A glorious sunny afternoon on Monday 9th February found me wandering around Staines Moor near Heathrow after a morning working with some drugs counsellors in Hounslow. My reason for visiting the moor was to see the Water Pipits that reside there during the winter and indeed I found no less than six.
Work had been frenetic these last two days with an all day Osteopath's seminar in London the day before so I felt I had earned a break. The fine weather and seeing the Water Pipits put me in an optimistic frame of mind so I called Clackers and suggested we go and see a Little Bunting that had been present at Forest Farm Country Park on the outskirts of Cardiff for some days.
I suggested we go early to get there for first light although I am not sure why I did this and thinking about it later that night it seemed totally un-necessary but by then it was too late to call Clackers, so at 5am, somewhat bleary, I collected him from Witney and we set off for the Land of the Red Dragon.
The early hours of Tuesday morning had greeted me with thick fog as I left home and driving to Witney to collect Clackers was difficult to say the least, although there was little traffic to worry about. After collecting Clackers we set off into a fogbound future. It really was grim and driving required severe and constant concentration. Luckily we had a large lorry in front of us so we followed his red fog lights at a respectable distance and let him guide us down the fogbound A40. Thankfully, once we descended from the Cotswold escarpment to a lower level the fog dispersed and the M5 Motorway was free of the swirling, opaque horror and we were able to proceed at a normal speed.
Cardiff is only eighty four miles from my home so we found ourselves with more than enough time to spare due to my over optimistic early start and I drove at well below the speed limit to waste a few more minutes. We stopped at some services for a break, just before the Severn Bridge and to be honest to waste some more time. Is there anywhere more desolate than such places in the early hours? We were the only people there and I opted for standing outside to drink my hot chocolate rather than remain in the depressing environment of second rate over priced tat inside
It was still dark but Robins were singing lustily from the bushes, stimulated by the lights in the car park. When do they ever sleep? Eventually we could not justify remaining here any longer and getting back in the Audi we drove up the slip road to join the Motorway and in a few hundred metres we were stopped again at the Severn Bridge toll booth, to be relieved of £6.50 for the privilege of crossing the bridge. To add to our sense of injustice, or at least mine, the woman taking the money was dour and uncommunicative, such a contrast to the friendly toll booth operatives on the M6 Toll Road, but on reflection so would I be miserable if I was stuck in a booth in the death hours doing a mundane job such as hers. We crossed the bridge whose road surface was truly appalling considering how much was charged to go over it. Obviously the money was going elsewhere. Welcome to Wales
Approaching Cardiff the dawn was commencing a grudging effort to muscle itself in on the night. Slowly it got lighter but it was obvious that the sun was going to be a stranger to Wales today and a dull misty murk permeated the land. The amount of traffic increased rapidly and even though it was only seven am cars were volleying past us at speed, presumably taking their drivers to work. Clackers and myself, now retired or almost in my case, felt more than a little schadenfreude as we watched the hussle, hurtle and insanity of another day's rush hour commencing. We had put in our years and now we were birding and doing what we wanted to do.
We followed the Satnav as it guided us to the western side of Cardiff and led us down an almost rural route called Forest Farm Road by the River Taff, to end up in a deserted Car Park by some rugby pitches, on a dull grey morning, but something was not quite right. I rang Peter who had been here a day or so earlier but a combination of my tiredness and Peter's misunderstanding of where we were only served to make things worse and more confusing. I checked the info on my RBA app and following its description drove a few hundred metres further down the road. I saw something that vaguely resembled the RBA description and we parked on the grass verge. I was pretty sure this was the spot although there was nothing to intimate I was correct and I was just operating on instinct
We found ourselves outside what appeared to be a large private garage with absolutely nothing to indicate its function or what it was for but just then the doors opened and a man came out of the building. A Welshman. 'Looking for the bird are you?' He enquired. 'Yes. Is this the right place?' He mumbled something unintelligible but in a friendly tone and pointed to my right and there was the hide, not quite as described on RBA, a few metres from me. Please forgive my confusion but I was expecting a normal sort of hide. You know one of those wooden structures with a door and benches and window flaps inside. I found myself looking at basically a large lean to shed, with a concrete floor, that was obviously used for storing things in times past and had definitely seen better days. There was no door but three old plastic chairs had been lined up in front of a rudimentary viewing slat cut in the wooden wall. The view was hardly inspiring looking out onto what appeared to be an area of threadbare grass tufts, puddles and muddy wasteland. True a couple of feeders were strung up in a tree at the end of the hut as a token effort but that was it.
