Tag Archives: birdwatching

A very strange duck

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
Monday, September 19, 1988
Paul and Steve have told me of a very strange duck, down on the River Trent at Attenborough, to the south west of Nottingham. Look for the orange arrow…

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Because of this, I make sure that I take the Sixth Form Birdwatching Group down there for a quick look round during our birdwatching afternoon. And indeed, when we do find the bird, it does turn out to be a bit of a puzzler. First of all, it is completely alone on the river, while all the other ducks are on the main lake. This is a very good start in proving that it is a rare bird, blown across the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean from the USA. Everybody knows that rare birds always keep well separate from any strange foreigners they are suddenly brought into contact with. It’s because vagrants are shy, uncertain of themselves and take a very long time to make friends., They may not speak English. They may be afraid of being eaten.

Superficially, the stranger is all brown, rather like a female Tufted Duck, but it’s not a definite Tufted Duck because the head shape is wrong.


Instead of a tuft, or the basis of a tuft, the bird has a rounded head like a Greater Scaup.


It’s not a Greater Scaup either though, because the head shape is not right for that species either. Instead of a completely rounded head like a Greater Scaup, it has a little peaked crown, rather like the head shape of Ring-necked Duck.


The basic drab brown, chocolaty colour of our bird’s plumage and the absence of any eye ring markings means, as far as I’m concerned, though, that it cannot be a Ring-necked Duck either. I hesitate between the two ends of the spectrum. Either, at one end, we are looking at yet another hybrid duck, because duck species all interbreed in a most alarming way. Or, we are breaking new ground in the glorious history of Nottinghamshire birdwatching, and it is a juvenile, or female, or eclipse, Lesser Scaup, which would be a first for Britain. Even then, this would not be, however, the first claim for this American species of bird in the county despite its almost unbelievable rarity…

At the other end of the spectrum, the more likely solution, and the easiest cop out is to say is that it is a hybrid, the fate of at least two of the county’s previous claims. But a hybrid of what? Scaup and Lesser Scaup? Tufted Duck and Ring-necked Duck?

Still, it was a bit of excitement on an otherwise dreary day. And indeed – why should a female Lesser Scaup be impossible at Attenborough, while a male, the first ever seen in Britain, is  acceptable at Chasewater, only some fifty miles away?

If I had my time over again, I would have made a bigger effort to ascertain two things, one relatively easy, the other much more difficult. It would have been reasonably easy to have checked the extent of any white areas at the base of this puzzling bird’s bill. The photographs above show how important this detail might have been. Nowadays, getting on for thirty years later,  I quite simply cannot remember, although that very fact in itself would imply that the white cannot have been either unbelievably bright or striking to the observer. Secondly, I would have tried to establish the exact size of this duck, something which would have been very difficult to do as it did not go near any other birds at any point during its stay on the River Trent. Alas, now I shall never know what it was, although it really did seem very strange at the time that it adamantly refused to mix with any other species of duck.    

By 2007, there had been just under a hundred records of Lesser Scaup in Great Britain with virtually every county having played host to the more easily identifiable  male at some point. There had been females but these were admittedly in limited numbers. Here is an Irish female at Rostellan Lake.

irish femaile xxxxx

It is now generally agreed by birdwatchers that Lesser Scaup has never been an incredibly rare vagrant, just a species that was very difficult to identify.

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One good tern deserves another… Cemlyn 1988

