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Surprises And Satisfaction (2 Viewers)

Periodically, I go through an epiphany that its not all about ticks, and I should stop complaining and just enjoy being birding. My inner monologue seems to take the persona of either a nagging spouse or a disappointed parent, it seems. Which is fairly surprising since I don't have either.

Post- Fife debacle, I had a few weeks of flying visits to the Haugh, and walking locally. Activities which were deeply enjoyable without being earth- shatteringly exciting. There's something about autumn that appeals to me, and in practical terms the leaves falling ironically meant I got better views of things than I enjoyed during the 'peak' birding weeks/ months.

All that local stuff made me feel like I'd been neglecting Musselburgh, and I headed there at the end of October. As a birding day, this was kind of hitting the bottom of the tomato ketchup bottle to get the last few drops out. 36 species seen, with the only year tick being a common scoter (a bird that I'd never take for granted anyway) but it just seemed like a lot of hard work. Its that time of year, it seems, where fatigue sets in. I had heard that the local twite had taken up residence at the new scrapes, but as always, I didn't leave myself enough time to do it any justice. The old scrapes were busy; I'm proud to be an anti- social old bugger who is ironically glad to see other birders out and about. The enigma which is Green Sand. The long journey home, however, gave me the time to think and give myself a shake. I've been out birding, in the fresh air. Get a grip Green Sand.....

I had booked a week off work on leave, and in among the family stuff managed to get some local walks in. Not to get too mystical, but there's something quite mindful about the Clyde walkway in autumn. Good for the soul, and as I've said before, I'm damned lucky to have it so nearby. On its day, it inspires me to pause, take a deep breath, and remember once again just how much I love being a birder.

Anyway, having just had a big number birthday, I treated myself to a big journey, and headed to Dumfries and Galloway. Opted for Mersehead, since its been years since I've been there, and its easier to get to than Caerlaverock. That and the reserve being an internationally- important hotspot for pintail- a bird I struggle for yearly.

It did give me the fear that if I dipped it’d be the dip of all dips......

Being a taxi for the eldest min- Green Sand meant that I didn't get to Mersehead until about 11am, which didn't leave me much time for my provisional plan to stop at Southerness. In case anyone's wondering, I forgot to look at the tide times...

The reserve was pleasant enough, the warden on duty was excellent- welcoming, knowledgeable, everything I want in an RSPB warden. The visitor centre gave good views of mostly garden birds on the feeders, though the yellowhammer and greenfinch were good to see, and its never a bad thing seeing a GS woodpecker close up. Despite the huge odds against it, I did manage to get pintail from both of the reserve's hides. I even got some really bad photos, so at least I'm consistent in that regard. Not much else really, the wind was whipping up the sand so I avoided the beach. I stopped off at Southerness after all, but it was almost low tide, and got nothing on the sand/ water. More activity on the rocks, oycs and a skulking little egret. Took a while to confirm it wasn't a more exotic type of egret, but still, nothing to turn my nose up at. Southerness, I found out to my cost, isn't really a 'brief stop off' type of place. Noted for next year.

The next Friday was spent doing not much, until I saw that there were waxwings in Bellshill- on paper, quite close by. In my excitement, I forgot to look at google maps to see exactly where in Bellshill they were, but as you know, I'm actually not a twitcher. Mrs GS decided to come with me and combine it with a drive up to see the sunset at Whitelees Windfarm. The road in Bellshill I discovered, is massive, and I was struggling to combine watching the road/ searching the trees/driving safely. I gave Mrs GS a vague explanation about a big flock of smallish birds in the treetops, but without much hope/ expectation. It turns out she's a better twitcher than I am, and saw them in the trees quite quickly. That and the crowd of birders standing in the car park probably offered quite a good clue. Brilliant views (the last waxies I got was in some private park in Glasgow's west end) and an unexpected tick. Amazingly, Mrs GS enjoyed it too- slightly slack- jawed wonderment, which I hope I've never lost myself.

The next plan was for Aberlady, for pink- footed goose. Every year I vow solemnly to get them earlier, and every year I end up Oct- Nov trying for them. A pressure- tick that really doesn't need to be. Anyway, the plan for the 7.30 train, then connecting bus fell through as Mrs GS was a bit poorly, and I became the Dad-taxi again. Got to Aberlady at 12pm, and knew I'd be there until dusk- in the recesses of my mind I remembered that the pinkies would come in to roost late on, so I prepared myself for a long afternoon. The tide was full when I arrived... naturally, I hadn't checked the tide times. Did get a pair of little egrets beside the road, 2 (female) photographers were blundering through the marsh and spooked them. Ironically, they'd have had a better view from the pavement. Good to see that being a fieldcraft- resistant photographer isn't gender specific.

No pinkies at this time, incidentally.

There were, though, excellent numbers of shelduck, lapwing, and a few redshank. Onto the reserve proper, loads of fieldfare 'chacking' away in the sea buckthorn, but skulking and secretive. Not many wee things, no sign of stonechat, despite other folk seeing them and Aberlady usually being a stick- on guarantee. A non- birding walker passed me, and said he had seen a photography group (they actually weren't photographers) at Gullane Point looking at Little Auk. He also mentioned a "long- eared owl."

It shouldn't be all that complicated to get to Gullane point. If the tide is in, cut through the golf course. If the tide is out- and you're carrying a scope- go the long way onto the beach and exhaust your legs walking on sand. I got lost on the golf course, and ended up failing to achieve the alternative option; instead, I wasted precious daylight following a meandering path across the crest of the dunes. By the time I got to the Point the tide was on the way out, the bird club had buggered off, and the sun was about an hour and a half away from setting. Stunning location in failing light, but not great for birding. A bit of perfunctory seawatching got nothing remotely auk-ish.

