Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christmas week

Back to the Whoopers on Boxing Day, they seemed in good form with 4 or 5 full blown trumpeting displays from a circle of birds, as per above. The mud is no better, some seemed to be filter feeding in a couple of inches wet mud a la flamingos but most happily munching provided potatoes (below). Nevertheless a few fights breaking out and vigorous pecking of other birds which had strayed into a favoured patch!

Better success with darvic rings, and pleased to get old friend yellow-PL5 back for 7th winter with us, swapping in 2006 from Martin Mere (where caught and ringed as an adult on 30/1/01) - pic below. Also yellow-X4R is back, first seen last winter and ringed at Martin Mere on 10/2/10. Finally yellow-Z3K is still present, seen here in early November (no history yet). Have updated the darvic histories document, link right menu.

The Queenstonbank Pinks contained one odd goose with some features that I thought matched juv Whitefront, viewed from the track end at Rattlebags quarry. Thursday update - but how wrong I was, it proved to be a small dark aberrant plumaged Pinkfoot, should always have been the first option - oops! Good I returned though, got grey collar PJH again - ringed Lintrathen 20/11/05, seen at Cullicudden on the Black Isle 4-5/11/06, at Skinburness in Lancs on 28/2/07 and by me at Aberlady 2/11/07, another old friend. Also recounted the Whoopers which were nearly all around flood pools on grass at Muirton, made it 238 this time of which 57 juvs (23.9%). If that is accurate then looks like we have retained more juvs, or gained some in exchanges, as the juv count was only 48 back in November!

Also added three atlas tetrad ticks, 3 breeding confirmations from nests, including a rookery of 39 nests just east of East Fortune New Row (how did we miss that in breeding season?!), and 5 count increases (targets file).

Back at Ferny Ness counting scoter again caught sight of a Great Northern Diver fishing offshore NW, very likely the same bird I got briefly last weekend - but this time lingered just long enough between dives to clearly see the lower neck band, a fine bird. 320+ Velvets but many more out of range.

On Christmas Eve morning, 10 Waxwings in flight over Fa'Side Avenue in Wallyford, viewed from A1, presumably same reported early afternoon nearby on Salter's Road.

Saturday update - trip back from Preston up M6/M74/A701 saw a good showing of Kestrel with 7, versus 11 Buzzard, despite generally miserable weather and plenty rain. Kestrels hunting the motorway central reservation in wind and rain with traffic thundering down both sides, how do they do it?! Highlight was Ravens over Shap. Also added Carrion Crow breeding confirm at NT25U (UN) and Siskin in NT13F.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Wknd 22-23 December

Owling in a break in the weather Saturday evening - Tawny Owls at Limetree Walk, Tyninghame, and in holly by minor road south of Gilmerton House (pics) - but drew a blank at other suitable locations and no Barn Owls seen. Probable Woodcock flushed off verge on minor road between North Berwick and Kingston, at Kilmurdie.

Comments posted to SEScotBirdAtlas group on Barn Owls: "Coming back to the issue of Barn Owl numbers, Ray had commented about signs of a recovery but if so would not seem to apply to lowland East Lothian! There are several indicators of a depressed population in Lothian as a whole, including decline of overall annual total of sites where recorded (increased from 35 in 2004 to 100 in 2008, but closer to 30 again last year, despite atlas effort), observed absence from previous regular hunting sites, fewer occupied breeding sites (dropped 8 to 3, in 11 monitored), fewer road casualties (4 last year, 20+ in 3 earlier years since 2004), etc. On top of this there may be clues that we are suffering more, perhaps a lot more, in the lowlands. As discussed with Mike (McDowall) recently it might not be a coincidence that the 4 monitored nest sites below 100m remain vacant (often more extensive better habitat for them on higher ground). Taken all together and with the difficulty in finding them in traditional areas in lowland East Lothian I'd be surprised if we had even a quarter of what existed earlier in the atlas period, perhaps even down towards 10% or so."

