Thursday 31 January 2019

More Waxwing Antics 28th January 2019

Today, the weather, although it would be very cold was also forecast to bring sun all day.  I decided to head for some more Waxwing action while the opportunity presented itself. After all, the opportunities to catch up with these beige feathered, berry gobbling northern invaders are not that frequent. This time it was a party of thirteen birds frequenting an industrial estate on the outskirts of Hertford, some two hours drive away from my home in Oxfordshire

If you like your birding to be in beautiful, peaceful surroundings you may as well forget waxwings for the most part. Their preference is often for precisely the opposite. Nine times out of ten they are to be found in this country frequenting the most unattractive and unlikely of places from an aesthetic point of view and where any other self respecting bird will only occasionally venture. The attraction to waxwings being that superstore car parks, suburban streets and modern industrial estates are all cosmetically adorned with small trees which often bear a profusion of berries in autumn and winter. The rationale being that such trees which flower in Spring bring some visual relief to the depressing concrete and urban surroundings in which they are planted.

The fact that such a beautiful bird from vast unpopulated pine forests in Scandinavia should choose virtually the complete opposite in terms of environment when they get to this country always strikes me as an anomaly but then I remind myself that they are not here from choice but because their food crop has failed in their homeland, they are hungry and are desperately looking for food to survive. 

Waxwings feed on berries in winter and by the time they reach Britain most of the natural berries such as hawthorns have been stripped by those other avian Scandinavian visitors, Fieldfares and Redwings and indeed our own Blackbirds, so the numerous ornamental, brightly coloured berry trees in urban areas, which for the most part are shunned by the two migrant thrushes, provide them with an available and potentially life saving food source.

And with the Waxwings come admiring birders and photographers or a combination of both. Today, on arriving at the industrial estate in Hertford, and not quite sure where to find the waxwings I was soon left in no doubt where they were as, on turning onto Mead Lane, the road indicated by RBA's directions as to where to locate the waxwings, there on the pathway beside the road was a phalanx of around forty people, every one of them  with a camera trained on one particular small tree bearing a profusion of berries.  

The small ornamental tree still with plenty of berries
I can recall when I commenced birding many years ago it was just a minority hobby and something to be almost kept quiet about but birding has now burgeoned in popularity and transformed into a huge, multi million pound industry in the developed world. Similarly with photography the digital revolution has done away with film and made cameras and photography comparatively cheap and accessible to all and so this is now following the same pattern as birding. Birders and photographers are for the most part compatible, indeed many birders carry a camera these days but like everything else it only needs one or two to transgress the bounds of acceptable behaviour for the other side to point an accusing finger. 

Today everyone behaved sensibly so there was no complaint from either side.

The waxwings were, typically, perched in a larger tree for security, near to the smaller tree with berries, and would periodically fly down to the smaller tree, located on the corner of a cul de sac of industrial units. The tree in question still retained a mass of bright orange pink berries, gleaming in the bright sunlight. Unfortunately the berries were so numerous and clustered in such dense profusion that it was almost impossible to get a clear image of a waxwing, as when they came down to feed they were always deep amongst the berries and consequently hidden to a greater or lesser degree for most of the time. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially from the pure photographers complaining about the lack of a clear shot and I could understand this.To compound our frustration there was also a belligerent Mistle Thrush that took it upon itself to defend the berry tree. The minute a waxwing descended to the berries, the hitherto unseen thrush would fly into the tree with a threatening rattling call and the waxwing would flee back into the larger tree.

Part of the Waxwing fan club standing below the larger tree
where the birds spent most of their time. Note the clusters
of mistletoe in the branches and extreme top left some of
the perched Waxwings
Eventually the Mistle Thrush departed and the waxwings took their opportunity and descended in one's and two's onto the berry tree but they were obviously very nervous due to the Mistle Thrush's random appearances and after frantically plucking berries for no more than a minute or two would hastily fly back to the sanctuary of the larger tree. A Redwing, hardly larger than the waxwings and not known for its belligerence then arrived in the tree and the waxwings already thoroughly spooked by the aggressive Mistle Thrush gave it a similar wide berth until it too departed.

So the  morning passed, with huge trucks moving up and down the road and the continuous noise from a busy industrial complex carrying on all around us. For their part the Waxwings idled for long periods in the  bare branches of the larger tree, some of the branches bizarrely adorned with waxy, green leaved, spherical clumps of mistletoe. For an hour we watched the waxwings periodically visit the berry laden tree.

