Sunday 17 December 2017

Seaside Saturday 17th December 2017

It was back to the South Coast today with a birding colleague, Moth, for another tryst with the long staying and very confiding Barred Warbler at Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve in Hampshire. Moth has never seen a Barred Warbler and this very obliging bird at Titchfield Haven would be the ideal opportunity to introduce him to one and, for me, it was a welcome opportunity to get close and personal with the warbler once again.

I collected Moth from Eynsham, twenty minutes drive from my home and fortuitously also on the way to the A34 leading south. It was still dark, even at 7am, and the remnants of snow still lay in icy mounds on the verges as I rendezvoused with Moth outside his home. As we drove southwards the sunrise was spectacular, blossoming fiery pink and promising a sunny but very cold morning. Ideal for birding and very different to the gloomy conditions last time I came to see the Barred Warbler.

In ninety minutes we were leaving the car by The Solent and making the short walk to a small entrance gate that leads to the hallowed back garden behind the Visitor Centre where the warbler was living out its days. As we walked to the gate, to our right the sea was glittering blue in the bright and cold light of day, a chill northwest wind clearing the air so one could see for miles. Opposite, across the sea was the low bulk of the Isle of Wight and distantly to the west was the science fiction complex of Fawley Oil Refinery. To our left the reed beds and lagoons of the reserve were bathed in a soft golden light. Shoveler drakes, sheltering in the lee of the nearest reed bed, positively glowed in the sun, their iridescent green heads, chestnut flanks and shining white breasts splashes of bright colour against the stands of brown reeds.There were other ducks with them too, diminutive Teal, as well as Gadwall and Mallard.

At the back of the Visitor Centre we came across another three birders already in position, one of whom was Dan, who I know from my Sussex days. He told me the Barred Warbler had been showing really well on its favourite cotoneaster bush, gobbling the red berries, but had just departed into the ivy covered hawthorns beside the narrow lane that runs behind the garden. All well and good, so we stood and waited. And waited, our toes and fingers becoming increasingly numb as the cold took advantage of our inactivity. A Firecrest briefly visited a conifer and a belligerent Mistle Thrush chivvied Blackbirds from a berry laden hawthorn but that was about the only bird activity apart from the endless comings and goings of House Sparrows in the small bushes in the garden. 

Male House Sparrow
Forty five minutes later our endurance was rewarded when the Barred Warbler finally showed up but preferred to remain in the hawthorns by the lane, perched prominently in the sun. It seemed to like this position where the rising sun had caught part of the tree and bathed it in slight warmth, and it fluffed its feathers and in true Barred Warbler fashion sat immobile, occasionally looking about but perfectly at ease.We all moved closer to take its picture and it closed its eyes and dozed, a picture of sublime contentment perched in the sunshine amongst the bare twigs of the hawthorn.

Barred Warbler

Another birder looking for it came around the corner of the lane right below the warbler. Confronted by us looking back at him he silently queried if there was any sign of the warbler.We pointed to above his head. He looked up to see the warbler just feet away, directly above him, totally unconcerned. 

Eventually the warbler decided it would like another berry or two and flew down and across the lane to seize a berry from the cotoneaster drooping over the wall.This was my opportunity to get some pictures and record the moment. 

The warbler then flew directly over our heads and further down the lane and we resumed our position back in the garden. The hope was, that it would come back to the cotoneaster berries on the side of the wall facing the Visitor Centre but frustratingly it never did while we were there although others were more fortunate. 

Being a Saturday the Barred Warbler was obviously a very popular attraction with more and more people arriving to see it as the morning wore on and although this did not overly trouble the warbler it did affect its behaviour in that it was reluctant to come down to feed on the berries for more than a minute or so, preferring to seize a berry and then retreat into the security of the higher hawthorns,  a marked difference to the last time I was here. You could hardly blame it as some of the people did push the boundaries of its tolerance, and mine, just a little too far.

Once we had seen enough and grew tired of waiting for the warbler to come back from one of its forays up the lane I suggested to Moth that, as it was high tide, we go to the nearby shingle beach across the road and look at the small wader roost. We would be away from everyone looking at the Barred Warbler, and like me, Moth had a camera and we could get some nice images of the roosting Sanderling, Dunlin and Ringed Plovers.

A lady was feeding the gulls just over the road from the Visitor Centre as we left, with a resultant chaotic, raucous scramble of Black headed Gulls and Mallard fighting and tussling amongst one another for the bread whilst Turnstones did their best to sneak in and grab some crumbs for themselves but were forever driven onto the breakwater by the frenzied gulls and ducks.

