Friday, 11 September 2015

You're Barred! 9th September 2015

Barred Warbler c Peter Law
A Barred Warbler has for the past week been delighting birders on Staines Moor, an oasis of greenery in close proximity to the huge Terminal Five which is part of London Heathrow Airport. Indeed any bird passing over could not fail but be attracted to this wonderful area of natural habitat surrounded as it now is by one of the busiest airports in the world and all its infrastructure, two huge reservoirs, the densely packed housing sprawl that has overwhelmed the former rural village of Stanwell Moor and major roads, including the busiest Motorway in Europe - the dreaded M25.

Staines Moor looking East sandwiched between the M25 in the foreground and
King George V1 and Staines Reservoirs in the background
c Wikipedia
Staines Moor in itself is of great historical and ecological interest comprising as it does 117 hectares of grassland that has remained unploughed for over a thousand years and has been registered as Common Land since 1065. To call it a Moor is somewhat of a misnomer as this implies heather and an area of acidity when in fact it is an area of neutral and wet grassland. I would describe it as more a Common than a Moor. There is a shallow river running through it called The Colne which refreshingly is unpolluted and has fish in its clear waters and abundant watercress growing along its banks amongst other riparian vegetation. In winter Water Pipits are virtually resident beside the river here and the surrounding fields, hawthorn and bramble scrub provide shelter for many migrant birds both in Spring and in Autumn. I have seen some rare and unusual birds here over the years perhaps the best being a Brown Shrike which spent the autumn and winter of 2009 frequenting the hawthorn and blackberry clumps in the northwest corner of the Moor. Other good birds I have seen here include Dartford Warbler, European Stonechat, Red necked Phalarope and Jack Snipe. 

Every time I make a visit it always strikes me as remarkable that this gem co-exists with the cacophony of huge jets taking off and landing nearby, the dull roar of endless traffic on the M25 and the occasional raucous squawks of the exotic, green, Rose Ringed Parakeets arrowing across the sky with fast flickering wings,this area being one of their original strongholds.

I picked up my good friend Clackers from Witney at around eleven am and by-passing the continued traffic chaos resulting from the reconstructing of the two northern roundabouts at Oxford we made the relatively short journey south to Staines Moor via the M4 Motorway, arriving at just after twelve thirty. Peter, another Oxonbirder colleague was already at the site and rang to tell us that the Barred Warbler was still there and we should also look out for some Little Owls in a horse paddock as we made our way down the long narrow track that led from Stanwell Moor Village to the moor itself.

We parked in a relatively quiet road at the back of the village close to the imposing grassy bank of the huge King George V1 Reservoir, taking the narrow track that ran between the reservoir and some houses, which in turn soon gave way to fields and paddocks. It's a strange experience coming as we did from the hurtle and bustle of the Motorway and the urban sprawl of the northern reaches of Heathrow to this tranquil urban backwater albeit with the constant accompaniment of jet aircraft engines which somehow after a while become non intrusive. Slowly as the track wound onwards the urban was left behind and we entered an island of almost rural tranquillity.

Other birders returning from the moor passed us on the track heading back to their cars and told us how well the Barred Warbler was performing. We duly came to the horse paddock and sure enough there were two Little Owls, one sitting on a fence post, the other just behind in the hedgerow, sunning themselves in all their mottled brown beauty. Fast asleep, seemingly without a care in the world, it was good to see them.

We walked onwards, passing through a kissing gate and then came to  a huge stand of the invasive Himalayan Balsam, the pink alien flowers hanging from towering green stems almost as high as a man. 

Crossing the boardwalk through head high reeds and Himalayan Balsam
Across a boardwalk and then over a stile and there before us lay the green expanse of Staines Moor. The River Colne was to our right and we walked along until we came to a small concrete bridge and crossed the river to meet Peter who pointed out where the Barred Warbler had been. Unfortunately he had not seen it, arriving fractionally too late, just as it flew off, according to a lady who had been watching it for an hour feeding on blackberries.

The River Colne and local pony guarding the bridge
I would like to say it did not take long to locate the warbler again but I am sure you sense what I  am about to relate. Everyone else having seen the warbler had now departed and we were the only birders left on the moor, sharing it with the twenty or so friendly ponies owned by the commoners. It became obvious we were going to have to cover a lot of ground if we were to relocate the warbler. We split up and checked every likely looking hawthorn bush and tree as well as every huge blackberry clump, of which there were many but of the warbler there was not a sign. We walked around again, once more checking every bush, tree and bramble clump for a second time but still drew a blank and so the time went by, one hour then two hours passed but still there was no indication that the Barred Warbler was anywhere to be found.

