Thursday 3 August 2017

From the Black Audi Archives - A Scoter Reminiscence 17th-18th June 2011

Reports this summer of an adult White winged Scoter in a moulting flock of scoters off Murcar Links Golf Club near Aberdeen prompted me to look back to pre-blog days when I went to see what most probably was the same bird - in June 2011

Here is what I wrote shortly after seeing the White winged Scoter which was then still an immature bird.

The images in the blog are library pictures apart from Oscar my cat and 'the crowd scenes.' 

17th-18th June 2011

The White winged Scoter offshore from Murcar Links Golf Club Aberdeen

Oxonbirders go North!

It was Friday morning in Kingham and I was due to drive my daughter Polly and all her possessions in a hired van from our home  all the way to her rented room in a house in Glasgow in preparation for commencing her first year at Glasgow University. I had then planned to head even further north to Aberdeen to see a really rare duck , a first for Britain, called a White winged Scoter

First we loaded a freezer full  of Polly's taxidermy specimens into the van, followed by the rest of her possessions. We removed poor 'Big' Oscar, our recently deceased British Blue cat from the freezer and buried him in a prepared grave underneath the trees in a quiet corner of our garden. I was in pieces, greatly upset and could not bear to see him go into the ground. How attached one becomes to a loved pet and what sadness comes when the inevitable happens, even more so when Oscar's death from an infection was so unexpected and premature. I had to leave it to my wife and Polly to bury him but not before Charlie his brother wandered over to say goodbye in his own feline way, which was moving and even more upsetting.

'Big' Oscar
It was a relief to say goodbye to Kingham and to set off on our long journey to Scotland. We got to Glasgow in the Friday rush hour at four thirty in the afternoon, encountering the predictable huge traffic jams on the ring road but eventually we turned off and thankfully Polly's house was  easy to find nearby.

We removed all her possessions from the van apart from the freezer which was too heavy for the two of us to cope with and put them in her room. Then we removed an old manky carpet from her room into the now almost empty van, for disposal later. As there was no one to help unload the heavy freezer when we got to Polly's house we had a cup of tea and hoped the contents would not defrost too much before Polly's male housemates arrived to hopefully give us a hand with unloading the freezer. I went and checked myself in at the nearby Belgrave Hotel for the night and then we went to find something to drink. I felt badly in  need after a day like today.

After an abortive walk along The Great West Road looking for a suitable hostelry it started to rain and I saw my first man in a kilt.  Eventually we found a huge church near to my daughter's new home which had been converted into a pub called The Oran Mor. It was packed and fair humming with early Friday evening drinkers and exuding that busy, frenetic atmosphere that the beginning of the weekend brings. I was back in Scotland and now feeling very much at home as I unwound from the long drive and we each consumed two pints of my favourite beer, Deuchars, which hit the spot nicely. I saw my second man in a kilt and then we went in search of something to eat. Just around the corner, on Polly's recommendation, we entered the Hillhead Book Club restaurant, again full of atmosphere and good music where we had a really nice meal.

Afterwards we walked back to Polly's house and two of her male housemates were now around to give us a hand unloading the freezer and carrying it into Polly's room. We could at last relax as the freezer was plugged into the electricity and the specimens were saved from defrosting.

I said goodbye to Polly as I had to be up very early in the morning to drive to Aberdeen to try and see the White winged Scoter, which in twitching speak was 'a mega'. A very much, must see bird, that was consorting with a large, mixed flock of around a thousand moulting Common Scoters, twenty or so Velvet Scoters and two or three Surf Scoters  all to be found offshore from Murcar Links Golf Club  near Blackdog, a few miles north of Aberdeen.

Surf Scoters are a rarity in their own right as they come from the USA and a good bird to see, but for now the emphasis was on seeing the much rarer White winged Scoter, coincidentally also from the USA. Judging from the previous reports I had read about this bird, it was not going to be an easy task to find it amongst the thousand plus scoter flock together with another thousand or so Common Eider that were consorting with the scoter flock.

The one consolation was that the bird was unlikely to have flown off as it was moulting, along with all its commoner cousins and was probably flightless.To add to the difficulties in picking it out was the fact its plumage and shape is only subtly different to that of Velvet Scoters and unless good views are obtained, any immature Velvet Scoters present would look very similar.  .

The plan was to rendezvous at Murcar Links Golf Club in the early morning of Saturday with Badger, Paul, Vicky and Dave who were driving north from Oxford during the night.

I went to bed around nine pm planning to get up around two thirty on Saturday morning to head off for Aberdeen in order to get there for first light, as it is a three hour drive from Glasgow. However a succession of texts plus excitement kept me from sleeping and in the end I gave up on sleep and so left the hotel at half an hour past midnight  and drove north, planning to sleep in the van at the Golf Club. 

