Monday 30 August 2021

Mega Chasing in Yorkshire 28th August 2021

Mark, my twitching pal, was itching to go birding this Saturday following a week of suffering an ear infection and a variety of crap events that life throws at you from time to time.

After some discussion it was decided we would go to see a very lost White tailed Plover from the Middle East and Central Asia which was currently striding around the muddy pools at the RSPB's Blacktoft Sands Reserve in East Yorkshire rather than being in its winter home in East Africa or India. 

A White tailed Plover is very much a 'mega' in twitcher parlance and only six have been seen in Great Britain.This one at Blacktoft would be the seventh. Both Mark and myself have seen one before. In my case at Rainham RSPB in July 2010 and Mark at Caerlaverock WWT in June 2007.

Later Mark decided to add another 'mega' to our visit to Yorkshire - the much celebrated and long staying Black browed Albatross at another RSPB reserve, Bempton Cliffs also in East Yorkshire.Having become somewhat obessed in getting the ultimate photo of the albatross Mark, accompanied and abetted in no small measure by yours truly, has visited Bempton five times already in his quest and this would be our sixth visit. His plan was for us to get to the albatross at dawn (6am) and once he had got the images he desired we would proceed south to Blacktoft and all being well see the White tailed Plover. A great day's birding by anyone's reckoning if it all went to plan

On Thursday I met Peter, a local Oxfordshire birding colleague who is not really what one would term a hardcore twitcher, and I suggested he might like to come with us as he would have a very good chance of seeing two quality birds which he had never seen before. All he had to do was sit in the back of Mark's car and relax as we drove north. Such an offer was surely not to be missed and Peter duly accepted.

We were all set. At a half hour after midnight on Friday I collected Peter from his home just outside Oxford and we drove across country to Mark's home in Bedfordshire where we transferred to his car and were soon traversing the highways of hell leading north.

One brief stop for a break and a coffee at an eerily deserted McDonalds in the wee hours and soon we were on our way once more.We arrived at Bempton as planned, just after dawn. It was going to be a beautiful day and the sun rose above the horizon, a ball of fiery red as we walked along the cliff edge path to the Staple Newk Viewpoint. This being the best location to observe the albatross if it was about.

Sunrise at Bempton Cliffs

We were not the first to occupy the viewpoint and in fact it was almost full but being a Bank Holiday Saturday this was hardly unexpected. We each found a space and a lady who  was local to the area informed us the albatross had been seen at just after 6am but was now thought to be perched  out of view under the cliff to our left.

For Peter the albatross was a much desired bird so his anxiety levels were higher than ours but for an hour there was no indication the albatross was going to fly around and give us the views we wanted.Two hours had passed and I was beginning to wonder if the albatross really had perched on the cliff or maybe slipped out to sea un-noticed.If the latter was the case we would not see it as on previous occasions it had only returned a day or so later. I began to feel tired and despondent as doubts nagged at my inner self.

Thankfully someone arrived to tell us the albatross was indeed on the cliff and visible from further south on the cliffs and  from where it could be seen quite clearly but was invisible to those of us on the viewpoint. Peter, along with others who had never seen the albatross, departed for a view of the bird, eventually returning having seen it reasonably well and thus Peter ticked off another lifer.

Knowing the albatross was on the cliff gave us renewed hope and expectation that it would soon fly around the cliffs but for another four hours there was no indication it was going to. It was not unpleasant listening to the constant rhythmic growling of the Gannets, a noise somewhat similar to that of a starter motor failing to persuade an engine into life and a constant acoustic backdrop to the beautiful location we found ourselves in. 

The Gannets whirled around in front of us, riding the updraughts of air, some even landing on ledges of the cliff that fell away from the viewpoint. Below, on a stack many Gannets sat, each guarding their single youngster, now almost full grown and in their juvenile grey plumage starred with a myriad of white spots.


The sun shone warm as the north wind blew on my face.The sea was shades of blue and green with the polka white dots of resting Gannets bobbing on the swell as far as you could see.The viewpoint became crowded, overfull in fact as the vigil for the albatross to leave its cliffside perch continued. Some gave up and went off in search of something else, the rest of us remained, stoic and determined to see it out one way or the other. Three, four, five hours had passed with nothing to get excited about. We got to know our neighbours and started up conversations to while away the time.Two Harbour Porpoises created a mild stir of distraction as their black torpedo forms showed in the swell far below.

