Thursday 29 September 2016

Shrike Alight 23rd September 2016

A ridiculously tame Red backed Shrike had been found at Newhaven Tidemills in East Sussex a few days ago and proved irresistible as Newhaven was very much my local patch when I lived in Sussex some twenty or more years ago. It would be good to go back and wander my old haunts with the added incentive, if one was needed, of getting close and personal with a Red backed Shrike.

I called John, an old friend who makes a precarious living as a bird artist and lives in Brighton, and with whom I have shared many a good day's birding in Sussex, suggesting I could pick him up on the way through and we could go together to see the shrike. It would be just like old times. 

So it was that I collected John from his house some three hours after leaving Kingham and we drove in beautiful sunny weather the comparatively short distance  to Newhaven Tidemills which lies at a forgotten, tiny and now virtually vanished village called Bishopstone between Newhaven and Seaford and is situated just a couple of hundred metres from the sea

The village consisted of a large tide mill and numerous workers cottages, housing around a hundred workers.The tide mill was erected in 1761 by the Duke of Newcastle and later more famously was owned and operated by William Catt and his family from 1770-1853. The mill ceased working around 1900 and the village was condemned as unfit for habitation in 1936 with the residents being forcibly removed in 1939. Newhaven comprised part of the southern defences during the Second World War and the area around the tide mill was cleared to give an uninterrupted field of fire for guns should there be an invasion.The remains of Bishopstone Beach Halt railway station platform still stands adjacent to the pedestrian crossing over the railway line.  

All that survives today of the  tide-mill and its workers houses are the derelict and forlorn flint foundations of the building's, slowly disappearing under brambles and scrub. Even the railway that runs across it from Seaford to Newhaven and Lewes is now temporarily non operational due to Southern Rail's interminable conflict with the rail unions and their lamentable inability to provide anything like a comprehensive train service. This in turn contributes further to the general air of dereliction that permeates the place but the neglect has its positive birding points in that it has allowed the extensive waste ground, despite occasional threats to develop it from the Port Authority, to become quite a nice area of scrub habitat that is ideal for migrant birds and this is what had undoubtedly attracted the shrike.

The grassy, open area it frequented is augmented with scattered buddleia bushes and large bramble clumps, ideal for a shrike to perch upon and fly down to seize its prey. The odd pampas grass clump with their silky, white, brush like blooms were a less likely addition to the flora but together with the buddleia added a slightly incongruous exotic note to the habitat.

The temporary home of the Red backed Shrike
Parking the car on the concrete road adjacent to the rail crossing we walked across the railway lines that were already beginning to rust through disuse and slowly made our way out to the shrike's favoured location which typically was about as far away as possible from the car. John has not been that well recently and has to move slowly due to problems with his leg but gradually we made our way to the far end of the waste ground where we could see a small group of birders and photographers gathered around a particular bush.

Even from afar I could see the distinctive silhouette of the shrike sat on top of the bush. Eventually we got to the shrike and its behaviour exceeded even our wildest expectations. I had been told how tame it was and it lost no time in demonstrating this by flying directly towards us and perching on a bush literally feet from us. It would remain here for a little while looking around in all directions for prey and then when it discerned something to its liking would descend and capture it before returning to its perch to consume it. While we were there we saw it catch a number of bees and beetles and later, after we had left, it apparently caught and killed a vole.

The shrike was a first winter male making its first trip to southern latitudes. They have a long and dangerous migration to accomplish as they spend the winter in tropical Africa south of the Equator. Red backed Shrikes no longer breed in Britain so this bird could be either from Scandinavia, northern or central Europe. I assumed it had stopped here to feed up before heading further south but according to Birds of the Western Palearctic they do not build up fat reserves to assist their migration but opportunistically prey on other small passerine birds as they make their way south.This would explain its lunge at and attempt to catch a Common Whitethroat that strayed into the same buddleia bush that it was perched on. 

