Friday, 17 February 2017

Fenland Bluethroat 15th February 2017

Bluethroats come in two forms, red spotted and white spotted and consist of eleven races. The species does not breed in Britain but has a wide distribution from Spain and the Atlantic coast of France right across to the Pacific and even extending in small numbers to Alaska. Northern populations in the west migrate to the Mediterranean, the Sahel south of the Sahara and North Africa whilst eastern populations winter throughout the Middle East, India, southern China and southeast Asia.

It is an irregular spring and autumn migrant to Britain occuring mainly in May and September, the majority being of the red spotted form which are recorded mainly in the northern isles and down the east coast of Britain. The white spotted form comes from more southerly populations.

I had only ever seen one Bluethroat in Britain and that was some years ago at Welney when a male of the white spotted form took up a territory in Spring and commenced singing. 

So it was with some amazement and pleasure that I learnt that a first winter male Bluethroat, probably of the red spotted form, was found inhabiting a narrow band of reeds in a wet ditch, typical habitat for bluethroats, running parallel with the approach track to Willow Tree Fen LWT Reserve, near Spalding in Lincolnshire, earlier this week.

Male Bluethroats are such lovely looking birds and so many superb photos of this particular individual have been appearing on the internet that my mind was firmly set on going to see it as soon as possible. My twitching buddy Clackers was going stir crazy at home, having spent almost two months inactive whilst trying to shake off a cold virus, so I gave him a call to see if he was finally up to it. He was, so we arranged to go on Wednesday.

At the appointed hour of 6am Clackers boarded the Audi and we departed from Witney for the two hour drive to Willow Tree Fen. Apart from missing various turnoffs on the roads at crucial moments, as we were so busy chatting, we made good progress, winding our way along secondary roads following the Satnav's valiant efforts to put us back on course. I was initially despondent as the weather looked like it was back to its misty, depressingly grey best as we crossed Northamptonshire but as we headed further east, the sun began to burn through the mist and break free of the clouds, raising my spirits no end

We crossed into Lincolnshire and headed out into fen country. Such a strange, featureless land where the roads run straight as a dye for miles, crossing enormous flat fields that pan away for ever into an uncertain horizon on either side of the road. Clackers announced he needed a pit stop so we headed for Spalding not far from our destination and found ourselves pulling into Vine Farm from whom I order food for our garden birds via the internet. What a happy and serendipitous coincidence and even better they had customer toilets. 

I bought peanuts and seed for the birds back home whilst Clackers went for a hunk of Lincolnshire Fruit Cake to take home to Shirley. Back in the car we were off again, traversing the enormous landscape of  the Lincolnshire fens which are now no longer fens in the traditional sense but huge farm fields, drained by long water filled dykes running parallel with the road. A Kingfisher swerved in a banking manouevre across the road in front of the car. A high speed, electric blue, avian fighter jet that was gone in an instant. We went down another, miles long, straight but uneven road, a test of the shock absorbers as the car sashayed and swayed with the uneven contours of the tarmac.

We overshot the turning to the Reserve but not by much and turning round came to the none too obvious turning we had missed, and that led onto the mile long approach track to the Reserve's Visitor Centre.

Just by the entrance from the road was a small car park already full with cars and looking down the dead straight track to the Visitor Centre we could see a dark huddle of birders about half way, standing by the track on one side and surveying a band of withered reeds on the other side that ran the length of the track. 'This must be it Clackers'

We somehow squeezed the car into the car park and getting our gear together headed down the slightly waterlogged track which ran between partially flooded fields on either side. It was good to be out of the car and I felt refreshed in the relatively mild, sunny conditions as we walked towards the distant birders whilst distant Wigeon whistled from  the floods and Skylarks sang in the sky above. 

Floods by the Reserve's appoach track

The Bluethroat's temporary reedbed home
When we got there we found about a dozen birders standing on the grass verge beside the track looking across to the reeds on the other side which, tall and withered, stood in a narrow but dense congregation  in a wet ditch. A gentle enquiry to another birder elicited the fact that the Bluethroat had been feeding on the track five minutes ago but had subsequently gone back in the reeds but surely would be out again soon.

Waiting for the Bluethroat to appear

We waited with the others and after twenty minutes the Bluethroat appeared on the grass verge in front of the reeds, jumping and hopping about in the grass before coming right out onto the track and feeding on mealworms scattered by birders and photographers. 

