Saturday 21 September 2019

An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Farlington Marshes 18th September 2019

An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was found at Farlington Marshes HWT's (Hampshire Wildlife Trust) reserve on Saturday 14th September. This was a mega in twitcher terms as only twenty one have been found in Britain to date, this latest bird being the twenty second if accepted, which it surely will be. I was returning from Scotland on Saturday and really did not fancy yet another long drive to the Hampshire coast on Sunday.

Eastern Olivaceous Warblers breed in the Balkans then east to Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Turkey and the Middle East. They are also to be found in the Caucasus, Iran and Afghanistan and are strongly migratory, wintering in central and eastern Africa and southwest Arabia.

The presence of this bird on a sunny weekend, at an easily accessible large reserve on the south coast of England and right by a motorway, meant that this bird would be very popular and so it proved with very large crowds coming to see it on both Saturday and Sunday. There were the usual complaints about irresponsible behaviour by people getting too close to the bird but sadly this is par for any twitch these days. 

Although the majority opinion suggested that the warbler was untroubled by the over close proximity of some photographers it should always be best behaviour to err on the cautious side, as consideration of the bird's welfare is paramount, or should be but unfortunately there are those who are incapable of understanding this. It is also rude and inconsiderate to behave in such a selfish manner when the majority of those present are willing to abide by the unwritten rules of birding etiquette.

Mark, a birding friend, sent me some excellent images he took of the warbler on both Saturday and Sunday and I began to feel the first pangs of regret about not going to see it. The warbler had given excellent views, peeking out of the extensive bramble patches, small, red berried hawthorns, blackthorn and elder that it frequented. It helped that the area of rough grass, bramble bushes and scrub where the warbler had chosen to feed was open and spacious so there were no issues concerning overcrowding. 

However, when the warbler was not on view I heard that some let their anxiety get the better of them and when it was relocated in another bush would charge off at a run which undoubtedly unsettled the warbler and was entirely unnecessary.

Saturday and Sunday were warm and bright with sunshine so it must have been a very pleasant experience watching this rare warbler. The first day I could possibly go to Farlington was Monday and inevitably the weather changed and although still mild, it was dull and overcast.To add further to my woes the warbler was only reported by RBA (Rare Bird Alert) to have been seen briefly at seven thirty on Monday morning and then there was no other report of it until mid morning and even that was found to be erroneous. It was obvious the warbler was not going to be seen nearly so well and frequently as on the weekend.

Nevertheless I was already committed and on the road heading south and all was well with the traffic until the dreaded '50mph Average Speed Check' came into force on the M27 motorway. It went on for a very long way but finally I was free of the narrow lanes and huge trucks driving too close behind me. It was with some relief that I turned off the motorway and passing under it came to a halt in a large car park, crammed unusually full with cars, overlooking Farlington Marshes and the lagoon beside it.

Farlington Marshes is a very nice reserve and gets some good birds but the considerable downside is its over close proximity to the ever busy M27 motorway which runs right beside the reserve's  northern boundary. As the warbler was frequenting the bushes and brambles in this very area viewing it was always going to be with the inescapable accompaniment of an endless roar of vehicles hurtling east and west on eight lanes of motorway.

The warbler's location was not very far away from the car park and a short walk through rough grass, hedgerows and scattered bramble bushes brought me to the site and about fifty birders scattered around various bushes but not looking at anything in particular. I was far from optimistic about the situation.

There were a lot of glum faces on show with bored birders leaning on scopes, sitting on the grass and even one birder fast asleep. It was clear the warbler was not co operating or possibly might not be here at all. No one could say for certain as no one present had seen it and some of the birders had been here for three hours or more.

I stood quietly, deflated and feeling as glum as the rest. It looked certain, barring a birding miracle that the warbler, if it was here, was not going to put on a show like it did on the weekend. I scanned my fellow birders to see if there was anyone I recognised and saw a very familiar face from Oxford -Peter. I joined him and he told me he had been here for a couple of hours and seen nothing.We commiserated about our current predicament.

Bored after an hour looking at huge bramble clumps and scrub with hardly a bird to be seen and certainly not a sniff of the warbler we opted to cut our losses and drive a short way further east to Church Norton, in neighbouring Sussex, as a Wryneck had been present there for a couple of days and had indeed been reported from there today. Peter came in my car and after a minor detour for sustenance to Enticotts, bakers supreme of Selsey, we came to a stop in the tiny Church Norton car park, headed down the short track to Pagham Lagoon and walked west across the shingle to The Severals, where the Wryneck had been seen this morning.

