Surf Scoter nailed in Essex – 17th Jan

I pretty much had to go back and locate this bird. After all, to my mind the most meaningful life list additions are those that might involve a “dip” (or maybe two or three) along the way. I decided against returning last weekend, but a working fortnight into the new year the lure of the road was calling once more. This weekend’s better weather forecast was for Sunday, but I reasoned that something more interesting might turn up somewhere a bit closer by then – it didn’t. And without distraction I could spend sufficient time on Saturday looking for the north American sea duck on the Stour estuary.

This Surf Scoter, a first-winter male had been reported fairly regularly on RBA (see picture) since my previous visit here. I chose to start my search at Stutton Ness, Suffolk again as I wanted to experience the location in a better light than on that foggy but nonetheless evocative afternoon two weeks ago. The far side of the estuary was visible from the village of Stutton when I arrived mid-morning, but threatening grey cloud seemed to pursue me along the bridle path to the shoreline. Once there (below) I scanned around for 30 minutes or so in deteriorating light and freezing wind. Red-breasted Merganser were prominent again, with smaller numbers of Goldeneye and a solitary diver also present. Various black dots further out could have been anything and I decided to cross over to the Essex side.

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As I headed back to the village, a local birder walking down relayed a message on the Suffolk grapevine that the Scoter was viewable from Bradfield almost opposite Stutton Ness. So I drove round to there while the grey stuff mercifully went on its way. Parking on the B1352, I walked an unmade road Shore Lane down to the water’s edge (TM142316). The estuary was now bathed in an attractive, sunny light and it was low tide so there was just a concentrated area of deep water to scan.

There in the middle of the channel was the Surf Scoter, drifting downstream from the green buoy in the picture (below). Though the bird would have been closer back over at my start point, the advantage from this side was that the sun is behind the observer. Hence the white nape and other white bits stood out nicely. Sorry, I’m not a great one for plumage topography!

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This was not just a result, I had found a difficult bird unaided which is always at least doubly satisfying. As is usual in these moments of birding success the tension of the chase flushed out of me, and any negativity I might have been confronting received a retaliatory smack in the nuts. But not for long. I got back to my car at 2pm which left sufficient daylight to relocate 13 miles to Holland Haven Country Park just outside of Clacton-on-Sea, to try for a second American vagrant Black Brant.

The challenge of picking Brants out in the Brent Goose flocks they associate with is added to by those flocks’ mobility. To put it another way they aren’t usually where they were reported the previous day. There was no sign of a 700-strong Brent Goose flock on the grazing marsh at Holland Haven, but I picked some out on a golf course about 1.5 miles to the north-east. I walked for some way below the sea wall towards Frinton to see if I could get nearer but saw these geese were in an inaccessible location. So this extra lifer had to wait for another day.

Holland Haven local nature reserve, Essex

Holland Haven local nature reserve, Essex

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