Thursday, 26 January 2017

Banana Bill 25th January 2017

White billed Diver or Yellow billed Loon? You make your choice, the first name being the one used here in Britain and the latter the preferred name in North America.Whatever the name the bird itself is majestic, and it must be seen whenever the possibility arises in Britain. 

It is an Arctic breeding species, being found along the shores of the Arctic Ocean and wintering in sheltered coastal waters of the northern Pacific Ocean and northwestern Norway. There is also an unproven theory that a small number may winter in the Bay of Biscay which might explain the vagrants that are occasionally recorded well south of its normal wintering range

Over the years I have been lucky enough to have had four previous encounters with these almost mythical birds and not as expected in the north of Scotland or beyond in their breeding areas in the Arctic. No. All my encounters have been, perversely, in the south of England.

My first was a summer plumaged individual that powered its way past me as I shivered on a lonely seawatch in late April 1997 at the end of Newhaven Pier in East Sussex. The second was a ridiculously tame juvenile crunching up crabs and flatfish at the Hayle Estuary in the west of Cornwall in 2007. Then it was another summer plumaged individual in West Sussex that spent a week or so offshore from Selsey Bill. My final encounter was with another juvenile in Brixham Harbour, Devon in December 2013

There are also regular pre-breeding Spring gatherings of birds off Portsoy in Northeast Scotland and the Butt of Lewis in The Hebrides and birders regularly go there to see them as they are mainly in summer plumage.

They are larger than a Great Northern Diver and have the most enormous bill. A magnificent appendage that is held slightly uptilted and is predominantly white in winter and more yellow in summer, flat on top but with a bulging lower mandible bending upwards to a point and hence the name 'banana bill' based on both the shape and colour. The rest of the plumage is fairly non descript in non breeding plumage, being a combination of smudgy grey browns and dull white and if it is a juvenile then there are brownish white fringes to its upperparts creating a marked zigzag scaled effect on its back.

Five days ago a juvenile White billed Diver was found, inland, in Lincolnshire on the River Witham which is truly exceptional.

Reports and pictures from birders over the previous five days suggested that the diver could be seen easily and photographed well, due to the relative narrowness of the river and the confiding nature of the diver. There were however slight concerns on my part, as often in order to see the diver it would appear that one had to walk considerable distances to encounter it, as it covered a five mile stretch of the river from just beyond a place called Bardney in the north to Kirkstead in the south. You could walk alongside the east bank of the river all the way but if possible it would be good to avoid such a long trek searching for the diver

I arranged with Peter to go and see it today and drove from my home through a fogbound north Oxfordshire  to meet him at 9am on the outskirts of Oxford and then we set off in his car for the three hour drive to Lincolnshire. To our relief we left the fog behind somewhere south of Coventry and in glorious sunshine but bitter cold headed for Kirkstead in Lincolnshire. I checked RBA and the latest message about the diver's whereabouts this morning suggested it was last seen near a place called Southrey and drifting north on the river towards Bardney. Originally we had set the Satnav for Kirkstead further south but this would now be pointless as the diver was some three miles north of there.  The Satnav was reset for Southrey but then went on the blink so we had to navigate using a combination of an intermittently functioning Satnav and my roadmap reading.

Sadly our spirits took a dip as within half an hour of Southrey we hit more fog and this time it looked highly unlikely that it would burn off anytime soon, if at all. There is nothing one can do in such situations but have a good old moan and then get on with it.  We eventually came to Bardney, crossed the River Witham onto the east side and then drove a couple of miles beyond to access the river at Southrey.

Leaving the car, the sheer awfulness of the cold damp fog and chilling wind hit me. It was impossible not to feel  downcast in the all pervading gloom and grey and restricted visibility but we were here, the weather was not going to change and so we had to make the best of it. I stood with Peter by the river and shivered to my bones as a few other disconsolate birders congregated around us.Some had walked miles along the river and spent hours seeing nothing, and at a loss we all just stood and wondered. What now?

Ten minutes of dithering and milling about passed and then a message came through from RBA. The diver had just been seen at Bardney, beyond the bridge and drifting north! We had, only twenty minutes ago driven over the same bridge and in jest I had said to Peter, 'I bet it's under the bridge.' 

We got back to the bridge in double quick time, parked the car and set off apace along the path running by the east bank of the river. There was a birder on the other side of the river who waved to us and said it was further up the river and pointed. It was hard to see any distance in the gloom and fog but we walked another two hundred metres and focused on the river and there it was. Huge and pale, even in the gloom, its white bill stood out as it floated mid river in the company of a Cormorant

At this time only a few other birders were with us as we were virtually the first to get to Bardney and
we followed the diver as it swam and dived in the slow moving river. When underwater it covered prodigious distances and we raced ahead trying to anticipate where it would surface. And so it went on, the diver submerging with a silk smooth glide that only divers can achieve and we racing  fifty metres ahead to hopefully position ourselves where it surfaced. It was supremely adapted to its life on water, at times appearing to be almost part of the water itself as it submerged its body so the water washed over its hindneck. At other times it would snorkle, a trait much favoured by all species of divers where they swim along with their head and bill partially submerged under the water. Its shape would change with its behaviour, at times relaxed and compact it would then compress its feathers and elongate its neck to snake like proportions before submerging without a ripple under the water's surface

Eventually we came to a barrage across the river and I watched as the diver surfaced and then turned as if to go back upriver and that was when I lost sight of it. By now many other birders responding to the alert on RBA were heading our way but there was no sign of the diver on the river.

As it had not passed me I surmised it had reached the end of its range and was now going back up the river. I said' Wait here Peter and I will go back towards Bardney and if either of us see it we can let each other know by phone'. This we agreed.

I walked back to Bardney Bridge, encountering many birders heading to where I had just come from.
'Is it showing?' was the anxious enquiry from them but not one of them was checking the river as they passed. I was reluctant to relay my theory about the diver's potential movement back downriver in case I was wrong so just told them to go where all the other birders were as that was where it had last been seen. 

I reached Bardney Bridge and there was the diver, now south of the bridge. It must have moved at considerable speed from where I last saw it and the frustrating thing was that of all the other birders heading north past me not one had bothered to check the river. If they had done they would have had a great chance of discovering the diver.

I called Peter and we decided to go back to Southrey to try and intercept the diver as it came downriver. Fifteen minutes later found us stood on the landing stage at Southrey and freezing once again. Lord it was cold and bleak, and the wind chill was ferocious. My fingers and toes, despite being well insulated were beginning to ache with the cold. Other birders joined us on the landing stage, the majority still not having seen the diver, whilst others set off on the two mile path running alongside the river to Bardney.  Some ducks and gulls landed distantly on the river, appearing larger than life in the cloying mist and a Little Grebe made a hesitant dash out and then back to the river bank. 

The River Witham in the fog as seen from
the landing stage at Southrey

An hour of supreme discomfort from the cold passed very slowly but there was no sign of the diver and at two thirty we gave up.

One final abortive attempt was made to see the diver at Kirkstead but if we were honest both of us were too chilled to the bone and disheartened by the weather to pursue the diver with any enthusiasm. 

I was happy enough, as despite the awful light and weather conditions I got some reasonable images and Peter had got another lifer, although due to a missing memory card for his camera, sadly had no images of the bird itself.

We called time and headed for home.

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