Sunday 22 February 2015

Back to the Forest 21st February 2015

I travelled to the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire this morning to see a Green winged Teal at a place called Ashleworth Ham. Alone on a bright and cold morning I found it on the marsh just as the sun rose above the reeds, flooding the hide with light. It was displaying with a group of male Common Teal, a compact group of small ducks striking exaggerated poses, swimming in circles, bowing breasts and elevating tails with excited whistles, then stretching their necks and tipping their bills to touch spotted breasts in a frenzy of ardour. Spring is not far off now.

The damp pungent smell of rotting leaves permeated the hide as I watched, whilst outside two Great Spotted Woodpeckers rattled the dead boughs on the trees above the hide, the staccato drumming being the woodpeckers proclamations of their territorial aspirations. It was too lovely a morning to remain in a hide so I left and headed for The Forest of Dean. My destination in the forest was Parkend Church where if I was lucky I could get close to Common Crossbills coming down to the puddles by the church to drink. 

Parkend Church with the 'crossbill puddles' in the foreground
This location is now widely known to one and all and is rarely without attendant photographers, birders and just interested people passing by on a walk through the forest. So it was today as I drew up, with two photographers and their huge lenses ready and waiting for any crossbills coming to earth to drink from the puddles.

My attitude to photographers is ambivalent. Like many aspects of human life it is easy to be more outspoken when generalising about a subject or someone than when it is more intimate and specific. In situations such as this an open mind is an advantage which at times requires some thought and application, or at least it does with me. My mild antipathy to photographers is based on the fact that some show little understanding or knowledge of their subject when it comes to birds and indeed sometimes cannot even adequately identify what they are taking a photograph of. The image seems to be all, nothing else really matters.

So I stood somewhat defensively a little way off from the two photographers but one of them, a large bearded Welshman came over and started talking with me. He was friendly and open and we talked quietly for some time. Eventually he went back to his colleague and I fell to thinking. Here was a prime example of what I have just written about in the paragraph above. I progressed the thought process further and mused that photographers such as the man I had just conversed with perfectly amicably, indeed pleasantly, have as much right as me, primarily a birder, to enjoy their subject. They know much more about their cameras and lenses and the technicalities of taking a good photograph than I will ever know and conversely I know a lot more about birds than many of them ever will do. We are each specialists in our own way but seeking a mutual enjoyment from a common subject. Birds. Each of us can point to excesses of unacceptable behaviour in our ranks and it really requires some cerebral discipline from all of us to understand that with this overcrowded island and the burgeoning interest in birds, there is never going to be a time when the potential for conflict and mis-understanding is not likely to be present or possible. 

So a minor epiphany came to me outside Parkend Church. Of crossbills however there was no sign. After an hour and a half the two photographers left to go elsewhere and I was on my own. It was not an unpleasant location to be left alone with one's thoughts. In fact you could say it was scenic and uplifting. Various people came and went, tending the graves of their departed loved ones in the peaceful cemetery behind me. At various times walkers, cyclists, dog walkers and joggers passed by on the track that snakes down into the depths of the forest. 

The track from the church leading down into the forest
Siskins fluttered high in the Alders along the small cemetery's perimeter as they fed on the tiny cones, their wistful single note calls descending to earth on the cold wind. A lone Hawfinch, so distinctive in profile, settled at the very top of the highest tree beyond, before dropping into the woods. Nuthatches with their irrepressible cheery calls ringing out from the oaks, ran up and down their gnarled, mossy boughs. 

European Nuthatch- the only British bird that can run down a tree as well as up
The church clock rang out the hours. I had been here three hours already but still no crossbills came to drink although the puddles were being constantly visited by Blue and Great Tits, Chaffinches and Dunnocks. Four more Hawfinches flew up from the woods, perched on high and then slipped through the branches and away. 

Hawfinches can be seen when they perch in the tops of the distant large trees
High in a sky of billowing white cumulus clouds and sunshine a Common Buzzard wheeled on broad wings and above it another large raptor with a much different profile was a Goshawk. A Raven's guttural calls heralded the sight of a lone bird flying high and away over the church whilst the rattling calls of Mistle Thrushes came from the churchyard Yews. Redwings and Song Thrushes fed in the paddock by the church and throughout a friendly Robin regarded me, often singing quietly from the adjacent hedge, in between fighting territorial battles with its neighbour across the road.

