Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Caithness Part 3 Plants and others.

 As I mentioned in the previous posts, not having been to Caithness before for any length of time, I was looking to see what new species I could look out for. 

Being so far north there are a few plants that are rare further south to seek out, the best of these being the Oyster Plant Mertensia maritima . Oyster Plant used to be more widely distributed and was even found in North Northumberland as far back as 1928 but now it has declined significantly in that it can now only be found on a few undisturbed rocky shores around mainland Scotland and Orkney.

I downloaded the Rare Plants of Caithness by Ken Butler but found it dated being mostly pre 2009, but it was a guide. There were 6 sites in our area to check and some looked promising, but by the time I had visited 5 of them with not a trace, the omens weren't good. 

Scanning Twitter for images of Oyster Plant I came across one photo from 2017 at an area I had already visited that very day without luck, so I contacted the photographer. Very kindly he sent me a  pinned map of his site. It was about 200 mtrs from where we had been looking, so we went back. Soon I found some ideal looking habitat and there in the middle of a small stony beach was the Oyster Plant. An adult specimen prostrate over rocks with a diameter of around 2 feet and in full flower too. Lovely.


Oysterplant Mertensia maritima Castlehill shore, near disused quarry, Caithness.

Nearby at Greenland Links and Dunnet Forest ( a small plantation, Kielder its not) a few other goodies were found.

Common or Lesser Wintergreen 

Moonwort

Mountain Everlasting

At a disused quarry just north of Scrabster we found the stalks and leaves of long over Scottish Primrose. I missed them on Orkney too, many years ago due to the same thing. Some compensation was had by finding Roseroot growing in several places.

Roseroot

Scottish Primrose in front of the lawn daisy for a good size comparison.


 


Monday, June 20, 2022

Caithness part 2. Orca.

 This post is mainly to show the wildlife that we saw and if any info can help potential visitors.

Lets start with the absolute stars of the show that were worth the trip alone - 

Orca.

Before we went and when booking up, I was not aware of how regular these magnificent predators are along the Caithness coast. I thought they were 'Shetland or no chance' sightings, so they weren't even on my radar until I was having a hunt around the internet a week before we went.

One contact on Twitter told me that we just happened to be starting our holiday on the first day of Orca Watch.

Orca Watch? Really, what are the chances though? As it happens, they are very good!

There is a WhatsApp sightings Group run by Steve Truluck and a couple of others to gather info and spread details of up to the minute sightings of Orca. Also there are a couple of good Facebook pages, Orca Watch, Sea Watch Foundation and Caithness and Moray Firth Cetacean Sightings.  

For the two weeks of our stay, they were reported in the region on most days. The Orca Watch base camp is in John O'Groats and the best places for shore sightings are, starting from the south and moving anti-clockwise, Wick, Noss Head, Auckengill, Duncansby Head, John O Groats harbour, St John's Point and Dunnet Head to the west.  

If a pod or individual animals are spotted heading in a direction, it is best to try and head them off at the next good view point ahead of their direction of travel. There are several small pods and groups in the area between late April and late July so chances are good, but especially during the Orca Watch week as there are many more observers looking.

Also the foot ferry from Groats to St Margaret's Hope, Orkney gets good sightings and during the watch week they detour 'off piste' to give passengers a better look, though it can be quite expensive so we didn't try this option.

How did we do?

On our very first day, the 28th May, we arrived around 4pm. Immediately there was a report of two males passing Noss Head, north. This is visible from our cottage window, but, not being fully clued up as to what they would do, and we were tired after an 8 hour drive we missed them. We could have gone to John O Groats where they were visible for up to two hours, but we weren't even sure how far Groats was. We hoped for a 'next time'

As days passed, sightings came from Orkney and further south until Sunday 5th June, when around 4.30pm these same two males were seen heading south from Duncansby Head towards us. Although we were set back in Sinclairs Bay, at Keiss, the sea was calm and we had a good view in nice light so I set up in the garden with the scope and scanned. It was like waiting for a Feas Petrel at Cullernose. I kept checking the WhatsApp for more news until it said they were visible off Keiss! Where were they?

Sure enough, a tall black triangular fin broke the surface. Though distant, it was unmistakeable, then I lost it just as quick. Frantic scanning to try and get Jane on to it came to nothing, until half an hour later, they were reported in Sinclairs bay, NW of Noss Head. This was where we were looking. Soon a frenzy of gulls gathered so I concentrated on that spot. Again a huge fin and back broke the surface. Apparently they had killed a seal and were hanging around. Jane got a couple of views too, then they seemed to vanish...

Views, but not wholly satisfactory. 

