Friday 5 May 2023

Double Mega! 3rd May 2023

c Mark

Myself and Mrs U are on The Isle of Arran for a three week holiday which commenced on 16th April and will coincide with her birthday and give us an opportunity to miss all the nonsense concerning old jug ears coronation.

My twitching pal Mark was concerned and told me I was taking a huge risk as April and May invariably bring something  good birdwise to these shores.

Torn between worrying about missing rare birds and holidaying with my wife in my beloved Scotland at the nicest time of the year, I reconciled myself to the fact there was no option but to take a chance and hope nothing exceptional would turn up to upset my equanimity..

Two years ago at this time, and again while on Arran, I came spectacularly unstuck when both a Red necked Stint in Northumberland and a Sulphur bellied Warbler on Lundy, the latter a first for Britain no less, were found. I need both for Britain so it was hard to take, especially as Mark had arranged a charter boat to see the warbler and of course saw it as did most of my twitching pals. All were only too happy to tell me how delighted they were to see it.

This year nothing much had happened so far, with reference to rare birds while we were on Arran, and I thought I might get away with it but no, a White crowned Sparrow was found on one of my former patches at Seaford in Sussex. It would have been nice to see it but I felt reasonably relaxed as I had seen one before in Britain, at Cley in Norfolk. The Sussex bird was initially elusive but latterly was coming regularly to seed put out for it and looked like it would be around when I got back from Scotland.

Of course it disappeared.

All went quiet again on the bird front and hopes rose that nothing to upset the status quo would occur before we returned home to Oxfordshire. I contented myself with Arran's Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers and Otters.

Mark rang.

It was Saturday morning the 29th April

The drake Stejneger's back.It's at a place called Lower Largo. I am going for it on Bank Holiday Monday!

My heart skipped a beat and I swallowed down a bitter pill of despair. It had happened again, just like two years ago, but there was only myself to blame.Then again Mark is not married but I am and that is a major factor. Twitching and hardcore birding has ruined many a marriage and that's not the way I wish to go, so for me it has to be a compromise but it is frustrating nonetheless when I have to accept that compromise and make a difficult choice.

The Stejneger's Scoter was a first for Britain.A mega amongst megas.The ultimate. A must see.

Drake Stejneger's Scoter showing the distinctive marked step at the
top of its bill,the large white 'tick' mark under the eye and the pink
bill with yellow surround

This is an image I found on the internet as it was impossible to
photograph  the one at Lower Largo due to the distance it was
offshore and the bad light so early in the morning

The Stejneger's Scoter (Stej for short) had in fact been first seen over the Christmas period past but was seen from the southern side of the huge Firth of Forth, at Aberlady Bay, but was always very distant and eventually disappeared. By sheer serendipity we were staying at Lower Largo on the northern side of the firth, for Christmas and New Year, and I was planning to try and drive to see it after Christmas, as I was in the general area but the reports ceased, it was forgotten about and indeed its identification was queried by some. I even checked the huge Velvet and Common Scoter flocks at Leven just down the road from Lower Largo in case it was there but only found a potential White winged Scoter but that was too distant to be certain of so I discounted it.

Now the Stej, a vagrant from Siberia was on the Lower Largo side of the firth, amongst a huge number of Velvet Scoters and not only that, but up to three each of the rare White winged Scoter and less rare Surf Scoter, both from North America, were in the same scoter congregation plus a few of our native Common Scoter. A veritable scoter fest.

This time the identification of the Stej was in no doubt as it had been seen well and was by all accounts fairly close, well as close as any scoter can be, which is usually a fair distance offshore and requiring a scope to see it well. It had first been seen from a small concrete jetty adjacent to a large pub/restaurant called The Crusoe Inn, right by the sea. So named because Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, was based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a naval officer in the seventeenth century, being marooned on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean  for four years and four months. Selkirk was born in Lower Largo and there is a statue of him in the village. Serendipity again, as our rented cottage  at Christmas was right opposite the pub so we could see both The Crusoe Inn and the jetty from our window, no more than two hundred metres away.

All my twitching pals urged me to go and see the scoter as I was already in Scotland. I tried to explain my situation and such things as marital harmony and the problems of getting on and off Arran due to the unreliable ferries, which I will explain later.

I was met with little sympathy.

Then matters became even worse.

On Monday Justin, another twitcher pal sent me a text asking if I had heard about the Grey headed Lapwing discovered in Northumberland on Sunday.


No I had not.

