Monday, 17 January 2022

Winter birding in Fife

I've just been in Scotland for a week - visiting family as I had not managed to get up over Christmas due to an emergency trip away. Mainly I just worked - my chosen career is relentless, particularly so just after the end of a calendar year. But at the weekend I managed to go on a birding tour of Fife which was simply brilliant. Sadly there are almost no photos, the type of birding up there requires a scope which meant that the camera got left behind.

I started at around 9am at Tentsmuir, which is the top eastern corner, so above St Andrews between the Eden and the Tay. My main target were a small group of Snow Buntings that had been on Kinshaldy beach for the past week or so. Kinshaldy beach is very hard to access at the moment - heavy rain has created a long series of lagoons in the dunes that are more or less impassable for a stretch of about a mile, without wellies I had to walk quite a way north to find a point to cross. This may be working to the advantage of the Buntings with fewer people on the beach. That said the the beach is huge, and even with lots of people there would still be plenty of quiet spots in which to remain undisturbed. Maybe as a result it took me ages and ages, five miles of walking in fact, in order to find 15 out of the reported 25+ birds, and the views were frustratingly brief as they flew over my head back in the direction I had just come from. Still, a county tick is a county tick. A Peregrine flew over early doors.

There are some more permanent lagoons at the northern end, not far beyond the current crossing point, and these held two Mergansers, two Long-tailed Ducks, a Greenshank and a Little Egret (still reasonably scarce in Fife). Offshore there were plenty of Common Scoter, single Slavonian Grebe and Red-throated Diver, and a good number of Grey Plover on the surf line. It had been a good morning of birding but I needed to move on as I would lose the light early.

I skipped the Eden Estuary - a shame as I always enjoy it, but I had managed a short visit during the week where I had finally found Brent Goose as well as a big flock of Scaup in the outer estuary - nearly three figures. I've been birding in Fife for years, my parents moved up from England in about 2005, but my prior list-keeping has been somewhat slack. Brent Goose is scarce in Fife but there is often a small wintering flock on the Eden. I vaguely remember seeing them some years ago but I could find no record of having done so in my spreadsheet, and as my historical eBird records were nearly exclusively generated from this it was missing there too. 

My next stop was instead Cameron Reservoir, where the male Smew was easily picked out about half way down - another new county (well, Kingdom) bird. Loads of ducks today, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Teal and Tufted Duck, with ten Whooper Swans in the field next to the entrance track and a further two out on the water. I had no time to walk around the edge, and the views are mostly not very good until you reach the far end so this felt a little bit like tick and run.


From here it is a short run to the coast - via flocks of Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer - and I emerged near Largo and soon found myself at the entrance to Shell Bay. This has been for years one of my favourite spots to go birding in Fife - Ruddon's Point on a good day can be peerless. I hurried past a huge swirling flock of Linnet up on Kincraig Hill (rumoured to also contain Brambling and Twite) and made my way to Largo Bay. The water was like glass, absolutely brilliant for birding, and I had magnificent views of the Eider flock, of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. On the Cocklemill Burn I put up a small flock of Twite with some Reed Buntings, always good to see. I have clear memories of regularly seeing Twite in good numbers on the Fife coastal path, but once again I have no written records. That wrong is now righted. As I made my way back two Ravens cronked overhead and a Mistle Thrush whirred. I nearly trudged up the hill to get a view of the finch flock but decided instead to spend the last hour of the day at Leven where a Black-necked Grebe had been reported earlier - with the water so calm it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I parked in my usual spot near the crappy snack van and scoped the water. There were Long-tailed Duck really close in, what a shame I had no camera, and really good views of Velvet Scoter. The Grebe was a little more distant but I'll take it - the scarcest of all the Grebes in Fife and one I'd never seen up here. Slavs are positively common in comparison. A Black-throated Diver with a couple of Red-throats completed a very successful day.

