Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Aquatics and Acrobatics at Pinkhill 13th November 2017

Today I decided to spend a morning at Pinkhill which is a tiny area of marshland made into a Reserve and squeezed in betwixt the River Thames and the northern end of Farmoor Reservoir. 

Pinkhill Reserve
It was very cold overnight but with little wind this morning the waters of the reservoir were glassy smooth as I walked along the central causeway heading for Pinkhill.

The numbers of Tufted Ducks on the reservoir have increased markedly since last I was here and separate discrete gatherings of them floated on the water, the black and white bodies of the drakes resplendent in the weak sunlight. Further out on the reservoir a much more unusual visitor, a sea duck in the shape of a female Common Scoter was diving for food. Little Grebes feeding close to the causeway crash dived in panic on my approach, flinging themselves underwater with an audible splash and rising much further out. Two large gulls loafed on the causeway wall, a Greater Black backed Gull and a Yellow legged Gull, both adults and both equally wary of my advance, flying off long before I was close to them. 

I reached the far end of the causeway and turned down the metalled path that skirts the hedge forming the western boundary of the reservoir. I passed through the gate, crossed the Thames Path and walked the few metres up the boardwalk to the Hide that overlooks Pinkhill.

Opening the door I found, as anticipated, that the Hide was empty. Ten am on a Monday morning was hardly likely to attract anyone unless they had a similar specific purpose such as mine, which was to see a Water Rail.

They are fairly regular here and with a combination of luck, patience and I may say, some perseverance, they can be seen in the winter months picking up fallen seed from underneath the feeders that are hung up for the tits. There is no guarantee one will appear and even when one does it is often only after a long and tedious wait and with a reward of just a few minutes in its company before it takes alarm and runs back into the surrounding density of sedge and reeds.

I sat at the Hide's open viewing window and waited, looking out at the feeders just a few metres beyond. The last time I was here, in the late winter of this year, the feeders were attracting many Reed Buntings but today there was only a fleeting visit by two, a male and a female.

My view of Pinkhill and the feeders from the Hide
There was, however, a constant coming and going of Great and Blue Tits, some making for the feeders but others flying down to pick up fallen peanuts and seed from the muddy margins of the marsh. When they did this they would adopt acrobatic positions, clinging to reeds and twigs, looking down and around cautiously before dropping to the ground to seize a peanut or seed and then hastening back into the security of the surrounding hedgerow to eat it.

Great Tits
The activity was constant and I could hardly claim to be bored as the ceaseless arrival and departure of the tits and their subsequent antics were a continued source of entertainment. 

Blue Tits
Almost an hour had passed when a dark shape became partially visible in the sedge and reeds behind the feeders. I tensed. Was this the moment? No sadly, it was only a Moorhen which promptly fled when it saw me in the Hide. The tits continued feeding despite the Moorhen's alarm but then, after another ten minutes, a smaller, slimmer, browner shape than the Moorhen slipped through the sedge and there at last was a Water Rail.

As  always I felt that delicious vicarious thrill run through my body as I watched its arrival. Their lovely plumage of streaked brown upperparts and slate grey underparts with black and white bars on the flanks is, for me, an irresistible combination. Secretive, furtive even and forever seeming to be afraid of its own shadow it ventured out into what passes for open habitat in a Water Rail's world. This means it always contrived to be near dense cover and it was only the smallest of open areas that attracted it and proved acceptable to its highly strung character. Compared to some Water Rails I have seen here on previous occasions this individual was comparatively bold and was willing to expose itself a little more than is usual although still showing the innate shyness of its kind and it always endeavoured to be but a foot or so from dense cover.

It pecked at the fallen seed and then found a peanut which it picked up in its long red bill. I was aware that Water Rails are omnivorous so should not have been as surprised as I was that peanuts were on the menu. It held the peanut firmly in its bill and decided that to consume the peanut it would be far more preferable to seek the sanctuary of the enshrouding sedge and reeds where it could reduce the nut to manageable pieces and eat in relative peace, so promptly turned and slipped away into the sedge. It had been on view for less than five minutes and I assumed that once it had consumed the peanut it would come back for more but I was mistaken and as it transpired I did not see it again until two and half hours later.

The intervening time was spent watching the tits but after a while even I grew tired of their antics but was otherwise entertained by Great Spotted Woodpeckers making fleeting visits to the peanuts, a couple of Mallard guzzling up the fallen seed and two Cetti's Warblers singing from different parts of the marsh but, as ever, remaining invisible. Another Water Rail called from the far side of the marsh and was promptly answered by the Water Rail I had been watching, thus proving there were at least two present and probably there were more.

Water Rails have a widespread distribution from Eurasia, North Africa and across to Saudi Arabia and China. Northern populations migrate from Scandinavia and Russia to join resident populations in Europe including Britain. They are a night migrant and believe it or not a strong flier although you would never guess it. A bird ringed in the winter of 1990, in Lancashire, was recovered in the following breeding season 2000 kms away in Belarus. Vagrants have been found in such widely disparate locations as the Azores, Madeira, Mauritania, the Arctic, Greenland, Malaysia and Vietnam

Because of the bird's secretive habits it is difficult to estimate its breeding population but it is thought there are between 4000-6000 individual territories in Britain. They are susceptible to predation by Mink which, by 1965 had exterminated them in Iceland. Other large mammals and birds prey on them too and habitat loss is now a contributory and significant factor to their slowly declining numbers. In winter they are also vulnerable to freezing weather and can then sometimes be found in odd places such as ditches, damp hedgerows, rubbish dumps and even gardens.

The time wore on and I stoically sat on the hard wooden bench of the Hide looking out at this particular corner of the marsh. A tiny movement on a carpet of dead leaves, wedged between some stalks just beyond the feeders, caught my eye. At first I thought it was just the wind stirring a leaf. I looked closer and there was the movement again. So fast it could be mistaken for an optical illusion. I remained focused on the spot and the movement came yet again and for a brief second, whatever it was remained still and I saw it was something furry, a vole. Possibly a Short tailed Field Vole (thanks to Roger Wyatt for identifying it). If I thought Water Rails were nervy and skittish the vole took these qualities to a whole new level.The comings and goings of the tits would prompt it to flee at incredible speed every time a tit flew down but then it would return at the same frenetic speed to grab a seed and hurtle off to hide under the leaves and behind the dead stalks. Not one movement was achieved at less than breakneck speed and it was never still for more than a second

I resolved to leave the Hide at two pm regardless of what happened in the meantime. The clock reached half past one and then the same slim, brown form that had so energised me earlier, materialised once more from the sedge and wandered out to feed on the fallen seed. The Water Rail had returned. It was present this time for slightly longer than eight minutes and as before,  its nervous personality eventually got the better of it and persuaded it to return to the reassuring invisibility of the sedge and I saw no more of it.

I relaxed, content now but feeling the cold which had been untroubling and forgotten as I had sat in anticipation of the return of the Water Rail. I stood up, my bones stiff from sitting immobile for such a long period and I could not feel my toes, so numbed were they by the cold. It was time to go home.

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