It has kicked off folks: birding in Lothian. I am 6 weeks into uni now, which has inevitably taken up the majority of my time here in excellent Edinburgh. As a fresher, there’s obviously that tendency to party instead of going birding on weekends, to mingle with mates instead of searching out sibes. I’ve battled the urge to escape to the coast many a time already, as sibes have poured on to the east coast. I’ve missed bits and bobs like RB Fly (always miss these buggers anyway), Dick’s Pipit etc locally, but luckily Lothian hasn’t experienced the same level of fall than the likes of Norfolk have over the past couple of weeks. As it happens anyway, I’ve managed to capitalize on the passerine action both times I’ve been out to the coast.
My first birding opportunity arose on Saturday 28th, when local birder Mark Grubb invited me to go for the long staying Sardinian Warbler at St Abbs Head in the Borders. Whilst I wasn’t particularly inclined to go for this bird, it was an invitation to go birding that I couldn’t reject. Thus we made the hour or so’s pilgrimage to St Abbs in ominously clear skies (a phrase only justifiable in birding terms), arriving among its imposing cliffs just before 10am. The habitat is superb here, cliffs and small geos for grounded passerines to get lost in, funneling towards ample cover around Mire Loch. As we walked towards the open area of gorse that the Sardinian Warbler favours, a single Yellow-browed Warbler called from the beginning of the track: a sound and a species you cannot do without of an autumn, the epitome of enjoyable September and October birding. I managed a brief flight view of another vocal Yellow-browed later on, satisfying my thirst for inornatus.
More intent on tracking this sylvia, we did not try and trace it down straight away, so walked through the low lying foliage until we reached the clearing where the Sardinian resided. On arrival I bumped into fellow Next Generation Birders Michael and Harry Murphy, managing a brief chat before they scuttled down back down to Durham for a Blyth’s Reed. They told me the bird hadn’t showed for over 15 minutes, so it was just my luck that within seconds of that statement, the Sardinian Warbler flitted above the gorse briefly, allowing for reasonable flight views through the bins. Immediate success! I wasn’t too fussed about getting great views, as it was always going to be a needle in a haystack job: they’re tricky enough to get decent views of in the Med! We gave it another 15 minutes, during which the wee beauty presented itself perfectly for a photo 20ft from me for about two seconds. Inevitably it decided to turn its back on me as the photo was actually taken – arse, quite literally! What a wee stunner though, giving sporadically decent full views through the bins in between bouts of extreme skulking. At one point it decided to fly just a few feet over my head, allowing for ridiculous views, but then proceeded to nestle itself right in a single bush beside me and seemingly vanish: what a trickster! As a supporting cast to the Sardie and the YBWs, a couple of Brambling over, several Siskins and single Arctic and Great Skuas offshore were much enjoyed.
Mark had arrangements in the afternoon, so I was kindly dropped off at Barns Ness, where I met up with Geoff Morgan for the first time in a long while; we had met and birded together on Fair Isle back in 2010. We proceeded to scout the entire site, deja vu kicking as I recognized the different parts of the site from a previous visit a few years ago with Mark. The plantations at Triangle and Vault’s Woods did not hold a large quantity of migrants, but it didn’t do bad for quality: a single Yellow-browed Warbler at Triangle was a quiet and shifty individual, but looked gorgeous the few times it was briefly in view. Working down towards Whitesands Bay and the lighthouse, we had another two Yellow-broweds, though these individuals merely tantalized us with their call. 3 Yellow-broweds at one site: not a bad start to Lothian birding, It was invigorating for Geoff, who reveled in this single-site figure, unprecedented in a Lothian context.
