Monday, 18 February 2019

Brilliant Birding at Weymouth 15th February 2019


Birding depends very much on the weather and with the forecast getting progressively better each day this week I had arranged with Moth to visit today, the two RSPB reserves of Radipole and Lodmoor which are almost adjacent to each other and are to be found at Weymouth in Dorset. The weather was predicted to be sunny all day and mild due to a gentle southwest wind so it all looked set for an enjoyable time.

The two reserves in question had the not inconsiderable attraction of each currently harbouring a rare bird. A Lesser Yellowlegs at Lodmoor and a Ring necked Duck as well as Bearded Tits in the case of Radipole, and there would also be other 'good' birds to see at both reserves, that we do not get in Oxfordshire,  

Both reserves have good memories for me as I have seen a number of rare birds at both of them over the years such as Hooded Merganser, Ross's and Bonaparte's Gull, Short billed Dowitcher, Stilt and Least Sandpipers.

Although the weather was forecast to be benign it was distinctly unspringlike when I collected Moth  from his home in Eynsham at 5.45am for the three hour car journey to Weymouth. It was freezing with a thick frost coating the land and dense patches of mist regularly obscured the road making driving hazardous. Even at this early hour the roads were busy and I became increasingly concerned about the continuing mist as we headed westwards. It would not be a good start if we found ourselves still in the dense mist when we reached Weymouth.

We made good progress, as by leaving so early we managed to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic but the mist was showing no signs of dissipating. Nine miles out from Weymouth we suddenly emerged from a grey miasma into brilliant sunshine and so it remained  as at just after 8.30am.we turned into a deserted car park at Radipole RSPB, its large area of desolate tarmac populated by a small flock of resting Black headed Gulls. 

After a frustrating delay dealing with the ridiculously complicated automated payment machine for car parking (nothing to do with the RSPB but everything to do with Weymouth Council) we got it together and set about some serious birding. It was good to be out of the car and the morning was now promising to be lovely with bright sunshine and increasing warmth, so much so that I began to feel overdressed in my goose down jacket.

I had done some research prior to our departure from Oxfordshire concerning the birds we were going to look for today and had learned that the Bearded Tits were best seen in an area of Radipole Reserve that lay between 'the concrete bridge and the shelter, between 9.00-1030am'. We were bang on time but not too sure where the concrete bridge was to be found.

Bearded Tits or to give them their other popular name Bearded Reedling, is in fact a misnomer as these birds are neither tits nor have a beard. The beard is in fact two long, black drooping moustaches, one on each cheek and it is Europe's only representative of an Asiatic family of birds called babblers within which it is placed in a sub family called parrotbills, the members of which have relatively bright colours and are similarly gregarious. Subsequent molecular research has shown it is most closely related to the lark family. It is entirely dependent on reedbeds as a habitat and has expanded its range considerably from its original British stronghold in East Anglia so it is now found as far north as the Tay Estuary in Scotland. Its expansion has undoubtedly been aided by generally milder winters.

Following the main track, which is also a public footpath, onto the reserve we found we had the reserve to ourselves and followed the track  through vast reed beds on either side, serenaded by an abundance of Cetti's Warblers, shouting out their explosive song from the surrounding cover and it has to be said a background roar of traffic as this reserve is situated between two very busy roads almost in the heart of Weymouth. We even managed to see a couple of these most elusive of warblers which are, for some unknown reason, more prone to show themselves at Radipole than elsewhere. We came to what was obviously the concrete bridge and a track leading off to the right equally obviously led to the pagoda like shelter in the near distance.So this was the place. So where were the Bearded Tits?  

Of course it is never that easy!

There was predictably no sight or sound of them so we walked along the track to the shelter that looks out onto a large area of open water and reeds but saw little apart from some Tufted Ducks and Common Pochards and heard a Water Rail squealing from the ditch by the track. A male Shoveler swam along, his spatulate bill dredging the water's surface, cutting a swathe through the still water that had become as if corrugated gold as it reflected the dead reeds, the sun illuminating not only the reeds but the Shoveler's glory of breeding colours but that was about it. We walked back towards the bridge, feeling, on my part at least, a little flat.


