Wednesday 23 November 2022

A Red throated Diver on an Inland Reservoir 23rd November 2022

A Red throated Diver that has been present at Upper Bittell Reservoir in Worcestershire for around a week roused my interest in what is a quiet time of year for birding and I decided to make the not too arduous journey to see it. I have seen any number over the years from coastal seawatches to breeding on lochs in Shetland but one inland in England was sufficiently infrequent to be worth the effort to go and have a look. 

The trip would also allow me to further familiarise myself with a new camera and its various settings and idiosynchrasies. Focusing on a larger bird and practicing would hopefully allow me to be ready to deal with the much smaller bird species such as warblers which would inevitably test my camera skills sooner or later.

The journey from my home to Upper Bittell Reservoir is not that long and today was forecast to be sunny after some early rain. I had never travelled to this location before but it was easy enough to find by following my satnav's directions.

Parking in an area just large enough to accommodate three cars I made my way along a lane and after  a short walk found myself on the dam wall of the reservoir which has a public footpath running across it. 

Just as well, for the manager of the yacht club which uses the reservoir told me I had to be a member of the yacht club to walk anywhere else around the reservoir. This would cost me £20.00 but thankfully was not necessary as the diver was fast asleep on the water bang in front of the dam wall and viewable from the footpath. 

The diver remained asleep for another five minutes and then commenced preening before drifting further out onto the reservoir and going back to sleep.Essentially grey and white in winter plumage, they are the smallest of the four diver species that occur in Britain and the commonest.

However, as I mentioned they are unusual inland especially in the middle of England and one can only speculate that this bird was driven inland by recent high winds and for now has opted to settle here for a spell but will probably move on to its more normal winter habitat on the sea. It certainly shows no sign of injury or illness and gave every impression of being entirely content where it was.

While watching the diver a first year Common Goldeneye, possibly bred in Scotland came close to the dam wall diving for food. Immatures and female Common Goldeneyes look very similar but adult female Goldeneyes have a yellow tip to their bill.

Red throated Divers are known as Loons in North America deriving from the diver's calls, the name being a corruption of an old Norse name lomr which translates as 'moaning bird'. Although diver is the preferred name here 'loon' is still used as an alternative in Orkney and Shetland. To this day in parts of Scotland the Red throated Diver is also known as the 'rain goose' which originates from mythology about the bird that was once widespread around the northern parts of the globe where the diver was revered and thought to be a winged helper in a shaman's journey into the spirit world. The rain goose's supposed ability to foretell the coming of storms forming part of its reputation as a bird of ill omen.

Looking at the diver today, floating on an unremarkable and tranquil inland reservoir, it was I admit, a struggle to tune in to the romance and mystique that has been attached to the bird down the years.

It is widespread as a winter visitor around most of the British coastline, sometimes in large numbers where feeding is good, such as the two thousand that were found feeding on sprats off Suffolk in the winter of 1999/2000, the largest concentration of this species so far recorded. As a breeding species it is much more restricted in range and numbers with around 950 pairs breeding, all in Scotland and of which over half are on Shetland. 

As I was restricted to the dam wall and not allowed to walk around the reservoir there was not much else for me to see as most of the birds were on the far bank and I had neglected to bring a telescope with me. A shame really as it was rumoured that a Bean Goose and a Pink-footed Goose were hiding amongst the inevitable Greylags feeding on the distant shoreline.

After an hour I left the diver, again asleep after a spell of feeding and despite the forecast of sunshine all day, the sky rapidly darkened and it commenced raining hard as I made my way back along the lane to my car.

Maybe rain goose was not so fanciful after all.

Monday 14 November 2022

A Pied Wheatear in Northumberland 12th November 2022

Mark rang me on the 1st November which is not unusual as we normally have a chat most days about birds or politics. This particular conversation involved birds and one in particular, a male Pied Wheatear that had been found that morning at the seaside town of Whitley Bay, which is just beyond Newcastle on the northeast coast of Northumberland.

We agreed it would be nice to see but as we both had already seen more than one in Britain we decided that this one was just too far away. The subsequent days passed and the wheatear persisted in remaining faithful to its favoured location of the seaside promenade and ornamental gardens at the north end of the town.

