Friday 24 May 2013

Ten thousand miles for this? 24th May 2013

A windy and showery day suddenly got a whole lot windier this afternoon. In fact trees were blown down near our home such was it's force and my wife had to rescue a girl who had been thrown from her wind spooked horse. Thankfully horse and rider were re-united with no real harm done. The wind and rain would mean hirundines and swifts would be feeding low over Farmoor Reservoir and with reports of at least three Red rumped Swallows being seen further south today I considered it worth the effort to head for the reservoir and try my luck.

The car park at the reservoir was deserted. Not one car. Battling against the wind but with the rain thankfully now abating I headed for the Causeway. No one else as far as I could see was daft enough to venture out in these weather conditions but looking out over the water there were as predicted a huge number of hirundines feeding above the waves. I counted at least 400 Swallows, 250 House Martins, and the occasional Sand Martin, joined by about 150 Common Swifts. There was no sign of a Red rumped Swallow however. 

The hirundines and swifts were in their element with especially the House Martins seemingly revelling in the almost gale force northeast wind. They would hurtle downwind alongside the Causeway and then turn and almost stall as they faced into the wind, hanging there almost stationary for a moment, then side slipping they would tack into the wind and fly low over the waves at speed before repeating the process all over again. A male Yellow Wagtail rose up from under the wave wall as I approached the Causeway and caught in the wind was blown rapidly downwind, just about in control of itself. A little further up the Causeway another Yellow Wagtail flew from under the shelter of the wall but more circumspect about the wind it flew low over the waves, passing me as it headed downwind. Hang on though. It's got a pale blue-grey head. I looked at it in my bins. No easy task in the wind which buffeted me mercilessly and made standing still far from easy. There was literally no hiding place for me on the exposed Causeway. The 'yellow' wagtail was a male 'Channel' Wagtail. The result of hybridisation between 'our' Yellow Wagtail and the Blue Headed Wagtail found across The Channel. It landed further down and I retreated back down the Causeway to get a closer look but it was having none of it and flew far off into the distance. Well that was the end of that little bit of excitement!

It was now touch and go if I ventured back up the Causeway but  I resolved to make it as far as the birdwatching Hide which would at the very least give me some shelter from the vicious wind. As I got to the Hide I noticed that a number of Swallows were sheltering under the wave wall right by the Hide.They were the picture of dejection with rain sodden feathers and drooping wings. I feared the worst for them but after a while observing them from the Hide I realised that though they looked pretty fed up in the horrible conditions they were actively feeding on insects that they seized from the mossy concrete between the water's edge and the wave wall. The other side of the Causeway was far more sheltered if they needed to rest but they showed no interest and persisted in landing and feeding on the mossy concrete under the wave wall and exposed to the full force of the wind.

View from the Hide. You can just about see the Swallows on the mossy bank!
From the wind rattled Hide I could see them feeding on the mossy surfaces all the way up to the far end of the Causeway. This unusual behaviour gave me a great opportunity to get very close to the Swallows which would come right up to almost under the Hide, literally within three or four feet of me and I could look down on them from the sanctuary of the Hide un-noticed. 

My thoughts went back to my visit to southern Morocco in March and when I was watching Swallows completing their crossing of the Sahara on their way North. Inevitably I found myself reflecting on their current plight, reduced to scrabbling for food on the banks of a concrete reservoir in unseasonably foul weather and I wondered was it really worth all the effort?

The above bird is intriguing as it is still in juvenile plumage. It seems improbable that it was
bred this year so presumably it has not moulted into adult plumage in it's winter quarters

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Farmoor Prima Donnas 21st May 2013

In April of last year Farmoor was graced for a few days by a flock of no less than nine Black necked Grebes, all in summer plumage and allowing very close approach. It was one of the birding highlights of that year for me. A report by Dai this morning of two more summer plumaged Black necked Grebes on Farmoor had me heading for Oxford as soon as time and commitments would allow. A Black necked Grebe in summer plumage is not to be missed wherever they are. 

