Sunday 8 January 2017

Surf's Up! 8th January 2017

The weather lately seems to be all over the place. A few days ago it was freezing and brilliantly sunny, a joy to be out. Today it was mild and as a consequence the land was blanketed in a cloying mist, turning every contour and shape into soft focus and more importantly as far as I was concerned endangering my planned birding trip to Rutland Water.

Rutland Water is truly vast. The reservoir, owned by Anglian Water was created in 1976, and covers 10.86 square kilometres and is one of the largest man made lakes in Europe, providing apart from water, recreational facilities for birders, fishermen, yachtsmen, cyclists and walkers alike. It is also home each August to the now world renowned Birdfair, a three day jamboree of all things birding where you can buy anything from a telescope to a birding holiday and anyone who is anyone has to visit at least once in their life.

The night before I had checked the internet to see what birds were frequenting this huge inland stretch of water and the results were very good indeed. A first winter female Surf Scoter was the main highlight but with a supporting cast of Red necked, Black necked and Slavonian Grebes, Green winged Teal, Great White Egret and Smew. Finding this lot would be fun and make for a very good day out birding.

Waking on Saturday I looked out  and was disappointed to see that there was hardly any visibility due to a thick mist. Now I was in a quandary, as to drive two hours to Rutland and find I could hardly see anything would be really annoying. What to do? Take a chance that the mist would lift or cancel my trip for another day?

In the end I took the chance but the further from Kingham and the nearer I got to Rutland Water I was beginning to seriously worry, as there was little sign of any improvement in visibility. All through Warwickshire and Leicestershire, heading north, I had been driving with all my car lights fully on, the fog lights of other cars ahead of me shining like dual red stars in the white gloom.

I approached Oakham in Rutland and noticed that without doubt the mist had definitely lessened and turning off to Egleton, the quaint little village around which Rutland Water is based, visibility although not brilliant was definitely alright for birding and would allow me to use a telescope to view across the vast stretches of water that form the reservoir.

My priority was to see the Surf Scoter that had been present for a couple of weeks, associating with a flock of Tufted Ducks by the dam wall on the north side of Rutland Water. I had no idea where to go so went to the Visitor Centre and a kindly lady volunteer gave me a map of the reservoir and showed me where to go. Fortuitously the map listed a number of watchpoints/car parks where one could scan the reservoir and these each had a postcode so I was able to use my Satnav which made matters considerably easier when finding my way around. I needed to find the Syke's Lane watchpoint to access the dam wall and the Surf Scoter.

I drove the few miles to Syke's Lane, parked the car and could see the wall and reservoir stretching away into the distance. This is where I would find the Surf Scoter, so following the tarmac path come cycle track that runs along the top of the dam wall I made my way out to a small huddle of birders who were obviously already enjoying looking at the scoter. It was cold and raw out of the car, the air damp with the still persistent remnants of mist and I knew that today the sun would be just a memory, as despite the mist lifting the grey clouds were not going to budge.

The Dam Wall
I arrived at the designated spot, joining the half a dozen other birders and looked over the wall to find the Surf Scoter, as expected, loafing on the water with a small flock of male Tufted Ducks. 

In looks it was nothing to write home about, being a gingerish brown duck slightly darker on its wings and head. Its plumage was browns of varying shades the only noticeable feature being two pale spots on each side of its head. The bill was also considerably larger than one would expect of a Common Scoter. with a pronounced bulge by the forehead giving it a slightly 'roman nosed' look. It swam idly around with the Tufted Ducks, occasionally diving with them when it would partially open its wings to aid submersion, unlike the Tufteds. Otherwise it seemed little inclined to do anything much apart from indulge in a bout of roll preening, turning its body sideways in the water to expose its belly which was dull white stippled with many brown spots.

