Monday 22 September 2014

Shrike me down with a Feather 21st September 2014

My previous post alluded to the fact that a juvenile Masked Shrike had been discovered at Kilnsea which is adjacent to Spurn Bird Observatory on the coast of East Yorkshire. I found this out while visiting Norfolk on Saturday with Clackers so there was precious little I could do until I got back home on Saturday night.

I had made my mind up whilst in Norfolk that if it was still there on Sunday I was going to go and see it. Only the third ever to have been found on our shores it was a definite must see. Kilnsea is not for the faint hearted being the best part of a four hour drive from Oxford and the sensible half of me was hoping the shrike would have flown off overnight but these hopes were thankfully dashed when consulting my RBA app.  at 7am on Sunday morning I saw it had already been reported as present.

I rose rapidly, perhaps a little unsteadily after my exertions of yesterday, informing my wife of my latest jaunt and ingratiating myself by making her a cup of tea and saying I would be back later. I called Andy to see if he still wanted to go having spoken to him about it yesterday whilst in Norfolk. The answer was affirmative so I drove to Oxford on a bright sunny morning and by 8am we were on the road and making the long journey north on thankfully quiet roads

It is always good to have company on journeys such as these as it whiles away the miles and the inevitable boredom. I knew the way as this would be my fourth visit in as many years to Kilnsea to see a rare bird so we navigated the successive motorways with ease, passed through the uninspiring surrounds of Hull and soon found ourselves following the endlessly curving road out through the rather strange little villages that line the road to the Spurn Peninsula.

Arriving in Kilnsea we were left in no doubt as to the whereabouts of the shrike, for as we drove down the road to the sea we passed a veritable wall of birders, all beige, greens and browns and every shade in between scoping from a field that lay the other side of the long hedge that lined the road we were driving down. We tried our luck in the car park by the Bluebell Cafe and by sheer good fortune we got a spot just as a car left, in an otherwise crammed full to capacity car park.

In double quick time we were out of the car, into our own versions of green and brown with scopes, cameras and bins hooked around our necks and headed off back up the road to join the hordes of similar minded folk presumably looking at the shrike. There were birders everywhere, walking, talking, looking or just standing about. An area in the field just beyond the small caravan site had been taped off, running at right angles to the hedge and across the field allowing people to look out and across to the hedge that the shrike was frequenting. We negotiated our way through a battery of photographers and lenses and then through a scrum of birders and telescopes to find a space of our own at the end.

The shrike was unmissable, an almost white looking bird from a distance that in the scope revealed itself to have a beautiful and intricate plumage pattern of marbled whites, black and various shades of grey with dark vermiculations and scalloping on various parts of its body. It was just as if it had been frosted and all pigment erased with not a trace of colour apart from a dash of orange on its right flank which was the commencement of its moult into first winter plumage. I noted its petite appearance and delicate structure and how small it was. A nearby Great Tit, not a huge amount smaller gave a good comparison. The long narrow tail with white outer tail feathers was also striking. A truly beautiful bird.

Masked Shrike with Darter sp of dragonfly prey. Note the diagnostic large white
patch at the base of the black primaries and the orange of first winter plumage
beginning to show on the right flank
It had chosen for our visit to frequent the long hawthorn hedge, perching there in the lee of the wind and dropping down into the grass of the field to seize amongst other things a small Darter species of dragonfly. It moved slowly along the hedge towards us, each time it returned to the hedge after a sortie it would move a few metres closer. The cameras bunched in the corner of the field nearest the hedge were soon going off in quick fire salvoes of clicks with everyone trying to capture the moment. The shrike oblivious to all of this came so far and then commenced retreating back along the hedge.

'The Hedge'
You can just see the shrike as a pale blob in the centre of the picture!
Other birds were in the hedge as well. Whilst looking at the shrike we found a female Common Redstart, its russet brown tail quivering as if with nervous energy, a male European Stonechat perched at the very top of the hedge and a Common ChiffChaff hopped around the shrike. The arrival of a Magpie prompted the shrike to rapidly seek cover with indecent haste as it dived into the depths of the hedge but was soon out again once the Magpie departed. In the sun the shrike almost shone, its plumage so very pale against the dark twigs of the hedgerow.

