Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review of the Year 2018 - part five

Crested Tit, Abernethy forest
After an entertaining autumn on the Yorkshire coast (which still had a very sweet sting in the tail - more of which below), the last two months of the year were happily bird- and adventure-filled, beginning with a lovely week in the Highlands of Scotland with the Mrs.

Woodcock, Abernethy
Disney princess

Fortunately for us, we were invited by the fine people at the Grant Arms Hotel - a beautiful, wildlife-focused hotel in the picturesque Highland small-town of Grantown-on-Spey - for a week in early November, which included delivering several talks and excursions for guests and visitors.

It's a fair way from Filey, and so we took the opportunity to drop in on the Woodhead clan on the way up for an evening and morning in Haddington - timed to enjoy a mother of a firework display in their hometown after dark and then an enjoyable session at nearby Musselbrough in the morning before heading further north.

With the recent American White-winged Scoter having gone awol a couple of weeks previously (despite reports to the contrary via the bird news services), hopes of a five Scoter trip were unfortunately off the table - but four would be something, if the other three species there played nicely and the Black Scoter would be good enough to stick around (and present itself) off Northumberland on the return journey the following weekend...

Short-eared Owl over the seawall at Musselburgh

... and with a lot of seaducks, as well as plenty of grebes, divers and other activity to enjoy out on the water, it wasn't long before we'd found the male Surfy, a few Commons and were carefully grilling the mobile flocks of Velvets for the American absentee.

Despite the lack of the latter, it was a treat to bird here (especially with the irrepressible and sunshiney Woodheads) - no wonder it gets so many good birds.

A few hours of increasingly stunning scenery through the windscreen later and we arrived at the Grant Arms Hotel - a great place to stay in every respect. Geographically, its position for seeking a wide variety of seriously quality birding and wildlife experiences is second to none, being ideally and centrally placed for all the local specialities;

- the staff, and especially the folks behind the BWWC (who run and organise all the indoor and outdoor activities there) are wonderful, with Sue, Simon and John just about the friendliest and most skilled team you could assemble up there; and the hotel and its birder-heavy facilities - including excursions, tours, talks, a library, morning info-meets and more - a model of the standards eco-tourism can achieve in the right hands.

Red Squirrel, Highlands
Our week was a relaxed, un-rushed affair that incorporated visits to stone circles, whisky distilleries and castles as well as wildlife-focused sessions, but it's fair to say we enjoyed plenty of what this unique area has to offer for nature lovers - Crested Tits, eagles, incredible Black Grouse leks and tons of seaducks, grebes and divers included. You can find more on this memorable trip here, here and here.

The incredible network of stone circles and cairns at Clava
Evenings were spent either sampling the seemingly endless selection of single malts at the hotel bar or giving talks, on my Champions of the Flyway and through-the-seasons birding experiences at Filey respectively - a real pleasure to deliver; happy to say we've been invited back next November, which we're already looking forward to. See here for more details.

Whooper whoopin' along the Northumbrian coast
On the way back home (after another drop-in with the lovely Woodheads and more quality birding at Musselbrough) we broke up the journey by overnighting in Berwick and spending the following day on the Northumbrian coast, with designs on the Black Scoter and then Lindisfarne.

We headed the short distance to Cheswick Sands on a beautifully crisp, clear morning, parked up by the dunes, and within a few minutes had had a noisy, low-flying flock of southbound Whoopers, followed soon after by a flock of bounding northbound passerines, which happily consisted of both Snow and Lapland Buntings – instant good fortune, which extended over the next hour, and indeed for a second session post-Lindisfarne later in the day.

Crappy screen-grab of a crappy Black Scoter digi-video
A couple of small flocks of Common Scoters bobbing offshore seemed statistically unlikely to include the drake Black Scoter, but there he was, and again even closer on the incoming tide later in the day, along with bonus Black Guillemot, grebes, divers and Eiders - a fitting end to a lovely, relaxing week in some of the UK's most beautiful landscapes. It's far from grim up north, trust me.

Black-throated Diver in the bay back at Filey
Back home and with a late autumn influx of swifts – some (many?) Pallid, some Common, others (most?) unidentified – underway, I was on red alert while birding locally, however slim the chances might have been. Amazingly, while out on the Brigg at Filey in the cold, wintry sunshine of the 13th, I glanced up and boom, there was what turned out pretty quickly to be a de facto Pallid Swift hawking high over the waves, which even hung around long enough for record shots before disappearing high over the North Sea.

A particularly sweet sight after narrowly missing a bird here last year (while en route to Cape May – I know, talk about ungrateful), and my sixth self-found BBRC rarity here in less than seven years; sometimes it all comes good in the end.

Young Whooper at Filey Dams
From a migration perspective, autumn quietly turns into winter around mid-November here, although there are of course plenty of possibilities, particularly in the bay and off the Brigg, and a handful of Filey specialities – Long-tailed Ducks, Black-throated and multiple Great Northern Divers, Black Guillemot - filled in the gaps before the next winter getaway.

A few days in Berlin staying with our dear friends Michael and Lydia in Kreuzberg were dedicated to various aspects of life somewhat lacking on the Yorkshire coast, including diverse culture-vulturing, great bars, festive Christmas markets and good food, and thus birding was hardly a priority - alhough I still managed to sneak in a productive session while we explored Teufelsberg in the west of the city:

Middle Spotted Woodpecker in Berlin
Despite dark and breezy conditions we had great views of a close-up hunting Goshawk, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch and caudatus Long-tailed Tits, always a real treat; more on these and other Berlin collateral here.

Firecrest - a pleasingly common bird in the Provencal winter landscape
Barely a week or so passed before we happily bolted again, this time for ten days or so in Provence (via London) over Christmas and New Year. Again, this was far from a birding trip, but having had the pleasure of staying with our great friends the Fontenoys there plenty of times over recent years, I knew there'd be opportunities to bust out the bins and camera.

Wallcreeper, Les Baux
It could hardly have been any better, with mainly sunny and mercifully (mostly) Mistral-free days including many a fun excursion, not least in pursuit of Wallcreeper and Alpine Accentor at Les Baux - more on these unforgettable encounters here and here.

Black Redstart, Provence
So not exactly a dull end to what, while writing these summaries, was clearly a very good year on many levels.... here's to an equally productive and inspiring 2019.

Black-necked Grebe, Martigues, Provence