Monday 28 June 2021

Rock 'n' Roller 26th June 2021

One of the most colourful of European birds and a rare visitor to Britain was discovered in Suffolk on 23rd June. A large bird of varying shades of light blue with a rufous brown back. It was a European Roller and a close rival to the European Bee eater in possessing the most colourful and exotic of plumages.

Its normal summer home is south of Britain in northwest Africa and southern Europe from Portugal and Spain to Greece, then more locally in the Balkan countries and eastern Poland to Estonia, extending eastwards to Ukraine. It is also found from Turkey and southern Russia to the southern Urals, southwest Siberia and in central Asia, extending to western China and northern Pakistan. A minority winter locally in equatorial west Africa but the majority migrate to spend the winter in eastern Africa from Kenya to Zimbabwe. I have personally seen them in Tanzania.

Up to and including 2019 there have been 175 records of European Rollers in Britain but the records average only one to two individuals a year, mostly in the late spring/ early summer months of May and June although there are some records in September. Since 1950 there has been a marked shift in the location of records with an increasing emphasis in  the north of England and Scotland and many of these are of birds being found on the east coast which would suggest their origin being eastern Europe rather than overshooting from southern Europe. 

Could this one in the eastern county of Suffolk have come from the east rather than the south? We will never know.

Due to a 30% decline in populations across Europe, it is, of late, becoming increasingly rare and erratic in its appearances in Britain and now is not always annual. So this bird was obviously going to be a very popular attraction.

Both roller and bee eater are considered by twitchers and general birders alike as two of the most coveted and highly desirable birds to see in Britain. In Mark Cocker's Birds Brittanica he relates correspondence he received from a twitcher when researching the book.

'During the 1980's I felt I was spending more time birdwatching than was good for me and decided that if I saw a roller, a golden oriole and a bee-eater in the UK I'd give up. I eventually saw all three but it didn't stop me - in fact, I think it made me worse than ever!'

I too have seen all three in Britain and I completely understand.You can never get enough of these birds and always want more. Like my predecessor I cannot, nor do I wish, for the moment, to stop!

First located in a sheep field by a busy rural road between Icklingham and Lackford, the latest European Roller to visit these shores soon attracted a large number of birders and general public alike. 

Mark, my birding and twitching buddy, went to see the roller on the day it arrived and reported that it was relatively distant, using telephone wires that crossed a large field from which to hunt insects and invertebrates. Unfortunately other commitments meant that I was unable to get any free time until Saturday. Mark was keen to revisit as he wanted to try and get better photos of the roller and indeed, during the ensuing few days, images appeared on social media that seemed to show the roller was, at times, coming much closer than when it first arrived.

I had agreed with Mark that we would go together in my car if the bird was still present on Saturday so a rather tense wait on my part ensued but on checking my RBA app at just after 7am on Saturday morning it was confirmed the bird was still 'on the wires' in its favoured field. I sent a text to Mark. 

'Roller still present.Want to go?I'll drive.'

Confirmation arrived shortly after and we agreed I would collect Mark from his home in Bedfordshire and we would make about a one and  half hour's drive to Icklingham. From the directions on RBA it appeared that we would have to set off on quite a walk to see it once we arrived as  it was instructed not to park on the road but to use the Rampart's Field Picnic Site car park and then make a rather convoluted walk for one and half miles to view the bird.

After a pleasant and uneventful drive on quiet roads and in sunny weather we turned onto the road at Icklingham and after a few more miles suddenly came  upon birders huddled on the verge by a bend in the road. Small groups were commandeering any gaps in the hedgerow where they could view the adjacent field while further on we could see the car park but it was rammed with cars, with others parked haphazardly on the verge. So much for the dire warnings about police and parking by the road. Luckily we found a free space on the verge and making sure the car was fully off the road we unloaded our gear and made a rather perilous walk back along the side of the road to join the furthest group of our fellow birders, standing in an open area between the bushes.

The roller was immediately obvious being the only bird perched high on the telephone wires that were strung across the field in front of us. 

The large field and surrounding open country and scattered trees was not dissimilar to its normal habitat, which obviously made the roller feel more at home, and was another example of a vagrant bird's remarkable capacity, even though a long way out of its usual range, to find somewhere akin to normal. 

Fortunately the wires were quite near the road but the roller was at first perched distantly on the wires at the far end of the field. It remained perched there for a while, doing very little apart from moving its head to follow passing insects but every so often it would take off in a rather languid flight pursuing a passing bee which, when caught in the roller's  substantial bill was brought  back to the wires where it was dealt with and swallowed.

