The Story behind the Photo 6

Harlequin Ducks at Kennedy’s Pass

As someone who often spends the whole day, when sea conditions are right, trundling down the south Ayrshire coast counting divers, I’ve got to know most of the good vantage points and headlands at which to stop.  Kennedy’s Pass is one such spot, and the lay-by on the bend as you approach from the south provides a slightly more elevated viewing platform.  Another lay-by exists about 100 metres further on, just as you leave the second bend in the road.

For some reason, I’d never thought to stop at this second spot – probably too close to sea level, and you might run the risk of losing sight of a bird if there’s a slight swell running.  However, the 13th of April 1996 was a day when counting divers hadn’t really crossed my mind, since the surface of the sea was anything but calm.  Round about lunch time, I had a phone call from Angus Murray which completely turned the day on its head.  Chris Murphy, a visiting Irish birder, had stopped at the second lay-by at Kennedy’s Pass to have his lunch and, while eating his sandwiches, had spotted two Harlequin Ducks close to shore.  I’d had the pleasure of meeting Chris on a previous occasion when he led an SOC trip round some of the key birding spots near Belfast, and knew that he wouldn’t have made a mistake with this.

Now, wildfowl aren’t exactly a favourite group of birds for me, but there’s still something special about a species which you always feel you’ll never see in your home county.  One Harlequin Duck would have been good, but two was quite exceptional.  Luckily, Kennedy’s Pass is only a 30-minute drive from home.  Chris had left for Glasgow, and I arrived to find a few birders starting to assemble.  The Harlequins were both females, so not the beautifully plumaged drakes you see in all the Icelandic tourist brochures.  Nonetheless, they put on a good show as they fed among the kelp close to the rocky foreshore.

Over the following few days, they remained faithful to this spot near the lay-by, and many UK birders enjoyed the sight of both Harlequin Ducks diving, surface feeding and standing on the shoreline rocks.  One of the things which amazed me, though, was the fact that no-one came to grief during this whole episode since the road carries lots of heavy articulated lorries from the Irish ferry ports of Larne and Belfast.  When these ferries dock in Loch Ryan, the road traffic can be both heavy and fast.  Fortunately, there were never a lot of birders present at any one time, so the cars parked on the grass verge presented only a small hazard. 

Both birds stayed for a fortnight, departing on the 27th.  During their stay, they were well photographed, with many better shots than the two below which I managed on a rainy day.  The only question which remained with me after they’d left was “I wonder what I missed while I had been watching from the other lay-by during all those years!”

Female Harlequin Ducks at Kennedy’s Pass April 1996     (Angus Hogg)

Angus Hogg
26 January 2023