Thursday, 24 September 2015

It does not get better than this! 22nd September 2015


Acadian Flycatcher c Steve Nuttall
In 'fast lane birding' it does not often happen that everything coincides to bring about a beneficial outcome but today it certainly did. Allow me to take you back to the previous evening when Peter sent me a text asking if I would like to accompany him to Essex on Tuesday to see a Wilson's Phalarope, a rare wader from North America. After some thought I replied in the affirmative and we agreed to meet at his home in Garsington, near Oxford just after nine on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning duly arrived and was depressingly wet, grey and looking singularly unpromising, and frankly my enthusiasm for heading to distant Essex was fading fast, but after a quick phone call I arranged to meet Peter at the later time of ten thirty in the hope the rain would have passed by then. 

I completed the drive to Peter's home in a relaxed state of mind, stopping at Rectory Farm Shop in Beckley to buy the last of the autumn fruit before they closed for the winter. Then it was down to nearby Wheatley to fill up with fuel for the journey to Essex, managing to avoid no less than two police speed traps en route. Have they nothing better to do? 

I parked outside Peter's home at just after ten and went to knock on his door but just as I was walking to his door my phone rang. It was not the usual call involving work matters but a call from Chris, a Sussex birding colleague. 'Hi Chris, how's it going?'  'Good thanks. Where are you?' he enquired.  I could detect an excited tone in his voice. 'Oxford, just setting out for Essex to see a Wilson's Phalarope.' 'Forget that. Get down to Dungeness as soon as you can, there is a first for Britain'. 'There is? What is it?' I anxiously enquired.  'Don't know, nor does anyone else. It's one of those Empidonax flycatchers from the USA but no one can specifically identify it!' 'Are you going for it Chris?' 'Not straight away. I can't get away from work until this afternoon but will get there as soon as I can.' 'OK. Good luck, maybe we will see you there.'  And with that we parted.

Empidonax flycatchers are a group of nondescript flycatchers from the USA that are notoriously hard to separate as they all look so similar and the  jury was obviously out on the bird at Dungeness. I have seen one species of Empidonax flycatcher in the UK and that was an Alder Flycatcher in the Nanjizal Valley, near  Land's End, Cornwall  in October 2008, coincidentally in the company of Chris. 

This particular individual was thought to have been caught up in a fast moving Atlantic weather system and blown across the Atlantic to find landfall at a bleak, wet and windy Dungeness on the Kent coast. Not quite the ideal substitute for its normal winter home in South America and The Carribean.

With the news from Chris my relaxed frame of mind dissolved in an instant and any ideas of going to Essex to see a bird that I had seen on multiple occasions before in Britain were unceremoniously consigned to oblivion. The adrenalin was flowing fast and free as I knocked on Peter's door in some excitement. The door opened and before he could say a word I blurted, 'Forget the Wilson's Pete we are going to 'Dunge' to see a potential first for the UK'. 'We are?'  'Yes we most certainly are. Now get a move on dear boy there is no time to waste. The Black Audi awaits'.

A few minutes later I was enlightening Peter about the events that were at this very moment occuring in far off Kent as we threaded our way down rainswept Oxfordshire country roads to turn onto an M40 Motorway that was so wet in the pouring rain you could barely see the fast moving cars and lorries ahead as they chucked out huge volumes of water. Visibility diminished alarmingly. Of all days why had this one to be so wet when we needed to get to Dungeness as soon as possible? Like many other drivers I decided that the maelstrom of spray from all the vehicles made ordinary rear lights inadequate so put on my rear fog lights just in case anyone had a mind to drive into the back of us and the wipers were engaged at double speed to cope with the mini tsunami hitting the windscreen.

