Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Medway WeBS Low Tide Count 28/12/13

Medway estuary looking east from Hoo St Werburgh

Today was a glorious day in north Kent, the jubilation at not being smacked around by howling winds for the first time in a fortnight heightened by a liberal dose of winter sun. Conditions were ideal for my first Medway low tide count of the winter which I undertook this afternoon for three sections of the estuary off Hoo marina. These are the combined results for the three (consecutive) areas:

(Mute Swan 2 flew over)
Dark-bellied Brent Goose 9 (5+4)
Shelduck 195
Wigeon 39
Teal 164
Cormorant 6
Little Egret 1
Grey Heron 1
Little Grebe 2
Great Crested Grebe 4
Oystercatcher 130
Grey Plover 10
Lapwing 27
Dunlin 103
Curlew 36
Redshank 68

5 Gull species were listed but not counted. Also noted were a single Linnet that flew along the sea wall, while a Marsh Harrier was present before the count at Stoke Saltings, the other side of Kingsnorth Power Station.

The mid-afternoon tide time meant the latter half of the count was spent looking near directly into the sun but I feel this is a good representation of the area's bird life today. From this data and that compiled by others around the Medway (and around the country), we will in time be able to understand better the relative importance of different areas to wetland birds along with local, regional and national trends in numbers.

Redshank (Tringa totanus) today

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Magic Hedgerow

It might not look like it, but this a magic hedgerow:

You won't recognise it.

This hedgerow is the life blood of my small patch of North Kent. It runs for about 300m, north-south, along a rutted track that separates several bland, featureless fields. It is over 2 metres tall and a metre plus wide. In it grows Hawthorn mostly, with a scattering of Field Maple and Dog Rose. It didn't use to be here, it was planted in the last decade with the help of subsidies that the farmer received to make his land more wildlife-friendly. I love this hedgerow and wish I could tell the farmer that, I wish I could tell them to plant another; but I never see anyone out here, just the odd farm-hand banging around in a tractor and small groups of workers picking vegetables in summer. I love this hedgerow because this where the birds are. It's where most good things happen on my otherwise quiet patch.

Yesterday afternoon, with the sun already gone, I walked round the fields for the first time in a few weeks. As I expected, given the time and the season, everything was quiet and still. A Pied Wagtail flicked over somewhere above and a dog walker loped by, ignoring my greeting. That was about it.

It stayed much like that until I reached the hedgerow. As I walked along it, I peered at the skeletons of last summer's nests and tried to guess who made them. A short way along there was a feathery scuffle ahead of me and three birds flew out. They gave a gentle, rippling call in flight that told me they were Corn buntings. It sounded especially fragile in the cool dusk, easily missed and very much a secret sound of winter in a place like this. I watched them disappear across the ploughed fields into some distant scrub.

Another dozen steps, another scuffle, another dozen Corn buntings followed.

In the end I counted 17 birds in the Hedgerow which is incidentally the same number that I saw in a flock here last winter. Looking around it's easy to see why they were there, it provides shelter at the hardest time of year to birds gathered from the surrounding area. But looking beyond the hedge, their presence seems like a miracle in a landscape dominated by fields several hectares in size. It seems clear to me that if this hedgerow was not here, these birds would not be here either. Nor would the Linnets, whitethroats or occasional sparrow that appear in spring. The butterflies and moths that flit out of the grass would find no peace without it. This place would be poorer.

But the Corn Buntings, I'm so pleased they're here, have a look at the recent BTO atlas data to see why. This spring I recorded 6 singing males in the vicinity of the Hedge. I hope they'll still be there next spring.


Leaving the hedgerow, the way back takes me along the top of a shallow valley. Another hedgerow grows here but its condition is not great. It is slumped and gappy and held together with bind weed in places, still, better it be there than not. Having walked its length, I turned down the path to the ever creeping commuter village. From the top of the field I can see the cheap new housing estate where the high school playing fields used to be. I noticed one of the houses has put Christmas lights up already. They flash blue and white like its some kind of emergency.

