Tuesday 27 September 2022

Sitting on the Fence - 26th September 2022

Monday morning and it was raining. That Monday morning feeling was never more in evidence as I drove to nearby Ascott under Wychwood to collect a prescription and then treated myself to a vegetarian breakfast at the Old Mill Cafe in Chipping Norton. 

The rain dispersed and sunshine held sway. I began to feel better about life.

Revived by the impromptu breakfast I returned home and set about some administrative tasks. 

I rang Peter to arrange to meet him at Farmoor Reservoir at noon.

My phone then rang at just after ten. It was Ian, our County Bird Recorder, who in his understated way asked me if I was free to help him out. Curious I asked for details assuming it would be something to do with a bird report or such like.What he then recounted rocked me to the core and sent shocks of adrenalin coursing through my veins.

His immortal words to my enquiry I will remember to my dying day.

I am in Wantage and standing within seven feet of a Common Nighthawk.

He elaborated and told me how this came about.

Apparently earlier that morning, Lee, a resident of Springfield Road in Wantage had looked out of his kitchen window to see a bird sat on the wooden panel fence that protected his garden from the road on the other side. He had no idea what it was but thought it either to be ill as it sat immobile on the top of the fence in the rain or maybe a Sparrowhawk. He contacted someone else who thought it might be a Nightjar and they contacted Ian who lives close to Wantage and he decided to go and have a look as it is not every day you see a Nightjar sat on a fence, right out in the open and especially in Oxfordshire, where it is a very rare bird. On getting to the house, Lee ushered Ian in and showed him the bird still sat on the fence asleep.

Ian looked and in seconds it registered what the bird was. He told Lee that it was not a Nightjar nor was it ill. By now Ian, in his own words, was shaking almost uncontrollably and going a whiter shade of pale. Having told Lee that unfortunately it was not a Nightjar. Lee looked disappointed but Ian informed him that he shouldn't be as this bird was much, much rarer.


An absolute mega!

All the way from North America!

I now go back to my phone conversation with Ian. He told me to promise to not say a word to anyone as he was temporarily witholding the news until he could get local birding volunteers in place to manage the large crowd that would certainly arrive once the news was publicised via the bird information services.He had informed Lee what the consequences would be of news being put out and that hundreds of birders would descend on his garden. Lee was happy to accept this and even offered to show birders through his house to the kitchen where they could view the bird through the window but this proved un-necessary, as the fence and the nighthawk could be viewed from Hallets Close, the quiet road on the other side of the fence, which would allow everyone instant access to the bird rather than have to endure a queuing system. It was agreed that a collection bucket would be available for donations to two charities nominated by Lee, a spinal unit at a local hospital and a local wildlife charity called Little Foxes.

Ian asked if I could drive to Wantage immediately and help to manage the crowd just as had happened with the Oriental Turtle Dove in Chipping Norton, eleven years ago. 

I was out of the door with camera, bins and phone as fast as humanly possible, desperately and with only partial success trying to suppress the rising tide  of anxiety, excitement and sheer birding buzz that was consuming me.The drive would take around half an hour and I really had to try hard not to speed as I drove across the county to Wantage.

Enduring slow moving tractors, road works and all the other road hazards that occur in this part of the world I made it to Springfield Road and there were Badger, Gnome and Phil Barnett, three fellow Oxonbird stalwarts, standing on the corner of the entrance to Halletts Close. Badger already had the donation bucket in his hand. It was now eleven thirty and there were less than ten of us.That would soon change!

Just before the news was put out nationally!

Two Oxonbirds legends. Ian Lewington on the left
who identified the nighthawk with Phil Barnett

The first priority for me was to see the bird and I stood by a parked car and watched this mega from a few metres, sitting lengthways on its fence, behind a red Audi, totally exposed and blissfully confident that its immobility and wonderfully cryptic plumage would keep it safe from harm. I took some photos and then set about preparing for the visiting birders that would soon be arriving as by now news had gone out on the bird information services. 

First to arrive were local Oxonbirders and subsequently the crowd slowly swelled as others, responding to the news, arrived from further afield. Lee turned out to be an absolute diamond, making us tea and coffee and even letting us use his toilet. The collection bucket began accumulating copious five, ten and twenty pound notes as everyone arriving had been told by the birding services that a ten pound donation for Lee's charities would be collected on site.

Inexorably the crowd continued to grow but everyone was well behaved and lined up along the other side of the road to view the bird sat on its fence. Any minor inconvenience to local residents in the quiet cul de sac was quickly ameliorated by an explanation of what was causing all this fuss.

As each anxious new arrival showed up and put ten pounds into the bucket, the words  

'It's on the right, sitting on the fence, behind the red Audi,' - became almost a mantra

The Fence and red Audi

Arriving birders, many with anxiety writ large on their faces and worried what the situation would be, thinking they would have to wait hours in a queue for a five minute view of the bird, were visibly relieved to find that there was more than enough space for everyone to see the bird easily. Its chosen resting  place could not in fact have been more convenient for such a large crowd.