It really was as easy as that. We drove four hours and walked to see the shrike within fifteen minutes of arriving. No waiting, no hassle. Would that it could be like this every time. Always just too distant for any decent images with my camera, the day was saved by Andy who managed some more than acceptable efforts with his digiscoping set up and these grace this blog. We watched the shrike for maybe forty five minutes and then decided to spend the rest of the day looking for the other good birds that had been reported from the area namely Red breasted Flycatcher, Barred Warbler and Olive backed Pipit plus other goodies such as Pied and Spotted Flycatchers.

Just back up the road was another smaller scrum of birders looking intently at some small trees in line with the shrike's hedgerow. Rumour had it that a Red breasted Flycatcher was to be seen here so we joined the throng but there was not an inkling of any flycatcher. Small dark movements in the trees turned out to be Goldcrests busily hunting the twigs and leaves. Slowly people drifted off walking to the nearby car park of the Crown and Anchor pub to see if the flycatcher was there. We were reluctant to leave as Andy needed this species for his UK list but in the end we had to concede defeat. We too went to the pub car park but the birders there told us they had no luck although the sheltered pub garden, surrounded as it was by small trees looked absolutely prime for migrants. I wandered round to the other side of the car park and a small movement in a tree caught my eye. I looked in the bins and there was a Pied Flycatcher looking down on me. This under any circumstances is a good bird to see and Andy got a really amazing photo as the bird seemed to pose for just the right amount of time amongst the branches and dying leaves before slipping away.

Pied Flycatcher
Further beyond the trees surrounding the car park and across a small field another sheltered hedgeline harboured two Spotted Flycatchers, perching low down out of the wind on berry laden hawthorns and flying out to snatch passing insects.

I suggested to Andy we try looking for the Barred Warbler. This was only a few hundred metres away, almost opposite the pub and necessitated going down onto the beach and looking back up to yet another unkempt hedge lining the road. 

Barred Warbler hedge
The beach side of the hedge was the sheltered side and the warbler would come out every so often and show itself. We joined yet another line of birders standing on the sand staring at the hedgerow. The Barred Warbler had just been seen but annoyingly on our arrival had now returned into the depths of the hedge. We waited, enduring yet another inane conversation between two birders trying to outdo each other about their bird and moth lists. Sometimes you want to just turn around and tell them to stop talking such drivel, get a life or just not say anything but you never do.

Thankfully the Barred Warbler decided to come out into the open and all talking ceased as everyone concentrated on watching it. Displaying typical Barred Warbler behaviour it just meandered slowly about the hedge, sluggish and desultory, seemingly not  interested in anything much other than just regarding the world before it returned back into the centre of the hedge. Cue mass exit of birders including ourselves and with Andy very happy to have added yet another species to his UK list and me to have seen two Barred Warblers in as many days.

Barred Warbler juvenile
Now somewhat at a loose end we returned to the pub car park to learn that the Red breasted Flycatcher had just been seen in the trees by the road not more than a few minutes ago. We returned to a once again crowded pavement and joined the ranks looking expectantly across the road at the small trees on the other side and after a few minutes I detected a quick movement in the centre of a tree and there was the diminutive and appealing sight of a Red breasted Flycatcher. It was not there long before zipping in typical fashion in and out of the branches, perching for a few seconds before, ever restless, flitting off at high speed to another perch. Andy now had yet another species to add to his UK list. We watched it flying about, never still, until it eventually disappeared. A Garden Warbler tack tacked at the top of the tree and then flew along the hedgeline.

Happy with this we decided to try to see the Olive backed Pipit and here our luck ran out due to some very unfortunate circumstances. Olive backed Pipits are very hard to see at the best of times skulking in long grass and normally remaining on or close to the ground. To see them under such conditions requires a lot of time and patience. Regrettably this was not acceptable for some birders and we could see as we walked down the road to the location that a number of birders were deliberately and concertedly trying to flush it by walking off the path and into the long grass whilst a crowd standing on the bank and who should have known better only encouraged them by their mute acceptance of such behaviour and awaited the inevitable result that the bird flew off and those present were 'entertained' and presumably satisfied with a brief view of a fleeing Olive backed Pipit. But what pray of those such as us who would also like to have seen the pipit and were unfortunate enough to fall victim to this behaviour and had to put up with the selfish uncaring actions of a minority. Needless to say the pipit was not seen again all day. So Andy who had never seen an Olive backed Pipit was deprived of the opportunity, as doubtless were countless others. It still makes me feel frustrated as I write this.

