Saturday 27 August 2022

Rainham for a Wryneck and Marsh Frogs - 23rd August 2022

Mark rang me on Monday enquiring whether I was up for going to see a Wryneck at the RSPB's Reserve at Rainham in Essex. The Wryneck in question was apparently very obliging and numerous close up photographs of this cryptic coloured member of the woodpecker family had fired Mark's enthusiasm.

So it was that I met Mark at his house at 7am on Tuesday and we ventured forth to endure the rush hour hell of traffic on two motorways that led us eventually to turn off into the industrial surrounds that lie near to the huge bridge spanning the River Thames and going by the name of the Dartford Crossing which takes you from Essex into Kent.

What we had not taken into consideration before setting off was the opening times at Rainham RSPB. We arrived at the not unreasonable hour of 8.30am only to find the access gates to the reserve firmly barred and they would only open at 9.30am. I am reluctant to criticise the RSPB as they do much good work but honestly 9.30am? Surely with the knowledge there was a 'good' bird on their reserve they could make some allowance for the dozen or so birders that were patiently waiting outside for them to open up. But no, the only concession made was to open up five minutes early.

In the meantime we stood on the path and looked at the mighty River Thames with its cargo vessels heading inland and then got chatting with a local birder, Bob, who told us something of the local history of Rainham and how it had once been a wartime rifle range, then a grazing marsh before a thousand acres was subsequently purchased by the RSPB, from the MOD in 2000, to finally become the splendid reserve it is today.

To add insult to our sense of injustice as we waited, we learned from Bob who had tried to see  the Wryneck yesterday but failed, that it was just about as far away from the Visitor Centre as it could be. To get to see the Wryneck would entail a long but not unpleasant walk of around half a mile along a winding path and various boardwalks, passing through reedbeds and rough grassland to where the Wryneck was usually to be found, which was near the Rifle Butts, the only tangible evidence remaining of the reserve's former existence as a rifle range.

The Wryneck had been favouring a stretch of path near the rifle butts and showing down to a few feet in previous days but only in the morning, after which it would vanish for the rest of the day. So we were eagerly expecting a similar experience today, hence our early arrival but the RSPB had other ideas.

Setting off along the path, Bob regaled us about his current back problems as we were followed by around a dozen other birders. We were some two hundred metres from where the Wryneck had been consistently coming to feed on ants by the path when Mark said, 

There it is!


The Wryneck. 


It's perched in that small hawthorn right in front of us. Near the top and out in the open. Its obvious.

This came as quite a surprise as we were certainly not expecting to see the Wryneck immediately but having to wait for it to appear  and were also assuming we would see it in its usual location a few hundred metres further and not in this bush right by the path. Still here it was and I wasted no time in raising the camera and recording it sat amongst the drought curled green leaves and red berries of the hawthorn. 

Wrynecks are prone to sit for a few minutes in whatever bush they choose to perch in rather than flee immediately and this bird was true to type. It remained where it was for a couple of minutes, looking around but appearing reluctant to move, relying on its plumage of bars, stripes and spots of grey, brown and buff to provide an adequate camouflage.

Eventually as we stood, no more than metres away, it maybe realised the game was up and flew off across the reeds towards the  river wall and perched there in the reeds, silhouetted on the skyline for several long minutes before flying back across the reeds to another cluster of small hawthorns further back along the pathway. 

We duly followed but there was no sign of it for five minutes, then  unexpectedly it popped up into one of the hawthorns, peering at us but frustratingly always contriving to perch in such a way that twigs leaves and berries were partially in the way.

Nevertheless, by means of contorting myself in the cramped space on the path I contrived to get most of it unobscured in my viewfinder and the end result was rather pleasing in that the bird and the habitat combined nicely to create a satisfying image that was not the usual full on side view of a bird that so much seems to be the desired result these days. Come to think of it I am becoming more and more drawn to this kind of bird imagery.

For some fifteen minutes it was visible, on and off, perched in one or other of the hawthorns but then flew fast and low out of the hawthorns and over the reeds to a bush near to its alleged favourite feeding spot on the path. 

Hopes were raised that it would eventually drop down onto the path to feed  Despite waiting for more than two hours and being told by local birders how well it had shown itself on the path the day before, it was not to be. 

Bearded Tits pinged in the reeds nearby and gave tantalising glimpses as they flew from one location to another. Numerous Chiffchaffs plus the odd Willow and Sedge Warbler were chasing insects and each other  around a bush nearby, a constant flickering of high speed activity with the occasional audible snap of mandibles. The abundant tiny forms of the hyperactive warblers were evidence of the impending departure of our summer migrants as we approach early autumn. Two Ravens flew over causing some excitement amongst the locals although in my home county of Oxfordshire they are now common enough to be unremarkable. A Red Kite was also considered notable whereas I can lie in bed and watch them pass by my window.

