Pacific Loon, East Chevington, Northumberland

A DAY OUT ON THE NORTHUMBERLAND COAST with Mark Varley resulted in another UK lifer, the long overdue Black Scoter off the dunes at Cheswick Shiel. It took over 5.5 hours to find it in tricky conditions at times but mostly because it was probably not where we were looking at the time. We checked hundreds of Common Scoter bills until Mark eventually picked it out more or less right in front of us. Its bill like an yellow-orange light bulb. I'd been saving this one until later and I guess now it's later. There were plenty of other birds along Cheswick Sands today, including: Great Northern (two), Black-throated (one) and Red-throated (c.20) Divers; Slavonian Grebe (one); Long-tailed Duck (c.30); Common Eider; Red-breasted Merganser; Northern Fulmar (one); Razorbills and Common Guillemots; European Shags and a female Merlin, which bombed down the beach with a crow in hot pursuit. The scoter flocks were being harassed constantly by large gulls and moved around quite a lot. The day started off bright and sunny but we got rained on about half way through before the Black Scoter materialised, which did not leave much time for the Pacific Loon at East Chevington. It was surprisingly elusive, diving frequently but it did give us one nice fly past. That's all five loon species in a couple of weeks. Not such an incredible record bearing in mind we passed the site of the first one near Knaresborough on the way there and back. I wonder how many other records are lurking in the photo archives waiting to be identified? Also here of note were: kingfisher and Pink-footed Geese.

Black Scoter, Cheswick Sands

Now then! I'm supposed to find the birds! A great bit of spotting by Mark Varley saved the day.


Yellow-billed Loon (second calendar year), River Witham, Lincolnshire.

ALREADY SURE TO BE ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF 2017 and presumably pushed into the Wash by the big northerlies and the tidal surge on the weekend of 12/13 January this magnificent bird has sought refuge, twenty miles inland on a sheltered stretch of the River Witham near Woodhall Spa. I often wonder about the reason large divers turn up inland. Maybe they are sick or emaciated after a battering by bad weather at sea, or maybe they are just smart and there is an easier living to be had on inland waters full of fish? The loon spent almost as much time under the water as on it and at first I was worried it had swallowed some fishing line but this transpired to be strands of weed getting stuck in its bill, presumably as it fished underwater. The weed was sometimes there, sometimes not when it surfaced.

Of course my main objective was to get some photos of it. It is easy to find yourself with thousands of side-on ‘field guide’ poses as the loon doesn’t change its posture much. It sometimes holds its bill more upright, it flapped its wings once in four hours and stuck its leg out a couple of times but mostly it was diving actively, sometimes for up to 100 metres along the river and then pausing between each dive for a while. So I tried for some lower angle shots including against the light trying to get the sun shining through its bill. When the early morning sun’s rays first hit the water there were some nice reflective patterns and the loon was also occasionally illuminated against dark shadows, something I am always looking for behind subjects. Against the light was also quite good at times and although you lose the red iris colour and catch-light, the sun shining through the yellow bill tip is quite a nice effect.

By the way, I got some stick on twitter for calling it ‘Yellow-billed Loon’, going American or summat. The word ‘loon’, is derived from the Norse word ‘lom’, which is what Scandinavians have always called divers and this was adapted by American ornithologists. I originally bought Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Sea and Coast in 1980 in Norway…’Fugler I Naturen Hav og kyst’ in Norwegian (‘Birds in Nature Sea and coast’) and the name ‘Gulnebblom’ is simply ‘Yellow-beaked Loon’. The Collins Guide has also adopted the name ‘loon’ so why not? Got to try and keep up with all these new names!


Bohemian Waxwing, Barrow, East Lancashire - oops!

AS IF THE INTERNET WAS NOT ALREADY FLOODED WITH WAXWING PHOTOS this winter! At risk of becoming part of the problem I had been patiently waiting for them to come to me instead of chasing them around. Strange how my first of the influx was in Stow-on-the-Wold in the last week of December. I just managed to add waxwing to my little ELOC year list on 31 January, ending up on 146 after I stopped trying for more species in early September. My highest total in East Lancs by far and not too bad considering I was out of the country for three months this year but I didn't even get within 20 of Mark Breaks's amazing total. I will not be doing it again. Instead I am planning to do more walks up Pendle Hill this year than ever before. I'm on four so far by 8 January and should manage at least 16 by the end of February before I go back to Ladakh. The only year list I will be taking an interest in will be a tree-less part of Pendle Hill, Bill Aspin calls it my 'Moorland Madness Mini-league of One'. I reckon the bird list will not get anywhere near the number of hikes up Pendle but ironically the very first bird on that list this year was one that eluded me completely in 2016, can you guess what it was?


Blue Rock Thrush, Stow-on-the-Wold, 30 December 2016

STOW-ON-THE-WOLD HAS BEEN ADDED TO THE ORNITHOLOGICAL MAP with the appearance of this Blue Rock Thrush. Although it is an adult male that should not necessarily mean it is not of wild origin. We get adult vagrants from time to time and if wild then it has appeared on the back of the best ever autumn for eastern vagrants. It is also no more confiding than the birds I see in winter in Oman or India for instance. Let's hope it is from somewhere like Iran rather than a nearby aviary! Although only three hours drive away I could have done without the 18,000+ steps today carrying the big lens and tripod before the thrush made its entrance around midday. The other thing that struck me was how nice the people in Stow are, just like Beeley in Derbyshire earlier in the month. Thanks also to Dan Branch for finding a waxwing, which relieved the boredom of trudging around the back streets of Stow for hours this morning.

It looked like it had a rough night in the hard frost.

Looking rather scruffy close up.