Wednesday 29 April 2020

From the Archives: An Azorean Yellow legged Gull in Oxfordshire 8th October 2009

Ian Lewington the County Bird Recorder for Oxfordshire found, on 5th October, what is colloquially called an Azorean Yellow legged Gull at the large landfill site located between Didcot and Appleford in Oxfordshire. This gull is classed as a sub species of Yellow legged Gull Larus michahellis michahellis being given the trinomen L.m.atlantis. It is possible that in the future birds from the Azores population of atlantis which are the most distinctive of all, will be classed as a separate species and therefore this individual was much in demand from those of us who like to keep lists and see rare birds.

I personally like gulls and certainly wished to see this bird as, conveniently, it was relatively near to my home and I had narrowly missed seeing an immature in Cornwall a year ago. This latest individual was distinctive and much more attractive than an immature, being an adult in winter plumage. 

Azorean Yellow legged Gulls unsurprisingly come from the Azores population of L. m.atlantis.They are the darkest taxon and the most distinctive in winter plumage with the densest head streaking.What is more surprising is that a gull, which is thought to be mainly sedentary, found its way to a landfill site in the heart of Oxfordshire, about as far from the sea as possible in Britain.

Thursday the 8th October found me at the site around 9.30am, ensconced in a tiny layby overlooking a ploughed field where many of the gulls go to rest after feeding on the landfill, and indeed there already was a large flock of gulls in the middle of the field. The Azorean Yellow legged Gull had been seen here the day before but there was currently no sign of it amongst the many gulls in the field. It is relatively easy to distinguish as it has very heavy and dense brown streaking on its head, creating a hooded effect. 

I was joined by two other birders who had travelled down from Nottinghamshire to see it but we still could not locate the gull although we kept checking the flock as gulls were constantly coming and going, presumably flying to and from the landfill  site.

There was another nearby location the gull was known to frequent which was a small lake  adjacent to the landfill where gulls would often come to bathe and preen after feeding on the landfill. However one can only be in one place at a time so I arranged with the two birders from Nottingham that they would check the lake while I remained keeping an eye on the field. We duly exchanged phone numbers and agreed to call each other if either of us found the gull.

Nothing happened apart from numerous sightings of Red Kites flying over the fields which got some other out of county northern  birders very excited as they do not often see them. Here in Oxfordshire they can be said to be almost common.There were also a lot of Skylarks in the field and a small flock of Lapwing but that was about all. By noon, with no sign of the gull, either on the fields or on the lake, I decided to admit defeat and drove back to work.I was not long back in the office before my mobile phone rang. With some dread of anticipation in knowing what was coming I answered it. Sure enough it was one of the Nottinghamshire birders from the lake telling me the gull was showing really well! We have all experienced similar situations but this did not stop me from berating myself at my foolishness in leaving but I resolved to try and clear my desk of all pending tasks this afternoon and go back the next day. 

This time I was more diligent in my planning and as part of the process checked the timings of sightings from all the previous days on Birdguides and it appeared the gull was not seen in the morning and would first appear at the lake around lunchtime, to preen and bathe before flying to the nearby fields to rest with the gull flock.  I therefore arrived much later the next day, at around 1130am and was startled to see how many birders were present today.

Most were ensconced on the northern section of a bridleway that ran past the fields, scoping the gull flock through a hedge. I assumed they were all looking at the gull but on joining them it was a similar story to yesterday. There was no sign of the gull. I retreated back to the road and my perilosuly parked car and drove a little way down the road and checked another gull flock, again with no success. I decided to go to the lake and try my luck there as this, as I knew only too well, was where it was first seen yesterday.

While making my way to the car I encountered Gary Bagnell, a casual birding acquaintance from Sussex who is a hardcore twitcher. He was accompanied by a lady called Lucy, carrying a large video camera, who was making a film about twitchers for BBC 4. I only know Gary slightly but he greeted me and asked if I knew anything about the gull. I told him what I knew and said I was going to the lake and to save him and Lucy a long walk would be happy to give them both a lift in my car. We piled in and after getting across the unmannned level crossing, ringing the bell to get the signalman to open the gates, we were soon by the lake.

Ian Lewington was already there as this is his local patch and he told me the gull had not been seen so far this morning but there were two first winter Caspian Gulls on the lake. Myself, Gary and Lucy stood here and with some other birders and waited for the Azorean Yellow legged Gull to hopefully show up.