We headed southeast and conditions got no better. So much for the rain passing. Rain, rain and yet more rain hit us in varying volumes and strength. I was concentrating hard whilst driving at as fast a speed as safely possible in the horrible conditions. Peter indulged in playful banter 'So this is what twitching is all about.' 'Yes Peter, now how about getting a post code from Andy and sorting out the Satnav?' Both Chris and Andy were sending regular texts to us as we progressed. Chris updating us on the varying opinions of just what species the flycatcher was whilst Andy got us our post code and also updated us about the flycatcher's identity and the fact that sensational close up pictures of it were already on the internet. I gave Peter a brief tutorial on how to use my I-phone to keep in touch with Andy and also to get updates from my RBA app on the status of the flycatcher and specific directions as to where exactly it was at Dungeness. 

We were all set and now all that needed to be done was to get there as quickly as possible in the foul conditions.The Satnav estimated around one o' clock in the afternoon. Two and a half hours driving.

I excitedly regaled Peter that this is the ultimate in twitching, the buzz, the risk, the anticipation, the sheer unadulterated thrill of adventure and the possibility of seeing a rare and desirable bird was ours for the taking with, of course the added spice that it was by no means certain we would see it. We were making a long haul speculative dash to see a bird that was not just rare but ultra rare, a first for Britain. It does not get better than this believe me. I had come to life in a way that was startling and possibly disconcerting to Peter. I tried to keep calm and controlled but sheer energy and exuberance sometimes got the better of me. Peter remained sanguine and counteracted my wild excursions into over excitement with dry humour. You could say our very different personalities cancelled the excesses on both our parts.  

We hurtled onward in the incessant rain, leaving the M40 and joining the living hell of the M25, negotiating the customary four lane semi gridlock of cars around Heathrow and then busied our way down the three lane concrete highway of hell towards Kent. We swept down the long hill past Reigate and then later traversed the M20 as Maidstone came and went in clouds of spray, blurring white and red car lights and continuous rain. The wheels hummed and the wipers beat a continued tattoo as the rain splattered on the windscreen but we had a clear run. At last, near Ashford we turned off the Motorway and took to  smaller, less busy roads leading us towards our ultimate destination. We crossed the bleak, rain sodden fields of Romney Marsh, turned left at Lydd and drove down the long straight road to Dungeness, The ramshackle profiles of a line of houses on the seashore skyline indicated we had reached the end of land and crossing the narrow gauge railroad of the ninety year old, world famous Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, we followed the narrow metalled road across Dungeness Point, one of Europe's largest expanses of shingle, with its random miscellany of forlorn shed like homes, two lighthouses, discarded machinery, small boats drawn up on the shingle by the sea and general air of neglect.

It had almost stopped raining.

The atmosphere of abandonment and wildness at Dungeness is unique despite the looming monumental presence of the huge nuclear reactor and power station. The scattered wooden dwellings, the acres of bare shingle and gorse, the huge skies and ever present sense of the sea nearby, contribute to an almost other worldly feel to the place, enhanced in no little way by the unique narrow gauge railway with its ancient steam engines and quaint wooden carriages that runs across it.

We could plainly see the cars of many birders parked along the side of the road and nearby a phalanx of birders standing on the shingle in a respectful semi circle of subdued clothing, eyeing 'Southview' a white, shack like wooden bungalow surrounded on one side by a garden full of dense shrubs and small trees.


Some of the Twitchers
Southview showing the bushes and water butt on the left side of picture and the
looming bulk of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in the distance
I hit the express button and was out of the car and ready to go and join my fellow birders in seconds. Peter went into slow goods mode, changing his footwear and seeming to take an age but eventually we got together and headed down the road to join a throng of about one hundred birders.

The flycatcher had originally been found near the shoreline amongst the beached fishing boats, perching on the pebbles and the odd piece of sea bleached wood to hunt insects but as we had been heading south it had relocated to the more suitable habitat of the 'wild garden' around Southview and this is where it was currently seeking sanctuary.

We joined the ranks of those that wait to admire and a gentle enquiry of a fellow birder elicited the fact that the flycatcher had been in plain view just before we arrived but had disappeared into the cover of the bushes. We waited and in very little time, possibly ten minutes, it flicked up from ground level to perch on the top of a water butt by the side wall of Southview.