I was joined by another photographer and we got talking. In the ensuing conversation I learnt a lot about photography techniques and he learnt a lot about bird identification. He had never seen a Hawfinch or a Crossbill nor knew how to identify them or where to look. His real preference he told me was taking images of the Peregrine Falcons at Symond's Yat.

At last I heard the distinctive, metallic chipping calls of crossbills coming closer and four landed in the big oak above the puddles. One, a young male still in yellow green plumage commenced singing while the others nibbled at buds and bark. Then a single bird flew down to the puddles and was quickly followed by the others. They drank swiftly, lowering their heads briefly then raising them to allow the water to slip down their throats, each crossbill mirror imaged in the still water of the puddle.

Apart from one, a possible female, they all appeared to be males of various ages and in various stages of plumage. All of the males appeared to be immature with one showing traces of orange sub adult plumage and another showing faint wing bars on its wings, whilst a third was still in the yellow green plumage of a very young male. Crossbills can nest, depending on the cone crop, at anytime from August to April so their plumage shows tremendous variations dependent on when they were born. This makes matters difficult when it comes to ageing and even sexing at times.

Male Common Crossbill in almost adult plumage but still showing some
vestiges of  the orange yellow immature plumage
Probably an immature male showing the yellow green plumage adopted
after moulting from juvenile plumage. Note the narrow pale wing bars
Possible female Common Crossbill with male Common Crossbill
Possible female Common Crossbill with male to the right
Above them is an immature male moulting into adult plumage and showing two
distinct but narrow wing bars
Probable immature male Common Crossbill less than twelve months old
In a matter of two minutes it was over. The crossbills flew up into the tree and then back into the forest. I waited for another hour and a half but there was not to be a second appearance. The Welsh photographer arrived back and my erstwhile friend commenced chatting with him about focal lengths and various camera bodies. Fellow enthusiasts. 

Time to leave. 

Wednesday 18 February 2015

In The Forest 17th February 2015

A visit to The Forest of Dean in Gloucester. A day of bright sun, hard frost and little wind. 

Late winter. 

Early morning in an area of clearfell at Yew Tree Brake. Frost cracked ground, concrete solid and dusted white, the sky butterfly blue. Shiveringly, bitterly fingertip cold. Common Crossbills in two's and three's, chipping calls announcing their journeys across the clearing from pine cone alders to branch bare birches, there to nibble at buds. Bright red males, younger males with paintbox splash plumage of yellow and orange, females as green as the swelling buds, all vibrant with breeding expectancy.The males singing exultantly from the tops of the trees.

Common Crossbill
The sun climbed higher and a sensation of warmth, nothing more, filtered through the clear, cold air. Common Buzzard launched on a thermal and spiralled upwards like a cork rising to the surface. Further beyond and higher still a Goshawk, in powerful flight, flap flap glided, circling ever higher, showing distinctive powder puff white undertail coverts, sailing in its heavenly blue domain, free and uninhibited. A Raven, shiny black against blue, skimmed the distant conifer ridge and was gone.

Plaintive calls from on high in the sky heralded passing Siskins. Unseen. Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers in exaggerated dipping curves crossed the clearing whilst below, with ponderous grace, Wild Boars, a family of five, crossed at a determined trot from ridge to plantation.

To Crabtree Heath by a frost thawing wet track. Muddy. Amongst the winter browned grass and ochre sedge occasional silver birches look vulnerable, left isolated, attenuated beacons after the felling of the surrounding conifers. Shining white, grey mottled trunks in the sun. Atop one a bird mirrored its silver and grey perch, poised alert in the diamond shards of sunshine. A Great Grey Shrike. Mystical in the shimmering distance of heat haze.

Then to Parkend Church. A trio of photographers, macho clothing, excitable, coveting crossbills coming to a puddle to drink. The ultimate shot to be achieved, competitive and insensitive to the spirit of the woods. Back of the camera images. Look at mine, now look at mine! An art form devalued, reduced to the mundane.

Turn away to look at the wooded slope down from the Church. A finch, bulky, huge head and bill merged as one. Like a butcher's thumb. Top heavy with a short tail. Hawfinch! Then more solid distinctive profiles in the huge trees, dark blotches in the lattice twigs against a bluesky back curtain. They sit still and heavy for long periods then slip away. Unfailingly elusive and shy.

