Friday, 14 August 2020

The End of The Journey 13th August 2020

I went to the reservoir late this afternoon on a day of high humidity, continuous grey cloud and a northeasterly wind. I fancied a walk, alone up the causeway to clear my head and with always the chance of finding a migrant wader.

Due to the weather and the late hour I had, as hoped, the causeway to myself with the result that several Common Sandpipers were teetering their forever anxious presence along the shoreline. As is always their way they fled from my approach in bow winged, flickering flight, low across the reservoir to the far side

Further along was another small wader, its shape and behaviour being just that much different to the sandpipers that it raised my interest. Maybe a Dunlin or perhaps a Sanderling? As the intervening distance decreased between myself and the bird I discovered it was a Sanderling. By Farmoor's limited standards a good find. As usual it allowed me to approach without showing much alarm and to lessen its anxiety I sat on the low retaining wall, some thirty metres distant, to demonstrate I was coming no closer

The Sanderling stood for a minute by the water's edge, facing out into the wind, uncertain and ready to flee but then relaxed and resumed its feeding, moving towards me in short steps, picking delicately at the weed along the water's edge.

I sat still, waiting as it moved towards me but as I did a brown shadow caught the corner of my eye. A hunting Sparrowhawk flew at speed past and below me inches above the concrete apron that separates the low wall, on which I sat, from the water. This Sparrowhawk has learnt that there are easy pickings here in the form of Pied Wagtails and any other unwary small bird and patrols the reservoir regularly in this fashion.

It happened in seconds. With hardly time to catch a breath I was only able to watch with an exquisite combination of horror and yes, excitement as the Sanderling saw the hawk a fraction too late, crouched in the hope of being unseen, then realising the hawk had noticed it, flew for its life, low out and over the water. The Sparrowhawk never wavered, changing direction in an instant before the wader could gain speed and caught up with it, the Sanderling crashed into the water in a last desperate attempt to evade capture. I hoped this would deter the hawk but to no avail. The Sparrowhawk stalled over the Sanderling and grabbed it from the water with one long leg, clutching it in needle talons and carried its victim back to land, the Sanderling's wings that had carried it so far, now hanging down in mute powerlessness.

The Sanderling was obviously a heavy victim for the hawk and it landed clumsily with its prey on the causeway, the previous aerodynamic mastery as it caught the Sanderling now no longer in its remit.
Instinctively I ran towards the hawk and its still living victim in an attempt to save the Sanderling but the Sparrowhawk was not willing to give up its prey and clutching its victim in one talon flew unsteadily from me further up the causeway to land on the concrete once more

I let nature take its course and ceased any pursuit. The panting Sparrowhawk took half a minute to compose itself after its exertions and took flight again, flying low and still unsteadily to the end of the causeway and into the trees beyond.

I was left to reflect in shock this unexpected tragedy. A shock that arrived with such suddenness as death did to the Sanderling. To me it was a tragedy that the Sanderling had flown all the thousands of miles from its summer home in the Arctic to no avail. To the Sparrowhawk it was nothing more than the opportunity to feed itself and survive for another day.

Here before me was a graphic example of the daily hazards and dangers all birds encounter but that we so seldom see and when we do, it is so unaccustomed it shocks us that the natural world is so unforgiving and pitiless.

Sentiment is a human condition and a stranger to the natural world

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

My Second Rare Shearwater this Summer 11th August 2020

The differences between Cory's and Scopoli's Shearwaters
c The Sound Approach
Mark called me on Monday to discuss where our now almost regular weekly birding trip should take us. Spurn in Yorkshire was favourite as it was currently hosting a Collared Flycatcher and other goodies such as Greenish and Icterine Warblers.

We live in separate counties, Mark in Bedfordshire and myself in Oxfordshire so we tend to arrange to meet at a mutually acceptable point between our two homes and in this case it was going to be Leicester North Services as we were going north.We alternate the driving to our chosen birding destinations and this time it was Mark's turn to drive in his car. The meeting time was to be 7am which required my getting up at 5am. I went to bed, set the alarm, silenced my phone and tried to get some sleep.

