Thursday, 12 May 2016

A trip to the Caspian 11th May 2016

Each night before going to sleep I check my phone for the latest bird news on both my Rare Bird Alert (RBA) App and on Twitter. I did not expect that much on the night of Tuesday the 10th May apart from continued news about a Dalmation Pelican of all things, doing the rounds of Cornwall and being pursued by those in the twitching fraternity that considered it may be a wild individual, and from what I hear, the pelican was leading them a merry dance as it refused to stay in one place for very long. Personally I thought it a waste of time so could not be really bothered with it.

I scrolled down the RBA list of birds reported for Tuesday and a pair of White winged Black Terns at nearby Draycote Water in Warwickshire looked tempting. Maybe tomorrow. On scrolling further my equanimity was given a jolt as I read that a male Caspian Stonechat had been identified that evening at Titchfield Haven Bird Reserve in Hampshire.The story being, that it had been found the day before by a young lady, Amy Robjohns who identified it as a Siberian Stonechat on account of its diagnostic black underwing coverts. She took some photos and being relatively inexperienced, commendably asked others  to look at the photos. They noticed the large amount of white in the tail which is diagnostic of the two less common races of Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus variegatus and S.m.hemprichii colloquially called Caspian Stonechat because, no surprise, they come from the geographic area around the Caspian Sea.

Now those who know me well are aware that stonechats are 'my bird' and indeed I wrote a book about them. 'Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola' published in 2002. Caspian Stonechat per se is not accepted as a species yet but almost certainly will be in the future although as two races of Siberian Stonechat come from this area of the Caspian and could well be classed as separate species in future it may be premature to call them Caspian Stonechat as both cannot have the same name. It has been proposed to rename the race variegatus,  S.m. hemprichii Northern Caspian Stonechat and the race armenicus to become S.m variegatus Southern Caspian Stonechat, if they ever do become species. Confused? Frankly the taxonomy and naming of stonechats from this part of the world is a bit of a mess at the moment and it is difficult to tell what part of the Caspian area this bird is from, although some photos would suggest this bird is from the northern form S. m. hemprichii.

Are you still awake?

Currently what has become popularly called Caspian Stonechat is classed as a race(s) of the Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus. However it or they are very different in appearance to other races of Siberian Stonechat and indeed our own European Stonechat that breeds in Britain, in that it or they have a large amount of visible white in the tail, the white extending down both webs of each tail feather apart from the central ones, the white extending furthest on the inner webs. When the tail is spread the image it presents is striking and can look very much like a wheatear. This race(s) of stonechat is also exceedingly rare in Britain having only been recorded on five previous occasions, the last before this one being a long staying male on Fair Isle in  the Spring of 2014.

So a perfect storm of stonechat desirability hit me and sleep, even if achievable was now going to be somewhat troubled  To at least calm myself I decided there and then I would go to see it the very next day and would leave the house at 3am to be there by six in the morning. I knew I would only sleep fitfully so there was little point lying in bed fretting until a sensible hour next morning.

I have done this so often now I do not need an alarm to wake me as my body seems to have adapted to waking half an hour before my planned departure which is probably just as well as my wife is none too pleased if she is disturbed from her slumbers.

At the appointed hour I crept downstairs and collecting everything I required, loaded the car and set off into a very wet night. I had of course neglected to check the weather forecast but there was now no going back. I would just have to hope the rain would ease. At first the rain was light but by the time I reached Oxford it was heavy and unremitting. The traffic however was negligible so all I had to do to remain on the road was negotiate my way through the spray issuing from the wheels of the huge night travelling lorries as I passed them and look out for minor floods on the road due to the heavy rain. One of these on the A34 near Newbury gave me quite a scare, sending the car aquaplaning across both southbound lanes before I regained control.

Following the Satnav's directions I turned from the M27 Motorway and took smaller roads heading for Titchfield. But wait, what was this?  'Diversion. Road Closed'  A sign stood by the road to confound me in getting to the very location where I needed to be!  I followed the Diversion signs which took me roughly in the right direction whilst the Satnav berated me with regular entreaties to 'Turn Around Where Possible.' Tired and irritable with driving through all the rain I disconnected the damn thing and consigned it to the glove compartment and carried on.  Another sign in the road then told me 'Road Closed Access Only!'

 Well, sorry but I needed access to see a Caspian Stonechat so considered I had a valid right to carry on and anyway there was no one out at this time of day to stop me! Following the narrow road, close by the sea, I passed the reserve's reception area which at this hour was firmly closed, and drove along between the reserve on my right and the sea on my left to a car parking area by the sea wall. On the opposite side of the road was the extensive area of scrub and marsh that was the Caspian Stonechat's home for hopefully today at least.

The temporary and very wet home of the Caspian Stonechat
Two other birders were already there, standing under vast umbrellas in the rain, scanning the scrub. I donned waterproofs and joined them to also stand in the rain and glumly look at a wet and sodden area of scrub and marsh and definitely no stonechat of any sort. The light was truly appalling, made so by a grey pall of cloud hanging low over the sea and the reserve, and just to make things even more dispiriting the rain was continuing to fall relentlessly with no indication it would stop soon. I was going to get a good soaking of that there was little doubt.

