Saturday 21 July 2018

Ruffs at Titchwell 20th July 2018

Despite failing in my objective to see a rare Lesser Yellowlegs at the RSPB's famous reserve at Titchwell in North Norfolk today, there was still plenty to see and so I spent a few happy hours watching the abundant birdlife on the Freshmarsh at Titchwell.

At this time of year many waders are returning from their northern breeding grounds, some having been successful others not so and they congregate on marshes such as at Titchwell to idle away their time in the long, pleasantly indolent days of late summer, the urgency to procreate having subsided for another year. 

Avocets were present in large numbers, there must have been getting on for four hundred and fifty, and the majority having finished breeding were now congregated on a dry scrape, squatting on the warm ground, their wings dropped to the sides of their bodies exposing their backs to the sun, a  relaxed, concentrated mass of black and white, highlighted by the bright light of another sunny morning. 

Recently fledged juvenile birds, distinguishable by brown rather than black feathering on head and wings, patrolled the mud in one wet corner, sweeping the bent part of their bill through the water overlying the mud in a rapid scything motion to catch any items of prey they might find and managing to maintain an innate elegance even when their long legs were sinking ankle deep in the liquid mud.

Two pairs of adult Avocets, however, were still attending small young which never ventured too far from the reeds surrounding a corner of the Freshmarsh. One of these pairs had two chicks, bundles of precocious grey fluff which were only lately hatched and were wandering around feeding, copying in miniature their parents. They were zealously guarded  by their ever attentive, restless parents which flew at any bird, gull or wader, that  they considered came too near to their offspring, driving off the intruder by means of aerobatic swoops and loud cries. Such a contrast in demeanour to the mass of their fellows, idly whiling away the hours on the scrape. The constant aggression of the Avocet parents had created a no go zone of some fifty metres around the area their young were frequenting and woe betide any bird that trespassed into it. The parents had good reason to be so anxious and aggressive as both Greater and Lesser Black backed Gulls were present nearby on the Freshmarsh and given the slightest opportunity to do so would show no hesitation in seizing and gobbling down a chick. 

Juvenile Avocet
Black tailed Godwits, another wader of some grace, maybe it is due to the long legs and long bills of such species, were also here in good numbers, either feeding, or, unlike the Avocets on the scrape, preferring to stand quietly on their long legs in the shallow water. Those intent on feeding, probed their long bills with a vigorous drilling motion into the mud, the sensitive tips to their mandibles seeking to locate submerged prey. 

Adult female (left) and male Black tailed Godwit (right) of race L.l.islandica
Note the larger size of the female compared to the male

Adult male Black tailed Godwit of race L. l. islandica
There were maybe a couple of hundred godwits present, many still in their brick orange breeding plumage and showing characters of the race islandica that mainly breed in Iceland with smaller populations in The Faeroes and even The Shetlands. Subsequent to breeding many choose to winter in Britain. However one bird, already in its complete grey winter plumage with an enormously long bill, fed on its own and looked much larger than any of the others. Some in the hide considered this bird to be of the race limosa which is much rarer here although it breeds in Britain in very small numbers, and also on mainland west and central Europe eastwards to Russia and central Asia. Personally I was circumspect as I do not have much experience in comparing the two races and also it has to be borne in mind that female islandica are larger than male islandica but this individual did indeed look larger compared to all the others and its bill was markedly long. I learnt later that two limosa were supposedly identified a few days earlier in precisely this part of the reserve. 

Adult Black tailed Godwit of the race L.l. islandica
In amongst the throng of Black tailed Godwits I found one Bar tailed Godwit, its legs being slightly shorter, its bill long like the Black tailed Godwits but noticeably upturned towards the tip and, as its name suggests, with a very different tail pattern.

Then came a definite highlight  as four small waders, slightly larger than Dunlins, slimmer in profile and more elongated of body, their bills  longer, slightly down curved towards the tip, came into view in my scope. They waded through the shallow water, probing their bills and their foreheads deep into the water to search the submerged mud and in the process passing in front of a line of resting godwits. They were adult Curlew Sandpipers, still in a blotchy partial summer plumage of reddish orange underparts and spangled brown, buff and grey upperparts.

I also counted at least four Spotted Redshanks near them and like many of the waders here today, in a transition of plumage, so they appeared as a patchwork of black and silvery grey as they moult out of their black summer breeding plumage into their more familiar winter garb of grey and white. They have an elegance denied to a Common Redshank due to their longer and thinner bill, longer legs and less stocky build. They are also more prone to wading up to their bellies in water and occasionally will swim. 

Mediterranean Gulls were calling constantly and checking the gulls loafing on the sun baked scrapes I found at least fifty, many of which were recently fledged juveniles. They were easy to distinguish from the juvenile Black headed Gulls associating with them due to their greyer brown and markedly scalloped upperparts, slightly larger size and thicker bill. The adults were still mostly in their lovely summer plumage, appearing in the bright sunlight almost totally white, apart from their black hoods

Gingerbread coloured Bearded Tits, although, as they are not tits, preferably called Bearded Reedlings, variably streaked with black on their backs and wings and therefore all juveniles from what I could see, pinged away with their distinctive calls as they moved as a hyperactive group through the reeds. They never really came into the open but hid low in the green leaves and stems of the reeds, or if they did show themselves, it was all too briefly, perched on a reed or hopping around at the base of the reeds on small  bare areas where the water had receded. They were never really happy about leaving the sanctuary of the reeds, preferring to seek out seeds in the dark recesses at the margin of reed and mud, holding their long tails aloft for fear of getting them muddy. I must have counted at least ten but never saw an adult.

I can see you!
Juvenile Bearded Reedling
However what really gained most of my attention was the presence of over a hundred Ruff, some wading in the thick liquid mud, feeding constantly, finding I know not what but the mud made it look thoroughly unappetising. All were males and all, to a greater or lesser extent, were in that transitional stage of moult where they are partially in both summer and winter plumage. one even had vestiges of its ruff remaining The variety of colours and patterning was quite bewildering and it is rarely that I see Ruff in this transitional plumage phase or even in such numbers. Male Ruff generally outnumber females anyway and presumably these males having performed their breeding function at the leks, where males congregate for courting and mating with females, are now finished with their contribution and have left the females to care for and raise the young.

Male Ruffs in transition from summer plumage to winter
The constant activity of the birds was a joy to watch and, as happens by watching, slowly other birds came to be noticed such as a Common Sandpiper, bobbing and creeping along by a distant shoreline or  small parties of Dunlin, fussing about amongst the longer legs of the Black tailed Godwits and Avocets. An adult Little Ringed Plover appeared from nowhere and proceeded to run along by a narrow channel of water. Shelduck, Mallards, Shovelers and Teal swam further out in deeper water and six Spoonbills, for once not asleep, stood by the reeds preening in a far corner of the Freshmarsh.

A pair of Marsh Harriers flew over the populous scrapes of the Freshmarsh and immediately were mobbed by the Avocet parents with young. Their cries of alarm seemed to stimulate the entire flock of Avocets resting on the ground and all rose in a whirling mass to encircle the harriers which beat a hasty retreat.

Five minutes of massed confusion and a blizzard of birds finally resolved itself as the various factions drifted in lazy circles back to ground and settled  once more in the sunshine.

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a good day, even without the yellowlegs. Wish I could have been there! Personally, I can't imagine a day with bearded reedlings in not being good!