There was no news about it on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) as unbeknown to me RBA had serious internet problems and were out of action. Of all times it had to be now. The lapwing was an even bigger mega than the Stej as only four have ever been recorded in the western Palearctic. The lapwing is normally found breeding in northeast China and Japan and winters from northeast India to Cambodia. You can imagine what effect this news had on my already scrambled emotions.

I rang Mark mid morning on Monday to ask how he had got on with seeing the Stej. Rather too gleefully he told me he had already seen the Stej really well and also the White winged and Surf Scoters and was now on his way to twitch the lapwing. Through gritted teeth I said how pleased I was for him. 

The Grey headed Lapwing was another first for Britain so now two firsts for Britain were going to be missed by me.I was metaphorically on my knees. It was too cruel for words. All too much but what could I do?.The answer was nothing.There was no way I dared ask my wife  if I could leave in the middle of our holiday and go to see a rare bird.

I tried really hard to remain upbeat but it got even harder when Mark posted some superb pictures of the lapwing on social media that evening.and despondency set in big time on my viewing the images.

I had to accept Arran is an island and I was on holiday with my wife. That was that. There was no way, surely?

Mrs U noticed my rather withdrawn demeanour and asked what was wrong.I explained about the Stej.

'Well you better go and see it if you can get off the island.'

'How long will you be gone?'

Almost speechless at this unexpected lifeline to twitching glory I replied in shocked tones.  

'You mean you don't mind me going for a day and a half off the island and leaving you on your own?'

'Frankly it would be a relief as you are in such a miserable mood'.

It was left to me to try and sort out how to get on and off Arran in as short a time as possible.

This would not be easy as the two Scottish Government subsidised Calmac vessels that serve the island and are the island's lifeline with the mainland, are very old, too old and are forever breaking down. Only one is in service at the moment. It is in fact a scandalous situation, as many islanders are virtually trapped on the island which is also a prime tourist destination and due to one vessel being out of service bookings for cars and people are like gold dust.

It was Bank Holiday Monday. Consulting Calmac's website I found the ferry was almost full until Saturday.There was only one booking left, on the last ferry from Arran tomorrow, at 8pm.Coming back there was no availability at all until the following Sunday. I snapped up the outbound booking and had a brain wave. Luckily there is  a small ferry that  sails every hour from the mainland at Claonaig on Kintyre to Lochranza on the northern end of Arran and you do not have to book .You just turn up. 

It adds hours to one's journey but I had no choice but to use it.

So now I could get off Arran on Tuesday night and drive to Lower Largo from the ferry port at Ardrossan and come back via Claonaig on Wednesday, getting the last ferry sailing to Lochranza at 7pm

So that was me sorted getting off and back to Arran and in reasonable time.

It is only ninety miles from Ardrossan to Lower Largo  a matter of two hours driving.I would be at Lower Largo by around eleven at night.Emboldened by my success so far I breezily told Mrs U I would sleep in the car and be ready to see the scoter at first light on Wednesday, which is around 5am this far north

Do you not think you are too old for sleeping in cars?

Don't worry it will be fine

No more was said.

That night in bed, mulling over my plans, I added a further twist to the plan.I checked the journey times from Lower Largo to Low Newton by the Sea in Northumberland where the lapwing currently was. It was three hours.Then the journey time from there to Claonaig was five hours.It was just about doable provided I saw the Stej fairly quickly in the morning.Certainly I had to be gone from Lower Largo by 7.30am. This would give me two hours max for the lapwing before having to make the long drive to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula to catch the last ferry to Lochranza.

This of course all depended on whether both birds would be there on Wednesday, The scoter looked fairly certain, the lapwing not so.

It was crazy but it had to be done. Anything could go wrong at any moment but this is twitching where normality is shown the door and abnormality takes over

So my itinerary was as follows

Tuesday evening 2nd May. 

Depart from Brodick on the Calmac ferry at 1900. 

Arrive Ardrossan 2000.

Fill up with cheap diesel at Asda Ardrossan.

Drive to Lower Largo and arrive at 2200.

Sleep in  the car  near The Crusoe Inn.

Get on the jetty by 5.30am.

Scope the scoters and see the Stej. which was the priority but also if possible see the White winged and Surf Scoters.

Depart Lower Largo 7.30 am latest.

Arrive Low Newton by the Sea 1030 am.

Two hours for the lapwing 1030-1230.

Depart Low Newton for Claonaig, a 5 hour drive, 1230-1730.