I arrived about lunchtime and there was not a birder in sight, indeed there was not another human being in sight. The wind was from the northwest, strong enough to be annoying but it was still mild although the low clouds were not letting the sun through. I wandered up to the Causeway. Huge numbers of Swifts were again indulging in their hyperactive aeronautical manouevres low over the reservoir with the cloud base depressingly low. Dai had said the grebes were on Farmoor One but with the wind from the northwest that reservoir was choppy and it transpired they had moved to calmer waters on the other reservoir, Farmoor Two. I found them some way out and fast asleep.

The water out there is way too deep for them to fish so I reasoned that if I sat and waited for them to wake up they would, like the others last year, come close in to the shallower water to feed and that would be my opportunity for some pictures and to get a good look at them. The big question was how long was it going to take for them to start feeding again. I settled myself out of the wind by the wooden yacht observation hut on the Causeway and waited. 

I looked along the water's edge of Farmoor One and two distant waders became a Dunlin and a Common Sandpiper when seen through the scope. That was it apart from some newly hatched Mallard ducklings paddling and dabbling with their mother in the waves that were slapping onto the concrete apron. 

The grebes slept on with their black needle bills tucked, in typical grebe fashion, between their neck and breast. Regularly, a low flying plane or helicopter from Brize Norton would alarm them and they would wake and cock their heads looking at the noisily offending machine and would wait until it was well away before resuming their slumbers. It was educating to observe them and their behaviour over the ensuing hour or so. They were never still, presumably paddling while asleep but always with one eye open. Ever restless, ever alert and I noticed that after they had been scared by the low flying aircraft or something else, before going back to sleep they would, almost without fail, open their bill almost as if in a casual yawn before closing it and tucking it into their feathers. They kept very close together and from their demeanour and subtle plumage differences I deduced that they were probably a paired male and female. I also noted they were distinctly wary of the Great Crested Grebes especially when one dived near them, almost as if they feared the Great Crested Grebe would come up underneath them. I have seen similar behaviour and interaction between a Great Crested Grebe and a Slavonian Grebe here. in the winter. Indeed the Great Crested Grebe on that day seemed positively hostile but today there was no aggression. 

While I continued to wait for the Black necked Grebes to wake up and do something I watched the behaviour of the aforementioned seven or so Great Crested Grebes sheltering from the wind in the lee of the wave wall. Most of the time they too were asleep but every so often two would indulge in calling and a mutual courtship display, although it looked pretty desultory, and that was about as far as it would go before they gave up and returned to sleeping.

Presumably these birds are non breeders or young birds that are not going to breed in their first year. Finally the Black necked Grebes stirred into action and as anticipated they headed for shore, every so often seizing a hatching fly from the water's surface as they progressed.

Closer and closer they came until finally I could not see them from where  I was sitting as they were now obscured under the wave wall. I crouched and crept along the Causeway until I reckoned I was in line with where I last saw them and peered over. Sure enough they were right there and showed little alarm at my sudden but furtive appearance. I sat on the wall and took lots of images.

Close up one can fully appreciate just how absolutely exotic they are in their summer plumage with that fan of gold extending across the side of their head and those alien, flaming  red eyes,  flaring and staring, making them almost other worldly. To look into their eyes is unnerving. There is nothing familiar or comforting in that stare. The adjectives soft or gentle do not apply.

These are the eyes of an earthly being that inhabits a totally unknown and unknowable world to ours. 

Despite my close presence they swam and dived unconcernedly in the shallower water and I just watched them and tried to come to terms with their unsettling beauty. This summer plumage is transient and in three months will fade and be gone and then it will be back to the grey and white non breeding plumage for the rest of the year but for now they were the stars in the Farmoor firmanent, insignificant in size on the vastness of the reservoir but just for now their feathered flamboyance totally dominating my senses. Stars indeed. Prima donnas? You bet.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Dawn to Dusky 18th May 2013

Friday evening and Badger called me asking if I would care to go and see some Smooth Snakes amongst other reptiles, courtesy of Wayne who knew a site in Dorset. I needed no second prompting as I have never seen a Smooth Snake and would welcome the opportunity. Our trip required an early start the next morning; 6.30 at Badger's sett sorry, house in Abingdon. 

