Thursday, 18 August 2011

Scotering and Loitering

I cannot think of a more satisfying days birding in recent memory, however long that goes back. I've been staying with family in Scotland, part of my holiday-busting plans, and as is my wont, and especially as I have willing child-minders, I usually take a day and bugger off birding somwhere. Last year I spent 24 hours cleaning up in the Highlands with Muffin, and the year before that I had a superb day in Wester Ross. This time I decided that the Aberdeenshire coast was deserving of discovery, particularly as it held a long-staying Black Scoter, which whilst not a huge blocker (one has been living in Wales since 1853) is still an extremely rare bird. The thought of combing through thousands of sea-duck looking for this one vagrant got the juices flowing I can tell you!

I arrived at Girdle Ness in Aberdeen for pretty much first light, and met up with Fat Paul Scholes, aka Mark L, for this was his patch and he was going to show me it. This brilliant plan (and it gets brilliant-er, let me tell you) had been hatched the previous evening via Birdforum, which for all its faults, is an incredible resource if you can work out how to use it properly (hint: do not get sucked-in to contributing to the, er, discussion, on rare bird threads). A quick missive on the Aberdeen birding thread and I had gen flowing out of my ears and running down my neck, eventually pooling in my shoes. It was that good.

Our sea-watch was a fairly quiet affair, or so I thought, with a handful of Bonxie and Manx, but from my perspective enlivened by the hundreds of Eider and Guillemot sitting close inshore, and a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins at the harbour mouth. I hadn't counted on being present for a mega, but I've always been a fairly lucky birder. A cry of "Patch Gold!" from Mark, and soon I was taking in the thrill of three Canada Geese flying by. They were close enough in to be able to see plumage detail and everything. It was one of those exhilarating moments that only birding can produce, a real treat!

This is one of the reasons why patch-working is so interesting and varied. No two patches are alike, and exploring somebody else's patch is like peering into a forbidden world. For instance I would happily swap all 250 of Wanstead's Canada Geese, for ever, for just one of Mark's Eider, for one day. And I suspect he might give up all his Eider, and the rest of Scotland's, for just one of our Lesserspots, and maybe for just a couple of hours... Of course he wouldn't! Eiders are too cool, superb ducks that I love watching, and I've watched a few...

Girdle Ness also produced a Wheatear, a very smart drake Velvet Scoter, and a lone Purple Sandpiper, but these were all trumped by the offering from a smaller patch only a short distance away. Mark's flat came up with a cup of tea and a bacon sarnie, both day-ticks and extremely welcome after a 4am start - this is what I mean when I say Birdforum is a wonderful resource. And Mark is of course a top bloke, which is why I've offered to return the favour whenever he next finds himself in London and in need of a Canada Goose fix.

Onwards. I zipped through the centre of Aberdeen, which is not a big place, and took the coast road that goes up to the north-east tip of this lump of Scotland. For me this was uncharted territory. The furthest I had previously been was to Montrose for a Lesser Yellowlegs, and Arbroath for a Richard's Pipit, back when I was a twitcher. And even then it was only from Fife - I mean, who would drive from London to Aberdeen for a bird? When the Black Scoter had first been reported months ago, it had been a mere afterthought, the "big bird" had been a White-winged Scoter. That didn't linger, but I noted reports of the Black Scoter (think Common Scoter with an Apricot accessory) periodically and hoped that it might stay until I was in Scotland anyway. Yesterday was Wednesday, and it had been reported as recently as Monday.

Although the light was against me this early in the morning, and the tide was out, I could not resist having a little look off Murcar Golf Course. I parked outside the clubhouse and walked across the fairways to the sea (note to club secretary, put "beach access" signs where I can see them) and began seeing innumerable Common Scoter almost immediately. The scale of the challenge was enormous - the Scoters were distributed, fairly evenly it seemed, along a five mile stretch of coastline that has few access points. And I was looking for just one bird! I gave up quite quickly, the light from the east made viewing impossible, but at least the flock was still here. Every now and again one would rise up and flap what was left of its wings; I decided that barring a disaster they would all be here in the afternoon, and headed off to the Ythan estuary instead.

What a superb place! Teeming with birds, more Curlews than you can shake a stick at. I drove through Newburgh and parked up alongside the estuary, noting a large Kestrel hovering above the water as I got out. Hang on a minute....Osprey!! I shouted for it to fly over Wanstead on its way back, and noticed a second bird, a juvenile, having a bath mid-estuary. Scotland is just ace for birds. There may not be too many species, but the lack of diversity is more than made up for by the sheer number of individuals. Heaps of Knot, Lapwing and Redshank, gazillions of Curlew. Teeming would be a good word. At the estuary mouth I grilled the Eider flock hoping for the King Eider, and scoped three distant Arctic Skua resting on the beach on the edge of the Forvie Sands tern colony. One, a pale-morph adult, was standing up, and constituted the first skua legs I have ever seen. Very nice they were too. Also on the beach were a fair few seals, hauled up and enjoying a well-earned rest. Every now and again the wind would carry a waft of braying up to my position in the high dunes at the south of the estuary. With warm sunshine on my face (it does occasionally happen in Aberdeenshire!) I contemplated quite how nice a time I was having. I was utterly alone. No dog-walkers, no joggers, no people at all. Sunshine, blue sky, a gentle breeze, and birds everywhere. Life was good. Reluctantly my thoughts turned to the Black Scoter. The sun was now well round, and on a rising tide, viewing conditions should be ideal.

