Tuesday 26 September 2023

A Bay breasted Warbler on Ramsey Island 23rd September 2023

It was an anxious two days, as having booked ourselves on a boat to Ramsey Island for Saturday  while watching the Magnolia Warbler at St Govan's Point on Thursday, we had to wait to see if the Bay breasted Warbler, an even rarer bird, found on Ramsey Island on Thursday, would still be there on Friday and if it was would it remain until Saturday.

There has only been one previous record of a Bay breasted Warbler in Britain. It was seen at Lands End,Cornwall on the 1st of October 1993.In North America they breed  in a restricted band from southern Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and northern New England to the Northern Territories and northeast British Columbia.They winter in tropical South America from Panama to western Colombia and northwest Venezuela.
Saturday was the first opportunity anyone would have of getting out to Ramsey Island, as all sailings to the island had been cancelled on Thursday and Friday due to adverse weather conditions. Saturday was the only forseeable opportunity to see the warbler, provided the weather did as predicted. From Sunday onwards  it was unlikely there would be any further sailings in the following week due to the weather deteriorating once more. To rack up the tension even more only a limited number of four sailings, would go to the island on Saturday, accommodating around 125 birders, as apparently that was the restriction on numbers allowed on the island on any one day.

We had by the skin of our teeth secured the last eight places on the third sailing at 12 noon. Anyone with a ticket had the chance of making a lot of money as large sums were being offered by desperate twitchers to anyone willing to give up their place. The tickets were a not unreasonable £17.00. if you were an RSPB member and £27.00 if not but I had heard of  figures in excess of £100 being offered.

Like  the Magnolia twitch I was going to drive solo to St Justinians on the Welsh coast where I  would meet my colleagues and get the boat to Ramsey Island.It made no sense to drive to Mark's house, an hour and a half's drive in the wrong direction  As our sailing time was noon and the drive from my home would take four hours I had the luxury of departing at 6.30am and taking it steady. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. 

Friday arrived and with heart in mouth I checked BirdGuides. The Bay breasted Warbler was still present. Now we only needed it to stick for one more day but in the knowledge we would have to set off for Wales  on Saturday before news came through. I remained philosophical. I could check at intervals as I drove to Wales and if the warbler was not there I would turn back

I drove at a steady pace well below the speed limit, making a couple of stops on the way for a coffee and to stretch my legs.

Approaching Carmarthen my phone rang.

It was Mark giving me the welcome news that the warbler had just been reported as showing well on Ramsey Island.Thirty minutes later Mark called again and excitedly let me know a Canada Warbler, a first for Britain had been found and was showing intermittently, close to St Govan's Point where the Magnolia Warbler  was still currently viewable. It was eminently possible we could in one day see the Bay breasted Warbler, only the second for Britain and then go on to view the Canada Warbler, a first for Britain. St Justinians to St Govan's Point was only an hour's driving.

A relaxed sunny drive on uncongested roads brought me to St Davids, a pleasant touristy village on the coast and two miles beyond lay the tiny hamlet of St Justinians.A sign at the entrance to the village instructed me to turn off into a grass field, designated as a parking area for arriving birders and other visitors.

I called the others on my phone, struggling for a signal in this remote place, to discover they had been ahead of me and were just finishing breakfast in St Davids.I decided to wait for them to join me in the field and chatted to another birder, booked on the same boat as us. The others arrived  and after paying a parking fee we walked down the steep sloping road to a dead end that overlooked a rocky natural harbour below.

Birders were already massing here  although we had over an hour and a half before we departed for Ramsey. Island. Most of us being regular twitchers knew each other to a greater or lesser extent and, as usual there were greetings with friends not seen since the last big twitch, endless speculation about the warbler on Ramsey Island and the momentous events currently unfolding with American passerines raining down on western Britain.

Others scoped the island, it was that close and could see the birders from an earlier boat watching the warbler near to the house that acts as a rudimentary visitor centre and home for the wardens..Some of my fellow twitchers were in a state of high anxiety, seemingly unable to curb their worries about whether the bird was showing well, how long we could remain  on the island, and whether the bird might fly off before we saw it.