Its plumage was an attractive combination of pale chestnut upperparts and off white underparts with dark chevrons scattered across the plumage creating a scaly appearance. Its eye was large and dark brown, imparting a deceptively benign appearance but make no mistake this bird was a ruthless killer ever ready to seize and kill anything, even approaching its own size, that strayed too close. Its formidably substantial bill, well able to tackle large prey, was testament to  this.

Both of us agreed that we had never seen a shrike that was so confiding. You could follow it around if you wished but if you remained stood on one spot it would sooner rather than later perch within feet of you as it followed a small circuit around the scattered bushes. On one memorable occasion it saw something it fancied at my feet and flew down to within two feet of me, diving into the long grass to seize a beetle. On another occasion it flew towards me and passed so close that I could hear the air passing through its wings.

I was totally enthralled by the shrike as were most others there and we all stood quietly in the pleasant sunshine enjoying this almost unique experience. An hour passed and then it was time to go as I had to be at a business conference that evening in Reading and John was keen to get back to Brighton.

European Stonechat-female
We walked back through the scrub encountering a few European Stonechats, Common Whitethroats, Blackcaps and twittering flocks of Goldfinches fussing over the thistle heads. 

So farewell once again Newhaven and thanks for all the good times

Thursday 22 September 2016

A Dotterel in One 20th September 2016

I do not have much time for golf, the game that is. Finding its often self regarding sense of importance and supposed mystique irritating and from what I have seen and heard, still, in certain quarters with attitudes more appropriate to the last century. I site Peter Allis the corpulent golf commentator and his sexist comments and Troon and Muirfield Golf Club's members voting to exclude women from The Clubhouse as two conspicuous examples. I also find some members of golf clubs often patronising and small minded but then I can well understand a sport with such arcane rules and regulations attracting such annoying people, although in fairness I have also found many open minded golfers who have extended a friendliness far removed from the self important jobsworths telling you to clear off the fairway or whatever sanctified ground of theirs you are unknowingly despoiling.

However Sheringham Golf Club in Norfolk became the focus of my attention this week with reports of two juvenile Dotterels frequenting the rough on the fourth hole, below Skelding Hill, the highest point at one hundred and seventy feet above sea level, on the seaward side of the golf course and where the voluntary Coastguard Lookout is located.

The voluntary Coastguard Lookout at the top of Skelding Hill
Dotterels are a very nice bird to see as they are only encountered at lower elevations such as here when migrating and it is surely no coincidence that these two individuals selected the highest point they could find on the golf course. For the rest of the time they breed in small numbers on the high tops of mountains in Scotland such as the Cairngorms and in greater numbers further north in Scandinavia and across to eastern Siberia. The males are not as brightly plumaged as the females as they take all responsibility for incubating the eggs and raising the young whilst the female goes off in search of further mates. The British population is estimated at between 510-750 males and the species, although declining, is not considered to be under any threat - yet. Historically they were hunted and King James the First used to annually visit Royston in Hertfordshire to hunt them and in Elizabeth the First's day they were considered a gastronomic delicacy. The name Dotterel probably derived from the ancient word dotard which meant someone who was simple or stupid, reflecting the Dotterel's confiding almost tame demeanour in the presence of humans. 

Dotterels migrate for the winter to North Africa where they spend the winter in semi desert along a narrow band of the north coast of Africa from Morocco to Iran. I would imagine the Sheringham Dotterels were probably bound for Morocco.

Juvenile Dotterels are not that frequently found in Great Britain and when they do put down for a few days in some unlikely spot it is well worth making the effort to go and see them, as apart from being scarce they are a very attractively plumaged bird, being a mixture of brown, black, dull chestnut and buff, appearing almost spangled on their upperparts with a pronounced buff V on the back of their head and a similar circular buff breast band on their underparts, faintly mimicking the stronger more colourful patterning that they will acquire in the following spring before breeding.

For those of you old enough to remember, the celebrated comedian Ken Dodd invented the word plumptiousness and if ever a bird was plumptious it is the Dotterel with its rotund outline and large, dark plover eye.

