Friday 27 December 2013


Brünnich's Guillemot (first winter) - Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Dave Hutton

Whilst mopping up my daughter's spilt bottle of nail varnish remover on Boxing Day morning, my attention was drawn to my illuminated phone, lying there abandoned on the sofa. I could see that I had missed a few calls but alarmingly two of them were from Dan Pointon. I only usually hear from Dan when something 'megawise' is in the process of kicking off. I gulped, sat down to prepare myself and nervously logged on to the RBA website. A few clicks later it became evident that my suspicions were correct, there was only a BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT bobbing around along the south coast of England. In this demented year for exceptional rarities, not even the normally relaxed period between Christmas and the new year was safe from causing a touch of aviform related stress disorder.

For me, some times of the year are completely sacred and the trilogy of festive days from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day are completely out of bounds to even consider any long distance twitch. These few days are for putting family and friends first, after all they have a lot to put up with for the other 360+ days of the year I am sure you will agree?

The 27th of December is however a completely acceptable date to indulge in a spot of yuletide birding. By 9.30am Steve Allcott, Tony Barter, Dave Hutton and I were standing scouring a windswept harbour on the east side of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. A few other Warwickshire lads from Coventry had arrived before us and you could deduce from their collective grimace that it was not good news. The rarity had been present earlier in the morning however it was spotted flying off out into the choppy bay before most birders in the area could connect with it. 

Out in the harbour a first winter Black Guillemot was soon located amongst the forty or so Red-breasted Mergansers along with a Great Northern Diver and distant Black-throated Diver. My heart then jumped as an auk flew towards us and then banked away revealing plenty of white on the cheek, it was just a Common Guillemot. After a downpour of rain and hail had subsided we decided to branch out and check alternative areas of the the harbour. No sooner had we done so though, we noticed a few other birders running towards us. At long last the elusive alcid had been relocated.    

The Brünnich's Guillemot is just to the right of the nearest boat.
Photo by Adam Archer

After a few nerve racking minutes of the bird being submerged, up popped a magnificent BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT, the first twitchable example of this high Arctic species ever to grace the British mainland. Out of the 41 acceptable British records, well over half of them have involved dead birds picked up along the tideline, mainly up in the extreme Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. Only the rarity packed year of 2013 could provide us all with a relatively easy chance of connecting with such a difficult to see species. The record is even more remarkable bearing in mind the only other live bird in England was way back in 1977, although a bird at Filey, North Yorkshire on the 3rd December 2013 will no doubt become the second acceptable record for the country.

Castletown Quay, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Adam Archer

The bird was initially extremely mobile as it dived for food however it soon settled down to moor itself amongst the luxury yachts where it showed very well indeed for about thirty minutes. It then swam quickly back out of the marina and down to a small bay, about half a mile south where it teamed up with a winter plumaged Common Guillemot as a nice comparison species. At one stage they were also joined by a winter plumaged Razorbill, it was like page 211 of the Collins Bird Guide had suddenly sprung to life! 

Common Guillemot (left) & Brünnich's Guillemot (right)
Castletown Quay, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo by Dave Hutton

As the weather conditions improved the bird gradually floated closer towards its hoard of ecstatic admirers who were patiently perched along the quayside. It was great to see so many familiar faces full of the festive spirit and it was a hell of a memorable twitch to conclude one of the most remarkable years in British birding ever. 2013 will be long considered the year that just kept on giving. It would not surprise me if another outrageous rarity was found before the new year celebrations commence.

Steve Richards, Bob Duckhouse, Richard Challands & Dave Hutton
representing the West & East Midlands twitching fraternity!

The Brünnich's Guillemot in Great Britain

This species is almost circumpolar in the Arctic and near Arctic but in Newfoundland it breeds at a latitude equivalent to that of northern France. This reflects the lower sea temperatures on that side of the Atlantic Ocean. The nearest breeding colonies to Britain are in Iceland, Greenland and northern Norway. In winter it disperses out to sea in northern latitudes with it's southerly limit in the eastern Atlantic being well to the north of Scotland. The worldwide population is estimated to be in the region of 15 to 20 million individuals and as such it is one of the most abundant marine species in the northern hemisphere. There are nearly two million breeding pairs in Iceland alone which makes it's rarity in Britain very surprising indeed.