Now Cannop Ponds. Half term. Noise, dogs and garrulous children. Feeding the ducks. Mallards. 

Then, incongruous Mandarin Ducks. Seven drakes. Oriental. Ornately bedecked with feathered extravagance, like small barges for royalty. Orange sails erect they issue from the reeds with four grey females and sail in convoy for the bank. Ignoring the roughhouse Mallards gobbling bread. Superior in their diminutive beauty, insouciant as toffs in a cheap all day cafe, on such a commonplace pond.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Valentine Bunting 14th February 2015

It's strange how convention and what is perceived as everyday and normal in human life can restrict one's behaviour whether consciously or subconsciously. I have always had an admiration and huge respect for those among us who defy convention, and with apparent boundless self confidence strike out on their own individual path, blissfully ignoring what others think or say.

I have always regarded myself as lacking a certain amount of confidence but since giving up the day job have found myself not wanting to fall into the cloying embrace of a staid and gentle retirement. As the landlord of my local once said 'It is good for the soul to jump the metaphorical fence every so often'. 

I confess that my natural instincts still tell me, and I guess they always will because of my character, to keep to the straight and narrow whatever that may be, but more and more, like a benign irritation I find myself seeking and looking for that unconventional experience or defying the norm.

Is twitching normal? Probably not although it is now a widely known and accepted obsession amongst part of the general birding populace. In its  current form it is far removed from the earlier years of sleeping in bus shelters, hitching lifts by roadsides and generally roughing it. Now it is all about chartering planes, sleeping on sophisticated ferries, driving miles in a car and then often back again the same day, but even with these 'advances' it is something still considered outside of what normal people do and thought of by many as strange and obsessive behaviour.

So it was that on Friday night I lay in bed contemplating the normal - gardening, housework, answering emails, visiting  Sainsbury's or heaven forbid trudging around Otmoor or Farmoor on Saturday. Last week I had been to see a Little Bunting on the outskirts of Cardiff  and was utterly enthralled by it. So why not go and see it again?

The words of a much loved, now deceased and lamented former Managing Director came to me.

'Ewan there are those people that sit and wait for something to happen and there are those that get off their backsides and go and make it happen.' How true.

So it was that at 5am on Saturday I headed off to Cardiff for another look at a Little Bunting. It was raining. The road winding through the soft contours of the Cotswolds was a lonely strip of glistening black in the headlights, unseen patches of water surging up from the wheels were startlingly illuminated, like some breaking wave, by the headlights. The rural darkness unsullied by any artificial light pollution was gentle on my eyes and when I came to a town the bright lights felt intrusive and abrasive before I cleared the town's boundary and was enveloped once more in the soothing darkness of the night.

The rain increased in intensity as I entered Wales, lashing out a tattoo on the windscreen. The huge lorries that move at night temporarily blinded me with the spray from their wheels as I passed them. It was not looking good for birding if this weather continued but on reaching Cardiff the dawn brought with it a welcome relief as the rain finally stopped. The morning, as on my last visit, was grey and damp with everything dripping from the soaking of the earlier intense rain. 

I arrived at the Forest Farm Country Park Reserve and entered the hide, the interior gloomy, dank and uninviting and as I peered through the viewing slat my heart sank. The area that last time was scattered with seed was waterlogged, not a seed to be seen and consequently not a bird either.

I sat on a hard plastic chair and rued my decision. It took me ten minutes or so to get over the initial disappointment, gather myself and decide what to do. Waterlogged and seed free as the ground currently was there was little chance of any bird appearing outside. Why did I not bring some bird food but then why would I, not being blessed with foresight? Surely there must be some seed somewhere here as there was seed scattered around on my last visit? After some searching I found a large yellow plastic bin stuck in a dark corner of the hide which was labelled 'Bird Seed-Donations Welcome.' I tentatively opened the lid and found a tiny amount of seed spread across the bottom. I scraped up a handful and scattered it outside the hide on those areas of ground that were not under water. Another handful, and another and then all the seed was gone from the bin but was now scattered outside and directly below the viewing slat.

Still no birds. Still no other birders. I sat, alone and contemplated the silent, wet ground before me. Twenty minutes passed and then from the bushes appeared a truculent Robin, ticking and curtseying in animated tension. Shortly after, half a dozen Reed Buntings came to the seed and then slipping almost un-noticed down onto the ground from the bushes, there was the Little Bunting, joining them to feed on the seed. 

