In 1996 I saw my first White-billed Diver in the rather incongruous surroundings of the River Witham in Lincolnshire, 20 odd miles inland and with water no wider than 40yards. The bird was feeding along a stretch of the river near Tattershall and we were lucky to see it, as the very next day it unfortunately swallowed an anglers bait and hooks during a fishing match and despite efforts by vets to save it, it died.
So at the start of this week when a White-billed Diver turned up inland on the River Witham, just a scant few miles up the river from Tattershall, at Kirkstead Bridge in Woodhall Spa it promoted some incredulity and deja vu! How odd it is a bird that is such an stranger (indeed almost unheard of visitor) to winter inland waterways in Britain would turn up in almost exactly the same spot 20 years later?
Anyway, as the last unfortunate individual had done, this bird began to show really well. Now we could not travel for a few days, so made plans to visit on the Thursday the 26th, as the weather forecast was looking good. However never trust the weatherman. The promised sunshine was glorious a day early on Wednesday, and Thursday dawned murky and overcast. The bird was reported at around 8.30am so we set off mid morning to make the 1.5hour drive over through Newark and Lincoln to Bardney as this was where the bird had been frequenting the day before and had been seen heading up that way at 8.30am. However as we arrived at Bardney there had been no news since the early morning report and indeed negative news late am on the pager. We decided as no-one was evident at the bridge at Bardney, we would head to the next site south down the river at Southrey. We pulled up into the car park and just as we were getting ready, pulling on our layers of clothing, a couple started to pack their car up, a quick question revealed the bird was further south, back at its original spot at Kirkstead Bridge. We set off to walk the bank south. It was extremely cold and a biting wind was whipping across the fen landscape, piercing the cold through to the bones. However we had not gone above 200 yards when we were told it was a long way to walk and it would be better to drive round to the bridge. We hurried back to the car, seeing Little Egret and two Whoopers on the way, and drove round through Woodhall Spa to the bridge.
We parked at the old LNER Wood Hall Junction station and walked down the bank.
We could see some birders up the embankment a little way north and soon clapped eyes on the monster diver on the far side of the channel, rather incongruously alongside some Mute Swans. There then followed a walk up and down the river embankment as the bird hunted underwater, diving and popping up always just that pace ahead. Eventually though we were in the right spot and it surfaced right in front of us and stayed on the surface posing for a few minutes, even turning round to show off both sides.
A true beast of a bird, the immense ivory bill with a beautiful blue base was striking, as was the pose, with the bill held tilted upwards almost in the manner of its smaller cousin the Red-throated Diver. The brown back was scalloped with pale feather fringes indicating the bird is a first winter individual. The bird looks a slightly faded brown colour (Great Northern always looks darker to me).
Look at that bill.
The murky and bitterly cold day was not conducive to photography, especially with a bridge camera, but I did manage a little video and a couple of stills.
The weather grew more cold as the wind cut through us and the odd grain of snow came out of the grey sky. We decided to call it a day.
The fenlands are a flat and moody place. The colours muted and the skies large and expansive, but today almost featureless in a grey tone.
What is it then about this seemingly anonymous river that has now drawn two White-billed Divers away from their normal pelagic winter lives to seek refuge on this narrow water in this wide and strange landscape in the middle of the Lincolnshire fenlands. Obviously it hold some magnetic draw we humans cannot perceive.
One must hope that this bird achieves a happier out come than its historic predecessor and leaves its fenland winter quarters in one piece.