Sunday, 17 December 2017

Seaside Saturday 17th December 2017

It was back to the South Coast today with a birding colleague, Moth. for another tryst with the long staying and very confiding Barred Warbler at Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire. Moth has never seen a Barred Warbler and this very obliging bird at Titchfield would be the ideal opportunity to introduce him to one and for me it was a welcome opportunity to get close and personal with the warbler once again

I collected Moth from Eynsham, twenty minutes drive from my home and fortuitously also on the way to the long road leading south. It was still dark, even at 7am, and the remnants of snow still lay in icy mounds on the verges as I rendezvoused with Moth. As we drove southwards the sunrise was spectacular, blossoming into the promise of a sunny but very cold morning. Ideal for birding and very different to the gloomy conditions last time I came to see the Barred Warbler.

In ninety minutes we were leaving the car by The Solent and making the short walk to the small entrance gate that leads to the hallowed back garden behind the Visitor Centre where the warbler was living out its days. As we walked to the gate, to our right the sea was glittering blue in the bright cold light of day, a chill northwest wind clearing the air so one could see for miles. Across the sea was the low bulk of the Isle of Wight and distantly in the west was the science fiction complex of Fawley Oil Refinery. To our left the reed beds and lagoons of the reserve were bathed in a soft golden light. Shoveler drakes, sheltering in the lee of the nearest reed bed, positively glowed in the sun, their iridescent green heads, chestnut flanks and shining white breasts splashes of bright colour against the stands of brown withered reeds.There were other ducks with them too, diminutive Teal, Gadwall and Mallard.

At the back of the Visitor Centre we came across another three birders already in position, one of whom was Dan, who I knew from my Sussex days. He told me the Barred Warbler had been showing really well on its favourite cotoneaster bush, gobbling berries, but had just departed into the ivy covered hawthorns beside the narrow lane running behind the garden. All well and good, so we stood and waited. And waited, our toes and fingers becoming increasingly numb as the cold took advantage of our inactivity. A Firecrest briefly visited a conifer and a belligerent Mistle Thrush chivvied Blackbirds from a berry laden hawthorn but that was about the only bird activity apart from the endless comings and goings of House Sparrows in the small bushes in the garden and hawthorns by the lane.

Male House Sparrow
Forty five minutes later and our endurance was rewarded when the Barred Warbler finally showed up but preferred to remain in the hawthorns by the lane, perched prominently in the sun. It seemed that it liked this position where the rising sun had caught part of the tree and bathed it in slight warmth, and it fluffed its feathers and in true Barred Warbler fashion sat immobile, occasionally looking about but perfectly at ease.We all moved closer to take its picture and it closed its eyes and dozed, a picture of sublime contentment in the sunshine amongst the twigs and ivy of the hawthorn.

Barred Warbler

Another birder looking for it came around the corner of the lane right below the warbler. Confronted by us looking back at him he silently queried if there was any sign of the warbler.We silently pointed to above his head. He looked up to see the warbler just feet away, directly above him, totally unconcerned. 

Eventually the warbler decided it would like another berry or two and flew down and across the lane to seize a berry from the cotoneaster drooping over the wall.This was my opportunity to get some pictures and record the moment. 

The warbler then flew directly over our heads and further down the lane and we resumed our position back in the garden. The hope was, that it would come back to the cotoneaster berries on the side of the wall facing the Visitor Centre but frustratingly it never did. 

Being a Saturday the Barred Warbler was undoubtedly a very popular attraction with more and more people arriving to see it as the morning wore on and although this did not particularly trouble the warbler it did affect its behaviour in that it was reluctant to come down to feed on the berries for more than a minute or so, preferring to seize a berry and then retreat into the security of the higher hawthorns,  a marked difference to the last time I was here. You could hardly blame it as some of the people did push the boundaries of its tolerance, and mine, just a little too far.

Once we had seen enough and grew tired of waiting for the warbler to come back from one of its forays up the lane I suggested to Moth that we go to the nearby shingle beach across the road and look at the small wader roost. We would be away from everyone looking at the Barred Warbler, and like me, Moth had a camera and we could get some nice images of the roosting Sanderling, Dunlin and Ringed Plovers.

