Thursday 28 October 2021

The Hoopoe at Warwick 27th October 2021

A Hoopoe was discovered in a landscaped technology park in Warwick a couple of days ago.This was less than an hour from my home so it would have been remiss not to go and see it. Hoopoes are always nice to see wherever and whenever they turn up.

This particular bird had chosen the closely mowed, landscaped surrounds opposite the reception entrance to the offices of the computer giant IBM.  The offices formed a three sided quadrangle with the road at the bottom end.The path to the reception ran between two broad strips of grass and one of these was where the Hoopoe had decided to make its welcome appearance. 

Hoopoes are prone to arriving in unlikely places such as here, and the last one I saw, just over a year ago, was feeding on the front lawn of a house, so it would appear that closely mown grass is obviously to their liking as they can easily find the grubs and invertebrates they feed on.

I joined about twenty other birders and photographers lined up against one side of the office buildings looking across to the furthermost expanse of grass where the Hoopoe was standing motionless in the grass. 

I waited and eventually it began to feed by making vigorous thrusting motions into the soil with its long slightly downcurved beak. There was no shortage of food, judging by the number of times it hauled a fat grub out of the soil, held it in the tip of its mandibles, tilted its head and opened its bill wide to toss back and swallow the grub.

From what I could discern it was feeding on the larvae of craneflies, probing in the grass, similar to the way Starlings do, until it found one and then extracting the fat white larva from the ground. There was no shortage of them and the Hoopoe would regularly take a break after feasting on them, standing quietly in the grass until it decided to seek out some more.

Occasionally it would raise its crest. I could see no apparent stimulus for this but certain things of which I was unaware seemed to get it excited and prompt it to fan its crest. A wing stretch also resulted in the crest being erected.This was, quite naturally, what all of us wanted to record but it was such an irregular occurence that you had to have a lot of patience and a bit of good fortune to catch it.

The day itself could not have been less suited to photography. It was grey and heavily overcast and made matters very difficult but it was good to forget about camera settings for a while, just to stand and watch this exotic looking creature gracing the bland unlikely surroundings it currently found itself in.


Tuesday 26 October 2021

Fungi for a Change 25th October 2021

A chance conversation with Peter, a birding colleague with an interest in all things natural, persuaded me to visit North Leigh Common in my home county of Oxfordshire. He had fired my curiosity by showing me pictures of a spectacular toadstool going by the name of Fly Agaric, that he had found at North Leigh a few days before.

They are highly poisonous and their red and white colouring alerts anyone to this fact. It is a natural way of saying 'keep away I am dangerous'. However there are few records of human deaths as a result of eating one. Humans have, however, made use of their hallucinogenic properties in many areas of the world where it grows and, in Siberia and with the Sami in Lapland it carries a religious significance in their respective cultures.

North Leigh Woods is a reserve owned and managed by West Oxfordshire District Council and is but a fifteen minute car drive from my home, accessed through pleasing byways and narrow lanes in the heart of rural Oxfordshire. I arrived at the small car park at just after noon and wandered down a track and into the woods.

It was a beautiful autumnal day of weak sunshine and still air. A day to enjoy but with the inevitable melancholy that accompanies the realisation that this was almost a final farewell to autumn, the dark greens of late summer and early autumn now supplanted by shades of red, yellow and golden brown as the leaves commence to fade and fall. The waist high green bracken in the glades bows fan like  fronds, already turning brown, to the inevitable and they sink slowly back to earth. A late dragonfly, a last vestige of summer and now seeming out of place, cruised in the sunshine on a penultimate patrol through the bracken and trees.Soon it will fall to earth, as now do the leaves, and its tiny body become as one with the land. 

But as the long, drawn out decline towards shorter and darker days proceeds, so life still springs from the earth. This is the time of the fungi, when in all sorts of infinite shapes and sizes they sprout up from the damp ground, leaf litter and rotting logs.The woodland floor abounds with fungi, strange, surprising, delicate and often overlooked but not today.

You can hardly miss the Fly Agaric, appearing, depending on age, in various hues of  red, orange and white, the saucer sized tops a bright red and spotted with white warts when in their pomp, then turning orange as they age and fade, supported by a stout white stalk called a stipe. 

