On this damp and grey day of the new dark season the occurrence of some scarce wildfowl in a Milton Keynes public park offered a suitable diversion. Having risen late following successive evening shifts, my attention was caught on RBA by two Velvet Scoter just 40 miles or so from home in neighbouring Bucks. Such a bijou twitchette would fill the remaining hours of daylight nicely and so I jumped at the opportunity.
I have observed this sea duck twice previously, on the Solent near Titchfield Haven, Hants (Mar 2010) and at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir (Dec 2013). More than 20 were reported this morning around the south-east English coast in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex, with three more at two inland sites. Essentially marine in winter, these Baltic and tundra breeders are rare inland in Britain, usually turning up during freezing weather. The instructions on RBA said in the SW corner of Willen Lake, viewable from the perimeter path near the pub. What they didn’t make clear is there are two lakes here, a southern one (SP877397) being home to a water sports complex, while the northern one is more naturalised.
I reasoned that the Scoters would more likely be in the less disturbed location, but upon checking out the north lake first the information board showed the pub was by the south one. The busier option it was then but in my first scan around every black silhouette was a Coot. Then I noticed two birders further around the perimeter path and went to join them. They pointed out the area where they had last seen the two first winter male Velvet Scoter, but it was several minutes before we relocated them close to the structure pictured below left.
Mist was rising above the lake’s surface in steady drizzle and the light was deteriorating fast. As so often when meeting birders in the field I seemed to recognise these two but could not place from where. After my companions left, the two Scoters continued to drift right, diving all the while and getting closer and closer. These sooty brown ducks have a stocky, rather large-headed profile with a thick lower neck and long wedge-shaped bill. Their pale cheek patches always stood out but the white secondaries remained hidden. I was only going to capture little blurs in the conditions, but as always these images (below) show how the birds were seen.
In an hour or so on site this was the best of my three Velvet Scoter experiences to date, and the afternoon was duly filled with a satisfying encounter. After October’s five British list additions my national birding had gone rather flat, though as darkness set in some good early winter birds have swelled my Oxon year list: White-fronted Goose, Scaup, Whooper Swan and Hen Harrier. Most recently Pink-footed Goose was a county list addition and I have now bettered 2015’s total. If there were new national or county birds to go and see every day I would never lack for motivation, but life and birding unfortunately ain’t like that!