On other occasions it spotted beetles on the ground and would fly down to seize them and again, as with the bees, take them back to the wires . These intermittent flights went on for about half an hour and then, as the roller returned to the wires it commenced to come closer each time it settled on the wires, until it returned from one flight right in front of us.Cue much clicking of cameras and exultant comments about its close proximity and colourful plumage.

Rollers are famed for two things; their beauty and aerial displays in which they show remarkable agility as they indulge themselves in actions that look like they are performed out of sheer enjoyment. The name Roller comes from these flights, when the bird performs all sorts of incredible evolutions, tumbling, somersaulting. nose diving, looping the loop and rolling from side to side as they career around the sky.

European Rollers are about Jackdaw size and look quite thickset. Superficially they appear to be a pale blue bird with a reddish brown back and their head is large with a substantial black bill.When it flies the wings appear long, broad and bi-coloured, showing black flight feathers and contrasting blue upperwing coverts. The leading edge of the wing and the rump are a striking and beautiful violet blue. The underwing, similarly patterned and coloured to the upperwing, shows even more contrast.The tail is shades of pale and dark blue.

Mark Cocker describes it in flight as 'revealing a kaleidoscope of blue shades across their wings. Yarrell, a renowned nineteenth century ornithologist wrote in 1845 'that when flying in the sun it looks like a moving rainbow' and indeed it does.

Although it appears rather bulky with a comparatively slow flight  it still showed much dexerity when flying after prey, swerving and twisting almost in slow motion and was able to catch bees in mid air with no problem at all.

Having got my fill of the bird perched on the wires I really wanted to get some images of it in flight when its true beauty is revealed and anyway, action shots are always good to view.

After each flight the bird would return to the wires but never returned to the same place twice, gradually moving along the wires so at times it was distant and at other times close.

On one memorable occasion it actually flew right over our heads, across the road and briefly perched in a tree on the opposite verge before returning to the wires.There was no shortage of bees for it to catch and it happily sat on the wires until the next unsuspecting victim flew past, while its assorted admirers watched from below as cars whizzed along the road behind them.

Often these events become a pleasurable social occasion, especially when the bird is easy to see and constantly on view. On joining the birders on the verge I heard someone say 'Hello Ewan' and on turning, there was another Mark, this time from Banbury and who I knew. Later going back to the car to get some water I encountered Justin, another Oxfordshire birder, who was scoping the bird from another part of the verge. Then Cliff and Chris arrived, the latter last seen on the Hebridean Island of Tiree, when we twitched a Yellow bellied Flycatcher.

As is often the case, after an hour or two and everyone had settled and got their photos and seen as much of the bird as they wanted, conversation dominated as attention wandered. Mark knows a lot more birding folk than me and whilst waiting for the roller to come closer or fly about we chatted with our fellow birders. Anything and everything can come up, such as technical issues about camera equipment, politics, gossip about fellow birders, previous twitches, even where to get the nearest fish and chips and who had their photos published in a magazine or national newspaper, if you can call The Sun a newspaper!  

The grass verge was a slightly perilous position to watch the roller as cars were regularly passing by, just a few feet away and at considerable speed but there was no choice.We remained for three or four hours and everyone of us seemed more than content with the experience. Towards the end the clouds began to accumulate and the roller became less active, not moving for quite a long time between feeding forays.We waited for it to fly one more time and then called it a day as the roller caught a bee and flew to a distant position on the wires.

It's not often one can claim to have had an enjoyable experience stood by a busy roadside but that's what it most certainly was today thanks to the Roller..

Sunday 20 June 2021

My Third Blyth's Reed Warbler 19th June 2021

Peter sent me a text on Friday asking if I  would like to accompany him on a trip to the West Midlands to see a Blyth's Reed Warbler that had taken up territory on the RSPB's Middleton Lakes Reserve, which is near Tamworth in Staffordshire. I needed  no second invitation, especially as he offered to pick me up from my home and drive me to the reserve.

Peter had never seen a Blyth's and I had only ever seen two in this country.The first being an autumn migrant at Gramborough Hill in Norfolk, many years ago and the second being a particularly showy spring individual at Far Ings NNR in Lincolnshire only last year.

The individual at Middleton Lakes, first discovered on 17th June was, just as the bird in Lincolnshire, holding a territory and singing constantly. Images on social media left us in no doubt as to how showy it was and with a drive of only around ninety minutes it was too good an opportunity to forgo. This inland record at Middleton Lakes is still a very rare occurrence as most birds are seen on the coast.

