The autumn migration is now well and truly underway; our day guiding throughout late September and early October has been superb. Some amazing bird and wildlife sightings at this exciting time of year when birds are on the move and unusual and scarce species can turn up unexpectedly.
I will start with mentioning one of the classic autumn migrants at this time of year, the Pink-footed Goose or know simply as ‘pinkies’ or ‘pink feet’ to birders. Out on the Black Isle large numbers of these attractive and noisy geese have been evident. They have migrated south from their breeding grounds in Iceland to spend the winter months with us. It is a lovely evocative sound hearing the ‘wink-wink’ call they make as they fly overhead.
Another goose species which is much less regularly seen is the scarce Greenland White-fronted Goose. One was sighted recently amongst the hundreds of ‘pink feet’ on the Black Isle. Some lucky guests had the privilege of obtaining excellent views of this impressive bird. Another attractive goose, this species differs from the Pink-footed by the obvious white forehead or ‘blaze’. The Greenland White-fronted Goose also shows obvious dark markings on it’s belly which ‘pink feet’ don’t possess.
On the moray coast a delightful small bird was encountered on the shoreline. The Rock Pipit was found feeding amongst the rocks and boulders. This species looks quite different from the common Meadow Pipit that is a familiar sight in moorland habitats, the Rock Pipit being a much darker, greyer bird, unlike the olive brown plumage of Meadow Pipits. Rock Pipits are almost always coastal too and very rarely found inland.
Staying on the coast, a very exciting and most unusual species was discovered recently. A rare and scarce seabird, the Leach’s Storm Petrel was found whilst day guiding. This is very much an oceanic species and an unusual sighting for the area. They breed in the far north of Scotland but during the autumn can very occasionally be seen from headlands. Some guests were lucky to get nice views of a bird flying low over the sea, its distinctive shape and flight pattern diagnostic.
Keeping the theme of seabirds, another special bird which was seen at this time of year was the graceful and elegant Arctic Skua. These were seen chasing other seabirds; they are pirates of the sea and will harass other seabirds, following close behind gulls, causing them to drop their food and then take their catch. It was amazing to watch the Arctic Skuas twisting and turning in flight as they closely followed behind another seabird.
A further seabird species that will soon have left us is the Sandwich Tern. They are the UK’s largest breeding tern species and are quite distinctive as the only species with a shaggy black crest and a black bill which has a yellow tip to it. Their ‘keer-ick’ call is very loud and grating; they will spend the winter in West Africa and return to their breeding colonies in March.
An iconic late autumn migrant that was heard singing whist day guiding recently was the Chiffchaff. Similar to the Willow Warbler this species has a very different song which gives the bird its name. Chiffchaffs always migrate in the autumn later than Willow Warblers, they are active little warblers and always a joy to watch. Chiffchaffs spend the winter months in the Mediterranean and will return back to parts of Scotland in the spring.