Wednesday 12 February 2014

In Search of Myrtle 11th February 2014

I made a call to Clackers on Monday. 

"Fancy going to see the Myrtle Warbler on Tuesday?" 

A short pause.

"I will try to get the day off and call you back". 

Clackers later confirms he has the day off and we arrange to leave Oxford at 4am on Tuesday.

A little backgound to our latest jaunt may be in order now.

A Myrtle Warbler or as it is now less romantically called, Yellow-rumped Warbler had been found during the recent Garden Birdwatch survey on a somewhat upmarket housing estate of mainly detached houses in a place called High Shincliffe near Durham. This transatlantic waif should be in the USA but now becomes the 18th of its kind to be found in Britain. After protracted negotiations between two local birders and the residents of the estate, lasting many days, a compromise had been found to accommodate the numerous birders wishing to see the warbler and the local residents concerns. The bird was originally found in a private garden with no access, so some feeders were set up in a hedge by the perimeter road round the estate that was away from any potential invasions of privacy and the warbler co-operated perfectly and fed on two fat filled half coconuts placed strategically in the hedgerow. So everyone was happy.

The hedgerow favoured by the Yellow-rumped Warbler. The fat filled coconuts
were deep in the hedge either side of the middle tree
We had four hours driving in the dark, with, as usual, a dire weather forecast to look forward to so whiled away the miles chatting in the cosy warmth of the Audi as we progressed up the A1 heading ever northwards. The gentle red glow of the dashlights and the darkness was comforting, a metaphorical cushion softening the hard world of concrete and latent Motorway danger outside the car. The hours and miles passed with us regaling each other with birding tales, a little political ranting and raving about politicians to add some spice and then we made a stop at the inappropriately named Scotch Corner (it's nowhere near Scotland).

We drove up the slip road off the Motorway. Clackers says 

"What's that white stuff ?" 

Me "Errr." 

Clackers responds "It's snow!". 

The grass beside the roads was white with a covering of snow. We departed the cocoon of warmth and security provided by German engineering and entered the fluorescent hell of Scotch Corner Motorway Services as dawn broke.  In recognition of the weather conditions we took our waterproofs and boots from the car to change in the services. The bitter wind howled around our legs. 

"Maybe some extra body clothing too Clackers?" 

Suitably attired we retreated back to the car then headed northwards towards Durham as the dawn slowly rose, grey and unwelcoming. The sleet turned to rain and as we neared High Shincliffe it had stopped and a grey all pervading gloominess took over, accompanied by the relentless bitter and chilling wind.

We parked the car and walked down a winding road called Whitwell Acres meeting birders already returning who had seen the warbler. Their comments were re-assuring. It was being seen well and frequently in the hedgerow. We turned a corner and we could see a small group of birders standing on a grass mound  looking intently at a thirty metre length of hedgerow with some taller trees on the other side of the narrow perimeter road. 

A familiar figure was coming up the road towards us. Or at least half the figure I remembered. It was Chris and he had lost a lot of weight. 

"Hi Chris. You're looking good

"Cheers mate. Lost two stone. I can now see below my stomach." 

"That always helps Chris". 

We got to the mound and some other acquaintances from Sussex were also there who had come with Chris but they had arrived at first light, already seen the warbler and shortly after left for home. Clackers and myself set up our scopes and waited. A large flock of Pink footed Geese flew over, very high above us. We did not have to wait very long for the warbler. Various small shapes flitted like ghosts through the tangled mass of twigs and stems. A Robin, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits even a Marsh Tit arrived, all presumably attracted by the free food and finally the warbler turned up and perched on some fat balls hung in a tree before descending to pick at the fat in one of the coconut shells. My first view was of a grey brown warbler about the size of a robin but more delicately built. It was not there for long before being chased off by an aggressive Robin. However it was persistent and regularly returned to the fat filled coconut shells and slowly I got to see its plumage details as the morning passed and it returned at regular intervals to feed. The upperparts were dull brown with a distinct grey caste and had four or five black lines running lengthways. The underparts were dull white with some faint streaking and a brief splash of pale yellow on the breast sides. The tail was black with prominent and large white 'windows' in the outer tail feathers and best of all was a bright lemon yellow rump contrasting with the darker body feathers. We watched it until we had seen enough to feel satisfied. It was mainly visible when feeding on the coconut shells but on just a few occasions it perched  in the open on the low branches of the  trees giving full and unobscured but all too brief views of it. 

Photography was very difficult as the coconut shells were obscured by a mass of twigs. I gave up trying. With a scope you could focus on the shells easily through the twigs but the camera's autofocus was hopeless. I did get some really good images of the twigs however.  Our final view in the morning was of it flying into the top of the tree under which we were standing and then flying off over the houses behind us. It was by now 1130.

"Something to eat Clackers?" 

"Why not". 

We drove a short way into Shincliffe itself and found a pub called The Seven Stars with a banner outside offering breakfast. It looked pretty rundown from the exterior and breakfast had apparently stopped at 10am  but enquiries within found a friendly, welcoming response and we were accommodated with a minimum of fuss in a surprisingly luxurious interior. The breakfast was also superb, cooked really well and served with an attention to our welfare that would shame many a similar hostelry. We sat in the cosy pub and enjoyed the post twitch euphoria and sense of well being that a successful dice with the birding fates always brings.

