Grey Seals and Eiders on the Ythan

The Ythan Estuary is actually a great place for wildlife regardless of the King Eiders presence. Towards the mouth of the estuary there is usually a colony of Atlantic Grey Seals hauled out on the beach, with a few Common Seals among them. We had a good look at the seals on Sunday and there were around 220 present, quite an impressive total.

Atlantic Grey Seals, Ythan Estuary, 16 May 2010

Atlantic Grey Seals with maybe a common in the middle, Ythan Estuary, 16 May 2010

Further up the estuary near the dunes there are four species of Tern breeding. Arctic, Common, Sandwich and Little. Nearby there is also a Gull colony.

Gull Colony, Ythan Estuary, 16 May 2010


On the coastal Heath there are approximately 2000 pairs of Northern Eider. Whilst we were the estuary population was 80-90% males so I assume the females are already on the nests. Every so often there was the odd bird flying between the estuary and the heath. I noted some quite fascinating behaviour from the Northern Eiders. Occasionally a female on the river had a host of male admirers swimming behind her.  But unlike in the case of Mallards for example none of the male Eiders appeared to make contact with the female. They often had a pop at each other as they vied for poll position but never the female. In the case of Mallards the females can be subjected to what can only described as mass abuse. Also when a female flew onto the river from the estuary to feed not a single male pestered her. Do they know that this female is attached so to speak? I only noted this over the two hours I watched, it would be interesting to see if this is the normal pattern. Any Eider experts out there?

Northern Eider Males courting a female, Ythan Estuary, 17 May 2010

Northern Eider Males courting a female, Ythan Estuary, 17 May 2010

Northern Eider heading towards the nesting area.

An added bonus for the morning was the sighting of two different Ospreys carrying fish away from the estuary and heading inland.

Steve Copsey

King Eider on the Ythan Estuary

On Monday my brother had to return to his day job as a Tree Surgeon, ably assisted by Helen. There was only one place I was going and that was back over to the Ythan Estuary to have another search for the King Eider. I arrived in Newburgh an hour later and set up my scope on the old jetty at the end of Inch Road. After 15 minutes of searching nothing was standing out so I started to grill every Eider on show which was probably touching the 1500 mark. Fortunately after ten minutes or so the King Eider was in the centre of the scope roosting out on the shore. With its head tucked under its wing this bird can be very difficult to pick up as the salmon coloured breast is no different to the male Eiders. With the head up and looking more at the body the bird does stand out. Unfortunately the bird was quite distant and right in line with the sun, so I drove up the river and crossed the road bridge and walked the mile or so down the Forvie Sands bank. Once I had climbed up into the dunes I gained a vantage point over the estuary and crept forward. I was in luck; the King Eider was inline with me still out on the shore. I watched for about half an hour and all it did was the occasional preen with which I was happy but still not fully satisfied.

King Eider, Ythan Estuary, 17 May 2010

The bird was roosting in company with Northern Eiders and I was fortunate that a Northern female decided her roosting was over. As soon as she moved the King followed her. Up the shore a little then another preen and then into the water. It was quite obvious the King had his eye on this particular subject, but then so did at least one of the Northern males. For then next hour or so the three birds stayed in relatively close proximity allowing great views of the interaction.

The three birds at the centre of the storyline

The King following his loyal subject; she does not look quite as interested

During this period the female took flight upstream and was duly followed into the air by her two suitors. After another twenty minutes or so the King seemed to lose interest (or heart) and then came back downstream and started to feed. I left the King feeding away on Crabs and Mussels.

King Eider, Ythan Estuary, 17 May 2010

The Three Amigo’s ???

Glad to say that the following week Mark and Helen were working in the Newburgh area and after they had finished went down to the Ythan Estuary and finally caught up with the King.

Steve Copsey

Insects along the canal

Insect sightings are also starting to increase down the canal. One Butterfly in particular that seems more noticeable this year than most is the Orange Tip. I am a notoriously bad recorder of sightings from years gone by but I would say this year I have seen more down the canal than any other in the last ten. Green Veined Whites were also on the wing as was the odd Red Admiral; the one photographed below was in quite a shabby state and no doubt has been on the wing for a considerable length of time.