So it was that at 5.30 I left Kingham. Although the sun had not risen it was an uplifting morning. Completely still, not a breath of wind, almost as if the world was waiting. As I drove along the ridge towards Burford the Cotswolds were spread out for miles on either side of me, the occasional lurid yellow field of oilseed rape almost an affront to the subtle colours of the natural vegetation. The sky was a suffused blue grey and the hedgerows were now blousy and opaque with vibrant green leaves, the skeletal images so familiar from the long winter now transformed into soft rounded contours, their outlines melting into the distance, muffled in a blue haze. 

I arrived at Badger's and decamped into Wayne's car and we set off for the A34 and the West.  I settled down on the back seat to catch up on some sleep after a restless night. Just a few minutes into the journey, on the outskirts of Abingdon, Badger's phone rings. It was Justin. A short conversation ensued. Something is up as Badger's tone of voice is barely concealing excitement and incredulity. The conversation ends. 'Well?'  I enquire. 'That was Justin. There is a Dusky Thrush in Margate Cemetery. It has been there for three days but its identity has only just been confirmed. It was originally identified as a Redwing. Justin is on his way there now. He should be going to Wales with the family but they are going to go later today'. 

Barely awake I assimilated this information. Dusky Thrush is in twitching terms a mega. The last one remotely possible to see in the UK was back in 1959 and this current one would only be the tenth to be seen in the UK. Dilemna. I was fully awake and attentive now. Smooth Snakes or Dusky Thrush?  For Badger and myself, pre-eminently birders, there was no question. It had to be the thrush but Wayne being an all round naturalist was all set for the snakes. We had badgered (ho ho)  him for weeks to take us and now we were reneging as fast as decently possible. We indulged in mock humility and said 'What do you want to do Wayne?' although it was obvious we wanted him to concur with us and bless his heart he understood the nuance and agreed to come and see the thrush. It was in retrospect the sensible decision as frankly the snakes were not going to go away but the thrush certainly would. Nevertheless I still had a slight pang of guilt about our sudden change of mind. 

We returned to the Black Audi parked near Badger's home and loaded everything into it, hit the tarmac and headed for Margate as quickly as possible. I had not planned to drive today but needs must and it assauged some of the regret I felt about us messing Wayne around. Although it was Motorway driving for most of the journey it seemed to go on for ever. Boring, tiring and endless. Paul sent a text telling me he and Vicky were on their way to see the thrush and were sorry not to have liased with me. Badger texted back to tell him not to worry as we were currently in the fast lane of the M40  rapidly heading East! We would see them there. Two and a half hours later we came to rest outside Margate Cemetery at around 9am and the road was already full of cars. Birder's cars with the occupants spilling out carrying scopes, cameras and huge lenses. Everyone with a quiet sense of purpose pretending to be oh so casual and not, as was the truth, consumed by the overwhelming anxiety and expectation of a major twitch. 

Margate Cemetery is large with a good amount of tree cover and we followed the general flow of birders, soon coming across the massed ranks looking at a small group of trees amongst the ancient gravestones in a quiet corner of the graveyard.