Our first sight of the Acadian Flycatcher on the water butt  c Peter Law
It was as sensational to see it as its rarity had promised.The sheer relief of seeing it after the long tense drive swept through me with a warm glow and I relaxed. The tension dissipated and now all we had to do was look and wonder and enjoy this waif from  far off North America.


Acadian Flycatcher c Steve Nuttall
There is nothing that looks quite like it in our native avifauna. A robin sized flycatcher with a noticeable green head and upperpart plumage and pale buff underparts, two very obvious creamy white wing bars and pale fringed inner flight feathers creating a stripey appearance . It was chunky in build with a stout, broad based bill and an obvious peaked crown. It behaved as all flycatchers do, whisking off at regular intervals in acrobatic flight after insect prey. I got about two minutes view of it perched on the water butt before it flew off. It  re-appeared on the butt after a few minutes and we got another two minute eyeful before it launched itself off into the bushes and was gone from view. It made one more visit to the favoured water butt before the steadily increasing wind strength and now returning rain persuaded it to change tactics and it retreated to ground level where it was generally invisible apart from occasional sorties into a buddleia bush behind the house. The rain and wind were now impossible to ignore and the sky was ominously and solidly grey and looked unlikely to yield to better weather. Grim indeed.

Whilst looking at the flycatcher it became apparent from the general gossip around us that most birders considered this individual to be an Acadian Flycatcher which was good news for me and Peter as it was a new species for both of us as well as for Britain. It certainly looked nothing like the Alder Flycatcher I had seen in Cornwall, which was much duller brown and did not have such a prominent eye ring. A minority considered it might be a Yellow bellied Flycatcher but I do not think so. Someone almost unbelievably managed to collect some droppings from the flycatcher which have been sent for DNA analysis. So I imagine fairly soon we may have confirmation of exactly what species of Empidonax flycatcher it is. 

I was becoming thoroughly soaked down the windward side of my supposed waterproof clothing and life was becoming increasingly uncomfortable but I stubbornly refused to bow to the elements. Peter was sensibly ever more keen to get back to the sanctuary of the car. 'Just one more view Peter and then we can go'. In fact we got several subsequent fleeting views of the flycatcher but it looked unlikely that it would come back to the water butt where earlier the best and most prolonged views of it had been.

The crowd of birders had by now increased considerably to around two hundred and fifty, and with the continued absence of prolonged views of the flycatcher it was becoming a bit chaotic as birders were rushing to wherever it  was possible to get a brief view of the flycatcher in the restricted viewing conditions of the garden surrounding the bungalow.

The owners of the bungalow, thankfully sympathetic to birders,  returned. The lady of the house commenced taking images of the assembled birders on her phone from her living room window. We waved to her and she waved back. Everyone joining in the spirit of this unique event. I was now feeling very cold as well as wet. Peter asked one more time, 'Shall we go?' I bowed to the inevitable, relented and we returned to the car. Never was I so glad to get out of the wind and wet, get back into the dry and get the heater working. We had been standing for over two hours in a combination of wind and rain that hammered into us mercilessly as there was absolutely no shelter or hiding place from the aforesaid wind and rain coming relentlessly across the flat open expanses of shingle that make up this strange headland jutting out into  English Channel.

Stoic but happy twitchers in the wind and wet at Dungeness
We drove back down the road past the late Derek Jarman's former home and garden, now a place of pilgrimage to admirers of his theatrical abilities and fame. The narrow gauge railway train passed in a cloud of wind blown smoke and trailing empty carriages, behind the house and out across the shingle, its mournful whistle emphasising the inherent loneliness of the barren stony wastes that it traversed. The line of parked cars belonging to birders now stretched almost as far as one could see along the road with yet others still arriving. 

