Monday, 9 September 2013

Twitching and Bitching 8th September 2013


Keyhaven Lagoon
Saturday morning at Farmoor Reservoir was dire. Badger, myself and Andy wandered morosely up the length of the Causeway bemoaning the lack of anything interesting to look at and the general awfulness of Farmoor. Today it excelled itself with a  tasty combination of goose gauno, a million discarded gull feathers and a random selection of either dead or dying gulls whilst not forgetting the occasional rancid trout carcase floating at the water's edge. 

Three Dunlin, minding their own business and running along beside the water's edge, received an excess of unwarranted attention. It was that bad. There was nothing else to look at. Gone were the heady delights of the Black Terns and Mediterranean Gulls of Thursday. Back at the car park we gave the day up as a bad job and headed more in desperation than hope for Otmoor. That was predictably just as uninspiring. In yet another car park we moaned  and groaned, finally deciding to cut our losses and make a day of it on Sunday and go and twitch the Semi-palmated Sandpiper at Keyhaven Lagoon which is on the Hampshire coast. I went home to make some sloe gin. Andy went back to work and Badger-well who knows. 

Sunday dawned. I left my bed at 6.30 and something was wrong. I did not feel well at all. Not quite so unwell that I should get back to bed but bad enough to feel listless and severely lacking in my usual energy and enthusiasm. I told myself that once I got going I would feel a bit better and watched the weather forecast on Breakfast TV. A cheery presenter (they always are for some reason?) announced that the following days would be fine with just the odd shower. At least I think that is what he said. I was still only half awake so it was hard to concentrate. Re-assured by the forecaster's confident prediction and still feeling a little dazed I did not bother with waterproof clothing.

All was well as far as I was concerned, it was already a nice sunny day outside the house and so I duly headed to the nearby village of Leafield to collect Andrew, a new and innocent recruit to our endless quest for birds and adventure in Oxfordshire and beyond. Mission accomplished in collecting Andrew, it was then off to Abingdon for a rendezvous with Badger and Andy and then we set off for the coast. Andy and Andrew compared experiences of electric guitars in the back seat of Badger's car while I slumped in the front seat next to Badger, consulting at regular intervals my RBA App on my i-phone. No news about the Semi P. This continued to be the case, despite regular checks, until our arrival at Keyhaven Car Park. It was not looking good. Leaving the car I accosted a birder who was obviously returning from a fruitless quest. He told me there had been no sign of the Semi P since dawn. It was now looking very bad. 

I noted that the sunny blue sky that had accompanied us from Oxfordshire all the way down the miles of Motorway was being chased rapidly eastwards by a brisk westerly wind and following hard on it's heels was an ominous grey mass of angry clouds with already a few spots of rain beginning to fall. We took the track out to the seawall and the rain increased. I sheltered under a large tree with Andrew until the others joined us. They all had wet weather gear but I did not. Obviously they had watched a different forecast to mine or more likely been more awake and alert at the time of the forecast. A cheery lady came along and told us enthusiastically it had rained all night in Keyhaven and it looked like it was going to really rain hard again. 'Still you will be alright you have the right clothing' said she looking at Andrew. She giggled and looked at me 'Oh dear' was all she said. Just smile Ewan. 'Thanks for that' I mumbled. I ventured a little further along the path but the location of the still absent Semi P about a mile away and adjacent to The Solent was totally exposed to the elements. There was no shelter whatsoever. To stand out there and get the inevitable soaking would be purgatory especially as I was not feeling well and my mood would only go from bad to very, very worse. A Water Rail squealed from a nearby reedbed. The rain had by now already soaked the front of my trouser legs and my fleece was showing signs of abject capitulation in the water repellent department. I gave it up. Cussing and complaining about bloody forecasters, the UK climate in general and my usual 'It was never like this in Africa' refrain I retreated to Badger's car and sat it out. 

The others steadfastly made their way along the sea wall impervious to the elements.  At least I could use the down time to answer a few work emails on my i-phone and send a few un-necessary texts to birding friends and business associates. It was however, a very frustrating time although I had the consolation of knowing that the dratted Semi P had not shown up in my absence as Badger had not called my phone to alert me to any good news.