Source: BTO

Foot note:
I wrote this two weeks ago and never got round to posting it but it seems rather apt now. Since then the 2013 State of the UK's birds report was published and some headlines can be seen here. It makes harrowing yet tragically familiar reading, particularly for farmland birds like the Corn Bunting. In addition we will find out imminently what impact the Common Agricultural Policy reform will have on farmland birds, in particular how much money goes towards wildlife-friendly farming. Although the government doesn't get on too well with scientifically-backed evidence, there can be no doubt that these are critical times for our wildlife and I sincerely hope that message gets through.

The stars of patch and field: Corn Bunting, North Kent, Spring 2013 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Garden drama

Just as I was leaving the house yesterday and going through the morning ritual of brushing my teeth whilst watching the garden from the back room, I watched a Collared Dove fly in and land on the lawn. Turning away for a second or two, the next thing I saw was a cloud of feathers and this quite awesome female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) breakfasting on an unfortunate Collared dove:

She stayed for over half an hour, plucking and consuming her meal before taking off with the remains. The power and stealth was spectacular.

"What are you looking at?!"  

Monday, 9 December 2013

Black Redstart in Southwark

Some photos of a superb Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) that was found in Southwark (Central London) today:

The bird was spotted at lunchtime in a small, private car park where it showed nicely for 45 minutes. It was actively feeding on small insects in a tall Sycamore, often climbing the steep, brick railway embankment to forage out of sight. I love these birds and it's always nice to find one in London. This bird was only a few hundred metres from where I observed a singing male in May this year. Uniformly mousy grey, it was pretty hard to determine much in the field but I think it's possibly a 1st winter male.

Some good info here on this iconic London bird.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Magic Tree

It might not look like it, but this is a magic tree:

You might recognise it.

For the last month at least, this bare and slender oak has been acting as a magnet for numerous parties of Crossbills at Hemsted Forest in mid-Kent. They can't seem to get enough of it. Recently these roving flocks were discovered to include three crossbill species, the Common Crossbill and (now) individuals of the much scarcer Scando-Russia migrants, Two-barred and Parrot. The irruption of the latter two species in Britain this autumn has meant its been possible for myself and many others to get good views of each (and for the first time) - but there can't be many places where the three species have regularly gathered in the same tree!

After a rainy and fleeting encounter with the Two-barred Crossbill last month, I was looking forward to another visit so headed back down to Hemsted today. I had a great few hours on the site, with the stony sky eventually breaking into pale sunshine and a muted wintry blue. It was much quieter than my previous visit, but again the birds made frequent visits to 'the Tree' - the arrival heralded by their calls swirling around the clearing. First up today, the male Two-barred Crossbill appeared in a flock with nine Common Crossbills, immediately identifiable by its bold, white wing bars. Just as before, it struck me as a really smart bird, a real bubblegum beauty. On its second visit to the tree about an hour later, it was possible to separate its softer call from the common flock which added to the experience. Whilst watching the Two-barred, I had been checking the other crossbill's, er bills, for any that would indicate Parrot but drew a blank. The variability in form was quite marked but eventually a single crossbill flew on its own. This in itself seemed interesting and decent views of its chunky head/neck and bill were good enough to confirm it for me as a Parrot Crossbill.

During a couple of hours, the Tree was also visited by a flock of 25+ Siskin and a couple of redpolls, while around the clearing, Redwing, Woodpigeon, Coal Tit and Goldcrest were all present. But today was all about a unique encounter...I reckon I'll be hearing crossbills in my sleep tonight.

Pretty in Pink: Male Two-barred Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera), Hemstead Forest, Kent, 1/12/13
A superb example - note the bold white wing bars, striking 'raspberry' tone and cute bill
Digiscoped record shot of Parrot Crossbill (Loxia pytyopsittacus), Hemstead Forest, Kent, 1/12/13
Not ideal but it just about shows the 'bull-headed' jizz of the bird (possibly)
I could've cropped this photo but I like it as it is. If you stare at it long enough it starts to look like a big
egg that is cracking from the bottom. Stare at a tree for three hours and your mind will wander too.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

A Great Grey Saturday

I think every birder has a nemesis bird, the one that's got away a few times too many. This afternoon I finally tracked mine down.

