Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Mull diary

We have just come back from a week on the island of Mull, in Scotland, with a focus on wildlife watching.  So here is the diary:

Our wildlife watching started in Oban before we took the ferry to Mull with sightings of the black guillemots that nest in the harbour.  Walking along the coast we got better views of them on the water, but unfortunately in the otherwise best photo there is no beak, hence the back view!

They have amazingly deep red legs.  Oban was also home to swallows, swifts goldfinches, herring gulls, doves and a shag - and no doubt many more.  We spent a lot of time walking around Oban, a lovely town, and all helped by the glorious sunshine.

On route to Mull we saw terns, but at that distance it was not clear whether they were common or arctic, probably common. Our rented cottage was alongside a small loch that eventually led out to the sea.  The sheltered harbour near the village was home to a couple of noisy oystercatchers and their two chicks, fairly well grown, but still being well protected by their parents.  Noisy oystercatchers make good parents, but we did wonder how many babies they had lost.  It is unlikely they started with just two.  Something to look up perhaps.  The small bay also had many herons.   Most of the gulls here though were common gulls rather than herring gulls.  With glorious sunshine we walked along the coast seeing goldfinches, greenfinches, wheatears, larks, meadow pippits, sparrows, robins, mallards blackbids and of course hooded crows.  The photos for today have to be of the oyster catchers....(although the chick is not the best...)

Sunday was going to be the first wildlife tour, but David (our wildlife expert and host) could not make it (after a long drive to Craignure).  With very rainy weather predicted we took ourselves to Dunart castle (for the good food in the tearoom and yes it was) which also turned out to be good for wildlife.  Walking around on the shore and in the grounds turned up a mink, (from what people have said – otherwise a black ferret!) chaffinch, thrushes (which we were told were mistle thrushes) waders later identifed as sandpipers, rock and meadow pippits, greater black backed gull, wheatears and various orchids - and yellow flags and foxgloves, and a frog.  The day is represented by a fragrant orchid, a butterfly orchid and an atlantic seal (I think, watching Jenny)  and a sandpiper.

Monday took us on our trip with D W.  We headed for Dunart castle again, but stopped short of the castle to check out some trees where the white tailed eagle was nesting, and managed to get a reasonable view of it flying.  Unfortunately we did not manage to get photographs of the sea eagles.  We were also told that the thrushes we saw on Monday at any rite were mistle thrushes (Ann has since looked at a lot of sites in order to try to work on the difference and it looks hard!) and then, we checked to see what was around at grasspoint.  Here we saw dolphins.  Bottle nosed dolphins which are I think the commonest around here.  Quite a long way out, but dolphins nevertheless.  And just the one seal – which is watching Jenny in the photo.  Here also were more orchids including the amazing fragrant orchid again – which really is very fragrant

Then we moved up towards the mountains where we spent quite a lot of time watching a female hen harrier.  Although I saw hen harrier before in Mull (Ann), this time we were able to watch one bird for quite a while – what an elegant bird, and how quickly she moved.  It was really important not to lose sight of her against the landscape: take the binoculars away and you've lost her.  A little later we saw not just one but two males, and although we saw male and female we did not see the food pass.

In the mountains we saw a golden eagle flyig and a white tail at the same time, helping to make the distinction, although they were far away.  We stopped at the golden eagles' nest but did not get a view of it at the nest.

The following day, Tuesday, was more leisurely and we spent a couple of hours walking around the peninsula, just on the small road.  I think what we saw most here were wheatears, and I’m wondering whether I have any photos!  But we also got quite good views of curlews in rather a bleak, boggy and moorlike landscape.  And as always, may finches, pipits and larks.  So here is a wheatear (although the photo is not from the trip, it was taken by Ann)

Wednesday was time for wildlife trip no. 2 – with Brian (originally from Newcastle), and even before we picked up the second group from their hotel, the three in the minibus saw a short eared owl (the photo is not from this trip, but it IS a short eared owl and it was taken by Ann) and then an otter, which we watched for a while (at a distance, till it gave us the slip).  After the others joined us it was time for more otter searching, but we were not successful this time, and after a  while went up to the mountains to look for eagles.  After a while, one of the golden eagles appeared and stooped down to stop on a ledge near the nest.  A bit far to see well in the binoculars, but a beautiful view in the scope, where the golden head and plumage was very clear and hard to find in the first photos, so it is spot the eagle.  (The other photos are from the scope, via an iphone, hence the grainy quality and the round shape of the scope at the bottom).

After the eagles it was up a track to moorland to see if we could find adders - that was Tony's goal for the day.  And Brian did manage to find him one, although as it sped away I guess really he got half an otter.  This location was also very good for flowers and butterflies: here is some wild thyme and sundew. 