'I think we will just have to wander back and fore here Moth and wait and see if  and when they turn up' I suggested.

Just before we got to the junction where the two tracks met by the bridge I heard the utterly distinctive 'pinging' calls of Bearded Tits coming from some reeds right by the bridge. 

'Beardies Moth!!' I exclaimed

We stood on the bridge and looked out and down to the reeds on either side of the narrow channel of water that the small bridge spanned. A pair of Tufted Ducks looked enquiringly up at us from the blue water below.

The view from the bridge



Tufted Ducks
The reeds on the left side of the channel were extensive and consisted of Phragmites, the thin dead stems  each with a pennant of brown feathery seed heads but the reeds on the right were much less extensive  and unlike the reeds to our left consisted of both Phragmites and Great Reedmace, the latter commonly called Bulrushes. 

At first there was nothing to see but I was certain I had heard Bearded Tits calling.

Moth saw them first, a pair, male and female, sidling up the thin reed stems on our right to pluck at the fat, velvety brown bulrush heads, tugging at and tearing them apart, sending clouds of fluffy soft down drifting away on the gentle breeze. 



Male Bearded Tit on a Bulrush head


Female Bearded Tit on a Phragmites head



Female Bearded Tit
They fed acrobatically and with much energy, their delicate, thin black legs and feet clinging on to the nareed stems, stabbing their yellow bills into the soft bulrush heads to get at the seeds, discarding the fluffy down, swinging up and down on the reed stems and heads, sometimes even sitting on top of the fat bulrush heads or feathery fronds of the Phragmites. 
















For both of us it had been over a year since we last saw Bearded Tits so we especially enjoyed seeing the male with his orange rust coloured body, flanks of the most delicate shade of pink, dove grey head and prominent fu-manchu black moustaches, each encompassing a golden yellow eye.   A really good looker, although both birds were remarkably well camouflaged, especially  the more soberly coloured female, as their plumage blended so well with the similarly coloured reed stems and heads. 





They fed in silence, constantly active, moving from bulrush head to bulrush head, to tear and  tug  at them but slowly they moved away from us and finally we lost sight of them in the more distant reeds. It had been all of fifteen minutes that we watched  them  and we  were  entirely  alone apart from one other local birder who had joined us.



Both of us felt we had not quite seen enough of the 'Beardies' so we again walked the track to the shelter but failed to locate any more or even the pair we had been watching. Slightly disappointed we retraced our steps and as we approached the bridge again I could see at least half a dozen people standing on the bridge looking intently at the same reeds we had been viewing earlier.I put a spurt on and joining them on the bridge found they were looking at another pair of Bearded Tits performing in precisely the same way as the previous pair. They put on quite a show for at least twenty minutes and then, for no apparent reason and with pinging calls flew up from the reeds, over the bridge, into the sun and off into the large Phragmites reed beds behind us.


This time we both felt we had done justice to the Bearded Tits. 

What a great start to the day.

Now it was time to go in search of our first genuinely rare bird which was situated on this very reserve, frequenting a broad channel of water separating the eastern side of the reserve from a busy public road. In order to achieve this we had to walk back to the RSPB's small Visitor Centre where, whilst Moth used the facilities  I found an adult Mediterranean Gull stood on the same small stony island where I had observed a Ross's Gull a year ago.

We got to the car and drove a very short distance to park in Aldi's car park and walk a hundred and fifty metres north along a footpath between the road and the reeds growing along the edge of the channel of water that marked the reserve's southern boundary. The reeds made it difficult to view the channel from the path but at regular intervals a wooden boardwalk for fishermen and the public had been constructed, jutting out at right angles to the path, extending to just beyond the reeds and thus making it possible to view up and down the channel.

