Wednesday 10 December 2014

Hail to thee Blyth's Pipit 9th December 2014

Blyth's Pipit
Something rare always seems to turn up in December. Last year it was an attractive Ivory Gull near Hull in East Yorkshire, this year it was a brown and non descript  Blyth's Pipit frequenting an area of waste ground on a business park adjacent to the MI near Wakefield in West Yorkshire.

Blyth's Pipit is very rare, this being only the 23rd to be found in the UK and despite its overall brownness and pipit understatedness was very much desired by me as it had been a species I always knew would give me much trouble in getting to see.

Just how a bird that should be spending the winter in India ends up on wasteground in Yorkshire is incomprehensible but that is the wonder of bird migration and the unlikely and random occurences it brings.

News came through of its incongruous location and discovery on Monday and I sent a text to my good friend Clackers that evening advising of my intention to go on Tuesday if it was still there and enquiring if he would like to come. A call duly arrived back in the affirmative and we agreed to wait for news of the pipit on Tuesday morning and if it was still there head north with all possible speed.

Tuesday morning arrived sunny and still. I loaded the car with my scope and bins in anticipation of positive news and waited but no news was forthcoming from RBA. I checked once, made some tea, checked again but still no news and finally checking at 8.45 news came through of the pipit. It was still there. We were all set to go.

Collecting Clackers in Witney we set off into the maelstrom of traffic that blights the surrounds of Oxford at this time of day. The most obvious route, the A40 was backed up for miles to Cassington. It would take forever. We diverted and went across the county on rural back roads via Woodstock to join a thankfully and surprisingly free running A34 and thence onto the M40. It had taken us almost forty five minutes to cover the comparative short distance from Witney to the Motorway. Hopefully the rest would be quicker.

The Satnav informed me we would arrive at the pipit's location around noon, traffic willing. I put the foot down on the accelerator and we bowled along chatting about both national and birding politics, recounting tales of birding exploits past and expounding on those to come plus indulging in all the usual inconsequential verbal trivialities that pass a long car journey. 

It was too good to last. By now we were on the M1 and yes, our old foe Average Speed Check was waiting to greet us. Oh joy! We trundled along noting the acute lack of any activity from the currently invisible men in high visibility jackets that should be on the roadside.

Our frustration was soon ameliorated by the sight of a monstrous traffic jam on the southbound carriageway of the M1. At least we were moving.  In excess of five miles of traffic was static in all three lanes as we cruised along. I hate to say it but schadenfreude was very much in evidence as we surveyed the miles of assorted vehicles on the other side of the barrier. Making a mental note not to return that way we cleared the speed restrictions and sped north. However this was soon  checked by yet another Average Speed Check which went on seemingly forever and again with very little evidence of workmen activity by the roadside. It is so frustrating at times. I put the Audi into cruise control and hugged the centre lane with huge lorries alongside me literally inches from the passenger door. We passed the hulking outline of the Pennines, distantly off to our left  and then the huge conurbation of Sheffield and at last the speed restrictions lifted and we were once more making good time.

The sky was now becoming increasingly grey and the wind as predicted was rising. Bad weather was on its way. I betrayed my anxiety as I said to Keith, 'I hope we get there before the weather closes in'. 'We'll be alright' he replied and we were.

After leaving the Motorway, getting a little lost and ending up in an Asda Distribution Centre car park courtesy of the postcode, obtained from Birdforum and entered into the Satnav, we did it the traditional way with a map and found ourselves in a large, modern industrial park dominated by what appeared to be the Headquarters of West Yorkshire Police. The wide boulevards of the estate and green grassy verges were bereft of birders until we spotted a lone birder walking towards us along one of the concrete pathways. Stopping, we asked him the way and he pointed to not very far beyond the police complex where we could see birders ranged along a bank staring down onto an area of  grassy wasteland interspersed with patches of water.

Temporary home for a Blyth's Pipit

West Yorkshire Police building
The birder we spoke to was a friendly soul and told us we should follow him back a short way to park in a layby off the road which we duly did. We only took bins from the car as the pipit from all reports could only be briefly seen in flight, spending the rest of its time concealed in the rank grasses and consequently totally invisible.

A short walk brought us to the side of the waste ground and we noted four birders in a line walking slowly and purposefully through the grass. 'They are trying to flush the pipit from the grass Keith. Let's wait here as they are heading towards us and the pipit should fly up in front of them'. A minute or so later and the Blyth's Pipit rose from the grass and as predicted flew directly towards us hanging in the wind and then turned downwind to settle at the other end of the waste ground. Overall it appeared paler and larger than a Meadow Pipit but we did not hear it call.

I was overjoyed. That was one of the quickest results I have ever had chasing a rarity. Literally within five minutes of leaving the car I had seen my first Blyth's Pipit in the UK and Clackers his third. We carried on around the edge of the waste ground and joined twenty or so other birders standing on a  raised bank overlooking the grassland the pipit favoured.

A windswept Clackers
A Black Audi Birder or is it The Angel of The North?
The original finder of the pipit was there as was minor birding celebrity Martin Garner toting a parabolic reflector for recording the pipit's call. They had been two of the people walking up the pipit in the grass as we arrived. 

Martin Garner clutching a parabolic reflector and
the finder of the Blyth's Pipit, pointing, front right
We learned that every forty minutes the pipit would be 'walked up' in an organised flush so that newcomers could see it fly and this is what duly happened. Some may baulk at this kind of behaviour but it was preferable to a free for all with the numerous visiting birders randomly walking through the grass. All the birders remained patiently on the bank in between flushes and the tactic seemed to work a treat and everyone was happy. The pipit appeared to be untroubled by the periodic flushing and after flying about for a minute or so would dive back into the grass. We stayed for four flushes and on the last one I joined the flushers in the wet grass as I had my wellingtons on and got some nice close views of the pipit as it rose before us and I even heard its diagnostic call.

Although we never saw them arrive there were also around twelve Meadow Pipits and at least three Common Snipe hidden in the grass.

The wind by now was getting much stronger and rain was in the air. It was around 2pm as we decided to set off for home via Greggs the Baker and then back onto the southbound M1. The sky got progressively darker and the wind buffeted the car as we went South. It was virtually dark by 3.30 as we detoured to avoid the continuing mayhem on the M1's southbound carriageway, due we learned later to a lorry crashing and catching fire in the morning. 

1 comment:

  1. Not too sure about the Angel of the North it looks more like the Devil in Disguise.