We were the first to arrive but shortly after were joined by a few others. I looked through the slat and found myself almost eyeball to eyeball with some Reed Buntings picking at some seed strewn across the ground for them to feed on. The birds were that close you could almost touch them. Clackers joined me. 'No sign of the Little Bunting Keith but this is definitely the place'. 'What's that then?' and Clackers pointed to a much smaller bunting, almost grey rather than brown and virtually invisible as it merged with its surroundings or hid behind a grass tuft. I looked and saw the distinctive chestnut patches on the sides of its head, the white eye ring and a grey brown body streaked with dark lines. 'That's it Keith. Well done. Good man!'
We had found the Little Bunting in the space of a minute, so could now relax and enjoy ourselves.The bird itself was tiny compared to the Reed Buntings feeding with it and crept around amongst the grassy tufts nibbling at the scattered seeds. Beautiful in an understated way, the only real colouring in its plumage being the chestnut on its face, some chestnut around the shoulders and white in the outer tail. The wings showed two creamy white narrow wing bars but overall it was a greyish brown liberally streaked darker on both its upper and lower body, rendering it well camouflaged on the ground. Occasionally it would fly up and perch in some discarded brushwood, preening vigorously before heading back to the ground for more seed. A Sparrowhawk flashed through and the birds including the Little Bunting scattered but after some minutes returned to feed.
It was joined on the wet ground by many commoner birds such as Robins, Dunnocks, Blue Tits, Bullfinches and Blackbirds whilst a Pied Wagtail and Grey Wagtail wandered around the wetter areas.
This was easily the best and most fulfilling encounter I have ever had of this tiny bunting. Most previous encounters have been all too brief but here it was, on view for virtually all of the hour and a half we were present. The maximum number of people in the shed was never more than single figures so there was no crush or obstructed views and everyone was happy. Delighted with this triumph and after just one more look we reluctantly moved on as a fellow birder had told us about a Lesser Scaup in Cardiff Bay Wetlands and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss as it was just the other side of the city.
The misty, murky conditions still prevailed and now looked set for the day but there was little we could do about that. We made a quick stop for breakfast in a local cafe and then headed on the ring road for Cardiff Bay Wetlands. There was huge controversy about this area a few years ago as formerly it used to be tidal but a barrage was erected to keep the bay full of water which then permanently covered the muddy feeding grounds used by countless wading birds. Another prime example of money and selfish short sightedness ruling the day but we are getting used to this by now and it will never change for the better. Now all that is left is a token small area of reeds, a boardwalk and a stretch of waterside harbouring discarded cans and bottles while expensive yachts in an equally expensive marina are but a stone's throw away and huge modern office buildings, hotels and apartments dominate the skyline. This is progress? Such a contrast to the rudimentary hide and it has to be said charming ambience where, enthralled, we had watched a star bird just an hour ago.
It was bitterly cold down at the waterside as we walked along to the end of the boardwalk, to view the distant assemblage of Tufted Ducks floating on the seaward side of the reeds. Through Keith's scope we soon found the drake Lesser Scaup in amongst the Tufted Ducks. A quick look and we retreated from the cold dank environment and headed back for the car but not before stopping to admire at least three surprisingly showy Cetti's Warblers in some brambles.
Our plan if there ever had been one was now to head for home via a visit to Slimbridge WWT, conveniently situated just off our route back to Oxford. There is a long staying female Ferruginous Duck, not part of the collection, frequenting the Asia Pen there and this would round the day off nicely. The grey gloom lifted ever so slightly as we left Wales and headed southeast but a metaphorical temporary gloom descended on me when I was obliged to part with £11.50 to get into the hallowed Slimbridge. I suppose on reflection I should not complain as the WWT do a huge amount to conserve ducks all over the world, and now are rearing Common Cranes and even, unbelievably are contributing to helping to save Spoon Billed Sandpipers, a rare wader from Asia, from potential extinction. So good on them, I wish them well and I am happy to contribute.
We headed for the Asia Pen but meeting a birder on the way were informed there had been no sign of the Ferruginous Duck since 1030 that morning. 'Well it must be somewhere here Keith.' 'I agree' he said and we commenced checking every pen and I swear every duck wild or otherwise in them. No luck. We checked again, and then again, round and round the grounds we went but kept returning to the Asia Pen as if sheer willpower would make the elusive bird materialise but of course it didn't.
