Friday 28 April 2017

Spiceball Rarity 26th April 2017

The news came through in mid morning of a Wood Warbler that had been singing from 6.45am onwards from some trees in Spiceball Country Park which is just within the boundary of Banbury. This was a 'must go to see' as Wood Warblers are scarce migrants in Oxfordshire and are also a very attractive member of a group known as 'leaf warblers'.

Spiceball Country Park was created twenty five years ago, from a relatively small area of land that was formerly a refuse tip, to provide a facility of greenery and recreation for the residents of Banbury. It is bounded by the Oxford Canal to the west and the River Cherwell to the east and linked by a path to Grimsbury Reservoir that also has a woodland nature reserve attached to it. There are various amenities such as a children's play area and sports fields but two fields immediately east of the river and another field are managed more with wildlife in mind and designated as an area for wild flower meadows and community woodland. The only downside of the park is that the very busy road leading out of Banbury to the M40 Motorway also runs immediately alongside with the consequence that there is a continuous noise of passing traffic .

If you wish to read more about the birds and wildlife around Banbury please go to the excellent blog

One or two Wood Warblers are seen in Oxfordshire each year but only on migration as they do not breed in the county. Often they are identified by their song, hence most records come in Spring, when they are often elusive dwellers in the canopies of large trees and their presence is betrayed by their song of rapid high pitched notes shivering down the scale and growing increasingly in volume. These last few days have seen a small number of Wood Warblers arriving in various transitory locations in Britain before they move on to their breeding areas.

Living in Kingham which is in northwest Oxfordshire I was only thirty minutes drive from Banbury, itself right on the northern border of Oxfordshire. So after a visit to the doctor in Chipping Norton to assess how my damaged knee was responding to treatment it was onwards to Spiceball Country Park where I arrived just after 10am. Mercifully the walk from the car park to the warbler, which was in the community woodland, amounted to just a short limp and I duly stationed myself by the bridge over the small river which marked where the warbler had been first seen singing some three and a quarter hours earlier.

There were two other birders present but I learnt that there had been no sight or sound of the warbler for quite some time. It was not looking good. Willow Warblers, Common Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Common Whitethroats were belting out their songs loud and clear above the traffic noise but there was not a trace of the distinctive silvery cascade of notes that denotes the song of a Wood Warbler.

I stuck it out for an hour, leaning on a wooden rail by a small backwater of the river watching a female Mallard and her brood of five so adorable ducklings dabbling in the weed growing on the surface of the still dark water. My knee hurt from my exertions and I gave up waiting, resigning myself to the fact the warbler had probably moved on, and very slowly I commenced hobbling back to the car and the luxury of sitting down and taking the weight from my knee.

Heroically I returned to Chipping Norton and went shopping, limping from shop to shop and finally heading homewards, triumphant with the groceries and by now a very sore knee.

With my knee hurting so much I decided that the rest of the day would be better passed sitting at my computer dealing with the backlog of work that had built up over the Easter Holiday. I fell asleep at my desk, something I frequently do lately as the pain in my knee wakes me every three hours during the night and I have to stand up for some time before it settles down again. 

I decided to check Oxonbirds to see what news of birds in the county had been forthcoming during the time I was slumbering and with a start I noted the latest entry.

'Wood Warbler: Still in Spiceball Park showing well and singing regularly near northern footbridge in copse on east side of river @ 1230'

It was now 2pm and the warbler, judging from the report, had  moved from its original morning location  in the trees on the west side of the river to some trees just a hundred metres to the east side. Suddenly my knee did not feel so bad after all and I was back in the car and heading for Banbury. Surely this time I would be successful.

I made the now familiar short  but slow hobble from the car park to the current location of the warbler, meeting Justin as I was about to cross the small wooden bridge over the river. He told me exactly where the warbler was, just on the other side of the bridge in a small copse of large Sycamore and Ash trees, the former now in almost full leaf and favoured by the warbler.

I followed his directions and found myself standing with just one other birder/photographer on a narrow path of wooden chips winding through the copse and looking up into the top of a large Sycamore.The other birder told me the warbler was up there, somewhere, but was proving extremely elusive and was for the most part silent so it was impossible to ascertain exactly where it was. Wood Warblers are birds of open but mature woodlands which was pretty much what this copse replicated, demonstrating yet again a bird's remarkable capacity to seek out familiar habitat in unfamiliar surroundings.

We stood for fifteen or so minutes and then a small dark shape ever so briefly manifested itself only to be instantly swallowed up in the mass of green leaves. It could have been the warbler or it could have been a tit or crest as both Great and Blue Tits and Goldcrests were also up in the tree and like the warbler gleaning insects from the undersides of the leaves.

I heard a faint call that sounded familiar but was almost indecipherable from the constant background roar of passing traffic,  It was the contact note of a Wood Warbler but my fellow birder could not hear it or if he did was unaware it was the warbler, The call gave me some idea where in the trees the warbler was but it was a whole different matter to actually see it, even if it was visible.Their plumage of moss green upperparts, bright yellow face and upper breast and silky white underparts almost exactly mirrored the background of sun dappled bright green leaves of the trees and the bright sky showing through gaps in the foliage. I would only be able to locate it when it moved.

In fact it was my new found birding colleague who first saw it and pointed it out to me half way up in the Syacamore but it was not there for long and seconds later it dived across into another tree also in full leaf. In forlorn hope I trained my bins on the approximate point in the tree where it had landed and much to my surprise found myself looking at the warbler as it hopped around feeding.Maybe a minute passed and then it flew back to where it had come from and I lost sight of it.

I heard the contact call on several more occasions and then in a period of silence looked up above me to find the warbler was now right above my head having moved from where I thought it had been! This time I got some really good views of it but yet again they were tantalisingly brief and then it was gone.

I was left to myself as the other birder who had been present all day trying to get photos decided enough was enough. I stood for half an hour and heard and saw nothing. I now knew the Wood Warbler was here but where exactly? Then my luck changed and I heard the contact call once more but also the trilling song, which pointed exactly to where the warbler was. I followed the sound to another tree by the path and the song came again from above me. The nightmare of then locating the warbler in the dense tangle of leaves recommenced but finally I located it, as a tiny movement that was not a leaf swaying in the wind betrayed its location, and following its movements in the tree it finally remained motionless for a minute or two, in full view, on some bare twigs.

They really are pretty birds, so much brighter than the more familiar and related Willow Warblers and Common Chiffchaffs that are found all over Britain. Their face has a strong pattern with a dark line running through the eye separating a bright lemon yellow supercilium above its eye from the rest of the similarly yellow face, the yellow continuing onto its upper breast.The rest of the underparts are silky white and the upperparts an attractive  moss green.

Wood Warblers are found throughout northern Europe and just into the west of Asia in the southern Ural Mountains and are strongly migratory, wintering in tropical Africa. Sadly numbers in Britain have declined markedly in recent years and is now giving cause for concern.

I watched as it fed acrobatically and actively  along twigs, head down on occasions and rapidly flicking between twigs and leaves as it snatched insects. I managed to keep it in view for some time as it fed more in the open but eventually it worked its way back into the density of the leaves in the canopy and was lost to view.

This was the second Wood Warbler I have seen in Oxfordshire and was just as enjoyable an experience as the first. My success also made me feel a whole lot better about life and the current problem with my knee. There is a lesson there surely?

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