It wouldn't and we would see it, of that I was certain.

To add to the tension, as mentioned, rare American passerines were being reported from all along the western side of Britain. A Philadelphia Vireo was found on Barra in the company of two Red eyed Vireos, a second Black and White Warbler was trapped and ringed on nearby Bardsey Island, a Northern Parula was found on Scilly.and the Canada Warbler was still in the woods and bushes near St Govans.

The Canada Warbler, being a first for Britain was the subject of much conversation with many vowing to give the Bay breasted Warbler as little time as possible so they could get back to the mainland to see the Canada Warbler. Tick and run but that is what anxiety can do to one.

Personally I intended to spend as much time as possible with the Bay breasted Warbler before going to see the Canada Warbler.I had all day if necessary.

Inevitably with nothing to do but wait at the landing stage, talk ensued about chartering boats and/or planes to see  the Philadelphia Vireo and how possible would it be to get to the Western Isles  with bad weather closing in. Everyone it is fair to say was in a state of high excitement. You can imagine how this was affected by further news coming through of an Ovenbird that had been found in the middle of a field on The Isle of Rum. 

There was however nothing we could do as the weather was predicted to take a turn very much for the worse from tomorrow. Planes could not fly and Calmac inevitably would find a reason to cancel ferry sailings.

I tried to reason with my colleagues.

Let's just concentrate on the Bay breasted Warbler guys.This is what we have come for, the rest can wait for a few hours

Not everyone was convinced.

Meanwhile the Alder Flycatcher was still on Skokholm and the Magnolia Warbler remained faithful to St Govan's Point. This Saturday would go down in birding folklore.There had been nothing like it. Not ever. Mark and myself were seriously wondering if we might delay going to Shetland next Friday and remain south just in case anything else was discovered, and we were not alone in thinking this way.

All the speculation and birding blather was silenced as we were called to check our names against a list and then ushered down, up and down steep steps before coming to a halt on the elevated slipway of the lifeboat station to await the arrival of our boat.

Boarding was a simple process for the ten minute crossing to Ramsey Island.Crammed in shoulder to shoulder in a highly excitable state we arrived at another steep set of steps leading up to the quayside on Ramsey Island.You could sense the eagerness and anticipation coursing through every one of us.Birders waiting on the quayside to return to the mainland told us the warbler had been showing well but only periodically 

No time to stop and talk. We yomped up the hillside at a fair pace to come to a halt by the Visitor Centre.A quick set of instructions  were issued by the warden as to where best to see the bird and what not to do and where not to go and then we were free to climb further to a ridge path that overlooked the Visitor Centre and an amphitheatre of gorse, bramble and a patch of willows, variously favoured by the warbler.

Being fairly fit I raced up the  hillside to get a prime position although there was really no need as there was plenty of room for all 

Now it was a question of waiting. It was only a little while before someone saw the warbler, much obscured, low down in the willows and brambles. It then disappeared even lower behind a dry stone wall and apart from a brief sighting, for the next twenty minutes no one saw it. Finally it was refound, again very much obscured in the willows.I could claim to have seen bits of it, the prominent double white wing bars  parts of a pale greenish body and a tail.

Can you see it?

Amazingly this was enough for some, who decided that the Canada Warbler must have priority and promptly left to go and get one of the returning sailings as  by now the boat was running a shuttle service to return anxiety consumed twitchers to the mainland. Two of our crew succumbed to this almost mass hysteria but we remained.

After the view in the willows, I could fairly claim to have seen the Bay breasted Warbler but I wanted much better views than this.It dropped down again out of view and for a long period no one could locate it. Common Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Goldcrests moving through the willows and bramble brought intermittent excitement but they were all false alarms. Then the warbler was seen flying up the hillside to a more distant area of gorse and bracken. This precipitated a mass stampede up the hillside track, everyone grabbing scopes and cameras and running uphill to overlook the area the warbler had flown to. 