Derk Jarman's cottage and garden on a better day at Dungeness
Twitchers cars lining the road. Normally this road would be empty of cars
We left, rejoicing in our luck and at having seen this major rarity so well. Many birders that had arrived after us had to wait a long time to see it and then when they did only got the briefest of flight views.

We were tired and both of us were hungry, neither of us having eaten anything since the morning. It was now three thirty in the afternoon. We found a nice cafe in nearby New Romney and a quick meal and cup of tea put us in good spirits before heading north, now thankfully in sunshine and much more pleasant driving conditions. After dropping off Peter I was home by eight that evening. This was a day that I will remember for quite some time.

PS My friend Chris managed to see the flycatcher later in the afternoon. The flycatcher was last seen on Tuesday flying to a nearby gorse clump at around seven in the evening where it was lost to view. Despite many birders turning up at first light on Wednesday, there was no sign of the flycatcher and it was never seen again. Some speculated that weakened by its long and perilous journey it may have died in the night, others that the night was clear and starry and it may have moved on. We will never know.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Sussex by the Sea 17th September 2015


Today, at last, was the longed for autumn day of steady sunshine and almost cloudless sky that could not fail but invigorate me as I rose to check my work emails. Thankfully nothing urgent  required immediate attention so my thoughts turned to birds. This was too good a day and too good an opportunity to remain indoors. 

A Grey Phalarope and a Pectoral Sandpiper had for the last few days been showing themselves well in West Sussex at a place called Sidlesham Ferry Pool  which is separated from Pagham Harbour by a very busy road that leads to the dubious delights of the nearby seaside town of Selsey. Sidlesham and the adjacent Pagham Harbour comprise one of my former haunts from the time I lived in Sussex and it took no time at all to convince myself that this would make a really good day out - revisiting familiar land and seascapes, reviving long forgotten happy memories and watching two infrequently seen birds.

A metaphorical cloud however loomed on my horizon of birding serendipity when I rang the local garage to ask when my car, which they had serviced the day before and which I was expecting to be delivered to my house at nine, failed to appear. 'Sorry it will not be available until eleven ' I was told. Aaaargh! my plan was cast into temporary disarray. However inspiration came to me as I realised my wife, who had just left for London on business and would not be back until six in the evening had her car sitting outside. She would not mind if I borrowed it, I was certain, so I was now back on track.  

Just as I was going out of the door I thought of my birding buddy Clackers. Some company would be nice on the two hour drive to Sussex and Clackers is always great company. I called him on my mobile. 'Clackers, fancy a trip to the seaside?' A somewhat drowsy Clackers responded in the affirmative with the proviso that he had to be back by five. 'No problem.'  'OK count me in' he replied. At ten I collected Clackers from Witney and away we went down the long and so familiar A34, joining the M3 and then M27 Motorways heading south and some two hours later we arrived at Sidlesham Ferry Pool.

Parking the car in a nearby layby we took our lives in our hands crossing the very busy road to reach the narrow path that runs beside the Ferry Pool. It is such a shame that so good a birding location is in such close proximity, literally feet, to the road and subject to the constant disturbance and hazard of passing traffic which comes alarmingly close to the narrow path. However there is nothing that can be done but just to get on with it.

Sidlesham Ferry Pool and the dangerously narrow path
On making it to the path we immediately saw in the distance the Pectoral Sandpiper feeding along the water's edge but which promptly and unsportingly then wandered behind some reeds rendering itself invisible from the path. Not the kind of views one wants after two hours of driving. The Grey Phalarope was initially nowhere to be seen but suddenly it arrived with a flurry of grey and white wings from the far end of the pool  to settle within a few metres of us and proceeded to bob and spin as it fed on minute invertebrates on the water's surface. It was so very close and an absolute delight to watch. Still mainly in its juvenile plumage, showing a buff suffused white head, neck and breast and brown wings with only the scapulars on its wings moulted into the pale grey of  first winter plumage. Constantly in motion, it busily swam and waded about just below us, completely oblivious to its admiring audience of birders and camera toting paperazzi.


