Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Edinburgh Interlude

Long standing readers will remember past university run trips to Durham and Swansea to ferry my two daughters to and from those academic institutions. Both girls have now completed their undergraduate degrees and both have had a year off to think about things. However, so daunting was the prospect of the world of work that both have now decided to return to the sanctuary of university life and are both now about to embark on post graduate studies. Whilst my eldest is going to stay on at Durham to do a Ph.D., my youngest is now going to do a Masters at Edinburgh and as Scottish terms start earlier than in England, last Friday I took her up there. 

As usual I thought that I'd take the opportunity to see what was around on the bird front and there was one present rarity that caught my eye, namely the unidentified Wheatear near Pilling in Lancashire. I say unidentified but it's an adult female of either a Pied or an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. It appears that for adult females it's almost impossible to tell these two species apart in the field and I've been following the debate on-line with some interest Whilst I've seen a couple of Pied Wheatears over the years I've yet to see a Black-eared so I was very much hoping that it would turn out to be this latter species. Whilst it was found at the start of last week I was optimistic that it might stay for some time as autumn Wheatears are wont to do and so it proved. Indeed by the time our daughter and I had set off from Oxford at around 9 a.m. on Friday it had already been reported as still present that day. What's more it was only a relatively short distance off the M6 and conveniently located about half way from Oxford to Edinburgh so it would be a perfect spot to stop for lunch. The one possible fly in the ointment was that the weather forecast was for very strong winds and I had wondered just how well the bird would show under such conditions.

The journey northwards was uneventful and at around 1pm we were turning off the M6 for Pilling. As we neared our destination it was interesting to note how the countryside started to have that coastal feel to it, with everything looking a bit more bleak and windswept. We arrived at the car park to find quite a few cars present and I could see a small gathering of birders on the sea wall a few hundred yards away, presumably where the bird was. It was indeed very windy and I had to put on numerous layers before we battled through the wind to where the other birders were. I needn't have worried about the bird as it was constantly on show though in the conditions it was almost impossible to hold the camera steady. In the end I set up my scope and used that to rest my camera on it. This gave enough stability to get some reasonable shots off.

After about ten minutes we both retreated to the sanctuary of the car to eat our packed lunches. Then whilst my daughter decided to stay put I girded my loins and sallied forth once more to take more pictures. The other birders had now gone and instead there were a couple of new birders looking for the bird. As they were in the wrong place I shepherded them further along to where it had last been seen and sure enough it was soon on show again. The sun came out and gave the opportunity for better photos though it was still very blowy.

The Pied/Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Lots has been written about this bird's identity already and it must be the most photographed Wheatear presently in the country so there are no shortage of photos of it. I don't pretend to have any expertise in separating the two species. All I can say is that having seen the bird and numerous photos and comparing it with the plates in my Collins, the colouring most closely matches the Eastern Black-eared Wheatear though I'm quite prepared to accept that there's more to it than that. Anyway, a poo sample has been taken for DNA purposes and I await the outcome with bated breath - after all there's an armchair tick at stake. I have read though that it's possible that even the DNA analysis won't be conclusive and that these two species are known to hybridise so we may never know.

After having got all the photos I wanted it was time to head back to the car and back towards the M6 for the long slog up to Edinburgh. Fortunately we had some friends who lived in the city and who'd kindly agreed to put us up for the night as my daughter wouldn't have access to her room until 9 am on Saturday morning. We arrived there just before 6pm and were soon settling down to a nice meal and a chance to catch up. After dinner we decided to go for a walk down to the centre of town to see where my daughter's accommodation was. It all looked good and we met up with one of the student wardens there who seemed most helpful. Then it was back to our friends' place where after such a long day we were soon hitting our beds for the night.

We were up early the next day. After breakfast we said goodbye to our hosts (though I had provisionally asked if it might be possible to stay that night as well) and headed off with the aim of getting to the student accommodation location at the opening time of 9am. We actually weren't the first people there though we were efficiently dealt with and soon unloading the car's contents into her simple but functional room. Eventually it was all done and it was time to say our goodbyes. Despite having gone through all this before with both daughters I still felt surprisingly emotional about it all. Still I'm sure she's going to have a wonderful time there.

Now, having fulfilled my paternal duties what had I got lined up on the birding front for today? Well, there had been nothing of particular note in Scotland: a Surf Scoter and a Pectoral Sandpiper at Musselburgh were a possibility but I had my eye on a grander prize. I'd been thinking that this was probably as good an opportunity as I was likely to get to have a crack at the resident Black Duck at Strontian over to the west in the Highlands. The only trouble was, after a flurry of daily reports of its presence in the spring, there'd been precious little news for the summer. Indeed when planning my trip up here I'd more or less written this bird off as a possibility with no news for over a month but then last weekend it was reported as still present in its usual place upstream of the second bridge so I thought that I'd give it a go. Of course given its location whilst it was only a relatively modest 140 miles way, it was going to take over three and a half hours to get there and the round trip was going to be equivalent in time to driving from Oxford to Edinburgh again. Still, needs must and with a weather forecast of sunshine and no wind it was with some optimism that I set off for the slog westwards from Edinburgh.

