Thursday 28 September 2017

Birds of a Feather 27th September 2017

Birds of a Feather was a popular sitcom on TV,  running from 1989 onwards and was based on two fictional sisters living in Chigwell, Essex whose husbands had been sent to prison for armed robbery leaving the sisters to get on with their lives as best they could and have various adventures and escapades.

Well, today I had another two feathered birds in mind, also in Essex. One was a juvenile Spotted Crake featuring at Hornchurch Country Park EWT (Essex Wildlife Trust) in the Ingrebourne Valley and the other was a juvenile Red necked Grebe on a small lake at Roding Valley Meadows EWT at Buckhurst Hill. Only twelve miles separated the two locations and both birds, judging by reports and images on the internet, were relatively obliging and allowing good views.

The Spotted Crake, especially, was too much to resist as it is always a hard bird to see and being typically secretive, as is the way of its kind, often not that co-operative. Add to this a showy Red necked Grebe nearby, and there, if ever I saw one, was an invitation to a good day out. 

The only blot on the landscape was the fact that, inevitably, I had to negotiate the dreaded M25 and the normal weekday mayhem of cars and lorries all rushing to work or wherever they were bound. There was no way round it. The only way to cope with this and avoid being stuck forever in traffic jams was to leave home very early, so by 5am I was already wending my way past Oxford but still surprised at just how busy the roads were at this hour. It got even worse on the M40 and when I eventually joined the M25, although the traffic was moving, the Motorway was well into living up to its fearsome reputation.

My Satnav was determined to route me across central London, as presumably that was the shortest route  but I over rode it as I knew this would be another traffic disaster and I would also have to pay a Congestion Charge to cross central London. Instead I headed north on the M25 skirting round, in a huge semi circle, through Hertfordshire and Essex to finally turn off the Motorway near the Dartford Crossing and head for Hornchurch.

Forty years ago I used to have an aunt who lived in Hornchurch but since she moved to Suffolk I have never since ventured back there and all that time ago there certainly was no such thing as a Country Park in Hornchurch but here, after following a winding route through endless housing I  came to the Country Park entrance and, following a tarmac drive, arrived at a large, free, almost deserted car park at just before 7am, in what were almost rural surroundings. I left the car here and followed a tarmac path past the very impressive, modern and currently closed Visitor Centre to about two hundred metres beyond where an area of grass and some benches formed a small amphitheatre and viewpoint overlooking some marshy ground of  dead and cut reeds, mud and pools immediately below and a shallow muddy expanse of water beyond.

The Viewpoint

Views of the marshy area where the Spotted Crake has its temporary home
This was where the Spotted Crake had made its home, right below the viewpoint. I tried to imagine the crake's arrival here, flying over the vast surrounding suburbs at night, an intimidating and hostile vision of light and noise and finally seeing an oasis of dark and unlit marsh, a tiny vestige of remaining suitable habitat, where it could drop down from the night sky and hide in the reeds unknown and unsuspected, there to rest and feed before moving southwards to Africa.

The morning was mild but dull, grey and windless and as a consequence a hint of mist hung in the air, with the sun trying to break through but failing comprehensively. I met just one other birder at the viewpoint, Daniel who had come from Croydon, and he told me the not so glad tidings that he had just seen the crake really well but it had subsequently disappeared into the tangle of wet reeds and sedge below us. Great! It looked like I was in for a long wait. Hardly surprising as crakes of any sort are notoriously shy.

This being a Country Park surrounded by housing there were the inevitable dog walkers and their uncontrolled pets, out in force.We suffered various indignities as the dogs, watched lovingly by their besotted and inconsiderate owners tried to steal Daniel's sandwiches from his bag or jumped up at us with muddy paws and slobbering mouths. If one more dog owner says 'Don't mind him he is only being friendly.' I think I really will lose control of myself.

Just after I arrived at the viewpoint the sky above us became regularly rent by shrill shrieks and cries as small flocks of Rose ringed Parakeets, obviously late risers, left their roosts and dispersed around the park.They fly at such speed with a distinctive profile of large bulbous head, thin, rapidly moving wings and a long needle pointed tail. I must have seen well over fifty flying over us in various sized flocks in the first fifteen minutes, some clearly visible but others almost lost to view in the mist rising from the river valley.

