Rarity finders: White-billed Diver in Essex


Having lived in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, for most of my life and as a keen, active birder locally since my secondary schooling back in the 1980s, I remember first heading to the nearby iconic 2.1-km-long Southend Pier in autumn 1987 for skua passage. Fast forward 36 years and we were having a good winter in terms of birds present in the outer Thames Estuary. It was therefore, with a calm sea and a desire to photograph Great Northern Divers in mind, that I took the 11 am train to the end of the pier on 25 January.

High tide was at 12.30 pm and initially only two European Shags and a Great Northern Diver were visible, the latter being close enough to photograph. A little further out, I picked up another two Great Northerns more distantly east beyond the pier. As I panned left with my 'scope, a fourth bird drifted south towards the further pair, but this individual, even at a distance, appeared noticeably paler on the head and neck with less clean definition. I thought little of it and returned to capturing the nearer diver. Luckily the paler bird resurfaced nearer and I took some record shots.

The pale head and neck of the White-billed Diver stood out from a distance (Vince Kinsler).

Initially, I put it down to an interesting plumage aberration. As I took more photos, the light gingery neck, which curved towards a faint broken scarf at the lower neck front, and the pale head, making the eye stand out, were noticeable. But it was the bill which started to get my pulse racing. My experience of White-billed Diver was limited to Holyhead Harbour, Anglesey, in 1991 and the confiding Hayle Estuary bird in 2007, but I remembered that the pale outer culmen was diagnostic.


Back-of-camera rarity

I looked at the Great Northern Diver pictures. The entirely dark culmen was abundantly clear on those, but the culmen on this bird was only dark for the basal half. Then I looked at the lower mandible. There was a significant gonydeal angle and the bill was ivory-coloured overall, breaking into pale yellow towards the tip. With my heart now thumping, I fired off a back-of-camera shot on WhatsApp to my birding mentor from school and Suffolk bird guide, David Walsh, saying "Southend pier, now. It's not is it??"

His instant response: "Certainly is!" I started shaking!

At this point a Great Northern Diver swam towards the bird and I took an ideal comparison picture which showed the size, structure, plumage and colouration differences, which were by now abundantly clear. It was a White-billed Diver!

Those able to get to the end of the longest pier in Britain by 4 pm were treated to satisfying views of the Arctic-breeding diver (Vince Kinsler).

My eyes and my brain were still undergoing an almighty tussle, however. A White-billed Diver at Southend Pier seemed ludicrous and I fired off a message to my fellow Southend Ornithological Group members stating "This sounds crazy, but ..." with a couple of back of camera shots.


Happy twitchers

"On my way!" was the general response (along with some gasping emojis). I put the news out nationally then stayed with the diver for 45 minutes until Steve Arlow arrived breathless, quickly followed by John Wright and around 15 other elated friends and local birders.

The bird remained present when the pier closed around 4 pm, but despite many people looking it was not seen again over the weekend. Barring a single-observer fly-by at Frinton-on-Sea in 2021, no White-billed Diver has been seen previously in Essex, let alone photographed and twitchable. For those lucky enough to get there on the day, it provided immense joy along with continued incredulity for the finder!

Written by: Vince Kinsler

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