What with a combination of worries about the continued corona virus pandemic and hot humid nights, sleep does not come easily to either of us these days. It was therefore of no surprise when awaking and checking my phone at 2am it indicated I had received a text message. It was from Mark who had sent me an image at 22.39 of a Scopoli's Shearwater that had been reported from South Queensferry in Lothian, Scotland and the message 'Ring meI think we need to go to Scotland'. A second subsequent message stated 'Ewan. This bird has been there for two days.Will not be going to Spurn. Ring me when you get up please.' Initially I thought he was crying off the trip to Spurn but then, defuddling my tired brain, I realised he wanted to go for the Scopoli's Shearwater instead.

To go back slightly, two Cory's Shearwaters had been identified passing north off the Yorkshire coast on 9th July and one had a distinctive white patch on its upper right wing where it was moulting some feathers. Fast forward to 9th August when two Cory's Shearwaters were seen far up the Firth of Forth opposite South Queensferry, one of which showed a distinctive white patch on its right wing. They were the same two birds as had been seen passing Yorkshire in July. The two shearwaters then hung around the firth between Hound Point and South Queensferry. On 10th August good photos were obtained of the distinctive individual with the white wing patch, off South Queensferry, which showed that the underwing was extensively white, reaching almost to the tip, the bill slender and the bird itself slighter in build than its companion, these being the main criteria for identifying a Scopoli's Shearwater. 

Scopoli's Shearwater has only been claimed in Britain three times before but never officially accepted so this would be a true mega and as it appeared to be remaining in the area would surely result in a major twitch to South Queensferry on 11th August.

Scopoli's Shearwater breed across the Mediterranean and on some of the Balearic Islands and other small islands off France, Italy, Malta, Croatia and Greece.They winter in the Atlantic and can be found wintering off the west coast of Africa, the east coast of Brazil and various Greek islands.I have personally seen them off Cephalonia in Greece.

I lay back in bed, my head spinning and pondered my next move. Mark's message had been sent hours ago. Was he currently awake or was he asleep?  Knowing Mark is a similar sufferer from anxiety and occasional depression I took a chance and sent him a text at just after 2am. 'Am awake you can call me anytime'. My hunch proved correct for Mark rang me shortly afterwards and it took little time for us to agree to head for Scotland immediately, well, after we both got up, had a shower and made some sandwiches for the trip.

In a daze I got up, gathered everything together including myself and I was out of the house and on the road at just after 2.45am and Mark, likewise confirmed he was on his way to our rendezvous in Leicester.

An hour later I drew up in the car park at Leicester North Services which fortuitously in these unsettling times do not bother to check on how long you leave your car there.Ten minutes later Mark arrived and I transferred my gear to his car and as I did realised I had left my binoculars at home but we decided  it would not matter as the shearwater would require a scope to locate it rather than bins although I admit I would feel incomplete without them hanging round my neck. Never mind it was too late to rectify the situation.

In no time we were headed north. Another seven hours of driving lay in store.There was a mild debate about what route to follow to South Queensferry which lies just north of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. I suggested M6 and M74 and then across country to Edinburgh but Mark was for taking the M1 and then A1 and as he was doing the driving I acquiesced to his chosen route.

All went well as the dawn rose and we drove north. I dozed on and off, having had so little sleep. We made a stop for coffee and then continued north. Mark called Cliff a fellow twitcher and all round nice person who told us he was one hundred miles ahead of us. Of more interest he told us of a pleasure boat that sailed every two hours from South Queensferry which did sightseeing tours around the approximate area the shearwaters were frequenting. He was booked on the 1015 sailing but we, following on later, would miss that one but could get the next sailing at 1215. We booked ourselves on it online, paying £34.00 for the two of us including the hire of a pair of bins for me!. We were all set but the weather looked grim with low lying cloud and the threat of rain. 

All was going to plan until, approaching Newcastle at 8am, signs appeared advising the A1 was closed from Junctions 65-67 and this at the peak of the rush hour. We continued our course but soon saw brake lights ahead and a long line of vehicles stretching into the distance signalling a monumental jam as three lanes of traffic attempted to merge into one to leave the closed motorway.

