Finders report: American Coot, Loch Flemington, Highland Jan 2014
by Simon Eaves
I’ve always enjoyed doing some birding at new year to kick off my year list and 2014 started with a couple of Iceland Gulls on January 1st close to where I live just near Nethybridge.
Living in Speyside is great but birding in mid-winter here can be really quiet apart from the specialities like Crested Tit, Capercaillie etc, so when Saturday came round I headed up to the coast in the Inverness area. I started by dipping the long staying Ring-Billed Gull in Dingwall which I have missed on countless occasions now then went looking for Golden Eagles up a nearby Glen but I had no luck here either. The day wasn’t going great so far.
Seeing the Lesser Scaup at Alturlie close to Inverness on the Moray Firth which had been reported several times was my main aim for the day but with the high tide not being till mid-afternoon I had left this until late in the day to increase my chances of seeing it close up. The Lesser Scaup showed well on very calm seas and I ran down my camera battery trying to take a few Digi-scope shots of it. There’s some good birding here on the inner firth and I added Slavonian Grebe, Long tailed Duck and that great Highland rarity Great Crested Grebe!
With a flat battery and little light left in the short highland day I decided to drive along to Loch Flemington which is only a few miles away to maybe get a few more year ticks before it got dark. Strange as it might sound this far north and being quite landlocked in Speyside several species that birders might think of as common are really scarce up here so I was hoping to get Moorhen and Coot on the loch which are both very scarce in Speyside but a bit commoner up here on the coast.
Loch Flemington is a good Loch for birds being shallow and weedy it’s quite different from many of the deeper barren Scottish Lochs. I’ve lived in Scotland for over fifteen years now and fifteen is probably the number of times I’ve been to this spot over the years, likely I stop here if I’m passing once a year.
The best layby is at the far end of the loch so I stopped here where loads of Whooper Swans were very close to the shore which was nice and there were several Moorhens for my year list, just needed a Coot now! Only twenty metres or so away I noticed something a bit odd, white under tail coverts on a bird swimming directly away from me that looked like a Coot but I couldn’t see its face. When it turned its head to the side and I saw its bill, I could see a bill band and a straight feather edge at the base of the bill. I immediately thought that looks very “American”. I’ve seen American Coot a couple of times before over in America and Canada but knowing its rarity here I’m still thinking no it can’t be. The next thing that goes through my head was my flat camera battery however somehow the camera switched on and I managed to get a couple of record shots in the failing light before the camera shut down again. There was slight niggle of doubt in my mind, I’d had poor views in bad light and wasn’t sure what a potential hybrid Coot / Moorhen would look like as I had read that this could happen.
Not being able to review my photos and with the light almost gone I drove home to view the photos and sent them to a friend Dave Pullen and he was in agreement that from the photos it looked like an American Coot. Knowing that twitchers would be travelling a long way for this bird the two of us drove back the following morning (Sunday) to get sufficient views to be a hundred percent sure and to confirm it was still there before putting the news out. Despite a heavy frost freezing most of the Loch and the Coot spending a lot of time hidden near some overhanging trees we eventually had good enough views to see all the identification features and put the news out to RBA. Within half an hour local birders started arriving and several people saw the bird by the end of the afternoon. It was an amazing way to start the year and I even eventually saw a Common Coot for my year list!
American Coot in Britain and Ireland