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Bird ID help, Highlands of Scotland (1 Viewer)

curlewsandpiper1980

Active member
Bird ID help, Coignafearn, Highlands of Scotland

Today I went for a hike near Coignafearn, up on the highlands, in the uplands of the Findhorn River valley, a renowned place for bird watching and especially birds of prey. There were several bird watchers there today.

And I might need a few feedback comments in IDing 5 birds I saw today, mostly birds of prey. (The reason why I post this in the Scotland forum instead of the ID forum is that I believe it will be easier to get better feedback from birdies based in Scotland, preferably by those who known this area)

This place was an absolute delight, with several birds of prey showing up in clear ways: I saw at least a dozen of hobby (with a few chasing birds in the air in swallow-like manner), kestrels (hovering above the cliffs for many seconds and a couple by the river which provide me a clear close-up view of their orangeish body), and a few peregrines (gliding high and with the wings pointed backwards, greyish body, and diving down fast at times).

Sometimes when far away, it was a bit tricky to distinguish a kestrel from a peregrine (but my impression is that peregrines cannot really hover for very long and instead glide and make far more fast dives, while kestrels will not glide that super high and dive for from great heights but please correct me if wrong). But overall, after today, I am feeling much more confident with falcons (except merlin, which I haven't seen yet).

Bird 1. At one point, there was a small woodland and I saw a smaller-sized bird of prey flying down fast from the cliffs and then flying low into the trees. First I thought it was a kestrel (as this was smaller than a buzzard), but it was brownish, long thin tail, and I wasn't sure what it was. I haven't seen a sparrowhawk yet but I suspected this was one. It could have been still a kestrel. Or perhaps another bird of prey species.

Now comes the two buzzard-like sightings which left me with some doubts, though I do not believe I saw any eagle (despite that golden eagles are frequently spotted at this location).

Bird 2. At one point I was observing a pair of falcons (kestrel or peregrine) at the top of the cliffs, and suddenly there was a buzzard-like raptor that flew by. It was much larger than the falcons, about 3x, and initially I suspected it was a buzzard but I noticed the tail was white. So I need some feedback about this one. I wouldn't think it was an eagle but I might be wrong. It might have been a red kite but I haven't noticed any forked tail or red color (and I do have experience seeing red kites). Or it might have been a hen or marsh harrier or even goshawk, which are known to occur on this part of Scotland. I have no experience spotting harriers or the goshawk. Any ideas?

Bird 3. This was during driving but in the same area. I saw a buzzard-like bird flying above the cliffs, closer. I quickly noticed a paler head and that make me suspicious but soon the bird disappeared out of sight. The wings were a bit kinked (like an osprey), which is unusual in a buzzard. And it did not have an impressive size, which I would expect from an eagle. So this was most likely a buzzard. Besides these, I did see at least 3 more buzzards (no doubts about those), all near the woods, further downstream the river.

The final two birds are not birds of prey.
Bird 4. I saw a grouse flying away from my path, and it looked black with some bright white on the tail. Location in the moors but near a farmhouse. I am almost certain it was a black grouse but I want to confirm it.

Bird 5. Much further downstream in the river, I spotted 3 geese-like birds, with a long neck, mostly black but with notorious white. I have no idea what they were but they disappeared in the reeds in the margins of the river. I wouldn't expect to see geese in the highlands of Scotland. Also it was not a grey heron (as I know those). It might have been grebes or divers, as I do not know those species well.

Unfortunately I have no pictures from these birds (all were seen quickly and with 10x50B) and the day was very windy so I could barely hear the sounds of the falcons on the cliffs.
 
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Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Staff member
Supporter
Scotland
I can maybe make a few points, although I think it's hard to say much that would really confirm any IDs.

I'm surprised to hear you say you saw a dozen Hobbies. I think that would be quite unusual, although it's not impossible there might be some in the area. Hobbies are basically rare in Scotland. In 23 years living here (birding lots in various parts of the country), I've seen two Hobbies. Peregrines (particularly juveniles) can look quite similar to Hobbies. Last week in the same area I saw quite a few Kestrels and Peregrines and a Merlin, all of which are much commoner than Hobby.

Bird 1 - there are certainly Sparrowhawks in the area and you description seems fairly good for one.

Bird 2 - Buzzards are quite variable and can look pale on the tail, though it would be unusual if the tail was completely white. Young Golden Eagles have extensive white on the tail (and in the wings) with a black band at the tip. It would be helpful if you could describe the exact extent of white. Was it completely white?

Bird 3 - I did see an Osprey in the valley last weekend, so they're possible in the area. Your description is a bit suggestive of Osprey but it's not possible to be sure.

