Saturday, 30 March 2013

Easter weekend

Saturday - despite the snow the last batch of Whoopers seem to have bailed out during the week, just two ad+juv remaining amongst Mutes at Rogarth, West Fortune, later looking isolated grazing alone on the grass at Muirton. Photo of juv above, green-NFU darvic behind (also NLD, NLT and NZU (juv) there), ad below. Per Abbie there had still been 39 Whoopers there on Wednesday and the Bewick's was still amongst 54 present on Tuesday. Anyway, there they go for another year, and no sign of much in the way of migrants to replace them yet - though will be busy again soon with effort towards the final breeding atlas about to commence on Monday!

En route today an ad m Peregrine in transit, and remains of a Barn Owl found, feathers of most of right wing and some body feathers just off the road near North Berwick Law rookery/pond, bird must have perished, perhaps some time in the winter but for unknown reasons but possibly a road casualty? The last recovered from A1 at St Clements Wells in last week of atlas was another young female, in excellent physical condition (5/5 body score, ample fat, 2 small field mice in gizzard, well-filled intestines, uterus pregravida).

Recent rookery counts: 141 Craig Wood, Whitekirk [NT58V] (up from 106 7/4/12), 116 North Berwick Law [NT58L] (108 in 2008, 67 in 2006), 112 Common Strip, Archerfield, 108 Traprain [NT57X], 84 Cairndinnis [NT57S] (breeding not confirmed yet in atlas!), 81 Longniddry station/Kitchener's Crescent [NT47N] (92 on 24/3/12, rising to 117 final count), 59 East Fortune [NT57P] (39 nests in December), 44 Coldale [NT57L], 32 Gladsmuir church [NT47L], 29 Phantassie, East Linton [NT57Y], 24 Meadowmill [NT47C] (28 last year), 21 Macmerry [NT47L] (24 last year), 19 Seton Sands [NT47C] (18 last year), c. 18 Pencraig Wood [NT57T] (48 in 1993), 16 Dirleton Main Road [NT58C] (52 in 1991), 12 Drem [NT57E] (19 last year, 33 in 1992), 12 Haddington memorial garden [NT57C], just 6 Amisfield Park, Haddington [NT57C] (22 last year, 21 in 2009); where no previous counts mentioned in this list there are none in database since 1991. Aiming to get complete 10km counts for NT47 and NT57 (expect both to top 400 nests) and assist Mark/Jim with theirs in NT48, NT58 (now 385) and NT68, then to compare to data from 1975 census.

Sunday - rookery trek round NT57 as per above additions, highlight was a female Merlin in fields between Seggarsdean and West Bearford, SE of Haddington. Also a great number of Buzzard including one in a full blown sky-diving display over Fernyness Wood by Gosford sawmill. Per BWP "Sky-dance display-flight of plunge-and-swoop type by male, sometimes while still holding object in feet. Bird: (1) sweeps up into wind with a few wing-beats and fast glide, (2) stalls as body becomes vertical, (3) tips forward and dives on closed or part-closed wings for up to 200 m before (4) checking on spread wings and (5) shooting up again; may loop-the-loop, at least occasionally. Sequence often repeated 12 or more times." I witnessed two consective steep plunges but was too far off (at Garleton monument) to see if it was playing the associated dropping and catching game.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Wknd 23-24 March

Sunday - checked Whoopers at Muirton, finally got the left leg yellow darvic, V6P, also a new red darvic AFD (probably same as unconfirmed at same location 25/2/12, 11/3/12), with red-BLX still present, 11 juvs in 38, rising to 44 birds at dusk; these two new rings suggest some of these are passage birds, the main flock have already left; nearby in oilseed rape by Rogath, West Fortune, only 6 Whoopers (2 juvs) remained, with 23 Mutes, also smaller dusky juv swan asleep in middle of field, which when I went back at 17:25hrs and was able to see only 100m in from the road was clearly a Bewick's, pic above (my first in Lothian, indeed Scotland, I never caught up with this species in NE Scotland - my only previous flock was at Marshside RSPB a very long time ago!). Bewick's were a former scare wintering species in this area (Drem/Fenton Barns/Brownrigg) from at least 1980, but last recorded in winter 1995/96.