It was getting hot and approaching noon so we decided that the Wryneck was now a lost cause.It had never been seen in the afternoon and we would have to be content with the views we had of it earlier in the morning.

On the way back to the Visitor Centre and a refreshing cold drink we saw a couple of people stood on a small wooden bridge looking down at a wide waterfilled ditch below, running through the reeds.Curious we enquired what they were looking at

Marsh Frogs came the reply

We looked and indeed there were up to half a dozen Marsh Frogs below us, generally spaced well apart and resting half submerged in their amphibious, bug eyed way on the thick water weed in the ditch. These were by far the best views I have ever had of Marsh Frogs which on previous encounters have always seemed highly elusive and shy. Not these though.They sat for the most part motionless with just the occasional ponderous movement as they adjusted their position and were apparently untroubled by us gawking at them from above.

Maybe they have become used to the many visitors to the reserve and know they are safe.

Marsh Frogs were first found on the reserve in 2003 and have now multiplied so that they are found in every water filled ditch on the reserve and their distinctive croaking is a feature of the reserve both in Spring and as we could hear with our own ears, also in late summer.

Howard Vaughan, formerly of the RSPB at Rainham has written  that they come in a variety of colours and patterns, some warty, some blotchy, some with long tramlines up their backs. They can be all shades of olive and brown with the odd Kermit green one standing out like a sore thumb against the dark green of the weed filled water.  Further more he adds that there are three very similar species of these large frogs that make up the Green Frog complex. Their origins in England are unknown but in 1930 a lady entrepreneur decided to capitalise on the trend for French cuisine and decided to farm frogs on Romney Marsh in nearby Kent. She collected her stock from Hungary but did not bring back pure Edible Frogs but the very similar but also edible Marsh Frog which duly escaped from her farm and subsequently spread and multiplied across the south east of England. This species is certainly the most prevalent but there are also colonies of pure Edible Frogs to be found as well as a third species, the very rare Pool Frog. It is thought that the frogs at Rainham could comprise of both Marsh Frog and Edible Frog and even hybrids.

The frogs I saw did indeed vary in size, shape and colour. Not one was the same. Some were small and bright green whilst others were larger and browner or olive  but all were intricately marked with darker bars and irregular shapes and patterns of varying hues. Presumably, as with our Common Frog, the larger ones were female whilst the brighter coloured, smaller frogs were males but maybe not

I found a sense of calm watching the frogs, allowing myself to relax into their silent watery world as they sat like miniature buddhas on  the weed, the reeds gently stirring and rustling in the wind whilst the sun created dappled patterns of shadow and light. Look up and on the periphery of the reserve is another world of urban humanity, the motorway and bridge with its ceaseless traffic going back and fore, the main line railway populated by the silver snakes of high speed trains, the river and its ships, cranes and industrial warehouses, all accompanied by a background hum of un-natural mechanical noise.

A Marsh Frog croaked. A natural sound in this urban landscape. I looked down and all was forgotten.

Monday 22 August 2022

Double Scotch 18th August 2022

At about this time, three years ago, I made a trip with my butterflying pal Peter to Smardale Gill in Cumbria with the intention of viewing for the first time ever a butterfly that only lives in the northern parts of Britain, the Scotch Argus. We succeeded and spent a pleasant afternoon in wonderful scenery watching and photographing a profusion of Scotch Argus butterflies.

Whither the name Scotch Argus? In Britain this butterfly is mainly found in Scotland in upland grasslands with only two outposts in England, both in the Lake District. Argus comes from the fact its upperwings are decorated with white spots and it was derived from the Greek mythological giant Argos that possessed a hundred eyes.

Smardale Gill is a nature reserve managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust and comprises an all weather track, that was formerly a railway, atop a steep embankment that runs for 3.5miles to a spectacular viaduct that crosses the Smardale Beck far below. Being high in the Cumbrian Fells the scenery is, as one would expect, spectacularly beautiful.

Today I was on my way to Glasgow to visit my daughter and had deliberately planned an early start from my home in Oxfordshire in order to have time to visit the reserve that lies some twenty miles east of the M6 Motorway. After the mind numbing tedium of driving north for several hours through industrial England it was a pleasure to find myself on the sweeping curves of the motorway as it wound its way down through the hills towards Tebay in the Cumbrian Fells. Shortly before Tebay I left the motorway to head east on much quieter rural roads and to eventually find myself at Smardale, a tiny village of less than fifty souls hidden away in the folds of the fells.

