Thursday, 14 March 2013

Harlequin Duck and other northern delights

The drake Harlequin Duck is familiar to all birders. Or rather, pictures of drake Harlequin Ducks are familiar to all birders. Every keen young birdwatcher, member of the YOC, and owner of The Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain (or The Encyclopaedia of Birds magazine series, in my case), would have drooled over the images of the exotic Harlequin, wondering if they’d ever see one. Maybe a captive bird at Martin Mere WWT. Or Slimbridge perhaps? But in the wild in the UK...? Surely not...

The chance for me came when a drake was reported from North Uis on 18th February, and stuck around long enough for me to get my act together and go. This meant working my backside off to clear all my urgent jobs, getting my boss to let me have a day off, and getting my wife to agree to me disappear with our car for 48hrs.

I failed to hitch a lift with anyone else, and couldn’t persuade my friends to take sickies, so I set off just after midnight on Thursday 1st March. I enjoyed the night-time drive up, and the starry sky looked absolutely perfect - perfect for a duck wanting to migrate, I wondered…

I got my first Scottish year-tick (Hooded Crow) at Kyle of Lochalsh, before taking the ferry from Uig (Skye) to Lochmaddy. There was nothing of note in Uig harbour, but Eider, Shag, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Kittiwake, and a around seven Harbour Porpoise on the way over were nice. There may well have been other delights, but I had to have a nap below decks before I drove any further.

We (the other 20 or so fellow ferry-passenger twitchers and I) arrived at Balranald RSPB by 12:00 and after a very brief pause to view a first winter Glaucous Gull, we got to the rocks and were immediately on to the Harlequin. 

It was obviously a drake, remembered from those dusty old books, but the muted colours of plumage confirmed the age as a first-winter. Beautiful nonetheless. The white sickle shape before the eye and the spot behind the ear coverts were clear with the naked eye. The striped head and lovely red/bronze/chestnut flanks looked great through the scope. Bizarrely, it seemed to struggle to keep on the rocks, getting washed off each time a big wave came and scrabbling back on in the most clumsily teenage manner.

 A crap, digiscoped shot of the Harlequin Duck - Balranald, North Uist, Friday 1st March 2013

After an hour or so the fog rolled in. It took about 30 minutes to clear by which time many of the virders had moved on. Under cover of the fog the Harlequin had moved to feed in the floating kelp near some rocks offshore. The plumage made sense now – it really was not easy to pick it out as is turned the kelp, ducking underneath and emerging a few feet away. I really enjoyed watching it feed, and shot possibly the worst video of this duck in an attempt to share the experience.

Waiting for the fog to clear

Ah well. A bit of a relief that the bird was still there in all honesty. Nothing to worry about, this long-distance twithing eh? Well, err, read this great account of twitcher’s recent woes.

After a brief with the Outer Hebs Bird Recorder, Brian Rabbit, I got chatting with some birders from Leicestershire. I took up their generous offer of tagging along with them for the rest of the day, and we were soon at Goular watching an Otter on the kelp-strewn rocks.

We scanned the Barnacle Goose flocks for the reported Richardson’s Canada Goose, to no avail. Each of the small water bodies around here had Whopper Swans, Icelandic Greylag Goose, plenty of Lapwing. The larger Loch Sanndaraigh at Paibeil had a female Ring-necked Duck – a great learning experience for me, having only seen males previously. A pair of Greenland White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons flavirostris) were on the far bank – another new taxon for me, having only seen European (A. a. albifrons) previously. The flavirostris looked noticeably darker than the albifrons I see in Norfolk each winter, and the black belly marks contrasted less with the darker belly.

We spent the remainder of the glorious afternoon scanning the machair. It was great to see the geese in large flocks, and to hear their evocative calls as they fly overhead. We had Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard, but the raptor of the day was Hen Harrier. A female quartering the road-side fields gave great views, with a cracking male a little further away on the machair.

I had a fantastic 11-hour sleep in a nice Lochmaddy B&B, and woke to another lovely morning on Saturday.

My main plan was find the errant geese I’d missed yesterday. I headed for the Paibeil area and checked in on Loch Sanndaraigh. The female Ring-necked Duck was still with the Tufties, and the two Greenland White-fronts. Two hours of looking through various Barnacle Goose flocks followed – not an unpleasant way to pass the time. By then I couldn’t resist another look at the Harlequin. It was still in the same area, this time on the slack water just off shore. Still couldn’t a get a decent photo of it. I did manage to relocate the Glaucous Gull though – and get some acceptable (no better then that!) video.

First-winter Glaucous Gull - Balranald, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Friday 1st March 2013

Before getting heading for the ferry I checked around Baile Mor and fianally got the two Snow Goose, hanging out with some Greylags. I had a good chat with the owner of the farm. He told me of the Snowy Owl and Golden Eagles (Napoleon and Josephine!) he gets on his land, and the Corncrakes in his garden. He invited me to visit anytime and I may well be back there in May looking for Corncrake. Top bloke.

Snow Goose - Baile Mor, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Saturday 2nd March 2013

Someone got me on to a couple of distant Golden Eagles from Lochmaddy ferry car park (cheers fellas) and we were all treated to excellent views of an adult White-tailed Sea Eagle as it flew almost over the boat. A first-winter Iceland Gull circled the boat a few times not far off North Uist, and I got a Red-throated Diver near to Uig harbour as the sun set.

Sunset over Vaternish Point, Skye - Saturday 2nd March 2013

Phew. Great trip. Just the small matter of driving home (allowing me a few listens to the MBV album before their Manchester gig the following week). Home at 1am, relax, Pot Noodle, then bed. Like I said, great trip.


  1. More than a little envious. Any time spent in the Hebs is rewarding. As you say it is one of those birds you drool over when leafing through field guides.

    Strangely enough and very unexpectedly a neighbour presented me with a set of the magazine encyclopaedia. Cue nostalgia. I was at the newsagents every week.

    Happy days


  2. We've just had a Hebridean island hopping holiday, including two nights on North Uist overlooking Loch Sandary. Didn't see that much wildlife on account of driving rain and howling winds, but heartily recommend Struan House B&B at Knockintorran ( if you go up there again: the owner is a very keen birder.

    Hilary (Denham)