Rather nice images of the wheatear also began appearing on social media and it was obvious that this particular bird was confiding in the extreme and would allow one to get very close to it indeed. Mark, being the keen wildlife photographer he is became more and more enthused about the bird and it now dominated our conversations.The inevitable happened of course and I was persuaded, it did not take much, to go with him to Whitley Bay on Saturday 12th November, that being the first opportunity I had due to prior commitments. 

We agreed it was best to leave early as, for us, it would be a four hour drive to Whitley Bay and so loading my birding gear in Mark's car we  departed his home in Bedfordshire at 5am and headed north.The weather was on our side with no rain predicted and after two stops for coffee and fuel we approached the outskirts of Whitley Bay, in pleasant sunshine.

The only time I have been to Whitley Bay was fifty years ago when I had student lodgings in the town and my memories of those  times are inevitably vague and probably just as well. What we found this morning as we drove along  a wide boulevard by the seafront was  a rather pleasant vista of victorian houses, cafes and shops looking across an area of grass and ornamental gardens to a promenade bordering a long sandy beach and the North Sea.

Following Birdguides directions we were fortunate to be able to park for free and gathering our gear together crossed the road, walked over the grass for a hundred yards to reach a tarmac path that  lay above and ran adjacent to the promenade below. Any concerns about locating the wheatear were almost immediately dispelled as we could see a dozen birders already looking at it. 

The wheatear itself was obvious, due to the pale, wind ruffled feathers of its breast being highlighted by the sun as it perched on a wall literally yards from its admirers.

Despite the regular passing of the general public and dog walkers in particular it showed little concern about anyone approaching it too closely and at times members of the public not remotely interested in the bird passed within feet of it while we remained at what we felt was a sensible distance. Emboldened by seeing this we also felt no compunction to 'back off' and sure enough the wheatear obliged and everyone of us could hardly fail but get sensational close ups of this rare bird.

Pied Wheatears, as we were to explain to the numerous enquiries from curious passers by, come from eastern Europe and Russia, their range in Europe being mainly around the Black Sea, in eastern Romania and Bulgaria. Further east they are found in small numbers in south and east Ukraine and widely across southern Russia, southern Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia to as far as northern China. They migrate to spend the winter in either East Africa or southwest Arabia.

The first ever recorded in Britain was on The Isle of May in Scotland on 19th October 1909. Up to and including this individual a further 86 have been recorded with unsurprisingly over 75% being found on the east coast although they do occur on other coasts but far less frequently. I saw my first one, an adult male, way back in July 1990 on the south coast at Newhaven in East Sussex. It is considered that the birds that arrive in Britain are from the Asian populations

An average of two records come each year, normally in late autumn with the bulk of records during the second half of October so this bird at Whitley Bay was later than most.

We settled down to photograph and watch the wheatear, as bemused members of the public passed by or stopped to watch both us and the bird. It spent much of its time flycatching, watching the airspace above it, crouching in anticipation when it saw an insect, then launching itself skywards and with much dexterity and swooping caught its prey before descending to perch once more on the wall. At other times it would drop down onto the tarmac path to pick off an ant and on one occasion it dropped within literally yards of us.

Slowly I moved from a crouching position to lie sideways on the tarmac to get that eye level shot.The bird showed no alarm.Then it moved closer and finally was within four feet of me. Unbelievable. I had to drop the zoom on my lens to its lowest in order to get it in frame and Mark's bigger lens with its higher magnification just could not cope. I lay there taking image after image as it stood looking around for ants.

Of course it could not last, as an inconsiderate person deliberately ignoring us, walked through and it flew but what an experience. For the most part the public were supportive but as often happens in a very popular and public place there are always one or two who feel they need to assert their right to do as they please or, to be charitable, maybe they did not notice the bird as they walked by.

The wheatear would regularly fly some distance to various places and seemed to have a preference for the rock walls that bordered the ornamental garden features.Here it would perch and fly out on sorties after insects and sometimes it would perch in the grass or on the benches by the path.

We spent a happy couple of hours  following it around and both of us were more than content with the images we obtained and seeing the bird so close to us.

