Wednesday 16 July 2014

We tie the Knot 15th July 2014

An image that accurately reflects the plumage of the Great Knot we saw today.
This image was taken in Korea but due to the distance of the bird we saw today
it was impossible to get an image of 'the real thing' so this will have to do
Monday evening and I learn that a mega has been found in Norfolk, , in the form of a Great Knot in full summer plumage and only the fourth of its kind to be seen in the UK. Its precise location was on Breydon Water at Great Yarmouth. Many, many miles off course it should be heading from its breeding grounds in eastern Siberia to its wintering quarters in coastal Australia yet here it was on the other side of the world. I sent a text to Badger and Clackers enquiring if they wanted to accompany me to Breydon Water but Badger was unable to do anything until the weekend and Clackers had the sad task of helping to arrange and attend his mother in law's funeral. So it looked like I would be making a long and lonely trip to Norfolk. I then recalled I had an appointment at my local surgery at nine thirty tomorrow so resigned myself to making the trip on Wednesday as naturally my health must come first above all things.
A few minutes passed as I sat in front of the computer checking tide times and the latest reports of the Great Knot and then my I-phone vibrated on the desk  as an incoming call announced itself and I received a call from Paul Wren. "You going for the knot tomorrow? I can only do the morning so will need to leave very early" says Wreny. "Errr, what time had you in mind? I replied tentatively knowing what was to come.  "I suggest 2.30 am". This was decision time for me. Paul would be good company and we have a bond, having made two epic twitches to the Siberian Rubythroat in Shetland and the Harlequin Duck in The Hebrides a few years ago. All good intentions, worries about health and connections with sanity disappeared in a trice as I agreed with unseemly haste to meet Paul at the hallowed hour. By the way, have you ever noticed how popular 2.30 is as a suggested meeting time, be it morning or afternoon? Or is it just me?

It is now ten in the evening and I am going to die tomorrow as I will have to leave my house at 1.30am to get to Paul's on time. Three hours sleep is not nearly enough.Ye gods. Not enough but what the hell, its a Great Knot. A lifer. I can save any thoughts of imminent expiry and survive on adrenalin until after we have seen the knot which incidentally was, as always with twitching, by no means a certainty. The thrill of the chase, leaving the mainstream of everyday life for a day, an adventure, the ongoing anxiety of not succeeding but spurred on by the knowledge of the great wave of emotion and good feelings that can be expected if it all comes off is all there. It is a heady mix and irresistable.
It is the middle of the night, reality hits home as I stagger downstairs at 1.30am and move very slowly, my mind trying to function and catch up with my physical movements, I try to remember all the things I will need for a successful birding trip. I lose the piece of paper on which I have scribbled Paul's postcode or more correctly forget where I have put it not five minutes ago. I refind it where I carefully put it down. Glasses - where are they? I find them on my head and realise it is going to be a very long day but I am driven on by the prospect of seeing a much wanted bird. A lifer that I now have a chance of seeing in the flesh rather than just admiring pictures in a book and idly day dreaming of one day actually seeing one. Out into a sultry night moistened by soft summer rain and into the car with the practised routine that is almost automatic now, I have done it so often. Many moths are flying in the wet lanes and futilely I try not to hit them with the car but they are intent on suicide by car headlight. A Muntjac freezes in the glare of the lights, its fawn coat shining with rain drops as I pull up at a crossroads in the middle of the Cotswolds.  I get to Paul's far too early and park on a dark road for ten minutes. As the engine dies it is deathly quiet but a light goes on in a nearby house. I move on before anything untoward happens, only realising that in doing this I look even more suspicious.
Paul is already waiting, as eager as I am, to get on our way and we set off for the three and a half hour drive to Norfolk. The rural roads are wet and dark as we leave Paul's village but we are alone, encountering not a single car and only the occasional lorry. As we progress east more and more of the roads we encounter are being altered or dug up and we are diverted off our preferred route. I follow the dulcet tones of the Satnav's instructions and we take an unwelcome tour of Cambridgeshire, having to make an enormous  diversion but much later we reach somewhere we recognise, near Norwich. A grey blue sliver appears in the the eastern sky which slowly turns to pale pink and broadens, as the immediate world around us slowly comes into a grey focus. We stop at a garage for a tea and coffee respectively but at this ungodly hour we really do not need the attitude of the female behind the counter. Obstreperous and condescending and really she has no right to be so. We are the only car on the forecourt which is full of container lorries and such as us are given 'the fish eye' look whilst she fawns over squat, overweight lorry drivers stocking up on chocolate and all things unhealthy.

