The Great Harlequin Twitch

The following Trip (Twitch) report describes a weekend journey to North Uist and back to see the Harlequin Duck residing at Balranald RSPB reserve on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

The report was submitted by my friend (Partner in crime) and travelling companion "Nigel Slater".

Balranald, North Uist - 6th May 2013
With Paul Wetton (and Stuart Warren, met on the ferry)
Cool but sunny

I believe this is the fourteenth Harlequin Duck for Britain. Others have been seen all over Britain, but to be sure of a genuine vagrant, you have to be in the north of Scotland. You canít get much further north than North Uist!
The nearest they breed is Iceland, I know, Iíve seen them there! But this population is believed to be sedentary. Alaskan and North West US birds move to the coast to winter, Siberian birds are the most migratory.

Paul gave a talk to the Beeston Wildlife Group on 18th March on the Butterflies of Switzerland. That night we speculated we might go for it, it had been around for about a week already. Sandy and Roger were interested, but dropped out. The following week it snowed heavily, the week after was Easter, so 18 days after Paul said he would drive in his new diesel motor, the two of us decided to go for it. We had got it into our minds we were going to enjoy the trip even if we dipped, as neither of us had been to the Outer Hebrides before.

It was a mad crazy thing to do, travel for the entire weekend, but we knew we would never ever forget the experience AND if we got lucky with the bird, it would be the biggest twitch we could imagine, hard to follow without using a light aircraft! We knew the expense would be forgotten long before our memories of the trip.

Heading north
So, with industrial quantities of sandwiches, a sleeping bag and piles of clothes-layers, I arrived at Paulís place, near Nuthall at 10.30 PM on Friday 5th April 2013. (Paulís fiancť Helen was at work as was Jean, it was just us blokes!) Paul had a route on his Sat-nav that took us via M1, M62, M61 and M6, then A74 To Glasgow, M8, Erskine Bridge, A82 to Crianlarich and on to Oban.

As we motored we mused that it took till 6.30 PM for the bird to come on the pager that day, it had been on early morning every day before then. The day before it said it was distant and elusive. The sky tonight was clear and starry - perfect conditions for migration.
But nothing was stopping us, we had needed to buy the ferry tickets mid-week as spaces were filling up. At 01.45 we crossed the border and immediately had to make a detour due to an accident, just north of Gretna. But it didnít take us far and we were soon on the A74 via Annan joining at Lockerbie. We filled up just north of Glasgow at Dumbarton. Glasgow was devoid of traffic, well it was 3.00 AM.

At 05.24 (After 7 hours of non-stop driving) and 412 miles we arrived at Oban pier. The ticket office wasnít open for another 30 mins. We had some scoff and a stretch in the freezing cold.
After getting the tickets and boarding passes!! We headed for the harbour as it was getting light, we couldnít board for two hours. A sperm whale had been in the harbour a few days and Tysties (Black Guillemots) were flying about-looking very pot bellied! Paul got some film of these, but missed two Otter that were close by.

Black Guillemots in Oban Harbour

I had a nod in the car whilst also looking for the whale. It was seen that morning, but spent more time under water that on the surface. We didnít see it Ė shame.

At sea
Back to the ferry, we departed at 8.30, coming across a fellow birder also doing the same trip. He was Stuart Warren, a close friend of Lee Evans from Bedfordshire. We spent the rest of the island part of the trip with Stuart. He was good company, heís seen lots of stuff and had just come back from living in Australia!

We had five hours of sailing, covering 80 miles to Lochboisdale on South Uist.
The scenery and weather were spectacular. The sea like a mirror, Tysties and other Auks all over. We had tea breaks to keep warm and I had a 20 min sleep in the cafť, Paul and Stuart nattered all the way, mostly out on deck. Other than the birds a couple of Harbour Porpoise put in an appearance beside the ferry

South Uist and Benbecula
At 1.30 PM we berthed, then hit the road, with Stuart in close pursuit. The road was single track with passing places, recently re-surfaced; we could do 50 MPH pulling in every 5 minutes to squeeze past other cars. The place reminded me of Iceland with small lochans everywhere and simple small houses dotted about, always with the sea in view. I had my finger on the map all the way; Paul had borrowed OS maps from his dad Brian who had been before.