A spur of the moment decision sent us flying off on a convenient slip road and onto a road that would take us on another route north via the Tyne Tunnel. Bloody hell it was a close run thing but we had avoided a huge delay by the skin of our teeth. Two lanes of traffic wound down into the tunnel and inevitably we found ourselves in the wrong lane behind a slow moving line of trucks as cars sped by us in the 'cars only' lane but we chugged along until we came out the other side. Then yet more anxiety arrived as the realisation dawned that we had no change to pay the automatic toll. It did not take credit cards so we drew up to the  automated machine with trepidation as to what we were to do.

Thankfully a green button on the machine signified if we pushed it we would have the option to pay online within the next twenty four hours.We pushed the button, a receipt for £1.80 appeared and the barrier arose. Our anxiety subsided to what passes for near normal levels these days and we were on our way.

We made a final stop at Berwick on Tweed for a coffee and comfort stop courtesy of McDonalds. Its about the only two things it is fit for in my opinion. A very welcoming and courteous young lady greeted us on entering and I felt sorry for her talents being wasted in such an establishment and hoped she would find better employment soon.

The temperature had now also dropped markedly from when we left Leicester, requiring a jumper.

It was now my turn to do the driving and we crossed the border into Scotland heading parallel with the coast towards the ring roads around Edinburgh. Ominous road signs appeared with the message 'Yellow warning. Heavy rain predicted. Drive carefully.'  Great. Could it get any worse? I was beginning to think our escapade was doomed. I looked across the landscape as drops of rain spattered on the windscreen.The far distance was invisible, subsumed in a mist of low lying cloud. If it was raining and visibility  was as low as this at South Queensferry it would be hard to find anything on the sea. Our anxiety levels commenced to rise once more!

Finally our marathon journey came to its conclusion as we dropped down into South Queensferry and after a confused search for the harbour, where our boat would sail from, we drove through the pleasant cobbled high street and out the other side to find a large and refreshingly free, open air, car park with the huge and iconic Forth Rail Bridge towering above us and stretching its not inconsiderable length across the grey and misty firth to an indistinct north shore.

The Forth Rail Bridge. Built in 1869. Designed by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker.
It is 2467 metres in length and 110 metres high 

The time was just after 11am.

It was the school holidays and families with childen were all about us along with other folk just wandering around. The weather was dull and grey, dreich is the Scots word for it, and occasional rain showers came and went leaving a distinctly damp feel to the place and our spirits. Having parked the car we made for the pleasure boat reception and as we did Mark called Steve, another twitching buddy, to receive the startling but welcome news that the shearwater was apparently flying about near to Hound Point out in the firth.The news sent us into a blind panic as to what to do. Any thought of checking in for the boat was abandoned and we resigned ourselves to missing the boat and losing £34.00. I raced back for the car while Mark used the local facilities. It looked like we would have to make a long walk out to a place called Longcraig Pier, near a moored oil tanker, but we discovered at the last moment we could drive a fair way out towards the pier and took the potholed road to as far as we could, trying to avoid grounding the car in the process, not always successfully. Both of us were like taut strings now. The long drive with its emotional rollercoaster of minor triumphs and disappointments was now over and we were confronting, unexpectedly, a situation which demanded instant decisions and actions, any one of which if wrong, could precipitate disaster. We rapidly joined half a dozen birders lined abreast across the pier, looking east out into the firth. I enquired where the shearwater was and discovered to my dismay that not one of them could see it. The shearwater had been reported as flying towards this pier from Hound Point a mile or so further east but no one had seen any sign of it.

We scoped the murky horizon and waters of the firth but nothing was there. Patrolling Sandwich Terns flew past us calling their harsh kirrriick kirrriick call. It was suggested that we walk further east to Hound Point which would take twenty minutes. It was either this or remain where we were. We joined everyone else and made for the track that led away through the trees towards Hound Point. Onwards we tramped, about eight of us, each making as best speed as we could. I was following two birders who were leading the way and after we had got about half way one of them received a phone call telling him the shearwater was now heading our way and towards the very pier we had left behind. Instantaneously we turned about and sought the first possible opportuntity to get to the shoreline where we hoped to intercept the shearwater as it passed us, assuming it hadn't already. We came to a small track leading down to the shore through some trees, which enabled us to to access the shore. Five minutes later we were lined up on a sandy stretch of shoreline  looking out to an oil tanker moored at its jetty, discharging oil and to the firth beyond. We scoped the area for a full ten minutes and then came the familiar words from a birder down the line that send you into paroxysms of tension and anxiety. 'I can see it. It's flying out from behind the left of the tanker'. I looked but saw nothing, then more words 'Its turned and flown back behind the tanker'. Damn I had missed it. Not quick enough. Then it re-appeared again but I still could not locate it before it again was lost to view behind the tanker. It was appearing and disappearing at intervals from behind the bulk of the tanker. I was advised it was far out and just about discernible in the murk but I could not for the life of me find it.

