Sunday 5 January 2020

Another Year Another Wagtail 4th January 2020

Well not just any wagtail but an Eastern Yellow Wagtail. This is a very rare bird for Britain with only five seen previously in Britain and one in Ireland. So it is truly a mega in twitcher parlance.

I went to see my first one on 16th November last year, at Walberswick in Suffolk, but the views were rather brief and I felt slightly disappointed at not getting better views of it.

However another individual was discovered on 15th December in the unexpected surrounds of Prestwick Carr, an area of wet grassland and farmland, managed by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust near the village of Dinnington. Sadly there was no possibility for me to go and see it with Christmas looming and myself and Mrs U departing for the Isle of Arran, five days hence, on 20th December.

I kept an eye on matters over Christmas and New Year whilst we were on Arran and formed a vague idea of possibly stopping off to see the wagtail on our way back south, after we left Arran. This of course depended on whether the wagtail remained at Prestwick Carr.

Each day I checked RBA (Rare Bird Alert) and each day the wagtail was reported as showing well and it was still there when we left Glasgow on 4th January to make the long drive south. I had hoped the weather would be bright but we left in a smirr, a Scots word for describing the kind of soft relentless rain and low cloud that leaves a fine mist of water on the windscreen and your clothes and is just as drenching and irritating in its own way as full on rain. Maybe smirr is derived from the word smear which is what the precipitation did on the windscreen as the wipers beat back and fore.

We drove steadily south, the surrounding hills and moors shrouded by grey cloud but once across the border and south of Carlisle, matters improved as we turned east to head for Dinnington and nearby Prestwick Carr, which lies just south of Newcastle.

Following the directions issued on RBA to park by Mayfair House, we found ourselves, after passing through Dinnington, in open country, driving down a narrow. bumpy lane with flooded fields on either side. We came to a crossroads of four lanes with the aforesaid Mayfair House on one corner. This is where, according to RBA we were to walk northwest a hundred metres along a lane to view some pools in an adjacent field.

Parking the car in the only space available we stepped out into a raw windy day but nonetheless sunny. It was very cold as strong gusts of wind blew unhindered across the flat, open, waterlogged countryside. I had assumed there would be other birders here so we would know exactly where to go but looking up and down the three lanes, other than the one we had driven down, there was no sign of any other birder. Presumably everyone who wanted to had already seen the bird. So  the question was where do we go as each lane seemed to have identical pools of water in the fields beside them.

Standing at the cross roads I was in a dilemna as to which of two lanes to take as both were heading in a northerly direction. One went directly north and one went northwest. RBA  had said take the northwest one, so we turned to do just that. At that moment a green clad person carrying a camera emerged from a gap in a hedge running down one side of the lane running due north and waved to me.

Aha! This was obviously the lane to venture down, which we duly did, and in a couple of minutes I was looking through a gap in a straggling, bare, wind torn hedge onto a very muddy and waterlogged field with two circular metal containers full of hay from which a number of horses were busily feeding, tugging at the hay and and scattering as much as they ate.

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail spent all its time around the
horses and the hay dispenser
The birder pointed to the mud and straw in the field, the former churned up by the horses hooves, and there was the Eastern Yellow Wagtail, no more than fifteen feet away, strutting in and out of the furrows and indentations caused by the horses hooves, picking up tiny, red worms at a prodigious rate. It was distinctive, appearing very pale and grey in some lights against the dark mud but in the now intermittent bursts of sun the plumage took on a warmer buff tone with just a hint of yellow on some of the underparts.

It never ventured far out into the field and so I got to see it very well although the strong wind prompted it to seek shelter in any furrow or depression in the mud it could find, so sometimes you could see only parts of the bird whilst at other times it was in full view. It also showed no fear of the horses pulling at the hay, wandering around their feet with little apparent concern. I followed its progress as it fed in what was a small area just beyond the fence, searching back and fore for the worms.

Eventually it came closer to the fence and found a nice cosy spot in a jumble of hay discarded by the horses, which sheltered it nicely from the wind. Here it sat, quite content, for all of ten minutes, out of the buffeting wind before literally shaking its feathers and re-commencing its search for more worms.

For the most part I was on my own but a group of birders briefly joined me.They were doing a bird race and the rare wagtail was an unexpected bonus for them but they soon departed with no time to appreciate the wagtail. Such a shame.

For company the Eastern Yellow Wagtail had a flock of around twenty Pied Wagtails and half a dozen Meadow Pipits feeding in the same general area. I deduced that it remained in its particular  favoured area around the two hay dispensers as this was where the mud became regularly churned up by the horses which presumably exposed the worms in the mud.

I watched the wagtail for around forty minutes but the wind was becoming increasingly strong and chilling and with a five hour drive in prospect, I departed for the car and we headed South.

A nice way to start the New Year.

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