It was totally confiding and showed little alarm at us taking its photo from close range. In appearance it was a slim, elegant version of a Robin, standing upright on long legs and had a longish tail which it cocked at regular intervals and occasionally flicked open. 

It adopted angular attitudes, half hopping, half running, without quite losing its gracefulness as it chased after something that took its fancy. For ten minutes it paraded up and down on the track, enhancing its wow factor with every step.

Its overall plumage was an unexceptional brown and buff but with the glory of an eye catching iridescent patch of mainly blue and rufous red bordered by black and white on its breast and although not in fully adult male plumage was still very beautifully marked  Chestnut patches on either side at the base of its tail matched a rump of similar colour. Its otherwise brown  head showed a prominent broad cream stripe over each eye and another cream stripe running just below each of its cheeks

Ten minutes passed in a blur of excitement as we watched it feeding, before it flew back into the reeds. We waited for the next appearance but our attention was diverted in the meantime by a Stoat hunting a Short toed Field Vole, both of them running backwards and forwards across the track but some distance apart. The Stoat disappeared but the vole kept running back and fore and coming closer down the track before diverting into the field behind us and was last seen making its escape through the legs of a tripod and then across the wet field behind us, scurrying from tussock to tussock. It plainly thought it was running for its life although the whole episode was comedic to watch.

Short tailed Field Vole
Everyone was now waiting patiently for the next entrance of the Bluethroat  but it went very quiet and the Bluethroat was only seen briefly, clinging to some reeds and calling in alarm as it and a Wren mobbed something, probably the Stoat, in the base of the reedbed.   Then it went quiet again and as the minutes passed more and more people arrived until there was a crowd of around forty people present, most of them displaying high levels of anxiety as they had yet to see the bird.

The Bluethroat had disappeared into the reeds almost in front of us but now, suddenly made a re-appearance on the track further the other way, some thirty or so metres back. I did not bother to move as my camera would be facing directly into the sun, so just watched the Bluethroat cocking its tail and flicking back and fore on the track as birders crowded around it.

Sadly some could not control themselves or their anxiety and taking advantage of its confiding nature had surrounded it too closely rather than give it space, so it soon sought sanctuary back in the reeds. Rather than wait patiently for the Bluethroat to re-appear we were then treated to a display of how not to behave in a situation such as this, with people peering into the reeds, even trampling habitat and walking up and down on the track rather than just quietly waiting for the bird to come out of the reeds and onto the track in its own time. It's pointless saying anything as no one takes any notice or worse just become abusive. It is very frustrating and it makes me reluctant to remain when such inconsiderate behaviour occurs. It's based, I am sure, on ignorance in most cases but that is no excuse.

Thankfully a good part of the crowd, including some of the worst offenders left once they had seen the Bluethroat so there was less pressure subsequently and the Bluethroat duly obliged by coming out from the reeds and onto the track and for fifteen minutes performed as well as anyone could have asked or hoped for.

Once the Bluethroat had returned into the reeds I joined Clackers and we headed back to the car, passing a Little Egret on the floods and nearer the car park, found thirty Russian White-fronted Geese, standing in a field, alert and wary, due no doubt to the unaccustomed numbers of birders come to see the Bluethroat..

A triumphant Clackers - minus usual hat!
It was now lunchtime and we were off to look for a Great Grey Shrike, near a place called Crowland. Local birders had given us directions and told us to look for a green bridge over the River Welland. First, as it was on the way, we made a stop at Spalding for a late breakfast. 

We found Crowland and eventually the green bridge but we were completely flummoxed as to how to get to the bridge. We could see it distantly from the road we were on, across some fields, and even cars parked by it, but for the life of us could not find the road that led to it. In the end we gave up after having already toured rather too much fenland in a fruitless search for the right road.

We stopped in a layby to sort out my camera and put it back in my camera bag preparatory to the drive home.It was then I realised something was horribly wrong. Where was my camera bag with the spare camera and other photography essentials in it?  I realised with a sinking feeling in my stomach I had left it propped against the fence back at the Bluethroat site.

There was nothing for it but to drive back to the Reserve and drive to the Visitor Centre to see if anyone had handed it in. It was a slim hope but the best we could do. On getting to the Reserve I drove slowly down the track past the birders awaiting the fortunately absent Bluethroat. There was no sign of my camera bag by the fence where I had abandoned it. My heart sank a little deeper. We got to the Visitor Centre but could find no one anywhere. Then two volunteers arrived and to my utter relief confirmed my bag had been handed in by some kind soul and  they went and brought it to me from the office.