Realising that today I was never going to get the classic full on image of a Waxwing that everybody present craved I decided to see what I could record of the waxwing's antics and the attitudes they adopt as they gobbled the berries.

It was nigh on impossible to gather yourself when the waxwings descended to the berries for you had literally only a minute of them in the tree before they departed again. You had to just find a waxwing in the tree, focus the camera on it and then hope and shoot as fast as you could. On reviewing the images you then hoped and prayed that some revealed the extraordinary contortions the birds had gone to as they stripped the berries and swallowed them at an incredible rate. Locust like they swarmed over the berry clusters, creating a mayhem of feathered activity, then retreated to their favourite tree to digest the berries and quietly trill amongst themselves until hunger compelled them once more to descend for another berry fest.

The morning was the best time as the birds came down regularly but only in ones or twos, rarely as a whole flock. Around noon a change came over their behaviour  and they flew off from their favourite larger tree, departing with wavering rattling trills to some taller poplars much further away and there they perched for over an hour. Then they returned and, possibly tired of the continual harassment by the Mistle Thrush, commenced to feed on the mistletoe berries in the larger tree and ignored the berry tree for the best part of another two hours. In the early afternoon it became rather boring as the birds just stayed in the larger tree or fed on the mistletoe berries, which gave no or little photo opportunities.

Waxwing eating mistletoe berries
By mid afternoon they were perched at the top of the larger tree, in the sun, and gave some better photo opportunities but then, as one flock, they flew fast and high, up and away over the industrial roofs and I decided to head for home.

It was a frustrating day in many ways but to be in the virtually continual presence of Waxwings for half a day was surely no hardship.

Saturday 26 January 2019

A Snow Bunting at The Sussex Seaside 23rd January 2019

Today I took a fancy to a day out on the coast of Sussex. Not a hardship in my book as I used to live in Sussex, near Brighton and it would be good to re-visit my old haunts and revive happy times and memories

I did have a specific reason for choosing Sussex as a Snow Bunting had taken up residence on a track running along the top of a shingle beach at a place called Goring Gap, just west of Worthing. By coincidence, just over a year ago in December, I visited nearby Bognor Regis with my birding pal Moth to see a similar lone Snow Bunting, also inhabiting a stretch of identical coastal  shingle  opposite Butlins.

It was bitterly cold today, courtesy of a vigorous and relentless wind blowing from the north. Goring Gap is one of the few places on the West Sussex coast where there is an undeveloped area of grassland and farm fields providing a welcome relief from the endless tacky urban sprawl of buildings stretching along the coast hereabouts.

The Snow Bunting could not, however, have selected a more public and disturbed place to settle but that is what it did and typically for this species, especially when on their own, showed very little concern about the non stop passing of people out for a stroll, joggers, birders even, and an inordinate number of dog walkers, all proceeding up and down the track.  The area, being relatively scenic and with the very popular Sea Lane CafĂ©, which is open all winter and summer, situated right by the beach, not unsurprisingly makes this area attractive to a large number of people, even on a bitter winter's day such as this. What it must be like here in the summer I dread to contemplate.

I parked the car on the adjacent road, walked across an open grass area and up a small slope to the track. Nick and Chris, two birding colleagues who live  in Sussex had each kindly given me directions to the bunting's precise location, which on Nick's part told me to find an orange rowing boat hauled up on the shingle and the Snow Bunting was to be found just east of it, feeding along the edges of the busy footpath. Chris had also provided me with a handy map via WhatsApp. So I was all set and proceeded to walk west towards the orange boat, visible about a quarter of a mile ahead. As I walked I realised I could have parked the car much nearer but as I was now on the track there seemed little point in returning for it. I was on a mission to see the Snow Bunting so would brook no further delay!

I walked onwards with a cold looking sea beating a gentle tattoo on the shingle to my left. Desolate looking wooden groynes periodically sectioned the vast stretch of shingle beach, deserted at this time of year apart from a Turnstone and a couple of Herring Gulls.

The shingle beach with wooden groynes
I looked for another landmark that had been mentioned by Nick and found a wooden bench with a wreath attached to it. Apparently this was the Snow Bunting's favoured spot. In fact many of the regularly positioned benches along the mile or so of track had various floral tributes left on them in memory to departed souls, and looking at the demographic of many of those still walking the track and frequenting the cafe, it looked like there would be no shortage of further contenders.

