Thursday, 21 September 2017

PG Tips. Just my Cup of Tea 18th September 2017

c Stuart Piner RBA
I had just about recovered from my marathon journey to The Outer Hebrides to see an American Redstart a week ago when I received another text from Justin. 

It was a simple question 'Have you got PG Tips.'

The answer was no!

I should explain that PG Tips is twitcher shorthand for Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. The Tips comes from the fact it has white tips to its tail feathers and tertial feathers on its wing. 

The  particular PG Tips Justin was referring to was an individual at Burnham Overy Staithe on the north Norfolk coast that had been found there in the mid afternoon of Sunday and, for a warbler that is rarely seen due to its skulking habits, was showing itself unbelievably well. Such behaviour from this species of warbler is virtually unheard of in Britain.

c Stuart Piner RBA
Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler is a member of the Locustella genus which comprises a number of skulking, mouse like, ground level dwelling birds that are notoriously hard to locate or find except when they ascend onto a low level perch to sing or behave aberrantly as with this one in Norfolk. Our Grasshopper Warbler, a summer visitor, is the best known of this group in Britain and the only one that regularly breeds here.

Every birder, no matter at what level of competence will tell  you they have one or more favourite species of bird. One's that touch the imagination like no other when seen or have that intangible aura that sends a quiet tingle down one's spine when mentioned or alluded to. Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler is one of those birds that reaches out to me and consequently Justin's text and the fact the bird was so visible fired my imagination and desire to see it as I had never seen one. Ever!

What it is that makes this species so enticing to me I cannot easily define. Perhaps it is a combination of facts. For a start it is a very rare and sought after vagrant to Britain, normally found breeding in northern Siberia, Mongolia and northern China and wintering in Sri Lanka, northeast India and east to southern China and throughout southeast Asia. An average of only 1-2 per year reach Britain and 52 have been recorded up to and including 2015, usually in a restricted window between late September to mid October. It is also a bird that is most often found at inaccessible or hard to reach locations in Britain such as the Shetland Islands, Fair Isle and the Orkney Islands but then every so often it confounds expectations and is found in completely random and unexpected locations, its presence unsuspected until it is found, for example, in a bird ringer's net, such as has happened at Titchfield Haven in Hampshire (06/09/2014) and Spurn in East Yorkshire (16/09/2016) in the recent past. Then, once ringed and released they are never seen again. It is many a birder's holy grail alongside such other Siberian gems as Lanceolated Warbler and Siberian Rubythroat. When it does occur here it is enigmatic and you cannot make plans to see one. You either have to be very lucky and in the right place at the right time or spend weeks, even months on Fair Isle or another far flung outpost of Britain hoping one will turn up. Even then there is no guarantee as they are very hard to see, spending virtually their entire existence on the ground, skulking in tall thick herbage, reeds, swamps and thickets, running and scuttling around like a rodent and affording only the briefest of views. Its plumage, although predominantly brown, is an attractive and variable combination of brown tones, its rump is decidedly orange and it has white tips to its tail feathers. Its build and shape are for some unaccountable reason also a source of attraction, especially the graduated shape of its spread tail. It looks like an unlikely long distance migrant but each year one or more reach Britain thousands of miles off course.

This bird on the Norfolk coast would inevitably prove to be immensely popular as it is years since one has been found in such a relatively easily accessible location and atypically showing itself right out in the open.

It was too late to get to Norfolk before dark today, Sunday, but I instantly made plans to go and see it on Monday, informing my wife I was departing at 2am tomorrow morning in order to get to north Norfolk before dawn. The warbler was located on a sea wall about three quarters of a mile's walk from the main coast road, over a rough track and a couple of stiles.I debated whether to call my twitching buddy Clackers but as he is suffering with a bad leg thought the walk would be beyond him so decided this was going to be a solo run.

I sorted out all my birding gear; map, directions, bins, scope, camera and phone and put it all on the kitchen table ready for my early departure. I find it's so much easier this way than trying to think in the early hours when one's brain is hardly functioning at maximum efficiency!

I retired to bed. I had five hours in which to rest and for once even the inevitable building excitement failed to keep me from sleep. I was awake at 2am and on the road by 2.30am, embarking on the four hour drive to Norfolk. I was not the only one out and about tonight and had to swerve to avoid a Hedgehog crossing the road just after leaving my house and then came to a stop just two miles from my home, as on the road leading to Chipping Norton I came across a Red legged Partridge roosting right in the middle of the road. This occurs fairly frequently around here with game birds but I cannot say for why. I got out of the car and made the bird fly back into the surrounding fields to safety. Yet another partridge was roosting at the edge of the road a half mile further on but I left it in peace as it would be safe enough from any passing vehicle there. Foxes and Badgers would, however, be another matter.

