Friday 24 February 2017

North for a Killdeer 21st February 2017

A Killdeer has long been on my radar as a vagrant bird that I would like to go and see in Britain. It is a North American wader that, until a few years ago, could be reasonably expected to turn up somewhere in Britain, almost on an annual basis. However it has now become far less reliable in its occurrences and so it was with no little interest that I noted the arrival of one in Shetland on 13th November 2016.

Killdeers have been recorded on less than a hundred occasions in Britain, usually between November and March.They are widespread throughout North America and breed from southern Canada, across the USA and as far south as Mexico.They are hardy and  winter from as far north as British Columbia, central USA and then south to northern South America. Their normal habitat is open lowland areas both inland and coastal, often near habitation and they can be found just about anywhere, and I do mean anywhere, ranging from a personal experience of a pair in a parking lot of a suburb in Atlanta, Georgia, playing fields and even supermarket roofs to the more likely muddy surrounds of ponds and farm fields.

Killdeers are larger than other small plovers such as our more familiar Ringed Plover and have a markedly elongated appearance due to their long pointed tail which extends well beyond the wing tips. A double band of black on the breast, a red orbital ring around the eye and a strikingly pale, tawny orange rump and upper tail are also distinctive characteristics. The name Killdeer is onomatopoeic, coming from their call 'kill dee kill dee.'

I looked at the location of this bird and decided against going for it despite never having seen one in Britain. It was about as far north as possible in Britain and just too far to go. I put it to the back of my mind although keeping an eye on just how long it remained. Over Christmas and into the New Year it was still being reported, always from the same precise location - a small 'wet field' at Sandwick on Mainland, Shetland. My resolve weakened in mid January and I decided I just had to go for it. I booked myself onto the twelve hour ferry crossing from Aberdeen to Shetland and prepared for the eight hour drive from my home to Aberdeen but the weather intervened as snow, ice and high winds swept northern Scotland and I gave up as it would be far too hazardous to drive to Aberdeen.

So that was that or was it? Some days later, although the bird was now not being reported on a daily basis, two other Oxonbirders, Paul and Vicky took the chance and went to see it and came back with some superb video of the bird. I gritted my teeth and accepted this was going to be one of those birds I would just have to be reconciled was not for me. I still kept an eye on it, though it was now being reported only irregularly, presumably because no one was checking every day if it was still in its favourite 'wet field'.

On the way back from seeing a Bluethroat in Lincolnshire in mid February I was discussing the Killdeer with Clackers and casually mentioned I was still tempted to go and see it but in truth was not really serious. Clackers intimated that he might care to join me but would have to clear it with his wife Shirley and was none too hopeful. Now I was serious again! We left it that he would let me know the outcome with Shirley and the next day a text arrived, surprisingly saying he had the green light from Shirley and wanted to come.

The situation had changed dramatically and now with the incentive of Clackers  desire to accompany me I set about arranging the trip. It was done in minutes. We would drive to Aberdeen on 20th February, leaving Witney at seven am and leave the car in a back street near to the ferry terminal at Aberdeen. Board the ferry, for the twelve hour crossing to Lerwick. sleeping in a two berth cabin overnight and arriving in Lerwick at 7 am the next morning. I arranged for Bolts Car Hire to meet us at the Lerwick ferry terminal at 8am with a car and we would then drive the short distance to Sandwick, hopefully see the plover, and then spend the rest of the day birding before dropping the car back at the terminal that evening, returning overnight on the ferry which would arrive in Aberdeen the next morning at 7am and then drive home again. We would be away for three days.

I collected Clackers from Witney as arranged and we set about the marathon drive to Aberdeen.The sunny weather made driving not unpleasant and we slogged up the endless tedious miles of motorway before making a stop at Tebay, by which time the weather had taken a turn for the worse, bringing rain and low cloud to the Fells. Then it was back in the car and on, ever northwards. passing Glasgow. Stirling, Perth and making another stop at Asda in Dundee to refuel the car. The final miles to Aberdeen were reeled away through rich arable farmland before we found ourselves, at just after four in the afternoon, negotiating the traffic in Aberdeen and finally coming to a stop in my usual free parking space on a road at the back of some fish warehouses near to the ferry terminal.

We gathered our gear together and made the short and now very windy walk to the ferry terminal with the huge bulk of the blue and white Northlink ferry vessel MV Hjatland towering above the terminal. We were given boarding cards and told we could board in ten minutes. The tannoy duly announced boarding and we took the walkway to the ship and were directed to our cabin. Gratefully we dropped our gear in the cabin, sat on our bunks, made ourselves a cup of tea and contemplated what lay in front of us. I knew from previous experiences what was to come but this was all new to Clackers.

