Thursday 16 July 2020

A Trip to The Caspian 15th July 2020

Mark and myself, both now recovered, well almost, from our exertions in going to see the Lammergeier  in the wilds of Derbyshire and not wanting to spend any more time than necessary indoors, agreed on another day out birding. Somewhere, anywhere which did not involve anymore heroics on the physical front.

We agreed to meet up on Wednesday and not overtax ourselves, so set a comparatively late meeting time of 10am for our rendezvous at Little Paxton in Cambridgeshire.

I was tempted by a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly that was currently ensconced in a cherry tree by the visitor centre at the RSPB's Strumpshaw Fen reserve in Norfolk but there was also the equally desirable prospect of seeing a Caspian Tern at the RSPB's estimable reserve at Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire.

The Caspian Tern has been on the reserve since the 11th of July but of late has absented itself from the reserve for long periods so it was a bit of a lottery if we decided on going for the tern. Between us we decided to make a snap decision on the day,  depending on news of the tern and butterfly respectively,

Today was grey, depressingly dull and light rain came in short bursts to add to the misery as I wound a dreary course  across country to Little Paxton. I arrived before Mark and checked my RBA app while waiting for him to arrive.To my surprise, considering the acute lack of sunshine, the butterfly was still visible in its tree at Strumpshaw this morning but the Caspian Tern was also currently on show at Frampton Marsh.

Mark arrived and I gave him the news. Bird or butterfly? A mild dilemna confronted us but then we mutually agreed that as the tern was present this morning, and nearer, it took precedence and so we set off for the hour's drive to Frampton.

We arrived at just before noon to find the car park almost full of cars but very few people in evidence. I assumed the cars belonged to birders come to see the tern but this was obviously not the case as the reserve was pretty much deserted. During all the time we were there, we could have seen no more than a dozen people on the reserve. All the hides apart from the Reedbed Hide were closed, including the Three Sixty Hide, the best one for viewing wading birds  and the tiny visitor centre was also closed, guarded by a friendly volunteer warden who told us that the tern had only recently flown off. However he said it would likely return in a couple of hours as that is what it had been doing recently. We chatted to the warden for a while and he told us that there were also seven Spoonbills on the reserve as well as a good number of wader species, including a Curlew Sandpiper and a Little Stint, both in summer plumage. We could look for these while waiting for the tern to re-appear.

Caspian Terns are rare vagrants to Britain but are almost annual in their appearances.They have a cosmopolitan range being found on all five continents but in Europe they breed mainly on the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Russia and on the Baltic coasts of Finland and Sweden  which is the likely origin of the bird now at Frampton. Birds from the Baltic spend the winter in West Africa and some around the Mediterranean.

Mark forgot something from the car and while he was away the warden looked out to the scrapes beyond the visitor centre and announced the Caspian Tern was back! I called to Mark and we made our way to a viewing mound that was situated a short way up the main path and there was the Caspian Tern, quite distant, out on the lagoon, resting on a spit of mud in the company of some gulls and shelduck.

They are a brutish looking bird, almost Herring Gull sized, their bulk not quite negating an impression of typical tern elegance.The most notable feature apart from its sheer size was an enormous bright red bill, not only long but deep laterally, a bill that perfectly matched the tern's impressive stature. Its plumage was typical of a tern with pearl grey plumage above and white below and being in breeding plumage it sported a large black cap to match its black legs and feet.

As if to further emphasise its bulk a Common Tern landed beside it and was dwarfed in comparison, looking more akin to a Little Tern when seen alongside its giant relative.

Caspian Tern and Common Tern
Soft rain came on the wind and the visibility decreased markedly. I wandered further along the path and found a Little Egret and a lovely summer plumaged Black tailed Godwit, both feeding close to each other in a reedy cul de sac of water behind the main lagoon. 