I made several trips to Thursley Common in Surrey through last winter and early spring, in the hope of seeing my nemesis bird on its wintering ground. Thursley is a stunning piece of the Surrey heathlands patchwork and a great place to visit. I feel like a time-traveller there and love roaming its gentle, sandy contours, thick with heathers and islands of pine and bog. But despite all that, the bird eluded me.

A few weeks ago, my nemesis was reported back again and just to rub it in, after I'd raved about the site to a friend, he'd been along since and seen the bird within about 10 minutes of leaving his car. So today I decided to head back over to resume my quest on the fifth attempt. After several pleasant hours without so much as a flicker of a possible and several conversations with people who had seen it earlier or yesterday or last week, I had conceded defeat again before deciding to check an area on the west side one more time on my way back. As I walked the familiar path, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a pale, indistinct smudge amongst the dwindling leaves of a slender birch to my left. It didn't immediately seem promising to my mind and without bins it barely seemed worth a glance but getting on it, there it nemesis, a stunning Great Grey Shrike, coolly perched in the open. It was a nice moment. Some birds you rock up and run, some you earn. I think I earned this!

It ended up showing brilliantly for half an hour, at one point flying up to perch just 10 metres from me before flying off over my head. It was mobile the whole time and covered several hundred metres as it eventually moved off towards the forest on the western edge at around 3.30pm. It was interesting to watch it scan from perches, much like a Kestrel and it moved incredibly quickly too. Shrikes are great aren't they...

GGS FFS!: Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) at Thursley Common, 23/11/13
 Shrike wintering habitat (bottom)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Browsing twitter on my way home from work this evening, I came across a curious series of tweets from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). They were the highlights of Secretary of State Owen Paterson's speech to the Policy Exchange think tank in Westminster today. The selected snippets made me chuckle a bit, as I'm sure it did a few others (he certainly makes it easy doesn't he?!) I was going to respond to each of these below with my own thoughts but I try to keep swearing to a minimum here and I think they're best left to stand alone. That is, except the last two, which I will probably come back to soon. I'll leave the rest up to you: discuss, debate, enjoy, weep...

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A short walk

I took a short walk today. A lap of Cliffe, then home for the rugby, that was the plan.

The trouble is it was just one of those autumn days you never want to end. It was both crisp and mild, with barely more than jet trails to spoil the blue sky. It sucked me in hopelessly 'til I lost track of time. It was gone dusk when I got back home.

Cliffe was heaving with birds. On Radar I found my first Goldeneyes of the winter, a handful of handsome males with a couple of females. Wigeon, shoveler, teal and grebes were all present in high numbers. Checking the causeways with the recent Glossy Ibis in mind turned up a Greenshank in with the reds. Along the Saxon Shore Way, a Brambling flew over and a male Blackcap caught the morning sun perched among some rosehips. As I was walking along to Flamingo I spotted a couple of swans out on the pool that I'd seen sleeping way back from Radar. Closer in I could see they were awake now and sporting nice 'stiff' necks with yellow around their bills. Finding a better view of the birds, I could see the small extent of yellow did not reach the nostrils which confirmed I had a cracking pair of Bewick's Swans. It was an unexpected treat and a new site tick for me.

Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus), Cliffe Pools, 16/11/13
The shifting shapes of thousands of waders
Coots (Fulica atra): always overlooked, never outnumbered

From being pretty quiet a couple of weeks ago, Flamingo pool was full to the brim this morning. Not only has the current dredging campaign pushed water levels right up, seemingly attracting more wildfowl in the process but it has increased the bank of mud on the far side. I only needed one look at the thousands of Dunlin spiralling and twisting over the pools to see it was high tide on the river. The birds put on a stunning show and I spent quite a bit of time just watching them jostle about on the mud before taking off again. Their restlessness seemed to distract the Bewick's who pitched up and flew off high to the east. Everything was restless it seemed, fleeting appearances from a young Marsh Harrier hardly helped but a Peregrine coursing the skies was the more likely culprit.

