Monday 30 November 2015

Just like buses 30th November 2015

The high winds and rain that seem to have arrived in a constant procession from the North Atlantic put Farmoor once again in the vanguard as yet another day of foul and gloomy weather crossed Oxfordshire.

Currently harbouring and providing temporary sanctuary to a Grey Phalarope that has been delighting one and all who have come to see it, Farmoor is now host to another Grey Phalarope that has joined the original bird, so there are two of these rare and delightful birds riding the surf along the edge of the wind ravaged reservoir. This is almost certainly a unique occurrence for Oxfordshire and not only local birders are coming to see them but many from much further afield are making the journey to enjoy the experience.

Farmoor was doing a very good impression of the North Atlantic today as high winds and rain squalls lashed its grey and sullen surface into a mass of rolling waves that made contact with the concrete apron in a succession of white frothy explosions.

The north side of Farmoor One reservoir
Note the green plastic balls cast up on the concrete apron
A stormy scene on Farmoor One
The wind and waves had driven inumerable feathers, some bizarre green plastic balls and assorted rubbish to the far northern wall of the smaller of the two reservoirs, gathering them into a constantly shifting raft of flotsam and it was here the two phalaropes chose to feed, almost frenetically, amongst the tossing water, froth, occasional dead fish, green plastic balls and feather quills. 

At times one or other of the phalaropes would be completely submerged by a larger wave but after disappearing under the water would emerge unscathed, like a submersed cork being released and springing to the surface, and just carried on with its non stop feeding. Occasionally they saw the wave coming and would rise in brief flight above it, showing long white wing bars, and then settle on the calmer water behind.

Completely in their element and untroubled by the constant movement of the roiling waters this must have been child's play to what they would no doubt expect to encounter far out to sea in their normal habitat. 

I speculated on how they found each other but I think the answer is simple. The disturbed water at the exposed northern edge of the reservoir must be bringing countless food items to the surface, much more so than would be the case in calmer water in the lee of the wind and so the phalaropes not un-naturally sought out this place as it presented the best feeding opportunities. By happy coincidence as they individually and instinctively found the best location to feed so they came into association.

In their normal range out at sea they usually gather and feed in small flocks so it was entirely natural that they should consort with each other and they stuck very close to one another throughout.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Black n' Red 25th November 2015

A report on Oxonbirds yesterday of a confiding Black Redstart that was discovered frequenting the churchyard of St Mary-Le-More in the centre of Wallingford was too tempting to pass by and a blustery, grey and slightly damp morning found me entering the churchyard at around 11am.

Wallingford is a pleasant, busy, small town by the River Thames on the southern edge of Oxfordshire and the church is situated right in the heart of the older part of the town on one side of the market place, surrounded by a mixture of older buildings blended in with newer but tastefully designed properties. The churchyard itself is very small and is dominated by a huge Beech tree whose branches reach out as if to protect the few ancient  lichen encrusted gravestones below.

The small churchyard at the back of the church

The front of St Mary-Le-More Church
I stood in the tiny windswept churchyard as fallen leaves were hurried along by the cold northwest wind and contemplated a bleak scene with no sign of any bird, let alone a Black Redstart. Five minutes later my mood changed very much for the better as a jaunty shape, silhouetted against the sky,  showed itself in the great skeletal boughs of the Beech tree. Robin like, it performed a perfunctory curtsey and quivered its tail, confirming its identity as a Black Redstart.

At first it flitted about the great tree, working its way upwards through the branches, seizing  tiny prey from the boughs and twigs but then dropped vertically to settle on a gravestone before descending to the ground to seize what looked like a spider, spending some time dismembering it amongst the dead leaves and beech nut husks.

Having consumed the spider it sat on the ground for a while as if replete and was in no hurry to find further food.

After a few minutes it flew up into the top of the tree and commenced giving its whit whit whit alarm call and then disappeared over the surrounding rooftops. Possibly it was upset by the presence of several Red Kites swooping across the churchyard at rooftop level, forever on the look out for something to scavenge.

