Sunday 27 March 2022

A Green winged Teal at Wilstone Reservoir 26th March 2022

Mark (R) and myself decided to meet up at Wilstone Reservoir in Hertfordshire today for a coffee and then go and see a drake Green-winged Teal that Mark had discovered at the reservoir on Thursday.

Wilstone Reservoir is part of a quartet of reservoirs called Tring Reservoirs and whose purpose is to feed the nearby Grand Union Canal. It lies, sort of equidistant, between our respective homes in Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire, so at around 11am we rendezvoused at a local cafe that lies just below the reservoir. After a coffee and chat we then made our way to the only hide on the reservoir to view the  teal. The reservoir, unlike my local Farmoor Reservoir, has reed beds and a large island of trees which makes it much more bird friendly and thankfully there are no water activities, so it is far less disturbed than Farmoor. Consequently and unsurprisingly it has lots more birds.A good number of ducks can be found all over the reservoir as well as nesting Cormorants and Little Egrets on the island, which is all to the good. 

As a bonus, today there were also two Cattle Egrets.

We walked along the grass top of the embankment, such a pleasure after the unforgiving concrete of Farmoor, then turned onto a muddy track winding through the edge of some woodland and which eventually led us to the hide overlooking the water.

Our view from the Hide

We knew the teal was here as someone had reported it earlier this morning and it wasn't long before we picked it up, a little distant, swimming on the water between us and the island. It was in the company of a number of Eurasian Teal, joining them in picking hatching flies from the water's surface.

In fact there was quite a selection here of various commoner ducks such as Tufted Duck,Gadwall, Common Pochard, Wigeon  and Mallard but most notable was a gathering of Shoveler, the majority being drakes, swimming around in a vaguely circular motion, feeding and occasionally displaying to the females.

I confess to being rather partial to a drake Shoveler when seen in its handsome finery. They cannot but fail to catch your eye with their shining white breasts, iridescent bottle green heads and rich chestnut flanks, the colours seeming just that richer when caught in the sunlight.

I returned my attention to the Green winged Teal, watching it swimming and catching flies by endlessly changing direction to snatch the nearest hatching fly, always maintaining a loose and sometimes closer association with its commoner cousins.

There was some speculation amongst other 'locals' in the hide about whether it might be a hybrid. Birders can be like this at times, never really happy unless they can find something to quibble about, albeit benignly.This time it was to do with the border of the speculum which might not have been rusty enough in colour but in the end everyone was happy to accept the duck as genuine. My view was that if it was a true hybrid it would surely show more mixed characteristics than just the very obscure minutiae concerning the border to its speculum.

Let us move on to matters less tedious and of a more general nature!

In essence a drake Green winged Teal looks similar to our more familiar Common Teal.The  defining differences are a very noticeable vertical white bar, on each side of its body, which extends between  breast and flank and no horizontal white scapular line along each of its grey sides. 

Another more subtle difference is the almost complete absence of yellowish buff outlining the iridescent green patch on each side of its head. Also, to my mind the green on its head seemed more luminescent than its commoner congener, especially when caught by the sun.

Although the day was sunny it was hardly warm in the hide as a brisk northeast wind was blowing directly into our faces as we looked out.Once we had our fill of this relatively frequent transatlantic visitor we made our excuses and left.

As with all supposed vagrant ducks the curse of human intervention rears its head.So many ducks from all over the world are kept in captivity due to their attractive plumage, it is impossible to verify the origin of ducks such as this individual. So one has to make a personal judgement for what it is worth and leave it at that. Speculation on this subject can while away hours in hides, pubs and on social media but we are rarely any the wiser.

Green winged Teals were once thought to be conspecific with our Common Teal but are now accepted by all, apart from the American Ornithological Society, as a separate species, based on biological, morphological and molecular differences. 

They are common and widespread in North America and are an annual vagrant to Britain.So many have been recorded here that since 1990, by which time 440 had been accepted  by the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee), it is now not considered a notifiable rarity. This bird is the third or fourth to have been recorded in Hertfordshire and is the eleventh that I have personally seen in Britain.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

The Farmoor Garganeys 21st March 2022

These last few days have seen a considerable influx of Garganeys into southern England, more so than normal and our inland county of Oxfordshire duly received its complement of this, our only summer migrant duck, when on Sunday three were discovered near Abingdon, closely followed by a pair later that afternoon at Thames Water's Pinkhill Reserve, which lies at the western end of  Farmoor Reservoir.

