Rarity finders: Harlequin Duck in Highland


Loch Fleet in south-east Sutherland is a small estuary, but because the way a sandbank has developed at its mouth, strong tidal currents flow through the narrows at high and low tides. Fish shoals gather just offshore and, on 5 August, had attracted a large flock of Northern Gannets and seals.  

At midday I arrived to try and photograph Arctic Skuas harassing Sandwich Terns when the tidal race was strong and fish shoals were moving into the loch with the fast-flowing water. On the water I noticed a small black duck which I did not recognise. I took one photograph before it drifted further up the loch.

Despite not knowing what species he'd encountered at the time, crucially, Donald obtained a photo so he could later make the ID (Donald Bremner).

With no thought of Harlequin Duck I imagined it might be some strange eclipse plumage of a scoter species. However, when I looked at the computer at home there was no doubt of the identification – it was indeed a drake Harlequin Duck.

I returned as the tidal basin was emptying at approximately 6 pm, now armed with a camera, tripod and telescope. The duck was still there, loafing in a quiet bay with the appearance that it was going to move onto the shore. However, as is often the case on the shingle bank, a dog walker appeared and greeted me in a loud voice: "I have never seen so many seals." I could only smile and agree. Unfortunately, but predictably, the Harlequin Duck flew over to the other side of the loch and walked onto the gravel beach. 

I didn't see it again, but it was reported the following afternoon – the final time it was seen. I sometimes cross paths with Sutherland's keenest birder, Dean MacAskill, a man with many good finds under his belt. Discovering the Harlequin Duck made me truly understand his enthusiasm for the hobby.

Bizarrely, this is now the third August record of Harlequin Duck in two years, despite the species never having been previously recorded in the month (Donald Bremner).

Written by: Donald Bremner

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