Rarity finders: Harlequin Duck in Shetland


After the excitement of June it's fair to say that July had proved a little quiet birdwise on Unst. My personal birding highlight had been pretty much limited to seeing a Leach's Storm Petrel flying around in broad daylight not far from the shore of the uninhabited island of Linga when crossing the Bluemull Sound on the inter-island ferry from Yell to Unst while guiding a Swiss couple for Shetland Nature on 8th. Of course, it's all too easy to forget that we are surrounded by breeding seabirds, waders including Red-necked Phalarope and the like. In contrast to the heatwave affecting much of the UK the weather has been rather challenging in Shetland this summer, with it remaining cold and often wet too.

My father, John Cooper, had kept me in touch with relevant rarity news and drawn my attention to a drake Harlequin Duck seen in Norway on 19 July. The idea of finding a summer harlequin here seemed more than a little fanciful, but the wintry weather felt about right and he reminded me of how my parents had found and photographed one on an inland reservoir in the eastern USA, unsurprisingly a first county record. With rarity hunting you just never know ...

The idea of finding a Harlequin Duck on Unst in late summer seemed rather fanciful (David Cooper).

Anyway, it was the start of a new month that offers increased hope of the start of the autumn migration. After a busy couple of months guiding and surveying without much time spent 'proper' birding, at last I had a day off. The downside was the near-constant westerly or north-westerly airflow that looked unlikely to produce any passerine migrants. I decided to walk to Valyie and back, just in case.

To be honest, if I was to see a Willow Warbler or two, it would have exceeded my expectations! As I approached Norwick beach it was obvious the tide was out and the exposed green weed had attracted a gathering of Black-headed Gulls. I scanned through them, ever hopeful that last year's Bonaparte's Gull might still make a late return. No such luck, with just a dark Mallard among them, which I scrutinised more carefully than usual, after seeing Brydon's American Black Duck earlier in the year. 

As I lowered my bins, a more distant duck caught my eye. It looked like a drake Harlequin Duck, although on lifting my bins I anticipated it being an abhorrent hybrid Mallard. But it wasn't!

In those initial seconds the harlequin was attracting the unwelcome attention of a Common Gull hovering above it, with the duck looking alert. I felt sure that it was about to fly before I even had chance to raise the camera, but it didn't. In fact it dived, and with my camera raised, the bird resurfaced. I pressed the shutter – nothing. I hadn't switched the camera on! Soon rectified, images were secured. Phew!

I took a couple of minutes simply taking it in, already wondering what to do next. I never have mobile phone signal at Norwick and to leave a Harlequin Duck not knowing where it might disappear to seemed a huge risk. There was a campervan parked on the beach head – I even had thoughts of waking them to see if they'd drive me home! 

Harlequin Duck, Norwick, Unst, Shetland (David Cooper).

I then thought I'd climb the Taing, which is almost like an island that projects into the wick, in case I could get signal there. With one bar, I sent a message to the WhatsApp group and made the mistake of attaching a back-of-the-camera image. The dreaded green circle spun for what seemed liked eternity, but, after five minutes or so, I heard the ping.

I then tried the phone and it had reverted to 'emergency calls only'. I was on my own again not knowing whether the news was circulating. I returned to obtain more images of the duck and to simply enjoy watching it. I was soon joined by Brenda, Robbie, Dante and Lauren and Mike and Margaret – the news was out.

The Harlequin Duck continued to perform, now at close range. It popped out of the water and onto the rocks of the Taing, when there was a collective, almost euphoric, cry of "no rings!" We were soon joined by birders from neighbouring Fetlar and Yell, then from mainland Shetland (including the Shetland Seabird Tours crew) and Whalsay. Being only the fourth for Shetland and the first since a one-day wonder on Fair Isle in 1999, it was rightly popular.

Written by: David Cooper