Sunday 26 May 2019

Of Sanderlings 25th May 2019

I confess to having a bit of a liking for Sanderlings. They are diminutive waders, phenomenal travellers that normally make their home on large beaches and open seashores with the sound of wind and wave as a constant accompaniment to their existence. Much of their time is spent running back and fore like clockwork toys on twinkling black legs in front of the incoming waves and then chasing the retreating wave back down the shore to seize any exposed prey. In this habitat they are usually to be found in flocks, their tiny, predominantly white bodies, where sea meets sand, easily mistaken from a distance, for blobs of wave froth.

Often they are found with Dunlins which are a tad smaller and have a noticeably longer, slightly curved bill compared to the Sanderling's straight, stub ended, black bill

May is the month when Sanderlings migrate northwards from their winter homes which can be anywhere from England southwards to southern Africa, embarking on a flight of almost heroic proportions to Greenland or the tundra of the high Arctic in northern and central Siberia. They time their arrival to coincide with a short window of opportunity spanning around eight weeks in which to breed before returning south, retreating from the onset of cold. May is also the time when they appear in less familiar habitats such as Farmoor Reservoir, where birds arrive as they cross England, taking a short cut northeast, arriving at the reservoir from origins much further south. Quite a number must do this, as today for instance, small flocks or individual Sanderlings have been reported inland from Yorkshire, Berkshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire.

At Farmoor they find the concrete shelving on either side of the reservoir's causeway the next best thing to their normal beach habitat and being supremely sociable, if travelling alone, will team up with other similarly small waders and probably migrate onwards with them as well, given the opportunity. Today for instance one Sanderling made up a mixed flock of five birds, with the others being two Dunlin and two Ringed Plover. All three species breed in differing  northern latitudes and will eventually part, each on a journey to their own separate destination but for now five pairs of eyes are better than one to look out for danger and predators.

Ringed Plover and Sanderling

Having no seashore waves to chase up and down after, the Sanderling settled for feeding along the edge of the reservoir with the other waders, picking up minute prey. Its mottled, predominantly grey plumage making it well nigh invisible from distance as it pattered along the sunlit and similarly mottled concrete. Of the three species here today the Sanderling was the most active and was, for the majority of the time, constantly looking for food but compared to its normal hyperactivity could be described as almost relaxed, only resorting to running at speed when approached too closely.

By my stepping back or sitting quietly on the retaining wall of the causeway and showing no overt interest the flock of waders became still. Of the three species, the Ringed Plovers appeared almost lethargic compared to the other two, covert in their behaviour, stopping and then taking a few steps in typical cautious, circumspect plover fashion,  sidling  up the concrete shelving to stand by some reassuring vegetative cover or even sit quietly, taking a chance to gain some rest before their marathon journey recommenced. It is as  if they have supreme confidence in the camouflage that their sandy brown upperbody gives them, turning them almost invisible against the similar colour shades of the concrete. A surprisingly effective camouflage until they move.

Ringed Plover
The two Dunlins on seeing the Ringed Plover squatting on the concrete joined it. Small waders will often do this on migration here, stimulated to copy another individual's action, be it preening, resting or feeding.

It was contagious and the other Ringed Plover and the Sanderling also stopped, to pause in their seemingly endless quest for sustenance and stand quietly but it did not last for long and soon all five of the flock were off again, in a line, heads bent to the shoreline in search of food.

The predictable regular passing of people walking the causeway on a sunny Saturday morning kept the small flock forever vigilant and active, although often going  un-noticed by the passers-by and it was only in times of absence of this human traffic that the birds felt inclined to pause.

There have been a good number of Sanderlings passing through Farmoor in the past two weeks and maybe there are more to come. In the Arctic it is still inhospitable so the timing of arrival there must be exactly right but even so the birds only tarry for a day or two here and then they are off northwards again, maybe to stop off somewhere else in transit.

