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White-winger Scoter

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Friday 24th November 2017 | Birding in Shetland, Brydon's Shetland Nature Blog

On Wednesday 18th October Dougie Preston found a Ring-necked Duck on Sand Water, near Gutcher on Yell. A first for the island and Shetlands second in a week- this was in itself a worthy discovery. It was whilst photographing it however that his day was about to get even better. With the RND framed up in his viewfinder, an immature/female type Velvet Scoter shot through his field of view as it landed on the loch alongside the small flock of aythya ducks.

Instinctively he fired off a few frames, then almost immediately it started to dive. Barely two minutes later, at approximately 13:20pm the duck took flight, heading north in the direction of Gutcher and the Bluemull Sound area. He was immediately struck by its atypical head shape and bill profile, especially the latter which set alarm bells off as his as his mind’s eye recalled Birding Frontiers articles on White-winged Scoter! A very commendable shout indeed.

After consulting available literature on WWS Dougie posted a photo on the local WhatsApp group at 14:24pm which read; “Comments welcome… Only touched down very briefly on Sand Water Yell early afternoon“.

The image that got the ball rolling: White-winged Scoter, Sand Loch, Yell, 18 October 2017 (Dougie Preston).

Prior to this and completely unaware of the goings on, I was birding the Belmont Farm area, (having dropped off tour guests at the ferry) when I found a female/immature type Velvet Scoter at approximately 14:15pm on Loch of Belmont. With ‘bins only’ views and at quite a distance from the farm yard I hadn’t much to go on however was intrigued enough to want it in the scope. Velvet Scoter is a scarce enough bird in Shetland that any rarity savvy birder should always want scope views.

Returning to the car at far side of the farm I drove back through the yard in the hope of getting it in the scope however it and the Long-tailed Ducks it had been loosely associating with had gone. A scan of the ferry terminal and closest loch, Snaravoe drew a blank. It wasn’t until back in signal an hour later in Uyeasound that I picked up Dougie’s WhatsApp messages which had certainly sparked interest to say the least. Paul Harvey had been quick off the mark with positive feedback to Dougie’s post and had also contacted him directly to discuss the bird.

I was only five minutes away birding Uyeasound so hurried back, my heart racing as I thought it must surely be the same bird. It had returned to Loch of Belmont and now with scope views and a few hand held, shaky ‘iphone-scoped’ images I could see enough to see the same ‘Surf Scoter like’ appearance with square head shape and flat crown; raised bill profile and ‘broken nosed’ look.

With no signal I had to race down to the ferry terminal for WiFi to call for back-up from fellow Unst birders. I couldn’t get through to Micky Maher however Mike Pennington had already acted on intuition, knowing that Sand Water was just a few miles away (only 2.5 he later found out!), hoping to relocate the scoter and was literally just a few hundred yards up the road scanning Loch of Snaravoe.

Although the light conditions and distance from the bird were far from ideal Mike was keen on its ‘putative’ identity as was Micky Maher who arrived armed with various Birding Frontiers literature on White-winged Scoter identification. As we discussed the bird we shared thoughts and memories of our hugely missed friend Martin Garner, the ‘Birding Frontier’ himself and how he would have loved this bird. He would have been our first call and now always the first thought in such challenging ID’s.

Dave Cooper and Alan Conlin were not too far behind, each also arriving with the same articles in hand – the favoured being Guillermo Rodriguez Lazaro’s article on Birding Frontiers website which we found invaluable.

This was a peculiar situation for us in that although Dougie had already found and flagged it up, with only two previous British records and in a plumage not yet recorded in Europe, this still felt a difficult call to make.

It was now well after 16:00pm and light was poor but with dusk also approaching conditions were challenging, to say the least. It was increasingly harder to assess and be sure of features we thought we could see. At this stage however we were confident that based on its distinctive overall ‘Surf Scoter like’ head shape and appearance and especially bill structure, profile and length that this bird surely could not be a fusca– or at least was not like any we had ever seen but it was a very good fit for deglandi, having also considered Stejnegeri.

In addition to the above we were also struck by the size and position of the large oval shaped nostril, (we all commented that you could see straight through it) and now ‘genned-up’ on finer ID points on the bill feathering-pattern and angle, we knew what to look for. The latter looked to be a good fit and certainly did appear to extend beyond the nostril and more importantly formed a 90-degree angle. However in the difficult light conditions and distance this was not easy to assess with certainty and the unfortunate reality was that we just ran out of light and therefore time!

American White-winged Scoter, Loch of Belmont, Unst, 19 October 2017 (Robbie Brookes).