The day suddenly became bearable again and with my worries dismissed we set about the drive home.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

A Sussex Quartet 13th February 2017

At long last. A weather forecast that finally involved sun got me fired up and ready to make another trip to East Sussex and to two familiar former haunts of mine, Cuckmere Haven  and Newhaven Tidemills.

Currently both locations are harbouring some good birds to see, with a Twite and various geese species and sub species at the Cuckmere and a singing male Serin  at Newhaven Tidemills plus Purple Sandpipers on the nearby Newhaven East Pier

I set off from my house at the comparative late hour of 5.30 am and inevitably, being a weekday, the traffic was heavy on the dreaded orbital M25 but fortunately it did not quite come to the usual standstill around Heathrow and I counted myself lucky as I sped onwards to the M23 which would take me to Sussex. The dawn slowly rose, a pink and  orange flush permeating the sky, preceding a huge bright sun rising above the South Downs near Brighton and requiring the donning of my Raybans and the unaccustomed use of the car's sun visor.

The sight of so much sunshine elevated my spirits although the fierce wind buffeting the car would probably make birding a colder than hoped for experience today. Both the Cuckmere and Newhaven Tidemills are exposed locations where there is little to hinder the wind, which from the forecast this morning would already be sweeping over the wide expanse of floodplain, meanders and saltmarsh at the Cuckmere and the shingle and sea in the case of Newhaven Tidemills.

My priority was to see the Twite, now a very scarce winter visitor in Sussex, The last ones I saw in Sussex being two at West Wittering which I was fortunate to see perched in a bush when doing my monthly WeBS count there some years ago. 

Dropping down the long steep hill from Seaford to Exceat I turned into the Cuckmere Inn car park just before the bridge over the River Cuckmere and getting my gear together from the car went through the gate at the far end of the car park and followed the muddy footpath southwards, eventually turning left and walking down to the west bank of the river. 

Matt, a birder colleague of mine had kindly given me precise instructions where to go to find the Twite, so I found myself following a narrow path, walking along a raised bank with fields to my right full of geese and the river to my left. I then met another birder coming the other way.

We greeted each other and he recognised me but I spectacularly and embarrassingly failed to register who he was until I realised it was Robert, who I had not seen for some years but whom I had known for many years, when I lived in Sussex before moving to Oxfordshire and with whom I was a member of the Beachy Head Ringing Station, catching and ringing birds there in the late summer and autumn. I had no excuses except my tiredness after a long drive and was suitably mortified.

Having made my abject apologies to Robert, we walked southwards together along the footpath. Off to our right in wide windswept fields the geese were scattered about in groups, feeding. The majority were the usual Canada Geese with a few Greylag Geese amongst them but one group were different. They were Russian White-fronted Geese, twenty nine in all and a nice sight to see, with the white blaze around their bills and random black barring on their bellies highlighted by the bright sun.

Russian White-fronted Geese
I found a single Dark bellied Brent Goose amongst the geese too but could find no sign of the four Ridgways's Cackling Canada Geese that were also meant to be somewhere here. There was also a huge roost of large gulls far out on the fields, the white plumage of the gulls shining, almost luminescent, in the sun, but they were hunkered down in a fold in the field out of the strong wind so it was impossible to see much more than their heads which was a shame as a Glaucous Gull had been around here yesterday and maybe was amongst them.

As Robert and myself walked along we saw another birder waving to us from some two hundred metres further on. We assumed that this was to alert us to where the Twite was and we made our way there to find we were correct in our assumption but frustratingly to find we were minutes too late as the Twite, which had been feeding there, had just flown off.

We stood around with the two other birders who were each toting huge lenses but there was little sign of the Twite returning and Robert and myself, getting bored, took the footpath further south but only went a short way, flushing the occasional Rock and Meadow Pipit, before Robert decided to head for home and left me to it. Parting, we made a loose arrangement  that I would drop round to his house in Seaford for a cup of tea and a chat after looking for the Twite. I carried on along the path, leaning into the ever strengthening wind which was now reaching quite a velocity, whipping over the flood plain and meanders. What with the wind blowing relentlessly against me, the low sun shining blindingly bright into my eyes and the footpath becoming intolerably muddy and slippy it was very hard going but I stuck at it.