The birding up in Fife is wonderful, a huge contrast to my local patch in Wanstead at this time of year. Almost everything I saw would be a wonderful bird in London, and I am very pleased that I have the opportunity to visit not just as a one off but on a regular basis. My Fife list is not too far away from 200 these days. Obviously I can't chase rarities as I don't live there, but there are still quite a few common birds I've never seen, or at least not ever noted down. I am suspicious about Crossbill for example, but would be more confident that I've never seen a Barn Owl or a Cuckoo. I've also never spent an autumn in Fife, so I've never seen any of the more regular scarce migrants like RosefinchBarred Warbler or Red-backed Shrike. Maybe that could be a plan for this year?

Of course most of my birding last week was incidental - the odd moment snatched between meetings, gazing out of the window whilst on a conference call. My parents have Bullfinch and Tree Sparrow in their garden. I am sure I have mentioned this before but as a Londoner this is nothing short of sensational. The best bird of the week however was a Jay, a new garden tick for Fife, and only the second or third I've seen in the area. For whatever reason they are far scarcer than they are down here, or at least so it seems, and I only saw my first last year and had to search quite extensively for it. I was just scanning up the hill for Partridges and so on and it flew right across and into the woods towards Star. #53 for my second garden - a long way to go!

Monday, 10 January 2022

The Patch

Low-carbon local birding is clearly a growing theme in 2022, and like many others I'll be doing a local patch list this year. This is not as novel for me as it is for some, something like my 15th in succession - all on foot with the odd emergency twitch by bike. From memory the Black-necked Grebe, Iceland Gull, Mandarin Duck and Red-crested Pochard were all arrived at very rapidly on two wheels; the journey back often a bit slower, my fitness is appalling. Look however at this trim young man who last year cycled 3500 miles. That's roughly London to New York. Pete has several years on me, and I...well, I have several kilograms on him. Well done Pete, absolutely amazing. If like me any of you are in need of inspiration please go and read about his adventures.

To my chagrin my 10km never really took off last year, and it is not like I did much else. Partly I suppose this is because I was so intensely wedded to Wanstead, but it was also because I am very lazy. This laziness is only really present prior to any given activity, once I actually start everything is fine, most enjoyable actually, but I find that initial hump so hard. Consequently it is easier to wander across the adjacent and familiar. This apathy hump does not just apply to things that require physical exertion, it's many things, almost everything in fact. Reading a book, mowing the lawn, unstacking the dishwasher, twitching.... yes, even twitching. I 'need' both the Pacific Diver and the Belted Kingfisher that so many people have been to see. I would dearly love to add them both to my UK list, yet I cannot get over that initial hump, which in this case is getting into the front seat of the car and turning it on. The thrill of either of these birds would be amazing, I know I would love it. If there was a way to get there instantly, without a nine hour round trip, I would have gone immediately. As it is I reckon I'm going to miss them. I couldn't drum up the enthusiasm to go see a confiding Little Bunting in Bexley. Hell, I couldn't even be bothered to go to Walthamstow for the Dusky Warbler, a bike ride of perhaps 40 minutes. That's where I'm currently at.

But I have managed a few little excursions in Wanstead, which whilst very same old same old I find does fit with my current life goals. I had a good mooch around Bush Wood which I already recounted, and then one day last week before work, perhaps the only day when it hasn't been constantly raining, I overcame the "oh it's a bit cold" type of crap and got out into the Park just before dawn. It was excellent, nicely cold with half the water bodies almost totally frozen and birds nicely concentrated in open patches and easy to count. Of note was a Water Rail skittling back into the reeds at Shoulder of Mutton as I came around the corner, and then down by the Ornamental Waters a flock of about 40 Siskin came across from one of the islands and landed in a large tree at the bottom of the Glade. As they flew off again they were joined by another 30 that I had not noticed in an adjacent tree, an impressively noisy swirling cloud. 