We walked back along the shoreline finding a couple of European Stonechats standing sentinel on fence posts, a Whinchat perched on a garden wall and nearby two Spotted Flycatchers. We finally took a break by returning to and sitting in the now birder free pub garden. We sat at one of the picnic tables and soon saw two Pied Flycatchers still in the trees, one of which sat out in the open and allowed prolonged views.

Pied Flycatcher

Garden Warbler
Another Garden Warbler gobbled elderberries just to its right. We were not alone for long for as soon as anyone saw someone else looking through bins they would come over, curious as to what was going on and soon there was quite a crowd back in the pub car park looking at the Pied Flycatchers. Forgive me but after a while I just get tired of being surrounded by lots of other birders. There is no space or privacy to just enjoy things on a personal level. I understand and know it is wrong of me to be thinking this way especially at a twitch but it does grate after a while and I really wanted to get away from all of this, so we walked back down the road to the cafe and had a coffee and hot chocolate respectively and Andy treated us to two slices of very nice lemon cake.

Time was moving on and we decided to drive down the road to the Observatory. There were no birders here and we had the place to ourselves. I had never been here before and we examined the bleak area with its deserted ex wartime buildings and looked at the Heligoland trap and net rides for trapping migrant birds.

Spurn Bird Observatory
Then we walked onwards to the sea and out onto the deserted beach and dunes beneath a wide windswept sky. The wind was now blowing strongly onshore and the huge breakers roared in and out crashing and dying in foaming white lines on the orange sand. 

This was more like it as my mind and body conjoined once more and the two of us decided to end the day with a seawatch. A few Gannets passed by, a Little Gull was noted by Andy and then another one flew haltingly above the waves. Best of all Andy picked up two Sooty Shearwaters distantly moving north and over the next ninety minutes another four single birds passed by together with numerous unidentified auks, over a hundred Little Gulls, unidentifiable distant divers with the added bonus of a summer plumaged Red throated Diver close in on the turbulent sea and an Arctic Skua giving a spectacular display of aerial prowess as it harried an unlucky Kittiwake.

It was just the right end to the day and we returned to the car. 


Yours truly
There were still people trying to flush the Olive backed Pipit as we left which if it had any sense would be far away in some undisturbed corner of this wonderful area.

Many thanks to Andy Last for making some of his images of the Masked Shrike, Pied Flycatcher and Garden Warbler available for this latest tale of birding

Barred in Norfolk 20th September 2014

The week leading up to Saturday 20th had been dominated by north easterly winds with the consequence that many scarcer migrants had been drifted across the North Sea to make landfall on the east coast of Britain, as well as further inland. We even had two Wryneck's in Oxfordshire! Yellow browed Warblers, Barred Warblers, Red breasted Flycatchers amongst others had arrived in unprecedented numbers and Norfolk was certainly getting its fair share of these.

So it was that on a gloomy Friday I called my good pal Clackers and suggested a sortie to Norfolk on Saturday with a view to seeing the aforementioned species. After re-assuring Keith we would not be making the eight mile yomp out and back to Blakeney Point for the Pallid Harrier, he said he would like to join me, especially, as there was the not inconsiderable incentive of an Olive backed Pipit that had been residing in Wells Woods for the past two days. This was a species both of us had never seen in Britain and this provided a golden opportunity to add a much wanted tick to our British birdlists.

With such a wealth of good birds scattered in various localities along the North Norfolk coast we were in a slight quandary as to what and where to go first. Olive backed Pipit was definitely the priority but we did not want to waste valuable time looking for this elusive bird and maybe run out of time to see the rest so we decided to drive to Wells and if there was no news about the pipit on the pager when we got there, then we would go on to Gramborough Hill near Salthouse where a juvenile Barred Warbler and two Yellow browed Warblers were currently viewable.

The long early hours drive eastwards from a grey and misty Oxfordshire into similar conditions in Norfolk brought us, at around 8.30am, to a relatively empty Wells Woods car park. There was still no news about the pipit and very few birders seemed to be about, just the usual dog walkers and what appeared to be a major charity fun run about to swing into full action.

 'What do you reckon Clackers?'  

'Up to you old boy'.

 'OK. Let's go to Gramborough and get the warblers.'  