Peter collected me from my home at 7am and I had already learnt via Twitter that morning that the warbler was still singing and performing well at the reserve. One intrepid soul had reported he had seen it at 4.30am this very morning, so the drive to the reserve was relaxed as we knew the bird was still present.

An hour and a half' brought us to the reserve, tucked away down a road called Bodymore Heath Lane and notable for the fact we had to pass the huge complex that is Aston Villa FC's training ground. Driving into the reserve car park we found it already quite full with cars, indicating the warbler was attracting many admirers.The star bird was to be found, according to RBA (Rare Bird Alert), midway along the River View Path and this entailed a walk of over a mile, our winding course taking us through a complex of woodland, over a canal and then into an open landscape of large scrapes and reedy lagoons, the former populated by raucous blizzards of Black Headed Gulls, guarding their half grown young.

The Tamworth and Fazely Canal

Passing returning birders who had already seen the warbler, we were given regular directions as to what track to follow to get to the site. The reserve, created from former gravel pits is very large, 160 hectares, with a bewildering number of trails and our walk seemed to go on for a long time but was no more than half an hour's steady amble before we came to the River Tame and shortly after took yet another innocuous, narrow grass track running parallel with the river, leading to where we could overlook an area of backwater and riparian vegetation with a medium sized willow facing us on the opposite bank.

The Willow favoured by the Blyth's Reed Warbler

I had been mildly concerned about our comparative late departure, as this being a Saturday and with not much else rare around, the Blyth's would inevitably be a popular bird and my fears were confirmed on finding around twenty to thirty birders ranged in two cramped cul de sacs of trampled vegetation scrutinising the willow on the opposite bank.

The Blyth's Warbler was hardly keeping to itself, being highly audible, broadcasting its mimetic song virtually constantly. I could well understand how, on first being discovered, this bird was identified as a Marsh Warbler, that other well known bird mimic but later re-identified as the rarer Blyth's Reed Warbler. Paradoxically Marsh Warblers, which used to breed here regularly are now very rare and becoming increasingly so but Blyth's, formerly very rare are for unknown reasons, becoming more frequent visitors to Britain.They are still a rare bird to see and hear but since the year 2000 the number of occurrences has increased markedly.Traditionally they occur as vagrants, mostly in the autumn months of September and early October, with Shetland being a particular favourite location, but now birds singing in spring and summer, presumably from the Scandinavian populations, have become more frequent and have been found singing and holding territory for the last two years in Britain. Could they be expanding their range which currently lies to the east of Britain and maybe a breeding population will become established in Britain? Stranger things have happened in the birding world but only time will tell.

Blyth's Reed Warblers currently breed in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and European Russia, across central Siberia to Lake Baikal and the upper reaches of the Lena River, then south through Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to northern Pakistan. They migrate to spend the winter in the Indian sub continent as far south as Sri Lanka and east to northwest Burma.

Its name is misleading, as unlike the Reed Warbler it does not inhabit or breed in reeds but prefers overgrown clearings in forests or bushes along riversides and sings its markedly different song from a perch in a bush or small tree rather than deep within reedbeds.

Superfically they look similar to both Reed and Marsh Warblers but subtle differences can identify them. That is if you see them well. Here, a singing male holding territory, made it comparatively easy but try the same thing with a skulking autumn migrant and it is far from straightforward.

They are slighty smaller than a Reed Warbler, less robust looking and the bill is weaker and finely pointed. Overall their upperpart plumage is medium brown with some olive tones and they lack any rufous on the rump.The underparts are mainly dull white with the chin and throat appearing purer white.Its wings are shorter than either Reed or Marsh Warbler and the projection of its primaries beyond the tertials is much shorter than in the other two species.The wing can often look featurless and uniform with no dark centres to the feathers.

The area from which to view the warbler was quite restricted but somehow everyone managed to find a clear view of the willow and our first sight of the warbler was through a mesh of pointy green leaves.It was singing from about half way up on the left hand side of the willow.Unfortunately, although it could be seen well with bins and scope, it favoured a perch inside the canopy and the leaves made it nigh on impossible to get a clear line of sight for a photograph.

Time after time it would sing from its favoured perch but on only a couple of occasions did it provide the briefest of opportunities to get an acceptable image. I think the number of people present probably had something to do with its reluctance to show itself more openly, as earlier in the morning, when the number of observers would have been down in single figures it had obviously been less reluctant to leave cover, judging by the excellent published images.

There was, however, nothing that could be done about the situation and everyone to their credit was well behaved and considerate, so for the next two hours we enjoyed watching the bird and hoping it might, just might, come more into the open but it never did.