Driving so late in the night the roads are invariably almost empty. Somewhere half way through the drive to Norfolk the night left late Sunday and became early Monday. There is no tangible difference but I feel it rather than see it manifested as I  drove East at a steady sixty miles an hour, traversing Northamptonshire and the confusion of ring roads round Northampton Town, then on through Cambridgeshire and out into the Fens. I know this route so well now from previous trips to Norfolk and every time something new manages to catch my attention. Maybe it is the boredom of the over familiar roads that makes me look for anything out of the ordinary, especially on those long straight roads through the Fens and that was where something caught my eye this time, illuminated by the cars headlights. For all the times I have travelled this route I had never before noticed an inconsequential purple sign on a pole, not very big, by the side of the road saying 'Welcome to Fenland'. Was it a new addition to the roadside clutter? Anything less welcoming than this desolate landscape is hard to imagine.Thankfully it was so dark the worst was kept from me.

Three hours later on the Satnav's instructions, and now well into Norfolk, I turned from the main road I was following and commenced driving a switchback of twists and turns along country lanes, crossing towards the north Norfolk coast. Barn Owls, like errant white handkerchiefs floated across the lanes, briefly illuminated by the car's headlights before vanishing over the high hedges that bordered the lanes. I stopped to stretch my legs and stepping into the darkness from the car shivered in a strong wind that was until now completely unsuspected due to my incarceration in the cosy cocoon of the car's interior.

A snoring wheezing sound came from out of the darkness to unsettle me. It could only be Barn Owls  the noise emanating from a vague dark shape that I took to be barn.

I carried on driving and came to the village of Burnham Overy Staithe, now a trendy and upmarket place as are all the other north Norfolk villages, with house prices akin to those of London.I passed through the village and came to a stop in the small car park opposite the track that led out to where the PG Tips had last been seen yesterday evening. Would it still be there this morning?

It was still dark and I dozed into the dawn, dimly aware of other cars drawing up around me at intervals. An hour later it was just about light enough to see and I donned jacket, gloves and hat, scooped up my gear and headed off down the track, joining up with the man from a car that had parked behind me earlier. 

We walked along the track, at first sheltered between high hedges but once the hedges died away and we were out onto the marshland a very strong northwest wind hit us, blowing in hard from the sea. We were headed for the distant seawall which snaked two ways, back towards Burnham Overy Staithe away to our left or continuing straight on towards the sea. The PG Tips had been seen yesterday on the seawall right where the path on top of the seawall bent at a right angle out towards the dunes and sea beyond.

We reached a gate that opened onto a short but steep rise leading to the top of the seawall, which is not a brick wall but a raised earth embankment covered in grass protecting farm fields on the inland side from the salt marsh on the northern seaward side. At the top of the seawall the full force of the wind confronted us coming in off the sea. This was very bad news as a typically skulking warbler would under no circumstances want to be perched out in this.

I sat on a handy bench looking down and over a ditch of reeds, brambles and rough grass where the warbler had been seen yesterday evening. Then the wind had been light and conditions benign, today was somewhat different and not for the better. Other birders joined me, about forty in total although I had expected more for such an exceptional opportunity to see a very rare and elusive bird. Everyone waited until the light got better and then we stood along the seawall and looked at the area where the bird had been yesterday evening. An hour passed. Nothing, absolutely nothing showed itself. Well it wouldn't would it in this wind?

I knew the outcome already if I was honest but was unwilling to accept it. It was always a long shot and it had not come off but at least I had tried as had all my fellow birders. As the desperation increased so normal birding etiquette was abandoned and some birders walked through the vegetation to try and flush the bird out. The rest of us stood and looked on complicitly. A small bird flew out and a disembodied voice next to me shouted 'Bloody hell that's it!' It wasn't. It was a Wren. Another hour passed. Groups of Pinkfooted Geese, newly arrived from Iceland, flew inland over us, their squealing. excitable calls coming from on high. Curlews and Redshanks called, both putting into sound the very essence of the desolate saltmarsh beyond us and wide open skies above us. The wind roared on, buffeting us ceaselessly with strong gusts as we stood, totally exposed, in a forlorn line on top of the seawall. Desperation increased to the point where one birder then played a loud tape of the warbler's song to try and entice it out of its hiding place. This did not work either.