It was similar birding to the warbler twitch except there were no more than half a dozen scattered birders looking at yet more bramble clumps absolutely bulging with ripe blackberries. Currently there was little to see here either so I set about feasting on the blackberries but then the Wryneck was found by one of our fellow birders on a narrow grass track winding through the brambles.We saw the bird reasonably well as it scuttled along the track before it diverted into longer grass and out of view but eventually it flew up into a dead elder and gave better views as it perched there looking about. Wrynecks tend to do this, flying up every so often from the ground where they have been eating ants. to perch in a bush or tree for some minutes, as if to look around and check all is well before dropping down once more to feed on the ground.

The Wryneck left the elder and flew quite a way to some low growing gorse situated at the top of the shingle beach.We followed but initially could not find it although we knew it had to be somewhere close by. I walked to the seaward side of the gorse and the Wryneck flew up almost at my feet but did not go far.We found it again, feeding further along the gorse edge and it eventually disappeared deep into the gorse and we left it there.

During our absence the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler had been reported a few more times and we decided to go back to Farlington for one more try as Peter had never seen one in Britain. If anything the weather was becoming ever more oppressively grey and dull and with just a hint of rain in the northeast wind.There were far less birders present now and for an hour we stood as before, by the favoured bushes and saw absolutely nothing. A few Swallows flew high in the sky over our heads and a Greenshank's melancholy call came from the marshes beyond.

At last something happened, and a slight stirring from birders positioned around the other side of the bushes prompted us to join them and following a birder's finger pointing, I saw the warbler moving about in the top of a dead elder but very much obscured by the lichen encrusted twigs and branches. It was no more than a pale shape but then for an all too brief few seconds I saw it properly, unobstructed by twigs and leaves. Such a view, of seconds only, grants just enough time for impressions but I can recall its overall pale and featureless plumage with almost white undersides and creamy brown upperparts, its thin longish bill, flat forehead and crucially the downward pumping of its tail, a diagnostic indicator for Eastern Olivaceous Warbler.

Unfortunately Peter got a far less satisfactory view and as this would be his 350th species for Britain he was not content and determined to do better. We waited and after another spell of tedium the elusive warbler again appeared in the top of the elder and this time Peter got a full but brief view. It was enough. He was happy and we exchanged high fives.

'Come on Pete, let's go'

We headed for home as the weather became very gloomy indeed and spots of rain began to fall.

However I was not satisfied with my views of the warbler and when on Tuesday it was sunny again and reports came flooding in on RBA that the warbler was showing really well I made plans to head back to Farlington Marshes on Wednesday, which the weather forecast promised to also be sunny all day. I think the fact the warbler was so skulking and elusive on Monday may have been due to the weather and once the sunshine returned it felt more inclined to feed openly on the edge of the brambles and bushes rather than deeper inside the foliage, as was the case on Monday.

I left home at 6am and another long and uneventful drive found me standing on the grass amongst the brambles and bushes at Farlington Marshes on a very pleasant but slighty chilly, sunny morning and in less than ten minutes I saw the warbler really well. 

What a difference to Monday as it looked an absolute picture in the sun, distinctly pale, often quietly tacking away to itself and being very active, chasing flies and hunting invertebrates in a dead hawthorn tree and brambles. 

Judging by the worn state of the EOW's plumage, especially the tips of the tail feathers it is an adult
It was almost constantly in sight, although often partially obscured, half in half out of the bramble leaves and stems, as it fed energetically and acrobatically, sometimes clumsily, peering around from wherever it was perched, examining every leaf and twig, seizing minute caterpillars, insects and spiders that it found. 

Apart from a brief spell preening it never stopped feeding for the two hours I watched it.

This image shows the EOW pumping its tail downwards

There were other birds here today, mainly Blackcaps and the occasional Chiffchaff but the Eastern Olivaceous kept to itself and never once showed any interest in the abundant blackberries, leaving these to the Blackcaps.

The birders present today amounted to less than a dozen and everyone was respectful as, enthralled, we watched and photographed the warbler going through its paces, often coming right out to perch in the open on a bramble spray or twig for a brief moment but generally ensuring that it was always within a few centimetres of cover.

