Wednesday 2 August 2023

Black winged Stilts at Frampton Marsh 31st July 2023

Black winged Stilts first bred in Britain in 1945 in Nottinghamshire. This year has seen a marked influx of Black winged Stilts into Britain with pairs breeding in both Kent and Lincolnshire (for the first time). In May this year birds were reported from fifty separate sites in Britain, including an individual at RSPB Otmoor in Oxfordshire. near my home. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) now classify them as 'colonising breeders'.

Black winged Stilts have a cosmopolitan distribution throughout most of the world and in western Europe are to be found in most southern countries, migrating in winter to Africa, north of the Equator. The stilts currently gracing our avifuana are perhaps yet another indicator of the warming global temperature. As they spread north it is thrilling to see them here but at the same time they bring a sense of unease about the way the world's climate is heading and the fact their normal range in southern Europe is suffering record high temperatures, wildfires and drought.

There are two pairs of Black winged Stilts breeding at the RSPB's Frampton Marsh Reserve in Lincolnshire, one pair at the far end of the reserve and the other pair at the opposite end in the vicinty of the Visitor Centre. Between six and eight are thought to be present, comprising four adults and four young. We saw at least seven when we visited the reserve.

Mark, my birding pal, saw some images, taken over the weekend and posted on social media, of one of the two families of  Black winged Stilts at Frampton.The stilts were seen and photographed from the visitor centre and indicated the birds had shown very well.. 

Mark had been on about the Frampton stilts for some time in the past weeks but I was not wildly enthusiastic as I had been to see a long staying Black winged Stilt at Slimbridge WWT in neighbouring Gloucestershire on at least two occasions and had very good views of it. However Mark persisted and after offering to drive to Frampton any resistance on my part, if it ever was such, faded and we met on Monday and made our way to Frampton on a cloudy and windy day, getting there at around 11am as there was no real need to rush.

The RSPB's Visitor Centre at Frampton has had a major makeover and is rather pleasant,still small but now wth a nice cafe attached to it with picture windows that look directly out onto an expanse of  reeds, floods, sandy spits and islands,populated by assorted waders,ducks and large numbers of Greylag and Canada Geese. 

With high hopes of seeing the stilts we ascended the steps to the centre's entrance, proffered our membership cards and enquired as to the current situation with the stilts.

I should have known.

The dreaded words were delivered by a far too cheery volunteer.

'There's been no sign of them today so far. You should have been here yesterday as they were right outside the windows giving fabulous views' 

Now we were confronted with a dilemna.Should we wait here or in the cafe in the hope the stilts might fly in or, as suggested by the volunteer, walk to the East Hide which was about a mile away and where the other family of stilts had been reported this morning.Taking one look at the cafe's prices for food, tea or coffee (£6.50 for a sausage sandwich anyone?) we opted for the walk to the East Hide.

Digressing for a wee moment I do not understand why the RSPB charge so much for any form of sustenance in their cafes. Personally I think it self defeating as now we bring our own sandwiches, rolls or whatever and eat those and I am sure the same goes for many other the cost of food rises ever upwards.

Back to the birds.

Our day at Frampton, it is fair to say, had not got off to the best of starts but we were here and so may as well make the best of it.The weather forecast had been for no rain but of course this is Britain where you take any forecast with a large dose of scepticism and sure enough it began to rain, not too heavy but enough to be an inconvenience.We followed the path towards the East Hide as it wound through the head high whispering reeds. The one highlight was a Weasel, hunting along the edges of the path, dashing around like an animated saveloy but on noticing us shot into the reeds and that was that.

We entered the East Hide and looked out to the flashes and scrapes.To nobody's surprise there was  not a sign of any stilts, just a lot of geese, ducks and gulls with a large number of Sand Martins, hunting flies low over the water in the strong northwest wind. Scattered Black tailed Godwits were feeding in the muddy flashes and a few Ruff wandered the narrow stretch of mud that formed a shoreline of sorts in front of the hide.Most noticeable and right in front was a truculent Avocet unecessarily protective of a juvenile, almost as large as itself.

Half an hour passed watching the comings and goings of various waders when Mark made a good find in the form of an adult Little Stint, running around on the mud of the windswept shoreline, all ginger brown in its breeding plumage.It was making its way towards us, as we waited with cameras poised but the Avocet had other ideas and chivvied it away. Next along the shore came a moulting male Ruff which received similar treatment from the Avocet and departed. The Avocet, now getting into the swing of things set about scattering a family of Mallards.I never thought I would find cause to curse an Avocet  but now I certainly did.