It was hard to dig out much else in the clear conditions, and a seawatch off the lighthouse proved to be unfruitful. However, two Lesser Whitethroats in what was to described to me as the ‘Barred Warbler scrub’ were of much interest. The first individual was a standard curruca, but scanning to the right revealed a suspiciously eastern looking bird, noticeably larger and chunkier than the nominate individual beside it. They kept quiet low, thus making it difficult to get field comparisons, but a sparkly clean white vent was evident as the possible eastern bird scuttled around with its back to us. Once in full view, it showed generally more browny-olive upperparts and a hint of sandy colouration on the mantle and nape, complete with an ill-defined facial mask, paler grey ear coverts than its fellow Lesser and a hint of a white super. It seemed that we were watching a putative blythi Lesser Whitethroat, but we knew that it could be nothing more than possible without DNA evidence: exciting yet frustrating at the same time, and neither of us managed good enough photos due to their elusiveness.
As we traveled back towards Edinburgh, I impetuously decided that the icing on the cake was needed. As an introduction to proper Lothian birding, I deducted that a visit to Gosford Bay was essential. I have had Red-necked Grebe off Mussleburgh before, but having not had any since then, I was keen to have a look. To think, you can actually say, ‘just a Red-necked’ or ‘just a Slav’ in this neck of the woods – that’s how good it is for grebes. I was thus alone in my excitement as I more or less instantly connected with two Red-necked Grebes about 80m offshore. They were silhouetted in the golden evening light, but the you could still make out the red necks, and that uniquely elegant physique that this gorgeous species has – neck held tall, an air of proudness me thinks. As a lad played bagpipes to our right, it felt like a very Scottish scene as I looked beyond Cockenzie Power Station to Arthur’s Seat, which was donned in cerise. On that note, my first day’s full day’s birding in Lothian ended.
My next birding window was three weeks later, as the weekend proved to be a quiet affair at uni. I was back at St Abbs with Mark again and Birds of Scotland editor Ian Andrews this Sunday just gone (20th October), which proved equally, if not more, successful. They were keen on Pallas’s, Radde’s and Sardinian as a triple warbler combo, although this was unfortunately not to be. The others managed views of the Sardinian, whilst I attempted to steak out fresh in Turdus and other potential treats. There was a decent arrival of commoner migrants that day – streams of Northern Blackbirds and continental Robins sifting through, interspersed with plenty of Redwings and Fieldfare. 3 Yellow-browed Warblers made themselves known, a particularly vocal bird giving stonking views on one occasion, whilst a supporting cast of warblers included at least 4 Blackcaps and 3 smart abietinus Chiffchaffs. A Water Rail screamed from the scant loch-side reedbeds, whilst two Bramblings, a pair of presumed migrant Bullfinches – at best ‘possible’ Northern types – and a Treecreeper also skitted through the cover. On the way back to the car, a 1st winter type Black Redstart was a much welcomed bonus, flitting about on a precarious cliff top. Earlier on, a cracking male Peregrine, a leucorhoa Wheatear, a Snipe and a flock of 22 Tree Sparrows overhead had provided ample entertainment on the walk down to Mire Loch from the lighthouse car park. The sheer volume of birds there rightfully relieved me of all the anxieties I had had of not experiencing decent passerine movement this autumn: an excellent morning’s birding. Who needs to steak it out for a Sardie when you’ve got that crop of migs to entertain?
The rest of Sunday was a sedate affair, but it was educational to hammer the habitat around Thorntonloch Caravan Park and the beauty spot that is Torness Power Station for the first time, both of which have ample potential and indeed a reputation for biggies and plenty of workable scrub. At the former, I had another abietinus Chiffchaff but very little else. After failing to chase up a Snow Goose in the fields below the fine North Berwick Law, though still enjoying 7 Whooper Swan, 5 Barnacle Geese and 1000+ Pink-footed Geese, we ended the day at Aberlady, where two hrota Brent Geese were a pleasant surprise; the only Brents I can remember seeing in Scotland this year. The rain then hit hard, forcing us to abandon our previous plan to head out further into the bay.
Aside from a visit to Blackford Hill, this is the only serious birding I have done in Lothian and Borders, but like in SW Scotland, its started with a real bang – let’s hope it can keep up the form in some shape or another. Blackford, however, will have a post to itself. A potential future local patch in the making… mark my words!
Thanks for reading,