We scanned the Ferry Pool and found other waders present. All, apart from the energetic phalarope and invisible sandpiper were lazing, immobile or idly preening in the sun, creating a picture of harmony and tranquility, in direct contrast to the endless sound of close passing vehicles at our backs. Fifty or so bottle green Lapwings, at peace in the sun, stood hunched on a sheltered grassy bank whilst others stood statuesque in the shallow waters at the middle of the pool, their forms mirrored in the sun glittering water. Three Dunlin were asleep by the shore and a rather dishevelled Avocet sat under the lee of an earthen bank by the water's edge. Black tailed Godwits, now in their grey brown winter garb formed their own flock in the middle of the pool, discreetly apart from the Lapwings. A Green Sandpiper with constantly bouncing body fed along the shoreline and another inveterate 'body bobber,' a Common Sandpiper, teetered uncertainly further along the edge of the pool. An  explosive cheeewitt, startling in its unexpectedness and volume came to us from overhead as a Spotted Redshank flew in from Pagham Harbour, crossing the road to land amongst the Lapwing  flock in the middle of the pool.

Clackers got talking to another birder who told us that a Wryneck had been found at nearby Church Norton and was giving great views to one and all. This year seems to be a very good one for Wrynecks as, although they no longer breed in Britain, north easterly winds have drifted many over the North Sea to Britain as they migrate south from mainland Europe and Scandinavia. Oxfordshire alone has had at least three this autumn and many more have been found at widely scattered locations across England. 

We decided to go and have a look for the Wryneck as Church Norton is just five minutes drive by car from Sidlesham Ferry Pool. In no time we were proceeding down the narrow lane which leads to the car park at Church Norton.

I took one look at the state of the car park and wished I hadn't bothered coming. The surface since my last visit had been covered in some sort of sandy material which with the rain of last night had turned into a glutinous orange mud reminiscent of a World War One battlefield. There was no escaping the cloying mud and in no time at all our boots were covered in the horrible stuff.

However there was a Wryneck to try and see, so endeavouring to ignore the liberal coating of orange mud now persistently adhering to our footwear and spattered on our trousers we took the track down to Pagham Lagoon and turning right along the shore set off on a good hearted yomp across the wide expanse of shingle towards The Severals, an area of reed fringed pools about a mile west along the shingle. 


There was no shortage of directions to the Wryneck as returning birders kindly gave us detailed instructions as to where to go and how to approach the area it was frequenting. It seemed everyone was getting great views despite this species notorious fickleness and shy habits. Our mood of optimism increased exponentially.

The sun was glorious and warm, shining into our eyes and reflecting from the myriad  weathered white stones, shingle and dead shells crunching under our feet as we progressed across the pebbled waste. 

The sea was an indescribable deep blue reflecting the colour of the sky above it as we continued onwards for about a mile and came to a large area of gorse. We could see a group of birders sitting on a wooden groyne, lunching and at ease. 


Obviously they had seen the Wryneck and were now content. We took a lower grass path that was easier to walk along than the unstable stones and pebbles. I could see two photographers looking intently at the other side of the large gorse clump we were approaching.They waved at us to  stop and indicated to go around the top of the gorse clump which we duly did and joined them lower down on the other side.

It was just as well we adhered to their signalled directions as if we had continued on the lower path we would have flushed the Wryneck. In short time we were directed to the Wryneck which was sitting in the sun, immobile and completely at ease. As far as birds do such things it was taking an obvious break and enjoying the sun in its sheltered corner. We were close to it now, in the company of the two photographers, only some fifteen metres away. I looked at it through my scope and absorbing the sight of its wonderful, barred and variegated plumage I relaxed and enjoyed thirty or so minutes of Wryneck heaven  as I watched it at first just sitting, and then stirring itself, stretching first one wing and then another, showing its flight feathers barred black and brown, before it  set about feeding on its favourite food, ants. So close was it that I could see its brown eye and its thin brown tongue flicking in and out of its stout, pointed bill to capture the ants. It was favouring a small bank of  short, rabbit grazed grass and stony bare areas close to the deeper cover of longer grass and scrubby gorse. 