At regular intervals we counted up the notes in the bucket and each time I would take £500.00 in my hands to Lee's nearby front  door and pass it over. By early afternoon we had collected well in excess of £2000.00

The day passed in a blur of conversation, excitement, general birding blather and greetings, as more and more birders arrived from ever more distant parts.The record most probably goes to the man who drove all the way from Pendeen in the far west of Cornwall and then, having seen the bird, left to drive all the way back that evening. Others had arrived from Anglesey and Sheffield. It was that kind of day. That kind of a twitch. The star bird was definitely the main focus but there was a decided undercurrent of socialising and celebration to add to the mix, and it was nice to see so many children brought to see the nighthawk by their birding dads.

With a continual stream of birders arriving, the crowd slowly encroached further onto the road with space now at a premium but still everyone behaved impeccably and there was no rancour that I observed. If a resident's car or delivery van needed to come down the cul de sac everyone dutifully moved back to the side to let it pass.

The slightly bemused residents of Hallets Close were for the most part untroubled and pleasingly co operative and interested at this unprecedented invasion.

Familiar faces from previous twitches appeared in the crowd and acquaintances were renewed, everyone relaxed and happy as the co-operative bird continued to sit on its fencetop, rooted to the same spot.


Video by Badger.

The nighthawk appeared untroubled by all the birders and toggers, lined up just a few metres away as it squatted lengthwise on the top of the fence, occasionally suffering a minor inconvenience when a strong gust of wind blew across its exposed perch and ruffled its feathers, causing it to begin a curious side to side shuffling dance, from one foot to the other, and resulting in it rotating its body to settle facing the opposite way along the fence. The local Red Kites passing overhead also caused some mild concern and it would tilt its head upwards to check their progress.

Sometimes an irritating feather prompted a short bout of preening before it lapsed back into immobility Any such movement or opening of its oft shut eyes, precipitating a fusillade of camera clicks.

During one bout of preening it revealed a diagnostic short, forked or notched tail and darker primary feathers which are longer than a Nightjars, reaching the tip of the tail. The tips were fringed with buff indicating it was a juvenile bird. A spread wing revealed a dull white patch on the primaries and combined with a lack of white on the tail and barred throat patch, identified it as a juvenile female. 

One can only speculate how a bird normally found in Northern and Central America came to be in Oxfordshire, a county virtually in the heart of England.Could it have been the hurricane that swept over Canada recently or some other transatlantic storm that brought it here? We will never know but that explanation seems plausible.

I remained all day as did a number of my fellow birders.Slowly the light began to dull in the late afternoon and the bird became noticeably more active, watching flies passing by, twisting its head as it followed them. More frequent shuffles of its body ensued as it became increasingly restless. Its crowd of admirers meanwhile remained quiet and expectant.

Then came instant action, a shock as it happened so fast and without warning. The nighthawk flew from its resting place and ascended at speed to briefly switchback above the houses below, its long, thin and pointed wings making it appear like a falcon. In flight it was incredibly fast and agile, circling and rising ever higher in the greying sky to finally disappear at speed, high to the south, at just before 7pm

Certainly this was a day I will never forget.

This is the twenty seventh record of this species in Britain and unsurprisingly the first for Oxfordshire which for an inland county has an enviable record of megas: vis Baltimore Oriole, Scops Owl, Oriental Turtle Dove and now Common Nighthawk.

A huge thank you to Lee and his wife for their tolerance and unwavering support and to all the birders who came to see this fabulous bird, behaved so well and donated so generously.

It was generally accepted that this bird was unlikely to be here tomorrow and so it proved.The total amount collected on the day for the charities is still not known but is thought to be in the region of £4000.00 and it was estimated that throughout the day around five hundred people came to see the bird. 

Monday 26 September 2022

Risso's Dolphins off Point Lynas, Anglesey - September 2022

Whilst volunteering at the RSPB's South Stack Reserve in Anglesey I got to talk to a lot of people and one such conversation brought to my attention the fact that dolphins and porpoises could be regularly seen from Point Lynas which was but forty minutes drive further northeast along the coast of Anglesey.

Thursday and Friday were my days off from volunteering and I made a plan to visit Point Lynas. I had been told that the best time to encounter the cetaceans was around an hour before high tide which on Thursday was just after noon.

I set off for Point Lynas, on a grey and cloudy but rain free Thursday morning, driving across a remote and pastoral part of North Wales, to eventually find myself heading up a small single track road as far as possible until I could go no further and had to park the car. Point Lynas has a very impressive lighthouse standing on the highest part of the headland above the sea and I would be required to walk the rest of the way to get to it as the rest of the road was closed to motor vehicles

It was far from unpleasant as I walked uphill on the tarmac road which terminated at the lighthouse. Stonechats and Robins perched, sentinel like, on clumps of gorse and bramble while migrant Meadow Pipits peeped in alarm and flew from my presence

On getting to the lighthouse I passed through a gate that opened onto a narrow path skirting the lighthouse wall and then followed a somewhat precarious track that eventually took me down to sit on the point's extremity and look out on nothing but sea.

This was more like it. Surrounded on three sides by sea and with the steep green and heather covered slope, topped by the lighthouse behind me, I set up my telescope and scanned the sea before me.