We carry on into the dawn, heading ever eastwards and slowly the miles on the signs to Great Yarmouth decrease as we head for the Rugby Club Car Park by Breydon Water. We have planned our arrival to coincide with low tide at 0530 and soon find the car park and a collection of carefully parked cars. I can see silhouettes of birders on the skyline  standing on top of  the sea wall overlooking Breydon Water but not really looking intently at anything. An ensuing short walk brings us up to the sea wall where we  contemplate narrow channels of water and a vast expanse of silver, shining mud, liberally dotted with the dark forms of various sized wading birds, all very much on the far side of the mud and therefore as we say 'distant', meaning they are hard to identify due to the extreme range. The light is not good yet but dull and sombre as if undecided whether it will let the sun shine through.

We walk west along the sea wall and I meet Matt, a friend  from Sussex and a couple of his colleagues. A bit of early morning banter ensues and then it starts to get serious as after a few minutes we simultaneously notice a wader far out on the mud that looks 'different'. It is certainly a different shape to the numerous Common Redshanks that surround it, being more attenuated with slightly shorter legs, a bill with a pronounced down curve towards the very tip, a small head and showing a subtly different jizz and feeding action. The light slowly improves and we all feel we can see a dark pectoral band on the bird's breast, markedly defined from the remaining white underparts. Still not fully confident of our identification we watch it avidly, unwilling to firmly nail our much prized reputations to the mast of Great Knot but that is eventually, by common concensus amongst us, what it turns out to be. We have found it, it is still here, the gamble has succeeded and we watch it feeding on the mud. Optimistically Paul tries to digiscope the bird but it is hopeless at such extreme range. The Great Knot patters around on the mud and then for no apparent reason flies further west upriver but then turns and comes towards us. I can now clearly see the black pectoral band, the white underparts and its rump which is pure white contrasting with the all black tail. The wings are long in relation to its size and featureless with no white wing bars. Happy, I now watch as it again turns towards us and makes to land much closer but then frustratingly retreats and flies far up river pursued by another larger wader which annoyingly makes it fly even further away. It appears to land on the mud and is lost to our view. We walk further west down the seawall to try and relocate it, on the way meeting a Frenchman who has flown from Montpelier in the South of France just to see this bird. He is a bit of a celebrity amongst us, being recognised as a kindred spirit. A true fanatic, the last time I saw him was when he marched around an oat field in Shetland last autumn clapping his hands and trying to flush a Thick billed Warbler. Ca va bienC'est la vie! 

He had not seen the Great Knot flying past him earlier so he followed us until we stopped as a group to look out over the mud and to his credit he quickly relocated the knot. Vive La France! Merci beaucoup! We watched the Great Knot all over again from the seawall, now being joined by a steady stream of birders anxiously asking for directions to the bird of their dreams far out on the mud. It was so far out it was christened the Great Dot but with the scope eyepiece zoomed up to maximum it was clearly visible and now, crucially some of the plumage details were much more evident as the sun broke through. Paul then discovered he had dropped his digital camera and £200.00 looked like it had gone the same way as the Great Knot - west. Paul was stoical about the loss and put it to the back of his mind so as to concentrate on the Great Knot. A true birder!

