Tuesday 2 August 2016

Purple Patch 1st August 2016

Feeling thoroughly righteous but a little under the weather having mowed the lawn earlier in the evening  whilst enduring a summer cold, I settled on the sofa with my wife late that same evening to watch the last episode of The Secret Agent, a period spy drama filmed in Glasgow where my daughter lives and starring Toby Jones who hails from Charlbury, just five miles from my Oxfordshire home.

I usually check my phone for messages, tweets and emails during relaxing situations such as this but on looking around could see no sign of it. The usual mild panic then ensued as myself and my wife enacted yet again the mini drama that commences when I find I have temporarily lost  my phone/glasses/car keys. You take your pick, and I guess we have all been in similar such situations? Without the phone I was now out of touch with the outside wide world! Where was it? Had I left it in the garden after the mowing? Was it in the car? The TV drama was put on hold, with my wife making the routine placatory noises as I complained to the phone gods about how cruel life was at this precise moment. As always happens it was soon found. This time it had inconsiderately hidden itself under a pile of papers in another room and on checking the phone I found I had two missed voicemails. One was of no consequence but the other was a call from my good friend Badger asking if I wanted to come with him and Terry to see a Purple Swamp-hen that had been found on the RSPB's reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk mid afternoon. Huh! This was the first I had heard of it as I had not been diligent in checking the RBA app. on my phone. Well nothing happens in late July, does it?

My mobile phone will only work in the house from the top floor so the period drama was put on hold yet again whilst I contacted Badger from the top of the house and confirmed I would meet him at Terry's at 4.30am the next morning. It was now approaching 11pm in the evening so I finished watching the drama on TV and then rapidly got everything assembled on the kitchen table for my departure early next morning. It's easier to do it this way than try to get organised in my usually befuddled state in the early hours. I calculated I would need to be up at 3am to get to Terry's by 4.30am  so it was straight to bed, set the alarm and soon I was asleep.

The alarm rang out loud and clear. I have got up so early so often now, to go on twitches, that I found myself automatically donning my clothes, although hardly awake, and next I found myself in the kitchen drinking tea. Then, as if still in a dream I was in the car and heading out into the dark byways of the Cotswolds. A rabbit ran out across the road, I braked hard  and thankfully avoided the errant bunny. The adrenalin surged through me and now finally I was truly awake and concentrating.

As I drove along the dark lonely road towards Burford I experienced the usual paranoia that I had left something behind but as I ran through my mental checklist all was well so it was onwards to distant Oxford where even at this unsociable hour there were cars on the road passing me at speed going in all directions. I had badly miscalculated with the time, leaving my house far too early and if I carried on would arrive at Terry's at least thirty minutes before we were due to meet. I pulled into an empty layby to pass
the time and as I dimmed the lights, darkness enveloped me and a gentle Scarlatti piano sonata on the radio lulled me into a light sleep.  I awoke with a start. Disoriented. Where! What! How was I here? Oh yes. Terry. Minsmere. I regained some composure on finding I had not overslept and duly pulled up at Terry's abode just as the first glimmer of dawn was lightening the sky and we awaited the arrival of Badger who was going to drive us to Suffolk.

Ten minutes later and we were mobile again in Badger's car and driving into a breaking dawn. Slowly the sky changed from deep magenta as a dull yellow suffusion from the east infiltrated and then the retreating clouds of night turned a blazing ruffled pink, like a giant quilt being drawn back across the sky.Shortly a huge bright orb rose above the land and the sun welcomed us into a beautiful morning. We drove on through the increasingly heavy Motorway traffic with vehicles of all sizes commuting to work or wherever.

Our journey time was whiled away with the usual light entertainment of birder's banter, dissing other local birders, a bit of technical stuff on wildlife photography, a lot about Bitterns at Otmoor courtesy of Terry, a mild rant from me about Boris Johnson, Tories in general and foxhunting and grouse moors in particular and then combining with Terry to bore Badger with our reminiscences of cars and driving in 'the old days.' I checked my RBA app. and there was one entry 'Purple Swamp-hen Minsmere  05.26'. We were in business.

It takes about three hours to get to Minsmere from God's Own County and at just after 7am we turned off the major road and took one of the narrow rural lanes that lead to Minsmere Bird Reserve. It was with some trepidation that I anticipated what would greet us at the reserve as I assumed that there would be quite a crowd come to see the Purple Swamp-hen, as it is a potential first for Britain and many people would want to see it.

We passed down the tree lined lane to the reserve with the sun filtering through the thin trunks like a venetian blind only to find, to our surprise,  the car park was nowhere near full. We got our stuff out of the car in double quick time and in a few brief moments were heading past a host of sweet smelling buddleias, down past the closed Visitor Centre and following the trail towards the Southern Hide and the fair sized, reed fringed lagoon going by the name of the South Girder Pool in front of it, on which we hoped to find the Purple Swamp-hen. 