The warbler was definitely in the gorse but where? It popped out and sat on top of a bracken frond,facing me at some distance, its breast and underparts appearing a pale buffish green  before once more dropping down into the bracken and gorse. At intervals it would appear and then disappear, trying my patience at re-locating it. In the end I focused on some bare branches of gorse that it seemed particularly fond of and it would pop out every so often to perch there, its pale greenish body obvious against the darker green of the gorse. For ten minutes or more it appeared at intermittent intervals and everyone was content.We had all seen it well.

A large number of birders now left for the Canada Warbler and there was far less of a crowd on the hillside track.

The warbler, a little later  flew higher to the top of the hill and despite following we could not relocate it. In true warbler fashion it preferred to feed in cover and consequently was hard to find unless and until it perched out in the open.

Twenty more anxious minutes elapsed and there it was in a bramble clump further back down the slope.How did it get there without being noticed? We walked back until it was right in front of us. I raised the camera as it perched in perfect pose below me.Just about to press the shutter and it dived into the bramble clump.

It will come out again Mark ventured

It didn't and another tense fifteen minutes passed with absolutely no sign of it

It's still in the bramble

It wasn't though. It appeared in the next clump of bramble down the slope, even closer to us and now for a blessed unforgettable minute perched right out in the open.It was now or never.

c Mark

I said a silent prayer, every nerve in my body tingling in anticipation of finally getting a decent image of this fabled bird.

No one with a camera could fail and I made free with the shutter button to record this little beauty. Sometimes it happens like this and you get lucky as favourable circumstances combine to bring the right result.We also felt a bit of self congratulation was in order, having resisted doing an early bunk to go and see the Canada Warbler. I feel certain that the comparatively few numbers of us left, around twenty, made the bird feel less intimidated. Whatever the reason it was a grandstand performance and no one could quibble that they had not got the views they wanted.

It was a quite beautiful bird, the yellowish green plumage brightest on its head and mantle contrasting with black wings crossed by two bold white wing bars and broad white fringes to the tertials.I noticed how comparatively short its tail was in relation to its body.I saw the same feature on the Tennessee Warbler I went to see on Yell, Shetland two years ago. Is this a characteristic of  North American warblers? 

The warbler shook its feathers and became active, hopping along a bramble spray and dropping into the heart of the bramble. The show was over and shortly afterwards it flew out of the bramble and down the slope to the willows where it showed briefly before becoming invisible.

Note the white in the tail restricted to the outermost two tail feathers

You aways want more, its entirely natural but we knew we would get nothing better and so decided that it was time to leave. We walked back to the landing stage passing two seals and their pups prone on the stones of a small rocky cove below us.

The returning boat was full so we waited half an hour for the next one, chatting to the staff and scoffing coffee and biscuits purchased from the tiny shop in the Visitor Centre.This is the golden time, reflecting on a successful twitch, comparing our photos and generally feeling good about life.It does not last long maybe a few hours but boy it is good while it lasts.

The boat returned and thanking the staff, in less than twenty minutes we were back on the mainland.

It was now an hour's drive to the Canada Warbler location.

Somehow I feared the worst and my fears proved correct. Being a first for Britain and on the mainland on a Saturday the crowd would be huge and so it proved.It did not help that the warbler favoured an area of dense low woodland accessed by a narrow and by now car clogged lane. Over a hundred birders were crammed into a small corner of the wood. Some even climbing trees, and falling out of them, to get a better view The crowd was at least three deep with all the aggravation and irritability that comes in such circumstances.It was distinctly unpleasant.Courtesy and civility were certainly strangers here.

The Canada Warbler was incredibly elusive and any views were for seconds only. Because of the crowd my view was restricted to just two small gaps through the trees and  scrub facing me. Occasional sightings of the warbler would prompt a mass surge of bodies towards the location but on each occasion I held my ground not wanting to lose my place. It was all I could do.