I determined to go and see them first thing on Monday and when I say first thing, I left home at 4.30am to get there at dawn. Why I did this I find hard to explain.Not thinking straight and overtired from going to see the Belted Kingfisher near Preston in Lancashire on Saturday, I had developed an irrational fear that the hide would be full of toggers and birders all seeking the Garganeys at first light. A product of my anxious personality. Ridiculous I know and so it proved. 

There had been a hard frost overnight and it was cold but with no discernible wind it was bearable. As the reservoir is closed until 8am I planned to access the hide that overlooks the tiny Pinkhill Reserve by parking at, and then walking, from nearby Farmoor Village. In the pre dawn, my route illuminated by a bright moon, I made my way from the sleeping folk of Farmoor Village, down a short alley way and onto the track that would take me to the hide, about a half mile's walk away, discreetly sandwiched between the River Thames and the reservoir.

To my left the huge bank of the reservoir loomed above me, the sky beyond it in the east, hinting at dawn, and from the reservoir, already there came the raucous cries of awakening Black headed Gulls, thousands of them, creating a pulsing continuous sound, their individual calls merging into one and if you did not know they were gulls you would struggle to identify the source.

At such an early hour there was little sight or sound of humanity. The stillness and cold amplified the pure notes of a singing Song Thrush and Blackbird, the former's notes strident and repetitive, cutting through the air, the latter's ruminative and laconic, almost as if sleep had not quite departed the singer. Above and between their singing, filtered the mercurial, melancholy song of a Robin. The notes thin and melodic. A song like water trickling over pebbles,

On getting to the riverside I found wraithes of mist forming a semi opaque, low lying blanket across the river and its surrounds, while the cold orb of the moon shone high above the mist in a clear night sky. It was all very atmospheric, almost unworldly but the presence of the mist troubled me, for until it dispersed it would make viewing difficult from the hide.

I followed the track, so familiar after years of treading it  and turned onto the short boardwalk that took me to the hide's door. I punched in the code and gained access to an empty hide. Why so anxious? Why so surprised it was empty? It would be more startling if the hide was occupied. No one else would be so foolish as to venture out at this time. 

The inside of the hide was, if anything colder than the air outside. I recognised that it was going to be a cold and lonely vigil until it was properly daybreak. It was 5.30am and I could just about see the reeds and water beyond the hide, hopefully still harbouring a pair of Garganey. I would have no way of knowing until it got light. Sunrise was at 6.00am but until then I was reduced to spending my time in reflection and contemplation whilst trying to keep the chilling cold out of my bones.

My initial view over the mist shrouded Pinkhill Reserve

The light steadily improved but the mist's continued presence was still irksome, making my view of the reserve in front of me as if looking through uncleaned glass. Dark, amorphous shapes moved upon the water. A Coot and then a Moorhen.The disembodied cricket like calls of drake teals came from further across the water, the birds invisible behind some distant reedmace. Slowly the light improved further as the mist dissipated and I was now able to see the reed fringed waters relatively clearly.

The teals continued their calling from the far side. I wondered if the similar sized Garganeys might be with them. Two bachelor Mallard drakes began harassing a female, who protested with much loud quacking and  responded with a short flight in the company of her mate to escape the attention of the over amourous drakes. A trial of will to see if she fancied either of them over her current partner. As usual it came to nought, the pair flying off, then to quickly return to be left in peace as the two bachelors had turned their attention to guzzling fallen seed from under the bird feeders by the hide.

I sat on a cold hard bench and began regretting my foolishness in getting here so early. I was fully primed for a long wait as Garganey often like to hide in reeds and sleep. However they are to a certain extent crepuscular and often choose to feed at the beginning and ending of the day, so if they were still here my early arrival put me in with a reasonable chance of encountering them.

A Grey Heron swooped in to land briefly in the water but changed its mind and on giant bowed wings flapped slowly away towards the adjacent river. Reed Buntings clung to last year's dead reed stems, before dropping down to the base in search of seeds while the feeders did a brisk trade with visiting Blue and Great Tits.

Minutes passed as my mind freewheeled, like a car in neutral gear, ticking over but ready for action if required. My mind certainly slipped into gear as I heard the distinctive notes of a male Garganey, a dry clicking sound. So brief I wondered if I had imagined it but no, for confirmation of the Garganey's presence came when a small female duck hesitantly swam out of the reeds and across the water in front of the hide. Checking in my bins, instead of the female teal I was expecting, here was a female Garganey, totally distinctive with a buff spot and two dark bars on each side of her pale face. She was followed, at a little distance, by the drake.

Naturally I was delighted at seeing them and to realise that, for once, there was to be no long attritional vigil. All feelings of cold and deprivation were instantly forgotten. 

There is something about a male Garganey that sets the pulse racing just that little bit faster. 

