Wednesday, 4 December 2013

November is often thought to be the end of autumn and the start of a long winter but in reality the 11th month of the year has produced some great birds and the Outer Hebrides seem to come into their own during this time. Past years have produced such goodies as American Black Tern, Mourning Dove, Hooded Merganser, Pied-billed Grebe and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (unfortunately dead) to name but a few. 2013 was certainly not a let down as skipping through the recent sightings on Western Isles Wildlife show. It began fairly quietly with a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling remaining from October around gardens at Port of Ness and the odd Glaucous Gull. Then the Americans began arriving with a confiding White-rumped Sandpiper at Aird an Runair, Balranald on 3rd.

This lively individual had possibly just arrived as it was very vocal and quite flighty but soon settled down to feed amongst a mixed flock of waders allowing such close approach that I was too close with a 300mm lens at times. The bird had gone the following day but quite remarkably I bumped into it again; this time at Ardivachar, South Uist with a second individual. It took me a few days to figure out that it was the same bird from Balranald as the views weren't that good but eventually on the 9th I got close enough to photograph it at North Bay, South Uist.

The plumage looks spot on with the same arrangement of juvenile and winter plumage coverts, scapulars and tertials. The second bird that it was occasionally seen along side (shown in the last photo above) is quite probably a bird originally found by John Kemp at Ardivachar on 29th October.

The 9th November also saw a couple of other reports of new birds with an American Wigeon in the north-west corner of Loch Bee and a white Gyr Falcon seen briefly by Paul Boyer at Balemore, North Uist. Other birds in this early period included one or two Little Egrets touring the Uists, a couple of Waxwings here and there and the juvenile Surf Scoter (from later October) at Ardivachar.

The 11th was the last day that the Rosy Pastor was seen in Lewis but more incredibly was the day John Kemp picked up a female King Eider flying south past Rubha Ardvule, South Uist. He arrived early morning to seawatch from the point when he noticed an odd-looking Eider coming towards him. He rattled off a couple of images that although dark were sharp enough to recognise as a "Queen" Eider (see photo on Western Isles Wildlife). This is a very rare bird in the islands with only a handful of records with the most recent also being found by JK at Ardvule in early May, 2012 whilst looking for a small group of Stock Doves. They could be much more regular than we know as many Eiders are present off-shore although usually too far out to pick up much detail, especially if a female bird but the chances of picking up a migrating individual must be very slim indeed.

The following few days were fairly quiet although the Surf Scoter remained at Ardivachar; the Kingfisher (originally found by Rosie Quick in August and only the 8th record for the islands) was seen again, this time at Loch Druidibeg and about a mile from its original site on the Howmore River and 2 Red-necked Grebes were reported from the Sound of Barra. Other sightings included a few Glaucous Gulls, Common Scoters away from normal locations and a late Sooty Shearwater in the Minch between Ullapool and Stornoway.

The 17th saw the re-appearance of the white Gyr, this time at Craig Hastain; very close to the original sighting at Balemore. It put on a superb show for around 5 minutes, first surprising the observer (me) by heading straight for them and passing within around 30 feet before circling round and putting on a turn of speed in pursuit of something. Luckily it returned and allowed me to get a few shots before disappearing in the direction of Baleshare. At the time of writing it has not been seen again although with so few observers and such a large amount of space it's not really surprising.

It's probably more surprising the number of birds that are found in the islands and bumping into a goody involves a certain amount of luck which brings me to the American Robin. Originally seen in a garden at South Loch Eynort on the same day as the Gyr photos above but suppressed as the house holder didn't want crowds of binocular-wielding people hanging around their quiet neighbourhood. Luckily Ian Thompson happened to be out conducting a BTO thrush survey along the road at South Loch Eynort when this trans-Atlantic thrush popped out of a ditch. What a surprise that must have been for him; and the house owner as the cat was now well and truly out of the bag.

The robin spent most of its time in a recently dug over veggie plot where it was finding a plethora of worms but occasionally made a trip to the roadside where I was lucky enough to see it on the 23rd. On the way home on 23rd I stopped at a small roadside loch at the north side of South Uist to have a look at the wildfowl gathered here in the failing light. In amongst the Tufted Duck I spotted what appeared to be a female Lesser Scaup but with dusk fast approaching and all the birds taking to the air and flying off to Loch Bee I was undecided. Returning to Loch an Daill the following morning I was delighted and relieved to see that the ducks had returned and there it was, a female Lesser Scaup. It was showing all the requisite features with the square head shape, peaked rear crown, mottled flanks and some grey vermiculations on the upper mantle. Too far away for a photo I persuaded JK to come and have a look as I thought it looked like the genuine thing which he did and was also pleased to see a good, solid, no messing, female Lesser Scaup. JK managed to digi-scope a few images in the glaring light that show the small, black tip restricted to the nail (see Western Isles Wildlife) of the bill and even a poor shot of the open wing which rounded off the full suite of characters eliminating any doubt of a hybrid aythia.

The 24th also produced a report of a male Snowy Owl on St. Kilda which must be getting quite hungry by now unless it's enjoying the local mouse population and rounding off a very good month.

The scaup, robin and egret continued to entertain to the month end and with some luck might see it through to start a good New Years day bird list.

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