Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The scoter experience, North Wales

A favourite day out of mine at this time of year is a trip to the North Wales coast where one of the the highlights is the opportunity to view the scoter flocks which feed offshore. I know that this isn't everybodies cup of tea due to the often extreme viewing distance and the difficulty in picking out individual birds, but I just love the shear spectacle of thousands of black ducks on the water and the challenge of finding something good.

However more on that subject later, because on arrival at Llanddulas today and before we got the scopes out to look through the scoter, we headed 200m down the beach from the car park to the mouth of the river Dulas where for a few days there has been a glaucous gull feeding on the carcass of a harbour porpoise.

No matter how many glaucous gulls I see, and this was about my fifth this year, I never tire of seeing this magnificent gull, the second largest in the world after great black back.  This year has been exceptionally good by recent standards, because often these days I can go a year or two without seeing glaucous gull and I would consider Iceland gull to be the commoner of the two white winged gull species.

This bird might be in the first winter of it's life, but technically it is not in 1st winter plumage. Due to their very late moult, Glaucous gulls do not have a true 1st winter plumage, just varying degrees of worn juvenile plumage. This bird is in juvenile plumage.

Viewing the scoter flocks off the North Wales coast can often be difficult and uncomfortable. They are usually so far out that 60x magnification is required and if there is any kind of wind it can make viewing very difficult. With just binoculars you could walk past a flock of 10,000 birds and not even notice that they were there.

Uncomfortable and difficult though it may be, watching a distant feeding flock of scoter is one of the great birding experiences in my opinion, they're just an awesome spectacle. Sometimes the whole flock flies 500m like a giant shadow over the water, before dropping down, and then the birds at the rear take up again and fly to the front, and they keep repeating this, almost as if none of them want to be at the back. Just as when watching a starling murmuratrion, it is the whole rather than the individual that impresses.

However out on the sea today there were no huge concentrations to admire, just a few hundred common scoter which were a little closer than usual. Scanning through the flock with the bright sunshine directly behind us we were able to easily pick out two stunning drake surf scoters, still a good way out, but at least on 60x we could see plenty of detail on their heads. Then suddenly they flew, and we had two drake surf scoters flying directly towards us with a couple of hundred common scoter before they dropped in again. Not always easy to see, they could go missing for several minutes at a time in the swell, but when they did show they were a very decent scope view.

Photography was very difficult of course, they bobbed up and down so much and even when they were in view I still couldn't see them through the view finder, it was just click and hope in the general direction of where they were last seen. No change there then!

I could barely feel my toes they were so cold, and even with multiple layers on it felt icey. We retired to Conwy RSPB for a brew and a piece of Bara brith, and then after a failed search for a firecrest we were ready to talk scoter again! We headed back along the coast to another great spot, Pensarn at Abergele. Once again we failed to find any huge concentrations of scoter here, just a few hundred birds, but they seemed even closer than those at Llanddulas so we unloaded scopes and had a look.

Within a couple of minutes of scanning we had found two drake surf scoters, and a further scan to the right revealed another two. At least six drake surf scoters for the day, not a bad result, and we hadn't even found 95% of the scoter flocks. How many more must there be out there? Difficult enough to pick out the stunning males, it would be reasonable to assume that there are likely to be at least as many females and juveniles which go largely unnoticed in the flocks! I have seen females from this coast but not singularly, they are easiest to pick up when you find a couple of displaying males accompanying them.

We had just enough daylight left in the day to call in at Kinmel Bay near Rhyl where a couple of snow bunting obliged by showing exceptionally well.

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