Sunday, 30 July 2017

List advancement

I have chosen my title with care, as although my list has indeed increased, I don't believe it truly counts as twitching - I will elaborate shortly. I have been Scotland for the past week, the first weekend in Fife (with Bee-eaters en route), the week in the middle at work in Glasgow, and yesterday Aberdeen. Murcar to be precise, which ought to provide a clue as to what I was looking at.

Back in August 2011 I spent a very happy and satisfying day at Murcar searching for a Black Scoter. I found it after a mere seven hours of searching, the task at hand was truly stupefyingly difficult - to find a specific duck amongst thousands of other ducks along a five mile stretch of coastline. Oh, and Scoters of all types dive frequently just to make it that little bit harder. It was monumental, but I stuck to my task and eventually found old apricot bill in order to tuck him away safely on my list. That same year there had been a White-winged Scoter at Murcar too, for a couple of weeks in early June, but by the time I found myself conveniently in Scotland it had disappeared. Instead its slightly commoner cousin was very much appreciated. Last year it or another reappeared in late June but I had properly phased by then and couldn't be bothered.

This year it reappeared again, and this time I had a trip to Scotland booked where I would have the time to devote a day to it, recalling what a good time I had had all those days ago. So after a long week in my Glasgow office I woke up moderately early and drove across to Aberdeen arriving for mid morning. The weather was kind luckily, and after sorting out my birding gear in the car park of Murcar Links golf course I nipped across the fairways to the dunes and started scanning. I was the only person for miles.

This is the first reason I don't think this counts as twitching. Twitches to me conjure up images of lines and crowds. Of jostling and a hum of middle-aged conversation. Green camo clothing, big lenses, and an air of expectant desperation. At Murcar on Saturday there was just me and the odd metallic clink of a golf club thwacking a ball. It was breezy and Sand Martins flew past at eye level along the tops of the dunes. Linnet chupped ahead of me, and out on the sea were raft upon raft of ducks as far as the eye could see in either direction.

At a twitch seeing the bird is often relatively straightforward. You get out of your car and you scan for a line of birders. Find the birders, find the bird. You hoof it over to where they are standing without bothering to even search for the target bird on the way or indeed anything else, and once there you earnestly whisper "is it showing?", or if you are an oaf you loudly ask for directions. Sometimes newcomers will be offered a pre-focused scope to set their frayed nerves at rest, to get that all-important tick. There is no skill required whatsoever. At Murcar however there was nobody to ask, no hints of any kind. It was up to me, and actually that is exactly what I wanted. I didn't want to join a gaggle on the beach with their scopes lined up on the Scoter. I genuinely wanted to spend a lot of time looking for it myself, to see if I could do it. I did not want to simply be handed it on a plate.

I decided to walk south as the last news on the bird had seen it reported in that direction, exactly a week ago. This is another reason why this didn't feel like a bona-fide twitch. Usually you get news every step of the way, a gang of birders on a journey will scan their phones and pagers about every five minutes, possibly more frequently than that if it is a 'big one'. I don't have any form of live bird news at all so I called Bradders Birding Information Services. BBIS was in Cornwall drinking beer during a brief respite from sea-watching, but was able to confirm that the week old news did appear to be the most recent reported sighting. I wasn't worried - at this time of year Scoters have the kind of wings that chickens laugh at, so I was certain it was here somewhere. The only problem was where....

The plan was simple - walk 100m, scan an arc of around 90 degrees back and forth, and then advance another 100m and repeat. With the weak sun on my face and the wind in my hair this was an extremely pleasant way to pass what was left of the morning, but after two hours I had not yet found the White-winged Scoter and I was getting Velvet Scoter fatigue. This is where you squint at a Velvet Scoter for far longer than is actually necessary because you feel that its eye patch is just that little bit bigger than other Velvet Scoters whereas actually it isn't at all as you find again and again when you latch on to another Velvet Scoter to confirm your suspicions and then can't distinguish the bird you were just looking at in the first place. All part of the fun, and whilst doing this I found two Surf Scoters. These are easy, you just scan through Common and Velvet Scoters until you see a Coot preening. A Coot!? It can't be! And of course it isn't, its just the rear neck view of a Surfie, they have this stand-out white patch that in your fevered Velvet Scoter state you think is a Coot's shield.

Not a Coot after all.

I was probably about a mile and a half down the beach, ie.. a lot of prior scanning, when I came across a decent group of Velvets. Within this group was a bird I kept returning to as it had a genuinely obviously larger white eye patch that really stood out. When I first saw it I immediately lost it for about thirty minutes, but every time I subsequently latched on to it I became more certain. It was quite subtle, really not as different as I had been expecting. It had very dark brown flanks as opposed to the jet black of the other birds, and the bill definitely had an extra lump in it when compared to a normal Velvet Scoter, with less clean bill visible, and that there was appeared a pinkier colour (Velvets = yellow) with a distinctive paler band at the top when viewed head on. I became more and more convinced this was my target, and set out to deliberately lose it to see if I could reliably pick it just on these features alone. I was soon able to pick it time and time again and had some decent and prolonged views. Views which I have completely failed to translate into worthy images. You may just have to trust me on this one! I don't think I'd go as far as to claim it as self-found, however it certainly didn't feel like twitching.

I was at the beach for about five hours all told, though I think I first set eyes on it after about two and a half. It then took that time again to convince myself I wasn't imagining it and get a tolerable photo. Throughout that time I saw one other person, a birder leaving the beach without a White-winged Scoter, though it is possible he may have seen the same bird I was struggling with. The supporting cast was very decent indeed, with gazillions of Eider, Common Scoter, probably 300 Velvet Scoter, 2 Surf ScotersMergansers, Gannets, Terns, Gulls and a few Red-throated Divers. A grand day out and exactly what I had been hoping for as entertainment. A veritable needle in a haystack but I had found it. That warm glow from a job well done started to wash over me, and to celebrate I had a banana for lunch. On the way back to the car I went over the Eiders a few times in the hope of finding a King Eider but it wasn't to be, and needing to back in Fife for supper I bade farewell to the ever-profitable Murcar and Blackdog, and headed south. Played-for and got; I have not restarted twitching!



  1. You were on Royzah's patch! You should have called in for a cup of tea! Although he was seawatching on my patch at the time!

  2. Welcome to the world of twitching in the last millenium