Got back last night from another epic trip to Scotland, this time to the Outer Hebrides with Jono, Nick and Bob. Once again, we took a few days over it, in order to enjoy much more than ‘just’ the target bird – Britain’s 18th ever Harlequin Duck. The whole thing was a great success, encompassing some superb birding, several more national rarities, beautiful scenery, and even some good local food!
And, to cut to the chase, we had cracking views of the Harlequin. Arriving early morning on Good Friday, after the long ferry crossing into South Uist from Oban the night before, we found five other birders already on site watching the bird offshore from the south end of Traigh Iar – the duck’s favoured spot throughout its stay. Initially, it was some way offshore, still well within good scope view range, but not really offering much in the photographic stakes. As the tide dropped, though, it became possible to walk out onto the rocky promontory and get a bit closer, and with a bit of patience, the Harlequin came in closer to us, at one point down to around 25-30m.
What a bird!
We enjoyed watching it for probably about three hours in total, before heading away to enjoy more general birding, and look for a couple of other nearby rarities. A female Ring-necked Duck was only half a mile away and easily found, but the Richardson’s Canada Goose was more difficult and took quite a bit of searching for. Happily, though, we found a flock of around 1000 Barnacle Geese near Loch Paible, and after a while the tiny vagrant was picked out. It was notably smaller and shorter-necked than the Barnies, and showed a clear thin white band below the lower edge of the black neck, as well as a tiny little bill. Even once we knew where it was in the flock, the bird could easily disappear completely for some time – remarkable how difficult some of these vagrant geese can be to pick up in a flock of what you’d think were totally different looking birds!
Other highlights on the Hebs included at least 3 more White-tailed Eagles, skydancing Hen Harriers (first time I’ve ever seen a displaying male, I think), 3 Merlin (including a gorgeous male), Peregrine, 4 Pale-bellied and about 20 Greenland White-fronted Geese, adult Glaucous and a 1st winter Kumliens Gull, 4 summer-plumage Slav Grebes, at least 30 Great Northern Divers, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Scoter, 12 Snow Bunting, and heaps of Purple Sandpiper and Twite. Brilliant!
In honour of the Harlequin, we splashed out on dinner in the Langass Lodge hotel, south of Lochmaddy. Local hot-smoked salmon, rib-eye steaks, Dover sole, lamb shank and hand-dived Hebridean scallops all featured on our table, and were delicious. Highly recommended for any other duck-twitchers with something to celebrate!