Thankfully the area we were in was a very old part of the graveyard so it was unlikely that anyone would be visiting these graves and potentially be upset by all the birders. All three of us saw the thrush almost immediately, quietly sitting on the edge of an Ash tree which was part of a small group of three or four trees in amongst the graves

I got the scope on it and assimilated it's subtle beauty. It was a female and basically was an overall dull brown above and greyish white below but it's extreme rarity gave it an inner beauty. It sat there for quite some time. Paul and Vicky arrived. 'Have you got it Ewan?' 'Sure, have a look in the scope'. Paul looked, punched the air and exclaimed 'Yes'. 'Vicky, want a look?'  'Thanks'. A more demure affirmation of contact with the thrush. Now we could all relax in mutual camaraderie and just enjoy watching it. It remained where it was for a little longer and then with a flick was gone, moving into an adjacent Sycamore. The massed ranks dispersed, most to the far side of the graveyard but I and another birder tiptoed carefully around and through all the old graves to position ourselves opposite the others but on the 'wrong side' of the tree. We could see they were all looking at it on the other side and although tempting to go for the instant result we just did not want to join the scrum.

Looking at us looking at them looking at the bird
We had seen the bird well before it moved so there was no immediate urgency. It also seemed logical to us that if we were patient, the bird, obviously aware of the birders would eventually get tired of all the attention and inevitable disturbance from the other side and move to our side of the tree when we would get good views. Forgive me the self congratulation but this is precisely what happened after about twenty minutes and for five minutes myself and my companion, in splendid isolation watched the bird sitting on a branch, clearly visible opposite us.

Inevitably the massed ranks on the other side of the trees, now unable to see the bird, became restless and observing we were watching it soon joined us and it became a bit fraught as more and more people tried to cram into a restricted space to see it whilst avoiding walking over graves, obstructing other people's views or knocking into tripods. The bird was easy to see if you knew where it was but was nearly always in some sort of cover, making it difficult to photograph and due to it's relatively non descript plumage it was difficult to direct people on to it. The usual daft comments came and went. 'I have got the dead leaves, where is it from that?' or 'I still can't see it. I know it's there but you will have to be more precise as to where the ivy ends'. Most bizzarely one loud voiced gent, on finally seeing it, proclaimed 'I have got all twelve turds now!' Presumably he was referring to the fact this species was one of the genus Turdidae. I do so hate some of the birder slang that is now so prevalent and sometimes the just plain ignorance shamelessly displayed at events such as this. 

There must have been over 300 birders present by now, milling around and generally well behaved amongst the gravestones. Some fathers, possibly diverting from a Saturday morning shopping trip turned up with small children. One even arrived with a small  daughter dressed incongruously as a cat and the child ran unheeding, much to his embarrassment and our amusement, in front of all the birders and under the very tree the bird was sitting in. If one of the graves had opened I am sure he would have jumped into it but the bird was untroubled by the display of youthful innocence and the child returned, bewildered, to her frantically beckoning father. 

The time wore on and the crowd grew ever larger. At twitches like this one meets many old acquaintances and I was busy catching up with friends from both my former home county Sussex as well as Oxfordshire. Eventually it all settled down and everyone had managed to see the thrush. New arrivals were greeted by triumphant and relaxed birders all too willing to direct them to the bird's location. At the last it sat for an age in a Sycamore partially visible amongst the leaves. It even dozed off for a while amongst the greenery before moving yet again and the last view I had was of it sat, briefly, out in the open before it disappeared back into cover again. 

We met up and decided we had seen all we wanted. We had been here over two hours with the bird mostly on view and now more and more people were arriving. A major twitch on a Saturday in the south of England was never going to be dull or quiet. The road outside was  crammed with cars on both sides and a passing motorist stopped and asked who famous had died. He thought there was a huge funeral taking place due to all the cars. Much to his amusement we informed him of the reason for the traffic chaos. I heard later that someone had commented on Twitter that the scenes inside the graveyard were reminiscent of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video except all the zombies this time seemed to have scopes and cameras! Not a bad summation. 

It is usual on jaunts such as this to find out if there are any other good birds to see nearby and a female Montagu's Harrier and a male Red backed Shrike both at nearby Reculver seemed to fit the bill. 