After a 45 mile dash over South Uist, then across Benbecula hardly noticing it was an island Ė it was just another low bridge over some water, we arrived on North Uist and to the site.

North Uist
There was an RSPB sign. After 457 miles we got out at Balranald and couldnít work out what the directions meant. A mild panic came over me, after all that distance we were floundering around trying to work out which small track to use. It appeared to be sending us through a field that said no vehicles beyond this point, but that was what we did and found the cairn described on the pager.

The search
We togged up as it was still freezing cold with clear blue skies, the time 2.50 PM. We walked briskly toward the coast walking through some Highland Cattle. We were the only birders in sight, which was good. We disturbed some gulls, an Iceland amongst them.

We found a large scattering of rocks that met the beach Ė stretching to about a quarter of a mile along the coast. Me and Stuart had scopes, Paul his video gear.
After an initial scoping and no sign, we started to spread out. I said I was going to head for the furthest rocks and work my way back. The sun was in our faces so that didnít help.
I stopped to view the far distance hoping I could save myself some leg work, there were a lot of rocks and nothing but the odd shag to get the pulse racing. As I looked back towards the lads, they appeared to be walking briskly Ė with purpose. I looked at them through my bins and they seemed to be smiling. I let them catch up with me, they said Ďweíve got ití.
I wasnít convinced as they were looking miles ahead. I couldnít get onto where they were pointing. I hoped they hadnít misidentified a Long-tailed Duck, so I tried to keep calm. The bird had swum behind a rock, making me even more tense, but Stuart got it in his scope and said-Ďhave a look at thatí, I did Ö andÖ. it certainly was a male Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus at 3.22 PM Saturday 6th April 2013. I high fived Stuart and shook Paulís hand Ė we had done it.

Harlequin Duck Traigh Iar, Balranald, North Uist

Everything else on this trip would be fantastic whatever happened, we achieved a stunning result, without doubt, the biggest ever journey over-land for a bird for me.

We yomped towards the duck, the only duck on the sea. From a raised sandy bank we scoped the bird from about 150 meters. It kept diving, with a flick of its wings as it disappeared below the water. Eventually, it got much closer and jumped up onto some rocks. It preened for about 20 minutes then had another swim, until a Great Northern Diver surfaced right next to it and spooked it. The bird flew further away but soon came back and got on a lower rock. Paul seemed happy with the distance for filming, but the wind was just a bit too strong.

All around waders were flying, including Turnstone, Redshank, Oystercatchers and 9 Purple Sandpipers. We also had Red and Black-throated Divers on the sea.

The Bird
Smaller than a Tufted Duck, with a delicate pale bill especially at the tip. It was a male, not in full summer plumage but not far off.
The most striking feature I found were the single tertials of pure white with a dark feather shaft. The tear drop white mark on the cheek stood out. The bodyís base colour was a grey/ blue, but not very bright. The chestnut on the flanks Ďshoneí through on occasions. On the neck a vertical white mark and a single white spot. A white breast band was edged with black. The stiff tail was short. Out of the water the belly was a mottled grey/white.
It dived right next to the rocks and in open water. As it preened it got splashed by the waves but it didnít flinch, it was obviously used to rough water.

We watched the bird for about an hour, then headed back feeling a total sense of justification. We will dine out on this one for years.

More birds
Stuart and Paul had a list of potential leads for other target birds, the best being Snowy Owl on the other side of the Island, about eight miles away. We set off, but soon stopped to scan some Barnacle Geese as we knew a Richardsonís Canada goose had been seen amongst them.
It was amazingly difficult to pick out the bird amongst the 100+ Barnacles, we all had glimpses of it but found it hard to get the others on it.
Eventually it stood out. A tiny goose, 2/3 the size of a Barnacle and they are small! It had a tiny bill and a horizontal-white band where the black neck joins the breast. There was no contrast between belly and back Ė all pale brown. Itís a potential split, so worth seeking out.
We then noticed Corn Bunting, Linnet and Twite all together feeding on grain. The Twite really were well marked.

Corn Bunting & Twite, Balranald, North Uist

We headed off for the Owl site. Brian had seen one on their visit. At Solas we turned opposite the Co-op, the only shop on the island and scanned the desolate landscape. We found it dotted with white looking rocks and plastic bags everywhere. It was a mission impossible. We gave it a go for 20 minutes, and then gave up.

