The owl in a south-easterly came off the sea…

Working from home today, and so limited in the main to looking wistfully out of the window from time to time. Actually, not that wistfully as the weather was absolutely vile for a lot of the day – vile that is from a comfortable, desk-monkey perspective. From a birder’s viewpoint, it looks promising for the next few days. If the wind and rain ease off, there’ll be rare birds coming out of the woodwork all over Shetland. South-easterlies and rain in mid October are the dream ticket.

My window-gazing wasn’t completely fruitless, as mid-morning something large and brown went past at a hell of a clip, pursued by 2 Hooded Crows. Raptor, surely… I legged it outside and scanned the area desperately. The crows gave the game away, and there below the road was a Long-eared Owl on a drystone dyke, doing its very best to ignore the local hoodies. I had enough time to drive down and get a few photos at long-range before it noticed the plantation and dived in for cover. A shame I didn’t have longer, as I could have made an effort before it went into cover and skulked up a bit closer for some really nice pictures.

LEO! LE-E-E-O! I want a LEO and I want one now...

Strange that I wait nearly 5 and a half years to add Long-eared Owl to the houselist, and then I see 2 in the space of 6 months.

Owl doing looking

Some extremely good surprises in the post today as well – the latest British Birds (including the BBRC annual rarities report), and Birding World. Nice to see all my birds from last year duly endorsed, and a watercolour from my Hume’s Warbler submission had made its way into the rarities report too.  Birding World was particularly pleasing – 5 of my photos have been used this month – American Golden Plover and Sandhill Crane on Orkney, and Taiga Flycatcher here in Shetland. I’m delighted to see them in print – I can’t be making too bad a job of this point and shoot business!

Comedown

After the adrenalin rush of a spontaneous dash down the road to Orkney for a new bird, today was always going to be a little bit of an anticlimax. A party of Pink-footed Geese heading south over the house this morning as I left for work was the alkaseltzer to the post-twitch blues, and another incremental step closer to the 100 target I’ve set myself for the house yearlist. (An exercise I shan’t be repeating next year – I am well out of practice at the whole listing thing, and having meaningless targets to aim for is unexpectedly stressful, even when it’s as trivial as a house yearlist. 2010 new year’s resolution? No more lists, apart from the entirely passive self-found list).

Seemingly I wasn’t the only one to notice the thoughtless blundering of a very few over-zealous twitchers on South Ronaldsay yesterday – there has been plenty of chatter about it on Birdforum and elsewhere yesterday evening and today from other twitchers and some Orkney resident birders. Tempting though it was to post my photos of the transgressors in the act, I’ve taken advice that so doing is entering potentially hot legal water, should anyone feel sufficiently litigious. Heyho. Shame I didn’t have a wide angle lens handy to immortalise both the various birds fleeing and them standing out in the middle of nowhere trying to whistle nonchalantly and act inconspicuous all in one incontrovertible photo.

Of course, the only law they’ve broken is an unspoken one that most birders adhere to – a sensible code of conduct. Strictly speaking, they had every right (especially here in Scotland) to roam wherever they so please… it’s just the vast majority of birders who think that repeatedly flushing feeding birds (and not only vagrant cranes – just ask the wildfowl and waders in South Ronaldsay yesterday) is plain unacceptable.

Sandhill Crane

For the second time in 6 years, today I found myself twitching a bird outside of Shetland (there is a fine distinction being made here between going to see birds when I happened to be in the vicinity anyway, and making a conscious effort to leave my home shores!) – the first bird was the iconic Aberdeenshire Belted Kingfisher, and today’s was the equally inspiring Sandhill Crane on South Ronaldsay.

>adopts Terry Thomas voice< air hellair...

I was out of Shetland on the first plane this morning, and by 9 o’clock was enjoying reasonable views of the bird. It was pretty skittish, as borne out by the runaround it led us once the twitching masses from the rest of the country arrived en masse shortly afterwards. At the first sign of human presence within a two-field radius (be it farm activity, dog walkers, householders hanging out laundry, or twitchers creeping up to get a closer view) it would take to the skies, circle widely, and eventually pitch down in a new field, usually just over the near horizon. I took a few record shots, then decamped to leave the masses to it while I went to see the American Golden Plover elsewhere on Orkney.

goldiflocks

Having had excellent views of this confiding bird, I returned to South Ronaldsay, and timed my arrival well – Tim Cleeves was on the bird, and provided excellent directions to where the crane was roosting near the shore. I was slogging my way along the rocky foreshore to get to the bird unseen, when a stray twitcher walking towards the crane along the top of the banks above the beach took it upon himself to put the nearby large flock of geese up – and by the time I’d reached the approximate area of shore from where I could view the fields, the crane was long gone.

I went back to the car, and started to look again for it – but instead found the rest of the Shetland team stuck at the roadside with a dead car… and the crane on the brow of a nearby hill. More record shots ensued, before cattle flushed it once again – back to its roost site by the shore. We retraced my footsteps along the coast, and worked our way up behind an old drystone wall overlooking the bird. Fabulous views then for over an hour while it preened, went to sleep for a little while, and then took off yet again. Following images are chosen at random from many – I have a mammoth editing task ahead of me!

Sandhill Crane doing stretching

Sandhill Crane doing follow the Curlews

On a lightsome note, many thanks to the 2 twitchers who walked across the open fields towards it, flushing the nearby Curlews, and hence the gulls and the crane in their midst. We got some great shots of it as it took off. 

Less flippantly, many thanks to the finder, Paul Higson for providing us with such a superb bird, and such awesome logistical assistance once we were in Orkney. Top man, and deserves to go one better and turn up a nice Cerulean Warbler sometime soon!