Having been here before I knew where to go and leaving the car in the Trust's discrete car park. walked through two gates and soon was following the former railway track. At first it passes through woodland for about a mile but then opens out onto banks of blue moor grass and the many colourful heads of knapweed and scabious that flower at the edge of the track.This is the home of the Scotch Argus, one of the only two locations in England where it can now be found.

But not today apparently. The weather was totally unsuitable for butterflying, being cloudy and with a wind that was by no means warm. Scotch Argus are a sun loving butterfly and in conditions such as these would be inactive, snuggled down in the sheltering grass and low vegetation and such is their camouflaged colouring when their wings are closed, would be invisible to my human eye.

Stoic to the last I resigned myself to nothing more than a nice walk which would provide a  pleasant break from my long journey north. Reaching about half way along the track I found myself in an open but sheltered area with a steep grass bank rising up to my left and an equally steep wooded drop to my right. A butterfly propelled by the wind flew past me. A frisson of excitement came and went. It was brown but too pale. It was a Meadow Brown. 

Looking at the grass growing at my feet by the track I decided on another strategy. I would slowly walk through the grass in one last hope of disturbing a  hidden Scotch Argus.You never know it might just succeed. It was a very long shot but to my immense satisfaction, in a very short space of time it worked. From my feet, hesitantly arose a butterfly that looked almost black but was in fact dark chocolate brown.  I willed it to stop its jinking flight and settle but it flew higher up the bank to my left where due to the steep contour I was unable to follow.

Scotch Argus upperwings are dark brown almost black when freshly emerged with an orange strip on each wing in which are white eye spots encompassed by black.The underwing is more muted with a distinct grey band across the lower wing and two small eyespots on the upperwing, often invisible when the butterfly is at rest. Their flight season is short, lasting only from the end of July to the end of August and most begin to look tired and worn well before the end of the month, as they spend so much time low in grass and vegetation. Any I saw today were likely to be showing distinct signs of wear.

I walked a few more steps and disturbed another which was more co-operative and after a heart stopping thirty seconds of hesitant fluttering, as it searched for somewhere suitable to put down, finally settled on a low growing leaf at ground level. Here was my chance and moving closer I took some photos but was disappointed to find it was a rather faded individual. Nonetheless it was a Scotch Argus so there were no complaints from me.

Although the weather was not propitious and I was having to work hard to locate any Scotch Argus when I did find one the weather worked in my favour as the butterflies were sluggish and disinclined  to fly far, flopping and jinking around for a brief moment but obviously desirous to resume their slumber as soon as possible.

Today any butterfly I disturbed quickly dropped back in the grass or in a couple of cases settled on a leaf, there to 'pancake' with wings spread wide to absorb any warmth. Most however slid upperwings into lower and became virtually invisible triangles of grey brown clinging to grass stems

Look away and so well camouflaged were they it was hard to re-locate them.

A Raven croaked once, twice, thrice from high in the sky beyond the trees, its disembodied voice coming ever more distantly from across the fells. 

I walked further to more clusters of scabious and knapweed. Another Scotch Argus rose from my feet and then two more. I must have seen around ten, so very different to last time when there were hundreds flying energetically on both sides of the track, at this very same spot. Finally a relatively unworn individual co-operated and perched openly, allowing me to get images of it both with its wings open and closed. I left it clinging like a minute pennant of grey and brown to a grass stem, asleep and awaiting another warmer, sunnier day to complete its short life.

I had to go. Two hours had passed in no time. A mile walk back and I reached the car as it began to rain.

Monday 8 August 2022

A First for Britain - The Kelp Gull at Grafham Water 7th August 2022

This early Sunday morning, I headed to Farmoor Reservoir for a couple of hours birding before the inevitable incursion of humanity, that is now so much part of the reservoir's character on weekends, making birding nigh on impossible.

The drought and sunshine continues and this morning, with little wind, was warm and welcoming. The reservoir was flat calm, a tranquil mirror of blue with grebes and coots slicing arrowheads through the still water.

A couple of juvenile Common Terns were noisily fishing close to the causeway and with nothing better to do I occupied my time trying, with partial success, to capture their delicate and graceful movements as they dipped to the water to seize tiny fish from just below the surface.

The water level on the reservoir is now very low and the hot weather has caused a number of larger fish to expire which provides good feeding for the half dozen Yellow legged Gulls of various ages that are now regulars on the reservoir. I walked the circumference of the smaller basin and noted the paddle boarders setting out across the water.This signalled the end of birding as the disturbance means little if anything will remain on the reservoir or its concrete shores.

Fair enough and I retired to the cafe for my customary coffee 

I sat at a table and my phone rang. It was Mark my twitching pal

You going for the gull?

What gull?

A probable Kelp Gull. It's a first for Britain if it is one.

Assuming this would entail a nightmarish journey to some far flung island off the coast of Scotland I was pleasantly surprised to learn from Mark it was comparatively close by at Grafham Water, a vast reservoir in Cambridgeshire owned by Anglian Water

Come to mine and we can go together.

Mark put the phone down

I drank my coffee and rang back

Is it certain it is one

No but if we don't go and it is one we will regret it.

True.This is a familiar dilemna of twitching. Sometimes if it's not certain the information is correct and you dither and do not immediately react, all can be lost. 

By now I can drive the route to Mark's home in Bedfordshire in my sleep and having resolved to accept the risk, set off into an uncertain but sunny future.

An hour later I met Mark at the end of his road and we headed for Grafham Water which lies about forty five minutes drive north of Mark's home.

Martin, another of our twitching colleagues lives very near to Grafham and already had the gull under observation and promised to remain with it until we arrived. He gave us regular updates as we drove  and told us confidently the gull was going nowhere and looked settled.

Nonetheless stranger things have come to pass and a bird that looks entirely at home and settled can suddenly fly off for no apparent reason and never be seen again. Such anxiety can distort the mind and consequently we were a combination of nervousness and high excitment as we drew into the car park at Grafham on a very warm and  sunny Sunday afternoon.Not unsurprisingly the huge car park was almost full and people were enjoying barbecues, picnics and sunbathing on the grassy surrounds of Grafham Water. Add to the mix the huge number of twitchers that were now guaranteed to arrive and it was certainly going to become ever more busy.

An altercation ensued in the car park as we set off to meet Martin and proved an unpleasant diversion.A birder's car had slightly collided with another car that contained possibly two of the most unpleasant foulmouthed people (husband and wife) you could ever have the misfortune to encounter. It was nothing to do with us but a distressed lady standing nearby asked us to go to the aid of the unfortunate birder as she feared the couple were going to resort to violence. After making sure the birder was safe we left as there was no reasoning with the obnoxious pair but later we learnt it was all sorted out without coming to blows.

Come on Mark let's go see the gull 

We made our way to a tarmaced walkway/cycle path that runs around the reservoir and joined well over a hundred and fifty others looking over the retaining wall and down onto an area of sun dried mud and stones by the water and with not a tomato in sight.

In amongst the inevitable scattering of Mallards, Canada and Greylag Geese was the Kelp Gull. Superficially similar to a Great Black backed Gull but slightly smaller, it was not hard to locate as it squatted by the water, gasping in the heat and in the company of a few Yellow legged Gulls. Sadly the position of the sun made it nigh on impossible to obtain a decent image.

This popular reservoir, harbouring such an ultra rare gull, was something of a novelty, as a first for Britain is more often to be found on some remote coastline or island requiring a hellish journey, complicated travel arrangements and all the stress that accompanies such a venture but here we were looking over a wall with plenty of room at a gull no more than a short distance from us in what was, I learnt later, a country park.

Kelp Gull comprises of five sub species which belong to one of two groups: 

'Dominican Gull'  L.d.dominicanus which is found in coastal South America. the Falkland Islands South Georgia, Australia and New Zealand; L.d austrinus of Antarctica and the Antarctic Islands and L d.judithae of subantarctic Indian Ocean islands. 

'Cape Gull' L d.vetula which is found in coastal west and southern Africa and L.d.melisandae of coastal south Madagascar

It is not unreasonable to presume this gull at Grafham is a Cape Gull. In fact Cape Gull has been expanding its range from coastal southern Africa and spreading northwards along the west coast of Africa since the 1980's. There was a long staying individual in Mauritania from 1997-2007 and Cape Gulls are now breeding there in small numbers with for example up to six pairs breeding in May 2019. Another was seen in coastal Morocco in 2006, followed by four in 2008. Then one was found in Portugal in 2009 with three separate adults located during 2013, further records following in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021. A sub adult was recorded in northern Spain in April 2014. Finally three have been found as near to Britain as northern France, one in and another close to Paris, the first of these was as far back as January 1995 when an adult was discovered with Yellow legged Gulls at Paris Zoo and was the first record of this species in the Western Palearctic, let alone France. The second was at a landfill in February/March 2018 and a third was seen in July 2022.                                                                            

Although the identity of the bird at Grafham Water was only confirmed today, it was photographed on August 1st but no one noticed that it was anything other than a Great Black backed Gull until someone looked more closely at the photos. The chances of there being others occurring in Britain, especially with the annual late summer influxes of Yellow legged Gulls may not be quite so unlikely as previously thought. 

I have seen Dominican Gulls on the Caribbean coast in Colombia and Cape Gulls near, surprise surprise, Cape Town in South Africa. I could not but help thinking that this individual here at Grafham would be feeling entirely at home in all this heat and sunshine.

To my eyes it looked small for a Great Black backed Gull, appearing not that much larger than the Yellow legged Gulls nearby. It was moulting and currently in not quite adult plumage, being in its third year of life. Its upperparts were a combination of old, brownish first generation and new second generation black feathers.The flight feathers were also a combination of old and new, the three inner primaries already moulted and new, the fourth dropped and ready to be replaced while the remainder were old first generation feathers, currently unmoulted and giving the wings a curious uneven, distorted shape when they were spread. The secondaries had yet to begin their moult. Its bill was  massive, a blob ended destructive instrument with a prominent gonys and equally noticeable, due to the exaggerated length of the tibia, were the length of its greenish grey legs.  

For a little while we watched it dabbling in the shallow water just offshore before it returned to dry land to squat once again or stand and preen. The sunlight could not have been better positioned to remove any chance of getting a decent image of it and Mark, a top photographer, was not happy. Bemused passers by smiled at encountering such a vast assemblage of birders peering intently at what was just to them a gull but were kind enough to say nothing.

Those of us having seen the bird, relaxed and lapsed into casual conversations, some quite inane, usually involving camera settings and equipment whilst other new arrivals asked anxiously for directions to the gull they had yet to see.

It's flying!

The cry went up and everyone ceased their conversation and followed the gull's progress as it flew along the shoreline to beyond an inlet tower about a quarter of a mile away.We followed at a relaxed pace, as having seen the bird our levels of anxiety and concern were almost back to normal. Other birders, having just arrived hurtled past us, anxiety writ large on their faces, not wanting to miss the gull but they had no need to worry as it was obvious it was not going anywhere.

We got to the required spot and annoyingly the gull flew off again. 

As is usual in such situations comments followed as to its whereabouts and were  meant to be helpful but were precisely the opposite, 

There it is high in the sky. It's just below the vapour trails from that passing aeroplane.


No one else could see it.

Someone else said it had flown off for good and we would not see it again.

Everyone stood around a bit sheepishly.Not sure if it really had gone. 

Of course it had not, as it suddenly returned to land on the shoreline very close to us and set about destroying a dead trout. For a good thirty minutes  it tucked into the trout, gulping down bits of flesh and skin as it stood over it, dragging the remains of the fish along the shoreline and all the while remaining virtually opposite me.

I could not ask for more and papped away happily with my camera, along with the many others on either side of me

As with all successful twitches like this it became a social occasion, many of us greeting friends from previous twitches, renewing long lost acquaintances, swapping stories, sharing experiences, all of us at ease and in a good frame of mind at having seen this mega rare bird so well and so easily.

By early afternoon it was uncomfortably hot in the sun but we endured it until the gull finished feeding, flapped its wings a few times and then flew out onto the water to rest awhile before deciding to fly back to where we had first seen it.

We in turn followed and  decided it was about time for us to eat too and made for the nearby cafe, which was pleasantly air conditioned.Here we revived ourselves with iced water and a pasty followed by a vegan Magnum. Yes really!

During the previous hours we had been joined by our two other regular twitching buddies, Adrian and Les, and we chatted for an hour in the cafe, greeting other perspiring but elated birders we knew as they came and went. Outside there was a constant stream of newly arrived birders rushing by, all intent on seeing the gull above anything else.

We stirred ourselves and returned to the wall, where the gull remained sat on the shore below and now joined by three Little Egrets and two each of Dunlin and Common Sandpiper, before it eventually flew away to where it had fed on the trout. We followed, a ragged battalion of birders, many wearing camo gear others brightly dressed in tee shirts, some with small children others with dogs, the combined value  of the  optical equipment we carried running to hundreds of thousands of pounds. 

Adrian and Les had by now departed so it was just Mark and myself along with a hundred others. We followed the gull to find it had perched on some railings guarding the walkway to the inlet tower. 

It spent a long time here preening and then finally flew along the shore and back again looking for another dead fish to feed on. A dozen Yellow Wagtails were calling and feeding on the grass bank behind us, the grass withered and scorched to a brown brittleness by the drought. Swallows were feeding young in nests under the concrete walkway.

Slowly the time slipped away, Mark accepted there were no more opportunities to photo the gull and it was really time to go home.

Quite a day.