Wednesday 2 April 2014

On yer Baikal 1st April 2014

Glorious spring weather brought a report of a drake Baikal Teal at Fen Drayton Lakes RSPB reserve in Cambridgeshire. Baikal Teal is a species normally found in central and eastern Asia so to see one here in the UK was an opportunity not to be missed especially as I had missed by a day one that frequented marshland at Southport for a few days last year and later turned up in Holland.

The duck at Fen Drayton had been found some two weeks ago but the news only became generally known three or four days prior to our visit. It has attracted considerable attention and a steady stream of admirers have  made their way to Fen Drayton to see it in the last few days

A call to Terry on Monday resulted in a plan for the two of us to leave Oxford for Cambridge at the relatively civilised hour of 7am on Tuesday, April Fools day.

I say civilised advisedly as our  subsequent encounters with rush hour traffic, thick morning fog and the resultant jams and hold ups were definitely not civilised but I guess people going to work have little choice but to endure this daily version of insanity. I am just glad I no longer have to commute anymore.

Terry kindly offered to drive due to my still very painful shoulder making driving difficult for me. The night before had been hell with the pain from my shoulder waking me at 3.30 in the morning and try as I might I just could not find a comfortable position after that to get to sleep. Tired and dishevelled I inevitably fell fast asleep in the passenger seat of Terry's car as we drove across country waking up at strategic intervals to ensure Terry was keeping us on the straight and narrow which he did with great skill. It took longer than we anticipated to make the journey due to the Satnav diverting us away from various traffic hold ups en route but eventually we emerged from the fog into a bright and sunny Cambridgeshire morning that revealed a flat landscape stretching as far as one could see and now, on the cusp of spring, rapidly turning green. A drive down some pleasant country lanes and soon we were following the brown RSPB signs to Fen Drayton.

Neither of us was sure what to expect as we had not been to this reserve before. All I can say is it is huge, consisting of a complex of ten large lakes spread over a very wide area interspersed with hedgerows, tracks and footpaths running round and between them. Slap bang through the middle runs The Cambridge Guided Busway. A sort of cross between a tramway and railway line but for buses. A space age concrete construction that allows the buses to be propelled at high speed along an exclusive and specially constructed concrete highway, their passage being controlled by sensors.  It is also according to the locals very controversial as it cost a fortune to build and does not seem to be particularly widely used even though buses career up and down it every five or ten minutes regardless.

We parked the car on the entrance track beyond where it  crosses the busway and then walked a mile or so east along a tarmac path by the busway that acts both as a cycleway and pedestrian access. On a number of occasions I had close encounters with bikes as they came along the pathway silently behind us. Apart from the speeding buses and bikes it was a tranquil mile long walk to Moore Lake where the Baikal Teal was entertaining all comers. We wandered along the pathway accompanied on occasions by a staccato burst of song from various Cetti's Warblers and finally we even managed to catch a glimpse of one of these elusive and skulking brown birds. In a frenzy of Spring exuberance I predicted to Terry that they would recolonize Otmoor in our very own Oxfordshire this year having been wiped out by the hard winter of 2012/2013. Terry was not so sure.

Eventually we came to a small track on our left which led to the Hide from which we would be able to see the teal. A pleasant short walk down a meandering track overhung with branches of bright green emergent hawthorn leaves and the bulging golden yellow buds of pussy willow brought us to the Hide. I walked up the ramp to the Hide and opened the door with no little trepidation. It was as feared but to no surprise, full of birders. My worst nightmare. Nonetheless we ventured in to its depths,  managed to squeeze into the far corner and were soon looking at an adult male Baikal Teal in all its intricate patterned glory. What a truly beautiful bird.

The head is what really catches your eye. A combination of iridescent green and cream with a black teardrop around the eye and a black line like running mascara dropping vertically down the cheeks to join the black chin. A white line divides the pink breast from the grey flanks and white elongated scapulars droop theatrically down over the rear flanks.

Always relatively distant it was too much for my lens but Terry managed to achieve some images which illustrate this piece. Through the scope however it could be seen in all its beauty and we watched it for an hour or so endlessly swimming back and fore along with Eurasian Wigeon, picking insects and invertebrates from the surface of the lake. Small islands in the lake harboured a pair of Avocet and Oystercatcher and Black headed Gulls looked like they were preparing to breed. Further out on the lake Eurasian Teal and a pair of Common Goldeneye rested on the still waters.

A constant stream of birders came and went from the hide with consequent disruption and disturbance. My feelings about hides and their inhabitants are well known and after an hour I had reached critical. It's not just the dropping of scopes and general banging around but the conversation and remarks often volunteered at full volume that really get to me. One particular gent seemed to only have one way of communicating which was at full volume and it never ceased to amaze me how he seemed to have no embarrassment about demonstrating his ignorance with ill considered remarks. It's an unwelcome intrusion and disturbs my, and probably everyone else's concentration and enjoyment  Nor do I want to listen to yet another birders endless travelogue of the latest trip he has made to somewhere in the world and then to listen to his mates try to outdo this by relating their latest birding exploits. And so it goes on.

