Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lonely survey sojourn!

Yesterday ( Saturday )saw me on Jura all day undertaking more observations over the Sound of Islay. The weather was brighter, even sunny at times, but any accompanying warmth was stripped away by the penetrating NW wind.

It was a fairly quiet day with no exciting episodes on offer. Some further indications of spring's arrival occurred in the form of moving Curlew and Shelduck, more Razorbill being in evidence and odd gulls moving through. Black Guillemots in stunning summer plumage whirred around the Sound and splashed and chased in furious display, all against a background of an azure sea and hills bathed in bright sunlight. Until the next shower came, with a corresponding drop in temperature enough to put off even the most amorous individuals....clearly Black Guillemots don't think like humans however, more precisely me, whose attentions repeatedly turned to rain gear, shelter and comfort!!!

Concentrated birding bliss!

A rather belated post for Friday! Managed to weave in a visit to Loch Gruinart where the outer loch was still inundated, but ensured many waders like Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and Oystercatcher were concentrated in roosting groups. On the RSPB's reserve pools an absolute plethora of birds was present! Wildfowl species like Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pintail, Shelduck and Red-breasted Merganser were all on display together with Mute and Whooper Swans together with nearby Greenland White-fronted and Barnacle Geese. A passing female Hen Harrier caused utter dis-array and concentrated the duck in a gyrating group pulsing with awareness and anxiety. Above this, the penetrating calls of Teal echoed around the whole site until the raptor finally passed through. The episode allowed me to scrutinize, unsuccessfully, the assembled Teal to see if any Green-winged Teal was present as early spring is a time when such species often appear here on Islay.

In addition to the duck the exposed islands were a chaos of feeding activity by many waders, primarily Redshank, whose vividly coloured legs showed up against the drab background of the island's surface against which the body colouration of the birds bodies merged quite dramatically. This gave rise to a series of strange interwoven images of coloured strands moving around against a dark backcloth!!! All too soon it was time to move on, the interval being marked by the strident calls of two Greenshank as they moved across the site. Brilliant!

Friday, February 25, 2011

24th February,2011.

Finally managed to get away from more formal things and see a few birds whilst working! With word that the first spring migrants have arrived in the south I have to speculate on whether they'd survive if they got this far!! having said that things did improve yesterday as far as the weather was concerned and there was even a short period of sun.

Such did little for birdlife other than persuade the odd Song Thrush it was time for a warm up and a few ducks to put on a display! Birds of prey are much in evidence with Buzzards sailing around at odd locations, and both Merlin and Sparrowhawk being seen at a couple of places. The only real indicator that things were changing was evidence of Curlews passing through with several singles and a couple of small groups beating north with focussed determination. The next few days look as if they will be both calmer and warmer, which will be a bonus for survey work after the wet, windy misty utter rubbish weather of late!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ne'er was a Stonechat more welcome! 19.2.2011.

Yesterday ( Friday ) was absolutely filthy and a complete waste of time for achieving anything outside of the confines of a house!! Today commenced similarly , with strong winds and rain overnight and then mist, which persisted until lunchtime and a point at which little could be accomplished! I suppose it is February!

A look around locally produced little other than a few Fieldfares, a small charm of Goldfinch, and odd Chaffinch. Two male Reed Bunting were a nice surprise, followed by a male and female Stonechat on fence lines near to home acting as if they had never left!! They soon moved on but provided encouraging evidence that local birds had not been wiped out by the severe weather previous to the turn of the year. Good news!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Canada Goose takes the day !

Rather a grey day with rain eventually breaking out and spoiling things even further!

A day goose counting on the Oa route, which essentially means the whole southern sector of the island. As is usual at this time of year Greenland White-fronted Geese are exploring odd suitable "corners" here and there and can be quite difficult to pick out amongst juncus ridden fields. A large group at Ballivicar also held a parvipes Canada Goose which stood out boldly amongst its feeding colleagues. It has been in this vicinity most of the winter.

Little else of particular note was seen. The large mixed flocks of passerines ( Twite, Chaffinch, Brambling, Greenfinch and Reed Bunting) at Kinnabus and Upper Killeyan on the Oa finally appear to have split up. Hopefully, given a repeat of the same crop management, a similar situation will arise next autumn and winter. In conservation terms the availability of such food must have assisted greatly in getting the attendant species through the extreme conditions of the early winter.

Nearer to home a male Sparrowhawk whipped low over open fields adjacent to forestry but with no joy in interrupting any potential prey. Whilst Chaffinch numbers appear to be on the up, the variety of passerine species on the Rinns still appears to be low with Reed Bunting not as common as usual, and possibly joining the ranks of Stonechat and Wren, as one of the species apparently most affected by the severe weather early in the winter.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

11th February, 2011. BTO Atlas.