After our reviving cup of tea we went to the upper deck where the bar and cafe were located and decided on a couple of stronger 'revivers' after our long journey north. A vodka and ginger ale with a slice of lime for Clackers and a Macallan single malt for me. We sat in the modern wood and chrome surrounds of the bar and life was not unpleasant. The long drive was over and now we had the prospect of the comfort of a cabin and bunks in which to sleep away the long night of sailing to Lerwick.

After a meal in the cafe whilst watching the lights of Aberdeen and the massive oil service vessels slowly slip away as we left the harbour, we retired to the bar for a nightcap and then it was back to the cabin for sleep whilst the ship commenced to roll as we got further out to sea.

I would like to say we got a good night's sleep but, as is often the case, this was not to be as the vessel pitched and rolled constantly in an increasingly wild sea. It was a night of constant motion as the ship's tossing and pitching moved us around our bunks. I looked out of the cabin window at some point in the dead of night and the dark sea was a turmoil of huge white breakers. I shuddered and put the duvet over my head and somehow must have gone to sleep as the next thing I was aware of was a discrete alert on the tannoy informing us that we would be docking in Lerwick in an hour, at 7.30, and breakfast was now being served in the cafe.

It was already light as we passed the bulk of the island of Bressay and the MV Hjatland slowly manouevered into the dock at Lerwick. The occasional prospecting gull flew around the ship as we disembarked into a cold, grey morning that was thankfully rain free.

We had a half hour wait in the terminal for Bolts to turn up at 8am and then, having completed the formalities we collected our vehicle from the car park as a couple of Ravens cronked their way across the harbour and were soon away out of Lerwick, on course to Sandwick, some twelve miles away and an appointment with a wet field and hopefully a Killdeer. The Satnav took us down narrow single track roads as we made our way through the bleak but strangely appealing landscape of Shetland. The almost treeless land was brown, buff and dull green, the colours of winter and vistas of the grey sea either distant or close were ever present. We continued our way, on totally deserted roads through flat fields inhabited by morose looking sheep and came to a point where the road forked left and right. On the right was a 'wet field' containing some mud stained sheep. No white fluffy fleeces here as the sheep eked out an existence in the sparsely grassed, soggy and muddy field. The map given us by Paul indicated this must be the correct location but the Satnav insisted we drive on a short way. Overuling the Satnav we stopped and parked the car at the point where the road forked, as marked with an arrow on Paul's map. It was about the only place to safely leave a car.

We seemed now to be between weather fronts as the sun very briefly came out and the air was still. A window of opportunity if ever I saw one but would the Killdeer be where it should be?

The wet field was in front of us and we eagerly scanned it, finding a single Oystercatcher and some sheep but not much else. It is hard to adequately describe that sinking feeling when for the last day and night your mind has been focused on just one thing - seeing a Killdeer. It was not here or at least on our first scan it wasn't. I checked the field again and then yet again to make sure it was not hidden behind some clod of earth or tuft of grass but no - nothing resembling a Killdeer was evident. Tired and worn, my spirits sank to the pit of my stomach.

I checked yet again, well you just have to, knowing all along it was futile and I was not going to find the Killdeer as it was palpably not in its favoured wet field. Clackers said he had read on Twitter that another birder confronted with the very selfsame situation had found it in another field nearby so we walked back along the road checking other fields by the road, full of sedge tussocks and yet more sheep. Common Snipe fled from us and the occasional Common Redshank flew up, calling in alarm but there was nothing smaller. Half way down the road I suggested to Clackers that we split up and whilst he carried on I would go back to the wet field and walk further up the road beside it. 

'You never know'.

The field where the Killdeer was finally found
This agreed we split up and I returned to where the road forked and we had left the car and surveyed once more the wet field from the right hand road. No 'eureka' moment was imminent, as not unexpectedly there was just the same Oystercatcher and the same few sheep and that was it. Nothing had changed. A small, scuttling brown shape caught the corner of my eye but it disappeared behind a tussock of grass. It re-appeared and there was - a Redwing.

Two local ladies dressed in lurid yellow oilskins came down the road with their dogs.I greeted them and asked if they knew if this was definitely where the Killdeer had been seen. They told me they did not really know but they had seen a lot of birders here recently with scopes and cameras looking at the field. So this was it. I was in the right place at least. More than a little despondent I looked through my bins to the field above the wet field which was next to the road down which the ladies had come and on which I was currently standing. It looked unlikely as half of it  was badly churned up by the sheep's trotters into a semi quagmire of mud. I scanned it with my bins and a distant tiny flash of white, right in the middle of the quagmire caught my attention. It was not as expected some stray piece of sheep's wool or a gull's feather but on closer scrutiny revealed to be the underparts of a bird, the brown of its upperparts merging with the colour of the mud. I looked harder and there was a bird, superficially resembling a Ringed Plover but with the diagnostic  two bands of black across its breast and a long tail. It had to be the Killdeer and it was!