This procession of Sanderlings through Farmoor in May also gives an opportunity to see them in less familiar plumage than their grey and white winter feathers. A body moult, commenced  before they leave their winter homes, means the birds have fresh feathers when they arrive here in May. Sanderlings arriving earlier in the month are predominantly white and grey, due to the  pale fringes of the newly acquired feathers on the head, breast and upperparts being extensive, making the bird appear mottled black and white, sometimes with a tinge of chestnut showing through on the sides of the head. As the month progresses the fringes wear away, so later arriving birds such as the one today and those of yesterday show more chestnut on the feather bases. As the wearing process continues they eventually become a rich chestnut on their head, upperparts and breast band, taking on an attractive chestnut and white appearance which is not seen that often in Britain.

An exceptional adult Sanderling in full breeding plumage taken a few years
ago in May at Farmoor Reservoir
By the time they arrive on their breeding grounds they will be in this full breeding dress although many, possibly younger birds in their first two years of life, do not become so intensely chestnut and remain a combination of white and chestnut to varying degrees.

This window of opportunity to see Sanderlings at Farmoor in their variable breeding plumage will only last for a few more days possibly into the first week in June and then it is over until some Sanderlings touch down at Farmoor on their return journey from the Arctic. However, by then, their plumage will be worn and frayed and not show the freshness and splendour that it does at this time of year.

Thursday 23 May 2019

Bird Therapy - An Evening at Farmoor Reservoir 23rd May 2019

Of late, now well on the way to getting over a period of depression and as part of my ongoing process of self recovery I have taken to visiting the reservoir in the evening when most people have departed and it is just me and a few fishermen.

The sun has been shining consistently these last few days and during the day casts a brash hard light off the waters of the reservoir but as evening draws nigh the light is soft and gently reflecting off the water, and the breeze or what there is of it causes just a ripple across a surface become silky smooth and tranquil.

A beguiling stillness comes over the reservoir, a charmed abeyance that is over all too soon. Even the Common Terns fall silent, as if sensing there is no need to fly and bicker  they perch on a handy buoy, awaiting the arrival of the slowly approaching dusk. The sun, now low in the west, sets the sky afire with a gash of orange and casts increasingly long shadows. I think of it as the golden time, when the light becomes a balm in which your sensibilities can luxuriate for a charmed hour or two.

This is often when waders can and do arrive at the reservoir. Putting down to rest for the night, when it is quiet and relatively undisturbed by humankind, to stand quietly on concrete shelving being caressed by gentle, lapping ripples, one can hardly call them waves, perhaps to preen, feed a little and then sleep, before re-commencing their onward journey when dawn arrives.

This evening had brought two Ringed Plovers to take their place by the waters and bring to a brief halt an incredible journey from some foreign seashore to the romance of their still distant  Arctic breeding grounds. I watched them looking at me, the diminutive form of one casting a giant  shadow as it stood in the waning sun, mildly anxious about my presence.

They are attractive little birds with upperparts the colour of the sandy and muddy shores they frequent for most of their lives and a white head and breast marked with broad bands of dark brown or black and from whence their name comes. Their large and lustrous dark eyes, impart to them a benign expression.

I wish I could tell them I mean no harm, in fact precisely the opposite. Let them know they are beautiful, cherished and bring much joy to many of my kind but this is ridiculous and fanciful. If they had the capacity of free thought they would care not a jot and think me foolish in the extreme. They are acting on instinct and the genetic programming of their species, nothing more, nothing less.

Somehow, in troubled times such as these, I wish that I too were only required to act on instinct and not suffer the anxieties and occasional emotional turmoil that comes with an intellect.

For now though, their brief presence is an inspiration that brings great comfort in a time of need and healing.

