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Fife, Lothian and Islay 2018

Mark Finn
Nov 17th-24th

This week-long tour visited some of Scotland's best known birding areas. Our main interest was the wintering birds along the North Sea coast and the adjacent areas of Lothian and Fife. This was capped by four days on the Inner Hebridean island of Islay with its thousands of wintering geese. On the mainland we were treated to great views of White-tailed Eagle, Slavonian Grebe, Velvet and Common Scoters and a wide range of the commoner winter species. Once on Islay we witnessed thousands of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese, Golden Eagle, several Hen Harriers which was encouraging and two sizeable flocks of the endangered Red-billed Chough. Passerines were around in low numbers but did include a flock of Twite.

The next tour to this unique area is in March 2019

November 17th: Slamannan, Loch Leven, Lower Largo
Daily 46, New 46, Running 46
Weather: Rather cloudy with sunny spells on a SE wind 8C/15C

After picking up clients in Edinburgh I set off for the town of Slamannan in search of the wintering Taiga Bean Goose flock. Arrived in good time and set about locating the birds which can be difficult at times. On this occasion the birds won so I set off towards Loch Leven which is near the town of Kinloss. From the first viewpoint close views of Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, Grey Heron and a group of Great Cormorants roosting on an island. It was time to visit Vane Farm on the opposite side of the loch with its woodland, grazing marshes and open water. On arrival in the car park we were welcomed by Mistle Thrushes, at least two Eurasian Treecreepers, Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits and several groups of Common Chaffinches. A walk across the road and onto the hides added a flock of European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch and Eurasian Blackbird. From the first hide Common Pochard was a welcome site and a male Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeders. Further on at the next hide we added Little Egret, Whooper and Mute Swans, Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Curlew feeding in the grass fields. The light was starting to go as I set off towards Lower Largo on the Fife coast. On arrival offshore waters held Red-throated Diver, Velvet Scoter, Common Eider, Herring, Common and Black-headed Gulls. Along the beach a few Eurasian Oystercatchers, Common Redshank and Ruddy Turnstones. As the light faded it was on to our base at Aberlady in Lothian for the next three nights.

November 18th: Torness, The Hirsel
Daily 52, New 19, Running 65
Weather: Rather mixed with SE winds 6C/12C

This morning I set off towards Torness Power Station a well known birding hotspot with a good record of birds in recent years. On arrival a bush was full of European Linnet and European Goldfinch. I decided to walk along the nature trail to the end which overlooks a sheltered bay and across to Barns Ness. In the fields feeding Eurasian Curlew and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Once on the trail we recorded several groups of Meadow Pipits and a few Rock Pipits which made a good comparison. A look at the sea added Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Black-legged Kittiwake and a group of female Common Scoters. In the bay old pilings had roosting Great Cormorant and European Shag. A detour towards Dunbar provided us with close views of Pink-footed Geese. Barns Ness was next on the agenda but we had to abandon this due to high levels of human activity. A female Eurasian Kestrel was seen at close range perched on a roadside post. I made the decision to visit The Hirsel at Coldstream which was not on the itinerary, it however proved popular with my clients. On arrival lunch was consumed and then we set off to visit the grounds and its varied habitats. The small loch is an important area for wildfowl with sightings of Little Grebe, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Goosander, Common Goldeneye, Common Moorhen and Eurasian Coot. In the oak trees the group caught up with Eurasian Nuthatch a scarce bird within Scotland plus sightings of the commoner tits, Redwing and Mistle Thrush. The light was starting to fade as we headed back to Aberlady after an enjoyable birding day in Lothian and The Borders.