Orange Tip, Titchfield Canal, 28 May 2010

Red Admiral, Titchfield Canal, 28 May 2010

On the Dragonfly front both Beautiful and Banded Demoiselles were on the wing in small numbers. The local population of the latter will build up substantially over the next month, whilst Beautiful are never that common down the canal. A single Hairy Dragonfly zipped by me as I walked and although I did not get a good look I would assume from the time and size it was this species. Large Red Damselflies were very common as were Azures both benefiting from some of the sunny sheltered areas the canal provides.

Beautiful Demoiselle, Titchfield Canal, 26 May 2010

Banded Demoiselle, Titchfield Canal, 26 May 2010

 Large Red Damselfly, Titchfield Canal, 28 May 2010

Lastly after seeing Slasher’s superb shot of the bow riding Dolphin in the Atlantic I thought I would do my own take on the theme. Unfortunately I did not have a Dolphin or the an ocean to hand so I substituted the Dolphin for a Chub (I think that’s what it is) and for the Atlantic I chose the Titchfield Canal. What do you think?

Chub, Titchfield Canal, 28 May 2010

Steve Copsey

Titchfield Canal breeding update.

I have paid two visits down the Titchfield Canal Path over the last three days and the breeding season is certainly in full swing. On Wednesday morning I had a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers visiting a tree hole carrying food and also one of the Treecreepers I photographed on the 15th April was also seen carrying food to the nest. A single Cuckoo was also calling from the Haven

Greater Spotted Woodpecker carrying food to the nest hole, Titchfield Canal Path, 26 May 2010

Juvenile Long Tailed Tit, 1 of 3 juveniles in a flock of 8, Titchfield Canal Path, 28 May 2010

Today was more of the same and the first birds I found were a pair of Blue Tits carrying food to the nest hole. I say a pair but at first I assumed there were more adults helping out as the birds were visiting at around 30 second intervals whilst I watched, quite an incredible work rate. From the talk on Hoslist it looks like a good year for caterpillars and I guess they are finding them rather easily. Whitethroats were also very much in evidence. I had at least nine males singing and another two birds carrying food to the nest, with a last bird in the process of nest building. The area above the sluice and below Hammonds Bridge seemed to have a Whitethroat every few metres. Also whilst at Hammonds Bridge I had a Cettis Warbler perch briefly with a beak full of food before zipping away. Another 8 male Cettis were in good voice. No Reed Warblers were seen but at least six were singing from the pathside reeds. The pair of Mute Swan on the Upper Haven floods now have five Cygnets which look less than a week old. All the Canada’s which up to a month ago were all paired up were very obvious by there absence, so I am assuming they are sitting tight.

Blue Tit hunting among the reed stems, Titchfield Canal Path, 28 May 2010

Blue Tit leaving the nest hole, 28 May 2010

Whitethroat carrying food, Titchfield Canal, 28 May 2010

A second Whitethroat carrying food, Titchfield Canal, 28 May 2010

Good numbers of House Martins were on the wing. Not sure what proportion of these birds are residents but I guess most are carrying on to the north. I would say there were at least 200 birds seen over the 2 hours with around 50 Swallows and a handful of Swifts. The Bridge St floods produced 49 Black-tailed Godwits, the majority of which were in full breeding plumage. I would estimate a few more as I could not see the whole of the floods from the canal path. The Barn Owls which I am sure will have young by now were in the usual spot.

House Martin near the Posbrook Floods, 28 May 2010

House Martin near the Posbrook Floods, 1 of c200 in the area, 28 May 2010

Steve Copsey

King Eider Dip followed by seabird spectacular at Fowlsheugh.

