Tuesday, 14 August 2018

A Spotted Crake at Gibralter Point NNR 13th August 2018

Reports over the last few days of a juvenile Spotted Crake making itself uncharacteristically visible on a small patch of mud at Gibralter Point NNR in Lincolnshire definitely had me interested but not so sure when or if to make the three hour journey to go and try to see it.

Last week I was too tied up with various commitments to find the time or the weather was just not right. This weekend I figured this bird would be highly popular and I did not fancy being cooped up in a crowded hide with a scrum of birders and photographers. Not very pleasant and not my kind of birding.

Having ascertained that the crake was still there on Sunday and by all accounts being very obliging, by Spotted Crake standards, I made plans to head for Gibralter Point on Monday. Gibralter Point is a National Nature Reserve administered by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and covers 4.3 square kilometres and extends for 5 kilometres along the North Sea coast from the southern end of Skegness to the northern corner of The Wash.

I was aware that the crake was being seen from the Mere Hide at Gibralter Point but unsure of how much room there was in the Hide, so I resolved to get there early in order to secure a seat and a good position in the Hide.These days if you leave it too late you are likely to find the Hide commandeered by photographers who can and often will sit in the Hide all day, so it's best to get there as early as possible.

I decided to arrive at 6am which meant a very early 3am start from my home in order to achieve this. It is a long and tedious journey to Gibralter Point which lies by the North Sea near  the holiday town of Skegness, often the butt of jokes and irreverently known as Skeggy, Costa del Skeg or even Skegvegas. It is claimed to be one of the best places to retire to, judging on the infrastructure, hospitals and crime rates etc. and stated as 'being everything you could want in a tourist town' by Lonely Planet. Forgive me but I am not so sure. It is also the site of Butlin's first holiday camp. opened in 1936 and still going to this day. It cannot, however, escape the fact it is now a somewhat out of favour holiday destination, popular in former years maybe but before we all discovered warmer and more exotic foreign destinations.

I made good time on the virtually traffic free nightime roads, just occasional delivery vans and lorries joining me on the ring roads and dual carriageways as I circumvented the conurbations of Northampton and Peterborough. The dawn rose, uncertainly, as I entered the flat and featureless fenland of Lincolnshire, now no longer true fens, these having long since been drained and converted to huge expansive fields stretching away for dreary mile upon mile on both sides  of the road. 

The forecast was for a mild day with sunny periods but the looming clouds and light drizzle on the car's windscreen  told another story. Two long lines of ragged, windblown Rooks sat hunched and shoulder to shoulder on telephone wires by the road, a picture of misery.Their funereal appearance adding to the sense of gloom and abandonment that emanated from the forbidding landscape about me.

Full on rain descended as I arrived on the outskirts of Boston. This  added yet another layer of misery to my already downcast state of mind  but the rain passed quickly into memory as I made my way out of the other side of Boston. The sky lightened and some white clouds began to appear in the heavens as I now entered an even greater emptiness of enormous rectangular fields stretching away, flat as a board for many a mile into a grey and murky distance. I followed the curving road, sinuous and snaking, seemingly forever, through the miles of flat fields, currently devoid of human life. The only feature to break the monotony were occasional distant huddles of trees, crowding close to each other, rounded in form like earthbound green cumulus clouds  or single trees, marooned in a vast acreage of monotony. I carried on through tiny villages that were unremarkable in every respect, clinging to the lifeline of the road, which continued its curving route northeastwards, a  grey snake writhing its way through this forgotten corner of England. 

I arrived in Skegness and looping round the one way system took the road coastwards out to Gibralter Point, past the golf club. I was, as I hoped and planned, the first to arrive and parked the car in a currently completely empty Beach Car Park as instructed by RBA (Rare Bird Alert). Shortly afterwards a local birder arrived on a motorbike and joined me on the short walk to the Mere Hide.

The Mere Hide
He confirmed my concerns about the weekend, saying the small Hide had been three deep with people wanting to see the crake. Once in the Hide we set ourselves up in a corner with a good view of the area that the crake liked to frequent, a small apron of mud sandwiched between open water and a bank of sedge, in which it spent much of its time, occasionally coming out briefly into the open on the mud.

The small muddy area surrounded by sedge and currently
 home to the Spotted Crake
The light was truly appalling for photography, not a sign of the promised sun but a dull sullen kind of a morning. I checked and altered my camera settings.