My heart sank. Tired, dishevelled and disconsolate I contemplated the unpalatable fact my ageing eyes, lack of sleep and an unforeseeen incompetence with my scope were combining to frustrate me at this moment of potential triumph.

Others confirmed their joyous individual discovery of the shearwater's distant presence as it continued to periodically fly out from behind the tanker. Eventually I was the only one still not able to locate it. From previous experience I knew I needed to compose myself, not panic, try to relax and not allow tension to make matters worse. I was shaking with worry. The shearwater appeared again. 'It's flying just above the red flag', No. 'It's turned and is flying back to us' Still no. This was getting embarrassing. 'It's flying towards the tanker's bows' and then, a revelation. there it was, obvious, flying low over the grey sea, a long winged languid, gull like vision of happiness. I had at last connected.

The ultimate horror scenario of having to drive home knowing I had been in the shearwater's presence but unable to see it was banished forever and now, relaxing, the pressure off, I found I could refind it with no great effort.

Although distant we knew it was the Scopoli's from the distinctive white patch on the upper right wing. It disappeared behind the tanker yet again and then for a long period there was nothing except a few Eider floating on the sea. My birding colleagues set about calling various boat companies trying to arrange a charter boat to go out and see the bird, now we knew where it was. All attempts were confounded by social distancing issues and more pertinently price. Personally I was content with the views I had and having blown £34.00 between the two of us on unrefundable boat tickets I was not in a mind to spend another larger amount of money to go to sea looking for the shearwater.

My grateful thanks to Cliff Smith for these record shots of
Scopoli's Shearwater which give a flavour of the moment
Twenty long minutes passed and we were joined by another ten or so birders who had run from Hound Point to where we were but still there was no further sighting of the shearwater. 

Then it was relocated a good way to our left near to the iconic bridge and a pair of moored tugs.We made a four hundred yard yomp  to a slightly raised area of ground that would give us a good viewpoint, trying not to slip on the  seaweed and wet rocks on the way. We set up our scopes. 

I soon located the shearwater, sat on the sea, closer now and looking surprisingly black and white in the difficult light. It was preening while it floated on the water, occasionally flapping its wings and for a good few minutes we all scoped it and some tried to take a photo but the distance was too great for anything satisfactory to be achieved. We enjoyed these magic moments and then the shearwater rose from the sea and, as it banked, showed the main diagnostic characteristic that differentiates it from the closely similar Cory's Shearwater, as it revealed the white on the underside of its wing which extended to almost the tip of the wing unlike a normal Cory's where the white stops well short.

It flew around in front of us, a Fulmar mobbed it and was ignored by the shearwater. We used the two moored tugs to mark its progress, flying back and fore as it slowly circled low over the sea and even settled briefly once or twice more on the sea, before making its way east, and I lost it to view as it flew further and further out and away into the firth. I guess we had watched it for around ten to fifteen minutes and all of us were jubilant at our successful encounter. 

I stood, calm now, even contemplative and looked at the iconic, huge cantilevered bridge towering above me. Every Scot knows of it and regards it with a mixture of awe and pride. My thoughts went back to my late father in law. He was a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War and when stationed at Lossiemouth, further up the Scottish coast, for a dare he flew his Spitfire under the bridge. I looked at the bridge and imagined his iconic aircraft hurtling at virtually zero feet below the bridge before zooming up into the sky and away. He was probably disciplined,but did not really care as all of them had a devil may care attitude to life knowing they could be killed at any time.The airforce were not so concerned at losing a pilot but more at losing a valuable aircraft. The stunt did not do him any harm as he became a Squadron Leader, commanding a group of Spitfires, leading them on D Day over the Normandy Beaches and then flying adapted Spitfires (called Seafires) from the aircraft carrier HMS Battler in the Far East, fighting against the Japanese.

