Monday, 24 April 2017

Bonaparte's Gull-a return visit 24th April 2017

What a difference in the weather today. Gone was the sunshine and blue skies of Saturday to be replaced by grey clouds and occasional rain in a northerly wind.

Having had such success with the Bonaparte's Gull on Saturday I ventured out for another encounter reasoning that this was an almost unique opportunity to observe this rare North American gull at close quarters and one that should not be passed up.

My knee is slowly healing so I managed to make the short walk from Lower Whitley Farm and up the steps to the southern side of Farmoor Two reservoir where the Bonaparte's appears to be currently settled and sure enough once I was on the perimeter path I soon saw it patrolling along the edge of the reservoir.

Unlike Saturday, when it remained mainly on the water, it spent much of its time today airborne which gave me a thorough testing in taking flight shots, some reasonably successful but as usual the majority not, but practice makes perfect! I do find trying to remember to make all the different technical adjustments to the camera as the light and the birds position constantly changes so burdensome and frustrating.

Anyway enough of my grumbles, it was still an overall happy and positive experience watching the gull as it flew over and above the Great crested Grebes waiting for one to bring a small fish to the surface so it could make a flying grab for it from the unsuspecting grebe. Today it was not so successful as two days ago, although it did manage to find a couple of fish floating on the surface of the reservoir, possibly abandoned by a grebe. It would still occasionally fly to a grebe and sit near it more in hope than expectation but soon would take to the air again and patrol a small area of  about three hundred metres along the southern wall, often rising quite high in the air before flying down to water level. It was noticeable that it always remained in the general area where the grebes were feeding as did the half a dozen immature Black headed Gulls with which it was loosely associating.

Although superficially looking similar to a Black headed Gull they are smaller, with slightly shorter wings, a delicate black bill and in flight are more elegant, some say tern like, and indeed the underside of the outer wing is pure white with a black trailing edge similar to that of  Common  and Arctic Terns. 

Today there was ample opportunity to compare its tern like characteristics as at least fourteen Common Terns were also on the reservoir and coming as a pleasant surprise, so were two Black Terns.

The Bonaparte's tired of flying around and landed on the retaining wall where it picked up, separately, a couple of small fish for which I can advance no explanation as to how they came to be on the wall. These fish were relatively large for such a dainty gull, possibly they were not the usual sticklebacks but they went down its throat in one motion nonetheless, although not without some effort. This resulted in the gull's crop becoming visibly distended. 

The Bonaparte's Gull has just eaten one fish and is about to tackle another
despite appearing to be stuffed full - hence its bulging neck
Note the distended crop!
After such a surfeit of food this then required some quiet time to digest the fish so the gull flew to sit on the water but not for long. Soon it was back on the wall again, this time walking along the top picking off flies and invertebrates as it went.

It was hard to remember that this gull is such a comparative rarity here and I found myself wondering if this is how they behave in their native North America.The last time I saw a Bonaparte's Gull in North America was as part of a compact feeding flock of hundreds of individuals, behaving very much like terns, far out to sea on a whale watching trip off Venice Beach in southern California during late summer. In the breeding season they form small inland colonies across the northern USA, Canada and Alaska, nesting mainly in trees near lakes and then migrate southwards to the coast to spend the winter.

Watching this gull I could but marvel that such a small and delicate looking bird, that had been raised as a chick in a nest in a tree in North America or possibly even further north had crossed to the American coast and then been swept up in a storm that took it right across the Atlantic wastes to Britain only to find its way to mundane Farmoor, but this is the romance of birding and the wonders of endurance and chance that it reveals

Five of this delightful gull have now been recorded in Oxfordshire, all from Farmoor, the last, before this latest individual, being in 2009. Currently there is a mini invasion of Bonaparte's Gulls in Britain with at least three present, our one in Oxfordshire, another in Essex and yet another in Hampshire and all appear to be of a similar age i.e in their second year of life.

Some men in power boats arrived from across the reservoir to do some maintenance on a pontoon nearby with the result that the Great crested Grebes left the area and the Bonaparte's Gull duly followed them, so I accepted it was time to go. 

Just to remind me of Spring a pair of Greylag Geese proudly shepherded their newly hatched golden young along the concrete apron at the waterside.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Farmoor 'Boneys' 22nd April 2017

Incapacitated by damaged knee ligaments, the last three weeks have been somewhat frustrating as my mobility has been severely curtailed and I am still not out of the woods yet, but today I just had to get out birding somewhere and Farmoor with its benches and handy walls to sit on seemed as good an option as any.

Being a weekend it had to be an early visit before the yachtsmen, windsurfers, fishermen, walkers and yes, birders arrived en masse, so I duly drove through the entrance of the reservoir just after it opened at 8am on a wonderful morning of sunshine, blossom, greenery and blue skies.