Stop for lunch and sleep 1 hour, maybe.

Arrive Claonaig approx 1830.

Get last ferry Claonaig to Lochranza. Sailing time 30 minutes 1900 -1930.

Home 2000.

It has been a long time since I have slept all night in a car. It was sheer self inflicted torture. Sleep evaded me and it was so frustrating constantly trying to get comfortable as the cold slowly permeated the car's interior. I donned gloves and thick jacket and finally in desperation read from my Kindle until through sheer exhaustion I must have nodded off around 3am.

I woke just after 4am with the sky already lightening.The dark of night slowly turning to deep blue.I dozed until 5am and now it was light enough  to go birding if I wished.Blackbirds had commenced to sing but all around me the holiday cottages remained dark and silent.Who else would want to be up at such an hour?

Stiff and cold I planned to resist leaving the car until 5.30am. 

The Stej had been reported daily as being off the jetty by The Crusoe Inn at around 6am each morning so three guesses where I was bound for. Due to local knowledge gained from our Christmas stay I had secured an overnight parking place only a couple of hundred metres from the jetty. I was all set. 

I sat almost comatose in the car, sleep deprived and having had nothing to eat apart from a bag of crisps and a dubious cheese sandwich from a local garage the previous evening, and with two bottles of Diet Pepsi to wash it all down.

Slowly the light improved. As the Stej was never being reported before 6am there was still time to kill. My patience ran out at 5.15 am.Sod it, rather than sit here in the car feeling awful I headed for the jetty. At least I would be birding, my sole reason for being here.

I was not the first. One other birder was already on the jetty.

We greeted each other and he told me he had not seen the Stej yesterday despite looking for it all afternoon, only a White winged Scoter.

Not what I wanted to hear but the Stej had been reported by someone else yesterday morning so there was hope.

Soon enough other birders joined us, until there were around a dozen of us ranged across the jetty, looking out at the scoters.The light was still dull and it would be another twenty minutes at least until it improved enough to be able to check individual scoters.Discerning the Stej and White winged Scoters would require close scrutiny as the differences are subtle  and would require good visibility.

The current state of the weather was what is described by weather people as light cloud but it was windless which meant the sea was calm, almost glass like, which would help with our examination of the huge number of sea ducks scattered on the sea before us.

There were over a thousand Velvet Scoters, dotted like blackcurrants across the silvery sea. Some swimming aimlessly, others diving and yet others flying in small groups hither and thither 

It will be 'interesting' finding the Stej in this lot I muttered to the birder to my left

We silently scoped the ducks

I've got a male Surf Scoter by the right hand pink buoy I  announced.

The others got onto it and I felt more upbeat at this minor triumph. 

But who was kidding who. We were all wanting to see Mr Stej.

For forty minutes there was no word from anyone and then someone said he thought he had seen a scoter whose bill looked 'different'

Could it be?

Where? we all enquired.

He gave some vague directions but then announced

I've lost it. Sorry

We all said not to worry and went back to grilling the scoters

Ten minutes later and unequivocally the Stej was located. Relatively close but still requiring a scope. It was just after 6am

A number of us got onto it and kept on it so as not to lose it amongst all the other scoters .

Superficially similar to a male Velvet Scoter its main distinguishing feature is the marked step on the bill where it joined its forehead. It was obvious and to my mind the bird looked slightly bulkier than the Velvets, especially around its neck.Maybe the whole bird was slightly larger.

The  white tick mark, running from under each eye, was also more extensive than on a male Velvet and another distinguishing feature to admire

It was swimming with a female Velvet Scoter, pressing its amorous attentions on her which she firmly rebuffed by extending her neck and lunging at him with an open bill, a decidedly no chance mate gesture.  Stej was not one to give up though and followed her closely and every so often would fly low over the water for a few metres in front of her, crash land in the water and then rejoin her as if to say, 'what do you think of that', resulting in a predictable show of indifference from Mrs Velvet.

We followed them as they swam amongst the other scoters and then every one of us, having seen it so well, took our eyes off it and it was lost from sight.Mind you it was far from easy as when viewed from behind as it swam away it was impossible to tell if it was the correct bird or not. 

I checked the time and it was just after 6.30 am.

Half an hour later one of the male White winged Scoters was located although more distant than the Stej but the smaller less obvious bump on its upper mandible was there for all to see as was its duller coloured bill.

