Friday, 30 September 2016

Brünnich's Guillemot, Anstruther, Fife - Monday 26th September 2016

Brünnich's Guillemot, Anstruther, Fife - Monday 26th September 2016

An interesting (if not controversial) bird, originally found on Sunday 25th September. It was still there on Monday morning, and the photos were looking promising to me (after some initial disquiet on Bird Forum and Twitter about some pale feathers on the face), so I took the afternoon off work and headed up.

When I arrived on the quayside I noticed a group of six birders on the end of the pier. I headed towards them, figuring they must be on the bird at close range; but I noticed an auk species down in the water not far from where I was stood. It was the Brünnich's Guillemot, not eight metres away, snoozing while drifting towards the beach. Clearly it had floated away from everyone and they were waiting for it to float back rather than chasing it.

Brünnich's Guillemot, Anstruther, Fife - Monday 26th September 2016

It was nice opportunity to note down some of the bird's features: It was a large, tubby bird, stouter than a Common Guillemot. The uppers were dark, mostly a dark slate-black but with a hint of brown, plus a few feathers with some pale fringes. The bill had an obvious pale tip, and was short, thick and rounded compared with a Common Guillemot's (Brünnich's Guillemots are also called Thick-billed Murres; whereas Common Guillemots are also called Thick-billed, or Common, Murres).

The head shape might not have been strikingly Brünnich's-like, but I understand the peaked forehead tends to be rounder during autumn/winter. Still, it didn't look as sleek as a Common Guillemot. The plumage on the head formed a dark hood over the eyes, with some white-fringed feathers behind the eye (more obvious on the right side). The white feathering on the lower part of the face extended in a thin line over the top of the bill. The bill had a thin white lateral stripe, more noticeable on the left side of the bill.

The underparts were pure white, except for a yellow are on the belly (possibly due to oiling?). The flanks were unstreaked, and when the bird was wing-stretching I could see the white sides extended up and on to the back. It had a mottled dark neck ring, and the white on the breast extended up to the chin in an obvious peak.The underwings looked white, including the axillaries, but it was difficult to be certain because of the heavy moult (the feathers looked quite waterlogged).

Brünnich's Guillemot, Anstruther, Fife - Monday 26th September 2016

I had a chat with others on the end of the pier. They'd all prolonged close views earlier, nearer the harbour mouth and hadn't moved as the bird had, so I wasn't missing something. Later I met Geoff Morgan (@morgithology) and we talked through the ID features of the bird. We both seemed happy enough. We also both noticed a couple of stray feathers came off the bird while it preened in front of us, each picked one out of the water - Geoff is sending these to Martin Collinson in Aberdeen for DNA analysis.

I hung around until it was very nearly dark, with only a couple of other birders hanging around to the last. Unfortunately, the bird was found dead on the morning of Friday 30th September. There were a few clues which suggested it was unwell. It sat ridiculously high in the water at times, looking very bloated. Although it did use it's both its legs, it mostly used the left leg, and it had a list over to the right. The feathers looked in terrible condition - perhaps the bird had been oiled, which may also explain the yellow patch on the belly. Sad to hear of its demise. Martin Collinson now has the whole corpse to analyse...

 Anstruther Harbour, Fife - Monday 26th September 2016

I'd dipped the last twitchable Brünnich's Guillemot, at Portland harbour on New Year's Day 2014 - and that was probably the hardest dip I'd ever had. That bird was found on Boxing Day 2013, and was still present as the sun went down on New Year's Eve, so the odds on it still being present were pretty good...

The early start and long drive on 1st January wasn't pleasant, but it was the coming back empty-handed that was really disheartening. But, simply missing the bird wasn't why it was so hard to take. I'd put off going earlier in the week because we'd had family and friends staying, and New Year's Day was the first day of the holidays it was just me, my wife, and the kids in the house. Instead of spending that precious quality time with them, I'd gone on some fool's errand to not see a bird on the south coast. I had six-hour journey home to beat myself up about it and get some perspective. I still twitch, obviously, but I'm more thoughtful now, and always prioritise time with the kids.

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