I kept scoping the gulls on the lake checking and re-checking but still there was no sign of the elusive gull.Where on earth was it? Eventually I found one of the first winter Caspian Gulls which I  managed, with some difficulty, to get everyone onto. Garry had some problems finding it, mainly because he was not aware of what to look for and I had to find it in his scope for him. I returned to scanning wth my scope and after some time found the second Caspian Gull. All well and good but not much else happened for quite some time after this minor excitement. 

First winter Caspian Gull
Then, finally, on yet another scan of the lake and its gulls, there was the Azorean Yellow legged Gull at the far side of the lake, floating on the water with a group of Lesser Black backed Gulls. It stood out amongst its companions, highly distinctive due to its densely streaked head, pale, almost white eyes, dark slate grey coloured upperparts, and bulky bill with a distinctive dark band across the middle. I remembered this last feature from the photos Ian had posted on Surfbirds earlier so I was absolutely sure I was looking at the right bird. In situations such as these you always feel a slight trepidation just in case you might be wrong but I knew I wasn't. 

Azorean Yellow legged Gull
I announced to my fellow birders 'I have got it' and immediately the already tense atmosphere fizzed up a gear and the adrenalin buzz around me hit stratospheric levels. I was surrounded by a dozen birders all asking for directions at once which I happily gave. Again Garry could not locate the gull in his own scope. I told him to look through mine. Yet even though my scope was focused directly on the gull he managed to locate the wrong bird, probably because he had inadvertently nudged my scope as we changed places. 

He told me I had been looking at a Lesser Black backed Gull. I took over again and re-focused the scope on the correct bird. 

'Have a look now and don't touch anything!' 

Gary peered through my scope. A word of affirmation from Gary told me that we now had a successful outcome and he then went to find it in his own scope. 

Once everyone had seen it I was thanked profusely by one and all which was gratifying. It remained on the pool for no more than fifteen minutes and took off just as a passing lorry obscured our view and thus we were unable to follow the direction in which it flew.

We briefly went back to scanning the lake, but I knew the gull had either flown back to the landfill or to the nearby fields. However everyone was happy with what they had seen and most left but I wanted to see more.

I spent the early part of the afternoon commuting between various gull flocks resting in the fields by the road, a very fast and dangerous road with virtually nowhere to park safely, but there was no sign of the gull. While checking the gulls from a layby I was approached by Lee Evans and quizzed about my earlier sighting on the lake, with him claiming that there was an aberrant Lesser Black backed Gull which could easily be mistaken for the Azorean Yellow legged Gull. He suggested that we had all been mistaken and had been looking at the aberrant gull and not the real thing. Doubtless this was because he had missed seeing the gull at the pool and just could not accept the fact. I understand from others that this is a favourite tactic of his  and I confess to not liking my bird identification skills questioned  by the likes of Evans. I also learnt that later in the afternoon he tried the same thing on with a well known birder and they nearly came to blows over it.

By 4pm I gave up on the fields and went back to the lake and stood with another birder. His pager bleeped an alert, he looked at it, turned and told me the gull was back in the fields by the bridleway, so we adjourned there and joined about fifteen birders looking at a very large flock of gulls in the middle of an extensive fallow field. Unfortunately the gull was not immediately on view when we got there, having walked down into a fold in the field but eventually it re-appeared giving excellent views as it walked around, alone, at the right hand edge of the gull flock.

This time it looked paler on its upperparts although still darker grey to my mind than a normal Yellow legged Gull. I also noted more feather detail on its head. It was more densely streaked on the front half but not nearly so much on the rear and the streaking was at its densest on the throat and upper neck. forming a sharp demarcation from the all white breast. Its white eye, contrasting with the dark streaking, imparted a menacing impression. Bold white crescents on the left and right rear scapulars contrasted neatly with the slate grey upperparts. 

After around forty minutes it took off high to the north showing  dark grey undersides to the wings as well as a large area of black on the upperwing tips with only one white mirror on the outermost primary and small white tips to the other outer primaries.

All round it had been an excellent day and I  made a note to go back for another look next week if it remained in the area.

I went back no less than five times and had great views everytime. I just could not get enough of this beauty. It was still there as of 31st  October  and possibly will spend the winter here.

I wondered how long it would be until its head became all white making it  harder to distinguish from the other Yellow legged Gulls. 

On 31st October I also finally got to see its legs as it walked around in a field near the lake. They were dull yellow with a  greenish tinge.