The first really twitchable bird came during the summer of 1989 when an individual turned up amongst the seabird colony at Sumburgh Head in Shetland. For those unable (or too young) to travel for this bird, a second chance arrived during the winter of 2005 when another bird was located in the rather convenient location around the ferry terminal in Lerwick, Shetland. A few friends successfully twitched this bird however there are some real nightmare stories of stomach churning, sixteen hour sea crossings and gut-wrenching dips. A full list of all British records, reminiscent of a birding obituary is as follows:

2011 - Moray - Burghead - 17th November only
2007 - Aberdeenshire - Girdle Ness - 7th November only
2007 - Shetland - Scousburgh, Mainland - 25th March - dead
2006 - Shetland - West Sandwick, Yell - 4th May - dead
2005 - Shetland - Lerwick, Mainland & Bressay - 30th November to 20th December
2001 - Orkney - North Ronaldsay - first winter on 29th January - dead
2000 - Orkney - Scapa Flow - 21st December - dead
1997 - Shetland - Fetlar - 26th to 30th December
1996 - Highland - Kilchoan Bay, Ardnamurchan - 27th March only
1995 - At Sea - north of sea area Fair Isle - 23rd January only
1995 - Shetland - Gulberwick, Mainland - taken into care on 4th January (released 1st February)
1994 - Shetland - Wadbister Voe, Mainland - 12th February - dead
1994 - Lothian - Seafield - 6th February only
1993 - Lothian - Musselburgh - 27th March only
1992 - Western Isles - Hirta, St Kilda - 26th May to 8th June
1991 - Orkney - Sule Skerry - 25th January only
1989 - Shetland - Sumburgh Head, Mainland - 16th June to 12th July
1988 - Highland - Dunnet Bay - male on 9th March - dead
1987 - Shetland - Hamnavoe, West Burra - 3rd to 7th February - dead
1985 - Orkney - Scapa Bay - 9th January - dead
1984 - Orkney - Birsay, Mainland - 20th March - dead
1983 - Shetland - Banna Minn, West Burra - 30th October - dead
1982 - Highland - Golspie, Sutherland - 24th December - dead
1982 - Orkney - Stromness, Mainland - 3rd April - dead
1982 - Highland - Brora, Sutherland - 3rd February - dead
1981 - Orkney - Bay of Ireland, Stenness, Mainland - 29th December - dead
1981 - Aberdeenshire - Johnshaven Beach, Kincardine - 25th January - dead
1980 - At Sea - sea area Viking (Brent Oilfield) - 26th December only
1980 - Shetland - Fair Isle - adult from 16th to 17th October
1980 - Shetland - Burrafirth, Unst - 24th February - dead
1980 - Lothian - Kilspindie Beach - 9th February - dead
1980 - Lothian - Ferry Ness - 9th February - dead
1979 - Aberdeenshire - Rattray Head - 25th February - dead
1978 - Aberdeenshire - St Cyrus - 14th July - dead
1977 - Shetland - Sumburgh, Mainland - 18th December - dead
1977 - Northumberland - Farne Islands - 13th July only
1976 - Highland - Reay Beach, Thurso - 31st January - dead
1969 - Argyll - Loch Caolisport, Knapdale - 11th October - dead
1968 - Shetland - Norwick, Unst - 20th March - dead
1960 - Lancashire - Middleton Sands, near Morecambe - adult on 15th April - dead
1908 - Lothian - Craigielaw Point - female on 10th December - dead

Saturday 7 December 2013


BAIKAL TEAL hungry birders scan Crossens Outer Marsh.
Photo by Adam Archer

Having let the hysterical, duck-bashing dust settle down for a week or so, we finally decided to embark on a trip to Lancashire (I refuse to use the word M*rseyside on my blog) for a rather splendid looking BAIKAL TEAL that despite the opinions of the many 'quackerphobes' is full of eastern promise. This species should be spending the winter months waddling around in the wetlands of Korea, Japan or south-east China however it seems to have been caught up with a flock of Eurasian Wigeon at some stage and has decided to spend at least some of its time munching away on marshland south east of Blackpool instead.

After a relatively late start from a twitching perspective we finally arrived at the seawall overlooking Crossens Outer Marsh, north of Southport at around 9.00am. The chilly winter air was filled with the whistling of thousands of Eurasian Wigeon and the skies were adorned with flocks of hundreds of  Northern Lapwing and European Golden Plover, it was end of year birding at its very best.

As for the BAIKAL TEAL there had been no sign of it yet. I could tell this easily by the body language of the ensemble of miserable looking twitchers in the distance. They were huddled together in a loose line, moping around, scratching their heads and no doubt chatting the same drivel you hear these days when the target bird is not on view.  Just a quick tip for you folks, the rare bird may not always be in the exact same spot as it was the previous day. If this bird has flown thousands of miles to grace us with its presence then it is not averse to stretching its wings again and finding a new spot to feed or rest in.