There was nothing for it but to yell to the now distant Clackers, still perambulating down the road in the other direction  as a mobile phone signal is non existent here. Clackers came as fast as he could, joined me and together we walked up the road until we were opposite the field in which the Killdeer was standing.

We had done it and from apparent failure we now ran the complete gamut of emotions to a high of exultation that we had found the Killdeer and the realisation that our marathon trip was to be fully rewarded. Nothing can equal this feeling. It does not last for long but for the time it does it is just one of the best feelings in the world.

The Killdeer was, at first, not too sure about our presence, at first crouching and then head bobbing in that small plover way when they are uncertain or anxious, but after a little concern it continued feeding, rapidly trembling either foot on the ground presumably to make invertebrates expose themselves. It would walk a few paces and then tremble its foot and repeat the process until it found something. We saw it haul a small worm from the mud but anything else was too small to identify.There certainly seemed to be no shortage of food for it to find.

We watched for an hour or more, enthralled as it fed on the mud, occasionally crouching low in alarm, when it became very hard to see due to the white plumage being hidden, but eventually resuming its feeding. We too moved our position to get better views and found ourselves up a small grassy driveway by the side of the field, leading to an empty house,and watched it from here, taking photos as best we could. Its upperpart feathers were fringed with buff which would mean it was a first winter bird, born last year but now in its second calendar year and there was a marked contrast between the darker brown mantle feathers and the wing coverts which were paler brown. Whilst we watched the plover Starlings whistled and clucked away on the drystone walls and grass verges, House Sparrows chirruped in a spindly, wind torn hedge and some low flying Redwings straggled across the field in a loose group.

The Killdeer eventually ceased feeding and just stood, doing nothing. A picture of contentment. replete with food and now able to idle away a few minutes, its head sunk into its shoulders When waders do this and then decide to return to feeding  they often stretch their wings, either horizontally or vertically and I eagerly anticipated this happening as I could get a good action shot. I rested the camera on the dry stone wall and kept it focused on the Killdeer. Waiting. It was a trial of will over physical discomfort for me but I was determined. The plover sat perfectly content and did not move for at least ten minutes. It perked up. Was this the moment? No, it changed position to face the other way and slumped back into feather fluffed rotundity.

Another excruciating ten minutes passed. My arms ached, my damaged shoulder hurt but I refused to give in as the plover must surely do something soon, and then it happened.The Killdeer raised its head, shook its feathers and then slowly, horizontally extended its left wing to expose the long white wing bar but even better revealed the main feature of its plumage, namely the chestnut rump and long multicoloured tail which when fanned showed chestnut and black with prominent white tips to the outer feathers and chestnut tips to the inner feathers. Quite superb.

That, we decided, was a suitable finale and we made our way along the road and back to the car, garrulous about our good fortune and releasing the tension by recalling our own particular favourite moments.We could also feel the wind strengthening and with the wind came spots of rain. The next weather front was arriving.

Clackers-having seen his second Killdeer in Britain
'Now what Clackers. How about we return to Lerwick and try to find an Iceland Gull?' 

'Lead on dear boy, lead on'. 

We drove down the road a short way but stopped at picturesque Leebitton, the place from where the ferry sails to the small island of Mousa.

A few Common Seals were hauled out on the rocks and Eider Ducks and Shags were swimming around offshore. Turnstones, a single Purple Sandpiper and Common Redshanks fed in the seaweed by the shore but there was no sign of any Otters.

Common Seals
We drove on to Lerwick and parking the car in the harbour car park checked the harbour for white winged gulls. Disappointingly all we could find were two or three Herring Gulls but there were three summer plumaged Black Guillemots swimming and fishing in the harbour.

Lerwick harbour with a local trawler and Black Guillemot
on the sea in the foreground
They are not really black but a dark chocolate brown and the water they swim in here is so cold and clear you can watch them swimming under water, the large white wing patches and poster paint red legs and feet clearly visible as they 'row' their way underwater searching for prey.

Black Guillemot
A Hooded Crow paid us a brief visit but of white winged gulls there was still no sign. I was not about to give up however. 

'Hold on Clackers. I have a plan. I'm just going to get a loaf from the store over the road.' 