I last went to see it on 28th November when it put in a thirty second appearance in the afternoon for the briefest of washes on the lake before flying off. It was not seen again after the end of November

The episode recounted above of my finding the Azorean Yellow legged Gull and showing it to Garry Bagnell has been recorded for posterity as part of the BBC 4 programme 'Twitchers-A Very British Obsession'

Monday 27 April 2020

Acros and Locusts 26th April 2020

I do not think it is just me that has found the Spring of this year incredibly beautiful and truly exceptional. The weather has, of course, contributed to this perception but there is more to it than just sunshine and blue skies. Perhaps it is the fact that our enforced incarceration in our homes has granted us the time to think, reflect and regard afresh the natural beauty that is part of a world that we have taken so much for granted and mistreated. 

The self inflicted crisis that man's abuse of nature has brought on itself, pushing humanity to the brink of a very dark precipice has paradoxically resulted in an environmental cleansing and an unprecedented peace and tranquility pervading the land.

In contrast to our current dire situation the natural world is thriving in our absence, an exuberance of life manifesting itself in this most joyous of seasons as the birds seem to sing louder, the lambs bounce ever higher in sunlit fields, the butterflies flicker in unexpected and unheralded profusion along uncut hedgebanks and fieldsides and the may blossom bursts from buds in a profusion of spilling white blossom and sickly scent.

A female Orange Tip
I have lived with anxiety all my life and the current crisis facing humanity world wide is inevitably causing me a heightened level of distress but having lived with the condition for so long I have developed various strategies to cope. One of these is to immerse myself in the natural world. It removes me from a dark place to one of quiet and blessed relief.

My choice of therapeutic location has been a small stretch of the Thames Path that runs for a mile or so alongside the river, here in Oxfordshire, a rural corner of  hawthorn hedgerows and meadows, reed fringed pools and great willow trees towering above the river. A river that runs quiet and smooth hereabouts, its tranquil waters dimpled by mysterious rings as fish kiss the surface from below. A soothing presence, the river's unstoppable permanence a re-assurance that whatever happens to the world, it will continue. I need this certainty of purpose, this sense of order and things unchanged. It helps me to cope.

This year the bushes and hedgerows are full of birdsong as the migrant warblers have arrived in a profusion that is truly exceptional. Blackcaps are here in abundance, the crystal pure notes of the male bird's short, sweet song ringing through the sunlit oaks. They are everywhere this year, providing a constant accompaniment as I pass through the wood. This year, another bird, similar in both form and song has also arrived in larger numbers than usual. The bird in question is the Garden Warbler. Unremarkable to look at, being essentially pale brown all over but confounding its drab appearance by possessing a richly melodic, chortling burst of notes that brings to the woods its own transcending beauty.There are those who claim the Blackcap's purer notes are the superior of the two but for me it is the full and rich vocalisations of the Garden Warbler that stir my soul the more.

I move along, pensive but enjoying this opportunity to allow both body and spirit to freely wander, the river a sinuous, mysterious and constant companion beside me. Reed Warblers endlessly sing their scratchy unmelodic yet rhythmic song from deep in long dead reed stems, a legacy from the  year past. Soon the pointed green leaves of this year's growth will replace the dead stems, revitalising the reed bed and hiding the birds and their deep cupped nests, each nest a basket strung from two reed stems, holding the nest secure above the water. The Cuckoo that now sits crossways on his perch, calling loudly, bowered in the leaves high in the huge willows beside the river, will later watch his mate stealthily lay a single egg in some of the nests.

I come to a  bend in the river and stop to regard a triangular area of unprepossessing flattened sedge, the green shoots of nettles and grass blades slowly asserting their presence through the faded vegetation of last year. A couple of dead branches, discarded like old bones, are jutting up through a tangle of dry grass, strands of which hang like loose hairs from the lifeless brittle twigs. It is warm in the sun, and the volume of birdsong here is so loud it is to be remarked upon. For certain the birds are not singing louder but maybe they sound that much more impressive due to the lack of extraneous noise.There are no planes overhead, no distant sound of traffic, no dogs barking, no river traffic. Nothing at all except that which is natural.

Four or five  lustily singing Sedge Warblers have set up home here in this herbaceous cul de sac by the river, all the birds within tens of yards of each other. Singing Sedge Warblers radiate an impression of irrepressible, cheery energy. The halting jerkiness of their song starts as a low scratchy warble, a jumble of notes often incorporating mimicry of other birds.  The alarm call of a swallow is a favourite of the birds here. Quickly the warbler gets into its stride and the hesitant warble becomes a rapid outpouring of notes, at its zenith delivered with such a haphazard speed it is as if the notes are produced too rapidly and they spill over each other in the bird's eagerness to pour out its passion. An exuberant expression of Spring and its eternal promise of renewal. As the volume and intensity of song increases so the tiny bird ascends from concealment low down in the tangle of vegetation to the top of the branch, there to sing its loudest as if it feels that only here can its song be best delivered and heard. Sometimes even this is not enough and the songster flies a short way up into the air still singing, there to describe a tight circle before planing back down to earth.

