Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Double delight in Sussex 5th December 2016

Reports that had come  through over the weekend of an extremely confiding male Desert Wheatear at Normans Bay in  East Sussex and a similarly confiding juvenile Rose coloured Starling at Crawley in West Sussex had me forming a vague plan on Sunday to go and see them both today, Monday. The logistics would work out nicely as I could first drive to the more distant Normans Bay and view the Desert Wheatear and then check out the Rose coloured Starling which was only a short detour from my route back through Sussex to my home in Oxfordshire.

I called my birding buddy Clackers to see if he was up for a jaunt to the far reaches of Sussex and having done the last of his Christmas shopping he advised he was good to go on Monday. The only cloud on our birding horizon was the dreaded M25 which on a Monday morning would be traffic hell especially the notorious congested section around Heathrow. Being a seasoned campaigner on motorways, and with the M25, from my commuting days to Heathrow, my specialised subject I knew that to arrive any later than 6.30am at the stretch around Heathrow would result in a long and frustrating delay due to traffic congestion so it was requisite that we made a pre dawn start from Oxfordshire.

The roads were white with a heavy frost as, at 5am, I negotiated the country lanes around my Cotswold home and even in Witney, Clackers home half an hour's drive away and at a lower elevation the roads were similarly frosted and looking decidedly treacherous at such an early hour

Soon we were mixing in with the maelstrom of onrushing commuting cars, white vans and lorries hurtling to their unknown destinations along the various motorways that took us ever southwards. The time passed pleasantly enough as we chatted about a Dusky Thrush that had been discovered in Derbyshire yesterday and made vague plans to go and see it.

Dawn grudgingly rose in a blush of pink and orange as we approached Pease Pottage where the motorway ends and now I felt truly at home in  my beloved Sussex as I  recognised the distant looming bulk of the South Downs currently just an ill defined shadow in the low lying mist. We approached the outskirts of Brighton before turning eastwards which in thirty minutes would bring us to Normans Bay which lies on the coast between the seaside towns of Eastbourne and Bexhill.

Following the Satnav directions and the instructions from RBA on how to find the Martello Tower at Normans Bay we left the main road and negotiated our way along a narrow road snaking through flat fields and cold looking watery dykes curtained from the road by a continuous thick line of tall and golden reed stems as the  sun shone dazzlingly low and bright on the horizon and the sky was the clearest, palest blue, the colour of ice.

We passed over a railway crossing then drove along a rough uneven road and there was the Martello Tower at the crest of a shingle bank that flattened out at the top and then ran down to the beach and seashore beyond. We parked on a wide grass verge behind two other cars but were not quite sure where to go. I knew however from RBA that the Desert Wheatear was to be found some hundred metres west of the Martello Tower which was roughly our current position

Walking up the shingle bank to the top we found four other birders crouched or stood on the sand on the other side of a wooden groyne that ran parallel with the bank and looking towards us gesturing that we should walk to our right.  The reason for their concern was that between us was a first winter male Desert Wheatear. How fortunate had we been to select the very spot where the wheatear was? We detoured right so as not to disturb the bird, crossed the wooden groyne and walked back along the sand and shingle to join our fellow birders.The Desert Wheatear was, as so many are that arrive in Great Britain, totally confiding and came very close, as close as six feet in Clackers case and not much further in mine.

It was a beautiful bird of variable sandy and golden buff plumage, the colours of the beach with a black face and throat, black wings and tail and it flitted along the wooden groyne in front of us never still for more than a minute as it avidly sought food. I had heard reports that people in their excitement and anxiety had foolishly allowed themselves to chase after it in an attempt to get photos but by common consent we all stood in one place and quietly awaited its return in front of us when it would be literally only feet away. It was obvious it had a feeding circuit and our patience was rewarded as it would come back to where we were at regular intervals, perching on the groyne, spikes of dead sorrel, various bits of foliage or sticks to give itself a vantage point and from which to fly down and seize prey from the sand and shingle.

I remarked to Clackers that it must have remarkable eyesight as it would fly to seize prey it saw from quite some distance away. We stood on the cold beach, the sand and pebbles illuminated by a morning sun which cast a beautiful soft light, serving to enhance the wheatear's beauty. Never more than half a dozen of us birders stood quietly whilst the vast expanse of beach and uneven wooden groyne stretched away from us into a blue distance and the sea was like molten steel in the bright rays of the sun.