In our second week, I was loitering around the house scanning the sea when a message came through of 2 Orca off Wick heading north, quickly past Staxigoe, very close in.

What to do? Hang fire for info then try to head them off somewhere for closer views. The animals rounded Noss very close in so we jumped into the car to head North to Auckengill a couple of miles along the road, but not back into the bay.

Up in Keiss village, a couple of vehicles were parked in a high layby with people scanning below with bins so we stopped. They had seen a distant glimpse across the bay but nothing more. I set up the scope and scanned. One vehicle next to us got a call through to say they were at the south of the bay around 3 miles from us but they had just left and were heading straight towards our vantage point.

A tense half hour seeing nothing followed. There were another seven observers,down at the bottom of the field were we were above, right on the rock edges, scanning too. Then Jane noticed these people started jogging along their path so I dropped the scope to scan the shore edge. There, 2 fins emerged and were coming our way. They came right in to the rocks where seals lay out. The Orcas were so close the seals began barking and mobbing at them from the safety of dry land. It was amazing to hear.

A bull Orca crosses Sinclair bay towards us.

Whilst these views were good, the people below were only yards away so we all headed along to a better point at Auckengill. Here the small car park was almost full and people were gathered on the rocks below. We waited, again. Soon I saw cameras being raised below us and all of a sudden a large bull Orca emerged around the point only about 30 feet from the shore. It was breath taking making the hairs on my arm stand up seeing this mega predator right at our feet. I don't think I've been close to an animal in the UK that could eat me if it wanted!

The bull was leading another three Orca, 2 females and a small juvenile. this was the '64's' Pod, well known and recorded from several areas.

All of a sudden the male took a turn of speed, slashing into a rocky channel where he seemed to catch a seal. The others just waited behind him until he returned and the hung around for a while. It looked like they were feeding but there was no blood so the prey seemed to have had a lucky break. After this, the group headed off north towards Duncansby with an attendant entourage of cars and camper vans wanting more views. We were blown away by what we had seen, so left and headed back to the house. 

As he emerged around the corner, the hairs on my arms stood up, what a beast.








Orcas, the 64s pod, down to 30 feet at Auckengill, Caithness 8th June

The words awesome and stunning are often over used  hype for things like Blyths Reed Warbler or Double Crested Cormorant but in this case, I can say these animals are truly stunning and awesome!

More ( albeit less dramatic, stuff to follow...)


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Caithness

 There has been a lack of posts recently as we have been away on holiday for two weeks.

Over the years we have been all over Scotland at various times except for the far North East, Caithness. When we were looking last year for somewhere, a nice looking house popped up so we decided to go for it. Whenever we are away on holiday I scour the internet for info on wildlife potential nearby, so I can work out some 'targets' to look for near where we are staying. This was the first stumbling block. If you try Googling any combination of wildlife phrases with 'Caithness' you get very little indeed. This rang alarm bells. Either, there are so few people up there that info was in short supply ( the preferred option) or there was nothing to see!

In the end, the birding didn't seem too reliable, so I had a few plant options and insects to look for.  Hopefully I hadn't gambled two weeks out of Northumberland in early June for nothing, after all, that can be a good time for vagrants in our own county and I would be 350 miles away! Luckily, June 2022 so far has not given up any Northumberland megas .

The targets I found seemed quite straightforward? Oysterplant, a rare and declining species of rocky shorelines, Scottish Primrose, endemic to the region and Broken beted Bumblebee that is still widespread up there, apparently.

Straight forward? Really? Oysterplant has massively declined and the most up to date info I could find was 5 years old, Scottish Primrose has two flowering seasons spring and later summer, was I inbetween? and the bee, well, how do you identify those with any certainty!

While contacting some locals for info, Karen Munro told us that we were arriving right at the opening of OrcaWatch week at John O Groats. I hadnt even considered Orca as a viable option to look for on the mainland, but I registered with the WhatsApp info services and crossed fingers.

We left on 28th May and had a pleasant but long drive to the far north arriving around 4pm.

About 10 minutes after arrival we were looking around our cottage when a message came through of 2 Orcas moving north past Noss to Duncansby Head. If I had known or familiarised myself with these places I would have gone to look but we were knackered after the drive so just cut our losses. As it turned out we could have had them just 10 miles to the north of us. Bugger.

This could be a very long post so I am breaking it up. I want to include some info just incase other people are searching the internet, as I was, for details so this will do for now. Here is where we were staying...

  

Mory's Cottage, Keiss, Wick. Google it.

11.20pm. Still light. This continued until after midnight when dusk came. it was light again at 2.30am!

