Saturday 26 August 2017

A Melodious Murder 25th August 2017

It is not everyday that one witnesses the death of a bird, let alone a Melodious Warbler but I am getting ahead of myself.

Friday arrived and turned out to be 'one of those days,' by which I mean it was sunny and still, the kind of late summer's day that has been all too absent so far. It was too good to remain indoors and I felt I must do something, preferably involving birds.

A report of a Melodious Warbler at Beachy Head and a Hoopoe at nearby Cuckmere Haven, both in East Sussex, was very enticing. Two good birds to see in familiar haunts from my past life in Sussex was impossible to resist, despite the fact that this was a Friday preceding a Bank Holiday weekend. The two and a half hour drive to the south coast would be difficult, to say the least, as everyone would be taking to the roads, especially with much of the rail system closing down for what is euphemistically called 'essential maintenance'.

Why do we put up with such tosh and imposition?

I was on the road by nine and to my pleasant surprise encountered very little delay, even at the notorious M25 congestion spot around Heathrow and eventually I turned east on the outskirts of Brighton and headed towards Eastbourne and Beachy Head. I know this area intimately from when I lived in Sussex and more pertinently was a member of the Beachy Head Ringing Group so I knew exactly where to make for at Beachy Head.

I was heading for a small copse of stunted hawthorns and other small trees called 'The Old Trapping Area' that lies on the north side and adjacent to the twisting minor road that runs just inland and parallel with the cliffs of Beachy Head. Many people were out and about today, making the most of the sunshine and Birling Gap was an unseemly mass of cars, with the National Trust car park full and other overspill cars parked at random and haphazardly on the grass verges by the road. I negotiated my way past them with relief and then left the chaos behind as the road wound on and few cars or people were to be seen. A couple more minutes of driving and I  drew up into a small roadside car park handily placed right by The Old Trapping Area. I put two pound coins in the machine for a couple of hours parking and walked down a small grassy slope to join four other birders standing quietly, looking at the trees that comprised The Old Trapping Area.

The Old Trapping Area
A minute or so later the Melodious Warbler conveniently appeared, slowly working its way through the trees searching for prey. Larger than a Willow Warbler or Common Chiffchaff it was superficially similar in overall colour but differed in having a noticeably long, orange tinged bill, steep forehead and peaked crown and open faced appearance with a prominent yellow throat and greyish legs. Judging by its fresh plumage it was a bird hatched this year. It was good to see it, and so quickly after my arrival, but it soon disappeared from view and this was to set the pattern for the next two hours. It also demonstrated, all too well, the usual warbler trait of managing to partially conceal itself whenever a photo opportunity arose but on one occasion did show itself quite well.

My first sighting of the Melodious Warbler
I settled in for a wait until it appeared again, which it soon did. Its feeding behaviour while not ponderous was relatively slow and methodical as it peered about, before selecting some leaves on a tree to assiduously search, and it would also drop low down, almost to ground level amongst patches of thistle and dead gorse scrub. Occasionally it would fly up into the air from the top of the trees to seize an insect, which it captured with an audible snap of its bill, before diving downwards at speed and back into cover.

An image showing two diagnostic differences between Melodious and
the very similar Icterine Warbler; namely the short primary projection
and lack of a pale panel in the centre of the closed wing
I and my fellow birders, gently and at a discrete distance, followed as it progressed through the trees, feeding constantly, often disappearing for periods but always eventually re-appearing. It was relaxed and at ease as was I, standing in this secluded spot with the sun shining down from a blue sky. In a quiet moment I looked away to the west and could see Belle Tout Lighthouse, now a very upmarket bed and breakfast establishment, and stretching away beyond, the iconic and much photographed white cliffs of the Seven Sisters. At this particular moment Sussex looked totally beautiful and I felt truly at home.

Belle Tout Lighthouse

Sussex by the Sea with the Seven Sisters in the background
The Old Trapping Area is small, less than a hundred metres square consisting of a few Hawthorns, and the occasional Elder and Holly, all stunted by the southwest gales of winter which whip up and over the nearby cliffs. Some scrubby patches of thistle and gorse, and tangles of wild clematis add variety to the habitat. It is surrounded by chalk downland and open fields, so it is easy to see why any migrant bird arriving from off the sea would find it immediately attractive, as it is virtually the first bit of cover it would encounter. Many rare migrants have been found here, the last I saw was a Red breasted Flycatcher a few years ago.