It was indeed a long old drive but once I started to get out into the Highlands the scenery started to change and crossing Rannoch Moor and the Pass of Glencoe in the sunshine was absolutely glorious. It had been a few years since I'd been in the Highlands and in the sunshine my soul rejoiced at the beauty of it all. Eventually I arrived at Corran to take the ferry across Loch Linnhe. Whilst the ferry only takes a few minutes it cuts off many miles of extra driving and is certainly £8.50 well spent. Indeed the opportunity the take in the scenery for ten minutes or so whilst waiting for the ferry was worth it alone.

On the Corran ferry
Once safely disembarked, it was left past the Corran lighthouse and on the last leg of the journey along the shores of Loch Linnhe. I spotted what looked like a Black Guillemot in amongst a flock of close in loafing gulls on the water though I didn't see it well enough to be sure. Then it was time to turn inland to meet up with Loch Sunart where Strontian is situated. As a matter of interest the village's main claim to fame is that the element Strontium was first discovered there as part of historic lead mining operations and once the element had been isolated it was decided to name the element after the village itself. But enough science nerdiness, finally I was there and I turned off up the narrow single track road that ran alongside the River Strontian to park up by the church. There I tooled up, put on my walking boots and headed the few years to the "second bridge" that was so often mentioned in the reports of this bird. Were all my efforts going to be in vain? I was about to find out.

The picturesque second bridge across the River Strontian
I crossed the bridge, having a quick scan upstream first though there was just an eclipsed drake Mallard standing on a stone in the river to be seen. This was one concern of mine: in eclipse plumage how easy was it going to be to recognise the bird? I'd swatted up on the salient features: yellow bill, plain dark grey brown body, no white edging to the tail and no thick white on the speculum as a Mallard had - it should be straight-forward enough. I turned left just past the bridge and headed the few yards past a wooded area to a more open though rather overgrown area just as the river started to bend round a little. There were a number of paths here where past birders had no doubt forced their way through the undergrowth and I took one of these and headed down to the river. I immediately came across a couple of ducks. One was a female Mallard and the other looked like my target bird. The only trouble was that the pair were very shy and immediately swam off at great speed before I could get much of a photo and started skulking deep in the shade under a tree out of sight. 

Hmmm, I was reasonably confident though not 100% after what I'd seen. I started walking upstream to see if there were any other ducks around and I put up a couple of birds that were resting close to the near bank. They immediately flew off upstream a long way. I really hoped that my target bird hadn't been one of those two as otherwise I wasn't going to see it again. I went back to the first pair though they were still tucked way out of sight and I could only get glimpses of them hidden under the trees. I decide that the best thing to do was to give them a while to come out again so I could get a better look. So I elected to walk down the river to stretch my legs and to get a cup of tea at the café at the bottom of the river by the roadside and this I duly did. On the way there was a nice Hooded Crow in the school playing field to take a look at, a pleasant reminder of my current Highland location.

Local Hoodie
After my tea I wandered back up the river and hoped that the ducks would now be more cooperative. However they were still hiding so in the end I decided I'd have to go to them. So I worked my way through the small wooded area down to the riverside where I found the pair skulking under their tree. The drake was having a nap but eventually he woke up and started to move about and I was at last able to get a really good look at him. He had all the salient features and was clearly my bird. I checked the tail which was all dark and he eventually gave me a nice wing stretch so I could check out the speculum. Job done!

Skulking Black Duck at the back with his Mallard mate

...and a bit more out in the open though the sunshine made for very contrasty photographic conditions
It was after 4 pm now and I had to decide what to do. One option was to start heading south and to stay the night at some relatives who lived in the Lake District. However, with that being a good five hours away that was just too much. So in the end I sent a text to my Edinburgh hosts asking if I could stay the night again. Then I drove the short distance down to the village post office and store by the loch side where I bought a few provisions for an evening picnic. Then I drove a little way along the road until I found a nice lochside location where I could stop and have my meal, a rather late lunch/early dinner. Then it was back on the road and the long slog retracing my steps. I didn't mind though, with a successful Black Duck tick under my belt and the beautiful sunny scenery it was all very pleasant. On the return ferry journey I spotted a few distant Eider on the loch but that was about it. Once the sun set I started to feel very tired and it wasn't until after 8:30 pm that I finally arrived back at my hosts. There after catching up on news of their day I soon retired to my bed and was sound asleep.

The next day I bade my friends goodbye and was on the road some time after 9 am. I stopped off briefly to have a look around Blackford Pond where I'd seen a Ring-necked Duck in April last year after having seen the Musselburgh White-winged Scoter but today there was just the usual suspects. Then it was on the road for the long slog down south. I took it easy and stopped several times for tea and once had a brief nap. So it wasn't until late afternoon that I arrived back home at Casa Gnome, tired but pleased with my excursion north of the border.

I thought that I had to update this post with the news of a quite extraordinary break-through in the ID of the mystery Pilling Wheatear. New broke on Wednesday morning that the ID had been firmed up to definitely Eastern Black-eared Wheatear - which was the one that I wanted it to be! The reason for the confirmation turns out to be some white at the base of the mantle feathers which apparently is only shown by this species. Note though that normally these feather bases are hidden from view and it was only this photo (by Paul Ellis (c) - see below)  which happened to show a ruffled mantle where you can see under the feathers above to the base of one feather which clearly shows this white base. Talk about difficult ID! Still I'm not complaining as this has turned my trip into a two ticker - result!

courtesy of Paul Ellis (c)

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