After the Icterine Warbler, I wouldn’t have minded a quiet end to May. A day at the Ythan on 21st May was ridiculously quiet; possibly the quietest I have ever seen the estuary. The highlight that day was a scattering of Red-breasted Merganser, 30 Ringed Plovers and a pair of Stonechat on Forvie Moor. To this effect, I felt a quiet end may be on the cards. Indeed, the Ythan was very quiet once again during a fully day’s birding last Tuesday (28th), but did hold an unseasonal winter plumaged Grey Plover at Waulkmill, presumably a straggler. I had hoped that some passerines may materialise that day, but with just a Garden Warbler at Balmedie and the sun shining, I was doubtful. It was hard graft, with a return visit to Cruden Bay Woods holding the only other migrant of note, in the form of a single Lesser Whitethroat by the gully. It was however, lovely and fulfilling to complete the whole route from Cruden Bay Woods down to the gully, something I had planned to work on the day of the Iccy but did not have time to do. However, as a whole, the top quality action kept on going that month.
It was a perfectly productive day aside from the passerines. Low water levels at Meikle Loch produced no less than 15 Ringed Plovers, whilst Strathbeg held a rather mobile adult Spoonbill. Its always lovely to see patch Spooners, a species which is usually annual on passage in the region and usually ends up at either Strathbeg or the Ythan. It gave distant views from both the Visitor Centre and Tower Pool, a little too distant for reasonable photographic opportunities, but nonetheless much enjoyed despite annoying us by moving in front of the visitor centre as we worked tower pool! Tower Pool also produced a smashing drake Garganey in front of Savoch, associating with a few Shoveler; a lovely bird and always a joy to see.
The highlight of the day, however, came at the lagoon, with a single adult Little Tern causing much excitement as it associated with a few Common and Arctic Terns. Originally flushed from the lagoon itself, it fed offshore for a few minutes before meandering southwards. Put it this way: this was the first Little Tern I had ever seen on patch despite working the area for over 10 years, whereas I have seen numerous Spoonbill and Garganey on site! This was also quite a noteworthy record away from the Ythan nucleus: the only other place I had seen them in the region away from the Ythan prior to this was Donmouth. Therefore I think I was completely justified in literally exclaiming ‘bloody hell, Little Tern!’ to Dad as I connected. A really superb patch bird, possibly the first seen on site for a few years.
Meanwhile, The Ness continued its run of decent birds right until the month’s end. On 24th I headed out to the patch with a mission to find a Long-tailed Skua or two. After 25 over Loch of Skene the previous evening and at least 9 past The Ness during that morning, I was hopeful and made an impetuous decision to head out. Indeed, the sea was rocking with fairly strong north-westerlies when I arrived just before midday, though I was concerned that the sunny conditions may be an ill omen. As it happened, this was a bad sign for LTS after all. In a three hour seawatch, auks, Kittiwakes and Gannets were incessantly spilling northwards in their hundreds. Skua passage was also relatively decent, despite not holding that hoped for Long-tailed Skua: some 31 Arctic Skua (all but 2 were dark morphs) and 23 Bonxies heading northwards. I soon realised though that despite these numbers, passage of the commoner skuas needed to be more prolific for an LTS to pass. To ease the lack of LTS, 6 Manx Shearwaters (two groups of 3 N) and 4 Common Scoters provided a little consolation.
It seemed that I had arrived too late to witness the sort of LTS passage that had taken place earlier in the morning. It was a tad annoying, given that just 20 minutes prior to my arrival there had been a report of a single LTS north, but nonetheless the decent seabird passage that day was perfectly entertaining. As always, I remained eternally optimistic that The Ness would still strike back with something else before the month’s end. And it did, redeemed itself instantly when Mark found this stunner by the North Bank on 27th May:
This was a must see bird on patch, one of those patch birds that is a dream to connect with regardless of rarity status. After a superb run of Red-backed Shrike recently, it was only a matter of time before The Ness would score one. Mark had described the bird as ‘easily disturbed’, and indeed, it took a good while to find this beauty. After 10 minutes or so I flushed the stonking male Red-backed Shrike from deep in cover, when it proceeded to land in the westernmost sycamore. For those few seconds I enjoyed great views of it face on, similarly with the Bluethroat causing me to say ‘corrr!’ to myself aloud. It really was a beauty, but quite unlike a good deal of Red-backed Shrikes , it proved to be extremely skittish and also elusive when in cover. Mark soon arrived, and we spent a rather frustrating hour or so trying to track this RBS as it moved hither and thither along the North Bank. It tended to move quite considerable distances, mostly between the main sycamore and the smaller sycamore that I had flushed it from initially. One one occasion it managed to settle for a few minutes in the open, allowing for pure and unadulterated enjoyment. Very few spring birding experiences are comparable in quality to watching a male Red-backed Shrike, and for those few minutes I indulged it in fully, a fantastic patch bird and the first on site for a good several years. Eventually however, we realised that we were flogging a dead horse in trying to get consistent views, so we headed round the rest of The Ness, which proved to be quiet.
Last Friday (31st), I was in the area again, when I hammered the coastal scrub between Cove and The Ness itself, covering several different areas. The cliff path from Cove to the patch is a few miles long, and with a band of thick fog moving in as I arrived I became excited. This was followed a couple of hours later by a band of rain. I was hopeful for a mini passerine arrival, but despite working all the possible cover between Cove and The Ness, there were no passerines migs to speak of. Seabirds, however, made up for this, with a single pale-phase Arctic Skua north over my head and the throngs of auks, Kittiwakes and Fulmars on the saw-toothed cliff edges giving an authentic, riveting taste and experience of a thriving seabird city. The accolades, however, go to a splendid summer plumaged Black Guillemot sitting close offshore, the first I have seen outside of passage in Aberdeenshire to my knowledge of this localised and regionally tricky breeder; a superb way to round off the month and a bird that was much reveled in as I had my lunch. The Ness itself was quiet again, aside from 8 House Martins over the North Bank.
I think it is fair to say that Aberdeenshire has provided a fantastic farewell, given the productivity of last month’s birding. This is my final month in Aberdeenshire, before I move further south to establish my main base in Edinburgh, as well as a base in Glasgow. I will be in the region until the 22nd; that point may well represent the end of my birding in this superb region. For now though, I am focusing on enjoying what finite birding time I have left here, which will include a visit to Deeside, hopefully a couple more forays to The Ness and final visits to other places on the north coast; so expect some material on that in the next few weeks.
Thanks for reading,