Replete, we bade our farewells and returned for some more warbler action. However on returning we found we had just missed three Waxwings literally a few hundred yards round the corner and further up the perimeter road. This was just too tempting, having already seen the warbler so well. We headed off up the road but the Waxwings had departed. The whole place was alive with birds and it soon became clear that the residents of High Shincliffe certainly cared for their garden birds. Many gardens had feeders and two gardens had at least ten to fifteen feeders hanging from their trees. It must cost a fortune to fill them but they certainly attracted the birds. We stood near to the rowan tree which the Waxwings favoured waiting in the hope they would return. Another birder came from further up the road and told us about ten Grey Partridges in a cabbage field a few hundred yards up the road. We went to have a look and sure enough there were ten Grey Partridges in the  middle of the field fluffed up against the cold and  looking like brown footballs. We returned to the rowan tree but still nothing. Other birders left. Tired of waiting. So little patience. We were alone. We amused ourselves watching all the various birds coming to the feeders. Bullfinches, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, House Sparrows, all the commoner tits, as well as a Marsh Tit and a Lesser Redpoll, were all regular visitors. 

Another birder came up the road and stopped by us. 

"Any sign of the Waxwings?" 

"Sadly no," we replied "but there are ten Grey Partridges further up in a field by the road".

The birder went off to see them. We carried on with our unofficial garden bird survey. The birder later returned. 

"Did you see them?" 

"Not really. I only saw one and it was being eaten by a Sparrowhawk!

He carried on down the road back to the warbler site. Two other local birders joined us and gave us a brief history of the estate. They were friendly and communicative and suggested that we should try Saltholme RSPB reserve in nearby Billingham as there was a Green-winged Teal and a Long tailed Duck there. They gave us directions for later

Clackers suggested we go and look at the warbler one last time and then travel on to Saltholme. 

"Let's give the Waxwings just fifteen minutes more Clackers". 

Five minutes passed and I looked at the rowan. Three familiar shapes were now perched in the top of an adjacent taller tree. Waxwings!

They sat unconcernedly and then individually descended onto the rowan and gobbled berries frantically for a  minute before returning to the higher tree.

They repeated this process regularly even hovering to pluck the berries from the stems.

We left them to it and returned to the warbler.

Just a handful of birders now remained. The warbler had been absent for some time. We stood around and discussed leaving and going to Saltholme to see the ducks. Slowly the number of birders increased - all waiting. The sun came out and the sky turned blue. I became aware of a quiet tek tek call. I had heard this in the USA. 

"That's a Yellow-rumped Warbler!" 

The call was coming from a tall tree opposite. I looked up and at the very topmost twig was the Yellow-rumped Warbler. It sat there for all of two minutes giving great views in the telescope before zipping off to a hedgerow on the other side of the cabbage field behind the hedge. Everyone saw it. A little while later the warbler came back and fed on the coconuts. I did my bit for public relations by letting some interested local residents look through my telescope as it fed on the coconut. Clackers did the same. It made us all feel good.

The warbler came to feed on the coconut one more time. Possibly due to the angle we viewed the coconut and the position of the bird we had the best views we had managed all day and saw it for an extended period in all it's understated glory. It then flew off. This completed the cycle. We were fully satisfied now and every birder will tell you that there comes that time when you feel all the effort has been positively justified by the time spent looking at the bird in question and it is time to go.

We headed off in brilliant sunshine to Saltholme RSPB. Dominated by a futuristic industrial skyline of silver pipes and towers that would do any science fiction movie justice. It is a really strange place. We found the area of water filled pits where the ducks were meant to be but the conditions were totally against us. We were looking straight into the sun and also a strong cold wind blew full into our faces. It was almost impossible. We did identify various ducks and waders the best of which I suppose were two Golden Plover. A local birder told us we were looking in the wrong place for the Long tailed Duck. It was on a pit the other side of the road. We duly found it. A female. A Water Rail sharmed in the reeds.

I would like to say we then left and had a trouble free drive home but a literally wild goose chase then ensued prompted by someone telling me seven Tundra Bean Geese were nearby. They were not. We only found Greylag and Canada Geese at the spot and I still wonder if our informant had misidentified the geese. Whilst checking for the geese we had a chance encounter with an almost hysterical Lee Evans and associate who were also looking for the geese.The colleague of Lee Evans then promptly left us in his car to go look for the two Golden Plover I had seen as he needed them for his Cleveland County List. Insane! We left Lee Evans standing in a layby with the light failing, on his own in the wastes of Billingham. I hope his friend remembered to come back for him.

We headed for home at 5pm. A major traffic jam out of Billingham confronted us. A confusing road diversion on the A19 somewhere near Sowerby added to our woe. The police then closed the A1 due to an accident. It took us two hours just to get out of Yorkshire. A four hour journey took six. We got home at 11pm. 

It was worth it though.

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