Like many of his fellow survivors he was in pieces mentally by the time the war ended and with no recognition or understanding of PTSD or counselling in those days was left to get on with it the best he could. Despite all this he remained an absolute gentleman and a remarkably modest character to the end of his days. I trust you will forgive me this slight indulgence and tribute to him that was brought to mind by seeing the bridge. It's strange the things that can trick one's mind into unexpectedly catching you unawares.

Mark and myself walked back to the car and chatted with our fellow birders, savouring this time, extracting the last moments of pleasure from the experience. We drove back to the car park and purchased a coffee and sandwich each from a cafe and I treated us to that iconic Scottish delicacy, Tunnock's Teacakes. Two each!

It was done. Success. Another huge gamble had brought the ultimate rich dividend. A new species for our British Lists.Who could have predicted that in the space of a couple of months I would have seen two very rare shearwaters of all things, in the form of a Scopoli's Shearwater today and a Yelkouan Shearwater almost exactly a month earlier from the Dorset coast.

In my case I am now on 504 species seen in Britain and left wondering what the next one will be and what it will entail physically and mentally to see it.

13th August Postscript

The Scopoli's Shearwater was present for just under three hours on 11th August and has not been seen since.

Monday, 10 August 2020

A Suffolk Tern and Norfolk Dragon 5th August 2020

Mark, one of my birding pals was feeling the effects of being cooped up indoors courtesy of you know what and fancied a day out birding.The question was where would we go, but that was easily answered as a Gull billed Tern had arrived on a very large inland reservoir (it has an eight mile circumference) called Alton Water which lies near Ipswich in Suffolk.

The tern had been present since 30th July and from all accounts was showing well, either flying over the reservoir or perched on railings that surrounded a valve tower.

They are rare in Britain but not that rare with around 389 having been seen to date but Mark had only seen one before so fancied viewing this one, especially as it was so obliging.They are normally found in southern Europe and migrate to winter in Africa.

We arranged to meet on Wednesday and at 8.30 I collected Mark from his home and as the morning transformed from grey cloud to brilliant sunshine it was confirmed the tern was still at Alton Water as we crossed into Suffolk, arriving at Alton Water at just before 10am. We parked at the far end of the reservoir near to the dam wall and noticed a number of birders scoping the valve tower which lay opposite to us on the far side of the reservoir. 

The Valve Tower and walkway.You can see the metal gate
through which we had to look half way along the walkway
Apparently the tern was visible and if you so wished you had no need to make a longish walk to the valve tower but could scope the bird, albeit distantly from the car park.

We decided that as we wished to not only see the tern but also photo it we would make the walk out to the valve tower. A birder just leaving the car park kindly gave us his day parking ticket to save us any expense and thanking him we set off to walk across the dam wall to the valve tower.

The Dam Wall
Even at this hour in the morning and despite a brisk southerly wind blowing it was very warm in the sunshine. One of those glorious days when it is impossible to be downcast despite the current dire circumstances besetting the world.

Walking along the dam wall I was surprised at the large number of Egyptian Geese, loafing on the warm sloping concrete by the water's edge. I counted no less than forty six, easily the largest number I have seen anywhere. A juvenile Common Tern, one of many was also perched on a bright orange buoy.

Juvenile Common Tern

Egyptian Geese
We made our way to the valve tower and out on a narrow walkway towards it until we could go no further as a firmly padlocked metal gate prevented any further progress. About fifty metres beyond lay the valve tower and the railings surrounding it, currently occupied by a large number of juvenile and adult Common Terns which were perched on the top rail facing away from us into the wind. 

It was going to be difficult to get a photo as not only had we to look through the heavily barred gate but there was only room for three abreast to see through the gate and this position was already occuied by some locals who looked to be there for the duration. 

Also, to add to our woes, with the terns facing away from us and into the wind if the Gull billed Tern did land on the rail we would only see the wrong end of it! 'Oh well, let's see how it pans out'. I muttered to Mark.