We were now on the east side of the island by the ferry at Lochmady Ė the hub of all night life on the island. We found The Balmoral Hotel a pub/restaurant/hotel.
There were a few beers to choose from and a massive selection of single malts pleasing Paul and Stuart. We all had a burger. I had two pints, the ladís one and a whisky, Glenlivet as recommended by Paul. We stuck it out in the pub until the local talent started playing his guitar.

We then headed back to the duck site to park up and get some sleep. We thought we would pay it another visit first thing with the light behind us.

We put the seats back-horizontal, climbed into sleeping bags at 10.30 PM, with rain falling. I fell asleep instantly. Paul said he struggled and my snoring didnít help.

Next thing I knew, it was light. I woke up amazingly refreshed, Paulís car made a great bed. There was a covering of snow, this was 7.00 AM on the Sunday, it was bitterly cold.
We had a quick tidy, putting gear in the boot ready for more birding and the long journey home. The short time it took to get to the boot of the car was painfully cold.

The ferry didnít leave for another four and a half hours, so we set about looking for the Owl again. There were several Short-earedís but no Snowy. We looked over the sea and found some Long-tailed Duck. On the lochans were many Whooper Swans and everywhere waders. This place will be amazing when spring arrives.

We saw three Red deer as they ambled towards us, not phased by the car. They casually jumped over two barbed-wire fences before wandering off up the hillside.

The snow and rain didnít help the visibility, so we headed for a cafť. It was closed. We tried the pub from the night before, but the sign said open at 12.30. However, a guy beckoned us in. We asked if he served tea? He did and bacon sandwiches? Ė He did. So that was it, we settled in the relative warmth for a couple of hours drinking tea and chatting to the bar tender. He was 19 and was off to join the Navy as a mechanic at Portland in a few weeks Ė for the next 9 years!
He told us the Snowy Owl was always flying around where we had looked earlier at Solas. Ah well. We headed to the ferry having covered 70 miles around the island(s), since our arrival.

Heading south
The ferry left at 11.15 AM for the two hour crossing to Uig on Skye. We watched Auks, Gannets, Fulmars, the odd seal and the stunning scenery drift past. Paul spotted a large white raptor shape land on a distant rock, but all the time we were steaming away from it. It is the place for White morph Gyr, but this one will have to remain a possible!
It was still freezing cold as we Arrived at Skye and said our goodbyes to Stuart exchanging contact details.

We drove 50 miles over Skye, seeing a pair of Bewick Swans and stopped to watch a Goshawk fly over, we thought it was a Buzzard and then a Sparrowhawk and then a very big Sparrowhawk! Nice. It was another 76 miles to Fort William arriving at 4.00 PM with the weather improving.

At 6.00 PM we arrived at Erskine bridge and filled up with petrol. We crossed the border at 7.30 PM and took the M6 to Stoke this time. We pulled into Paulís place at 10.15 PM having travelled by road - 1057 miles, Paul doing ALL the driving. The ferries were 80miles out and 30 miles back, so the overall journey 1167 miles.

Now thatís what I call a twitch.

The trip
My overall memory was of the place, it was like being in Iceland - another world. If something turns up there again, Iíll be keen to get back. Ideally it would be best to have a week there in spring, with the waders breeding and standing on the fence posts and with plenty of time to see that Snowy Owl.

All credit to Paul for having the determination to drive all that way. For me the travelling flew by. It cost us £140 each to cover the diesel and ferries. Not bad for a weekend! Next time, perhaps we can pull in Lewis and Harris; itís only another ferry away!

Trip List

Red Throated Diver
Black Throated Diver
Great Northern Diver
Manx Shearwater
Mute Swan
Whooper Swan
Bewick Swan
Greylag Goose
Canada Goose Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii
Barnacle Goose
Tufted Duck
Common Scoter (Paul and Stuart)
Long-tailed Duck
Red Breasted Merganser
Harlequin Duck
Ringed Plover
Golden Plover
Purple Sandpiper
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Iceland Gull
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Wood Pigeon
Collard Dove
Short-eared Owl
Rock Pipit
Meadow Pipit
Pied wagtail
Song Thrush
Redwing (in flight)
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Tit
Great Tit
Magpie (England)
Carrion Crow
Hooded Crow
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting