Tuesday, 5 July 2016

American White-winged Scoter, Murcur, Aberdeenshire - 2nd July 2016

Britain's third accepted White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi), and really fine bird in a lovely part of the country, via an enjoyable twitch with @Cleckbirder and @DarraghHudson.

American White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi), Murcur, Aberdeenshire
Saturday 2nd July 2016

I say Britain's third, but Ireland also had one in County Kerry in 2011. Then there's the subspecies to think about. This bird (and the previous record at the same site in 2011) is an American White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi deglandi), or if you prefer, just plain White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi). The 2011 Irish bird and another at Musselburgh, Scotland in 2013, were Asian White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri), or if you prefer, Stejneger's Scoter (Melanitta stejnegeri). I hope that's clear. If not, here's a great primer on White-winged Scoter taxonomy from the late, great Martin Garner on Birding Frontiers.

This bird was first noted on 25th June 2016, a Saturday, allowing quite a few people to connect over the first weekend. It was in a large flock of mostly Common Scoter, with lots of Velvet Scoter and a few Common Eider mixed in, plus a Surf Scoter. Fortunately, the flock stayed faithful to the area off Murcur golf course all week, prompting the early start (well, late on Friday).

 Some of the mixed Scoter flock
We arrived on site around 05:15, and the conditions were perfect: mild temperature, sunshine but with light cloud, and negligible wind. We joined approximately seven other birders on the dunes, with the scoter flock spread out on the water in front of us - maybe up to 1500 birds. I set up my scope, and looked out. At the back of the very first group of c15 scoters I looked at was a larger bird, with a large white 'tick' mark around the eye, and a big white wing patch. It clearly differed from the Velvet Scoters around it. Eh, could this be it?! The bill had the restricted coloured tip to the upper mandible, which was pinkish (red/orange) rather rather yellow on the Velvet Scoter.

I needed to compare it with the Velvet Scoters in the wider flock, so I moved my scope away form the bird and back again. Each time, I realised the bird at the back looked different and matched the images and description of deglandi White-winged Scoter I'd researched over the previous couple of days. Of course, with all this moving around of my scope, I lost the bird! I couldn't say, "I just saw it, but can't point it out now".  Also, I wasn't confident enough about the ID to shout it out - I'd not seen one before - so I mumbled something about an "interesting bird somewhere at the back, drifting right" to my neighbours. Within a few minutes a birder near me said he had it, and pointed everyone to the area at the back of the flock, to where my bird would have drifted to by then. Yes, it was the same bird I'd seen, and yes, it was the White-winged Scoter. Sigh... If only I had the guts to say out loud what I knew inside.

 Spot the American White-winged Scoter...

Well, it was great to see it, and have it confirmed, and to know (if only internally) that I could pick the bird out independently.

My American White-winged Scoter notes

We moved up the coast to view from further north, avoiding looking directly into the sun. The bird showed very well from here, and the three of us each picked it out as we scanned the flock for a Surf Scoter. The brown/grey flanks of the White-winged Scoter showed well in the sun, compared with the solid black Velvet Scoters, and bird came close enough for us to appreciate the unique bill knob shape.

 The "crowd" by around 9:00am

Starlings, Murcur, Bridge of Don, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

There were a few other birds around: Curlew, Oystercatcher and Bar-tailed Godwit on the beach, Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Eiders in with the scoter flock, Pied Wagtails, Yellowhammers and Skylarks on the golf course, and the odd Gannet and Sandwich Tern flying past. But, Ythan Estuary was just up the coast, with its tern colonies and regular King Eider, so we gave up the Surf Scoter search and headed there.

 Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

Ythan Estuary is a nice site, especially when it's quiet. We scanned all the Eider we could see, but could not see a King Eider. At the river mouth, the Atlantic Grey Seals were making their mournful calls, and several swam up close to us out of curiosity. Cormorants were drying their wings and more Common Eiders flew in as the tide rose.