It became obvious that with the Avocet deeming this particular area its exclusive domain we were unlikely to see any wader for more than a few seconds nor have the opportunity to photograph them The Ruff and the stint both kept coming back but each time were sent literally flying by the feisty Avocet. A lovely Knot in pale orange and spangled summer plumage chanced its luck and it too was summarily chased off. The only bird that we got close views of was the young Avocet as it passed back and fore in front of the hide.

Juvenile Avocet

Ever persistent, the Little Stint returned once more and as.I was focusing my camera on it, in flew a Black winged Stilt, an adult male with a snowy white head, and glossy black upperparts, supported by those incredible coral pink knitting needles it calls legs.It waded elegantly in the shallow water and commenced coming towards us.

For a minute or two we enjoyed anticipating seeing this lovely bird close to the hide but were confounded  when in swooped the Avocet and away flew the stilt. I decided that was it for me but Mark said he wanted to stay.I argued it was pointless as the stilt or stilts were unlikely to return to face the Avocet and even if one or more did they would certainly be driven off.

We agreed to differ and I said I would go back to the visitor centre to try my luck with the other stilt family there and we could liase by phone if there were any developments at either location.Leaving the hide I looked along a channel of water and there was the stilt family, someway distant and sheltering under a bank from the wind and rain.They looked settled and perfectly happy where they were.

Back at the visitor centre I was told a stilt family were on the other side of the approach road  to the reserve, on a pool reached by taking a public footpath.They were also distant but at least I could get to see them which I did, a family of four, consisting of two adults and two full grown young but after a few minutes they flew as a group,calling to each other and were lost to view.

I made my way back to the visitor centre and found Mark had already returned.He told me he had seen  a Great White Egret near to the centre so with precious little else to see I headed off to look for it. A helicopter with clatterring rotor blades flew low over the reserve.A minute later my phone rang.It was Mark.

With only one bar on my phone the message was garbled but just about decipherable

'The stilts are in front of the centre! Now!'

I rapidly made my way back and found Mark in the cafe which had two windows which could be partially opened and through the gap in one he was photographing a male and female Black winged Stilt accompanied by a fully grown juvenile.

The helicopter must have disturbed them and caused them to fly back to the scrapes. They were really close and allowed us to get some great images as they stood in the shallow water, for all the world as if deciding what to do next.

Black winged Stilts are incredible looking birds,unreal,almost as if a child had been asked to create a bird and got the proportions wrong.The head and slim body are predominantly snow white apart from the back and wings which are black.The bird is all points and angles,from the long,black,pencil thin bill to the black wing tips extending far beyond its white tail.The attenuated body is supported on legs so thin and fragile you feel they could snap at the slightest opportunity.They stalk around in perfect balance, tilting to pick at items from the ground with an elegant bend of the legs at the knee.It is impossible for the bird to be anything else but graceful,being granted this grace by its impression of great fragility.Only in flight do they look slightly less elegant when their long outstretched legs trail far beyond their tail.

This unlikely trio stood for a while before separating and commencing to feed, stalking through the water like circus artistes on those long legs, bending the knee at forty five degrees to dip downwards to pick something from the water or sand. 

The young bird was a shadow of the adults in appearance, its upperparts dull grey brown, each feather neatly scalloped with a thin buff fringe, its head and hindneck smudged with pale brown feathering, the legs dull pinkish brown. Its movements, however, replicated the adult's elegance and grace

Juvenile Black winged Stilt

In contrast the adult male looked sleek,its upperparts glossy black and its head and underparts snow white with legs that were bright coral pink.It is the legs that always draw your attention, so extraordinary, they are just as long above the knee as they are below. 

Adult male Black winged Stilt

The female was, unsurprisingly,duller than the male with darker, more extensive markings on its head and neck.I would like to say they were black but they were dark brown as were its upperparts which showed some buff fringes to the hindmost feathers. 

Adult female Black winged Stilt

The adults separated and flew further out to another scrape but for the next hour and a half they remained in the  vicinity of the scrapes in front of the centre, sometimes coming close, sometimes remaining more distant.Although separated by some distance the birds were obviously keeping in contact with each other, calling when they flew with an unmusical, loud tyikk tyikk tyikk. 

By now we had abandoned the cafe to stand in a little viewing area by the fence at the side of the cafe and although the stilts were certainly aware of our presence they remained where they were.The young bird came incredibly close at one stage and to my mind was less wary of us than the adults. 

In the short periods when they were out of view we were entertained by a female Marsh Harrier collecting material for presumably a late nest secreted in the reeds, a moulting male Ruff feeding close to us  and Little Ringed Plovers, Green and Common Sandpipers running along the water's edge. Even a Spotted Redshank put in a late appearance.

Our afternoon with the Black winged Stilts came to a natural conclusion as the skies of early evening darkened with rain clouds once more. 

Time to go.

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