The view from the garden and living room window, with Noss Head in the distance, 4 miles away.


 



Thursday, May 26, 2022

Green days....

 Sunday was a bit quiet so I got up early for a walk north along the coast to Craster. It was bright and cool with  a light S breeze. Its great to be out early at this time of year, I didn't see another person for the first two hours.

A slow wander north along the coast path was very pleasant. A few Yellowhammers, 3 Grey Partridges and 2 Greenland Wheatear were about the only things of note but the soundscape of singing birds, noisy Kittiwakes and gently rolling waves was relaxing.

The Bathing House with Longhoughton Steel, Boulmer in the background.

Craster Farm

This view south shows the majority of my local patch. We live in the village you can see in the trees. 

Kittiwake watching me.

Razorbill below my feet.

The view from Cullernose Point

Thrift and the marzipan smell of gorse.

Greenland Wheatear

Whitethroat

Yellowhammer ( do you think!)

A few other things were noted, a single Painted Lady in off, 3 Wall Brown, masses of Spring Squill in large patches all along the short turf. 

Painted Lady

Spring Squill

A carpet of Spring Squill with Dunstanburgh Castle in the distance.

This post is a bit photo heavy so I'll keep the text down a bit. On the way back, I noticed a bird flying south across the field behind Cullernose Point. It looked odd, but familiar? Green Woodpecker! Another patch mega. Not new here, but I've only had two others, winter 2009 /10 and spring 2017. I tried to take a record shot but the camera would not lock on. I must get the settings for viz mig worked out soon. I saw the bird well enough to believe it was a female...

Green Woodpecker south at Cullernose




Monday, May 23, 2022

Not so wild fowl...

 Caught up in the Bluethroat moment I forgot to blog about some other good patch birds seen recently.  When I say 'good' before I go on, remember its all relative. No wonder I forgot about them...

Lets get this one out of the way first as it is as rare as the Bluethroat on patch. A full new species in fact. On the 12th I was walking Peggy along the coast road first thing when I noticed a 'Greylag' coming low towards me from the north. Meh.... I'm not sure what made me raise the bins, maybe it was the white looking leading edge to the wings, I don't know, but a genuine frisson of excitement came when I saw that this was no Greylag goose.

It was NU2517's first Egyptian Goose.  It is many years since an Egyptian Goose received such a long gaze as this one from me as it called and eyeballed me on the way past...

I'm not sure when one of these will grace the pages of my sketchbook again, but it is a full patch tick so...

A pale headed male Yellow Wagtail flying around a little further on could have been a 'Channel' Wagtail but it soon flew north. 

The tropical flavour was still with us last Wednesday when a drake Mandarin spent a couple of days on the pond. This is the third here in recent years, so still in the Rare category for the patch. The only individual I've managed to get a photo of on site too...

Mandarin.

Blog reader numbers have dropped a bit recently, and those two might be the nail in the coffin, but come on, they all count as natives. With this run of good luck what next, Ring necked Parakeet ?

Other than these, a calling Cuckoo a few times just west of us remains elusive though I did hear it from the garden the other morning. 

Still not quite caught up, but Sundays walk will get a new post later...  


 





Thursday, May 19, 2022

Blue!

All through Sunday night into Monday we had heavy rain and a steady easterly wind on our stretch of coast. This weather pattern is not common during the third week of May and as a result, all down the East coast birders are fired up hoping that it may deliver some scarce and rare birds that have drifted off their normal migration routes, but one in particular epitomises this week above all others - the Bluethroat. 

Bluethroats in spring have a quite narrow window of migration to the sub arctic Scandinavian taiga, and if we are to see one, we need this type of weather to occur between around 10th to the 20th May. Outside of this period in spring a Bluethroat is very unlikely to be seen.

On Monday the rain was steady until around 3pm, then the wind dropped and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. What would it reveal? In the 80's and early 90's we would sometimes see big Bluethroat arrivals but this has not happened for many years now.

No sooner had I finished working at home around 4.15pm than a Facebook message arrived from my neighbour along the road, Mandy. The conversation went a bit like this.

M - 'OMG'

And nothing else? I was just about to reply with 'Eh?' when a second message arrived. It was a close up of a bright male Bluethroat but there was no location. 

Now, Mandy works as a tern warden up at the Long Nanny ( of American Black Tern fame in my previous post) so I assumed this is where the bird had been found. The Nanny has a bit of a good history for Bluethroats in past years. So I advised - 

'Ho ho, get the news out on Whats App' 'Nanny?'

then...

M - 'but its in my garden!'

