Sunday 29 December 2013

Festive birding 28th December 2013

The minute I published my previous post I knew in my bones that something would happen to confound me and make me look foolish. This duly happened on Thursday 26th December when news broke that a 'strange guillemot' that had been frequenting Portland Harbour for a few days prior to Boxing Day had finally been identified as no longer a 'strange guillemot' after all but a Brunnich's Guillemot, an extreme rarity, way south of it's normal winter range in northern Scandinavia and a much desired bird for any self respecting birder to see. If they do occur in the UK they are almost unheard of away from the far north of Scotland, Shetland being a favourite location if they wander and often those that are found soon succumb.This one I believe was the forty third to be found in the UK

So you can imagine the stir this one made as, for once, it was readily and reasonably accessible, on the mainland of the UK and apparently in robust health. Many plans, I am certain, were laid the length and breadth of Britain and families abandoned as birders made their way as fast as possible to Portland Harbour. Heroically I resisted the urge and remained at home to comply with family festivities and frankly I felt the better for it. If I had upped sticks and gone immediately I would only feel guilty and not have enjoyed the experience as much as I should. So Thursday and Friday were out and I made plans to go on Saturday which in itself was fortuitous as the weather conditions on Friday were very bad with high winds, making viewing an auk on the sea difficult to say the least. Saturday's forecast bode much better with light winds and only the occasional shower to contend with.

I contacted Terry, Badger, Clackers and Andy without delay. Terry was keen to go, Badger decided to drive down from his family Christmas get together in Lincolnshire that very night and then return the next night, Clackers confirmed he was also ready and willing whilst Andy decided to remain at his family home in Suffolk. We were set to go at 5.30am on Saturday, meeting Terry at Badger's home and Terry would make the three hour drive with us in his car to Portland. I went to bed early but as usual sleep eluded me as the pending excitement of Saturday was just too much to contain. Finally I drifted off. My personal start tomorrow would be at 4.30am from my home to get to Badger's house via collecting Clackers on the way. Getting on for 1am and my mobile pings a text alert. 'What the.......?'  Clackers. A text advising that he could not make it due to food poisoning and was as he spoke suffering the awful consequences. I was now wide awake again. Oh well. I lay there in a semi comatose state half sleeping half awake. I got up at four. Had I been asleep? It did not feel like it. Downstairs for a quick slice of toast and tea before departure. How are England doing in the cricket? I turned on the TV. Sky brought the inevitable news of yet another England batting collapse. I turned the TV off, tried to forget about the cricket and headed off into a cold Cotswold night, the car slipping slightly on the icy country roads. 

Terry and Badger were ready and waiting when I arrived so with a quick transfer of all my gear into Terry's car we were away and back into the night. Few cars were around at this early hour as we drove south into the enveloping darkness. I tried to remain awake but it was hopeless and I nodded off, waking and dozing at intervals on the journey and finally coming to my senses as we approached Weymouth with dawn just breaking. We were soon at the designated area around Portland Harbour and drew up in a car park where we could see other birders that were already getting set to look for the Brunnich's Guillemot. It was cold and windy as we left the car, not as forecast. The ghost of Michael Fish hung in the air. We scanned the bay. A Little Egret flew low, showing startlingly white in the dull light and against the steel grey sea. A distant Guillemot brought a flurry of excitement. The cold wind made my sleepy eyes water. Then the pager advised that the Brunnich's Guillemot had already been seen this very morning but further along between the Castle and the Aqua Centre by the Marina. We were in the wrong car park and the wrong place! 

Hurriedly we got back into the car and off we went the short distance required. We took a wrong turning. Wrong direction. A rapid U turn and back onto the right road and then making a left turn we quickly came to an enormous car park that was free, yes free, in Portland! Crammed with birders and cars, everyone with a quiet purpose to their actions. We made our way rapidly to the adjacent promenade cum sea wall that skirted around yet another area of cold sea between the Castle and the Marina.

This whole area was comprised of very new and modern buildings, doubtless a legacy of last year's Olympics, ( the sailing competition was held in nearby Weymouth) with the huge modern glass structure of the Aqua Centre at the end of the promenade. There were already many birders present. Some were relaxed having just seen the Brunnich's, others like us, newly arrived, desperately running as fast as they could to catch up with the auk which was diving repeatedly, swimming parallel with the promenade and heading inexorably into the distance towards the Aqua Centre. 

The Brunnich's was only ever on the surface of the sea briefly before diving, moving fast underwater and coming up many metres away. It was every one for themself. I met Paul, also from Oxford and a good friend. An instant dilemna. I must say hello but desperately wanted to see the auk. Good manners prevailed and I stopped. 'Hi Paul. Have you seen it' Yes mate, it's heading off that way.' He pointed in the direction birders were running. 'See you in a minute' I gasped and ran off after the birders and the auk. I passed grown men, lugging scopes and cameras who looked like they had not had any exercise in many years but had now cast off the years of bodily abuse and were attempting to run to get ahead of where they anticipated the Brunnich's would surface. The Fat Lady may sing but the fat birders around me running to catch up with an auk had no breath left to speak let alone sing. I saw the back end of the Brunnich's Guillemot distantly and very briefly by the Aqua Centre before it dived and then it completely disappeared. Not a sign of it. I could only assume it had disappeared in amongst the millions of pounds worth of yachts moored along the pontoons in the Marina. A strictly no go area for birders.

