Sunday, 12 September 2021

Going Green at Bempton 10th September 2021

Green Warbler c Adrian Webb

I was standing by a hedge, in a field, at a place called Sarsden which is near my home in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, unsuccessfully trying to locate a couple of elusive Common Redstarts that had been reported from there yesterday. To add to my misery I had just received a right good soaking from an unexpected shower of rain. It was not a happy time.

My phone rang.It was Mark my twitching buddy. 

'There's a Green Warbler at Bempton!' he breathlessly informed me. 

'It's been trapped and ringed!' 

A Green Warbler is a true mega with only six accepted records in Britain excluding this bird.They breed in deciduous and mixed forests and on mountain slopes up to the treeline from northern Turkey, The Caucasus and west central Asia to northeast Iran and winter in southern India and southeast Asia. For a long while this species was considered to be a race of Greenish Warbler but since 2008 the British Ornithological Union (BOU) has split Green Warbler as a separate species based on mitochondrial DNA samples and differences in plumage and song

You going for it? I enquired 

'What do you think! I am at Tring Reservoir at the moment. It will take me an hour to get home and get everything together. Drive to mine and we can go in my car.' he added.

The warbler had been released into the copse where it had been caught which was at a place called Buckton, a half hour walk north along the cliffs from the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve. Birders were asked to park at the reserve's car park and walk to the copse which, although on private land, was accessible as the sympathetic farmer had granted access. 

I pointed out to Mark that it was now almost one pm and it would take me one and a half hours to get to his house and then it would be another four hours minimum to get to Bempton Cliffs, by which time it would be six thirty pm at the earliest. Also we would need to add a subsequent half hour walk to the copse and that would leave very little time to find a warbler that, having been trapped and ringed earlier, was now not unexpectedly proving very elusive.

Mark suggested it would be quicker for me to drive on my own to Bempton and we could meet up there but I baulked at the prospect of going all the way to Bempton for such a short window of viewing opportunity.

I dithered and equivocated. Should I go or should I wait? After all this was only the seventh Green Warbler seen in Britain and I would forever chide myself if it had gone by tomorrow. Further it was the first to be relatively accessible as all the others had been on distant islands. I had dipped one on Lundy only three years ago. However I had  slept really badly last night and was dog tired. The energy, both mental and physical was just not there for a four hour, two hundred mile marathon drive to Yorkshire and then back again.

After much soul searching I decided I would wait for news of the warbler being present tomorrow, Friday, and if it was still around drive myself to Bempton, now a place that has become very familiar due to no less than six trips this summer to see the famous albatross that has taken up residence on the cliffs. 

Meanwhile, Mark had also phoned Les, a mutual twitching pal and they decided to go immediately. I could but wish them all the best although feeling they were taking a huge risk.

Later on I was still very much in two minds what to do about the warbler.The sensible and logical course of action would be to wait until news came out that it remained in its favoured copse tomorrow. However this is twitching where very often precisely the opposite to logical thought and common sense holds sway.

I went to bed early on Thursday night, having elected to leave the house at  six am on Friday, despite this being too early for any updates about the warbler's continued presence.If it was reported as not there on Friday I could always turn back en route

Leaving home at six am would mean a ten thirty am arrival at Bempton. Of course it did not work out this way as, having slept for only two hours, I awoke at midnight, my mind racing. I tried to tell myself to be calm but after an hour of lying in bed wide awake and fretting I decided I had best get up and get going.I wanted to be on site at first light as undoubtedly many other birders would be heading to Bempton and from all reports I had seen earlier the viewing possibilities were restricted. 

I left the house at one am on a mild and still night, the roads wet and shining in the moonlight due to a recent rain shower. Following familiar roads across the Cotswolds I finally made the motorway, consumed by anxiety and self recrimination. It always works out this way with me on the initial part of a solo  twitch. I should be used to it now but still feel the spectre of a domineering father looking down on me and calling my actions into question. It was the curmudgeonly poet Philip Larkin who famously wrote the following:

They fuck you up,your Mum and Dad
They may not mean to but they do
They fill you with the faults they had 
And add some extra, just for you

How true.