We set off for Gramborough Hill, misleadingly named 'hill' as it is no more than the highest point in the dunes by the sea, opposite Salthouse. We drove up the approach road to the car park but at the end were met by a huge wall of shingle. The well known car park had been completely obliterated by the huge storm and tidal surge of last winter that did such damage along the Norfolk coastline. It was gone forever. We parked the car by the road and headed off across the shingle and into the dunes making our way to the nearby Gramborough Hill. It was a relief to leave the car and to realise we were birding at last.

Two Northern Wheatears bounced from fence post to fence post before us and then we came to the large bramble patch at the base of the hill which has hosted so many good birds over the years. I saw my one and only Blyth's Reed Warbler here some years ago. A couple of birders were already there but Keith was pessimistic about the situation as they appeared to not be looking at anything. 

'Anything about lads?'

'Yes, the Barred Warbler has been showing really well just a few minutes ago.

We stood and waited expectantly but after fifteen minutes there was not a sign of anything. A Merlin flew over and was gone in a flash of brown barred wings and a scattering of alarmed Meadow Pipits.

Fifty or so metres beyond the brambles is a small clump of stunted trees and bushes that is the only other bit of cover on the so called hill. 

'You hang on here Keith and I will go over there and check that patch out for the Yellow browed Warbler. Let me know if the Barred Warbler shows up.'

'No problem'.  

I wandered over and scanned the bushes and stunted trees and a slight movement betrayed a small warbler. It could have been anything but frustratingly it was gone into the depths of the foliage. Then another larger warbler appeared but it was a female Blackcap and then another one appeared. This is the fascination of looking at this type of cover at this time of year, you just do not know what is in there and what may pop out. I stood for a while longer and then on the edge of the trees a large, greyish non descript warbler hopped out into an Elder and clumsily started plucking at the elderberries. It was the Barred Warbler! 

I called Keith over and we both watched this large, chunky and charismatic warbler flouncing about in the still green elder leaves. Soon it flew back to the  original bramble clump. I wanted some photos so Keith stayed to try and see the Yellow browed Warbler whilst I returned to the bramble clump.

After just a few minutes the Barred Warbler ascended from the brambles and was sitting out in some dead twigs apparently drying out its feathers. 

It then dropped down into the brambles and started munching on the berries. Large and almost featureless apart from some barring on its undertail coverts, it had none of the agility or grace of its smaller cousins and with heavy movements would hang on the bramble stems ponderously balancing, even occasionally overbalancing, whilst snatching at the fruit. To me they almost look like a small shrike but I just love them. Why I cannot tell you. Perhaps its their size- you get a lot of warbler with this species. Perhaps its their appealing nature and slow deliberate, considered movements. Perhaps its their comparative rarity in this country. Who knows? Just enjoy the moment which is what we did. 

Finally it disappeared into the depths of the brambles. Keith returned telling me about the superb views he had of the Yellow browed Warbler. A lady nearby sauntered over. 

'Excuse me. You look like you know what you are doing?' 

'Well some of the time.' 

'Can you tell me was that the Barred Warbler we were looking at?'  

'It was.' I confirmed, and she smiled and said to her husband 'There, I told you so'. 

It's little encounters like this that add to the day.

The fact that Keith was so effusive about the Yellow browed Warbler and all its feathered magnificence was too much for me so I set off to see for myself, telling Keith the Barred Warbler had really been putting on a good show too. I stood for a very long time and saw absolutely nothing not even a Blackcap. The Merlin did another high speed flyover and then headed out over the dunes and the sea. I could see Keith getting up close and personal with the Barred Warbler and a dilemna set in as to whether I should go back and see more of the Barred Warbler or wait it out for the Yellow browed. I stuck it out, moving my position to the top of the dunes so I was now looking down on the tops of the stunted trees and bushes. Keith joined me, now exulting in the great views he had of the Barred Warbler! Ten minutes passed and there, suddenly in the top of one of the trees was the Yellow browed Warbler. A superb little mite, all stripey yellows on green in its fresh plumage. It delicately flitted through the twigs searching each and every one before descending again into the cover of the leaves.