On the Sunday in Aberdeenshire I visited the Ythan estuary at Newburgh with my Brother, his fiancée Helen and her father Norman. We were hoping to connect with the King Eider that had been seen at the estuary for the week or so previous. Unfortunately our luck was not in and my brother despite his best efforts suffered his first dip in the world of birding. We spent over two hours at the estuary searching from various viewpoints but with no joy. After a brief lunch we drove down through Aberdeen to the RSPB reserve at Fowlsheugh, just south of Stonehaven. It was my first visit to the reserve and what a superb spectacle it is, possibly only rivalled on the British mainland by Bempton Cliffs. The red sandstone cliffs in places up to 65 metres high hold around 80,000 pairs of breeding seabirds.

Guillemots, Fowlsheugh, 16 May 2010

Razorbill, Fowlsheugh, 16 May 2010

The Most notable seabirds on the cliffs are Guillemots and Kittiwakes, with around 30,000 pairs of each present. Smaller numbers of Razorbill and a few Puffins were also present. Helen had never seen a Puffin before so at least we had something to aim for on the day. A cliff top path runs the length of the cliffs and affords very good views from numerous vantage points. I could literally have taken 1000’s of images but I attempted to restrain myself when I saw the rest of the group disappearing into the distance. Also we had a meal booked in the Ship Inn alongside Stonehaven harbour at seven which I am glad to say proved as favourable as the birding.

Puffin, Fowlsheugh, 16 May 2010

Guillemots, including a couple of the bridled formed birds, Fowlsheugh, 16 May 2010

Razorbills, Fowlsheugh, 16 May 2010

Kittiwake, Fowlsheugh, 16 May 2010

I took over 200 flight shots at the cliffs and this was the only one worth showing. Very disappointed. I personally do not think my 50D coupled with the 100-400 lens is as good for flight shots as the 350D was a few years ago. I visited Bempton back in 2007 and I was more than happy with the results. It is certainly an area to look at. Next time I visit I may well take both cameras for a side by side comparison.

The Ship Inn at Stonehaven. The Cullen Skink starter is well worthy.

Steve Copsey

Black Grouse Lek in the Highlands

Whilst in the highlands I took the opportunity to visit a Black Grouse lek that my brother and I found last summer. At that time both males and a few females were present but given it was early August there was not much lekking to be had. Mid May proved to be a different proposition though and when I arrived at the site just before six in the morning I could straight away see the males only. I scoped and photographed the lek from a suitable distance and I was rewarded with some great lekking behaviour. Overall there were at least 15 males present at one time, but some came and went so there may well have been more. The majority of the males were in a certain area of the field, obviously the preferred lekking ground. A few of the less experienced birds watched from the periphery. The bubbling cooing sound from all the birds was far carrying.

Black Grouse Lek, Highlands of Scotland, 15 May 2010

The males in the main lekking area were all paired up and seemed to only be competing against the one rival. This was the same over the hour or so I watched. Every so often the two birds would flutter off the ground and have a pop at each other but for the majority of the time it was all show and posturing. About half an hour into my viewing a few sheep that were also present in the same field decided to walk straight through the middle of the lek. The birds were not happy with this and stood their ground until the last second when they quickly flitted out of the way. As soon as the sheep had passed the birds re-assembled for more action.

Black Grouse Lek, Highlands of Scotland, 15 May 2010

Black Grouse Lek, Highlands of Scotland, 15 May 2010


Steve Copsey

Broadford Bay, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Bumping into Lee Evans

We left Lochmaddy  on the Friday lunchtime ferry. The ferry crossing was unfortunately very calm and sunny. I think my brother was happy with this but bird wise we could have done with a decent swell and some SW gusts. Birds seen on the return were pretty much the same as on the out leg. Guillemots shading it over Puffins in the most common stakes. Again Gannets, Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns were present in decent numbers, but no Skuas.

Gannet, From the Calmac Ferry, 14 May 2010

After we docked we set off for the drive over to Aberdeenshire. Just before we left the Isle of Skye we drove past the Hebridean Hotel, where we stopped on the way out for a brew. As we passed, Mark informed me that there was a number of birders set up with scopes in the car park. Needless to say I turned the car round and pulled in. We jumped out and before we had time to set our scopes up, Lee Evans walked over and started chatting. He was taking a few chaps over to North Uist and when he found out we had just got back from the island the notebook was out and he was scribbling away. I did hear one of his party say the notebook is worth a fortune. As we chatted he casually mentioned that a Broad Billed Sandpiper was out on the beach with a small party of Dunlin. I assume that he thought we already knew about the bird, but on the island we had no access to the web and I do not carry a pager. When I said where about? He duly put my scope on the bird for me as we carried on talking about Eagles and Corncrakes. A British lifer for both me and my brother  and we just jammed into the bird, it was as good as it gets. We also let them know about Peggy’s Bed and Breakfast at Struan House. I think that was appreciated as I found out later that they got booked in and no doubt enjoyed the breakfast as much as we did.