There were some benefits in all this walking about. I managed to do some quiet revision on various female duck plumages. Well you never know when it might come in handy! It was also nice to see some exotic waterfowl and marvel at their plumage. I was particularly taken by the Falcated Ducks, the males with intricately patterned plumage and with heads of satin emerald and purple iridescence. There were copious numbers of wild ducks joining the captive ones, Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard, Northern Pintails and especially conspicuous were Common Shelducks which seemed to find the Asia Pen singularly attractive, flying in and out on a regular basis.
Female Tufted Duck showing a scaup like white blaze around the bill
We found ourselves in the Tack Piece Hide looking out over the waters and wet fields before us. Northern Pintails floated on the cold water, the drake's elegant profiles reflected in the still water.
Further out over a hundred White fronted Geese fed on the grass with a throng of Golden Plover, hunched and still, whilst the occasional Dunlin was ceaselessly busy searching for food. Keith found a smaller wader and close scrutiny through the scope revealed it to be a wintering Little Stint, feeding in an even more energetic fashion than the Dunlin. The distinctive anxiety calls of Herring Gulls alerted us to the presence of some avian danger but I could see nothing from the restricted view in the hide but a minute or so later virtually every bird rose from the ground as a Marsh Harrier flew slowly in and across the grounds. The harrier carried on westwards and the airborne geese, ducks and waders floated down to the earth once more.
I was getting cold. 'Come on Keith I fancy a hot drink and a slice of cake'. 'Good idea'. We returned to the main building and I eyed the last slice of enticing chocolate cake sat on the counter.I walked off to put my stuff on a welcoming sofa but in dismay turned to see a warden snaffle the chocolate cake in my absence. Grrrrrrrrrrrr! Never mind the substitute carrot cake was almost as nice but it is never as good as the cake that got away. It was very pleasant sitting in the warm and the sofa was beginning to feel ever more welcoming. Keith could see the signs and chivvied me back to life and for yet another tour of the grounds in search of the errant duck.
We again visited both the South Lake Hide and the Asia Pen, both being the Ferruginous Duck's favourites but yet again drew a blank. It was so annoying and frustrating as we knew the duck was lurking somewhere. Amongst all the visitors there were some other serious birders who had also come in search of the Ferruginous Duck and we soon became familiar with them as we checked with each other, when we met, as to whether the duck had been seen by any of us, but it was always negative news. We resolved to make one last visit to the South Lake Hide but as usual found nothing, just the usual Common Pochards hiding in the overhanging branches at the side of the lake. In quiet desperation and stretching credulity to its limits we decided that the suspect 'wild' Ruddy Shelduck on the lake was now totally acceptable and with that firmly established, left the hide. 'That's it then' said Keith. 'Just one more visit to the Asia Pen Clackers and then we definitely are leaving' .'OK if you insist'. We trudged to the now all too familiar Asia Pen and stood looking as before at a small lake devoid of a Ferruginous Duck. Five minutes passed as I needlessly checked every duck - yet again. Then a small, dark duck with white wing bars rocketed down from the sky and landed on the water in front of us. I looked. 'Clackers that's it!!! 'Where?' 'There. Look it's right in front of us'. Clackers then saw it too and very considerately promptly went to fetch a fellow birder who was checking the South Lake Hide. They met halfway between the two locations with the other birder informing Clackers that he had just seen the duck take off from the South Lake where he was watching. It must have been asleep there all the time, invisible and hidden under the tangle of overhanging branches at the far side of the lake.
You could not make up a finale like this. We had done it! We watched the Ferruginous Duck for some twenty minutes, its plumage coloured various shades of rich mahogany. A real beauty.
Female Ferruginous Duck
It was now four in the afternoon and we finished our day by watching from a luxurious heated hide called the Peng Observatory as the swans, geese and ducks were fed by the warden, The spectacle both in and outside the observatory was something to behold. Within it was crammed to bursting by folk of all ages with hardly a space to stand and see out of the picture windows. The warden was outside feeding the wildfowl and kept up a running commentary via a remote microphone. Outside the lake and banks were swarming with Bewick's Swans, Greylag Geese and assorted waterfowl with other birds flying in constantly to join the throng. The Bewick's Swans came sweeping in with breathtaking flight to land amongst their comrades with bugling calls of greeting or protest. As the warden distributed the corn from a wheelbarrow the Greylags surged after him in a grey brown phalanx, frenzedly gobbling up the corn whilst Northern Pintail drakes up ended in the water to feed from the bottom, their tails pointing skywards like a group of stilettos.There was much ooohing and aaahing from the assembled people within the heated observatory but such close packed humanity was alien and unsettling to me and I signalled to Keith across the carpeted floor that we should go as our day was surely complete.