Sedge Warbler
Silent for a moment it turns its head to listen to the other Sedge Warblers nearby and responds with another muttering of notes as if talking to itself and then increases the volume until it is singing as loudly as its neighbours, its head turning, displaying a deep orange gape as its lower mandible jerks in rapid effort, up and down, to deliver its song, its throat meanwhile swelling and distending the creamy white feathers that cover it. 

In the benign light of early morning  the warblers are an intricate combination of shades of brown and cream, the colours of their favourite habitat. The sound  generated by their singing is incredible from such a small bird, so much so it insists that you stop here and marvel at this force of nature. It is just us in this secluded corner, the transient beauty made all the more poignant by the ever present fear of a lurking, unseen danger that has come to haunt us all. I enjoy it as best I can as, when the crisis we are experiencing is over, it will never be the same as today. I begin to feel more positive about life and the future and I will remember this morning and use it as inspiration to surmount the occasional dark times that are bound to come.

Then came a final surprise. Unexpected, exciting and thrilling. A buzzing, clicking, reeling sound produced at high speed, not birdlike at all but more the sound of an insect. An endless thin trill, rhythmic and fast, going on for minutes on end. A Grasshopper Warbler right here just metres from me! 

Totally unsuspected the sound came in waves of varying intensity, as I knew the hidden bird would be turning its head to broadcast the sound all around, imparting a ventriloquial quality to its song, making it hard to pinpoint the location of the singer. I stood transfixed. It was so close but for now invisible.

A small movement caught my eye, a brown inconsequential shadow at the base of the fallen branch, obscured to a greater degree in the depths of the tangled sedge. Mouse like the indeterminate form moved position and the whirring trill of the warbler's song came once more. rising and falling. This was no mouse but the Grasshopper Warbler itself. The bird behaves almost like a mouse. A bird that loves the deep recesses and earthy alleys that run below the dead sedge and tangle that is to be its summer home. It will only reveal itself at times like these, when it is singing for a mate and to advertise its presence will rise a few feet from the ground to a perch, from which to better deliver its extraordinary song

Grasshopper Warbler
Gradually,  ever so gradually it gained confidence and moved, as would a mouse, in halting creeping steps along and then up the branch until it was almost at the top. It stopped and looked around, listening.  Re-assured it opened its bill wide and moving its head from side to side poured forth the rapid sequence of notes that forms its song. 

Unlike the Sedge Warbler, its mandibles hardly moved but remained wide open, its song seeming to come from deep within its throat. Its rich brown plumage, the colour of the earth it runs over, was streaked with black but then bright plumage is not required by a bird that spends most of its life scuttling along the ground below the herbage, just like the mice that its behaviour so resembles. Unlike the bold and assertive Sedge Warblers it also possesses the timidity of a mouse and at the slightest intimation of threat descends to the ground, there to hide below the security of the blanketing sedge. A bird displaying an anxiety that is all too familiar to me.

For an hour or so my mind was diverted from my human predicament and the distress and worries that engulf me at particularly bad times. I felt a renewed optimism about my situation. I will survive this, both mentally and physically. There is too much to lose and too much to look forward to.

Take care everyone and here's to happier times to come.

Saturday 25 April 2020

From the Archives: A Sandhill Crane on Orkney 28th September 2009

This is an image I downloaded for free from the internet and shows what a Sandhill Crane should look like. Unfortunately
the weather put paid to my achieving anything remotely like this.So my thanks go to the unknown photographer. 
On Tuesday 22nd September a very rare bird in the form of an adult Sandhill Crane, normally to be found in the USA, was discovered on South Ronaldsay, which is the southernmost island in Orkney. This was only the third record of this species in Britain and was very much what is termed a mega in twitching circles. I maintained a casual interest by following the postings about the Crane on Bird Forum but dismissed any idea of going to see it, as Orkney is a long way and as far as I knew hard to get to as it involved crossing the Pentland Firth either by plane, which was far too expensive, or by ferry.