This was a total game changer. Mandy lives about one field away from me. I picked my jaw up, and went into panic mode, a Bluethroat on our patch!! Grabbing my bins and camera I jumped into the car (speed if of the essence ) and drove the 400 mtrs along the road to the farm. I was there in about 3 minutes flat from getting the message.

The bird had unfortunately flown from Mandy's garden along towards the farm yard and disappeared.

The sight every East coast birder wants to see in mid May...

I quietly quartered the damp puddle edges with my bins and soon there he was, quite distantly in the centre of the paddock before flying off towards some silage bales and farm trailers.

Around the other side from the bridle path a better view could be had but there was no bird? Just then a smashing male Greenland Wheatear hopped up onto the wall not far from me. I took a couple of snaps, then all of a sudden in came the Bluethroat, full of bull, not wanting this Wheatear in 'his' farm yard at all. The Bluethroat landed on the public path sign finger board and belted out a lovely melodic loud song before coming towards me down the wire fence.


My blue car next to a blue van behind the Bluethroat. Incoming...


I rattled off some shots that were almost all blurred due to wrong settings on the camera and the Bluethroat chased off after the Wheatear, to the south behind a muck heap. I left the bird in peace until I popped back home and took the dog out. Returning later on, the bird had settled into a convenient routine back in the paddock area feeding in nice evening sunshine coming quite close to us. At one stage it had a bath in a puddle and sat preening on a clod of earth for a while where we could get better shots than before.

A small group of about five of us enjoyed the bird until the light faded when it seemed to look at an old trailer to roost under. 




Red spotted Bluethroat. 2nd calendar year Male. Male.

The only sour note to the whole thing came the following morning when the farmer had decided now was a good time to move tons of farm machinery to exactly the spot the Bluethroat was using. It was not seen again.

What a great bird for the patch list and many thanks to Mandy for her prompt action in getting the news out. It was much appreciated.



 


 

 

 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Its Black....

 

The sweep of Beadnell Bay looking up to the roped off tern colony at the Long Nanny burn mouth and the wardens hut.

Last year, by a quirk of fate, I missed two good birds in quite similar circumstances . Firstly there was the Bempton albatross fiasco with an all day cliff stand watching Gannets.  Luckily the bird returned this year, as I hoped it would, and a second pilgrimage was made, this time successfully.

Also last year, much nearer to home, all for 6 miles in fact, a Black Tern summered in the Long Nanny tern colony in Beadnell bay.  Whilst Black Tern is a good bird in Northumberland, its not something I would go out of my way for. I'd rather hope to find one on my own local patch, so June and July was filled with What's App messages of its presence in the Arctic Tern nesting area, with me hoping it might give Cullernose a fly past. It was always a long shot and did not materialise.

Then, at the end of July, some good photographs were posted of the bird that set people thinking. It was highly odd that a Black Tern would spend this long during the summer in one spot. And, it looked very, very dark. Ideas that it could be from across the Atlantic rather than from across the North Sea were discussed and after some scrutiny and expert analysis, the bird was indeed confirmed as an American Black Tern. 

Now this is an altogether different prospect.   There have only been half a dozen records of this Nearctic race of Black Tern in the UK and this is the first adult in breeding plumage.  I suddenly became interested and decided 6 miles might not be too far to go after all. Unfortunately after a stay of about 10 weeks, today it had decided to migrate, leaving me sat on a sunny evening beach eating an ice cream, and wondering.  Like the albatross, would it come back next year? 

The good news is, yes, it came back last week, so yesterday morning I was up bright and early and on site for 06.45am after a right old faff with the car park ticket machine leaving me 7 quid out of pocket.

There was no sign initially the bird having gone out to sea, but after around 15 minutes it returned to give the best ever views. Watching from the wardens hut decking, the American Black Tern  flew around, displaying and showing aggression to the Arctic Tern pairs, down to about 20 feet! Landing only for brief spells, usually behind marram grass, photography was tricky, but it was a pleasure to watch such a dapper birds at close range.

The features that differentiate it from Eurasian Black Tern were easily seen ( isnt previous knowledge great). It was an intense black, like a White winged Black Tern rather than the charcoal grey of Black Tern. This contrasted well with the pale whitish underwings and pure white undertail coverts. It also showed a very obvious white forward edge to the wings, looking like headlight strips in flight.

Although it does not count as a new bird being 'just' a race of Black Tern, this did not detract from such a nice bird at all.  Along with the American, there were hundreds of Arctic Terns, 16 Little Terns and single Roseate and Sandwich Terns making it a 5 tern day. A nice first summer Little Gull dropped by for good measure. Well worth the trip I'd say...






American Black Tern, Long Nanny.