A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Thursday, 7 July 2016

White-winged Scoter off Murcar, Aberdeen!

White-winged Scoter is one exceptionally good looking bird. Ever since seeing the pictures of a drake photographed off Musselburgh back in 2013, I wanted to see one for myself – the extravagant flick of bold white eyeliner contrasting against the midnight black tones and striking pink bill elevating them a cut above the rest in Scoter terms. Yes, Velvet Scoters are attractive, but White-winged Scoters are in a whole different league.
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
Record shot of the American White-winged Scoter
With very few records of either race (Deglandi or Stejnegeri) occurring in British seas (just one record of Deglandi from Aberdeen in 2011 and one record of Stejnegeri photographed in Lothian in 2013 – but not actually seen at the time) White-winged Scoters are a truly rare bird in Britain indeed, so when reports surfaced of an adult drake Deglandi type mixed in with the regular Scoter flock off Murcar Links Golf Course in Aberdeen, it was a no brainer to get up there.

Stopping off in Glasgow on the Friday night and finishing off the remainder of the mammoth journey the following morning, we eventually made it up to the golf course car park at 11am, when helpfully a Birdguides message popped up to inform us the Scoter had been present and showing well until half an hour ago, when the whole flock had flushed and flown distantly out to sea. All we needed!
Murcar Links Golf Course - Aberdeen
The beautiful views off Murcar Golf Course
Making our way through the golf course to the soundtrack of calling Yellowhammers and Oystercatchers, we eventually arrived on the sandy dune cliffs, intrigued and inquisitive golfers taking an interest in our quest – the White-winged Scoter was apparently well known by all the golfers here!

With no sign of the forecast rain and the sea surprisingly calm, we set about trying to refind the scoter – us being the only birders in the dunes making this an increasingly difficult task. Scanning the now distant flocks again and again, the minutes gradually turned in to hours with still no sign, the fact a report emerged at just after 1pm being slightly frustrating (there was no one in sight and our group still hadn’t had any success) as was a false alarm when we ran across the dunes under the impression from Rob that another birder had found it (it transpired he had actually re-found the Ythan Estuary King Eider that had relocated to Murcar for the day)!
King Eider - Ythan Estuary, Aberdeen
The King Eider when we saw him at Ythan back in 2014
Never the less we persevered, an increased movement of Velvet Scoters streaming right encouraging us to head back up that way to continue the search, joining another group of birders and settling down for one last look.
Murcar Links Golf Course - Aberdeen
Then, after what felt like an age (5 hours to be precise!) we finally had our prize, Welsh birder Rob spotting our white-winger fly in from the far left and land relatively close by out on the sea. Ecstatic, we all clamoured for a look, getting all the assembled scopes on the spot and enjoying excellent views as this gorgeous scoter drifted serenely along on the current, the white on the wings showing particularly well due to the positioning of the feathers and the striking white flick underneath the eye standing out a mile – distinctive and much more exaggerated in comparison to the nearby Velvet Scoters.
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
The bill structure was also immediately obvious, just a small hint of pink at the tip and a large black nodule creating that distinctive wedge shape in profile, diagnostic when trying to separate this mega scoter from the accompanying Velvets. The brown flank patch (another subtle identification feature) was also clearly visible and noticeably different from the solid black of the Velvets and Common Scoters.
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
The distinctive bill shape
We watched on as the White-winged Scoter gradually joined the rest of the flock and merged in with the surrounding Common and Velvet Scoters, becoming increasingly more distant as they drifted away on the tide.
A nice comparison shot of all 3 Scoter species. The more exaggerated white eye flick and pink tip to the black bill separated the White-winged Scoter from the similar Velvets
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
At a distance, it was incredibly hard to pick out from the accompanying Velvets, the white eye flick not standing out so much in comparison and the pink tones of the bill the only real thing separating it from the flock. If the light was poor and the sea choppy, I can imagine at a distance it would be extremely difficult to pinpoint.
The White-winged Scoter could get lost at times - it's the bird just left of centre
My (rather poor) video of the Scoter through my scope!

Luckily, due to the positioning of the birds wings, there was a large conspicuous white patch which showed up from a distance that made picking out the White-winged Scoter easy once it had joined in to the flock – without this it would have been much harder to keep track of.
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
The white patch on the wing was extremely obvious
White-winged Scoter - Murcar, Aberdeen
Remarkably, the first White-winged Scoter for Britain was also at Murcar Links Golf Course in Aberdeen, a first summer drake that was present during June 2011. It is therefore highly likely that this could well be the same male returning again 5 years later – where it’s been during that time if it is indeed the same is a mystery.
The Stejneger's Scoter found by the Biggest Twitch team in Norway earlier this year - photo  by Alan Davies. Note the even more exaggerated white eye flick and prominent black nodule on the bill as opposed to Deglandi.
Originating over in America (Deglandi) or Asia (Stejnegeri), there have been a small handful of White-winged Scoters in the Western Pal over the last few years, with individuals seen in Norway, Ireland and Iceland, as well as the UK. With the majority of scoter flocks in Britain being a lot more distant than the ones off Murcar and with the clinching ID factors incredibly subtle at such a distance, there may well be several more White-winged Scoters lurking out there waiting to be found.
Murcar Links Golf Course - Aberdeen
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - this time in the form of a White-winged Scoter
With the scoter successfully under our belts and the rain now starting to set in, we headed back to our hotel for the night, enjoying a well-earned and delicious Indian banquet in the conveniently situated restaurant next door to the Travelodge before the long drive back the next day. Thanks to Rob for driving us, a fantastic bird to see and well worth the epic journey! 

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