On my way back home Mark rang me to say he was going to see the Blyth's tomorrow with Adrian and Les. I told him I had already been to see it and about the problems with seeing it well, the numbers of people and that I was also planning a return trip tomorrow to try and do better. We resolved to meet at the site around 5am on Sunday morning when there would be few other people about, if any. 

On Sunday morning I left home at 2.45am and found, as hoped, that mine was the only car at the deserted reserve car park at 4.30am.The gates were still locked so I left the car in the adjacent lane and getting my gear together set off on the long walk to the warbler site. It was gloomy and gently raining and had been since reaching the outskirts of Birmingham. Pressing on I followed the track under now dripping woodland leaves and trudged onwards through long wet grass, the bottom of my trousers becoming soaked in the process and a growing awareness that my waterproof jacket was no longer up to the job.

As I neared the site I could hear the Blyth's singing just as energetically as yesterday but was surprised to find I was not the first birder to get here. A local had beaten me to it and told me the warbler had been much more showy so far this morning and was regularly perching in more photographable situations in the willow.This was good news and what I had hoped would be the case. Shame about the weather though. 

We settled down to watch the warbler and by some miracle of fate the rain, predicted to fall all morning, ceased.The light was still very dull, so I forgot about photogrpahy and continued to watch the warbler, singing for all it was worth with pointed mandibles wide open, exposing a golden yellow gape. 

What a repertoire of mimickry it had. I assume some of the purer notes were its own but I identified many other bird calls incorporated in its singing. Song Thrush, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Goldfinch, Blue Tit,Willow Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat all featured, even Green Sandpiper at one point. Another interesting fact was that  the purer notes of its song came when its bill was wide open but the more harsh notes were produced with the bill closed or partially so, and the throat feathers noticeably swollen.

Mark, Adrian and Les arrived shortly after and all of us waited for the warbler to give us the opportunity we craved, to see it well and photograph it. For the most part it remained partially hidden by the surrounding leaves but on a number of occasions it allowed itself to remain almost in the open. It sang constantly, even when moving around in the tree, always eventually returning to one favoured perch on the left side of the tree. On occasions it would drop down out of the tree into the thick tangle of nettles and umbellifers below, to feed on insects which it acrobatically plucked from stems and the undersides of leaves, all the while singing, and when it did feed in this manner gave the best opportunity to photograph it free of surrounding vegetation. 

Mind, you had to be quick, as it flitted from stem to stem at great speed, constantly moving and never remaining anywhere for long. Always rapidly returning to its favourite tree.

The morning, still very early, was damp and grey and the soft rain had permeated my clothing, making me feel cold but the minute the warbler moved in the tree or dropped down to feed below, all was forgotten.Each one of us, to a greater or lesser extent got what we wanted in the end, although you are never totally satisfied and feel you could do more.

Finally at around 9.30am we headed back to our cars and out of the now returning rain.

Thursday 17 June 2021

River Warbler Redemption 16th June 2021

Our week's holiday on the Isle of Arran, which finished last Sunday, inflicted possibly the most frustrating seven days of my birding life. First a River Warbler was discovered in Somerset the day we left for Arran, then a Red necked Stint which I have never seen in Britain spent three days in Northumberland, to be followed by a Sulphur bellied Warbler, another bird I have never seen and a first for Britain no less, that spent just one day on Lundy Island in Devon.The final blow came when a Pacific Swift arrived in Northumberland the day before we were due to leave Arran. Needless to say it had gone the next day. Ouch!

I should have known this would happen as it occurs every year on our annual early summer family visit to Arran but usually only involves missing one rarity not four. Next year we are going in early April, hopefully to avoid inflicting any further birding angst.

All the birds, bar the River Warbler, having departed for points unknown before we returned home to Oxfordshire, it was left for me to contemplate a trip to the River Warbler that was continuing to sing long and loud in its favoured reed bed at the RSPB's Ham Wall Nature Reserve on the Somerset Levels.

River Warblers are a very rare visitor to Britain with only forty eight previous records. I have only ever seen one, many years ago in Norfolk and have a drawing of it by Jan Wilczur hanging on my wall to this day.

They are a summer migrant, coming to breed in central and eastern Europe. Recently they have started to spread into northwest Europe, from Germany to Finland and east through central Russia to western Siberia. They migrate through the Middle East and northeast Africa to winter in East Africa.

