This extract from my diary concerns a six-day twitching road trip made with two friends from college (Tony Blunden and Mark Thomas) and another birder from Sheffield (Liam Cox) in 1991. We covered 2,500 miles in Tony's Mini Metro and I got ten UK ticks (11 when you count the black scoter we found)! The 24th March was without doubt the best day's birding I have ever experienced in the UK.
21/3/91 Staines Reservoir
Evening session on the way to Holyhead! Lovely weather. A few duck still present including: ruddy duck (11) and stacks of goldeneye. Other highlights: black-necked grebe (3 summer-plumage) and chiffchaff (1).
22/3/91 Holyhead (Anglesey), Seaforth (Merseyside) and Marton Mere (Lancs)
Slept poorly in the car overnight in Holyhead. Got to grips with the white-billed diver in about ten minutes. Blustery, clear day with big movements of meadow pipits noticeable. Moved on to South Stack fairly swiftly; stonechat (2), chough (3), raven (1) and the auks had returned to their breeding ledges.
On our way to Merseyside, stopped at Llandulas to check the scoter flock, but only distant views in choppy seas. No sign of the surf scoter. Had peregrine (1) from the car nearby.
Stopped off at Seaforth in the hope of yesterday's Bonaparte's gull but no joy. Plenty to look at though with little gull (13), Mediterranean gull (adult) and scaup (6) being the highlights. Kept moving, arriving at Marton Mere to spend five hours looking for, and failing to see, the American bittern. Mark was not best pleased when he discovered that the Bonaparte's gull had arrived at Seaforth 45 minutes after we left! Did see; ruddy duck (1), long-eared owl (1), water rail (1) and Cetti's warbler (1) during our vigil, as well as mink (1).
Got back to the car park to find the gates had been locked. So we moved a bollard and drove out. Drove to Sheffield to pick up Liam and then spent from midnight Friday to midday Saturday driving a fully-loaded Mini Metro to Wick! Only highlight during my shift was a nice badger (1) somewhere in the Borders.
23/3/91 Wick and Embo
Arrived to find the bird, a female harlequin, had gone missing! The harbour was a cracker however, chock-a-block with birds; Iceland gull (2nd winter), purple sandpiper, black guillemot (8), shag and loads of seaduck. Finally Mark went off for a walk and found the harlequin sitting on rocks and occasionally feeding. Superb little bird, much better than I thought it would be.
Moved onwards towards the Cairngorms, stopping at Loch Fleet and Embo. At the latter site had some lovely seaduck at very close range, mostly velvet scoter and long-tailed duck. The big surprise here was a male black scoter just offshore, I found and identified it, but getting the boys to look at it was difficult... To be fair at the time it was just a sub-species, but this record went on to become a 4th for Britain! My first mega. Drove through to Aviemore and slept at the black grouse site.
Awoke at Tulloch Moor to the sound of male black grouse lekking "choo-EESH". Did not take long to get up and on to the birds. Saw only two males in total, before heading for our next stop - Grantown Forest. Walked in after the golf course and found the abandoned car after a short search. Had three capercaillies in quick succession, all males. Also here Scottish crossbill (2), woodcock (2), crested tit (1) and red squirrel (2). Scottish crossbill was my 500th Western Palearctic bird. [I wonder if we identified it right?].
Whistle-stop stuff this, straight on to the Findhorn Valley, the day now glorious both weather and tick-wise. Common crossbill (1) and I finally unblocked golden eagle (1 adult, 1 sub-adult), also here buzzard and sparrowhawk.
On the way to the ski-lifts, stopped at Loch Vaa for Slavonian grebe (3) and Loch Morlich for red-throated diver (3) and goosander (3). At Glenmore had the only dipper of the trip. Up around the skiers (lots of these) we eventually find ptarmigan and also lots of red grouse (well above the snowline). Also snow hare (2). Could not believe the day at this point, we had cleaned up all the Cairngorms specialities in just 7 hours. So off we went to the coast. Stopped off at Lossiemouth for a Ross's goose. A really wild bird, in with a flock of very wary Icelandic greylag. Good-looking chap, but will it ever be tickable? Next stop Banff harbour for Kumlien's gull, which has no chance of being split but is good to see. We did not find it as obvious as others made out.
Finally after a hectic dash before dusk we whacked over to the Ythan Estuary and picked up a fine male king eider. Spectacular as it was, the sheer volume of eider packed into such a small estuary was more impressive.
The day did not stop there though, because we then drove to Largo Bay, which was very tiring after such a day. Slept on the sea front at Elie.
25/3/91 Largo Bay (Scotland), Seaforth and New Brighton (Merseyside)
Searched long and hard but could not locate any surf scoter, plenty of seaduck however and the odd Slavonian grebe. Eventually we called it a morning. Found out later that they were two miles west of Largo). Hammered down to Seaforth in good time. Not much doing though - wheatear (1) and scaup (3). The Bonaparte's gull had been regular at New Brighton during our stay in Scotland , so it seemed like the place to check next. Eventually I located it and we got great views. Two little gulls in the area too. Drove up to Blackpool and spent the night near Marton Mere.
26/3/91 Marton Mere, Preston Docks and Greater Manchester
Started off with a short session looking once again for the American bittern. No joy, but did have a nice barn owl (1) and ruddy duck (2). Eventually the bitterly cold wind got the better of us. Tried Preston Docks again, this time we connected with the second-winter ring-billed gull. On the way back to Norfolk we checked a few sites without success.