On Saturday, with an E6 wind continuing it seemed a good day to look out to sea - managed an hour from Dunbar seafront before the kids were fed up; nothing unusual seen, Fulmars most promiment just playing in the wind as they glided past barely a flap needed (69, all the near ones were double-light), adult Gannets and the odd Kittiwake, plus a pair each of Shelduck and Wigeon both S. 4 Goldeneye flew in to join 2 the bay, with a single Red-throated Diver also present. Will have missed some birds due to strong buffetting of wind and poor visibility at times due to snow.

In the harbour some uneaten sandwiches brought in a instant cloud of gulls, one ringed Herring G****29, presumably a local bird.

Only 17 Whoopers at Muirton but found another 12 (3 juv) with 19 Mutes about a mile south in cereal south of West Fortune farm, never previously seen swans there. Will check for rings Sunday, assuming they are unlikely to depart in current weather! [Postscript - see above, one of the 3 juvs must have been the Bewick's, birds were west of B1343 so c. 1km distant - should have been alert to possibility of Bewick's then but was in a hurry to get kids to pool in Dunbar!]

Rookery count - 27 nests at Phantassie, East Linton; attempting to do a full 10km count for NT47/NT57, needs to be done in next couple of weeks.

Best came last with a stunningly beautiful Barn Owl hunting the B1377 verges in full daylight just before 18:00hrs. Perhaps hungry due to wind impacting night hunting, though daylight hunting also attributed to males provisioning females for egg laying. Hard to know from flight views but the rather buff upper breast made me suspect it was a female. Camera batteries had expired but Joanne acted quickly to get it on video via mobile phone (link).

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Wknd 16-17 March

Whoopers on grass at Muirton numbered 38 (10 juvs), 2 yellow darvics, both left leg, one being the individual with darvic attached to the foot, seen at Prora in Feb (below), code still not confirmed but perhaps DV3. A fine display by an adult Peregrine powering in over the fields which for weeks have contained Curlew and flushing at least 80 of them, did not see it catching anything though.

Seton harbour dusk Saturday, fishing boat LH42 came in from Fife side - initially not visible (below horizon) but marked by flock of Gannets plunge diving, eventually came into the harbour at 18:45hrs, 30 mins after sunset, with 30 ad Gannet (and gathering of large gulls) around it until last kilometer when they steadily peeled off. Last Gannets seen heading NW offshore 18:47hrs. So where do Gannets roost? Per Bryan Nelson's book "The Gannet": "the can live at sea indefinitely, roosting on the water in the wildest of winter weather". Other roost movements noted were: Red-throated Diver E at 18:22hrs, the usual sea duck mainly W but also some E, 20+ GBB west (not east to islands) some alighting on Cockenzie pier amongst the Cormorants - but only a handful of the latter and I still wonder also where this species congregates to roost locally.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Wknd 9-10 March

Sunday - around WeBS, on farm resrs: drake Scaup East Fenton, 3 Goldeneye Chapel, pr Red-breasted Merganser East Fortune; 47 Whoopers in cereal S of Drem pools, flew E, later 30 in cereal (above, below wind turbines) and 6 on grass either side of Muirton all unringed, included juvs 5, 3 & 3; also still 3 on the ex-landfill.

Perishingly cold at the Seton Sands roost at dusk on Saturday but a good influx of small gulls (5k+), seemingly finding something interesting to eat in the shallows with the tide way out. 3 ad Lesser Blackbacks was a small increase but no big arrival round here yet, seem to be slow off the mark this year! A single ad Med Gull seemed to be unringed. 20 Kittiwakes passed east in 10 minutes, 2 tarrocks.

Have noted several nests appearing in bare trees, these being due to Woodpigeons and I guess in many previous years I would have overlooked - but recognise they are new now otherwise would already have recorded for atlas!

Pr Oycs (below) remained at King's Building to end of the week.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Wknd 2-3 March

Most effort this week on the conclusion of winter atlas (earlier blog), so mainly recovering at weekend!

Saturday - the Mutes in cereal south of Old Waughton increased to 10, only one ringed, metal-ringed left juv (above), could not read the ring! A Kestrel there a sad road casualty (a male, have not attempted to age it yet, might be possible).