The rain went on for an hour or more. I felt snug in the car but finally the rain relented and the sky gradually brightened as did my mood. I headed out to the others which was a fair distance along the seawall and finally joined them along with numerous other hardy souls - all seemingly in waterproof clothing. The usual inane chatter and slanderous statements about absent birders known and unknown whiled away the tedium whilst awaiting the now inevitable non arrival of the Semi-palmated Sandpiper

Andrew and Badger looking in vain

We stared out at a large area of mud and shallow brackish water populated by in excess of a hundred Dunlin with at least five exquisite Curlew Sandpipers amongst them. One of my favourite birds. Such an elegant and evenly proportioned small wader, their legs and bill ever so slightly longer than the Dunlin and with a more streamlined body shape possessing none of the hunch shouldered dumpiness and small headedness of the Dunlin. All the Curlew Sandpipers were juveniles, their plumage as immaculate as their body shape with a delicate apricot wash to their breasts, beautiful turtle shell scalloping to their upper-parts and flashing a huge white rump when they flew. The longer legs of the Curlew Sandpipers allowed them to wade deeper into the pool, almost at times swimming, although they were also not averse to joining the Dunlins pattering around in the thick gloopy mud.They would regularly haul mud encased worms from below the water and submerging their heads entirely in the process.

Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper
Every so often the entire flock would take alarm and with good reason as a Peregrine had made at least two low passes along the sea wall but after wheeling in a tight formation of alternate grey and white, as in unison they tilted from one side to the other, they would settle again on the pool.


The birds were remarkably tolerant of our close proximity and showed little fear allowing those of us with cameras to sit literally within feet of them and take their pictures to our heart's content.










Juvenile Curlew Sandpipers 


Juvenile Dunlins moulting into winter plumage
Time slid by. A flock of Grey Plovers flew in, some still in their appealing combination of black, grey and white breeding plumage. A Little Egret stalked along the far bank and an occasional Ringed Plover would betray it's arrival with a querulous, melancholy call. The Semi P was still absent and realistically we had to come to the conclusion it was gone and not returning.

Remarkably my first attempt at twitching a Semi P was at this very spot some years ago. That one, like this one had been present for a number of days but the day I chose to go and see it was the day it chose to disappear. Since then I have been fortunate to have seen three separate individuals in various parts of southern England, one of which was again at this very location. Today, however, was in twitching parlance a dip. For me it was not particularly troubling as the opportunity to get such close views of one of my favourite waders in the form of the Curlew Sandpipers was ample compensation. Andy was a bit miffed, having missed a new bird for the UK but as he is relatively new to birding the Curlew Sandpipers were also new for him. A wander further east along the seawall to restore the circulation brought us to some wooden stakes sticking out of the water a little offshore, and populated by Sandwich, Common and best of all, two juvenile Black Terns. The terns stoically perched head to wind, buffeted by the strong westerly airflow.


Black Tern, Common Tern and Sandwich Tern
A small flock of Turnstones ran amongst the discarded seaweed on the sandshore in front of us. Rapidly acquiring their winter plumage they were remarkably well camouflaged amongst the brown seaweed and sand. I was surprised at their strength as they tossed aside lumps of seaweed as big as themselves or dug vigorously in the sand in their search for invertebrates


Well camouflaged Turnstone
Four hours had now elapsed and yet another large black cloud was looming menacingly in the west so we made our way back to the car deciding to call it a day.

Now Keyhaven is very adjacent to the New Forest and as those of you who read this blog regularly will know there is a place in the New Forest called Acres Down and at Acres Down there is Acres Down Farm that sells possibly the best value cream teas in the south of England. Andrew needed to be initiated. Oh yes he did. It would be unfair of us to deprive him of this culinary and sensory extravaganza I am sure you will agree. We sat at a table covered in a red and white gingham tablecloth. Four cream teas please - as the rain came down again. Heaven.

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