I sought shelter from the wind in the angle formed by the corner of the back door entrance to the church and the adjoining side wall of the church, planning to discreetly wait here, partially concealed, for the redstart to return. The business of the town carried on around me, with people coming and going about their daily lives along the two narrow roads each side of the churchyard. A cleaning lady came out from the back door of the church and nearly jumped out of her skin, having at first not noticed me huddled into the corner. 'Heavens I thought you had risen from the dead in all these graves' she exclaimed. 'No, it's alright I am just auditioning' I jokingly replied. She returned to the church after I told her I was looking for an unusual bird. 'Fancy that, a rare bird in Wallingford. Whatever next' she remarked and disappeared back into the inner sanctum of the church shutting the great wooden door firmly behind her.

My wait extended into thirty minutes with no sign of the redstart. Paul Chandler joined me and we waited together by the side of the church but another half an hour passed before Paul noticed a slight movement in the tree signifying the long awaited return of the redstart. We fully expected it to come down to perch on the gravestones and the ground as before but it had other ideas and proceeded to go on a tour of virtually every branch of the tree, finding its prey secreted in the bark of the branches and the trunk. Would it ever come down? Not a chance evidently, as it continued searching every branch and twig for the next half an hour, raising false hopes as it occasionally dropped to the lower branches but then ascending upwards again, much to our frustration.

Finally, having examined what seemed every possible limb and twig of the tree it dropped lower and then flew to and landed on a gravestone in front of us and proceeded to give the photo opportunities we craved. 

The Wickster, taking his lunch break, leant over the low churchyard wall enquiring if the Black Redstart was still about. I mutely pointed at the gravestone and The Wickster rapidly went round to the churchyard gate and joined us. The Black Redstart flew to another gravestone around the side of the church and we followed, finding it perched there before it seized a large green caterpillar which it then, with much effort managed to swallow before flying to an adjacent roof to digest it. 

From behind the church door the organ commenced playing  Bach's sublime  'Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring'. It somehow seemed appropriate to leave on this cerebral, uplifting note.

Monday 23 November 2015

Lost! 23rd November 2015

An overnight frost confronted me this Monday morning but with the colder weather came an initially bright and sunny start to the day. I had just returned from Holland last night, so first needed to deal with all my work emails before setting off to Farmoor to look at the Grey Phalarope that had been reported yesterday as we drove home across Northern Europe.

At about ten I had dealt with all the urgent matters so headed off on the thirty minute car trip to the reservoir. The car park was surprisingly empty, containing around ten cars and after parking I headed up the familiar grass bank to the reservoir's perimeter track, there to encounter Terry, Roger and Dai conversing and relaxing after photographing the phalarope. Terry informed me the phalarope was now over on the smaller reservoir, Farmoor One.  As we chatted I noticed a Little Grebe surfacing near us by the pontoons and aimed my camera, pressed the shutter but nothing happened. I checked the camera display to find to my horror the battery was dead and of course I had neglected to bring a spare.

Feeling just a little foolish and a lot more frustrated, I returned to the car and went back home to recharge the battery and set about dealing with some of my less urgent emails whilst the recharging was in progress. Now getting on for one o'clock I returned to the reservoir to find the car park still virtually deserted. Gnome had informed one and all via the Oxonbirds site that the phalarope was  frequenting the north side of Farmoor One so I headed there. At first it appeared deserted but then I espied a familiar figure lying prostrate on the concrete bank by the water's edge taking photographs of a tiny grey and white, constantly active bird, swimming along the shoreline. The prostrate figure was none other than Lee Evans. I wandered around to find him stalking the phalarope as it fed unconcernedly along the water's edge but I preferred to stay on the concrete track as I did not fancy lying in the algae and goose turds that had turned the concrete apron a shade of unattractive slime green.

Farmoor One - northside
There was just the two of us communing with this delightful bird that really should be far out in the Atlantic that is its true winter home. It has a circumpolar breeding distribution along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean and its migration routes under normal circumstances are entirely oceanic, the birds leaving their breeding grounds and then dispersing south across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to winter off West Africa and Chile respectively. Occasional birds have wintered as far north as the North Sea and vagrants have also been found in India, Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and the Falkland Islands.

Many that are found in Britain are blown off course by westerly gales and strong  winds and this individual had obviously succumbed to the high winds of the last few days. A reservoir must seem  the next best thing to the proper sea to a lost, storm blown phalarope and indeed any pelagic bird finding itself adrift inland. Farmoor for this individual must have seemed the very best place to put  down to rest in lieu of the cold grey Atlantic and come to think of it the bleak reservoir at this time of year does a very good imitation of such an environment!

