A text from old friend Stu Taylor on N Uist started the chain of events.
'Just watching a Harlequin Duck'
Oh shit. A few texts later followed by a phone call from Frankley services, as we returned north from a visit to my parents in Somerset, determined two key facts - firstly it was a male and secondly it was in the UK (just!). At this point Stu didn't realise the news hadn't gone out nationally. I quickly Mark with the news and a request to get some of the other lads together for a trip.
Tuesday saw us chewing finger nails whilst waiting for news that wasn't forthcoming until late afternoon. With positive news it was all systems go as the ferry was booked and Stu contacted to confirm our arrival so he could arrange our accommodation at a local bunkhouse.
Leaving home at 21.15 I picked up the other four and we set off for the long trip north to Uig on the Isle of Skye. it was a beautifully clear night and we played dodge the Red Deer across the Highlands. Nine hours later we arrived in darkness and settled down for a couple of hours sleep. No chance - not with Malc snoring! As daylight broke a four other birders joined the queue. Including one poor guy who'd hit a Red Deer on the way up and whose car looked a write off.
Before we boarded the ferry we had two good bits of news - the bird was still there and Stuart was going to meet us on site and spend the rest of the day showing us around. Passing the news round to the other birders there was a pretty happy atmosphere aboard the Calmac ferry as we spent the trip sea watching. O nthe approach to Portmaddy I picked up a White-taield Eagle soaring in the distant and we watched as it made a lazy pass at a Greater Black-backed gull that promptly squirted out a load of white adrenalin before heading straight down to the sanctuary of the sea.
A sunny but breezy day greeted us at Lochmaddy and set off for Balranald RSPB reserve about 40 minutes away. True to his word Stu was there to lead the convoy down the track to the bay where the bird had been frequenting. If Carling organised twitches this would be it - 9 hours drive, 1.5 hours ferry and then walk up to where the finder, Brian Rabitts, had the Harlequin Duck firmly in his view! All this with only twelve of us watching it..........
Twitching doesn't get better than this. A 'crowd' of 12 including Stuart on 'crowd control' and three locals.
What a bird in a stunning location.
With a supporting cast of a juvenile Glaucous Gull performing a flypast we filled our boots with this gem of a duck.
After a couple of hours we returned to the visitors centre to look for the Richardson's Canada Goose that had been frequenting the area with Barnacle Geese. No problem - Stuart almost immediately picked it up and we spent the next hour watching this diminutive Canada.
Next target was a nearby female Ring-necked Duck and with that safely tucked away on the trip list it was time to look for a pair of Snow Geese at Loch Paible. Once again we were successful.
Time was ticking away as was the daylight as we made a stop at Stinky Bay where we found a pair of Long-tailed Ducks before going to our accommodation with an arrangement for Stuart to meet us at 6.30 and lead us to the local pub for a couple of pints and some food. Hoping for a good nights sleep after being awake for over forty hours we put the snorers in one room whilst the non-snorers were in another. Unfortunately one of our room mates failed to admit he was a snorer and proceeded to keep Mark & I awake half the night with his nasal reverberations.
Although we'd booked to return on the midday ferry we decided to get up early and try to get a standby berth on the earlier one so set our alarms for 5am. Very luckily we did get one of the few standby places and it was a tired but happy group that disembarked 5 hours earlier than anticipated at Uig for the long drive home in superb weather.
A great couple of days with very little sleep some superb birds and a chance to meet up again with Stu to whom we owe a few more beers next time we meet.