Thursday 18 April 2013

Weekend Whirlwind 13th-14th April 2013

Pallas's Leaf Warbler
courtesy of Roger Wyatt
A colleague of mine, Hugh Wright had a weekend free and wished to go birding. He does not get much opportunity these days so it was going to be dawn to dusk for two days. I was already horribly tired but he arrived in Kingham to stay overnight on Friday and we were away at 5am on Saturday to try and see the over wintering Pallas's Leaf Warbler at Moor Green Lakes in Berkshire. This would be a lifer for Hugh and it would be good for me to see it well, having not had very satisfactory views of it at the end of last year. Despite it's popularity we were all alone when we arrived at the location.
A Barn Owl, like some giant white moth weaved it's erratic course over the rough field to our right and a pair of Common Chiffchaffs flitted through the still bare branches of the bushes to our left as we made our way down the track to the riverside trees which was the warbler's favoured haunt. We were reasonably confident of seeing it as it had been reported virtually daily but the reality made us less optimistic. There was an awful lot of habitat for it to hide in and only us looking for it. Would it be low down in the riverside brambles or high up in the trees? Apparently it had been singing regularly but this morning there was not a sound. We got on with birding and I saw my first Blackcap and Willow Warbler of the year. We had, however, not come all this way for just this. We wandered the length of the path beside the river and back again but not a sniff. We split up, the better to cover the path beside the river. An hour passed, slowly, very slowly. Then my mobile phone rang. Hugh further up the path thought he could hear it singing in some trees on the other side of the river. I joined him and Hugh's identification was correct. It was singing alright, a combination of Willow Warbler x Wren song but it was distant in some conifers, with no access. Frustratingly we followed it by song as it moved invisibly amongst the trees. We had no chance. Heard and not seen but then how often can one say they have heard a Pallas's singing in Britain? Then it promptly fell silent.

Time passed slowly once more and we split up again. Some thirty minutes later despite the potential confusion of a Willow Warbler singing close by, the distinctive song came again, now much closer to the river bank, still in the trees. We again followed it's progress by song and soon it was singing at point blank range, in a tree on the opposite bank, just a few metres away from us. Could we see it? Not a chance. This tiny mite was now belting out it's  song at a very impressive volume. We looked and we looked. Then the words, this time from Hugh, that always send a thrill but also anxiety coursing through one's body. 'I've got it' 'Where?'  'See that fork in the small tree just in front of the third silver birch from the right, the really white one? Well come down from there and go left into the conifer branches behind and it is just right of the trunk of the conifer, quite low down. Oh! look at it's yellow rump. It's showing really well'. I was readying to do Hugh a mischief.  'Great but I still cannot see it'. By now there was a small  group behind us alerted by Hugh's exclamations, and yet frustratingly for all of us it was only obvious to Hugh. A lady behind me then found it as well. 'It's fabulous. Oh it's so small'. Steady now Ewan, maintain your equilibrium. Quelling the rising frustration I just focused my bins on the seemingly impenetrable conifer branches. Hugh and the lady birder were still eulogising about the warbler when I too found it. 

Pallas's Leaf Warbler
courtesy of Roger Wyatt
A tiny movement amongst all the pine needles betrayed it and I locked the bins onto it as it zipped about, never still and singing constantly as it moved around but always staying faithful to it's favoured area of the conifer. I was struck by how much duller it appeared than in the numerous photos, possibly due to the dull light and dark conifer, and how small it was. No chance for any photos. Shame. I saw all the plumage features, such as the long yellow supercilium, the wing bars and the yellow rump as it hovered, picking off prey from the undersides of the leaves. As I watched it my nostrils were assailed by the strong peppery smell of the yellow gorse flowers over which I was peering. We watched the tiny warbler for about twenty minutes before it moved further away back into the trees and although singing loudly was now no longer visible. Both of us were now a lot more happy about life and indeed Hugh was ecstatic as it was a long desired lifer. So a morning came to a successful conclusion but we were on borrowed time. The weather forecast was dire for the rest of the day with rain and wind forecast so we decided to go sea-watching at Worthing in West Sussex as we could sit in a shelter out of the rain. 