The man in front of me saw the warbler far back in the ferns and tangle below the trees but it was impossible to give precise directions.You had to just focus your bins and hope you were looking at the right spot. Invariably I wasn't! .I hated the whole situation but  persisted and after an hour that persistence paid off as the warbler suddenly dropped down from the right to perch for a few precious seconds on a thin branch. angled away from me in one of the gaps I was grilling.I saw its blue grey head and upperparts with a suggestion of yellow underparts before it dropped left and down out of view. I could not move because of the press of the crowd. I was the only one to see it despite alerting my neighbours to its presence.

We remained until dusk but I never saw it again and Mark never saw it at all.

So in the space of four days I had seen three megas - two in one day 

A Magnolia Warbler - the third for Britain

A Bay breasted Warbler - the second for Britain

Canada Warbler - the first for Britain

And now we are off to Shetland on Friday. 

I wonder what will be there?

Monday 25 September 2023

The Magnificent Magnolia Warbler in Pembrokeshire 21st September 2023

September is the time of year when storms and hurricanes can sweep across the Atlantic and this year has proved exceptional with Hurricane Lee coinciding with the peak southward migration of North American passerine birds over the Gulf of Mexico.The result has been an unprecedented landfall on our shores of various species of bird from North America. A North American Cliff Swallow in Kent on 19th September preceded the discovery of an Alder Flycatcher and a Magnolia Warbler in Wales on 20th September, the flycatcher on the island of Skokholm  and the warbler at St Govan's Head, both in Pembrokeshire.

Having seen both a North American Cliff Swallow on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly in September 2016 and an Alder Flycatcher at Nanjizal, Cornwall in October 2008 I was not too fussed about travelling to either but the Magnolia Warbler was a different proposition altogether. It was only the third example to have been found in Britain and was an absolute 'must see' if humanly possible.The first recorded in Britain was on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly as long ago as the 27th-28th of September 1981 and the second was in a Fair Isle geo on the evening of the 23rd of September 2012. The next day it had gone. 

Magnolia Warblers breed over much of Canada and in northeast USA where they are found from the Great Lakes east as far as New England and the northern Appalachian Mountains.They are a long distance migrant and spend the winter from eastern Mexico to southern Panama and a few can fly as far south as the West Indies. Apart from the vagrants to Britain it has been seen in the Western Palearctic only once in Greenland and twice in Ireland.

A long dead dessicated bird was found in Shetland on an oil tanker which had sailed from Delaware in the USA via Mexico and Venezuela to Sullom Voe in mid November 1993 but this record has never been accepted.Another was found 1500 kilometres east of New York on the Queen Mary oceanliner on the 30th of September 1963 but failed to be accepted

There was no question. This bird's arrival in Wales was a 'drop everything and go' moment as I have never seen one before. A new tick and a lifer.

To add a twist to the story I nearly missed the breaking news about the warbler which came as late as 7pm on the evening of Wednesday the 20th September.I had spent the day doing a whole stack of backlogged administrative work and had turned my phone to silent to avoid any distractions. I then forgot to turn the phone  back on or remember to check it until eight in the evening as I was settling down to watch Bayern Munich play Manchester United in the Champions League. Scrolling through my various WhatsApp messages and BirdGuides latest news I viewed the report of the Magnolia Warbler in a state of shock. 

I rang Mark immediately to be told he had been trying to contact me but my phone was turned off so.in the meantime he had filled his car with the rest of our twitching crew. Fair enough. At first a slight sense of panic ensued but then calming myself and thinking about it there was nothing to prevent me going on my own and meeting them at St Govan's Head. The rest of my twitching pals live in counties to the east  of London whereas living in Oxfordshire, which is to the west, meant I was relatively closer to Pembroke.

Thinking further I am no stranger to long, solo, night drives to far flung places in Britain and if I am honest I quite relish travelling on my own, master of my own destiny, with no arguments about radio stations, coffee stops etc. On solo drives to twitches I usually listen to Radio Three or, now a new discovery, Radio Four Extra which broadcasts some really good spy and detective plays  to keep me awake through the night.

