Friday, 14 January 2022

Oxfordshire's First Pallas's Leaf Warbler 13th January 2022

OK I confess, with already four visits under my belt and probably more to come, I have become rather obsessed with the Pallas's Leaf Warbler (PLW) that is currently wowing birders as it spends its winter on the northern edge of Abingdon Sewage Treatment Works, along with at least thirty Common Chiffchaffs and four or more Siberian Chiffchaffs.

I am not the only one to make repeat pilgrimages to the unremarkable hedge and surrounding trees that grow along the lane on the northern side of the sewage works and why not, as this time of year in Oxfordshire is not when a rare bird is likely to be found. So why not make the most of this most sensational of occurrences as it will be a long time until such a thing repeats itself.

My good friend Clackers has been having quite a hard time of it this past year and I managed to persuade him to venture out with me today and come birding. A day of glorious sunshine, azure skies and not a breath of wind. It was calm, almost serene weather, ideal for lifting the spirits by being out and enjoying the great outdoors.We decided to leave it fairly late as the warbler, based on my knowledge of its movements from three previous visits seems to like, 
come the afternoon, spending the majority of its time in the now well known hedge.

I collected Clackers at just before noon and we made the short car journey to Abingdon and joined about a dozen other birders positioned along the lane looking through the chainlink fence guarding the hedge on the other side. The PLW had already been seen on a number of occasions today so we were reasonably confident that it would eventually reveal itself after a wait that could either be long or short.

This was my fourth visit to the lane that has become such an attraction to birders from far and wide.I had seen the PLW on each visit but had yet to get a decent photo of this charismatic vagrant from Asia. Clackers had yet to see the bird and add it to his county list, so both of us were on a mission.

The great problem with the hedge the warbler frequented was that as the sun shone, it was shining low and directly into our faces through a lattice work of branches and twigs, making viewing extremely irksome and if you wanted to try and photograph the bird, doubly so.There was no way of avoiding the sun as it beamed through the fretwork of twigs, stems and straggly branches of the hedge as it was guarded by a chain link fence, so that the only place to view from was the lane outside the fence. 

We stood, checking the hedge, alive with the moving, flickering shapes of many Common Chiffchaffs, all chasing the myriad of flies that were hatching from the filter beds and gravitating to form dancing swarms along the sunny, far side of the hedge. It was a veritable bonanza and probably a lifesaver for the chiffchaffs and they hardly had to move as they picked off inumerable insects from the branches and twigs.The sun was warm and a number of the chiffchaffs chose to perch on the sunny side of the hedge and preen while others commenced to sing, stimulated by the almost spring like weather on this most calm of winter days.Other chiffchaffs descended to ground level to pick off insects and everywhere you looked there were small birds visible in the hedge and trees. My arms were in constant movement, up and down, raising and lowering my binoculars, checking every moving shape as they passed through the hedge, hoping I would get lucky and discover the tiny warbler that brought us here. This is how it's done if you wish to see the PLW but for the most part it brings continuous disappointment as the shape is identified as yet another chiffchaff but then comes something smaller and the pulse quickens but no, it's a Goldcrest threading its way through the lattice work of the hedge. 

We stood with our fellow birders ranged along the hedgeline. A Siberian Chiffchaff perched on a stem of hawthorn, not moving, presumably replete with insects it had consumed. It was in no hurry and indulged itself in a rare moment of prolonged inactivity but eventually it flicked a wing, looked around and rejoined its fellows chasing insects.

Siberian Chiffchaff

For maybe half an hour we stood regarding the hedge until two birders to our left found the PLW flicking its energetic way through some hawthorn twigs. We made haste to join them. Following its progress was another matter, what with the low winter sun shining directly in our eyes and the tiny bird slipping in and out of sight in the tangles of twigs. 

Trying to photograph it was an exercise in constant frustration and at one point I gave up any idea of photography and just followed the bird in my bins.For the most part it was obscured by twigs anyway so any image obtained would hardly be acceptable. Eventually it stopped to preen, deep within the tangle but I could clearly see the diagnostic pale yellow rump, double wing bars and yellow striped head. For a minute it ruffled through its feathers, then with a laconic outward stretch of a wing it was back to its all action ways, wings flicking, darting and dodging through the density of twigs and, inevitably we lost sight of it.

We checked further along the hedge, both up and down the lane but to no avail.We could not locate it but ten minutes later it was found high in a conifer on the other side of the lane but then lost sight of briefly until a fellow birder found it perched and immobile high up in an adjacent conifer.

With some excitement he cried out 

I can see it! 

It's perched high up on the left of the tree!

It's just sitting there doing nothing!

Mild panic ensued as those of us gathered around him anxiously searched the tree. Others on the lane rushed to join us. Some found the warbler and others didn't, despite a number of us trying to describe its location in the conifer. 

Cries of Got it! rang out triumphantly as some birders found it.

I managed to locate it through a triangle of twigs and pine needles and as described by the finder it was totally immobile. It seemed so strange to see it just perched lengthways and motionless along a thin twig, silhouetted against the blue sky.

It remained there for at least a couple of minutes, completely still but then moved and flew back down into the hedge below, on the opposite side of the lane.

No one could relocate it for fifteen or so minutes, then I saw it low down in the hedge but before anyone else could join me it was gone but not for long, as it was refound just above head height, further along in the hedge. I followed it, intent on getting that photo but was repeatedly disappointed, as every time my camera locked onto the bird it was gone just a second too soon, so all I recorded was a mass of twigs and no bird or worse, the wrong end of the bird as it slipped away through the twigs. 

At least the diagnostic yellow rump is visible as the bird moves away

Again and again I attempted to get it in my viewfinder but then the camera would focus on the  chain link fence and not further through the fence to the warbler beyond. I adjusted camera settings, length of focus and finally my opportunity came as this feathered will o' the wisp perched on a tiny twig and remained static, looking around for insects rather than chasing through the bushes after them. It was only for thirty seconds possibly less, but there it was, bright and clear in my lens and I pushed the camera shutter button and fired ten frames per second, hoping and praying my effort would be successful.

Forgive my lack of modesty but it was and how! 

I could hardly believe the images I had obtained.

At last I felt I had truly done myself and the bird justice with the images I had achieved. The PLW then briefly zipped around the bushes, a tiny restless shape against the sun, before flying back across the lane and up into the conifers once more.

Thrilled with our relatively extended views of the tiny bird we relaxed and wandered down the lane, both of us satisfied with the experience. I had got my images and Clackers had managed to get good views of the warbler and add it to his county list

All was well in our world. 


1 comment:

  1. :oD Great pics & delighted to hear that Clackers got to see it!!!! x