Martello Tower, Beach and Birders

We watched the wheatear's comings and goings for around ninety minutes. Dick Gilmore a sea watching colleague from Seaford had also arrived and we renewed our acquaintance not having seen each other for a couple of years. It was good to see him although nothing much had really changed. We moaned and groaned about getting older,  indulged in some birding gossip and reminiscenses and eventually Dick departed. We followed shortly after as the wheatear flew along the groyne before us then doubled back in a swooping flight along the beach

Desert Wheatears breed across North Africa from Morocco to the Middle East and then across central Asia to Mongolia and northern China and in the case of the western birds normally spend the winter in the Sahara and Sahel regions from Mauritania east to Ethiopia and Somalia. They are a rare but increasing vagrant to Great Britain with most birds arriving in the south or southeast of Great Britain. Up to 2015 a total of 135 have been recorded in Great Britain mainly in the period mid October to early December. Many of the birds that do arrive here are first winter individuals but adults of both sexes have occurred and exceptionally individuals will spend the winter here even, as has happened a few years ago, as far north as northeast Scotland

I will not go into our abortive trip to Bexhill looking for a cafe after watching the Desert Wheatear, suffice to say Bexhill looked decidedly ordinary today, the epitomy of a run down seaside town but possibly I am being a little unkind as any seaside town out of season takes on a neglected air but Bexhill was certainly not looking at its best. I pointed out the celebrated art deco Grade 1 Listed De La Warr Pavilion to Clackers but by then he had dismissed Bexhill.

So we now retraced our way back from whence we had come,  turning again at the outskirts of Brighton onto the A23 and headed the twenty or so miles north to Crawley.  Following the Satnav we turned off at Pease Pottage and followed the directions to a leafy and attractive area of Crawley called Broadfield.

I had detailed directions on my RBA app as to where the Rose coloured Starling was to be found. So specific it even gave the name of the road and number of the house where it usually was to be seen in adjacent trees and bushes.

We drew up in Beachy Road, parked the car and stood looking across the road to a house with number 10 on its wall and two trees to the left, one bare and one a conifer. Several Common Starlings were sitting in the branches of the bare tree singing or just footling about but there was no sign of the Rose coloured Starling. 

Common Starling
Earlier reports had said it was easy to see and shortly after, as Keith meandered down the road, the starling flew into the bare tree. It was a juvenile and its plumage was mainly pale greyish brown but some of its wing coverts and some other feathers had been replaced by adult glossy blue black feathers. I also noted its distinctive orange yellow bill. I called to Clackers who returned just in time to see it fly off 

Rose coloured Starling-juvenile
You can see the moulted adult feathers coming through on the wings and tail
We walked in the direction it flew and found some nearby Oaks full of Common Starlings but there was no sign of the Rose coloured Starling.  'Come on Clackers I think it best to just go back to where we started and stake out that tree. Its bound to come back'

And it did and Clackers saw it well and I got some photos and we were very pleased with ourselves. It was not yet 1130 am and we had seen both the birds we had risen so early and driven so far to see.

The Rose coloured Starling spent quite some time in the bare tree preening and then dropped down into an adjacent back garden hidden by a fence where it was obvious there was food put out for the birds. Every so often it would fly back up into the tree again. A lady who lived nearby approached us asking about the starling and told us that she still had not seen it. We described what it looked like and suggested she wait with us and she would probably see it. This she did and just as she was about to lose interest the starling flew up into the tree and she became quite animated at seeing it. Clackers loaned her his bins and she saw it even better and became even more pleased with life. 

The Rose coloured Starling eventually flew up into the top of the conifer where it sat in a sunny secluded spot and once more indulged in some vigorous preening. We bade farewell to the lady resident, all of us feeling good about sharing a mutually pleasant experience on a sunny, beautiful day.

The drive home at midday was a doddle and we were back in Witney by three that afternoon.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Welsh Wagtail 2nd December 2016

This was my first venture out birding in Britain since returning from the paradise of palm fringed beaches, warm blue seas and millions of birds that is The Seychelles. The contrast could not have been more stark.

The sunshine, heat and humidity of The Seychelles seemed but a distant fantasy as crossing The Severn Bridge I headed into a grey, cold and murky Welsh dawn. The landscape was austere, with winter very much in evidence, rain and mist around Cardiff and then further on the rolling green fields of mid Wales were sugar coated with a white frost. The trees were bare of leaf, their trunks and larger boughs showing black in the cold early morning light with each tree crowned by a halo of bare twigs forming a mesh bonnet of countless erratic lines etched against an insipid watercolour sky of grey, white and the occasional streak of palest blue.

My reason for rising before dawn and heading west was to see a Masked Wagtail that appears to have chosen to spend its winter on and around the rooftops of a  row of houses in a tiny village called Camrose which is near Haverford West in West Wales.

Now bear with me while I digress into a little taxonomy to explain what exactly is a Masked Wagtail. The name Masked is colloquial as the bird that the name is applied to is in fact currently classified as a sub species Motacilla alba personata of the more familiar White Wagtail Motacilla alba that regularly occurs on spring passage at Farmoor and breeds throughout western Europe and Scandinavia. The White Wagtail has in fact ten subspecies of which Masked Wagtail  is but one, although some, very much in the minority consider Masked Wagtail as a species in its own right even though it often interbreeds with two, possibly three of the other sub species of White Wagtail. In fact the whole taxonomic  picture concerning the White Wagtail, just like the Yellow Wagtail is still so confusing that no one really knows definitively what the position is.