During the wait for the Yellow browed Warbler I had consulted my RBA app. (Rare Bird Alert) on my phone and learned that not only had the Olive backed Pipit been seen in Wells Woods not thirty minutes ago but a Masked Shrike had been discovered at far distant Kilnsea in East Yorkshire. This was a true mega, only the third to be found in Britain. It would though, have to wait until tomorrow for any decision about going but meanwhile, what about the pipit? I informed Keith and we were unanimous in setting off for Wells Woods without further delay.

A quick cup of tea from the little mobile tea van which had now arrived at what remained of the entrance to the non existent car park - one tea and two packs of biscuits was £1.00. What a bargain. Revived, we headed off for Wells, driving along the winding A149 North Norfolk coast road, (was ever an A road more mis-classified?) through now very much gentrified and expensive villages such as Stiffkey and Cley. Every house seems to have had architect designed modifications and the paintwork is always immaculate. It just shouts money, wealth and middle class aspirations.

A very different scenario to our earlier visit now greeted us on our return to the Wells Wood car park. It was now almost full of cars, many more people were up and about and the charity run was in full swing. My pocket was relieved of an eye watering five pounds for four hours parking and then we were set to go and find an area in Wells Woods called The Dell where we hoped to see the Olive backed Pipit. Frankly we were pessimistic about our chances as these blighters are hard to see at the best of times and all the reports of this particular individual had said it was 'elusive'. Nevertheless we were here so were in with a chance but expected a long and anxious wait at the very least. The Dell is quite near to the car park and following the track from the car park for a short way we then enquired of a couple of young birders coming along a track out of the bushes as to where exactly it was and had they seen the pipit. They gave us directions and more excitingly told us they had been watching the pipit a few minutes ago and it was being seen really well. Both of us immediately received the proverbial jolt of adrenalin and headed with renewed vigour into the bushes to our right. We knew we were in the right place when we came across a small group of birders peering down from the top of a silver birch covered bank into a damp gully below.

The pipit was of course nowhere to be seen so we joined the others and looked optimistically down on the leaf mould at the bottom of the small gully. Half an hour passed and nothing was seen or heard apart from Jays flying to and fro above us, transporting acorns to be hidden away for later but then a slight movement came from our left as a birder located the pipit and whispered directions were passed on. A great surge of anxiety as I could not find it at first despite continued directions coming from my left. Then, there it was, walking along like a little mouse, unstreaked brown above, pale and streaked below and incredibly well camouflaged against the brown of the dead leaves. I whispered I too could see it but others around me still could not locate it. It was hopeless. I tried my best to give some guidance but in the end there is only so much you can do relating pointers about tree stumps, bits of grass, tree trunks, fallen branches, you name it, trying to give some sort of directional landmark into what is basically a complete mindtangle of tree trunks, branches, patches of grass and areas of leaf mould. The pipit wandered off into the grass and was gone from sight. 

I turned to Keith who was standing some way from me. A raised eyebrow. A thumbs up from Keith. Brilliant, we had both seen it. The surge of well being, triumph and joy after all the years of waiting was almost overwhelming. The companionship of birding is never felt greater than when sharing such a moment with a friend or friends. I wanted to jump up and shake Keith's hand and shout with the sheer elation that yet another high risk venture had borne fruit but instead I settled into, I confess, smug and silent contemplation, waiting for another view of the pipit. We waited and we waited. Time wore on and then the pipit suddenly re-appeared out of the grass and not where we were anticipating but much closer to us half way up the bank. I got a quick eyeful of its stripey underparts and strongly marked head, all brown and buff with a huge creamy white supercilium before it again was lost to view. Yet another futile attempt ensued to guide others around me to it. The problem being by the time they had located the landmark feature nearest to the pipit it was long gone and the whole process had to be repeated.

Another very long wait ensued and then it re-appeared further down the gully and we had to move our position a few metres to watch it running around in full view for a minute or so before being lost behind some vegetation. We waited for a while but nothing happened, so we left the others and walked off further along the top of the bank and descended to the gully and had one final and really good view of the pipit feeding amongst some fallen branches before it flew away up into the trees and that for us was enough.

We had been watching the pipit for three hours or I should say more accurately we watched the pipit for five minutes spread over three hours. It was now around lunchtime and with neither of us having had any breakfast it was mutually decided to adminster some much required refreshment, which was duly achieved in a little cafe at Burnham Deepdale.