Somewhat depressing, but worth monitoring and documenting, one day they will surely be back. Meanwhile turned to the other mid-winter staple when birding becomes tough, the wintering Whoopers. Some nice mounds of potatoes now provided on the ex-landfill near Prora, but unfortunately the whole area a sea of mud effectively defeating attempts at ring-reading (3+ still present, probably including juv red-AVJ). Presumably happy with this food source as many were roosting on the feeding ground by late afternoon. Same problem with seeing the entire flock for a proper count so waited for the roost flight - commenced 16:13hrs (33 minutes after sunset) and proceeded in dribs and drabs, 5 to 30 birds every couple of minutes until typically the largest group was the final batch of 48 birds at 16:37hrs (58 minutes after sunset). A real challenge to get an accurate count at 1 mile range in poor light but the estimate of 237 was 12 more than had achieved in the distant flock count whilst many still massed around food mounds. All seemed to go down to Chapel Farm resr to roost, avoiding having to rise over the railway into the strong wind to reach East Fenton. So again a good number overwintering here, long may it continue. The next challenge will be the WWT census on 15 January which requires an age breakdown! Geese also apparently still around in reasonable numbers too, totalled 1630 Pinks in ploughed fields north of Rattlebags, East Fenton, viewed from Queenstonbank.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Wknd 15-16 December

In reverse chronology - towards dusk on Sunday a small bunch of Waxwings milling over centre of Aberlady village; sensing a chance to track their roost flight pulled in at Gosford bothy and within 5 minutes spotted them (12) striking out across open fields towards Gosford woods, flew in over bothy; can't say how far they were going though! (Appeared again in Douglas Road 08:4hrs Monday).

Aberlady at high tide was covered in wildfowl, well over 1000, of which 275 were Shelduck (rest too tedious to count in failing light!). Other ducks on WeBS were a 1st-win drake Scaup at Chapel and the ad drake Gadwall remaining at East Fortune.

Still 450+ Greylags at potatoes, and the Reed Bunting shown above. Whooper red-BLX remained at Prora where swans gathered at a mound of provided potatoes. Negative on hybrid gulls round Athelstaneford, 42 Golden Plover headed E over Kilduff.

Early afternoon scanned a glassy flat Gosford Bay, totalled 45 Slav Grebes, 55 Long-tailed Duck, 625+ Velvet Scoter, 29 RBM, 4 RTD, most interesting was an all dark apparently larger diver but headed off before I could clinch it. Just shows how much there can be out there when you can see it for once!

Saturday - 12 Waxwings again around west end of Douglas Road, perched in tall birch by tennis courts then going to berries in back gardens south of the road. At least 9 Cormorant and 22 Shag gathered on Cockenzie pier to roost with 8 Common Scoter on the sea there slightly unusual (atlas count increase from one!). Very high tide with water breeching the rebuilt upper shore and spilling onto main road at Seton Burn, much to the delight of a great flock of Black-headed Gulls feeding on debris in the sea.

Back to Friday when there was a bit more wind - scanning off Seton harbour early afternoon, what may be a regular wintering Red-necked Grebe was on the sea with 2 Slavs, also passing: 5 Gannets (4 juvs W), 1 Kittiwake E, 5 Goldeneye W and RTD W/E. 2 Purple Sandpipers on the harbour wall.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Wknd 9-10 December

Friday started well with Waxwings visible from the house, initially 4 then 16 in back gardens further west down Douglas Road; beautiful light briefly but they flew before could get an image - not that my contribution is needed on this front! Early afternoon scanned the Forth from Seton harbour and soon after commencing a distant black speck with characteristic flight action of a medium skua appeared high over mid Forth approaching from NE; tracked it west for 10 mins, it is a tiny speck east of West Lomond (552m) highlighted in image above. Did not engage in any chasing, but not many gulls feeding in the Forth, 40 BHG went west and 20+ were feeding well offshore - certainly less activity than this time last year.

Saturday Waxwings were still present, probably 18+. Then had another look into the Forth, c. 105 Velvet Scoter visible from Ferny Ness, not many grebes though. A few waders on Gosford shore including 296 Barwits, 153 Lapwing, 150+ Knot, 115 Curlew, 53 Dunlin, of which Laps/Curlew were improved counts for atlas; also improved Rock Pipit to 2, this is species 104 for NT47P winter; also added one confirmed breeder with remains of a Magpie nest in the buckthorn.

