Thursday 29 February 2024

Mandarins in The Forest 27th February 2024

On a dismal day of grey and cold, a trip to the Forest of Dean, primarily to see the Hawfinches at Parkend was further enlivened by a subsequent visit later in the morning to nearby Cannop Ponds to see the incredible Mandarin Ducks that are such a well known feature of this small and popular lake in the heart of the forest.

Mandarin Ducks are natives of China and Japan but after being imported into Britain in the eighteenth century to be kept in various wildfowl collections, some birds escaped from the collection of one Alfred Ezra at Foxwarren Park near Cobham in Surrey around 1930, got it together to commence breeding. and now their descendants are to be found in most of the Home Counties especially at Virginia Water in Surrey and Windsor Great Park in Berkshire, two traditional strongholds. Still increasing but only slowly, Mandarins can also be found in Hampshire, Dorset, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire with even a population as far north as Perthshire in Scotland and others in Co Down in Northern Ireland. Their current population numbers around 7000 individuals in the wild and, having long since become naturalised, they are now arguably the most spectacular and beautiful of our native avifauna. 

Today there were a dozen swimming around the lake's margins or loafing, as they are wont to do, beneath the overhanging branches of the many trees bordering the lake.The drake's plumage is almost beyond belief, multi coloured and forming complex patterns, its head an exuberant conglomeration of bright chestnut, emerald and white with a ruff of orange part overlaying a breast of iridescent purple.Two orange sails sit proud as the drakes drift like some fantastical animated toy over the grey green water of the lake, each drake squiring his dull coloured mate wherever she goes.

Most were paired but were still content to associate with the small majority of unattached males.They show a marked preference for wooded ponds and lakes, liking to lurk, semi concealed under the overhanging branches of trees and vegetation around the lake and although venturing onto the open water of the lake when disturbed, soon gravitate back to a bank below the trees where they can be surprisingly hard to see. 

Mandarin's are closely related to the American Wood Duck, though this is hard to believe as the drakes of each species appear so very different when in their plumage finery.However the females of both species look remarkably similar.

Their success in establishing themselves in the wild is due to their occupying a vacant ecological niche in southern England. Unlike another import to our native avifauna, the rapidly increasing Rose Ringed Parakeet, the Mandarin is unlikely to present a similar ecological problem and prompt suggestions of population control, as their numbers currently remain low. The fact they only nest in holes in trees which brings them into conflict with both Jackdaws and Grey Squirrels for nest sites. undoubtedly contributes to keeping their numbers down.

The slowly growing British population of Mandarins was once thought to be of international conservation importance due to a population decline in its native China but the discovery of a previously unknown population of 60,000 birds in China has made this less significant.

Despite an ongoing threat to the future of Cannop Ponds by Forestry England, the Mandarins that live and breed around there look set to continue to delight both birders and the general public for the foreseeable future and on a dull, slow winter day in the Forest of Dean provided a welcome exotic, oriental diversion. 

Monday 26 February 2024

Nine Waxwings in Abingdon 25th February 2024

Nine Waxwings have been doing the rounds in the Oxfordshire town of Abingdon for a number of days now and so have I looking for them, but until today I had failed to intercept them. I  was always just too late to get to where they had been seen or, after waiting for some time at the location and then giving up on them, mortified to see they had returned once I had departed.

Such are the highs and more often lows, of chasing after Waxwings.

Today Peter called me at just after 9am, himself having already dipped the Abingdon Waxwings a couple of times in the past, to tell me he had at last connected with them and was watching them on the corner of Dunmore Road and Parson's Mead which are on the north western side of Abingdon. 

At first reluctant to make the half hour drive from my home, in the end I thought to give it one more go, rationalising that if I failed again to see them I could go birding at Farmoor Reservoir which lay on my route back home.

On a pleasant, sunny but chilly morning I arrived at around 1030 to find no sign of any Waxwings.The hawthorn hedge with sparse berries by the busy Dunmore Road where Peter had seen them earlier was devoid of the Scandinavian invaders. A call to Peter informed me that he had left when the birds had flown off across a playing field towards a newly built housing estate that lay beyond the hedge.

I parked the car in a convenient layby almost opposite the hedge and stood by the road with my bins  to see if the Waxwings might return. Predictably they didn't. I was joined by a small number of other Waxwing seekers,  who on learning from me that I was not watching the Waxwings wandered off in search of them. Bored with waiting I walked across the playing field opposite to the newly built houses on the far side to check if they might be there but drew another blank.