The male's combination of stripes and vermiculations, the patterning of its variable brown and grey plumaged body and that huge over arching sickle of white on each side of its head are, for me, like finding hidden treasure. The white supercilia positively gleamed in the dull  light of early morning and the pale grey flanks were another beacon in the fast dissolving mist.

The two diminutive ducks slowly moved through the shallow water and aquatic vegetation, energetically nuzzling their bills amongst and into the submerged roots of the reeds, gradually making their way towards the hide until they were as close as I could ever have wanted, half hidden, feeding amongst the proliferation of reed and sedge. 

Obtaining a photo was another matter however, as the inumerable stalks and spikes of dead reeds were forever confounding any attempt I made to photograph them but with patience and more than a little good fortune I contrived to get a few images free of any vegetative interference.

And so I watched and photographed them as they continued to feed, while the sun slowly rose to cast a golden light  through the riverside trees on the furthest edge of the reserve. The pair swam away, crossing the inconsequential stretch of water to the far side and re-commenced feeding along a line of dead reeds bordering the water. Another Grey Heron paraglided to earth, landing very close to the ducks but despite its grey eminence towering over them they were untroubled and continued to dabble in the water. 

The pair eventually came back to my side of the water and fed greedily amongst the sedge and reeds, their small bodies hidden at times by the cover, although they were only metres from the hide.They must be hungry, having arrived yesterday, with possibly Farmoor the first stop after a long flight from somewhere south of Britain. 

I would like to think so.

Eventually they swam to the far side once more and ensconced themselves in the reeds and slept.

It was time to go as they would be unlikely to move for some time.

Friday 11 March 2022

Mediterranean Return 9th March 2022

Two years ago, almost to the day, I made my annual visit to West Hayling Local Nature Reserve which lies adjacent to Langstone Harbour in Hampshire and where hundreds of Mediterranean  and Black headed Gulls congregate on the disused bunds of former commercial oyster beds, prior to breeding. It should have been its usual enjoyable and fulfilling day out in the company of the gulls but the covid virus was rapidly making its way towards our shores with gloomy predictions of dire consequences. 

The gulls, as ever, were entertaining in their displaying and antics, transformed in breeding plumage to look at their very best but an underlying and undeniable sense of impending doom and fear gripped me as it did many other people, leaving me wondering where we would be at this time next year. Not in a good place that's for sure.

Covid duly arrived and the world as we know it would never be the same again or at least it felt that way. In fact it was about as bad, possibly worse than predicted for many many months. Thousands of people died, life came to an almost complete halt with lockdowns and travel restrictions which prevented me having any chance of a return to Hayling or anywhere else in the following year.

So today was a catharsis if you like, as I sought to continue the process of picking up the threads of my life, gradually trying to resume my normal existence although covid has not gone away. A visit to the gulls at Hayling on an early Spring day was to be a reclamation of one more of those habitual threads that will hopefully contribute to making my life feel as if it is moving in a positive direction.

For such a visit as this it is best to pick a day when the sun shines and the forecast predicted this would be such a day. The angelic whiteness of the Med Gulls looks at its finest when seen against a blue sky. They almost glow in the sun's radiant sealight. 

In no particular hurry, I decided to wait until after the main morning rush of traffic, before making the two hour journey to the south coast and was rewarded with an easy journey and parked in the small car park overlooking Langstone Harbour at just after ten in the morning.

The sun was shining but there was a strong wind blowing from the southwest. Fresh is best to describe it and walking out onto the exposed track around the bunds of the long defunct oyster beds it would be stronger and fresher still. I set off for the bunds, only a short walk from the car, to where the gulls congregate. I could already hear the short exclamatory yelps of  calling Med Gulls, higher in pitch and markedly different to the harsher, grating calls of the Black headed Gulls. 

As before I found a secluded position overlooking the bunds, of which only two are used by the gulls, these  being safe from human disturbance and animal predators such as foxes, due to being surrounded by the sea even at low tide. I stood on a rock strewn shoreline  below a bank, out of the wind and waited for the Med Gulls to come flying in to the colony from Chichester Harbour.This gave me the optimum chance to get the flight shots I desired as they flew into the wind.

Med Gulls are stocky and full chested, with a thick red bill, squarish and flat wings in flight, a short tail and are slightly larger than a Black headed Gull and, to my mind, in breeding plumage are one of the world's more attractive gulls, appearing in flight, in a sunlit sky or low across the sea, almost ghostly white, due to their all white flight feathers and the palest of grey upperparts. The only contrast to their ethereal whiteness being a black head, crimson bill and legs.

