Thursday 8 January 2015

Tales from a Riverbank 5th-7th January 2015

A Harlequin Duck was found at a place called Seaton Park, beside the River Don in Aberdeen on the weekend of 3rd-4th of January and pictures of it on the internet appeared to demonstrate that it could be seen well and relatively easily compared to the one I saw on North Uist a few years ago, which was always a long way off on the sea. The bird in Aberdeen, like the one I saw on North Uist was a first year drake so sadly was not in the glorious blue plumage of an adult male but was brown and drab with just a few contrasting white bits.

This mattered not one jot as its rarity, the fact it was on the mainland and relatively approachable made it virtually irresistible. Having decided that I wanted to go and see it I called Clackers on Monday morning, presented my plan and asked whether he was up for a trip to the Far North, to which he assented and we decided there and then to go that very night. This was no hardship as a trip, no matter how brief, to Scotland, is always a cause for mild celebration and a lifting of the spirit.

Not only was there a Harlequin Duck at Aberdeen but there was also an equally obliging and tempting Ivory Gull at Uig on the Isle of Skye. With luck we could go and see this after we had seen the Harlequin Duck. Both would be lifers for Clackers. It all seemed so simple, so I booked a twin bedded room for us at the Glen Mhor Hotel in Inverness, roughly half way between Aberdeen and The Isle of Skye. The price was £59.00 including breakfast for the two of us. A real bargain.

At 10pm on Monday night we set off from Clacker's home in Witney, planning to drive steadily through the night and arrive nine hours later in Aberdeen, just as the dawn rose on Tuesday. I set the cruise control to sixty and we chatted as the miles receded, stopping a couple of times to refresh ourselves at the motorway services with a hot chocolate for me and something more substantial in the cake line for Clackers. After Manchester, much of the traffic died away and we had the motorway almost to ourselves, just sharing it with the lorries moving slowly north. We cleared Shap Fell, over 1000ft asl passing the huge isolated Shap Fell Quarry Limeworks lit up in the dark fells like some science fiction edifice and soon crossed the border, circumventing Glasgow on empty roads and then heading north towards Perth and Dundee. By the time we reached the outskirts of Aberdeen we were in the early morning commuting traffic. Everyone was in a hurry, lines of cars thronging the traffic lanes as we followed the Satnav directions to our destination of Seaton Park, located on the north side of the city, near to the Bridge of Don. Tired after the long night drive it was a struggle to cope with impatient motorists and the surging humanity of an awakening and busy city but eventually we found ourselves turning away from the streaming traffic and driving down a narrow cobbled street called The Chanonry which we believed led to Seaton Park and the River Don.

This part of Aberdeen was quite well to do, housing the University buildings and obviously a lot older than the rest of the city. The entrance to Seaton Park was guarded by the imposing and enormous St Machar's Church.

St Machar's Church
We parked by the church and with the morning still not yet light tried to work out where exactly the river was and how to get to it. After such a long drive it takes time to get mind and body  together and frankly we could not quite work out whether we were in the right place or not

A kindly lady walking her dog and noting our confusion pointed out the obvious gate into the park just by the church and also where we could park for free in front of the church. The Harlequin Duck had been reported as being on the river near an old disused toilet block in the park and we soon found this. Needless to say we did not find any sign of the duck on the river. Just incongruously a Common Seal swimming around, which might explain the absence of the duck that had been reported from here yesterday for most of the day, but latterly, in the afternoon, flew upstream and that was the last anyone had seen or heard of it.

As the light improved we found ourselves looking at a beautiful river almost in spate, with areas of white water where it tumbled over half submerged rocks. From my experience of seeing Harlequin Ducks in Iceland this looked just the kind of habitat that a Harlequin Duck would take to, but not today apparently.

Our expectations flagged more than a little at this point but then we walked the mile or so upstream to the location where it had flown to yesterday afternoon but there was no sign of it there. Another annoyance was the fact that it was impossible to follow the river bank consistently due to whole areas being sealed off for construction purposes.  So we had to make do with random sorties down to the riverbank where access was not barred. As befits this grey granite city, the morning had dawned cold and grey, whilst dark clouds loomed ominously before the rain inevitably came and our spirits sank even further. Cold, wet and now feeling thoroughly tired and drained we stoically went backwards and forwards, checking and re-checking all likely points we could reach on the river bank but the duck remained invisible. Inevitably doubts and despondency moved in and we contemplated the prospect of failure. 