Today Farmoor's waters were the colour of pewter and a weak sun was losing the struggle to permeate its pale rays through the light cloud cover, just about managing a weak thread of light that shone across the water for a brief spell. The phalarope's predominantly grey and white plumage reflected the harsh environment that is its normal winter home and today complimented the grey waters of the reservoir and the white wavelets on the shoreline. Its eyes were concealed by black feathering and head on it looked as if it was wearing a black mask. Occasionally it would pursue an insect onto the concrete apron and then its greyish pink legs and partially webbed feet could  clearly be seen.

The Grey Phalarope, as is the way of this specialised species was constantly  active, swimming along and rapidly feeding non stop, its delicate bill dipping down and outwards like some automaton to pick up tiny morsels on the water's surface around it. In their normal habitat far out on the oceans they sometimes have been known to congregate around cetaceans and pick the parasites from their backs.

The cold wind was creating small waves but the phalarope rode them with ease and carefully circumvented the white froth generated by the waves beating on the shore. Typically it showed little fear of anyone, even when approached at very close quarters, remaining quite happy to carry on feeding.

As time wore on some of the great and good from Oxfordshire birding arrived. John (Doc) Reynolds, Clackers, Justin and even Pete Allen, almost as rare as the phalarope these days, came to pay homage to this wanderer from afar. 
Pete Allen and Clackers reunited
After about an hour the phalarope swam further out into the reservoir and commenced a wash and brush up routine, rolling onto its side on the water to show its white undersides, contorting into strange shapes, preening and running its feathers through its bill.

I left it, still gently floating on the water doing much of nothing and obviously satisfied with its ablutions. I hope it stays a little longer before leaving its temporary home in the heart of England to head out into the vast, trackless Atlantic Ocean. It will be quite a journey. 

Wednesday 18 November 2015

A bit of a drag chasing the Crag 16th November 2015

Crag Martin at Chesterfield c Andy Last
On the 9th July 1988, early on a Saturday morning, I was ringing a brood of European Stonechats on a beautiful area of  the South Downs called Cow Gap near Beachy Head in Sussex. From a five o' clock dawn that same morning, in the adjacent Whitbread Hollow, I had been tending the nets, extracting birds and ringing them as a member of the Beachy Head Ringing Group. Once things had slackened off I left the others and went to ring the stonechats in Cow Gap as part of my ongoing breeding study of this species.

The weather had become warm and sunny after the post dawn chill and I carefully replaced the four young stonechats back into the security of their nest after placing rings on their legs. Once I had done this I moved away up the slope to wait and check that the parent birds returned to feed their brood and all was well with the nest. I always did this for my own peace of mind.

Further up the slope I sat amongst the ubiquitous downland flora and looked away and out towards the sea. I liked to do this as it brought me an inner calm, a peace of mind and just sheer pleasure to be amongst such beautiful surroundings enjoying the simple charm of the swathes of downland colour on the huge downward sweep of the slope and the eternal promise of the far horizon out to sea. It was I suppose a form of meditation. Sometimes in our hurried existence we forget what it is to sit still and just contemplate.

It was now eight o' clock. Mind and body had slipped into neutral so to speak but whilst indulging in this relaxed state a small brown hirundine flew close to me, moving across the slope. I looked through my bins and instead of a Sand Martin found myself looking at a Crag Martin.

Now this was 1988, before the widespread availability of affordable  technology that has brought us digital cameras, sophisticated mobile phones, apps, pagers and the like. A two edged sword whose benefits sometimes complicate the simple pleasure of just birdwatching. I was aware of the bird's rarity, knew what it was but did not 'punch the air' or 'shout expletives' and certainly did not feel 'stunned' which is now the rather unimaginative over indulged hyperbole used to describe a birder's feelings on finding a rarity. Nor was I seized with a hysterical desire to get the news out and inform the entire birding fraternity. The fact was that birding was very different in those times. Far, far less frenetic and certainly a lot less competitive and triumphal.

