Monday 30 May 2022

An Eleonora's Falcon in Kent 28th May 2022

Up to now it has been a singularly unremarkable Spring for rare birds arriving in Britain. Un-beknown to me or anyone else, all that was about to change and how!

Having just completed my daily circuit of Farmoor Reservoir, it was noon on Thursday and I was sitting in the cafe enjoying a coffee and chat with Phil when my phone rang. It was Mark.

You heard about the Eleonora's in Kent?

Err No?

It's at Stodmarsh. Drive to mine and we can be there in four hours.There will be plenty of time as it does not get datk until ten. I'll drive.

Mark hung up before I could answer.

Somewhat taken aback I assimilated this startling news and the concept of turning my planned day on its head and driving to Mark's house in Bedfordshire forthwith. I  decided to take up his offer.

I made my excuses to Phil and was on the road to Mark's five minutes later, after texting an explanation to my wife who is long accustomed to such behaviour.

Eleonora's Falcon is a very rare bird in Britain. A true 'mega' that has been recorded only seven times before and one that does not hang around, as all previous records have involved birds seen only on the day of discovery. You have to go immediately or just forget it. This has bestowed on the falcon a somewhat iconic status in birding circles.

Eleonora's Falcons  breed on islands in the Mediterranean, especially those in Greece, which holds two thirds of the population, and are also found on the Canary Islands as well as off the coast of Spain and Morocco. Their winter homes are in Madagascar, surrounding islands in the southern Indian Ocean and coastal southeast Africa.

Similar in plumage to a Hobby, they come in two colour morphs, pale and dark.The bird found today being a pale morph. They are a tad larger than a Hobby, with longer wings and tail, browner upperparts, are more buff on their streaked underparts and their flight, when not hunting is more languid, although they utilise the acrobatic, high speed flying skills and hunting methods of a Hobby. Dragonflies and small birds are their exclusive diet, both of which are caught on the wing and in the case of dragonflies often also eaten while still flying. They breed colonially and delay breeding to coincide with the autumn migration of small passerines which are intercepted as they approach the falcon's colonial breeding cliffs. Uniquely, some of the small birds captured are kept alive, have their flight feathers broken off and are imprisoned in cracks in the breeding cliffs, the falcon returning, often  days later, to kill the bird and feed it to its young.

This latest individual had been photographed earlier in the day over Restharrow Scrape at Sandwich Bay in Kent. Originally thought to be a Hobby, it was re-identified later that day, from the photographs taken, as a much rarer Eleonora's Falcon. Initially declared an adult male, it was  later confirmed by Dick Forsman, a noted raptor expert, to be a second summer female (i.e. 3 years old). 

Four hours later, having, at some cost to our equanimity, endured the nightmare traffic around the M25 and over the Dartford Crossing, we were stood on a minor road overlooking a valley and large lake at Stodmarsh, where the falcon had last been seen to fly. We were joined by Les and Adrian, two other birding pals. Needless to say we did not see the falcon and I returned home more than a little chastened from the experience.

Mark was convinced the falcon would be re-found tomorrow but I was equally convinced it would not. 

Friday came, and back in the cafe at Farmoor, I was sitting with Phil and Chloe preparatory to our regular amble around the reservoir. It was 1030am and Phil had already asked if I had  seen the falcon yesterday and I had informed him of my failure, in mitigation explaining how all the odds were against my seeing it anyway and so it had proved.

My phone then rang. I knew who it was.

It's been re-found at Worth Marsh in Kent and is showing well, perched in a tree. Get to mine as soon as possible and I'll drive.

Tired and not a little fed up after yesterday's futile effort at seeing the falcon I was distinctly unenthusiastic about making yet another tedious hour and half journey to Mark's  and then another three hour drive in the traffic hell that motorways become on a Friday afternoon. I judged we would not be at Worth Marsh until three or four in the afternoon.

For some minutes I dithered. Phil sensibly advised me to just say no, but it was an Eleonora's Falcon after all and Mark was very insistent. The fact he was prepared to drive decided it.

Once again I bade farewell to an amused Phil and Chloe. Bought a piece of cake from the cafe to sustain  me on the journey to Mark's and headed off into a sunny day for yet another attempt at twitching glory.

