Monday 28 June 2021

Rock 'n' Roller 26th June 2021

One of the most colourful of European birds and a rare visitor to Britain was discovered in Suffolk on 23rd June. A large bird of varying shades of light blue with a rufous brown back. It was a European Roller and a close rival to the European Bee eater in possessing the most colourful and exotic of plumages.

Its normal summer home is south of Britain in northwest Africa and southern Europe from Portugal and Spain to Greece, then more locally in the Balkan countries and eastern Poland to Estonia, extending eastwards to Ukraine. It is also found from Turkey and southern Russia to the southern Urals, southwest Siberia and in central Asia, extending to western China and northern Pakistan. A minority winter locally in equatorial west Africa but the majority migrate to spend the winter in eastern Africa from Kenya to Zimbabwe. I have personally seen them in Tanzania.

Up to and including 2019 there have been 175 records of European Rollers in Britain but the records average only one to two individuals a year, mostly in the late spring/ early summer months of May and June although there are some records in September. Since 1950 there has been a marked shift in the location of records with an increasing emphasis in  the north of England and Scotland and many of these are of birds being found on the east coast which would suggest their origin being eastern Europe rather than overshooting from southern Europe. 

Could this one in the eastern county of Suffolk have come from the east rather than the south? We will never know.

Due to a 30% decline in populations across Europe, it is, of late, becoming increasingly rare and erratic in its appearances in Britain and now is not always annual. So this bird was obviously going to be a very popular attraction.

Both roller and bee eater are considered by twitchers and general birders alike as two of the most coveted and highly desirable birds to see in Britain. In Mark Cocker's Birds Brittanica he relates correspondence he received from a twitcher when researching the book.

'During the 1980's I felt I was spending more time birdwatching than was good for me and decided that if I saw a roller, a golden oriole and a bee-eater in the UK I'd give up. I eventually saw all three but it didn't stop me - in fact, I think it made me worse than ever!'

I too have seen all three in Britain and I completely understand.You can never get enough of these birds and always want more. Like my predecessor I cannot, nor do I wish, for the moment, to stop!

First located in a sheep field by a busy rural road between Icklingham and Lackford, the latest European Roller to visit these shores soon attracted a large number of birders and general public alike. 

Mark, my birding and twitching buddy, went to see the roller on the day it arrived and reported that it was relatively distant, using telephone wires that crossed a large field from which to hunt insects and invertebrates. Unfortunately other commitments meant that I was unable to get any free time until Saturday. Mark was keen to revisit as he wanted to try and get better photos of the roller and indeed, during the ensuing few days, images appeared on social media that seemed to show the roller was, at times, coming much closer than when it first arrived.

I had agreed with Mark that we would go together in my car if the bird was still present on Saturday so a rather tense wait on my part ensued but on checking my RBA app at just after 7am on Saturday morning it was confirmed the bird was still 'on the wires' in its favoured field. I sent a text to Mark. 

'Roller still present.Want to go?I'll drive.'

Confirmation arrived shortly after and we agreed I would collect Mark from his home in Bedfordshire and we would make about a one and  half hour's drive to Icklingham. From the directions on RBA it appeared that we would have to set off on quite a walk to see it once we arrived as  it was instructed not to park on the road but to use the Rampart's Field Picnic Site car park and then make a rather convoluted walk for one and half miles to view the bird.

After a pleasant and uneventful drive on quiet roads and in sunny weather we turned onto the road at Icklingham and after a few more miles suddenly came  upon birders huddled on the verge by a bend in the road. Small groups were commandeering any gaps in the hedgerow where they could view the adjacent field while further on we could see the car park but it was rammed with cars, with others parked haphazardly on the verge. So much for the dire warnings about police and parking by the road. Luckily we found a free space on the verge and making sure the car was fully off the road we unloaded our gear and made a rather perilous walk back along the side of the road to join the furthest group of our fellow birders, standing in an open area between the bushes.

The roller was immediately obvious being the only bird perched high on the telephone wires that were strung across the field in front of us. 