Tiredness does not help the thought process but eventually, standing in mute frustration, I got it together to think matters through. I walked back to where I had met Paul. All the previous reports from Thursday onwards said that the area of sea I was looking at was it's favourite place. I deduced I had two options; stand here and wait for it to turn up again or rely on other birders finding it and alerting us. Either way it was best to just stand still and wait which I duly did. Many others caught up in the dual clasp of anxiety and uncertainty wearied themselves by following the crowd moving back and fore along the promenade in response to presumed sightings of the Brunnich's Guillemot which were consistently erroneous.  Badger and Terry had been lost in the crowd but this often happens to us at events such as this and we always find each other eventually. Hugh, another colleague who was spending Christmas at his parents in Taunton stood next to me. We had not noticed each other. Via text last night he had arranged to meet me here. 'Hugh it's me!' I said as I recognised him. 'I tried to call you twice this morning' he told me. 'Sorry my phone's ring tone has given up'. 

We teamed up, chatted and whilst waiting for the Brunnich's to show up again did a bit of quiet birding of the sea before us, standing and pointing out to each other the various species that came into view. Two Great Northern Divers swam into sight, grey bulky hulks low in the water, heavy and ponderous in movement but yet, still graceful. Flotillas of spiky headed Red breasted Mergansers, were scattered across the sea, frenziedly fishing and courting, each group diving and surfacing in synchronicity. Three Black throated Divers, to my mind the most elegant and evenly proportioned of their genus flew over us, then circling, as if thinking better of it, flew back out to sea and a Sparrowhawk incongruously flew, distantly, across the open sea. A Razorbill surfaced. Best of all we found the wintering Black Guillemot that has been here for some weeks. Immature Shags, fearless, swam within metres of us, diving and fishing and giving great photo opportunities.

It was stimulating to find all these birds but still the Brunnich's remained elusive. The promenade cum sea wall fortunately allowed the huge number of birders to scatter along it so everyone could view, unobstructed, the area of sea before us. By now there must have been over 400 birders ranged along the sea wall with more arriving every minute. A phalanx of green and beige formed a wall of humanity as far as you could see.The optical and camera equipment present must have run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds but still no Brunnich's.

I recognised other birders I had seen at other twitches. Some are familiar enough to be on speaking terms others just familiar faces. I am sure it was the same for many others present. A Grey Heron floated over the sea and joined some Shags and Cormorants roosting on an arm of the Marina. The wind had died away. It was now quite pleasant and the sun had risen enough to bathe everything in a golden light. The crowd away to our left by the Aqua Centre stirred, arms pointed, scopes swung to point in one direction. Other birders around us ran off in that direction. I looked in my bins and there was the Brunnich's Guillemot precisely where I had seen it disappear much earlier.There was now a big scrum of birders opposite it. An elbow job. I was too tired for this. Hugh and I remained where we were, now with much more space around us, vacated by anxious birders. The Brunnich's appeared to be slowly coming towards us, close in to the sea wall. If we remained here we would get a grandstand view as it passed us rather than we run around breathlessly as so many others were doing in their anxiety to see and photograph it, and, that is precisely what happened.

It surfaced after one of it's dives almost opposite us.

A typical auk, dull sooty black above and white below. Unlike the winter plumaged Razorbills and Guillemots it's head was entirely black apart from a dull white line running along the bottom half of the upper mandible and a thin line in the feathers, barely discernible, curving down each side of it's head behind the eye. It's chin was grizzled white but the rest of the neck was dull brownish black. A thin white line bordered the outer edge of the inner wing. Slightly bigger than a Razorbill with a short pointed bill it gave an impression of solidity as it sat with wings slightly akimbo, resting them on the sea. The reason for this became apparent as it dived, using the half opened wings to propel itself underwater.

It dived once more and this time we did move, fast to our right, trying to anticipate where it would surface. It really was a game, with droves of birders overtaking others as we progressed leap frog fashion down the promenade but the the effort was well worth it. We got fabulous views as it fished close in. Then it started to move back the way it came and the whole leap frog process was repeated in reverse.We arrived back at our original point and the auk now remained on the surface preening and washing.

Two red, sea going rowing boats crewed, one by men and one by ladies, left the Marina and passed within inches of the auk. It hardly moved when the laughing ladies passed by, oars flashing, but the men's boat came on a collision course and the auk unseen by the crew members was forced to make a crash dive to avoid the blade of an oar.

We relaxed. Half an hour watching the Brunnnich's brought to an end the initial adrenalin rush and a soothing calm took control of our senses.The auk drifted further out into the Marina and we watched as it moved up and down before us, repeatedly diving and surfacing.