Thus I was all set and finished watching the end of the football.match at around 10pm.It is a four hour drive to St Govan's Head from my home so I got a couple of hours sleep before leaving home at midnight.This would get me to my destination pre-dawn. I knew the Magnolia Warbler would draw a huge crowd as it was only the  third for Britain and was relatively accessible, being on the mainland and not, like the other two on an island.The directions on BirdGuides pointed to a car park at St Govan's Head but I had no idea how big or small it was so thought  it best to get there early to secure a place just in case.A classic example of how anxiety can distort a twitcher's frame of mind and magnify matters out of all proportion.

The drive was long and at times tedious, traversing two motorways that for once were not closed for roadworks. I entered Wales over a speed restricted Severn Bridge (now renamed Prince of Wales Bridge) to follow the M4 past Cardiff, Port Talbot and Swansea and eventually found myself in rural Pembrokeshire. I hardly saw a car on the minor roads I was now following but near my destination  came across four cars following each other, their red rear lights bright in the pitch darkness of the unlit road.It was 3.45 am.They had to be birders cars with the same destination as me. Who else would be out at this hour in such an isolated location? I slowed and joined the end of the line and we travelled in convoy. 

At a fork  in the road we stopped as BirdGuides directions pointed us down the left fork but it seemed the right fork was the one to follow.After some deliberation and consultation of Google maps we took the right fork and drove through a tiny village and out into what I could only sense in the darkness was open, uninhabited countryside. We arrived at a large car park already two thirds full with presumably birders cars.

I drew up by a boundary fence and at last could cease driving. What a relief. Dawn was another two hours hence so I dozed as did my fellow birders in the cars surrounding me. Periodically the pitch dark was illuminated by the headlights of yet another car arriving and slowly the car park filled to capacity and beyond.There must have been close to a hundred parked cars by the time dawn arrived.

In  the half light at five thirty, as the world slowly turned and the sky paled, the ragged billows of huge storm clouds became fantastical shapes against the lightening sky. A vicious rain squall battered the car windscreen but was over in five minutes. Birders began to stir. Car doors opened and shut, murmurs of conversation could be heard. Stepping out I joined others donning birding gear and sorting out bins telescopes and cameras. Everyone has a camera these days, a must have birding accessory now being enhanced by thermal imagers as if we did not have enough to carry already.

Half awake I found my twitching pals; Mark's car being unknowingly just three cars from mine. We, along with other birding crews formed groups of strange spectral figures in the half light, as if risen from the dead.  After a brief spell of  acclimatising ourselves, as if at an unknown signal, everyone in the car park commenced moving off in the direction of the valley where the warbler had been seen to go to roost yesterday evening in some stunted blackthorn.

It was only a short walk to the narrow, steep sided valley that ran down to the sea and when we got to the designated spot opposite the blackthorn there must have been almost  sixty birders already there. perched at various heights on a steep slope or standing on the track at the bottom looking over to an opposite slope of bracken, gorse, stunted bushes and trees.

Within a few minutes of arrival, a laser eyed gent announced  

I can see it. It's movng through the bush with the red berries

You could almost touch the pulse of tension and anxiety that coursed through the crowd as everyone directed their eyes to the opposite side of the valley.

Bins were raised en masse, telescopes trained on the area in question. 

It still being half light most of us could not locate it. 

Cries  rang out.

Where exactly? 

Which red berry bush? (There were several). 

How high up the slope?

Is it still showing?
Tension, anxiety, desire were writ large on most people's faces. Others located it, a tiny bird in a sea of tangled vegetation and they cried out in triumph at their success in seeing such a mega rarity.

I could not find it as indeed was the case with many others.Seasoned by previous such situations I knew I would have to curb my personal worries and wait until the light was better as my eyes were just not up to it in the current conditions. I knew I would eventually see the bird, I always do in situations such as this but it is hard to resist getting swept up in the contagious anxiety racked atmosphere of a big twitch.