After an hour these feelings of guilt and anxiety always pass and on this occasion a sip or two of coffee made matters better. Driving at night to or from twitches used to be almost pleasant in a perverse kind of way but these days, one often finds the planned route curtailed or diverted due to the closure of major roads and motorways for maintenance or repair. Tonight was no exception as the slip road off the M40 onto the M42 was closed for no accountable reason. The roads around Birmingham seem particularly prone to these closures. A six mile detour ensued, which is the last thing you need when you have almost two hundred miles to travel and are already tired and fraught. Eventually I regained the motorway.

Brexit is rightly blamed for the lack of lorries and drivers and tonight the motorways were  markedly less populated than normal by lorries, whilst private cars were almost non existent.This made for quite a pleasant journey north with little traffic to negotiate and I  achieved the four and a half hour trip with but one stop at a Motorway Services in the 'Devil's Hour' of 3am,  so called because so many people choose to die around this time. There was an aged couple sat in the middle of the  deserted concourse of the services as I entered, just staring at their mobile phones.What were they doing, where were they going, why did they look so unhappy? The slightly disturbing painting 'Night Hawks' by Edward Hopper sprang to mind on seeing them.

With a sense of relief I left the brightly illuminated temple of naffness and returned to the road and the night, eventually leaving the motorway, following country roads that crossed the Yorkshire Wolds, heading east to finally find myself driving through Bempton, looking for the familiar brown RSPB signs that pointed the way to their reserve at Bempton  Cliffs. I fully expected the reserve's car park to be full when I got there but was pleasantly surprised to find only a handful of cars  with their occupants either asleep or just stirring.

It was 5.45 am and it would almost be light by 6am. I parked the car and got out into a pleasantly mild and breaking dawn. It took a few minutes to get body and soul together after such a long drive and then I ran through a mental check that I had everything I needed. Other birders began walking in the direction of the cliffs. Indistinct dark shapes making their way down to the cliff edge path and then walking north for a half a mile to turn left and cross a fallow field to the copse. 

I followed them.

Nobody spoke as we trudged along in single file. Everyone dulled by the early start, especially those who had slept overnight in their cars. Like soldiers on manouevres with scopes, tripods, bins and camera bags slung over our shoulders we yomped across the uneven ground in the growing dawn, the growling of nesting Gannets rising up from the cliffs below.

Crossing the fallow field we drew up to stand at a discrete distance from the edge of the copse and  look down a ride of sorts that had been cut through the bushes and stunted trees that flanked each side with, at the bottom,  two horizontal wooden planks crossing the ride, forming part of a Heligoland Trap. 

The Ride

There were about twenty to thirty of us but only those already right in front of the ride would have a clear view.The rest of us would have to cram together as tightly as possible behind, in order to get a view. It was far from satisfactory but it would have to do for now. 

We stood in silence as the dull light slowly improved and the wind continued to sway the leaves of the trees in the copse. No one knew if the warbler was still present. We had arrived imbued with the eternal optimism and vague hopes that are the essence of twitching. In my case it was founded on the weather, as last night was cloudy with rain and not conducive to bird migration. A long subsequent hour passed with just the occasional flicker of an unidentifiable phylloscopus warbler zipping across the ride, only to disappear into the restless leaves, never to be seen again. Some chattering Tree Sparrows flew up from the copse as did a group of five Greenfinches.The mournful cry of a lone Golden Plover came from the leaden skies above but nothing now moved in the copse and certainly not in the ride.

Then, suddenly and thrillingly, there was a flash of bright yellow and white. A milli-second of movement and colour, a small bird, a 'phyllos' warbler, gone almost before it registered. It flew into the right side of the ride where I could not see, due to my position in the scrum. Others better placed announced they could still see it perched on the edge of the bushes.

One then said,

'That's it! I can see the bar on its wing and the bright yellow breast!