The tide had turned and was inexorably advancing and covering the mud so that slowly the birds moved downriver eastwards as the rising waters pushed them off the mud. A Marsh Harrier disturbed five or six Grey Herons in the rough grassland behind us.  The Great Knot flew again, back towards where we had originally located it and we retraced our steps accordingly, looking for Paul's missing camera on the way but there was no trace of it. We arrived opposite the Great Knot to discover it was now  marginally closer although still too far out on the mud to discern too much detail and was now being surrounded by a steady procession of Avocets and Common Redshanks, arriving to join it as they were forced to flee the rising tide. A Red Knot, still with the orange face and underparts of full summer plumage and so fully justifying its name, provided a comparison in size and jizz with its rarer cousin which appeared more attenuated and slightly larger. A moulting Spotted Redshank flew in, joining two Greenshank, a Whimbrel, numerous Curlews and Black tailed Godwits feeding on the ever decreasing mud banks. Sandwich and Common Terns followed the tide, calling loudly and fishing in the channels of brackish water.

Paul received a message alert on his pager  about his camera. Another birder had found it and was in the nearby Asda Car Park, waiting, if Paul wished to be re united with it. Paul went off post haste while I kept an eye on his scope until his return. On his return, happily reunited with his camera  I suggested we relocate to the eastern bank where the birdwatching hide was located near to the Asda Car Park, as I figured the Great Knot would slowly be forced nearer and nearer to us by the incoming tide. More and more cruising boats were now making their way upstream towards the Broads slowly chugging up the now increasingly wide channel of water.The tide was rising fast.

We made for the car and drove to the nearby Asda Car Park and after a short walk under the road bridge and along the eastern seawall past the hide we came level with the Great Knot still stubbornly and in splendid isolation making its way along the last remaining exposed mudbank.  Many waders, principally Avocets and Black tailed Godwits were now flying in to their roosts in the little creeks and inlets in front of us. It was busy here as a constant stream of waders arrived to sit out the high tide. More Black tailed Godwits came, their black and white wings and tails flashing as they joined their already sleeping companions. Avocets formed a separate flock whilst the occasional Common Redshank tucked itself into the flocks and summer plumaged Dunlins, ever hungry continued feeding, running with ceaseless energy over the muddy margins around the roosting waders. 

It was now 1030am and high tide was in another hour or so. The Great Knot finally rose from the mud and treated one and all to a couple of close flybys, allowing me to scope its main features and again to notice its long wings, black breast and black tail. It flew around as if unsure of its bearings and suggested it was going to land close to us but then rising again and flying around, it came in relatively close once more and pitched down amongst a packed throng of Black tailed Godwits, the majority still rusty orange in their summer plumage. We quickly moved our position on the bank to try and pick the knot out from the godwits but at first it was invisible. Someone claimed to have found it and set everyone's pulses racing but it was a misidentified Common Redshank, however a few moments later we found the Great Knot, clearly to be seen amongst the larger godwits and now, at last we could see so much more of its plumage in detail. The densely streaked grey head and neck, the smallish head and a medium length black bill were immediately obvious as was the broad black pectoral band on the breast with the white underparts liberally spotted with black. Even the  irregular chestnut scapulars, now somewhat faded with wear on the greyish toned upper-parts were clearly visible and we felt our  vigil, almost six hours long, was well worth it to get views such as these. It was undoubtedly the crowning moment of the day for us. 

The Great Knot was fidgety in the roost, at first it spent much of its time preening amongst the longer legged godwits and was often hidden by other godwits arriving to roost that inevitably landed precisely in the wrong place and totally obscured the knot from our view but if we remained patient the knot or the offending godwit eventually moved and we could clearly see the Great Knot again. And so it went on for another hour or so with us getting occasional peek a boo, tantalisingly brief but unobscured views of the Great Knot  before it was lost behind yet another late arriving godwit. The godwits themselves presented quite a spectacular sight as they stood in a long line by the rising tide, a line of glowing orange birds.

Slowly more and more birds became confined to an increasingly small area of land as the waters rose. Late arriving Common Redshanks came to roost as did hulking Curlews, diminutive Dunlins and peevish Lapwings. The occasional Bar tailed Godwit was picked out amongst the throng whilst Common Shelducks guarded their now well grown young on the saltmarsh with Whimbrels hiding in the bright green spartina behind. Four Little Egrets sat together, hunched and motionless on a slight rise, their white forms like beacons in the roost.