The footpath along the west side of the River Cuckmere
Looking North
I got my reward after a further five hundred metres, when, looking down from the top of the bank along which the narrow path ran I noticed on the west side and thus sheltered from the worst of the wind a single small bird nibbling at seeding plants on the muddy margin of the ditch below me. A yellowish coloured bill, caramel brown face and breast, boldly streaked upperparts and a deeply forked tail told me all I needed to know. This was no Linnet. I had found the Twite.

It was very confiding and I took some photos as quickly as possible and watched it hopping about in the dead stalks on the mud. It looked settled but after five minutes flew up for no apparent reason and was carried away by the ferocious wind which was now almost gale force. I followed it as it swung back towards me into the wind, a tiny, bounding, black speck high in the sky before it was carried up and away by the wind into the glare of the sun and I lost sight of it.

I walked right to the end of the path, where it met the beach, to see if it had come down further on but there was no more sign of it. I retraced my steps, passing a group of Barnacle Geese, the four Ridgway's Cackling Canada Geese and some hybrid geese standing by the edge of the river on the opposite bank before rejoining the other birders at the original spot where they had first seen the Twite and told them of my good fortune. The Twite had still not returned to this its favourite location, so after a short rest I again walked southwards just in case, but the Twite had not come back to where I had refound it either and after a couple of hours I gave up. I do not think it was seen again that day.

I walked back to the car, thankful to get out of the wind which was blowing ever harder and drove to Robert's house and spent an hour chatting and catching up on news and commiserating with Robert's partner Sarah, who was under the weather with a flu virus.

Then, revived by a welcome cup of tea it was time to say farewell and get back out into the wide world of birding.

My next destination was Newhaven Tidemills, just a few miles west along the coast. Although the main focus of birder's attentions here, at the moment, is the long staying male Serin, I had another bird in mind. Purple Sandpiper. They roost on Newhaven East Pier at high tide and I had timed it just about right as high tide was but thirty minutes away.

I parked the car, walked across the railway crossing and followed the concrete track past the ruined flint walls of what was formerly The Tidemills but is now a bit of a wasteland, just about maintaining an aura of history and better times but only just. When the sun is not shining here  the whole area  can be a very desolate and depressing place, more industrial than recreational and with a neglected, uncared for atmosphere. It's a shame really as with some imagination, investment, conservation effort and control of dog walkers it could be turned into a very pleasant location to walk around and enjoy. It will never happen though and so another opportunity is lost.

I passed a trio of birders standing by a ruined flint wall, optimistically waiting for the Serin to make an appearance but so far it had not been seen and sometimes you can wait for hours and still meet with no success.

I pressed on towards the sea, crossing the shingle towards the pier. The sea was wild, huge swelling, booming waves coming onto the beach with great force and breaking in a welter of white foam on the stony beach.

Walking out onto the exposed pier, the wind became ever more fierce, churning the sea below the pier supports and buffeting me endlessly with its force. I walked to the end of the pier with no sign of any Purple Sandpipers and alone, I stood and looked out to sea, enjoying the power of the elements all around me. I looked across at the longer West Pier with its iconic lighthouse on the other side of the harbour and my mind drifted back to those heady days when I lived in Sussex and seawatched from under the lighthouse every day I could in the months of April and May, recalling the joys of seeing migrating skuas and terns, waders and ducks, auks and divers.

Newhaven East Pier looking back to the beach
But this was no good. I had not yet found any Purple Sandpipers. Reverie and sentimentality are all well and good at the appropriate time, but this was not it, so I reluctantly pulled my senses together and returned a little way down the pier to find that there were now three Purple Sandpipers perched on the golden yellow lichen that encrusts the stone top of the pier. I guess the sandpipers must have been sheltering below the top of the pier as I passed along above them and that is why I missed them. They seemed untroubled by the wind blowing across the pier and stoically hunkered down in the sunshine to await the turning of the tide. Well two of them did, the third thought better of it and sought shelter below the pier on one of the supports, where it was less windswept.

Purple Sandpipers are attractive birds with an engaging personality. They are invariably confiding and their portly form presents a benign and appealing aspect to our human eyes. When at rest they have a distinctive neckless profile giving them a front heavy appearance. Their shape can however change markedly depending on their attitude, showing a steep forehead and no neck at rest and at other times affecting a much slimmer profile when feeding on the green weed growing on the rocks and pier supports or uneasy about something. 