A lady was feeding the gulls just over the road from the Visitor Centre as we left, with the resultant chaotic, raucous scramble of Black headed Gulls and Mallard fighting and tussling amongst one another for the bread whilst Turnstones did their best to sneak in and grab some crumbs for themselves but were forever driven onto the breakwater by the frenzy of gulls and ducks.

It was just a short walk of  few hundred metres to the shingle point on the beach and soon we were ensconsed by a small groyne at the sea's edge looking at the diminutive forms of the waders whiling away the time over high tide. A roosting flock like this is never still and although most birds have their bills tucked into their feathers and are stood still on one leg, others awake and move as if not happy with their position creating a consequent ripple through the flock as their adjustment causes all the others to slightly move to accommodate the disturbance. Most do not bother to remove their bills from their feathers but just move by hopping on one leg as if pogoing to another position a few inches different from where they originally were. It is curiously appealing and beguiling to watch birds do this as if they are unwilling to accept being woken up and wish to determinedly remain in their sleeping attitude.

Ringed Plover


Our intimate time with the flock could not last as our presence was noted by others who joined us also seeking to photograph the waders and the spell was broken. We left them to it and returned to the Visitor Centre tearoom for refreshment in the form of coffees and a chocolate brownie for me. Moth definitely ensured he would be invited on another trip by very kindly paying for everything. It will be my turn next time.

Suitably revived we returned to the garden to be told the warbler had been showing really well but had just departed. I wasn't too worried as I had seen the warbler on a number of occasions by now but we waited anyway and it showed up and did its usual trick of perching for periods in the hawthorns and then flying down to seize a berry or two before flying off again. Most would follow it to wherever it went but really they would have been better off waiting by the Visitor Centre wall for it to return to the garden. I felt that constantly following it was probably unsettling it slightly hence its more flighty behaviour this morning

By now it was noon and I suggested to Moth that we go to Bognor Regis in adjacent West Sussex where there was an outside chance of getting to see a Snow Bunting that was frequenting a particular area of the extensive stony beach that runs alongside the seafront promenade that separates the Butlins Holiday complex from the seashore. Although  a south coast holiday resort is an unlikely place to find a Snow Bunting, one of their favoured habitats is coastal shingle where they can squat amongst the stones, camouflaged and half hidden

As Moth had never seen a Snow Bunting  he was all for going to see the bunting and so we made a forty minute drive east to the dubious delights of Bognor's seafront. I was a little concerned about our actually finding the Snow Bunting even if it was still there as no report had been made of it for a few days and the place it was meant to be consisted of a vast expanse of stones and shingle running between the sea and the promenade. Also, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, even in winter, the promenade would be well used and finding a tiny bunting in all that shingle would be no easy task.

We parked the car in the empty road below the promenade and walked up a concrete ramp to the promenade. There is always, for me, a curious sense of abandonment to a seaside town in winter even though there are people about. It is as if there is only a subdued echo of the hustle, bustle and noise of summer and now everything seems to be waiting, in abeyance if you like, suspended until the vitality of spring and summer returns.

The sun was still shining but gently weakening as a thin layer of cloud almost imperceptibly moved over the sky but out to sea it was still crystal clear and far off you could see the distinctive curve of the coastline sweeping out to the promontory of Selsey Bill. Beyond the sun shone on the sea and white clouds billowed far out on the horizon. A promise of far away lands and for me a forever beguiling prospect.

Coming back to earth I saw a couple of birders some hundred metres distant looking intently down at the stones almost at their feet  All worries about finding the Snow Bunting were instantly dispelled and in a matter of moments Moth had another new bird for his list.

As with all winter plumaged Snow Buntings it was an attractive combination of colours and complicated patterning mixed with an undefinable charm of personality. Ridiculously confiding as many are, it just sat on the shingle and regarded us benignly. Its plumage camouflaged it superbly in the subdued multi colours of the stones, a combination of grey, rust orange and white, the stones were of incalculable number and precisely mirrored by the colours of the Snow Bunting's plumage. Its golden yellow bill, the upper mandible curiously flattened, shone like a miniature beacon as it caught the sunlight. We watched and took its image from all angles. Passers by either walked by ignorant or uncaring of its presence or stopped to enquire what it was. The Snow Bunting just carried on untroubled. 