With all this in mind I determined, if possible to make a trip to Sheringham provided the Dotterels remained for one more day. I think they had been there for at least two or three days already. When the Dotterels were  reported to still be at Sheringham on Tuesday I called Clackers on the spur of the moment. Being nine thirty in the morning Clackers was already at Farmoor Reservoir rapidly losing the will to live in the Causeway Hide as he scrutinised a lone Dunlin threading its way through the goose turds and thousands of discarded gull feathers that currently litter the water's edge, which itself is now sporting an attractive although lurid film of emerald green.

'Fancy going to see the Dotterels Clackers?' I enquired breezily.

 'You mean the ones in Sheringham?' he replied. 

'Yes the very ones'

'Why not'. 

'OK. I will pick you up from your home in forty five minutes'.

Clackers duly boarded the almost new, pristine Audi and we set a course for Nelson's County. Three hours later and after a little struggle to find the right road in Sheringham we drew to a stop. I had considered asking at the golf club if we could access the coastal path from their car park but wisely thought better of it at the sight of a man in a lurid pink jumper and trousers to match looking none too benignly at us as we hesitated at the entrance to the car park.

As it turned out, the road we parked on meant we had only a few yards to walk to the coastal path which in itself afforded a magnificent view out from the cliffs to the calm sea below and beyond. A friendly birder stopped and offered us specific directions to where 'The Dotterel' was to be seen. I thought it strange that he said there was only one as I was certain that two had been reported in the days previous, however I let it lie. I enquired if you could get close to the Dotterel as I had seen some superb photos on the internet but he said it was a little distant and a scope was advisable and the golfers were ambivalent about birders wandering around on their precious turf.

We set off up the  coastal footpath as it wound through scrub and bushes to the top of Skelding Hill where we had been instructed to find the three benches at the top overlooking the golf course and the Dotterel was  to be seen in line with the bench furthest to the left, below the hill and by the fourth fairway. 
The bench from which you could look down on the Dotterel
It was at the apex of the brown grass by the green fairway
It was a relatively short walk to the top of the hill but Clackers told me to go on ahead as he wanted to proceed at his own pace. Getting to the top of the hill I came across half a dozen birders scoping down the slope to an area of rough grass by the side of the fairway and another birder who was at the bottom of the slope standing in the rough and presumably photographing the Dotterel.  

I was given directions as to where the Dotterel was standing and after a little effort I found the Dotterel, beautifully camouflaged amongst the withered grasses and standing motionless at the edge of the fairway.

Excellent. I looked at this lovely bird through my scope and rejoiced. There was no sign of the other one and everyone assumed it had departed. Three golfers arrived along the fairway and mildly and unnecessarily, in my opinion, rebuked the photographer, telling him not to walk on the fairway and then asked him what was the bird he was photographing. The photographer came back up the hill to save the golfers taking further offence at his presence.

It was silly really as the Dotterel was nowhere near where any golfers or golf ball was likely to arrive but rules is rules, although in this case sometimes they can be bent without any undue harm. Having seen how confiding the Dotterel was when the other birder was taking his images I waited until the golfers had departed to the next tee and then I too ventured down the slope to get closer so I could get some good images. The Dotterel was completely un-phased by my closer approach and I stood quietly and took a number of images before walking back up the slope to rejoin the others, including Clackers, who had now made it to the top. 

All but one of the birders left shortly after and we stationed ourselves on the bench to watch and enjoy the Dotterel. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular as the golf links spread into the distance below, with the North Norfolk railway running along by the A149 on the other side of the golf links. If you looked west along the north Norfolk coastline from Skelding Hill you could see as far as Blakeney, some eighteen miles away, and looking north out over the sea, there is nothing between Skelding Hill and the North Pole. 

The view from Skelding Hill down to Sheringham beach
The Dotterel just sat in the grass and did very little. It certainly did not feed and seemed content to just stand quietly and inconspicuously in the rough grass. Various pairs, trios and foursomes of golfers, both male and female came along the fairway, passing very close to but heedless of the Dotterel. Brightly clothed golfers either walking or in golf buggies did nothing to upset its equanimity and only once did it move, becoming alert and running along by the fairway, calling briefly and doing that plover thing where they stop and push out their breast and retract and bob their head and neck as if uncertain about something. What disturbed it I had no idea at the time but I think I now know. 

