Monday, 26 January 2015

Rare Imposters Loom Large over Xmas

For the last few years I have been spending each Christmas with family near Aberdeen and I try to get out birding on at least one of my days up there. This has been significantly easier since last year when we ditched air travel in favour of the car.

This year we made a cheeky detour to Linlithgow Loch en route where a drake LESSER SCAUP was apparently in residence.  Though close to the shore the bird was hard to photograph as watching it involved looking towards the sun. Aythyas are notorious for throwing up confusing hybrids and lesser scaups need to be checked carefully for signs of impurity. I only had minutes to spare but on reviewing my photos afterwards I was concerned by the extent of the dark nail and the rather fine vermiculations above, and also a little by the size (noticeably larger than tufted). I contacted local birder Martin Scott and mentioned my concerns (he had not yet seen the bird) but by then I was less bothered by the bill. In some pics, mainly those side-on it seemed fine, in others particularly head on shots the bill appears to have a large dark tip. This would appear to be a combination of shadow/ photo artefact and the presence of a muddy droplet on the nail sometimes following a dive.

The vermiculations were more worrying and lent an appearance at longer range of a smooth grey back. I have seen at least one shot online where they look coarser but I wonder if this has been enhanced by post processing sharpening which always brings them out more. These vermiculations are only obvious at closer range. The head looked a little greenish at times but not enough in my view to be a concern. I couldn't rule out this bird being within the variation expected of lesser scaup until a few days later when some online discussion generated more doubt and some open wing shots (see which for me killed off the possibility of a pure bred bird. A rather convincing hybrid with perhaps both greater and lesser parentage. Oh well, put it down to experience!

The following day I celebrated my birthday with a spot of dawn 'til dusk birding. I hesitate to use the phrase 'a day's birding' as on the winter solstice it's more like a half day! I started at Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh where 13 long-tailed ducks, 4 velvet scoters, two diver species, a school of porpoises and a juv puffin all made themselves known during the first hour of light. A chiffchaff flicking about around the lighthouse seemed unseasonal.

Fraserburgh Harbour was lacking in white-winged gulls so I headed round Fraserburgh Bay to Inverallochy. The LT duck count reached an impressive 60+ (including the 13 seen earlier) and on the far side of the bay I found a wonderful congregation of gulls and ducks feeding by the shore. There was nothing unusual with them, except perhaps for the blushing black-headed gull, not quite the nice adult Ross's I had at nearby Kinnaird Head 22 years ago.

Nearby the wintering juvenile SPOTTED SANDPIPER was located on the rocky shore but it was difficult to follow, vanishing in a moment and usually turning up 100 yards further up the shore. On some nearby rocks I did a real double take when I caught sight of an odd cormorant with some shags. It was only a little larger than them and had a fiery orange face. Praying it would be a double-crested I took plenty of photos and sneaked closer. Unfortunately a nice little wedge of introgressive 'gular' feathering under the chin seemed to rule out this option and the general shape of the facial skin was clearly wrong for the rarer species. When it flew there was no kink in the neck and I was left reluctantly accepting it as a rather odd-looking common cormorant, though whether it was carbo or sinensis seems unclear.

With daylight running out I headed to Loch of Stathbeg which held a few whooper swans, tree sparrows, pintail and a merganser, though strangely no geese. I called in to Peterhead Harbour at dusk where some wonderfully close bull grey seals entertained. Again a blank on white-wingers.

I got out again on Christmas Eve for a few hours with the family when we went to see the seal colony on the Ythan Estuary. Just a hundred yards or so from the seals I picked up a mobile flock of snow buntings. Nearby a small flock of pinkfeet failed to produce anything rarer until I drove further up the road and turned around for a better vantage point. In the next field close to my turning spot was a group of 6 geese well away from the pinks. I suspected they might be something else and I was right - a nice family party of Eurasian whitefronts which soon got spooked by my presence and headed off to join the flock in the adjacent stubble field. When I popped back at dusk on Boxing Day the pinkfoot flock was still there but there was no sign of the white-fronts. The highlight was a 1st winter med gull off Inch Point.

And so bring on 2015...after two excellent birding years on the trot, it has a lot to live up to!