over a couple of hours were spent watching and photographing these gulls in complete awe. I really did feel like I was in Scandanavia with a plethora of white-wingers circling and swimming around me; it was wonderful and a memory to savour. Quite a lot of birds were flying in and out so it took a while to get counts of the age range on the Icelands which stood at: 9 second winters, x2 adults, x1 third-winter, x1 first winter). Unsurprisingly second winters were in most evidence. Chris Gibbins interestingly suggested that this was because of a poor season in their breeding grounds (north-eastern Canada) and thus a lack of younger first-winter birds dispersing. He had another Glauc and a 2w Kums later on when we weren’t there, so there were at least 15 Icelands, 2 Kumlien’s and 4 Glaucs in the area during the day. I doubt any winter will match this one for white-winged gulls for a long time to come. Just sensational stuff; below are photos of the many white-wingers present.
Having been overjoyed and staggered by this experience, we were perfectly happy for the rest of the day to be unfruitful, but it continued to get better and better. On arrival at the visitor centre at Loch of Strathbeg, in a gull-frame of mind I picked out a splendid adult Iceland Gull amongst a distant gull flock on the further pools towards Savoch Farm. This took the adult Iceland Gull total to 3 for the day and overall Iceland Gull total to 14. The bird remained there for half an hour, moving around the gull flock until it flew west and off the reserve. This was the first Iceland Gull to be seen on the reserve for two years. In comparison to my other photos, this photo is dire and digiscoped, so apologies for that.
As if this wasn’t enough, not long after finding this we were entertained by a superb Short-eared Owl, a tricky bird in the region that seems to be having a very good winter this year and my first of 2012. Alongside it was a Fox and together these two magnificent creatures provided a wonderful spectacle, both on the same slope as one another. The Short-eared Owl was sat upon a tussock, whilst no more than 35ft to its right the fox was pouncing on voles. They even exchanged glances at each other at one point, but the fox decided the SEO was too big to have a go at. Once the fox had disappeared, the Short-eared Owl took to the air and provided some reasonable photo opportunities which can be seen below. Also below is a link to some digiscoped footage I got of the fox and the owl which should give you a taster of how entertaining it was to watch this. Fantastic stuff.
– SEO and Fox Video
Finally, a check of the Loch ended the day on a productive note, with a ringtail Hen Harrier quartering the reeds from Fen Hide, as well as a solitary albifrons White-fronted Goose and 3 Goosander (2 drake and a female). That’s how it ended. 35 Twite, 27 Snow Bunting, 14 Iceland Gulls, 1 Kumlien’s Gull, 3 Glaucous Gulls, Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier amongst others. As a day, that was winter birding at its best.
Thanks for reading,