Spread out in front of us, as we looked out, was a reasonably sized area of  shallow water and muddy shorelines. In the hopefully temporary absence of the crake there was plenty of other birdlife to observe. On the other side of the flood several Lapwings stood on the mud while four Common Snipe vigorously probed the soft mud, sinking their long bills up to the hilt so the sensitive tip to their bills could locate worms deep in the mud. Teal dabbled in the shallows and Moorhens, some still with well grown young, their bodies not quite grown sufficiently to match their long ungainly legs and feet, wandered around the periphery of mud and reeds. A Little Egret looked almost dazzlingly white in the dull light while at least two Cetti's Warblers were giving their explosive song a vigorous workout but, as ever, the birds themselves were totally invisible. Ten minutes passed and the anxious weeet weeet call of a Green Sandpiper permeated the air and seconds later two birds landed on the far side of the flood, their dark upperparts contrasting sharply with their prominent white rump and tail. They were very flighty and their nervousness was contagious as the lapwings, snipe and teal also took alarm and rose into the air but all became calm after a few minutes.

I have a fondness for crakes especially those three species, Spotted, Little and Baillon's Crakes that are smaller than a Corncrake or Water Rail and occasionally visit our shores and in the case of the Spotted Crake breed here in very small numbers. They are mysterious inhabitants of marshes and reedbeds, rarely venturing out into the open but preferring to secrete themselves in deep riparian cover and conduct their lives out of sight, only announcing their presence with strange calls often sounding more like an amphibian than a bird. Their plumages are an amalgam of browns and greys of various shades overlaid with a complexity of white  spots, squiggles, wavy lines and buff streaks, the colours of the dank marsh mud and stalks, through which they wander, and in which they blend perfectly, camouflaged by their cryptic plumage. It takes an effort to see one of these shy birds and often such an enterprise ends in failure or in an inordinately long wait but when success does come it is all the sweeter. 

Spotted Crakes are a very rare breeding bird in Britain with no more than an estimated 30-70 pairs present in the breeding season. They are more often heard than seen and are no bigger than a Starling. It is an annual Spring migrant to Britain and northern Europe and departs in Autumn to spend the winter in Africa although some go no further to winter than southern Europe. The species has a huge distribution right across temperate Europe from Spain and France, around the Mediterranean, southern Scandinavia and the former USSR to India, Pakistan and northwest China. The European population is estimated at 161,000-251,000 individuals and comprises 55% of the world total. 

We stood and waited for any sign of the crake but it was still invisible. Scanning the area of cut reeds, sedge and muddy puddles time and again, we were frustrated to find no sign of it. Forty minutes must have passed and I looked, yet again, through my bins, but this time detected the slightest of movements and looking closer spied the diminutive cocked brown tail of the Spotted Crake, flicking nervously as it moved furtively through the reeds and across the mud some distance to our left. It was only in view for a few seconds but I clearly saw its grey and brown flanks, liberally spotted with white and its dark brown upperparts. Then it was gone into the cover of some taller bankside reeds.

We waited another fifteen minutes and then it re-appeared, working its way further out onto the marshy ground using the cover of the severed reed blades  occasionally showing itself quite well on the small areas of exposed mud and water between the reeds. All in all it kept very much in cover but with care its tiny form could be followed amongst the jagged cut ends of the reeds and other dead or dying vegetation. Its  plumage camouflaged it wonderfully well, the variety of browns and greys, spotted, streaked and striped with buff and white enabled it to merge and blend almost seamlessly into its favoured habitat. The only unmarked parts of its plumage were the rich buff coloured undertail coverts, very visible under its cocked and pointed tail when it turned away.

It behaved like any crake would, furtive and wary, cautious to the extreme and determined if possible to remain in some sort of cover rather than expose itself in more open areas. Its olive coloured bill was stubby, conical and bright orange red at its base and it possessed the long yellowish green legs and slender attenuated toes typical of its genus. We watched and occasionally lost sight of it as it moved behind and through the green reeds and brown, rotting sedge but it was always moving towards us. Then it disappeared totally as if by magic. Where did it go? We had no idea. Ten more anxious minutes passed and then it re-appeared almost below us and we fired away with our cameras as it picked at the mud and threaded its way through the reeds. 

Finally it came to a small open area. It had to cross it but was nervous about exposing itself.  We were on tenterhooks. 'Go on, please!'  The crake hesitated, deliberating what to do. It looked back and then took a few tentative steps forward on its long thin toes and was for a brief few seconds right out in the open, stood on a tiny mound of mud, unobscured by any reed or stalk.This was our chance and a volley of camera clicks recorded the crake for posterity.

It stood absolutely still, anxious, alert to any sign of danger and then took the plunge and ran across the open area to the next point of cover where it instantly relaxed again and wandered about feeding amongst the reed blades. 

