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.

AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER - A photo study of an immature drake

Not surprisingly due to the distances involved and the choppy sea conditions there are not a great deal of photographs available of Britain's first ever AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER at the moment. After scouring the internet I managed to find these superb images by American photographer Christopher Taylor. These pictures show an obvious immature male deglandi that was photographed during the month of February presumably in the bird's second year. The head shape seems to be in keeping with my observations of the bird in Aberdeenshire however the basal knob was considerably more enlarged in the British bird in comparison to the individual below. Could this be down to our bird being around four months older than this individual possibly is?

Anyway, for anyone who is still thinking of making the trip to Aberdeenshire, I hope these pictures help you with 'getting your eye in' and assist you making your trip a worthwhile one.

Note the distinctive peaked forehead of American White-winged Scoter. Any Velvet Scoters encountered should show a more evenly rounded head profile. Note also the obvious brown flanks a feature that was quite difficult to pick up on the Scottish bird when we visited due to the poor light conditions.

Even at quite a distance the greyish-pink wrap around to the bill could be seen on the Scottish individual as could the small white sub-ocular mark around the eye. As we are dealing with an immature bird here this marking lacks the strong, upswept tail that an adult drake would show. As the bird flaps you can see the white secondary panel that gives the bird its name. Whilst on the sea and with the wing closed there was often no visible sign of this feature on the Scottish bird.

On this close up shot of the head you can just about make out the forming of a basal knob on the bill. As the bird matures this will progress into a distinctive 'step down'.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Honey Buzzards in North Yorkshire

We had originally planned on taking a more relaxed and civilised trip back up to Cleveland today for a second look at the WHITE-THROATED ROBIN but with negative news during the morning plan B was put into action. We arrived at Wykeham Raptor Watchpoint in North Yorkshire at around 1.00pm to find a small gathering of birders staking out the area. A number of Honey Buzzards and Goshawks had already shown on and off but with the forecast of rain later in the afternoon we needed to score fast.

Initially only a Common Buzzard was picked up in the distance but after a bit of patience our first Honey Buzzard flapped into view over a distance copse. This individual then gained height and attracted the attention of another bird. As the birds ventured closer we could see that they were in fact rival males. It was at this stage that one of the birds started 'wing-clapping' and before we knew it yet another Honey Buzzard appeared. For the next hour or so every birder present was entertained by the trio as they put on one of the best raptor performances I have ever witnessed in Britain. On a couple of occasions they passed directly overhead no more then 60 feet away, it really was an incredible sight.

Honey Buzzard - Wykeham Raptor Watchpoint, North Yorkshire - 11 June 2011 .
Photos kindly provided by Roy Harvey

The Honey Buzzards obviously stole the show but there was also a fine supporting cast. We also spotted several Common Crossbills passing overhead and a singing Garden Warbler was nice to see around the watchpoint. We then made our way around to the forestry nurseries nearby where we eventually connected with at least four different Turtle Doves, unfortunately a very scarce sight in Britain these days. We failed to see any Goshawk during the afternoon but after the spectacle we had just witnessed we could not really complain too much.

The distinctive shape of a 'wing-clapping' Honey Buzzard at Wykeham Raptor Watchpoint.
Photo kindly provided by Roy Harvey

To finish off a fine afternoon we then headed the short distance into Scarborough for a quick brew and an opportunity to check out a few seabirds. Around the seafront, several pairs of Kittiwake could be found breeding on the buildings housing the amusement arcades, ice cream parlours and tacky gift shops however the cliffs along Marine Drive were far more impressive. Amongst the hundreds of breeding Kittiwakes in this more natural setting there were also a few pairs of Northern Fulmar and the odd Rock Pipit. A rather obliging Red Fox was also spotted hunting around the base of the cliffs. The highlight however was stumbling upon a Peregrine breeding site. A powerful female caught a local racing pigeon and then patiently attempted to coax a well developed youngster down from its favourite ledges with the tasty morsel. As the rain eventually set in for the evening we made our way to a fine fish and chip shop near the famous Grand Hotel for a slap up supper of haddock and chips. British birding at its very best folks.

Peregrine - Marine Drive, Scarborough, North Yorkshire - 11 June 2011
Photo by Adam Archer

Please note that all photographs are copyright protected by the photographer stated. Please do not use or reproduce them without prior permission.

Monday 6 June 2011

WHITE-THROATED ROBIN in Cleveland.... it's enough to drive you up the wall!

The day started with an early rise and a 6.ooam session at the gym before heading into the office for an exhausting day of banking based graft. Whilst perched at my desk, sipping away at an over-priced yet mildly stimulating Americano, the old pager beeped away telling me that a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL had been trapped and ringed on Hartlepool Headland. 'Mmmmm nice!' I thought and I continued to bring a degree of organisation to my already overcrowded desk. A few minutes later another early message was zapped over to Birmingham via a complex series of orbiting satellites direct from the RBA headquarters in Norwich.... MEGA Cleveland WHITE-THROATED ROBIN Hartlepool Headland trapped + ringed + will be released shortly (not Red-flanked Bluetail) ..... My throat went instantly dry and I struggled to unbutton the top button of my shirt in order to increase the flow of oxygen to my brain. I re-read the message a couple of times before the pre-twitch shivering began to kick in. This was a species that breeds at its closest point to Britain in Turkey and had never been recorded in England before.