For all their gleaming and bright colours, here in the woods and bracken they are often partially hidden,  thrusting up from the dank, dark, decaying leaves and wet moss that lie under intricate tangles of twigs and bramble. In shaded corners their stipe stands out against the dark background of  rotting logs and leaf litter.Touch the stipe or cap and you will be surprised at their fragility, with a texture like wet rubber, even the mildest of contact is likely to topple the toadstool.

It is a large toadstool and thankfully still common and numerous wherever it grows. There are roughly four stages to its growth. It first emerges from the ground looking like a white egg. As it grows the red colour appears and numerous white, wart like spots cluster on its surface.

The cap changes from a sphere to a hemisphere and finally assumes a flat, plate like appearance.When fully grown the bright red cap can range from 3-8 inches in diameter, sometimes larger.The red colour fades with age to orange and also after rain has fallen on the toadstool. The white wart like spots are also obliterated by heavy rain.

The name Fly Agaric comes from its historic use as an insecticide sprinkled in milk and it has been recorded as being used to get rid of bugs in both England and Sweden. An alternative suggestion of the term fly -  is that it refers not to insects but to the delirium that results from consuming the fungus. This derives from the medieival belief that flies could enter a person's head and cause mental illness. 

I spent a couple of hours wandering natural corridors through the bracken and trees, each encounter of  a cluster of Fly Agarics bringing that inimitable joy of discovery.

I saw no one in my peregrinations, the woods quiet and comforting and my mind diverted from the troubles of what was for now another world.It has been a long time since I have seen these iconic red and white toadstools but here they were in profusion, aglow in in their little enclaves.

They are the traditional choice for children's story books and many of us can recall pictures from childhood of fairies and gnomes using Fly Agarics as homes or to sit upon.The contrasting bright colours of red and white are bound to be attractive to small children and more likely to retain their interest than the usual brown and cream colours of other fungi.

I cannot claim any great knowledge of fungi as I am only just discovering the delights of the many different species and the fun in seeking them out. Many birders adopt an interest in other forms of the natural world; orchids, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, even bees spring to mind  but I have become hooked on fungi and am now a fully signed up life member of The Fungi Nerds Club and not ashamed to admit it.My eyes have been opened to a whole new world thanks to Peter and at the moment I cannot get enough.

As primarily a birder I should add that it is nice to not for once have to look up but look down. Fungi also do not fly away, fail to turn up the next day or hide.There is no need to rush to see them as they will be there and remain, unlike birds. What a difference and how relaxing to wander through an ancient wood, taking one's time and in the processs shed my worries and anxieties and find fulfilment in nature once again.


Monday 25 October 2021

A Return to the Pectoral Sandpiper 25th October 2021

Mark (P) called me on Sunday suggesting we go out birding on Monday. As he had never seen a Pectoral Sandpiper and the one at Port Meadow was still wandering the floods when he called, it was obvious where we should go.

Weather is always a factor in birding and Monday morning was benign with a gentle southwest wind and sunshine heralding a classic autumn day, once the early morning mist had cleared. We revisited the same car park at Port Meadow as I had used on Saturday and made our way out to the flood. 

Although there had been no news about the Pectoral Sandpiper so far this morning, we were soon re-assured on seeing four distant birders looking intently at the flood and when we joined them, sure enough  there was the Pectoral Sandpiper, busily feeding on the further side of the shallow water. 

I was keen to get better images of  it than I had achieved on Saturday, when the weather was overcast and gloomy.Today could not have been more different and I felt optimistic.The other birders departed so we walked closer to the sandpiper and stood on the waterlogged ground as it fed contentedly and gradually came closer and closer and closer. It could not have worked better for us as the sandpiper fed unconcernedly within metres of us and looking an absolute picture in the morning sun.

Below is a selection of the images I took of this rare and welcome transatlantic visitor to Oxfordshire, the first for ten years on Port Meadow.

Eventually, even we had enough images, and looking off to the far reaches of the meadow I saw in the distance a large white heron standing in the middle of the grassy plain.It could only be a Great White Egret, my second in three days. It was certainly not there when we arrived and must have flown in while we were concentrating on the Pectoral Sandpiper. Great White Egrets are  a very scarce visitor to Port Meadow so we opted to skirt around where the sandpiper was feeding and try to get closer to the egret.