Monday 20 May 2019

Otmoor Warblers 16th May 2019

Reed Warbler

May is the month when the numbers of breeding warblers on the RSPB's Otmoor reserve reach their zenith. Being a reserve primarily devoted to reeds and wet meadows and fringed with hedgerow it attracts three species of warbler that are my particular favourites, the Reed Warbler, the Sedge Warbler and the Common Whitethroat. All three are summer migrants, coming here to breed and then migrating to Africa to spend the winter. Reed and Sedge Warblers abound on the reserve. Common Whitethroats less so, due to less suitable habitat being available for them 

The Reed Warbler's  rhythmic, scratchy and jerky song, described by the original Handbook of British Birds as 'conversational' is first heard coming from low down in the dead reed stems of last year, that are only now being slowly superceded by this year's new growth. The new pointed leaves, rising up like grey green swords will eventually reach above the height of a man and conceal the warbler's nest, woven and slung like a basket between two stems of reed.

Sometimes the Reed Warbler will forsake the reed stems to sing in a small sallow or hawthorn adjacent to the reeds but never strays far from concealment in its favoured riparian habitat. Despite their loud song they are shy birds and if they sense you are looking at them or see you they will fall silent and drop down lower into the reeds, then move invisibly to another nearby reed to resume singing.

Sometimes you can track their progress through the reeds by the movement of individual stems and if you wait, see them sidle up and cling to another stem of reed and recommence their repetitive singing with one foot drawn up close to their body and the other extended below it in support,  That is if they do not see you first!

Reed Warblers conduct their lives mainly in secret,  right from their first  arrival, through courtship, nesting and finally departure to their winter home in Africa, predominantly remaining out of sight, preferring to skulk amongst the density of the reeds and waterside herbage. The first intimation of their arrival on Otmoor is when the males commence singing, having arrived  one May night, dropping from a night sky, unheralded and un-noticed until they proclaim their arrival by singing from first light the next morning. The urgency of Spring and to reproduce paramount.

Today I  tarried by the side of  the bridleway looking down on a water filled ditch to catch sight of a male Reed Warbler that was singing loudly and persistently from a small sallow bush. It was very close to me but at first it was invisible to my eyes and took some minutes to locate, perched well as it was inside the bush, its outline concealed and disrupted by the intervening stems and leaves, the latter casting sun dappled moving shadows across the tiny bird as they stirred in a gentle breeze.

However a brief movement, a change of position, betrayed the warbler's location and I could then see it reasonably well, perched and moving its head around as it sang, its uniformaly rich brown upperparts and underparts of cream buff with a noticeably white throat, unremarkable, but perfectly matched for a life of concealment in the reeds. I stood in the sun and waited patiently for it to gain confidence. As long as it was quiet on the bridleway, I did not move, and no one else came along the bridleway it would eventually reveal more and more of itself as it moved up a stem and nearer to the edge of the bush but never would it venture right into the open.

Its head appeared large as it sang lustily and continually, its rather long pointed bill held wide open showing orange inside and its white throat feathers distended with the effort of producing its song. For two hours I stood awaiting opportunities to take its picture and for all that time it was mainly singing. A few brief excursions along the water filled ditch interrupted the flow of sound but within a couple of minutes it would return to the favourite sallow and normal service would resume.

Reed Warblers on Otmoor are the main host of the parasitic Cuckoo and once the reeds are grown sufficiently and the nests constructed, the female Cuckoo will lay her single egg in a number of nests she has already been prospecting,  watching and waiting silently in a nearby bush or tree for days until the exact right time arrives to deposit her egg in the Reed Warbler's nest.

Sedge Warbler
The other warbler inhabitant of the riparian habitat on Otmoor is the Sedge Warbler, although it is disinclined to frequent purely reeds but more prefers the margins of wet ditches where there is plenty of rank undergrowth, brambles, bushes or other tangled vegetation near to the waterside. Where the Reed Warbler is shy and generally retiring, the Sedge Warbler is the opposite in the breeding season, singing loudly from an exposed perch at the top of a small bush or from a protruding stem of vegetation up which it ascends from cover to deliver its song, which is superficially similar to that of the Reed Warbler but lacks the rhythmic quality of that bird.