A pretty miserable day with rain and mist throughout that set aside the possibility of any worthwhile birding. Used part of the time to get some long overdue results loaded onto the BTO Atlas database, with more to follow. The Winter Atlas is now in its last season and "mopping up" activities are the order of the day. Recently a party from the Army Ornithological Society , arranged by Roger Dickey, raced up from southern England to spend an intensive "survey weekend" on Jura, thankfully missing the spells of poor weather we've experienced recently. Many thanks, guys, and we look forward to your return visit in spring!

Spring will herald the final Atlas Breeding Bird season too and, again, focus is on gaps and getting records of the distribution of more difficult species. Certainly not the time to "let up" in any way , indeed the way to look at it is to carry out remaining work with renewed vigour in order to then celebrate its completion!! Anyone coming up here on holiday is encouraged to submit their records. Please don't assume it's been done as there could be the odd pair of birds or lone singing male in a tetrad or 10 km. square which has been overlooked!!!

Friday, February 11, 2011

10th February,2011.

A day when I discovered I had a raft of issues to deal with domestically, which left very little time for birding. I had a poke around locally for a short time in the hope of coming across the Killdeer, but I suspect the matter can now be put to rest. Others have looked at suitable areas without success, but there even appears to be an absence of information on the direction the bird flew off in, or the location it was suspected of calling from the day after being seen, which obviously offers no help!

Looking at a strip of coastline yesterday where one might find Stonechat in winter, I reminded myself that I haven't yet seen one on Islay since the beginning of the year. Whilst I'm sure there will be some somewhere, a couple of colleagues have made the same remarks. They appeared to recover from the bad period of weather within the early part of 2010, but may have been affected far worse with what then followed at the end of the year. Time will tell!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

9th February,2011

Who mentioned the weather? A dreadful day that got worse as time went on. Rain, mist, poor visibility generally made it pretty miserable. Despite this we still attempted a goose count and, thankfully, managed to complete things before the worst of the rain.

The most interesting part of the Gruinart route was on the Ardnave peninsula with 29 Chough in a flock, about 120 Twite and three Skylark. For some reason the geese seemed very edgy and constantly on the move, which is not the best circumstances to count in!!

Later, discussions with a colleague on our intention to try and count any/all active heronries on Islay, which has not been done for many years in any systematic way. We also touched on harrier movements on Islay. Many of our harriers appear to leave Islay in winter, but not all. Indeed there is a noticeable increase and movement of harriers through Islay, presumably from elsewhere , in October each year. Despite efforts over the years I've singularly failed to establish where any new communal roosts are present, in addition to the known small roost present at the RSPB reserve at Gruinart. I suspect many birds must simply roost individually and with sites changing regularly too. Over the last couple of days there appears to have been odd "new" male birds around at well spaced locations, which possibly indicates their return. Some harriers have been present on the Oa throughout the winter, drawn by the presence of the large accumulations of passerines, numbers of which are now beginning to reduce as the food source dwindles. It's also of interest to dwell on the distance such birds can move in a day. Following the web site which shows results from the birds fitted with radio transmitters in the Highlands shows movement over quite extensive "loose" territories. This means care has to be taken when attempting to establish numbers present based simply on observations outside of the breeding season (when individual territories can be determined). In this context I'm always amused by claims , and statements , from some visitors that "harriers were all over the place" and "we saw .... harriers during the day", as deciding actually how many are around is not as straight forward as might first appear!!! Another aspect is that they can "appear to disappear" for intervals. The pair local to home appear to have been around for most of the winter, but with some periods when they are not seen for a few days. Their use of their feeding territory also appears sometimes to have some regularity associated with it with birds being seen at "fixed" times each day over a period of time! I guess there's still a lot we need to find out and I suspect, with the advent of new tracking technology, much will emerge over the next few years that is fascinating in the extreme!!

A routine day of counting geese! 8th February, 2011.

Yesterday was but a memory as this day dawned bright and with obvious potential! And so it proved to be initially with conditions that deteriorated later! Journeying into Bowmore just after dawn, a male Merlin put on an absolutely tremendous display of chasing some hapless passerine above the coast at Octofad. The high speed twists and turns, soaring arcs and all out flat "chases" were pretty impressive and brought me to a temporary halt after a couple of dodgy moves in the car that were somewhat less well choreographed!!

The count itself produced no surprises, but a single Skylark feeding within an ill-drained area way up on the eastern side of the Rinns at Craigfad was the first I'd seen this year. They'd obviously moved out in large numbers with the bad weather and are now filtering back. Their appearance at this time of year can also be somewhat of a "yo-yo" event, in that they can be encountered on the slightly higher ground in singles or small numbers, but then vacate such areas completely to gather together again on much lower ground if the weather deteriorates.

Return to winter, at least temporarily!! 7th February, 2011.

