Thursday, 23 September 2021

A Wryneck at Lark Hill 21st-22nd September 2021

A Wryneck was discovered on 19th September at Lark Hill, which lies on the fringe of Wantage in my home county of Oxfordshire. Remarkably it was in almost the same place and at the same time of year as the last one I saw in Oxfordshire, which was in 2015. What it is about this location that is attractive to Wrynecks I cannot comprehend.

The Wryneck's choice of habitat is nothing more than an unprepossessing chalk track that dips  down and then up to join the Ridgeway and is regularly used by trail bikers, dog walkers and ramblers. A few tattered, wind blasted hawthorns and elders on either side of the track preside over thick grass and herbage bordering farmland which currently consists of vast open fields of stubble.


My initial visit was in the evening of Tuesday the 21st  where I joined half a dozen other birders staking out the track where it dipped down between some hawthorns. It was obvious the Wryneck was not on view when I arrived but I was told it would appear intermittently if I waited and watched where it had last been seen. Nothing much happened for half an hour until Sally arrived and, standing further back up the track from us, found the elusive bird sat low in a small bush. How had it got there when everyone who had last seen it was convinced it had dropped into the bushes we were scrutinising? Conjecture could wait as we all made a short and very rapid walk to join Sally and sure enough there was the Wryneck perched motionless on a stump, silhouetted by the sun.



Realising it had been discovered it soon flew further up the track and for the next forty of so minutes it was a game of cat and mouse as we followed it back and fore along the track, the Wryneck disappearing regularly as they seem so adept at doing and for the most part contriving to remain elusive.

Then, after another period of no sign, on turning round to look down the track I saw the Wryneck fly down from a bush to briefly land on the white chalk of the track. There was no time to waste or alert anyone and I pointed the camera more in hope than anything else at its dark form. Seconds later it scuttled into the long grass and then eventually flew back up into another bush, there to remain much obscured for a while before flying down once more and disappearing into the grass.



I should add that our observations were regularly punctuated by trail bikers using the track to access the Ridgeway.Also add in a few dog walkers who were refreshingly co-operative and locals out for a stroll and it became obvious that a track that appeared isolated and infrequently used, was far from being so.

I drove home into a glorious sunset happy with my Wryneck encounter.  

The next day I decided, after my regular morning stroll round Farmoor Reservoir, to revisit Lark Hill  as Wrynecks wherever they show up are a bird well worth spending time with, especially in Oxfordshire.I got there sometime after one o' clock on another pleasantly sunny but windy day. I parked by the sunken reservoir as usual and before taking the familiar track checked the chainlink fence that guards the reservoir.The fence often serves as a convenient perch for migrants and today there was a rather dapper Northern Wheatear and a male European Stonechat adorning the fenceline.

Walking down to the dip I found only two other birders there, neither of whom had seen the Wryneck nor had a clue where it was last seen and indeed it had not been reported for over two hours. I find the best way to locate a Wryneck that is shy (not all are) is to try and locate it and then wait for it to show itself better, be it in a bush or on the ground.This can take quite sometime as Wrynecks are notoriously reclusive and always take an age to reveal themselves after being disturbed. Unfortunately as neither of my two fellow birders had seen the bird, at this precise moment none of us had a clue where it was. 

This was going to be difficult. 

I opted to stand and wait at roughly where I saw it yesterday. It was as good an option as anything else I could think of doing. After a long and tedious wait I wandered off to check the few bushes further down the track  but could only find two Wheatears eking out an existence on a stubble field. I wandered back and joined the others. Another long period of very little activity ensued, apart from looking imploringly along the track at frequent intervals, hoping for a sign of the elusive Wryneck. 

It was not unpleasant standing on the track in the sun, sheltered by the scattered bushes from the gusting wind but of the Wryneck there was no indication it would apppear.However, scanning the wide open farmland and skies brought a meagre reward in the form of a distant Marsh Harrier and a little later a Peregrine flew high overhead to be followed by a Raven. Grey Partridges called their rasping notes from the stubble and two Yellowhammers flew up from the same stubble into the hawthorns near us but that was all.

Time dragged on further and inevitably people became impatient and began to walk up and down the track which would mean there was even less chance of locating the bird. Two hours of nothing had brought on boredom and aching legs so I slumped down in the grass by the track and, warmed by the  sun, dozed for a while.Half an hour later I roused myself to find that most of my fellow birders had given up and left.I walked back up the track and stood contemplating, well, very little. Dave who had arrived earlier but walked on the length of the track to the Ridgeway came back and stopped to quietly tell me that  that he had just flushed the Wryneck from the edge of the field on our right and it had flown over the track to the edge of the field immediately on the other side. 

It had been feeding unobserved within yards of me!

Dave left and I checked the edge of the field and there was the Wryneck scuttling along the bare margin betwixt field and grass, its crouched form picking up ants as fast as it could with its long sticky tongue, this fact alone betraying its close relationship to woodpeckers. I got the attention of the only two other birders present and directed them onto the object of our desire. From a distance and in the shade the bird appeared Dunnock brown but when viewed closer it could be seen to be a marvel of cryptic colouring and patterning, consisting of greys, browns and buff, overlaid with bars, spots and vermiculations.

It proved difficult for the others to locate it at first but eventually it moved out from under the dead grass and into the stubble. It was very wary, not really happy at being so exposed and as a consequence stood upright, looking about intently and warily. However there were plenty of ants so it made a compromise but soon decided to seek the security of the field edge where it presumably felt re-assured by the overhanging canopy of grass and dead umbellifers. 




Eventually it disappeared into the grass and for twenty minutes we saw no more of it but then it flew to land low down in the centre of a hawthorn, gradually working its way to the top to perch openly on a broken branch and briefly remained there before flying down onto the track and straight back into the long grass

We waited for it to re-appear but there was little indication it would. A couple with their dog came down the track, became curious, asking us what we were looking at and we told them about the Wryneck.They carried on and we resumed our vigil. In the end we felt the bird had somehow given us the slip and walked up both sides of the grass strip where we were certain it was but there was nothing. Very strange. Confounded we stood wondering what to do next. The couple with the dog came back and passing the grass where we had checked so carefully, the dog flushed the Wryneck which flew fast and low across the stubble field to a copse of deciduous trees. I followed it in my bins and saw it settle in an Elder on the edge of the copse.

I walked around the edge of the field and found the Wryneck hiding in the centre of the Elder. It saw me and, as Wrynecks often seem to do, worked its way up to the top of the Elder and perched in the sun and dappled shadows of the wind shaken leaves. It remained there for a couple of minutes and then flew back the way it had come, fast and low, to land once more in the margin between field and grass, before running into the grass and becoming hidden.


It was enough. The sun was now sinking lower, bringing on another fine evening as it spread its gentle light upon the land. I walked back up the track to my car with the Grey Partridges rasping their notes from far out in the stubble.





























 

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