Then off on ICG goose census - c. 2k Pinks Fenton Barns, c. 1k Prora (stubble)/West Fortune (winter cereal), with 110+ Whoopers at Prora and perhaps 100 at Muirton on grass. c. 380 Greylags at East Fortune, also a drake Gadwall, and 14 Coot the highest count there since 1997. 6 Whoopers on Lochhouses pond but no other Greylags found - none on Gosford shore over an hour after sunset. Definite highlight of the trip was an adult male Peregrine flying up from ploughed field at Brownrigg.

Meanwhile Geoff made a great discovery in identifying and documenting an apparent hybrid Herring x Lesser Blackback at Athelstaneford, surely the same bird I had seen there in February and quite possibly the source of some of the other "YLG" type birds we're seen in the area in recent years. Proof therein of the wisdom of the SBRC policy, in some other areas where Yellow-legged Gull is not rare this type of hybrid could be easily overlooked and reported as the genuine article!

Latest Barn Owl (Whitecraig A1) shown above, quite pale and spotless, may be a male. Whilst standing in Waverley station on platform 19 on Wednesday I was surprised to see directly opposite me on the track a freshly dead Tawny Owl, obviously a casualty struck by a train somewhere outside the station but must have fallen off as it slowed to a halt. This is the first proof I have seen of this, though had heard anecdotal evidence that it is common for Barn Owl, third hand report from railwaymen of "27 Barn Owl casualties on main line through to Drem", passed on to me in May 2007, presumably relating to line from Waverley but have no idea of duration. One report made the paper too.

Sunday - now 466 Greylags + 4 white and 2 grey on potatoes at East Fortune; dusk stake-out at Binning NE for Tawny (again!), negative but a Woodcock flew out to feed 16:10hrs. A Barn Owl perched on hedge by A6137 at Byres 17:20hrs.

Monday morning - Waxwings still present on Douglas Road, heard early morning, then 7 flying around a little later.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Wknd 1-2 December

Gosford shore above, where spent a couple of hours in perishing cold Sat/Sun. Not a lot new but added Rock Pipit to NT47P and watched a Goldcrest feeding in buckthorn, pecking below branches and leaves for whatever remains of last summer's insect life. A Herring Gull was feeding in a novel manner by pecking the underside of the outflow pipe, apparently at the crustaceans. 75 Knot and a few Grey Plover arrived to perch on a tiny bit of exposed pipe at high tide, no Ringed Plover still needed for atlas. Wouldn't even a small manmade island be a valuable addition for waders here? A Crossbill went S.

On Saturday found 1900+ Pinks in harvested potato fields at West Fenton. A careful look revealed just one grey collar (LXB, right - probably ringed in Iceland in 2000, as per various other L codes) plus a light brown leucistic bird with some nearly white tertials. Latter previously at Coates 28/11 per Abbie, at still at West Fenton with 2100+ Pinks on Sunday.

Earlier on Sunday, after a gap of a few weeks since last, a graellsii Lesser Blackback appeared on the Seton Burn, a notably small bird with small rounded head and bright yellow eye - looking suspiciously like "Lucy" - if so her 8th return.

Did the thrush survey again on Sunday, just 7 Blackbird this time, 38 Greylags flew high S over perhaps not locals? Met Fred who told me 11 Waxwings had alighted on the railway walk 150m south of Cottyburn on Friday. At dusk today a Tawny Owl was the focus of much scolding from small passerines around the ivy trees and ruin beside the carpark bridge.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Wknd 24-25 November

Owls were the focus this week as finally got round to doing something more concrete about the gaps mentioned in last week's blog. Summary of sightings on two nocturnal excursions with atlas interpretation:

* Tawny Owl, call, Tyninghame House (NT67E) - tetrad tick
* Tawny Owl, 2, call & in tree by A198, Bruce's Circle, Binning (NT68A) - count increase
* Tawny Owl, on telegraph pole West Craig, Redside (NT58Q)
No Barn Owls along East Lothian lanes, where already recorded in nearly all tetrads!

* Barn Owl, on fence by B6363 Penston (NT47L)
* Tawny Owl, on telegraph pole Nisbet Loanhead, Boggs (NT47K) - tetrad tick
* Tawny Owl, in tree by A6093, Easter Pencaitland, (NT46P) (shown above)
* Tawny Owl, in tree by Halkerston Glen, Middleton (NT35N) - tetrad tick
* Barn Owl, on fence by Pikeham Wood, near Rosebery (NT35I) - tetrad tick
* Barn Owl, on fence by B6372, Arniston (NT35J & NT36F) - both tetrad ticks
* Barn Owl, on fence by A198, St Germains (NT47H)

Also a fresh Barn Owl casualty recovered from A1 by Whitecraig A6124 bridge.