We humans are a funny lot as we constantly seek to classify everything be it flora or fauna. In this particular case the Masked Wagtail looks  obviously different to any other wagtail that shows a combination of black, grey and white plumage and in the time before mitochondrial DNA arguably became the  definitive means in ornithology of deciding what is a species and what is not it would probably have been considered a species based on its plumage differences but with the onset of mitochondrial DNA analysis it has been found that it is very closely related to two other sub species of White Wagtail and so its claim to be a species is currently doomed. Not that the wagtail could give a toss and neither do I  as to me the main purpose of going to see it was that it is an attractive and interesting bird and one that I have never seen before.

It is hardly surprising I have never seen one as Masked Wagtails breed in Central Asia from the Russian Altai southwest through Kazakhstan and western Mongolia, Xinjiang in China, northwest Kashmir, Pakistan. Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and normally spend the winter in Iran, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, none of which countries apart from China I have ever been to.  

Vagrant individuals have on rare occasions strayed no further west than to Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Bahrain, so for one to arrive in the unlikely location of a small rural village in west Wales is truly exceptional and unsurprisingly this is the first ever record of one being found in Great Britain, adding yet another unexpected record to an exceptional autumn in Great Britain that has seen so many unprecedented arrivals of vagrant birds from Asia.

And what of the Masked Wagtail itself? Its plumage was an attractive combination of black, grey and white. Its white forehead and face sides encompassed by a black hood, the black running down onto its breast. The rest of the upperparts were pure unsullied bluish grey and displaying a large amount of white in the form of an extensive and very noticeable white patch on its forewing created by the all white median and greater coverts, half white half black tertials and white edges to its long tail. The underparts were dull white apart from grey on the flanks. When it flew the large amount of white on the wings became even more obvious. Judging by its plumage I think this was a male and looking closely at its worn wing and tail feathers it would appear to be an adult male.

Seen from behind it is apparent just how much white there is in the wagtail's
plumage. The worn ends to the tail feathers and the faded brown wing feathers
would indicate that this is an adult as a younger bird would have fresher wing
and tail feathers.

Camrose is a small village in a pleasantly rural location accessed through winding lanes just beyond Haverford West and the wagtail judging from the photos I had seen on the internet was spending most of its time messing around on the roofs of a row of houses fronted by a service road and a small area of grass. At just before nine am I parked  in a sunken lane running below the steep grass bank that led up to the houses. On getting out of the car I noticed two other birders looking down from the top of the bank and beyond my car and there was the wagtail strutting about further down in the middle of the lane. It was not there for long however as a lorry came down the lane and it flew off in alarm.

The lane where I got my first glimpse of the Masked Wagtail
I walked up the steep grass bank to the top and joined some other birders on the flat grassed area opposite the houses and waited. After ten minutes the wagtail arrived very briefly on the roof top of one of the houses but immediately dived down the other side into a back garden. 

We stood and waited. Fifteen minutes later it returned and landed in the service road between us and the houses and proceeded to work its way along the edge of the road where it joined the path picking ants and other invertebrates from the gutter. It seemed quite content and showed little alarm at the fifteen or so birders looking at it through scopes, bins or taking its picture. A garbage lorry arrived to collect refuse from the houses and the wagtail flew back up onto the roof of one of the houses before again disappearing down the other side.

Ten minutes later it re-appeared in the concreted front garden of another house further down the row and we all transferred there to watch it happily seeking out flies and spiders where the concrete patio joined the wall of the house.

It spent some time dealing with a large fly which after having finally been swallowed caused it to pause for a minute or so's reflection before carrying on searching the nooks and crannies in the concrete.

All its actions were, as one would expect typical of a wagtail and even its call was a very similar cheery melodious chissick as it moved around a localised area comprising the row of houses in front of us, the sunken lane behind us and the larger houses and gardens rising up on the other side of the lane. It was the only wagtail present so was easy to locate and identify and it appeared to have no difficulty in finding food and would sit quietly for some minutes obviously replete before resuming its quest for sustenance.

The row of houses we stood in front of were definitely its favoured location and if it disappeared it would always eventually return to these houses after a brief absence. One kind resident came out and invited us into his back garden and even offered us the use of an outside toilet if required.

I suppose because it is not classified as a species and therefore not considered worthy of the attention of serious listers it did not attract the large crowd one would normally expect for a first of its kind for Great Britain.There were never more than fifteen people present at any one time. although possibly there will be more on the weekend and in my opinion those who have so far not made the effort to come and see it have definitely missed out on a really attractive and charismatic bird

By ten thirty I was satisfied and left for the three and a half hour hour drive home while the wagtail wandered up the concrete drive of a house opposite.