As we walked further out onto the meadow we encountered a flock of Golden Plover.There must have been at least a hundred and fifty, hunkered down in the grass, apprehensive at our approaching them, their dull, buff gold upperparts effectively rendering them inconspicuous in the rough grass now turning from green to a winter yellow 

Some of the flock took off, rising into a blue sky and wheeled overhead, calling gently, no more than a gentle whisper of sound passing between them, while others, a minority, chose to remain on the ground. 

We moved further and looking towards the egret I saw with some dismay it was flying away, scared off by a person walking across the grass  in its direction, It rose high in the sky, stately on broad and bowed white wings, its long black legs projecting far beyond its tail and headed north. Disturbance of one form or another is a constant factor at Port Meadow on what is a very popular recreational facility for the dwellers of the adjacent city of Oxford. So one just has to accept  the situation for what it is.

We had however got some excellent images of the sandpiper and Mark had yet another lifer in his burgeoning birding career. All was well in our world.


Sunday 24 October 2021

A Pectoral Sandpiper at Port Meadow 23rd October 2021

Having spent three hours in a cold gloomy hide Bittern watching, well mainly waiting rather than watching if I am honest, I was delighted to get an Oxonbirds WhatsApp alert about a Pectoral Sandpiper that had just been discovered at Port Meadow in nearby Oxford, just thirty minutes drive away.

It had been found by Thomas Miller a fellow Oxonbirder who is a Phd student at Oxford and was leading the inaugural outing of the Oxford Ornithological Student Society to Port Meadow.

Despite it being a Saturday morning, traffic was light and I soon reached the car park by the meadow, parted with £2 for three hours parking and set off through the entrance gate to follow the track that leads out onto the meadow.

In the distance I could see a huddle of people, some looking intently through scopes at an area of flooded grassland and mud.This obviously was the location of the sandpiper but with horror I watched an out of control dog racing across the meadow and putting every bird up into the air. Port Meadow is situated by the River Thames, on the northwest edge of the City of Oxford and consequently is widely used by the general public and can get very busy. Sadly it is also used by a minority of irresponsible and inconsiderate dog owners and this was just the latest manifestation of such behaviour.

I joined the small crowd of birders, expecting to hear that the bird had flown but was delighted to learn that it was the one and only bird not to be flushed by the dog. The sandpiper was on the other side of the stretch of shallow water in front of us, working its way steadily and methodically around small grass tussocks in the waterlogged ground. 

It was very active, only occasionally stopping  to look about, alerted by something unknown to us but would soon resume its feeding and gradually made its way along the edge of the flood. A brief spell of preening and a couple of brief stops to stand and rest were the only interruptions to its almost constant feeding.

It was a juvenile bird judging by its pristine plumage and is part of quite an influx to Britain this autumn.They are in fact the commonest American vagrant to find their way to Britain, with most records coming  in September and October. 
The last one to be seen on Port Meadow was a moulting adult that stayed for one day, on the very early date of 29th of July 2011 and before that two juveniles that lingered from 30th of September to 14th of October 2007. 

In their understated way they are an attractive wader, maybe one for the connoisseur. There is nothing flashy about their plumage which is a neat and pleasing amalgam of brown and richer chestnut scallopy upperparts, by way of the presence of white fringes to the brown feathers. These white fringes form two obvious white stripes on each side of its upperpart plumage. Slightly larger than a Dunlin they have a slightly decurved bill and yellowish green legs. Their name derives from the finely streaked breast which comes to a point in the centre and is sharply defined from the rest of the white underparts. They breed both in northeast Siberia and North America and usually winter in South America. Personally I would plump for this bird coming from Siberia but who really knows.

Courtesy of Badger.

The students departed leaving a hardcore of Oxonbird regulars. I took a lot of pictures and then, relaxing had a pleasant chat with my fellow birders, almost all known to me,  even meeting people I had not seen for a very long time.

An hour  passed very amicably and then I left to head for home. Not a bad morning with a Bittern and a Great White Egret seen earlier and now a true rarity for Oxford, in the form of a very obliging Pectoral Sandpiper.