The Lagoon. The Purple Swamp-hen frequented the far side
Other birders were heading back to the car park even at this early hour having already seen the bird and happily told us it was showing really well. Relieved we headed onwards and came to a small congress of thirty or so birders stood on the track looking across a band of reeds and the lagoon to the far side where the Purple Swamp-hen was purposefully but slowly, wading along in the water beneath the overhanging reeds. It was noticeable that it preferred to keep to the marginal cover of the outer shorter reeds and was happiest and most relaxed when it was slightly concealed by the outlying reed stems but occasionally it would come out fully into the open although only very briefly, but that was enough. 

To me the swamp-hen appeared as a monster sized and much more colourful Moorhen, a big, chunky, robust bird about the size of a small chicken with an overall startlingly purple and blue plumage and prominent white undertail flashes which it flicked constantly, just like a  Moorhen. Its prehistoric looking head supported a wax red conical bill of formidable proportions and a red frontal plate, and its legs and enormous feet with the longest, thinnest toes you could imagine were similarly coloured red. Its impressive and slightly intimidatory demeanour was further enhanced by red eyes.

It was feeding on vegetable matter and would selectively break reed stems with its bill or bend them with its prehensile toes, extracting the pith from within the stems with its huge bill and generally was quite robust in its feeding behaviour.

As it threaded its ponderous way through the marginal reeds a group of half a dozen Little Egrets perched on a nearer island in the lagoon, preened and occasionally rent the air with discordant shrieks. 

A Yellow Wagtail flew over calling cheerily and swallows and martins flew above us, silhouettes in the bright sky. Moorhens came and went in the reeds, one pair shepherding a recently hatched family of chicks, looking like buoyant black furry balls on the calm waters of the lagoon. A Moorhen seen alongside the swamp-hen made it all too apparent at just how large a bird the swamp-hen was. 

We watched it feeding and sidling slowly through the reeds, stopping to bathe and preen, then coming closer but always just too distant to allow a decent photograph. Eventually it turned and retreated the way it had come before flying with dangling, impressively long legs to the furthest side of the lagoon but still remaining visible for the most part and prepared to show itself more clearly now. It passed a Water Rail, dwarfing it and then a Little Egret which looked only slightly larger than the hefty Purple Swamp-hen.

The crowd had built up considerably since we first arrived and we were thankful that we had made the effort to get here so early. Purple Swamp-hens are naturally secretive and the best times to view them is either in the early morning or late evening, so we had got that right. 

Three happy birders l-r Terry, yours truly and Badger

It is inevitable that you are going to be in a crowd at an event such as this and you just have to put up with the annoying chat and inanities such as the endless running commentaries from other birders who feel compelled to share with you their joy/relief at having seen the bird,  whether you like it or not. Yes it's a great experience for them but the rest of us are already watching it so do not need someone bawling out a running dialogue of its every movement. But it always happens so you just smile and shrug.

The Purple Swamp-hen progressed in and out of the reedline and finally we lost sight of it as it went further into a channel in the reeds.We must have been here an hour or so and happy with our instantaneous success walked on down the track and further into the reserve, passing muddy reed fringed scrapes harbouring Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe and pinging Bearded Tits. 
Badger and Terry heading for the sea
We passed though a gate and a juvenile Northern Wheatear bounced and prinked jauntily on the short turf leading up to the shoreline and beyond a sea of azure blue. We followed a sandy track running along beside the sea, through the grasses and yellow splashes of ragwort. 

Common Blue butterflies, mainly males, were everywhere, fluttering amongst the flowers and short grass. Red Admirals and Peacock butterflies sunned themselves on the sheltered track or on bramble leaves, their large dark forms, almost bat like, flying powerfully away or on other occasions flying towards you as if out of curiosity.

Entrance to the East Hide
We entered the East Hide and scanned the large scrape before us which contained a good number and variety of waders. The sun was now warm, almost hot and the slow gentle pace of life at this season and time of year is one of plenty, and gulls, ducks and some waders were relaxing in the sun, sinking their bodies flat onto the warm earth and letting their wings drop to their sides, the very embodiment of indolence and surfeit.

A flock of Avocets stood quietly as if reflecting on the passing of another breeding season and then took to the air en masse at some perceived alarm before settling again in a synchronicity of black and white elegance.

More energetic were other waders, such as part of a flock of Black tailed Godwits that vigorously drilled their long bills deep into the mud below the waters, some already in winter plumage, others still bright in summer feathers. Two Knot fed in shallower water, their orange underparts fading now into an untidy melange of browns, grey and patchy orange as they moult into their grey winter plumage. Can it really be all over so soon? A melancholy took temporary hold of me as it always does at this time of the year with the prospect of summer slowly ending.