We returned to Seaton Park and up to now had not seen another birder but here we met the friendly figure of John, familiar to us from previous twitches. He told us he had flown up from Nottingham and then taken a taxi from the airport to get here. He had been here, like us, since dawn. He told us the total cost for the flight and taxi was in the region of £400.00 and he had to catch a flight back at 1pm. Oh dear! It was not looking good for any of us but at least we had the whole day to look for the elusive duck. I suggested we take the car and drive a little way west and try and view the river from further upstream. It was a candle in the wind but at least it kept us active and hope springs eternal, as they say. John came with us in the car and the three of us found ourselves parked on a road high above the river, and looking down onto the river we saw two narrow bridges that crossed it, some three hundred metres apart. 

'Let's try here. You never know'.

We descended a steep and slippery track down to the first bridge. Alas there was no sign of the Harlequin Duck but many Common Goldeneye were feeding on the river, the drakes resplendent in their black and white plumage, bottle green heads and of course those piercing golden eyes. I counted a mixture of around fifty males and females in one flock plus a scattering of Goosanders, always a nice bird to see, the males almost glowing in the dull light with their pink flushed creamy white bodies. Dippers seemed to be everywhere, flying along over the river with their tzekk tzekk calls ringing out and even singing loudly above the roar of the grey, tumbling river water.

Male Goosander
We spent the entire morning checking and re-checking the areas the duck had been reported from and any other area we considered likely. It was wet and miserable work in the rain but we stuck at it, even going down to the river mouth on the coast to check there, but again failing comprehensively to find any sign of the missing Harlequin Duck. Other birders we met stopped to enquire whether we had seen it but we all came up blank. Time rolled on and finally the rain front moved off to be replaced by a brisk, cold, sunny day. It was looking final. We had dipped. No reports from RBA to bring any hope. Absolutely nothing. Total despair..

'Let's call it a day for now Clackers, we can drive to Peterhead and try and find some white winged gulls, then we can go onto the RSPB's Loch of Strathbeg and afterwards drive north along the coast to Inverness, birding as we go'. 

We bade farewell to John and drove some forty miles north from Aberdeen, through the rolling contours of rich farmland and then into the dour brown stone buildings of Peterhead. A major fishing port with a huge drug and alcohol problem, it was today deadly quiet with no trawlers unloading and consequently no gulls were around apart from the occasional ever optimistic Herring Gull.

We moved to the northern outskirts of the town and scoped the sea. Here we had some good fortune, finding a Great Northern Diver, a couple of Red throated Divers and many Common Eiders floating offshore. Shags flew back and fore and a small group of Golden Plover rested on the rocks. It was bitingly cold with the wind coming in off the sea into our faces so we moved on to the Loch of Strathbeg some fifteen miles further north, driving up a narrow farm lane to view the loch from the opposite side to the official reserve

All the time, when we could get a signal, we constantly consulted RBA to see if there was any news of the duck but there was nothing and then the signal died completely. It seemed the fates were dead set against us.

At the Loch of Strathbeg we found curiously few ducks and hardly any geese, when  usually there are thousands of both, but a flock of sixty or so Whooper Swans were present and a few Pink footed Geese flew over later. I looked at the open grass fields off to the south and a flock of geese turned out to be not the expected Pink footed Geese but Barnacle Geese with one leucistic individual amongst them. It was silvery grey all over and looked very strange amongst its darker compatriots. A flock of Linnets turned out to be just that, and not the Twites we hoped they were. Retracing our way back down the lane I stopped at a farm entrance where a couple of years ago I had seen some Tree Sparrows. A flock of small birds flew up from the farmyard onto the fence and there in the sun were at least twenty Tree Sparrows. It is always nice when it happens this way.

I checked my phone again. I now had a signal. I checked RBA and it told me the Harlequin Duck had just been seen at Aberdeen  between the two bridges we had checked earlier this morning. Whaaaaat!

'Come on Clackers, quick, let's get back to Aberdeen. The duck has been refound'

It was now 2pm with the sun already slowly sinking in a golden glow. It would be dark by 4pm, we were that far north. We got back to the bridges at just after  3pm but we were too late, the duck had been here but had now flown first upriver and then downriver pursued by photographers. We then commenced an increasingly frustrating chase of the duck around and along various locations on the River Don that it was reported from. Another report came through but when we got there the duck had gone and so it went on. Now with no sleep for well over twenty four hours it really hurt as we persisted with our search, but our luck was no better than this morning. Finally a report came through in the late afternoon with detailed instructions of the duck being seen near a technology park some way up from the river mouth but by the time we worked out the directions and found the location the darkness was almost complete and we had no chance of seeing it even if it was still there. We had blown it, this was our last chance and time had beaten us but not for want of trying. I could have cried but there was nothing to do but head for Inverness and our hotel for the night.

