A generic title, I know, but because I haven’t really accounted my local birding this winter, it does exactly what it says on the tin. From a local perspective, 2012 ended on a bit of a wimper, but the transition into 2013 has been far more frutiful. This is not to say that 2012 ended badly. The Desert Wheatear at Rattray – which still persists at the time of writing – and finding a couple of Smew at Strathbeg gave December a real boost early on, but I struggled to muster very much after that point. After a frantically busy mid month, I was finally able to get out on Christmas Eve, giving Rosehearty a grilling for the Laughing Gull which had been found there a few days prior, but this proved to be unsuccessful. The local birding year came to a quiet close at Girdle Ness on 27th, before I headed down to Somerset to see in the New Year.
I returned to the NE on 3rd January, and found myself working the Ythan Estuary by foot on 6th. This was then followed by my first round of The Ness in 2013 on 13th, and eventually Strathbeg on 19th. In a similar vein to a previous ‘catch up’ post of mine, I’ve decided to structure this post in a ‘species by species’ format, which will encompass the full range of the typical winter fare that I’ve had the pleasure of watching over the last month or so.
Whooper Swan – On 19th January numbers were fairly low of this graceful Cygnus at Strathbeg, with no more than 70 noted across the reserve, many of which were on the unlikely location of the flight ponds by the airfield track. A Black Swan stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the Whoopers on these ponds, which could well refer to an individual seen earlier in the month on Loch of Skene.
Gadwall – numbers were very sparse at Strathbeg on 19th, concerning just 3 females in with a healthy raft of Wigeon in front of Fen Hide.
Pintail – at least 4 were dotted across the loch on 19th, including a pair in with the Wigeon raft right in front of Fen Hide
Shoveler – up to 8 (5 drakes and 4 females) were amongst a mixed duck flock on the Savoch Pools from Tower Pool Hide at Strathbeg on 19th, watched hunkering against the juncus in the midst of a bitter snow storm.
Wigeon – approximately 43 were seen on a pool at Doocot near Rosehearty on Christmas Eve, during a thorough search for the Laughing Gull. Interestingly, the Strathbeg American Wigeon was seen on this pool just a few days later. At least 60 were also along the coast between Roshearty Harbour and Phingask Bay on the same date. 30+ were noted at the mouth of the Ythan on 6th January, whilst a drake was with Eiders off Greyhope Bay at Girdle Ness on 13th. Numbers at Strathbeg were very healthy on 19th, with a raft of at least 300 of these timelessly ornate looking ducks affording fantastic views, and another 100+ at the south end.
Teal – 24 were roosting at the edge of the pool at Doocot on Christmas Eve, whilst at Strathbeg on 19th there were up to 100 in with the Wigeon raft. Personal totals of this species have generally been low as of late, however.
Pochard – a declining winter visitor in the region nowadays, with Strathbeg being the most reliable site by a considerable margin. 4 (3 drakes and a female) were noteworthy at the south end of the loch on 19th, though a considerable decrease from the 15 noted on 7th December.
Common Scoter -a group of 40 – mostly juveniles – were flighty in around the Coo at Girdle Ness on 27th December, associating with the local Eiders before heading off northwards after a short while.
Long-tailed Duck – healthy numbers have been seen throughout the region this winter. 11 were in the bay at Rosehearty on Christmas Eve, whilst the same number was noted at Girdle Ness on 13th January, with a paricularly preponderance of stunning drakes at this site. 3 drakes went north at the same site on 27th December, whilst a congregation of 27 opposite the seal colony at the mouth of the Ythan on 6th was quite comfortably the largest flock I have seen there. Views were fantastic of these dainty yet flamboyant ducks at the mouth, for me a real highlight of winter birding year in and year out up here. Of most interest was 3 on the Savoch Pools at Strathbeg on 19th, the first I have seen on site away from the lagoon.
Red-breasted Merganser – similarly healthy numbers of this species at several sites. The Ythan as usually has held the largest numbers, with 17 from the mouth to Waterside Bridge on 6th. Girdle Ness has also held good numbers, with 10 noted on 27th December.
Smew – a redhead was one of the highlights when working the Ythan on 6th, very distantly from the Waterside Bridge with Goldeneyes towards Inch Geck, diving constantly and somewhat detached from the core of the flock. 2 redheads have recently been on Sand Loch at the nearby Sand of Forvie, perhaps including this individual.
Red-throated Diver – at least 15 were off Hackley Bay, Sands of Forvie on 6th, whilst a few were at Girdle Ness on 13th as far as in as the harbour.
Little Grebe – a posse of 4 were sticking close to the bank by Waterside Bridge at the Ythan on 6th.
Bittern – the undoubted highlight of 2013 from a local perspective. Despite their annual apperance at Strathbeg, I had never previously been there at the right time to connect with this charasmatic elusive winter visitor, despite putting hours in over many years. Given previous dire luck on site with this species, the joy and relief that surged through me was intense as I picked up a single bird in languid flight over the reeds in front of Fen Hide last weekend, legs dangling somewhat clumsily as it dropped down again after approximately 30 seconds flight views. As the bird was in flight a local patcher said that this was a different individual from the one he had seen an hour or so earlier, which had landed over the other side of the loch. The same bird that we’d seen in flight previously emerged again briefly about 20 minutes later having been flushed by a Buzzard, landing in the same area that it had taken off from at first. I doubted there was a second bird involved at first given how flighty the bird we saw seemed to be, but from reports by others afterwards it does seem that it was a new individual after all. Immensely glad to have finally seen this patch and regional bogey of mine, as a local winter highlight it will take something very good to beat it.