Midday had now arrived and Mark was getting anxious as indeed was I. Tired from my early start last night I slid to the wooden decking floor with my back against the railings.I closed my eyes.It may have been minutes or even seconds when the local lady standing beside me suddenly exclaimed.

'There's the albatross! Its flying!'

Briefly, panic and pandemonium ensued on the viewpoint. The same cry from everyone. 'Where?' 

'Its right in front at twelve o' clock heading out over the stack with all the gannets'.

I scrambled to my feet and desperately tried to locate it. A hasty enquiry to the local lady by my side

 'Sorry.Where is it?' 

'It's flying away, straight out from us'.

I scanned with my bins and it seemed to take an age to locate it but there was the huge bird surprisingly hard to pick out amongst the gannets, gliding just above the waves and heading inexorably out to sea. 

No! Please don't do that. Not after all the waiting, hoping and endless patience we have shown!

The albatross continued heading away but then settled on the sea and commenced bathing.Only a few still had it in sight but they kept on it in case it flew again. Someone who came here regularly gave  faint hope by telling us it often did this before returning to fly around the cliff.

The albatross was a fair way out, amongst some gannets on the sea but clearly visible in my bins.The best that can be said was it had stopped flying away from us but its current position was far from satisfactory from my point of view. 

It was around thirty five minutes past noon when the albatross rose off the sea. Heart in mouth time. It could go either way. Would it fly further out to sea or return to the cliffs? It did neither but began cruising along parallel to the cliff and a long way out. Everyone was praying that it would come closer but  for now it was content to cruise along, making wide circles as if it would disappear out to sea at any moment but always it turned and commenced flying towards us and each time it was coming marginally closer.

It was barely controlled mayhem on the viewpoint with most just about managing to locate its distant flying form amongst the gannets.The viewpoint by now was populated by a mixture of birders, the general public, voluntary wardens and photographers, all with varying levels of skill at finding the albatross. The local lady took it upon herself to provide a running commentary of the albatross's movements for the benefit of others. She heroically kept this up non stop, never removing her bins from her eyes in case she lost sight of it. 

The albatross slowly came closer, circling wide and then heading directly for us before circling again. A buzz of adrenalin and excitement fizzed through us. It was coming ever closer and surely was going to eventually be really close to the cliff.

Two young ladies who had squeezed in next to me, non birders and without bins or even knowing what an albatross was like, voiced their frustration at being unable to see it despite constant cries of how close it was coming and a stream of helpful and not so helpful directions. 

It's over the white surf line.

It's passing under a gannet that's above it.

It's over a white buoy

Its under the cliff to our right

All were meaningless to them. I kept gently trying to tell them where it was but they just could not see it although it was in plain eyesight. By now it was at almost point blank range or seemed so and as the huge bird wheeled and showed its black outstretched wings and gleaming white underparts in the sky they finally found it. 

Shrieks of joy split the air as they saw it and as the tension dissipated they went into exclamations of wonder. 

Its huge!

Oh my God!Look at its wings!

I never thought I would see one!

It's wonderful!

Look its got a huge pink bill!

I can see its eyes.It's so close!

We're so lucky we came to Bempton today!

They could not stop eulogising, as did many others, but who could be critical of anyone deriving such manifest enjoyment, wonder and awe at seeing this beautiful and celebrated creature? They will never forget this experience and will relate it to their friends and somewhere along the line they or someone they talk to will develop an interest and appreciation of the natural wonders of the world they inhabit.

The albatross can be said, with no exaggeration, to have put on a performance which put our previous encounters in its company truly in the shade. It was just sublime, as time after time, the albatross circled in front of us, passing over the stack, still inundated with Gannets and their almost fully grown young.

The albatross had left its cliffside perch and first appeared at around fifteen minutes past noon and had been on view virtually constantly since. It was now one o'clock  The superb encore came when the huge bird came up on the air currents to almost level with us, so very very close, cruising past us and then circling out in a wide arc before coming back into the cliffs once again.

Finally it disappeared for the last time behind the cliff to our left where it liked to perch. The performance was over and Mark was exultant with one of his images. It was the perfect underwing shot and the image he always wanted.We could feel his excitement and were pleased that at last he had, for now, satisfied a longing he had  nurtured all summer.

