Friday 23 June 2023

Red White and Bluethroat 22nd June 2023

I called Mark(P) on Monday evening suggesting we make a trip to Slimbridge  to see a male White spotted Bluethroat that had returned there for a remarkable third year to sing, so far unsuccessfully, for a  mate. A mate that would surely never come as it was so far removed from its normal breeding range. 

There are are 11 recognised subspecies of bluethroat ranging from Europe and Scandinavia to the Far East and all are fundamentally similar in plumage apart from male birds having either a red or white spot in the blue of their breast or far less frequently no spot at all, just blue.The red spotted birds are the commoner of the two forms and are found more in the north and east of the species range.

The white spotted bluethroat being the more southerly form is found breeding discontinuously throughout Europe from northwest France, Belgium,The Netherlands and Germany to west and central Russia, Romania, then to west and central Ukraine and winters in southwest and southern Europe, North Africa and sub saharan West Africa. 

The hot weather would certainly suit the current incumbent at Slimbridge and make it feel at home but the chances of attracting a similarly overshooting female are, sadly, slim There are however five records of bluethroats breeding in Britain, four of the red spotted form in Scotland in 1968/1985/1995/2016 and one of the white spotted form in England in 1996. 

Single males like the individual at Slimbridge have occasionally set up territory in Britain, as for example, a White spotted Bluethroat that returned for two years in succession to sing at Welney in Norfolk in 2020/21 but like the bird now at Slimbridge failed to attract a mate. Normally bluethroats are scarce passage migrants mainly to be found on the east coast of Britain.

The Slimbridge bluethroat had made its home in an area of rank grass and reeds by the tidal River Severn, a typical habitat and after the previous two years of being highly elusive and hard to see this year it showed a marked change in behaviour with a willingness to show itself well at regular intervals, albeit distantly, singing and displaying from various elevated perches such as wooden fence posts, thin branches and the tops of reeds.

We arrived at 8.15am when the Slimbridge gates are first opened to members and made a pleasant half mile walk in already warm sunshine along what is called the Summer Walkway to a location called Middle Point where there is a hide called The Shepherd's Hut.  Most of us eschewed entering the hide but chose to stand outside on a raised bank that acts as a seawall to look over the reeds and grass that lay between us and the River Severn.

It took less than a minute to see the bluethroat which was singing from a thin branch rising out of the reeds on the far side of the reedbed.The heat haze, even at this comparatively early hour was already a hindrance  and posing viewing problems but the bird nevertheless stood out reasonably clearly in the telescope. Initially facing away from us we could only see its earth brown upperparts, a frequently cocked tail with bright chestnut flashes  and dull white underparts. It reversed on its perch to face in our direction and it was as if a coloured light show had been switched on. A transformation that left you almost gasping in wonder at the sheer jewel like magnificence of the combined colours The iridescent bright blue throat and breast  shone in the sun, with bands of unequal breadth, black and mostly chestnut dividing the blue from a white belly A broad pale eyebrow crossed each side of its head and in the midst of the blue a prominent white spot was visibly pulsing as the bird sang.

For Mark it was a lifer and for me a chance to once more enjoy another view of this spectacularly colourful bird. Its behaviour and the attitudes it adopted were reminiscent of a Robin as it dropped down into the reeds and then popped up again with much tail cocking and body  bobbing on long legs.Minor conflcts with a male Reed Bunting ensued as the two birds disputed who perched at the top of the branch. It eventually flew towards us and landed on a fence post to our left where it sang as it moved away from us post by post, before flying back to the far side of the reeds where it showed almost continuously for the next hour.

The heat haze was now burdensome, especially when viewing the magnified bird at distance through camera lens or telescope and the sun was surprisingly hot on our necks .More and more people were arriving and we decided that it looked like the bluethroat had every intention of remaining on the far side of the reeds, so we departed back to the main reserve for a welcome ice cream and to sit outside the cafe in the shade as a couple of Rooks hung about our table on the off chance of a scrap or two. 

We had nothing for them but doubtless as the cafe got busier their fortunes would change. Moving on we made our way to the South Lake and its Discovery Hide to see the long staying male Black winged Stilt.

Again the bird was on immediate view and in fact came quite close. Supremely elegant on its astonishingly long coral pink legs akin to knitting needles. Stilt is by no means a  misnomer as it stalked through the shallow water of South Lake on those amazing legs supporting a slim black and white body. The legs looked so incredibly fragile you feared they might break at the slightest opportunity.   

Black winged Stilts, formerly a real rarity are becoming an increasingly frequent spring and summer visitor to Britain in small numbers and are now breeding here successfully, albeit only one or two pairs.I predict this may well be one of those southern European species that will colonise Britain as have Great, Little and Cattle Egrets. Certainly our warming climate and our current heatwave will be an undoubted encouragement.

Other waders were beginning to build up on the lake as returning birds arrived from their northern breeding grounds, with at least three Green Sandpipers, two soot black, summer plumaged Spotted Redshanks hiding amongst some roosting Common Redshanks. Numerous Lapwings and Black tailed Godwits of various ages, were also scattered around the lake amidst over a hundred Avocets, both adult and young.

The sun was against us as it had been all morning, dazzlingly bright, reflecting off the water and making photography a lottery. Even just observing birds was difficult as they became mere silhouettes in the white reflected light.

We called it a day at noon. 

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