Black tailed Godwit

Little Egret
Further out were massed and huddled ranks of dozing waders, mainly Black tailed Godwits but with Bar tailed Godwits and Knot also asleep amongst them while a few Common Redshank and Dunlin threaded their way amongst the long legs of the godwits. Most of the godwits were still in their breeding plumage, bodies showing varying shades of rich orange brown, supremely elegant, their long legs and equally long bill giving them a grace denied the smaller waders, that busily fussed around and amongst them. Some of the godwits were wading belly deep in the water feeding, thrusting their long bills up to the hilt in a rapid stabbing motion, probing the mud below the shallow water of the lagoon. When they found an item of prey they would raise their head and bill clear of the water and with a couple of jerks move the item from bill tip to throat in a rapid motion before resuming their energetic thrusting of bills into the water and mud. A characteristic and distinctive behaviour.

The Caspian Tern did not remain for long on its muddy spit and rose into the air. We could but hope it was not going to depart to the nearby Wash or even further afield and thankfully for us it had its eye on another location on the reserve, flying to settle on the far side of the lagoon amongst a small flock of Black headed Gulls standing in the shallow water. We could see it was now close to the track that encircles the reserve so made a long walk to where we would be near the tern and conveniently there was another viewing mound right opposite. It could not have been better placed.

This was much better as we were now closer to the tern. it looked settled and soon was fast asleep amongst the gulls. The Black headed Gulls were a mixture of adults and recently fledged brown and white juveniles. The adults sensibly gave the Caspian room but the juvenile gulls still had much to learn and as is the way with adolescents showed little sense of awareness or respect towards the tern. Consequently they often, inadvertently, invaded the tern's personal space to be met with that formidable bill held wide open threatening them. I could hear no sound made by the tern but the open bill threat seemed to be sufficient to deter any closer approach by a young gull, which confronted by the tern's silent warning would rapidly move away.

It had to happen, when on one occasion a juvenile gull did not heed the warning and this resulted in the Caspian lunging at it with wings outspread and bill wide open.There could be only one outcome and the delinquent gull departed in haste, lesson learned.

For the most part the tern slept but then waded into slightly deeper water to bathe and preen, It briefly flew around once and then settled with the gulls to resume its slumbers, as yet another rain squall arrived. Watching it for such an extended period allowed me to work out that this individual was not quite adult but in its second summer. Although superficially looking like an adult it had some primary coverts that were dark grey giving that area of the wing a slightly irregular mottled appearance.The outer primaries were dark, contrasting with the pale grey inner ones.The tail also had grey in the outer tail feathers and the bill had a fairly exensive black tip, all of which are signs of immaturity.

Caspian Tern in flight showing the contrasting primary feathers, the mottled grey primary coverts,.grey in the tail and large dark tip to the bill - all pointing to it being a second summer bird
I put the camera down and scoped the lagoon as the tern slept, finding a distant summer plumaged Little Stint on the scrape, running amongst a forest of godwit legs and beyond, by a bank of reeds, a Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank while Avocets sideswiped the waters for food with their recurved bills.

Mark wanted to remain to see what the Caspian Tern would do if it woke up whilst I was keen to try and find the Curlew Sandpiper so we agreed to meet back at the visitor centre. I left the viewpoint to walk back to the centre and on the way I passed the only hide that was open, the Reedbed Hide. There was no one in it so I sat on a bench and looked out across the lagoon. There was nothing much to see apart from a few moulting ducks and a Mute Swan with three large young but then six Spoonbills, a mixture of juveniles and adults, swept in, circling around and granting me a superb flypast before landing on a small islet in front of the hide. They look so outlandish in flight, the enormous spatulate bill thrust out on a long neck and black legs stuck out beyond the tail. The bird in flight profile a series of curves and undulations.

Juvenile Spoonbill told by the black tips to its wing feathers

Adult Spoonbill
They soon settled to feed together in the shallows, sweeping their bills through the water in broad arcs. It has been a while since I have seen Spoonbills so well, so I made the most of it and then walked back to the centre where I was joined by Mark. We debated whether to bird the seaward side of the reserve as there had been reports of a Wood Sandpiper and Black necked Grebes  but it was now three in the afternoon and there was another rain squall in the offing.

We decided that there was little point in staying longer as the Wood Sandpiper had disappeared and so a truly rewarding and spiritually uplifting day came to a close.

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