Friday 26 March 2021

A Lovely Little Seawatch

I've written before about the reality of Lyme Bay seawatching, and what a slow game it usually is. Even when the weather looks promising - like today - you turn up all keen and eager, then spend the next hour slowly losing the will to live. As I walked to my seawatching spot at Cogden this morning I was already resigned to disappointment. Yep, it was going to be rubbish.

How I love to be proved wrong...

It was terrific. Right from the off, a steady parade of Gannets (500+) and Kittiwakes (276) meant there was almost always something to look at. Variety came in the shape of 12 Manx Shearwaters, 3 Red-throated Divers, 13 Common Scoters, 6 Guillemots (the only auks close enough to identify) and singles of Oystercatcher, Med Gull and Sandwich Tern. And it wasn't all about quantity. There was also some excellent quality...

First, there was the super little flock of four Eiders which suddenly appeared in my eyepiece, bobbing on the sea. I didn't see them arrive, nor did I see them leave. But leave they did, being spotted by other seawatchers east of me and eventually rounding the Bill at Portland. Three drakes (two adults, one immature) and a female. Excellent.

However, the best bird of the morning had already passed, though I wasn't to know it for sure just yet...

About 07:40 I picked up four ducks heading west. They weren't close, but it was obvious enough that three were Common Scoters. As they went by I zoomed in a bit to try and nail the fourth bird, a browner thing. Possibly a touch smaller than the Scoters, its pale belly had been apparent immediately. The default brown, pale-bellied duck of that size is probably a female Wigeon, but I wasn't convinced.

I guess it's possible that one or two NQS readers have never tried seawatching. It is quite hard to describe what it's like to try and identify a speeding blob as it hurtles past over a heaving sea, perhaps disappearing in troughs at times. Can you picture it? Occasionally online you come across photos that have been taken at popular seawatching spots. Maybe a diver, a skua, or as in this case, a small flock of ducks. Birds in such photos might be small, but are usually well lit and crisply rendered. So maybe you're thinking that's what you see through the scope? Well, it isn't. For starters, the blasted things are belting along like rockets, their wings a blurry mess. Just keeping the bird in view is a major challenge, and no matter how smoothly you pan, it's probably leaping back and forth all over your retina. They do not pose. Somehow your eye needs to do what a camera does, and capture frozen images - make static what is all too dynamic. Not easy at half a mile range or more. Basically you wind up with a series of impressions that need instantly to be compared with what you know, the field guide in your head. This morning I had: very pale belly, probably white, and more extensive than Wigeon; largely pale rear end; dark uppers and wings, seemingly unmarked; darkish head, contrasting with the white belly. What fitted that lot? I could only think of Long-tailed Duck. So I sent a message on the local WhatsApp group:

'Possible LTD W with 3 Scoter'

About 35 minutes later they flew past Seaton seafront, close enough to clinch the odd one out. It was indeed a female/immature type Long-tailed Duck. I was so chuffed! They are not at all common down here. In fact it's the first I've seen since one at Branscombe and Seaton in November 2007, and my first ever on a local seawatch. Mega!

A bit later I saw my first two [definite] Sand Martins of the year, and a Brent Goose flew past...

Just like one of those seawatching photos. Sort of.  Brent Goose of the dark-bellied kind.

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