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18 February 2009

By Stephen Burch, England

This is a short photo based trip report, covering less than one full day's birding on the Aberdeenshire coast, on 18 February 2009. Once again, a business trip to Aberdeen provided this opportunity for some birding afterwards.

As on both my previous trips in 2007 and 2006, the weather was poor. The TV weather forecast in the morning said Scotland would be essentially dry this day. At that time it was in fact raining with heavy mist! The mist gradually lifted, but rain or drizzle persisted for much of the day. There was little or no sunshine, that I can remember.

All photos were taken with a Canon EOS350D & EF400mmf5.6 (prime) lens, due to temporary problems with my 40D/400mmf4 DO combination. In fact the f5.6 proved to be an excellent travel lens, with quite reasonable results despite the poor conditions. See page on equipment for more details.

This is a site just to the east of Aberdeen that I have visited briefly several times before over the last 10 years or so that I have been making short occasional trips to Aberdeen. On this visit I spent longer than usual, with the aim of obtaining some Purple Sandpiper pics. On arrival, the tide was high, and I immediately found as many as 30 of these confiding birds on the rocks at the point, below the fog horn. This has not always been the case on other winter visits - maybe they prefer high tide at this site. Despite the poor light, mist and drizzle, I managed the shots below (note the rain drops on the backs of some of these birds!):

Purple Sandpipers at Girdleness (click top left to enlarge)

Other birds at this site included a nice male Long-tailed Duck and Red Breasted Merganser in the nearby Nigg Bay (view from convenient overlooking car park with narrow entrance), Red-throated Diver out to sea, Fulmar and of course omnipresent Eider.

On the road, there was a Rock Pipit that seemed oblivious to me in the car:

Rock Pipit at Girdleness

Ythan Estuary
Unlike my last visit, I simply viewed the estuary from the convenient lay-bys on the A975, on the north/east side. The extensive areas of mud now visible with the tide lower had the usual common waders, with just a single Bar tailed Godwit of any real note. Further north, there was a good flock of Pink footed Geese close to the road, but it was impossible to stop.

Miekle Loch is reachable down a track to the west of the A975. On a previous visit there had been numerous geese of several different species (including a glimpse of a Snow Goose) here. Today it was almost entirely barren with nothing apart from the odd Goldeneye.

Loch of Strathbeg
This very large, shallow loch is an RSPB reserve. I first tried the eastern end, viewed from the minor road to Rattray Head. Here there were plenty more Pink footed Geese, with a few White fronted as a nice addition. Further on, I was surprised to find that the feeders by visitor centre had good numbers of Tree Sparrow - there is apparently a thriving colony here in summer. Photography at close range was possible by simply positioning the car by the nearest feeder and waiting a few minutes! The mid afternoon light was rotten and soon got even worse, but nevertheless the result below isn't bad - certainly better than my much more protracted attempts in Oxfordshire! As ever, getting close enough is the key to sharp results.

Tree Sparrow at Loch of Strathbeg (click to enlarge)

The hide attached to the visitor centre looks over a nearby section of the loch, which had common duck and geese in the fields beyond. There was unfortunately no sign of the Snow Goose that had been seen recently in the area. The helpful warden suggested trying the other hides, reached by going back to the main road, and then taking the airfield road. Unlike my last visit several years ago, there is now a special RSPB track which bypasses the closed MOD area, making access to the two hides easier. The Bay Hide gave very distant views of a few Whooper Swan on the far side of the loch, with even more distant geese, that included several Barnacle - probably my favourite goose and not one I catch up with very often, living in the south of England.

So all in all a quite reasonable day's birding and photography, despite the weather.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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