Monday, 23 April 2018

The Spring Durham Run 2018

It was getting near to the end of an era: my eldest daughter was now in her last term of her four year Durham University course - where has all the time gone? Anyway, whilst she'd been coming and going on the train for the last couple of terms, it was decided for logistical reasons that I should take her back up and pick up some of her stuff from her flat as there was otherwise going to be no room in the car when we all came up for her graduation and then to bring her back down at the end of summer term. As usual I cast around for things to take a look at whilst up in the North East but there was nothing of note (as you'd generally expect for mid April). The only thing that caught my eye was right up over the border in Scotland where the over-wintering American White-winged Scoter was still in residence off the sea wall at Musselburgh just east of Edinburgh. It was a bit of a stretch from Durham on up there, being a further full two and a half hours driving on top of the four hours up to Durham but on the other hand, how often was I going to get the chance to see this species? In the end, the total absence of anything else to go for decided it for me and I booked a cheap Air BnB in Musselburgh itself and my daughter and I set off on a sunny and indeed almost hot morning from Oxford. 

The journey upwards was uneventful and shortly before 1 pm we had arrived at Durham and had quickly unloaded the car with her things and I'd packed the stuff that she wanted me to take back down. Then after a quick cup of tea we said our goodbyes and I was back on the road heading north up the A1. Thinking back, I'd done something similar on the January run northwards last year where I'd managed to see the Black Scoter at Goswick so this trip wasn't without precedence but this was a good hour further northwards. Still, the roads were reasonably empty and with Radio 4 for company the time and the miles slipped away. Within about fifteen minutes of my destination I had to stop at some services where I was amazed to find just how windy it was. It was a really strong wind which got me worrying about how easy it might be to see the bird in these conditions. Still there was nothing I could do now and back in the Gnome mobile I continued onwards until finally I was in the familiar town of Musselburgh, which I'd visited once before on a failed attempt to see a resident King Eider there. Indeed that particular trip had been a catalogue of dips with three of four birds that I'd lined up all not seen. Still, this was a chance for Musselburgh to make amends for that, or so I hoped. 

I parked up, and in the strong wind put on all my winter clothing. Back down in Oxford where it had been so hot, I had been wondering about whether I was going to need all these coats but right now I was glad to have them. Finally tooled up I set off along the sea wall where I soon came to the fabled "first bench" that was so frequently mentioned in the RBA reports for this target bird. Sure enough there was a birder staring out at the sea. A tentative enquiry on my part returned a negative response: the chap (a Yorkshire birder) had been there for a couple of hours without luck though he had managed to spot the drake Surf Scoter. He said that the conditions were very difficult and as I set up and started scoping for myself I could only agree: not only was there a nasty chop on the sea but the wind kept shaking the scope so it was going to be pretty hard to nail the subtle differences that distinguished the numerous Velvet Scoter there from the hoped for American visitor. 

We'd not been at it long when news came in on RBA that our target bird had been seen but much further east, in fact east of the wader scrapes a Musselburgh which was a fair old walk. So myself and my new found companion set off on the long slog along the sea wall. When we eventually got to that end there was no sign of any other birders but at least it was more sheltered over here. What's more the birds were much closer in. In fact, as I said to my companion, these were probably the best views of Velvet Scoter I'd ever had! The birds were close in and in the bright sunshine the yellow on their bills really stood out so I was hoping that the more subtle pinkish tones of the target White-winged Scoter would be relatively easy to pick out. My companion and I gradually worked our way along the wall, scoping every bird that we could. Along with at least fifty Velvet Scoter there were quite a few Eider, a few Long-tailed Duck and some Red-breasted Mergansers. There were remarkably few Common Scoter but I did pick out a couple.

A drake Eider off the sea wall
Still, try as we might we couldn't find our target bird. We stared so hard at each Velvet, looking for subtle differences and wondering just how obvious our target bird would be if we saw it. Were we missing it or was it just not there? Eventually my companion left as he was having to drive back home to Yorkshire today, having been up in the Cairngorms that morning so it was already a long day for him. Another birder arrived and he and I continued to search in vain for this elusive bird. He left and gradually the light started to fade and I had to admit defeat. It was a long and weary trudge back to the car and I was feeling very despondent having made such an effort to come all this way without any reward so far. Still, there was another try tomorrow morning and the Air BnB place was just a couple of minutes up the road so I headed over there, got unpacked and then headed out to score a Chinese takeaway which I ate in my room whilst watching TV. Then after checking in with my VLW back home in Oxford it was time to turn in for the night.