We found a Red necked Grebe and a few Common Scoters too. A pair of the smaller Surf Scoters were found diving and surfacing and then another drake was swimming with some Velvets fairly close in, the white square on its nape very visible and its huge bulbous multi coloured bill a joy to see.

I remained until 7.30 am as planned, pressure now off,, enjoying the scoters and  eventually getting more views of the Stej.

The tide was ebbing and the scoters drifted further out with it. I knew I would not get better views than those I had already so left bang on my self imposed deadline.

Now for a three hour drive to Low Newton by the Sea in Northumberland. I made good progress crossing the mighty Forth Road Bridge and despite heavy morning traffic on the notorious ring road around Edinburgh eventually turned onto the southbound A1. Now  it was just a tedious slog, although my spirits were high having seen the Stejneger's Scoter and friends. The sun coming out also helped.

Almost three hours later I turned off the A1 and followed a zig zag course across Northumberland. I like this area of the world, driving down deserted rural roads through farming country, the large farm buildings and imposing farmhouses each sheltered by their skirt of trees in an otherwise open landscape of field and hedgerow.

It was noticeable how much more advanced Spring was here than further north, Daffodils had already faded  to be replaced by bluebells, the pink of Red Campion and white of Wild Garlic poking out at the base of  hedgerows already bright green with fresh growing leaves.

My erratic course, following the Satnav's guidance, brought me to a narrow lane that led through a small settlement to an isolated car park, just beyond another large farm, Link House Farm. I had arrived at my destination, Newton Steads car park, not quite full to capacity with birder's cars.

I paid for two hours parking and with this achieved I set off along a track through grassland, past the farm, to join an obvious gathering of birders looking across a series of grass fields to where presumably the lapwing was. On its first day it had been showing well and much closer in a nearby location but the day after had absconded to these fields and settled in one of the furthest.To say it was distant was an understatement. Even with the scope I struggled but eventually found it stood motionless by a fence beyond a field of cows. I could just make out the salient features of its plumage.

The best I could say was I had seen it and could now legitimately tick it.

Another birder had told me, at the car park, to walk to some obvious caravans as you could get closer to it there but it would still be distant. I decided to try this. I wanted better views after all my effort to get here.

I left my fellow birders and walked back to turn through a huge farmyard, complete with the traditional ducks and chickens running around. A playground for children and separate holiday cottages indicated the farm was supplementing its income as a holiday destination.

I made my way through the farmyard and walked out to a small area enclosed by high banks on three sides-a sort of dumping ground for the farm.The farmer had kindly granted us birders permission to stand on the bank which overlooked the fields and allowed us to get closer views of the lapwing.

Still relatively distant, through the scope I could see it very well and admired all its plumage details, following its progress as it stop started around the field on long yellow legs, stooping in typical plover fashion to pick prey from the ground and then move on a metre or so.

Its plumage was a striking combination of coffee coloured upperparts, white underparts, grey head and breast with a striking bright yellow, black tipped bill. Across its chest was a broad band of black and when it opened its wings they showed areas of black and brilliant white, the latter gleaming in the sunshine.

c Mark 

I watched it and took some record shots. Mark has kindly sent me some of his images from when he saw it much closer and has kindly let me use them in this blog. I checked the time and found I had thirty more minutes to watch this ultra rare bird  and so settled to just enjoy it, in the time that remained in this very pleasant part of the country.

It was 1230, time to go and I made my way back to the car park and packed everything away in the car. So very tired now I double checked to make sure nothing was left behind.

Driving back down the lanes to the A1. I turned north and set about the five hour journey to Claonaig sustained by sheer willpower and the knowledge of having seen two really rare birds for Britain. The first part of the journey was inevitably attritional, driving on fast motorways, skirting around Edinburgh then Glasgow. I got to Loch Lomond and then Crianlarich and slowed the car on less busy roads to drive through the spectacular sunlit scenery of mountain and loch that accompanied me northwards.

Finally I arrived at Claonaig and sat awaiting the ferry, the blue waters of Kilbrannan Sound lapping at the slipway, the hazy outlines of Arran's mountains just across the Sound. A flock of Whimbrel stood on the shoreline, resting like me, they on a much longer journey from Africa to Scandinavia.

I reflected on what I had done and how distant the early morning scoter seemed now, after the hours that had passed. But it was all true. It was not a dream and I could relax with that feeling of fulfilment that all twitchers can recognise.

My grateful thanks to Mark for allowing me to use his images of the Grey headed Lapwing