The Sedge Warbler's song, as befits its extrovert personality is loud, long  and wildly passionate, the notes coming in a chattering, buzzing, endless frenzy, seemingly at random and often incorporating the calls of other birds. Such is its exuberance at this time of year, the singer often takes flight, as if it cannot contain itself and, singing loudly, rises up into the air from its perch and then planes back down, with wings and tail spread wide to the same bush.

On Otmoor, one early morning, I discovered a particularly extrovert Sedge Warbler singing from the topmost spray of a briar by the pathway leading to the first screen. I watched a bravura performance as, again and again, it rose into the air singing before returning to the briar, always landing a little way further down in the bush but then quickly ascending to the topmost spray before taking to the air for another paragliding song flight.

They are attractive little  birds, slightly smaller than a  Reed Warbler and less uniform in colour, with long cream eyebrows, a cap of dark streaking and tawny upperparts streaked with black and darker brown, their undersides creamy white becoming buff on the flanks.

All over the reserve their frantic chattering songs come from  the hedgerows running by channels of water and wet ditches and the occasional excited bird floats down from a song flight as I wander along the paths of the reserve. The whole place is alive with the song of both Reed and Sedge Warblers and it is a delight to see the reserve now come alive and to be serenaded by these marvels of evolution that have made a perilous journey from far overseas to bring such pleasure to me and other visitors.

Common Whitethroat

So finally we come to the third warbler, the Common Whitethroat, which is less frequently encountered on the reserve at Otmoor, due to the fact that their preferred habitat, dry untended field borders, thickets and rough ground with tangled vegetation is less available. Mind you, where it is, then there will be found and heard the male Common Whitethroat singing his jaunty song - a short, lively jumble of cheery notes, repeated over and over and delivered from an exposed spray of vegetation or in a wild dancing song flight of pure ecstacy or so I like to think.

Along the same pathway where I described the extrovert Sedge Warbler singing, just  a little way further was a male Common Whitethroat behaving in exactly the same way. I do not know what it is about this path that persuades the warblers to be less fearful, maybe it is the constant procession of people walking to the first screen but whatever, it is a delight to be able to get so close to these birds and to freely watch them.

The whitethroat was singing from a hawthorn right by the track and at first I was circumspect, maintaining a distance so as to not alarm him as he sang. I edged closer and he did not budge. A bit closer yet and all he did was ascend higher up the spindly twig he was clinging to until he was outlined against the sky. He sang on, opening his bill wide and tilting his head upwards for maximum effect. Then a short period of silence followed before he sang again.

Emboldened by the whitethroat's lack of concern I walked closer still until I was almost underneath He looked down, curious but unafraid, cocking his head and then raised up his bill and sang to the heavens once more.

I was of no apparent concern to him and we shared a few moments together before he decided he would like to sing from another perch further down the pathway but less exposed. I walked past the whitethroat, now hidden inside a bramble and still he sang on as I left him.

I fell to thinking about the frankly incredible journey this bird had made to unknowingly charm me with his song and confiding nature. Some years ago its fantastic journeying was brought home to me when I encountered one spending its winter in Tanzania. Both of us so very far from home. The perils of, especially, a migrant bird's life are many and years ago when a young man I can remember one Spring awaiting the return of Common Whitethroats to my local study area in Surrey but they never came. Where there had been seven pairs of Common Whitethroats now there was none. It was 1969 and no one knew quite why they had failed to return not only to my small study area but as it transpired nationwide. A year later it was determined that severe drought in their wintering area in The Sahel  had decimated the wintering birds and it took some years for their numbers to recover

So we may call it a 'Common' Whitethroat but it can just as easily not be so and the whitethroat and birds in general are far less in number now than they were fifty years ago.

Locally too, we must never take the delights of Otmoor for granted, be they the warblers or any other of the splendid and scarce birds that occur there. Otmoor and its like provide a last remaining sanctuary in an increasingly hostile environment for the natural creatures that inhabit and share our planet.

We are indeed lucky to have them still but for how much longer?