Note the prominent buff undertail coverts and how well the
plumage matches the surrounding vegetation
It was never really in the open again but then crakes do not like open spaces which are an anathema to them and they will always seek cover no matter how minimal. We followed its progress through the reeds and eventually it came to a thicker area of reeds and sedge where it was totally concealed and although we waited another hour it never showed itself again. Or at least not to us.

But we were content, we had our pictures and had seen the crake really well which, from all accounts, did not always transpire for others who had come to see it earlier in its stay. I spoke to Daniel about the Red necked Grebe at Buckhurst Hill and that I was going to go there next and suggested he come too and so, at just after 9.30am, we made our way back to the Visitor Centre, now fully open and with a lot of people amassing inside preparatory to a guided walk. I got myself my customary skinny latte  and we were all set to go.

Daniel led the way and I followed as we worked our way across suburban Essex towards Buckhurst Hill, navigating past an inordinate number of Tanning Salons and Nail Bars in various shopping parades, finally coming to rest in a small side street with  Roding Valley Meadows just a hundred metres further on. The lake where the grebe had been seen these past days was another couple of hundred metres further inside the park  and coming to the lakeside we found a huddle of four or five birders who told us the unwelcome news that the grebe was nowhere to be seen although it had been reported earlier this morning.

The Lake
This was a bit of a shock as the grebe by all the accounts from previous days had been showing itself really well, in fact ridiculously well, coming very close to the lake shore. Not now though, as there definitely was no sign of it.

I surmised to Daniel that it was probably concealed under one of the overhanging trees round the lake many of whose lower branches swept down and into the water.The lake was not huge by any standards so we elected to walk around in the hope of maybe finding or disturbing the grebe. We stopped at various clear spots in the bushes by the lake and scanned across to the other side and on one of these Daniel saw what he thought was the grebe but only very briefly and then another birder on the far side started waving a white hanky at us, so obviously the grebe had been relocated. We walked around to the other side and there was the grebe fairly close in and diving, by a small wooded island almost conjoined to the bank.

Unfortunately viewing it from this side we had the hazy sun shining directly towards us which is no good for photography. The grebe was just a black silhouette on the water that was turned almost silver as it reflected the sunlight. 

A nice view of one of the grebes enormous specialised feet

The grebe swam out and away from the island and settled some way out on the water to have a preen but then alarmed by a Great crested Grebe, it swam closer again. Other birders joined  us forming not quite a crowd on the bank and we all waited, hoping the grebe would come closer in to where the water was shaded by the trees and did not reflect the sun.

The grebe dived and surfaced near to us and then dived again and we could not find it.

Eventually we worked out that it had surfaced under the overhanging trees on the island and was headed towards the other side of the tiny island where it would come out very close to the end of the lake and if we were quick we would be able to get it in view with the sun at our backs. Some surreptitious stalking got us into position and the grebe as predicted swam to within metres of us. We need not have bothered about being discrete as the grebe knew we were there but took little notice, even when at some points it was just feet away from us

I always imagined a juvenile Red crested Grebe, which before today I have never been lucky enough to see, would be pretty dull in colour, almost scruffy but this was not the case. This was presumably a typical juvenile and was really beautiful,  looking superficially almost like an adult in breeding plumage. However the clear grey areas found on the side of an adult's head were replaced by a white face  with two prominent, broad and black stripes across each cheek and its neck and breast were a delicate orange chestnut, looking brighter at some angles than others. The base of the bill showed much more bright yellow than an adult and its crown was black whilst its upperparts were dark greyish brown. It was really quite exquisite and as I said its attractive patterning and bright colouring took me completely by surprise

Just the two of us watched and photographed the grebe as it swam into a little secluded bay surrounded by large trees, showing distinct signs of autumnal colours. 

The autumn tints of the yellowing leaves were faithfully reflected on the still green waters, the mirror image only distorted by ripples from the grebe as it moved in towards the bank and floated amongst some fallen leaves and dead branches sunk into the water. 

Then, gently, it swam away from us towards the other side of the lake leaving a wide V shaped wake behind it on a water now flickering golden with the reflection of the turning leaves hanging from the trees above.

This was our cue to leave just as the grebe had decided to do. A brilliant day and it was still not noon.


  1. Thanks for an excellent mornings birding Ewan. Hope you're having a good time on Shetland.

  2. Another highly entertaining and informative birding adventure. Bring back the dog licence I say. Looking forward to hearing of your adventures in Shetland.