Worthing is not the best place to be on a wet Saturday but we got ourselves ensconced in the shelter only to find, unfortunately, the birds were not doing what we required. It was wet, windy, miserable and cold and somewhat crucially no birds were moving out at sea. Bored, I went looking for some food and a tea for both of us. This took the best part of forty minutes due to traffic, no cafe in sight for miles and in the end I found myself wandering the aisles of a giant Asda somewhere considerably west of Worthing and to add to the misery, on a wet Saturday. It does not get worse than this believe me. Eventually I returned with food and tea to find Hugh had seen a distant Great Skua but not much else. We drank the tea and gave up. Frankly it was a relief to get in the car, out of the wind and rain. So now what?  'Let's go to Titchfield Haven we can sit in a nice cosy hide there and look at whatever is in front of it. At least we will not be wet' suggested Hugh, still full of enthusiasm. 'Good idea'.  I replied. Liar. Secretly I wanted to go to a pub and watch football on Sky. Nice and warm. 

We duly arrived at Titchfield Haven and now the wind had become positively ferocious and the rain was almost horizontal. It was a struggle to even get the car doors open. Somehow we got to the hide, only partially drowned and looked out on a ghetto of Black headed Gulls, pairing up and raring to get breeding, totally heedless of the foul elements.

Hugh admiring the rain
The noise and activity was incredible.The contortions of the gulls as they displayed and mated was endlessly fascinating and we forgot our disappointment about the weather. Frankly it was a relief just to sit down and watch some birds

Gull city

We watched the gulls, cavorting in the rain heedless of anything apart from the testosterone fuelled desire to get on with breeding. Constantly displaying, either in mutual pair bonding or in aggression to fellow gulls. It was non stop action and noise. Noisy neighbours - you bet. A pair of Shelduck swam past, incredibly bright even in the gloom of the rain, the bill of the male pillar box red and looking as if it had been stuck on rather badly to the bird's forehead. We were just getting nicely settled when the volunteer warden arrived to advise the hide was closing at 5pm! I know they are volunteers but closing a well known nature reserve in the Spring at 5pm? Come on. We meekly complied and gave up on this miserable Saturday that had started so well. Instead of returning to my home in Kingham we resolved to go to Portland the next day, so as Hugh's flat was in Southampton, a lot closer to Portland than Oxfordshire, we made the short drive to overnight there. I was so tired I was in bed by eight and hopefully would be ready for the planned 4.30am start tomorrow

Dead to the world for eight hours I somehow got it together to get in the car, drive, wake up and concentrate all at the same time and as dawn broke we were not far from Weymouth. Shortly afterwards we parked the car at Portland Bill and as the winds were southerly decided on a  bit of sea-watching. It was slow going but we saw three Great Skuas, a very close, dark morph Arctic Skua and assorted Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets and Kittiwakes. Two Ravens had a spat with a Greater Black backed Gull on the cliff edge in front of us and a few Northern Wheatears made landfall on the short grass between us and the sea. It was hardly epic but we stuck at it for an hour or so and then tiring, decided to go and look for passerine migrants. Unfortunately they were also thin on the ground, in the bushes or in the air. The best we could do in a couple of hours was a Little Owl hiding in the quarry, eight Northern Wheatears, a lovely male Common Redstart, two Blackcaps and fifteen or so Willow/Chiffs which were feeding on the ground in the Observatory garden. A few Swallows cruised in off the sea and then we returned to the lighthouse and the sea-watchers still cowering from the strong wind in the lee of the obelisk. Just as we approached them a flock of Common Scoter, close in, appeared to our left, over the sea, going the wrong way i.e west. As all the sea-watchers were looking west they did not notice them coming up from behind. The first bird in the flock had huge white wing patches. Velvet Scoter. We shouted the news to the sea-watchers. They all rushed to look east by which time the scoters were obscured by the obelisk. 'No! Look west' we shouted and they all rushed to the other side of the obelisk and thankfully saw both the Common Scoters and more importantly, the Velvet Scoter heading away from them. In return they pointed out a Puffin on the sea. It was quiet though and we left soon afterwards.

Final destination and final hope for some good birding was the  RSPB reserve at Ham Wall but on the way we decided to stop at nearby Radipole in Weymouth as Hugh wanted to at least see the male Hooded Merganser of dubious origin. There was no sign of it in the scrum of  Tufted Ducks and Herring Gulls being lobbed copious quantities of bread by members of the public who were standing on the bridge near the Visitor Centre. There were however at least six Garganey on the reserve so we went in search of them. Needless to say they were viewable from the hide furthest away from the Visitor Centre but as we wandered down the tracks we were entertained by Willow Warblers and Common ChiffChaffs feeding in the reeds with numerous Swallows feeding low over the lake and Cetti's Warblers announcing their presence with high volume outbursts. After a long walk we made it to the hide and managed to find a pair of Garganey fast asleep in a distant, wet clump of grass, eventually waking up and swimming across some open water to disappear from view in some juncus. More exciting was the arrival of an immature male Marsh Harrier which quartered the area before flying off high to the southeast. An elderly gent struggling to extricate himself from the bench in the hide exclaimed 'It gets harder to swing your leg over the older you get' unaware of the unintentional innuendo in his words. We quietly chuckled to ourselves and left the hide having successfully swung our legs over - the bench that is. Back at the bridge the feeding frenzy continued with overstuffed gulls waddling around in the car park and the ducks fighting other gulls for the continuous rain of all things bread like, chucked at them by adults and their kids. This time, in amongst the ducks was the Hooded Merganser, mixing it with the best of them and getting its fair share of food. Whatever the truth about it's controversial provenance it is undoubtedly a beautiful and thrilling creature to see and still attracts a lot of attention from birders and general public alike