After twenty minutes it flew and we lost sight of it. We walked along the shingle to try and relocate the bunting but failed. Turning we saw a lady we had been talking to earlier looking down to the edge of the concrete promenade where it joined the stones and there again was the Snow Bunting feeding along the margin.

Yet again we followed as it progressed in a series of shuffling hops across the concrete and stones until it stopped and indulged itself in an extensive bout of preening. We stood waiting for it to stretch its wing which would make a nice image but it never quite managed this. 

It was of no real consequence and we spent another half an hour happily admiring this hardy bunting all the way from Iceland or possibly even Greenland eking out its livelihood on the seafront at Bognor with the towering white pagodas and buildings of Butlins huge complex right behind it. Maybe the rounded curves of the pagoda like buildings reminded the bunting of the snow covered mountains of its home far to the north.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Barred at Titchwell Haven 6th December 2017

Today I headed for the south coast once more, not to Sussex this time but to the neighbouring county of Hampshire and to Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in particular.

Titchfield Haven NNR, managed by Hampshire County Council, comprises 369 acres of river, woodland, fields, scrub, marshland, lagoons and scrapes set in the Meon Valley, with the well appointed Visitor Centre (toilets, shop and tearoom) located right by the Solent at Hill Head where the River Meon runs into the sea. I have seen some good birds here in my time such as a Greater Yellowlegs and not one but two Siberian Stonechats but the reason for my visit today was to see an unseasonably late and exceedingly confiding, juvenile Barred Warbler frequenting a tiny area of garden slap bang behind the Visitor Centre

Note the red berried cotoneaster on the right - a favourite of the Barred Warbler 
and the green Hypericum on the extreme left of the picture in which it spent a lot
of its time resting and preening 


Birders waiting for the Barred Warbler to show itself

The tiny garden frequented by the Barred Warbler which spent most of its time
in various bushes and the cotoneaster. It hardly moved from an area of less than
200 metres in extent
Barred Warblers do not breed in Britain but do so on mainland Europe and Scandinavia and are an annual autumn migrant to Britain in numbers varying from 100-200 individuals each year, usually between late August and mid October. This particular Barred Warbler was first encountered on 19th November so it has  been at Titchfield Haven for at least seventeen days now. A Barred Warbler in mid November is pretty late but one in December is truly exceptional and who knows if it is going to try and winter here or will eventually move on when the berries, its normal diet in autumn, run out.

After a quite horrendous journey courtesy of congested rush hour roads it was with relief that I parked the car by the seawall and made a short walk past the small marina, with its attendant Mallards, Mute Swans and bickering Black headed Gulls, to Titchfield Haven Visitor Centre. I went in through the gate and around to the back of the Visitor Centre where I joined a dozen or so birders and/or photographers stood against the wall looking at a very small Cotoneaster laden with red berries growing against the back wall of a tiny garden opposite us. Everyone was looking intently at the Cotoneaster but try as I might I could not see the focus of their attention which presumably was the Barred Warbler, as most previous reports had indicated this was one of its favourite places. I made a discreet enquiry to a lady photographer to my left  and she pointed out the warbler which was virtually invisible, tucked in, almost at ground level on a horizontal twig of the Cotoneaster, virtually at the back against the wall. It was, until it moved slightly, just a grey smudge hidden behind a tangle of small intermeshed twigs and berries.

Barred Warbler
We stood for a while and when the warbler moved it became more visible and commenced plucking at the berries but frustratingly never really came fully into the open. 

Barred Warblers are the largest of their genus Sylvia, larger than and looking more bulky than say their smaller and similarly featureless cousin the Garden Warbler. Their movements are comparatively slow and they are noted for their clumsy and lethargic actions, sitting for long periods inactive in cover and then feeding with movements that look deliberate and considered rather than the energetic thrust and flicks of their smaller warbler cousins.