Reculver Towers
So we arrived at Reculver Towers car park and a short walk up to the towers and over the turf found us looking down over a vast swathe of growing wheat and there in the distance, right on cue the female Montagu's Harrier was gliding over the fields. Slightly further and beyond it was a Short eared Owl quartering the ditches. Not too bad a start but regrettably the Red backed Shrike proved elusive. In fact the less said about that the better. We walked miles, four or five I believe, looking for the shrike and at one stage if we had carried on we were in danger of being back in Margate. 

We never saw the shrike. Tired and hungry we gave up and made the long and tedious walk back to the car, and exhausted went in search of sustenance in a roadside garage. A Cattle Egret at Northward Hill RSPB on the way home briefly tempted us but in the end a unanimous decision was made to return to Oxfordshire where Wayne would show us some rare orchids. This turned out to be almost as rewarding and pleasurable for me as seeing the thrush. I saw for the first time, Bird's Nest, Military and Fly Orchids as well as White Helleborine or at least the emerging buds. Apparently they are very late this year so I will go back in a couple of week's time to hopefully see  them in all their glory. To cap it all Wayne lifted up a metal sheet lying flat in the grass and we found two Slow Worms underneath, one of which belied it's name and made a very rapid exit into the undergrowth

Bird's Nest Orchid emerging
Military Orchid
Slow Worm
Badger and Wayne
Thus a full on and very long day of unexpected birding came to a close with a surprisingly fulfilling experience with some rare and beautiful plants in a quiet corner of Oxfordshire

Monday 13 May 2013

An Afternoon at Farmoor 13th May 2013

Monday and a morning sorting out the after effects of a week long business trip to Germany had me hankering for some fresh air and birding action. Farmoor, whilst guaranteeing fresh air in abundance does not always come up with the birds but I took a chance and duly found myself ascending the ramp from the car park in the early afternoon. The sun was shining but ominous black clouds promised an imminent shower or two as I made my way past a deserted yacht club and felt the full force of the westerly wind in my face. The wind was strong, very strong with waves crashing against the concrete and the prospect of walking into the wind on the exposed Causeway promised to be interesting. I got to the beginning of the Causeway and there on the concrete apron was a nice group of small waders running around like demented clockwork toys. Tiny against the surf, they ran hither and thither picking at invisible morsels of sustenance. Ten Dunlin and two Sanderling.

The Dunlin, now all in their summer finery of chestnut, black and white and slightly smaller than the Sanderling were wary and took flight in a compact flock low over the waves coming back to land from whence they had taken off. Time and again they lifted into the wind sweeping round in formation to come in to almost land but then off round again they went, until finally they settled. The Sanderling seemed caught up in the anxiety and often joined them on these excursions but eventually they all settled down. Possibly the strong wind stimulated them or just the strange surroundings made them jittery but they remained constantly nervous and edgy although I could see no real cause for their anxiety. It certainly was not because of me and no one else was around to alarm them. Looking at the Sanderling it was apparent one was in slightly aberrant plumage with a head that was mainly white and it was more advanced in it's moult into summer plumage than it's companion. No matter any Sanderling in summer plumage is a pleasure to behold with their rich spangling of chestnut, black and grey on the upperparts and their snow white underparts.

A vicious shower of rain, borne horizontally on the wind hit me full bore in the face as I photo'd the Sanderlings. I turned my back to the rain and wind  just as the Sanderling turned the other way to face into the wind and rain. Soon it was over and just the wind remained. 

The rain shower had brought many Swifts down to water level and Farmoor Two fairly swarmed with them. Like aerial ants they busily flickered across the water. Impossible to count individually as they careered into the wind I 'blocked' them into tens and counting through came to the astonishing total of in excess of two thousand. An incredible sight. It did not last, as once the sun returned many dispersed but even then there were still many hundreds that remained screaming up, down and across the Causeway and reservoir. Devil birds indeed. 