Boardwalk for fishermen - and birders!
The first boardwalk we came to had nothing to offer and we had the disadvantage of the sun shining straight down the channel. The second had a fisherman setting up his gear so we ignored it  as we did with the third but from the fourth we could see some Common Pochard and a few Tufted Ducks close to the reeds between us and the third boardwalk and partially obscured. I scanned them with my bins through the reeds and just made out the distinctive profile of our quarry, a North American vagrant in the form of a male Ring necked Duck. We walked back to the third boardwalk and there was the Ring necked Duck, in perfect light, just to our right and floating in the channel.

Male Ring necked Duck
You can just see the indistinct purple ring at the base of its neck and
from which it gets its name
It has been here for some time and has now moulted from immaturity into its finest breeding plumage. Superficially similar to a Tufted Duck but with a distinctive profile due to a large domed head, this impression enhanced by a prominent peak to the back of a head which seems just that bit too large for their body. The flanks are also grey with a distinctive white spur at the leading edge as opposed to the all white flanks of a male Tufted Duck. A really good looking duck, the combination of grey flanks, iridescent purple black head and yellow eye making it look ultra smart. Its bill is also striking, being slate grey with two white bands, one at its base and the other almost at its black tip. 





It swam out in no particular alarm to mid channel with three Tufted Ducks and commenced bathing and preening. Then the quartet moved slowly up the channel away from us before swimming back into the reeds again. 







The Ring necked Duck with Tufted Ducks
Delighted at this successful encounter with our second target bird, I relaxed and took  time to admire the small party of Common Pochard also loafing on the water. The males in particular are very attractive and of course at this time of year they are at their very best, especially with the sun shining down on them and highlighting the red eyes in their chestnut orange heads.


Male Common Pochard

Female Common Pochard
I could not help but reflect on my enjoyment at seeing these beautiful ducks metres away from a busy road and the equally attractive Bearded Tits earlier, and what a marvel nature is, surrounding us in all its forms and my thoughts went to all those concerned young people demonstrating about the oncoming ecological disaster which will affect their  future and that of not just Britain but the world. That our Government refuses to acknowledge this and some members of the Government even deride such a demonstration of concern is a national scandal, a disgrace and I felt a quiet anger, fuelled by despair, come over me. It is no use hoping anymore that something might happen and somehow it will work out for the best. Direct action  such as the demonstration taking place today in London seems the only way to combat the likes of this loathsome self serving Government currently dragging Britain through the mire of Brexit and ignoring its wider responsibilities to future generations.

We walked slowly back along the path to Aldi's car park as a Common Chiffchaff flitted through some sallows and made another short drive, this time along Weymouth's seafront and then out of the town to park on the north side of the RSPB's Lodmoor Reserve. We took a narrow footpath that skirted the northern side of the reserve, passing through yet more extensive Phragmites reed beds with a good scattering of bulrushes in them that I remarked to Moth looked ideal for a Penduline Tit to inhabit. Dream on! The footpath brought us eventually to the western side of the reserve where the main wader scrapes are located. This was where the second of our rare birds was to be found.

We were seeking a Lesser Yellowlegs, a rare vagrant wader from North America which has been a permanent resident here since arriving in November last year.  It has been reported virtually every day and we considered this would be the easiest of our three target birds to locate. It had already been reported this morning so we were very confident that soon we would have accounted for it and seen all three of our target birds. As we had left the car I joked with Moth saying how ironic it would be if having been so successful in finding the two more difficult of our target birds, namely the Bearded Tits and the Ring necked Duck we should fail with the Lesser Yellowlegs or The Legs as it is referred to by one and all.

Observers over the previous months had recounted how the best way to find The Legs was to locate an  overwintering male Ruff with a white head and The Legs would be with it, as they had formed an unlikely liason. We found the Ruff quickly enough as it was the only one and with its white head was very distinctive but there was no sign of its erstwhile North American companion.



