Thursday, 28 July 2016

Great White 28th July 2016

Since the 20th July a Great White Egret has been gracing the rather unglamorously named Pit 60, so called by local birdwatchers although its official name is Standlake Common Nature Reserve, a lake managed by the Lower Windrush Valley Project (LWVR) near the Oxfordshire village of Standlake. This lake has an enviable reputation for attracting some rarer birds for Oxfordshire, the most notable being a Black winged Stilt in 2012 and a flock of four Ring necked Ducks in 2015.

Part of the lake viewed from the Hide
To get to the lake one has to undertake quite a long but not unpleasant walk of around a mile along footpaths to where there are two hides, The Langley Lane Hide and a smaller hide, both overlooking the lake. In this day and age such structures, isolated and out of constant use and the public eye are sadly prone to be abused or even burnt down so access is by key only. This has the benefit that the hides can contain literature, reference books, a bird log and other information without fear of them being stolen or trashed and combined with a general air of cleanliness and upkeep, the hides are a pleasure to sit in especially if some of your birding friends are there to keep you company also.

Inside Langley Lane Hide
Having to visit Witney today gave me the excuse, if excuse was needed to make the short drive from there to Standlake where I left the car parked off the road and made my way through the footpaths to the distant Langley Lane Hide, which is the most favourable hide from which to observe the Great White Egret.

The footpaths are narrow and you lose all sense of location as they wind through high, dense banks of brambles and hawthorn. On the other side of the high hedges on both sides of the path there are trailer homes but you would never know it as the hedges are so high and thick that they totally obscure the homes. At this time of year the hedges are full of pale mauve blackberry blossom, festooned over the hawthorns and the blackberry bushes are extending their long thorny green runners out over the path to snag the unwary passer by. As I progressed many Red Admirals, dark and energetic flew to intercept me as I inadvertently disturbed them from their nectaring on the bramble flowers. They are invariably pristine, smart in their velvety black and red patterning, come to fruition from eggs laid on nettles by migrant parents that had arrived earlier in the Spring

The odd Comma, Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown added some variety to the pageant of admirals and various whistles, tacks and flutey notes from deep in the hedges evidenced that birds were deep within the green tangle.

I turned onto an even narrower footpath, made into a tunnel of green by the overhead intertwining branches of the small trees that grew on either side of the narrow path. 

A young Marsh Tit hung upside down from a branch, chiselling at a crack in the bark and was loathe to leave even when I was almost upon it, and another brown shape, clinging mouse like to a slender tree trunk revealed itself to be a young Tree Creeper, still spotty grey on brown in its juvenile feathering.

Reaching the end of the footpath I turned right through two metal gates and  some two hundred metres down a wider track that was for the use of farm vehicles was the boardwalk to the hide. 

The boardwalk up to the Langley Lane Hide
Normally there is no vehicular access allowed here apart for farm vehicles but today there was a cluster of four cars parked by the start of the boardwalk and people milling around. Birders? Surely not? On getting to the cars it turned out that the unexpected people were a volunteer work party from LWVR. Commendable as this was my heart sank, as I knew that if they were doing conservation work in and around the hide then the Great White Egret would certainly not be around.

On making enquiries I was re-assured that they had not disturbed the area around the hide and would leave it free so long as I remained in the hide, so with some relief I made my way up the boardwalk to the hide door, entered and slowly and very cautiously opened one of the viewing slats. There before me was the Great White Egret wading thigh deep in the water and very near to the hide. Fantastic!

Great White Egrets were formerly a major rarity in Britain but like their smaller cousin the Little Egret they are slowly colonising southern Britain and now breed on the Somerset Levels. Oxfordshire has done reasonably well from visits of this still scarce bird as usually, every year, one or two turn up at suitable random places in the county with large areas of water. No doubt the Great White Egret is taking advantage of our warming climate and maybe, just maybe, it will one day breed in Oxfordshire just as Little Egrets now occasionally do.