My image of the underwings of the albatross

Mark's image of the underwings of the albatross

Here are some other images to give a flavour of our latest and probably last albatross experience - for this year anyway!

Many of us now left the viewpoint. Vacating our place on the railing for others just arriving. Happy and content with this unprecedented experience we made a not unpleasant walk along the clifftop and back to the visitor centre for a coffee and to rest our eyes from the glare of the sea. The sun was now hot and we sat, tired but content at an outside table while Tree Sparrows chirped in the surrounding bushes. A volunteer  warden showed us a Whinchat perched on a distant bush. and another brought us an Elephant Hawk Moth larva to gawp at. 

We decided there was little point in going for the plover in the glare of the early afternoon sunshine.We would wait for the later afternoon but what to do in the meantime?

Lunch was the answer, a proper lunch in a cafe, not a sandwich from the Coop and we headed for Flamborough, finally settling at the very, very busy cafe on Flamborough Head a few miles from Bempton.

It was noisy, hectic and crowded, with everyone making the utmost of the glorious weather. We ordered tea with fish and chips, well we were beside the seaside, and after downing that lot got out of the scrum of people and headed for Blacktoft.It was now around three and with the ninety minute drive to come we would arrive at Blacktoft at just about the right time.

The White tailed Plover had been regularly reported throughout the day on Rare Bird Alert (RBA) so I was reasonably confident we would get to see it. The drive through the pleasant Yorkshire countryside seemed longer than anticipated but finally we entered the unattractive surrounds of  Goole which lies on the southside of the River Humber and followed the distinctive brown RSPB signs as they led us around the town and then down winding roads until we came to the reserve's discrete  entrance.

The last report of the plover was that it could be seen from the Townend Hide so we made for there. I was concerned that the hide would be full but my worries were needless.There was plenty of room but no plover. The person next to me told me it had just flown off to Xerox Hide at the other end of the reserve and that was where everyone had gone.

I left and made a dash for the Xerox Hide which was more crowded but someone kindly moved up to let me have a seat. Again no plover. It was explained the plover was here but out of sight behind an island of reeds and rank vegetation. We decided to sit for a while and wait it out. Apparently White tailed Plovers prefer to feed  in well vegetated wet areas  that provide good cover and not out in the open like Lapwings or most other waders.This might be a long wait.

A short while later one of the very friendly RSPB  staff came along and enquired

'Is there anyone here who has not seen the plover yet?'

We confirmed we had not and were told that it was viewable from the small visitor centre that lies equidistant between the Xerox and Townend Hides, and we should go there and would be able to see the plover. Due to covid restrictions only visitors who had not seen the plover were allowed in the centre.

After a quick walk back to the centre and instructions on the covid protocols we were told where it was. The view was hardly crippling (another twitching term meaning exceptional) but adequate, the plover's, fawn and white body on very long yellow legs just visible beyond a large reed bed. It was feeding  amongst some godwits. I made way for Peter to scope it and he duly recorded his second lifer. 

I contented myself that at least I could now say I had seen the plover but really wanted to see it better than this and get a photo if possible, then the day from my point of view would be regarded as a total success. A debate ensued amongst us about which hide it would be best to choose to get a chance of seeing the plover and in the end we split up with Peter going to the Xerox Hide, while Mark and myself opted for  the Townend Hide.If the plover showed at either we could alert each other via our mobile phones.

There were of course other birds to see and from the Townend Hide we got good views of feeding Black tailed Godwits and Green Sandpipers. Ruff and Common Snipe fed more distantly, Mark found a Water Rail, as usual skulking in and out of the reeds and Bearded Tit calls pinged from the reeds. Sadly the White tailed Plover which had been seen well from here earlier in the day failed to fly in. 

Black tailed Godwit

Green Sandpiper

The late afternoon was moving slowly into early evening, the harsh light now become golden and soft. Peter sent a text saying he could not see the plover from the Xerox Hide. Twenty minutes later he sent another text saying the plover had come out from behind the reed island and could be seen.