Our early start meant we were hungry and after our time with the wheatear we decided to look for somewhere to eat. Chatting to someone local, we were directed to the promenade and told to walk north to the Rendezvous Cafe. The wide all weather surfaced promenade follows the beach for its entire length and this being a pleasantly mild Saturday was immensely popular. Walkers, joggers, bikes and above all dog walkers had come to enjoy a spell by the sea.

The Promenade

The Rendezvous Cafe although making no concessions to sophistication was also very popular and we had to wait to get a table but once inside, coffee and something basic to eat revived us enough to go back for more of the Pied Wheatear. 

Now approaching noon on a pleasant sunny Saturday the promenade area was inevitably going to be busy, so busy the wheatear was constantly having to move and had graduated down onto the beach, where there was more space and it could hunt flies from the sand, but even here it was regularly disturbed, even being chased by dogs.

Despite this, somehow it worked, the beach being sufficiently wide and long enough to prove acceptable and the wheatear would either spend brief spells on the beach or perch on the promenade wall above. Even so the disturbance was considerable and although not frightened  it still was obliged to move frequently.

I was probably more frustrated with the constant interruptions than the bird.  There were just too many people and too many dogs. I stood in a quieter corner of the promenade and as one does got chatting to another birder who felt the same as me. Mark meanwhile was still down on the beach suffering various indignities and frustrations as he endeavoured to get that ultimate shot

The birder I was chatting to said

I presume you know about the Snow Bunting?

No, tell me more I replied

He explained that there was a Snow Bunting which was just as confiding as the wheatear and it was to be found beyond the Rendezvous Cafe, feeding on the weedy embankment on the left side of the promenade.

I tried to call Mark but got no answer, so I made my way to the northern end of the promenade alone. I got to the end but had failed to find the bunting. I turned to walk back and saw two birders pointing cameras at the embankment. They obviously had located the bunting so I walked to where they were standing and there very, very close was the Snow Bunting, scuttling amongst the herbage and loose stones, picking seeds from the ground and nibbling them in its corn yellow beak.

I confess to rather liking Snow Buntings, so consequently spent some time watching and photographing it. Then, satisfied with my efforts I walked to meet Mark and we decided that both of us were not going to improve on what we had achieved with the wheatear.More to the point by now we definitely had more than enough of the busy promenade and beach.

Mark is a rugby fan so we decided to try and find a pub where we could watch  England against Japan but failed comprehensively to find anywhere. Having decided to stay overnight we headed for our accommodation, a Travel Lodge in Sedgefield. Frankly it was a relief to put my feet up as I must have walked miles along the seafront, back and fore, following the wheatear.

An excellent Indian restaurant right opposite  the Travel Lodge solved the problem of an evening meal and during the meal we decided to go back for seconds of the wheatear on Sunday. 

We returned to Whitley Bay but there was no sign of the Pied Wheatear.

It had gone.

Monday 7 November 2022

Sabine's in Kent 5th November 2022

A Sabine's Gull is a small demure gull, not much bigger than a Little Gull, that breeds in the Arctic tundra and migrates to spend the winter in southern oceans. Their breeding distribution is circumpolar, nesting in small colonies in Canada, Arctic Russia and Greenland.Their total population is less than 100,000 pairs and many winter off the coast of southern Africa and others off Peru.

For most of its life it is far out to sea but gales can blow migrating individuals inland  and that is usually when it can be found in Britain. Although considered rare and worthy of mention they are no strangers to our shores with an average of 186 being seen each year in Britain with some years being better for sightings than others.

When strong gales occur, storm driven Sabine's Gulls sometimes appear on inland bodies of water such as reservoirs where they are seldom found. I have even seen them on very rare occasions in Oxfordshire, about as far as it is  possible to be inland in Britain; for instance an adult was at Farmoor  Reservoir in  2001 and a juvenile spent some days on the main lake at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock in 2009.

Normally those that find themselves inland manage to find a reasonable sized body of water on which to spend a few days recuperating before heading back to the sea but  for the past ten days a juvenile has been frequenting the grass covered overflow car parks of Port Lympne Safari Park  in Kent with the only water in sight being a muddy puddle in one of the car parks. It appears perfectly happy to share this and the car parks with around twenty Black headed Gulls.