Still elated at our triumph with the Olive backed Pipit our final destination was to be Burnham Overy Staithe where up to four or five Red breasted Flycatchers and another Barred Warbler were currently charming one and all. After a little difficulty finding a place to park the beloved Audi we headed off on the long trek out to the dunes. The weather had been dull and gloomy all day. Grey and with no sign of any sun, it would be depressing if it were not for our birding successes. The  northeasterly wind was now getting stronger as we walked the elevated track past expanses of saltmarsh and mudbanks, looking sullen and bleak below leaden skies.

Coming to the dunes we learned that a clump of stunted trees and brambles in front of us, in the lee of the dunes, was currently home to at least a couple of Red breasted Flycatchers and a Yellow browed Warbler. We regarded the clump of wind blasted trees but as usual we had to wait for any sign of birdlife. Then all of a sudden a small bird whizzed across the foliage and perched very briefly before whizzing off again up and over the vegetation and out of sight. The merest hint of pale buff plumage and a black and white tail was enough to tell us that this had been a Red breasted Flycatcher! We waited on and could hear it often announcing its invisible whereabouts with a ticking alarm call somewhat similar to a Robin but faster and higher pitched. Then with incredible speed it landed in front of us, perching low down in the brambles and haws nervously flicking its wings and tail. 

Hyperactive is the only word that can adequately describe this sprite's behaviour. Utterly charming, delightful in demeanour, it exudes constant energetic restlessness. Never still for more than a few seconds, its black and white tail frequently cocked and with wings held slightly down it looks at you demanding that you accept its cuteness and sheer joi de vivre.  It appeared to have a regular circuit of the clump so we waited and sure enough it returned after a lapse of time but never more than for a couple of minutes before it was off again like some frenzied wood nympth. 

With time, other birds revealed their presence in this clump of  wind stunted trees and bushes; first a brief, very brief view of the Yellow browed Warbler as it disappeared into the thick fastness of the impenetrable clump, a male Blackcap and then a Garden Warbler, spent time feeding on some elderberries. More mundane were a Robin and a Dunnock and most bizarre of all a large brown lump at the top of an Elder turned to reveal it was the back of a Brown Rat. 

A very pleasant hour passed by as we waited for and got occasional views of the restless flycatcher. I chatted quietly to fellow birders in the flycatcher's absence, all of us happy and sociable due to our encounters with the diminutive Red breasted Flycatcher.

Then, as often happens, two couples arrived and although they sported binoculars they were only passingly interested in birds. There is nothing wrong with that but what was annoying was that they seemed intent on having a loud conversation relating what they had done and planned to do with their weekend in Norfolk. It got really tiresome as they insisted carrying on their conversation close to where the flycatcher would regularly come but not if they persisted in their loud conversing. I decided to move off up and around to the side to get away from them and sat down there to regard a small tree on the edge of the clump. Immediately the flycatcher announced its presence, calling its distinctive ticking alarm and hopping around in the branches and occasionally flying out to seize an insect from a dead plant stem. I watched it, coming and going, noting it was distinctly nervous about being right out in the open but appeared to have a couple of favoured branches at the edge of the tree, so I focused my camera on these and managed to get some passable images of it when it briefly paused there. I watched it for at least an hour, for the most part just sat on my own. 

The light of a very inspiring day was now gently fading but still the flycatcher was active, always returning to this, its favoured tree. Irresistible, irrepressible, its energetic movements were a constant delight and nothing was done other than at breakneck speed. I suppose this is an anti predator adaptation as well as feeding strategy to catch fast flying insects but for me it was just entrancing and a real test of my observational skills as I endeavoured to follow its progress through the leaves and twigs. Watching this scrap of feathered vitality it was not hard to believe in fairies and maybe that is where the legend came from.

It was beginning to get cold in the wind and the light was now quickly fading. Keith joined me. He too had been indulging in some close and uplifting encounters with a Red breasted Flycatcher on the other side of the bushes.

'Shall we go?' enquired Keith.

 'There's another Barred Warbler five hundred metres over there. What do you think?' I replied. 

'Not really, we've done very well.'  

'Yes you're right Keith let's leave it. It's been quite a day'. 

'You can say that again.'  

'Cheers me old mate.' 

We headed back to the warmth of the Audi.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Otmoor Cameo 17th September 2014

After two successive days of driving into London on business and enduring traffic hell I was in desperate need of solace so took myself off to the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve to restore body and soul and found myself sat at the first screen for an hour or four of quiet contemplation. The fact it was midweek helped as for the most part I was on my own.