Looking through a telescope the outside wider world retreats and you enter another smaller compressed world of just a few metres around the bird. Like disappearing into an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole fantasy, my world now consisted of a Wryneck, some  Oxe Eye Daisies shining white with  sundials of yellow in the midst of their petals, a stony, bare patch of earth and short green grass. Nothing more, nothing less. I joined if you like the Wryneck's confined, intimate and immediate surrounds. We were in harmonious accord and the rest of the world held its breath and faded to nought for this brief liason

As always its plumage thrills with the subtle beauty and variety it exhibits. Nothing too showy, garish or colourful. Not for the Wryneck startling reds, yellows or blues but a subdued, distinguished harmony of ash grey, dark browns, white and buff, all barred and suffused into an amalgam  of the most intricate and understated beauty of camouflage. 

Despite our close proximity it showed little alarm, only occasionally tensing and raising its head on extended neck as something troubled it but then it would relax again and shuffle along the ground burrowing into the longer grass in search of ants, almost at times disappearing before moving out into more open areas. These were easily the best views I have ever had of a Wryneck and I was loathe to leave but Clackers had to be back in Witney by five so we were always up against the clock. Time was running out. The Wryneck scuttled once more into the longer grass and was virtually invisible. I signalled to Clackers that we should go before it popped out again to give more eye watering views which would make it harder to leave. I could have stayed all day watching it as such opportunities are rarer than the Wryneck itself. 

Some years ago when I was part of the Beachy Head Ringing Group in East Sussex we caught a Wryneck and whilst holding it in my hand it proceeded to live up to its name by slowly rotating its head and neck and hissing like a serpent. For an initial few seconds it was quite un-nerving as all those subliminated primeval fears that lurk  below our veneer of civilisation briefly surfaced, before I regained control of my senses and reality. It was obviously an anti predator mechanism and nearly worked! Incidentally Kingfishers in the hand can, from personal experience, enact precisely the same behaviour without the hissing but emitting a strong smell of fish!.

We took the long walk back over the stones and shingle in our stride, returning to the quagmire horror of orange ooze that was the Church Norton car park. There was no escape from the cloying gunge but we stopped on the road outside the car park and did our best to relieve our footwear of some of the orange clag but it was generally a futile effort.  'Oh well Clackers at least we have the treat to come of Enticotts, bakers supreme of Selsey'. 'Lead on dear boy. Lead on.'  I drove my wife's car, now sporting a natty undercoat of orange mud to Selsey and we stocked up on all things involving cake, pastries and calories.

Enrticotts Bakers at Selsey East Beach
For a finale we made another stop at Sidlesham Ferry Pool on our way back to the main road at Chichester to see if we could get a better view of the Pectoral Sandpiper. We had two chances, slim or none. Parking as before in the same layby we ran a second gauntlet of crossing the busy road. There was one other birder on the path overlooking the pool, looking I assumed at the Grey Phalarope still endlessly active and in the same place as we had left it earlier. The birder called to me, 'It's here'. 'Thanks, I know but I am looking for the Pectoral Sandpiper not the phalarope'. 'No you misunderstand me they are both right here, literally just below us.' And he was right. The Pectoral Sandpiper, pristine in a plumage of brown and buff and legs of dull straw yellow was wandering along feeding amongst green spikes of aquatic vegetation. Looking down on it from the path I admired its intricate plumage of dark brown upperparts with rusty buff feather margins and two creamy white lines forming an inverted V on its back, set off by white underparts and a finely streaked head and breast. The sandpiper and the phalarope were often so close together that they precluded any crisis about which bird to look at and enjoy most. 