Little Bunting
Male Reed Bunting
Female Reed Bunting
My plan had worked and still alone in the hide I watched the bunting going about its life. Just me and my favourite bunting. Ten maybe fifteen minutes passed and then another birder joined me and we watched it together. Two other birders arrived and gave the bunting all of ten minutes of their attention before leaving. Surely the rare bunting deserved more than this? Never mind that is up to them. Each to their own.

I remained for an hour and then left, driving back to England and brightening skies, leaving the rain in Wales. I had a second mission and that was to head for Cheltenham, which was on my route back to my home in Kingham, to a place called Pittville Park and an area of a couple of acres that has been seeded with traditional cornfield wildflowers by the laudably environmentally conscious local Council and which remarkably, currently harboured a male Dartford Warbler. 

The Urban Cornfield Meadow created by the local Council. Pittville Park beyond
Threading my way around Cheltenham through all the urban paraphernalia of a large town I came eventually to the meadow on the outskirts of Cheltenham. It covered a much larger area than I had imagined and finding the Dartford Warbler in the tangled maze of dead plants and grasses would be difficult. I wandered along a track through 'the meadow' and after some twenty minutes the Dartford Warbler appeared, albeit distantly, perched on a dead thistle. It did not remain there for long before diving back down into the rank herbage. I walked to the spot but could find no sign of the warbler. Twenty or so metres away a flock of some eighty Linnets took alarm and rose skywards in a twittering, wheeling explosion to settle once again on some seed heads. Where they settled I saw a male European Stonechat and then a brief glimpse of a dark, slim, long tailed warbler flying low down from one tussock to another near to the stonechat. The Dartford! I walked over and found not one but a pair of stonechats with the Dartford Warbler in close attendance.

Male European Stonechat
Female European Stonechat

Male Dartford Warbler
It is fairly widely known amongst birders that a Dartford Warbler can often be found in close association with a stonechat in locations where both species occur. The accepted reason for this is that the warbler feeds low down in the undergrowth, often at ground level and therefore is less likely to notice a potential predator. The stonechat on the other hand uses elevated perches to hunt its prey, dropping down on prey from the perch. The stonechat not only gives an alarm when a predator is present but gives that alarm earlier than is the case with many other bird species so the warbler takes advantage of the stonechat's superior vigilance on both counts. This arrangement is more beneficial to the warbler as the warbler's habit of feeding in the undergrowth in close proximity to the stonechat is detrimental to the stonechat's own hunting success. So the stonechat regularly flies to another perch to distance itself from the warbler and the warbler duly follows which in turn reveals itself to any birder who cares to observe this behaviour.

I followed this menage a trois as they progressed around the area. I watched the Dartford feeding in the grass and disappearing right under it to ground level with its tail cocked high like a banner. It rarely perched at any elevation and never above three feet from the ground although on one occasion it did perch for at least two minutes on another dead umbellifer and sang quietly to itself, its throat obviously swelling and its beak partially opening as it sang.

Singing Dartford Warbler
At a distance the  Dartford Warbler appeared very dark brown with an elongated tail. Closer views revealed a very pretty bird with a steel grey head, dark brown upperparts and cinnamon pink underparts with white spotting on its throat. Its elegant ensemble was completed by corn yellow legs and a prominent red eye ring.

I last saw it still faithfully following the stonechats through the herbage. 

Good luck to all three of them.

The last view I got of the Dartford Warbler

Thursday 12 February 2015

Hang out the Bunting 10th February 2015

A glorious sunny afternoon on Monday 9th February found me wandering around Staines Moor near Heathrow after a morning working with some drugs counsellors in Hounslow. My reason for visiting the moor was to see the Water Pipits that reside there during the winter and indeed I found no less than six. 

Work had been frenetic these last two days with an all day Osteopath's seminar in London the day before so I felt I had earned a break. The fine weather and seeing the Water Pipits put me in an optimistic frame of mind so I called Clackers and suggested we go and see a Little Bunting that had been present at Forest Farm Country Park on the outskirts of Cardiff for some days.

I suggested we go early to get there for first light although I am not sure why I did this and thinking about it later that night it seemed totally un-necessary but by then it was too late to call Clackers, so at 5am, somewhat bleary, I collected him from Witney and we set off for the Land of the Red Dragon.