It was immensely frustrating. I saw plenty of other warblers on my fruitless travels as did Clackers and doubtless Peter also. Common Whitethroats, Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, even a Whinchat  and a Hobby came and went but the star prize eluded us. We separated for a third time. It was now over two and a half hours since we had arrived and hope was turning to resignation but then my phone rang. It was Clackers who informed me that the Barred Warbler had apparently dropped from the sky and landed at the top of a hawthorn right in front of him! I sped to the spot as did Peter but in the minute it took to get there the warbler had flown to another hawthorn slightly more distant and was lost to view. 

We regarded the small hawthorn tree it had flown to and at first saw nothing. Then I saw the Barred Warbler briefly, just for seconds as it popped out at the base of the tree but instantly disappeared back into the cover of the foliage. We continued to watch the tree and false alarms came on a regular basis as first a Common Whitethroat, then a Blackcap and finally a Sedge Warbler all in the self same tree set our pulses racing with false hope. We had been alone for all of this time but now found ourselves in a crowd of ten as other birders, alerted to our attentiveness, joined us in the hope of seeing the warbler. 

Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that though we had kept a close eye on the tree the warblers in it had somehow given us the slip and whipped across to other nearby isolated bushes and bramble clumps. However we assumed the Barred Warbler must be somewhere nearby so decided it would be best to just stand, wait and see what turned up, if anything. In previous encounters with Barred Warblers I have invariably found they are not shy and retiring like their smaller warbler cousins but often show themselves quite well although they can disappear for long periods into the inner parts of whatever bush, tree or bramble clump they are favouring, thus rendering themselves frustratingly invisible.

We continued scanning the various hawthorn trees and bushes before us for fifteen or so minutes and then I looked, not for the first time, to the top of a nearby bramble festooned hawthorn and there almost shining in the sun was a bulky warbler, greyish brown above and buff  white below with a markedly white throat. I had one of those moments where you know what you are looking at but cannot quite believe it. No one else had noticed it. I felt a rising sense of excitement and a surge of adrenalin  as from the tangled growth of the hawthorn I realised a Barred Warbler had  just appeared before my very eyes and was now sat within metres of us completely at ease. I got it together and exclaimed 'Look it's there, look, at the top of that hawthorn in front of us. What a beauty. It's the Barred Warbler!

Barred Warbler c Peter Law
Everyone rapidly got onto it. You could hardly miss it. Easily visible, even with the naked eye, sitting at the top of the hawthorn.

The warbler then put on a virtuoso performance amongst the blackberries and brambles entwined over the hawthorn tree. All the other warblers I had seen earlier had flown at incredible speeds from bush to bush, tree to tree and dived into the depths of the foliage never to be seen again. The very essence of frenetic, boundless, nervy energy which was in complete contrast to the Barred Warbler which just sat there and occasionally with movements that can only be described as ponderous clumsily adjusted its position to consume another blackberry in between long periods of just sitting doing nothing. I would describe it as almost lethargic but that is their way. It almost dozed off on one occasion, sitting comfortably in the sun amongst the hawthorn leaves and blackberries and invariably its movements were slow and deliberate.  But what an absolute beauty. A chunkily built sylvia with a heavy grey bill stained with blackberry juice, blue grey legs and  pale creamy eye rings. Its pale underparts were washed with buff and showed faint barring on the rear of the flanks and stronger barring under its tail. The inner wing feathers were bordered with pale buff semi circles and its throat looked very white in the sun. A juvenile, it regarded us stoically and then just carried on its life amongst the green leaves and red and black berries of the hawthorn. 

Barred Warbler and Blackberries c Peter Law
We watched it for almost forty minutes and then decided to leave to avoid the rush hour traffic. A Little Egret landed in the River Colne and a Yellow Wagtail flew over.  The Barred Warbler  was still sitting in the same small hawthorn tree and had hardly moved as we departed. An absolute beauty and a real favourite of mine.

Clackers and Peter

                         Many thanks to Peter Law for the use of his images

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