The Pectoral Sandpiper stopped feeding and commenced to  preen vigorously. The Grey Phalarope, a constant of non stop motion swam to and fro, dipping its bill to the water's surface picking up minute items of sustenance. 

It was time to go and so with one last look at them, an impromptu three hours of birding came to an end and we departed Sussex for distant Oxfordshire. I think, maybe it will not be long before I return, possibly permanently as I was never happier than when I lived in Sussex. We will see.

Many thanks to Andrew Madgwick for allowing me to use his excellent photos to illustrate this blog













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

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Shrike Two 7th September 2015

Red backed Shrike c Terry
Today I spent most of the morning moving an inordinate amount of personal possessions from our top floor bedroom, precipitated by a plan, instigated by my wife, to re-decorate the bedroom and install a new carpet. This also required two visits to the local Oxfam Shop in nearby Chipping Norton to donate various unwanted items recovered from the darker recesses of the bedroom whilst larger items were bound for Dix Pit, now our nearest recycling depot, some twenty miles away due to the closure of Dean recycling centre, only five miles away which just happens to be where old pudding face Cameron has a house. Funny that but sheer coincidence surely?

After a swift bite of lunch I hatched a plan to restore my spirits. Availing myself of the heaven sent excuse that I had to go to Dix to drop off said unwanted items - its amazing what you find under beds - I informed my wife that as I was going to be at Dix I would travel on to the relatively nearby Otmoor for a spot of evening birdwatching. There was no dissent.

Instead of going to the usual car park below Beckley I decided to enter the reserve from the Noke end. Feeling thoroughly righteous after my clearing of the bedroom I found myself parking in the secluded village of Noke on a warm and golden early autumn afternoon and walking in to the reserve on the farm track. I wandered past a  field full of attractive Black Welsh Mountain Sheep that eyed me warily before I joined the bridleway beyond the holiday cottages.  I had a vague plan to go to the First Screen and just sit and wait for the evening roost of Yellow Wagtails to commence in a couple of hours but unknown to me fate would intervene.

I idled  along the bridleway, the vegetation in the surrounding ditches dense and somnolent in the afternoon sunshine, silently waiting in this relaxed, reclining period of the year. Now with the frenzy of procreation past there is time, if ever there is, for all natural life, not just birds to take a momentary pause. It is of course a self indulgent fantasy on my part, whimsical and sentimental but that is the feeling this time of year imparts to me before the cold and dark short days of winter arrive.

I reached the First Screen having seen no other human being but my mood of contemplation was curtailed by the sight of the dreaded long lens of a photographer ensconced in a vigil on the bench. I silently passed by. I wanted to remain on my own with my own thoughts so progressed further, passing the banks of brambles now beginning to burgeon with their shiny black fruits. By the amount of blackberries both ripening red and fully fruited black this is going to be a good year. A Common Whitethroat obviously shared my opinion about the blackberries as, taking alarm at my approach, it zipped up and over the brambles on which it had been feeding, leaving me with an image of chestnut wings and long white outertail feathers.

I reached a gap where the grass was flattened into a track that led up the bank to a Conservation Area and leant on the wooden barrier that guarded the vast reedbeds. This would be as  good a spot as any to watch the Starlings and Yellow Wagtails arriving to roost in the reeds.

I drifted back into a mood of quiet contemplation serenaded by the constant sighing of the inumerable reeds as their pointed green leaves and long stems caressed each other at the wind's constant touch, the reed heads, all tassled and plumbeous brown tossed like horse manes and bent to the strengthening northerly wind. It was a scene of constant rippling movement, just as the wind ruffles the sea so did the wind here ruffle the reed tops and all the while that gentle sigh as if signifying a regretful farewell to summer.

The sun was weakening now and a chill in the air persuaded me to put on my fleece. Teal and the occasional Common Snipe came from the sky and hurtled into the reeds, finding a hidden flash of water or mud on which to seek sanctuary for the night. 