I'm not sure why I decided to follow the seawall out to the 'coffins', but I'm glad I did. Some way along, past Lower Hope Point, a single Snow Bunting popped up without calling and landed no more than ten metres from me. It even had the decency to allow me to take some crap photos before darting off.  

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), adult male on rocks at Lower Hope Point, Hoo Pen.
The changing horizon at Cliffe Pools
One of the dredging tugs on the river at Cliffe, not sinking apparently.

I love this stretch of the river but it struck me how quickly its landscape is changing. As I walked another few miles east without seeing another person, the only sound I heard the whole time, aside from the calls of birds, was a distant, endless clanging and whirring from the vast Thames Gateway port on the other side of the river. I ended up missing the Richard's Pipit at Egypt Bay (a great find by Paul Hawkins - here) although I gave it a quick go. A noisy Water Rail, a Bearded Tit and two Green Sandpipers were present but the light was disappearing rapidly as it does these afternoons and I didn't fancy walking those miles back in the dark. So I re-traced my steps along the wall as the light went from orange to pink, ending with a greyness that smudged the marshes and the velvety ooze of the river.

Some way along a small flock of Redwing flew over tseep-ing in the dusk and a bolting Pheasant nearly gave me a heart attack. But a great day out was sealed by a small raptor coming off the sea wall ahead, although only a silhouette, its size suggested a Merlin that was heading back to roost.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wood you believe it...

I got quite a surprise at work on Monday morning when, within five minutes of arriving, I was handed this...

...a beautiful Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). It is perhaps more surprising if you know that I generally work in and around central London, an area not normally known for being to home to secretive, ground-dwelling woodland birds like this.

From the photo above you might think that it looks alive, if rather stunned, indeed, that was my first thought. Sadly though, it soon became apparent that despite its immaculate condition, the bird was deceased:

There are several remarkable things about this find, not least the location - it was one of my colleagues who spotted it on the pavement at the junction of Union Street and Blackfriars Road, opposite Southwark tube station. Secondly, that it somehow managed to survive the pounding feet of morning rush hour or the attention of the local foxes. As an aside, I wonder if any of those hundreds of commuters noticed it as they passed by and thought it a strange bird among the scuttling pigeons. And would an 'urban' fox know what to do with this anyway, it not being wrapped in a Tesco bag after all...

Unfortunately it didn't manage to survive what I assume was a collision with a nearby building in the early hours, the most likely culprit being the unappealing glass block where TFL spend their days drinking tea.

Several colleagues came to look at the bird as it sat by my desk with wide eyes and bill-agape, as if it was about to say something. It's not everyday you get to see a Woodcock this close, in fact it's normally a whirring silhouette or arse-end at best, preceded by a heart-stopping thup! as they flush from cover amidst damp, shady leaf litter. In the hand and out of context certain features stood out, I noted the subtle barring on its breast and the shape of its feet. So what was this bird doing in the concrete jungle of SE1 in November?

As this BTO Birdtrack chart shows, whilst being resident in the UK, woodcocks are more typically recorded during the winter months with peaks from late October through to mid January and again for roding male birds through April. Resident bird numbers are boosted by continental arrivals from the east and I wonder if this was such a bird, migrating over London to a rich and sheltered wintering ground somewhere before it's journey was cut short. Woodcock are known to be great travellers, often arriving in numbers and flying through the night (these incredible journeys were once thought to be the means by which tiny goldcrests would appear in greater numbers on the east coast during autumn - so-called 'woodcock pilots') Migration is tactically a great risk for any species but as ever, this has shown the perils that many migrating birds face in heavily built up areas like London.

There is a positive end to the story of this Woodcock though.

For such a beautiful specimen I was keen that it not be wasted and the obvious answer was a taxidermist. Although several calls failed to get a response from any likely parties, the photo was spotted on twitter by Richard Jones (aka @bugmanjones) who alerted Paolo Viscardi, a curator from the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. A twitter exchange later and the bird is now residing in a freezer before being added to the museum’s extensive taxidermy collection or being used as a skeletal reference piece. Either way, it’s nice to think that from a sad demise, it may end up inspiring the next generation of south London birders and citizen scientists.

