Thursday, 22 September 2016

A Dotterel in One 20th September 2016



I do not have much time for golf, the game that is. Finding its often self regarding sense of importance and supposed mystique irritating and from what I have seen and heard, still, in certain quarters with attitudes more appropriate to the last century. I site Peter Allis the corpulent golf commentator and his sexist comments and Troon and Muirfield Golf Club's members voting to exclude women members from The Clubhouse as two conspicuous examples. I also find some members of golf clubs often patronising and small minded but then I can well understand a sport with such arcane rules and regulations attracting such annoying people, although in fairness I have also found many open minded golfers who have extended a friendliness far removed from the self important jobsworths telling you to clear off the fairway or whatever sanctified ground of theirs you are unknowingly despoiling.

However Sheringham Golf Club in Norfolk became the focus of my attention this week with reports of two juvenile Dotterels frequenting the rough on the fourth hole below Skelding Hill, the highest point at one hundred and seventy feet above sea level on the seaward side of the golf course and where the voluntary Coastguard Lookout is located.

The voluntary Coastguard Lookout at the top of Skelding Hill
Dotterels are a very nice bird to see as they are usually only encountered at lower elevations such as here when migrating and it is surely no coincidence that these two individuals selected the highest point they could find on the Golf Course. For the rest of the time they breed in small numbers on the high tops of mountains in Scotland such as the Cairngorms and in greater numbers further north in Scandinavia and across to eastern Siberia. The males are not as brightly plumaged as the females as they take all responsibility for incubating the eggs and raising the young whilst the female goes off in search of further mates. The British population is estimated at between 510-750 males and the species although declining is not considered to be under any threat - yet. Historically they were hunted and King James the First used to annually visit Royston in Hertfordshire to hunt them and in Elizabeth the First's day they were considered a gastronomic delicacy. The name Dotterel probably derived from the ancient word dotard which meant someone who was simple or stupid reflecting the Dotterel's confiding almost tame demeanour in the presence of humans. 

Dotterels migrate for the winter to North Africa where they spend the winter in semi desert along a narrow band of the north coast of Africa from Morocco to Iran. I would imagine the Sheringham Dotterels were probably bound for Morocco.

Juvenile Dotterels are not that frequently found in Great Britain and when they do put down for a few days in some unlikely spot it is well worth making the effort to go and see them, as apart from being scarce they are a very attractively plumaged bird, being a mixture of brown, black, dull chestnut and buff, appearing almost spangled on their upperparts with a pronounced buff V on the back of their head and a similar circular buff breast band on their underparts faintly mimicking the stronger more colourful patterning that they will acquire in the following spring before breeding.



For those of you old enough to remember, the celebrated comedian Ken Dodd invented the word plumptiousness and if ever a bird was plumptious it is the Dotterel with its rotund outline and large, dark plover eye.


With all this in mind I determined, if possible to make a trip to Sheringham provided the Dotterels remained for one more day. I think they had been there for at least two or three days already. When the Dotterels were  reported to still be at Sheringham on Tuesday I called Clackers on the spur of the moment. Being nine thirty in the morning Clackers was already at Farmoor Reservoir rapidly losing the will to live in the Hide as he scrutinised a lone Dunlin threading its way through the goose turds and thousands of discarded gull feathers that currently litter the water's edge, which is now sporting an attractive although lurid film of emerald green.

'Fancy going to see the Dotterels Clackers?' I enquired breezily. 'You mean the ones in Sheringham?' he replied. 'Yes the very ones'. 'Why not'. 'OK. I will pick you up from your home in forty five minutes'.

Clackers duly boarded the almost new, pristine Audi and we set a course for Nelson's County. Three hours later and after a little struggle to find the right road in Sheringham we drew to a stop. I had considered asking at the golf club if we could access the coastal path from their car park but wisely thought better of it at the sight of a man in a lurid pink jumper and trousers to match looking none too benignly at us as we hesitated at the entrance to the car park.

As it turned out, the road we parked in meant we had only a few yards to walk to the coastal path which in itself afforded a magnificent view out from the cliffs to the calm sea below and beyond. A friendly birder stopped and offered us specific directions to where 'The Dotterel' was to be seen. I thought it strange that he said there was only one as I was certain that two had been reported in the days previous, however I let it lie. I enquired if you could get close to the Dotterel as I had seen some superb photos on the internet but he said it was a little distant and a scope was advisable and the golfers were ambivalent about birders wandering around on their precious turf.