Sunday - Whoopers not at Drem where last seen on Thursday, but back on the top bank at ex-landfill at Prora where earthworks during the week; not sure what remains to eat, anyway total numbers have suddenly dropped from 200+ to just 42. Expect even these will soon be on their way. Apparent clear-out of duck from farm resrs too.

A drake Gadwall was dabbling in the Peffer Burn east of the village green at Aberlady.

At Ferny Ness calm conditions presented chance to count they great array of birds on the sea - but just too many scoter and seaduck and many very distant so concentrated on grebes, 72 Slavonians at least, only one Red-necked spotted.

Oycs have moved in at work (roof of Fleeming Jenkin, King's Buildings) - first recorded back here and at Cameron Toll on 18 February.

Conclusion of winter atlas

Most activity in the final week was owling, as local atlas fieldwork concluded after 6 years. Could not have asked for better weather, full moon and final two nights could have heard a pin drop at times. Highlights - finally getting Tawnys at Kamehill/East Fortoun (NT57U) and in Craigs Wood, Dirleton (NT58B). At former site (failed stake-out last weekend) tried 3 hours before dawn in ideal conditions, got an immediate response to my hoot from south of Kamehill, which then prompted reply from woods S of East Fortoun - nothing better to get owls calling than another owl! Moved on to the Dirleton site, this was approximately the 10th visit, and Jim had been at dusk the previous evening again drawing a blank - on arrival before having chance to generate any hoots heard a vocal pair moving throo the wood from the west, and at least one more in kewick call further N in Archerfield.

Early on final evening first went to Amisfield Park by Haddington, some ideal habitat around the walled garden but negative on Tawny. Did flush a Woodcock, and soon after had a proper roding sneeze note - not proper evidence of breeding interest but with eggs often laid in March* so roding must often commence in February. Later that evening went back to Ormiston area - on the minor road west out of the village under again ideal completely calm conditions immediately got distant wailing Tawny hoots from direction of Ormiston Hall, then replies from Cousland Park - the former approx one mile distant, the latter one mile from the first and about 1km from me. Magic to hear their exchanges in the dark and to appreciate they will probably have all their neighbours mapped out and known from these types of conversations - Tawny calls apparently can be recognised to individual bird even by humans. Also got Oyc tick near there at Caerlaverock Farm and Wolfstar, the latter a 10km tick for NT46 previously looked for when BTO Atlas was concluding, not that this matters any more. Moved on to Fountainhall near Pencaitland (NT46I) and on arrival a Tawny in SW corner of the Big Wood was giving loud kewick calls, obviously as alarm at arrival of car/light at this remote spot. So the final winter atlas tick at 10 minutes to midnight, a reminder that our coverage will remain incomplete - there presumably have been owls resident there throughout the 6 years of fieldwork!

Together with third party reports concluded with 7 more Tawny additions this week taking total to 21, the latest map now as per above (10+ Borders records updated 5/3). So we have c. 86 Tawny Owl presence records in interconnected tetrads in northern East Lothian, with just 14 blanks in a block of 100 tetrads, all but two of which (NT46T Saltoun Forest, NT67J Fir Links Wood) have <5% mapped wooded area (now indicated by X on map) - though even in these we have reports of their occasional or regular presence (NT58G, NT57J) so they will surely occur in all tetrads from time to time. Did not have time to really get anywhere beyond this area, which is effectively only about a half of East Lothian, in turn a third of Lothian, in turn a third of South-east Scotland area - so this area of more intense coverage is roughly just 5% of the total tetrads in South-east Scotland Atlas (1770). Thus it does not assist much with the regional species map but it does provide useful evidence on local status.