As if by a given signal Paul and I  knew we had seen enough. Seven hours had passed since we first saw the Great Knot and we felt we had now done the bird justice. A quick late breakfast in the adjacent Asda  and then we were on our way home, arriving back to a sunny Oxfordshire three hours later.

PS The next day there was no sign of the Great Knot. It had gone.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

The Farne Islands 9th July 2014

During the past couple of years I have been slowly catching up on visiting all those birding places that you hear a lot about and then make a mental note to go and see  but somehow never manage to get round to actually visiting.

Well, so far I have been to Fair Isle last year, Skomer earlier this year and now have been to the Farne Islands. In fact I did go to the Farnes last year to twitch a Bridled Tern with Justin  but never got to fully explore the islands and experience the amazing 'ternfest' that annually occurs in the breeding season. The Bridled Tern had returned this year but unfortunately was not around on our visit but no matter the 'tern experience' was just as good if not better.

Terry and myself set off from my home at 5am on Tuesday for the six hour drive to Seahouses in Northumberland where we had two seats booked on Serenity Boat Tours, one of the local companies that take visitors out to the islands. It is an awfully long way to Seahouses, 335 miles to be precise and never was the 'Far' in Farne Islands more apposite. Mind you we did not help ourselves by driving up the M6 when we should have gone up the M1 to join the A1, which was my fault for not concentrating and necessitated a thirty minute backtrack to get on the right road. This achieved we eventually found ourselves slowly winding our way north, caught up in the nightmare that is the A1, all average speed checks for mile upon tedious mile, and hours later passing the landmark of The Angel of the North, now orange with rust and not in my opinion quite the sensational sculpture it used to be. Then ominously, dark grey clouds covered the land and it started to rain as we passed Newcastle, coming down in torrents, flooding patches of road and my heart sank as I anticipated the purgatory of being on an open boat in this deluge and noting there was not a sign of a break in the lowering clouds. The online forecast we belatedly consulted, predicted heavy rain until mid afternoon so we pulled in to a layby and I called Serenity Boat Tours and expressed my concerns about the weather and asked about the possibility of changing our booking and to my surprise was advised that at Seahouses, only twenty miles away, it was hardly raining at all. I could hardly believe it but as we neared Seahouses the sky was indeed clear but when we got there the rain clouds caught up with us and inevitably so did the rain. We waited in the car hoping for the heavy rain to pass and miraculously, twenty minutes later it did  allowing us to keep to our original booking

Each shed contains a rival boat tour company. No lack of choice here!

Terry ready to board the boat
We had a quick look around the harbour and found a few female Eider then it was back to the car for a change into wet weather gear in case it rained again and now it was time to board onto Serenity Two, the boat that would take us out to the islands. 

Female Eider Duck
Unsurprisingly, considering the earlier downpour, there were not that many of us venturing out to the islands and those that did join the boat were mainly tourists and as far as I could see we were the only die hard birders. Instead of the ship's cat we had for company an elderly large collie type dog, presumably belonging to Andrew the skipper.

An Old Sea Dog!
The boat does an hour's sightseeing tour of the various islands before landing its passengers at Inner Farne so we got a little bit of interesting local history from the skipper over the tannoy as we progressed from island to island and the welcome opportunity to get very close to the colonies of Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Puffins. Not so welcome was the unsavoury wafts of rotten fish and guano coming from the colony but the skipper said this was a good day compared to a hot and sunny day when the smell was overpowering. I could only imagine! 

Part of the Common Guillemot colony
Also of great interest to me was the opportunity to see both an example of the uncommon bridled form of Guillemot in the colony, which is reputedly more prevalent further north and also an oddity in a Guillemot apparently in winter plumage. The skipper told us it was an old bird and no longer capable of moulting into summer plumage which did not seem correct to me.