The drive to Worth Marsh in Kent was predictably fraught. Having made it to Mark's we then set off into slow moving and then static traffic that is the norm for motorways these days.The inevitable delay due to a crash on the M25, followed by the sheer volume of cars heading for the Channel Tunnel brought frustration and anxiety in equal measure. Somehow we managed to avoid the worst whilst all the while receiving excited updates from fellow birders, telling us how well the falcon was showing.

Then news came through that it had not been seen for over half an hour. Had it flown off? Were we going to fail again? My heart sank as we were still an hour from our destination. We carried on and then news came that it was still present and showing well. From despondency to enthusiasm takes but a moment and we drove on, charged with renewed enthusiasm and anticipation.

Finally we arrived at our destination, the narrow Jubilee Road, which lies next to Worth Marsh and there we parked amongst a long line of birder's cars, crammed partially on and off the pavement. A large bus struggled for some while to pass the cars further down but we had parked well into the side and fortunately there was no problem with us and the bus. I felt the residents of Jubilee Road would not be pleased about this invasion of birders but hoped they would understand as it was only going to be a temporary inonvenience for them.

We walked down the road to find a rough track on our right leading out to Worth Marsh, lately taken over by the RSPB. Returning birders brought re-assuring news and told us the falcon was showing well and pointed to the Great Wood, a half mile distant, which was where the falcon could be seen best.

The walk out to the wood, our heads buzzing with nervous excitement, was to an intermittent chorus of rasping and very loud croaks from Marsh Frogs, hidden in the nearby ditches. We arrived in front of  a gate at the end of the wood that prevented further access to a field containing a large cattle pen and with a sign on the gate informing us that the field was a 'no go' conservation area. There was a reasonably large crowd here but not as many as I had anticipated and there would be no problem viewing the falcon as it would be flying and therefore above us and no one would  have their view obstructed.

We were told by other birders the falcon had been showing incredibly well earlier, flying above the heads of the assembled throng, but then had disappeared over the wood although would surely return, as this is what had previously happened during the day.

We stood and waited for it to re-appear. Half an hour later, with no sign, my anxiety levels were rising rapidly. It's ridiculous but this is what happens. The tension gets to you. The mindless chatter from other birders around you becomes increasingly annoying. It's not anyone's fault but tiredness, anxiety and frustration coalesce and do nothing to help one to remain sanguine. An hour had now passed. I had seen a Hobby, and a couple of Cuckoos, plus a lot of Wood Pigeons and corvids flying out of the wood, the emergence from the wood of the latter prompting an instinctive desire to shout 'there it is' only to be quickly suppressed before you end up looking foolish.

Suddenly another dark bird emerged from the wood. Angular and smaller than any pigeon or crow. A true thoroughbred. The Eleonora's Falcon!

It was visible for just a few seconds as it flew out low, over the field and then back to the side of the wood where it was invisible from our viewpoint. In that all too brief time I noted its brownish upperparts, buff  breast and long pointed wings.There was time for nothing more.

Like shrugging off a loose coat, the negative feelings I was enduring fell to the metaphorical floor with the knowledge I had finally seen this almost mythical bird. I rested content amongst my fellow birders. We were as one and set about anticipating its next appearance.

That took some time and when it came was an even briefer view than before. As time passed it was realised the falcon was perched on the edge of the wood and although not visible from our position, it could however be viewed  more distantly from across a field to our right. Others were also looking at it from the Pinnock Wall that ran directly opposite the wood, separated from the wood by a field of cows.

Myself, Mark and Adrian remained at the gate as we were wanting to photo the falcon but for some hours we were frustrated. Geoff, a fellow Oxonbirder, found a rare, immature Scarce Chaser sunning itself on a nearby bush which provided a temporary reprieve from boredom.

Immature male Scarce Chaser

The falcon had obviously dined well on dragonflies and was in no hurry to leave its perch but eventually it slowly flew across the field of cows to pitch into a small willow by the Pinnock Wall. A collective groan came from those of us by the gate, as the birders over there would be getting absolutely brilliant views of it but that is how it is sometimes. It remained there for a while and obviously still had no desire to chase anymore dragonflies.

We got some distant record shots but then it moved further away to where the late afternoon sun still shone on the fields and we decided to go and watch it there, by taking the narrow road into Worth Village and then walking further along the road to view it sat distantly on a post in a cornfield.