Broad-billed Sandpiper and Dunlin, Broadford Bay, 14 May 2010

Broad-billed Sandpiper, Broadford Bay, 14 May 2010

Broad-billed Sandpiper, Broadford Bay, 14 May 2010

Broad-billed Sandpiper and Dunlin, Broadford Bay, 14 May 2010

Steve Copsey

Red Throated, Black Throated and Great Northern Divers on the Uists

During our last full day on the Uists we concentrated on Divers. We had seen most of our target birds by this stage other than these birds. When I say these birds I refer to the two British breeding species as we had seen Great Northern Diver on most days, including a couple on the ferry passage between Uig and Lochmaddy. Also on Wednesday morning we had three Great Northerns one in full breeding plumage off Aird an Runair. Thursday was the day though, and we had at least one pair of Red-throated Divers on Loch Eyenort possibly two but we could not be certain.

Red Throated Divers, Loch Eyenort, 13 May 2010

We also had Cuckoo and Willow Warbler in the garden at the end of the single rack road. Elsewhere on South Uist we had a single Black-throated Diver sat in the middle of a large loch as its partner sat on the nest. A superb looking bird in full summer plumage. Unfortunately it was too distant for the camera. Then later the same evening we did a seawatch off Aird an Runair and whilst watching we had a single Great Northern in full breeding plumage feeding quite close to the shore. I manage to get quite close but the light was just about gone so I was shooting at an ISO of 3200. Even so I am quite pleased with the result. To cap the evening we had four Arctic Skuas come through together. Two each of dark and pale phase, these birds did not attempt to chase the waders but still caused uproar as they passed over the peninsula. Every single bird in the area was in the air; fantastic.

Great Northern Diver, Aird an Runair, 13 May 2010

Great Northern Diver, Aird an Runair, 13 May 2010

Arctic Terns, Aird an Runair, 14 May 2010

Steve Copsey

Corn Buntings, Wheatears and Skylarks

There were three passerines that seemed to typify North Uist, none are exactly what you would call rare on the mainland but across the length of the Uists these birds are all common. I don’t think we ever got out of the car without hearing a Skylark overhead. Wheatears were two a penny. Every single field and stretch of beach had its bird. Whilst the Corn Bunting not as common as the other two was still very much in evidence all across the Machair. One particular bird was seen every day singing it’s heart out, perched on exactly the same piece of barbed wire fence, when I say exactly I mean within a centimetre across the week.

Corn Bunting, Balranald, North Uist, 12 May 2010. This bird was singing near constantly but when doing so always turned it’s head to the right!!

Skylark, Balranald, North Uist, 11 May 2010.  This bird jumped up and perched on this fence post as we waited for the Corncrake to show. Literally 3 metres from the car.

Wheatear, Sollas, North Uist, 11 May 2010. The most widespread passerine across the Uists.

Steve Copsey

Nightjar, Woodcock and Little Thorn Moth

   On Monday evening I went out looking for Nightjar and Woodcock at Boarhunt and had a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding football free evening.  I arrived early and while I  waited for dusk to fall I strolled along the various footpaths in the area.  Highlights included two Red-legged Partridge, a singing male Yellowhammer, Whitethroat, Barn Swallow and a Little Thorn Moth (nationally rare).   

Little Thorn Moth, Boarhunt – 24 May 10

   At 2045 I pitched up at a woodland clearing that appeared to be ideal Nightjar habitat to find Graham B already waiting patiently for any Nightjar to perform.  It wasn’t until 2126 that the first Nightjar, perched on a branch of one of the remaining mature trees, began to ‘chur’.  For the next half an hour we were treated to the almost constant ‘churring’ of at least two birds, one of which briefly chose a perch no more than ten metres away from us. 