The early hours of Tuesday morning had greeted me with thick fog as I left home and driving to Witney to collect Clackers was difficult to say the least, although there was little traffic to worry about. After collecting Clackers we set off into a fogbound future. It really was grim and driving required severe and constant concentration. Luckily we had a large lorry in front of us so we followed his red fog lights at a respectable distance and let him guide us down the fogbound A40. Thankfully, once we descended from the Cotswold escarpment to a lower level the fog dispersed and the M5 Motorway was free of the swirling, opaque horror and we were able to proceed at a normal speed.

Cardiff is only eighty four miles from my home so we found ourselves with more than enough time to spare due to my over optimistic early start and I drove at well below the speed limit to waste a few more minutes. We stopped at some services for a break, just before the Severn Bridge and to be honest to waste some more time. Is there anywhere more desolate than such places in the early hours? We were the only people there and I opted for standing outside to drink my hot chocolate rather than remain in the depressing environment of second rate over priced tat inside 

It was still dark but Robins were singing lustily from the bushes, stimulated by the lights in the car park. When do they ever sleep? Eventually we could not justify remaining here any longer and getting back in the Audi we drove up the slip road to join the Motorway and in a few hundred metres we were stopped again at the Severn Bridge toll booth, to be relieved of £6.50 for the privilege of crossing the bridge. To add to our sense of injustice, or at least mine, the woman taking the money was dour and uncommunicative, such a contrast to the friendly toll booth operatives on the M6 Toll Road, but on reflection so would I be miserable if I was stuck in a booth in the death hours doing a job such as hers. We crossed the bridge whose road surface was truly appalling considering how much was charged to go over it. Obviously the money was going  elsewhere. Welcome to Wales

Approaching Cardiff the dawn was commencing a grudging effort to muscle itself in on the night. Slowly it got lighter but it was obvious that the sun was going to be a stranger to Wales today and a dull misty murk permeated the land. The amount of traffic increased rapidly and even though it was only seven am cars were volleying past us at speed, presumably taking their drivers to work. Clackers and myself, now retired or almost in my case, felt more than a little schadenfreude as we watched the hussle, hurtle and insanity of another day's rush hour commencing. We had put in our years and now we were birding and doing what we wanted to do.

We followed the Satnav as it guided us to the western side of Cardiff and led us down  an almost rural route called Forest Farm Road by the River Taff, to end up in a deserted car park by some rugby pitches, on a dull grey morning, but something was not quite right. I rang Peter who had been here a day or so earlier but a combination of my tiredness and Peter's misunderstanding of where we were only served to make things worse and more confusing. I  checked the info on my RBA app and following its description drove a few hundred metres further down the road. I saw something that vaguely resembled the RBA description and we parked on the grass verge. I was pretty sure this was the spot although there was nothing to intimate I was correct and I was just operating on instinct.

We found ourselves outside what appeared to be a large private garage with absolutely nothing to indicate its function or what it was for but just then the doors opened and a man came out of the building. A Welshman. 

'Looking for the bird are you?' he enquired.  

'Yes. Is this the right place?' 

He mumbled something unintelligible but in a friendly tone and pointed to my right and there was the hide, not quite as described on RBA, a few metres from me. Please forgive my confusion but I was expecting a normal sort of hide. You know, one of those wooden structures with a door and benches and window flaps inside. I found myself looking at basically a large lean to shed, with a concrete floor, that was obviously used for storing things in times past and had definitely seen better days. There was no door but three old plastic chairs had been lined up in front of a rudimentary viewing slat cut in the wooden wall. The view was hardly inspiring looking out onto what appeared to be an area of threadbare grass tufts, puddles and muddy wasteland. True a couple of feeders were strung up in a tree at the end of the hut as a token effort but that was it.

The Hide
We were the first to arrive but shortly after were joined by a few others. I looked through the slat and found myself almost eyeball to eyeball with some Reed Buntings picking at some seed strewn across the ground for them to feed on. The birds were that close you could almost touch them. Clackers joined me. 

'No sign of the Little Bunting Keith but this is definitely the place'. 

'What's that then?' and Clackers pointed to a much smaller bunting, almost grey rather than brown and virtually invisible as it merged with its surroundings or hid behind a grass tuft. 