The track running along the top of the beach with the bench
and attached wreath.The Snow Bunting fed on the track just
near the bench
I could see no sign of the Snow Bunting as I neared the favoured location but a couple chatting on the grass behind the track recognised I was a birder, my bins and a camera may have given them a clue, and called out to me that the Snow Bunting was right there, pointing, I thought, to the track. 'It's right in front of you.' 'Really?' I failed to locate it and felt slightly foolish.They kindly came to join me on the track and pointed once more but onto the shingle beyond. I still could not see it. They pointed once more. I looked again and there it was just a few feet away, motionless. Its streaked greyish brown upperparts blended perfectly with the incalculable number of dull multi coloured stones that comprised the shingle beach, rendering it nigh on invisible.

Now I had the bunting in my sight it was all too obvious although if you took your eye away for a moment it could, as if by magic, become invisible once more. After a couple of minutes it stretched its wings and proceeded to run on black legs towards me and the track.

It made a beeline for a patch of grass and proceeded to nibble at the vegetation there, mashing whatever it was eating into a pulp so that bits stuck to its golden yellow bill.

I do like Snow Buntings with their unobtrusive and trusting ways. They shuffle around quietly on pebbly beaches or similar areas bringing a touch of foreign glamour to even the most mundane of surroundings. In flocks, when disturbed, they rise from comparative obscurity on the ground in a flurry of flashing white wing and tail patches, twittering in alarm and becoming instantly recognisable, thence to whirl around in the sky, eddying like errant snowflakes before settling once more, often near to where they arose. Once they have come back to earth they crouch, tense and alert, before one or more relax and hesitantly commence to move, encouraging the others to follow suit. If one is found in its own company then invariably it is pecking at the ground, moving along in a jerky progress of runs and hops, with head bent down as it feeds. Occasionally it will squat quietly on a pebble or small stone, as if in contemplation, its small head with stubby bill and dark eye imparting an aura of innocence as it stands with feathers fluffed against the elements.

Snow Buntings in winter plumage are very attractive, far more so than in their less varied breeding plumage where the male is basically black and white and the female dull greyish brown. In winter they have a plumage of many colours, white, orange, buff, grey and black intermixed in a complicated patterning that perfectly blends them into their typical winter haunts of coastal shingle and stony ground.

The bird I was watching today was a first winter female and remarkably tame even by Snow Bunting standards, showing no sign of concern when I was less than a couple of feet away from it. However if a dog approached along the path, and there were many believe me, the bunting was a lot more watchful and would quickly leave the path and run well out onto the shingle to stand  quietly until dog and owner had passed by. It would then return to the track by means of a series of short crouching runs across the pebbles.

Only once did it fly, when an inconsiderate dog owner allowed her dog to run at the bunting.It flew fast and low across the beach and down to near the shoreline, seeking sanctuary on one of the wooden groynes but it was not long before it returned to the favoured track.

It fed  amongst both the pebbles and the grass edges of the track but showed a marked preference for the latter. Holding its body low to the ground on flexed black legs and feet, it nibbled at various bits of vegetable matter and seeds. I watched it for around forty five minutes, punctuated by regular intervals of explaining to curious passers by what I was doing crouched low beside the track and shingle, pointing out the Snow Bunting's tiny form on the track or shingle and telling them where it had come from and why it was here. The time eventually came when I  was satisfied with my encounter and I left the bunting to its own devices, still attracting a lot of attention from curious members of the public as it scuttled away from them across the track to hide in the shingle.

Walking away from the bunting I noticed a very white looking gull, standing, beyond the road, in a large field with small flashes of muddy water where the soil had become waterlogged from all the recent rain.

Second winter Mediterranean Gull
A closer look revealed it was a Mediterranean Gull, known as a 'Med Gull' to us birders, busily preening its lovely combination of palest grey and white feathers. The black and white chevrons on its outer primaries told me it was in its second winter, if it was an adult they would be pure white, but the rest of its plumage was as it would be with an adult in winter plumage.

Med Gulls, formerly rare, are now a regular sight along the south coast both in winter and in summer and now breed in both Sussex and the neighbouring county of Hampshire. 

The gull using its bill to stimulate the preen gland on its rump 

An extremely beautiful gull, pleasing on the eye in both plumage and form, I watched it going through a vigorous wash and brush up routine. Twisting its head backwards to use its bill to stimulate the preen gland at the base of its rump to secrete the oil which it will smear onto its feathers to maintain their water and weather proofing. Once it was satisfied all was well with its plumage it stood on one leg, content.

A welcome encore to my audience with the Snow Bunting. Sussex does it once more.