Cruden Bay, some 7 or 8 miles north of the Ythan, was somewhere I hadn’t birded that much prior to this month. The area has always been well known for its ability to attract migrants, but as far as I am aware has not had half the same coverage as it used to back in the early 2000s. I certainly hadn’t birded there for a good few years until news of an Eastern Subalpine Warbler came through of one at said location, up in the obscurely located Cruden Bay Brickworks rather than in the more typical location of Cruden Bay Woods.
I was enjoying a few beers at the time the news went out, and had seen good numbers of these birds in Spain, so I was perhaps overly relaxed about seeing this bird. I made other plans until Thursday 16th May, when some very fine weather prompted me to take the bus up there with the aim of getting some photos. I hadn’t quite anticipated how easy it was to access the area from the bus-stop, as a kind local dog-walker directed me to some gorseland and gravel pits where they said they had seen ‘photographers’ the day before. They left me to it, and I stuck around a small pool fringed by gorse where there seemed to be a good concentration of Willow and Sedge Warblers. The activity here suggested that it was worth scouring this particular area for the Subalp, though after 10 minutes I had not had any luck, so started to head towards a larger area of gorse to the west.
As I began to meander in that direction, I heard a deep tack call emanating from the gorse I had just worked by the pool. Having heard the western subspecies call in Spain, I knew this was the Eastern Subalpine Warbler. No sooner had it called did I glimpse it dipping from one end of the gorse to the other, noting intensely slate grey upperparts with a blueish hue before it disappeared. I anticipated that it would present itself out in the open at this point, but it remained recalcitrant for a good while. Eventually, it worked its way up the gorse until it was fully out in the open and from then on, it remained more or less constantly on show. After some brief hassle from a Willow Warbler, it settled on a conspicuous piece of dead gorse more or less right by the pool, where for some ridiculous reason it sat contentedly for over 15 minutes!
What ensued was 15 minutes sitting down on the grass, with a Subalpine Warbler perched in the open the fantastic spring sun and cloudless skies, without binoculars. The only qualm I had was that it was sat with the sun shining strongly on it, leaving many of my shots slightly over-exposed. Given that it stayed perched in that one place though, I was able to manoeuvre my angle in relation to the bird so that the sun wasn’t on it so much. Overall though, it couldn’t have been more ideal. After such great views, I could see why the subspecies of this individual had recently been re-evaluated from cantillans to albistriata: the bird showed a rather prominent and lengthy submoustachial stripe in comparison to the cantillans I had seen in Spain, and unlike the latter showed a strong demarcation between the rufous throat/upper-breast and rather off white flanks; many of the Western Subalpines in Spain had shown more uniformly rufuous underparts extending beyond the flanks. It was therefore educational to have seen both subspecies within a short period of time. A superb bird: I really couldn’t have asked for much more views wise.
A few days later, and the pleasant light north easterlies strengthened, bringing with them a whole load of rain. After non-stop heavy rain on Saturday, it seemed inevitable that an arrival of scarce and commoner migrants was on the cards locally the next day. So on Sunday 19th I headed out with hopes of perhaps bumping into expected scarce such as Red-backed Shrike or Marsh Warbler. There was no evidence of an arrival early on at Donmouth, and more to my surprise no migrants as such along the Whinnyfold road from Collieston to the gully at Whinnyfold itself. I was starting to believe that there hadn’t been an arrival whatsoever, but news of a Bluethroat at Forvie as I headed towards Cruden Bay revitalized my hopes. I fancied Cruden Bay Woods for something, given it and its gully’s reputation for migrants, but I knew it would be hard to work.
Nonetheless, we gave it a go at midday. Entering at the woods western edge, we headed in the direction of the gully. It was a scene of serene beauty; a woodland alive with bird song and the cacophony of a rookery in the treetops, yet otherwise still, peaceful and shrouded in mist. About 400m from where we entered, there seemed to be a lot of warbler activity in the cover by the burn. I quickly got onto a smart Lesser Whitethroat and shortly afterwards a Garden Warbler, suggesting there had been a small arrival. Then this started singing…
Icterine Warbler! The videos above were recorded when the bird was deep in cover and did not come out for about an hour and a half… typical! After hearing it for the first time, I strongly suspected that it was an Iccy, but needed some views just for confirmation. Luckily, the bird in question belted out a bush and landed on a log right by the burn, where it presented itself for about 45 seconds. What a gorgeous wee thing, with a smashing contrast between green-grey uppers and lemon unders, pale lores, a deep set, long bill, peaked rear crown feathers and a reasonably well defined white wing panel formed around the secondaries and tertials all very evident. Glued to the bird, I instantaneously called across to Dad to come over, who was working habitat further down the burn, but he was too late, despite his efforts to get there in time to see it perched in the open. This brief spell of extreme showiness was unusual for an Iccy, though for all but those 45 seconds it sat low in cover like an Iccy should do, singing but not showing.
What ensued was a few fleeting views of its rear end as it kept extremely low and skulky, tantilizing us with its song. The song was rich, a mixture of diagnostic, fast paced nasal notes and mimicry (including Whitethroat, Blue Tit, Swallow and even Oystercatcher at points), and predominantly staccato flutey notes in sets of three or four per bout of song. I couldn’t quite believe after an hour and a half that we had no luck in trying to obtain further views. It was frustrating for Dad, who only managed fleeting views and not the decent view I had had at first. I was happy to settle with my initial good views, so eventually let it be. This Icterine Warbler was part of a small pocket of 7 other warbler species sharing that same area of stream: including arrivals of 2 Lesser Whitethroats and the aforementioned Garden Warbler, and residents in the form of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Whitethroat and also Sedge nearby. Warbler mania it was for that spell. I was keen to work down towards the gully, but with an exam the next day, I had to give up at that point and was at home revising by 2:30pm.
It’s fair to say that Cruden Bay has had its day this May, particularly for warblers! Those two experiences have certainly given a buzz to the area. If I was sticking around in Aberdeenshire, I’d start visiting a lot more, but unfortunately that is not to be! It is has definitely gone out on a high though and reminded me of how superb it can be when conditions allow.
Thanks for reading,