Melodious Warbler
Melodious Warblers breed relatively close to our shores, being found in Belgium then south through France, Spain and Portugal, around the Mediterranean and in North Africa, so it is not an unexpected off course migrant to find but nonetheless their visits are sufficiently infrequent to make it a good bird to see in Britain. They normally spend their winter in West Africa.

At least three Melodious Warblers have arrived in Britain in the last couple of days with reports not only of this one but another, remarkably, at the extreme northern end of Britain, on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands and the third at The Lizard in Cornwall. Where they have come from is anyone's guess. I speculated that this individual  at Beachy Head was a dispersing juvenile from further south. Sometimes juvenile birds move north after leaving the nest. I ringed a nestling Blackcap in Surrey many years ago that was subsequently re trapped a month or so later many miles to the north in The Midlands, so it is quite possible that these Melodious Warblers had done something similar. It does not quite explain the one in Orkney or does it?

Time passed by and I continued to watch the Melodious Warbler. A few Common Whitethroats and Blackcaps were also in the bushes but kept very much out of sight unlike the Melodious, which would often perch fairly obviously on the edge of the trees, searching the leaves for prey. This was probably its ultimate undoing.

I was standing with Christian, a Sussex birder who I vaguely knew and we were watching the Melodious Warbler feeding on the outside of a Hawthorn tree, fairly near the top. One minute I was looking at the warbler, the next I was looking at a large brown bird that had crashed at tremendous speed into the tree right on top of the warbler. Outspread  barred wings and tail, and a glaring yellow eye were the two immediate impressions I got of a female Sparrowhawk. It remained with wings and tail splayed against the side of the tree for a second or two and then, with the warbler in its claws, dropped down, briefly perching in another bush before it flew low and far away across  the downland to the west.

The time of  death was 1352. Rest in peace Melodious Warbler!

Neither of us could say anything for a moment. Stunned by what we had seen. We were literally rendered silent by the shock of what had just happened. It was so sudden, so unexpected, there was no time to react. I did not know what to say. An immense regret that the warbler had met such a fate conflicted with the excitement of seeing a Sparrowhawk doing what comes naturally to it.

I remained for another half an hour to convince myself that I had really seen the violent end of the warbler but there was no further sign of it. My mind was still attempting to deny what my eyes had seen but the warbler had met a fate that is part of the natural order of things and from which all small passerines must run the gauntlet but I found it strangely upsetting, even now as I write about it.

There was a notice to call The Samaritans on the pay machine at the Beachy Head car park as for some unaccountable reason Beachy Head is a magnet for suicidal and emotionally upset people. Should I have called them? Maybe not!

I left the Old Trapping Area and drove the few miles west to the Cuckmere Haven. I was in two minds about going to see the Hoopoe, as the main car park there was full of cars and visitors milling around and would also cost me another three pounds for the privilege of parking, if I could find a space. Instead I drove over the Exceat Bridge and parked on the other side of the River Cuckmere in the smaller and free car park of The Cuckmere Inn.

It was a long walk out to where the Hoopoe was feeding in some downland grass but it was not unpleasant walking by the river with the sun now hot on my skin but with a gentle cooling breeze coming off the river.

The long but pleasant walk out to the Hoopoe beside the 
River Cuckmere
Eventually I got to where the Hoopoe was feeding in a sheep field amongst some dead thistles. I joined a dozen or so birders and  curious passers by already looking at the Hoopoe. It was a trifle distant but its remarkable plumage of terracotta pink with black and white stripes on its wings and back was very striking. Even more remarkable was its long curved bill and similarly long and pointed crest. Such a strange profile as it probed continuously in the turf over a small area it seemed to favour.

I watched it for half an hour or so and then made the long return walk to the car. Thirsty now from my exertions, I sampled the delight  of a lager shandy in The Cuckmere Inn before going on to Seaford and calling on two good friends, Robert and Sarah.

It was good to be back in Sussex.

1 comment:

  1. A great but sad post Ewan, strange how many rarities meet a similar fate. Brian blhphotoblog.