Having found a parking spot, which was no easy matter, we watched the bird through telescopes but it was very distant and again inclined to do nothing but sit on its post in the company of two Hobbies. Frankly, a little bored, we went in search of a female Red footed Falcon that was perched on telephone wires crossing another vast field of ripening corn. Again it was a little distant but giving good enough views through a scope. 

We stood around in the evening sunshine with yellow water lilies adorning the channels of clear water bisecting this strange flat landscape, a combination of monoculture and areas of natural wildness that brought a pleasant, reflective ambience and sense of peace and quiet after the rather more frenetic hours of twitching that had gone before.

Mark, myself and Adrian dicussed whether to stay here overnight but the nearest accommodation in Ramsgate was too expensive and there was nothing else available. The local pub by this time had stopped serving food and in the end we resolved to stay overnight at Adrian's, an hour's drive away in Essex and return the next morning.

Adrian ordered a curry to be delivered to his home and with a bottle of beer each we ate a proper meal for the first time today. Afterwards I took one sofa, Mark another and we set our phones for a 5am alarm.

So very tired, I slept soundly and it was with a start I rose at the sound of the alarm. After some cornflakes and coffee we set off once more for Worth Marsh. At this time of day the roads were in marked contrast to yesterday's chaos and with no hold ups we arrived on Jubilee Road to find that a field had been set up by the RSPB volunteers for birder's cars to park in, well away from the road. The local residents would be pleased.

The field was already filled with a good number of cars as this was a Saturday and the falcon had already been seen earlier in the morning, so without doubt this bird was going to be very popular and attract many visitors. Today it transpired the falcon was perched in a bush on the far side of the Pinnock Wall near to a railway crossing but was only viewable from a distance.

Arriving at the Great Wood and the gate where we had stood yesterday, it was devoid of birders as everyone had made for the Pinnock Wall. Having seen the falcon yesterday we resolved to remain here as it was sure to return sometime in the morning but not until the day warmed up considerably. 

A cold northerly breeze blew in our faces but the sun was shining and it was still only eight o'clock, so it would presumably warm up as the hours passed and the sun strengthened. A steady  trickle of birders came along the track and I did a good impersonation of a voluntary warden, directing them further along the track that would take them to the Pinnock Wall.

Two hours later and with no sign of the falcon I was getting fractious and bored but I had to stick with it and maintained my position by the wood. In the wet field behind me, on a flooded area, Avocets with small chicks were in a constant state of agitation, joined by the occasional Common Redshank, doubtless with chicks also, their respective alarm calls ringing out over the field.

Another two hours passed and then the falcon finally appeared. Flying fairly low and fast, passing almost overhead, it was on me so quick I hardly had time to focus on it and take some images. Mark did much better!

c Mark

In flight it was obviously larger than a Hobby with longer wings and a distinctive notch in its tail,  not a normal thing but a handy way to identify this individual at long range.

Having flown past me, it circled high over the fields beyond before returning to cruise above the Great Wood. I was now rapidly joined by others until the crowd resembled what it was yesterday afternoon. 

For over an hour we were treated to a spectacular display of consummate flying above the wood, high, sometimes very high, and low, occasionally stooping at incredible speed to seize a dragonfly, then turning and twisting against the blue sky and white clouds, riding on the wind. 

There is however, only so long you can watch something such as this before getting a little complacent, and relaxed birders, having had their fill of the falcon, began greeting one another and resuming old acquaintances, the whole thing becoming quite a social occasion which in itself is a not unpleasant experience. I met casual friends from both past and present, some not seen since long ago.

The falcon meanwhile found a perch at the side of the wood and settled there, its appetite for now obviously satisfied.

c Mark

We had not only been treated to a flying display by the Eleonora's Falcon but an immature female Red footed Falcon also came to join in hunting the high flying dragonflies, as well as a Hobby.Three species of falcon in the summer sky together, hunting dragonflies, who could ask for more and indeed who has seen such a thing before?

First summer female Red footed Falcon

Eurasian Hobby

The best however, was yet to come. In the late afternoon after an abortive two hour search for a very elusive Sardinian Warbler at nearby South Foreland we learnt that the Eleonora's Falcon was showing particularly well in a tree by the Pinnock Wall.