At Murcar the Scoters had seemed to be drifting north, so I decided to start my search at Blackdog a little further north, and walk south to intercept them. A quick scan northwards revealed quite a few birds that direction too, and not wanting to miss any out, I headed up the beach that way to get closer. My progress was impeded by a stream running into the sea, but not before I had picked out a very nice drake Surf Scoter. I had heard that there were up to five in with the flock, but I had not expected to find one quite so quickly. I debated somehow crossing the stream, but the Scoters seemed to peter out quite quickly, so I just went through them a couple of times from where I was before heading south.

I hadn't counted on there being quite so many birds. As well as thousands of Common Scoter, there were thousands of Eider and Guillemot, perhaps a hundred Velvet Scoter, and scores of Red-throated Diver, many still looking extremely smart. As with sea-watching though, the Common Scoter were mostly in a distinct line offshore, sandwiched between two lines of Eider. I felt sure that if I looked at every single Common Scoter, soon enough I would find 'the boy'. Having looked at photos, the bill on the American bird was incredibly bright and orange compared to the European versions. It should stand out easily, or that was the theory. Three miles and thousands of birds later, I still had no viable candidate. My Surf Scoter count was up to four, all adult drakes, including two together which was very pleasing as they are stonkers, but the lack of Black Scoter was nagging me. I told myself to forget about it, the birding was great anyway, and I had just scored an unseasonal Merlin (I later learned that there has been an early one knocking about). A swell had got up, and scoping the line of Scoters was becoming ever more difficult. The sun, having had a short break, was out again, and as the birds preened their flanks, their bills angled towards me and flashed in the sun, which had my heart in my mouth every time until I learned to deal with it. The view I really needed was a full side on profile, where the bill of a Common Scoter would look largely dark, but the bill of the Black Scoter would look like an apricot.

As I turned north to make my way back, scanning all the while, I became aware of a voice drifting towards me from the dunes. "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, and Britons never never NE-VER shall be slaves!", delivered with some gusto towards the end. I turned around to see where this was coming from. The answer was both amusing and worrying in equal measure. A naked (full-frontal naked) man was watching me from the top of the dunes. Wtf? As I looked at him, he sang even louder, and started waving his arms around. Potentially, I had a problem. I gripped my tripod in my hands (oo-err), it felt pretty solid (more oo-err), the ball-head in particular (even more oo-err), capable of holding 40kg rock steady (just err I think), would do the most damage. Still, I hoped to avoid that, so instead picked up my stuff and headed north.

He followed. Oh for Christs sake. What had I done to deserve this? I had barely seen another Human Being all day, and here, on a deserted beach miles from anywhere, the one person that I do bump into is a stark-naked raving lunatic. That said, he seemed to be sticking to the dunes, whereas I was on the beach,and provided he did not descend to the beach, I felt we could probably co-exist happily. Any easterly movement on his part though, and Mr Gitzo would be getting involved. Fortunately it never came to this, and I made it back to Blackdog, still scanning Scoter, without incident. Texting Mark, he is apparently a Murcar beach regular, and means no harm. The Last Night of the Proms will never be the same again though.

I returned to the car and contemplated my next move. I had been scotering for about four and a half hours, and although still 'empty-handed', was pretty pleased with my Surfie count. Black Scoter schmoter. But I was so close! I dumped a lot of my stuff in the car, and with only scope and bins (and defensive tripod), headed north into the dunes, thus bypassing the stream that had stopped me earlier. I soon found quite a lot more Common Scoter, as well as what I presumed was my first Surf Scoter again. A small group of Scoter a bit further out, and still well north of my position, caught my eye. Was I dreaming it or did one of them seem to have a very bright bill? I could detect no colour at all on the bills of the birds it was with, itself a good sign I felt, as all the males closer in had some element of plainly-visible colour. I carried on north to get closer, energized as only a whiff of potential success can bring. It was by no means a cert, and I had read that there were several Common Scoter in the flock that had particularly striking bills, but nonethless I at last had a viable candidate.

I walked about another mile, well into the Blackdog firing range, which thankfully was not in operation, before I got level with the birds I had been looking at. I had stopped every hundred yards or so, and been able to pick this bird every time despite the distance, and was feeling pretty good. Nothing I could do now but wait and cross my fingers that they came in, despite the fact the tide was receding. However come in they did, joining the closer line, and finally, after seven hours of scanning, I had the views that I wanted, and that confirmed the presence of an American Black Scoter nestling, happily and taxonomically, on my list between Common Scoter and Surf Scoter. I texted the good news out to all my mates who hadn't seen Black Scoter, and who I knew would be happy for me, and although I no longer have a pager, to them too, so that I could bask in the large scoter-shaped squares on the birdguides map that would be entirely my doing. If ever I deserved to see a bird, and see it well, this was it - probably the hardest I have ever had to work, a far cry from tick and run, but ever so much more satisfying. It barely counts as twitching - I had to do all the work myself. Heroic sums it up nicely.

On cloud nine, I headed for home. Fish and Chips from a place in Stonehaven that claims to have brought the deep-fried Mars bar to the world, and some mega-distant Spoonbill scoped all the way across Montrose Basin for a cheeky Scottish tick (for the list I don't keep), and I was worn out. Birding days like yesterday don't come around often, but that's what makes them so special.


  1. Utopia. A day when the stress and anxieties of life are forgotten for a few precious hours

  2. Great account of a fantastic day. 'Swhatitsallaboot