Peregrine – the warehouses round Sinclair Road, Torry have been very reliable in recent months for this species. 2 were seen together in what light remained on 27th December, and one heard at a similar time of day on 13th January. A juvenile bird was also terrorising the wildfowl at Strathbeg on 19th.
Merlin – a miniscule juvenile was seen very briefly zipping westwards across the lochside field opposite Rattray Kirk at the south end of Strathbeg on 19th, my first of the year of this lithe raptor.
Grey Plover – a bit of an Ythan speciality during the winter, with 8 noted between the mouth and Waterside Bridge on 6th.
Sanderling – a 31 strong flock of these classic winter waders were opposite the tin hut at the Ythan on 6th.
Purple Sandpiper – healthy numbers as usual have been at Girdle Ness throughout the winter. On 13th I managed the largest single flock I’ve ever seen together, with c.100 roosting on the rocks at Skate’s Nose. 13 were also in the bay at Roshearty amongst a lovely mixed flock of waders on Christmas Eve.
Dunlin – the predominant wader species at Rosehearty on Christmas Eve, with at least 70 taking advantage of the low tide. This species has not made an appearance elsewhere since then.
Short-eared Owl – a single bird put on a magnificent display at Sands of Forvie on 6th. Its always an exhilarating moment when you first connect with this species, in this case emerging above the dune tops on the path up to the moor. Constantly harrassed by crows, it was pushed away from the moor and descended down onto the fields by the path, where it proceeded to quarter the area within 30ft of me and did. After short respite from the crows and some diagnostic ghostly fluttering as it found prey, it was harrassed again, picking up speed and flying very low over my head, its crisp eyes wide and mini ear tufts raised. The crows followed in hot pursuit, semi dive-bombing it as it landed on a fence post 2oft up the path from where I was stationed. I was within seconds of capturing this moment on camera, but needless to say it was flushed as a group of folk walked past. It didn’t come back, but to see Short-eared Owl at such close range was evocative; probably the closest I’ve ever managed to get to this species.
Waxwing – its seems to have been a reasonably good winter for these nomadic punks. Perhaps the most noteworthy occasion I’ve bumped into this species was at Rosehearty on Christmas Eve, when a flock of 8 flew over the village and landed briefly in a garden, before heading eastwards. Since then there have been reasonably good numbers around school and in and around the garden, presumably including some of the same birds. A maximum of 60 were on the trees at the front entrance to school on 10th, with 35ish being the usual counts since then. Up to 45 birds were opposite the front garden between 11-13th. I managed to get the photo below on the way back from school on the first day they were around.
Brambling – the highlight amongst a large mixed finch and bunting flock in the crop on the path to Tower Pool Hide at Strathbeg last weekend. A conservative total of 8 birds were in the sapling trees near the hide, including at least 5 males in smart winter males. Bramblings really do have great panache, so it was lovely to see this number amongst a colourful range of finches and buntings. Not only that, but this was quite easily the largest amount I have ever seen on the patch.
Linnet – a flock of at least 400 were detached from the main mixed flock of finches and buntings at Strathbeg, again the largest number of this species I have seen on the patch.
Twite – at least 6 were in amongst the main hoard of buntings and finches in the crop at Strathbeg, though there may well have been as many as 10.The species seems to be having a good winter in the region, with a look in their favoured spot in the dunes at Foveran Links/the mouth of the Ythan on 6th producing my highest total at this site yet, with at least 45 (probably more like 50) being typically flighty here and splitting off into seperate flocks.
Tree Sparrow – up to 120 were amongst the mixed passerine flock, and making a heck of a lot of noise! Despite this being a very common species on site, this is relatively comfortably the biggest number I’ve ever seen I’ve ever seen, let alone on the patch!
Reed Bunting – passerine numbers in general were quite something that day on the crop towards Tower Pool; a bundle of birds, a bundle of constant noise. In previous years its tended to be finches that have been around in the best numbers, but this time it was the buntings that really dominated proceedings. Literally everywhere you looked and everywhere you walked you would flush a Reed Bunting. Very conservative estimates I’d say were 200, probably more in the region of 250.
Yellowhammer – even more dominant than the Reed Buntings, and adding plenty of colour to proceedings. Around 250 were noted, their zipping calls muffled amongst the endless sounds of Tree Sparrows.
Corn Bunting – coming a close as a highlight amongst the mixed passerine flock. Up to 90 were on telegraph wires on the other side of the path from the main hordes, bunched very tightly together on just two bits of wire and their jangling calls competing with the Tree Sparrows. Given that this species is very locally common in Aberdeenshire, it was particularly fantastic to see them in these numbers, again by far the largest amount I’ve seen anywhere and on the patch.
After a good start to the year locally, things will die down a bit, with mock exams and Norfolk upcoming up in the next couple of weeks. For more on Norfolk and patching, stay tuned.
Thanks for reading,