Waxwings, in between eating berries like to perch high in large trees where they doubtless feel secure.I checked all the large trees both distant and near and eventually located some likely looking silhouettes perched high in one of the more distant trees. Aha!

This was possibly the Waxwings but they were so distant I would have to  get closer to be sure. As I watched in my bins  one bird flew up from the tree to flycatch, a known trait of Waxwings. Making haste  to the distant tree and feeling increasingly confident I was mortified, on getting closer, to find they were in fact Starlings.

I returned to my car and stood looking across to the large trees that bordered the far side of the playing field. At the top of the largest tree, a Poplar, I saw a distinctive shape that was not black but tawny and with a crest - a Waxwing!

Where had it come from? 

It must have just flown in as it certainly was not there when I checked that tree earlier. I looked harder and found a scatter of another eight perched high in the branches with a small flock of Starlings just to confuse matters, although the Waxwings kept to themselves in a small discrete group.

I went through a gap in the fence on the other side of the road and walked a hundred yards to stand below the Poplar tree.

The Waxwings were feeding on emerging catkins high up on the outer branches but gradually dropped lower down. 

Being in a housing estate on a sunny Sunday morning and near an Aldi superstore, the footpath below the tree was being used regularly by various passers by but the Waxwings didn't mind. 

The Poplar tree favoured by the Waxwings and the rosa bush they fed from
by the lamp post

It always strikes me as such a contradiction that these confiding birds coming from the vast forests of Scandinavia and Russia where quite possibly they have never encountered human beings choose to frequent the most suburban and populated of areas when they arrive here. 

The other question that I always find myself speculating on is how do they decide which berry source to favour and how do they find it? Do they see a particular tree as they fly past in the sky and descend to investigate or do they perch somewhere on high to scan the surrounding landscape? Do they decide in unison to descend to one tree or is there a leader, maybe an adult in the flock that the others follow or do different individuals make the decision on separate occasions?

Also what prompts them to fly off for no reason from an adequate berry source and again is this the decision of one particular adult bird in the flock or not and how do they communicate the decision, by a certain call or stimulating an instantaneous response from the others as one bird decides to depart?

So many questions that remain unanswered.

For twenty minutes I watched as they nibbled at the catkins and then three birds dropped down even lower to a small dog rose bush with a few very tired looking, unappetising berries clinging to it. The bare bush was so inconsequential and the berries so sparse I had hardly noticed it but the Waxwings had.

Here was an unexpected and welcome opportunity to photograph the Waxwings as they gobbled the berries in their customary frenzied fashion.There is no subtlety about their feeding but rather a hasty scramble amongst the thin twigs to wrench a berry off its stalk, hold it triumphantly for a moment between their mandibles before swallowing it whole.

I can only suppose the haste is because they feel both vulnerable near the ground and do not want one of their companions to beat them to that particular berry they have chosen.

Five minutes more or less was all the time they granted before they ascended back into the Poplar to perch quietly and wait before making another sortie.

It was unfortunate the footpath below the tree was being regularly used by people passing, mums with prams or kids, dog walkers, shoppers, men on bikes, you name it, as annoyingly the birds would fly out of the bush back up into the tree whenever someone approached resulting in another frustrating wait  but it was a residential estate and one had to accept this situation. Most of the people passing did show an  interest in what was happening so I told them about the Waxwings.

I stood, for a final time, waiting for the birds to make another descent to the bush. A small flock of Starlings flew into the top of the Poplar and after a few minutes left and the Waxwings went with them, in a compact and separate group, flying at great speed, rising high in the sky and away over the surrounding rooftops. I spent another hour hoping they might return but my wait was in vain.

I think I am done with Waxwings now although I can hardly believe I am saying this about such a charismatic bird. This winter that has witnessed their exceptional irruption into Britain has resulted in my seeing in excess of a hundred, ranging from locations in Norfolk see here  to Gloucestershire see here.

Those that have survived the winter in Britain will soon be on their way north to their true home in Scandinavia and western Russia and reports of them are now much less than when they first arrived here.We are fortunate to currently still have these birds in Abingdon and maybe they will remain for a few more days yet but for me it is time to move on.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

The Giant Orchids in Oxfordshire Revisited 20th February 2024

Last year on the 23rd March I went to see some Giant Orchids growing on a steep bank near to the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire see here They had been found by chance the year before (2021) and it was the first time they had been recorded growing in Britain.

The secret location is, as far as anyone knows, the only place they grow in Britain although they are plentiful in southern Europe. How they came to be in such an unlikely and un prepossessing location in England is anyone's guess. It could be entirely natural or, as has been suggested the result of human intervention.