Returning to Worth Village, we found a parking spot and walked down the track to join a huddle of birders watching the falcon sat in a small tree. We were told it would occasionally fly out to hunt a dragonfly but much patience was required. For about half an hour the falcon remained in its tree as the sun faded behind grey clouds and a progressively stronger cold wind blew at our backs. 

A female Red footed Falcon flew at speed behind us, crossing the large marshy field that lay between us and the railway, then returned and perched on top of a distant bush, to be joined there by a Hobby. A male Marsh Harrier flew in the other direction as the land became quiet and the falcon sat in its tree not thirty metres from us.

Suddenly it flew, making a brief circuit in front of us, over the grass. Almost caught by surprise I nearly missed my opportunity to get the flight shots I desired but with more than a little luck I managed to point the camera, focus and get some images. It was over in seconds, the falcon failing to seize its prey and returning to the tree to sit and wait once more.

We too waited, willing it to fly just once more but it never showed signs of moving before the cold wind became intolerable and persuaded us it was time to depart.We were reluctant but felt we had done pretty well and really, in all honesty, we could not have asked for more.

Monday 23 May 2022

Chequered Skippers in England 22nd May 2022

Until today I had only ever seen one Chequered Skipper and that was on a family holiday near Strontian on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in northwest Scotland, where I found one in Purple Moor Grass on a dull afternoon in June, more years ago than I care to remember

In Scotland they were first discovered in 1939 and remain to this day a rare and restricted butterfly, being generally found within a twenty five mile radius of Fort William, a notable location being Glasdrum Wood. They were extinct in England by 1976, as coppicing in their woodland habitats had fallen out of favour, allowing the sunny, open woodland glades and rides they favoured to become dark, overgrown and unsuitable.

Butterfly Conservation set about restoring suitable habitat for this butterfly in England by consulting with Forestry England and local, sympathetic landowners and finally, after four years of dialogue between the UK and Belgium, Chequered Skipper butterflies, collected from the Belgian Ardenne Forest, were released at a secret location in Northamptonshire in 2018.

In May 2019 the first English born Chequered Skipper since 1976 was seen on the wing in its secret location.Further re-introductions bolstered the existing population and the project was declared a success. However the survival and continued existence of these re-introductions will always require that their habitat is artificially maintained by working closely with Forestry England and other involved landowners. Re-introductions in other suitable locations are now planned for the future .

With the re-introduction declared a success and sufficient numbers of this butterfly on the wing, the secret location was made public in 2022 and was revealed to be Fineshade Wood, part of a much larger area of woodland in Northamptonshire called Rockingham Forest. 

Today I arranged to meet Mark (R) at Fineshade Wood around 1pm as the weather was going to be ideal for butterflies, being sunny and warm.

All went to plan and after being relieved of a rather excessive £6.00 each for car parking, we eventually found a warden at the Visitor Centre who was able to direct us to the right area to look for the skipper. Being a sunny Sunday the car park and Visitor Centre were very busy but following the warden's directions we soon left most people behind and followed a wide track towards an area called Westhay Wood which was considered the best place to look for the Chequered Skippers. 

It has to be said we set off with some trepidation, brought on by the fact we were told that a guided 6km walk that morning had only managed to find one Chequered Skipper. Would we do better?

Well yes, we got off to a good start, as once in the sun and out of the wooded area I saw a small dark brown butterfly zigzagging low over the short grass and bramble growing by the track. It flew further into the brambles but there we had to leave it, as we had been cautioned to remain  on the track and if we found a Chequered Skipper under no circumstances stray off the track in pursuit of it.  

Frustratingly, the tiny insect footled around for a minute, half hidden amongst bramble leaves growing in a ditch and then flew even further into the wood and was gone. At least we could say we had seen one and within ten minutes, if that, and our expectations were raised accordingly although I hoped to see one for longer and have better views.

We followed the track for one of its 6kms, losing sight of each other in the process.Mark had wandered off along one of the rides that ran off the main track. I opted to continue to follow the main track but consequently had no idea where Mark had got to. No matter, we could liase, whenever our phones got a signal!

The sun shone across the open track, it was very warm and it was down to shirtsleeves as I diligently cased the specially created habitat of short grass and low bramble by the main track but failed to get the desired result.