Already crammed elbow to elbow we swayed and gravitated en masse towards him to try and get a view but the warbler had gone and we were confounded and frustrated. I suppose I could say at a pinch I had seen it but had to rely on the person who had confirmed it was the Green Warbler. From my point of view it was totally unsatisfactory. I had to see its diagnostic features for myself.

What had just passed was, for me, an untickable view.

Shortly after, a small warbler flew up out of the bushes and disappeared down the slope to the far end of the copse. Someone down there indicated he could see it was the Green Warbler  and a mass exodus ensued but by the time any of us got there it was too late and the bird had disappeared into the bushes once more.

I noted that the prime position, looking right down the ride, had been vacated in the rush and made my way back up the slope as fast as possible to secure a better viewing point. Job done and now all I had to do was hope the warbler would return. Others had the same thoughts and the scrum of birders increased to such an extent that there was literally no room for movement of any sort without subtle use of elbows or knees. Everyone remained well behaved but there was no warbler action. Another small bird appeared in the tangle of dead branches at the bottom of the ride. Greyish brown with a lot of white in its wings. It was a Pied Flycatcher. They are always nice to see and it re-appeared on a number of occasions.

Pied Flycatcher c Adrian Webb

A brief appearance by a Willow Warbler at the back of the ride prompted some to claim it was the Green Warbler but it wasn't. 

However the next warbler to appear in almost the same spot most defnitely was the Green Warbler and for about thirty seconds revealed itself, even hovering in the open to catch an insect before diving back into cover and invisibility.

The Green Warbler showed briefly three more times over a period of one hour and the last view was the best, as it was on view for about a minute hopping through the foliage. I managed to see the wing bar and note its bright colouring and strong face markings even amongst all the leaves and twigs.

I had promised myself  that after this final view I would go down to the end of the copse and look for the warbler there. I was getting a little fed up with the cramped conditions, people breathing down my neck and being unable to move for fear of getting in someone's way. Frankly it was a relief to leave and go down the slope and turn left into the field. Here I could look back at the copse as it ran up the slope and see the bushes around the Heligoland Trap.More to the point I had limitless room and could use my scope.

The copse  from its northern end.The Green Warbler frequented the bushes just in front of the pole

I joined two other colleagues, Adrian and Les and we waited for the warbler to show up which took a little while but eventually it did and how. It flew into a low sallow that had been cut back and fed there, moving from one end to the other which took about two to three minutes, during which time it gave fabulous views in my scope.I was taken with just how bright it was, almost looking like a Wood Warbler such was the intensity of the yellow on its throat and breast and its yellowish green upperparts. The diagnostic wing bar formed by yellowish white tips to the greater coverts was clearly evident along with a strong dark eyestripe, prominent yellow supercilium and pale lower mandible. I kept up a running commentary on its movements as Adrian, standing next to me performed miracles with camera and lens to get the superb images which adorn this blog, my camera currently being out of action.Not that my efforts would have come anywhere near the quality of Adrian's

Green Warbler c Adrian Webb

Several more views were afforded us over the next hour  but never quite as good as the extended one in the sallow. Willow Warblers continued to get  mistaken by some for the Green Warbler but once you had seen the real thing it was obvious just how much brighter in colour it was.The Pied Flycatcher contrived to put on a good show too, zipping around, as they do, low down, from bare bough to bare bough and even a Common Redstart put in a brief appearance.

I chatted to Adrian and waited for just one more view of the Green Warbler. It came when it perched lengthwise on a thin branch, beating a large invertebrate into submission before swallowing it. Then with a flick of its wings it was gone.

It was still only ten thirty but more and more birders were arriving as I began to feel the effects of my sleepless night and all that driving. I needed to be on the road for home before noon as the M1 on a Friday afternoon is not a good place to be.

Twitching the Green Warbler from the field

I had one more stop however and that was to the estimable Copperfields, an unpretentious but superb little cafe in Flamborough where scrambled eggs on toast and a large cappucino set me up for the long haul home.

The Green Warbler remained until 14th September but was not seen again after that day.


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