Others were here too, also looking for cetaceans and one regular watcher told me that the most frequent dolphin to be seen here was Risso's Dolphin. This was good news as far as I was concerned as I had only ever seen them once before and that was briefly from the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry as it crossed the Bay of Biscay, quite a few years ago.

Risso's are the largest true dolphin although Orcas are technically a dolphin so could claim that title.They are the sole species in the genus Grampus, this latter name sometimes applied to them rather than Risso and they are found in virtually all temperate and tropical waters such as the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, ranging as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and Greenland and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. They grow to between 3-4 metres in length, weigh from 300-500 kilos and can dive to 600 metres. They are deep water lovers which makes them hard to study but can come close to shore where there is a steep drop off of the land into the sea, such as at Point Lynas, and they occur in pods of varying numbers which reflects their sociable nature.

For an hour I sat and looked out at the sea with nothing more than numerous Gannets and Kittiwakes passing as well as a good number of Razorbills and Guillemots swimming off the rocks below me as the sea broke in endless rhythmic patterns against the land and gulls cried on the wind.

The first cetaceans I saw were not Risso's Dolphins but Harbour Porpoises, three of them, close in, carried in the tops of the running waves that were being swept in on the wind, their small, shiny, wet, black bodies visible for only a second or two as they surfaced to breathe and then submerged. Never was the phrase 'blink and you will miss it' more apposite.

Not long afterwards a shout came from a couple standing to my right and following their pointing arms  I saw a pod of Risso's Dolphins arriving from the northeast. They are unmistakeable, large, bulky and grey with blunt bulbous heads and scarred pale bodies. I followed their bull nosed progress, breaking and cleaving the waves like a ship's bows as they arrived close to the point, their dorsal fins curved like blunt sickles above the waves. There were five of them, one of which was considerably smaller, and presumably a juvenile as it kept very close to presumably its parent. They swam around for fifteen minutes, their presence betrayed by the dorsal fins cutting through the heaving water and then they were gone further out to sea, slowly heading west.

The show was over but the thrill of seeing the dolphins lingered as I drove back to South Stack and with another day's leave tomorrow I vowed to return to Point Lynas.

The next day was in complete contrast to yesterday with bright sunshine, although the brisk and chilly northerly wind persisted. I hunkered down as best I could out of the wind but there really was no hiding place sat out on the short springy turf that carpeted the exposed point. Other watchers had returned here too, all of us waiting and hoping for a sight of the Risso's Dolphins

For two hours I sat on the damp grass even dozing periodically, lulled by the sea's rhythm and constantly changing colours and in the process became increasingly cold but my resolve never wavered. High tide was due in an hour and that hour passed slowly with nothing remotely exciting apart from a regeneration of my spiritual core in this beautiful place 

Then, as the tide turned it happened. 

Signalled by a huge splash and the sound of a large body slapping down on the water. 

I turned in the direction of the noise and to my amazement saw a Risso's Dolphin breach from the sea, almost totally airborne, three hundred kilos or more rising out of the sea like a missile, only then to fall away sideways, back into a turmoil of sea, re-entry signalled by a huge splash and smacking thump as the length of its body, by now almost horizontal, hit the water.

It became increasingly but thrillingly chaotic as dolphin after dolphin repeatedly breached, propelling their sizeable bulk into the air, one after the other, individuals making a series of multiple breaches, tantalising as you tried to anticipate where they would next breach. Sometimes I got it right at other times not.

It was a truly awesome spectacle and carried on for ten to fifteen minutes.Not only were they breaching but also tail slapping, bringing their flukes down hard on the water to create a mayhem of sound and spray. 

At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic it was almost as if they were enjoying themselves, an expression of unalloyed exuberance, just as children will often madly splash about in a swimming pool.

There was little time to think or consider, just point the camera, fire at ten frames a second and hope some images would be passable. There was no time to check the images, that would have to come later with breath held in the hope that something, anything recorded of this spectacle, would be up to scratch.

Seen in the sunlight the dolphins were magnificent. The adults, dorsally are the palest grey looking almost white at times, each dolphin bears its own unique patterning of white and grey on its underside whilst the younger ones are darker above and not so scarred. The prominent scarring comes from adult males being aggressive to each other and using their seven pairs of teeth to good effect. 

I have never seen a multiple breaching of dolphins like this and never thought I would. Although I had heard rumours of photos taken of breaching being seen earlier in the week at Point Lynas I thought it unlikely to be repeated.How wrong I was and how pleased I was!

This pod of four moved on and we thought it was all over for another day, not that anyone was complaining but forty five minutes later another three Risso's approached and repeated the show just off the point, as if trying to out compete the others that had preceded them.

As to why they do this, no one can be absolutely certain. Is it an aggressive display of some sort, or a mating ritual? Could it be to get rid of parasites? Do they mimic each other in their breaching and tail slapping as a way of sorting out dominance between themselves in their respective pods? Risso's Dolphins mainly feed at night on squid and octopus so it is unlikely to have anything to do with feeding activity.

So many questions and so little information to provide any answers.