Various other butterfly enthusiasts came along the track, greeting me and asking if I had any luck in finding a Chequered Skipper. I told them of our brief encounter with one but for the next hour I saw nothing apart from a few Dingy Skippers, which set my pulse racing but not for long.

I began to become weary and despondent at my lack of success.Was I only going to see one Chequered Skipper, like those on the guided walk earlier? Tiring and now half way around the 6km trail I tried calling Mark and as luck would have it my phone finally had a signal

Where are you Mark

No idea

Where are you? he asked

No idea

There was not a sign or landmark for us to use as a directional aid

Mark then informed me he had just found a Chequered Skipper and excused himself to photograph it.

I was bereft

A minute or so later he called back but we had the same problem, neither of us knew where the other was.

I gave up, frustrated, and ending the call carried on walking the track. I came to a ride running off to my left.

Ewan! Over here!

By sheer chance I had found Mark, currently standing guard over a Chequered Skipper half way down the ride. I walked, as fast as I could, the short distance to Mark.He pointed to the grass on the left of the ride and there in all its brown and cream spotted glory was a very obliging and pristine Chequered Skipper, perched on a stem of grass. We made the most of this very co-operative individual, which could not have posed more obligingly on various leaves and grass stems.It became obvious this was a male holding terrtory, waiting for a female to pass by and although it flew regularly it never went far, remaining within a thirty metre stretch of the ride

All of us got the images we wished for, you literally could not fail, and it was a total delight to watch and photograph this very rare butterly for an hour or so.

They are very small, around 3cm and have a fast and erratic flight which sometimes makes it hard to follow the butterfly as it zips low over the grass. This individual spent most of its time basking in the sun and never nectared on any of the wild flowers around it. They are said to prefer Bugle for nectar but not this one.

This re-introduced butterfly's food plant is also different to that of the Scottish population, being grasses such as False Brome and Wood Smallreed rather than Purple Moor Grass.

After an hour we were sated with close up views and photographs of this beautifully marked butterfly and made our way back along the remaining 2km of track to the Visitor Centre, noting a rather nice Grizzled Skipper and another three Chequered Skippers on the way.

One Evening at the Reservoir 21st May 2022

Of late I have taken to visiting my local Farmoor Reservoir in the evening, especially on weekends. The pandemic lockdowns and subsequent desire to have somewhere that is safe and open to walk about in has resulted in a huge increase in visitors to the reservoir as more and more people have 'discovered' the reservoir.

There is nothing wrong in that but the large number of people, the majority unaware of the birding potential at the reservoir means that for most of the day there is almost constant, unwitting disturbance and few birds, especially migrating waders, hang around.

However, in the early morning and evening the reservoir can be almost deserted and these have now become the most opportune times to find birds, especially the waders that touch down to rest and feed before continuing their long journies north.

It fascinates me that those that do descend to the reservoir must be but a tiny fraction of the birds that pass invisibly, high overhead, heading northwards across England towards their far flung destinations.

This evening I got to the reservoir at 6pm and as anticipated it was comparatively quiet. These visits can go either way, the majority resulting in little to see but occasionally I get lucky. It's all a matter of persistence.The more visits one makes the greater the chance of eventually finding something of interest. This is the reality of birding an inland reservoir.

Walking up to where the central causeway commences, dividing the two basins that comprise the reservoir, I scanned the eastern shore of the smaller basin, the sun still bright and warm and a moderate southwest wind corrugating the blue waters of the reservoir.

When most folk have departed, the yacht's people and surfboarders have ceased their activities and the cafe closed its doors, the reservoir takes on an entirely different character. Less functional and busy, the resulting sense of quiet brings a more relaxed atmosphere as the soothing sound of waves lapping  concrete shores re-asserts itself after the noise and bustle of the day.

This sense of calm is compounded by the fact that I too feel the vibe, knowing that if I find a good bird at this time I am less likely to have to endure the frustration of it being flushed by innocent passers by.Tension is now a stranger as expectation and hope transcend any anxiousness.

Looking along a shoreline stained olive green with algae due to the extended warm spell I could see two birds wandering the shore, the sun in the west turning them to no more than black silhouettes. Shape and behaviour however, can be just as good a means of identification as colour.