An early start to the day previous to a return to Islay. In the early morning light the bugling of Whooper Swans and the endless "social" chit chat of feeding Pink footed Geese on fields closer to the Firth could be heard quite clearly , but little else seemed to have any enthusiasm!!

After travelling to Inverness to drop off the girls at school I continued southwards on the A9, intending to try and grab an hour or so within the Strathspey area!! A good idea on paper, but as I gained height and got further towards the Slocd summit in the intervening hills, the snow increased in intensity until a 3" depth was being encountered. Time for a re-evaluation!! Turning off for Boat of Garten the snow festooned birch and pine trees were absolutely beautiful and compensated for otherwise difficult conditions and no signs of activity! A call at a publicly maintained feeding station provided views of a single Crested Tit and a less than shy Red Squirrel, both of which were repeatedly returning to feast on peanuts. Somewhere in the past I'd heard Crested Tits were prone to avoid feeding stations, but obviously this one had other ideas!!

Cutting my losses I set off again, and made do with views of Highland landscapes in all their
winter glory, as the possibility of worsening conditions was always clearly present! Such didn't arise and the remaining part of the day-long journey was without incident, although the ferry was late departing due to difficulties in getting on board a huge articulated lorry and trailer carrying straw bales. As I approached the house two Woodcock rose in the headlights from roadside grassland and "towered" off in to the night. A long day , but not without interest!

6th February, 2011.

Somewhat unremarkable day in many respects. Whilst the weather was improved early black ice provided something different in the company of two sheepdogs acting more like Huskies on the morning outing. The woods were quiet with only the odd Coal Tit and a single Robin giving out any sound. Clearly birds are not being fooled by the apparent return of better weather!!

An attempt to read any leg rings on the locally accumulated Whooper Swans in the afternoon was both a combined success and failure at the same time in the sense that none were marked! Nonetheless it had its compensations in my being able to be close to these magnificent birds whose vigilance and interesting social interactions never fail to be engaging.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

5th February,2011.

A much calmer and better day, although a bit cold. There was even the odd snatch of birdsong and the absence of numbers of Yellowhammer and Tree Sparrow feeding in the garden suggested that the pressure was off!

Much of the day was given over to "domestic duties" but a trip into nearby Beauly saw a gathering of Whooper Swans and some Pink-footed Geese in a stubble field with a couple of lenses of water. The geese were picking around the stubble, but the geese were enjoying a real good "puddle" in the part under water. A fine sight, totally undisturbed by passing traffic and literally just over the hedge and roadside verge.

Passerine numbers, other than titmice and Chaffinches, still appear low but a couple of Siskin in the nearby woodlands were a nice surprise. Thrushes seem to be virtually absent.

4th February,2011

Little to report in reality as the weather has been so bad and dominated everything. Yesterday, Thursday, the wind started to rise in the morning, following our having received a good covering of snow overnight here to the west of Inverness. The wind soon gained in intensity and doubtless initiated the move into the shelter of nearby woodlands of 6 Roe Deer hinds ,which crossed a large stubble field and cut across the garden, much to the consternation of the dogs!! Lashing rain followed and the conditions appeared to trigger a feeding frenzy on and around the bird feeders, which included several Yellowhammer and Tree Sparrow.

Overnight into Friday things gradually subsided but then, mid morning on the 4th, it snowed again throughout the afternoon. This coupled with the heavy rain yesterday has produced many large "lagoons" of water and any drainage ditches are running at full bore. Better things can only follow.....

Friday, February 4, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front.......until Monday!

Sunday, 30th January, saw me on Jura all day, with not a lot that could be described as "inspiring". Monday, too, saw me undertaking the same journey with few expectations, all of which were confirmed when I summarised the day as being the quietest I'd experienced there!! On the way northwards from home I'd exchanged a friendly wave with RSPB colleagues who were obviously intending to undertake some survey or monitoring work on the Rinns.

Imagine, when I got home, to find a series of telephone messages advising that a Killdeer had been seen by one of the RSPB personnel I'd waved to!! Imagine further that the bird had been seen in a coastal bay a kilometre north of the house I live in and on the same farm. Imagine still further the news that the bird had flown off shortly after being photographed!! Such was incredulous news received after dark , thereby closing any opportunity to go and look for the bird!!! Worse still was that I was committed to work the following day, that involved leaving in darkness and returning late in the day, and was leaving on a ferry at 0700 hours the day after!!!

Despondency followed!

To date ( 4th February ) the bird has not been relocated, and the weather in between has been filthy with hurricane force winds on the 3rd, followed by heavy rain today. Is there just the outside chance of it being there? Hopefully so, and this weekend someone might just generate such good news following such a series of gut wrenching frustrations! I can imagine quite clearly the areas the bird might just have moved to, if it simply moved along the coast, and effort can be put into giving these a good going over next week when I return to Islay. It would be nice to say, "Watch this space, further news will follow".