At the end of the project I realise how poor was my strategy for owling at the start, and more as a note to self I summarise some of the main rules:

  • Weather is key, if at all possible choose a calm night when your audible range extends dramatically, moreover the owls may be more inclined to communicate with one another. They presumably also hunt much more successfully when calm so might have more time for social interaction.
  • Timing is also very important - Tawnys will often call around dusk, sometimes before sunset but especially in the first hour after, when they start getting active; but in the mood they can be calling at any time of the night, also occasionally by day.
  • Watch out for noise interference; at sites near roads dusk visits can be poor due to traffic noise, thus try same very late or towards dawn; any rain can have a very bad impact on audibility due to drips on leaves, strong wind is worse; the dawn chorus, and dusk quivalent, can be a significant problem from late January, particularly Song Thrush and Robin singing in the hour after dusk can make it hard to heard distant calls.
  • Do what you can to provoke calling, while being mindful of disturbing their breeding preparations. No more than once per site is required if a reply comes. A lure could be use, but I have only used hooting with cupped hands. It is vital that fingers are slightly wet (small bottle of water needed) otherwise a wuffly sound tends to result; with a good seal you can produce a far-carrying ocarina hoot without too much trouble; per BWP a standard hoot call is this pure hoot, followed by a gap of 2-5 seconds, then the brief "hu" call and the wavering hoot, quite easy to generate with a little practice; however I suspect any approximation to a hoot can be enough to rouse their interest.
  • If you get one hoot don't leave immediately but make sure there are no replies from other birds nearby, you might get two additions or a count increase once they are calling to each other.
  • It takes very little to provoke alarm calls from a Tawny, indeed any loud noise seems to work (witnessed from gun fire/fireworks), perhaps not to be recommended but I do try clapping on occasion; but more relevant in many cases is the sound and lights from a car, anywhere where traffic is not routine, e.g. woodland track - listen immediately on arrival as bird may withdraw from "threat".
  • Seasonal variation - not sure I have detected any of this, under right conditions can be very vocal any time of the year suspect other factors (above) more important.
  • Persistence; we might imagine that with a strongly resident species they like the same patch of wood and stay there; evidence from repeated visits to same sites (5-10 visits for several sites before first found) suggests not, they will roam around at least within an area of a tetrad, thus if you can't hear them at greater range, or prompt them to call, there is no substitute for going back several times
  • Except residents' reports of course, always worth asking as it might be surprising where they are regularly heard, even in unpromising locations.
  • Finally presence can be confirmed by other signs, pellets, feathers, etc. Have so far devoted no effort to locating such as it is probably pretty inefficient on average.

By contrast, final efforts for Barn Owl were unproductive. Scoured the area from Cousland (NT36Z) to East Linton (NT57Y) on the Tuesday evening along corridor S of Tyne, where many remaining gaps in map (above), but neither that trip nor the others produced any - the only exception being one recovered freshly dead on the A1 at St Clement's Wells (below). Other reports suggest there are still good numbers e.g. in parts of the Borders but again the difficulty of finding any in lowland East Lothian reaffirms view of very depressed numbers. It also serves to reemphasise how the main roads can be a blackhole for them - the few that encounter them, often young birds wandering from natal areas, often do not last long.

Other atlassing was mainly towards plugging those remaining annoying gaps in maps of very common species - mopped up Herring Gull for NT68A, Pheasant for NT57Y and Rook for NT47U, also Skylark and Oystercatcher becoming very widespread and surely with extensive coverage in the last week of February the mapped distributions would be very much more complete. After several dedicated trips in search of Grey Partridge in my home tetrad (NT47N), and of course lots of casual observations, had depressingly concluded they had gone since I logged them early on for breeding, but am now informed per landowner/farmer they have been regular this winter around Harelaw/Redhouse. Another message we seem to be getting all the time, the immense value of third party reports from residents, all comes down to time in the field and there's no substitute for living/working there!

The final list of targets found ranks as follows, after Tawny:

  1. Linnet 10
  2. Pied Wagtail 10
  3. Black-headed Gull 10
  4. Jay 9
  5. Treecreeper 9
  6. Feral Pigeon 8
  7. Tree Sparrow 8
  8. Meadow Pipit 7.5
  9. Brambling 7
  10. Bullfinch 7
  11. Goldcrest 7
  12. Long-tailed Tit 7
  13. Magpie 7
  14. Mute Swan 7
  15. Skylark 7

So now rest for one month (needed) before even greater exertions are required to finish up the breeding atlas. Actually, for Tawny Owl which is so resident, there must be a value in combined breeding/winter maps so I will not be going all out to prove presence again in all of same tetrads - breeding will be the main focus.

* Hoodless & Coulson (1998) Breeding biology of the Woodcock Scolopax rusticola in Britain, Bird Study 42, 5, 195-204