Initially there was no sign of the Gull billed Tern although it could be perched on that part of the circular railings obscured by the bulk of the tower. I relaxed, there was nothing I could do about the circumstances after all, stood a little way back from the other birders, leaned on the walkway rail and looked out across the reservoir  to where Black headed Gulls and Common Terns were flying about in some profusion. To while way the time I amused myself by taking photos of passing terns as they flew close to the valve tower. The sun was very bright and frankly not ideal for photography but there was little I could do about that so made the best I could of the situation.

Juvenile Common Terns
Forty minutes passed and we learned from birders scoping from the other side of the reservoir that the Gull billed Tern was indeed now perched on the railings but not visible to us as it was on that part obscured from us by the bulk of the valve tower. Frustration now came to the fore but we would just have to be patient and trust it would eventually perch where we could see it.

In fact our first sight of it, a few minutes later, was not perched but flying, as it left the railing and cruised about over the blue waters of the reservoir, eventually coming relatively close and giving me an opportunity to at least record its presence. As it transpired this was the best opportunity we were to get of photographing it. 

Gull billed Tern. The state of wing moult suggest this is a third summer bird
The tern did come back to perch on the railings but by this time the sun was almost directly in front of us and the tern always had its back to us as it balanced on the rail, facing into the wind that was blowing directly across the reservoir. It was a real struggle to accommodate the brightness in the camera settings but I consoled myself that I had at the very least seen my second ever Gull billed Tern in Britain.

Gull billed Tern.Note the long legs and stout all black bill
The tern soon took off again and for the most part stooged about, high and distantly, above the reservoir, doing very little apart from flying around to no obvious purpose. I  took a few more record shots but in the end we agreed that we had done as well as we were likely to do and called it a day.

It was now lunchtime so we found a rural pub and sat in an empty garden and made the most of a half price meal courtesy of the government. It was all rather pleasant and at no time did I feel uneasy as there was no one sitting within metres of us. How strange and a sign of the times we now live in that I feel it neessary to say this.

The whole afternoon was in front of us and we had a debate about what to do. In the end we opted to go and see another very rare winged wonder of nature but the object of our attention was not a bird but a dragonfly - a very rare one at that, in the form of a Southern Migrant Hawker. Two males had been reported this morning from a Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserve called Thompson Common which was situated near Thetford in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.

Southern Migrant Hawkers are normally found in southern and central Europe.  Being migrants, in years of hot weather such as this one they can migrate north and end up in southern parts of Britain. Four were the first to be seen in Britain in 2006 and in 2010 many more were seen in south Essex and North Kent but they still remain rare, although being seen regularly as far north as Oxfordshire and Norfolk.They are now considered to be a potential colonist to southern Britain.

To get to Thompson Common entailed a ninety minute drive across rural Suffolk and into Norfolk and then came  some confusion, as the location of the reserve was far from obvious. After a few wrong turns we found a small, innocuous layby with three cars in it and fortunately for us a man standing by one of the cars who had just been watching the dragonflies. He directed us where to go and after a short walk through some woodland we found ourselves by a small, wet and reedy pool called a pingo.

A pingo I have since learned is a small pool that has formed in a post glacial depression. Apparently Thompson Common contains over four hundred of them. Well, hopefully, this one would do us nicely!

The 'pingu' where we saw the Southern Migrant Hawker 
There were three other dragonfly enthusiasts already here and they told us that the male Southern Migrant Hawker had been flying over the reeds a few minutes ago and if we were patient it would surely show itself. A minute later and a dragonfly with a body of amazing blue colour and with even more vividly blue eyes cruised at knee height to within feet of us and settled on a thin blade of dead reed.

I am equivocal about dragonflies but even I was smitten by the beauty of this fabulous insect with its intense blue banding on its long body and bulbous azure blue eyes. A veritable stunner. We all took our photos as the insect clung to the reed. 

At first we were circumspect about approaching it too closely in case it flew off but our confidence grew as it resolutely remained on its chosen reed and by the end we were virtually touching it with a macro lens. 

As if this was not enough, to double the experience another equally vivid shining blue male joined it briefly and the two flew around together before departing.