Many thanks to Richard Jones, Paolo Viscardi, Julie Cox and David Allen.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Egypt Bay to St Mary's

Jet streams over the marsh: looking back from Egypt Bay, 2/11/13 

Yesterday I took one of my favourite walks out to Egypt Bay and along to St Mary's. There's nowhere else near home I know that comes close to matching to the sense of space there; in a corner of the country rapidly being filled in and topped up with bad ideas, it's remoteness is priceless.

It was bright and calm as I walked down the lane at Clinch Street, the far side of the river was obscured, all except Southend sea front which caught the light and appeared like an island in the estuary haze. I had owls in mind mostly, a Short-eared perhaps or something nice tucked into the sea wall, like a previously undiscovered flock of Hermit thrushes. Not too much to ask for. As it was, I saw no owls and the tide was way up on the sea wall, nothing stirring amongst the heroic, wind-battered weeds and transient strands of litter there. Well almost nothing, a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly briefly spluttered into flight, making a mockery of a November morning in the process.

Along the track past Swigshole cottage, the usual mix of tits and finches flitted about, a few linnets too. A Great Spotted Woodpecker bolted from a willow at my presence before deciding I was little threat and returning. I noticed the RSPB fields behind Swigshole copse have had heavy plants in recently, digging shallow rills by the look of it; hopefully this will improve an area of grassland that was otherwise pretty poor for wading birds. Further along the track, a pair of Marsh harriers, an adult male and female, grappled together in the air momentarily before drifting apart. Overhead a Rook called oddly, a guttural, Raven-esque croak that, scanning around, revealed a third, much darker harrier moving high to the west.

From the old sea wall at the back of Decoy fleet I heard the distinct ping ping ping sound of Bearded tits in the reeds. I spotted a single bird darting for cover in Decoy until a much nearer series of calls took me to the smaller fleet adjacent to the wall. A flurry of movement low in the reeds revealed a roving flock of five birds, 2 males and 3 females, busy stripping seeds from the spongy reed heads as they went. I watched them for a bit and took some footage that probably won't make it on to 'Autumnwatch' (but listen hard and you might hear them calling):

From the same spot I looked over the marshes. In the field behind Egypt Bay I scanned the bramble clumps as I always do, for shrikes, but as always there were none. Three Stonechats turned up though, one being given a hard time by a slightly out of place Robin - an odd bird to see this far out on the marsh so presumably a hungry migrant fresh in. Along the sea wall a mighty roost of Curlews could be seen between the fleet and St Mary's Bay - a sign that the tide was high. I counted 310 birds, no doubt missing a few unseen. On the river was a raft of three hundred Wigeon while a single Little Egret and several Meadow pipits flushed from the thin lip of salt marsh squeezed against the wall. From the wall I picked out a single Kestrel and a hundred or so Lapwing in the fields but the highlight was undoubtedly two winter-plumaged Red-throated divers which flew slowly up river close in.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Photoblog: Norfolk Notes 18-21/10/13

A little bit late but here are some highlights from last weekend's excellent trip to north Norfolk...

Sunrise over Titchwell marsh RSPB, 19/10/13.
Snow Buntings at Holme Dunes, 20/10/13.
After some time scoping Eiders and divers from a vantage on the dunes, we hit the beach and soon found these little beauties scurrying among the dunes. They didn't seem concerned by the occasional crowd and instead busied themselves with stripping small seeds from loose grass stems.
Chaffinch and Brambling (right), Sculthorpe Moor, 18/10/13.
Fresh from dipping Two-barred Crossbill at Lynford Arboretum on the way up, DG and I stopped at this excellent Hawk & Owl Trust Reserve. The first bird I saw as I walked out of the centre was a Marsh Tit attacking a feeder, I don't see many of them. Even late on a wintry, overcast afternoon, the reserve peeped and whistled with activity as a cool breeze stirred up the reedbed where a Muntjac Deer sheltered.
With no outstanding rares to chase we spent hours looking for our own, becoming intimately acquainted with a great many pine trees along the coast at Wells and Holme. My head scanning the branches, I almost missed this Earthstar fungus peeking through the soft carpet of needles on the floor.
The view east from Holme NOA, 20/10/13.
A wild, vulnerable landscape of marshes, ditches, dunes and inlets, bossed by birds but ruled by the elements. It was thrilling to watch migration unfolding before our eyes as starlings and pipits could be seen crossing the waves and flocks of noisy thrushes, particularly Redwing and Blackbird poured over the dunes. 
LWT Birders on Tour, Oct '13: Tony, Dan, Me, Rich, Laura and Vicki..

