Sunday, 15 February 2015

Valentine Bunting 14th February 2015

It's strange how convention and what is perceived as everyday and normal in human life can restrict one's behaviour whether consciously or subconsciously. I have always had an admiration and huge respect for those among us who defy convention, and with apparent boundless self confidence strike out on their own individual path, blissfully ignoring what others think or say.

I have always regarded myself as lacking a certain amount of confidence but since giving up the day job have found myself not wanting to fall into the cloying embrace of a staid and gentle retirement. As the landlord of my local once said 'It is good for the soul to jump the metaphorical fence every so often'. 

I confess that my natural instincts still tell me, and I guess they always will because of my character, to keep to the straight and narrow whatever that may be, but more and more, like a benign irritation I find myself seeking and looking for that unconventional experience or defying the norm.

Is twitching normal? Probably not although it is now a widely known and accepted obsession amongst the general birding populace. In its  current form it is far removed from the earlier years of sleeping in bus shelters, hitching lifts by roadsides and generally roughing it. Now it is all about chartering planes, sleeping on sophisticated ferries, driving miles in a car and then often back again the same day, but even with these 'advances' it is something still considered outside of what normal people do and thought of by many as strange and obsessive behaviour.

So it was that on Friday night I lay in bed contemplating the normal - gardening, housework, answering emails, visiting  Sainsbury's or heaven forbid trudging around Otmoor or Farmoor on Saturday. Last week I had been to see a Little Bunting on the outskirts of Cardiff  and was utterly enthralled by it. So why not go and see it again?

The words of a much loved, now deceased and lamented former Managing Director came to me.

'Ewan there are those people that sit and wait for something to happen and there are those that get off their backsides and go and make it happen.' How true.

So it was that at 5am on Saturday I headed off to Cardiff for another look at a Little Bunting. It was raining. The road winding through the soft contours of the Cotswolds was a lonely strip of glistening black in the headlights, unseen patches of water surging up from the wheels were startlingly illuminated, like some breaking wave, by the headlights. The rural darkness unsullied by any artificial light pollution was gentle on my eyes and when I came to a town the bright lights felt intrusive and abrasive before I cleared the town's boundary and was enveloped once more in the soothing black of the night.

The rain increased in intensity as I entered Wales, lashing out a tattoo on the windscreen. The huge lorries that move at night temporarily blinded me with the spray from their wheels as I passed them. It was not looking good for birding if this weather continued but on reaching Cardiff the dawn brought with it a welcome relief as the rain finally stopped. The morning, as on my last visit, was grey and damp with everything dripping from the soaking of the earlier intense rain. 

I arrived at the Forest Farm Country Park Reserve and entered the hide, the interior gloomy, dank and uninviting and as I peered through the viewing slat my heart sank. The area that last time was scattered with seed was waterlogged, not a seed to be seen and consequently not a bird either.

I sat on a hard plastic chair and rued my decision. It took me ten minutes or so to get over the initial disappointment, gather myself and decide what to do. Waterlogged and seed free as the ground currently was there was little chance of any bird appearing outside. Why did I not bring some bird food but then why would I, not being blessed with foresight? Surely there must be some seed somewhere here as there was seed scattered around on my last visit? After some searching I found a large yellow plastic bin stuck in a dark corner of the hide which was labelled 'Bird Seed-Donations Welcome.' I tentatively opened the lid and found a tiny amount of seed spread across the bottom. I scraped up a handful and scattered it outside the hide on those areas of ground that were not under water. Another handful, and another and then all the seed was gone from the bin but was now scattered outside and directly below the viewing slat.

Still no birds. Still no other birders. I sat, alone and contemplated the silent, wet ground before me. Twenty minutes passed and then from the bushes appeared a truculent Robin, ticking and curtseying in animated tension. Shortly after, half a dozen Reed Buntings came to the seed and then slipping almost un-noticed down onto the ground from the bushes, there was the Little Bunting, joining them to feed on the seed. 

Little Bunting
Male Reed Bunting
Female Reed Bunting
My plan had worked and still alone in the hide I watched the bunting going about its life. Just me and my favourite bunting. Ten maybe fifteen minutes passed and then another birder joined me and we watched it together. Two other birders arrived and gave the bunting all of ten minutes of their attention before leaving. Surely the rare bunting deserved more than this? Never mind that is up to them. Each to their own.

I remained for an hour and then left, driving back to England and brightening skies, leaving the rain in Wales. I had a second mission and that was to head for Cheltenham, which was on my route back to Kingham, to a place called Pittville Park and an area of a couple of acres that has been seeded with traditional cornfield wildflowers by the laudably environmentally conscious local Council and which remarkably, currently harboured a male Dartford Warbler. 

The Urban Cornfield Meadow created by the local Council. Pittville Park beyond
Threading my way around Cheltenham through all the urban paraphernalia of a large town I came eventually to the meadow on the outskirts of Cheltenham. It covered a much larger area than I had imagined and finding the Dartford Warbler in the tangled maze of dead plants and grasses would be difficult. I wandered along a track through 'the meadow' and after some twenty minutes the Dartford Warbler appeared, albeit distantly, perched on a dead thistle. It did not remain there for long before diving back down into the rank herbage. I walked to the spot but could find no sign of the warbler. Twenty or so metres away a flock of some eighty Linnets took alarm and rose skywards in a twittering, wheeling explosion to settle once again on some seed heads. Where they settled I saw a male European Stonechat and then a brief glimpse of a dark, slim, long tailed warbler flying low down from one tussock to another near to the stonechat. The Dartford! I walked over and found not one but a pair of stonechats with the Dartford Warbler in close attendance.

Male European Stonechat
Female European Stonechat

Male Dartford Warbler
It is fairly widely known amongst birders that a Dartford Warbler can often be found in close association with a stonechat in locations where both species occur. The accepted reason for this is that the warbler feeds low down in the undergrowth, often at ground level and therefore is less likely to notice a potential predator. The stonechat on the other hand uses elevated perches to hunt its prey, dropping down on prey from the perch. The stonechat not only gives an alarm when a predator is present but gives that alarm earlier than is the case with many other bird species so the warbler takes advantage of the stonechat's superior vigilance on both counts. This arrangement is more beneficial to the warbler as the warbler's habit of feeding in the undergrowth in close proximity to the stonechat is detrimental to the stonechat's own hunting success. So the stonechat regularly flies to another perch to distance itself from the warbler and the warbler duly follows which in turn reveals itself to any birder who cares to observe this behaviour.

I followed this menage a trois as they progressed around the area. I watched the Dartford feeding in the grass and disappearing right under it to ground level with its tail cocked high like a banner. It rarely perched at any elevation and never above three feet from the ground although on one occasion it did perch for at least two minutes on another dead umbellifer and sang quietly to itself, its throat obviously swelling and its beak partially opening as it sang.

Singing Dartford Warbler
At a distance the  Dartford Warbler appeared very dark brown with an elongated tail. Closer views revealed a very pretty bird with a steel grey head, dark brown upperparts and cinnamon pink underparts with white spotting on its throat. Its elegant ensemble was completed by corn yellow legs and a prominent red eye ring.

I last saw it still faithfully following the stonechats through the herbage. Good luck to all three of them.

The last view I got of the Dartford Warbler

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