Not that it really matters to orchid afficionados.They are delighted to see them whatever their provenance and news about them and where they are to be found has rapidly spread via whispers and covert emails to anyone desiring to come and see them. Such is the world we now live in it is considered prudent to still keep quiet about the orchids and where specifically they grow for fear the plants will be uprooted or otherwise subject to interference by unscrupulous collectors. Sadly this has already happened to other rare orchids in Britain.

Giant Orchids are the earliest orchids to bloom so to see them out in March last year was not a surprise. They can emerge as early as January in southern Europe and this year the Oxfordshire ones have excelled themselves as, by the middle of this month, two flower spikes are well on the way to coming into full bloom.There are also another three plants but they are what is called blind in that they have no flower spike.

I gave Peter, who accompanied me on my visit last year, a call to alert him to their premature emergence and suggested we go to see them as soon as possible.

Arriving at the site on a grey and raw mid morning of strong wind and waterlogged ground, armed with stout sticks to assist us remaining upright on the very steep embankment where the orchids grow, we walked until we found them in very much the same place as they were last year although slightly less in number. This year they had been afforded some extra protection, as persons unknown had encircled each of the flower spikes with chicken wire to prevent rabbits nibbling them or persons inadvertently treading on them.Not that anyone in their right mind who values life and limb would venture down the precipitous bank unless they were intent on viewing the orchids. 

They were not in full bloom but well on the way, so we photographed each flower spike, one more advanced than the other, and vowed to return later when both had fully emerged.

It was not a day for hanging about as the wind on the exposed bank was both strong and cold, the sky overhead an unremitting grey and the ground wet and muddy which it seems to have been for weeks now.

The colourless wintery landscape and the rank withered grass amongst which the orchids grow rendered  the pink of the emergent flower spikes almost un-noticeable which may be no bad thing for their own protection.

Those that know will be able to find them.

Friday 16 February 2024

Frampton's Lesser Yellowlegs 14th February 2024

A Lesser Yellowlegs, a North American wader superficially similar to our Common Redshank which arrived at the RSPB's  Frampton Marsh reserve in Lincolnshire last September has remained there for the winter. 

It has provided very good views lately, having chosen to spend time resting and feeding on a flash of floodwater close to and adjacent to the reserve's small car park and Visitor Centre and shows little fear of the comings and goings of both cars and birders. Indeed on recent occasions it has frequented the flooded areas of the car park itself.

Lesser Yellowlegs are reasonably frequent vagrants to western Europe with around five per year being found in Britain, mainly between August and October.Wintering birds are less usual. They breed in the boreal forest regions of North America from Alaska to Quebec and spend the winter  on the Gulf Coast of the USA, the Caribbean and South America. I have seen them on birding trips to both Ecuador and Colombia and have seen eight in various parts of Britain.

February can be a dull month for birding although this winter has been much enlivened by the invasion of Waxwings. However there are only so many Waxwings to see before the novelty begins to fade. Mark rang me earlier in the week and suggested we find a day when it was not raining and go to Frampton to photograph  the Lesser Yellowlegs (The Legs) and do some general birding at what is by mutual consent one of our favourite reserves.

Checking the weather forecast I suggested Wednesday (Valentines Day) that promised light cloud and no rain which would be ideal. Mark volunteered to drive, so early on Wednesday morning I made my way to his house in Bedfordshire for a not too onerous 8am rendezvous.

It's two hours to Frampton from Mark's house and making one stop for his obligatory double espresso and my latte  we eventually entered into the flat, featureless landscape of Lincolnshire with its vast, bare acres, stretching away on either side of the straight monotonous road that bisect this part of eastern England. Like a giant lid clamped firmly over the flat landscape the lowering, unbroken grey cloud possibly foretold rain but it came to nothing as, at the end of a narrow lane, we left the car in a very wet and muddy car park by the RSPB's small Visitor Centre and Cafe.

The Legs was not hard to find as we could see several birders that were obviously looking at it from the wire fence that separated the car park from a flash of shallow water. On the other side of the water was a protective bund that currently provided a buffer from the strong but mild southwest wind and in the lee of which not only The Legs but various ducks such as Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler found shelter. 

Initial impressions of The Legs were of a bird  with an ash grey head tucked into similar coloured upperparts, asleep and standing on one long, bright yellow leg.

Beyond the bund lay yet more flooded fields and marshland populated by many Lapwings, round shouldered in repose, hunched silently and stoically against the wind, the distance and low light rendering them as a line of black silhouettes.