The Causeway had wisely been abandoned by virtually all birdlife apart from a lone Ringed Plover which soon departed for calmer environs. Unable to face lugging both scope and camera around the reservoir I had only the camera with me and noting some distant terns on the reservoir returned to the car to exchange the camera for the scope. I set about walking around Farmoor Two which as usual was devoid of anything interesting. Every time there is nothing but I still persist in the hope that one day, any day for heaven's sake something good might turn up. It never does and today was no exception. A third of the way round Dai came alongside in his car and offered me salvation in the form of a lift, dropping me at the far end so I could scope the terns I had seen earlier and informing me that he had found a Spotted Flycatcher at the back of Pinkhill. I scanned the heaving water waves and found five Arctic Terns, exquisitely balanced and delicate, surfing the wind and picking flies from the turbulence below them. What a joy they are to observe. So pristine and sleek at this time of year, seemingly lithe and elegant in everything they do and absolutely in their element of wide skies and open waters. 

A slightly chunkier but still delicate white bird manifested itself into a first summer Little Gull and I noted amongst the hurtling Swifts not only Swallows but House and Sand Martins as well. My phone rang. It was Dai. 'Ewan I have just flushed two Whimbrel from the Causeway, they are flying over the reservoir as I speak'. A slight panic but I soon picked them up flying towards me but landing on the wave wall of the adjacent Farmoor One. I walked towards the Causeway and watched them feeding on the grassy bank by the perimeter track. So much more refined than Curlews with their proportionately shorter and straighter beak. I left them and went in search of the Spotted Flycatcher and found it exactly where Dai said it would be, flycatching in a dead tree angled over the meandering Thames. The last one I saw was in Tanzania, moulting. What a fantastic journey this non descript little bird has made to be here. I left it in the sun by the river and returned back down the Causeway finding only a lone male Yellow Wagtail and accompanied by Swifts playing chicken with me as they flew after insects at incredible speeds beside and along the Causeway. The wind howled now, even stronger than before and uncomfortable despite the strong sunshine. Time to go home.

Friday 3 May 2013

It's that time of year again 3rd May 2013

Yours truly at Splash Point. Note the paraphernalia required for 14 hours of seawatching. Large amounts of clothing -it's really cold first thing. Water and food. Sunblock, notebook. tissues, scope and bins, seat to collapse or fall asleep in and of course a miniature bottle of whisky for that magic moment

                                            'I must go down to the sea again
                                            To the lonely sea and the sky
                                            All I ask is for a southeast wind
                                            And one hundred Poms to fly by'

                                           with apologies to John Masefield

As any seawatcher on the South coast will tell you the last week in April and the first two weeks in May is prime time for Pomarine Skuas migrating up the Channel. They are the holy grail of pelagic birds for those who seek such things. For over ten years I lived not far from Brighton, spending and even now still spending, despite living in Oxfordshire, more time than I care to admit staring out to sea in search of Poms. 'Pomitus' can seize the most sensible of souls, causing them to risk careers, relationships and even marriages in search of these coveted birds. This year I am full of anticipation as yet another anniversary comes round and I will be seeking them from the breakwater at Splash Point in Seaford, East Sussex. The most propitious conditions are a southeasterly wind, usually but not exclusively accompanied by continual sunshine. Every day I scan the weather predictions on the internet and listen to the Shipping Forecast with bated breath. If the winds are right I will be in bed early and away from home at 3am to take my place on Splash Point at 5.30 with other like minded Pomariners. By some good fortune, possibly the plethora of Kittiwakes from the adjacent colony on Seaford Head, Pomarine Skuas sometimes stop relatively close in, to rest and/or harass the Kittiwakes, so not all encounters are an all too brief view of a passing flock or individual. When this happens I offer a quiet prayer to the birding gods and enjoy the resulting encounter after a year of anticipation. The following extracts from my notebooks of previous years give a flavour of what to expect if the Poms do come, and believe me it is by no means certain even in the right conditions that they will turn up. Enigmatic to the last