We gently followed as it moved through the small area of bushes and brambles it favoured, looking even paler in the increasingly bright sunlight.

This time I felt that I had done justice to this, my third Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in Britain.

Friday 20 September 2019

Eastern Black eared Wheatear at Fluke Hall 14th September 2019

On 1st September an adult female Eastern Black eared Wheatear was reported from Fluke Hall which is on the Lancashire coast near a place called Pilling. However, during the day, as photos appeared on social media, the identification was queried and it was suggested that the bird was in fact an adult female Pied Wheatear, which, although rare in Britain, occurs here more frequently than does the rarer Black eared Wheatear.

Current informed opinion, based on DNA analysis, suggests that the Black eared Wheatear, consisting of two subspecies, should be split into two separate species, called Eastern and Western Black eared Wheatear respectively. 

Eastern Black eared Wheatears are found in southern Italy, the Balkans, then range eastwards to Iran and they winter in Sudan, whereas Western Black eared Wheatears are found in Iberia, southern France and Morocco and winter south of The Sahara.

I was going to The Isle of Arran on 6th September for a week's holiday with Mrs U and our daughter who we were to collect from her home in Glasgow and realised that I could quite easily divert on my way north to go and see the contentious wheatear but as the week wore on Pied Wheatear seemed to be the more favoured identification and as I have seen two Pied Wheatears in Britain, one of which was a female, I decided not to make the effort to go and see it.

Female Pied Wheatears and female Black eared Wheatears are notoriously hard to separate in the field in autumn and in some cases it is impossible to do so. It requires a very thorough examination of all the bird's plumage features before one can, with any degree of certainty decide which species any particular female belongs to. If this is not problematical enough the two species also hybridise where their ranges overlap.

The bird at Fluke Hall was extremely confiding and allowed itself to be photo'd from very close range which in turn allowed a thorough examination of all the plumage features by using the excellent photos that had been taken and it was by such diligent scrutinising of one of the many aforesaid photos that the identification of this bird was finally confirmed to be a female Eastern Black eared Wheatear of which, to date, there are only sixty records in Britain, excluding this one. The process leading to the identification was a triumph of dedication and detailed examination of all the feather tracts of this bird. On the mantle feathers, which by luck had become displaced by the wind when a particular photo was taken, a minute white spot was found at the base of  one of the mantle feathers which is a diagnostic feature of Black eared Wheatear.

I now became a lot more enthused and interested in this bird as I need Eastern Black eared Wheatear for my British list and its inclusion would bring me to 495 species seen in Britain, edging me ever closer to the magic figure of 500. There was little I could do about the situation whilst on Arran but I checked RBA (Rare Bird Alert) daily and it was confirmed each day that the wheatear was still present and, once I was back on the mainland of Scotland, it was reported to be still at Fluke Hall on the day we left Glasgow to drive south.

In a couple of hours driving I could, hopefully, see it.

Mrs U was amenable to the half hour diversion off the M6 to go to Fluke Hall so I could see the bird and we duly followed the Satnav as it took us along Fluke Hall Lane to where it ended in a rough car park under the seawall.

We knew we were in the right place as about twenty birders were ranged along the sea wall looking intently at the large boulders forming a sea defence between the salt marsh, the seawall and the car park.

I took the steps up to the top of the sea wall and looked out across a wide expanse of saltmarsh. I  saw the wheatear almost immediately, perched on one of the huge boulders protecting the sea wall. It flew out onto the saltmarsh to seize something and then returned to another boulder where it perched and looked around before flying out after another item of prey and returned to yet another boulder, constantly moving its postion after each sally out from the boulders. We dutifully followed, walking  along the top of the seawall.

It ranged widely but generally preferred to remain in an area of boulders covering four or five hundred metres and was on view continuously. Being a female its plumage was dull, mainly featureless being a greyish buff on its upperparts  and buff on its breast fading to buffish white on the rest of its underparts. Its bold white rump, uppertail coverts and black and white tail were the only really striking feature, mainly visible when it flew.

I watched  and photographed the comings and goings of the wheatear for around an hour and even Mrs U left the car to come and see it thus adding another rare bird to the never to be forgotten Ancient Murrelet that she came, on a whim, to see with me on Lundy Island many years ago.

The weather was meant to be sunny but was distinctly autumnal, overcast and cloudy with a strong cold wind blowing, so after an hour we drove back to join the madness on the M6 and make our way to Oxfordshire.

