Sunday 26 June 2022

A Hoopoe in Hertfordshire 25th June 2022

On Tuesday last a lady went out to feed some horses in a paddock at her animal rescue and rehabiliation centre that she runs voluntarily with her husband in a village called Hinxworth in Hertfordshire.  She noticed a strange, pinkish coloured bird, its back and wings banded black and white and a head with a pointed crest and  long bill, wandering around in the middle of the paddock vigorously digging its bill into the ground, probing for grubs and worms.

Knowing it was unusual she looked it up in a bird book and correctly identified it as a Hoopoe and soon the bird's presence came to the notice of local birders and subsequently the news was broadcast more widely on social media.

Hoopoes are not a very rare bird in Britain, being more a scarce migrant that does not breed here, but their exotic plumage and outlandish profile are sufficiently extraordinary to attract birders and casual admirers alike. They are irregular wanderers to Britain and can turn up anywhere and in unexpected places. I last saw a Hoopoe on someone's front lawn in an upmarket housing estate in Oxfordshire last year and the year before that another in a grass quadrangle on a technology park in Warwickshire.

They have a huge Old World distribution and are found across most of Africa and much of Eurasia from Iberia to China.

Slightly smaller than a Collared Dove, they have a cinnamon pink body, a long decurved bill and when raised, a spectacular fan like crest.When feeding on the ground they wander about probing the ground energetically and endlessly with their long bill, much as a Starling does. Mark Cocker's description of their flight cannot be bettered when he wrote 'In flight the geometric black and white patterns across the upperparts and the slow motion eloquence of its leisured butterfly action render the Hoopoe unmistakeable.'  

Mark (R), my twitching buddy, lives only a half hour's drive away from the horse sanctuary, in the neighbouring county of  Bedfordshire, and had already visited three times as the bird was confiding and allowed him to photograph it well. He eventually persuaded me that it would be good for me to also make a visit, in his company, on this Saturday. Being an enthusiastic and very good photographer Mark wanted to get the best light conditions in which to photograph the Hoopoe and that entailed a 3am start for me to get to his house by 5am and then he would drive us to the small and pleasant village of Hinxworth.

The owners of the horse sanctuary, not sure what would happen with news of the bird now broadcast on social media, had initially erected notices banning any birders from entering their yard and paddock.However the paddock could be easily viewed from a footpath that ran along the far side.

Due to his previous visits and supplying the owners with two photographic prints of the Hoopoe, Mark was on very good terms  with them and had been granted special permission to enter the yard and even enter the paddock if he wished. The latter would not be wise as it would undoubtedly upset other birders and would only cause conflict so it was not even considered. After speaking further with the owners they agreed to allow other visiting birders onto their property for a small donation, so everyone was happy.

We arrived at the yard at 6am and walked across to the fence guarding the small paddock currently occupied by two rescued horses and although sunny it was, at this early hour, markedly chilly due to a fresh breeze blowing across the yard. We leaned on a gate and scanned the paddock.There was not a sign of the Hoopoe although it had been seen in the late evening yesterday.

The Paddock

A little downcast and tired due to my early start I scanned the paddock inumerable times hoping the Hoopoe would somehow magically appear. There was another paddock adjacent and this too we scanned regularly but of the Hoopoe there was no trace.

For a considerable period we saw nothing apart from swallows that were flying in and out of a small barn in the yard or feeding a couple of juveniles perched on a fenceline. I was feeling the cold due to my tiredness and actively wondering what else I could find to save the day when, in front of us, flying across the paddock to our right, a bird about the size of a woodpecker, flew in a bounding flight from right to left before us and up into a line of tall conifers on the far side of the paddock.It was the Hoopoe.

But that was it for the next forty five minutes. The Hoopoe, wherever it had perched, was invisible and we had to wait and hope it would eventually fly down to feed in its favourite paddock. Again I was almost at the point of losing faith when it did precisely that, its wings flashing black and white zebra stripes as it settled to sit in the sunshine on the short grass of the paddock.

It was in no hurry and I could almost sense it enjoying sitting quietly in the sun. For a couple of minutes it sat on the ground content, before rousing itself to wander erratically around the middle of the paddock probing and digging for worms, leatherjackets and any other invertebrates it could find. 

On seizing a worm or grub it would give the matter some consideration before tossing its prey up between its open mandibles and swallowing it. 

It was always a little distant in the paddock and Mark told me it might come closer as it had done on the other days but there was little sign of this happening.

Then a lucky break as, alarmed by an overflying Red Kite, it flew to perch in a tree and remained there for some time before flying to the far corner of the second paddock off to our right. The corner it alighted in was right by a hedge that bordered the road. No one else seemed to consider this might present an opportunity to get close to it but I went back out onto the road and walked up the road looking for a suitable opening in the hedge. It looked impenetrable  but my luck held as there was one narrow gap, which miraculously, was exactly adjacent to where the Hoopoe was currently feeding 

It could not see me due to the tangle of twigs, branches and brambles around the gap I had squeezed into and fortuitously there was just room enough for a clean line of sight for my camera and lens through  to the field. I clicked away happily as the Hoopoe probed for its living in the short grass 

Surprisingly no one else had recognised this opportunity and after taking as many photos as I wanted I returned to the yard feeling I had done the Hoopoe justice.

I must mention the generosity of Richard and his wife, the owners of the horse sanctuary. Allowing us and other visiting birders onto their property was a welcome enough gesture but to supply tea, coffee and biscuits as well as chairs to sit on was an almost overwhelming act of kindness. I do hope they make some money for their sanctuary in donations from visiting birders.

Thursday 23 June 2022

The Great Reed Warbler in Nottinghamshire 22nd June 2022

Unable to sleep, a millon things churning in my head and with reading a book not doing the trick, I rose at 5am, reasoning that some sort of physical activity would take my mind off the cares and worries that steal up on one in the night. I headed for Nottinghamshire where a Great Reed Warbler has taken up territory, since June 4th, in a reedbed at the RSPB's Langford Lowfields Reserve which lies to the southwest of the small Nottinghamshire village of Collingham in the Trent Valley.

Great Reed Warblers are a rare vagrant to Britain (308 records to date) but one or more are recorded annually, with this year delivering another singing male to Snettisham in Norfolk. They are often first identified by their lusty singing and can remain for extended periods in the hope of attracting a mate which is very unlikely. Their breeding areas lie further to the south and east of Britain, in northwest Africa, continental Europe from southern Sweden, Estonia and western Russia to the Mediterranean and east as far as Ukraine and Asia Minor. They spend the winter in tropical Africa from Senegal and Kenya south to northern parts of the Cape Province in South Africa.

Despite the early hour the sun had already broken the horizon on this, the day after the summer solstice. Due to the timing of departure from my home in Oxfordshire I encountered little problem heading northwards on the roads and the day was promising to be fine, hot and sunny. My spirits were immediately lifted at the prospect of fine weather and a rare bird to see and arriving in the small reserve car park at 7.30am I found I was the only person there and now feeling good about life.

The walk to the reserve proper takes about twenty minutes, following a narrow dusty track, first through a wood and then bounded by high hedgerows which at various points bower overhead to form a living tunnel of lush greenery. The hedges were alive with birds, warblers mainly, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Common Whitethroats. A male Blackcap stopped on a branch to let me pass. Its bill full of a blue and black damselfly destined for its young in a nest nearby.

Further beyond the hedgerow, Reed and Sedge Warblers sang from their hiding places in reed fringed lagoons whose waters faithfully reflected a cloud free, blue, morning sky. Here, before and around me, was summer at its most bounteous and a day in which to rejoice at being alive, all cares now forgotten.

Reaching the wooden gate in the hedgerow that grants access to the reserve I could already hear the Great Reed Warbler singing despite it still being over a hundred metres distant. The strength of its voice is extraordinary. Passing through the gate I walked down to the grass track that winds around the main lagoon that lay, glass like, before me.

The reserve itself is a joint project between the RSPB and Tarmac, who were and are extracting sand and gravel from all around here. The aim is to create wetland habitat on a grand scale so initially, once quarrying had ceased on a 35 hectare area it was converted into a reserve of lagoons and large reedbeds with wild flower meadows, scrub and woodland. Further quarrying will be taking place in succession further along the river valley so the reserve has the potential to grow ever larger.

A gentle breeze blew intermittently but I sensed that today was going to be very warm indeed as I walked the fifty metres of grass track to where the warbler was in full voice.The reeds it has chosen are right by the track separated only by a thick bramble hedge, its white flowers in full bloom and a nectar paradise for bees, butterflies and other insects. 

The reedbed itself hardly looks substantial or extensive enough to be suitable for this larger cousin of our familiar Reed Warbler, being narrow and inconsequential compared to the much larger reedbeds scattered around other parts of the lagoon. However the warbler has decided this is the spot for him and has set up territory here accordingly.

Great Reed Warblers are about a third larger than a Reed Warbler, bulkier and thickset, with more clumsy movements but possess a similar plumage of warm brown upperparts and creamy buff underparts.The throat is pure white, especially noticeable when swollen in song and compared to a Reed Warbler its head is larger in proportion to the body and more strikingly marked with a broad pale supercilium over and a darker line through each eye. Not a striking bird as such but its exceptionally strident song, and the sheer volume of a series of croaking, squeaking notes, make it unmistakeable and impossible to ignore.

I stationed myself opposite where the warbler's song was coming from, looking over the bramble hedge to the reeds just metres beyond and below. I could hear it plainly enough but where was it in the jumble of pale dead reed stems and emerging fresh green blades of reed? Eventually I found it on the far side of the reeds by the lagoon's calm blue waters, perched on a reed stem but very much obscured by other intervening reeds.

To get a clear view of it and a decent image was not going to be easy if it remained partially concealed like this. However I had all day to wait if necessary and knew it would move position regularly through the reedbed. It was just a matter of being patient and hoping it would eventually choose to perch somewhere which was more open. Two hours later and I was still hoping, having only achieved tantalising views of it in the reeds, always partially and frustratingly obscured. 

I was however still on my own with not another living soul anywhere to be seen on the reserve. It looked like it was me and the warbler to the finish.

The sun was now most definitely warming the land and shining on most of the reedbed and this brought about a  change in the warbler's behaviour. The increased warmth and sunlight seemed to embolden it and it showed definite signs of perching higher and more openly.

Through the first three hours it sang constantly, even when preening or chasing insects. It never stopped. A Cetti's Warbler was given short shrift as the Great Reed, espying it from its swaying perch on a reed stem, chased it out of the reedbed and into the hedge behind me, sending the Cetti's on its way with a volley of croaks, gurgles and explosive chattering. Satisfied the Cetti's had got the message it quickly returned to the reed bed and resumed its singing.

The song is very, very loud and comes across as a series of hoarse guttural notes, delivered slightly rthymically. and at times  are an almost frog like croaking and at others a series of higher grating squeaks, both repeated over and over. Rarely silent, the song was to be an almost constant accompaniment as it moved through the reeds and there was no mistaking where it was, even when invisible, due to its ceaseless singing.When visible and in full song the rich orange colour of the inside of its wide open bill stood out as it moved its head from side to side.

Finally it began to show itself more  and now, at last, a few opportunities materialised to catch it fully or almost fully in the open. However there always seemed to be a reed head or reed stem to thwart my attempt at a decent image. 

In a way this was no bad thing as it retained my interest although at the same time trying my patience and equanimity to the very limit. Eventually it all came together for a few brief minutes.

That's photographing warblers for you, even ones as large as this magnificent Great Reed Warbler. 

Twenty five minutes drive further north is Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Potteric Carr Nature Reserve, currently blessed with a pair of Black winged Stilts and four young. This is quite a notable event and as I was so close it made sense to go and have a look.

After a rather slower drive than anticipated up the A1 I made it to the reserve and set about the half hour walk to the far end of the reserve where the stilts were viewable from a hide overlooking a shallow flash of water.