Out of curiosity I consulted my phone and looked at Oxon Birding. My mood of quiet contemplation went with the wind as I read  'Red backed Shrike found on July's Meadow. Badger on his way to confirm'.  There had been a report of a Red backed Shrike that was seen from the bridleway on Otmoor two days ago  but no one could get any further information. Nothing more was forthcoming despite enquiries but now apparently, late  today it had been refound by the Reserve Manager and his warden.

I was within ten minutes walk of July's Meadow and all thoughts of Yellow Wagtails were abandoned as I headed for the meadow. A Red backed Shrike in Oxfordshire is always a good bird to see and this one was literally minutes away. Too good an opportunity to miss. I had to go. I passed the First Screen still harbouring the howitzer sized lens and its attendant photographer but carried on and met Terry approaching along the track. I informed him of what was happening and he joined me in a hasty walk towards July's Meadow, trawling another couple of birders, who were also on the track, in our wake.

We encountered the RSPB Landrover and got specific instructions about the location of the shrike in July's Meadow. Badger was already there and we joined him but we could see no sign of the shrike. We checked both sides of the long hedge running alongside the meadow but with no luck. A huge flock of Goldfinches rose in the distance, the gold in their wings reflected the evening sun as they circled around before settling once again. We advanced further into the meadow which is an area of scattered, emergent hawthorn bushes, wild rose now turned to orange haws and vast areas of fluffy, silken, seeding flower heads which disintegrated as we passed through them, the seed taking off in clumps downwind like miniature balloons.

This is where we found the shrike. It was sitting on one of  the dead flower stalks, which surprised me as I considered that such a substantial bird could surely not be supported by such a flimsy structure. It was a juvenile and we watched it in all its shrikey glory as it went about hunting for prey amongst the scrubby surrounds of July's Meadow. Always a thrill to see it did not disappoint as I admired its plumage details. It changed perches regularly and caught a bee before flying to the hedge. We played peek a boo with it amongst the hawthorns as various of us endeavoured to capture the moment on camera or video. And so the time and this precious encounter passed happily and the sun slowly commenced setting, casting a soft golden light across the meadow, us and the shrike. Andy joined us and after a brief interlude of it disappearing from view, we re-found the shrike and he too saw it. 



Red backed Shrike c Terry
The time came, which it always does, when you feel you have seen enough and turning to Terry the two of us left the others, having decided to return to the First Screen as the Yellow Wagtails had yet to arrive to roost.

We were too late to see the Starlings arriving but you could certainly hear them as an unbroken accompaniment of whistles and chattering betrayed their presence deep in the reeds. Occasionally small groups, many still in juvenile plumage would take alarm and briefly skim the reed tops as they moved position to somewhere more to their liking. Their caution was not unwarranted as a Marsh Harrier, now a sinister dark profile in the declining light passed low over the reeds and then a female Sparrowhawk launched a low level sortie across the  water in front of us, precipitating an explosion of Common Snipe from a mud bank on the far side by the reeds. A Kingfisher sought a last meal before retiring to roost and a couple of Green Sandpipers called unseen from beyond the reeds. Finally the Yellow Wagtails arrived, cheerily calling, as in a flock of around twenty they descended from on high into the comparative safety of the swaying reeds. 

Terry departed and soon, so did everyone else and I was alone again and the magic returned as I looked across the water to the endless motion of the reeds. A flock of Swallows descended to roost and the Sparrowhawk returned to perch low above the water, waiting, waiting for any unwary starling as a Moorhen anxiously watched it. Water Rails squealed in the reeds and a few Common Snipe flew in to feed and loiter, so beautifully camouflaged that they became virtually invisible once on the muddy shores. A Grey Heron caught a large fish and with great effort swallowed it as inexorably the light declined to just a glimmer as the sun sank yet further below the horizon. The Starlings fell silent and the only sounds to be heard were the wildfowl calling and the constant susurrus of the reeds. It was time to go. 

Many thanks once again to Terry Sherlock for the use of his images