The warbler was tracked, moving into some bracken near the top of the slope opposite.Occasional glimpses of it came and went but it was nigh on impossible to get onto a  mostly hidden, hyperactive bird that inevitably had moved by the time you got your eyes onto where it was seen in the bracken.Constant updates of where it was came and went, the directions varying from precise to totally inept. A gorse bush with five yellow flowers featured strongly as a reference point. 

It's in the bracken just above the gorse flowers became a familiar refrain.

I saw a brief flick as presumably the warbler shot from one bracken patch to another but it always remained mostly hidden from view.Others claimed better views but they were only very brief.

Exclamations came thick and fast

Look at that yellow!.
Those wing bars are stunning!

The white under its tail really shines!

Such comments only served to frustrate those of us unable to get such priveleged views. For forty five minutes all I saw were sudden  movements in the bracken and the odd flash of yellow.

Then finally, at last came the moment when I saw it properly, virtually in the open and perched for a few precious moments on a twig of one of the berry laden bushes. Now I too savoured the wing bars, grey and moss green upperbody, bright yellow underparts and a very noticeable pale eye ring.It was for seconds only but it was enough.Its spread tail flashed prominent white panels as it fluttered amongst the berries.

Fellow twitchers were already leaving the valley. Content with their views, although I found this hard to understand. Myself and Mark were determined to stay.This was a very rare bird after all and I wanted to enjoy the experience for as long as possible.It might be years before another such occurrence.This was only the third of its kind in forty two years.Stop and enjoy it.

For the next hour the warbler gradually became more visible although still for the most part elusive and half hidden but with so many eyes tracking it, its immediate whereabouts were known and could be scanned in anticipation of another brief view as it emerged from concealment.

Eventually the warbler moved up the valley and disappeared into a thicket of wind battered stunted hawthorns on flatter ground. All of us duly surrounded the bushes at a respectable distance and waited for it to reveal itself. 

As long periods of 'no sign' passed, it became obvious to all that the  warbler was becoming more elusive and unwilling to show itself but on two ocasions it showed well enough for me to attempt to take a photo of it although from some distance.

For the most part however, only frustrating glimpses of it in the deep tangle of vegetation came and went and a truculent Robin, also inhabiting the same bushes, did not help matters. While standing waiting for it to show in a now pleasantly sunny morning reports were coming in on BirdGuides of other American passerines being discovered along various parts of the west coast of Britain and it soon became apparent that something truly exceptional and unprecedented was happening involving migrant small birds from America.

Nearby Bardsey Island reported a Black and White Warbler and Skokholm had not only an Alder Flycatcher but a Bobolink, all from across the Atlantic.Then came the most sensational news of all from Ramsey Island just twenty miles north of where we were. What was originally thought to be possibly a Pine Warbler, also from America, was re-identified as a  Bay breasted Warbler, only the second to be found in Britain.

Mild panic ensued. Could we by some miracle get to see it today by taking the ten minute crossing on the ferry to Ramsey Island, a RSPB Reserve. Twitching two mega American warblers in one day would be unprecedented for us 

Adrian, one of our twitching crew, rang the 'Thousand Islands' boat company that ferries people to the island. We also called the RSPB but it was not good news.There were no boats sailing to the island today or Friday due to high winds and rough seas.The one and only day there might be sailings would be Saturday and then there would be no more for a week.

Anxiety reached stratospheric levels as we tried to get on one of the only four sailings to Ramsey Island on Saturday Just 125 people are allowed on the island on any one day. so spaces were at a premium Needless to say many other twitchers had the same idea as us. At first we were told the sailings on Saturday were fully booked but then we rang again on the off chance and were told there were eight spaces available on the third sailing which left for the island at 12 noon.The earlier two sailings and the last were fully booked with twitchers.We took all eight spaces so we were now guaranteed to get to the island. The main worry now was would the warbler move on before Saturday.We would have to hope it stayed but at least we were in with a chance and had done everything we could to be successful.

