Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Christmas and New Year

Geese in flight over Redhouse above, where up to 2600 seen daily from 30 December to 4 January, though often flushed and also making use of fields along B1377 all the way from Longniddry to Drem. Views at Harelaw in good light on 29 December allowed us to spot 4 tundra Beans in their midst, with also two European White-fronts, 4 Barnacle Geese and now a dark-bellied Brent also being seen in these same flocks with c. 4k reported to be roosting at Aberlady. My own photos rather poor but record shots below of a Bean and a Whitefront.

Bean Geese of the tundra (rossicus) race were first definitively identified in Lothian in 1996, based on two birds in an influx of 8 to 23 Bean Geese, though all of them likely to have been tundra given a wider invasion along the east coast. Thereafter there were 2 at Skateraw in Jan-Feb 2006, a single at the same place in Feb 2009, a single at Tyninghame and Redhouse in Apr 2010 and zeros every other year with the exception of the huge influx in winter 11/12 with 86+ birds minimum, of which the largest flock (59+) was in the very same field at Harelaw in late December. So overall that is only 5 previous winters and clearly a hugely erratic visitor to us with wild fluctuations in numbers. The way we are heading perhaps this will prove to be the second best year for this species here?

Swans are the other staple of this time of year and after a poor start with only 155 present in early December a fresh influx had arrived by the 28th with 256 at Prora. The latter is a new peak wintering count here, though we have had more during influxes in early November (peak 340 in 2007) they have not stayed to winter. Nevertheless we have dropped back again from the threshold of 270 birds averaged over 5 years that is required to meet the criteria of an internationally important site, having briefly attained that at the lower threshold of 210 birds in 09/10, see graph:

This all assumes that the "western" East Lothian (Drem area) flock is a discrete unit, while we do know from ring reading that there can be some exchange with the other main concentration at Tyninghame just 10km east. This year's flock are now feeding in oilseed rape so ring-reading is a challenge, but we do have back for a fourth year running yellow-46I which formerly had spent 3 winters on the Blackwater in southern Ireland (Co Waterford/Cork), and ringed in Iceland in 2003. Two new birds yellow-G5F and G5J likely from Martin Mere. Juvs ratio is very close to 20%, with 8 broods in 102 birds probably b5, b4, 3xb3, 2xb2.

On owls, recovered a Barn Owl from the A1 at Greendykes in December, but this was just the third of the year, continuing a trend of decline in such as per graph below. 2010 in fact was marginally the worst calendar year (21, versus 20 in 2005 and 2006) with a spate of casualties in cold weather at each end of the year, but I believe this plot commencing post-breeding (i.e. September) is a better picture of annual variation, as most casualties are young(er) birds moving in winter. I do now wonder whether the excessive numbers in 2005 and 2006 were do to ongoing colonisation, whereas more birds in our area are now settled? 20 years ago at the time of the last local atlas there were only a handful of sightings in East Lothian, the only confirmed breeders were at the head of the Tyne valley, the expansion here has occurred since that date.

More positively on owls it was apparently a great year for local breeders - with 12 broods of Long-eared Owl, the most for many a year. Poses many Qs about where they were all hiding last year when we made special efforts to find them as the local atlas concluded! Presumably also due to vole abundance, this summer was also great for local Barn Owls - out looking for Quail by bike I came across one and very fortuitously had it carrying off a rodent within a few seconds; this was followed by pleasant late summer evenings watching this and others hunting local meadows and attending a nest at a natural site, though a presumed second site eluded me. Encouraged by this I returned to another local site where I'd seen prey being delivered in 2012, but had failed to find a nest - as I arrived there and was peddling along a track on the edge of some rough ground a bird immediately appeared and came to investigate me, circled and peered down at me from c. 10 directly above me, perhaps thinking "wot, you again, where've you been all this time?!" Similar questions to LEO though, with two terrible winters 09/10, 10/11, then terrible breeding in 2013, with dire predictions of how many remained in the UK a year ago, how have so many survived to breed this year?

Not much news on gulls, though old friend Mediterranean Gull red-7P8 was still roosting at Seton at the end of the year, and a Black-headed Gull there (white-2ALV) had been ringed as a chick on the Moorfoots in June 2013. The odd Shag ring read at Seton rocks but so many now I tend to make less effort!

The last few months have been very busy, with Christina doing her pharmacy pre-reg year and lots of kids activities also spilling into weekends, plus increasing demands at work, such that my only dedicated birding time tends to be late Sunday afternoons, with anything else as a bonus and often squeezed into required trips to other places. So this blog has as a result rather lapsed and I now tend just to post news snippets on twitter (which have already covered much of above). In addition there is the bird recorder work which is a significant task, e.g. with last year's archive of records reaching nearly 60k, and already nearly 50k for 2014 from BirdTrack alone, an escalating trend (see graph), plus dealing with rarities, enquiries, etc, and the ongoing local atlas write-up.

NB - I still spend a lot of time manually editing records, as any decent database requires things to be sortable on a EURING (or similar) code and thus everything must pass through standard names, plus needs a standard set of fields which in different sources can get lumped and separated in different ways (the BirdTrack download has 30 fields!). I'm happy to supply my latest Excel sheet to anyone still making direct submissions, though for 2013 there were only 13 people supplying more than 100 bird records in this manner, the rest coming via BirdTrack (mainly), WeBS, Atlas, birdinglothian, lothianbirdnews, Aberlady LNR (and other ELCRS), Forth Seabird Group and various local CBC type surveys. In the ideal world there would be one fixed set of common bird names, and formats thereof for races, hybrids etc, and a single fixed taxonomic sequence and the bird recorder's life would be much simpler! On taxonomics I do not dispute the need to update orders but personally I'd like to see a "traditional" sequence established and optional at least in systems like BirdTrack, it is so hard having to keep rearranging the sequence in your brain - and indeed for recorder work I do everything locally in EURING.

Constrained to be even more locally focused I again had a bash at the Patchwork challenge contest, for my "Gosford Bay" patch (3km2 map above) entered in the Coastal Scotland league, achieving 138 species/172 points, which was 1 more species and 2 less points than in 2012 (2013 was dented badly by atlas). These totals were dwarfed by some others in the same league who were heading up towards 200 species/400 points, swamped by great lists of fantastically rare birds, many of which have never been seen here and even with 24hrs/day coverage would surely never have been reached - so it is somewhat a relief that islands will be separated out into their own league this year, which will hopefully make things look slightly less out of balance!

No time for a real "review of the year" but highlights on patch were the November eclipse drake Garganey (8th Nov record in Scotland), lingering female Marsh Harrier in summer, migrant juvenile Yellow Wagtail, winter Black Guillemot, Little Auk and Pom Skua, and patch ticks of Green Woodpecker, Little Tern and Little Egret, the latter also a garden tick. A massive influx of terns, mainly Sandwich but including Roseates, will live long in the memory (ring resightings still coming in) whilst two species missed on patch were also terns, Black and ... Bridled! Other species I'm aware that I missed were Osprey and Wood Sandpiper, the latter at Blindwells particularly galling as it would also have been a patch tick, and I did make several visits around that date - maybe next year? Overall, now at least 155 species seen in this 3km2 patch, so more could certainly be achieved if I could find the time.

Will close this post with a few shots from Aberlady and Gosford early Nov, camera now defunct, Santa hasn't supplied a new one...