We left for the Xerox Hide but by the time we got there the plover had gone back behind the reeds.So frustrating. Another long wait ensued, hoping that the plover would come out from behind the reeds but time passed by and the only slim hope was if something flushed the waders that were feeding out of sight behind the reeds. Two passes over the reedbeds beyond by individual Marsh Harriers raised our hopes but they were not close enough to trouble the hidden waders.

Time was running out and I had resigned myself to the fact it was not going to happen when there was a sudden flight of waders from behind the reeds. Black tailed Godwits and Green Sandpipers suddenly appeared in front of us in a flurry of mild alarm  but initially we could see no sign of the plover. 

Someone said it had not flown out but then someone else said

 'Hang on.What's that?'

'There it is.Right in front of us. It's almost the closest wader to us!' 

Indeed it was.Oh wow!

Here it was, obliging us at the very last opportunity and showing well. You could say it was strutting its stuff. We made the most of this opportunity, the light fading but our spirits which had also been fading fast now going in the other direction. I had got reasonable views of the White tailed Plover at Rainham all those years ago but this was infinitely better.

Through my bins I admired its incredibly long, thin yellow legs, (think of knitting needles bent in the middle) which supported its body, the colour of milky coffee above and whitish below apart from a pale brown breast patch. 

Its head was also pale brown and featureless apart from prominent dark eyes in its plain face. It kept much to itself and its typical plover feeding action of short steps and then pausing to scrutinise the watery mud was distinctive.

We watched and photographed it for twenty minutes but then it ran to our left and became invisible once more behind some reeds, its dislike of being out in the open all too apparent.

We left the hide, buoyed by this last minute triumph.The drive home would be long and boring and having been up for at least twenty six hours I would suffer the consequences for the next day or two but for now I really could not care.

We had succeeded in what we had set out to achieve and that was all that mattered.

Tuesday 24 August 2021

The Best Spider Ever 22nd August 2021

A tweet posted just over a week ago by Cliff showed some very nice images of a Wasp Spider he had seen near his home in the West of England. I have always wanted to see a Wasp Spider as they are a spectacular  and very large member of the spider family, the patterning of yellow, black and white bands on the female's body is a striking combination of colours.

I resolved to contact Cliff, a very nice and helpful person to ask if he would be happy to tell me where to find them but then fortuitously before doing so, another birding colleague,Wayne, posted a picture of a Wasp Spider he had found at Radley, just twenty minutes from my home in Oxfordshire. 

I sent a text to Wayne asking if he would be happy to divulge the location of the spider and he was kind enough to send me specific directions as to where it was.

Unable to go until Sunday morning I set off at 8am with strict instructions from my wife to be back by noon as we were going out to lunch. A pleasant, sunny but cool morning found me parking my car at Radley and walking to the site. I was a bit apprehensive about finding the spider, after all it was a tiny arachnid that I had never seen before, hidden amongst an awful lot of habitat but Wayne's instructions were precise and I located it within seconds, hanging in its web, low down in the grass and yellow heads of fleabane.

The web itself is fascinating, being what is called an orb web with a noticeable pale zigzag pattern running vertically down its centre called a stabilimentum. When young the spider  creates a  very fine web of a circular zigzag design but as it matures it only creates a more obvious vertical zigzag which reflects ultraviolet light to attract pollinating insects such as flies, bees and moths.

What a superb spider they are, the colourful females are truly spectacular when you examine  one closely.The web too was a masterpiece with long filaments, like guy ropes, holding the intricately spun web  between the stems of flowers and grass with the spider hanging in the middle, its black and yellow banded body plump and oval.It was positioned perfectly in the centre of its web, the eight legs spreadeagled in classic pose and sensitive to any vibration of the web.

The Wasp Spider in the centre of its web showing the distinctive vertical zigzag in the web

I wasted no time in getting out the camera but on preparing to kneel on the grass a tiny insect  blundered into the outer edge of the web and the spider reacted immediately, traversing the taut filaments of its web by a bouncing progress I can only liken to a combination of trampolining and tight rope walking,  to envelop the insect and inject it with venom.For the next minute it proceeded to wrap the immobilised insect in silk, effectively cocooning it, presumably to be eaten later. 

