February and March are often horribly slow times of year. With continued blasts from the east, the turnover of winter to spring birds has not yet really happened locally. At the same time, much of the winter wildfowl and passerine flocks that dominated the early and mid winter period have disappeared. A couple of major highlights have made up for things immensely (see above post for an account of one of these), but generally, the birding has been pretty naff given the effort put in, with just a scattering of decent local winter birds to keep up the momentum.
The only other bit of local birding in January was a fruitless trip to Girdle Ness, holding little more than a scattering of Long-tailed Ducks. Despite how quiet it normally during the late winter period, I have made a few visits to The Ness over the last couple of months, mostly with hopes of Short-eared Owl on site, a patch bogey. Throughout February up to four were noted along Old Cove Road, one or two which made it onto Balnagask Golf Course and thus on the patch. However, my continued efforts proved unsuccessful, and otherwise birds were generally thin on the ground. My second of three visits in the two months, on February 24th held my first Gannets and Kittiwakes of the year and 7 Red-throated Divers, as well as some 86 Purple Sandpipers on the rocks at Greyhope Bay with 11 Ringed Plovers and a Dunlin. That, however, was your lot in 2+ hours on site. Finally, I was crazy enough to embrace 50mph easterlies on March 17th on the off chance that there might be some decent seawatching. The best I could muster on site however was 2 Long-Tailed Tits in the plantation by the sewage works, 70 Gannets, 40 Kittiwakes and 15 Fulmars offshore, and a posse of wildfowl in the harbour which included a drake Wigeon, a female Goldeneye, a female Teal and 5 Red-breasted Mergansers. The Teal was of particular interest, not a very common bird on site. For three visits, however, the rewards were sparse.
Strathbeg has also been relatively quiet, no doubt related to the hard weather. That said, business at school has annoyingly only allowed for two visits since January, both of which were in March. The first visit on 2nd March produced 10 Pochard, 6 Pintail and 4 Shoveler from the south end, with a further 2 Pintail from Fen Hide and a pair of Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and a superb drake Long-tailed Duck. Whooper Swan numbers were relatively healthy for the time of year, sitting at c.55. Dad was lucky enough to see a wingflap from the Bittern in the reeds, which was a tad frustrating on my part but not too much of an issue given the successes with this species earlier in the year. There was, however, nothing else of note aside from a single Peregrine from Starnafin . In a full visit on 29th March, 40 Teal were from Starnafin, whilst Pochard numbers at the south end had increased to 18, but very little else was noted aside from a single Golden Plover west. Seawatching from St Combs was better, producing a posse of 15 Long-tailed Duck, 2 Great Northern Divers, 6 Goldeneye and 15 Red-throated Divers. We returned to St Combs on 29th, where 35 Long-tailed Ducks, 4 Red-breasted Mergansers and 4+ Red-throated Divers were noted. Cairnbulg was also visited on both these dates, producing very little on 2nd March but on 29th March holding a nice posse of waders including 70 Redshank, 40 Sanderling, 2 Grey Plovers and a Dunlin.
The Ythan area has only been visited once in the late winter period for a couple of hours, but it proved to be a productive. The estuary was relatively quiet, but still held a Grey Plover and 4 Bar-tailed Godwits from the Snub. We stopped off at Cotehill Loch to admire two redhead Smew, which showed well at the edge of the loch accompanied by a drake Goosander but were that bit too distant for photography; only the third occasion that I have seen this species in the area and the first time that it has involved more than one bird. Moving on to Collieston produced a posse of 40 Common Scoters, whilst a toddle down to Sand Loch came up trumps with a female Scaup, my first of the year and a seemingly reliable place to find this species each winter. Sands of Forvie did not produce any Short-eared Owls, but this only of minor annoyance after having connected with this species here earlier in the year, whilst Meikle Loch was also quiet. All in all, however, an enjoyable morning.
The accolades, however (or at least prior to 27th March!), obviously go to the Rattray Desert Wheatear. On 2nd March, we were finally bothered to make the trip down the track to Rattray for this bird. It took us a worryingly long 20 minutes to find the bird, which had retreated into the dunes but was eventually flushed back onto the beach, where we enjoyed its company down to 20ft in line with the lighthouse. After some lovely, prolonged scope views (looking up resulted in sand flying into your face), I approached it at close quarters, managing a few photos before a horrendous snow shower buffeted the scope and I, to the point that a hasty retreat had to be made. A lovely bird though, one I made sure not to take for granted due to its long stay and enjoyed equally as much as the first time. It seems in the last few days that this steadfast bird has finally migrated to warmer climbs, after an astonishing 115 days on site, the longest staying Desert Wheatear by a day. It will be sorely missed.
I will end on a couple of urban highlights, consisting of 40 Waxwings near school on 26th March and a pair of Dippers on the River Dee at Garthdee yesterday (31st March). The former were quite a surprise, the first I have seen since January. Always nice to know that these punksters are still around, though I imagine that flock will soon head off. As we move into spring (though it feels far from it still), I can reflect on a decent winter’s birding in North-East Scotland. It will be the last winter I spend here. I will be around for the next couple of months, albeit on and off, and will potentially not be moving away until July, by which time I will be 100% sure where I am going to university and will have a base in Glasgow. Roll on the spring.
Thanks for reading,