Rarity finders: Harlequin Duck at Brora


At lunchtime at the Brora beach car park, the tide was high and a quick scan from my car of the rough seas revealed a few Long-tailed Duck and Common Scoter. I then saw what I initially thought was a female Velvet Scoter, but this bird looked far too small in comparison with the Common Scoter present offshore. There was a large swell on the sea, but I soon had the bird in the scope. It then flew about 100 m south and became difficult to see because of the bright sunlit water — however, in flight it intriguingly showed no white in the wings.

I took my scope and walked very quickly south along the beach in order to get the light behind me. I got it in focus once more for a brief moment before it was spooked by an Otter, and flew north for approximately 600 m. This small duck — all dark apart from a white spot on the ear coverts — now had me convinced it was a Harlequin Duck. The only problem was that, because of the light, I could not see the pale greyish patches above and below the eye. I sent a text to Bob Swann, hoping that he would come over, but he was on nearby Lewis at the time. I put the news out as soon as I returned home. The next day, I searched the shore to the north of the river mouth but could not find it again.

Harlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck, Brora, Highland (Photo: Ian Andrews)

Back again on 22 February, accompanied by my friend Lorna, I scanned the area again. As the weather was quite stormy, I had the car window open just enough to see, while keeping the worst of the sleet and snow out. About 20 minutes later, just as I was about to head home, I saw the dark head of a duck with a white spot on its ear coverts for a split second. I couldn't believe it! This time it flew south, and I asked Lorna if she could see the black dot flying away. She said that she could, but this remained her only sighting of the Harlequin.

Harlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck, Brora, Highland (Photo: Dean Macaskill)

I briefly saw the bird feeding again on 25 February, and on 27th I searched the shore to the south of the river, but there was no sign of it in the bay, about half a mile south of the old radio station. I went as far as Sputtie Burn, about a mile south of the beach car park. There, I scanned the shore in both directions, but still couldn't relocate the bird.

A scan of the sea revealed all the usual seaduck suspects, but still no Harlequin. Then, as I was packing my scope away, I saw it swimming along the edge of the rocks by the shore, right in front of me. I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera with my pulse racing, as I knew the bird was close enough to get a decent record shot. I started photographing when I got to the edge of the rocks, the only problem being that my hands were shaking so much that I didn't think I would manage a usable shot! When I finally checked my pictures, I saw that I had a couple of half decent — and crucially, diagnostic — images.

The Harlequin Duck was still present in the Brora area on 10 April 2015.

Written by: Dean MacAskill