Saturday 27 January 2024 was the first calm day after a series of storms and seemingly constant strong winds. I headed to Holkham NNR on the North Norfolk coast thinking it would be good day to scan through the scoter in a testing game of Where's Wally?, hoping to pick out the recent drake Surf Scoter and perhaps get better views.
I found a good vantage point in the dunes just east of the gap and started scanning. This winter has seen a large flock of 5,000 Common Scoter and 30 Velvet Scoter gather in Holkham Bay. They are rarely close and feed in turbulent opposing currents offshore, causing birds to swirl around with different parts of the flock circulating in different directions. With birds diving and regularly flying to new feeding areas it is challenging birding, but with perseverance it is possible to work through them.
With a falling tide dragging the currents and the scoter further offshore, the flock was consolidated but distant. I'd not been scanning long, looking for the telltale white nape patch of the Surf Scoter glinting in the hazy sunlight, when a drake scoter swam into my scope view. It was a long way out but even at that range its bill base looked conspicuously orange-yellow.
I was using my new Kowa extra wide-angle eyepiece on my TSN-99A 'scope but I needed more magnification. I decided to swap to my 30-70x zoom lens, but as I did the 'scope tipped forwards and I realised I'd not noted the bird's position in the flock. I changed the eyepiece and started scanning – and amazingly I picked up the bird again, its bill quite striking in the sunshine.
Mike managed some phonescope images of his Black Scoter find (Mike Buckland).
Black Scoter alarm bells ringing
However, the group of scoter it was with merged back into the main flock and it began feeding, immediately vanishing in the swirling mass. It had grabbed my attention and I was thinking it was perhaps a Black Scoter, but at this range I just couldn't convince myself it wasn't just a particularly yellow-billed Common Scoter catching the light.
With the bird lost, my searching broadened as I reverted to looking for the Surf Scoter. It was probably 45 minutes later as I worked back through the flock, and with my mind still puzzling over the apparent bright-billed bird, that it suddenly reappeared in my field of view. It was at the back of the flock, a long way out, but at 70x magnification it grabbed my attention and looked convincing. While scanning I'd seen a few displaying drake Common Scoter showing quite bright yellow bills but that yellow-orange globe was surely too bold?
A birder then approached and asked if I'd had any luck. I said I couldn't find the Surf Scoter but I was pretty sure I'd found a Black Scoter. However, in turning to answer him, the bird had mingled into the flock once more and I just could not relocate it. At this point I decided to put news out caveated as a probable Black Scoter – while convincing, I felt it was just too distant to confidently claim it. A few other birders arrived but with the flock moving ever further away, we couldn't relocate it before I had to leave, or subsequently.
At home I looked at images of Black and Common Scoter and read Martin Garner's identification paper on separating the two. The distant views meant I'd not seen some of the subtle features or colour tones on the bill, but I remained confident what I had seen really felt like a Black Scoter. However, with no other observers, the only option was to head back to Holkham the next morning and try to prove it.
Despite having spent several hours fruitlessly scanning the flock in the afternoon, James Lowen told me he and Stuart White would join me there first thing. Sunday 28 January dawned clear, sunny and relatively calm. I was back in the dunes fully prepared to search through the scoter. The flock offshore was about 4,000 strong with numbers building, but they were not as close as I'd hoped. However, I cranked the Kowa zoom to 70x and started working through them as best I could.
If yesterday's sighting was not unpredictable enough, what happened next was truly extraordinary. Initially the angle of the sun was unhelpful, casting shadows over the birds and making their bills less obvious, but I knew the light would improve. I kept scanning, working my way slowly through the flock, left to right, right to left. After several sweeps I'd found only a dozen Velvet Scoter. A few smart drake Common Scoter with bright yellow bills were seen, and although bright, they convinced me to keep looking.
Very many thanks to @mcbuckland for another superb find: Norfolk's first ever Black Scoter was at a challenging distance this morning, as the scoters always are in Holkham Bay and most other places! Another stunning pic or two on https://t.co/Z1h7nSP3li shortly! pic.twitter.com/XmCa3Cn5ak— Steve Gantlett (@CleyBirds) January 28, 2024
Flushed by a lifeboat
Just as I started to work back through the distant flock, the Wells-next-the-Sea lifeboat powered through the bay and flushed everything. The scoter flock erupted, birds scattering everywhere with the majority disappearing east, west and north. As just a few hundred birds circled round and returned to settle, the inshore lifeboat followed along and flushed them again. The bay was literally cleared of birds.
I knew this was never going to be easy, but it just got a lot more challenging! Trying to keep positive, I figured the birds would steadily return and I'd be able to check through them gradually without the overwhelming numbers of the whole flock. Raising my binoculars, I was surprised to see a small group of about 20 scoter fairly close offshore just to my west. With nothing else to look at I put my 'scope on them and worked along the line.
Halfway through a drake scoter turned on the current to face me and revealed its huge and unforgettable yellow-orange globe – the Black Scoter. There was now no doubt that it really was one!
However, I was still the only observer. James had messaged me to say he and Stuart were watching further along the dunes. Still watching the bird, I phoned James to let him know I'd got it. His phone rang out … I messaged him hoping he'd see it and also sent a message to the Norfolk WhatsApp group knowing others would be close by and interested. I really needed someone else to see it.
Getting others on the bird
Following the mass scoter flush, James and Stuart had just packed up their 'scopes and were about to wander over for a chat when James glanced at his phone and saw my message. They arrived in a blast of sand, tripods clattering and shouting for directions. I hadn't dared to take my eye off it and told them to look through my 'scope, desperate for someone else to see it, but terrified my 'scope would be knocked away from the bird in the process.
Stuart got there first. He looked. Silence. I figured his eye was focusing. Still silence? Had I knocked the 'scope; had I imagined it? The deafening silence was suddenly broken "F*CK!!!", as Stuart caught sight of the amazing yellow globe. Now even more desperate to get on it, James looked through my scope. Again, focusing his eye, not seeing it, a long silence, panicking, silence, followed by a confirmatory "F*CK!!" as the bird finally bobbed into view and he saw the striking bill for the first time.
- An in-depth guide to scoter identification, including how to pick out rarer species, features in the February 2024 edition of Birdwatch.