My fledgling 2022 effort now stands at 54. I know for a fact that there is a Pochard at Jubilee, and the possibility of Linnet there too, but there's that hump again.... I was about ready yesterday and then it rained all day. Again. There is plenty of time ahead of course, but what should be spurring me on is the arrival of the Golden Mallard in the post on Friday. This fine porcelain gem is the major prize in the annual (and original) patch list challenge that I have been participating in for several years now. So not only was 2021 record-breaking in Wanstead, it also gained me custody of the coveted Mallard for the next year with a score of 116.27%. The rules are that the average of your prior three years of patch lists is your new baseline of 100%, thus a good year puts you at a distinct disadvantage for the following the year, and to a lesser extent the next two years as well. As such it is rare that the Golden Mallard spends longer than a year with any one of us. Its last journey to Wanstead was in 2016, and given the number of birds I need to see to even get to 100% this year let alone retain it, it is certain to migrate to pastures new in 2023. For now though it has pride of place on a small table upstairs where it reminds me that I should get out more.

Sunday, 9 January 2022

The Midwest - Trip List

Here is the list of species I saw during the trip, partially prepared using the new eBird Trip List functionality which is pretty snazzy. If you click on the link above it will take you right there, and you can browse each species, see locations, maps, dates, counts and species (though I believe the Owls are suppressed) . It looks like this, a really cool feature.

I saw a total of 120 species, with the bulk of these in Colorado where the weather was warmer. As I moved north the diversity really thinned out. I only spent a few hours in Wyoming which explains why that is so small, and I drove through Nebraska in the dark! I had a day each in South Dakota and North Dakota, with more time in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Here is the list broken out by State. I had in my mind a total of 100 species due to the paucity of birds in northern latitudes, I had not reckoned on the diversity present in Colorado. I saw almost everything I had targeted, the two rare Woodpeckers and the other two Rosy-finches will have to wait for another time. I am thinking that a few days in the Rockies as winter recedes in April could be the answer, but I need to research that - America is big place and there are still many States I have not visited.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 12 - Illinois: Montrose Point and home

Chicago Skyline

I stayed the night on the shore of the lake up near Waukegan so I could be near Illinois Beach Nature Preserve. I did a little birding first thing around Zion, and also a few of the North Dunes trails but it was bleak, pretty birdless, and I wasn't really feeling the love for it and decided to head south to Montrose Point, per eBird at least the most birdy (or birded) place in Chicago. This was an area I had earmarked as being good during my research, so I had a reasonably decent idea of how it was laid out.

Would that that it has been as good as I had hoped it was as the reality that morning was rather different. Perhaps I was just tired after such a long trip, ready to go home. It has been said by those reading these trip reports that my 'holidays' don't seem very relaxing, and it is true that I push myself quite hard. Is catching up with me? Whatever it is my species list at Montrose point topped out at just 14 during a four mile walk! The birdiest area was the preserve right on the point, a nice area of scrub and trees - full of House Sparrows, Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees. A Lesser Scaup and a few Goldeneye were in the inner harbour, but overall it just wasn't very birdy. The prior few days had seen upwards of 40 American Robins feeding on fruit trees near the bait shop; today there were just two. Perhaps the weather had caused either a temporary increase in species outrunning bad conditions and they had now all returned to wherever they had come from. 

Northen Cardinal

American Herring Gull

Ring-billed Gull

I packed up at Lincoln Park, the big switch from birding mode to travel mode, always one of my least favourite jobs. I performed a thorough search of my enormous car and laid everything out in the boot, and then gradually broke it all down into my two bags. I use an old Thinktank Airport International bag for my birding gear - this is a roller bag that fits with cabin baggage rules and is just brilliant. For birding trips like this I get rid of all the internal dividers to leave myself with one big space. The camera and lens goes down one side, my tripod (a heavy duty Gitzo travel version) down the other, and my scope somehow fits in between in one particular orientation. This leaves a few gaps that can be used for teleconverters, the tripod ball head, camera strap and various other bits that get wrapped in my gloves and my red hat and stuffed in. I then fill the gaps with underwear and socks which is always appreciated by the TSA. I have no idea how much the whole thing weighs, but as it looks normal-sized I never have a problem, and it's not like I fly on budget draconian carriers is it? My other bag is a small Thinktank shoulder bag. This takes birding literature, binoculars, travel paperwork (mountains of it these days), my wash stuff, my headphones and Snuffi. I also tend to get out of birding gear and into travel clothes at this point. I've no idea if this is frowned upon by Chicago city ordinances, but it was very cold and I was very quick! 