I also contented myself with the assumption that the Crane, being a very rare bird, would, as is often the way with such rarities, fly off long before I could get to see it. However the days passed and we got to Friday with the Crane still on Orkney. Half in jest I called Ads, a birding friend  who lives in Sussex. Like me he hoped it would fly off so he would not be faced by the inevitable birding dilemna of whether to go for it or not. He agreed to wait until the weekend to see if it hung around.

By noon on Friday I was virtually committed to go for it, especially as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, another mega, had been found just a few miles away on the adjacent island of Mainland, which I discovered was connected to South Ronaldsay by road. It would be nice and pretty amazing if I could twitch two megas on the same day.

By late afternoon on Friday I had decided to go for the Crane the next day, Saturday, driving overnight to catch the Pentalina, the ferry which sailed at 9.30am on Sunday from Gill's Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay. I called Ads to see if he was of a mind to come with me but he wanted to wait until Saturday to see if the cuckoo was still around. He said he would call me depending on the news.

I could not really wait any longer and so booked myself, Ads and my car on the Pentalina for the Sunday morning sailing at 9.30am and returning that evening at 5pm. It was not nearly as expensive as I had feared and I would have six and  half hours birding time on Orkney. I also called Paul Higson who had discovered and identified the crane, asking him for help in finding it when I got to Orkney. By chance we had something in common, as in July 1988 Paul had found Britain's first ever Crag Martin in Cornwall, only two weeks before I found Britain's second Crag Martin at Beachy Head in Sussex. Paul was really pleased to hear from me and said 'The Crag Martin two must meet up!' and he promised to personally guide me to the crane when I got to Orkney and provide me with maps showing me where to go and see the other 'good birds' currently on the island.This was excellent news as it would save me a lot of time trying to find the precise location of the Crane and the positive tone of his email really buoyed my spirits.

On Saturday morning the news came through that the cuckoo was nowhere to be seen. This was a bit deflating but there was still the Sandhill Crane, which was the much rarer of the two birds and the priority as far as I was concerned. However the weather forecast for Orkney looked dire for Sunday, predicting heavy rain all day. Common sense prevailed and I remained at home and as Ads had not called back it was obvious he did not want to go. 

So I was on my own if I wanted to see the Crane. I re-booked the ferry for 9.30am on Monday morning and prepared to attempt the formidably long drive to Caithness, on my own, on Sunday. I left my home around 10am and just drove north with two stops for fuel. It went on forever but at least the roads were comparatively quiet. By the time I reached Inverness it was almost dark and still I had another 140 miles to go. I carried on driving through rain and now darkness on unfamiliar single carriageway roads. It was tedious and slow going, especially when stuck behind buses or fish lorries but having come this far, now was not the time for second thoughts. At 9pm and 623 miles from home I arrived at The Ferry Inn, located by the harbour at Scrabster, a few miles from Gill's Bay, and where I planned to spend the night and catch the ferry, relatively refreshed, the next morning. 

I administered a couple of malt whiskies and two halves of 'heavy' at the hotel's bar and after a pleasant chat with two fish lorry drivers from Plymouth, retired to bed around 10.30pm having arranged for breakfast at 7am the next morning. My room, although small was very clean and comfortable. I guess cosy would be the word and I soon fell asleep. The next morning I went in search of breakfast at 7am, as agreed, but there was no sign of anyone. The place was deserted. Eventually a cleaning lady felt sorry for me and rustled up some tea and toast.

I set off for the ferry at Gill's Bay in swirling rain and wind. So much for the BBC's weather prediction of low cloud and no rain. In fact it rained all day which was very annoying. I was one of the first to arrive at the dreary Gill's Bay ferry terminal and having checked in found myself and my trusted car at the head of a small queue of vehicles. As I waited another four or five cars arrived, all filled with birders. Apparently I was the only one to attempt this marathon journey solo.

While I waited at the depressing concrete surrounds of the terminal Paul Higson called to tell me the crane was still in its favoured stubble field at Windwick. So now I could, at least, partially relax, knowing the bird was still around, as in this rain it certainly would not be going anywhere today. I passed the news on to the other birders in the cars behind me.

We were soon on board the Pentalina and sat inside the passenger accommodation out of the rain.The vessel set sail to a cacophony of car alarms sounding from the car deck below us. I went up onto the top deck and seawatched for the hour long crossing, seeing little of note apart from a couple of Bonxies. Others watching from the other side saw more birds but the main object was to see the Sandhill Crane, so I was not too concerned. On arriving at St Margaret's Hope I called Paul and as instructed met him at the bus shelter at the top of the hill above  the harbour, then followed him at speed to the site of the Crane.We were also followed by most of the other birders from the ferry who had become aware of my arrangement with Paul. Eventually we turned off left at a sign for Windwick and after a couple of sharp turns on a winding single track road parked in a tiny car park and walked a few hundred yards downhill on the road to join a small gathering of birders already viewing the Crane.

