Monday 10 August 2020

A Suffolk Tern and Norfolk Dragon 5th August 2020

Mark, one of my birding pals was feeling the effects of being cooped up indoors courtesy of you know what and fancied a day out birding.The question was where would we go, but that was easily answered as a Gull billed Tern had arrived on a very large inland reservoir (it has an eight mile circumference) called Alton Water which lies near Ipswich in Suffolk.

The tern had been present since 30th July and from all accounts was showing well, either flying over the reservoir or perched on railings that surrounded a valve tower.

They are rare in Britain but not that rare with around 389 having been seen to date but Mark had only seen one before so fancied viewing this one, especially as it was so obliging.They are normally found in southern Europe and migrate to winter in Africa.

We arranged to meet on Wednesday and at 8.30 I collected Mark from his home and as the morning transformed from grey cloud to brilliant sunshine it was confirmed the tern was still at Alton Water as we crossed into Suffolk, arriving at Alton Water at just before 10am. We parked at the far end of the reservoir near to the dam wall and noticed a number of birders in the car park scoping the valve tower which lay opposite to us on the far side of the reservoir. 

The Valve Tower and walkway.You can see the metal gate
through which we had to look half way along the walkway
Apparently the tern was visible and if you so wished you had no need to make a longish walk to the valve tower but could scope the bird, albeit distantly from the car park.

We decided that as we wished to not only see the tern but also photo it we would make the walk out to the valve tower. A birder just leaving the car park kindly gave us his day parking ticket to save us any expense and thanking him we set off to walk across the dam wall to the valve tower.

The Dam Wall
Even at this hour in the morning and despite a brisk southerly wind blowing it was very warm in the sunshine. One of those glorious days when it is impossible to be downcast despite the current dire circumstances besetting the world.

Walking along the dam wall I was surprised at the large number of Egyptian Geese, loafing on the warm sloping concrete by the water's edge. I counted no less than forty six, easily the largest number I have seen anywhere. A juvenile Common Tern, one of many was also perched on a bright orange buoy.

Juvenile Common Tern

Egyptian Geese
We made our way to the valve tower and out on a narrow walkway towards it until we could go no further as a firmly padlocked metal gate prevented any further progress. About fifty metres beyond lay the valve tower and the railings surrounding it, currently occupied by a large number of juvenile and adult Common Terns which were perched on the top rail facing away from us into the wind. 

It was going to be difficult to get a photo as not only had we to look through the heavily barred gate but there was only room for three abreast to see through the gate and this position was already occupied by some locals who looked to be there for the duration. 

Also, to add to our woes, with the terns facing away from us and into the wind if the Gull billed Tern did land on the rail we would only see the wrong end of it! 'Oh well, let's see how it pans out'. I muttered to Mark.

Initially there was no sign of the Gull billed Tern although it could be perched on that part of the circular railings obscured by the bulk of the tower. I relaxed, there was nothing I could do about the circumstances after all, stood a little way back from the other birders, leaned on the walkway rail and looked out across the reservoir  to where Black headed Gulls and Common Terns were flying about in some profusion. To while way the time I amused myself by taking photos of passing terns as they flew close to the valve tower. The sun was very bright and frankly not ideal for photography but there was little I could do about that so made the best I could of the situation.

Juvenile Common Terns
Forty minutes passed and we learned from birders scoping from the other side of the reservoir that the Gull billed Tern was indeed now perched on the railings but not visible to us as it was on that part obscured from us by the bulk of the valve tower. Frustration now came to the fore but we would just have to be patient and trust it would eventually perch where we could see it.

In fact our first sight of it, a few minutes later, was not perched but flying, as it left the railing and cruised about over the blue waters of the reservoir, eventually coming relatively close and giving me an opportunity to at least record its presence. As it transpired this was the best opportunity we were to get of photographing it. 

Gull billed Tern. The state of wing moult suggest this is a third summer bird
The tern did come back to perch on the railings but by this time the sun was almost directly in front of us and the tern always had its back to us as it balanced on the rail, facing into the wind that was blowing directly across the reservoir. It was a real struggle to accommodate the brightness in the camera settings but I consoled myself that I had at the very least seen my second ever Gull billed Tern in Britain.