I looked and saw the distinctive chestnut patches on the sides of its head, the white eye ring and a grey brown body streaked with dark lines.

 'That's it Keith. Well done. Good man!'

We had found the Little Bunting in the space of a minute, so could now relax and enjoy ourselves.The bird itself was tiny compared to the Reed Buntings feeding with it and crept around amongst the grassy tufts nibbling at the scattered seeds. Beautiful in an understated way, the only real colouring in its plumage being the chestnut on its face, some chestnut around the shoulders and white in the outer tail. The wings showed two creamy white narrow wing bars but overall it was a greyish brown liberally streaked darker on both its upper and lower body, rendering it well camouflaged on the ground. Occasionally it would fly up and perch in some discarded brushwood, preening vigorously before heading back to the ground for more seed. A Sparrowhawk flashed through and the birds including the Little Bunting scattered but after some minutes returned to feed.

Little Bunting
It was joined on the wet ground by many commoner birds such as Robins, Dunnocks, Blue Tits, Bullfinches and Blackbirds whilst a Pied Wagtail and Grey Wagtail wandered around the wetter areas. 

This was easily the best and most fulfilling encounter I have ever had of this tiny bunting. Most previous encounters have been all too brief but here it was, on view for virtually all of the hour and a half we were present. The maximum number of people in the shed was never more than single figures so there was no crush or obstructed views and everyone was happy. Delighted with this triumph and after just one more look we reluctantly moved on as a fellow birder had told us about a Lesser Scaup in Cardiff Bay Wetlands and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss as it was just the other side of the city.

The misty, murky conditions still prevailed and now looked set for the day but there was little we could do about that. We made a quick stop for breakfast in a local cafe and then headed on the ring road for Cardiff Bay Wetlands. There was huge controversy about this area a few years ago as formerly it used to be tidal but a barrage was erected to keep the bay full of water which then permanently covered the muddy feeding grounds used by countless wading birds. Another prime example of money and selfish short sightedness ruling the day but we are getting used to this by now and it will never change for the better. Now all that is left is a token small area of reeds, a boardwalk and a stretch of waterside harbouring discarded cans and bottles while expensive yachts in an equally expensive marina  are but a stone's throw away and huge modern office buildings, hotels and apartments dominate the skyline. This is progress? Such a contrast to the rudimentary hide and it has to be said charming ambience where, enthralled, we had watched a star bird just an hour ago.

It was bitterly cold down at the waterside as we walked along to the end of  the boardwalk, to view the distant assemblage of Tufted Ducks floating on the seaward side of the reeds. Through Keith's scope we soon found the drake Lesser Scaup in amongst the Tufted Ducks. A quick look and we retreated from the cold dank environment and headed back for the car but not before stopping to admire at least three surprisingly showy Cetti's Warblers in some brambles.

Cetti's Warbler
Our plan if there ever had been one was now to head for home via a visit to Slimbridge WWT, conveniently situated just off our route back to Oxford. There is a long staying female Ferruginous Duck, not part of the collection, frequenting the Asia Pen there and this would round the day off nicely. The grey gloom lifted ever so slightly as we left Wales and headed southeast but a metaphorical temporary gloom descended on me when I was obliged to part with £11.50 to get into the hallowed Slimbridge. I suppose on reflection I should not complain as the WWT do a huge amount to conserve ducks all over the world, and now are rearing Common Cranes and even, unbelievably are contributing to helping to save Spoon billed Sandpipers, a rare wader from Asia, from potential extinction. So good on them, I wish them well and I am happy to contribute.

We headed for the Asia Pen but meeting a birder on the way were informed there had been no sign of the Ferruginous Duck since 1030 that morning.

'Well it must be somewhere here Keith.'  

'I agree' he said and we commenced checking every pen and I swear every duck, wild or otherwise in them. No luck. We checked again, and then again, round and round the grounds we went but kept returning to the Asia Pen as if sheer willpower would make the elusive bird materialise but of course it didn't.

There were some benefits in all this walking about. I managed to do some quiet revision on various female duck plumages. Well you never know when it might come in handy! It was also nice to see some exotic waterfowl and marvel at their plumage. I was particularly taken by the Falcated Ducks, the males with intricately patterned plumage and with heads of satin emerald and purple iridescence. There were copious numbers of wild ducks joining the captive ones, Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard, Northern Pintails and especially conspicuous were Common Shelducks which seemed to find the Asia Pen singularly attractive, flying in and out on a regular basis. 