It and the Tufteds were close to the wall and showed little alarm at the presence of birders peering down at them from above, although I did notice that once the other birders had left, it and the Tufted Ducks came right into the shoreline. What a North American sea duck is doing, apparently spending the winter about as far inland as is possible in Britain is an unanswerable question. Surf Scoters are seen every year in Britain and are classed as a scarce migrant but usually found on the sea not inland, although Farmoor Reservoir,  in my own county of Oxfordshire hosted a superb male Surf Scoter from 27th March to the 4th April in 1998. That scoters pass overland is without dispute as both our native scoters, Common and Velvet have been recorded on various inland waters in Britain so I can only suppose this presumably disoriented Surf Scoter found itself flying over the enormous Rutland Water and decided that this was the nearest thing to an ocean it was likely to see in the foreseeable future and put down there for the duration. Interestingly some Surf Scoters winter on the Great Lakes in their native North America so maybe we should not be so surprised that this one found Rutland Water to its liking.

I watched it for an hour or so and then went in search of the other good birds on the reservoir. My first stop was at Barnsdale also on the north shore and walking down to the water's edge I began scoping the reservoir. There were many Wigeon feeding just offshore, this most sociable of ducks keeping in a loose flock as they picked at the weed on the water. A flock of Common Teal were asleep under some willows but scoping every male at least twice I could not find one with the distinctive vertical white stripe down the side of its fore flank that would indicate it was the Green Winged Teal, our Common Teal's American cousin.

The water was glass still, not a breath of wind troubled it and this served to enhance the beauty of a male Goldeneye, shining a startling white and black on the grey water, its mate dull grey and brown of head and in contrast to her resplendent mate almost merging with the grey water. It was just as I was looking at the Goldeneye that I found a pair of Black necked Grebes swimming and diving in close co-ordination. Their tiny, rotund bodies fluffed up grey and white moved at great speed across the water before they dived in unison only to bob  up, side by side, a minute or so later.

I moved on, checking various other watch points, and everywhere you looked there were birds and I found myself thinking that you could spend a few days here and still not feel you had covered everywhere or everything. Long lines of Lapwing stood on the muddy shoreline with the occasional white slash of a Little Egret patrolling the shallows amongst them.

I came eventually to a small peninsula and inlet and stopped here as it looked good. Walking to a grassy knoll I had a view of both the inlet to my left and the reservoir to my front which I now knew was known as the northern arm of the reservoir

The inlet was intensely busy with birdlife. Goosanders, the males creamy white with green heads and carmine sawbills, the females grey with rufous heads, dived amongst the endlessly busy Wigeon and Gadwall. A small white duck surfaced, immaculate, patterned with black lines and delicately vermiculated grey flanks-a male Smew! Another good bird to tick off my list as yet another male Smew came into view. They are the most arrestingly attractive duck and comparatively scarce, so are always good and rewarding to see. A small wall of rocks divided the inlet from the main reservoir and two Great White Egrets were using the wall to rest and preen. Even in the gloomy conditions their golden yellow bills stood out.

I scoped the reservoir beyond and found small flocks of Northern Pintail, the male's chocolate and white heads distinctive as they courted the females whilst others already paired rested in the shallows.

Northern Pintail
It was time to move on as a report came through that the Green winged Teal had been found at The Fisherman's Car Park which was not much further to drive from my current location. When I got there the gate was firmly locked but I climbed over and walked to the edge of the water. The Green winged Teal had been reported as being asleep under a willow by the water. There was only one obvious willow about a hundred metres distant and sure enough there was the Green winged Teal fast asleep surrounded by its commoner counterparts. Thankfully it was sleeping side on so made identification easy. Looking out onto the water a  small silvery grey grebe surfaced and there was a Slavonian Grebe with a tiny sliver of silver, a fish, in its beak. It played with the fish for a while letting it escape before seizing it again and again. 

So now I had seen four grebe species: Great crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Black necked Grebe and Slavonian Grebe with only one to go, Red necked Grebe. This latter was however to be found in the southern arm of the reservoir so required another drive as currently all my birding had been around the northern arm.

Sadly I did not find the Red necked Grebe due to a combination of not knowing exactly where to go, a lack of any real assistance from the volunteers at the visitor centre and the weather closing in again bringing the day to a premature misty close. No matter I had a really great day and will surely come back another time.

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