November 19th: Gullane, Aberlady Bay, Gosford Bay, Musselburgh, Fisherrow, Whiteadder Reservoir
Daily 61, New 14, Running 79
Weather: Cloudy with a light E wind 4C/10C

After breakfast I set off towards the coastal community of Gullane. On arrival a visit to the bay and point area which has a high percentage of sea buckthorn and extensive sandy beaches. On the beach a single Sanderling in winter plumage. The waters offshore were relatively calm allowing us to locate scattered flocks of Common Eider, Common and Velvet Scoters, Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck and a migrating female Hen Harrier being mobbed by Carrion Crows. On exposed rocks Ruddy Turnstone, Eurasian Oystercatcher and a Rock Pipit. It was time to move on towards Aberlady Bay with the tide starting to come in. A lot of birds were present in the estuary and sand flats including Common Shelduck, Bar-tailed Godwit and Dunlin. Further west at Gosford Bay the first Slavonian Grebes of the tour were located. At Musselburgh I headed towards the seawall and coastal path and scanned the offshore waters with similar birds to earlier in the day plus a few Great Black-backed Gulls. From the concrete hides birds were building up on the scrapes with high numbers of Eurasian Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed Godwits plus Grey Plover, Dunlin, Common Redshank and Common Snipe in the grasses. The trees held a few birds including a party of Long-tailed Tits, Dunnock and a Eurasian Wren. A diversion to Fisherrow had the same birds so I headed inland towards the Lammermuir Hills and Whiteadder Reservoir a remote and cold place. On arrival an immature White-tailed Eagle was a surprise as it was being mobbed by two Common Buzzards. In the reservoir many Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Black-headed and Common Gulls. The light was fading as I headed back to base with a few Red Grouse flying in front of the car. Tomorrow we head east for the ferry across to Islay in Argyll and Bute.

November 20th: Aberlady, Kennacraig to Port Askaig Ferry, Bridgend, Bowmore
Daily 39, New 6, Running 85
Weather: Sunny spells and cloudy conditions on a NE wind 6C/10C

Checked out of Aberlady to make the journey across to the west coast and Argyll and Bute. The traffic around Edinburgh was particularly congested which made the journey time longer. On arrival at Kennacraig we boarded the ferry to Port Askaig on the eastern end of Islay. Birding was fairly slow on the crossing with sightings of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Common Eider, Black Guillemot and a few Black-legged Kittiwakes. Once on Islay I headed towards Bridgend where close views of Barnacle Geese proved to be a great sight. Further along towards Bowmore another stop added a party of Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Whooper Swans, Eurasian Wigeon and Mallard. Beyond Bowmore towards the landfill dump excellent views of the scarce Greenland White-fronted Geese feeding in a grass field. The light was starting to fade as we returned to Bowmore and our base for the next four nights.

November 21st: Loch Skerrols, Bruichladdich, Portnahaven, West Coast, Saignamore, Machair Bay, Loch Gruinart
Daily 52, New 12, Running 97
Weather: Rather mixed with a cold NE wind 4C/7C

At first light the usual birds were in around Bowmore. After breakfast I headed towards Loch Skerrols which is surrounded by woodland planted by the Victorians in the 19th century. A scan of the lake revealed Mute Swan, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye and in the woods Woodpigeon, European Robin and Coal Tit. On exiting Loch Skerrols great views of Greenland White-fronted Geese, Rock Pigeons, and flocks of Redwings feeding on a grassy field. A short stop at Bruichladdich added a pair of Ringed Plovers and shortly afterwards our first Red-billed Chough of the trip. In the small port of Portnahaven we could see the coast of Northern Ireland with Black-legged Kittiwakes passing by. In the harbour a few North Atlantic Grey Seals, Herring Gull and European Shag. The West Coast road was joined in the village which runs adjacent to the shoreline with spectacular scenery and varied habitats. The group quickly located the local race of Song Thrush and families of Common Stonechats. In the fields towards Sanaigmore fantastic views of a male Hen Harrier, Common Buzzard and the first Fieldfare of the trip. Before taking lunch a roadside field was productive for Redwing and Eurasian Skylarks. At Machair Bay we were fortunate to watch up to 25 Red-billed Choughs feeding in fields and sand dunes and giving their aerobatic display flights. Our final stop was the RSPB reserve of Loch Gruinart a working farm geared up to modern environmental ideas. From the hides literally thousands of geese, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, European Golden Plover, Northern Lapwing and up to 12 Black-tailed Godwits. The light started to fade as we retraced our walk back to the car. A great day’s birding in challenging conditions.