Female Tufted Duck showing a scaup like white blaze around the bill
We found ourselves in the Tack Piece Hide looking out over the waters and wet fields before us. Northern Pintails floated on the cold water, the drake's elegant profiles reflected in the still water. 

Further out over a hundred White fronted Geese fed on the grass with a throng of Golden Plover, hunched and still, whilst the occasional Dunlin was ceaselessly busy searching for food. Keith found a smaller wader and close scrutiny through the scope revealed it to be a wintering Little Stint, feeding in an even more energetic fashion than the Dunlin. The distinctive anxiety calls of Herring Gulls alerted us to the presence of some avian danger but I could see nothing from the restricted view in the hide but a minute or so later virtually every bird rose from the ground as a Marsh Harrier flew slowly in and across the grounds. The harrier carried on westwards and the airborne geese, ducks and waders floated down to the earth once more.

I was getting cold. 

'Come on Keith I fancy a hot drink and a slice of cake'. 

'Good idea'. 

We returned to the main building and I eyed the last slice of enticing chocolate cake sat on the counter.I walked off to put my stuff on a welcoming sofa but in dismay turned to see a warden snaffle the chocolate cake in my absence. 


Never mind the substitute carrot cake was almost as nice but it is never as good as the cake that got away. It was very pleasant sitting in the warm and the sofa was beginning to feel ever more welcoming. Keith could see the signs and chivvied me back to life and for yet another tour of the grounds in search of the errant duck. 

We again visited both the South Lake Hide and the Asia Pen, both being the Ferruginous Duck's favourites  but yet again drew a blank. It was so annoying and frustrating as we knew the duck was lurking somewhere. Amongst all the visitors there were some other serious birders who had also come in search of the Ferruginous Duck and we soon became familiar with them as we checked with each other, when we met, as to whether the duck had been seen by any of us, but it was always negative news. 

We resolved to make one last visit to the South Lake Hide but as usual found nothing, just the usual Common Pochards hiding in the overhanging branches at the side of the lake. In quiet desperation and stretching credulity to its limits we decided that the suspect 'wild' Ruddy Shelduck on the lake was now totally acceptable and with that firmly established, left the hide. 

'That's it then' said Keith. 

'Just one more visit to the Asia Pen Clackers and then we definitely are leaving' .

'OK if you insist'

We trudged to the now all too familiar Asia Pen and stood looking as before at a small lake devoid of a Ferruginous Duck. Five minutes passed as I needlessly checked every duck - yet again. Then a small, dark duck with white wing bars rocketed down from the sky and landed on the water in front of us. 

I looked. 

'Clackers that's it!!!  


'There. Look it's right in front of us'

Clackers then saw it too and very considerately promptly went to fetch a fellow birder who was checking the South Lake Hide. They met halfway between the two locations with the other birder informing Clackers that he had just seen the duck take off from the South Lake where he was watching. It must have been asleep there all the time, invisible and hidden under the tangle of overhanging branches at the far side of the lake.

You could not make up a finale like this. We had done it! We watched the Ferruginous Duck for some twenty minutes, its plumage coloured various shades of rich mahogany. A real beauty.

Female Ferruginous Duck
It was now four in the afternoon and we finished our day by watching from a luxurious heated hide called the Peng Observatory as the swans, geese and ducks were fed by the warden, The spectacle both in and outside the observatory was something to behold. Within it was crammed to bursting by folk of all ages with hardly a space to stand and see out of the picture windows. The warden was outside feeding the wildfowl and kept up a running commentary via a remote microphone. Outside the lake and banks were swarming with Bewick's Swans, Greylag Geese and assorted waterfowl with other birds constantly flying in  to join the throng. The Bewick's Swans came sweeping in with breathtaking flight to land amongst their comrades, bugling calls of greeting or protest. As the warden distributed the corn from a wheelbarrow the Greylags surged after him in a grey brown phalanx, frenziedly gobbling up the corn whilst Northern Pintail drakes up ended in the water to feed from the bottom, their tails pointing skywards like a group of stilettos.There was much ooohing and aaahing from the assembled people within the heated observatory but such close packed humanity was alien and unsettling to me and I signalled to Keith across the carpeted floor that we should go as our day was surely complete.