5th May 1992

Because there was no wind the distant passing Arctic Skuas all seemed to be heavier in flight than usual, not their usual rapier selves, and thus causing false alarms and excitements in my anticipation of Poms. Then suddenly a skua high above the sea, inches from a Kittiwake, chasing up, down, left, right, round and round - surely another Arctic? It broke off from the chase and there for all to see, those spoons on the end of the central tail feathers - a Pom! It glided down and settled on the water, lowering black webbed feet and flashing white patches on the undersides of the wings. It's heavy, black, formidably hooked bill and black cap extending from the bill, under the eye and sweeping up to the rear of it's crown clearly visible in the early morning light. Every bit the pirate! It bathed, preened, briefly raising it's wings and flapping them to shake off the water. It sat and looked about, then rose and flapped around in a sedate, leisurely circle before settling again. As befits it's piratical nature it looked like a miniature galleon riding high on the sea with the wings and tail held up at an acute angle. I watched it for thirty minutes, before, with another flap and flash of white wing patches it rose with methodical wingbeats, ascending ever higher, heading East- to who knows where

Pomarine Skuas including a dark morph on Spring migration
Courtesy of Martin Cade

2nd May 1995

Well what a day. A total of one hundred and nine Poms in groups of up to twelve, moving all day in glorious sunshine and no one to see them but me. The first Poms arrived in the early morning light, the flock appearing as a dark smudge from out of the haze gathering over the blue of the sea; the excitement of counting how many in the flock sending a thrill through me. So it went on throughout the day, with Poms appearing virtually every hour. As the day passed so did my mood change; the thrill and expectation of early morning with the sun just rising, passing into a mood of quiet contemplation as the sun rose higher in the sky and the ever present sound and rhythm of the sea lulled my senses.The sun moving from east to west had, by noon, created a seemingly infinite panorama of sparkling flashes as the rays caught the gentle wave tops and the light off the sea was white and dazzling. But still the dark shapes moved past, not so clear now in the glare but undeniably Poms heading inexorably East. Late afternoon and the light was turning to golden orange from the West and now many of the Poms were resting on the sea and had to be picked up as dark flocks floating eastwards on the running tide-often betraying their presence by the raising and flapping of wings. The energy and adrenalin of an all day seawatch when Poms are moving seems infinite and one does not want the day to end but inevitably it does. However the elation of knowing that this day is for ever special and the grail has been found for one brief day fills one's soul with a magic which lingers for the rest of the evening and night.

Highights of the day - a Kittiwake being chased, almost casually by a line of twelve Poms; two Poms chasing an Arctic Skua, which in turn was chasing a Kittiwake;

6th May 1996

The first Pom of the day arrived over the sea from the West characteristically beating it's way East but then diverted, and gaining both speed and height launched a ferocious attack on a Kittiwake, following every twist and turn of it's victim and striking it hard enough to leave a trail of white feathers floating in the air. It's unfortunate victim disgorged the contents of it's crop, which the Pom settled on the sea to consume, followed by vigorous bathing and preening. It remained on the sea, it's head moving constantly following passing Kittiwakes. It launched another three attacks on Kittiwakes, displaying awesome power and flying skills. The final attack resulted in the Pom, in the heat of the chase actually doing a complete loop-the-loop, then seizing the hapless Kittiwake by the wing tip, knocking it into the sea. After these exertions it sat for over ninety minutes on the sea, drifting east on the tide until it was lost to sight

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Exotic in Oxfordshire 1st May 2013

Well the first of May dawned sunny and bright and it stayed that way for the rest of the day.What a difference a bright sunny day makes to the way one feels. Even though the wind was still from a northerly quarter it was warm enough for some brave souls to expose those winter white legs. I did not get quite that far but wandering around Iffley Meadows I certainly felt the warmth of the sun  and was bold enough to remove my fleece. My reason for a visit to Iffley was to view the Snake's Head Fritillaries, growing in profusion across the meadows and nodding gently in the wind. Apparently this is the third best year for them since records began. A count that was featured on BBC Look South yesterday resulted in no less than 67,000 being counted. Absolutely phenomenal for this much endangered plant and long may they thrive under the care and protection of BBOWT. 