The enthusiasts told us there was another rare damselfly here called a Scarce Emerald Damselfly which was worth a look. I was now a long way out of my comfort zone, knowing little about damselflies but I am always willing to learn. However, we were warned, that we had to take great care, even if we thought we had found one, as there were also much commoner Emerald Damselflies present which are virtually identical in appearance and the only way to differentiate between the two was to look at the inner pair of claspers at the end of the body. These had to be viewed from behind which is no easy task on an insignificant insect just over an inch long but eventually we managed it by taking photos of the damselflies rear ends, magnifying the image on the camera and comparing them. The Scarce Emerald Damselfly has inner claspers which are broad with incurved tips whereas Emerald has straight inner claspers with narrow tips. You will have to take my none too confident word for it that the image below is the Scarce Emerald!

I think this is a Scarce Emerald Damselfly but am happy to be corrected!
We soon found the damselflies and even one eating an unfortunate invertebrate but we were unable to detect which species of damselfly it was although I suspect it was only an Emerald Damselfly 

Eventually, after examining a number of damselflies, we were reasonably satisfied we had seen both species and returned to the more appealing attractions of the Southern Migrant Hawker. Another photography session ensued and then it was time to head for home.

Dare I say it, although my primary interest is birds the male Southern Migrant Hawker was the unexpected highlight of the day and has now fired a late developing enthusiasm towards at least the larger species of dragonflies. Both of us were completely overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the SMH.

Nature in all its wondrous manifestations triumphs and surprises once more.

Tread carefully on my dreams for I have lain them at your feet.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

An Elegance of Waders 4th August 2020

Waders are always an attractive subject for photography and especially those with long legs and bills. Today, two species in particular sprang to mind and were to be found at Slimbridge WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). They were Black tailed Godwits and a Spotted Redshank with hopefully some other wader species to complement the experience.

Two races of Black tailed Godwits occur in Europe; the Icelandic race Limosa limosa islandica of which a small number breed in Shetland but most in Iceland and The Faeroes. The birds currently at Slimbridge were of this race, amassing into a moulting flock, having recently arrived from their breeding grounds in Iceland. They will either spend the winter in Britain or join others that winter throughout western Europe. The other race Limosa limosa limosa breeds in very small numbers in eastern England but is much more widespread through western and central Europe to Russia and central Asia. It is a very rare bird on passage in Britain and winters in West Africa.

As an aside did you know the Black tailed Godwit is the national bird of The Netherlands?

Spotted Redshanks do not breed in Britain but across northern Scandinavia and northern Siberia and winter in small numbers in southern England thence southwards to the Mediterranean countries and tropical Africa 

In these straitened times it is now necessary to pre-book a visit to Slimbridge and my booking was for today where I planned to spend half a day looking at my chosen waders. In a way it is no bad thing that the numbers of people visiting Slimbridge each day are currently restricted as this ensures no hide is overly full, which they often were in those 'normal' times that seem so distant now.

The two hides at Slimbridge, where it is best to see the waders in question were the Rushy Hide and the South Lake Hide. The former, which I know from past experience, is always a good bet for Black tailed Godwits, and the latter is where the Spotted Redshank could be seen from. 

The Black tailed Godwits at the Rushy Hide were the first of many more to come, returning from their breeding grounds, while the Spotted Redshank was an adult, almost fully moulted into its non breeding plumage and may winter here or move further south. 

I joined a small line of fellow visitors waiting for the Visitor Centre to open at 9.30 and at the appointed hour was soon processed and on my way to the Rushy Hide where I found myself with just one other birder for company. Looking out I could see a phalanx of chestnut orange bodies arraigned on a muddy spit, many stood on one very long leg. They were the desired Black tailed Godwits, all of which were adults, many still in summer plumage and only beginning to commence to moult into their dull grey and buff winter plumage. A number were already almost there, appearing as overall grey birds amongst the more colourful individuals around them while some non breeding first summer birds were in a transitional plumage of orange and grey.

Many were asleep, but as is typical with sleeping waders there was a constancy of movement as individual birds rotated their bodies left and right checking on birds either side of them or for general danger. Others would suddenly awake, whipping out their long bill, hidden in their scapulars, to deal with an irritating feather and once satisfied it was adequately dealt with they would snuggle their bill into their back feathers to sleep once more.

