Juvenile female White-tailed Eagle, Lamb Island - Threave (near Castle Douglas), Dumfries & Galloway 11 Feb 2009.
So a break before we move on to the south of Ecuador (with some posts from the north still to come as I write). I'm "between tours" at the moment with a rare opportunity (for this year at least) to visit my favourite part of the UK - the Scottish Solway.
After a couple of days catching up on work I found a spare morning to drive out to Bowland in East Lancs in the hope of seeing one of the Hawfinches at Stocks Reservoir. No such luck while I was there on 8th Feb but a couple of Eurasian White-fronted Geese were noteworthy. Of course it's always a pleasure to drive through one of the most scenic areas I've ever seen in the UK but dipping on my favourite UK bird was a bit of a disappointment.
On Monday 9th Mrs B. and I took a day off to visit the Solway. Birding opportunities in D&G have been few and far between so far this year but having to complete our BTO winter atlas tetrads was a pleasant distraction from work. Our tetrads are broadly speaking at Browhouses (above) and Seafield, Annan on the Solway shore. A good herd of 110 Whooper Swans at Redkirk Point was a nice sight en route to Browhouses and a great excuse for a coffee stop. We found fewer birds at Browhouses compared to our early winter visit but a male Crossbill calling from the top of a conifer in a plantation in the MOD grounds was a nice surprise.
Onto Seafield Bay at Annan then, one of my favourite spots on the Inner Solway. The tide was still high when we arrived and although not as busy as our early winter survey, there were more birds here than at Browhouses. The common waders like Curlew, Redshanks and Oystercatchers kept us busy counting for a while and we found a few Fieldfares and Redwings (the latter was scarce here in winter '07 / '08). A whole winter's day on the Solway without seeing a Barnacle Goose was some kind of record I'm sure and we headed in the direction of Lochmaben to end our day. Roadside geese are always worth a stop in D&G (I haven't seen Bean Goose here yet) so we sifted through a couple of mixed flocks of Greylags and Pink-feet before arriving at Castle Loch a little too late. Just enough time for a quick scan from the north bank car park (at least one Redhead Smew present) before heading home along the A74. The Starlings were beginning to gather as we passed Gretna, even gathering on pylons as we crossed the Esk on the M6. I wonder how far these birds come to roost at Gretna?
The Big Eagle Twitch at Annan, 11 Feb 2009. I took it upon myself to oversee the parking arrangements.
News of a White-tailed Eagle on the Cumbrian Solway at Bowness on the morning of 10th Feb had me "twitching" a bit, I have to admit. Surely you could see this bird from the Seafield viaduct on the D&G side where we had been standing the previous afternoon! OK, while it was in Cumbria it was harmless enough but surely it would pop over the Solway? Yep.
Mrs. B was the catalyst for this trip, booking a day off at the drop of a hat and keen as mustard to revisit Annan after only a day back in Lancs. So early morning 11th Feb saw us scudding up the M6 once again, the omens not good as sleet and snow reduced visibility as we approached Carlisle. On arrival at Seafield I was doubly surprised as the weather cleared and the car park was totally empty. Supping on tea we scanned the mudflats for anything resembling the eagle as the sound of the first car arriving could be heard in the distance. Sure enough a vehicle pulled in - the Police!
"Seen it?" was the unexpected sound as an officer whose accent was more akin to those from between the Ribble and the Mersey rather than north of the border. We chatted for a while about "flying barn doors" before the next vehicle arrived, surely birders? No, it was a gas man with binoculars.
"Eagle about?" We chatted about "perched barn doors", the problem with the ungritted A7 and various gas-related subjects before Mrs. B and I decided we should look for the eagle somewhere more than 3 metres from the car.
Another car pulled up as we walked along the old railway embankment just as the phone bleeped. "Juv' White-tailed Eagle, Threave 5 miles SW of Castle Douglas", so about turn to the car park, informing Anna White and Dominic of the news (nice to meet you both today) and head for the bird.
Studying the OS map and on Anna's advice we decided that the best tactic would be to view from a side road off the A75 near Bridge of Dee. It took the best part of an hour to reach Threave from Annan but fortunately the White-tailed Eagle could be located quite quickly as we arrived. A Carrion Crow in the same tree was dwarfed by this impressive raptor. You can just about see the beast perched on a dead tree against the long brown roof in centre of the photo above.
Mrs. B and I spent over two hours watching the eagle in the hope that it would fly so we could experience the "flying barn door". The dull and chilly conditions made any flying unlikely but there was plenty to keep us amused: skeins of Pink-footed and Greylag Geese overhead, Buzzards and flighty Wigeon on the river.
George Christie the RSPB Red Kite officer was on hand to help out at the scene and attempted to find out if the eagle was indeed carrying a transmitter. Rings would be almost impossible to see, certainly at this distance at least as the feathering covered the legs and feet. No transmitter or rings had been noted the previous day when the bird was present in Cumbria, but Anna later informed us she could see a transmitter from another vantage point nearer to Threave Farm.
So by now it was evident that this White-tailed Eagle was indeed part of a reintroduction scheme and George was busy trying different frequencies to see if he could pick up our bird. At 12.30 pm the bird left the perch and began circling over Lamb Island with the first hint of sunshine and warm air of the day. Majestically it gained height eventually heading off in a generally westerly direction until lost from sight, being mobbed by Corvids.
George told us that he did pick up the bird's transmitter and could confirm that it was indeed a 2008 female (bird 92) from the Fife reintroduction scheme. Apparently it had been seen in Stirlingshire last week.
For some the fact that the White-tailed Eagle had been confirmed as a reintroduced individual had "sullied" the event a little. For our part we had thoroughly enjoyed seeing such a magnificent raptor in our favourite corner of the UK, and the experience had indeed been enhanced by George's research. After all, how many times have we been to see the Ken - Dee Red Kites and thoroughly appreciated the beauty of these introduced and most welcome birds.
With the weather improving and no sign of the eagle returning we decided to go in search of geese at Loch Ken. It appears the geese are favouring the east side of the loch this winter so we headed to the Crossmichael - Parton stretch where we found a mixed gathering of Greylag and Whitefronted Geese. Despite the strong light we managed to get reasonable views of the Greenland Whitefronted Geese and also managed to locate one Eurasian bird with them.
The geese were pretty flighty but I managed to count 172 Greenland Whitefronts when they were gathered on the loch. I believe this is a significant count this winter as the flock has either been fragmented or smaller counts have been achieved in previous months.
We finished our day by calling in at Castle Loch on the way back to the A74 near Lockerbie. The loch was still mostly frozen over but a nice gap in the ice near the hide meant the wildfowl was nicely concentrated. We located 3 Smew (all redheads) in the flock of diving duck (mainly Tufteds) with Goldenyeye, Goosander and 4 Pochard (3 drakes). It was sometime before we found the drake Long-tailed Duck (nicknamed "Emile" by Mrs B. because of his consistently long dives - you have to be a footy fan to get that one) and there were plenty of Goosander, Wigeon, Teal and several Gadwall around.
Another superb day in D&G. Can't wait to return in March.
Still S. Ecuador postings to come and the remaining N. Ecuador ones to catch up on .......