The northwest wind was keen enough to require warm clothing but once a fleece jacket was donned I was all set to go or rather to limp painfully slowly to the central Causeway. My plan was to sit there and try to catch up with the Bonaparte's Gull that was found here by The Wickster two weeks ago on 8th April and looks like it may be staying for an extended period.The gull is an immature in its second calendar year so will not breed this year and therefore is in no hurry to go anywhere and it is our good fortune that it has found Farmoor to its liking

It has been my misfortune to miss it on the other three occasions I have tried to see it, frustratingly by only minutes the last time, but unless it appeared near to the beginning of the Causeway I had little chance of encountering it as I could not walk round the whole reservoir due to my bad knee.

I was making my way slowly from the car park when Dai drew up beside me in his car and informed me the Bonaparte's was present today but was away over on the far southern side of Farmoor Two reservoir which is just about as distant as possible from where we were. I groaned as there was no way I could walk there but Dai must have seen my concern as he generously offered to drive me round the reservoir to the area where he had seen the gull just a few minutes earlier. I should point out that Dai is one of the fortunate few who has permission from Thames Water to drive round the perimeter track of the reservoir. 

I was not about to turn down such a kind offer and away we went and five minutes later we stopped opposite a small white gull sat on the water eating a small fish. It had its back to us but I said 'That's it Dai, I'm sure'. It turned its head and there was the dainty black bill and distinctive head pattern to confirm our identification and we both managed some quick photos before it took to the air displaying salmon pink feet and legs.

Dai offered to leave me here but I would be stranded and unable to make it back to the car park if he did, so he drove me all the way around the reservoir and back down the central Causeway where a nice group of six or so White Wagtails were chasing the numerous flies along the concrete walls. 

White Wagtail
Dai left me by the Yacht Club where I could rest on a bench and get a cup of tea from the cafe if I wished before making my way back to the car. However, having been here only thirty minutes I was not in the mood for leaving Farmoor just yet.

I decided to check the nearby large grass bank by the Thames Waterworks for White and Yellow Wagtails but there was no sign of either, though there was more than adequate compensation in the form of a lovely female Northern Wheatear sitting quietly  in the short grass and daisies. 

Northern Wheatear
I say it was a Northern Wheatear but its size suggested it may have been a Greenland Wheatear but being a female it was beyond my powers of identification although for a female Northern Wheatear it struck me that it was unusually strongly coloured. So who knows? It was a good find and I watched as it bounced on black legs after insects, slowly depressing its tail as it stood looking around for fresh victims. The Swallow pair that are nesting in the adjacent Thames Waterworks, cruised inches above the grass, their backs shining midnight blue as they glided back and fore in an effortless liquidity of motion and higher above the reservoir excitable Common Terns exclaimed to each other, cleaving the air with wing-beats of supreme elegance as they strengthened their pair bond, often with one of the birds carrying a fish as a trophy gift to its partner.

The verdant presence of  Spring and its boundless vitality was in evidence wherever you looked and it was a joy to be out amongst it all..

I met Warren and Charlie, two birder friends from nearby Buckinghamshire who had come for another attempt to see the gull having failed last weekend and I told them where the Bonaparte's was. They managed to see it distantly through their scopes from where we stood and then decided to walk to where it was, some quarter of a mile away but I was unable to follow due to the distance involved. They set off, leaving me feeling somewhat forlorn but in the end I had a minor brainwave, working out that if I left the reservoir and drove round to Lower Whitley Farm I could access the reservoir from the gate there and would be close enough to the gull to allow me to limp the comparative short distance to see it.

This I duly did, not without some discomfort but I was driven on by the incentive of getting close to the Bonaparte's and eventually I rejoined Warren and Charlie. The Bonaparte's was still in the same area and alternately flying above and swimming on the blue waters of the reservoir, close to the wall where we stood. 

It eventually settled on a pontoon next to an immature Black headed Gull which provided a good opportunity to compare the two.The Bonaparte's was the smaller and had a more delicate appearance and seemed very keen to get as close to the Black headed Gull as possible. Settling down it slept and preened but soon took to the water again looking for food.

Meanwhile yet more evidence of Spring manifested itself as a nearby fisherman flushed a party of six Common Sandpipers from the wave wall and they flickered their way out over the water to land some hundred metres further along the edge of the reservoir's blue waters.

As we watched the gull it was all too apparent that, like its namesake it was a feisty little thing and took no nonsense from the larger Black headed Gulls.  Both gulls had a strategy whereby they would follow the Great crested Grebes that were fishing nearby and mug them for any fish they brought to the surface. The Bonaparte's was adept at this and although not always successful in competition with the Black headed Gulls, gained several small fish in this manner, consuming them and then resting on the water, watching until it espied another grebe surfacing with a fish.

