Friday 17 February 2017

Fenland Bluethroat 15th February 2017

Bluethroats come in two forms, red spotted and white spotted and consist of eleven races. The species does not breed in Britain but has a wide distribution from Spain and the Atlantic coast of France right across to the Pacific and even extending in small numbers to Alaska. Northern populations in the west migrate to the Mediterranean, the Sahel south of the Sahara and North Africa whilst eastern populations winter throughout the Middle East, India, southern China and southeast Asia.

It is an irregular spring and autumn migrant to Britain occuring mainly in May and September, the majority being of the red spotted form which are recorded mostly in the northern isles and down the east coast of Britain. The white spotted form comes from more southerly populations.

I had only ever seen one Bluethroat in Britain and that was some years ago at Welney in Cambridgeshire when a male of the white spotted form took up a territory in Spring and commenced singing. 

So it was with some amazement and pleasure that I learnt that a first winter male Bluethroat, probably of the red spotted form, was found inhabiting a narrow band of reeds in a wet ditch, which is typical habitat for bluethroats, running parallel with the approach track to Willow Tree Fen LWT Reserve, near Spalding in Lincolnshire, earlier this week.

Male Bluethroats are such lovely looking birds and so many superb photos of this particular individual have been appearing on the internet that my mind was firmly set on going to see it as soon as possible. My twitching buddy Clackers was going stir crazy at home, having spent almost two months inactive whilst trying to shake off a cold virus, so I gave him a call to see if he was finally up to it. He was, so we arranged to go on Wednesday.

At the appointed hour of 6am Clackers boarded the Audi and we departed from Witney for the two hour drive to Willow Tree Fen. Apart from missing various turnoffs on the roads at crucial moments, as we were so busy chatting, we made good progress, winding our way along secondary roads, following the Satnav's valiant efforts to put us back on course. I was initially despondent as the weather looked like it was back to its misty, depressingly grey best as we crossed Northamptonshire but as we headed further east, the sun began to burn through the mist and break free of the clouds, raising my spirits no end

We crossed into Lincolnshire and headed out into fen country. Such a strange, featureless land where the roads run straight as a dye for miles, crossing enormous flat fields that pan away for ever into an uncertain horizon on either side of the road. Clackers announced he needed a pit stop so we headed for Spalding, not far from our destination, and found ourselves pulling into Vinehouse Farm from whom I order food for our garden birds via the internet. What a happy and serendipitous coincidence and even better they had customer toilets. 

I bought peanuts and seed for the birds back home whilst Clackers went for a hunk of Lincolnshire Fruit Cake to take home to Shirley. Back in the car we were off again, traversing the enormous landscape of  the Lincolnshire fens which are now no longer fens in the traditional sense but huge farm fields, drained by long, water filled dykes running parallel with the road. A Kingfisher swerved in a banking manouevre across the road in front of the car. An instantaneous image was conjoured, of a high speed, electric blue, avian fighter jet that was gone in an instant. We went down another, miles long, straight but uneven road, a test of the shock absorbers as the car sashayed and swayed with the uneven contours of the tarmac.

We overshot the turning to the Reserve but not by much and turning round came to the none too obvious turning we had missed, and that led onto the mile long approach track to the Reserve's Visitor Centre.

Just by the entrance from the road was a small car park already full with cars and looking down the dead straight track to the Visitor Centre we could see a dark huddle of birders about half way, standing by the track on one side and surveying a band of withered reeds on the other side that ran the length of the track. 'This must be it Clackers'

We somehow squeezed the car into the car park and getting our gear together headed down the slightly waterlogged track which ran between partially flooded fields on either side. It was good to be out of the car and I felt refreshed in the relatively mild, sunny conditions as we walked towards the distant birders, whilst Wigeon whistled from  the floods and Skylarks sang in the sky above. 

Floods by the Reserve's appoach track

The Bluethroat's temporary reedbed home
When we got there we found about a dozen birders standing on the grass verge beside the track looking across to the reeds on the other side which, tall and withered, stood in a narrow but dense congregation  in a wet ditch. A gentle enquiry to another birder elicited the fact that the Bluethroat had been feeding on the track five minutes ago but had subsequently gone back in the reeds but surely would be out again soon.

Waiting for the Bluethroat to appear
We waited with the others and after twenty minutes the Bluethroat appeared on the grass verge in front of the reeds, jumping and hopping about in the grass before coming right out onto the track and feeding on mealworms scattered by birders and photographers. 

It was totally confiding and showed little alarm at us admiring it and taking its photo from close range. In appearance it was a slim, elegant version of a Robin, standing upright on long legs and had a longish tail which it cocked at regular intervals and occasionally flicked open. 