I was not disappointed as both adults and their four young were visible, albeit a trifle distantly.The parent birds were very attentive, chasing off anything that came too close to their offspring. This included Little Egrets and an unfortunate Gadwall, with one or the other of the stilts flying at them, calling loudly.

To see these elegant waders with unfeasibly long and delicate pink legs was a nice and unanticipated ending to what had already been an enjoyable day. 

Black Hairstreaks Revisited 20th June 2022

I was somewhat disappointed with the results of my search for Black Hairstreaks the other day.True I had found a couple but only saw them for a few minutes before they flew back up into the tops of their favourite blackthorn bushes.

I knew of another place that I considered worth trying which is situated just over the Oxfordshire border in Buckinghamshire. Much of the land about here has been decimated by the expensive folly and vanity that is HS2 but the quiet lane I had in mind manages still, to retain a vestige of rural charm, peace and quiet while a mile up the road the countryside is being scandalously trashed in the name of progress.

The road is bordered by a hedge, containing amongst other plants, Wild Privet and, best of all, the hedge  is allowed to grow freely and not be flailed to pieces. Behind the hedge is a narrow bridleway running between the hedge and a wood of mature trees and this small, almost forgotten area is the haunt of a colony of Black Hairstreaks. Some  years they are present in good numbers but in other years not so. I had not been here for a couple of years so did not know what to expect but hope springs eternal so I went to find out.

On a pleasantly sunny afternoon, hot enough to partially melt the tar on the road, I wandered down the bridleway checking the privet blossoms which are a favourite nectar source for the hairstreaks. The  white waxy cones of flowers dispersed a sweet scent, not at all unpleasant, to linger on the air.

My initial stroll along the length of the hedge brought qualified success, as I found a Black Hairstreak but with tattered wings, the edges frayed and torn from wandering through the blackthorn. It was also well above head height, on top of some privet growing through the blackthorn and almost immediately got into a fracas with one of the many Meadow Browns also nectaring from the privet and departed into the trees. 

Getting to the end of the hedge I returned along the other side which borders the road but with no further success, until about half way along I came to a generous patch of privet and stopped. I often find it useful to halt my progress, to stand and look for a while, waiting, as often a hairstreak will eventually reveal itself, for they can at times become almost invisible when seen head on or from the rear as their wings are tissue thin. One has to wait while they move around the cone of flowers they are examining to give a side on view, when they are more likely to be discovered, appearing as a mouse brown coloured triangle.

My eyes were constantly registering the many Meadow Browns as they restlessly flitted and flickered around the flowers. They too are dull brown, although larger but can superficially look very much like a hairstreak until examined more thoroughly. After checking inumerable Meadow Browns I finally found what I was seeking. A Black Hairstreak and better still, one that was fresh, maybe even hatched this very day. It was imbibing nectar incessantly, wandering up, down and around each cone of privet flowers,  probing for nectar and once every flower in the cone had been given the once over and emptied of its nectar, the hairstreak would move onto the next and repeat the process. This is the way of Black Hairstreaks, nothing will deter them when on their quest for nectar and you can almost touch them without any response, so engrossed are they in feeding.

For half an hour I watched it feeding, delicately traversing the cone of flowers, head up, head down, a bravura balancing act as its tiny, thread thin legs gripped the flowers to hold it in position and its two antenna moved independently, like a blind person with a stick, to reconnoitre the flower's surface. A blundering Meadow Brown managed to disturb it, the two butterflies whirling up into the air in conflict before realising they were not the same species or in competition. The hairstreak went and sulked on a leaf of an overhanging tree but it was not long before it descended to nectar some more.

I became completely absorbed, transfixed, entering into the hairstreak's world and its brief life on earth  being enacted before me. I found myself wondering what constitutes a Black Hairstreak's world or any hairstreak's for that matter.What is the extent of that world, surely just a matter of a few feet of hedge leaves and privet flowers, maybe also the tree above. There is nothing beyond in their compass. This is the sum of it and for thirty minutes I joined the hairstreak in another less troublesome, less complicated universe.