We decided on a cautious approach. It was agreed that further research of  both Velvet and White-winged Scoter was needed and better still- closer views in the morning! We had also considered that realistically with ferry times no one would have been able to make it before dusk and after all news was already out on it.

We discussed the bird at length over the evening and put news out that it had been relocated on Loch of Belmont. I also spoke to Dougie who was naturally delighted that it had been relocated and to hear our opinion, very much in agreement with his. Of course this is said after just about every big birds identification but in hindsight we had enough at that stage for a conclusive identification that afternoon, especially with Dougie’s photograph and our field observations as well as supporting phone-scoped images.

With the chance to divulge and reflect confidence continued to grow later in the evening. Interestingly Margaret Pennington (Mike’s wife), pointed out a distinguishing feature that confirmed for certain they were the same bird. It was a small white smudge on the bill bellow its right hand nostril, which was consistent on all images.

Unfortunately Dougie had commitments the following morning so couldn’t be there with me at first light but thankfully it was still present. Mike and Dave arrived soon after and at last with better views there was a much more relaxed vibe as we watched the bird- helped eventually by shared opinion from Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington, who were amongst the first to arrive. They too agreed how subtle it was and how that in different circumstances it might have been overlooked but especially how well Dougie had done initially.

Needless to say it was quite the performer that morning! This was quite the opposite to our first encounter, allowing for really good images to be nailed which 100% confirmed the key features we’d tentatively noted, leaving many to have probably thought- oh yes, surely that was never a Velvet- it’s obviously a White-winged Scoter!!

The American White-winged Scoter performed much closer on the morning of 19 October and allowed for excellent images to be taken, documenting the identification beyond all doubt. The distinctive head and bill structure are particularly apparent in this photo (Jim Nicolson).

Recently I contacted Guillermo Rodriguez asking him for comment and if we were right in thinking it was a 1st winter male. He responded:

“Hi Brydon, I fully agree with your diagnosis – the bird is a first-year male White-winged Scoter. Key features for ageing are the neat, homogeneous plumage, and velvet-like feathering around the bill, all certainly pointing towards a juvenile; sexing is slightly more complicated as this bird isn’t particularly short/long billed, but the relatively squared head and bumpy bill, and presence of significantly large white spots on the GC tips, all support sexing as male.

I’m leaving now for a trip so don’t have time to look for the originals – just take the pics you want from my post. And I agree Martin would have been super excited about this bird!

Best,

Guillermo”

Guillermo kindly allowed us to reproduce his composite of first-winter drake American White-winged Scoter images below, alongside an excellent image of a first-winter drake Velvet Scoter, taken in Shropshire in November 2016 by Dave Tromans. We believe these help to illustrate and compare the key features of fusca and deglandi, which were key to the identification of the Unst bird.

  • Head shape tends to be more rounded in fusca, whereas deglandi shows a flatter crown and squarer, more Surf Scoter-like, appearance.
  • The bill profile in fusca shows a distinct gentle concave profile, scooping downward from forecrown to bill tip, whereas deglandi shows a distinctively convex profile, creating a ‘broken-nosed’ appearance to the upperside. The bill was therefore deeper at the base, appearing to start from higher up on the forehead.
  • In fusca the bill feathering stops before the position of the nostril and slopes back towards gape at about 40-degree angle, whereas in deglandi the feathering extends further, reaching below the nostril and forming a 90-degree angle. This is a feature that, although we were quite sure we could see, we found hard to assess at first. Closer views and images made this much easier.
  • The nostril size and shape was quite striking; deglandi shows a larger and more oval-shaped nostril which, on the Unst bird, you could see right through, even at a distance, when the bill was in profile. This is in comparison to fusca, where the nostril is smaller and more rounded.

First-winter drake American White-winged Scoters, Crane Beach, Massachusetts, November 2016 (Guillermo Rodriguez).

First-winter drake Velvet Scoter, Telford, Shropshire, November 2016 (Dave Tromans) with the Unst American White-winged Scoter for comparison.

Having fantasized about finding White-winged Scoter in Shetland this was a real privilege to have been part of this amazing bird and team effort, heralded by an impressive bit of impulse ID by Dougie. It was rather amusing that barely a week prior  to this I found a juvenile Surf Scoter off Unst and on Twitter I joked that; “it was the third species of American duck on Unst in as many weeks- let’s hope the next one has white in its wings!”. Prior to the Surfie the island had already hosted Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon.

It is perhaps relevant to add that it was later to transpire that this bird had been identified and actually photographed as a Velvet Scoter off Belmont just a few days before.

Hopefully this bird may serve to encourage/remind birders to scrutinise all ages and sexes of all Velvets, when possible. Having not been seen here since the 22nd of October, might this bird turn up again in a scoter flock somewhere in the country or even perhaps Europe?