Squirrel McNutkin 11th September 2019

Arran, being an island, has managed to resist invasion by the Grey Squirrel and consequently has a healthy population of our native Red Squirrel which is all to the good, as far as I am concerned. Grey Squirrels are now considered a pest in many parts of Great Britain as they have become so numerous and they certainly do not endear themselves with their predilection for raiding bird feeders, stealing eggs and young from bird's nests and worst of all carrying the virus squirrelpox to which they are immune but the Red Squirrel is not.

The Grey Squirrel, a native of North America is without doubt familiar to one and all, being found in even the most urban and suburban of locations where there are parks, large gardens and various open spaces. Many people find their antics engaging and gain pleasure from their often confiding nature where they come into regular contact with the public but if the same public were to meet a Red Squirrel then I would wager they would soon change allegiance.

Red Squirrels are smaller than the Grey Squirrel and have lovely, rich chestnut fur and a similar coloured, very bushy, long tail. Their cuteness factor is right up there with the best and it is no coincidence that Beatrix Potter made a Red Squirrel the main character in one of her fairy tale books, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

Red Squirrels, out competed in the face of the larger, stronger more aggressive Grey Squirrel, have retreated to isolated pockets of habitat on the mainland of Britain, chiefly in Scotland and culling of the Grey Squirrel is often required for them to continue to thrive in some mainland locations in England. Islands such as Arran provide a much more secure and safe refuge for Red Squirrels and here they can be encountered in woods, gardens or even crossing the road and in our case, visiting the back door of our rented cottage to gather the peanuts we put out for them, which they hid in the grass and surrounding areas for the harder times to come in winter.

I noticed that a Red Squirrel would visit the unmade back thoroughfare, no more than a track really, that runs behind our cottage and below the steep hillside beyond. In the main it would visit in the early morning, usually from between seven to nine am and then again in the evening from five onwards. It was relatively shy and if there was any sign of human activity immediately scampered off into the neighbouring gardens. I purchased some shelled peanuts and sprinkled them outside the back door one evening to tempt the squirrel and sat at the kitchen window to await developments.

A wait of an hour ensued and, almost at the point of giving up, I was rewarded with a Red Squirrel scampering across the stones and grass and proceeding to gather a number of the peanuts in its mouth and then running off to bury them. Five minutes later the squirrel was back for more nuts and repeated this exercise on numerous occasions until it was disturbed by a local resident returning from work and came no more.

I resolved to get up early the next morning to see if the squirrel would come again and sure enough just before seven it appeared and proceeded to gather yet more peanuts and run off to bury them Every so often, on one of its numerous visits, it would take the time to stop and eat a peanut or tiring of gathering shelled peanuts tackle a peanut in its shell, some of which I had also distributed outside.

For over an hour I watched its comings and goings and during the following hour there came another squirrel, so there were two present although they did not get on and the original one was obviously dominant over the other which appeared to be slightly smaller. A kind of truce was reached when each squirrel only took nuts from their particular side of the back door and having done so would scamper off to secrete them, each in the opposite direction.             

At first I was wary about disturbing them and photographed them through the mercifully clean kitchen window but in the end I opened the back door and stood just inside as the squirrels came to within feet of me, so close I could hear their long sharp claws scratching on the small stones. So long as I made no sudden movement or the slightest noise and was ultra cautious they remained unafraid. One even ventured over the threshold and sat briefly on the WELCOME back door mat to chew at a nut!

Observing these attractive creatures at such close range enabled me to see that both had a distinct dark and smoky grey saddle on their back and the sides of their heads were brownish grey but otherwise they were a rich reddish chestnut on their upperbody and white from their chest downwards on their underparts, the chestnut as bright as I have ever seen on a Red Squirrel. Christmas last we had one visit us in another garden on Arran that was much darker, the chestnut much obscured by greyer fur presumably due to the squirrel having grown a winter coat although it seemed much too dark to be normal and there are persistent rumours of darker coloured Red Squirrels on Arran.

The 'dark' Red Squirrel we saw at Christmas 2018

The two squirrels this morning looked to be young ones, although I am no expert, lithe and slightly gawky but in the bloom of youth. The impression they were young ones was enhanced by the fact they did not have the familiar tufts on the tips of their ears.

No matter, it was a pleasure to entertain them and yet another reason to love visiting Arran.