With this in mind I decided to go it alone and scan the flocks of wigeon and teal that were present adjacent to Marine Drive. Whilst picking my way through the roosting birds I was eventually joined by some friendly faces from the West Midlands to help in the search. After about thirty minutes I finally located an interesting looking duck that was fast asleep amongst the bulkier looking wigeon. A few moments later it moved slightly and my heart rate quickened...... it moved forward once more and 'bang' there it was, a fine looking moulting male BAIKAL TEAL, my first ever sighting of this species in Britain.

BAIKAL TEAL (adult male) - Crossens Outer Marsh, Merseyside
Photo by Dave Hutton

After a quick whistle and a waving of my arms I signalled to everyone that the bird was showing. I then spent the next twenty minutes or so trying to make sure everyone could get on it. Unfortunately a combination of the poor light, strong winds and the fact that it would slip back into the midst of the flock meant that it was quite difficult to pick up. In the process I nearly lost my patience and elbowed one particular southerner in the chops for making sarcastic remarks about my directions. Look with your eyes you ungrateful twat and not with your mouth! One elderly gentleman with one of those snazzy new Swarovski scopes was struggling too and I kindly offered to assist. Little did he know that whilst he repeatedly asked me if I had found it in his scope I was actually watching it in glorious HD. Cheeky hey? Finally, after all the excitement had subsided we enjoyed some pretty decent views for the next hour. It was then time to find somewhere to thaw out and grab a bite to eat.  

Johnny Hague proves that note-taking is not dead
in British birding!
Photo by Adam Archer

With our stomachs full of inferior quality American cuisine we then headed back for seconds and hopefully some additional views of the rarity. This time we pulled off Marine Drive to find the BAIKAL TEAL almost immediately. It was actually one of the closest birds on view but alas it was fast asleep on a grassy knoll. Fortunately after about it twenty minutes or so it yawned, had a quack flap and a stretch and started to feed again providing us with the best views of the day.

BAIKAL TEAL (adult male) - Crossens Outer Marsh, Merseyside
Photo by Dave Hutton

Other highlights around both Crossens Outer Marsh and on Marshside RSPB included a distant Great White Egret, 6 Little Egret, plenty of Pink-footed Geese, 2 male Pintail, 2,400 Eurasian Wigeon, 280 Eurasian Teal, 220 Northern Lapwing, 520 European Golden Plover, 60 Black-tailed Godwit, 5 Ruff, 44 Dunlin, a female Merlin and a single European Stonechat.

BAIKAL TEAL (adult male) - Crossens Outer Marsh, Merseyside
Photo by Dave Hutton

The BAIKAL TEAL in Britain

This species breeds across north-east Russia as far west as the River Yenisey and migrates to south-east China, Japan and Korea for the winter. It was thought to be in considerable decline during the end of the last century however current evidence suggests this was either inaccurate or the species has enjoyed a remarkable reversal in fortunes in recent years. Rumours are that during November 2001 there was an estimated 350,000 birds distributed throughout one area of South Korea alone.

It was always considered a species that could be a potential vagrant to Britain and other areas of northern Europe either as a reverse migrant or as an abmigrant based on the fact that its breeding area in the west overlaps with that of both Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal. Interestingly the arrival of the Crossens Marsh BAIKAL TEAL has coincided with record numbers of Eurasian Wigeon being present in the area. As a result, this individuals credentials have got to be as good as any of the previously accepted records of the species in Britain.

This species was readmitted to category of A of the British List by the BOURC during October 2009 following isotope analysis of a BAIKAL TEAL that was shot in Denmark in November 2005. The results from the stable isotopes suggested that the feathers grown on its breeding grounds in the east were markedly different to those feathers that had grown on its wintering grounds. This more or less proved it to be genuine wild vagrant. Following this, a review of past sightings was undertaken providing us with just four accepted records for Britain as follows:

1906 - Essex - Tillingham - first winter male shot on the 1st January.
2001 - Suffolk - Minsmere RSPB - first winter male from 18th November to 29th December.
2002 - Oxfordshire - Dix Pit, Stanton Harcourt - male from 22nd to 24th December.
2010 - Essex - Chigborough Lakes - juvenile male on 2nd October.

There was also another sighting earlier in 2013 when an adult male BAIKAL TEAL flew in off the sea with a couple of Eurasian Wigeon and spent the day at Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire.  This could potentially be the same individual that was present across the Irish Sea in County Wexford from the 8th to 9th February 2013.