The view from the Hide was restricted as the crake, when it came out was so close it was hard to see it over the top of the bank of sedge but there was nothing we could do about that. I sat with my new found colleague and we waited. Tired and a little fraught after my long drive and early start I wanted to sit quietly and pull myself together but my friend, a local birder, wanted to talk and in a very loud voice at that. He was pleasant enough but I feared his foghorn tones would scare the crake as it was so close to the hide, so I replied to him in a quiet whisper hoping he may get the hint but it did not work. Reed Warbler, he bellowed, as a small brown bird flew past the hide. Oh well!

A small, furtive brown shape materialised at the edge of the sedge and briefly ventured out onto the mud. I looked hard, excited at first, but it was not the hoped for Spotted Crake but a juvenile Water Rail which, after venturing out into the open, completely lost its nerve and hurtled back into the cover of the sedge. 

Juvenile Water Rail
The Mere Hide is situated at one end of a reasonably sized lagoon of water, presumably 'The Mere' after which the Hide is named, surrounded by reeds and sedge  and whilst waiting for the crake to show itself we were entertained by a succession of aquatic birds visiting the small muddy scrape. First to arrive were a family of Mute Swans, two adults leading their eight almost fully grown juveniles across the water. They did not stay for long and sailed off in a long line back up the lagoon. 

Juvenile Mute Swans
Little Grebe parents were feeding their broods of young of various ages and came into the shallows chasing sticklebacks. Even the very small young birds had already mastered the art of chasing the fish, snorkelling with their heads under water as they swam on the surface and a fully grown bird sat on the water in front of us and demonstrated how it dealt with a stickleback.

Little Grebes of varying ages
Mallard, Teal  and Tufted Ducks flew in to land on the deeper water and a Coot family had an inevitable dispute with a pair of Moorhens. Some twenty minutes, maybe more had passed, and then another small, brown and equally hesitant and furtive shape wandered out from the sedge onto the mud. Not very far but enough to see it was the Spotted Crake, smaller than a Water Rail with a very different profile of short stout bill and compact body, its pointed tail flicking up and down, flashing prominent buff, undertail coverts in true crake fashion and evidence, if needed, of its nervous disposition. Silently, cameras at the ready, we willed it to move further out, clear from the annoying sedge but the crake wanted the exact opposite, to remain near to the re-assurance of the sedge and the sanctuary it provided and where it could flee at the slightest sense of danger.

Finally, gaining confidence, it came out enough to be a photographed without the sedge getting in the way, feeding at the very edge of the water and picking up tiny seeds or something similar from the muddy margin. It waded out into the water slightly but  seconds later it bolted for cover, rounded wings flapping to assist it progress as its long green legs and toes propelled it back into over. The cause of its alarm became apparent as a  young Water Rail emerged from the sedge.

So here was my first, brief but nonetheless satisfactory, view of the Spotted Crake and now we sat and awaited a repeat emergence of the crake from its sedgy hiding place. Being a Monday and early, there were few other visitors to the Hide, but the warden came in and chatted briefly telling us that people had to wait three hours yesterday before it showed itself and on other days it had disappeared completely in the afternoons.We felt all the better for this having already seen it after just a thirty minute wait.

The warden left and the crake once more emerged and this time remained out in the open for a few minutes before seeking cover once more. Later, in its absence, a Common Snipe landed on the mud and the crake shot out of the sedge and chased it off, something I would never have suspected it of doing, the snipe being larger than the crake.

After this the crake disappeared around a corner of the sedge and we saw nothing more of it for at least forty five minutes. The Common Snipe returned and this time remained un-molested by the crake and fed in the shallows and then indulged in a spot of preening.They are such remarkable looking birds with that outlandishly long bill and big dark eye placed far back on their head and their  pale green legs appear not quite long enough to make its overall form look balanced. The cryptic plumage of straw yellow, buff and dark brown are the colours of the dead reeds and sedge they love to secrete themselves in.

Meanwhile other birders, not many, came and went, not willing to wait for any length of time for the crake to appear. Fair enough.

A couple who had stuck it out finally gave up and left. Of course five minutes later the crake re-emerged and this time put on quite a performance, standing and feeding in the open for at least five minutes which by Spotted Crake standards is a lifetime. Our cameras fired away in staccato volleys recording the moment and then, remarkably the crake was joined by another or the same juvenile Water Rail as before. Each warily eyed the other as they stood inches apart, almost as if they could not believe the situation they found themselves in, before the Water Rail returned to the sedge to be followed shortly afterwards by the Spotted Crake. 