The Black headed and Bonaparte's Gulls going in for an attack on a grebe

We watched the Bonaparte's Gull for an hour or so, being joined by several other birders and then parted to go our separate ways. Another two hours of birding bliss had come and gone, the memory of which will certainly sustain me as my knee slowly heals and mobility returns 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Spring the Sweet Spring 16th April 2017

At this time of year for six or so weeks the countryside undergoes a transformation both physical and spiritual. A gradual almost imperceptible increase in the pace of life gathers momentum and is manifested in the day by day transformation of the countryside from the  greys and browns of Winter into the burgeoning green and yellow of Spring. Plants that have lain dormant and hidden suddenly emerge from the brown earth and colour it with their leaves and flowers whilst the land begins to welcome summer migrant birds, arriving in their millions, unseen and unheralded to swell the numbers of our native species, themselves becoming increasingly colourful and vocal as simultaneously the last of the winter migrants depart northwards.

The rhythm of life in the natural world quickens on a rising tide of sap and testosterone to fulfil the one universal purpose of reproduction. It is impossible on a sunny Spring day not to feel this energy pulsing through the land and invading it with riotous colour and growth. 

For me there are two signals that herald the arrival of Spring, more than the Cuckoo or Swallow, more than the Primrose or Bluebell. One is a flower, the Cowslip and the other a bird, the Yellow Wagtail. Both are entirely subjective, others will have their particular favourites but in their own unique ways these two epitomise to me all that is still beautiful and wonderful at this time of year.

I live in the Cotswolds and am fortunate to be surrounded by countryside that despite the ravages of intensive farming still manages to harbour areas of land, not cultivated or drenched in herbicide where Cowslips can prosper. Drive down any rural lane around here and you are reasonably certain to find Cowslips growing on the wide verges. Sometimes it is just a single plant and on others great swathes of them, seen from a distance they spread out like scrambled egg on a bed of green.

The crenellated yellow flowers, each at the end of a single pale green trumpet, cluster in a closeted huddle of yellow and pale green at the top of a thin but sturdy stalk, the flowers usually all facing the same way, nodding gently in  the wind. Culverkeys was an old vernacular name based on the jiggling yellow flowers. Look closely and you can see tiny orange spots at the base of the petals and which Shakespeare thought were the source of the flowers faint dill-like scent.

When I used to live in a part of Surrey that was hanging on, just, to some vestige of rural pretension as suburbanisation slowly subsumed it, Cowslips were already a very rare plant there, an echo of a rural idyll that may have been more down to my fanciful imagination than reality. I can still recall finding one near a busy road that had sprung up from a random seed and transplanting it to safety in a secluded, untouched corner to save it from an inevitable fate of either being picked or terminated by the heedless onslaught of a council lawnmower or weedkiller. 

The cowslip's rich cultural history would suggest it was once as abundant and accessible as the buttercup and it touched people's lives in many ways but it has declined dramatically since the 1950's and not just me mourns its ill fortune. The decline is due to the advance of modern farming methods and the widespread use of herbicides which until the 1980's included wayside verges such as exist here in the Cotswolds. Since the 1990's a more benign attitude has become apparent towards our native flora and the cowslip is now making a comeback to unsprayed roadside verges, uncut churchyards and on downland no longer intensively grazed by sheep. An abiding memory is of when we had moved from Surrey to Sussex and my wife was overdue with our daughter and to induce her going into labour we went for a walk up a steep slope of the South Downs to Ditchling Beacon and I remember the cowslips from that evening as we slowly ascended the slope. It worked and our daughter was born later that night.

Now, twenty five years later Cowslips grow on my lawn in profusion and their bright yellow heads greet me each morning as I look out of the window. So I welcome the return each year of the Cowslips and the personal memories and pleasure they bring together with the cultural variety and history associated with them.

Each year at this time I also look for the Yellow Wagtails at Farmoor Reservoir and each year, give or take a day or so, I am rewarded as the exotically bright yellow males join the resident Pied Wagtails and are to be found resting and feeding on the sloping grass bank above the Thames Waterworks that forms one side of the smaller reservoir at Farmoor. They stand on the bank amongst the small white, blushed pink daisy heads and golden yellow Dandelion flowers and often it is hard to discern the wagtails from the Dandelions, both being a similar bright yellow.

The delicate grace manifested by these migrants is all too apparent when the birds move and reveal their presence as they dart through the grass and flowers after insects. The yellow plumage, always intense, varies amongst individual males and can be buttercup or a paler egg yolk yellow on head and body. Even the olive green on their upperparts is permeated with a yellow blush and the bird's pleasing ensemble is completed by a dapper black tail, legs and bill.

All wagtails possess irrepressibly cheery personalities and none more so than the Yellow Wagtails. Their single note call seems to be as an exclamation of joy and optimism at having made it from their winter quarters to sit in the sun on the bank and chase flies.

Sadly their numbers at Farmoor are less and less each year but as long as one or two make it back then I refuse to be downhearted.