Rain made conditions less than ideal in early hours of Sunday, though seems not to deter hunting Barn Owls. Nice to find some of these in the identified gap in the map in NT35/NT36, clearly they are there and the recorded distribution is still mainly a reflection of coverage; numbers definitely still depressed in East Lothian though, seems a long time ago that I recorded 4 Barn Owls one night along the road to Drem, only 5 miles. The casualty could be a local bird or equally could be a winter migrant from elsewhere, it is well established that dispersing birds are far more likely to perish in this manner.

Missing Tawnies map now updated in last week's blog, still more work to be done in Midlothian. Interesting that one Tawny Owl (Binning Wood) responded to my poor imitation hoot - doubt it was fooled but something stirred it to call; departing from same spot another Tawny was perched not 50m away, it had not called but had perhaps come to investigate the noise?

Another curiosity was to see two Robins out on the road in Longniddry, during continuing rain, at 02:45hrs - presumably taking worms, Jim assures me this is a routine observation under streetlights before dawn.

Switching to white birds, nothing surprising found at Seton - pre-roost on shore at dusk on Saturday included ad Med Gull (probably ringed, but not confirmed), a white darvic BHG (probably one of those reported this autumn from Musselburgh, could not confirm code though), two "pink" Black-headed Gulls of which one was very rosy and two strongly hooded Common Gulls. Had another look for a Cormorant roost at Cockenzie on Sunday afternoon but not many birds there by 15:30hrs, <20.

Tuesday evening - yet again at Seton Chapel in search of Tawny (after several blank visits in the summer), after 10 mins heard a sharp "kwep" which sounded rather more like a Coot than an owl, tried some mouse squeaking and then by the full moon I saw an owl shaped silhouette flying up among the trees south of the east gate, my first confirmed nocturnal visual ID of Tawny Owl. So another is proved to be there where I always suspected it would be given the beautiful habitat, woe betide any mouse creeping around there on a still night like today.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Wknd 17-18 November

The young Red-necked Grebe remained in residence on Saturday, exact same spot on resr; did not disturb it for more photos. The Whoopers had moved from Prora to other ploughed fields, perhaps ex-potatoes, south-west of East Fenton towards Fenton Barns; could not get a good count but 150+ there.

Scanning the Forth produced very little of note - skuas harder to find this year, just a couple of young Gannets and 6+ Slav Grebes off Ferny Ness Saturday, whilst a Black-throated Diver flew W past Port Seton early afternoon Sunday. The latter was my first here since May 2010 - a few possibles/probables in the gap but always tricky to confirm, sometimes easier in flight than on the sea as RTD can often show a white flank patch. Totalled my Lothian divers since 2004 and came to 523 RTD, 15 GND, 11 BTD (and 15 diver sp) which puts confirmed BTD at just below 2%!

Atlas is up and running for the final winter, my main priority will be missing owls and to assist the following two maps show tetrads where recorded in breeding but not yet in winter (updated to 25/11):

Three visits to New Winton/Boggs drew a blank but I believe Tawnies are there so will try again. Any assistance with these gaps most welcome - also for three other resident species shown below. In general struggling to find new tetrad ticks in our area, just 4 so far in 7 trips round East Lothian since 1 November (so 11 in total with those added by Jim/Abbie), though quite a few count increases with flocks of various species feeding inland in mild conditions/following ploughs.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Wknd 10-11 November

A 1st-win Red-necked Grebe at East Fenton Farm resr was a first for me on my WeBS circuit, indeed it may be a first record "inland" in this area. Came within 20m fishing, rather too close to digiscope but got one above and a few below as it sailed away. Checking previous inland winter records these are less than annual in Lothian: Duddingston Jan 2006; Gladhouse Jan 2002; Linlithgow Feb 1999; Gladhouse, Seafield Pond, Lochhouses Pond, Linlithgow, Duddingston, Cobbinshaw Jan-Mar 1996, Linlithgow Nov 1996; Linlithgow Feb 1988, Whiteadder Oct 1982, Feb 1983, Harperrig Apr 1979. Most records on large waters in late winter.