I reflected on the unwelcome fact that in two days time I would be repeating my long and tiring journey to west Wales for yet another rare American Warbler.

Regaining some equanimity we re-concentrated our attention on the Magnolia Warbler

An hour passed and there was no sign of it..Had it gone? No, it suddenly appeared and gave a tantalising seconds only view, no more than a flash of yellow, white, grey and green. I moved my position and five minutes later got lucky as the warbler suddenly emerged from the bushes and perched openly on a branch of dead blackthorn, for half a minute, in front of a dark hollow. I made the most of it and hoped something would come out.There was no time to think or check camera settings as I knew the bird was, from bitter experience, so hyperactive.

True to form it promptly returned into the thick vegetation and despite waiting for a long time it did not re-emerge

My photos revealed aspects of the bird's plumage I had not noted before, namely the prominent yellow rump and dark streaking on the flanks. An absolute avian jewel, colourful and ultra rare.A total twitching delight.

It was only nine in the morning but it had become pleasantly sunny, almost warm. Ten Choughs circled above us, their distinctive cries coming from the sky as they wheeled, in unison, to be borne away on the wind towards the sea cliffs. In broad daylight I could now see what a magnificent and beautiful part of Wales we were visiting with open countryside and wide skies all around us and the sea just beyond.

I tried to envisage this tiny bird's incredible journey,  a fragile few grammes of feather and bone hurled with unimaginable force by high velocity winds, trying to survive, helpless as it was borne at speed over the trackless Atlantic to finally, in the dark of night plummet to earth and sanctuary on this extreme part of the Welsh coast. How many others had not been so fortunate and perished?

In the end I had viewed the Magnolia Warbler many times, some good, some  not so good but I always know when the time comes to call a halt.It was only 11am but I had been here for seven hours and now fatigue was setting in and I was faced with a four hour drive on busy roads back to Oxfordshire.

I left the others to it, treated myself to an ice cream from the van in the car park and then set off for home.

Another new species on my British list (529)

Magnolia Warbler.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Of Gulls and Waders at Farmoor 16th September 2023

It has been good time for birding at my local Farmoor Reservoir these last few weeks with small numbers of commoner waders passing through as they return south from their arctc breeding areas, the vast majority being juveniles as the adults have already preceded them.How they find their own way south is something at which to wonder and marvel.Ringed Plovers. Turnstones and most frequent of all Dunlins are all periodic and regular visitors and I.chide myself for saying 'It's only a Dunlin', before reflecting on the tiny bird's long journey and the minor miracle of how it came to be here.

Juvenile Ringed Plover

Juvenile Dunlin

Adult Turnstones

This year more unusual and less than annual occuring wader species passing southwards have been Red Knot, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint 

Adult Knot

Juvenile Ruff

The customary post juvenile flock of Starlings, all now well on their way to acquiring a winter plumage of  iridescent black starred with white,  swirl around in a tight cohesive flock before settling to feed in their customary frantic fashion, on the short grass of the banks by the works buildings. For a second year running they harbour an almost totally white individual or maybe it is the same bird as last year. I do not think it is an albino as it does not appear to have pink eyes and its head is a shade of palest buff. I could be wrong though, as it is incredibly difficult to get close enough to it to make a detailed examination and it disappears during the day, only being seen at dawn and dusk. 

Forever wary the starling flock when alarmed will seek the highest points on the various structures in the works complex. At pre-roost time they congregate on the works buildings and  sometimes there is an opportunity to see them, for once not in constant motion..One evening when the weather conditions were nigh on perfect with a setting sun casting a benign light and no wind to speak of they settled for an extended period on one of the metal structures, prior to flying to their roost. 