The large field and surrounding open country and scattered trees was not dissimilar to its normal habitat, which obviously made the roller feel more at home, and was another example of a vagrant bird's remarkable capacity, even though a long way out of its usual range, to find somewhere akin to normal. 

Fortunately the wires were quite near the road but the roller was at first perched distantly on the wires at the far end of the field. It remained perched there for a while, doing very little apart from moving its head to follow passing insects but every so often it would take off in a rather languid flight pursuing a passing bee which, when caught in the roller's  substantial bill was brought  back to the wires where it was dealt with and swallowed.

On other occasions it spotted beetles on the ground and would fly down to seize them and again, as with the bees, take them back to the wires . These intermittent flights went on for about half an hour and then, as the roller returned to the wires it commenced to come closer each time it settled on the wires, until it returned from one flight right in front of us.Cue much clicking of cameras and exultant comments about its close proximity and colourful plumage.

Rollers are famed for two things; their beauty and aerial displays in which they show remarkable agility as they indulge themselves in actions that look like they are performed out of sheer enjoyment. The name Roller comes from these flights, when the bird performs all sorts of incredible evolutions, tumbling, somersaulting. nose diving, looping the loop and rolling from side to side as they career around the sky.

European Rollers are about Jackdaw size and look quite thickset. Superficially they appear to be a pale blue bird with a reddish brown back and their head is large with a substantial black bill.When it flies the wings appear long, broad and bi-coloured, showing black flight feathers and contrasting blue upperwing coverts. The leading edge of the wing and the rump are a striking and beautiful violet blue. The underwing, similarly patterned and coloured to the upperwing, shows even more contrast.The tail is shades of pale and dark blue.

Mark Cocker describes it in flight as 'revealing a kaleidoscope of blue shades across their wings. Yarrell, a renowned nineteenth century ornithologist wrote in 1845 'that when flying in the sun it looks like a moving rainbow' and indeed it does.

Although it appears rather bulky with a comparatively slow flight  it still showed much dexerity when flying after prey, swerving and twisting almost in slow motion and was able to catch bees in mid air with no problem at all.

Having got my fill of the bird perched on the wires I really wanted to get some images of it in flight when its true beauty is revealed and anyway, action shots are always good to view.

After each flight the bird would return to the wires but never returned to the same place twice, gradually moving along the wires so at times it was distant and at other times close.

On one memorable occasion it actually flew right over our heads, across the road and briefly perched in a tree on the opposite verge before returning to the wires.There was no shortage of bees for it to catch and it happily sat on the wires until the next unsuspecting victim flew past, while its assorted admirers watched from below as cars whizzed along the road behind them.

Often these events become a pleasurable social occasion, especially when the bird is easy to see and constantly on view. On joining the birders on the verge I heard someone say 'Hello Ewan' and on turning, there was another Mark, this time from Banbury and who I knew. Later going back to the car to get some water I encountered Justin, another Oxfordshire birder, who was scoping the bird from another part of the verge. Then Cliff and Chris arrived, the latter last seen on the Hebridean Island of Tiree, when we twitched a Yellow bellied Flycatcher.

As is often the case, after an hour or two and everyone had settled and got their photos and seen as much of the bird as they wanted, conversation dominated as attention wandered. Mark knows a lot more birding folk than me and whilst waiting for the roller to come closer or fly about we chatted with our fellow birders. Anything and everything can come up, such as technical issues about camera equipment, politics, gossip about fellow birders, previous twitches, even where to get the nearest fish and chips and who had their photos published in a magazine or national newspaper, if you can call The Sun a newspaper!  

The grass verge was a slightly perilous position to watch the roller as cars were regularly passing by, just a few feet away and at considerable speed but there was no choice.We remained for three or four hours and everyone of us seemed more than content with the experience. Towards the end the clouds began to accumulate and the roller became less active, not moving for quite a long time between feeding forays.We waited for it to fly one more time and then called it a day as the roller caught a bee and flew to a distant position on the wires.

It's not often one can claim to have had an enjoyable experience stood by a busy roadside but that's what it most certainly was today thanks to the Roller..

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