Friday, 9 March 2012

Lophodyte tendency

Female Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus at Whetsted GP, Kent, 5 March 2012: Britain's sixth, or not?
There are definitely better ways to spend a half day than going to see a Hooded Merganser of unknown origin, but why let logic get in the way of a bad idea? With this in mind, I set off earlier in the week to Whetsted GP in Kent. Target: one North American sawbill of undetermined provenance.

Not knowing this part of Kent well, I Googled the site directions beforehand and printed them out. I’m glad I did, as it’s a convoluted schlep through Five Oak Green and a nearby farm before you realise you’re close to the right place. Before I’d even reached the farm I bumped into two birders who were keen to find out if I knew the way; apparently they’d been wandering around fields on the wrong side of the railway line for two hours, with just Fieldfare to show for their efforts.

It might have taken more than a potential Category D duck to lift their spirits, but anyhow we set off and were eventually looking at the Hoodie on the westernmost pit, diving constantly among a loose gathering of Coot in what were unseasonally windy conditions. A bonus prize was another sawbill on a nearby pit, this time an adult drake Smew.

There’s no doubting the identity of the Hooded Merganser, and those who’ve seen it wing-flap or standing on ice when the pits were partially frozen report that it is fully winged and lacks bling. So does that make it wild? Possibly – and indeed hopefully – but the truth is there is no way of knowing, and in this instance it will be down to the Rarities Committee to make a judgement call.

They’ve done this before with Hooded Merganser, but not with universal approval for the result. The bird which arrived on Portland, Dorset, as a first-summer drake on 5 June 2007 and has remained nearby in the Weymouth area ever since was unsurprisingly, though possibly unfairly, placed in Category D. A long, unrelenting stay is deemed bad for some rarities but acceptable for others – witness the Steller’s Eider on South Uist, Outer Hebrides, from 1972 to 1984 and the Black-winged Stilt at Titchwell, Norfolk, from 1993 to 2005 which the committee allowed. I don’t know how commonly Hooded Merganser is reared in captivity, but its apparent arrival point on the coast of the South-West might have been considered potentially interesting.
Eclipse drake Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus at Weymouth harbour, Dorset, 20 July 2008:
not Britain's sixth, according to the Rarities Committee.
According to past reports of the Rarities Committee in British Birds, accepted records of Hooded Merganser in Britain are as follows:
  • 2000: Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, first-winter male or female, 23 October-
    1 November. 
  • 2002: Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, first-winter, 7-25 March. 
  • 2005: Chilham, Kent, adult female, 4-10 December. 
  • 2006: Haroldswick and Burrafirth, Unst, Shetland, adult male, 15 April-2 May. 
  • 2008: Tayport, Fife, female, 26 October-15 November. 
Interestingly, records from eastern counties outnumber those on Scottish islands by three to two. The fact that there is a previous accepted Kent record may help the Whetsted bird, though paradoxically its acceptance will skew the pattern even more away from what might be expected for a Nearctic vagrant (although the position with passage wildfowl in spring is somewhat different to birds arriving from across the Atlantic in autumn). There have been five records in the Azores too, again all since the turn of the century, so there is a nice symmetry to occurrences in Britain. We'll see ...


  1. Nice account Dominic and one with which I concur. The wind was terrible that day but pleased to see that at least you managed to get a passable shot of the lady in question.That extra 100mm and teleconverter clearly made the difference.

  2. I cannot see these as the violent type.

  3. Actually met one of the guys who found the Radipole bird, he says it came in off th sea from the west and spent sometime in a storm drain off the Portland Road, and then for a period in the harbour, and else where before becoming a bread guzzling slothe we see today. Did the bird at Connaught Waters ever get considered?



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