I was dismayed because the classic shot I was anticipating looked now to be an impossibility as I assumed the spider would eat the insect but I was mistaken.No sooner had it immobilised and cocooned the insect than the spider bounced its way back across its web to the centre and resumed its spreadeagled pose

The Wasp Spider making its way back to the centre of its web after cocooning its prey-top right

Much relieved I took its picture from all angles. What an exotic looking creature it was, a perfection of evolutionary creation, mimicking a wasp so as to deter predators. The bold colouring of black, yellow and white bands are striking and bring a sense of the exotic which is quite apposite, as this spider originates from the Mediterranean and began colonising the southern half of England in the 1920's, subsequently slowly speading northwards

The bold colouring and large size of this particular spider, almost 1.5cms long, told me it was a female as males are a third the size and brown. The males also have the dubious privilege of being eaten by the female after mating unless they are quick enough to make their escape.

Underside of female Wasp Spider's body

Upperside of female Wasp Spider's body

I was there for half an hour, secluded in an area infrequently encroached by humanity and was reluctant to leave but time waits for no one and I had to be home. I left the spider hanging in silent perfection on its masterpiece of silken threads.

So taken was I by this spider I returned a few days later for another look as I do not know when I will encounter another. With more than a little trepidation I made my way to the spider's web strung between blades of grass, a matter of inches above the ground. Would something have destroyed the spider and its web or would it still be intact? Thankfully it was the latter and there was the spider busily dealing with another fly that had blundered into her web.She had already paralized it with venom and was now, with infinite slowness and movements imperceptible to my eyes, cocooning the unfortunate insect in silk.

I left, once again marvelling at this example of the natural world and its infinite variety that is out there for all to discover, if we only take time to look.

A Visit to the Caspian 21st August 2021

Oxfordshire birding is fortunate to currently have a number of keen young birders residing in the county and one of these, Isaac, made a notable discovery at Farmoor Reservoir this morning. I had met him on the causeway at just after 6am and we chatted briefly, commiserating about the lack of birds - not an unusual occurrence at Farmoor. Today there was just one juvenile Dunlin wandering along by the water's edge.

left Isaac on the causeway and went on my way to check the bushes by the banks of the adjacent River Thames, looking for a redstart or maybe a flycatcher. These days, if you are birding you have to be up and about early at the reservoir as it is now far busier than previously, due to many people having 'discovered' during the covid pandemic, that it is a pleasant place for a stroll or to sit outside the cafe with a coffee. 

I spent the next six hours scouring every secluded part of the reservoir, searching various hotspots in amongst the brambles, nettles and scrubby areas where hardly anyone ventures. 

Standing quietly I soon connected with roving groups of warblers and tits. Each group hurrying through the tops of the hedgerow bushes and trees, playing an avian follow my leader, flying at great speed across the gaps in the hedgerow, constantly apprehensive of the exposure between the sanctuary provided by the bushes. The regular plaintive 'hooeets' of Chiffchaffs and the occasional Willow Warbler, punctuated the progress of these impromptu flocks. 

Common Whitethroats. and Blackcaps haunted the brambles, drawn there by the already ripened blackberries, the insistent churring and tacking alarm calls of the respective warblers betraying their hiding places. Once or twice the silvery white and grey form of a Lesser Whitethroat gleamed against the dark leaves and twigs. They are young birds, hatched this year, their clean lines making them svelte and dapper in their fresh plumage. 

The weather today was predicted to be dire with heavy rain arriving by nine am but it did not happen and by noon there had been no sign of rain, although the clouds were massing, their grey looming presence dulling the light. I met Dai on the causeway and we stopped to admire a party of Egyptian Geese hanging out with the flock of Greylags and Canadas, that at this time of year like nothing better than to laze away the hours on the concrete that shelves down to the water.

I was feeling tired, the effects of walking six miles in the previous seven hours and, on getting home prepared for some couch time, watching my favourite football club, Brentford, playing Crystal Palace. By now the rain had arrived and with a vengeance, hammering down with some force as if the delay in its arrival had been concertina'd into one mighty deluge. I checked my phone for any local bird news and was astounded to see a message from our County Bird Recorder advising that 'The juvenile Caspian Gull was still on the west side of Farmoor Two.' 

What the..........! 

I scrolled back further and found that Isaac had posted a couple of very nice images of a Caspian Gull that he had found on the causeway earlier.The quality of the images showed the gull was viewable at almost point blank range.This was too much for me to resist.