It took but seconds to find it, stood, two fields in from the road at the back of a stubble field, a huge grey bird on long legs preening in the rain with Greylag and Pink footed Geese for company. My initial impression was that it looked relatively non descript, being overall dull grey, just like the awful weather, with some rusty brown markings on its back.The only real highlight in its appearance was a red forehead, crown and face contrasting with a dull white chin, throat and cheeks. I watched it for quite some time as, unnoticed by me, most of the other birders slipped away, probably fed up getting soaked and chilled in the continuous rain. The Crane then began to show itself really well, strutting around the field, feeding and ducking its head from time to time to avoid the occasional mobbing Lapwing. I tried some digiscoping but the rain and appalling light made any attempt nigh on hopeless as my image below clearly shows.

The Sandhill Crane - just about visible!
Apart from the Crane and geese there were properly wild Rock Doves, Curlew, Lapwing and local Hooded Crows in the wet field. Paul, before he  left me with the Crane, had very kindly given me two Ordnance Survey maps on which he had marked where the other good birds were to be found nearby on the island, such as a Surf Scoter and an American Golden Plover. In my haste and tired state I forgot to ask Paul what the Surf Scoter was, male, female or immature? A male would be  nice. No matter I could sort that out when or if I located the duck. I arranged with four other birders from the Midlands, who were also still watching the Crane to guide them to the Surf Scoter in exchange for them taking me to the American Golden Plover. We set off first for the scoter which was near Kirkwall airport. It was apparently located off a point of land to which there was no access other than to ask the farmer if we could walk across his land to get to the shore. After a lot of mistakes and mis turns reading the map we eventually found the right road to the farm which was in fact not a road at all but just a cinder track, hence our confusion.

Driving down the track we put up a late Northern Wheatear which, with a flash of white rump and black and white tail rapidly disapppeared into the murk. We parked in the farmyard and I  approached the farmhouse with some trepidation to ask permission for us to walk to the point.  I was greeted at the door by the young farmer who was both welcoming and friendly and told me I did not even have to ask him for permission but to just go ahead. What a pleasant change from similar encounters in England.

We walked down to the shoreline and finding a suitable spot scoped the bay, finding numerous ducks scattered around on the sea. The first birds we identified were not ducks but a flock of twenty eight swans coming in off the sea. As they got closer and passed us they revealed themselves to be Whooper Swans, possibly just finishing their migration from Iceland. Then we found a small group of Velvet Scoters with some Eiders and in front of them a juvenile Long tailed Duck. Excellent finds but where was the Surf Scoter? We carried on scanning and found Red necked Grebes and Slavonian Grebes and then one of my fellow birders said he could see the Surf Scoter. It was flying in from further out to sea in the company of some Velvet Scoters, coming ever closer towards us and sure enough there it was in my scope, a superb adult male clearly showing its multi coloured bill and a big and square white patch on the back of its head. The Surf Scoter, together with the slightly larger Velvets settled on the sea and promptly commenced courting a female Velvet, annoying its mate which chased it across the sea. In the muddle I realised I was looking at two drake Surf Scoters - two adult drakes. Magic! We watched them, as both energetically courted female Velvets until they and the Velvets flew off further out into the bay. We had been really lucky to find them so quickly and so near to the shore. Scanning again we found both Red throated and Black throated Divers, as well as a few winter plumaged Black Guillemots and a couple of ordinary Guillemots. Returning to the cars wet but happy we were greeted by the farmer who enquired whether we had been successful and on learning we had been wished us well. He even invited us in for a cup of tea but we politely declined as we wanted to go in search of the American Golden Plover. What a genuinely nice person. We drove back up the track and made for the American Golden Plover at a place called Deerness, stopping at various points on the way to check for birds on the sea. The best we could find were three Long tailed Ducks.

