Birding Trip Report: Common Scoter at Earlswood Lakes, Warwickshire New Years Day 2019
New Years Day
New Years Day is often the most exciting day in the life of any birder. Its that special day when the old year list is wiped clean, and once again the score sits at zero. There's not many experiences in life that can top anticipating what your first bird of the year will be. Usually, for me it's an Eurasian Magpie or just Magpie as they're known in the UK. I hoped it would be something different.
As the clock struck midnight, I lay in bed with the windows open hoping to catch maybe a few notes of a Robin's song or maybe the high pitched trilling of Redwings passing over, or better still the mournful song of the Tawny Owl. But it was difficult to hear anything over the unrelenting din of fireworks accompanied by the wailing of sirens from emergency vehicles. When I woke up a little before 6 am, my eyes and ears opened to the sound of a lone Robin singing in the darkness. With a smile, I mentally ticked my first bird of the year and prepared myself for the marathon that is year listing.
Whilst many of my fellow Midlands birders opted to visit prime regional sites such as Belvide and Upton Warren. I opted for an altogether quieter start with a walk around the fields that surround the 15th Century Manor House, known as Baddesley Clinton in rural Warwickshire. The House once served as refuge for Roman Catholic dissidents during the English Reformation. Nowadays it was firmly in the hands of the National Trust.
Myself, my mother and Marley followed a roughly circular trail that brought us through the churchyard of St. Michaels, an area that's good for Spotted Flycatchers during the summer, down the driveway of the Manor House, across sheep fields, and back to our starting point close to Hay Wood. It was fairly quiet bird wise, but on New Years Day almost every bird that you see is a bonus, and I was quietly satisfied with ticking off the commoner species.
At a little after 10 am my phone buzzed with a message from a Twitter follower informing me that a drake Common Scoter, a species of duck more commonly found along the coastline had turned up on the Engine Pool at Earlswood Lakes in Warwickshire, only a few miles from the very field I was standing in. After informing the Earlswood Bird Recorder and the West Midland Birding community on Facebook, I became overwhelmed with that desire that all birders know very well, that desire to drop whatever it is they're doing and rush off to see the bird. On this occasion though, that feeling struck me as rather strange, I'd seen many Common Scoters during my time, particularly at the coast, where you'd expect them to be, but also inland. In fact, I'd once seen 5 drakes on a hot June day back in 2017 at the very place I desired to be at that moment. I had no particular need to see this bird, but it would be a notable highlight of the first day of the year, so now, the twitcher within had been unleashed. The rest of the Baddesley Clinton walk passed with fairly few highlights, although a 'kronking' Raven and a flock of some 200 Redwings passing overhead were enough to turn my head.
I toyed with the option of dropping in at Earlswood on the way home from Baddesley Clinton, but decided to take a gamble and wait until after lunch, so I could take a trip with Paula and the two dogs. I weighed up the pros and cons of my decision- the obvious pro was year ticking a beautiful sea duck hundreds of miles away from where it should be. The major con was that, well I knew the Lakes would be busy, and I mean busy, not only with people, but cars and dogs. This was New Years Day, and therefore everybody would be out taking advantage of the fact of a rare collective holiday.
Even so, that one important pro outweighed the major con. So at a little after 2:30 pm, we piled ourselves into Paula's car and set off for Earlswood. As per usual, I aimed to park up in the small car park off Valley Road, and was fortunate to be able to slot in the last vacant spot, sandwiched in between a white van and a 4x4. From there we walked up the steep embankment and beheld the causeway that ran alongside the Engine and Windmill Pools, and separated them in turn. The scene that greeted me was altogether different from recent previous visits. Both pools had been filled right up to their maximum capacity water wise, and I couldn't help but feel a little sad at the loss of the scrapes and mudflats that had yielded great birds such as Black-tailed Godwit last summer.
The Lakes were full, and so was the causeway, albeit with people; there were easily more people present than birds, and straight away I made the decision to stay here for as little time as possible. I scanned the Engine Pool with my binoculars and located the bird almost straight away. It was virtually in the centre of the Pool, and was busy feeding; in turn it was also busy attempting to fend off the unwanted attention of the local Black-headed Gulls, who were attempting to steal whatever the Common Scoter was feeding on. I walked along the causeway towards the Engine House and parked myself in one of the many viewing points that line North-Western shore and whipped out my camera.
The bird was fairly difficult to photograph, especially for a relative novice like me. I zoomed the lens as far as it would go in order to get a recognisable shot, but each time I had to wait for the camera to focus itself, and by the time it did, the bird had disappeared below the surface on another feeding trip. This little dance between myself and the Scoter carried on for about ten minutes. Each time, I got closer to getting a plausible record shot, but the bird dived at the last moment. Then, after about the sixth attempt, the bird remained on the surface for just long enough for me to reel off one single shot. A quick look at the camera screen and a satisfactory nod meant that the mission was accomplished. I had my highlight of the day.
Almost as soon as I had reeled off that all important record shot, it became clear why Earlswood probably wasn't the best choice for a New Years afternoon trip out. Groups of families had continuously filtered past me, but a couple of excited children raced past Paula and the two dogs, startling Marley and causing him to snap at a little girl. Fortunately Paula was able to restrain him from making contact, but the girl's startled squeal meant that we bid a hasty retreat.
The last half an hour or so of daylight was spent on my local patch, Elmdon Park. We enjoyed a pleasant walk around the Lake, and in doing was able to add a few more species to my year list including, notably Ring-necked Parakeets, which have been resident in the park since at least 2010 (according to my Nan) if not longer. With the onset of dusk, I called a day on my New Years Day Birding bonanza and finished with a score of 49, slightly down on previous years, but an inland Common Scoter was a fantastic bird to start off with. Dreams of birds to come had already begun.
© 2019 James Kenny