Sunday 29 December 2019

Surf's Up on Arran! 28th December 2019

Not a great photo I admit but considering the weather conditions I took it in today, it's a minor  miracle that I managed anything at all. 

The image was taken from the garden gate of our rented cottage at Catacol on the west coast of the Isle of Arran, as I cowered behind a hedge from a gale force southerly wind and lashing rain, looking out onto the heaving seas that have battered the island for the last two days.

But let us go back a few days to the 21st December, the day after we had arrived at our cottage.
It is my custom to check the sea that lies in front of the cottage several times a day when we are here and certainly every morning. The area of sea is Kilbrannan Sound, separating the west coast of Arran from the Mull of Kintyre. Usually the sea is dotted with the ubiquitous dark forms of Shags, their slim bodies  held low in the water and snake like heads distinctive, as is their customary head first leap to propel themselves under the water to hunt for fish. Even at great distance this leaping action allows them to be easily identified. Similar looking from distance, but bulkier, are one or two regular Great Northern Divers that haunt Catacol Bay whilst the smaller Red breasted Mergansers, numbering one to half a dozen, fish closer in to the shore.

Oystercatchers pipe their excited kleeping calls, as they pass the cottage, the surprisingly loud notes ringing off the sea and stony shoreline as they fly to their high tide roost to join a small gathering of Curlews, Turnstones and Ringed Plovers,

It was at noon on 21st December but in much more pleasant weather conditions that I looked out on Kilbrannan Sound, 'just in case.' Discovering something unusual, even rare, requires such unending persistence. A dedication that will go unrewarded in the majority of cases but sometimes bears a dividend of something differing from the normal.

Scanning the sea for half an hour, looking for any Otters that might be fishing offshore I was disappointed but it was not unpleasant as I sat on a bench scanning a timeless vista of sea and sky with the dark hills of Kintyre beyond.

A dark brown duck flew up from the sea, far out to my right, having been disturbed by a Herring Gull  that landed too close to it and it flew in my direction, then circled around, still a long way out, before settling on the sea,  Its body was round and bulky so this ruled out Red breasted Merganser on size and shape or Mallard on distance, the latter sometimes are here but without fail are always to be found on or about the shoreline.

Due to all our luggage and Christmas paraphernalia, space in the car was at a premium when we came north, so I had not brought my scope and tripod with me. Thus it was down to my binoculars to try and make sense of what kind of duck I was looking at. I studied it for some time and its profile suggested a bulky duck with a distinct  large and wedge shaped bill. It appeared to be dark brown all over and when it stood in the water to flap its narrow wings I could see no wing bars and on a second wingflap, when it was facing me, I could see its belly was pale, even white.That was as far as it went. It was just too distant to make out any more detail. Based on the information to hand I settled for an educated guess and  tentatively  identified the duck as a female Eider Duck, a species which is unusual for around Catacol and therefore I could feel happy at finding a bird slightly out of the ordinary.

However there was something that troubled me. Female Eider's, to my knowledge, do not have a white belly. I was in a quandary as with no scope there was little I could do to get a better image through my bins and by this time the duck had commenced diving and did not look as if it would come any closer.

Then a thought occured to me. Why not use my camera and lens? This would give me a record of what I was looking at and then I could upload the image onto my laptop computer and increase the magnification significantly. The image would be aesthetically dreadful but at the very least it would confirm whether it was indeed a female Eider I had been looking at.

I took several images and left the duck diving, still distantly, out in the Sound. Back in the cottage  I uploaded the images, magnified them on my laptop and there to my delight was conclusive proof of the identity of the duck. It was not an Eider but something much better, a female Surf Scoter!

The image, although blurry, clearly shows the distinctive two pale patches on the side of the head; a large pale oval at the base of the bill and a smaller triangular patch behind the eye.The disproportionately large bill with a slight swelling on the upper mandible is also evident.

I reported the sighting to Jim Cassells, Bird Recorder for The Isle of Arran, and he told me that this was the second ever record for Arran, the first also being a female Surf Scoter, probably this one, which was seen and photographed at Catacol on 24th November this year but not seen since.

I looked for the scoter over the following days but there was no sign of it but then on 25th December it was reported by another visiting birder, from Pirnmill, just a few miles south along the same coastline and then again on Boxing Day.

Finally, today, it was again in front of our cottage, the only duck or seabird to be seen in the fast running seas and roaring wind. Watching it ride the waves, Surf Scoter was definitely the right name for it. All the reported sightings, both in November and December are, I would assume, of the same bird which appears to have decided to spend the winter on this stretch of Kilbrannan Sound.

A nice unexpected birding gift for Christmas. Arran does it again|!                                                                                                    


  1. Thanks Adam.Happy New Year to you and yours

  2. That's a cracker of a find Ewan. Enjoy the New Year in style and hope to see you in the Summer for the Clearwings.