Tuesday 18 August 2020

More on Waders at Slimbridge 16th August 2020

A visit to Slimbridge WWT today really did not turn out the way it was planned but in the end I had a thoroughly enjoyable time despite not seeing the two special birds I had hoped to see.

On Friday I had booked a visit to Slimbridge this Sunday to go and see a Wood Sandpiper that has been showing really well from the Hogarth Hide and then became quite excited when fellow Oxonbirder Nick Truby discovered a juvenile Citrine Wagtail from the  same hide, on Saturday. 

The reserve laid on two specially timed visits to look for the wagtail on Sunday at 0800 and 0900 but as I had already booked a visit which allowed me in at the official opening time of 0930 I decided to take it easy and not allow myself to get caught up in any of the mild hysteria concerning the rare wagtail. I had, after all is said and done, seen three Citrine Wagtails in Britain so there was no huge incentive to get up early to see this one.

These are the three Citrine Wagtails I have seen:

Juvenile @ Spurn Yorkshire October 2015
Adult female @ Lynemouth Northumberland May 2017
Juvenile @ St Mary's Isles of Scilly August 2018
As it transpired it was for once a remarkably prescient decision on my part not to go early as the wagtail had gone from the mud in front of the Hogarth Hide and all those who turned up for the early excursions were disappointed. 

In relaxed mode I made my way to the Hogarth Hide at just after 9.30 and sat in a corner and hoped that maybe the Citrine Wagtail would eventually come back here during the morning. Sadly there was no sign of it for my entire stay, apart from a brief sighting reported from amongst the Yellow Wagtails following the cattle on the Bottom New Piece area of the reserve. 

However my vigil presented a welcome opportunity to get really close to three wader species that are always difficult to approach under normal circumstances.

Up to four Green Sandpipers were feeding very near to the hide, almost too close on occasions. They are a neat, small headed and compact, medium sized wader recalling a large Common Sandpiper, with matt brown upperparts the colour of turned earth and underparts of shining white. In flight they display a striking white rump and uppertail that allows them to replicate themselves into something akin to a giant House Martin as they fly up and away. Close up and you can see a myriad of small buff spots and indentations, forming regular lines on the upper feather tracts and the white tail marked with three brown chevrons

They paraded through the shallows, picking delicately at the surface to find morsels so small they are invisible to all but them, subjecting their body to a constant gentle swaying and bobbing. Their highly strung, incessant activity is punctuated by pauses as they stall and freeze, their acutely attuned senses detecting something untoward, the anxiety infectious as I become fearful they will flee. However within seconds they resume feeding.

I find taking their photograph and reviewing the images afterwards brings me great pleasure as you tend not to notice, through just watching with binoculars, the innate balance and poise they demonstrate in their feeding but the camera faithfully records these various actions and attitudes and here is a selection below.

The second wader species to catch my eye was a group of eight Ruff, mainly males although one or two distinctively smaller Reeves (females) were amongst them. One male in particular caught the eye regularly, as it still retained a remnant of white breeding plumage around its head and breast. Ruff in my opinion lack the composite elegance of similar medium sized waders. Their feeding action is slower, meandering and slightly ungainly as they wander through the shallow water and over the mud. The male has a distinctive and not exactly pleasing profile with a head that seems too small for a body which due to a slightly pot belly and characteristic raising of the mantle feathers creates a curious humped profile, making the body as a whole seem larger than it really is.

Adult male Ruff still retaining remnants of its breeding plumage.It may stay like this until next Spring.Note the characteristic hump formed by the raised feathers on its upperparts

Adult male Ruff in normal winter plumage showing the upperpart hump well and the impression of having a pot belly
However when they take to flight they transform to a vision akin to perfection as they languidly caress and float on the air with long wings, in a flight of supreme gracefulness.

For the most part they remained more distant than the Green Sandpipers but one juvenile joined the sandpipers right below the hide and here was an opportunity to enjoy its close presence. Unlike the adult male it lacked the humped posture and was sleek and trim with not a feather out of place. Its upperbody plumage is a series of perfectly aligned dark brown feathers neatly fringed chestnut and white, creating an image of turtle like scalloping while its small head, long neck and breast are coloured with an orangey buff  suffusion. 

Finally and perhaps the most appropriate to end this homage to waders, came three juvenile Greenshank which flew in as the clouds dispersed in early afternoon. Calling constantly to each other with a mellifluous teeuu teeuu teeuu, they landed in a flurry of white and grey right in front of me. This is one of, if not the most aristocratic of waders, a living image of electric wire volatility, they stand, tall and elegant, feathers compressed to their lithe muscular bodies, alert and almost vibrating with life force. I can even see the rapid pulse beating in the smooth white breast of the bird nearest to me. No soporific late summer dreaming here but a life being lived in the fastest of lanes, forever anxious, forever alert, forever restless. 

I wait, a similar but temporary tension enveloping me. Will they sense something amiss and fly or will they settle? It is in the balance. They express their anxiety with regular calling. Like actors that can hold an audience with their unspoken presence they stand, huge black eyes looking, I feel as if straight at me, pale green legs braced in the water, wings at the ready to propel them skywards. 

Then suddenly they start to run on long legs, together, as if trying to outdo each other, rushing through the water, bills lowered to the water, speed feeding. Good lord do these birds ever relax? Even when feeding they move at a pace that puts you on edge and makes you somehow uncomfortable.

They disappear  down to the end of the channel, round a corner in the reeds and into invisibility.I can still hear them calling and then they fly back to land in front of the hide once more. 

I am treated to an encore of balletic feeding in the shallow water and then they are off, calling that lovely melodic note, always it seems uttered in a triple sequence. It's as if it's too much to remain on the ground and they must take to the air to release that pent up energy. 

I last see the trio flying high into the sky and away to the south. Sat in the gloom of the hide I suddenly become aware once more of the reality of our current perilous human existence and wish I could go with them and leave all behind.

I walk from the hide into sunlight.

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