Purple Sandpipers
The two Purple Sandpipers on the top of the pier, currently fluffed up and at rest were rounded and plump, squatting or standing on short orange legs. A picture of contentment. One tucked its bill into its scapulars and roosted on one leg in typical wader fashion whilst the other, kept a gentle eye on me, occasionally closing its eye to reveal white eyelids in sleep but never closing its eye for more than seconds.

I spent twenty minutes with the sandpipers, as more and more birders arrived on the pier. Whether it was the welcome return of a sunny day that brought them out or the attraction of the nearby Serin, there seemed to be a lot more birders than usual. 

I retreated back to the Tidemills. fighting my way into a wind that was now blowing full and straight into my face, making my eyes water. I turned with relief onto the concrete track leading back down to the ruins, scattered, gale torn bushes and broken down walls of The Tidemills and found that the Serin was now viewable, singing from an Elder bush some twenty metres in from the concrete track. What amazing good fortune and in conjunction with the same two birders cum photographers I had encountered at The Cuckmere, we used one of the flint walls as cover to get reasonably close to the Serin, peering at it through a large hole in the wall as it sat amongst the myriad bare twigs of the Elder, its bright yellow breast and face gleaming in the sunshine and standing out like a tiny shining jewel of bright yellow in a fretwork of pale brown and green grey Elder twigs and branches.

Male Serin 

The Serin was, to my eyes. a compact little bird with a stubby conical bill and beady black eye on a round head as it sat singing, perched low down on the edge of the bush in the lee of the wind. Its upperparts were streaked grey brown and its head was a combination of yellow and green. Its chest and breast were pure citrus yellow and the rest of the underparts were white with some dark streaking on its flanks. A very pleasing bird to see so well, especially when considering that I had such difficulty to see it on previous occasions. A real stroke of good fortune which I and the other birders present made the most of.

The hope of the other birders cum photographers, was that it would perch on top of the flint wall but the strong wind precluded this and the Serin wisely stuck to its sheltered bush. It flew around us on a number of occasions, displaying a vivid yellow rump but was not willing to pose on the wall, preferring to retreat to and sit in its favourite bush and sing or make occasional sorties down onto the weedy ground to feed.

Two other birders greeted me. I knew them. They were Jeremy and Jim, two fellow Oxonbirders also visiting for the day. We chatted and waited for another opportunity to photo the currently absent Serin, which duly obliged by flying back and settling in its usual bush. Once the Serin had flown off yet again, I bade Jim and Jeremy farewell as I had one other destination to go to and one other bird to see. This was the Rose coloured Starling at Broadfield near Crawley in West Sussex, a forty minute drive away but on my route home. Jeremy and Jim, having seen the starling in the morning were heading off to see the Twite. I wished them luck, as judging from my experience this morning, they would certainly need it.

Forty minutes later I arrived at Beachy Road in Broadfield and parked by the familiar tree that was and still is the starling's tree of choice. It was already there. perched high in the branches but soon dropped lower to sit on another branch and go to sleep or perch on one leg and quietly sing. It is now virtually in full summer plumage, not the bright pink it will be next year when fully adult but a duller pink with a brown caste and glossy black flight feathers and tail, and a marked, spiky feathered crest at the back of its head. 

Second calendar year male Rose coloured Starling
I was all alone as I stood watching it for twenty minutes while it never moved from the centre of the tree until suddenly flying off. Another hour passed but it did not come back which was unusual. Common Starlings came and went but there was just no sign of the Rose coloured Starling. Then three starlings flew over the surrounding roof tops, blown by the wind, before wheeling in unison. I looked closely and the third member of this trio was the Rose coloured Starling. It left its two companions and briefly landed on an adjacent rooftop but a noisy motorbike scared it back into flight and that was the last I  saw of it.

I waited another half an hour but it was obvious that the Common Starlings  were preparing to head for their roost, perching in groups at the tops of large trees or wheeling in formation in the sky before flying off northwards with some purpose  and presumably the Rose coloured Starling went with them.

Well, it had been quite a day and with nothing to eat or drink all day apart from a cup of tea I headed for Pease Pottage Services for a Latte and a sandwich to keep body and soul together on the drive home.