West Midland Bird Club

Twitching Magazine: 'Britain's First Lesser Scaup'

This article, by our then- Staffordshire County Recorder, first appeared in 'Twitching' volume 1 no. 3 (page 65/6), circa April 1987.

Britain's First Lesser Scaup.

The Staffordshire/ West Midland border is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of rare birds, but Chasewater and its surrounding wet heathland have produced a remarkable number of them over the past twenty years. Last and Buff- breasted Sandpipers, Lesser Kestrel, Red-footed Falcon, Caspian and White-winged Black Tern have all appeared, but not since 1978. Red- crested Pochard, Velvet Scoters, Bittern, Red-Necked Phalarope, Leech's Petrel, Little Auk, Pomarine Skua and regular 'Arctic' gulls are all good to see, but it was about time that a bird turned up which really set the 'phone- lines buzzing.

Many hours are regularly put into scrutinizing the gull roost for such a bird. Exactly two years ago a near perfect and still unexplained Glaucous- winged type Gull was close to being the one. After the Ring- billed Gull at Westport in North Staffordshire on March 14th–15th, renewed enthusiasm was directed towards the roost. Little did we realise that the bird had already arrived and was waiting for someone to take it seriously!

On March 8th, John Bennett, John Holian and I independently noted a small immature Scaup-like drake on the pool known as Jeffrey's Swag.

It contrasted strongly with the adult drake Scaup that had been present for a month. However, its great propensity for sleeping and keeping close in to the flooded willows made detailed observation difficult, and it was thought likely to be another Lesser Scaup type Aythya hybrid.

I saw the bird again on the 10th and 12th, but again it was asleep, apart form a productive few seconds when it preened to show what appeared to be a rather straight, narrow, blue- grey bill with a small black nail, and a prominent white secondary bar but dusky primaries. Unfortunately the information to hand was very limited, but surely the bill ruled out the hybrid possibilities!

Most other birders were keeping their options open but, on the evening of 16th, John Fortey cautiously suggested that it was a Lesser Scaup. Many people were involved in the eventual identification and, on combining our descriptions, I felt confident enough to alert the West Midland Bird Club hotline.

The following afternoon, the bird was obligingly close and alongside the Scaup. There was now no doubt about it. The first birder to be told was a highly surprised John Martin who had called in for the gull roost. An elated John Bennett arrived with a fine description he had taken at lunchtime. The local and national hotlines were alerted and we held our breath in anticipation of the crowds to follow.

The moral of the story is not to ignore any bird, no matter how plastic looking!

Graham Evans, Staffordshire County Recorder
(address details removed)

The main relevant features as noted by John Bennett, were as follows:

  1. A very small black nail (smaller than the nearby Scaup) to a small bill.
  2. Domed head with yellow eye, purple gloss and 'tuft remnant'.
  3. Mantle appears grey at a distance and only covers the upper half of the back. On close inspection it is white with black zigzag vermiculations (much bolder than Scaup).
  4. Pale Grey Flanks, with light grey vermiculations.
  5. Breast dark brown and black mottled and extended along the lower side of the flank.
  6. Beige undertail coverts barred brown, with mottled brown extending into lower rear flanks.
  7. A white speculum effect on the secondaries — not on the primaries as with the nearby Scaup and Tufted Duck, noted when the bird flaps its wings.
  8. No ring on either leg

Over the years here have been many 'false alarms' when this species has been claimed or suspected. It is hardly surprising therefore that the observers of this bird exercised caution before making their identification. Fortunately the bird stayed on and was seen by many twitchers over the weekends of 21st–22nd and 28th–29th March.

Lesser Scaup is extremely numerous in North America. It is a long distance migrant, and we are informed that they are rare in captivity and the escape risk is low. The Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge have reported that they have a population of some 30 birds and they have reared young (all were pinioned, however). At least seven other wildfowl collections have Lesser Scaups, but the captive breeding success is very poor. We await the judgement of British Rarities Committee (and ultimately the BOU Records Committee) with interest — surely it must be a good candidate for category A on the official British List?


This month's cover drawing of the Lesser Scaup is by Richard Millington.

Reproduced by kind permission of Graham Evans.