Two Black tailed Godwits.
The individual at the back, is a male in full summer plumage and the bird in front almost moulted into full winter plumage
Black tailed Godwits possess an innate elegance, a symmetry of form, their very long legs counterbalanced by an extremely long and straight bill. The bird itself possesses a lean and muscular looking body a long neck and small head. Both the long bill and legs have a function in allowing the bird to wade deep into water and probe their bill into the mud on the bottom. 

Good numbers of the godwits were feeding in the water, wading belly deep, constantly probing with a rapid drilling motion of their bill into the mud below the water, often immersing their head in the water and then, on finding something to eat, withdrawing head and bill to throw the morsel down  their throat by way of a couple of upward jerks of their bill before resuming their energetic drilling of the muddy bottom. It is a very characteristic and distinctive behaviour which identifies them immediately.

This feeding individual is in transition from summer to winter plumage

Others left the water to probe the short grass of the scrape, as always their sociability ensuring they kept company with others of their kind but they seemed to find sourcing food on land less successful than probing the mud below the water of the lagoon. Inevitably they made their way back into the water to join the others. Maybe the ground was not wet enough to allow their sensitive bills to penetrate the ground adequately.

A female Black tailed Godwit.The orange colouring in particular is paler than the male and to my eyes the females often looked larger. Note also the very long legs and bill
In summer plumage they are quite superb, especially the males The head, neck, breast and upper mantle are orange chestnut while the rest of the upperparts are chequered black and orange. The underparts from fore flanks to tail are white, variably barred black. The origin of their name is revealed when they preen or fly as the black tail contrasts with the all white rump and the huge white bars on each wing are revealed.

Adult male Black tailed Godwit
It is impossible for them to appear inelegant as they stalk around on their long thin legs probing the ground or water with their equally long bills and even when preening they retain a certain grace of movement, and watching them I was touched by the way they regularly dip the tip of their bill into the water to moisten it before resuming nibbling at their feathers. 

Looking out from the hide I relaxed into the moment, joining in a form of mindful symbiosis with the godwits, their breeding urges subsided and now enjoying the long gentle decline into autumn before the hardships of surviving the winter are upon them. It is a golden time for both bird and observer. One of quiet calm and tranquillity. Something to be treasured.

There were, of course, other birds to enjoy, especially a Green Sandpiper that waded in the water up to its belly though on much shorter legs but in its own way demonstrated an elegance of a less obvious kind.

Green Sandpiper
I made my move to the South Lake Hide to try and find the Spotted Redshank. The hide itself was a contrast to the spartan confines of the Rushy Hide, being carpeted and with almost luxurious seating. Again I  was pleasantly surprised at how unpopulated the hide was and sat in a corner to observe a flock of waders stood in the shallow water, all the birds preening or asleep.There was a mixture of predominantly Black tailed Godwits and Common Redshanks with one or two Ruff amongst them.Two of the Ruff had conspicuously white heads, a remnant of their breeding plumage.

Male Ruff

A somewhat scruffy adult Common Redshank moulting into winter plumage
Now where was the Spotted Redshank? It was not to be found amongst the roosting waders so I checked those waders moving around in the water, feeding. Soon, I located it near to the nearside bank of the lagoon, silvery grey and distinctively pale, especially on its underparts, greyer feathers having mainly replaced its black summer plumage and with a bill noticeably red at the base of the lower mandible.However it was its energetic feeding action which most betrayed it. At times, wading deep enough in the water to almost swim, it fed with a faster motion than the Common Redshanks, sometimes sweeping its partially submerged bill rapidly from side to side as it rushed through the water.

Spotted Redshank
It was moving towards me and came close to the hide which gave me the opportunity to take some nice images. Again its legginess and long, thin and tapered bill imparted an innate elegance to my eyes. Slightly larger and longer legged than the associating Common Redshanks it was noticeably slimmer in its body. A thoroughbred amongst its stockier cousins.

The movements and actions of both godwits and spotted redshank were almost balletic, a constant delight to watch, an enjoyment and entertainment based on entirely natural circumstances.

You know what? I am going again as it was so enjoyable.