I woke a bit earlier than planned, but was up, showered and out of the door by 7 a.m. with a fly-over Redpoll greeting me as I got into the car. The contrast with yesterday could not be more complete and this morning there was hardly a breath of wind. Instead it was a beautiful sunny calm morning and the sea was mirror-like in its stillness. It was such a perfect morning but would it be a successful one?

Looking out over the mirror flat sea from the mouth of the river Esk

Roosting Waders at the river mouth

Roosting Redshank
As I wandered along the path I soon heard the reeling of a Grasshopper Warbler. Now, I'd more or less come to the conclusion that I'd lost the ability to hear this species though there is always the question of if you're not hearing one is it because you can no longer do so, or is there just not one there! There certainly was one in this instance and I rejoiced in the fact that I could still hear it. 

Although it was still early, when I arrived at the first bench there were already a couple of birders there, chatting quietly to themselves. When I asked hopefully about the target Scoter they confidently answered that yes they'd seen it! Hope welled up within me as I quickly assembled my scope and asked for details. It turned out that it was more or less straight out in front of us though a quick inspection revealed that the birds were a long way out today. However, the flat calm conditions meant that you could basically pick out  every single bird on the sea that wasn't diving however far it was. I asked how easy it was to tell apart from the Velvet Scoter and my two companions seemed to think that it was pretty easy. I told them of my three hours of failure yesterday so they sympathetically tried to find the bird for me. We all had a good scan through the thirty or so Velvets that were in front of us but it was nowhere to be seen! Surely Tantalis himself had not suffered such torment! I started to scan further afield on either side and soon found the drake Surf Scoter, a pair of Mergansers and a few Long-tailed Ducks. In the other direction was more of the same and a single Red-throated Diver, immediately distinguishable despite the distance by its uptilted bill. Then one of the two next to me said that he thought that he'd had the bird but it had just dived. I looked back in the original spot and spotted a bird resurfacing between two Velvets. There was no doubting this: even at this huge distance the different "broken nose" profile and the pinkish rather than orange yellow tone on the bill were obvious. Relief flooded over me: all the efforts in getting up here had been worth it! There was little point in trying to take a photo at that distance so after watching the bird for a little while my two companions and I started to head back.

A cracking shot of the bird in similar calm conditions taken by Ian Andrews (c) (@ijandrews1 on Twitter). You can easily seen the different profile and lower bill colour from this photo, both of which were surprisingly easy to distinguish in the field
My two companions were going to try for the drake Ring-necked duck that was hopping around between different ponds within Edinburgh city itself. I too had had my eye on this bird as something to go for should I get my target bird early enough but first I messaged my landlady asking if it was OK to come back for my breakfast and she soon replied that this was fine so I headed back to the house where I enjoyed a nice fried breakfast, fuel for the long journey back today. Then it was back to the car and I headed off on the twenty minute journey towards the pond where the RND had been seen yesterday which fortunately was one of the most accessible ones without having to go too deep within the heart of the city itself.

I soon arrived and parked up. It had turned into a perfect morning now that the sun was up. It was just the right temperature and as I walked down the wooded patch towards the as yet hidden pond I could hear birds singing all around me. The pond itself was remarkably small and I soon found the RND looking very much at home.

The Ring-necked Duck
I took a few snaps with my super zoom and then wandered back to the car in a contented frame of mind. Having seen everything that I'd wanted to I just quickly checked RBA to see if anything else had turned up and as there wasn't anything obvious I headed back on the long slog home. The traffic was reasonably light, it was sunny and dry and with no particular reason to get home in a hurry I took it easy on the way down, admiring the sunlit mountainous scenery and stopping on a couple of occasions for a break and a cup of tea. So it was that at around 4 pm I was back home at Casa Gnome and catching up on news with my VLW. It had turned out to be a very successful Durham run.

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