Murmuring amongst themselves with chuckles and gurgles as if reflecting on the day, they perched amicably with their strange coloured companion.I stood with some colleagues and tried out my new camera.This would be a real test as the starlings were quite distant.No one else with me really bothered but I  got what I considered a  good image of this striking bird and felt rather pleased with myself.I will forgo mentioning the other multiple images of this bird that failed the test.

It only requires one good image!

The welcome late summer spell of heat and sunshine that has settled over Oxfordshire has brought an almost Mediterranean ambience to Farmoor's concrete shores but it will not last so I am making the most of it. A sure sign of the changing season is that the reservoir, where I spend more time than I should, is slowly garnering its complement of roosting gulls which will gradually increase to reach a peak of thousands by mid winter.

Sadly avian flu has cast its long shadow and the large numbers of Black headed Gulls that breed at nearby Cassington Gravel Pits have been badly hit, but post breeding, the survivors plus birds from futher afield are a growing presence on the reservoir although much diminished.from normal numbers and sickly looking individual gulls as well as the bodies of already deceased Black headed Gulls and Lesser Black backed Gulls are currently much in evidence.

I took a stroll along the causeway on a sultry, humid  late afternoon and on reaching the far western end of the causeway met Ben who told me he had just found a juvenile Little Gull which  even as he spoke was conveniently flying directly towards us from the smaller of the two basins. It passed near to us and proceeded to fly away parallel with the causeway, all the way to the far end where it turned before we lost sight of it.

It came into view once more and we hurried down the causeway to try and get nearer and fortuitously it chose to fly back towards us, fairly close to the causeway and then settled briefly on the water almost opposite us.

With my new camera and lens I am learning a new techniqie for me of back button focus so with some uncertainty I pointed the lens at the  gull  and with thumb on the back button and index finger on the shutter button pressed and hoped. It worked reasonably, although not to my total satisfaction but I managed to obtain a few passable images.

It was on the water for only a short time before rising once more and flying off to the far western end before transferring to the larger basin that is Farmoor 2.We followed its progress against the trees but eventually lost sight of it once again.

Juvenile Little Gull

Compared to the few Black headed Gulls also flying around seizing small fish from the reservoir it appeared notably slimmer and much more buoyant in flight, floating through the air with much elegance as its wings caressed the air in a graceful motion that was more tern like than gull.

Black headed Gull

Normally we see Little Gulls here in Spring, the majority  adults in summer plumage with the odd first year bird in transitional plumage. Records of Little Gulls outside of this period are scarce and usually involve winter plumaged adults.This individual was still very much in juvenile plumage which involves much brown on its upperparts.They do not retain this plumage for long, moulting the brown feathers to be replaced with grey and white and this bird was already commencing its post juvenile moult into the predominantly grey and white plumage it will wear for the rest of this year and the next.They are only fully adult in their third year of life.

Walking down the causeway we were pleasantly surprised to discover a juvenile Mediterranean Gull sat on the water with a Black headed Gull for company and presumably joining the gull roost.Like the Little Gull it was in transition  from juvenile plumage to first winter plumage.We endeavoured to get closer but lost it amongst the growing number of gulls arriving to roost on the reservoir.

I returned the next day at roost time to see if I could find either of the gulls again but there was no sign of the Little Gull. However the Mediterranean Gull was perched on the valve house railings with the usual gang of Black headed Gulls. I endeavoured to get some images of this welcome visitor to the reservoir but it was far from straight forward as it was stood with its back to me and facing into a setting sun.Quite a test for me and my camera but I was really pleased with the results.I watched and photographed it as it stood on the railings preening then went back to the causeway where I found it had decamped onto the water but now was more distant.

The gull soon returned to the railings to preen once more and I remained on the causeway checking the larger gulls until 7.30 when the reservoir gates close for the night.  

As I departed the sun was a fiery orange orb slowly declining behind the trees at the far end of the reservoir by the river. There was barely a whisper of wind and the waters were mirror smooth

At times like this Farmoor can take on an almost fantastical appearance and one can almost imagine oneself in a far less prosaic place than an inland reservoir in middle England.