Monday 3 February 2014

Scaup - Great and Small 2nd February 2014

Lesser Scaup
A northwards jaunt today to Staffordshire, in the company of Terry  to see a Lesser Scaup that has taken up residence on the delightful Tittesworth Reservoir situated in the Peak National Park just the other side of Leek in Staffordshire. An early morning Sunday drive up the M6 was relatively painless apart from the dreaded 'Average Speed Check' that seemed to stretch for endless miles and for no apparent reason but once clear of this we made good time and soon arrived at the reservoir. 

Unlike the concrete horrors of our own Farmoor, this reservoir is in a natural basin so consequently there is not a concrete wall in sight but just a large surrounding area of green banks, trees and bushes apart from where the minor public road (called The Causeway) crosses the northern tip of the reservoir. This is truly how reservoirs should be. Couple this with the novelty of having a day of sunshine and no rain and you can understand how pleased with ourselves we felt. Even a Mistle Thrush was singing from the very top of an ancient tree.

Arriving, as we did, early on a Sunday morning  meant there were not many people around and we were unsure of where to look for the Lesser Scaup but a gentle enquiry with a local birder put us in the right location for the Lesser Scaup. In fact it was easy. We ended up in the first car park we came to right next to the reservoir entrance. Standing by the car and overlooking the reservoir we soon saw the Lesser Scaup lurking under some sallows on the other side of the narrowest part of the reservoir with a small group of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard. Although fairly distant we could see it quite clearly and we were advised that it would probably come much closer during the course of the day. Once we had obtained a good look at the Lesser Scaup we amused ourselves by standing near to a bird feeding area next to the car park and photographing the various birds, mainly finches that were visiting the bird table.

The highlight for both of us was undeniably a male Brambling. They always send a frisson of excitement through me and I guess Terry also. So much more attractive in their brighter multi coloured plumage than our lowly Chaffinch. It mixed in with a variety of other finches; Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Lesser Redpolls, one male of which was wonderfully suffused with rose pink on its underparts and a single male Siskin. Below the bird table some opportunistic Mallard drakes waited for seeds dropped from above, muttering to themselves like fat old gentlemen. Not a bad start to the day

Brambling, Greenfinches and Siskin

Lesser Redpolls and Goldfinch

There were also two Greater Scaup reported from here and we found out they were to be seen on the Conservation Pool which was the small area of water on the other side of The Causeway, that crosses the northern tip of the reservoir. It was only a five minute walk from the car park so I suggested to Terry that we make good use of our time and go look for the Greater Scaup with the hope the Lesser Scaup would desert the sallows and maybe come closer in our absence. 

The Conservation Pool is actually a part of the reservoir set aside specifically for birds, principally ducks and has a bird hide on each side of it. We decided to give the hides a miss and concentrated our search from The Causeway itself. At first we could find no sign of anything resembling a Greater Scaup and most of the ducks, principally Tufted were sheltering from the brisk wind at the far end of the pool in a sheltered bay on the left with only a restricted view due to overhanging bushes. There were also Teal, Mallard and a scattering of Common Pochard sharing the pool with the Tufted Ducks and a single Common Snipe was almost invisible, crouching in the dead stems by the water's edge. Its buff, brown and black plumage rendering it superbly camouflaged in the similar coloured surroundings.

Quite some time passed with our frustration levels rising, then a brown diving duck with a huge white blaze around the base of its bill swam out from behind the  bushes and there was a female Greater Scaup. A little while later and an adult male Greater Scaup, all pale grey upperpart vermiculations and bottle green head joined her. So we now had seen a pair of Greater Scaup. Excellent.

We watched them, albeit distantly, for some time but they were diving, feeding and obviously intent on remaining in their sheltered bay with their Tufted Duck companions so we went back to the feeders for some more finch action. The Brambling was still there but all the finches scattered as a Black headed Gull boldly took over the bird table and despite threatening movements from yours truly steadfastly refused to be intimidated and vacate the bird table. At the rate it was gobbling up food there would be little left for any finches or anything else in a very short time.

