'A Nice Day for Ducks' is a phrase usually used in association with wet weather. However, my usage of the phrase does not intend to have this connotation. I am using the phrase in the context of me actually managing to see some good duck species on my birding outing this Sunday just past (20th Feb). Hitherto this weekend I had been unable to get out all month due to two consecutive weeks worth of more or less non-stop rain, which admittedly was very frustrating. However, I did manage year-ticks in the city in the form of a Peregrine Falcon over the house (only my second over the house) and a Sparrowhawk. It was relieving to finally get out this weekend, and with some decent winter birds at my local patch of the Loch of Strathbeg such as Green-winged Teal and Hen Harrier, I knew that that was the best place to be.
However, before getting to Strathbeg I wanted to stop off at a couple of places. Firstly, I wanted to check Johnstone Gardens in Aberdeen for a drake Mandarin Duck that had been seen there a couple of weeks earlier. Like with all Mandarins, I knew its origins would be debateable, but I was keen to check it out and see if I could shed any light on its origins. I arrived there at 9:30, and what with it being a small area, had the whole area covered within 10 minutes. Unfortunately it didn't seem to be present with the Mallards and Moorhens in the area, and thus I never saw it. Maybe the fact that it had disappeared is indicitave of it being a wild bird... I will never know, but such behaviour certainly suggests it to me! My next stop was at my other local patch of the Ythan Estuary. A check of the main part of the estuary revealed that several waders were wintering in the area, with a rather impressive 110 Knots (yeartick) mixed in with an equally impressive 130 Dunlins, 40 Golden Plovers, and several Lapwings, Curlews and Redshanks. Apart from the noticeable variety and totals of commoner waders, there was very little else on the Estuary. On the nearby Meikle Loch, several Goldeneyes and Tufted Ducks were swimming about, as was a female Goosander, a new species for Meikle Loch. On the way to Strathbeg, we stopped several times to intensly check fields with gull flocks in them in the hope that there may be something more interesting amongst them -I was letting out the inner larophile within me! Unfortuantely, I was unsuccessful in finding anything more interesting than the usual variety.
We arrived at Strathbeg on the verge of midday, going into the visitor centre and having a nice chat with one of the local birders about what was around and other things avian. We were informed that there wasn't too much about from a nice assortment of commoner ducks, but I didn't let this discourage me from looking for the scarcer birds that I knew were lurking somewhere on the reserve - namely Green-winged Teal and Hen Harrier. As I checked the pools I noted a pair of Shoveler (yeartick) amongst the Wigeons and Teals in their hoards, as well as several pairs of absolutely stunning Pintails, the latter of which seemed to spend a lot of times with their rear ends sticking in the air and their heads submerged in the water. I checked as closely as I could for the Green-winged Teal, which was very tricky due a majority of the ducks being very distant, but failed to find it. However, as I came back across the Pintails I had seen earlier I noticed a much, much smaller duck appear from a dive beside them with a red head. I immediately declared 'I've got a redhead Smew', vaguely aware that one had been around for the winter but that it hadn't been seen in several days. I informed my Dad and the birder we were speaking to where it was, and they subsequently caught onto it and thanked me for re-finding it. If I was able to re-find this Smew without it being seen before, maybe there was more to find that was yet to be seen that day, I thought to myself...
I was right. Having birded for about half an hour from the Visitor Centre, I was taking a short break from scanning the pools when I noticed out the corner of my eye that a large, pale coloured bird was flying to the left of me. I turned round and, to my delight, locked onto the male Hen Harrier, one of my targets for the day. Yet again, I immediately alerted every one else of my sighting. Only very briefly was I truly mesmerized by its magnificence and beauty, as I saw it zoom southwards close to the side of the visitor centre building. Now, I find that you can never settle with just brief views of a male Hen Harrier, you have to get good, prolonged views! So my Dad and I quickly went out of the Visitor Centre to see if we could re-locate it. We checked the field in front of the car park feeders, and sure enough, there was the male Hen Harrier alongside a Buzzard. It was the epitome of elegance, sleeker and much thinner than the Buzzard beside it. The Buzzard soon flew out of sight, meaning we were left to watch the rather windstruck male Hen Harrier quartering the field. The wind forced it to go at some speed, but I was still able to become enchanted by this maginificent beast, what with its ghostly grey plumage and general flamboyance! I watched it for about a minute before it eventually flew westwards and out of sight. I thus went back to the Visitor Centre over the moon and rather spell-bound - male Hen Harriers are just beautiful! We had lunch in the Visitor Centre, during which I managed to see 2 Ruffs (1 down from my total of 3 on my previous visit) and continued to watch the redhead Smew. We then decided that we'd head to Tower Pool Hide to get closer to the ducks and have another stab at finding the Green-winged Teal. I was on a role, having already re-found two of the better birds in the area. I just needed to try and re-find this Green-winged Teal now.
On arrival at Tower Pool hide Dad used the scope and searched for the Green-winged Teal first. He wasn't able to find it on his first try, but we were both able to count a pretty surprising total of 28 Pintails, more than I have ever seen before! Once I had the scope, I proceeded to look as meticulously as I could for the Teal. About 10 minutes passed with no success whatsoever, when suddenly, as I was checking some of the closer ducks to us I alighted upon a group of Teals that contained an indivdual without a horizontal white stripe that looked somewhat bulkier than its fellow Teals. I waited for it turn round, and noticed a vertical stripe. "YES!', I thought to myself as I saw this bird; I had just found the drake Green-winged Teal after a few days of it not being seen, my third re-find of the day! I was elated, and quickly got another birder in the hide onto it and let my Dad see. What ensued was very good, prolonged views through the Swarovski of the drake Green-winged Teal down to about 120ft at its closest. Views of this bird were far, far better than the views I got of the drake in Kinneil Lagoon (Forth) back in December (I didn't just see it roosting and it wasn't at great distance)! It differed from the Kinneil bird somewhat, with a seemingly larger yellow vent than its commoner cousins, a slightly larger and bulkier appearance, and most importantly its vertical white stripe was indistinguishable in comparison to most Green-winged Teals - it was very thin and wasn't a very prominent white at all, but was still noticeable. If this bird had been at distance, it may well have been a trickier ID! It was brilliant to see this Teal, as not only was it a lovely bird but it was also a very useful year-tick that took me till the last few days of December to see last year, a species that I could have very easily missed this year, and only my third ever! We watched it for about half an hour, and then left, receiveing news from a couple of birders that they had seen two White-fronted Geese at the Ythan on Saturday. We ended up going back to the Ythan to search for these White-fronts, but were unsuccessful, despite finding and checking several Pinkfeet flocks. It really was a day for ducks, despite dipping on the Mandarin at Johnstone Gardens! Below are the duck totals for the day:
1 drake Green-winged Teal, 28 Pintails, 1 redhead Smew, 2 Shoveler, 2 Gadwall, several hundred Wigeons and Teals, 1 female Goosander
Overall, it was a fantastic and fulfilling day - I had managed to re-find three birds before anyone else at Strathbeg, I had seen both the targets that I had come to see (Hen Harrier and GW Teal) and saw some other lovely birds! Furthermore, the yearlist increased to 98 species. A very successful winter days birding! Excuse the absence of photos in this post, the light was poor and most birds were too far away to photograph. Don't worry though, there will be photos soon!
Thanks for reading,