Wednesday, 7 September 2022

A Dotterel Delight on Cleeve Hill - 6th September 2022

Reports came through on Monday of two Dotterels being found on Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham in the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire. One was a moulting adult and the other a juvenile, the two birds keeping each other company as they fed on the short grass at the side of one of the fairways on the public golf course that runs across Cleeve Hill

I kept an eye on reports and when images were later posted on social media showing just how close the Dotterels would allow anyone to approach them, a situation that is not uncommon with  this most trusting of birds, it proved very tempting. 

Who am I kidding, to see a Dotterel and at ridiculously short range was a no brainer. Couple this with the fact they were only a comparatively short drive from my home and there could be only one outcome.I must go and see them. An opportunity such as this rarely presents itself.

I was unable to go on Monday due to various personal commitments and planned to make an early morning visit on Tuesday, if they remained. On Monday night a violent storm broke over my village and presumably also Cleeve Hill. Lashing rain, crashing thunder and vivid jags of lightening lit the night, meaning it would be highly unlikely that the birds would continue their migration in such a deluge and hopes were high they would be there on Tuesday.

And so it proved, the Dotterel were reported to still be in their usual place on the golf course at 7am. All was well and good and after some administrative tasks at home I set off for Cleeve Hill at around 10am. The drive was far from unpleasant, crossing the Cotswolds, driving on rural roads until I turned onto a narrow, potholed lane bowered by mature trees, that twisted and turned, rising inexorably uphill to the crest and the small car park adjacent to the wide open spaces of Cleeve Hill.

I got my things together and passing through the gate took my first steps onto the blustery windswept top of Cleeve Hill. You are high up here and all around the contours of the land sweep away and down to a hazy distance where the sky appears to merge with the land. 

The intermittent sun chased cloud shadows across the rolling landscape as the wind blew strong and sheep scattered from me as I walked across the grass. All very exhilerating but where to go? I was a trifle uncertain. Not another birder was in sight to ask so I was on my own on this one. Cleeve Hill is a vast area but fortunately I had managed to download some directions as to where the birds were yesterday.The question of course was would they be in the same place today? 

The answer was no, as another birder who appeared out of nowhere told me they had been seen some forty five minutes ago, nearer to the gate I had just passed through onto the hill. However there was no sign of them now and for a moment we were uncertain what to do

Birds are creatures of habit and I suggested that maybe they had returned to their usual spot and this was confirmed by another birder passing us who said they were back exactly where they had been for most of yesterday.

I again consulted my downloaded directions which instructed me to head for the lone tree where the land rose to a ridge and the golf course beyond. I looked and there was the isolated tree, obvious in the distance and requiring a fair walk to reach it.

Without delay and with not a word spoken, I and my new companion  yomped our way across the grass towards the tree and on getting there breasted the ridge on which it stood and a hundred metres beyond was a group of half a dozen birders obviously looking at the Dotterels by the golf course fairway. We headed for them and soon I could see the two birds feeding on the grass, spaced well apart but fairly obviously keeping in contact with each other. I saw the moulting adult first, its strong colouring more obvious against the grass and then a minute later there was the juvenile, its straw coloured plumage making it less easy to pick out amongst the withered grass stems.

Moulting adult Dotterel

Juvenile Dotterel

The adult, partially moulted, was an untidy mix of breeding and winter plumage and not looking at its best. It still retained its prominent white supercilia,  a faint white breast band and some orange and black belly markings while the rest of its plumage was transitioning to the overall greyish buff plumage of winter.It will have now arrested its moult until it completes its journey to its winter home.There it will complete the moult and if it survives to return next year will commnece its moult into breeding plumage before leaving its winter home.

The juvenile I have to confess to finding more attractive with its pale buff underparts and neatly patterned upperparts of black feathers bordered with buff, creating a pleasing neat and scaly look. Like the adult it displayed the diagnostic broad supercilia that meet on the nape and a breast band, both more buff than white in its juvenile plumage.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how few people had ventured out to see the Dotterels this morning. Probably because, being present for a second day, most who wanted to see them had already made the pilgrimage yesterday. I settled to photograph and just enjoy them. There was no need to worry about getting too close as they would, more often than not come towards us, searching the damp rain soaked ground for invertebrates.

I lay on the lip of an old bunker as the birds fed unconcernedly only a few metres away.They fed in typical plover fashion, a few quick steps then, halting, they stood eyeing the ground intently, a dip to the ground and digging their bill in the soft earth would seize their prey, swallow it and with another few steps move on to repeat the process.

Conveniently for me and my fellow birders they were reluctant to leave a comparatively small area by the fairway and would circle it regularly searching for food, of which there seemed no shortage. In fact they would at some mutual understanding, of which I was unaware, cease feeding and becoming content, stand or even sit quietly for a few minutes before resuming their quest for food.

The last time I was this close to Dotterels was co-incidentally also on a golf course but in Norfolk and some years ago with my pal Clackers. I recall a few golfers objecting to our close presence to their sacred turf and there was a bit of  golfing twattery here today too but on the whole us birders and the golfers managed to co-exist amicably.

For over an hour I enjoyed the company of these lovely birds with no more than half a dozen fellow birders. 

Dotterels are montane specialists, in the breeding season being birds of the flat tops on high hills and mountains, so Cleeve Hill must have seemed an ideal place to break their long journey from possibly the Highlands of Scotland or further north from Scandinavia or Siberia. These two will fly on to North Africa to spend the winter, maybe to Morocco in the Atlas Mountains where I have been lucky enough to see Dotterels.

I left them as I had found them, searching the ground for food within metres of their hushed and admiring audience. 

No comments:

Post a Comment