"Come on Terry let's go over the other side of the reservoir and see if we can get closer to the Lesser Scaup and get some photos". Terry was sceptical. We walked a short distance up the road and took the gate leading to the far reservoir bank. Fortunately there was ample cover of bushes, trees and reeds to screen us from the ducks sheltering in front of them on the water. They were slowly drifting towards the Causeway anyway, being blown by the wind and by some miracle of chance the Lesser Scaup separated itself from the Tufteds and drifted ever closer to us. The light was not brilliant with the sun dangerously close to shining straight into the camera lens but we got what are euphemistically called 'record' shots. We watched it diving and loafing on the water for around thirty minutes and took its photo many times  and then returned to the car park happy with our morning at Tittesworth.

It was now lunchtime and we decided on visiting Ham Wall Industrial Area located at Coleshill, a not very attractive area of the West Midlands but at least on our route back to Oxford. Our interest was in a Hume's Leaf Warbler which by rights should be spending the winter in northern India but by some random quirk of nature was spending its winter in a large area of brambles, scrub and scattered hawthorns backing onto some huge industrial warehouses. A rural idyll this certainly was not. The area it favoured was bordered by a muddy and waterlogged 'unofficial' motorcycle track, on which we stood, with lethal mud slides and deep puddles that had to be circumvented, the whole area embellished with the traditional urban accompaniment of various discarded bottles, cans, Pringles tubes and trashed footpath signs. The Sunday peace and quiet was intermittently punctuated by the roar of engines as the local 'lads' hurtled up and down the motorcycle tracks on their motorbikes. Not a crash helmet in sight. To give them their due they did keep well clear of us but the noise was still deafening.

When we arrived there were around twenty five people hanging about. Bored and stoic they just stood in the mud hopefully staring at the brambles and scrub. We joined them. The warbler had not been seen or heard for over an hour. Slowly people drifted off, presumably just fed up with standing in mud and staring at acres of brambles seemingly devoid of life. A Common ChiffChaff hooeeted it's way along the hedgerow behind us and a couple of Long tailed Tits messed around in a bramble clump but soon moved on. That was it for birdlife. Another hour, or it seemed like it, passed. The sun slowly sinking below the warehouses. Suddenly a group of birders sprang to life, pointing at the brambles and we all ran a short distance to join them.The Hume's had been heard and apparently seen briefly. Sure enough it called again, an anxious and breathy ppsssseet. Unmistakeable. Where was it though? Another birder cried out, "There it is, in that hawthorn. Unfortunately there were quite a few hawthorns to choose from. It had appeared in a hawthorn far back in the brambles. Too late. Before I could raise bins to eyes it dropped down into the brambles out of sight. Every birder knows the disappointment and frustration of such situations and the landscape now became infinitely more depressing with this near encounter. Most of us had missed it and you could almost feel the will for it to re-appear emanating from the ten or so of us still waiting to see it. Fifteen minutes passed. It re-appeared and I missed it again due to being some way left of the other birders and looking in the wrong direction. It dropped down into the brambles just as I got my bins on the right tree. I was now feeling even worse than before. Terry was the same. Then thirty more minutes passed very, very slowly. Silence. Not a sign. No one knew quite where it was. "Listen! there it is again, calling loudly, off to my left". I was the only one to hear it and rushed to the approximate spot followed by the others and finally there it was flicking around in a lone bare hawthorn. 

Hume's Leaf Warbler c Terry
Up, down, left and right it whizzed with incredible speed around the twigs and branches, seizing tiny invertebrates and calling frantically all the time. I got it in the scope, another minor triumph, for following this will o' the wisp was immensely difficult as it zipped about in random directions in the tree. Now full on in the scope I could see the dull green upperparts and greyish white underparts with a dull yellow wing bar and supercilium. Very much a drab watered down version of its close cousin the Yellow browed Warbler, and just as the books describe it.

We watched it for around five minutes before it flew further and disappeared in the brambles but then up it popped again in another bare hawthorn and for a couple of minutes gave an encore to its earlier performance. Then it was gone, right over to the back of the brambles by the warehouses. The light was now slowly going but we were happy. Some of the best views I have  had of this rare warbler and for Terry another lifer.We slithered our way through the mud and detritus back to the car. 


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