River Warblers are superficially similar to our more familiar, summer visiting, Grasshopper Warbler and  like the 'gropper' are  arch skulkers, hiding in dense vegetation, often but not exclusively near water and rarely showing themselves. This particular River Warbler at Ham Wall was exceptional in that it showed little evidence of a skulking nature when singing, perching very obviously on reed stems as it poured forth its peculiar song, a prolonged machine like buzzing. It was miles away from its normal range having decided that a reed bed in southwest England was a suitable place to set up a territory and proceeded to sing loudly, virtually all day long, in an attempt to attract a mate. 

I decided that having missed so many 'good birds' whilst on holiday I would go and see this very popular rarity which would at least reduce some of the self inflicted frustration I had endured. An early start was required so I left home at four am to make the two hour journey to Somerset. The day was going to be hot and sunny and even at my early departure time the air was warm.

An hour and a half later, turning off the motorway, I  drove deep into the hinterland of Somerset and was soon passing along narrow lanes bordered by high hedges with verdant meadows beyond. Deeper into The Levels, a strange feeling of otherworldliness descended as the landscape transformed into something wilder and less manicured. The reserve car park came upon me suddenly and was almost empty on my arrival. I set off down the dusty main path, a former railway track, following it to cross a wooden bridge spanning a small channel of water and then walk along a grass track with vast reed beds stretching away to my left.

A few hundred metres further and I  joined two other birders who were standing and looking out over the reeds. They informed me the warbler had been seen singing here half an hour ago but currently there was no sign of it.I felt a little disappointed as I had, for no justifiable reason expected it to be singing when I arrived. I settled to watch a pair of Reed Warbers, fussing and  flitting amongst the reeds and for well over half an hour there was little else to see apart from a late patrolling Barn Owl. Then another brown coloured warbler flew into the reeds and there was the River Warbler, which without more ado sidled up a dead reed stem and proceeded to open its bill wide,very wide and sing, revealing a deep pink gape in the process. 

Although superficially similar to a Grasshopper Warbler their upperparts are to my eyes a richer olive brown and unlike its close relative the Grasshopper Warbler, unstreaked.The underparts are plain buff white except on the chest where there are noticeable dark streaks and mottling. The undertail coverts showed prominent pale fringes and extended well down towards the tip of the broad rounded tail. 

I watched as it sang for a short spell before falling silent. It remained perched, sat on its reed stem in the sun, closed its eyes and briefly dozed. It was a picture of supreme contentment but it never closed its eyes for more than a second. A brief spell of preening then ensued before it indulged in more eye closing or alternatively sitting fluffed and immobile, watching the Reed Warblers. A final burst of song preceded it flying quite some way further along the reed bed and out of sight.

I was told the spot where I was standing was, by common consent, the best place to observe the warbler and it would soon return, so I waited and then waited some more but there was not sight or sound of the bird. I had watched it for around twenty minutes and it had departed at around seven am. Gradually, as the time passed and it remained invisible, more and more people arrived until there was quite a crowd lined along the track, hoping for a sight of the warbler. Occasional bursts of song emanated from the reeds, causing a ripple of excited movement in the crowd but the bird itself was always frustratingly invisible.

The wait carried on. Surely it would return soon? It didn't and as the heat of the day increased it seemed less likely that the bird would sing or show itself. Regular sightings of Great White Egrets, floating majestically over the reeds on huge bowed and dazzlingly white wings relieved the monotony and up to four Bitterns kept me interested as did the occasional Marsh Harrier but the star performer was having an off day.

I dozed in the warm sun, a breeze slowly increasing to sway the reeds into a gentle rustling murmur. An endless rhythmic and soothing sound that invited sleep. I would be alerted by others if the warbler began to sing. Most people gradually became bored of waiting and left but a remaining core of determined birders stuck it out and then at just after two pm, came the welcome sound of the warbler singing. It did not last long and was coming from the reeds well off to my left. Some folk hurried away to get closer in an endeavour to see it but I stood my ground and as I hoped the elusive bird flew nearer and perched openly in some twigs in front of a bank of reeds.

It was not as close as in the morning but was nevertheless fully out in the open and singing for all its worth, continuing for well over five minutes before suddenly flying off back along the reed bed and disappearing once more.

I had been here nine hours. It was definitely time to leave but it had not been an unpleasant time as my surroundings were so tranquil and enjoyable. Serenaded by Blackcaps and Garden Warblers I  made my way back along the track to the car park, the white light of bright sunshine, so rare in this cloud shrouded land, creating a shimmer of reflection off the vegetation. 

I felt better about things now and back on track.There will be other rare birds that I will miss and others I will see and enjoy in the future.That is the thrill of birding.The unexpected is always possible, promising yet more roller coasters of emotion.