Thursday, 13 February 2014

I went to see the RFB 13th February 2014

After my long distance epic twitch on Tuesday to see the Yellow-rumped Warbler near Durham in the fine company of Clackers I made a solo trip today to see a Red-flanked Bluetail near a place called Marshfield, some eight miles east of Bath on the Gloucester/Wiltshire border. It was only an hour's drive from home so was not overly strenuous on both my physical and mental resources.

I left Kingham in sunshine, somewhat of a novelty these days and all the way to Marshfield was driving in similar conditions but as I approached Marshfield the sky from the southwest turned that ominous blue grey heralding another onset of yet more rain. I followed the Satnav instructions, turning down a couple of  narrow lanes and parked on a sodden, mud churned verge hoping the car would not get stuck when I came to leave. The rain by now was hammering down so any venture into the great outdoors was put on hold. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed and slowly the rain eased and the sky in the west began to brighten again.

I was out of the car the minute the rain stopped and ambled down a narrow road to a stile which led into the narrow steep sided  Shire Valley, full of sheep and with a stream or small river running through, it was hard to tell due to all the rain making it swollen. The ground was absolutely sodden and the sheep had churned many a muddy trail across the steep valley side. I sought out the areas still relatively grassy rather than muddy and slip-slided my way along the upper side of the valley to a distant gate. Through the gate about a hundred metres on the other side I could see a group of around ten birders, most with cameras focused on a couple of isolated hawthorns.

I was in no hurry to get there but more intent on remaining upright in the treacherous conditions underfoot and anyway some other birders who had passed me going back to the road had told me the bluetail was performing really well. I joined the other birders standing line abreast, stepping precariously and gingerly down the angled side of the valley, half sliding downwards using the sheep tracks to slow my momentum and stopped on a sheep track and took up position. One false move, one slip descending the bank and my momentum would have been unstoppable in the slippery conditions and I would have skittled the rest of the birders straight into the stream. Now wouldn't that make me popular?

The well publicised grassy mound where the bluetail would come to feed was liberally strewn with meal worms provided by the photographers to my left. They had also erected some sort of perch affair from a couple of branches to get what they hoped would be the ultimate shot. The clouds had now cleared and the sun shone once more with white clouds and mainly blue sky. There was no sign of the bluetail but I was assured it was in the hawthorns and would soon come back to the mound for more mealworms.

Shire Valley with the photographers branches centre and two hawthorns left
Now with a little time to spare I had time to assess my surroundings and discovered I was in a quite beautiful valley which in less soggy times would be a pleasure to walk through. An upmarket farmhouse was the other side of the stream/river which in full spate was flowing along just down to our left. A Grey Wagtail chissikked it's way downstream and a Raven, its black plumage iridescent in the sun, came cronking over the valley from our right.

There was then a really annoying incident when the photographers decided the arrangement of branches was not to their liking so went to the mound and altered the position of said branches. They looked fine to me. The point they seemed to miss is the bluetail would not now show for a little longer due to the disturbance. We settled back to wait once the re-arranging was accomplished when blow me they were at it again still dissatisfied that they would get the ultimate shot, so back they went again to move the branches. I started to get agitated and suggested I would quite like to see the bird rather than some artistic arrangement of branches thank you. The person moving the branches around said he was only doing what he was told by his pal. So presumably if I told him to jump in the stream he would? No I didn't say it but felt it. We have all I am sure experienced this annoyance at some time or other when birding. The point was made however and no more forays were made to the meal worm strewn mound or the artistic branches

Time passed easily in the pleasant sunshine and I chatted to my two immediate companions. In the process I learned a lot about the importation of bricks for building. Yes foreign imports cause problems there too. Did you know Latvia make a lot of bricks?  My other companion who was taking video of the bird came out with the somewhat alarming information that he had never heard of a Red-flanked Bluetail until he looked it up in a book before coming to see it here. I forgave him though as he knew a lot about butterflies and we reminisced about Oxfordshire's Black Hairstreaks by the M40.

Finally the bluetail appeared at the edge of the hawthorn. Its iridescent blue tail flirted open and flicked downwards at rapid intervals. Quick bobbing motions and a highly strung nervous demeanour announced its presence. If you saw it in silhouette it could be a Robin so similar was its behaviour. But when it perched in the sun, there the comparison ended. Apart from the blue tail and rump the rest of the upperparts were, yes, robin brown with the same black boot button eye but the underparts were dull greyish white with a sensational slash of orange on the flanks. It also had quite a natty creamy white bib when seen head on. Why is it called Red-flanked Bluetail when its flanks are orange? An absolutely beautiful bird regardless.

It jerked up and down on long brown legs before flying the few feet from its perch to the grassy mound, grabbing mealworms in a flurry of movement and literally in a flash of orange and blue was gone, back into the hawthorns and the sanctuary of the dense twigs and branches. It would then compose itself and sit or preen until it felt the need for more mealworms when the whole routine would be repeated. We were relatively close but the bird showed no signs of being worried at our presence.

Its arrival on the mound precipitated a volley of camera clicks as everyone took the maximum opportunity to get its picture in the brief time it was on the mound. It came to feed every twenty to thirty minutes but would only remain on the grassy mound for no more than twenty seconds, often less. The rest of the time while I was there it just remained sitting or preening near the centre of the hawthorns. Why would it need to do anything else?

I watched it come to the mound four or five times. Two more Ravens appeared and then two Common Buzzards did a close pass above us before I then departed the valley still in bright sunshine. 

Not a drop of rain had troubled me since arrival to departure which was fortuitous. I also met Nic Hallam another Oxonbirder, both of us not recognising each other under all the waterproofing, hats and thermal clothing until Nic turned round and we found ourselves facing each other.

A really pleasant interlude in an idyllic English pastoral setting came to an end. I wonder if the Red flanked Bluetail  thought it was in China?

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