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.

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