Atlantic Grey Seals, Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

Away from the river mouth were the tern colonies, with Common, Arctic, Sandwich and Little Tern all present. The best opportunity I'd had this year to reacquaint myself with these species.

Lion's Mane Jellyfish, Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire - Saturday 2nd July 2016

A great trip, with good company, good birds, and a top-notch lifer too. That takes my British list 396.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Great Knot, Titchwell, Norfolk - Thursday 16th June 2016

A quick blog about the Great Knot at Titchwell RSPB, and my hasty trip to see it.

Great Knot is a rare bird in the UK, with only four previous records (plus one in the Republic of Ireland). It breeds in north-east Siberia, Russia, wintering principally in Australia and New Zealand, but also throughout South-East Asia and along the coast of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. North Korea, South Korea and China have some very important migration refueling sites.

The last occurrence of Great Knot in the UK was as recently as 13-15th July 2014, at Breydon Water  in Suffolk. I remember it well - Breydon Water  that is, not the bird. I went on the 16th and stared at an empty expanse of mud for hours... The arrival of this year's bird was a brilliant opportunity to get this one back - a chance I thought I'd lost. The bird was first reported at 13:00 on 15th June, and I headed down to Titchwell from work at lunchtime on 16th, the earliest I could.

The Great Knot was with a large Red Knot flock. Find that flock and the bird should be obvious, being taller and darker. I parked up in the car park at Titchwell RSPB, and as I was getting my stuff out of the boot, a leg fell off my scope's tripod. Um, I now had a bipod. Ah well.

I was told the flock was currently on the beach, and headed there. At the end of the boardwalk birders told me to head east for 500m, towards the small crowd of twitchers. There was sea fret and I couldn't see 100m. Into the unknown then, at a running pace, though I hoped the mist would help keep the birds in place.

And they did - the flock was on the shoreline; and there, in the middle at the back, was the sleeping Great Knot. In the scope the coppery mantle, flecked with black, white and grey, stood out brilliantly - looking no unlike a roosting Turnstone. Occasionally the Red Knots would shift around as a wave encroached, but the Great Knot seemed more relaxed (or perhaps, more tired). I wondered if the bird's longer legs meant it was less concerned my the rising tide. Now and again the Great Knot would show its dark face with its darker eye. The bill was clearly longer in relation to the Red Knots, and the bird's size - bigger and taller, though in part due to its longer legs - and more rounded body were the obvious first impressions.

First view of the Great Knot on Titchwell beach - Thursday 16th June 2016

The flock flew after I'd had around 20 minutes on the bird, breaking into sub-groups. News came through it was back on the freshmarsh, so we all headed inland, including the breathless group who'd arrived seconds too late to see it on the deck.

The Red Knot flock, with the Great Knot takes flight on Titchwell beach
Thursday 16th June 2016

The light was still poor from beside the Parrinder hide on the reserve, but at least the mist was thinner. The Knot flock had settled on the sand bar, in among the Black-tailed Godwits, Avocets and Oystercatchers. The Great Knot clearly wanted to sleep some more and kept its position while the Red Knots around it shifted their positions every now and again. I got prolonged views of the bird's rotund body, with its spotted breast and flanks, and its patchy-plumaged mantle. I also had a few good view of the face  and neck, enough to scribble the most basic sketch, but not (with the dull light and distance) enough to get a decent photo.

Great Knot in the crowd, Titchwell RSPB - Thursday 16th June 2016

Avocets mating as the Great Knot pretends not to notice - Thursday 16th June 2016

Great Knot notes - Thursday 16th June 2016

I drove home mostly in glorious sunshine. There were occasional dark clouds, some carrying rain, others carrying ominous exhortations to "take our country back". The EU referendum was a week away, and Norfolk's roads were littered with posters encouraging us to sabotage our nation for the sake of ...what? I don't know, but all the wrong people were happy with the result a week later...

People, what have we done?