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I used to be a twitcher and ranged far and wide across Great Britain in search of rare birds. The furthest I ever went in a day from my home in Nottingham was to Glasgow and back, a distance of 633 miles, in a successful attempt to see an American Black Duck, which was, at the time, an extremely rare bird. My greatest ever failure was when I went to an island off the south west tip of Wales and failed to see the little American bird which was then called a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (270 miles). At the other end of the spectrum, I once saw an extremely rare bird from the USA, a Cedar Waxwing, as I drove the mile and a half to work in Nottingham. I hastily parked on the empty pavement, walked across to view a flock of birds, and became the fourth person to see this particular individual, the second ever for Great Britain.
I put together many of my twitching tales into a book called “Crippling Views”. I was unsuccessful with every single publisher, and back in the day, there was no Kindle to help the budding author. So……I published it myself as a ring-bound book, and sold it at £5 for a hundred or so pages. It didn’t make my fortune, but the reserve goalkeeper at Liverpool Football Club, Mike Hooper, bought a copy, so that was good enough for me.
One day, “Crippling Views” may see the light of day on Amazon’s print-on-demand, but for now, here is an extract…

“Saturday, July 14th 1988
…over the weeks, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the in-flight views of Roseate tern that I had at Rhosneigr, Anglesey, in north Wales, that when a Bridled Tern is found at Cemlyn Bay, only a few miles along the coast, I decide to go for it…”


Bridled Tern may be rare in Great Britain, but it’s not particularly uncommon in New Zealand…

new zealand

“Bridled Tern and Roseate Tern. I’ll be killing two birds with one stone, as it were. Indeed, I may not even have to go to Rhosneigr since the ternery at Cemlyn Bay is a secret site for breeding Roseates anyway. I feel fairly confident that we’ll get both birds. After all, one good tern deserves another….”

“It’s a very long trip to Cemlyn from Nottingham, well over two hundred miles, and the furthest I’ve been for a bird so far. The roads get gradually narrower and narrower, once we leave the A55, which is like a motorway compared to the increasingly countrified A5 as it approaches Holyhead. One of my friends is delighted that we go through Llanfairpwyllextremelysillylongwelshname and he bores all of us rigid with his ceaseless repetition of it. We finally know that we are nearing our destination, as we find ourselves hurtling down that true Welsh speciality, the Single Track Road Without Any Passing Places Whatsoever. I still can’t really understand why you seem never to meet anything, but you never do. Does Wales have a gigantic nationwide one way system for tourists?
At last, we reach Cemlyn Bay. As we squeal to a halt in the car park, another birdwatcher shouts to us that the bird has just flown in.”

“This is good, since the bird is apparently in the rather dubious habit of disappearing far out to sea for hours and hours on end. We are therefore, rather lucky in our timing, since, theoretically, if the bird has been out fishing, it shouldn’t be too hungry and should stay loafing around for a good while. There then follows a long trek across the relentless shingle to the ternery.”
“The whole place is rather peculiar, and perhaps unique from a morphological point of view.”
cemlynbay aerial
“There’s a beautiful, wide sweeping bay, with a shingle bar at one end, and between this and the land, there is a pool of probably salty, or possibly fresh, water. In the middle of this little lake, there is a flat island, covered in dry, scrubby vegetation, with plants all about a foot high. This is where the terns nest. They are mostly Arctic Terns, but with just a few Common Terns, and a whole host of noisy Sandwich Terns with their shaggy caps and black bills, replete with bright yellow tips. There are also a good few Roseates, up to perhaps twelve, sitting on a row of stones, preening.”
Roseate Tern-1b-06-11
“They have lovely all black beaks, and short little red legs. They don’t, however, have the great long tail streamers that they are supposed to have…I presume that they must have broken these off during the busy period of feeding the young. And unfortunately it is also too late in the season for their white breasts to have the pinkish tinge that they are famous for. Nevertheless, they are fairly distinctive birds, particularly in flight, when their broad wings are very noticeable. Overall, they are very pale birds, and we realise that the birds we saw two months ago at Rhosneigr, far out over the sea, were in actual fact Roseates.
The star of the show, the Bridled Tern, stands quietly at the back of the ternery, half masked by vegetation, and other birds.”
“This oceanic bird truly is a magnificent creature, a really tropical looking individual. Its colour is most enigmatic, a kind of brownish black that one of my friends says they use in the fabrics at the factory where he works. As a shade of dress material, it’s called “taupe”. I just don’t know, but it is a rather striking colour. I cannot get over just how exotic the bird looks. After ten minutes or so, it does a series of little flypasts, showing off its darkly coloured upperparts, and its sparklingly white undersides, the whole set off by a kind of negative bandit’s mask, white instead of black.”

