Monday, 20 January 2020

Four Bearded Tits in Dorset 19th January 2020

In February last year Moth and myself drove to the RSPB's Radipole Lake Reserve which lies right in the heart of the busy town of Weymouth in Dorset

Radipole Lake, incorporating the River Wey, covers eighty three hectares. It is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and is owned by Weymouth and Portland Council but has been managed by the RSPB since 1976.

Our specific purpose was to see Bearded Tits which are found in the extensive beds of Phragmites (Common Reed) that are the main habitat feature of this reserve.

During the preceding week I kept an eye on the forecast and saw that the coming weekend was to be very cold but with the sun shining all day on both Saturday and Sunday. A very pleasant change from what had gone before during this last week of wind, rain and general gloom. I began to think the weekend would be a good time to go to Radipole, as watching and photographing Bearded Tits in the sunshine would be an uplifting day out

Co-incidentally Moth contacted me on Wednesday asking if I wished to go birding for a day on the weekend. Unable to manage Saturday I suggested to Moth that we reprise our visit of last year and head for Radipole this Sunday for some more 'Beardie' action, to which he was happy to acquiesce, so it was arranged that I pick him up from his house at 6am on Sunday morning.

I left home in the dark with a hard frost having turned the roads white and a million stars in the clear night sky shining above me. My route to Moth was via tortuous single track rural lanes, the road surfaces made treacherous by the thick frost. Fortunately at this time of day the lanes were deserted so I  could drive without fear of meeting another vehicle.

We headed west on the long drive to Dorset, driving out of the night and into a morning of cloudless skies and sunshine. We parked by the small thatched building that serves as the RSPB's Visitor Centre at Radipole and walked over the bridge and along  the main footpath that took us deep into the heart of the reserve, passing through the beds of Phragmites, standing rank upon rank, their stalks turned golden in the sunlight.

We were headed for a small concrete bridge that crosses the River Wey as it flows through the reserve for this was where we stood last year and encountered a pair of Bearded Tits. We were not alone on the reserve as others had a similar idea and were wandering the paths by the reeds listening and looking for the tits.

Our view from the bridge over the River Wey.The nearest  reeds on either side
were where the Bearded Tits came to feed and delight us
We heard the distinctive pinging of their calls coming from our right as we headed for the bridge, but the birds were deep in the reeds, far from the path and totally invisible. They ceased calling, (they only call when they fly) and we heard them no more.

Rather than walk aimlessly along the various paths that wend their way through the reeds we settled for our tried and trusted strategy of standing on the bridge and awaiting developments. It was very cold at this early hour and although the sun shone, a chilling breeze blew in our face, enough to turn Moth's fingers numb and my face to a similar state.

There was no sign of any Bearded Tits, not even a call to give us hope and it was well over an hour that we stood waiting, waiting, the cold becoming ever more irksome and me, at least trying not to feel too disappointed. We had come a long way, taking our chance on the highly unpredictable Bearded Tits putting in an appearance and to fail to see them would be depressing.

There are many of them on the reserve but finding this elusive little bird is a game of pure chance and always requires a deal of luck as well as sheer dogged persistence. The birds have huge areas of reeds, much of it inaccessible, to feed in and if they do show up can appear anywhere on the reserve and often not where you are specifically looking. The only way to try and see them is, in my opinion to select what looks a likely place and maintain a vigil there despite the temptation to go and look elsewhere. Sometimes you will be lucky and the strategy will work and at other times it will not. We had been very fortunate on our first visit to Radipole last year and therefore saw no reason not to try from the same location. Another birder who joined us on the small bridge told us that this was his tenth visit to the bridge and he had yet to have a successful encounter with any Bearded Tits. We hoped his ill fortune would not rub off!

It was extremely cold on the bridge and consequently uncomfortable but we stuck it out. Other birders and photographers came and went, unwilling to be patient or maybe the cold dissuaded them from standing about for too long. There was little else to see apart from a sociable Robin, the inevitable Dunnocks and one of Radipole's extrovert Cetti's Warblers. Four drake Mallard hung out below the bridge, a bachelor party waiting for a passerby to throw them some bread. They were joined by a group of Tufted Ducks, the male's heads when caught in the sunlight, turning from black to iridescent green and their black body plumage adopting a velvet like lustre.

I left Moth on the bridge to walk a little way along an adjacent path to try and recover some feeling in my numbed feet but no sooner had I got a hundred or so metres down the path than Moth called me back. A male Bearded Tit had landed in the reeds by the bridge but it immediately flew off without stopping. I had narrowly missed it.

