Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A new birding year

So, 2014. A new birding year. Plenty of resolutions to act on (more patch-birding, religiously using BirdTrack, submitting all my local records to BOG, doing the Patchwork Challenge at Rodley NR, losing weight, etc), but the main one is: being happy. And the things that make me happiest are: spending quality time with the kids, and birding.

The first one is all well and good, but when a rarity turns up, thoughts turn to how best to see it, even if it means a trip away from the kids and spending birding time in a car. Sad, I know.

The rarity in question this time was an American Coot. It was (still is, at the time of writing) on Loch Flemington, between Inverness and Nairn, Scotland. I'd seen these before in California, late 2011. Let's be honest, these are not birds that set the pulse racing. But an addition to my British life list so early in the year, and a species which seems to prefer Ireland on the rare occasions it does get over here, was just too good to miss.

After some horse-trading at home, and plans with car-sharing birders being drawn, ripped up, and redrawn, I set off north at tea-time on Friday 10th January. Secret Twitcher Joel generously drove us there and back (I think he doesn't trust my driving), and booked us into a hostel in Inverness for the night. Luxury twitching.

We were at the loch by 08:45, and on the bird very soon after. The light was poor (dawn is later up north in winter than down south), and the bird could go missing in the gloom and reeds. But, for the most part it performed nicely on the water, occasionally doing its chicken-like walk across the cut reed bed.

The key ID point for distinguishing a Eurasian Coot from and American one, at least at a distance, is the presence of white undertail coverts on the latter, which it often flicks (more like a Moorhen than a Eurasian Coot). In fact, the bill shape maybe be more Moorhen-like too, being narrower and taller.. The bill's colour is, of course, white, but with a grey-black smudgy vertical line near the tip. There's a small red patch on the forehead, and deep red eyes.

My photos are a bit shabby - I really should use a tripod in poor light.

American Coot, Loch Flemington, Highland, Scotland - Saturday 11th January 2014

The loch was other wise quiet, bird-wise, with just Moorhen, Mute Swan, Cormorant and Goldeneye in view. Another birder picked up a family of three Otters frolicking on the far bank, behind the Goldeneye. Lovely stuff. And a small skien of Pink-footed Goose flew over our heads low south.

We headed off for breakfast and joined up with a crew from Leicester (including Colin and John who I'd met on North Uist last year, plus the ubiquitous Chris Bromley). We headed to the nearby Alturlie Point to find a reported Lesser Scaup female. Just about every Greater Scaup in the flock was asleep, head tucked in, as we tried to pick out the Lesser in vain. Plenty of other delights though: at least three Red-throated Diver, three Slav Grebe, five or more Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, another Otter, and a low-flying Red Kite over the car.

We headed to Ardersier for a first-winter Iceland Gull, picking it out as it came over the houses to land in the diary farm, Milton of Connage. We watched a couple of Rock Pipit, Turnstone, Knot, Curlew, etc., on the beach before the weather came in and we moved on.


Iceland Gull, Ardersier, Highland, Scotland - Saturday 11th January 2014

Joel needed to get back early, which gave us just enough time to check through some huge Pink-foot flocks for Snow, White-front and Bean Geese (finding a start Greylag only) before heading south. A nice easy twitch, especially for me-the-passenger. Joel had to contend with my ceaseless withering and a heavy defeat for Leeds United as we drove home.

The view from the A9

I started my birding year over the first weekend in January with a four-day family trip to Robin Hoods Bay, near Whitby in North Yorkshire. To be honest, I didn't do a great deal of birding -  it was mostly rock-pooling with the kids, plus walking, drinking, and sleeping. But I did go out first thing each morning, getting great views of 17 or more Purple Sandpiper on the beach at high tide. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to photograph in the poor light at dawn, especially when they match the colour of the wet rocks they're stood on.

Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone, Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire - Friday, 3rd January 2014

Purple Sandpiper, Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire - Friday, 3rd January 2014

These weekends away have meant I haven't yet visited the patch I registered with Patchwork Challenge. It looks like the first visit I'll make this year (and the only one in January) will be on 26th January. That'll have to be in the afternoon after an Airedale Otters event. So much for "getting out on the the patch a bit more in 2014".

One of my birding resolutions: Tidy up my note-taking - old style left, new style right.

I have managed some birding from work at dinnertime (or lunchtime if you prefer). The river and canal which go through Saltaire have Little Grebe and Goosander in winter, and Grey Wagtail is rarely far away. The park and playing fields are good for Fieldfare and Redwing, and the nearby woods have Nutchatch and Treecreeper. The water treatment plant at Dowley Gap is just reachable on foot and back within an hour, and it was here I got my first Goldcrest and Chiffchaff of the year. A few more trips should bring Dipper, Mandarin Duck, Great Spotted Woodpecker and maybe Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire - Sunday, 5th January 2014

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