The Black Audi showing well!
Down came the rain
An hour passed and three other birders arrived but there was no sign of the stonechat. It was now seven thirty in the morning. The occasional Sedge Warbler and Linnet flew low and fast across the scrub and a bedraggled Cetti's Warbler belted out its cheery song, forced to perch high above the wet vegetation in the dank surroundings. A Cuckoo called unseen from further into the reserve and I could here the querulous exclamations of Mediterranean Gulls coming from the raucous Black headed Gull colony on the reserve. 

Behind me on the stony beach the tide was full and a mixed flock of Sanderlings and Turnstones roosted along the water's edge awaiting the tide to turn.

Another half an hour, at least, passed and the other three birders left as they had to go to work. It was just me and one other guy until we were joined by another birder who looked vaguely familiar but under all our waterproof clothing none of us could be sure who was who and no one wants to make a fool of themselves.

Another twenty minutes and I was getting ever wetter as the rain was remorseless. I decided to walk up the road on which we were standing and take  a track along the far side of the reserve just to see if there was any more habitat that might be harbouring the stonechat. I walked a short way but it was obvious that this was not going to help so turned back for the road. Just as I did my phone rang. 'Hello?'  'Ewan? Its Jake'. 'Hi Jake, what's up?' I enquired.  'Are you looking for the Caspian?' he replied. 'Yes. I thought it was you standing on the road, but under all this clothing etc.' I stuttered by way of apology. 'That's OK, forget it but the Caspian is here now.' Jake told me. 'Thanks. I am on my way'

It took just a couple of minutes to regain the road and grab my camera from the car and join Jake and now several other birders.The Caspian Stonechat was perched on a strand of a barbed wire fence dropping down every so often to seize some unidentified prey in the wet undergrowth. 

You will have to forgive me now as I become a bit nerdy but having studied countless skins in the British Museum in preparation for my book this was the first opportunity to see a real live bird of this race/species. Always preferable in my opinion. I never thought it would be in Hampshire though.

It was a male, a second calendar year bird ( i.e born last year) judging by the brown, worn primaries and secondaries, and what was so striking was how strong the colours of its plumage were for this early in the year. Essentially it was black and white with a small area of orange on its breast contrasting with the otherwise pure white underparts. The white areas on its neck, rump and tail were large and overall its plumage was totally at odds with the appearance of  male European Stonechats at this time of the year which would be showing brown fringes obscuring some of the black on the upperpart feathers and the orange of the breast would be duller and brownish and extend along the flanks as far as the vent. When it flew there was an explosion of white in its spread tail as the white on the tail feathers was exposed and I noticed that the inner wing coverts also showed far more white, covering all three covert tracts; lesser, median and greater, than would be normal for a European Stonechat. The bird was highly mobile flying regularly to a new perch to scan the ground below, constantly feeding, and we followed until it flew more distantly into the scrub and disappeared into some gorse.

The above images show four of  the features which identify this stonechat as a
Siberian (Caspian) Stonechat. Note the extensive white on the basal half of the
tail feathers, the unmarked pure white rump and uppertail coverts, the black 
underwing coverts and the extensive white neck collar. The brown flight feathers 
indicate this is a bird that was born last year, as an adult would have black 
flight feathers. Note also in the above image the insipid orange colouring on the flanks
It was now a waiting game and eventually the stonechat re-appeared, regularly shuffling its feathers to shed the rain and keep itself waterproof. Yes, the rain was still continuous and I was beginning to worry about my camera and lens which despite my best efforts were getting  progressively more soaked by the rain.

I, along with others followed the stonechat's progress by slowly walking the now flooding road as it ranged along the full extent of the scrub and marsh and gave some photo opportunities, but the atrocious light conditions meant I was operating on a very high ISO figure to compensate for the lack of light so I knew the images would be 'grainy' but it was better than nothing.

The semi circles of the white coverts on the otherwise black upperparts were notably
distinctive when the bird was perched facing away. The white sides to the partially
fanned tail are also visible in the lower image
This image shows the extensive white on all three inner covert tracts and even
bleeding onto the three innermost secondaries, the extensive pure white rump and 
white on the base of the tail feathers and the large white neck collar  almost 
meeting on the nape
Most of us were well behaved but there always seems to be some individual who pushes the boundaries.This time it was a local birder, who set a bad example with a none too subtle, large, bright blue and white umbrella and arrogant demeanour who pursued the bird up and down the road, getting far too close when it was obvious the umbrella was not to the bird's liking. When not pursuing the stonechat he and his friend conducted a loud conversation about stonechats. Sadly such behaviour is now all too often the case at events like this and one just has to put up with it.

There is always one!
At last the rain eased but did not stop entirely and the stonechat started to perch more openly in typical fashion on the tops of bushes and prominent twigs.

These images show to good effect the small orange breast patch fading to peach
on the lower breast and fore flanks and the otherwise pure white underparts and
the large amount of white on the neck
Now it spent a lot of time flycatching, flying high up into the air to seize an insect and then plummeting down to another perch or even the same one. It regularly moved position as did we, following its progress. I was very wet and cold by now, but very happy and it was still only eight thirty in the morning. The assembled birders never exceeded around fifteen people although I would have expected far more for such a rarity. Maybe the foul weather and road diversion acted as a deterrent but as I prepared to leave the numbers of birders began to markedly increase.

I checked my images and was happy with what I had got, so for the remainder of my time I just watched this lovely bird feeding and going about its life before removing my wet coat and seeking the shelter and warmth of the car.

It had been a long and tiring trip but it was certainly worth it from my point of view. I considered I might even go back again it was so good.

Footnote: Sadly there will not be an opportunity to go back as the bird departed that night

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