Common Guillemot in winter plumage

'Bridled' Common Guillemot
Adult Kittiwake
Young Kittiwakes
Adult Puffin
A final stop was made off some rocks for the obligatory look at seals, Atlantic Grey Seals, including a mournful looking pup.

Atlantic Grey Seals
Grey Seal pup
and then it was a short trip across the sea to Inner Farne where we left the boat and joined others on the island and the sight that greets you is hard to describe adequately.

Another boat load for the tern experience
There are seabirds, mainly terns, literally everywhere you look and lots of them. Sandwich, Arctic and Common Terns  the latter belying their name and being the least populous here. To either side of the jetty were low rocks and small beaches providing loafing areas for off duty terns with many washing and preening or just fast asleep. Each species discreetly kept to itself and in its own area. 

Adult and juvenile Sandwich Terns with the adult beginning to moult its black cap

Adult Sandwich Tern still with its fully black shaggy cap

Displaying Sandwich Terns

Sandwich Terns - juveniles and adults
Sandwich Terns with chick

Adult Arctic Terns
The sight everyone had come to see and experience were the nesting terns and I guess the Puffins. Many of the terns now had almost fully grown young, others were with just hatched young or even sitting on eggs. The terns were completely fearless and as you walked up the path towards St Cuthbert's Chapel they stood their ground chiding you with sharp calls and then bombarding you with aerial attacks. 

The Seventh Century St Cuthbert's Chapel and the pathway from the jetty
along which you run the gauntlet of irate terns
Tern Paparazzi
We walked the gauntlet of tern alley and I received several sharp pecks on my head from outraged tern parents. These pecks are not light taps but full on stabs from a stilletto like, blood red (how appropriate) bill. 

Yours truly getting seen off by an angry tern
c Terry
It hurt so I raised my hood but still the terns persisted and pecked at the cloth. One lady took matters to extremes by wearing a crash helmet and I pitied the tern that tried to hammer that but I failed to find any with a bent beak! 

Adult Arctic Tern
The whole island and sky was full of birds, raucously calling, departing out to sea or arriving from the sea carrying sand eels for their young which scuttled around the beach or hid in the vegetation at the back of the beach. You could sit here for hours and not be bored with this constant procession of activity

Every conceivable corner of the island was occupied by nesting birds and although the wardens said many had left in the last few days there were still thousands of nesting birds here. The eggs and young of mainly Arctic Terns were often right by the path and you had to be really careful not to tread on them especially when your attention became diverted to concentrating on warding off attacks from the parent birds. 

Arctic Tern's nest and eggs 

Arctic Tern chicks

Recently fledged Arctic Tern
Adult Arctic Tern with fledged juvenile
Juvenile Arctic Tern
Second year Arctic Tern. These do not usually return  to the northern hemisphere
until they are adult although I saw at least three similar individuals
on Inner Farne during my visit
We walked to the top of the island by the Victorian lighthouse and found many people there, attracted by the Puffins. There are an incredible 37,000 pairs breeding on the Farne Islands. Here are sixteen of them!

Puffin watchers
Of more interest to me were the Shags with their emerald green eyes, sitting and nesting literally inches from us on the cliff top and showing not the slightest concern. The Kittiwakes were just as untroubled by our presence as indeed were the Arctic and Common Terns.

European Shag

The Sandwich Terns and Puffins kept more distant from us but I do not think they would be troubled about us even if they nested closer.

Sandwich Terns and Puffin

A small pool harboured some juvenile Black headed Gulls and much more interesting, a fully fledged juvenile Puffin. Grey of face and showing no sign of the adult's multi coloured bill it swam around looking a little confused at its unusual habitat. 

Juvenile Puffin
The photo opportunities were endless and many times we had to walk backwards as the birds were so close to us. There was something here for everyone, from small tern chicks, incredibly fluffy and cute for the kids, photo opportunities for those with cameras and even the bonus of an odd rarity for birders like us, when a Roseate Tern briefly joined the off duty terns down by the jetty. It was a job to know where to look and what to admire next but the abiding memory for me was the unbelievably close encounters with the terns which on many occasions stood or sat literally at your feet or perched just inches from you on a fence post completely unafraid. It will live long in my memory and I am sure I will go back again sooner rather than later.