Our route to Inverness took us through unlit back roads and across country, following the River Spey. This is serious whisky country with a variety of well known distilleries located along the Spey Valley, using the waters to distill their unique product, provide employment for those living in the isolated rural villages and contributing to a multi billion pound industry. As we passed by in the dark, the huge polished copper stills, fat and squat, could be seen shining in the illuminated buildings of each distillery. Glen Dronach, Dufftown Glenlivet, Glen Fiddich, Glen Farclas, Chivas Regal, Balvenie, Cardhu, Dalwhinnie and many more came and went, a veritable role call of malt whisky royalty.

We stopped in Aberlour, another famous whisky town, for a meal and then pressed onwards to Inverness passing the Slochd Summit at 1328 feet asl and descending into the orange lit miasma of Inverness. Our room in The Glen Mhor was refreshingly roomy and comfortable, overlooking the dark sinister waters of the River Ness as it flowed along imperiously just the other side of the road. A quick wash and brush up and then into the bar where I selected a large Aberlour from the vast range of whiskies available and we sank onto a comfortable sofa to watch the weather forecast on a wide screen television.

The Glen Mhor Hotel whisky selection
The lack of success with the Harlequin Duck had just about been accepted by us and we still clung to the hope of seeing the Ivory Gull tomorrow. Fate however had not finished with us and the weather now intervened and not for the better. The TV weather chart for tomorrow in the west of Scotland was a mass of blue which meant heavy rain and to just rub it in was also crossed by many large arrows promising gale force winds. To put it mildly the forecast was horrific. I double checked on my i-phone and the weather forecast on it was just as bad. Strangely the forecast for Aberdeen was for strong winds but no rain. I thought fast. 

'Clackers, why don't we go back to Aberdeen, forget about the Ivory Gull and give the Harlequin one more go? The weather in Skye will mean we will probably not even get there let alone see the gull whilst in Aberdeen we have another chance at the duck'.

 After a short discussion it was agreed between us to return to Aberdeen.

Eight next morning, after a superb Scottish breakfast, found us retracing our route back to Aberdeen but  this time in daylight. The vast empty countryside stretched away before us on all sides, the winter browns of dead grass and heather merging into the dark green conifer forests, with the towering distant mountains in the west showing patches of snow as if spattered by white paint. The road, so busy in the summer months was devoid of traffic and steadily wound its lonely way east.

We reached Aberdeen at around 1030am and immediately commenced checking the area where the duck was last seen the night before. The area looked really good with rapids and white gurgling water tumbling over the shallows but our hopes soon sank as we came to the realisation that the duck was not here. A couple of female Common Goldeneye and a Dipper almost mocked us as we stared disconsolately at the river. So near and yet so far. We knew it was around but just where was it on the river?

We went back to the car and drove back to the two bridges we had visited yesterday. A few birders were standing on the more downstream of the two bridges but speaking to them it was obvious that they had no idea where to look either and were just hoping, like the rest of us, the duck would somehow appear.  Clackers found a Kingfisher sitting on a branch overhanging the river which we later learnt from a local birder was almost as rare here as a Harlequin Duck! Dippers flew up and down the river. We must have seen over ten at the various places on the river we had visited in the course of one and a half days, which is phenomenal. A male Goosander slept quietly on a rock and several Common Goldeneyes swam and dived in mid river. We looked at the river flowing through its steep, wooded sides and encroached on both sides by the urban sprawl of this great northern city. The high wooded banks were frankly a disgrace, with litter strewn down and all along the banks reflecting the barren mentality of 'out of sight out of mind', the river and its surrounds obviously treated with disdain by the local populace which is such a great shame as here was a great and attractive river with superb habitat and birds for all to enjoy. Dog faeces were also all too evident, even being deposited on the bridge and just left there. As far as I could see the only area that was relatively litter free and not despoiled was Seaton Park and even here there was a feeling of neglect with a disused and ugly toilet block to mar the rural surrounds of the river as it flowed through the grounds. The whole stretch of river we covered could be such a wonderful  resource for the people of Aberdeen but apparently no one seems to care. It is a sad indictment on both the local populace and Aberdeen City Council or whoever is responsible that this disgraceful state of affairs has been allowed to continue.

The other birders on the bridge wandered off,  each to try a spot that they hoped would bring a positive result. I went with Clackers a quarter of a mile upstream to check another stretch of white water but before we got there I was distracted by a trio of Goosanders resting on a rock on the opposite side of the river. This was too good a photo opportunity to miss. After the Goosanders, obviously not keen on my attentions, slowly moved off downstream I checked RBA one more time.