Back to lochsides to see a colony of common seals, (no photos taken) and to search again for otters - and yes, a beautiful chestnut colours otter was found, dozing and we had quite a good view in the scope before he or she moved and took to the water where it was lost.  On the way back, a buzzard allowed us to get quite a close photo.

Our last two days were spent on Iona, with very good weather, especially on the Friday.  We heard a few corncrakes but like most other people, did not manage to see them.  Instead, here are some beach photos, a thrush (song thrush I suspect), Jenny (sorry about the bottom), corncrake habitat and Soay cross sheep and an eider duck

Tuesday, 18 August 2015


I have spent much time photographing and trying to photograph the kestrels on the common locally.  There is just one pair, though over the winter and early spring,I only saw the female, and saw her often.  She must have got fed up with me trying to take closer photographs though I was careful not to get too close to disturb her.

These are the best photographs I managed to get (so far!)

Friday, 14 August 2015

Otmoor: turtle doves and harriers

I have neglected to post in here for a few months, but a rainy day, and so no gardening work, is giving me the chance to catch up, going  back to early June when I finally managed to get to the Otmoor RSPB reserve near Oxford.  And it is indeed a beautiful reserve.  I went with my friend Jenny and we were lucky enough to see turtle doves, now increasingly rare visitors to this country.  I had never seen or heard them before and hearing their purring was quite a special experience.  From time tho time we would hear birds purring as we walked around the reserve, but this bird was the only one we had a good look at whist it was foraging for grain.

There have also been marsh harriers on the reserve and we saw two, but not closely:

It was a very lovely, hot day, with so much bird activity.  I did not keep a list, but remember seeing heron, common terns, and hearing many warblers and cuckoos.  We also saw many reed buntings.  These also live on our local common, although there aren't so many, but here we saw a great deal.  Here are some photos: the last one of the tern is not quite in focus but I have included it because of the enormous fish in its beak, which it finally swallowed after much effort!

Monday, 2 March 2015

Birdwatching near Caernarfon

I haven't managed to keep up the list of what I have seen on this blog. but am, however keeping a list, and trying to take photographs too, when I can.  I finally got a better photograph of the female kestrel on the common.  She is nearly always around, but it's not always possible to get close enough for a picture.

I quite like this one though, where she is in the hawthorn tree - a favourite perch.  But this last weekend I was able to see what birds were around in quite a different habitat.  As I had booked to go to the St David's festival in Caernarfon, I thought I would also try to do some birdwatching there and contacted Gareth Jones who runs Birds of Snowdonia and booked a 'tour'.  Brought up in the area, Gareth's first language is Welsh - so that meant we could do the birdwatching in Welsh, an added bonus!.

So on Friday we arranged to meet in Caernarfon and he took me to various locations not too far from the town itself.  As I recall, this is the list of the birds we saw:
Green winged teal
Oyster catchers
Golden plover
Great northern diver
Rock pippit
Ringed plover
Tree creeper
House sparrow
Coal tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Long tailed tit
Black headed gull
Herring gull
Greater black backed gull
Lesser black backed gull
Brent geese
Mute Swan
Great crested grebe
Little grebe
If I haven't put duplicates in this looks like 53 species to me, which is amazing.  I didn't just want to see as many different birds as possible though, and you'll see that many of these are quite common birds.  I wanted to go to locations where I had been as a child, and where I still go when in Caernarfon, such as the Foryd, with someone who is an expert in birding. And I certainly wasn't disappointed.  We saw birds that I have seen before around the town and coastline, but never get to see locally, such as curlew and redshank and turnstone (though that was a bit elusive) and geese we never get here as they are

coastal (the brent geese).  But we also saw a green winged teal, which are American birds and are different from our own native teal in having the white stripe on their flank running upright as in the photo rather than along the wing as in the 'ordinary' teal below:

Not very good photos - they weren't terribly obliging, but they are certainly very pretty birds - both kinds!  Other 'firsts' for me were the divers on the straits, but they weren't terribly close to the shore and of course they are in their winter rather than their breeding plumage.  Another duck I had never seen before was the pintail - very handsome - dabbling around in some pools on the shore, but not near enough to take a photo.  We also visited a field with a very large flock of golden plover, with some lapwing among them.  I have only seen golden plover in their breeding plumage before: these looked very different, but sparkled when they took off in flight - which they did from time to time.

I was also very pleased to see so many curlews, but was told that these are not (mainly) our curlews but Scandinavian or other European visitors.

Another bird that I was excited about seeing was the merlin: I love birds of prey and had never seen one of these before, but I have to say that it was a long way away, perched on a post.  