Gull billed Tern.Note the long legs and stout all black bill
The tern soon took off again and for the most part stooged about, high and distantly, above the reservoir, doing very little apart from flying around to no obvious purpose. I  took a few more record shots but in the end we agreed that we had done as well as we were likely to do and called it a day.

It was now lunchtime so we found a rural pub and sat in an empty garden and made the most of a half price meal courtesy of the government. It was all rather pleasant and at no time did I feel uneasy as there was no one sitting within metres of us. How strange and a sign of the times we now live in that I feel it neessary to say this.

The whole afternoon was in front of us and we had a debate about what to do. In the end we opted to go and see another very rare winged wonder of nature but the object of our attention was not a bird but a dragonfly - a very rare one at that, in the form of a Southern Migrant Hawker. Two males had been reported this morning from a Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserve called Thompson Common which was situated near Thetford in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.

Southern Migrant Hawkers are normally found in southern and central Europe.  Being migrants, in years of hot weather such as this one they can migrate north and end up in southern parts of Britain. Four were the first to be seen in Britain in 2006 and in 2010 many more were seen in south Essex and North Kent but they still remain rare, although being seen regularly as far north as Oxfordshire and Norfolk.They are now considered to be a potential colonist to southern Britain.

To get to Thompson Common entailed a ninety minute drive across rural Suffolk and into Norfolk and then came  some confusion, as the location of the reserve was far from obvious. After a few wrong turns we found a small, innocuous layby with three cars in it and fortunately for us a man standing by one of the cars who had just been watching the dragonflies. He directed us where to go and after a short walk through some woodland we found ourselves by a small, wet and reedy pool called a pingo.

A pingo I have since learned is a small pool that has formed in a post glacial depression. Apparently Thompson Common contains over four hundred of them. Well, hopefully, this one would do us nicely!

The 'pingu' where we saw the Southern Migrant Hawker 
There were three other dragonfly enthusiasts already here and they told us that the male Southern Migrant Hawker had been flying over the reeds a few minutes ago and if we were patient it would surely show itself. A minute later and a dragonfly with a body of amazing blue colour and with even more vividly blue eyes cruised at knee height to within feet of us and settled on a thin blade of dead reed.

I am not a great enthusiast of dragonflies but even I was smitten by the beauty of this fabulous insect with  intense blue banding on its long body and bulbous azure blue eyes. A veritable stunner. We all took our photos as the insect clung to the reed. 

At first we were circumspect about approaching it too closely in case it flew off but our confidence grew as it resolutely remained on its chosen reed and by the end we were virtually touching it with a macro lens. 

As if this was not enough, to double the experience another equally vivid shining blue male joined it briefly and the two flew around together before departing.

The enthusiasts told us there was another rare damselfly here called a Scarce Emerald Damselfly which was worth a look. I was now a long way out of my comfort zone, knowing little about damselflies but I am always willing to learn. However, we were warned, that we had to take great care, even if we thought we had found one, as there were also much commoner Emerald Damselflies present which are virtually identical in appearance and the only way to differentiate between the two was to look at the inner pair of claspers at the end of the body. These had to be viewed from behind which is no easy task on an insignificant insect just over an inch long but eventually we managed it by taking photos of the damselflies rear ends, magnifying the image on the camera and comparing them. The Scarce Emerald Damselfly has inner claspers which are broad with incurved tips whereas Emerald has straight inner claspers with narrow tips. You will have to take my none too confident word for it that the image below is the Scarce Emerald!

I think this is a Scarce Emerald Damselfly but am happy to be corrected!
We soon found the damselflies and even one eating an unfortunate invertebrate but we were unable to detect which species of damselfly it was although I suspect it was only an Emerald Damselfly 

Eventually, after examining a number of damselflies, we were reasonably satisfied we had seen both species and returned to the more appealing attractions of the Southern Migrant Hawker. Another photography session ensued and then it was time to head for home.

Dare I say it, although my primary interest is birds the male Southern Migrant Hawker was the unexpected highlight of the day and has now fired a late developing enthusiasm towards at least the larger species of dragonflies. Both of us were completely overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the SMH.

Nature in all its wondrous manifestations triumphs and surprises once more.

Tread carefully on my dreams for I have lain them at your feet.

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