At O'Hare the Avis people commented on how filthy the car was, I blamed Minnesota, and that was that. Naturally I had to unpack my entire bag of optics to get through security and repeat the Lincoln Park process at the other side, but I was soon on my way - JFK first and then London, all my paperwork - QR codes, certificates and test results accepted without question. At some point between these airports my other suitcase with my wellies and clothes in it disappeared, but I was reunited with it in Wanstead a few days later; not that you get to choose but this is actually very convenient and made my tube journey home much easier.

So there we go, my first really big adventure since the pandemic began, it had been brilliant, uplifting, and on a personal level very important.

Friday, 7 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 11 - Wisconsin to Illinois

An annoying morning beckoned - the new need to get a negative Covid test before being allowed to board the plane home, something had hadn't been a requirement when I left. I did not fancy a $125 test at O'Hare, nor leaving it until the last minute, so resolved to try and find one locally. CVS and Walgreen both do free tests, at least for Americans, so I had booked one of those for mid-morning a couple days before which meant I needed to stay local to Racine and Kenosha for a bit. 

I started off with a bit of sea-watching (well, lake-watching) from Winthrop Harbour which is right on the State line. I had avoided the worst of the storm by coming this far south, but it was still very windy and light snow was falling, so I sheltered with some local birders behind the yacht club. This was a mild day as far as they were concerned, but the weather elsewhere had been anything but. The same weather pattern whose cold side I had taken flight from had brought some very destructive tornados to Kentucky and other States on its southern edge, with in one case almost a whole town flattened - the news channels had blanket coverage and it looked awful. Some broadcasters were musing that climate change might be making these events more severe...

A flight of Scaup went south and a number of Red-throated Divers were just outside the breakwater, whilst in the inner harbour a Ring-necked Duck accompanied various Mergansers and Buffleheads. The passage Scoters I was hoping did not materialise, but by this stage of the trip, and with my plans ripped up, my quest for new ABA birds was basically over and I was more concentrating on my overall trip list. 

I didn't take any photos on Day 11, so here is Wood Duck from Fort Collins CO that I have been holding back.

I had a PCR test done at CVS, but was then told that it was unlikely I would get a result before I flew. Excellent. The next two hours were spent driving around Kenosha trying to find a rapid test. I visited one hospital who sent me to another hospital, who contrary to what the first hospital (same healthcare chain) has said did not offer tests, and eventually ended up at a portacabin in dingy carpark near Target. There a dude gave me test kit which I performed in my car and gave back to him. It would be about an hour he said, and sure enough when I was birding some lakes in northern Illinois later on I got the all important email confirming I was clear and could fly. The whole process had eaten up three hours of prime birding time, so in that sense a better option would have been to suck it up and fork out at the airport, but I just massively object to all these private companies preying on travellers and out of principle preferred to waste my time. I was already paying some Tory crony £60 for a Day 2 PCR test when I got home, paying another bunch of pirates even more for a simple lateral flow test wasn't happening.

I managed to get to Waukegan beach by 12.30pm. Unfortunately the vagrant Elaenia that I had half-pencilled in had departed ahead of the weather (or been killed by it), but I had a good time on the beach looking at more distantly passing wildfowl, and while I was there a total of 169 Sandhill Cranes came in off and headed inland in four flocks. 