We made our escape and returned to peace and quiet making our way back along the path and onto the walkway cum cycletrack and eventually returned to the car. What now? I had done some research on the internet the night before and found there was a male American Wigeon and a female Ring necked Duck not too far away at a place called Pymoor near the Wildfowl and Wetlands Reserve at Welney. We could go there. I also consulted a map I had downloaded of Fen Drayton Reserve and we decided that we should first take a look at the largest lake here which was Ferry Lagoon and conveniently was right next to where we had parked the car.

It was so pleasant to stand in the warm sun by the track, having a snack and relaxing after seeing the Baikal Teal. We watched an ash grey male Blackcap warbling its way through a nearby Hawthorn whilst high above in an Ash tree a ChiffChaff  let forth with its metronomic song.

We drove the car further down the track and left it in a car park at the end. Nearby some birders were looking from a gate over the northwestern part of Ferry Lagoon. Amongst the Black headed Gulls three more delicate gulls swooped, tern like, to pick invertebrates from the water's surface. Small with black underwings. Little Gulls. So delicate!  So petite! So nice!

Not much else was to be seen from here but we were told of a Sedge Warbler singing from brambles further around the lake to our left although sadly three Garganey also in this area had been scared off by a Grey Heron. The Sedge Warbler gave a brief burst of song from the aforementioned brambles as we arrived but then silence. Well it was silence until another three birders arrived bellowing to each other  and making such a noise discussing a forthcoming trip to Scotland that no bird in its right senses was going to show itself let alone sing.

"Have you seen the Sedge?" one of them loudly enquired of us. "No not yet" I replied resignedly. They stood around for a few minutes talking loudly but patience was not a virtue that seemed to be part of their repertoire and thankfully for us they walked off to a nearby hide. By now one of them was on a phone and I could hear the entire conversation from many yards away. The Sedge Warbler sang again briefly from further up the hedgerow un-noticed by the noisy birders. Terry and myself walked the short distance to the approximate spot. The warbler sang again and I found it deep in the brambles before it disappeared again. Just a flash of striated brown and a long creamy eyebrow but that was enough. We waited and Terry finally saw it as it came up from the brambly depths to sing briefly before descending back into the dark impenetrable interior of the bramble patch.

We had also learned that there was a drake Greater Scaup and a drake Smew on Ferry Lagoon but typically they were at the far end of the lake which was a good mile distant and would require a considerable walk. Terry had never seen a drake Smew so we decided to make the walk. We set off just as news came through of a Blue winged Teal on a gravel pit near Northampton.  Dilemna. We hesitated and then decided to walk to the next inlet of the lake and if we had no luck from there we would return to the car and head for the Blue winged Teal. We walked round a bend in the track and down to the lake's shoreline. Another birder was already there scoping across the water. He saved us a lot of time by first announcing he had located the Greater Scaup which was consorting with a group of Tufted Ducks by an island in the lake and then saved us a lot of further effort by finding the drake Smew, close into the far edge of the lake. So Terry got his look at a drake Smew and satisfied we headed back to the car.

The latest news from RBA informed us that the Blue winged Teal had flown off. Never mind we would go and try to find the American Wigeon at Pymoor. An hour's drive found us on an unclassified road leading to Pymoor, driving through yet more flat endless fields with absolutely no likely looking wetlands. I stoically followed the directions I had downloaded and we were about to give up  when we turned a corner and just before a railway bridge Terry saw some birders looking north from the high embankment to our left. We pulled over and went  up the bank to join them and there before us was a wide area of flooded grassland inhabited by a large number of Eurasian Wigeon and Teal, Northern Shoveler and with a few Tufted Duck and Common Pochard amongst them. This must be the spot and the birders confirmed we were in the right place.

The American Wigeon was not easy to find as it was quite a long way off and the heat haze added to our problems but eventually, not without difficulty, we found it by way of locating its prominent white head patch, subtly paler than the yellower head patch of the commoner Eurasian Wigeon feeding with it.

Having got our fill of the American Wigeon we decided to head for home but at the last moment I suggested that we may as well look for the Ring necked Duck which according to my downloaded information was close by and viewable from the same embankment but near the intriguingly named  Four Balls Farm.  We drove a couple of miles and came to the farm. One other birder was already looking from atop the bank on our left. Joining him we  enquired about the duck but he had not seen it. I looked out on a vast area of wetland full of hundreds of ducks but it was going to be impossible to find the duck due to the light and heat haze. Large numbers of Eurasian Teal and Wigeon were supplemented by smaller numbers of Northern Shoveler, Gadwall and a couple of pairs of Northern Pintail. A small group of Tufted Duck gave some vague hope that one of them might be the Ring necked Duck but after intense examination it was not to be

We looked and admired the sheer spectacle of so many ducks but realised we were not going to find the Ring necked Duck. Terry scanned right and as a finale found two Common Cranes standing in the middle of a vast grass field.

That was our cue to call it a day. A very good day indeed.

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