Friday, 29 March 2013

The Hebridean Harlequin Duck Affair!

Over nine years have passed since I made a trip over to the Western Isles of Scotland with Steve Richards and the late Jon Taylor for my first HARLEQUIN DUCK in Britain.  That particular bird was a rather uninspiring female that spent around four months on the Isle of Lewis. A handsome male bird would have been far more desirable but in birding you need to be eternally grateful for whatever rarity you are lucky enough to be presented with.

On the 18th February though, a day after I had returned back from Shetland, news came through of a male HARLEQUIN DUCK up on on the Western Isles. Initially I failed to consider another trip to Scotland so no immediate plans were made. As the weeks passed by however, I started to get all twitchy and as more and more photographs appeared online and in the birding press those twitches eventually developed into full blown delirium tremens!  At last a date was set to satisfy my duck desires, however those original plans were scuppered by the appalling weather that hit Britain last weekend. There was no way we wanted to risk travelling up through snow drifts and be blown off Balranald beach by icy, gale force gusts.

So that left this weekend, the Easter holiday break. The weather conditions looked much more favourable and after sorting out the logistics of ferry times, accommodation and car hire it was time to put the plan into action. At around 9.00pm on Thursday evening the gang consisting of Jules Allen, Steve Dunn, Mike Feely and I left Tibshelf, Derbyshire and it's impressive snow drifts to head the five hundred miles north-west. With some pretty ideal driving conditions, except for the odd roadside Red Deer and the bitterly cold minus 8 degree temperatures, we finally made it onto the Isle of Skye at around 7.00am on Friday morning.

Me at the Aros Centre at Portree, Isle of Skye.

One of our first stops was the Aros Centre just south of Portree. It was a little too early in the day for eagles to be flapping around, however a pair of nest building Hooded Crows was nice to see amongst the more common woodland species including a single Treecreeper and a few flyover Siskin.  It was then onwards to Uig to catch the ferry. Around the village we failed to find any Twite which can usually be found behind the CalMac offices but a few other common passerines were picked up for the trip list including a singing Hebridean Song Thrush. In the bay there were the usual scattering of Common Eider and Shag with a single Great Northern Diver and Common Guillemot amongst them. Near the pier a Rock Pipit was spotted feeding along the shoreline with small groups of Redshank and Turnstone.

Smooth sailing.... It's not very often you can scope from onboard a boat! 

The silky ferry crossing over to North Uist was a pretty uneventful affair on the birding front. There were however several Great Northern Divers as well as the odd Black Guillemot with larger numbers of both Razorbill and Common Guillemot. With the sun shining and the backdrop of the stunning Hebridean scenery to enjoy, none of us were complaining. Within ninety minutes we had arrived at Lochmaddy and what a welcome we received. As we approached the bay an adult Golden Eagle was picked up soaring over Greineasgor and within seconds not one but two White-tailed Eagles had been logged. One of the gigantic raptors flew north across the bay and landed on the clifftop at Rubha an Fhigheadair and there it perched surveying us as we drifted by. Other interesting sightings included a Great Northern Diver, a pair of Black-throated Diver and a single Black Guillemot.       

Arriving at a place like the Western Isles helps to restore your faith in human nature. As we disembarked the ferry there in the car park was a shiny hire car awaiting us. The doors were open and the keys were in the ignition with a note in the windscreen with my name on it. If only such trust like this existed in all areas of our Country. Without delay we headed west towards the RSPB reserve at Balranald and parked up amongst the dunes near to the famous skua watching site of Aird an Runair.

A view of Traigh Iar with Steve & Mike already hard at work scanning.

Despite the glorious sunshine there was still a penetrating nip in the air. After wrapping up warm we made our way to Traigh Iar to scan offshore for the rare sea duck that originated from the same direction as the biting Arctic breeze. With a low tide to contend with we had a real challenge on our hands due to the quantity of exposed offshore rock. There were plenty of hiding places for a bird as diminutive as a HARLEQUIN DUCK to take refuge amongst. To make matters even worse the mobile kelp forests of seaweed protruded the surface of the sea with each wave giving the impression of a resurfacing water bird.

At least three Great Northern Diver were spotted offshore but despite scouring the area from all different angles none of us could locate our target species. A trio of Raven twisted by in flight and several species of shorebird were in evidence as we made our way along the beach. Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover were the most numerous with several Redshank, the odd Curlew and a few Grey Plover too. 

A view south east from Rubha Port Scolpaig.

At this stage we bumped into Brian Rabbits, the original finder of the bird as well as a multitude of other Uist rarities over the years. Unfortunately he too had not managed to locate the HARLEQUIN DUCK during a thorough search that day. Our confidence was beginning to wane.  We decided to head further down the coast and search Port Scolpaig, the next bay south. Again there was no sign of the elusive rarity. A few new species for the trip were collected though including 2 Common Shelduck, a stunning male Long-tailed Duck, a female Red-breasted Merganser and 8 Bar-tailed Godwit. We had been searching for three long hours and combination of this and the long overnight drive was starting to take its toll on my stamina. I decided to take a quick nap on the rocks at Hanglam.