It was just a short walk of a few hundred metres to the shingle point on the beach and soon we were ensconced by a small groyne at the sea's edge looking at the diminutive forms of the waders, whiling away the time over high tide. A roosting flock like this is never still and although many of the birds have their bills tucked into their feathers and are stood on one leg, others are awake and move as if not happy with their position, creating a consequent ripple through the flock as their adjustment causes all the others to slightly move to accommodate the disturbance. Most do not bother to remove their bills from their feathers but just move by hopping on one leg as if pogoing to another position a few inches from where they originally were. It is curiously appealing and beguiling to watch birds do this as if they are unwilling to accept being woken up and wish to determinedly remain in their sleeping attitude.

Ringed Plover

Sanderlings with two Ringed Plovers

Our intimate time with the flock did not last as our presence was inevitably noted by others who joined us, also seeking to photograph the waders and the spell was broken. We left them to it and returned to the Visitor Centre tearoom for refreshment in the form of coffees and a chocolate brownie for me. Moth definitely ensured he would be invited on another trip by very kindly paying for everything. It will be my turn next time.

Suitably revived we returned to the garden to be told the warbler had been showing really well but had just departed. I wasn't too worried as I had seen the warbler on a number of occasions by now but we waited anyway and it showed up and did its usual trick of perching for periods in the hawthorns and then flying down to seize a berry or two before flying off again. Most would follow it to wherever it went but really they would have been better off waiting by the Visitor Centre wall for it to return to the garden. I felt that constantly following it was probably also unsettling it slightly, hence its more flighty behaviour this morning

By now it was noon and I suggested to Moth that we go to Bognor Regis in adjacent West Sussex where there was an outside chance of getting to see a Snow Bunting that was frequenting a particular area of the extensive stony beach that runs parallel to the seafront promenade and that separates the Butlin's Holiday complex from the seashore. Although  a south coast holiday resort is an unlikely place to find a Snow Bunting, one of their favoured habitats is coastal shingle where they can squat amongst the stones, camouflaged and half hidden.

As Moth had never seen a Snow Bunting  he was all for going to see the bunting and so we made a forty minute drive east to the dubious delights of Bognor's seafront. I was a little concerned about our actually finding the Snow Bunting, even if it was still there, as no report had been made of it for a few days and the place it was meant to be consisted of a vast expanse of stones and shingle running between the sea and the promenade. Also, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, even in winter, the promenade would be well used and finding a tiny bunting in all those stones and shingle would be no easy task.

We parked the car in the empty road below the promenade and walked up a concrete ramp to the promenade. There is always, for me, a curious sense of abandonment to a seaside town in winter even though there are people about. It is as if there is only a subdued echo of the hustle, bustle and noise of summer and now everything seems to be waiting, in abeyance if you like, suspended until the vitality of spring and summer returns.

The sun was still shining but gently weakening as a thin layer of cloud almost imperceptibly moved over the sky but out to sea it was still crystal clear and far off you could see the distinctive curve of the coastline sweeping out to the promontory of Selsey Bill. Beyond, the sun shone on the sea and white clouds billowed far out on the horizon. A promise of far away lands and for me a forever beguiling prospect.

Coming back to earth I saw a couple of birders some hundred metres distant looking intently down at the stones, almost at their feet  All worries about finding the Snow Bunting were instantly dispelled and in a matter of moments Moth had another new bird for his list.

As with all winter plumaged Snow Buntings it was an attractive combination of colours and complicated patterning mixed with an undefinable charm of personality. Ridiculously confiding as many are, it just sat on the shingle and regarded us benignly. Its plumage camouflaged it superbly in the subdued multi colours of the stones, a combination of grey, brown, rust orange and white, the stones were of incalculable number and closely mirrored by the colours of the Snow Bunting's plumage. Its golden yellow bill, the upper mandible curiously flattened, shone like a miniature beacon as it caught the sunlight. We watched it from all angles as passers by either walked on, ignorant or uncaring of its presence or stopped to enquire what it was. The Snow Bunting just carried on untroubled. 

After twenty minutes it flew and we lost sight of it. We walked along the shingle to try and relocate the bunting but failed. Turning to walk back we saw a lady we had been talking to earlier looking down to the edge of the concrete promenade where it joined the stones, and there again was the Snow Bunting feeding along the margin.

Yet again we followed as it progressed in a series of shuffling hops across the concrete and stones until it stopped and indulged itself in an extensive bout of preening. We stood waiting for it to stretch its wing which would make a nice picture but it never quite managed this. 

It was of no real consequence and we spent another half an hour happily admiring this hardy bunting all the way from Iceland or possibly even Greenland, eking out its livelihood on the seafront at Bognor, with the towering white pagodas and buildings of Butlin's huge complex right behind it. Maybe the rounded curves of the pagoda like buildings reminded the bunting of the snow covered mountains of its home far to the north.

1 comment:

  1. Great record of a really enjoyable day!!! Thanks, Ewan!