All of the following were locally seasoned in the last month or so. A heavy work-load at school in recent weeks has hindered me from getting out birding outwith the vicinity of Aberdeen, with only three days birding managed a fair distance away from the city since the beginning of November. The Strathbeg area has naturally been the place of focus, where gulls and ducks have predictably been the main attractions.
On 3rd November things were still in a trasitional phase however, with a few late migs moving through but also decent numbers of winter wildfowl. I’d started that day at The Ness (see last post for more) where there’d been a few continental migs, and with that being relatively productive I headed to Balmedie to see if things were moving to the same degree there round the car park plantations. It wasn’t as productive on the continental Robin front (a good 12-15 had been at The Ness) with just 2 present, but did produce a couple of items of interest. A male Brambling was flushed almost immediately on arrival, heading high to the south. A Northern Blackbird was flushed at the northern edge of the car park, where a single Goldcrest was also present. In the same patch of conifers was a Treecreeper, which had me very interested as I noticed a prominent white supercilium. Seeing any migrant Treecreeper is exciting, but in that glimpse of the striking super I was thinking Northern Treecreeper (ssp. familiaris). It disappeared around the other end of the conifer it was on, but appearead for a good minute or so again shortly afterwards. The upperparts were noticeably frosty, more so than past mig Treecreepers I have seen. I felt that this was a Northern Treecreeper, which typically show the aforementioned features. Given the time of year and influx of scandanvian passerines during the preceding few weeks and its location, it seemed feasible. However, given how tricky this subspecies is to identify without biometrics and ringing, it can only realistically go down as a Treecreeper showing characteristics of the nominate, northern familiaris race. Interestingly, November seems to be the time that potential candidates for this subspecies have turned up in Aberdeenshire in previous years, with one candidate noted at Old Church Kinneff back in 2010.The rest of that day was quiet, though decent numbers of commoner winter wildfowl were in evidence at Strathbeg. The below however was a personal mammal first at the site and brightened things up.
It wasn’t till 24th that I was able to get up that way again, this time focusing solely on sifting through duck flocks and gulling. With the pools in front of the visitor centre being frozen over, most of the ducks have been favouring the loch in recent weeks. It didn’t too badly, though the loch itself was underwhelming, the highlight here being 10 Pintails (4 drakes and 6 females) and a drake Red-breasted Merganser amongst maybe 150 Wigeon. Teal numbers were negligible here however, so our attention turned to the pools at Savoch Farm, where the majority of wildfowl was unusually concentrated. This included at least 300 Wigeon and 90 Whooper Swans but only 20 Teal, as well as 9 Shovelers and a couple of Gadwall. A smart argentatus Herring Gull was also present here. The overall highlight here probably goes to an Otter, which briefly popped its cat-like self above the water about 50ft away from Fen Hide, yet another mammal first for the site.
Sandhaven, Med Gulls and I don’t usually bode well together. This site, along with the wider Phingask Bay, is the only reliable place for Med Gulls during the winter in the region, but prior to this occasion I’d failed to see them every time and were a major regional bogey. It thus follows that I was massively relieved when an adult Mediterranean Gull graced my bins on arrival at Sandhaven from Strathbeg, amongst 30 or so Black-headeds in the harbour. Conditions were ideal so we had lunch whilst admiring this fine beast , the sunlight accentuating its translucent white primaries. Initially it had been alone on the water, but it soon joined the wider group of gulls on the rocks closer in. As it flew I noticed that it was sporting a red ring with white digits on its left leg. This proved to be very hard to read as the ring was largely obscured by seaweed as it sat on the rocks. Even on the few occasions that its ring was on display it was still a struggle, but managed enough on it to narrow it down to either PER8 or PER6. I enquired into the origins of the ring when I got home that night, and was intrigued to hear that the code formula (3 letters and a digit) and the colour combination (bright red with code in white) confirms that this is a Polish-ringed individual. I have sent off for ringing info from the polish ringing scheme, but there’s been no reply as of yet. Having asked a few folks about it, it seems possible that this bird could be a new individual to the area rather than a returning bird. Hopefully more info will transpire soon. The rest of the day was seen out at Cairnbulg and Peterhead, where a few argentatus Herring Gulls were noted, as well as 20 Turnstone, 3 Bar-tailed Godwits and a Knot at the former site. Prior to this, a Purple Sandpiper and 30 Wigeon were at Phingask.
So that’s the toppings. The icing on the cake came yesterday, when a tasty dessert was thoroughly enjoyed at Rattray. News filtered through of a female Desert Wheatear at the end of the previous weekend, a species I’ve been unlucky within in the region ever since I’ve been birding. Given my unlucky past with this species, I was particularly keen to catch up with this bird. As seems to be the case with Desert Wheatears, this bird was either going to be a one day wonder or a long-stayer. Luckily for me the latter has turned out to be the case. Last week was nerve-wracking and slow, with fears that the bird would disapper seeming imminent when there was no reports on Thursday. It turns out this was simply because there was no-one looking, as the bird was reported the next day. To my delight connecting was easy, more or less straight away picking up the female Desert Wheatear up rather comically sitting on a plastic bucket about 30ft away, exclaiming myself something along the lines of ‘you little beauty’ in the process. A tiny group of us soon gathered early afternoon to admire it as it scuttled erraticly back and forth along the beach, roughly opposite the lighthouse. What a cracker it was, blending in seamlessly with its surroundings and remaining utterly unfazed by its little group of admirers. It was typically bold enough to allow close approach, and even approach us, with views down to 25ft mostly but occasionally 10ft when it was feeling lucky. By showing itself off it allowed me to admire some of its finer features and get some photos.
As far as female Desert Wheatears go, this wasn’t an outstandingly pale bird, maybe on the drabber end of the spectrum. There was not any hint of a supericilum and it was brownish faced, with a greyish tinged nape and mantle. The scapulars were quite pale with dark centres, though these centres were smudgy and not particularly accentuated, thus not contrasting with the scaps as much as I’d expected. There was pale fringing to the black centred greater and median coverts,The primaries and tertials were typically jet black, whilst the diagnostic all black tail and white rump outstanding. The vent was surprisingly rufousy, as one pic displays below. We admired the bird for about an hour, and then left it be. A beautiful bird and a much appreciated lifer and personal first for NE Scotland. Also noted were 3 Long-tailed Ducks offshore and a single 3rd-winter argentatus Herring Gull on the beach. Excuse the poor lighting in the shots below.
With only a few hours light left, we spent the rest of the day working Strathbeg. I was happy with just the Desert Wheatear that day, so wasn’t fussed if it turned out to be quiet. However it turned to be at its most productive in recent weeks wildfowl wise. A mixed flock of duck were congregated on the loch as viewed from the south end, with s0me 400 Mallards, 60 Wigeon, 25 Tufted Duck, 35 Goldeneye and 15 Pochard, the latter one of the less regular wildfowl species on the reserve. The highlight was 2 redhead Smews at great distance that I picked up early on at the left hand end of the flock, somewhat bizzarely associating with the Mallards rather than the nearby Goldeneyes. Somehow or other we managed to lose these for a good 15 minutes, before picking them up again right at the other end of the flock, where views were far better. Its always lovely seeing these delicate little sawbills; definitely one of my favourite winter visitors and nice to bump into considering not a great deal have arrived of this species as of yet. After lunch we saw off the remainder of the day at Bay Hide, where 350 Wigeon (c.400 overall), 60 Teal, 6 Pintail and 2 Red-breasted Mergansers were noted. A very nice topping of duck species to a scrumptious ‘dessert’!
Thanks for reading,