A slow walk back along the beach got sanderling, and gave me lots of time to think. I decided that I despised Aberlady. I'm ok having to work for my birds, and in fact, feel a proud glow when I do have to work for them. But Aberlady seems to actively hate birders. I also realised I hate Pinkies. I mean, I went to a site that’s internationally famous for them, and couldn't get them. I then decided- no, vowed- that unless the evil buggers flew over my house, I was never ticking them again. I was never travelling anywhere for them again. No sign of twite, snow bunting, or any owl, regardless of ear length, despite what Twitter had promised.

The rapidly- approaching dusk did, though, stir the fieldfares into action, and I got great views of them, so can't really complain. A group of walkers were sitting on the bridge, blocking my way. They seemed genuinely put out that I asked if I could get past them. Definitely not the right day for them to act like arses..... Back at the car park, it was almost completely dark. I sat on the bench to rest my legs for a bit and had a look through the scope. The ambient light was good enough that I could still see how active everything was, and there's something other- worldly about it. Definite highlight- I've mentioned before that being out birding at dusk appeals to my sense of adventure, and watching the shelduck, lapwing and oycs in the near darkness tapped into this.

Eventually I realised, though, that it was time to go, pinkies or no pinkies.

I had written the day off as a Wish.com type of birding day- it looks the part, but the end product is not quite what was expected. I had trudged about 100 yards from the car park (I had parked in the village) and heard a brief 'honk'. Not enough to tick, it was as if the reserve was mocking me. Another few yards, though, and a more pronounced call pierced the stillness of the evening. I scanned the sky, an got a single skein of about 50 pinkies, flying west. High enough for the sun to illuminate them despite it being over the horizon, with the sky behind them being a deep purple. Watched them tumble towards the distant water. Turns out that I don't hate pinkies after all. And if it can offer me a sunset like that again, I might even get to be fond of Aberlady.

This gave me 149 for the year, and I began cursing my lack of luck with being unable to get spot fly at Lochwinnoch, and my enforced hiatus to deal with ceilings/ floods/ family stuff that cost me interesting autumn sandpipers. I planned ahead to spend my next venture Eastward working on twite at Musselburgh, and if I get anything else interesting in the process, then it'd be a bonus. 150 in a year where I was expecting 140-5 at the very best would be pretty good going.

EVentually, the day came for my next day out and I headed to Musselburgh- I've been thinking it'd be easier and cheaper if I just bought property there. Off the train at Wallyford station to get to the scrapes quicker, and got a kestrel in a tree beside the road. A heron sat in the flooded field beneath it. I tried timing the walk from the station, but did so much stopping and starting looking at things flying that it became pointless. I decided then on doing a linear walk and ending up at Musselburgh station. Best to keep it simple.

The tide was high, and the water was almost completely dead calm. Some headache- inducing seawatching got RB merganser and a lone Lt Duck, before wandering up to the scrapes. Lots of lapwing activity above the trees, which made me hopeful of a raptor or two. Anyway, no such luck.... got to the middle hide, where a knowledgeable local (the chap runs the Lothian birdwatch FB page) gave me the good news that a couple of dogs had just run amok. That accounts for the lapwing..... Did get shelduck, shoveler, snipe and the rest of the usual suspects. The Knowledgable Local put me onto a flock of about 20 twite, that I mostly missed, but eventually got a single straggler. Still a tick, mind, and 150 up for the year. Chuffed to bits, needless to say, as Twite is never one I take for granted.

A wander back down to the sea wall got not much, bar a pair of Slavonian Grebe close in. The diving wee buggers were hard to pinpoint, but perseverance and a slice of luck to be looking at the right place, got me them. YES!! 25 minutes well spent. I exclaimed (mostly inward) year tick 2. As they drifted inward, got great views through the scope as well, good enough to get the red eye. Wandering along to the new hides I was advised that there were dozens of slavs out there, and more importantly (for me anyway) a grey plover on the new scrapes. I trotted off as quickly as my over- burdened legs would take me. Onto the first hide, waded through the standing water- you would think, just think, that since the damned reserve has a moat in it, they could have allowed better drainage from the hides.

Anyway, managed to get the grey plover within a few minutes. Year tick 3 (sort of) A larger flock of twite flew overhead, making their presence known, so I was happier with my year tick after that. Scrapes were busily quiet, with large amounts of not very many species. Very peaceful, if you're the type who finds solace in the background noise of birds. Had a decent chat with an older couple, then a trio of teenage boys came in. Clearly learners, but enthusiastic nonetheless. Had a good chat, gave them a look at the bar-wits through the scope, so hopefully managed to keep that spark going. Maybe in 30 years these guys will be sitting on a reserve, soaking up a sunset. Lord, I hope so.

Tearing myself away from another stunning Lothian sunset I had a very leisurely walk back to the station. A good day out, all told. In fact, a right good few days out.

Part of the thrill (cos I'm still a big kid who gets really excited by this) each year is sticking my ticks on Birdforum, Bubo and Birdtrack. Imagine my surprise, then, when Bubo wouldn't accept my Slav. I double- checked my spelling (which is admittedly appalling) but nope. Checked my records, and it turns out I'd forgotten that I got a Slav last February. Back in the olden days I used to keep a written list, study it every day, count it regularly to correct any mistakes. So much for progress, but staring at a pair of Slavs is hardly a hardship, regardless of whether its a tick or not.

151 for the year matches last year's exceptional effort, so I can't complain- not least since it hasn't always been plain sailing. Unless, of course, I get lucky with something easy reached by public transport, or Mrs GS goes nuts and decides I can have the car again for a reasonably- sized day out.

Even if I do get stuck at 151, I've started entertaining myself by planning for 2024. And nothing ever goes wrong with Green Sand plans.....

Stay healthy, stay safe.


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