Adult male Ruff
I should have known better than to tempt fate with my comments and sure enough on arriving at the western scrapes we were informed by a birder that The Legs had only just disappeared as if into thin air and no one could relocate it. Apparently they were watching it at one moment and then the next, well it was just not there. Very strange and anxiety began to form within me.
.
Looking over part of the western scrapes

Footpath running by the western scrapes

We walked both up and down the public footpath which is right by the water's edge, scanning the scrapes endlessly but of The Legs there was no sign. This was ridiculous as it was always to be found right here according to every report I had read. Where was it? Surely it would re-appear at any moment?

No one had a clue and in the end Moth and myself resigned ourselves to the fact it might be out of sight on some more distant, inaccessible part of the reserve and we were in for a long frustrating wait.

In the meantime there were other birds to see and some were very close to us indeed. Sadly the four Spoonbills that had flown in about two hours earlier were only viewable on a distant part of the reserve and as per normal were all fast asleep.

Never mind, we concentrated on the multitude of Common Snipe feeding in the muddy waters or sleeping in the lee of grass and juncus clumps. They were scattered around everywhere and presumably the regular passing of birders, dog walkers, joggers and the like on the footpath has made them relatively confiding and so they showed no real alarm at our close presence. We watched as they probed their extraordinary long bills into the mud below the shallow water, seeking by means of the ultra sensitive tips to their bills their unseen prey in the muddy bottom






Common Snipe
Many birds were taking advantage of the pleasant conditions and were asleep in the sun. Looking at them at ease it was impossible not to also feel content and relaxed and we sat on a bench watching the Teal and Shovelers dozing in the warm sun.  


Eurasian Teal

Northern Shoveler
Even a Black tailed Godwit was indulging itself in some quiet time whilst others of its kind were belly deep in  the water probing with their outlandish long bills for ragworms in the mud below the water.




Black tailed Godwits-this one with a ragworm
A pair of truculent Lapwing had commandeered one area of the western scrapes, driving off the Ruff and any other wader that came near to what they considered their territory. Had they driven off The Legs from this its favourite spot? 

I took the opportunity in the meantime to take some pictures of both male Teal and Shovelers - their close proximity and absolute beauty proving, as always, irresistible.

Male Eurasian Teal


Male Northern Shoveler
An hour at least had passed and there was still no sign of The Legs. Beyond the close western scrapes a large flock of Lapwing were feeding and loafing on another very distant flash of water and I could just about discern three smaller waders running energetically amongst them. They were too distant to identify  but one looked larger than the other two which probably were Dunlin. Was the larger one The Legs?

Unless something disturbed the flock we would never know and we had but to hope if it was The Legs it might eventually come back to the scrapes before us. Another long passage of time was spent sitting on the bench and I too dozed in the sun as nothing much was happening. I was awoken from my trance some time later, alerted by a commotion from the Lapwings on the distant scrape. A Marsh Harrier was flying over the distant flock  and every one of them took to the air in alarm. Subsequently it rained Lapwings as, once the harrier had gone, they came and settled on the scrapes nearest to us  but despite frantic scanning on my part of the new arrivals there was still no evidence of The Legs.

I sat down again on the bench whilst Moth wandered further along the footpath and out of sight around a corner. Just a few minutes had passed before he was back calling to me, 'The Legs is back!'

I ran around the bend in the footpath to join him and three other birders and there was the Lesser Yellowlegs. Where had it been? Had it been hunkered down in the juncus, invisible all this time, maybe asleep? Who cares, for we would never know but more to the point it was here now, right in front of us.
Lesser Yellowlegs
Superficially looking like our Common Redshank, it was paler, spotted grey brown above and shining white below, slightly smaller, much slimmer in all aspects and far more elegant in form and movement. Its wings appeared long, the primaries extending beyond the tail adding to its attenuated appearance. Its bright sulphur yellow legs were longer than a Common Redshank's due to the extended tibia which doubtless added to its elegance. 








It had that same grace that is possessed by high jumpers, all legs and slim body, that compels you to just watch the supreme athleticism on show. It daintily and busily tiptoed and waded around in the shallow water picking prey from the surface with lightening stabs of its delicate bill. It fed endlessly, never stopping for a moment.















