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Old Wednesday 7th November 2007, 20:46   #219
Andrew Whitehouse
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Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Aberdeen
Posts: 18,098
Back to reality

Well, I know this might annoy some of you a bit, but yesterday I did resort to a certain amount of fabrication in my post. Possibly this was born of desperation from the lack of birds around Girdle Ness this autumn. Possibly it was for my own childish amusement. Actually it was definitely for my own childish amusement. So today, I've turned over a new leaf and will report everything accurately and honestly. And handily enough I saw one or two good birds.

A look from the flat early morning didn't reveal much happening, either out to sea or over the city. A mid morning scan was a bit more interesting though. There seemed to be quite a few gulls drifting about well out to sea and then I saw a tiny bird whizzing north past the harbour mouth - a Little Auk (number 70 for the house list). Soon after my first skua for ages - a pale phase Arctic Skua - went north along the coast. A Common Scoter and a Goldeneye also went through.

Thus enthused, I headed off on my bike down to the lighthouse for the first serious seawatching for a long time. Except that for the first half an hour there really wasn't a lot to see and I almost thought about packing up for an early lunch. Quite a few gulls were drifting about and feeding - especially Common Gulls - the odd Gannet and a few auks, a drake Long-tailed Duck going north. There was hardly any sign of anything on the move, even if a few more birds than usual were feeding offshore.

Then I started picking up some more Little Auks - one or two fairly distantly, but then a few closer in, including one group of five. Almost every bird I followed for any length of time would put down on the sea and vanish from sight. The closest bird of all did this and was still almost invisible on the water despite being perhaps only a couple of hundred metres away. There could easily have been hundreds out on the sea but I was only clocking them as they flew. Eventually, I counted 16 birds.

Other stuff seemed to be putting down on the sea as well - I had brief views of a pale phase skua before it ditched some way off never to be seen again. From what I could see it had the look of a Pom. Another pale phase Arctic Skua flew north before it too came down.

So things were looking a bit livelier on the sea than over it, and after adjourning to 'the chair' I took to scanning the birds that were close inshore. Amongst the flock of Eiders was a 1st winter Black Guillemot, maybe the bird that's been around for a few weeks and which we were supposed to see at the weekend. Then a rather magnificent Great-northern Diver was seen, still in almost full breeding plumage. Clearly I should be looking closer. This proved worthwhile. Which might be understating things.

A few Guillemots and Razorbills were scattered in amongst the feeding Eiders and gulls and I saw a small group of auks containing both species. Except in the middle there was an odd one. It really didn't look much like the nearby Guillemots and Razorbills. And it really didn't look much like any Guillemots or Razorbills I'd ever seen. It was a bit more compact and with much more extensive black on the head and sides of the neck, with white restricted to the throat and the front of the neck. What's more the bill was stubby and thick looking, not slender like a Guillemots. And despite looking a bit chunky it lacked the bulbous culmen that is normally obvious even on a juvenile Razorbill.

Funnily enough, just a few days ago I was browsing the Collins Guide, as you do, and looking at the auk plates thinking maybe I should brush up on the ID of Brunnich's Guillemot. Trying to find one might be a good way to while away the long winter. So I'd had a bit of a refresher. Looking at this bird, I was soon reminded of the many pictures I'd seen of the bird in Shetland a few years ago - very dark and stocky looking. I took a few rudimentary pictures - I only had my ED50 with the camera held up to the lens. Some of the pictures looked as if they might show something but maybe not.

Okay, here's the tricky bit and relates to a subject occasionally discussed on this here forum. What do you do when you think you might have a big rarity but you're not really that sure? And I wasn't that sure. I've never seen Brunnich's before and I was there on my own. Like a lot of people would, I wanted somebody else to come out and look at the bird before I put the news out, as much as anything so that they could confirm that I was seeing the features that I thought I was seeing. So about 15 minutes after I'd first seen the bird, I phoned Andy Webb who runs the local grapevine. I got his voicemail so left a message. Then I got a text from Andy saying he couldn't pick up my message because he was in Italy! Oh well. So I texted him that I'd got a possible Brunnich's and that it would be good if someone else could come out and check it out.

The bird moved away from the Eiders, so I walked back down to the foghorn where I watched it for a few minutes, still at reasonably close range but diving a lot more often before it and most of the other auks disappeared from sight. Now I was a bit worried that when others arrived there might not be anything to see. At about 2, Mark Lewis arrived entirely on spec and I told him what I'd seen. He was interested. But the bird wasn't there. After several minutes looking we found what looked like the bird but it was a lot further out with other auks and was diving frequently, so it was hard to conclude anything other than it looked a bit promising. Eventually it reappeared closer in and Mark was able to scrutinise it more closely. He was now very keen and so the local grapevine was contacted with news of a probable Brunnich's Guillemot. This time I concentrated a lot on the bill, which seemed to show quite a distinct gonydeal angle producing its chunky, stubby look.

Richard Schofield, who's seen Brunnich's before, arrived and after getting some decent views he reckoned it looked fine. I was now feeling very happy with it myself. Enormously happy in fact. Hugh Addlesee arrived on the scene, another with 'previous', and he was also markedly enthused by the appearance of the bird. So, we put it out as definite. There it was. A Brunnich's Guillemot. I was supposed to spend all winter looking on the off chance of one turning up and I'd gone and found one without really trying that hard. A bit jammy, but then I reserve 'local patcher's rights' to occasional jamminess when on patch.

There were one or two other birds about. I briefly noticed a Puffin amongst the auk flocks - so that was, err, just the five species of auk today. The spanking adult Great-northern Diver reappeared and was joined by a second winter plumaged bird. A couple of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters were in amongst the Eiders and several Purple Sandpipers were feeding on the pier. Then, a rather splendid 1st winter Glaucous Gull arrived in and began to drift about with the feeding flocks of gulls and auks that were, by this time, congregating around a seal that was grappling with a huge fish. At one stage the Brunnich's Guillemot was swimming within touching distance of the Glauc. Maybe they recognised each other from their breeding grounds.

A few pictures, most of which I posted on the Brunnich's thread earlier. They're not quite up to Dr G's exacting standards but I think give a bit of an impression of the plumage and shape.
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