June, as often is the case up this way, proved to be one of the best months of the year, holding a quite productive trip to Speyside and some major local rarities. As there is lots to say about June, apologies in advance about the long post.
4th: This was the first of three days spent in Speyside. On the way to the area we stopped off via Cragendarroch Hill in Ballater, which held a local gem in the form of an extremely obliging Wood Warbler. As we passed the dramatic route from Deeside to Speyside through the Grampian Hills on the A939 5 miles east of Corgaff, a male Ring Ouzel was heard singing by the road, with a small climb through the heather flushing the bird in question. Next stop was Lochindorb near Grantown on Spey where we caught up with a pair of stunning summer plumaged Black-throated Divers and a singing Redstart. A long drive saw us arrive at Loch Ruthven where I was treated to the special experience of at least 7 Slavonian Grebes, with at least 3 adult summer plumaged birds present; amazing stuff! One particular adult was feeding young right outside the hid. 2 summer plumaged Red-throated Divers and a Cuckoo were here too. The day ended at Tulloch Moor in Abernethy Forest where 2 Woodcocks flew overhead in the sunset.
5th: A 6:00am start for Capercallie in the Forest Lodge area of Abernethy Forest proved unsuccessful for this species. However 8 Redstarts, 15 Common Crossbills and a Spotted Flycatcher provided some entertainment. Most of the day was spent climbing up Cairn Gorm from the ski centre. At first we took a wrong path which was unfruitful, providing only a single Red Grouse and an Osprey. Once on the main path and getting towards the top, the calls of Dotterel and Snow Bunting were tantalizing close but none could be located. We were nearing the plateaux with little reward, close to giving up when I suddenly chanced upon a pair of Ptarmigan about 6ft away from my feet. I called Dad over and we proceeded to watch the two of them sitting about 15ft away from us for about half an hour; unbelievable views and making up for all the walking. Pity I didn’t have my camera! After a needed break, a bit of evening birding at Loch Malachie/Garten held a charming pair of Redstart.
6th: The next morning we travelled home via Strathbeg for a drake American Wigeon that had turned up there. The drake American Wigeon was showing very well outside the Visitor Centre and was a satisfying way to conclude an enjoyable trip. It acted quite agressively towards its commoner cousins, flapping angrily at them when they came too close. Also present was a drake Garganey and 7 immature Little Gulls which provided nice back-up entertainment.
12th: I was sitting at home having a quiet day, when a text comes through on the local ABZ Rare Birds Text System stating that there was a drake AMERICAN WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (ssp. deglandi) off Murcar with the summering Common and Velvet Scoter flock just a few miles away from home, a first for Britain. Everything was dropped as we hurtled to Murcar, parking at the golf club and striding across the dunes towards where we assumed a mini twitch would be going on. We walked about half a mile before we found a group of local birders staring at the flock, and we were promptly directed to the bird in question. A feeling of elation swept over me as I set eyes on the WHITE-WINGED SCOTER towards the front of the Scoter flock which was only 200ft or so offshore in good light. It was watched for a couple of hours as it swam about at the front of the flock, staying at more or less the same distance and the light staying very good for us. I made the most of this unforgettable and educational experience, savouring this first ever opportunity to view and study what when accepted will become the first bird I’ve seen that’s a first for Britain. Whilst not the most visually appealing of birds, it was certainly fascinating. Of the American subspecies deglandi (rather than the Asian subspecies stejnegeri) this bird was an immature drake and was extremely subtle. However I was able to note the following diagnostic features:
- Pale, bill with pink at tip and with ‘two stepped’ profile was noticeably different from Velvet Scoters
- Uniformly mat chocolatey brown plumage, lacking the gloss or darkness of Velvet Scoters
- Appeared slimmer and less thick-necked than Velvets
- White underwing was not as extensive or prominent as in Velvets
- Notably brownish flanks
- Propelled its neck forwards in an ‘urgent’ manner, behaviour unlike any Velvets.
The bird dived quite regularly and often for long periods of time. Despite its subtelty, once seen a number of times you could relocate it without a great degree of difficulty, but this would have been a lot harder in worse light and further distance. At least 3 drake Surf Scoters provided great entertainment alongside the White-winged Scoter; at one point I had 4 species of scoter in scope view which was awesome. We left the bird mid-evening feeling understandably exhilirated; what a top quality and educational bird. On the way back we stopped off at Rigifa Pool, where a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper was a pleasant surprise, rounding off a sensational evening. Pictures of the White-winged Scoter can be seen here: http://www.birdguides.com/bne/details.asp?thread=738375 .
19th: A day out in Perth & Kinross + Angus with a birder from the area was pretty quiet. We tried for Pied Flycatcher at Killiecrankie in Perth & Kinross but failed to locate any despite the long drive, a Spotted Flycatcher providing little consolation. We headed back via prime moorland for Short-eared Owl and Merlin but failed to see either species. Glen Prosen back in Angus made the day more worthwhile, with a pair of Stonechat around, Red-legged Partridge, Snipe, Red Grouse with young and best of all a male Black Grouse flushed. The latter flew east at great speed, spreading its lyre tail as it gained height before landing on a moor-side in the distance. A beautiful bird that certainly made up for an otherwise quiet day.
25th: An afternoon at the Ythan Estuary was very enjoyable. Fabulous views were had of the drake King Eider on the bank opposite the old lifeboat station, the third time it was seen that year. The weather was idyllic, allowing for good photo opportunites (results can be seen below). Also around were 3 Little Gulls in the ternery, a few Little Tern and a drake Pintail from The Snub. We popped in at Blackdog on the way home where no-one had had the White-winged Scoter, but an adult drake Surf Scoter was very nice to see.
28th: Unbelievably, an adult drake BLACK SCOTER had been found off Blackdog with the Scoter flock, after the disappearance of the White-winged Scoter. Being yet another mega rarity, I was quick to get there. On arrival we were told the bird was showing but as we were setting up most of the scoter flock took off southwards, including the Black Scoter. Typical! Most birders present headed down to Murcar, but my Dad and I stayed put with two other birders. Luck was on our side as the scoter flock started returning to Blackdog and the BLACK SCOTER was located at 18:50 about 400ft offshore. Initially it was very hard to get decent views of, but eventually it showed very nicely down to 300ft. It was generally quite mobile around the flock and did not dive much, as well as interestingly not bodying itself higher in the water than the Common Scoters as expected of this species. In comparsion with the White-winged Scoter this was a far more impressive bird and less subtle; making it easier to locate. The following features were noted:
- ‘Swollen’ bulbous yellow bill stood out a mile from Common Scoters and in general flock, allowing it to be picked out easily
- Thicker necked appearance than Common Scoters
- Shorter, stubbier tail that was cocked upright at points like that of a Ruddy Duck
Accompanying this stunning bird were at least 2 Surf Scoters. We watched the Black Scoter for around an hour, leaving once again absolutely delighted by having seen a brilliant bird. If accepted this will be the 9th for Britain. It had been an unbelievable scoter month, with Murcar/Blackdog holding all 5 species of scoter in the world as it stands, one of which will likely be a first for Britain. It is estimated that 5 drake Surf Scoters were present in the flock during the overall period, although I only ever had a maximum of three at any point it is likely that all birds present were seen over the weeks, including a first-summer drake with very little white on the back of the head. An astonishing achievement that will be hard to repeat in the UK, and one that all Aberdeenshire birders can be rightly proud of. The Black Scoter ended off a similarly sensational month’s birding. Somehow, I managed to find the Black Scoter in an image I took of the scoter flock with Canon 40D that evening; see below.
Thanks for reading,