It was very disappointing but we felt it was a hopeful sign and with spirits partially revitalised, we continued our vigil on the bridge, operating on the premise that hope springs eternal. It did not happen immediately but almsot two hours after our arrival Moth noticed a small movement in the reeds in front of us and there was a female Bearded Tit, appearing from the depths of the reed bed to fly onto the tasselled head of a reed right by the flowing channel of water.

She crossed the water to another stand of reeds and in quick succession a male joined her, his legs festooned with garishly coloured rings, an unwelcome and jarring addition to the more natural colours of his plumage.

We started taking pictures of them as they fed on the feathery tops of the reeds or clung onto the thin stems. These two were joined by another male, this time without garish coloured plastic around his legs. A marked improvement, both photogenically and aesthetically!

It was with equal measures of frustration and delight that we endeavoured to get a clear photograph of the tiny birds but it was difficult (see below). It was a scene of constant movement, either from the birds or the reeds, often a combination of both. For a fraction they would be briefly clear of any intervening reed stem or head but then just as quickly obscured by intervening stems and heads, as the reeds swayed in the wind or the birds delved deep amongst the reeds.The birds were forever in motion, changing position to extract a seed from its fluffy casing, never satisfied with one reed head for long and moving to another that to my eyes appeared identical.

To behold a male Bearded Tit is to observe a creature of exquisite beauty. Every part of his plumage a delight. A tiny conical bill of corn yellow protrudes like a tack from a head of lavender grey, his golden yellow eyes encompassed by glossy black feathers that form moustaches, drooping down to a point on each side of his head. His throat and breast are almost white fading into upper flanks of orange rust and lower flanks of palest pastel pink. The upperparts and long tail are a similar shade of orange to the flanks while the wings appear banded lengthwise with white, orange and black. The sun, itself orange, served to accentuate the rust coloured plumage as if its very rays had been absorbed by the bird.

The female is not nearly so spectacular in appearance. Her head is an unmarked buff brown apart from two lateral dark streaks on her crown and some further dark brown streaking on her back. Her flanks and and tail are a shade of orange rust but paler and duller than the male. The wings have the male's pattern of white, orange and black lateral bands. There are those who say the female is as pleasingly marked as the male but do not believe it. True the plumage has a subtle and delicate beauty but is as nothing when compared to the male.

We watched and photographed the three feeding birds, soon joined by another female, all four busily feeding on the reedmace. their small bodies so light that the heads of the reeds easily supported them but if they landed on a particularly thin stem it would slowly bend downwards and the bird like a forever graceful trapeze artist descended with it until the stem was almost horizontal. 

The heads of the reeds, flag like, with a curtain of bunched seedcases hanging like spilt needles  were the attraction for the tits and they energetically and acrobatically fed on them, pulling a miniscule  seed casing from the reed's head, manipulating the casing in their bill until the seed was extracted, They sidled up and down the reed stems and acrobatically contorted themselves in their search for just the right seed head, even grasping two reed stems with splayed legs to get at the seed heads, using their long tail as a counterbalance to their plump bodies. Sometimes they perched on top of the reed head, bending it over, at other times they would hang sideways, their thin black legs gripping the bunched seeds.

They are sociable birds. following each other through the reeds, reluctant to be separated at any distanced and when one flew to another more distant reed, the others would soon follow, each bird communicating to the others with their distinctive pinging contact call as they moved. 

They fed continued to feed energetically amongst the reeds by the water and then moved to a small stand of reeds very near to us and here was a heaven sent opportunity to observe and photograph them at close range.We took it with alacrity.

When the Bearded Tits first put in an appearance in the reeds there was just four of us on the bridge and such was my concentration on the tits that when I eventually took a glance behind me I found a veritable crowd amassed on the bridge. Word had obviously spread about the tit's presence. No doubt, it being a sunny Sunday, there were many more people  about on the reserve than would be the case on a weekday but it was still surprising how many had found this spot as soon as the tits were on view.

The Bearded Tits departed around twenty past twelve. They had been delighting us for almost thirty minutes but to all extents the show was now over. It did not take long for the bridge to become clear of people and it was just the three of us that remained. We waited on the bridge for a reasonable period of time but there was no further sign of any Bearded Tits.

Will it be a third time lucky for us next year?