I knew I had to take notes and quietly and methodically I did, as the Crag Martin continued to fly back and fore  across the slope below me for the next half an hour. I even did a couple of rudimentary drawings as this is what you were required to do in those pre-digital camera days. Eventually I went over the hill to inform my colleagues in Whitbread Hollow of my find but when we returned at around 9am it had gone.
My original notes of the Crag Martin at Beachy Head
The next day, I think only  a couple of people came to look for it. I was not a twitcher in those days, Beachy Head was just my local patch and study area for European Stonechats, mobile phones  did not exist and I did not ring Birdline when I got home, the only way at that time of disseminating the news, and my bird ringing colleagues only informed those few people they knew would be interested, later that day, and that was that.

I submitted the record to the British Birds Records Committee and received a nice letter from Mike Rogers who was the Secretary informing me that my record looked good but as I  was something of an 'unknown' could I get two well known birder referees to write on my behalf attesting to my bird identification abilities! I was not overly offended and duly adhered to his request and my record was accepted and published in British Birds.  (Volume 83 Number 4 April 1990). It transpired it was the second ever for Great Britain, the first being seen, again by a single observer, Paul Higson, on 22nd June 1988 in Cornwall. Both these single observer records would be highly unlikely to be considered acceptable today without photos and/or other people seeing the bird.

I now move on twenty seven years to 16th November 2015 and  very different circumstances both in relation to locality and reaction to another Crag Martin visiting Great Britain. This individual, the ninth to be recorded in Britain, was to be found in the unlikely surrounds of the industrial town of Chesterfield in Derbyshire and prompted a widespread rush from far and wide to see it. So far it has chosen to remain in Chesterfield for ten days. Crag Martins visiting Britain, mine included, have never remained long in one spot, a day or maybe two if you were lucky and have been consequently hard to see and much desired by birders, so this long staying one was proving particularly attractive. Hundreds of birders have travelled to Chesterfield to see or attempt to see it and many birders have had to make more than one trip to see it as its appearances are unpredictable and on some days it just is not seen at all or only for a few minutes. Some unlucky birders despite multiple trips are yet to see it. A colleague of mine has travelled three times from Glasgow and was finally  successful on his third visit.

It currently has two favourite places in Chesterfield, the £13 million Proact Stadium, home to Chesterfield Football Club  where it roosts in one of the stands and St Mary's Church, famed for its immense crooked spire  and located just a mile or so away from the stadium. 

I decided that I would like to make another acquaintance with a Crag Martin in Britain so made the two and half hour journey to Chesterfield, rising at five in the morning and travelling north before the Motorway became too clogged with traffic. I surmised that as the martin was roosting at the football stadium this would be the best place to start and so I arrived, a little too early and still in the  dark, parking in the huge almost deserted car park around the stadium. I  say almost deserted but already there were a few other birder's cars present and as a cold, blustery and grey dawn rose over the unprepossessing landscape more cars arrived, birders got out and commenced scanning the gaps between the stands for a sight of the Crag Martin.

The Proact Stadium - home of Chesterfield Football Club and temporary home
to the Crag Martin
A familiar figure came into sight traversing the concrete expanses of the car park. Twas Gnome, an Oxford birding colleague. I called out to him and he came over and we chatted whilst waiting for the much anticipated appearance of the martin. Another birding acquaintance, Tony from Watford who shared a twitch with me to see the Cretzchmar's Bunting on Bardsey in Wales came over to greet me and the three of us stood and waited. A Sparrowhawk flap flap glided across the urban landscape, a small flock of Redwings blown westwards on the wind followed shortly after and Starlings used one of the floodlights as a vantage point on which to assemble, with individual birds careering down from the sky in a vertical spiralling dive to land and commence bickering amongst their colleagues already perched amongst the rows of lights.

Birders were now scattered around the car park but there was still no sign of the martin. Then off to our left we saw another birder waving and pointing up into the sky. He could see the Crag Martin and soon so could we but all too briefly. It was zooming around a tall bare poplar tree and for about thirty seconds we admired its chunky silhouette before it shot westwards at great speed and disappeared. Many of the birders present failed to see it. We waited for it to return as it had done on previous days but were disappointed. Today was not like yesterday when it hung around the stadium for a few hours before heading for the church.

I suggested to Gnome that we go to the church as that was its other favoured location and following the Gnome's car I headed for the church and parked in the car park by the church at the top of the hill. St Mary's Church  is truly amazing and rightly famous, perched as it is on the very highest point in Chesterfield, its unique twisted and contorted spire pointing crookedly heavenwards.