I duly returned with a large, sliced white loaf and began casting slices onto the green waters of the harbour. A deserted harbour was suddenly invaded by Herring Gulls arriving from all directions until a screaming, mauling scrum of gulls surrounded us or fought each other on the water for the bread.

Clackers was amazed but I knew this always happens with gulls.They seem to have a sixth sense where food is concerned and never turn down a free meal. I cast the last slice of bread onto the waters and as if by magic an Iceland Gull flew in. It was a first winter bird in pale creamy brown variegated plumage with off white flight feathers and it settled well clear of the squabbling gulls and surveyed the scene. It was wary and remained at the back of the assembled larger gulls and showed no interest in competing for the bread, eventually flying to a quiet part of the jetty away from the cars and people, but we had done it and found ourselves an Iceland Gull.

First winter Iceland Gull
The weather was now taking a serious turn for the worse as the next front moved in.The rain was steady and the wind considerable. We decided to continue birding from the car and this enabled me to show Clackers some other parts of southern Mainland. We drove south to Sumburgh Head and parked in the deserted car park while the wind howled up and over the cliff top, only yards in front of us. We then drove round the nearby Pool of Virkie, finding a few commoner waders such as Curlew. Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Common Redshank as well as some Eurasian Wigeon whilst some of the fields sheltered wary flocks of Greylag and Pink footed Geese cropping the grass.

I decided that I must have one final look at the Killdeer before we made our way back to the ferry terminal so we duly arrived back at Sandwick to find the Killdeer still in the same field and now feeding with a Common Redshank. It was pointless getting out of the car as it was raining so hard and the wind was ferocious. The Killdeer flew up into the wind, showing its white underwings, called kill dee just once before dropping down into its favourite wet field.

This was our cue to leave and after a wander around the rather depressing high street in Lerwick, where Clackers bought some CD''s of Shetland Fiddle Music we made our way back to the ferry terminal to await boarding time for the ferry. I had some reservations about whether the ferry would sail in this wind but was assured that there was no problem. The forecast was dire for the following Wednesday night and Thursday with winds of eighty miles an hour predicted and large amounts of snow falling over most of Scotland. Hopefully we would be well south by then.

So it was back onto the ferry and a reprise of the outbound trip except that the seas were much heavier now and the captain's laconic warning that there would be a fair bit of motion in the ship on the way back hardly did justice to the pitching and rolling all night on huge seas as we ploughed our way back to Aberdeen.

The Granite City was just coming awake as we disembarked the next morning and made our way back to the car. The weather looked good, with sunny clear skies as we drove up onto the coast road and away from Aberdeen. Rather than drive straight back home we had discussed and then decided to try for another couple of rarities on the way back south that were conveniently located near the east coast.

The first was a drake American Wigeon  that had been showing very well at a nature reserve called Birnie and Gaddon Lochs near Collieston in Fife.The last report had been a couple of days ago but we decided to give it a try anyway. We arrived in a sunlit Dundee, crossed over the mighty River Tay into Fife and half an hour later drew up in the car park at Birnie and Gaddon Lochs NR. Sadly the American Wigeon had gone and we were left with some Eurasian Wigeon and displaying Common Goldeneye to admire. A bonus was a confiding party of five female and two male Bullfinches nibbling buds from slender twigs on the trees by the path that runs round the pleasant little reserve and calling gently with their whimsical contact notes.

Male Bullfinch

Female Bullfinch

Male Common Goldeneye

Female Common Goldeneye
Our plan was then to head south to Cleveland to allow Clackers to see the Eastern Black Redstart that has been spending the winter at a place called Skinningrove but at the last moment, as it was only forty or so minutes away we decided to backtrack and head for Pitlochry, some twenty five miles north of Perth where a splendid male Ring necked Duck is spending its second winter on a small lochan called The Cuilc just outside the village.

The Cuilc
Our luck was in this time and the Ring necked Duck put on quite a show, looking absolutely beautiful in the sunshine. Their bill is a striking pattern of black, white and grey and their head is such a curious shape, big and domed rather like an old fashioned policeman's helmet. Initially asleep, as they so often are, it woke up and came close to the bank to dive and feed with the numerous Tufted Ducks also present,under the overhanging Alders 

You can just see the faint purple ring around the base of the 
neck from whence it gets its name

Male Ring necked Duck

Male Tufted Duck
The weather could not have been better as the sun shone through the trees and Siskins fed in the Alders by The Cuilc. Forty or so pleasant minutes passed very quickly here, and then we decided to forget the Eastern Black Redstart and commence the long slog for home.

Listening to the radio we could hear reports of the gales and rain that were chasing us south but we were home seven hours later before the worst of it arrived

Another great trip came to another very satisfactory conclusion

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