Saturday, 18 January 2020

The Black throated Thrush still at Whipsnade Zoo 17th January 2020

An adult male Black throated Thrush has been present at Whipsnade Zoo since the 11th Decmber 2019 and is usually to be found at its favourite location in the zoo, which is around the children's play area, called Hullabazoo. Here it feeds on what remains of the bright red berries of a medium sized tree, visits the currently unoccupied pig pen or feeds on the short grass between the pig pen and the tree.

Since arriving at the zoo, the thrush has gone from being shy and wary to confiding, now allowing you, provided you are sensible, to get very close, much to the delight of everyone, be they with or without a camera. Doubtless the large number of people who have come to admire it over the past weeks have contributed to the thrush becoming settled and habituated to birders and curious visitors stopping to admire it.

Mark, my twitching friend from Luton and an avid bird photographer has visited the zoo no less than ten times, the perfectionist that he is convincing him that he could get a much better photo of the Black throated Thrush each time he visited. 

Two of Mark's images, taken today, of the Black throated Thrush
Personally I could not see how he could improve but then that probably says more about my photographic skills than those of Mark or indeed Adrian who joined us today. I think that is the difference between us, in that Mark and Adrian are very good photographers and know what they are doing whereas I am more a birder that likes taking pictures of birds I see but have a lot to learn and possess a much less sophisticated camera and lens, but slowly it is coming together. Another difference between us is that I tend to go for behavioural images, where the bird is doing something and there is often some habitat involved too whereas Mark and Adrian instinctively go for the perfect image of just the bird. Their quality is reflected in the fact that many of their photos have been used by birding publications such as British Birds and Birdwatch Magazine.

I also like the flexibility that a smaller lens gives me.To get the images they do, Mark and Adrian have huge lenses and top of the range cameras but the downside is that they are much less portable, having to be mounted on a large tripod whereas I can sling my lens and camera round my shoulder and move about at will to get a good angle on my subject or react immediately to something it does.This worked well for me today as I was able to move around the tree the thrush favoured and take shots from a range of angles.

Currently recovering from shingles, Mark is not up to travelling too far at the moment so the continued presence of the thrush at relatively nearby Whipsnade, has provided more than a little birding solace to him as he recovers from his illness.

This very rare bird must be the most photographed Black throated Thrush ever in Britain due to the fortuitous coalescing of a number of circumstances viz it is continuously present in an accessible area in the densely populated south of England, it is a male in full adult plumage, approachable and feeding on bright red berries which allow for no end of photo opportunities. The zoo are delighted with its popularity and the resultant increase of visitors must have made thousands of extra pounds for them  in what is a quiet time of the year for the zoo.

So, all in all, everyone has benefited and feels positive about the experience although I do feel the zoo's public relations department could have made more of this unique occurence. There is still time!

Today, initially promised to be bright and cold with the odd rain shower and sunny spell, so with this in mind, after enduring a week of strong winds and endless rain, myself, and my fellow twitching colleagues, Mark, Adrian and Les arranged  for a final visit to pay our respects to the thrush. We planned to meet at Whipsnade as soon as they opened their doors at 10am.  It would be nice to see the thrush once more, in another year, especially as the crowds of birders that came earlier during its stay would now be just a memory and probably we would be on our own with the bird, which to my mind is much more enjoyable and would give us more freedom to do as we pleased.

At the appointed hour I met Mark in the free car park opposite the zoo, and rather than wait for Adrian and Les who were still fifteen minutes away, we went and paid our £21.60 entrance fee and headed for Hullabazoo. We saw the thrush immediately, it being pointed out by the only other birder present. It was sat in a tree of dense twigs and branches in the 'frog enclosure' which is adjacent to the berry tree. It was deep in the tree, partially obscured by the branches and twigs and for a while remained there, fluffed up and content before moving to the edge of the tree and becoming much more visible.

It was in no hurry and looked thoroughly relaxed even when visitors to the zoo passed, unknowingly, within feet of it. A couple of minutes elapsed and then it did exactly what we were hoping and flew down onto the grass right in front of us and by a series of bounding hops came ever closer on the grass until I estimate it was no more than fifteen feet away.

Cue the rapid fire of camera shutters and some very nice, pleasing images being obtained. What a lovely bird it is. Black of face and breast, the black feathers outlined with pale fringes, silvery grey underneath with darker brownish grey upperparts. Its bill a combination more of yellow than black.

Many of the pubished images that abound on social media quite naturally show it feeding on the berries, as such images are pleasing to the eye, especially if the bird has a bright red berry in its bill, but we wanted something different, preferably the bird feeding on the ground. Well variety is the spice of life it is said and our wish had already been granted.

