Perhaps it is the month for Scoters since I just recently added the Black Scoter to my lifelist (number 4 for the year) and now a White-winged was sighted at Bolsa Chica. It was a little before 9 am on Thursday, Jan 15th, when I started my quest. Walking along the path that parallels the Pacific Coast Highway, I looked at each and every duck-like bird on the channel at my right. The fact that the Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails and female Lesser Scaups and Surf Scoters were all brown and looked similar from a distance made my task a bit daunting. Not to mention that most of these birds were still sleeping and had their heads tucked under their wings, thereby making it much more difficult to observe the tiny white feathers under the eyes of the White-winged Scoter – field marks that would separate it from the rest of the brown plumaged flock.
About halfway along the trail, I noticed a small number of Lesser Scaups beginning to stir from their nap. One of them didn’t seem to belong – having a much darker plumage and is a tad bigger than the rest. Using my binoculars, I thought I saw the large, dark bill (unlike the gray color of a Scaup’s beak). It could be my White-winged Scoter but it was at the other side of the channel! Nevertheless, I fired off a couple of shots just so I could have some “documentary” evidence that I have now seen my fifth lifer. (Note: Some of us bird photographers call a not-so-good photo of an uncommon bird or a lifer “documentary” which basically means: I could have done a better job at photographing this **deleted** bird!) Anyway, I was now faced with a dilemma: I need to get to the other side at the fastest time possible and pray that the scoter will remain where it was. Do I get there via the boardwalk or via the tidal gate – both options probably covering the same distance (read: far). I took a deep breath and headed towards the tidal gates in quick, long strides. Running was out of the question as I would probably collapse in sheer exhaustion even before I reach my destination. Finally, in what seemed like an eternity (and trying not to be distracted by any photo opportunties the other birds in the area presented), I reached the place where the Scaups and my Scoter were preening. There it was, close enough for me to be able to confirm that it was indeed a White-winged Scoter. Unlike the Black Scoters at Ballona which kept me and my wife in suspense for almost three hours before finally making an appearance, this was as sweet as a pleasant dream.
* The Maltese Falcon, 1941