Trip List - c110 species


Pink-footed Goose – hundreds, roosting at Chosely Barns
Bearded Tit – birds at Brancaster (2+) and Titchwell (8 flew over 20/10)
Grey Partridge – covey of 12+ birds at Chosely Barns, I rarely see these birds in Kent so enjoyed this
Spotted Redshank – 1 at Titchwell
Red-necked Grebe - 1 offshore at Titchwell showing really well (19/10)
Little Stint – 1 on Titchwell Freshmarsh
Whinchat – 1 at Titchwell
Yellow-browed Warbler – 1 at Wells Wood (19/10)
Shag -1 on pool at Wells Wood
Slavonian Grebe – 1 on sea at Titchwell (20/10)
Velvet Scoter – 2 flew west past Titchwell (20/10)
Sandwich Tern – 3 at Titchwell, also 1 at Brancaster and Holme, latest I've seen
Peregrine – birds at Titchwell (1 flew in off, 2 on beach) and Holme (1 in fields)
Lapland Bunting – 1 flew over Titchwell Freshmarsh calling (20/10)
Eider – 12 on sea at Holme (inc 3 males) 20/10
Guillemot – 1 on sea at Holme 
Snow Bunting – 3 on beach at Holme (20/10)
Black-throated Diver – 1 on sea at Holme (20/10)
Great Northern Diver – 2 on sea at Titchwell giving great views (21/10)

Monday, 28 October 2013

Takin' a walk...

This isn't a post that particularly fits the sub-title of this blog, but it's one I couldn't really avoid writing. As a fan of the Velvet Underground, I was sad to hear of Lou Reed's death yesterday. I don't suppose I can add anything new to the great many comments doing the rounds, so I'll let some songs say it all - but where to start, there are just SO many...

Just listening to these again now, every time feels like the first time - I'm still hooked. If you feel at all the same then to celebrate I fully encourage you to stop what you're doing right now, wherever you are, turn up the volume and...Do The Ostrich:

Cheers Lou.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Crane spectacular

Prior to a more in depth account of my trip to Cyprus, here is some footage of a spectacular event that I witnessed yesterday evening.

Taking a final stroll on my adopted patch for the week before leaving for the airport, I heard an odd grating sound somewhere in the distance. At first I thought it was a radio or the local restaurant gearing up for another night of karaoke, but then it got louder and sounded more familiar. I scanned each way until I picked out a thin, dark, wispy line on the horizon to the north and watched it drift closer until the line became a large flock of common cranes, circling and calling in the cloudless sky. It took my breath away. After a few minutes the flock drifted south and out to sea in loose formations.

I ran back to get my camera and tell one of the other guys. By the time we returned, the first flock of around 90 birds had disappeared but after a few minutes another flock again appeared from the north, this time around 70-75 birds. As before, they passed overhead, calling and circling somewhat erratically. It seemed miraculous how such large birds could sustain such flight over so many inhospitable miles. I wonder if these birds were en route from breeding grounds in north/eastern Europe to wintering areas in Israel/Middle East? Wherever they were headed, I hope they get there safe.

Migration in full, epic flow...what a privilege to see.

Common Cranes over south eastern Cyprus 13/10/11:

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Lesser Yellowlegs at Cliffe

Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) RSPB Cliffe Pools, 27/9/13

I finally caught up with Cliffe's Lesser Yellowlegs yesterday evening, at the third attempt. Having first ventured out during the peasouper on Tuesday morning, only to find two other birders staring at a thick wall of fog, and managing a frustratingly brief view late on Thursday evening, yesterday it showed well on the second Black Barn pool until around 18.20 when presumably it went to roost.