We stood on the bridge admiring it and then much to our delight, in amongst the swallows, an early Common Swift did a couple of low passes before zooming off into the grey heavens.
Now we embarked on the longish drive to Ham Wall in Somerset where Hugh would hopefully achieve a second lifer in the form of the Pied billed Grebe which had taken up residence on one of the flooded ex peat workings. We held little hope of seeing it straight away as it could be elusive and mentally prepared ourselves for an extended vigil. Another long walk along another track and we came to the first viewing point. This was not where the grebe was but there was a volunteer warden present and we enquired about the grebe and anything else worth seeing. We were told the grebe was very hard to see and had not been reported today but there was a Bittern occasionally booming from the reeds on the other side of the track but was invisible. Just as we got this information another Bittern flew across the lake in front of us and landed in the reeds! We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and carried on down to the second screen where hopefully we would get to see the grebe. As we arrived, a couple further up the track, looking through a scope, motioned to us urgently. Hugh started running. They had the grebe in their scopes. It could only be that. Hugh's need was far greater than mine, it would be his first, my fourth. The grebe was barely visible being obscured by a selection of branches of trees growing on the bank and dead reed stalks in the lake. It was incredibly well hidden but I could just see it's head with the dull white bill and the thick black ring across it as well as the white eye ring. Suddenly it craned it's head forward whilst inflating it's throat and cocking it's tail and the strangest call echoed across the water. Completely alien, somehow exotic and with a hint of primal wildness about it. Remarkable. An adult Pied billed Grebe, at least three thousand miles from home, in summer plumage, displaying and calling in a wet corner of Somerset. Hugh now had another lifer and we declared the weekend a success. We  relaxed and  spent another couple of hours with the grebe serenaded by Cetti's Warblers and the occasional booming Bittern. At first it had been very hard to see the grebe properly but we soon ascertained that it had a defined feeding circuit in this overgrown corner of the lake which it followed religiously, calling at regular intervals, to betray it's whereabouts. 

Pied Billed Grebe habitat
Presumably this was it's territory. The interesting thing was that it would call from a particular spot and then silence followed. We would wait to see any betraying signs of ripples or movement but would see nothing and then it would call again and be in a completely different area. How it achieved moving without detection we never did ascertain but it certainly led us a merry dance. In the end we just remained in one spot and waited as it came round again on it's feeding/territorial circuit. Our extended stay did result in some stunning views as it preened and called in front of the dead reeds. 

Although basically mouse brown all over, the patterning of the large head was subtly attractive with it's black chin and throat, white eye ring and the defining thick, black ring across it's chunky white bill. To see it displaying and calling was a definite bonus and a first for me.

Time passed and most visitors had gone home. To cap a great afternoon a Great White Egret flew across the open water in front of us, brilliant white against the grey sky and a couple of Marsh Harriers created a commotion amongst the ducks. Swallows and martins were everywhere and two Reed Warblers were singing in the dead reeds. It was still hours before dusk would arrive.

Some birders had told us about an elusive Hoopoe nearby. 'What do you think Hugh?' 'Lets do it', he replied 'Our luck is definitely in'. We found the location, which was a track cum footpath leading up to a farm. The area was deserted. Not a birder in sight which was unusual. 'This must be the spot?'. 'Definitely.' We scanned the track with not a bird to be seen. We went through the gate and commenced walking the track towards the farm. 'What's that?' A pink bird, flashing white and with swooping flight flew up into a tree. Bins up. A Jay! Downcast. A few more steps and out of the grass ahead of us an ornithological butterfly, pink, black and white rose and flew to perch in a distant tree. Scopes out and there was a Hoopoe. It's distinctive profile of anvil like head with long crest and long down curved bill obvious. It remained in the tree for a couple of minutes and then dropped down behind a grassy bank. Our day was now well and truly complete and we felt our persistence had truly been rewarded.

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