Whilst we were watching the Dotterel I had noticed out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a red and grey rag discarded by the fairway but gave it no further thought or attention assuming a golfer had dropped it. Only when I got home later that night did I learn that the second Dotterel had been killed and eaten by a Sparrowhawk and an image on the internet of a bloody red breast bone and two Dotterel patterned wings attached to it explained my supposed red and grey rag. What a shame that this should happen but often Sparrowhawks manage to kill strange or unusual birds that are out of place, no doubt due to the fact that the birds are in unfamiliar habitat and are thus at a disadvantage in avoiding a local predator such as a Sparrowhawk.

Anyway, back to Sheringham and after forty five minutes the Dotterel suddenly flew off high and to the West. We could see no reason why it should do this and for a few minutes it was unclear what had happened but then a golfer arrived in the rough below from round the corner of the hill and proceeded to find his errant ball approximately where the Dotterel had been standing. Doubtless the ball had come very close to braining the Dotterel and it decided discretion was the better part of valour and who could blame it, after having seen its companion murdered and now nearly been hit by a white sphere coming out of the sky and travelling at some velocity towards it.

That was that and we descended back to the car and apart from a satisfactory visit to the Delicatessen in Cley for two enormous slices of homemade Carrot cake and an unsatisfactory visit to Wells Woods in search of a couple of reported Yellow browed Warblers. This only resulted in us hearing them and after seeing a brief profile of one in a silver birch, our birding was done for the day.
'Clackers' the Oxonbirder formerly known as Keith
Three hours later and an Old Pulteney malt whisky was administered at the Old House, Kingham which, for tonight only, provided an adequate substitute for the nineteenth hole.

Monday 19 September 2016

A Weekend of Two Halves 17-18th September 2016

It's little wonder that the weather is such a topic of conversation in our land and this weekend was a classic example of never the two days being the same.


Based on the weather forecast that it would likely be warm and sunny I optimistically donned shorts and a tee shirt, taking a fleece to fend off the early morning chill. Just as well, as on arrival at Farmoor there was little sign of any warmth or sun  and a brisk northwest wind was blowing across the grey wastes of Farmoor, creating miniature waves that crashed onto the concrete under depressingly solid grey skies that remained all morning

The fleece just about kept the windchill at bay although I certainly felt a chill around my legs but there was nothing to do but get on with it. The grey skies and strong wind had one benefit though, in that they brought down hundreds of hirundines which were demonstrating their high speed low level flying skills over the turbulent waters of Farmoor One. They were mainly House Martins, in total about four hundred with about fifty Swallows and twenty Sand Martins amongst them and best of all a juvenile Black Tern, looking for all the world like a giant hirundine as it imitated the dexterous manouevres of the smaller birds as they criss-crossed the reservoir.

Along the Causeway a small flock of five Dunlin and three Ringed Plovers flew from the concrete apron but soon settled again and resumed their feeding or resting along the water's edge.

Ringed Plover-juvenile
I watched them for a brief time but it was too cold to linger for long and I carried on walking, planning to get in the lee of the wind on the  eastern edge of Farmoor One.  I came across a dying Herring Gull, so weak it just lay at the edge of the water its head being battered by the wind driven waves. There was nothing I could do to save it but at least it should die in relative peace so I jumped down, picked it from the water and lay it on some soft moss higher up the concrete apron under the lip of the retaining wall.

I turned onto the perimeter track at the end of the Causeway and a Common Sandpiper ran away from me along the concrete apron but for once allowed me to get close enough to get a photograph of sorts but the atrocious light precluded any masterpiece.

