Saturday, 18 June 2011

AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER - The First Record for Great Britain

An epic adventure always has its starting point and this one began nearly a week before on a bleak and extremely wet Sunday afternoon. In quick succession the pager alerted me to a BROWN BOOBY that was currently being watched offshore on the Isles of Scilly and minutes later news erupted of an AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER up in Aberdeenshire. Both birds would be potential firsts for Great Britain! I almost instantly discounted a trip to Scilly as there was little chance of a booby lingering around St Mary's until I could get down there. I did however have more of a chance with the scoter. With work commitments though there was just no way I would be able to head up north until the following weekend.

Shortly afterwards I received a phone call from Mr Belvide - Steve Nuttall to say he had just been in contact with John Higginson on the Scillies. The MEGA rarity down in the extreme south-west had been re-identified as a young Northern Gannet. Whoops, what a booby hey?

So fast forward to Friday night. Arrangements were made with the crew consisting of Stevie Dunn, Steve Richards and Jules Allen to meet me in Barnsley for the long trip to Aberdeenshire. As the forecast was a bit on the Marti Pellow side, you know Wet Wet Wet, the twitchmobile was packed to the rafters with Gortex and other water repellant attire. As all good birders know, there's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. We departed South Yorkshire at around 12.30am and finally rolled through the Granite City of Aberdeen and up to Murcar golf course at around 7.30am. We struggled from the car bleary-eyed but full of adrenaline at the prospect of the challenge ahead.

The twitchmobile makes it safely to Murcar golf course, north of Aberdeen.

Despite the downpour we donned our waterproofs and made our way to the dunes. Well most of us did. It seems that Stevie Dunn thinks H2O is an American boy band and as such was dressed more suited for a Brazilian beach party than a Scottish sea-watch. I reckon he is still mentally trapped in Cuban holidaying mode, especially considering he was still wearing his 'all inclusive' hotel wristband. We took our places on the cliff top and scanned the rolling North Sea through the unforgiving rain. Through the thousands of Common Scoter and Common Eider we could pick out a number of handsome Velvet Scoter, probably consisting of around a hundred birds in total. Soon enough we locked onto our first sea-duck from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean when a drake SURF SCOTER popped up into view but where the hell was its rarer Nearctic cousin lurking?

The White-winged Scoter twitch at Murcar, Aberdeenshire.

As the rain continued we remained resolute and after about a hour there was an announcement from further along the line of birders. After following the Chinese whispering of directions I finally locked onto a likely candidate and there it was, Britain's first ever AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER, an immature drake. No sooner had I ran through most of its diagnostic features though, the bird dived and despite our best efforts could not be relocated. Had I really driven over 500 miles for a 10 second view of a bird?

King Eider (male) on the Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire.
Photo thanks to the 'Three Amigos Birding Blog'

With the rain getting heavier and with no further sign of the rarity we decided that a change of scenery was urgently required. We made our way back to the car, soaked to the skin but convinced that the birding Gods would smile upon us later on in the afternoon. Further north on the Ythan Estuary the weather was slightly better. Our mood also lifted when we picked up the long staying drake KING EIDER preening his impressive plumage whilst hauled out on a sandbank. Apart from the many Common Eider on site and the coming and goings of the Sandwich Terns there was not much else to see. Jules managed to pick up a first summer Mediterranean Gull amongst the terns but saw fit to suppress it whilst we chatted to Rich Bonser about the days events thus far.

After a carbohydrate binge at the Newburgh Costcutter and a quick nap back at the golf course, we were ready for action once more. Well most of us were. Despite Stevie Dunn sleeping more than anyone else during the journey north, he took the decision to digest his bacon butty on the backseat of the twitchmobile like a modern day Rip Van Winkle. We however faced the second soaking of the day. For a further three, long hours we spent our time scanning the sea and hastily wiping precipitation away from both ends of our scopes with wringing wet lens clothes. Despite the conditions there were still plenty of birds to keep us entertained. As the tide came in the scoter rafts got progressively closer and more active. Superb views of both Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter were enjoyed and a further two drake SURF SCOTERS were picked up. In addition a few Red-throated Diver drifted in along with small numbers of Guillemot and Razorbill. A scattering of both pale and dark morph Arctic Skuas also flew in to harass the Kittiwakes and Black-headed Gulls whilst Northern Gannets plunge-dived in the distance.

This is me looking pretty wet and dejected amongst the dunes at Murcar.

With the assembled scoter flocks being forced further south by the current created by the incoming tide it was time to change our position. A new viewing area was therefore established a further half mile down the coast and with immediate success. Just offshore there were four male Velvet Scoter and amongst them the AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER suddenly appeared. The greyish-pink wrap around to its swollen, two stepped bill could be seen quite well at this range as well as its distinctive head shape. In the poor light however, the brownish flanks were not too obvious. At last, I started to enjoy the bird before it eventually swam off and disappeared amongst the combined swell and scoter.

Steve Dunn was summoned from his slumber and the search continued with a renewed wave of optimism. Intermittently the AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER would be relocated but getting on to the bird from other birder's directions was always pretty difficult. Finally at around 6.40pm the keen eyed Steve Richards managed to pick up the bird once more and prolonged views of the target species were obtained by all members of the ASBO crew.

We headed back home under a constant deluge of rain and the occasional dangerous fog patch that delayed our journey a little. Exhausted, I arrived back in South Yorkshire at around 3.3oam and promptly slipped into a post-twitch coma. Yet another epic trip and yet another top notch rarity to add to the old British list..... upon acceptance of course.

1 comment:

  1. Jeez Arch, too much stress in Pomgolia, you obviously need a birding holiday in Oz! Get a load of that should fix you up!