Tuesday 4 March 2014

Gull of Kintyre

By last weekend I had pretty much given up hope of adding a long-staying American Coot, which turned up in Scotland in January, to my British list. My network of birding chums is not extensive and those within it had either been already or could not be persuaded to go. Fortunately, I get to benefit vicariously from my friend Steve Smith's excellent network, and was able to plug into it when he tipped me off that there might be space in a car going from Bristol, targeting an American Herring Gull on the Mull of Kintyre (to give precise co-ordinates, that's at the bottom left hand corner of Scotland) en route to the American Coot at Loch Flemington (not far off the top right).
American Coot, Loch Flemington: differentiated from our own Coot by the deep red spot at the top of the shield, the dark band near the tip of the bill, and white edges to the undertail coverts which are just visible in this shot.
Fluid plans eventually solidified during the week so that the team for the weekend was: entomologist Dave Gibbs, water industry executive Andy Mears, and audio equipment entrepreneur Chris Gooddie, known to the more well-read among you as author of the Pitta-pursuit chronicle, The Jewel Hunter. With me the local government officer from the planning department in tow, if anyone had been minded to commission an Environmental Impact Assessment of constructing a new main sewer on invertebrate life, and put it on an audio-book to be listened to in glorious surround sound, the perfect team to do it would have been right there in that car.
We stayed in the car at Loch Flemington hoping the American Coot would come closer but it remained quite wary. Many twitchers adopted a 'must I?' approach to seeing this bird. Well I thought it was under-rated by the reluctant listers who turned their noses up but ticked it anyway. I certainly wouldn't complain if I found one at Swineham!
I saw an American Herring Gull on Lewis in 2004, but was keen to see another, and it was a new bird for the other three. American Coot was also a tick for Andy, and the others were happy to go and see it despite the long distance between the two birds.
The American Coot enjoys a fat cigar. I was tempted to join it after such a successful twitch.
So the plan for the weekend formed thusly: leave Friday night, arrive at Campbeltown at first light, tick the American Herring Gull early doors, head off to Inverness later that morning, and have the other rare Yank in the bag by mid afternoon. Then bed down somewhere comfortable and see a few Scottish specialities before heading south on Sunday lunchtime. An ambitious plan requiring a fair bit of luck, but that's almost exactly how it panned out, the only departure from it being a bonus excursion on Saturday evening to admire seaduck and divers as the sun set on Burghead Bay.
The local Moorhens snaffled up the offerings of food so rudely spurned by the American Coot. 
The first step in the plan - arriving for first light - almost fell foul of my ancient Satnav as it doesn't recognise roadworks or new junctions. But having survived its attempts to get us to U-turn on the M8 and ditch us in the Clyde, we still arrived just before sunrise. We picked up the distinctive Gull in the twilight of Campbeltown Harbour, and enjoyed a fly-around before it headed off to roost in fields where we later caught up with it for more leisurely study, albeit at some distance.
The American Herring Gull is on the right of this trio. Bulkier than the neighbouring Herring Gull, with a cleaner white head, strongly patterned underparts and two-tone black and pink bill. We enjoyed closer views of these and other key features in Campeltown Harbour but it was too dark for photographs unfortunately. 
The Coot was simpler to find and identify, revealing itself from loch-side vegetation soon after our arrival. While coy at first, it eventually moved out into the open but the leftovers of breakfast which we made available out of the car window were not enough to tempt it to come really close. A great shame as Chris was desperate to put out the news as 'American Coot still present and coming to croissants'.
A White morph and an intermediate Snow Goose were associating with Greenland White-fronts as we headed back up the Mull of Kintyre.
Apart from the great birding, the Scottish weather was extraordinarily clement, the journey trouble-free but for some torrential English wetness on the way back down, and the company was excellent. Non-avian highlights included nodding off in the back seat near Loch Ness to dream I was in the middle of a blazing row about the existence of its eponymous monster, only to wake and find it wasn't a dream. Lowlights included a fruitless search for, well, fruit, in a Scottish motorway service area on the way home to fend off the scurvy which threatened after two days of living off delicious but unhealthy snacks. Green wine gums were the only thing we could find containing vitamin C.
While not at its stunning winter best, this male Long-tailed Duck in Burghead Harbour was still an attractive species to see.
All told, then, an excellent trip, and I was grateful to the other guys for letting a neurotic itinerant stranger into their twitching circle for the duration. I should also at this point publicly record my gratitude to my long-suffering wife for releasing me from paternal duties for the weekend. These, I have been informed since, included standing on a windy, rain-lashed touchline in Poole to witness an 8-2 victory for Wareham Rangers U-11s over Lilliput U-11s (a giant-killing, surely?).
Coal Tits are pretty tame at Loch Garten
As if that wasn't enough, I was unable to join the rest of the family at that pinnacle of cultural sophistication, the Purbeck Potato Festival. It is difficult to quantify the level of regret I feel about missing that. So if things go quiet in this space over the coming weeks it's probably because I have enacted a drastic Brownie Point Jar Deficit Reduction Plan. Swingeing cuts in my twitching exploits are sure to follow.
Bored with obviously staged photos of Bluetails and Great Spotted Woodpeckers on sickeningly mossy branches on Birdguides? Then here's the antedote. To get this shot I placed a carefully selected bit of chicken wire next to the bogs at Loch Garten and covered it in Pritt-stick.


  1. Enjoy having the American Coot on your UK list while you can. Its looking likely that you will be losing it later this year as Alex Salmond will want it back
    Steve S

  2. Don't be too ashamed of sourcing vit. C from wine gums, Andy M's most reliable source of ginger comes from a biscuit!

    1. Apols for delay in replying to this Ken - if you are Ken 'Hermit Thrush' Arber, which I believe you are, I owe you a pint for that one!