One was a Pied Wagtail, speed darting and pirouetting, as only they can, chasing after flies to feed its young in a nest in the adjacent waterworks buildings. The other was more bulky and compared to the wagtail methodical  in its feeding, picking gently at the algae as it slowly walked along the shore. Wader? Surely not, as most waders settle on the central causeway rather than here

I walked closer and in my bins could see it was indeed a small wader, a Turnstone no less, my first this year. Such is the nature of birding at Farmoor, this formed a triumph, a good record and total justification for my visit. 

I moved closer still and settled myself on the retaining wall, waiting for the bird to walk towards me, which it slowly did, and checking over my shoulder that there was no one approaching that would disturb me or the bird, prepared to indulge myself with the camera.

Turnstones in summer plumage are transformed from a winter garb of drab brown and white into a colourful, hotch potch, harlequin mix of black, white and rufous. and judging by the brightness and bold markings of this bird's plumage, it was a male. The panda like black  and white patterning on its head was striking in its definition, the breast an apron of black on otherwise snow white underparts. The upperparts a broth of rich chestnut, paler rufous and black feathers, mimicking the colours of the seaweed festooned rocks they so love to frequent. They are sturdy birds, possessing a low slung body supported by short and thick orange legs that provide the power and thrust to enable a stubby pick like bill to upturn the stones and weed where hides their prey. It has the heft of a wrestler, squat and muscular. A no nonsense wader, so very different in demeanour to the more frequently occurring Dunlin and Sanderlings, that are also spring migrant visitors to the reservoir.

In the absence of rocks and weed at the reservoir it contented itself by picking up lesser morsels from the concrete shoreline. It is a long way from its coastal winter home which can be as far away as South Africa and has much further yet to fly but for now this inauspicious concrete corner of the reservoir will serve a purpose until it moves on to breed anywhere from  Canada or Greenland to Scandinavia and northern Russia. 

I moved on, deciding to walk around the smaller basin rather than up the causeway. Sometimes waders disturbed from the causeway will fly to the opposite side of the basin. It's always worth a look but rarely lives up to expectations. Maybe a Common Sandpiper or two will be there. Today was the exception as I disturbed a curiously dowdy Ringed Plover, its dull, grey brown plumage rendering it almost invisible against the shelving concrete  on which it stood.

It looked scruffy, like an unfinished drawing, as if the artist had yet to colour in the rings of black on its head and neck, currently sullied with pale brown and the upperpart feathers, the colour of wet sand, were much worn and abraded. Was it a non breeder or was its moult somehow retarded? There always seems to be an unanswerable question about such birds.

It stood, uncertain, not sure whether to stick or twist, bobbing its head in anxiety, a common wader characteristic, as it regarded me with a large, dark, plover eye. I left it, still stood immobile and looking at me, making its own mind up about my intentions.

I completed the remaining two thirds circuit of the reservoir basin and turned to make my way down the central causeway. Waders, usually Dunlin and Sanderling sometimes drop in here of an evening during May, and today my luck persisted as now there were four of my favourite wader, Sanderlings, standing by the water on the shelving concrete.

Relaxed, if such a word can be used to describe a bird's existence, looking content and with rest very much a priority, they only fed in a desultory fashion preferring to preen, stretch tired wings or even to briefly sleep. Their's is a life lived at breakneck speed and one unimaginable to our sedate, controlled existence. No rules or regulations. No constraints. Everything counted in seconds, reactions immediate, always having to be alert to a multitude of threats to their lives.

As is normal with Sanderlings, the plumage of each bird was variable, with at one extreme, an individual showing much orange and chestnut on its head and uppperparts, to others retaining variable amounts of grey and white winter feathers, less advanced in their moult to the full glowing richness of summer plumage. 

The bright plumage tones of the one Sanderling were a delight to behold. It was quite literally transformed from a prosaic grey to various shades of orange on its head and upperparts  Not a plumage one sees very often anywhere, and Farmoor, in spring, is virtually the only place where it is possible to enjoy such a sight in Oxfordshire.

This was a very productive visit by Farmoor standards.It does not happpen that often but when it does it fills one with renewed enthusiasm and compensates for the knowledge that  inevitably most days will not be like this, as the reservoir reverts to normal and not deliver such delights.