Virtually all the Barred Warblers that occur in Britain are found on autumn passage, heading to their tropical East African wintering areas and are invariably juveniles, hatched earlier in the year. The reference books tell one that these juveniles are an unexciting and featureless dull brownish grey on their upper parts and a paler buff white on their underparts with a whitish throat and there is no barring at this age except on their undertail coverts, and the only other relief from the overall monotony of grey are buff fringes to their wing coverts and flight feathers.They also possess a markedly long tail and dark eye

Seen close up this individual showed slightly more variation than described above as its underparts were scalloped with brown fringes and in certain lights gave it a scaly appearance and its upperpart feathers were liberally fringed with buff. Its eye was yellow rather than black and its steeply inclined forehead was also noticeable as the crown feathers were often raised almost to a point, generating a distinctive domed profile to its head.

The warbler proceeded to move back along the base of the wall and into what soon became  apparent to us was its favourite bush, a Hypericum of thick interlaced stems, twigs and leaves and in which the warbler would secrete itself, just about visible but not so much that it could be successfully photographed. It would hunker down on a twig and preen and then just sit doing very little. It was obviously getting more than enough food which comprised virtually exclusively, as far as I could see of berries; blackberries, cotoneaster, honeysuckle and ivy berries, obtained from the bushes in the garden and nearby.

Finally it moved again and dropped to the ground, hopping along thrush like and picking up fallen berries before flying over a small lane behind the back wall and into some ivy and bramble covered hawthorns. Five minutes later it re-appeared, very close and to our left, feeding on black honeysuckle berries and giving the best views of the morning. 

Five minutes more elapsed and then it vanished. Although we stood and waited for another ninety minutes it never returned to its favourite bushes in the tiny garden.

Many people took the opportunity to leave in its absence and we remaining birders were down to single figures. Finally, I too tired of waiting and walked over the road to the shingle spit opposite the Visitor Centre where a number of small waders were preparing to roost over the high tide, which was now upon us. Restless white and grey Sanderling ran the gauntlet of surf on twinkling black legs whilst a small group of Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and Dunlins, faced into the strengthening wind and slept or stood on the shingle.

I watched and photographed them for half an hour and then made my way back to the Visitor Centre to learn the Barred Warbler had returned to its favourite Hypericum bush and was currently perched, immobile, in the centre of it. I could just about see it through the maze of twigs. Then it stirred, stretched each wing in turn  and proceeded to commence preening some more, after which it just sat content, fluffed up and squatting on its secluded perch.

Fifteen minutes later it commenced feeding, repeating its route through the various pieces of vegetation along the wall to end up in the small Cotoneaster at the end, before flying into some ivy covered hawthorns on the other side of the wall and further up the lane. Most of my fellow birders followed but I remained where I was as, by now, I was aware of the warbler's feeding circuit and knew it would always end up back in the Hypericum after a bout of feeding. Sometimes it took longer than other times but I had all day and it always returned.

Sure enough it eventually returned to the bush and settled for another bout of inactivity. I left it there and went in search of sustenance in the tearoom. I already had many acceptable images of the warbler and had been watching it on and off for over four hours so had no anxiety about leaving. A bowl of home made soup, a slice of cake, a skinny mocha and a complimentary mince pie  from the very nice lady serving me revived body and soul. I sat and watched out of the tearoom window as a huge container ship made its slow passage up The Solent. I finished my coffee and was all set for another session with the Barred Warbler.

I rejoined a new contingent of birders and photographers who had arrived in my absence and we waited, as before, by the Visitor Centre wall for the warbler still sat in the centre of its favoured bush to do something, anything! It was even asleep briefly before it finally stirred and proceeded to work its way through the bush and along the base of the wall to stop at the Cotoneaster draped over the wall and there it sat for a while before pulling a berry off and swallowing it. Another period of contemplation ensued and then another red berry went down its throat and so it went on for the next few minutes.

It was perched at the very end of the bush and it was now or never. I made my move. My current position did not allow me a clear view of the warbler so I slunk along below the level of the other birders cameras and bins pointing  at the warbler in order to position myself beyond it to try for a better angle of view. It chose this very moment to fully come out into the open and seize a berry. 

I pressed the camera shutter and fired. Hoping.Then with a flick of its wings it flew fast and low across the path into an adjacent row of bushes on the other side of the path and was soon gone from sight.

It was now three in the afternoon. I had been here, apart from a short break on the beach and another in the tea room, for five and a half hours. It really was time to go, although it had been no hardship, as a Barred Warbler is my kind of bird.