A romantic drive north through the night ensued on virtually empty roads whilst listening to Old Blind Dogs, a Scots folk band who hail from the Granite City, as Aberdeen is sometimes called. As I headed north the sky became ever lighter and to my amazement I arrived in Aberdeen in full daylight although it was only three in the morning. Of course I had neglected to note I was so much further north and that the light consequently hardly fades at this time of year.There would be no time for sleeping in the van now!

I passed through a deserted Aberdeen and headed out northwards on the coast road. There were two suggestions as to where to go to best see the White winged Scoter. One was to go to a place called Blackdog, park and walk one and a half miles south to Murcar Links Golf Club but I did not much fancy that. The other was to park in the Golf Club car park, which is much closer but might incur the displeasure of the golfers.   I explored both options and eventually decided it made sense to park at the Golf Club as it was then only a short walk to the sea to view the scoter flock. I drove down the track to the Golf Club car park which was not unexpectedly deserted at this early hour and parked the van well away from the Clubhouse, got all my gear together and walked through the golf links to the seashore

The seaward side of the golf links are bounded by elevated dunes and on reaching them and looking down and out to sea I could see no sign of a scoter flock. There were many Common Eiders and Guillemots on the sea and a Grasshopper Warbler was singing from some nearby gorse bushes  but otherwise I was on my own.

I walked north a short way towards Blackdog but there was still nothing resembling a scoter flock on the sea. What was I doing wrong? Was the scoter flock further out to sea and currently invisible? Would they all suddenly fly in on the rising tide? Why are there no other birders around? Surely for something this rare there should be others looking for it? Am I in the wrong place? My anxiety levels went up a notch and I had to tell myself to relax, calm down and remember I was very tired. Just think things through and proceed slowly and methodically.  I used my scope to scan the entire sea in front of me and  then to the north and to the south. I found a nice group of four Red throated Divers on the sea and then as I got to the extreme south  I could see the scoter flock in the far distance, some way from the shore.

I walked steadily southwards following a rough track through the marram grass along the top of the dunes, planning to get as close as possible to the scoters.  Badger called me as I  walked along, advising they had just arrived at the Golf Club, so I gave him directions where to find me and kept walking and eventually came across about thirty birders standing or crouched around the edge of one of the golf tees, scanning the distant scoter flock. Where had they come from? Presumably from The Bridge of Don which was a little further south. 

Looking at the scoter flock I was confronted by a mass of black dots bobbing in and out of visibility in the waves and sea swell.  I enquired of my fellow birders if anyone had yet found the bird we sought but the answer was negative. No one could find it which was not surprising as the flock was well out to sea. Badger and the others arrived and joined me looking for the scoter.  Badger promptly found a male Surf Scoter. Someone else also announced they had picked out a Surf Scoter too. A short spell went by with various birders directing each other to Surf Scoters. I eventually found one myself but was constantly scanning the Velvet Scoters, when I could find them that is, as apparently the White winged Scoter preferred their company, but I had no luck and this situation carried on for quite some time, well over an hour. I found another male Surf Scoter relatively close to the shore, its colourful head pattern always nice to see but I was totally focused on finding that elusive White winged Scoter. We all knew it was there somewhere, it was my reason for being here and the other birds must wait until I had seen the main attraction. A slightly depressing realisation and grudging acceptance that it was going to be no easy task to find the rare scoter came over me but there was always a conviction and a feeling of excitement tinged with apprehension that someone, if not me, would eventually find the bird.

Sure enough, after a short time, someone cried out  'Look at the bird by the Red-throated Diver. I think that is it. Yes, it is. Look at it! It's on its own in front of the Eider flock'. I had seen the Red-throated Diver in question a few minutes earlier but of course now I could not find it  I recalled it was close in compared to the eiders and scoters so scanned the sea in front of them. Then someone else exclaimed 'I can see it!'. Others then shouted they too could see it. A rising panic consumed me. 'Oh no, where is it? Why can't I find it? It seemed an age but it was probably only a few seconds before I found the diver and there, nearby, was the bird in question, right in front of me, in my scope. Oh yes! How fortunate was that