November 22nd: Islay Woollen Mill, back road to Port Ellen, The Oa, Loch Gruinart
Daily 66, New 7, Running 104
Weather: Sunny with a SE wind 4C/7C

I picked up supplies in Bowmore and then headed towards the Woollen Mill on the road to Port Askaig. The river and woodland habitats here are often good for birds with feeders put out by the owners of the mill. On arrival several spilled peanuts attracted Great and Coal Tits, Common Chaffinch and European Greenfinch. In the alders a few Eurasian Siskins which have been rather scarce within Scotland this year. In the trees the first Collared Doves of the tour. It was time to take the back road towards Port Ellen via Mulindry which passes through remote moorland and scattered forest habitats. In the more open habitats Redwing and Fieldfare were fairly common whilst the rocky crags attracted good numbers of Common Ravens. Arrived in Port Ellen and scanned the bay with sightings of Black-throated Diver, European Shag, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls and Pied Wagtails on the sandy beach. The road towards Oa is nearby and we progressed to the RSPB car park and walked towards the farm buildings. The walk was productive for Eurasian Linnet, Twite, Common Stonechat and the local race of Dunnock. On the return towards Port Ellen we were rewarded with close views of a Golden Eagle hunting over a croft. Back on the main road to Bowmore and onto the northern area of Loch Gruinart where a suitable area was found for lunch. This was productive for geese, ducks and waders including a wintering Common Greenshank a scarce bird here in the winter months. I ended the day at the north hide of Loch Gruinart with the spectacle of thousands of Barnacle Geese taking to the sky and flying around. A surprise find was two Little Egrets coming into roost a fitting end to a fantastic day’s birding on Islay.

November 23rd: Loch Indaal, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Ardnave, Loch Gruinart
Daily 66, New 6, Running 110
Weather: Cloudy with showers on a SE wind 7C

Our last full day on Islay started with a visit to Loch Indaal. The shallow waters and mudflats held the usual birds with the addition of more Pale-bellied Brent Geese. On the mud at Bridgend we could make out a small flock of Red Knot feeding on the tidal edge. Next on the agenda was the road leading to Bunnahabhain distillery which usually holds a few birds but on this occasion it was quiet with the exception of a few Fieldfares and Redwings. I decided to check the beach at Bruichladdich again and on arrival a Grey Wagtail flew over and disappeared into the nearby burn. The beach however revealed a few waders including Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. The pier had a moulting Black Guillemot, Rock and Meadow Pipits. A stop at Loch Gruinart information centre and the feeders attracted similar birds to yesterdays visit. It was time to drive down towards Ardnave Loch and check the area around it. On arrival we were greeted by a mixed flock of Red-billed Chough and Jackdaw. On the loch itself a few Tufted Ducks. I decided to end the day at the hide at Loch Gruinart. This was again a memorable experience with thousands of birds present which included several different Hen Harriers, Whooper Swans hiding in the sedges and spectacular skeins of geese. On the way home I had brief views of a Eurasian Woodcock flying across the road. Back to Bowmore for our last night on Islay.

November 24th: Islay, Kennacraig, Edinburgh
Daily n/r, New 0, Final 110
Weather: Clear and sunny with a cold NE wind

Checked out and made the journey down to Port Ellen where the ferry departs back to Kennacraig on the mainland. The crossing had similar birds to a few days ago with a marked increase in the numbers of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers. The journey back to Edinburgh went smoothly including the centre of Glasgow. Once in Edinburgh we said our goodbyes and I set off north back to the Black Isle.

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