The others joined us and we enquired of each other how we got on. Terry did well with his camera as did Badger with his video. The light was terrible for photography but I was reasonably happy with what I had managed to achieve. It is always important that everyone gets their desired result and there is an unwritten understanding amongst us that no one goes anywhere until we are all satisfied with our images, video, sightings or whatever. The comradeship of birding with friends is just as important and as vital a part of the process as seeing the bird

It was now eleven o clock. We had been here for three hours. A discussion ensued as to whether we would stay in the general area and go look for other birds in some nearby locations. Hugh opted to remain and go and look for an Iceland Gull that had been seen nearby yesterday. I was equivocal as was Terry but Badger decided the issue by stating he would quite like to see the White billed Diver that was currently inhabiting Brixham Harbour. Poor Terry, but without complaint he cheerfully drove us another eighty miles west to Brixham, through two driving rain storms and where we arrived just as the rain ceased.

Brixham Harbour containing three species of diver
The wind had now dropped entirely and we parked at the start of the long concrete breakwater that enclosed the western side of Brixham Harbour. The breakwater was already occupied by some twenty to thirty birders presumably with the same idea as us, plus some bemused locals out for a constitutional.

Birders on Brixham Breakwater looking at the White billed Diver
We walked out and initially could see nothing. Then a dark diver shape surfaced distantly amongst the scattered boats in the harbour. The White billed Diver, it's huge bill gleaming white in the weak sun. I cannot describe adequately the sheer bulk and enormity of that upturned bill. It really is enormous with, consequently, a large head necessary to balance it. The diver was an adult in winter plumage. It was too far out for any reasonable chance of a good photo and constantly played a game of hide and seek as it dived and resurfaced amongst the boats.

Underwater it would cover fair distances and would surface in totally unexpected places, it's grey brown plumage at times blending with the similar coloured sea and rendering it hard to pick out. Initially it rarely remained on the surface longer than a few seconds but as time passed it would remain on the surface for longer so we all got good scope views. Another lifer for Terry. It still, however, remained well out of decent camera range. Two Black throated Divers, fortunately, came much closer to the breakwater and we moved down opposite them. This was much better, and we happily clicked away with our cameras.  An adult and a juvenile, they remained in close formation, swimming, diving and surfacing almost in unison. The adult even called as, later, so did a Great Northern Diver, a really strange, surreal sound very much out of place amongst the boats and the buildings surrounding the harbour.

Black throated Divers with juvenile in front and adult calling behind
The White billed Diver came closer, and closer and yet closer to the breakwater. We hurried down towards the seaward end of the breakwater. It dived. Where would it come up? There! We moved rapidly even further down the breakwater. It dived again. Now where? Bingo! There it was right in front of us and very close. It remained there diving and surfacing repeatedly at short intervals. I noted how, at times, it could submerge it's body so the head and neck appeared to be detached from the body.

It seemed to have found a small shoal of fish and was joined by a Black headed Gull. Terry and I sat on the wall taking photos. Badger went into overdrive with his video. This was such incredible luck. Many of the other birders had departed. Our patience had well and truly been rewarded. It lasted all of ten minutes but that was enough. The diver went under again and re-surfaced back out in the middle of the harbour. Show over but it did not matter now. We had some excellent pictures and video and were very happy, very very happy.

Now came the time every twitcher recognises when the desires and anxieties are sated and you enter a state of grace and, totally relaxed, go looking at anything that takes your fancy. Badger and Terry went down to the end of the breakwater to photograph a Black Guillemot fishing off the end. Six or seven Purple Sandpipers roosted on the rocks, a couple of ridiculously tame Turnstones ran along the sea wall and a Rock Pipit flew up and over the same sea wall .

I looked out to sea from the wall and dotted around on the flat calm sea amongst the many Shags were upwards of twenty Great Northern Divers. A couple of distant Gannets flew around and then a small but very distant duck surfaced next to an orange buoy. I turned the zoom lens of my scope onto maximum and found myself looking at a female or immature Long Tailed Duck. I called to Terry and Badger and they saw it too. A good ending to the day or was it? 

Well no, as with still some daylight left, we drove round to nearby Broadsands to look at a well known location for Cirl Buntings, adjacent to the car park. We were not disappointed as upwards of ten Cirl Buntings were feeding on the seed put out for them under the bushes.The majority were males but they were joined by a few females, some Chaffinches, a couple of Dunnocks and a female Reed Bunting.

Male Cirl Bunting (lower image c Terry Sherlock)
A restored Great Western tank engine huffed and chuffed it's way across a viaduct behind us with coaches full of trippers, recalling a bygone age. It was that kind of a day

A quick look in the scrub and wet ditches surrounding the back of the car park looked unpromising but with a little persistence we found a Siberian ChiffChaff, it's milky coffee coloured upperparts and almost white underparts ghostly in the failing light. A Water Rail squealed from the ditch. Hugh sent a text. He had found an adult Glaucous Gull at Portland.

What a day! A four hundred mile round trip but in all our estimations well worth it. It's not often we all get a lifer but today we did. Terry got two but he richly deserved them for heroically doing the driving for which I offer grateful thanks as I am sure does Badger - but please no more megas before the New Year!


  1. Wonderful ! Topped off with "the ghost of Michael Fish hung in the air" Yeah that is so good.
    The Oxon Feather.

  2. Another really excellent write-up Ewan.......