There was one more brief appearance of the crake before it flew with long dangling legs across a small channel of water and into some deep sedge. It was gone and I decided this was the time to bid farewell to the Spotted Crake.

I left the hide and went back to the car park and had a look at the scrapes from the hides on the other side of the  approach road. There was a huge gathering of Black tailed Godwits on the scrapes along with some Avocets and Common Redshanks. A scene of constant activity as many of the birds were vigorously preening, no doubt feeling a constant irritation of moulting feathers. I noticed the godwits regularly dipped the tip of their long bills in the water to moisten them before returning to preening that annoying feather.

Black tailed Godwits, Common Redshanks and an Avocet
The godwits are now rapidly acquiring their grey winter plumage, some already fully transformed, others partially so and a small number still in mainly their summer plumage of orange and black.

Please click on any image abobe to view a larger version

Friday, 10 August 2018

A Roseate Tern at Farmoor 9th August 2018

I really should be more diligent in checking my phone for text messages and updates on the Oxonbirds web site as it was not until just before five o' clock that I saw a message from Badger about a Roseate Tern, discovered by Jeremy at Farmoor Reservoir at four o clock this afternoon and still present at ten to five!

Roseate Terns are a delightful small tern, so named because they acquire a rosy flush to their breast in the breeding season and were first described at the comparatively late date of 1813 when several were shot by Dr Peter McDougall and friends on the Cumbrae Islands in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland and a specimen was sent to Lord Montagu who honoured McDougall by ascribing his shortened surname as part of the bird's scientific bi-nomen Sterna dougallii

They are to be found breeding along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and America but spend their respective winters in West Africa or the Caribbean. The history of Roseate Terns and the human race is not a happy one with widespread exploitation for the millinery trade in the 19th century bringing the European population to the verge of extinction.This was thankfully ended and the population in the UK slowly grew to 3812 pairs by 1968 but by 1985 they had declined to 521 pairs, this long term decline being mainly caused by local people in the tern's West African wintering grounds trapping them for their children to keep as pets, with the terns inevitable death after a few days, or for eating. One 'gentleman' was encountered by researchers wearing a necklace of BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) metal rings he had taken from wintering Roseate Terns he had killed. 

Part of this tern's decline has now been reversed in some European colonies where strict conservation measures have been implemented such as at Rockabill Island, Co Dublin, Ireland which now holds Europe's largest breeding colony (1213 pairs in 2013) and which comprises 75% of the European population. The RSPB reserve on Coquet Island in Northumberland, England has also benefited from conservation efforts by putting specially adapted nest boxes on the ground for the terns to nest in, thus reducing the chances of the eggs and young being predated by gulls, with the result it held 104 breeding pairs of Roseate Terns in 2016. The European population in total now stands at somewhere around 1800 pairs.

This is a very rare bird for Oxfordshire with, I think, only eight or nine records prior to this one in the County. Today seems to have been a notable one for Roseate Terns in that they were also recorded from two locations in the north of England and one location in the north of Scotland, although these records were from more traditional coastal habitat rather than an inland reservoir.

My car still had my camera, bins and scope in the boot from my birding trip to Farmoor yesterday so it took no time for me to leave the house and promptly head for Farmoor, thirty minutes drive away. I called Dai en route to ascertain exactly where the tern was on the reservoir, as depending on its location, there are a couple of options as to where is best to park the car. Dai told  me it was perched on the railings leading out to the Valve Tower at the eastern (near) end of the Causeway. Good, as this meant no tedious yomp to the far end of the Causeway and I could leave the car in the main car park which was  just a few minutes walk away from the beginning of the Causeway and the Valve Tower.

My one big concern was what the tern would do in the next thirty to forty minutes before I got to Farmoor. It could fly away, it could move to another part of the reservoir or preferably it could stay where it was. I could but hope for the best.

My other worry concerned the traffic at this time of day, as it was slap bang in the rush hour. All was however relatively smooth going apart from it seeming to take an age to get across the ridiculous Eynsham Toll Bridge. A long line of traffic was slowly making its way to the decrepit toll booth to pay their 5p to cross. Finally I got there, handed over my 5p, crossed the antiquated bridge and a few minutes later was parking in the main car park at Farmoor. Scope, bins and camera were hastily slung over and around my shoulders and a quick run up the grassy incline got me onto the perimeter track in front of the yacht club.