I had to go back to Farmoor, of that there was no question but needed to face the fact that I would get drenched by the unrelenting rain. Undeterred I donned wet weather gear, abandoned any thought of watching the football and headed for Farmoor. The rain remained torrential and mentally I prepared for the worst. I was in for a right good soaking of that there was no doubt as there would be no hiding place on the reservoir. The car's wipers were doing their best to cope with the rain and spray from other vehicles but on approaching the reservoir I was mightily relieved to find the rain ceasing even though it had been predicted to last for the rest of the day. Getting out of the car the rain had completely gone but more dark clouds were heading my way, pressaging another downpour  but there was nothing I could do but face it when it arrived.Maybe I could see the gull before the rain was upon me.

I headed up the causeway. One benefit of the rain meant that the causeway was now deserted but for one intrepid couple, so potential disturbance was at a minimum. Sometimes the increased footfall at the reservoir can be so frustrating.You find or see a desired bird at the reservoir only for it to be flushed by innocent passers by. It's not their fault and they have just as much right as anyone to use the reservoir but sometimes............................

It began to rain heavily again. The couple following me took sanctuary in the causeway hide which I had just passed. I carried on. I was on a mission. 

There were a couple of likely looking but distant juvenile gulls stood on the causeway wall but on getting closer they were obviously juvenile Herring Gulls. Two thirds of the way up the causeway I saw a bedraggled figure approaching from the opposite direction.It was our esteemed County Recorder, a very wet one  and not in the best of moods. He had been caught in the previous deluge with nowhere to shelter and was now getting soaked again.  I enquired of any news of the gull and desperate to get to the shelter of the causeway hide he was kind enough to stop long enough to tell me to look for a dead fish on the concrete bank at the top of the causeway. 

On reaching the end of the causeway it had almost stopped raining and sure enough two large juvenile gulls were circling a dead trout lying on the concrete bank. But then fate took its turn as two other people, out for a walk, approached the gulls which promptly flew off and settled out on the reservoir. It seemed to take an age for the couple to pass by but when they had one of the juvenile gulls flew back and settled by the fish.

Success! It was the juvenile Caspian Gull and it wasted no time in setting about tearing the trout to pieces with its formidable bill. It was a brutish looking bird, big and bold chested with long legs and an attenuated profile. The second rain shower had now passed and I papped away at the gull which showed remarkable trust, allowing me to approach it closely. All was well until two of the Egyptian Geese walked along the concrete and stood right beside the gull effectively obscuring it.Thanks! I felt sure the gull would fly off but not a bit of it.The gull held its ground and continued to feed as the geese, which can be quite aggressive to other birds, ignored it.

Eventually it flew off for no apparent reason and continued its flight to the far side of the reservoir  where it landed next to an adult Herring Gull. There was obviously another dead fish there and when the Herring Gull flew off, the Caspian Gull commenced feeding on that one.

I walked around the reservoir perimeter with two birding colleagues who had joined me, all of us eventually coming to rest on the perimeter wall, a few metres from the gull and for the next hour stood admiring this unexpected and welcome encore to my birding day. By now the wet weather had long gone and a sultry and humid atmosphere settled over the waters with even sunny spells piercing the skies.In my wet weather gear I now felt decidedly overdessed!

The Caspian Gull had one purpose on its mind and that was to eat as much of the fish as possible.Eventually there was nothing left of the fish but skin and bones, all the flesh consumed.

The gull now replete, flew a short way out onto the water and settled. I swear it looked thoroughly pleased with itself.

Early evening was upon us, a pleasant one of stillness with the sun at last showing signs of permanence. There was no more to be done and I chose this moment to leave. 

Caspian Gulls core breeding areas are around the Black and Caspian Seas and across central Asia to nothwest China.Their population is expanding and it has been spreading north and west and now breeds as near to Great Britain as Poland and Germany. Sightings of colour ringed birds in Great Britain  indicate  that it is birds from these areas that are wandering to Great Britain, where they can be found mainly in the southeast, East Anglia and the Midlands. Increasingly, British birders are acquiring the expertise to differentiate this gull from other similar species of gull. This is reflected in the increasing number of records of this species from Britain. Although its population is increasing it is still a comparatively rare bird in Great Britain and often a challenge to identify - hence all the excitement amongst certain birders at Farmoor Reservoir today.