Mediterranean Gulls

Mediterranean Gull and Black headed Gull

Black headed Gulls

The Black headed Gulls that also frequent the bunds and will breed here later are, in comparison, less impressive, the combination of brown hooded head, darker grey upperparts, black wing tips and with bills and legs that are brownish red,  fall well short of the more striking primary colours of the Med Gulls. Incidentally most of the Med Gulls will not nest here but move slightly further into Langstone Harbour to breed, once they have found a mate.

An hour or so passed pleasantly, standing by the seashore, troubled by no one and taking far too many photos of the gulls. I had no need to feel guilty at such an innocent pleasure. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, pitting my wits and camera against the flying gulls, for it is not as simple as it sounds to photo the gulls in flight as they come in fast from the sea, calling loudly, only then to drop and swoop in the strong wind, passing you in a flash. 

Having taken my photos of the flying gulls, I spent some time taking images of their posturing on the bunds as they displayed amongst themselves, all to a background bombardment of harsh calling from the Black headed Gulls. Displaying Med Gulls take small mincing steps, puff out their chests and then slowly bow, a curious, ritualised and exaggerated movement, with bent legs, before extending their neck and head upwards and holding their wings slightly away from their body. I presume both sexes indulge in this behaviour although it is impossible to tell as both sexes look the same to me and sometimes it is not clear if the displaying bird has any particular bird in mind. 

The Med Gulls  are not short on aggression and will often greet an incoming bird with antagonism, and a brief squabble will ensue, with much wing flapping and calling but the contretemps is soon settled and the individuals involved relax. 

Two, presumably adult Med Gulls,(as there is no black on their wing tips) but a long way from completing the moult into black on their heads

This aggression is not confined to their own kind and the Black headed Gulls can also receive the same treatment if they come too close and vice versa. The Med Gulls do seem to have the pick of the prime positions on the bunds and are usually to be found on the very top or perched on the highest rock or stone to give them predominance over the Black headed Gulls, which tend to position themselves lower down or away from the Med Gulls.

There was constant displaying from the Med Gulls during my time here, so presumably the birds were still sorting out their partners for the coming breeding season. It is still early in their breeding cycle after all, although some appeared already paired, these latter often flying high to circle in the sky, calling exuberantly, reaffirming their bonding. Even airborne there would be minor skirmishes when an interloper tried its luck.

A good number of the Med Gulls had still to attain a full black hood, many showing a variable area of white where the bill meets the head and a few had  considerably more white than black on their head but this final completion of their breeding finery will be completed in the next couple of weeks or so. A similar process of ongoing moult was evident amongst the Black Headed Gulls too.

Two adult Med Gulls, the one on the left still has a long way to go to achieve a similar black hood to the one on the right

Watching a gull colony can never ever be described as dull. It is a scene of endless movement, an aural assault combined with visual chaos, a drama of colour and sound that changes second by second as birds come and go, squabble amongst themselves, display and in the case of the Black headed Gulls start forming nest hollows.

Watching a trio of Med Gulls I observed how they would stand on the bund for a short while but then one would take to the air, calling and circle round before returning. Then would come more display, perhaps a tussle with one of its fellows and then another would take to the air and repeat the performance.This went on endlessly and was mirrored further along the bunds as other birds took to the air in a similar way, so that there was a constant wheeling of crying gulls, flying high into the clear sky or sweeping low across the sea between me and the bunds. I found myself wondering if this too was part of the process of finding a mate.

It is impossible to not feel energised by the gulls, so fired up are they even when on the ground. A restlessness brought on by the rising testosterone in their bodies. It is a living wildlife programme of which David Attenborough would be proud.The longer you sit and watch the more you see and are entertained.

Amongst the adults I noticed two or three second year birds that looked to all extents like an adult except there was black on their wing tips and their heads were noticeably pale, substituting the black hood of an adult with a large shadow of grey on the rear of their head.

Mediterranean Gulls are being studied extensively and there are now ringing schemes in a number of European countries, the birds being ringed with large coloured plastic rings with bold letters and numbers on them. Each country's ringing scheme has its own particular colour for their rings. For Britain it is yellow and for Denmark or Belgium white. I saw two colour ringed adult birds during my visit, one from Britain and one from Denmark or Belgium.

Here is an adult that has been colour ringed (white) in Belgium or Denmark.

Here is an adult colour ringed (yellow) in Britain
It was first ringed at nearby Langstone Harbour on the 25th June 2018, then subsequently seen in France in 2019, Belgium in 2020 and Wales in 2021. 

And so, after some three hours, my redemption felt complete. I had woven another thread of familiarity into my life and normal service was very much being resumed on this lovely Spring day. 

Let's hope it lasts!