Monday 22 November 2021

The Little Auk at Weymouth 21st November 2021

My encounters with Little Auks have been reasonably frequent over the years.I have seen them flying over the North Sea, passing various seawatching points on the east coast such as in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. I have also, less frequently, encountered them from the Sussex coast, flying up the English Channel in winter and more memorably, once swimming around the rocks at the end of Newhaven West Pier and even one in summer plumage on the sea at nearby Seaford, also in Sussex, one May morning. Happy days.

They are tiny birds, about the size of a Starling, a miniature of their larger cousins, Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots but similar in appearance with a plumage of black and white, a black cap encompassing an eye highlighted by a narrow semi circular eyebrow of white. The contours of a squat body; blunt of head, short of neck and with a stubby conical bill present a pleasing image to my eye.They are unmistakeable and charismatic too, coming as they do from the high Arctic where they breed in their millions in the cracks and crannies of high cliffs rarely visited by man. Normally they spend their winter out at sea in northern parts of the Atlantic but winter gales result in numbers getting blown further south into the North Sea.This is a regular occurrence in November and is what brings them to Britain's shores in varying numbers each year.

Some end up much further south and occasionally one arrives in the most unexpected of places such as the individual that has been present at Weymouth in Dorset  since last Sunday and has been attracting a lot of attention from birders as opportunities to see one so close as this are rare indeed.

It was exactly a week ago that the Little Auk was discovered at Weymouth's waterfront, frequenting the outer reaches of the River Wey, where it flows between the historic and attractive surrounds of Weymouth's Outer Harbour. As is often the case with such lost individuals it was oblivious to humans, showing more anxiety about the larger gulls, which would swallow it whole if given the chance.

The Outer Harbour

Reports during the week indicated that the auk ranged quite widely between the Lifeboat Station at the further reaches of the Outer Harbour all the way upriver past the Town Bridge to the Inner Harbour where there is a large marina containing many expensive yachts and pleasure cruisers.Consequently it could prove very elusive, spending a lot of time underwater or underneath the many moored vessels in the marina. Its appearances were sporadic and you just had to be lucky enough to be in the right spot to see it when it surfaced somewhere that allowed a view of it. In other words a bit of a nightmare to pin down but birders are forever optimistic and it seemed that, given patience, it would eventually allow decent views.

Hope springs eternal they say, so I called Mark (P) yesterday and suggested we go and try to see it to which he readily agreed as he had never seen a Little Auk.We agreed to meet at my house at 6.30am on Sunday and Mark kindly agreed to drive us to Weymouth, a journey of around two and half hours.

Setting off in the dark we headed south into a breaking dawn that promised good weather as the clouds of night receded to reveal an orange glow in the distance as the sun broke the horizon. We chatted the miles away and made good time, our spirits were raised when a report came through at 8.30am that the Little Auk had been seen near the slipway in the marina. Arriving in the heart of an already busy Weymouth at 9am, we parked on the western side of the Outer Harbour in a pay and display car park.

Mark had already seen  two birders making their way  along the Outer Harbour wall and we followed them, passing the Town Bridge  and shortly after joined a surprisingly large number of birders spread along the wall, standing and looking out at the water and not very much else. Obviously this was where the auk was considered most likely to be seen.

I was unsure what to expect.

Would the Little Auk just pop up randomly and unexpectedly - and if so, where?

Would we have to wait for some while until it was located as previous reports had indicated? 

My answer came literally minutes later as someone said 'What's that?' pointing out to the middle of the harbour. There, attended by an inquisitive Black headed Gull was the Little Auk! 

How lucky was that?

It was slightly upriver and I ran back along the wall to get level with it as it floated on the water. This gave the opportunity for some photographs, as it had stopped feeding and was concentrating on some feather maintenance.The bird remained in mid river and I found myself taking many images as the tiny bird floated amongst the reflections from the coloured boats moored behind it. It was all quite arty as corrugated swirls of gold and blue formed by the rippling water created a pleasing backdrop to the tiny black and white bird. Not classic images by any means but rather gratifying from my point of view as they were different from most of the other images that have appeared on social media this last week and trust me there have been quite a few!

Birders seemed to appear from everywhere as word of the auk's presence spread rapidly through our ranks, many more birders than had been apparent when we arrived. Presumably they had been scattered further along the seawall in both directions looking for the auk. It preened for a few minutes and then swam purposefully straight towards us, coming closer and closer until it was right below me. 

I stood looking over and down and watched as it swam right alongside the wall, then submerged and was gone. Everyone stood about waiting and hoping it would quickly re-appear but it didn't. 

For some time we stood around, all of us wondering what to do, waiting, convinced the auk would soon be re-located but it wasn't. Half an hour passed and we had no sign  of it so went to the nearby Town Bridge and looked over both sides, upriver and downriver but there was still no sign. People crossing the bridge stopped, bemused by all the birders lined across the bridge, asking what was going on.

We explained about the Little Auk.

We wandered around the Outer and Inner Harbours becoming familiar with parts of Weymouth that I had never been to before. Eventually everyone congregated on the slipway in the Inner Harbour where  the auk had been seen first thing this morning. Some wag had scrawled Little Auk This Way on the wall. If only.

It was seen again, dodging in and out of the many hugely expensive craft in the marina but each time was only seen for seconds before it dived again. Little Auks can travel phenomenal distances underwater and after we had seen it in the Outer Harbour it had obviously travelled a considerable way underwater to arrive in the Inner Harbour. The other huge problem in locating it was the many craft and landing stages it could disappear under and the fact it liked to remain close to the harbour walls when it briefly surfaced.

The hours passed and by mid afternoon the wind had become increasingly chilly but the sun still shone.We never saw the auk again.We came tantalisingly close on occasions but it became clear that we would have to be content with our lucky encounter this morning.

I am not complaining as many did not see it at all.

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