We arrived at Deerness and scoped a field by the road that was full of European Golden Plovers. Virtually the first bird in the scope was the moulting, summer plumaged American Golden Plover showing a huge white supercilium and much greyer brown upperparts than its companions. It was that easy and it really stood out, looking almost monochrome compared to the surrounding European Golden Plovers, which, all bar one, were either in golden infused winter or juvenile plumage. We watched for thirty minutes and then the entire plover flock took off leaving the American Golden Plover on its own in the field. I watched it for another fifteen minutes but then left the others, as I wanted to head back to Windwick to see more of the Crane. Time was moving on fast and I really wanted to spend my last hour watching a bird I had come so far to see.This was, for me, going to be a probably unique occurence and I wanted to make the most of it. I had after all come an awfully long way to see it! 

Back in the car I retraced my route to the unremarkable field  at Windwick, made special by its very rare transatlantic visitor.There were hardly any birders here now so I spent the remainder of my time enjoying watching the Crane as it stalked about, feeding in its favoured field, giving, at times, excellent medium distance views, so much so I could, through the scope discern its pale eyes. It was however still raining hard and continuously. Would it ever stop? After an hour I found I was getting progressively colder and wet. Enough is enough, so I drove back to St Margaret's Hope. finding a cafe where I got my first food of the day and an almost hot soup but I was too tired to complain.I left Paul's maps, as arranged, with the local Post Office for him to collect later and drove back to the ferry, waiting in the car, slowly drying myself out with the engine running and the heater on full blast.

Then it was back onto the Pentalina and setting sail to yet another chorus of car alarms. I saw just as little of note on the way back as on the way out, apart from another two Bonxies. We arrived at Gill's Bay around 6.45pm and, glad to leave this drear and dire place, I commenced the long drive south though the bleak wastes of Caithness, passing down rainswept roads that stretched for miles with not another car to be seen. I felt very, very far from home. I stopped for diesel at Evanton, just north of Inverness and over one hundred miles south of Caithness, at an awful place called Skiach Services which had the heating on so high that it was melting the chocolate bars on the shelves. The refreshment on offer was the usual northern Scottish horror story of white bread sandwiches with unsavoury fillings and sugary drinks such as  that dreaded bright orange monstrosity, Irn Bru. No thanks! Even in my desperation for sustenance I could still manage to resist this junk.

I made another quick stop at Inverness where I got something more palatable to eat and bottled water for the long haul down the A9 to Perth and then onwards south. I was desperately tired and eventually pulled off at a service station, somewhere in Scotland, and fell fast asleep for half an hour. This revived me and I then just drove relentlessly south with only one more stop for fuel, arriving home in Oxfordshire at 5am in the morning. How I did it I do not know but I saw the Sandhill Crane and that was all that mattered.

One thing is for certain, I will not be repeating anything like this for a very long time!

Friday 17 April 2020

From the Archives: Storm Force Petrels at Severn Beach 9th June 2012

Unseasonal westerly gales for two days heralded an unprecedented  arrival of storm driven seabirds in the Severn Estuary on 8th June. Frustratingly work provided an impediment to any thoughts of heading to the estuary on that day. The subsequent reports that evening also brought on a mood of gloom nearly as bad as the weather. Pomarine and Arctic Skuas plus numbers of Storm Petrels had been seen throughout the day off Severn Beach by those lucky enough to be present. I called Badger that evening but he was of a mind to stay local and go to the RSPB's reserve at Otmoor the next day. I knew there would be little to excite me at Otmoor, so, although in two minds and incapable of coming to a decision that night, I half decided on going to Severn Beach but left the final decision until I awoke the next morning.

The next day was a Saturday and by way of novelty in this awful Spring it would, according to the weather forecast, not be raining and possibly even be sunny and the wind would drop. At 5.30am on Saturday morning I awoke. It was dry and sunny but still windy. Well two out of three was not too bad concerning our weather predictors. Decision time had arrived. Lie in or up and about?

I arose and soon after was pointing the Black Audi west. The roads were empty at this hour and I was at Severn Beach an hour later but I had made a crucial error in neglecting to consult the times of the tide. A vast expanse of mud and shingle greeted me plus a Force 6 westerly wind blowing into my face. On the bright side it was remaining dry and sunny. The tide was miles out and so was my miscalculation. No birds. No birders. I had time on my hands. I retreated to an old fashioned and friendly bakery just off the promenade, the same one where I celebrated on my last visit here two years ago, after fortuitously having been in the right place at the right time to see a Black bellied Storm Petrel, a first for Britain.

Fortified by a pasty and slice of home made apple pie I headed back to the promenade. The tide was now very obviously on its way in and it comes in fast here so it would not be long before I had some saltwater to scan and hopefully find some birds. I commenced looking but little appeared apart from two Shelduck and a pair of Peregrines. A subsequent hour passed very slowly. Five Sanderling flew up the river and birders who had sensibly noted the time of high tide began to join me on the promenade.