This bird was a first for me and I was surprised to note just how 'dainty' it was compared to the few Redshanks that were around. The combination of slender yellow legs, fine, dark bill (which I have read described as being approximately equal to its 'head length') and particularly its visibly sharp, attenuated rear end, were all good features in the field where the light was otherwise pretty weak. The number of Ruff on the pool, that ever shape-shifting wader, kept things interesting, the variability of that species amazes me. Still, the american wader was the star of the show, ably supported by the seasonal fare of passage birds, the first Wigeon flocks of autumn and a Barn Owl that hunted with typical grace over the causeways on Thursday.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Eagle Isle

As an island, Mull is largely defined by the presence of water, and water was a recurring theme on my first visit there last weekend. It smeared glasses, closed roads and seeped into socks, but it never once dampened an amazing trip. The plan was to spend a couple of days walking, cycling and visiting some of the islands but it was quickly apparent that the latter two at least would be foolhardy. But after pouring over the maps and hiring a car, we were soon able to explore the island and its stunning wildlife.

It started off fair and easy, with a millpond crossing of the Lorn on a CalMac ferry that was heaving with Iona daytrippers. From a spot on the side deck I was soon able to pick out the distant shape of a Black Guillemot in streaky-white winter plumage in the outer reaches of Oban's sheltered harbour. A flash of its wings lending a hand. Gulls loafed here and there, Herring mostly with a few commons, while further out some juvenile Kittiwakes appeared. The highlight of the crossing were two Harbour Porpoises that surfaced briefly alongside us before disappearing beneath the bow waves.

The journey north from Craignure was via the unlikely form of a an open-topped double decker that took us headlong into a cool mist, past Salen where Grey seals were hauled out on the rocks. And so we arrived in the pretty village of Tobermory, with its picture postcard harbour front and smell of whisky on the breeze - just as it should be in places like this. 

Using the excellent Cicerone walking guide to Mull, a path out beyond the last building on the far side of Tobermory harbour led along a wooded hillside to the Rubha nan Gall lighthouse. Coal Tit and Goldcrest foraged along the way while numerous Rock pipits poked about on the grass covered rocks. Offshore a lone Guillemot croaked its call and the odd Gannet soared past. North of Rubha nan Gall is 'Bloody Bay' - so called from a clan battle in 1480 which it is said saw the sea turn red. Apparently, it this event that the author Jim Crumley describes gave the Oystercatcher its red legs and bill, on account of those that waded along the shore that day. There's no blood now that I can see but I wondered if the Raven tumbling about a distant cliff edge knew something else.

Following a night of rain, on Sunday morning the streams were crashing down, including the Tobermory River which shot a spectacular torrent of white water into the harbour. Watching from the side, the gulls were nae bothered but I was in the right place at the right time to see two Dippers darting about on the rocks, at one point landing just a few metres away.

Setting off  for Calgary Bay, the weather changed every 20 minutes or so. During a sunny respite alongside Loch na Keal, a female Red-breasted Merganser drifted close to the shore and, following a tip-off, we spotted an Otter on the rocks right in front us - something we nearly missed! It was brief but great to see. Scoping the loch, a flock of four more mergansers flew past in the distance and ten+ Greylag geese were perhaps the real deal arriving for winter, unlike the zombie geese I see in London. The winding road to Calgary was interrupted by diversions caused by flooding so it was no surprise that the white sandy bay we eventually arrived at resembled a war zone. Still, wildly beautiful, the beach was strewn with seaweed and scattered stones with a single Redshank making the best of it all. Tucked behind a clump of marram grass was a dead Gannet, washed up sometime ago. In a flooded field across the road, oystercatchers probed and pottered along with several Curlew; despite the drizzle, swallows constantly swooped about.