Monday 7 July 2014

Aston Rowant NNR 7th July 2014

If you are willing to tolerate the sound of constant Motorway traffic and can remain calm and untroubled by the endless stream of cars passing up and down I can recommend Aston Rowant NNR at this time of year.The chalk grassland, now in the height of summer, is a joy to behold. A profusion of native downland flora carpets steep slopes with an endless panoply of colour. One gets a sense here of what the land must have been like before it was altered by modern farming methods but at least there is, in this nature reserve, a wide area devoted to maintaining our heritage. It is just such a shame that a Motorway bisects it.

My main hope today was that the Chalk Hill Blue butterflies would be on the wing but at first I could find no evidence of them. Huge numbers of Small Skippers floated dreamily through the grasses, so much more demure than their brash cousin the Large Skipper. They were everywhere. Small Tortoiseshells basked on the sun warmed bare earth or fed on bramble flowers and countless Marbled Whites, like scraps of discarded black and white newsprint, fluttered from my advance across the verdant slopes.

Small Skipper
Marbled White
Small Tortoiseshell
Banks of Pyramidal Orchids stood in ranks, their  thickly clustered cerise pink flower heads contrasting with the yellow of the rock roses, catsears and horseshoe vetch. The occasional Bee Orchid, with a strange twisted fleshy stem and flowers that  imitate a bee stood, exotic and alien amongst the Pyramidal Orchids

Pyramidal Orchids
Bee Orchid
Great clumps of thyme, pale and pink purple rose up, round and plump as pillows in the downland sward as inumerable insects savoured the nectar of this and every other suitable flower. Butterflies were on the wing everywhere, the slopes busy with their comings and goings but especially in those areas sheltered from the strong breeze.

Sheltered banks harbouring many butterflies including Chalk Hill Blues
The main northern slope of Aston Rowant NNR
A small pale butterfly disappeared past me up the slope, blown helplessly into the distance by a gust of breeze. I walked down the slope and at last a Chalk Hill Blue rose at my feet and flew a short distance and settled to feed on the rich yellow flowers of horseshoe vetch. I followed it and quietly satisfied at my find, watched it feeding. It flew off and as is often the way I now kept encountering Chalk Hill Blues wherever I went, their spotted, pale silvery blue undersides glinting in the sunlight as they swung on the grass heads. I followed another and as it settled it opened fragile wings to reveal the exquisite sky blue colouring shading into a delicate grey that smudged the outer edges of its wings. What a beautiful creature. All were in absolutely pristine condition so presumably had only emerged very recently.

Chalk Hill Blue

I walked onwards and following the path came across a very strange gathering. Six male Chalk Hill Blues were clustered in close proximity to each other in the grass by the track.They did not appear to be doing anything much, certainly not mating as there was no female to be seen. Possibly they were attracted to something but I could see no nectar source just plain ordinary grass. I left them to it after a few minutes, none the wiser as to what they were up to.

Chalk Hill Blues indulging in mystery behaviour
Five of the six Chalk Hill Blues
I carried on upwards and around the back of the hill. Here it was quieter, the topography dulling the sound of the traffic. My quest was now to find Frog Orchids. I knew they were here somewhere but never having seen one I was taking a risk that I would recognise one when I saw it. I need not have worried. Understated and well camouflaged against the surrounding vegetation they still stood out as orchids always do by their strange and unusual  appearance. I counted around forty in just one small secluded area and was pleased to have found them without too much trouble.

Frog Orchid
Three hours of walking up and down steep slopes is tiring but one only notices it when all ambitions have been fulfilled. Mine had been fulfilled and now tiring, I turned for home, walking one last time for the sheer pleasure through the downland grasses and flowers  A Chalk Hill Blue flew past me and then settled in the grass, closing its pale wings and becoming almost invisible amongst the innumerable swaying grass stems. A suitable valedictory to yet another fulfilling day