The predicted sun finally arrived and illuminated the spire, turning the grey lead  to dull silver. Looking close up at this centuries old spire a sense of  awe and history came over me as its skewed mediaeval construction dominated the urban clutter and traffic jams of present day Chesterfield. Fortunately the church is surrounded by a small area of green lawn and this brings a sense of space and calm from the surrounding chaos of the busy town that now encroaches on all sides.There are many reasons given for why the spire is crooked, some more plausible than others. The latest version according to Wikipedia is that when the spire was added in 1362 the lead covering the spire was subsequently heated by the sun unequally so the south side expanded more than the west causing the lead covering to twist the spire. Incidentally Chesterfield Football Club are nicknamed the Spireites and the crooked spire features on their club crest.

The crooked spire of St Mary's Church
There was no sign of the Crag Martin as we stood and waited. I  was getting hungry and finally weakened and went across the road to Greggs to buy a hot chocolate for myself and a tea  for Gnome, alas succumbing to an offer of three doughnuts for a £1.00 which proved irresistible. I returned to the car park but there was still nothing to get excited about. A flock of Pink footed Geese flew over in a classic V formation, high in the sky, heading East and a Kestrel took up position in the highest of the alcoves in the spire. Time slowly wore on. Tony rejoined us from the football stadium and  Donald my colleague from Glasgow arrived for his second attempt at seeing the martin but with time constraints he was becoming ever more depressed at the dawning realisation that he was probably going to fail yet again.

The Crag Martin putting on a bravura performance at the church the day before
all photos courtesy of Andy Last
As often happens when there is a long wait and nothing to look at we began to distract ourselves with other matters. Gnome became obsessed with Twitter and kept updating me on how many likes and retweets he was getting from his tweets. I shall refrain from comment. I wandered over from the car park to the church grounds to photograph a sculpture of a huge bee which  I had originally mis-identified from afar as a spider. This sculpture has a fascinating history. In 2014 two trees, an ancient 140 year old Elm and a  40 year old Lime, both situated in the church grounds, were brought to the ground by a storm and a local wood sculptor, Andrew Frost made a huge Queen Bee out of the fallen trunks which now sits forever on the remains of the elm tree stump. Why a bee you may ask? Well a Conference called Pollinating the Peak  highlighting the loss of bees as pollinators, was held in Chesterfield at the time of the trees demise and it seemed appropriate to recognise the bees importance as pollinators by commemorating them with a sculpture.

It's a pity that Defra and the craven Liz Truss, the Tory Environment Minister do not feel the same way and have allowed neonicotinoids, a proven killer of bees to be reintroduced into our agriculture against all expert advice but then when have this arrogant lot of rogues masquerading as a Government ever listened to anything that affects their or their cronies self interest?

The Queen Bee wood sculpture

A minor debate sprang up between Gnome and me about whether another birder was sporting a wig. I said it was, Gnome said it wasn't. The matter was never quite resolved despite scrutiny from a discreet distance through my binoculars although I feel it probably was his own hair but growing in a very strange way. The banter between us took on a more cerebral  tone as Gnome mused on the fact that soon we would all be moving around in driverless cars and we discussed the benefits of this coming revolution. Will there still be such a thing as a driving test was quite a taxing challenge to debate after a long tiring wait in a bird free car park. The conversation, however, soon plummeted back to a lower common denominator.

We watched someone getting a parking ticket from a 'Parking Enforcer' and felt smug. Donald meanwhile was becoming more and more morose about the lack of a Crag Martin and he eventually wandered over to Greggs, never to return. Adam also went over to Greggs and returned with another two hot chocolates and a Belgian Bun. We shared the bun but I let Adam have the cherry on top. It seemed only fair. Yes, it really was that stimulating in a car park rapidly filling with anxious birders, all awaiting the appearance of the errant Crag  Martin. By eleven, almost four hours since we had seen the martin at the stadium, it still had not shown up and I could take no more and left. Gnome also gave up and left shortly after. It was so frustrating as the Crag Martin had put on a great show the previous day, being seen for hours at both its favourite locations. How I wished I was back at Beachy Head and present day birding was a little less fraught.