Even butterflies put in an appearance on this sunny day with a Peacock somewhat sluggishly warming itself on the track into the reserve and Orange Tips hurrying fussily along the hedgerows as if intent on some unknown but vital business. I love the entrance to the reserve, walking off the busy road into a detached, tranquil and watery world of green, still and murky backwaters and seemingly abandoned Longboats with the rushing waters of the weir almost drowning out the sound of the passing cars from nearby.

Entrance track to the Reserve crossing the river

The Weir

Iffley Meadows. Fritillaries in the foreground
The Snake's Head Fritillaries stood in ranks in the grass, mutely beautiful, the lovely mottled purple flowers in abundance and the all white version less so. 

I stood and looked over this spectacle, savouring this brief period of flowering fruition which all too soon will be over and the meadow will return to it's normal mundane appearance until next year. Despite the publicity of yesterday I was all alone in my reverie and after an hour turned to leave and made my way back to the car. It was no great effort to see them, it took no long drive or rush and it was just a nice gentle afternoon in the sunshine which was in harmony with and complimented the gentle and delicately nodding flowers in the meadow. 

By now it was mid afternoon so with Farmoor nearby I found myself wandering up the track from the car park and strolling towards the grassy bank between the works and Farmoor One reservoir. I was in contemplative mood after my audience with the fritillaries and the sun shone bright and dazzlingly off the blue, sky reflecting waters of the reservoirs as the yachts scudded about. 

I did not expect to see much if anything and just thought I would sit on the low wall by the reservoir and look at the male Yellow Wagtails, a true favourite of mine. Farmoor is possibly the best place in Oxfordshire to see them in any numbers in Spring. Some years are good but sadly each year there seem to be less and less but this year has been exceptionally good. They are such striking creatures in their breeding yellow, impossibly bright but their olive green backs help them to subdue the garishness of their bright yellow underparts as they catch insects in the grass. Just as with the fritillaries their innocent and to them unknowing beauty seem to embody all the cheerfulness and optimism of early Spring. They look almost as if they have caught the sun's rays in their plumage and their loud, and cheery contact calls seem totally appropriate to the sense and time of year. 

I scanned the bank and there were indeed some Yellow Wagtails in the grass, about four or five, including a female. The females always arrive later than the males. I sat and watched them and it soon became apparent there were quite a few more Yellow Wagtails around than I had at first seen. As I counted and re counted, the number of wagtails ever increasing, I noticed a single wagtail catching insects on the perimeter path, off to my left. I looked at it in my bins and to my joy it was a male Channel Wagtail, the quaintly named hybrid between our Yellow Wagtail and the Blue Headed Wagtail from across the Channel. Hybrid it may be but it is a creature of great beauty and certainly much appreciated by me.The pale dove grey head and bold white eye stripe was a perfect counterpoint to the rich yellow of it's underparts. I watched it feeding with it's companions for quite some time just enjoying it's beautiful plumage, long legged elegance and appealing behaviour. 

Female Yellow Wagtail possibly Channel Wagtail

All the time  I was watching it other Yellow Wagtails were joining the group until there were no less than twenty two chasing hatching flies in the grass.The number of females amongst the flock had also increased to around six and amongst them was one I thought could be a female Channel Wagtail although it is very difficult to be sure. To me they appear fractionally larger than 'our' Yellow Wagtail and seem to be, as I have mentioned, longer in the leg and consequently more elegant. Every so often the whole flock would take alarm at some perceived threat and rise up with much calling to fly around and eventually settle back in the grass.The section of the reservoir I and the wagtails was frequenting, although near the yacht club was totally undisturbed and for an hour I communed with the wagtails and when I finally left them the sun not only shone on me from above but seemed to reach inside and impart an inner glow as well.