Two feeding Knot and sleeping Black tailed Godwits
Further beyond, Spotted Redshanks fed in another small area of shallows and Dunlin, still in dapper summer plumage pattered in their endless quest for food along the water's edge.

A group of seven Ruff, well, five male Ruff and two smaller female Reeve to be specific, kept to themselves, select from the other waders and one of the males still sported a vestige of his summer finery with a ragged white ruff of feathers around his head.

I am not a great one for hides and soon grew restless at being enclosed and wanted to return to see some more of the Purple Swamp-hen, so I left Badger and Terry with an arrangement to meet up at the Purple Swamp-hen lagoon later.

I returned the way I had come and passed along the track through the banks of reeds, their hard green pennant leaves jostled by the warm breeze into making that familiar soothing accompaniment of soft sound as the myriad of leaves rub one against the other. If there is any more calming sound I have yet to encounter it. The sound rises and falls in a gentle arhythmic pulse as the variable strength of the breeze disturbs the reeds to a lesser or greater degree.

I came once more upon the gathered throng of birders around the lagoon and there was now a considerable crowd, much greater than when we had left, congested on the track in a tangle of tripods, scopes and cameras and making it virtually impassable. 

It was obvious that the swamp-hen had not been seen for some time and many of those present had yet to see it and the tension and sense of anxiety as they waited was palpable but I was content as I had no need to worry, having seen the bird so well earlier in the morning. I stood at the back of the throng, waiting and watching both the lagoon and my fellow birders. More and more people arrived, anxiously asking if the swamp-hen was visible but they were all to be disappointed. There was currently no sign of the swamp-hen and we all had to just wait for it to re-appear.

Twenty minutes more passed and then to my left it became apparent that the swamp-hen was visible but still invisible from where I was standing. The  crowd around me became restive and uncertain, some not wanting to give up their good viewing position here for the uncertainties of being able to get a position to see it amongst the throng currently ooohing and aaahing off to the left. It finally became too much and a mini stampede of birders commenced from my right, all trying to get past on the crowded track. The anxiety went up several notches as birders tried to politely chivvy slower people along, their patience wearing thin. I stood back and watched them pass as did others. I knew from my experience this morning that the swamp-hen would come into view eventually as it made its way along the base of the reeds on the far side of the lagoon. One just had to wait and hold one's nerve amongst the hysteria. A lady on an invalid scooter caused a log jam of frustrated birders on the track as she tried to squeeze past birders reluctant to move an inch but eventually she made it. Someone inadvertently jabbed someone else with their scope's legs. Others were loudly scolded and informed they were standing in front of someone else and blocking their view. The running commentaries began again as various individuals managed to find the bird and vocalised their relief and release of tension. Inane comments which normally anyone would be too embarrassed to utter, were heard, such as 'I can see its white bottom' and 'Oooh, its really big' were just people celebrating the fact they had finally seen it after an anxiety riddled wait. You had to smile at the sheer silliness of what all of us were doing and how we were behaving but that's birding for you these days. A behavioural psychologist would have a field day.

Once the swamp-hen had been seen well by one and all some of the crowd dispersed. Terry and Badger un-noticed had rejoined me and people as they do relaxed, but then the dreaded loud conversations reminiscing about past birding trips and who had seen what and where the next foreign birding holiday would be, commenced with a vengeance, Trapped by your desire to study a rare bird you have to listen time and again to this drivel as voices rise exponentially and each person tries to trump the others list of birds and adventures. These conversations are inflicted without thought on those of us who want to stand and enjoy, in this particular circumstance the swamp-hen, for a little longer. Of course it never occurs to these people that their loudness and lack of consideration probably caused the swamp-hen to remain on the far side of the lagoon and obviously wary but again that is contemporary birding for you and after featuring on Springwatch for so many years I suppose I should not be surprised that Minsmere attracts so many people of  different persuasions and attitudes to birding.

Wisely Terry and Badger headed off for the cafe at the Visitor Centre for refreshment but I stood for a while longer, maybe thirty minutes, hoping for one last view of the swamp-hen but a particularly annoying group  behind me, endlessly trying to outdo each other with their birding experiences finally caused me to quit. There was still no sign of the swamp-hen so I headed off to the cafe to join Badger and Terry for a cream tea of gargantuan proportions. The home made scones were a triumph and I awarded them the highest accolade of five stars. Easily some of the finest I have encountered on my travels and I should know- believe me!

Many thanks to Badger and Terry for their company that made all the difference and contributed in no small measure to a memorable day out and hopefully there will be many more such days to come.

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