Taking a quick swig of water and a deep breath I composed myself, puffed up my chest, summoned up the courage and asked my boss if I could take an emergency afternoon off work. He enquired as to the reason for my early departure. I told him that an extremely rare bird had turned up. He shook his head in disbelief, checked that it was acceptable with the rest of the team and reluctantly agreed to let me leave at 11.30am on the condition that a huge pile of pre-audit checks were completed. After shuffling more paperwork than a team of Ryan Giggs's lawyers in record time I made my escape out of the City. After a quick stop off in Tamworth to pick up my optical equipment and a change of attire I was on my way up the M42 and eventually the M1 to pick up my birding partner Stevie Dunn from Tibshelf. As he entered the twitchmobile I was overcome by the intoxicating aroma of Captain Morgan. Steve soon admitted that he had knocked back a small quantity of rum in order to calm his nervous disposition. Not only was the robin too much for him to handle but on top of this there was a Red-necked Phalarope in eastern Nottinghamshire, a much desired County tick for him. The daft bleeder even had the audacity to give both birds the same priority. I assured him that there would be future Red-necked Phalaropes dropping in on Robin Hood's County however a mainland WHITE-THROATED ROBIN may never appear again in his lifetime.... especially if he continued to insist on having 40% proof spirits for breakfast.

As we continued our journey north we received intermittent messages that the rarity had flown off from its favoured area around the bowling green and into the famous doctor's garden. Fortunately though it always seemed to return, much to the delight of the increasing numbers of birders that were arriving from all corners of Britain. We arrived on site at around 3.20pm and staked our claim to a small area of road on The Lawns overlooking the robin's prime feeding area. After speaking to Mark Payne we learned that we had missed a brief appearance less than ten minutes previously. As the minutes turned into a hour and the hour turned into two I was far from optimistic. Despite birders easing back from Olive Street to give the bird some breathing space and despite an organised search of the adjacent gardens, there was still no sign of the critter. It was not looking good at all and I was dreading the long, depressing journey back south.

WHITE-THROATED ROBIN (first summer female)
Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland.

At around 5.30pm we decided to head off to search a wider area in desperation. It was at this stage that we heard Ashley Howe say that the bird was still present but was feeding in the doctor's garden, an area with zero access. We then caught a glimpse of a few birders jogging down to Durham Street and so we followed. Upon turning the corner we were faced by the bizarre sight of a dozen eager twitchers standing on the top of vans whilst peering over a 12 foot wall.... they were watching the bird. Some entrepreneurial local 'monkey hanger' was quick to charge punters £20.00 to sit on the roof of his Ford Transit. Hard cash was being exchanged hand over fist like a night out at Spearmint Rhino. I needed to get on top of the wall by any means necessary. The lamp posts were off limits as they were covered in anti-climb paint and various portions of the wall were defended with shards of broken glass.

After abandoning my scope at the bus stop, I jostled for a position to board one of the vans. Unfortunately just as I made it on to the roof, the owner decided that enough was enough as the force of the combined weight had cracked his windscreen. As he pulled off to escape the hoards, I leapt on to the wall like Spiderman and straddled the fine Victorian brickwork. What lay in front of me was a well manicured large garden complete with a vast lawn and a fine selection of flower beds, much different to the species usual favoured summer habitat of sparsely vegetated rocky slopes of Afghanistan. After what seemed like a lifetime I caught sight of movement in one of the compost heaps. As I focussed my bins, there it was in all of its glory a fine female WHITE-THROATED ROBIN. The feeling I received from that initial sighting was tremendous. The pressure was off for me but I needed to get Steve up there too. As the bird showed well darting around the base of the rose bushes, Steve at last managed to find an accomplice to help me hoist him up. Within seconds of him gaining his composure he too was watching the rarity as it sat in a hollow in the parched soil, basking in the early evening sunshine.

Twitching legend Franko....
... rear-end a camouflaged photographer!

As we continued to enjoy the occasion we were pretty much oblivious to the chaos that surrounded us. A number of ladders had been provided by some friendly locals and a small scaffold structure was even assembled on the back of a builders truck in order that all those present could catch a glimpse of the target bird. This was by far the most unusual twitch that I have been party to and I must admit to enjoying every single minute of it. We eventually dismounted the wall to let others join in the fun and headed home at around 7.30pm. It had truly been a day to remember!

A 'lucky twitcher's view' from atop the Doctor's wall....

The WHITE-THROATED ROBIN in Britain.....

There has just been a single record of this species in Britain before. On the 27th May 1990 a female bird arrived on the Welsh island of Skokholm off the Pembrokeshire coast. Unfortunately the news of this particular bird was kept under wraps in order to protect the various seabird species that breed there. The bird lingered until the 30th May but was only seen by the wardens and a few selected guests that were hastily shipped over for the occasion.

There is also a further record of a male bird from the Isle of Man on the 22nd June 1983 only.


WHITE-THROATED ROBIN - video footage!