Recharging my birding batteries at Hanglam.

Within a few minutes I was out for the count. As anyone who knows me will testify I can sleep just about anywhere. Both Mike and Jules decided to leave me and ventured north again however Steve had the decency to head back and wake me up before I fell victim of the incoming tide. Feeling revitalised, I was determined to find the bird before the end of the day and followed the guys back up to Traigh Iar. As we headed around the point at Rubha Port Scolpaig, my naked eye picked up a small dark duck flying rapidly towards us from the direction of Holaisgeir. As I lifted my bins it disappeared behind the nearby rocks appearing to land amongst them. I ran around to gain a better vantage point alerting the other lads as I went. As I took a deep breath and lifted my bins, I heard Jules shout "It's a Harlequin!" There perched up on a sunlit rock was a stunning first winter male HARLEQUIN DUCK! Oh what joy and what a sense a relief.
HARLEQUIN DUCK (1st winter male)
Rubha Port Scolpaig, Balranald, North Uist.
Photo by Adam Archer

We all carefully scampered across the rocks for a better viewing position in an attempt to get the sun behind us a little more. Whilst we ventured slightly closer, the rarity did not seem too concerned by our presence.  It seemed much more preoccupied with being washed back off the rocks with the incoming tide than a bunch of nutjobs from the Midlands ogling it. After a while preening the bird eventually went with the flow and entered the water where it fed close offshore. We all soaked up the occasion and enjoyed the spectacle to the maximum.  After the initial frustration and dejection we were now thrilled with how the day had eventually turned out. As a bonus Steve picked up 8 Purple Sandpipers amongst the Turnstone flock as we strutted back to the car.

Jules Allen, Mike Feely & Steve Dunn admire the HARLEQUIN!

As we drove away from the reserve there were a dozen or so Rock Dove around the visitor centre. We then checked out the lochs on either side of the road. Over on Loch nam Feithean there was a pair of Whooper Swans and as Steve scrutinised the many Greylag Geese in the area he managed to pick up a pair of Greenland White-fronted Geese lurking amongst the long grass with a small number of Barnacle Geese. On the opposite side of the road he also picked out a distant female Ring-necked Duck amongst 20 or so Tufted Duck.  As we headed around to the Loch Paible area we bumped into Essex birder Dave Bradnum and his crew driving in the opposite direction. After a quick exchange of gen we were armed with some hot, off the press news regarding our next target bird of the trip.

After a taking a wrong turn we chanced upon a flock of 89 noisy Twite perched along the wires at Sidhean Tuath. A few minutes later we had located the correct lane to the south of Loch Paible where we found around 2,000 Barnacle Geese in the area of Paiblesgearraidh.  After a few minutes scanning through the two separate flocks I eventually picked up another Nearctic rarity, a RICHARDSON'S CACKLING GOOSE. Although split from Canada Goose as a separate species by the British Ornithologist's Union way back in 2005 we are still awaiting acceptance of our first British records of Cackling Goose. The subspecies, hutchinsii breeds on the Canadian Arctic tundra from southern Baffin Island out west to the north and western regions of Hudson Bay and winters mainly in Texas and northern Mexico. For a in depth article covering this complex please click on the following link.

After studying the bird for a while we then headed around to our Bed and Breakfast at Middlequarter. On our way there we ended an amazing day of birding with two Short-eared Owls hunting close along the roadside at Cladach Bhalaigh.

HARLEQUIN DUCK at Balranald, North Uist
Photo by Steve Duffield
Please click HERE for the latest Western Isles wildlife news!

After a quick shower and another brief nap in my room I ventured upstairs to meet the other lads for dinner. What I stumbled upon can only be described as rowdy boozing session. Instead of them scanning the area outside their bedroom window for Snowy Owls they were busy downing bottles of celebratory wine. In the bay window sat Jules Allen superficially resembling Father Jack Hackett from the comedy series Father Ted and slumped over his bed was a ruddy-faced Mike Feely looking like a cross between Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne and Penfold from the cartoon Danger Mouse. In the background attempting to secure incriminating photographic evidence of the whole debacle was an impish Steve Dunn. I had visions of being evicted from our accommodation before the night was through.

As the only sober birder it was then left up to me to transport us over to Lochmaddy for the evening. After a screeched halt outside the Co-op for yet more wine we eventually made it to the Lochmaddy Hotel for a well deserved meal and the odd drink. At around 8.15pm the second ferry of the day pulled into the harbour and with it brought a second batch of Midland birders to the island. We spent the next enjoyable few hours laughing, joking and reliving past epic trips with our birding brethren Tony Barter, Tom Cattell, Jase Oliver and Rob Gilbert.  Our fingers were crossed that they would connect with the HARLEQUIN DUCK the following day. Hopefully the bird would be easier to locate for them than it was for us.

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