With little to occupy me on Saturday and rain forecast to fall all day I was in a low mood and at a loss as to what to do. I do not like remaining in the house all day so had to get out and do something. Scrolling down my Birdguides app and consulting my Twitter feed I saw that the Sabine's Gull at the safari park had been showing really well yesterday and decided on an impulse to go and see it.

It is quite a long way to Lympne but driving carefully on the rain lashed motorways, or should I say sprayways, that took me south, I turned off onto less busy roads after a couple of hours driving and eventually found myself on a long approach road that led to the safari park.

Any hopes of the rain abating had long since passed but I noted that the rain came in pulses and every so often would almost cease before recommencing. Photography would be possible but not ideal as it was so grey and dull and there is nothing worse than standing in the rain getting wet and worrying about your camera. Still needs must and I had to reconcile myself to the fact the day was not going to improve and accept the situation for what it was.

Coming to the end of the approach road I turned a corner and slowed as I noticed a few cars parked on a grassed area to my left which was obviously an overflow car park but ignoring them I headed further to what looked like the main car park and left my car there.

A couple of birders stood nearby in the rain having arrived seconds before me. I had no idea where the gull was but obviously it had to be nearby although there were a number of grassed areas that in busier times were obviously used for car parking. I asked them if they knew of the gull's whereabouts and they told me they had seen it fly across the road towards  the cars I had just passed. Battening down both myself and my camera gear against the rain I walked back a couple of hundred yards to the parked cars.

At first I could see nothing but Black headed Gulls, their white plumage bright against the green grass. They were parading around looking for worms on the wet grass and mud slicks caused by car tyre tracks Then a much smaller, less conspicuous gull, due to its grey brown upperparts matching the colour of the mud, materialised. 

The Sabine's Gull!

It was very close and commenced coming even closer. I had heard it had been 'showing well' yesterday but this was ridiculous as it marched about with absolutely no concern about my and other birders close presence. Almost pigeon like, it looked so delicate, slim and trim, compared to the larger Black headed Gulls, its wings noticeably long and projecting far beyond its tail. It too was hunting for worms and with considerable success from what I could see.

I stood  under a hedge on the other side of the approach road that gave partial shelter from the rain and watched this supposed pelagic gull incongruously wandering around on an area of waterlogged grass  about as far from its true home out at sea as was possible. What was not to enjoy? 

I  crossed the road to stand by the cars, no longer worried if the gull would fly off as it obviously had never seen humans before  and consequently saw no reason to be wary. The Black headed Gulls were more circumspect and kept their distance but this tiny gull continued to patrol the grass back and fore, at times coming to within a few feet of me. 

I have a new camera and set about testing and familiarising myself with its functions by taking multiple images of the gull. Let's face it this was an ideal opportunity to test both myself and the camera despite  the rain that continued to fall. The gull was regularly tugging worms, big and small from the waterlogged ground and swallowing them whole, its appetite seemingly insatiable. 

Sometimes a Black headed Gull would try its luck and endeavour to snatch a worm from its smaller cousin but was repelled by a feisty response from the Sabines which, with lowered head and open bill, emitting a raspy squeak of protest or threat, would then advance on the larger gull which invariably conceded and retreated. 

For the most part it remained in this car park but flew across the road to a muddy flooded area where it washed and preened for a while before moving further out into this larger field and remained there for a long spell, doing very little before rousing itself and flying back to the small car park where I had been watching it earlier.

Seen so close they are rather ungull like in plumage, being predominantly grey brown on their upperparts, each feather bordered with a dark brown and white semi circle imparting a scaly appearance. When it spread its wings a shock of black outer and pure white inner flight feathers caught the eye but were concealed when the wings were closed. Another ungull like feature was its tail which was slightly forked.

The last time I saw a juvenile Sabine's Gull was at Blenheim, Oxfordshire in September 2009 that remained for some days before moving on. I have seen quite a few others over the years such as in Norfolk, Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Pembrokeshire, and Sussex in 2000, which was my first in Britain. Most memorable was an adult in summer plumage seen at the most unlikely of locations, Farmoor Reservoir, Oxfordshire in August 2001.

So the day was saved and my thanks go to the safari park who were happy to accommodate us birders by providing free parking especially for us and seemed genuinely interested in the gull.