I sat contemplating the swaying and sighing reeds being blown gently by an easterly wind and soon my inner being was returned to normal or whatever passes for normal in my life these days. I had hoped to get some pictures of the Kingfisher which habitually perches on a post conveniently positioned in the water right in front of the screen. Today the Kingfisher seemed to have other ideas and apart from two rapid circuits of the reed fringed bay in front of the screen, decided that the wind ruffled water was not to its liking and departed for some distant reeds overhanging calmer waters. Even here despite two spectacular dives it was unsuccessful and finally departed with shrill whistles for even more distant parts of the reedbed

A juvenile Marsh Harrier flew haltingly over the reeds, stalling and hanging into the wind with flapping brown wings and dangling legs whenever it saw a potential source of food. A phalanx of Jackdaws accompanied it at a discreet distance though obviously aggrieved at its presence. The harrier was unperturbed and carried on low over the reeds, its progress being betrayed by alarmed ducks hurtling up from the reeds and rapidly flying off  like formation fliers.

Time gently passed by and I sat and let the spirit of the moor enter my soul as the early morning mist and grey cloud slowly gave way to sun and warmth. With the warmth came circling Red Kites, a couple of Common Buzzards and best of all a Hobby, swooping and darting after dragonflies. 

Many ducks, mainly Mallard and Teal whiled away the morning in the shelter of the reeds, away from the wind. A drake Shoveler had a wash and brush up out on the water, his harlequin finery disguised now with the varying browns of eclipse plumage. The only real key to the fact he was a male being his bright yellow eyes, although if you looked carefully you could see the underlying patterns of  his male plumage. With a final stretch of his wings he too sought the shelter of the reeds and companionship of the other ducks. 

All the ducks are now in their drab eclipse plumage and careful scrutiny of the assembled ducks identified a couple of Wigeon and also a few Gadwall. A Golden Plover circled the moor, its plaintive call betraying its presence in the sky before it became more and more distant and its cries subsided, lost on the wind. Two Common Snipe rocketed in at breakneck speed and, ever wary, as soon as they landed, ran for invisibility at the base of the reeds whilst a Green Sandpiper pootered about on a distant muddy spit.

I sat with the sun now warm on my back. Life felt good. A Grey Heron with huge bowed wings and dangling long legs landed in the shallow water in front of me with a loud raucous squawk and made its way to the edge of the reeds. Obviously it had come to try its luck with the numerous fish that are here. Its movements were almost imperceptible as it hunted in the water, its long neck extended and projecting its reptilian head and formidable bill out over the water in front of it. Stealthily, it moved one leg in front of the other through the water, causing hardly a ripple but it was out of luck. It waded further out into the water and soon appeared to be swimming in deeper water which was a somewhat incongruous sight. Slowly it made its way to shallower depths and stood for a while having a scratch and quick preen of some irritating feathers. It then gave a brief impression of an excitable exotic dancer with its head plumes fully erected before returning once again to the reeds to recommence its patient fishing.

Slowly, ever so slowly it progressed along by the base of the reeds. It stopped, the extended neck was lowered very slowly as it examined something in the water close to the base of the reeds. Its neck, bill and head slowly recoiled into its body and then with a lightening movement the neck shot out and head and bill stabbed into the water, completely submerged with a considerable splash. In seconds it re-merged with a sizeable fish grasped firmly between its mandibles. The fish was a small Pike and it hung from the heron's bill, gasping for air and tail flapping feebly.

The basilisk yellow eye of the heron was pitiless and it stood as any fisherman would, proudly displaying and admiring its catch for a few moments as if undecided what to do. Then with a sense of evident purpose it waded for the shore and dropped the fish on the earth presumably because it was so large and it would be easier to handle on dry land. The heron regarded the Pike again and with a vicious stab of its bill seized the now moribund fish and manouevering it in its bill swallowed it whole, head first down its capacious maw. It was over in a few seconds.

I followed the unfortunate Pike's progress down the heron's bulging neck and then the dramatic sequence was over. The heron stood for a minute, not without a distinct air of self satisfaction I may say, before marching over to stand amongst the sleeping ducks, there no doubt to reflect on life and digest its fishy meal.