Prior to yesterday large numbers of white-winged gulls were the highlight of my winter birding on the coast so far this year. Yesterday saw this trend change (at least temporarily) as several Short-eared Owls provided the highest quality birding.
That said the day was not devoid of white-wingers or other quality winter birds. We started the day at Strathbeg, picking out the lagoon as our first location (pictured in title image). We arrived at around 10am to find that it was low tide, which proved advantageous. An immature Long-tailed Duck was amongst a couple of Goldeneye, an unusual location for this species to occur. A couple of Redshank were the only waders, and a few Skylarks were singing away. Providing the most entertainment though was a large group of gulls spread out across the beach just behind the lagoon. Quite an eclectic mix of Larus species were present, the five commoner species and a second winter Iceland Gull. The latter constitutes to the second the reserve has had after a two year gap without one – the first this year was an adult earlier this month. This particular individual spent a lot of its time preening and was face on so views were not the best, but it was nice to see. A Great Northern Diver was offshore with a Red-throated Diver. Just down the coast that day at Rattray an extraordinary build up of 131 Great Northern Divers (!) was witnessed – that would have been some sight!
The pools from the Visitor Centre and Tower Pool Hide at Strathbeg were then given a look over. Overall it was quite quiet, although low water levels saw over a hundred Curlew, many Lapwings and at least 50 Dunlin taking advantage of the pools. The place was absolutely packed with Teal, with several hundred present but unfortunately not the Green-winged Teal of a couple of weeks ago. Amongst these were a good number of Wigeon and at least 6 Pintails. Whooper Swan numbers appeared to have dropped, with no more than 50 present on the entire reserve. As we were about to leave, the regular Short-eared Owl put on a fantastic aerial show right in front of the Visitor Centre. It has been named ‘Patch’ due to a missing outer primary (P8) feather on its left wing. Below are some shots I managed of this majestic beast.
A check of the loch itself proved quieter in terms of species variety, although the quality of species was pretty good. Whilst it seemed most of the ducks were on the pools, a redhead Smew was a joy to see from Bay Hide amongst a few Teal, my first of the year. This dainty duck was quite close at first but was eventually abandoned by the Teal and drifted far away over to the other side of the loch. At Fen Hide the 3cy male ringtail Hen Harrier eventually revealed itself and hunted over the reeds at the back of the Loch whilst 7 Pintail, a female Red-breasted Merganser and a drake Goosander were present amongst the commoner ducks.
We headed southwards at 2pm to the Ythan area, stopping off at Meikle Loch before going to Sands of Forvie NNR (a coastal moorland). We were greeted by a ringtail Hen Harrier heading fast west over the loch; a rather surprising but satisfying first for Meikle Loch and the Ythan area. The loch held relatively little save a surprise Little Grebe amongst some Tufted Ducks. Sands of Forvie was our last stop. Before entering the moor itself we checked Sand Loch, which surprisingly held 2 female Scaup. The two of them were associating with a small group of Tufted Ducks and were the only other species of duck on this small loch. Rather randomly, I had a female Scaup here last year as mentioned in my last post.
It was then on to the bleak, foreboding but dramatic moor, where a number of Short-eared Owls have been seen. It wasn’t long before a Short-eared Owl rose up from the heather and started hunting in ghostly fashion. As we watched in admiration, another two Short-eared Owls were picked up at distance. At one point, they were all flying together distantly, but the best views were had of the first owl as the sun started to set. What superb birds; there’s no place I can think of that suits this spectacular species better than Forvie. Overall, 4 Short-eared Owls were seen that day; the definite highlight of yet another fantastic day’s winter birding.
Thanks for reading,