The reserve is large, a benign desolation of partially flooded flat fields and lagoons of shallow water and for me at least was a welcome wild and natural place to visit after the earlier drudgery of driving on busy roads to get here.  The fields, today were populated by huge numbers of Golden Plover and yet more Lapwings, the goldies flying in one flock, thousands strong, a starburst of feathered beings like a ghost moving at great height across the grey skies, while the less aerial Lapwings regularly took to the air in false alarm, their peevish cries borne away on the wind before gently returning to earth, in an alternation of black and white.
It was not a cold wind that blew into our faces thus making it bearable to remain standing out in the open. We stood awaiting The Legs to rouse itself but apart from awaking with a start to briefly indulge in nibbling at an irritating feather or moving out of the way of a blundering Wigeon or clumsy Shoveler, it remained steadfastly asleep at the water's edge below the bund. 

To while away the time I admired the ducks swimming about on the flash. Remarkably confiding for truly wild birds, they seem to know they are safe from human threat here and consequently show relatively little fear. 

Handsome Wigeon drakes, sumptuous in their pastel colours, punctuated the air with loud whistles while pocket sized Teal, squat, rotund and equally colourful, contributed their peculiar cricket like calls. I reflected on how few ducks actually quack. Only female Mallards and Gadwalls indulge in the traditional loud 'quack'

Shovelers, the males fabulously coloured, you could almost call them exotic, and with an enormous black spatulate bill, rarely make a sound but when the drakes fly their wings produce a distinct loud whirring or humming sound, more so than other duck species.

After an hour and with no indication  The Legs was about to leave the land of nod we thought better of it and retired to the Cafe for a coffee. A sensible move as it was possible to sit inside by a window and keep an eye on The Legs in case it woke up and started moving about. Half an hour later we returned outside to resume looking longingly at the sleeping bird, willing it to move but it showed no indication it was about to co-operate.

The ducks, in the meantime provided endless entertainment, a support act if you like but the star turn was still not ready to participate. We returned to the Cafe for another coffee. It was now approaching three hours that The Legs had been, for the most part asleep.Would it ever wake up?

A RSPB volunteer cheerily told us how well it had been showing earlier in the morning prior to our arrival. Birders are used to this, it happens all too often and I have even done it myself. We try to put on a brave face but it can be very annoying. 

Sat in the Cafe, Mark for the umpteenth time checked on The Legs with his bins. 

It was not under the bund!

A quick scan revealed it was feeding very close to the car park fence and here was our opportunity to make our long wait a successful one. A mild panic ensued as I endeavoured to finish my soup and roll as fast as possible. Mark grabbed his camera and bins and made for the door with me following in some disarray. 

A volunteer laughed as we made haste for the door, having obviously seen this behaviour before

Yellowlegs woken up has it lads?

Outside we quickly crossed the few yards to the fence and there in all its loveliness was The Legs wandering across the flooded grass picking items from the waterlogged ground. 'Legs' is an apposite nickname as its bright yellow legs are what catch your eye. Long, both above and below the knee with thin delicate toes they supported a slim tapered body that made its way through the water with no little grace and poise  as it searched for food.

A supremely elegant bird that from  a distance appeared ash grey above and white below but when seen closer, the intricate patterning on its upperparts and the thin black bars on its white tail  became readily apparent. Its movements were almost balletic at times as it extended its legs, even crossing them as it pirouetted to snatch a morsel from the water. Slimmer than a Redshank it was the long legs that imparted that extra refinement.

Others joined us but we were never more than half a dozen in number, watching and photographing. It has been here so long that most people with a mind to see it have already done so. A grey, inauspicious Wednesday probably also helped to quell the numbers of visitors too.

For ten maybe fifteen minutes it held the stage as it paraded before us, so very close at times and apparently not bothered by us edging even closer to it. 

It was joined by a Ruff, dumpier in form, appearing slighty hunch backed, shorter and thicker legged it was no contest as to which was the belle of the ball. The Legs eventually flew further out onto the flooded fields but soon returned to go to sleep by its favourite bund.

The Lesser Yellowlegs and a Ruff

We waited another hour for it to wake up which it eventually did but after a vigorous and extended session of bathing and preening, a panicked flock of Wigeon that had so recently been cropping the grass nearby took fright and.flew further out onto the reserve taking The Legs with them.

It was three in the afternoon and clouds were gathering so we reluctantly took our leave of The Legs and the pleasant reserve it currently graces.