Rarity finders: Stejneger's Scoter in Lothian


Cutting my teeth as a young birder in the late 1980s, Aberlady Bay was the site in Lothian. With a full-time warden, a track record of rare waders, an impressive winter goose roost, offshore gatherings of seaduck, divers and grebes and a variety of habitats, it was understandably well-watched. 

However, times have changed. There is no longer a dedicated warden, the geese no longer remain all winter, and there hasn't been a quality rare wader for a number of years. As a result, the reserve seems to have fallen out of favour with the majority of locals. In recent years I have tried to buck this trend by checking it regularly, hoping, with limited success, that the general lack of coverage might also increase my chances of finding something interesting.  

With the weekend approaching, I resolved to make Aberlady Bay my starting point on Saturday 10 December. News on the Friday afternoon that Lothian's second Black-throated Thrush had been photographed in a private Haddington garden cemented the decision: I would be within close striking distance should the thrush be relocated in a publicly viewable area. A phone call that evening from Calum Scott resulted in him agreeing to join me and we arranged to meet at mine at 8 am the following day.

The morning dawned with grim weather. Thick cloud cover and sleet and snow showers were at odds to the crisp blue skies of the previous few days. It was one of those mornings where it felt it was never going to get light. This hadn't been part of the plan at all. 

However, I'm nothing if not persistent, so we headed for Aberlady as planned. With some potential brightness appearing on the horizon, we reluctantly left the shelter of the car and started the walk out to Gullane Point to check the sea. We had only been gone 10 minutes or so when news came through that the thrush was showing from a public road. 

Keith's initial views of the Stejneger's Scoter (left) were of a scoter with a long, even-sloping forehead and a protuberance akin to that of a 'rhino horn' (Keith Gillon).

The prospect of a long, birdless walk in uninspiring conditions made the decision an easy one – we turned tail and headed for Haddington. I managed to see the thrush immediately on arrival but Calum unfortunately only obtained flight views. After two hours without any further sign, I was beginning to get itchy (and cold) feet. With the weather improving we agreed to cut our losses and head for the point at Aberlady as had been the original plan.

On arrival we set about scanning the sea to the east. Other than a close flock of Common Scoter and four Purple Sandpipers on the nearby rocks it was disappointingly quiet. We finished our respective lunches, and once Calum had finished his flask of tea (an exercise that is never rushed), we headed to the western side where I knew the majority of scoter and eider had been in recent weeks.

Although there were reasonable numbers of birds present, only a small proportion were actually do-able due to the bad light. Thankfully, after 15 minutes or so the overhead conditions changed, and the light improved significantly. It was around 2.20 pm when, on my umpteenth scan of the scattered flock, I noticed a distant drake scoter amongst a small group of Velvet Scoter showing a bill structure the likes of which I'd never seen before.

With a striking profile and an apparent 'lump' at the bill base it had alarm bells ringing immediately. For active Lothian birders, Velvet Scoter are our 'bread and butter'. This was no Velvet. Calum raised the possibility of it being a White-winged but I was able to confidently dismiss that possibility too. Living in Musselburgh, I have been fortunate enough to see the returning White-winged Scoter there on numerous occasions and at a variety of ranges. This was clearly a very different bird.

It displayed a long, evenly sloping forehead that lacked the concave appearance of a Velvet or the two-step profile of a White-winged. The amount of exposed, coloured bill differed too. And then there was that bill base. This wasn't just a 'swollen base', but a prominent, seemingly forward-pointing protuberance that I kept describing to Calum as a 'rhino horn' for want of a better phrase. As the group swam closer, we noted the more prominent white eye 'tick' and tried to establish the extent of any colouring on the bill. The bill sides were clearly yellow, but it was only when it got closer that we were able to see that the central area appeared reddish. With a number of male Velvet Scoter directly alongside, all the differences were clear.

The Stejneger's Scoter (second from left) kept close company with a small flock of Velvet Scoter (Graham Jepson).

There really could only be one conclusion – it surely had to be a drake Stejneger's Scoter. Despite being at long range, I endeavoured to try and get some images in the hope that they might capture the jizz of the bird if nothing else. Calum provided the directions while I shot blindly at the group. As they were about to draw level with the Point, the group began actively diving, then suddenly took off, heading a long way west eventually landing very distantly off Aberlady beach. With the light failing we knew we weren't going to achieve anything further by pursuing it. We tried to gather our thoughts and had a quick look at images online to make sure we weren't making some fundamental error before we headed back to the car in a state of slight disbelief.

Once home, I downloaded my images and was pleased to find that, though far from ideal, they did show the distinctive profile reasonably well. Although we were both entirely confident of the identification, I was well aware of the magnitude of claiming a first for Britain so tweeted that an apparent drake Stejneger's Scoter had been off Gullane Point and included a selection of my images. Reassuringly, all the comments that came in that evening were positive.

Arriving at Gullane the following morning I was extremely relieved to hear that the bird was still present. Once again it was a long way offshore and could be tricky to follow on a choppy sea, but with persistence, it gave reasonable views and remained on show until just before midday, when once again it flew a long way west and landed in the extreme distance towards Gosford Bay. It was reported again on 12th before being relocated in Gosford Bay, off Ferny Ness, on 13th.

Gosford Bay has long been a favoured site for scoter. It hosted Britain's first Black Scoter in December 1987 and in 1989 up to 10 Surf Scoter could be seen together, while more recently some 800 Velvets were counted in April 2021. So there is every likelihood it will remain in the area for the rest of the winter. Many locals are hoping though that it will eventually relocate to Musselburgh, where views are generally better. Were this to happen, there is the tantalisingly realistic prospect of seeing all three 'white-winged' scoter directly side by side.

If accepted, this will constitute a first for Britain and will allow Lothian to lay claim to having hosted all six scoter species.

Written by: Keith Gillon

Related Locations