Druce Lake had three species of Swan - 19 Trumpeter, and singles of Mute and Bewick's. This latter was actually a new American bird and one that I thought I had missed at this stage, so a final hurrah. Lots of ducks here too, and more generally on all the lakes in this largely suburban area, and all new for my fledgling Illinois list that eBird so helpfully maintained for me. However with most of the morning dedicated to admin I ran out of light quite quickly - birding is over at 3.30pm in mid December. Final day tomorrow - my flight was at 3.50pm which allowed the whole morning birding

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Streets ahead

I've just done my annual New Year turnover. So I have closed down the lists from the prior year, tidied up various blogs, created new pages for 2022, started new tabs on spreadsheets, all that fun stuff. It is a lot easier than it was now that I use eBird for the listing component rather than a massively unwieldy excel spreadsheet, but there was still a lot to do. One of the final things was to enter in the final number on the following graph, which shows all my patch year lists as they progress month by month. I've published this before at various points, but here it is completed. As you can see 2021 was streets ahead of any other year at almost all points, Only in January was I slightly behind, but from then on I maintained a steady gap which never really narrowed. In second place is 2020, the first year of lockdown, which I never thought I would come close to again, and in third place the ancient history which is 2013. 

Right now my January 2022 effort is right at the bottom of the left hand side, barely peeking above the X axis at this point. I'll add it soon, but at this stage I expect that I will end up charting a distinctly middling line that wends it way through the middle of the pack. Let's hope so anyway.

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 10 - Wisconsin - Buena Vista Grasslands to Lake Michigan

I didn't strictly need to go to the chicken place whose name I could never remember as I'd seen Greater Prairie Chicken in the Pierre Grasslands in South Dakota. But with my final days somewhat in disarray I decided to go anyway - the spot is called the Buena Vista Prairie Chicken Meadow. It was a convenient place to stop for the night, being about three and a half hours from Minneapolis and then two hours to the shore of Lake Michigan. I could bird the area first thing in the morning, and then race ahead of the arriving storm to the lake. Now Friday morning, this was due to arrive in the area in a few hours time, and would extend in a huge arc from Duluth in the north to Green Bay in the south, and perhaps lower.

Trumpeter Swan

Greater Prairie Chicken

By 8am I was driving around the grasslands, having jammed a pair of Trumpeter Swans en route. It did not take me long to find some Prairie Chickens - 23 birds in a series of tall trees. As with Sax Zim in Minnesota and Kelly's Slough in North Dakota the area was very large, but that also meant I could bird from the comfort of the car with the scope set up on the passenger seat. Other birds here included Bald Eagles, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a nice flock of American Tree Sparrows.

Good birding, and my Wisconsin list was growing all the time, but I noted the wind beginning to get up and a drop in temperature, the first signs of the incoming weather, and decided to made tracks. It was about a two hour drive and I made the lake shore at a place called Manitowoc by 11am and started off by birding the slough there. The first flakes began to fall, but really it was the wind that started to make life difficult. My first Lesser Scaup of the trip and a variety of other ducks were present along with ubiquitous Canada Geese. Birding around the impoundment near the harbour added my first Great Black-backed Gull, a Long-tailed Duck, Goosanders, Mergansers and Goldeneye, and yet another Snowy Owl way out on the breakwater near the small lighthouse. It was really cold with ice on the ground. Slightly further south, on Lake Michigan itself, a stop on the beach netted an adult Glaucous Gull bobbing on the water amongst 200 or so Herring Gulls. With the weather properly closing in I continued south to Port Washington where the harbour yielded another Long-tailed Duck and several Bufflehead, but now it was intensely windy with flurries of snow, and the forecast had changed to include Milwaukee in the zone - a city I was still north of. I continued south, attempting a stop at North Point, but it was unbirdable as well as really dark - much earlier than usual. I booked a hotel in Racine and headed straight there to sit it out, find somewhere to get a Covid test, and watch the weather channel. It rained heavily from about when I arrived and continued all night, and rather than about heavy snow in Minnesota the news was instead all about Tornados in Kentucky - the warm side of the front.