Common Sandpiper
The sandpiper eventually had enough and flew off but shortly afterwards I came across a congregation of mainly Swallows plus a few House and Sand Martins, perching on the wire fencing bordering the perimeter track where they were sheltered from the full force of the wind. It only takes one hirundine to perch on the wire and then the rest want to follow, fluttering and fidgeting  as they endeavour to perch as close as possible to one another. Such social birds they cannot bear to be far from their fellows and once settled they spent some time either preening, sleeping or just resting. They were mainly young birds, tired I suppose with battling the wind and taking an opportunity to regather their strength before resuming their southwards journey. The preening was vital as their feathers had to be in peak condition to enable them to successfully take on the formidable distances that lay before them. I could but wish them well.

Sand Martin

House Martin-juvenile


Chastened by my experience yesterday I returned to Farmoor with a thicker fleece but still baring my legs under a pair of shorts. I need not have worried as the wind had gone completely and the grey clouds of yesterday had been banished to be replaced by warm sunshine. Yesterday's grey troubled waters on the reservoir were now a blue, glass smooth expanse with hardly a ripple in sight. What a transformation.

It was so still that the yachting fraternity were standing around having to wait for some wind to materialise before they could take to the water. I seized the opportunity to get myself a bacon roll and a cup of tea from Gill, the ever so friendly lady in the yacht club cafe. £1.50 the lot. I have said it before but it is an absolute bargain and all birders are welcome if the cafe is open. Suitably refreshed I ventured out along the Causeway and found the sun was now so warm that the fleece had to come off and I was glad of the shorts.

A Grey Heron stood stoically on one leg on the pink buoy usually favoured by the regular Yellow legged Gull which, having been usurped had moved to the other end of the reservoir to commandeer a yellow buoy all to itself. All was still.

The flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the Causeway had undergone a slight change in personnel overnight and now comprised three each of Dunlin and Ringed Plover. They too were enjoying the sun and squatted or stood quietly on the concrete, littered with a multitude of discarded white feathers from the overnight gull roost. I rather like Ringed Plovers, their pleasing appearance of balanced roundness in both head and body and their lustrous brown eyes that give them a slightly anxious but benign expression all go to make them singularly appealing as far as I am concerned.

Wild birds have little if any time to relax such are the multitude of dangers they face in their lives so I left them in peace to enjoy some brief  'down time' in the sun and moved further up the Causeway. There was little else to see apart from hundreds of Greylag Geese also enjoying the sunshine. They are not stupid and had selected the concrete apron of Farmoor Two that was exposed to the full sun and sat or stood idly on their enormous bubble gum pink webbed feet, a veritable picture of indolence.

Further still a group of Canada Geese took off from the concrete apron, cackling loudly but with them was a smaller duck swept up in the turmoil of the Canada's departure. It was a Northern Shoveler which had presumably been resting with the geese and now deciding it wasn't a goose detached itself from the flock and settled on the still waters on the far side of Farmoor One.

Northern Shoveler

Rather than trail around the reservoir looking for waders I decided to go looking for passerines in the many trees and bushes round and about the reservoir. Yesterday I had counted around a dozen Common Chiffchaffs and set myself a challenge to see how many I could find today. It was not difficult to find them, the tiny birds giving themselves away either by their querulous squeaky anxiety call or by their constant movement through the twigs and branches of the trees and bushes.

I came to a lone hawthorn with two warblers hunting flies and invertebrates in the foliage. One was a Common Chiffchaff but the other, browner with a rounded tail had me momentarily perplexed until I realised it was a Reed Warbler and quite late to find one here inland and on migration. It put on a good show for ten minutes and then flew to a distant bush.

Reed Warbler
In the end I did walk the entire circumference of the reservoirs even dropping down to the tracks below the reservoir banks in my search for warblers and ended up with a grand total of thirty four Common Chiffchaffs. Back up on the southern side of Farmoor Two, a flock of twenty swallows arrived from the north and briefly flew down to the reservoir, their midnight blue, slim elegant forms gracefully skimming the silk smooth waters, some taking a drink in flight and then in no more than a minute they were off again heading inexorably south.

It was two in the afternoon and I luxuriated in this welcome day of sun and warmth. I checked an app on my phone that tells me how far I had walked. It told me 6.59 miles!