Bird 4 - I'm not sure. The white on a Black Grouse is on the undertail coverts and in the wing, rather than on the tail itself. I'm sure they're found in the area, although I've never seen one there myself.

Bird 5 - Greylag Geese are quite common in the Highlands and can crop up in lots of places around water at this time of year. Your description doesn't really sound like them though (not sure what you mean by 'notorious white'). Grebes and Divers probably aren't that likely on a fast flowing river.
 

curlewsandpiper1980

Active member
Thanks Andrew,

I actually realise you were actually the one writing the post that inspired me to go there to Coignafearn, at the Aviemore/Speyside thread. So I did go to the area today. It is really fantastic.

I was also not expecting to see hobbies, because you did not mention and I knew they are supposed to be rare and only in summer time, and RSPB map does not note them in north Scotland. However when I arrived today at the car park, after one initial peregrine sighting alongside other bird watchers, one bird watcher told me to see the hobbies further up the valley on the right, on the way to the new lodge. So I went upstream (about 40min) and first saw some kestrels in both side of the valley. Then as I was close to the new lodge, the path and the valley makes a turn to the right, and when I looked back I saw 2 hobbies gliding above the ridge, and facing the strong westerly wind. Never that high above the ground. I was close to them (to the ridge) and the 2 I saw looked a swift. I looked at them for a whole and then one of them chase a bird with a fast swinging flight. I was pretty sure I was looking at a hobby and my first ones. One the way back I saw 3 or 4 more, in the same area (it might have been the same). And then I potentially saw 3 more but in a different location, in the other side of the valley, slightly downstream from the car park and up in the cliffs (these 3 were farther away and could not see their swift shape, just the same flight pattern). I hiked in the area for 5-6 hours.

I counted more than 5 kestrels (at least a few were very clear), then I stopped counting as I kept seeing more. And the hobbies, I counted the first 2, then 3 or 4 and then those other 3 (from these at least 1 was seen chasing a bird up close, which left me no doubts about it). Buzzards around 5, including the ones I am not sure of what they were. One suspected sparrowhawk. No merlins. No red kites (but I saw them at black isle some days ago). 3 confirmed falcons and a few more suspected (some were too far away to say).

The black grouse: yes, the white was bit in parts/edges of the tail. The grouse was mostly black. But my observation was only a few seconds.

Bird 2: unfortunately I did see the raptor for much more than 2 seconds, before I lost track of it in the scree slopes. I noticed a bright white on the tail, but a darker buzzard-like body. I did not notice any bright white in the wings, just brown. My first impression was that of a buzzard. But it was a bit far, on the other side of the valley, and near the new lodge.

Bird 5: The bird was mostly black/dark, with some white on edges. I just spot the three of them, flying together, quite close, while I was slowly driving and quickly stopped but they hid in the reeds.
Birdboy: yes, goosander or red-breasted merganser fit the shape perfectly, they looked a bit blacker then both of these, but maybe their plumage varies and I did not observed enough time to notice their color patterns. I would strongly say it was one of these (probably the 3 were females). And the habitat fits well too (they like fast rivers).

Finally, no confirmed eagle sightings by me. But a couple was in the area for 3 days and told me they saw a golden eagle two days ago. So they seem to be visiting the area too.
 
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curlewsandpiper1980

Active member
Although I am quite confident I saw hobbies (as well as another bird watcher), I should humbly say that I am rather a beginner and I would leave it for an experienced bird watcher going to the area and checking the area I mentioned.

The birds that looked like hobbies were quite easy to spot in that location. I have never seen a merlin before, so I do not exclude the possibility of those being merlins rather than hobbies. Yet I do not think merlins would like a giant swift, that hovers in the wind, does glides and fast acrobatic swings, while chasing another bird. I also do not exclude the possibility of being juvenile peregrines or kestrels, but I do not know if they could fly in such swift-like manner. Of remark is the fact that I did not spot any red on the underside of the tail (which is the telltale for a hobby), so now I am thinking to pay a second visit to the area just to check that.

In general, have hobbies, hen harrier and goshawk been spotted in the area?
 

burnie

Well-known member
Hobby do appear in NE Scotland, but probably our rarest raptor, the gingery orange on their legs is usually visible to aid identification, they are also not brown like a Merlin. Hen Harriers are perhaps just rarer than Hobbies, female Ringtails often show up in autumn/winter. You probably will have a Gos or two, I have them near me, in nearly 18 years I have seen one about 5 times, they are not called the ghost of the woods for nothing.
 

Ratal

Well-known member
Hobby are 100% in the area. You will also see them around the gravel pit at Daviot.

And no, I won't say on which farm they nested this year.
 
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