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See Duck..... Sea Duck

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Living in Cheshire has location benefits for wildlife watching, being in the centre of the country. Pretty much anywhere is accessible relatively easily. But one of my favourite destinations is also one of the closest, namely North Wales. Just recently, I had been drawn to this part of the UK to twitch a rare bird located near the coastal village of Talacre. This was a Dusky Warbler and good, but brief, views were obtained. However, given the nature of the beast no pictures were obtained and it was a flying visit anyway!

My next visit to Wales was again prompted by the presence of a rare visitor, but a full day was planned around this one, and as such it became a full-blown ProBirder Trip. This time I was heading inland of the town of Denbigh to the area around Llyn Brenig, a large man-made lake situated on the Denbigh Moors. On arrival I started to check the first area of clearfell that I came across, but the lack of any birders here made me think that my bird quarry was elsewhere. About half a mile further on, a telltale group of green-clad folk armed with binoculars and squinting through scopes was evidence that I had found the correct place to stop. As I got out, the news however was negative; the bird that I had come to see had flown off about 10 minutes earlier and hadn’t reappeared yet. Knowing that birds will return to favoured areas, I wasn’t downhearted and so set up my scope and started to scan. A further 10 minutes elapsed and then there it was, a Great Grey Shrike, sitting up high on the nearest lone pine ‘pole’. It had sneaked in without any of us seeing it, but there it was in all its splendour, its pale grey plumage shining in the sun like a beacon atop the pine trunk.

The bird showed really well until a Raven glided in behind it and seemingly took it by surprise, almost landing on top of the shrike! The Great Grey Shrike took off just before impact and dropped out of view over a small ridge in the clearfell. The Raven sat on the tree ‘cronking’, almost pleased with itself at now being ‘king of the castle’ - well ‘king of the tree stump’ at least! A second Raven flew in and the two of them departed together but no reappearance of the shrike.

A long search, of over 45 minutes, followed to try to help birders who had just arrived and who had not yet seen the shrike. Finally, it was relocated, but a long, long way off up on the furthest bit of clearfell that we could see at least 1km away. I helped newcomers to get onto the bird and have distant views with the hope that later it would come closer for them. As well as the shrike and Ravens, there were numerous Crossbills flying around in the pines here. Several groups were seen flying over emitting their ‘chip-chip’ calls and a couple actually landed in the crowns of the pines to give better views. These specialists of pine plantations are always nice to catch up with, and seeing so many was good news for the species here too.

My next port of call was to be the North Wales coast where I always love to visit, especially in the autumn and winter months. Heading due north from my moorland location took me to Pensarn where huge rafts of scoters can be seen offshore during this time of year. I set up and a bit of sunshine breaking through made seawatching a bit easier. However, the swell and chop on the water made for difficult viewing, birds only staying in view for a second or so and then taking a while before coming back into view. This was going to be hard work! With the tide being in, many of the birds were relatively close and Common Scoters could be seen in their hundreds. Many more were far out at sea amongst the wind turbines, but were just too far to watch comfortably. The actual numbers here in winter reach several thousand, but in reality only a fraction of this flock were within comfortable viewing range. The search then started and I systematically worked my way from left to right searching for anything out of the ordinary. A few groups of scoters would take off every so often and when a single bird took off and large white flashes were noted in its wings I knew that I’d found one of the birds that I was after – a drake Velvet Scoter. This cousin of the Common Scoters is slightly larger but is still predominantly black. The white wing patches however are a giveaway when this bird takes flight. That was a great start to my search, and a good start always gives you the impetus to carry on searching. However, that was that for the scarcer scoters, no more Velvets and definitely no sign of the rarest member of the clan seen here this winter, the Surf Scoter. There were still plenty of other species out on the sea and that kept interest going for a good time. I had been joined by some birding pals now, and that always helps as many eyes make light work, to paraphrase a well-known saying!

At least 15 Red-throated Divers were picked out, the numbers being hard to be certain of as they were occasionally taking flight and relocating in the flock of scoters. Also out there, was a larger diver species altogether, a single Great Northern Diver, much scarcer that the Red-throated Divers on this coast, but still a fairly regular winter visitor. Much smaller than the divers were a couple of Guillemots seen not too far out; these birds now being in their winter plumage. Two drake Red-breasted Mergansers were also found during my repeated scans as well as lots of Cormorants and a couple of Shags. One species exhibiting slightly unusual behaviour was Gannets, with a few birds seen and most of them loafing on the sea amongst the sea duck, rather than flying through as is the norm on seawatches. (picture taken by me previously this year, not in N.Wales)

As the tide receded, the flock drifted further away and viewing became much too difficult so I called it a day and packed up. However, two days later, with a much better weather forecast, I returned to try again. This time the sea was almost flat calm and the sun was warm and constant; perfect conditions for a scoter search! But as often happens in birding perfect conditions doesn’t always mean that the bird will show, and again no sign of the Surf Scoter. At least 20 birders were present on that second day, so it wasn’t for the lack of trying that the bird eluded us; it was just bad luck and seeing that species would just have to be left until a later date. A similar array of species was seen on this second visit with a single Velvet Scoter again seen in flight and lots of Red-throated Divers evident in the flock of Common Scoters. One species that was new was a real goodie, another seaduck, a Long-tailed Duck. This small, neat duck is mainly white and black and was easily picked out at first amongst the scoters, but then surprisingly easily lost to view. As a diving species that can stay submerged for a considerable time and resurface some distance away, maybe it wasn’t really much of a surprise that it couldn’t be easily re-found. (picture taken by me previously, not in N.Wales)

As on my first visit, the tide had turned and the flock had drifted out of easy viewing range by mid afternoon, so I packed up my scope and headed home. The couple of visits to North Wales had, as always, been filled with sightings of some iconic species of birds and I look forward to my next visit which may provide me with my first views in 2021 of that elusive Surf Scoter.

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