Whoopers still numbered at least 290 on Saturday, now feeding in (presumed) harvested potato fields N of Prora; watched at dusk Sunday to get the roost details, 182 flew from 16:35hrs onwards, with 25% going to Chapel resr and the rest to East Fenton Farm resr (the usual main roost for this herd in recent years), the last birds going at 16:59hrs (50 mins after sunset).

On goose census, 310+ Greylags (including 6 white/grey birds) at East Fortune, also a drake Gadwall there. Drake Pochard back at Chapel (returning?), a fine drake Goosander with 5 f/imm. Approx 100 Greylags roosted on Gosford Sands both nights, observed over an hour after sunset though as pure silhouettes.

Previously, on Friday, small flocks of Waxwings over home, Seton Chapel and Joppa cemetery, all in flight SW observed from my work commute.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Wknd 3-4 November

Whoopers at Prora now number 290+; I made it 39+ juvs (12.8%) but Ian saw 46; these totals obtained Sunday after struggling to count them on Saturday with flock spread all over the ex-landfill site, feeding mainly in stubble but also going onto flood water and roaming around. Two new darvics were confirmed, yellow-P4C (ad) and red-AVJ (juv) - latter on the left above - Ian added red-BLX and yellow-Z3K (ads).

View of most of flock on Sunday obtained from the top of the Hopetoun monument (c. 300 swans visible but 2 were Mutes, 7 more Whoopers on grass west of the railway at Prora Farm), plus some other landscape views - view towards coast (Dunbar cement works visible on horizon) and towards Edinburgh (our power station still operational, but possibly for not that much longer).

Also on Saturday - four domestic Greylags plus the resident white-faced grey hybrid goose in field west of East Fortune. The white birds actually had some brown in primaries and partial tail-bands which may assist it tracking them, presumably the same were reported the previous day from Tyninghame. There was a further pale hybrid goose with them at East Fortune, much paler than the resident grey hybrid.

Later on Sunday, Tawny calling at Drem Ride (NT48V), not a new tetrad though. NB - winter atlas tetrad priorities, for final season, are here. The green is really for diurnal species though, gaps in the nocturnal map are still apparent, I hope to get to Midlothian at some point in the winter as the Tawny map there is still pretty thin.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Wknd 27-28 October

On Saturday morning - a few Fieldfare NW over, 2 Swallows past, Bonxie(s) in the Forth and 185 Velvets off Ferny Ness (breakdown c. 95 ad m, 87 ad f, 3 juv); also an intriguing small falcon high over pursued by crow. Full counts.

Seton at dusk - one ad Med Gull, nice bright bird with good mask, on shallows at Long Craigs, just one ad LBB remaining, 41 Wigeon. Roost disturbed as usual by the resident chap who feeds the swan, tying it to this spot for perhaps 2 years now; noted tonight the other birds which have learnt of this free food source, 6 Carrion Crows appeared and were they only ones brave enough to get in close, swan took a swipe at one; behind them a gathering of gulls led by 2 ad GBB, plus several Herring and BHG - perhaps a selection that had had a poor day trying to get meals of their own?

Started the BTO thrush survey Saturday, choose the railway walk from Cottyburn which is entirely lined with berry bushes, mainly haws, also hips and elderberries, having had hundreds of thrushes there during atlas visits - not so many this time but got Blackbird, Redwing and Fieldfare - hardest part was determining the food source as inevitably they flush from bushes unless you approach with great caution, but two Blackbirds flew from elderberries which are perhaps 1% of all the berries there.

Sunday - 184 Whoopers at Prora/East Fenton; almost all of the 29 juvs were amongst the 52 birds on the west of the ex-landfill towards Prora, breakdown of family parties of juvs perhaps 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 2 and 1. Overall this is a poor ratio at 15.8% though.

Also at East Fenton - 3 Magpies! My first record here was Feb 2011, following first at Chapel in Jan 2010. We've seen a significant expansion of this species in the local atlas, which is probably mainly due to reduction of persecution, so why are these colonists not being removed?

At Ferny Ness not a great deal passing - 6 Crossbills in the morning and a juv skua, probably Pomarine, at dusk (full counts). Also at dusk 3 ad Med Gulls by the Seton Burn, plus the yellow darvic 2XCN BHG again, fortunately the closest bird (ringed on the Ythan on 2 September, caught while mist-netting terns at night per Calum, for GRG). All gulls cleared off the shore 16:30hrs, this time not the swan man but another common ocurrence, ad m Peregrine flying throo (presumably en route to its roost somewhere west).

10 Waxwings over Wednesday morning, counts. [No pics, camera in poor shape]

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Wknd 20-21 October

49 Mutes on St Margaret's on Sunday, looking picturesque but being overfed on white bread as per usual, despite large signs to the contrary! Got 23 rings, though not red-Y710 which was seen last month (info per Allan Brown that the latter was ringed as a cygnet at Pepper Arden Bottoms, North Cowton, near Richmond, Yorkshire (NZ297027) on 27 September 2010, has been at St Margaret's since March; this is the first Mute Swan I've seen locally from further than Northumbs - all that way to sit on a pond eating bread! Apparently some of Allan & Lyndesay's birds reported recently from Newcastle/Durham area, heading in the other direction...).

On the Seton Burn a yellow darvic BHG, brief excitement thinking it might be returning N141 (which may be the only Scottish-Spanish exchange) but found it was a 1st-win with four alpha characters, seemed to be ZXCN.

Turns out it was most likely 2XCN, thus ringed in NE Scotland (the Z codes for Slovak republic don't have four letters, not to mention highly unlikely!) Also on the burn a 1st-win Med Gull.

Out of the area Thu-Sat, in Santander, Cantabria for a conference, spectacular scenery and a nice dusk movement of Yellow-legged Gulls along the coast, and Mediterranean Gulls on the shore. No repeat of the Audouin's we were lucky to find in neighbouring San Vicente de la Barquera in June 2006 (2nd for Cantabria). Best were the egrets, flocks totalling several hundreds milling over the fields inland from Cantabria all visible from the plane as it came in from the south; unfortunately could not distinguish Little from Cattle at that height, on our 2006 trip we saw a large mixed colony at Santillana zoo of roughly equal proportions.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Wknd 13-14 October

Long-tailed Duck above, not a rare bird round here but rather erratic inland (only previous here was 11/11/07) - this one on Chapel farm resr on Sunday; think it's ad f. Also f/imm Pintail at Drem pools (first there since 1997) and Kingfisher at East Fortune (2nd record, after one in autumn 2008). I heard the latter last month but could not get a view of it to confirm; these ponds have no flowing waterway, nearest such is the Peffer Burn about a mile south but it's not big and never heard of any Kingfisher report there, so more likely from the Tyne c. 3 miles south - amazing to think of it zipping along over the fields! 52 Whoopers in stubble at New Mains included a group of 3 juvs. A total of only 4 Greylags found though, for the latest instalment of the (not wild) goose chase :(

Also popped in to Seacliff, first visit for a while, but where on many previous occasions I have failed to find any interesting drift migrants - same again today! Numerous Goldcrests in coastal buckthorn all the way to Chapel Brae very hard to estimate totals but sitting patiently eventually 5 or 6 would come into view at location of squeaking; amongst them a single Willow Warbler calling (not that common in mid-Oct), also plenty of Blackbirds and a few of Song Thrush but no Redwing. A male Merlin whizzed past S, whilst a juv f Peregrine came low overhead giving a brilliant view, also had a full crop so presumably just cruising around for fun.

In c. 30 mins watching offshore 3 Bonxies went NW inside the Bass Rock, plus 4 Common Scoter and an intermediate juv Arctic Skua was hunting. Just c. 350 Gannets visible on the rock, perhaps two hundred mainly adult birds over the sea; scarcely a juv in sight, yet just round the corner in the Forth it is almost the opposite with juvs dominant late in the year.

Hundreds of large gulls moving generally N over at dusk, some were headed out towards the Bass presumably to roost there, the rest rounded the corner towards the other islands. Also had a look at the Cormorants at dusk to see if any clue on their roosting, numbers on the rocks at Great Car had dropped from mid-afternoon so perhaps they had also gone out to the islands? Have previously logged up to 60 on Cockenzie power station pier at dusk, only on one occasion though (19/10/09), I suspect their roosting behaviour locally remains very much an unknown! A Scottish Cormorant roost survey has been mooted and indeed there is one commencing in Cumbria - so it would be nice to know where to look!

No birding Saturday (Little Grebe on pond of East Links family park!) but coming back a female Merlin put on a great show along the minor road west from Fenton Barns, perched 3 times by the road, then heading off hunting over the road, followed just 10m behind for a distance by an adult male Sparrowhawk - no apparent antagonism between the two and I guess they both knew the other might flush something - a wonderful sight of this fearsome duo. Seems our small falcons do very little by the way of cooperative/collaborative hunting, even Sparrowhawk pairs, though it is known amongst other falcon species - but I guess this observation was a pure coincidence.

Gosford shore at dusk on Saturday held a good block of 850+ Golden Plover.

Back to Friday and it seems the great thrush arrival on the coast passed us by - when there were many thousands passing along the Fife coast (Inverkeithing, Anstruther) and arriving at St Abbs. Having said that, interest in vismig and common migrants (contra rare birds) is generally very low so it may well be they were seen and not reported? Looking off Cockenzie early afternoon there were plenty birds in the Forth, including 4+ Little Gulls and a few Common Scoter passing - 3 Bonxies too, how many skuas could have been logged with a full day's watch?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Forth Guillemot wreck

View above from Ferny Ness on Thursday evening, a nice scene except for the fact that there were now 12 dead Guillemots in a 200m stretch, and more beyond! Next shot is the auk hunt team, operating for 10p per bird:

More seriously, there have been some recent discussions of the reasons for the current auk wreck in the Forth, with many displaced seabirds heading inland too, including Guillemots both far inland and in exceptional numbers on some inland waters. One possible explanation is that this is a result of a shortage of food in a wider area, these being food stressed birds which have come to the Forth due to absence of normal feeding in their usual areas. However I suspect that this is not the whole story. Perhaps on the contrary it was relatively good feeding earlier this year that has drawn greater numbers of seabirds into the Forth - witness the earlier fish shoals which attracted hordes of feeding gulls and Gannets, and the exceptional influx of terns from earlier in the summer. Certainly terns were taking sandeels earlier but gulls, terns and auks were seen all seen taking sprats at shoals in August (was it a coincidence the pilot whales appeared around the same time?)

It was in August that the auk numbers ramped up markedly with estimates of thousands on the sea off Musselburgh and in Gosford Bay; one can only presume their arrival at that stage was nothing to do with hardship but more about the shoals of sprats, and/or, other fish (cf. discussion of seasonal trend in diet in earlier blog post). In many thousands some are always destined to perish in the challenge of feeding themselves, especially young birds, so some mortality would have been expected (we have this every year with young Gannets). More recently they have presumably been hampered by strong winds in stormy weather last week; until the winds increased I suspect there may not have been any greater numbers of fatalities than occur normally, pro rata, but now it seems that we are definitely experiencing a significant wreck (cf. also report of 91 dead Guillemots in 2.5 km at Blackness on 27 September).

Referencing the Bird Study paper [1] on the 1983 wreck we find these observations:

The total of 34,000 birds killed in the latest wreck exceeds the highest kill previously recorded in a wreck in Britain.

Most of the corpses examined during the wreck were emaciated (Hope Jones et al 1984), indicating that the birds had been in poor physical condition before their deaths. There was no evidence of any infectious disease.

Most wrecks of seabirds are associated with severe weather conditions such as storms and gales, and these are likely to contribute to the deaths of the birds. Storm conditions can influence mortality by (a) displacing birds perhaps to areas with less food, (b) by making food more difficult to obtain or (c) through increased heat loss and battering. Birkhead (1976) suggested that Guillemots may have difficulty in finding and capturing food when strong winds cause rough seas. The severe westerly gales in January 1983 may have displaced auks from northern waters into more sheltered areas in the North Sea. In January, particularly high numbers of auks were seen close inshore in Shetland.

The arrival of dead and dying birds along the east coast closely followed the 5 February change in wind direction from westerly to easterly. A routine Beached Bird Survey at the end of January had not revealed any unusually high or low densities of auks on either the east or west coast, but on the Continent high numbers of corpses had been reported from at least mid-January and in some areas from December. It would appear that the birds were dying some time before British beaches received unusual numbers of corpses.

Despite the storm around 25 September (which brought Leach's Petrels to this same spot) it seems odd that it could have had such a drastic impact on these auks, which much be pretty hardy creatures wintering offshore in much worse weather. But perhaps timing is the key, if those perishing are mainly young inexperienced birds then perhaps they were not yet adequately prepared for severe weather?

Thus it would also be worth examining these corpses to age them, comments from Mike Harris per forthbirding post: "Birds are aged using the greater (longest) underwing coverts. In 1st winter birds these have obvious clearly defined white tips. Older birds have grey coverts. Birds with silvery white tips without a clear border between grey and whitish should not be classified." See also ageing manual on

Some examples below from the birds at Ferny Ness:

Seems those above are indeed youngsters (as were probably 4 out of 6 birds examined carefully, a very small sample though) - the three lower images above are all from one individual very freshly dead, now sent for post mortem.

Three photos below are apparently an adult, in full primary moult when it died (per BWP, adult post-breeding moult "Starts with head and body in late July, completed November. Primaries late July to September; shed within 1–3 days. Secondaries late August to late September. Flightless for c. 45–50 days, until primaries 70–80% grown".

Gulls may be playing some role in dispatching many of these birds - such as the young GBB killing one on adjacent Gosford Sands on Sunday; someone else mentioned to me 8 auks floating in sea off Portobello on 27 September, and witnessing "at least 3 being killed by gulls [twice by Great Black Backed and once a Herring Gull] by drowning. Each time they grabbed them whilst a "feeding frenzy" was going on and then drowned them, on each occasion they gave up trying to eat them as it seemed to difficult to do this in the water and just left them floating."

Another unexplained feature is all these dead birds seem to be Guillemots, whilst I had estimated 60% of the 850 auks visible in Gosford Bay on 24 August were Razorbills - so why the apparent difference in mortality now - where have all the Razorbills gone?

To end of a positive note, there was a further paper on the 1983 wreck, this being an assessment of impact on subsequent breeding, which determined this to be relatively minor [2]. So hopefully they will bounce back again this time too.

[1] Underwood, L.A. & Stowe, T.J. (1984) "Massive wreck of seabirds in eastern Britain", Bird Study 31:2, 79-88
[2] Harris, M.P. & Wanless, S. (1984) "The effect of the wreck of seabirds in February 1983 on auk populations on the Isle of May (Fife)", Bird Study 31:2, 103-110

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Wknd 29-30 September

Grey goose count on Sunday - did a big circuit of East Lothian - Pinks included 3470 at Elvingston/Cottyburn, 2230 at Brownrigg, 1550 at Queenstonbank (one silver collar, probably TVT, see below), plus another 1800 over the house at dusk when arriving home; some of c. 1k Barnacles at Aberlady pictured above. Also en route: 2 Shoveler and f/imm Scaup at Chapel, f/imm Wheatear Brownrigg, 8 ad Whoopers Lochhouses with 55 Pied Wags with one ad m White Wag in turf fields by entrance road, and a fine ad Peregrine hunting Scoughall.

Predictable stuff too on morning watch from Ferny Ness, 2 Bonxie & 8 RTD W past, ad Med Gull on the shore. Sandwich Terns still in residence with 8 feeding way offshore out in a windy Forth. Ailing Guillemots still apparent, one still alive was dispatched in a messy manner by a young Great Blackback in Gosford Sands shallows, which was later displaced by an adult, whilst 4 more lay on the shore at Ferny Ness, 3 in a row on the upper beach.

Just before midnight on Monday a flock of yapping Barnacle Geese went over SW (full moon, cloudless) whilst early Tuesday more went over in a clear blue sky, flock 130 plus 8 in another flock of Pinks. House Martins suddenly absent.

Wednesday - recovered this fresh Barn Owl casualty of the A1 westbound entrance slip at A720 junction, Old Craighall. 21 Barnacles went S over house.

Thursday - 4 ad Whoopers SE over Port Seton shops, also c. 875 Golden Plovers on the rocky shore at Long Craigs and ad Med Gull (unringed) by the burn. At Blindwells lots of Skylarks chasing around, some in song in the sunshine, also f/imm Shoveler and f/imm Gadwall still in with the 20 Wigeon. Chiffchaffs constantly calling.