My view from the Causeway across Farmoor One to the
Valve Tower beyond
A birder told me the Roseate was no longer on the railings and had flown out over Farmoor Two, the larger of the two reservoirs. Just what I had feared would happen had come to pass as I fretted in the queue at the toll bridge. Some Common Terns were feeding by the pontoons in front of the yacht club but that was of little interest. I could see other birders standing on the Causeway and all looking out southwest, over Farmoor Two. Maybe they had it in their bins and scopes?

Oxonbirders watching the Roseate Tern. Note the looming
grey cloud prior to the rain arriving
I raced along the perimeter track to join them and discovered that Ian Lewingtton, our esteemed County Bird Recorder did indeed have the Roseate Tern in his sights, but it was high in the sky with three Common Terns, stooging about and looking like it was about to depart the reservoir. Panic. I had to see it to get it on my County List but finding it in all that turbulent sky and threatening rain, was no easy task. I looked upwards but could not see any terns just some Black headed Gulls. Ian gave further directions concerning various clouds. I discovered I was looking far too low. Blimey, it must be really high up. I found some terns away up in the sky but they were the wrong ones. Ian said 'It is coming back down'. Oh Lord, now where is it? Why can't I see it?  Then four terns came into view in my frantically scanning bins and Ian, who was keeping up a steady dialogue of directions said it was the highest  of the four and to the right of the other three terns. I got it! Yes, there it was! Distinctively smaller and paler and as it came closer and descended further I could see more of it and relax, following it  as it flew back and fore above the water, calling its distinctive chwit call, over and over.

Adult Roseate Tern
Its outer primaries were worn and consequently had become very dark forming a marked contrast with the pale grey inner primaries and its wings were shorter in relation to its body than the Common Terns with which it was associating.

Eventually it crossed over the Causeway, close to us, and made for the railings by the Valve Tower to land there, at the very end of the railings, joining some Common Terns and Black headed Gulls.Now I could get it in my scope and I could see all the diagnostic features of this neat looking tern.

The Valve Tower and railings on which the terns and gulls
like to perch
I noted the standard dull black cap, paler, pearl grey upperparts than the Common Terns, pure white underparts with a breast blushed the palest rose pink. It looked smaller than a Common Tern that was standing next to it and had a long, sharply pointed bill, only the base being red, the rest was black, and distinctive bright orange red legs. In fact this last feature was the best way for distinguishing it, when partially obscured by the other terns and gulls, as it preened and rested on the railings. 

The first intimation of rain began with a few random drops and soon it was raining full on with a suddenly increased southwest wind to go with it and making matters quite uncomfortable. I was without a jacket and got a bit of a soaking but did not care. A spectacular double rainbow materialised over the reservoir as others made for shelter at the yacht club. Eventually I too conceded defeat and joined Bob below some trees and waited for the rain to pass. Luckily I found I could still carry on watching the perched tern in my scope whilst sheltering under the trees.

The rain eased off and we made our way back out onto the Causeway.The remaining hour or so was occupied with watching the Roseate Tern, either perched on the railings or flying from there to pass over our heads as we stood on the Causeway and feed with the Common Terns over an area of the reservoir in front of the yacht club. It became a  regular journey for the Roseate Tern and it must have done this three or four times and this gave an opportunity for those of us with cameras to take its picture in flight. Its distinctive and frequent calling was easily picked up, even at a great distance, and in the difficult light was sometimes the best way to locate it out over the water with the other terns.

Most of Oxonbirds finest had made it to the reservoir this evening, latecomers running up and grabbing a look through any available scopes. Andy and Mick were the last to join us, Mick still in work suit and sans bins and scope, but a quick look through my scope capped what had apparently been a somewhat fraught journey coming back from Liverpool.

All was well as we stood on the Causeway chatting but more rain was on the way and many had now departed for home. I left Terry, Andy, The Wickster and Mick to continue watching the Roseate Tern as the clouds loomed threateningly from the West. The sun managed a brief flare of fiery gold, dying embers on the billowing undersides of the cumulus clouds, then once extinguished, the reservoir became grey and uninviting. I bade farewell and left. 


There was no sign of the Roseate Tern the following day and it had clearly moved on along with a number of the Common Terns that were also present yesterday