We set off up the  coastal footpath as it wound through scrub and bushes to the top of Skelding Hill where we had been instructed to find the three benches at the top overlooking the Golf Course and the Dotterel was  to be seen in line with the bench furthest to the left, below the hill and by the fourth fairway. 
The bench from which you could look down on the Dotterel
It was at the apex of the brown grass by the green fairway
It was a relatively short walk to the top of the hill but Clackers told me to go on ahead as he wanted to proceed at his own pace. Getting to the top of the hill I came across half a dozen birders scoping down the slope to an area of rough grass by the side of the fairway and another birder who was at the bottom of the slope standing in the rough and presumably photographing the Dotterel.  



I was given directions as to where the Dotterel was standing and after a little effort I found the Dotterel, beautifully camouflaged by the withered grasses and standing motionless at the edge of the fairway.






Excellent. I looked at this lovely bird through my scope and rejoiced. There was no sign of the other one and everyone assumed it had departed. Three golfers arrived along the fairway and mildly and unnecessarily in my opinion rebuked the photographer, telling him not to walk on the fairway and then asked him what was the bird he was photographing. The photographer came back up the hill to save the golfers taking further offence at his presence.

It was silly really as the Dotterel was nowhere near where any golfers or golf ball was likely to arrive but rules is rules, although in this case sometimes they can be bent without any undue harm. Having seen how confiding the Dotterel was when the other birder was taking his images I waited until the golfers had departed to the next tee and then I too ventured down the slope to get closer so I could get some good images. The Dotterel was completely un-phased by my closer approach and I stood quietly and took a number of images before walking back up the slope to rejoin the others, including Clackers who had now made it to the top. 





All but one of the birders left shortly after and we stationed ourselves on the bench to watch and enjoy the Dotterel. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular as the golf links spread into the distance below, with the North Norfolk railway running along by the A149 on the other side of the golf links. If you looked west along the north Norfolk coastline from Skelding Hill you could see as far as Blakeney, some eighteen miles away, and looking north out over the sea, there is nothing between Skelding Hill and the North Pole. 

The view from Skelding Hill down to Sheringham beach
The Dotterel just sat in the grass and did very little. It certainly did not feed and seemed content to just stand quietly and inconspicuously in the rough grass. Various pairs, trios and foursomes of golfers, both male and female came along the fairway, passing very close to but heedless of the Dotterel. Brightly clothed golfers either walking or in golf buggies did nothing to upset its equanimity and only once did it move, becoming alert and running along by the fairway, calling briefly and doing that plover thing where they stop and push out their breast and retract and bob their head and neck as if uncertain about something. What disturbed it I had no idea at the time but I think I now know. 








Whilst we were watching the Dotterel I had noticed out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a red and grey rag discarded by the fairway but gave it no further thought or attention assuming a golfer had dropped it. Only when I got home later that night did I learn that the second Dotterel had been killed and eaten by a Sparrowhawk and an image on the internet of a bloody red breast bone and two Dotterel patterned wings attached to it explained my supposed red and grey rag. What a shame that this should happen but often Sparrowhawks manage to kill strange or unusual birds that are out of place, no doubt due to the fact that the birds are in unfamiliar habitat and are thus at a disadvantage in avoiding a local predator such as a Sparrowhawk.

Anyway, back to Sheringham and after forty five minutes the Dotterel suddenly flew off high and to the West. We could see no reason why it should do this and for a few minutes it was unclear what had happened but then a golfer arrived in the rough below from round the corner of the hill and proceeded to find his errant ball approximately where the Dotterel had been standing. Doubtless the ball had come very close to braining the Dotterel and it decided discretion was the better part of valour and who could blame it after having no doubt seen its companion murdered and now nearly been hit by a white sphere coming out of the sky and travelling at some velocity towards it.



That was that then and we descended back to the car and apart from a satisfactory visit to the Delicatessen in Cley for two enormous slices of homemade Carrot cake and an unsatisfactory visit to Wells Woods in search of a couple of reported Yellow browed Warblers, which only resulted in us hearing them and seeing a brief profile of one in a silver birch, our birding was done for the day.
'Clackers' the Oxonbirder formerly known as Keith
Three hours later and an Old Pulteney malt whisky was administered at the Old House, Kingham which for tonight only provided an adequate substitute for the nineteenth hole.
  

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