An electric tingle hit my spine as I read on the phone's screen. 

Harlequin Duck in Seaton Park at 1150. 

Ten minutes ago! 

'Clackers the duck's at Seaton Park!!!' 

The park although just a half mile downriver, as the duck flies or river flows, from where we were, is impossible to walk to without huge detours through a massive new housing complex that would take too much time. The car was nearby on the road above the steep cobbled path that ran from the river bridge up to the road. I raced up the path while Clackers followed at a more leisurely pace. Turning the car in the road I collected Clackers just as he made it to the road. We were off on the short drive back to St Machar's Church, the entrance to Seaton Park and back to where it all started  in what seemed a lifetime ago but was only yesterday. We rumbled down to the end of the cobbled street that is The Chanonry. There was no room to park! 

'Clackers, you jump out and get down there fast'. 

Don't worry about me I've seen a Harlequin Duck in the UK so I will find somewhere else to park the car and follow you pronto'

Clackers needed no further encouragement and was off as soon as he could extricate himself from the car. Whisper it amongst yourselves but I really did see him almost running, I am sure of it.

I found a space for the car further back up the road but then had no money for a parking ticket. Stuff it I would just have to take a chance. Seven hundred miles of driving so far and thirty six hours with hardly any sleep, I was not about to let a parking issue delay my, hopefully, seeing the duck. This was the closest we had come yet to realising our dream. In a few seconds I too was off out of the car, running down the long drive to the river with my camera.

The path leading down to the River Don and the Harlequin Duck
I met a birder coming up the path. 

'Still there?' I gasped. '

Yes, at least it was five minutes ago. It's been there for at least an hour', he  replied.


I found Clackers with a small group of around twelve people looking at the duck which was skulking under the bank of an island, quite distant and only partially visible through some twigs and branches but that was enough.

Clackers had his lifer and our nightmare of tension and on-going disappointment had suddenly dissipated and all was well with the world again.

Clackers triumphant

Harlequin twitchers-very civilised considering the rarity of the bird
I watched the duck which frankly was not doing much as it sat on the water nervously looking around. As it seemed settled I decided to go back to the car and sort out a parking ticket. The last thing I wanted after the emotional ups and downs of the last day and a half was a parking fine to ruin a day which had now improved beyond all recognition.

In just five minutes I got to the car, thankfully finding a ticket free windscreen and now there was a space where there was free parking, right by the gate to the park. My problem solved I rapidly moved the car into the vacant space and then ran at full speed back across the park to the river and the assembled birders. The duck had by now moved out from the bank, perching briefly on a submerged rock and then began feeding up river and going away from us.

Not to worry. I watched it diving in the tumbling waters, never submerging for very long, using its wings to pull it under the water, obviously completely at home in the strong current, rocks and rushing white flecked water. I watched it snorkelling, where it swam against the current with its bill and eyes below the water presumably searching for prey

The Harlequin Duck's chosen habitat
Then our luck finally and irrevocably changed for the better. The duck floated downstream in the current still diving, feeding and coming ever nearer. Closer and closer it came. Unbelievably it was now only a few metres away.

Diving and feeding right in front of us, it came close to a rock just off the bank we were standing on and then hopped up onto the rock and commenced preening. The man standing next to me with one of those huge lens complained bitterly it was too close and he could not fit it in his lens. I was in my element with my much smaller lens. It's not often one can say that!

The duck stood on the rock preening and looking around for over thirty minutes, even going back into the water and then hopping back onto the rock. At one point it was no more than five feet from me, swimming in the rapids. The sense of achievement after our fraught day and a half was indescribable. We had hoped to see it, yes, but to then be rewarded with a grandstand performance such as this was beyond fantasy.

We watched it for an hour or so before it finally left the rock and swam back upstream a little way. A jet from the nearby airport flew over with a roar and the duck took extreme fright, skittering over the water and hiding motionless in the sedges upstream on the opposite bank for quite some time before emerging to continue diving in the river.

Clackers and myself wandered back to the car. I looked back and every birder had gone. They too deciding the bravura performance was over and the duck should be left to itself and the onrushing River Don.


  1. You really had to work for that one! Thoroughly deserved. Well done. Lol

  2. I'm enjoying a drop of 10 year old Aberlour myself this evening. Fantastic read, as always!

  3. Absolutely riveting account! Well-earned reward for a courageous piece of birding!

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