So I think I learnt a lot about which birds might be seen where.  I didn't try to take photos on the whole, as many were far away.  I would certainly like to go back and try to photograph the dipper.  I love dippers and of course we definitely don't get them around here as they like fast streams.  But we saw two more or less within the town itself, but of course, as is always the way, by the time I'd got the camera out and zoomed the lens, they had moved away!  So one last photo of a bird that is often seen in an aggressive pose, the herring gull, but this pair seem to be peacefully dozing.

Monday, 12 January 2015

More January sightings

I'm not finding it very easy to keep the blog up, having said I would revive it this year!  The main reason is that it competes with the blog I write in Welsh, which also serves to allow me to practice and keep up with my Welsh writing.

However, we did go to Wicken Fen at the beginning of the year (2nd January) and I hoped I would see the Hen Harriers that roost there coming in at the end of the day, but no luck.  It was a beautiful clear day, with much sun and blue skies, but also a very busy day, full of families with children having a great time - and hence noisy.  The hen harriers are not very tolerant of human activity apparently and so perhaps roosted somewhere else.  We did see marsh harriers however, though we didn't really have good views.

So I've listed below what I have seen this year, in no particular order, according to my lists - don't always remember to note them down.  It is amazing how many species of birds there are around to see once you look and make a note - otherwise sightings are forgotten fairly quickly!  And having now fixed the problem I had with my camera when using the shutter priority or the aperture priority I continue to hope that I might get some better photos of the local kestrels or even the kites!

Water rail
herring gull
common gull
lesser black backed gull
great crested crebe
little grebe
long-tailed tit
blue tit
great tit
mute swan
tufted duck
coal tit
Marsh Harrier
Reed bunting
house sparrow
Meadow pipit
Oyster catcher
Red Kite

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year's Day sightings

I've not been posting to this blog for some time - and have been reporting some of my nature sightings and musings in my Welsh blog, Aildysgu, but thought I should try to revive this blog as one of my aims for 2015 is to be a bit more consistent in recording what I see around me.

2015 got off to a somewhat grey and murky start.  The temperature had risen after a few very frosty but sunny days with the temperature never rising much about freezing, giving lovely views of the local common:

This morning, by contrast, was warmer but also windier and I joined the local RSPB group for their annual New Year's Day walk at Willen Lake.

We started watching from the shores of the lake where we saw a number of different ducks including  wigeon, gadwall, tufted such and a couple of golden eye, as well as great crested grebes and dabchicks we went off to the hide to see what we could see from there.  One of the birds spotted from the hide was a chiff-chaff and I was surprised to learn that the chiff-chaff sometimes over-winters in the UK.  We had an excellent view of quite a pretty brown bird that was constantly moving around, so little chance to photograph it. We were ready to leave the hide when someone spotted a water rail.  Although it had retreated into the reeds, it re-appeared and we had a good view as it quickly ran from one patch or reeds to another.  I have never seen a water rail before and did not know what an attractive bird they are.  There was more to come - two or three snipe were also in the reeds and although the view of the birds in the reeds were limited, we had quite good views of two of the birds flying off with their typical zig-zag pattern.  It's a long time since I have seen a snipe - the pattern particularly around their eyes is very striking.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Searching for owls…

This morning I decided to walk the dog in the fields near the Hansons Nature Reserve – just over  a mile from where I live - which are a good area for seeing owls.  We are fortunate to have a small number of barn owls around this area, and like short eared owls they hunt around ungrazed pasture – rough grassland where voles live.  As explained here  this allows a “litter” layer to develop which then becomes a home for voles, their favoured prey. 

The fields between the canal and the reserve provide just such a habitat and have not been grazed for some years.  Nestboxes are also provided for the barn owls - on poles the other side of the lake from the  nature reserve amongst the fishing lakes.

At times we have also had short eared owls here in the winter, which are wonderful to see– although I have not seen them in recent years.  It seemed worth having a look this morning to see whether they were around as the weather was not good and sometimes rainy weather pushes the owls out to hunt by day. 

There is a similar but smaller area of uncut pasture in the common quite near my house (see photo) and the preference for hunting this part of the common is very clear when the kestrels are around (or more occasionally the barn owl) as they are invariably hovering over this area rather than other parts of the common.

I was shocked to hear that barn owl numbers are estimated to now be around only 1,000 pairs in the UK after a very bad year in 2013.  According to a Guardian report http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/14/barn-owls-threatened-freak-weather there may only be a thousand pairs in the UK, although the estimate on the RSPB page is four times that many.  In any case this is very low, so here’s hoping that the milder winter this year (so far) will help.
In the event, today, there were no owls to be seen and very few birds altogether: a flock of lapwings flew overhead; a few crows, magpies, ducks and herons – which were roosting in the heronry – and given the ferocity of the wind and intensity of the rain, I couldn’t blame them.