Thursday 28 July 2016

The most epic of dips

When we were discussing and planning to twitch the WW Scoter in Aberdeen, had I known the bird would be such a head-wrecker, I might not have traveled. But in the end I'm glad I did. It might not be consolation for many after traveling so far but in the end I got more out of dipping on this bird than if we'd found it and ticked it in thirty minutes.....well sort of!
Here's how it all panned out.
At 4.20pm on Friday myself, Nick Watmough and James Lowen departed from Norwich and headed north. Nine hours later we had pitched in to a motel outside Perth and five hours after that at 6.30am on Saturday morning we were back on the road heading for Aberdeen. At 8.20am, as we were pulling into the car park at Murcar Golf Links, news was already on the web that the bird was showing in the scoter flocks off-shore opposite the clubhouse. Half an hour and we'd have this one in the bag and would be settling down to a slap up Scottish breakfast.
However, the best laid plans and all that.............
Seven hours later we had to admit defeat and throw the towel in. During the day we had two candidates for WW Scoter. The first bird we got onto looked pretty good, nice large,white speculum on the wing. Bigger than on any of the other Velvets. Another birder was completely happy with it, ticked it and went on his way. We were, its fair to say, about 70-80%. The shape of the white eye patch was difficult to discern at a distance and the bill shape / colour was tricky too. We scanned from the top of a pillbox on the beach but couldn't really see enough detail on the bill to make a certain identification. Sometime later we got onto candidate number two and this one really did look promising. Again, large square-ish shaped white speculum (which was bigger than any on the Velvets) and even if you lost the bird in the swell and movement of the flock, you could find it again by looking for the large white speculum. Different birders got onto it and the consensus seemed to be that this was the bird. We had all seen it and put the news out. Nick though, ever the competent scientist, wanted proper views of the bill colour and shape to clinch the ID. He returned to the pillbox roof for closer views.

Nick scans from the pillbox
James and I continuing scanning from the dunes but we'd lost the bird now. In the end we never re-found it and following a brief discussion with another birder we had to conclude that this "was not our boy". What we saw of the bill had too much yellow on it and while difficult to discern the profile didn't seem quite right either.

Dunes from Murcar Golf Links

So it was back to the drawing board. By now it must have been 2pm, we had nothing to eat, four hours sleep after a nine hour drive and nothing to drink either. It wasn't getting any easier. We spent the next two hours scanning on our own but couldn't pick out the bird. And the more we looked at the Velvets the more we realised that our initial two birds were probably Velvets also. Drake Velvets would throw me by sometimes showing a large white speculum, especially if the wing was relaxed along the side of the bird or especially if it was preening.
At 4pm we conceded defeat. We were shattered and chances of finding it now were not getting better (especially considering our lack of food, sleep and drink). We retired to the clubhouse of Murcar Golf Club for a very welcome double burger and chips and licked our wounds. James withdrew the sighting.

The defeated Scoter Squad (Graham Clarke, James Lowen and Nick Watmough)
The other two were understandably dejected. I wasn't too disappointed though. Firstly, I had travelled a very steep learning curve on Velvet Scoters, I had seen a cracking drake Surf Scoter (UK tick), and seen a very interesting Common Scoter with an all yellow bill that James had found. It was a strong candidate for Black Scoter but bill profile was wrong (I have subsequently heard this bird is "known locally" and has the nickname of Duffy Duck!). Also, I had seen the Rossbeigh stejneger's Scoter in 2010 so unless it's split from deglandi then it wouldn't be a tick for me anyhow. I think if we had rocked up and ticked the bird in thirty minutes I certainly would not have gotten too much from that. Most importantly I was reminded of the basic principles of birding and a lot of other things, if you don't have enough good quality data then you can't make an accurate call on something. No matter how far you have travelled to see a bird and how much you want to believe that you have seen it, if you are only 90% then that's not good enough. You need to be 100% certain based on full scrutiny of the key identification features to make an accurate call. If you can't do that and you're not 100% then that's that and you have to let it go - such is life.

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