“It is straight into my Twitching Charts at Number One.
Probably more significant in terms of bird behaviour though, are the Herring Gulls that perch on top of a distant building, and every now and then swoop down into the ternery , pick up a single unattended tern chick, and then fly off to eat it. They are like Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette. If you’re number’s up, it’s curtains. Evolution in action, as the more heedless birds don’t get to pass on their genes.”

That account doesn’t seem almost thirty years ago. It isn’t just Bridled Terns that fly!
They are still, though, a rare bird in this country. Just a month or so ago this year, one was found in the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria. In my opinion, these three are the very best of many videos….

Bridled Tern Farne Islands 21 Jun 14

Bridled Tern, Inner Farne



Filed under Nottingham, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

Locustella fluviatilis

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Have you ever noticed how, in crime films, the detectives always say to the criminal suspects, “Do you remember where you were on July 14th 1989?”
And the criminal suspect will always reply, “Why, yes, I was sitting at home watching Hawaii Five-O” or perhaps, “Why, yes, I was sitting at home, having a cup of tea and some Garibaldi biscuits, because I had just finished the somewhat tricky and tiring erection of an MFI office desk.”
The rest of us though, are usually not quite so lucky. We may not manage to remember even a single thing we did in 1989. We may not remember even who we were, twenty five years ago.
But not so, if you were……a twitcher.
At lunchtime on July 14th 1989, I rang Birdline, the recently introduced method of discovering which rare birds were where, and discovered that a River Warbler had been found at Boughton Fen in western Norfolk. This was only the fourth occasion ever that this bird had occurred in this country, having, presumably, experienced some major snafu with its migratory instincts. Normally, it lives here…

And soooo….I left school slightly early because I had a free period, and drove off a hundred miles to see if I could locate a specific small bird on a particular twig on a particular bush on the other side of the country. The bird should look something like this…
River best shot (1024x721)
I remember only one thing from the journey there, namely, passing a road sign which I thought probably directed fans to the house of a rich oilman in “Dynasty” or “Dallas”. It read “Boughton Barton Bendish”, and was just one of that whole series of countrywide road signs which indicate people rather than places. Foremost among these, of course, is the Lincolnshire hamlet of “Norton Disney”
I reached Boughton Fen pretty rapidly because this was well before the days of speed cameras, and when things were urgent, this could easily be reflected in your driving. The bird was not difficult to see either, because it was almost constantly on view as it sang, perched on the same twig at the top of a single isolated bush.
river 2
I am terrible at birdsong, but it did sound rather like a slowly approaching steam train….
I can remember very little more of this twitch. The crowd was not exceptionally large…
or fierce…

and neither was Lord Nelson there, testing out his six-footer…
One very famous birdwatcher that I do have vague memories of seeing may well have been present at Boughton. He is Lee Evans, who is the self-appointed policeman who vets all the birdwatchers’ lists to make sure that they are not claiming to have seen very rare species when this is not the case. Lee styles himself, therefore, the “judge, jury and executioner” for British and Irish twitchers. He regards himself too as the George Michael of birdwatching.
I may have forgotten the people somewhat, but the date…never.
So, when that detective comes back a second time, a few months later, and says to me, “Do you remember where you were on July 12th 1990?”, I can always look in my notebook, and without any hesitation whatsoever, I can reply, “Why, yes, I was sitting at the top of a cliff at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, watching an adult Alpine Accentor pick insects from between the rocks.”

The photographs of both the River Warbler and the Alpine Accentor have been taken from the website http://www.aabirdpix.com/megas.htm which provides an absolutely wonderful glimpse of the rare birds seen in Great Britain and Ireland over the last twenty or thirty years.

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