Finally, in one of my scans with my scope I had a Storm Petrel in view, the first of the morning, heading downriver and out into the estuary. 

Now my attention slipped into top gear. Two more dark shapes, floating on the sea, came into view, two male Common Scoters and then another Storm Petrel appeared as did many more birders until there was quite a crowd of us on the promenade while considerable numbers of Storm Petrels began flying upriver. Bemused passers by enquired what all the fuss was about and were duly informed about winds and seabirds.

The Storm Petrels continued flying upriver from the estuary and possibly passing under the huge structure of the new Severn Road Bridge while others or possibly the same were coming back down the river. 

The new Severn Road Bridge at almost high itde
It was impossible to make an accurate estimate of how many there were but I had around a hundred and fifty sightings ( I ceased counting when I reached  a hundred) from when I commenced watching at 7.30am until I left at 1.30pm. There may have been more or may have been less birds but not by much. More to the point I was probably getting the best views I have ever had of Storm Petrels, so close you could even see the white bar on their underwings, better even than at Pendeen. It was simply brilliant and another birding gamble had paid rich dividends. 

Many of the petrels were close into the shore, granting me exceptional and prolonged views, some even flying right along the shoreline and they moved deceptively fast. It was noticeable how many coming upriver did not feed but just flew at speed, often almost shearing over the waves but on the way downriver many would tiptoe on the muddy water, their tiny webbed feet pattering across the waves as they delicately picked food from the sea's surface. 

At the peak time there were at least five or six birds visible at the same time, all of  them fluttering with upraised wings that suspended them over the sea as they fed, dancing on the waves, facing head on into the strong wind. One bird settled on the sea looking tired and dejected, its wings hung down from its body, supported on the churning water. It looked exhausted and maybe was resting to recover  after taking a battering by wind and wave further out at sea.Thankfully there were no gulls around to seize it and it floated just off the rocks which formed a land defence against the tide race. I could clearly see its down curved bill and tubular nostrils. It drifted in towards the shore, a picture of discontent but then raised its wings and the wind lifted it up and it bounced buoyantly over the running waves as if nothing was untoward.

These petrels will be breeding on islands around the coast further north and west, possibly they are off duty birds free to roam while their mates incubate their egg or maybe they are finding food for an already hatched nestling. All was well with them until the gales caught them unawares out to sea and now they were finding temporary sanctuary in the comparatively sheltered estuary. They are tough little birds, well adapted to a life at sea and its capricious moods and one can only imagine the fearsome force of gales and high seas that has forced them here. I could but wish them well and wonder how many others had succumbed out at sea

The petrel bonanza and adrenalin rush became even better when a shout went up, 'There's a Sabine's out there somewhere, flying in mid estuary!' Panic. 'Where?'  Directions were shouted out but got lost on the wind. I could not at first locate the gull, even though the guy sitting on a bench to the side of me could see it clearly. Patiently he gave me really explicit instructions involving distant pylons, radio masts and turbines on the far shore but still I could not locate it. Then it settled on the sea and was lost to sight. Oh no! I followed his directions as it was now floating fast upriver on the incoming tide,  occasionally visible as it rose on a wave crest then descending into the wave troughs which made it invisible. Why I could not see it became all too apparent when the gull much to my relief lifted into the air and it was obviously far closer to us than where I had been searching. The instructions had been that it was distant but it was in fact anything but. What a beauty and now well and truly in view An adult in full summer plumage. Black and white and grey wings and a beautiful black hood as it rose ever upwards, apparently intent on flying over the bridge. A birder who I  never actually saw as I was glued to my scope ran up behind me gasping for breath. 'Where is it mate?' I gave him instructions about it flying up near the top of the bridge. He found it. 'Cheers mate. Nice'. and then he was gone with me still glued to my scope. As I continued to watch it, the gull like so many seabirds baulked at crossing over the huge bridge and retreated downriver, eventually settling far off in the estuary and never to be seen again.What a relief and what a great bird to see. Meanwhile the Storm Petrels continued flying up and down the river.

Cameras, including mine, went into overtime as the petrels were so close to us. They were however, surprisingly difficult to capture in the camera lens as they moved rapidly across the water. The tide was now turning and birders slowly drifted away as the petrels diminished. A Yellow Wagtail, calling loudly landed behind me on the only grass available. An Arctic Tern put in a brief appearance and the petrels were seen no more. It was time to go. What a morning.