On viewing a Great White Egret I am always struck by the length of their neck, elongated to the extreme, thin and often with a slight kink, it reminds you of a pipe cleaner with an equally narrow head not much wider than the neck. Slightly larger than the Grey Heron they are all angles and attenuations, long neck, long bill, long legs but with this elongated appearance their movements for such a large bird are always imparted with some grace.

Although totally white the plumage is not the dull creamy white of a stork but an almost luminescent, brilliant white that any person would be delighted with on washing day. The white is complemented by a golden yellow bill and long black legs. This particular bird could be identified as a juvenile as the feathers were fresh, showing no signs of wear and the bill had a slight black tip to it. I wondered where it had come from, was it one of the young raised on the Somerset Levels this year and now dispersing to find its own territory or had it come from further such as mainland Europe? 

With cautious almost imperceptible movements it waded in the water, stopping to survey the surrounding water for the slightest movement below the surface, a characteristic profile of extended bill, head and neck held out at an angle, then making lightening fast stabs every so often to seize small fish, that looked very much like sticklebacks. One such unfortunate fish having erected its spines in automatic defence got stuck in its throat and the egret only managed to despatch it down that very long neck after much gaping and shaking of its bill but the outcome, despite the delay, was inevitable.

I managed to get some pictures but then the work party joined me in the hide to take their lunch. Inevitably the ensuing chatter and various inadvertent thumps and bangs unnerved the Great White Egret and it departed for a distant shore which it shared with a Little Egret.

I decided to wait until the work party departed and I could sit once more in silence but before they did we were joined by a lady and her two very young grandchildren. What can you do? I entered a period of philosophical resignation coming to the conclusion that here in these two small impressionable children was the future and they should be encouraged as much as possible. I grasped the nettle of understanding and chatted to the excited children, pointing out the various different birds and finding a Grey Heron for the little boy who had told me he very much wanted to see one. His elder sister told me she had seen a Hobby. I sounded suitably and genuinely impressed, which I was and they too then decided to have their lunch in the hide! The children told me about where they lived and I learnt that their parents had a pub called the White Hart at Fyfield which had been voted best Oxfordshire gastropub and restaurant last year. We looked at the various reference books on birds and the pictures therein and settled on the fact that the Goldfinch was their favourite.

The egret in the meantime had long since distanced itself to the far side of the lake away from the inevitable commotion.

The children's attention span did not last for long as the novelty of being in a hide and talking to a stranger wore off and I was left to myself once more, bidding a fond farewell to the family and forgoing the children's invitation to accompany them to the other hide, explaining I wished to wait to get more pictures of the Great White Egret.

I sat calmly in the ensuing quiet and contemplated the lake from the hide. Two Oystercatchers kleeped to themselves on a sandy bank. I can never get used to seeing them so far inland, having forever from my youth associated them as a bird of the seashore although they are now not uncommon in places such as this,  A Green Sandpiper called in alarm and flew fast and wildly away from the lake possibly disturbed by the work party and a Common Sandpiper bobbed uncertainly along the shoreline.

Not so alarmed was a juvenile Lapwing, just become independent by the look of things, its short crest and buff edged  burnished dark green plumage betraying its adolescence. It pottered endlessly up and down on a muddy strip just below the hide, stopping and bobbing its head in a forward motion as if surprised, even swimming at one stage across a narrow channel of water to a mini island just offshore. I watched as it stopped to bathe and then wading back onto land preened energetically, contorting into unusual shapes as it sorted out its damp plumage until satisfied with the result.

Juvenile Lapwing

Common Terns came to fish in front of the hide, hovering on pearl grey, elastic wings, pointing black tipped dagger red bills downwards in readiness for a plunge which invariably ended with a struggling silver sided fish in their bill.

The wind blew the branches of the overhanging willows against the hide roof, the scraping and scratching giving the hide a voice. I waited and the egret slowly worked its way back towards the hide by a combination of wading and periodic short flights. The area around the hide was obviously the best place to fish and we both knew it. I sat quietly  and the egret finally flew to the water in front of the hide signalling that my time here with the Great White Egret had run full circle.

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