Friday, 16 October 2020

Phaltastic 14th October 2020


Today was so very different to yesterday. Gone were the grey clouds and gloomy weather to be replaced by blue sky and sunshine. Consequently I was in good spirits as I made plans to go to Keyhaven Marshes, near Lymington on the Hampshire coast to commune with a Wilson's Phalarope that was currently sharing a small brackish pool there with a Grey Phalarope. Not something you see that often.

Wilson's Phalarope is named after the Scottish/American ornithologist Alexander Wilson who was the first to discover it. Native to North America the bird breeds on lakes in the interior of the USA and southwest Canada and migrates to western and southern parts of inland South America to spend the winter on fresh and brackish lakes. It is a regular storm driven vagrant to Britain. 

The Grey Phalarope breeds in Arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. Eurasian birds migrate entirely over the sea, spending up to 11 months at sea, wintering in tropical waters off South Africa where currents converge and upwellings of cold water bring food to the surface. Birds from Canada and Greenland pass by the British coast on the way to their wintering grounds and up to 200 a year can be storm blown in autumn and early winter onto both the coast and inland waters  of Britain.

As I wound my way through the rural lanes around my home to finally join the main road leading south I noticed how this year the trees seem to be particularly bright in their autumn colours, the leaves turned to varying shades of yellow, gold and russet, even red in some cases and still for the most part remaining on the trees. 

Two hours later, I turned from the busy rush hour road around Lymington onto a quieter narrow lane that would, after a mile or so bring me to Keyhaven Marshes. It wound its way through high hedges to  terminate at a tiny car park, right on the edge of the marshes. Fortunately for me there was just one space left  to squeeze the car into, hard up against some brambles that spilled over a fence. It was tight, very tight but I was in. 

Here on the coast the sun was dazzlingly bright and a brisk east wind blew in from the sea. I passed through a gate and onto the marshes, following a well worn track through a flat landscape of cow grazed grass and low lying clumps of gorse, the main marshes off to my right, a mixture of bright blue flashes of water and straw coloured reeds. A flock of Linnets arose in twittering complaint, bouncing in co-ordinated fashion over the gorse as a late Common Whitethroat, flitted from one clump of gorse to another and irate Robins ticked and chased rivals.

A female Sparrowhawk landed on a fence post, eyes yellow and glaring. Hungry and lean it tensed and was off, low to the ground, sweeping around the gorse clumps seeking a victim.

The track I followed brought me alongside a channel of still water, separated from the main lagoon, called I believe, Fishtail Lagoon,  by a flat grass bank. 


These days, especially with such a popular bird as a phalarope, I knew I would not be alone and duly joined the company of half a dozen birders, each and everyone armed with a camera and watching a phalarope swimming endlessly back and fore along the channel of opaque, coffee coloured water. It was not the rarer Wilson's Phalarope but the Grey although that was not a particular worry as I already knew the Wilson's had been seen here this morning.


It is always nice to see any phalarope and so I settled down to watch and photograph the Grey Phalarope. As always seems to be the way with phalaropes it was totally confiding, swimming endlessly, its head nodding back and fore at a rapid rate as it searched for prey to pick from the water's surface. It was a young bird, born earlier this year, its plumage predominantly grey and white, with a bandit like mask of black smudging surrounding each eye. Back and fore it went,  its head held high and upright on stretched neck, sometimes coming within just feet of me, as I watched from the bank.

First winter Grey Phalarope











Maybe it was the same female Sparrowhawk as earlier, that flew fast and low along the channel to settle on a post by the water for a brief moment of rest before carrying on its lethal way. 


The phalarope thoroughly alarmed, cowered, head down into the lee of the opposite bank to where I stood, immobile and trying to make itself as inconspicuous as possible, waiting for quite some time after the danger had passed to hesitatingly emerge and carry on feeding.The items it picked from the surface were invisible to the naked eye and must be so insubstantial and ill nourishing that it is forced to continually feed. It literally was in perpetual motion for the whole time I was there.


I spoke to a young birder stood near me on the bank and asked him about the Wilson's Phalarope. He told me it had disappeared into some reeds at the far end of the channel where it turned at right angles to run parallel with the sea wall and the track. No one had seen it for half an hour but that is where it had flown to and that is where its favoured spot was known to be, a tiny inlet of open water in the reeds.



I walked round to check. but there was no sign of the phalarope. I walked the track the length of the reeds to the far end but still could find nothing. Somewhat chastened I returned to its favoured location and opted to stand there and wait for it to re-emerge from the reeds as it had been seen to do this on previous days. For quite some time nothing happened and I was joined by the young birder who then walked the length of the track to the far end where he found the Wilson's phalarope which had just emerged from the reeds 

How had it got there un-noticed?

First winter Wilson's Phalarope





He waved to me and I joined him and, there before us, was the Wilson's Phalarope.When I say before us I should add that at times it was no more than inches from me and if I had been so inclined I could have reached out and lifted it from the water, it was so totally and utterly confiding. It was immune to any fear and the close presence of myself and several other birders who had joined me was of no consequence to it as it carried on, like the Grey Phalarope, in a remorseless quest for food.




The impression I got was of a phalarope that was neither as compact or robust looking as the Grey Phalarope but slightly larger. It presented a slimmer and more extended profile, its black bill thinner, long and delicate but overall the plumage was a similar colouring of grey upperparts and white underparts with no markings on its head apart from pale greyish brown on the crown.





It weaved its way around and amongst the closely packed reed stems, picking prey from the water and stems, at times elongating bill, head and body into a horizontal alignment on the water to seize prey from the surface.




A marked difference of feeding technique to the nodding upright progress of the Grey Phalarope

As the morning passed more people arrived, all keen to get their own personal images of these two obliging birds.You could hardly fail and the photo opportunities were endless. It became a little too crowded as the track round the channel was narrow and I became concerned about a few who could not control their impetuosity and came too close to me. Social distancing became a worry and so I retreated to sit near two other birders and watch the phalaropes from a distance, as they had both now flown to swim  in  the original channel. I took a photo over one of my companions head to show just how close the Wilson's Phalarope in particular would come.

For the next half an hour we sat and just enjoyed the moment. Many flocks of finches were passing overhead, Goldfinches and Linnets mainly but with a few Redpolls also. Two Little Egrets and a Great White Egret flew over to the seashore and a Marsh Harrier swung into the wind, circling high over the marshes.



The two birds kept to themselves but occasionally their random swimming brought them into close association and that was when the Grey Phalarope became mildly aggressive and the Wilson's always gave way, fluttering a  few metres across the water to distance itself.


Eventually the Wilson's found a sheltered indentation under the far bank and stood on yellow legs, half in the water, to preen and loaf for a while. It became alarmed by something overhead, possibly a Marsh Harrier, crouching and becoming still, watching and waiting with cocked head for whatever was causing it alarm to  pass, before relaxing and continuing its preening. Satisfied it stood for a moment as if in thought before taking to the water to re-commence feeding.




What a pleasant morning watching two species of phalarope in beautiful surroundings. 

Surely a unique occasion?


By noon the numbers of people congregating on the bank was no longer conducive to a relaxing atmosphere.

I left it at that and headed for my car and home.



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