   Other highlights at the site included two ‘roding’ Woodcock (one directly overhead), Willow Warbler, Tawny Owl and a Roe Deer. 

Good birding,

Tony T   BSc (Hons) Geosci (Open)

Short Eared Owls along the Committee Road, North Uist.

Short Eared Owls are quite common on North Uist and you would have to be rather unlucky not to see at least a couple on a visit. They seemed to be more active between seven and nine in the morning than at any other time although we did see them throughout the day.

Short Eared Owl, Committee Road, North Uist, 13 May 2010

A favoured hunting spot is the committee Road. This road cuts across North Uist and gives great views over the surrounding moorland and hillsides. The road is also a good spot for other raptors such as Golden Eagle, Buzzard, Merlin and Hen Harrier. Unfortunately we dipped on the Eagle, one afternoon by ten minutes, but we did have great if brief views of hunting Merlins and both male and female Hen Harriers. But it was the Short Eared Owl that always caught our attention. Primarily as it often hunted adjacent to the road, therefore allowing great views as we passed. They also tended to use the roadside fence posts in-between hunts, always a great bonus if you are after photographs of a species. The bird I photographed below was always aware of our presence but not overly concerned. However, when a Buzzard was also in the air the all Owls were on alert, constantly scanning the skies following the Buzzards until well clear of their patch.  

Short Eared Owl on Buzzard WatchLike I said fully aware of our presence, but as long as you stay in the vehicle, no worries.

Short Eared Owl hunting near the Committee Road, 13 May 2010

Short Eared Owl, (cropped a little tighter), Committee Road, North Uist, 13 May 2010

Steve Copsey

Waders at Aird an Runair

Wednesday the 12th was an absolutely gorgeous day. As we had breakfast we looked over the bay opposite and there was hardly a ripple on the water’s surface. We spent the morning at Balranald and the Aird an Runair peninsula. The latter is the place to seawatch and we spent a few hours doing just that but given the conditions we were not overly optimistic.  That said we did have two dark phase Arctic Skuas steam along the beach causing all kind of mayhem as they chased the waders feeding on the beach. There were also plenty of Arctic Terns in the area. Unfortunately we did not get Long-tailed or Pomarine Skua. The day we left a front was forecast to move through and sure enough small numbers of both Skuas were seen but we were already in Aberdeenshire! The waders did not disappoint though, in this area we had Bar-tailed Godwits, a summer plumaged Knot, dozens of Purple Sandpipers. Dunlin and Sanderling were into the 100’s most days along the beach. Behind the dunes on the machair there were Ringed Plovers, Golden Plovers, Lapwings and Oystercatchers. The majority of the waders were in just about full breeding plumage which is always great to see. Other common birds at Aird an Runair were Corn Bunting, Twite and Wheatear. To be fair Wheatear were common everywhere.

Dunlin, Aird an Runair, 12 May 2010

Purple Sandpiper, Aird an Runair, 12 May 2010

Dunlin and Sanderling, Aird an Runair, 13 May 2010

Dunlin and Sanderling, Aird an Runair, 13 May 2010

Steve Copsey

American Golden Plover and Dotterel on South Uist

After leaving the Balranald area we headed north and crossed the causeway onto the small island of Berneray. On this island we had great views of Twite. A bird that is never to see further south. The machair on Berneray had been scraped back to bare sand in several areas and this habitat was full of feeding Twite and the nesting area of dozens of Ringed Plovers, lesser numbers of Sanderling and Dunlin were also present. Lapwings and Oystercatchers were here in good numbers as they were all over the Uists. To be honest just about every field on the Uist island chain had a Lapwing or Oystercatcher on territory within it, usually both. It is quite staggering to see how common these birds are. On the drive back to North Uist we picked up an Eagle species high in the sky in front of us. We jumped out of the car and both picked up the bird in our bins just as it turned to reveal a pure white tail. Our second Sea Eagle of the week.