I looked at it and there was no doubting the identification. A scoter the size of a Velvet Scoter with mainly dark, matt brown immature plumage with a blackish head and breast, small white wing bars, pale eyes and a small upswept white flash under each eye. Here it was, at long last, an immature White winged Scoter, sporting a highly distinctive, broad and dull pink band across its bill. The so called two step profile caused by the swollen knob above the bill base was not as obvious as I thought it would be but this definitely was the bird. Well done whoever first located it this morning. Mild panic ensued around me as other birders still could not locate it in the milling mass of scoter and eider bodies on the sea, alternately visible and then invisible in the wave troughs. Birders were calling out with more than a hint of desperation for directions to the bird. I had been very lucky and found it by sheer chance, almost immediately after the first shouts of triumph and discovery. There were no landmarks or anything else on the open sea to aid people to get onto it. I am not sure if shouts such as 'It's in front of the eiders. On its own' or 'There is a gull flying over it'  were of help or hindrance. All were probably relatively useless but what can you do? More shouts of 'It's dived'. and then 'It's up again' rang out and so it went on and still many birders failed to locate it.  I let a few tense birders around me look though my scope so at least they could say they saw it even if they could not find it in their own scopes.   A birder next to me and not too friendly except when I offered him a view through my scope, then proceeded to take forever looking through it and offered not a word of thanks. This annoyed me. Whether he saw the scoter or not I was unsure but I found myself becoming anxious as I had only seen it myself for a few precious moments before relinquishing my scope to him and others equally unfortunate. I wanted to see it as much as possible but a sense of kindness and concern for others created a personal dilemna. I wanted everyone to see it and if I could assist I would but there is only so much sacrifice one is willing or able to make.

White-winged Scoter

It was feeding and every so often disappeared from view below the surface of the sea which added to the difficulty of keeping it in view. Now, on regaining possession of my scope I could not find it although others were calling out observations such as 'It's up again, its in with the eiders now' or 'It's flapping its wings!' Despondency. Despair. Where was it.? Then after what seemed an age but probably wasn't I re-found it in my scope. 'It's here! It's here!' I muttered quietly to myself.  No one was going to look through my scope now as I kept watching it, feeding and diving and for heart stopping moments waited until it resurfaced, trusting I would relocate it each time, which thankfully I did, but soon it stopped feeding and just swam on the surface of the sea. This made matters calmer as now I could keep it in sight constantly as it rose and fell on the swell of the sea

I reviewed all the identification features again, just enjoying the moment and concentrated on the distinctive bill colour and pattern.This for me was by far the easiest way to identify it. The scoter rolled onto its side to preen and I could see its white belly flecked with black. Other birders arrived from the dunes, alerted to its presence and in their panic to see it rushed in front of us prompting indignant cries of 'Sit down. You are in our way!'  'Sorry!' Unwittingly inconsiderate in their panic to see the scoter they now crouched down. An apologetic voice asked 'Can anyone tell me where it is?' I remained silent as I considered I had done my share but others answered the enquiry. I had now become selfish. The ungrateful birder beside me asked if he could look through my scope again as he still had not found the scoter in his own scope.I told him I had lost sight of it. I hadn't really but he did not know that and I carried on looking at the scoter and enjoying it. Maybe if he had been more polite and more friendly the first time it would have been different

I wanted to observe the scoter for as long as possible considering all the time and effort I had invested to get here. I watched  on, occasionally losing sight of it and re-finding it, not without some difficulty The weather was taking a turn for the worse as thick black clouds closed in from the sea. Rain was on its way and a few minutes later it commenced to rain but thankfully I had taken the sensible decision to don waterproofs from the outset. We continued watching the scoter flock which was now very close in due to the high tide. I  was relaxed having watched the scoter for over thirty minutes.I found another two male Surf Scoters and got some of the best views I have ever had of Common and Velvet Scoters .

We decided we had enough of the rain which looked like it would persist for a long time  'What time is it?' I enquired. 'Only seven am'. 'Unbelievable!' I turned with the others to go and received an unwarranted glare from the ungrateful birder. Did he suspect my deceit? We retreated, secure in the knowledge we had been very fortunate to get such good views and in such good light, especially as we had not checked the weather forecast or times of the tide. If the tide had been out it would have been a very different story..

Some good hearted banter  followed with golfers who said we must be mad to be out in the rain looking at a duck.We rejoined with the observation that they were equally mad hitting a tiny white ball and chasing around after it in the rain. The golfers were on the whole friendly and welcoming which was a pleasant relief.

Once we got back to the car park we drove six miles further north to Newburgh, to view a drake King Eider associating with a large flock of Common Eider on the Ythan estuary. We were successful here also and then the others headed south, back to Oxfordshire. It was still only 1030am. I had planned to remain in Scotland until Sunday but the rain and tiredness sapped my energy, so I too set off for home arriving back at seven in the evening.

Apparently the White winged Scoter was not seen again that day due to the foul weather so we were indeed fortunate, more by luck than design, to have fair weather for the early morning and the scoter flock close to shore on a high tide.

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