Saturday 3 March 2012


Me and my good friend Steve 'Snapper' Richards are huge fans of British theme parks and so this morning we decided to head to Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey for a day of roller coasters and candy floss. Alas when we arrived there it was closed for the winter season.  Oh dear, what were we to do? By some miracle our combined despair was soothed as news came through of a HOODED MERGANSER just a short drive away in the neighbouring County of Kent. By some freak coincidence both of us realised our optical equipment was stashed away in the boot of my car. Even more of a coincidence was the fact that both of us needed this species for Great Britain!

We had already taken part in a spot of birding whilst driving down from the Midlands. Along the M40 between junction 8 and the M25 we counted no less than 68 Red Kite. In addition we also saw 8 Common Buzzard, 2 Sparrowhawk and a single Kestrel. It was just like being at Gibraltar during spring raptor passage but without the inconvenience of having your packed lunch stolen by a feral barbary ape.

Following some excellent directions from teenage birding heart throb Dan Pointon we easily negotiated our way around the orchards of Moat Farm at the village of Five Oak Green. Upon arrival at the West Pit, a quick lift of our binoculars produced our target bird immediately. If only birding was always this easy.

HOODED MERGANSER (adult female)
Whetsted Gravel Pits, Kent
Photo by Chris Holt

Initially the bird dived almost continuously for around forty-five minutes at around two hundred yards away in the company of the odd Coot, a few Tufted Duck and a first winter Common Goldeneye. During this time it successfully emerged with small fish around a dozen times and on another occasion it quickly consumed either a small crayfish or a dragonfly nymph. Like all other diving duck as soon as its belly was full it started to spend most of its time on the surface of the water.  It was at this time that the bizarre looking bird plucked up a bit of courage and strayed closer to the shore. 

HOODED MERGANSER (adult female)
This excellent shot shows no damage to the wing

As if trying to prove its wild credentials it then performed well preening for a further twenty minutes. When the wings were outstretched it was obvious to see that they were both in tip-top condition and as it rolled onto its sides both legs were seen not to carry any rings. In addition both the legs and the webbing between the feet were in perfect condition.  There was just one further experiment to carry out.  Steve had some sandwiches left over from his lunch.  Following a few gentle tosses of bread scraps in the bird's direction, it showed no sign of temptation whatsoever, in fact it became slightly alarmed and swam off cautiously.

HOODED MERGANSER (adult female)
Photo by Chris Holt

I suppose only time will tell whether this bird is the real deal or not.  If it disgraces itself and continues as a resident in the area until the summer and beyond then I will scrub it off my British List.  For now however, I see no reason why this particular individual should not be taken seriously, especially considering the huge numbers of North American vagrants Britain as been graced with over the past six months.

Other highlights included a stunning drake Smew on the neighbouring East Pit along with a dozen Shoveler, a Little Egret, a Green Woodpecker and a Grey Wagtail.  We also enjoyed our first singing Blackcap of the year near the railway bridge.  On the way back to the Midlands the M40 Red Kite count reached a total of 55 birds.

Special thanks to Chris Holt for the use of his excellent photographs.

The HOODED MERGANSER in Great Britain

This species has a colourful history as far as the official British List is concerned with it jumping from one category to another since the original accepted record over 180 years ago.  This involved a first-winter male that was shot in the Menai Straights, Anglesey during the winter of 1830/31. Following a review, this particular bird was considered to be inadequately documented which led to the species being removed from the British List in 2001.  As if to embarrass the BOURC, a female arrived on North Uist in the Western Isles during November 2000. After initially being allocated a category D status in 2003 it was then upgraded to category A during 2009 thus becoming the first record for Britain.

So why the change of heart? The North Uist bird was followed by two more records in Britain with strong credentials for natural vagrancy. This included a first-winter in Northumberland during March 2002 and an adult male on Unst, during April and May 2006.  These birds are supported by an additional four records from the Azores between 2001 and 2008 as well as another on the Canary Islands during 2001/2002.

There are currently just five accepted records for Britain as follows:

2000 - Western Isles - 1st winter or female - Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist - 23rd October to 1st November
2002 - Northumberland - 1st winter - Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - 7th to 25th March
2005 - Kent - adult female - Chilham - 4th to 10th December
2006 - Shetland - adult male - Haroldswick and Burrafirth, Unst - 15th April to 2nd May
2008 - Fife - female - Tayport - 26th October to 15th November

STOP PRESS: Since first writing this blog there have been two more accepted records as follows:

2012 - Kent - adult female - Whetsted Gravel Pits - 10th February to 6th March
2012 - Sussex - first-winter - Pagham Harbour - 30th October to 17th November

My gamble eventual paid off with the Kent bird when it was accepted by the BBRC. Unfortunately I dipped the Pagham Harbour bird on the 18th November 2012. As this bird was considered a first-winter I thought it stood a better chance of acceptance than the Whetsted individual above. In hindsight though I need not have worried!