Twite, Berneray, 11 May 2010

 Just then I received a text from Tony Tindale, cheers shipmate, letting me know that an American Golden Plover and four Dotterel were showing well on South Uist. Needless to say we changed our plans about spending the day in the north and headed south. We arrived about 45 minutes later and after a brief search we drove onto the MOD firing ranges at West Gerinish. Fortunately the red flags were down so we were able to drive onto the range. We spotted a car ahead and pulled up near by. We scanned the nearby grass verge and were more than happy to pick up four Dotterel. This bird was also on the target list but I was hoping to see it on top of the Cairngorm Plateau, never the less I was not complaining and another long sought after bird was on my British list.

Dotterel, South Uist, 11 May 2010

However, there was no sign of the any Golden Plovers. We decided to have a brew and then we drove around different areas of the range and Golden Plovers were everywhere. Literally 100’s of birds ranging in distance from a few metres to distant specks. We knew it would not be easy to pick out the American Golden Plover among them and after an hour or so of searching we said we would head back to North Uist for a sea watch. On the drive out of the range we passed another flock of fifty or so Golden Plover and I pulled up the car to have one last scope. Our Mark with his new Swarovskis in hand informed me within about 5 seconds that he had a dark  looking Plover. I got onto it and again I was very happy to see the American Golden Plover around 20 metres away. I managed a few snaps before it moved away with the main Plover flock. A great couple of birds over the space of a couple of hours.

American Golden Plover, South Uist, 11 May 2010

Golden Plovers, North Uist, 11 May 2010

Steve Copsey

Corncrake at Balranald

Tuesday the 11th of May was our first full day on the Uists, we had decided to concentrate on just North Uist and Berneray and there was only one place to start and that was Balranald. The main reason for visiting this island was primarily for Corncrake, and if you are looking for this species, there is no better place to start than the RSPB working farm at Balranald in the west of the island. I knew that this time of May was supposed to be a good time for the species as the machair pronounced macca, which is a Gaelic word for a low lying grassy plain would still be quite short hopefully enabling decent views. The only cloud on the horizon could be following the cold winter the Machair would be too short and the Corncrake would skulk elsewhere.

We arrived early and stopped near the visitor centre and within a few minutes my brother had picked up a calling bird. Over the next hour we moved closer and closer and we knew the bird had to be in the middle of the field we were watching, but we could not see a thing. I then picked up a few Twite out of my window and as I watched them Mark came out with ‘’I’ve got it’’. The calling Corncrake had suddenly materialised out of the middle of the field we had been watching for an hour! The grass was so short you would have thought it could not have hidden a sparrow. The bird was still about 25 metres away but it came right into the open calling every few metres. We watched the bird for another five minutes before it melted back into the field.

Corncrake, Balranald, 11 May 2010

Corncrake, Balranald, 11 May 2010

Corncrake, Balranald, 11 May 2010

Corncrake calling at Balranald RSPB Reserve, 11 May 2010

Steve Copsey

Sedge Warbler Close Up

So much for chronological order. What I forgot to say was that I popped into Leighton Moss after I left the in-laws, hopefully to see the Savi’s Warbler that had been reeling there the week previous. Unfortunately it was not to be but I did have my first Sedge Warbler of the year, dozens in fact. Also picked up a near fully plumaged Spotted Redshank from the Eric Morecambe hide. This was the reserve where I had my first Marsh Harrier back in 1990, and a male hunting over the reedbed looked just as good today. One particular Sedge Warbler was very confiding as it was bursting out song proclaiming its territory. I just perched by the railway fence and let it do the business. Not sure what the insect is below but there were 1000’s in the reeds. Also noticed that nearly all the reserve’s pairs of Greylags had chicks of the same age, probably a good strategy with Marsh Harriers on the hunt.

Sedge Warbler, Leighton Moss, 9 May 2010

Sedge Warbler, Leighton Moss, 9 May 2010

Fly/insect ?, Leighton Moss, 9 May 2010…………….Any Ideas ??

Greylag Geese, Leighton Moss, 9 May 2010

Steve Copsey

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