Adrian and Les joined us by which time the thrush, stuffed full of berries and worms had retreated to perch contentedly in the berry tree and did not move until it once more felt the pangs of hunger.

This was to be its routine over the five hours we spent in its company. A short burst of feeding, either on berries in the tree or less often worms on the ground, to be followed by a period of sitting quietly in the berry tree digesting its latest meal.

Adrian picked up a worm crossing the tarmac path and threw it onto the grass.The reaction from the thrush, currently sitting in a small bare tree in the centre of the grassed area, was instantaneous. With indecent haste it hopped to the edge of the tree and flew down to the grass where the worm lay. It picked up the worm and with great difficulty swallowed most of it, although this took over a minute as the worm was long and, for a while, part of it protuded from the thrush's bill. Finally the last of the worm disappeared down the bird's throat and the thrush took on a more normal and aesthetic appearance.

Mark and Les departed for a coffee but I remained with Adrian hoping the thrush might come down once more onto the grass. We were to be disappointed as it decided to remain in the tree digesting the large worm and when finally it became hungry again it fed on berries in the tree rather than come down onto the grass. Fair enough. It probably felt more secure in the tree. Undaunted I took some images of it feeding on berries in the tree. It seemed perverse not too.

The weather deteriorated, the sun never really shone and we felt rain on the blustery wind. We were all happy with what we had achieved for now, so left the thrush to sit digesting a crop full of berries and retired once more to the Hullabazoo cafe for another coffee and to warm ourselves. 

Once the rain shower ceased it was back to the thrush but for the most part it remained in the tree with just a brief excursion onto the footpath, to seize a couple of exposed worms. The rain came down again but harder this time and we retreated to the butterfly house, a haven of warmth. Adrian pointed out two Red crested Partridge, on the ground below the tropical vegetation and huge gliding butterflies. Somehow  I had missed them when I came here last December to see the thrush.

Thoroughly warmed up and revived from our spell in the butterfly house we left and went back to try for more images of the thrush, hopefully on the ground. Frustratingly we learnt it had been on the ground while we were in the butterfly house but now was once more perched in the berry tree, gorging on berries and then sitting quietly to digest them. Most of the berries have been stripped from the tree by visiting Redwings, Blackbirds and the Black throated Thrush, so all that remains are random berries on a few stalks or the occasional bunch of berries hanging at the extreme tip of the lowest of the tree's thin twigs. This necessitated the thrush having to acrobatically cling to the insubstantial twigs and lean down to pluck the berries, a delicate manouevre that was made all the more difficult by the regular and strong gusts of wind that made the bottom heavy, berry bearing twigs sway wildly in the wind whilst the thrush clung on, maintaining its balance with spread wings and tail.

Sometimes the force of the wind was too much and the thrush had to retreat further into the tree to perch on firmer thicker branches.

This was repeated, time and again and it seemed the thrush would never come down to the worms which we gathered from the surrounding wet footpaths and threw onto the grass, in an attempt to lure it down. The thrush resolutely ignored our attempts to entice it onto the grass and I thought it a lost cause.

Bored with waiting for the thrush to fly down to the grass I wandered round to the other side of the berry tree and took some images of the thrush that was currently feeding on what was left of the much diminished supply of berries. It was in the lee of the wind here and was relaxed and not that hungry, perching on a twig and every so often picking off a berry. Finally, replete, it hopped deeper into the tree.

It was as we were talking amongst ourselves and the thrush continued to sit in the tree that I turned to notice the thrush had at that moment descended to the ground below the tree and was digging into the wet grass in search of worms. I alerted the others and it was action stations. The thrush saw the worms Adrian had chucked on the grass earlier and, hopping over to them, commenced swallowing the worms as fast as it could and this, at last, provided an opportunity to get the definitive shots of the bird on the ground. You could hardly fail as it was so near and obliging. It  spent only a few minutes on the ground but this was more than enough for us to garner plenty of images, before the thrush flew, once more, up into the berry tree.

We clustered in a huddle to compare our images and thankfully everyone of us had got something to be happy with. Now, feeling the cold and with the wind increasing, we decided to call it a day but not before admiring the Eurasian Lynx in their enclosure near to the zoo's reception area.

Sustenance was now a top priority and a short drive to a pleasant pub resulted in a very nice meal to be followed by a lot of birder chatter about past twitching experiences and exploits.

All of  which rounded off the day nicely.