Rubha nan Gall, near Tobermory, 14/9/13
Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) in Tobermory harbour, 15/9/13
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) hanging out, Loch na Keal, Mull

Later that afternoon, as the winds dropped and the sun shone meekly, we stopped for a walk through the pines at a Forestry Commission site just off the main road. From the rutted track coal tits were ever-present while a flock of 7-8 Crossbill overhead was nice to see. Our arrival back at the car was well-timed as the next front swept in and decided the sun had its day. But as the sky darkened to breaking I caught a pale jolt in the glooming periphery of the hillside below; slowly jinking it's way across the field was a male Hen Harrier, pearly grey with ink-dipped wings. Then the rain became hail and it disappeared from view. I always love to see this bird, a supreme bird of this land. In fact, over the course of the weekend, I saw more hen harriers (seven) than I did chaffinches (four); maybe this says a lot about the kind of place Mull is and the kind of place others are sadly not. 

Although the hills and mountains remained shrouded in mist, Monday was calmer and we went for a walk on Loch Ba. Being less exposed I thought it might provide some shelter and also be the kind of place eagles might be forced down to in poor weather. Thankfully, most of that proved to be true. 

Loch Ba is a beautiful spot, surrounded by steep mountain sides with streams and waterfalls flowing from the summits like jagged veins down to the loch at its heart. Following the gravel track along the water, we passed through thin strands of Oak, Willow and Ash, pale bushy lichens clinging to their twisted trunks and branches. Somewhere near the middle of the loch, we walked across a soft, grassy area guarded by a fly fisherman in the distance. Crossing here, we flushed a flock of small birds into the air nearby. They called incessantly and Linnet crossed my mind, but straight away I felt the calls were subtly different from what I expected. As I moved closer to the birds low in the grass by an old cattle feeding station I was as sure as can be that I was looking at my first flock of Twite. I hadn't been sure I would see them here so that was a real bonus.

The form continued as a short way further along the track I picked out a large raptor coming off the mountainside to our right. Getting on it there was no doubt that it was a Golden Eagle and coming head on towards us too! We watched as it descended into a low copse ahead of us for a few minutes, presumably for shelter, before it took off again, banking high to the right. As it did so, it succeeded in flushing a Hen Harrier from a lower slope and for a few moments I was able to enjoy both majestic birds in the same binocular view.

I guess anyone visiting Mull hopes for a glimpse of possibly their most famous residents and I was no different. Further on up the track, near where the loch tapered to a thin beach, I saw movement over the water to the left. My first thought was that it was probably a Grey Heron crossing the loch but when I raised my bins I realised I was looking at my first White-tailed Sea Eagle - an adult and an immense beast of a bird! It moved past us, perhaps a hundred metres off over the loch, battling the headwind with all the power of the feathery doors strapped to its back. A minute or so later it was lost to the murk but what a privilege it was to see.

Before heading back we left the loch for a while and followed the path up the glen. A victory lunch of Irn Bru and Skips was had in a ruined farmstead where the tall crags of Glen Cachaig peered over the crumbling walls at us.

The track from Knock to Loch Ba, Mull
The mists rolling in
Boom. White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) Loch Ba, Mull, 16/9/13.

What a fantastic few days. Leaving the next afternoon after a tour of the distillery and a complimentary dram, we could only laugh as the sun came out as soon as we bordered the ferry home. 

Mull Trip List, 14th-17th Sept 2013:

Herring Gull, Black Guillemot, Kittiwake, Shag, Cormorant, Common Gull, Pied Wagtail, Hooded Crow, Black-headed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Grey Heron, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Feral Pigeon, Robin, Wren, Goldcrest, Rock Pipit, Raven, Gannet, Guillemot, Treecreeper, Chaffinch, House Sparrow, Dipper, Common Buzzard, Greylag Goose, Mute Swan, Mistle Thrush, Red-breasted Merganser, Curlew, Stonechat, Dunnock, Common Whitethroat, Kestrel, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Swallow, Meadow Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Common Crossbill, Hen Harrier, Mallard, Twite, Golden Eagle, White-tailed Sea Eagle, Lapwing, Skylark, Goldfinch, Starling.

Thanks to everyone who gave me tips on Mull beforehand - the good folk of twitter and particularly Kev Parr (and Martin S) Cheers!

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