Oh birding, what has happened to you recently? As the year has progressed real life and university have quite simply just taken over. Gone are the days of regular birding every week, I regret to say, Since April really, I’ve found myself restricted to getting out to Cramond every couple of weeks (poor show!), and outside of Lothian I’ve managed several days in Norfolk and a trip to Mull. That aside though, birding has been way too thin on the ground. It’s that time of key development in my life where I have to fit in birding where it’s convenient.
When this first hit me about half way through the 2013/14 academic year I hoped (and still do) that I could strategize to maximise the productivity of my birding when I do get out beyond the patch: in other words, very little birding time but much reward each time. Quite frankly, this has worked very well so far in Lothian. It will be of some surprise that I’ve only been on three full days out birding in Lothian since March – largely because I was out of town on all of these days. A half day inland in the Pentlands in May produced a cracking singing male Redstart in a very isolated patch of woodland: not too shabby!
Certainly meriting far greater attention was a fantastic day with Geoff Morgan in the Skateraw area on 26th April. Steady, medium-strength south-easterlies and fog, followed by a bucket-load of rain overnight on 25th provided the makings for a very tidy fall on the coast. It has hit me though, that if you’re going to find any passerines on the Lothian coast, 95% of the time it’s going to be along a five mile stretch between Dunbar and Torness Power Station – in other words the general Barns Ness area. Geoff and I initially felt ambitious, working pitifully underwatched areas near North Berwick such as Scoughall, but were rewarded with very few migrants. So it was down to Skateraw and surrounds, where the vast majority of people would inevitably be stationed.
On arrival we were informed of a Wryneck in one direction and a Hoopoe in the other, literally just found. We didn’t face much of a dilemma here. A Scottish Upupa usurps other scarce migrants: besides, we all know how easy it is to Jynx ourselves into believing we’re going to connect with ‘twitchable’ Wrynecks. And so it was a brisk walk to Torness in an attempt to re-find this Hoopoe. On arrival it was evident that the bird had not been seen for half an hour despite coverage from lots of birders: 15 minutes of fruitlessness kicking around the grassy wastelands near the dunes and still, nada. A wee bit of dirty twitching by the power station itself soothed us somewhat. A very unseasonable Yellow-browed Warbler was elusive in the patch of scrub by the car park: the first Scottish spring record which added a surreal element to the whole occasion. This calling little blighter was accompanied by a smart Brambling, but given the burning desire to re-find this Hoopoe, we only gave them both five minutes. Back to the wastelands for some more grass bashing!
Everybody was participating in this obscure activity, wandering semi-aimlessly in some tall grass for an itinerant epops. Fate meant that my self-consciousness about this activity would be rewarded. No sooner had Geoff and I reunited with affirmative statements of ‘no sign’, did I flush the HOOPOE. A few entirely deliberate expletives escaped me as those zebra wing-coverts and those stupendous orange crown feathers flashed across my retina like a dream. Wow, just wow! How about that to spice up the landscape! We alerted a few birders in front of us, and the message was passed round on site pretty quickly. Unfortunately we were only able to settle with flight views in the bins, as it kept very low in the tall grass and then proceeded to go missing again for a very lengthy spell, despite much further bashing. But so it came to be, my first Hoopoe in Scotland, with a memorable re-find to boot. Lovely!
Fast forward to September, and I’m birding the Lothian coast for the first time since that Hoopoe (way too long!). Light south easterlies and fog once again tempted my Dad and I up to Skateraw on Sunday 14th. It had been a dry night, so I was unsure whether anything would have fallen. A 20 minute spell of rain from c.10:30am on the drive there though was just what the doctored ordered, and lifted the spirits considerably. On arrival we got straight to work, clocking a noticeable fall of continental Robins and a decent movement of Skylark east, reaching triple figures by the end of our session. The density of Robins simply in the cover round the waterfall area by the car park was promising enough – involving some 15 birds – so we headed towards the large patch of scrub towards the Dryburn Mouth, where back in April I had needless to say dipped the aforesaid Wryneck…
A small patch of bushes nearby that had held Lesser Whitethroat back in April had nothing in them this time round, and other cover on the way was also empty. Generally, the further we edged towards the ‘Wryneck scrub’, things seemed to be getting quieter; even Robin numbers were thinning out. It was pointless having a loss of heart though, so we got to work on arrival at the scrub. 15 minutes working its western edge only produced a couple of Reed Buntings and a Whitethroat, so the omens weren’t looking great. As I connected with this Whitethroat however, I glimpsed a bulky, drab warbler sp. diving across the path into another nearby patch. Naturally, I followed it, my Dad noticing and joining me: a Chiffchaff showed itself, but this evidently was not what I had glimpsed beforehand.
We edged closer to the scrub and were greeted with a frantically loud, on-going and exceptionally deep-set ‘tacking’ metallic alarm call from the immediate cover; unmistakably a BARRED WARBLER. Result! Initially hearing this beast was not unlike a frenzied Blackbird with a chesty cough. A few moments later I caught the rear end of the bird moving out of cover and further into the open, where it moved across the top of a bush briefly, revealing its very stout fleshy tinged bill and a dark iris, confirming it as a first winter. Sporting an almost disproportionately long tail and uniformly grey upperparts, contrasting with somewhat more buff underparts, it dipped lower and briefly revealed diffusely barred undertail coverts. Structurally, it was akin to a Garden Warbler on steroids. My first attempt to photograph bird inevitably caused it to flush; it flew quite a way, and thereafter typically became the most skulking bastard on the planet. After a bit more following it around it could not be located. No-one else was immediately around to chase it up, but my hope was that it would be refound. It was indeed relocated, being seen by various observers for the following four days.
Onwards to Tyninghame Bay, which we caught at pretty low tide. This did not detract from some very lovely wader watching though, with a group of 120+ Dunlin and 70 Ringed Plover holding at least one smart Little Stint, 6 gorgeous Curlew Sandpipers and a few Sanderling. It’s an autumn prerequisite to get your fill of these classic passage waders, and as always I left feeling satiated. Other wader numbers were impressive, with triple figures of Redshank and Curlew, as well as numerous Barwits, 19 Grey Plovers at least 10 Greenshanks. That aside, the accolades go to my first two Little Egrets in Lothian, generally nestled into a partly concealed channel at some distance. To round things off, a single Red-necked Grebe not very far out capped things off very nicely indeed from Gosford Bay; a timeless Lothian speciality that should merit more attention than I’ve given it!
So has my strategy worked? With Redstart, re-found Hoopoe and self-found Barred Warbler on my three days out in Lothian away from Cramond since April, it’s been pretty effective. I doubt it will be kept up, mind ,as I aim to get out more hereon in, but it’s certainly proved Lothian’s potential in the right conditions!
Thanks for reading,