The aggressive Lapwings flew at it and it fled but only for a short distance, running through the shallow water aided by its spread wings but not taking to the air, before returning and carrying on as before and this time the Lapwings chose to ignore it for a while but then took exception to its presence once more  and The Legs flew to the far end of the scrapes where it could feed in peace and finally team up with the  Ruff







Whilst watching it we had, as you often do, overheard a conversation between the three birders standing near to us. Apparently, almost unbelievably, considering my comment earlier, a Penduline Tit, a very good bird to see, had been seen an hour earlier on the other side of the reserve near where we had parked the car, only a couple of hours ago. We decided that this was too good to ignore and we should go back along the path to try our luck at the spot that I had considered was ideal for a Penduline Tit when we had first arrived.

On the way back we stopped briefly to check a flock of Black headed Gulls resting out on the mud at the northern end of the scrapes, as there is always the chance of finding a Mediterranean Gull and sure enough we found one. A Kingfisher added to what had become a very good day by flashing past at high speed, low over the water and sped off into the distance.

Mediterranean Gull
Standing at a crossroads of footpaths, looking for the Penduline Tit we could see little sign of birdlife in the surrounding reeds although the habitat looked ideal for a Penduline Tit, so it was obviously going to require a bit of a wait. Wandering about I found my first butterfly of the year, a rather lethargic Small Tortoiseshell, fluttering none too certainly, low down amongst some dead stalks trying to find a sun pocket to bask in. 

Another birder came along the footpath walking his dog and asked me in time immemorial fashion if anything was about. I mentioned the Penduline Tit and he told us we were in the wrong place!

He had already seen it earlier and informed us we needed to go further back along the road where the car was currently parked and stop by the entrance to another footpath  running along the opposite south side of the reserve. Thanking him for saving us a lot of wasted time and effort we drove a short distance, parked the car opposite the footpath entrance and joined three or four birders  a hundred metres or so along the footpath, standing by an unkempt hedgerow shielding the path from a large reed bed on the other side.

Initially I thought we had little chance of seeing the bird as some time had passed and now it could be anywhere in the vast reed bed but on joining the birders I learned it had just been seen a minute earlier and indeed I could hear it calling in the bushes and small trees beside the footpath. Then for fifteen minutes we heard nothing. Mind you it would have been difficult with the racket emanating from three elderly gents conversing in foghorn tones about the bird. I grew increasingly frustrated with their endless babble so to get away from it I walked back up the footpath for thirty metres to the end of the bushes where a gate looked out onto the reed bed. The man who had  originally found the Penduline Tit joined us and played a tape of the bird's call but there was no answer and we all assumed it was not here or had flown out into the reeds.Then a person to my left looked up into the bare hawthorn tree beside us and said 'There it is'. To a chorus of  'Where?' he informed us by pointing upwards 'There. It's right above us in the branches looking down at us'. We looked and sure enough there was a superb male Penduline Tit not more than a few metres away from us, seemingly curious about us and coming close to have a look, although it was probably responding to the tape. It was impossible to get a clear picture of it as it moved around in the close packed twigs and branches of the hawthorn but I did what I could. 


Male Penduline Tit
For a few minutes it fussed around in the hawthorn, pecking at some red berries still leftover from winter but then it flew across to the reed bed and commenced, like the Bearded Tits earlier, to attack the bulbous heads of bulrushes, clouds of soft fluff dispersing on the wind and betraying its presence as it fed from them.

It was not great viewing as by now it was mid afternoon with the sun shining straight into our eyes but we followed the bird as it moved around the bulrush heads and we tried to get some more images. 


Finally it became more distant and frustratingly obscured by endless waving reed stems and I suggested to Moth that we may as well take this opportunity to leave.

What a brilliant day we had and who could have believed we would get so lucky as to be in the right place at the right time and see a Penduline Tit?  A fitting climax to a delightful day of birding.