It adopted angular attitudes, half hopping, half running, without quite losing its gracefulness as it chased after something that took its fancy. For ten minutes it paraded up and down on the track, enhancing its wow factor with every step.

Its overall plumage was an unexceptional brown and pale buff but with the glory of an eye catching iridescent bib of mainly blue and rufous red bordered by black and white on its breast and although not in fully adult male plumage was still very beautifully marked  Chestnut patches on either side at the base of its tail matched a rump of similar colour. Its otherwise brown  head showed a prominent broad cream stripe over each eye and another cream stripe running just below each of its cheeks

Ten minutes passed in a blur of excitement as we watched it feeding, before it flew back into the reeds. We waited for the next appearance but our attention was diverted in the meantime by a Stoat hunting a Short toed Field Vole, both of them running backwards and forwards across the track but some distance apart. The Stoat disappeared but the vole kept running back and fore and coming closer down the track and was last seen making its escape through the legs of a tripod before diverting into and across the wet field behind us, scurrying from tussock to tussock. It plainly was running for its life although the whole episode was comedic to watch.

Short tailed Field Vole
Everyone was now waiting patiently for the next entrance of the Bluethroat  but it went very quiet and the Bluethroat was only seen briefly, clinging to some reeds and calling in alarm as it and a Wren mobbed something, probably the Stoat, in the base of the reedbed.   Then it went quiet again and as the minutes passed more and more people arrived until there was a crowd of around forty people present, most of them displaying high levels of anxiety as they had yet to see the bird.

The Bluethroat had disappeared into the reeds almost in front of us but now, suddenly made a re-appearance on the track some thirty or so metres further back. I did not bother to move as my camera would be facing directly into the sun, so just watched the Bluethroat cocking its tail and flicking back and fore on the track as anxious birders crowded around it.

Sadly some could not control themselves in their anxiety and taking advantage of its confiding nature had surrounded it too closely rather than give it space, so it soon sought sanctuary back in the reeds. Rather than wait patiently for the Bluethroat to re-appear we were then treated to a display of how not to behave in a situation such as this, with people peering into the reeds, even trampling habitat and walking up and down on the track rather than just quietly waiting for the bird to come out of the reeds and onto the track in its own time. It's pointless saying anything as no one takes any notice or worse just become abusive. It is very frustrating and it makes me reluctant to remain when such inconsiderate behaviour occurs. It's based, I am sure, on ignorance in most cases but that is no excuse.

Thankfully a good part of the crowd, including some of the worst offenders left once they had seen the Bluethroat so there was less pressure subsequently and the Bluethroat duly obliged by coming out from the reeds and onto the track and for fifteen minutes performed as well as anyone could have asked or hoped for.

Once the Bluethroat had returned into the reeds I joined Clackers and we headed back to the car, passing a Little Egret on the floods and nearer the car park, found thirty Russian White-fronted Geese, standing in a field, alert and wary, due no doubt to the unaccustomed numbers of birders come to see the Bluethroat..

A triumphant Clackers - minus usual hat!
It was now lunchtime and we were off to look for a Great Grey Shrike, near a place called Crowland. Local birders had given us directions and told us to look for a green bridge over the River Welland. First, as it was on the way, we made a stop at Spalding for a late breakfast. 

We found Crowland and eventually the green bridge but we were completely flummoxed as to how to get to the bridge. We could see it distantly from the road we were on, across some fields, and even cars parked by it, but for the life of us could not find the road that led to it. In the end we gave up after having already toured rather too much fenland in a fruitless search for the right road.

We stopped in a layby to sort out my camera and put it back in my camera bag preparatory to the drive home.It was then I realised something was horribly wrong. Where was my camera bag with the spare camera and other photography essentials in it?  I realised with a sinking feeling in my stomach I had left it propped against the fence back at the Bluethroat site.

There was nothing for it but to drive back to the Reserve and drive to the Visitor Centre to see if anyone had handed it in. It was a slim hope but the best we could do. On getting to the Reserve I drove slowly down the track past the birders awaiting the, fortunately absent, Bluethroat. There was no sign of my camera bag by the fence where I had abandoned it. My heart sank a little deeper. We got to the Visitor Centre but could find no one anywhere. Then two volunteers arrived and to my utter relief confirmed my bag had been handed in by some kind soul and  they went and brought it to me from the office.

The day suddenly became bearable again and with my worries dismissed we set about the drive home.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ewan, your camera bag was there when I was at Wicken Fen later in the day. I was talking to the person who handed it in just before leaving at 2pm, who was a birder from Norwich. Naturally enough, we discussed the recent theft of my scope in similar circumstances at Blagdon Lake.