So that was it. We each, in our own way confronted the fact that we were not going to see the warbler even if it was here. The weather and the ridiculously high odds at seeing it anyway, even if the conditions had been perfect, had defeated us. Birders wandered off disconsolately, trying other nearby areas in a demonstration of hopeless optimism but if they flushed a small bird it was only a Dunnock or Reed Bunting.

In the end it was tacitly accepted that it was over.We would not see the bird and it would be best to move on.There was an Arctic Warbler at nearby Wells Woods so some headed there. I sat on the bench once more. Speechless and tired. Desperately disappointed and still unwilling and unable to accept the reality before me. It must be here I rationalised, as the weather last night was cloudy and rainy and no bird would migrate at night in those conditions.

It was now just after 8 am and I sat for another half an hour hoping. I had no reason to but I did. Just me and another few diehards whilst a steady stream of later arriving birders were coming down the track towards us.

I set myself a deadline of 9am and then when the time arrived left my bench.The optimism, excitement and eager anticipation had long gone leaving me drained and emotionally flat. I just wanted to get away from here and to forget the whole experience. Passing other birders on the track back to the road, heading out with excitement in their eyes I averted my gaze, unwilling to engage with them, not wanting to acknowledge my defeat or give them the bad news.

I got to the car and checked my RBA app one more time, just in case but there had been no miraculous re-finding of the PG Tips as I walked the track back to the road.

The Arctic Warbler at Wells? I could not face it. I set the Satnav for home and retraced my route through the now sunlit lanes of Norfolk and back through the flat lands of Lincolnshire, then Cambridgeshire and finally into Northamptonshire. Never had a drive been so tedious. I stopped at a McDonald's, not to eat as I will never patronise them due to the disgraceful treatment and pay they inflict on their staff but to relieve myself. It seemed an appropriate gesture of defiance at McDonald's corporate greed.

As I had been driving constantly there had been no opportunity to check my RBA App just in case something miraculous happened. As I left the car my phone suddenly pinged with a text message from Justin.

'Have you seen the PG'. 

I sent him a thumbs down emoji. Strange though, that he should ask, as he too had access to rare bird sightings so should already know of the outcome? 

Then it dawned on my dulled, sleep deprived senses. 

With a sinking feeling of apprehension I checked my RBA App. I knew what was coming and my heart sank. I felt almost physically sick. There, in black and white, was the dreaded message  

'Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler still by the sea wall at 0927'.

My head reeled with self recrimination. Why had I not stayed just a little longer. Only another thirty minutes sat on the bench and I would have seen it. Why, oh why! Tired, confused and now irrational I called Justin, a fellow twitcher, for no other reason than to speak to someone who I knew would understand my angst. I spoke to Justin and asked him what should I do, which in hindsight was ludicrous. He told me to go back and see it! I was two thirds of the way back home, it would be another two and a half hours to get back to Burnham Overy Staithe. Unfairly I jokingly told Justin I would hold him personally responsible if I failed to see it on my return to Norfolk.

Still unsure of what to do despite Justin's advice I left McDonald's car park and stopped at the huge roundabout allowing access to the main road to let a lorry pass. This was it. Turn left and carry on for home, turn right for Norfolk and the distinct possibility of further compounding my disappointment.

I turned the steering wheel to the right. I was going back to Norfolk.

The roads were now a very different proposition to last night, crammed with slow moving lorries and other traffic. There was nothing to do but just get on with it. No further reports of the warbler being seen had come since that last report at 0927 but I had now taken the gamble so just had to hope it would be OK. There was no going back this time.

Two and a half hours later I found myself with standing with seventy other birders back on the seawall, now in bright sunshine but enduring an even stronger wind. No one seemed to be looking intently which was understandable as it transpired  the warbler had not been seen since that last report of it in flight at 0927, three and a half hours ago. This time I determined to stay until dusk in the hope of seeing it. Just once, no matter how briefly was all I asked of the birding gods.

Time wore on, maybe an hour or more slipped slowly by. Birders were by now chatting, phoning friends, lying on the bank of the seawall in the sun, wandering off having given up or just standing, like me, in mute hope. Two local birders walked through the rough vegetation by the reed fringed ditch of water below us. They walked the same stretch where the warbler had last been seen at 0927, maybe five or six times trying to flush it, but nothing came out. They played a tape of its song and calls but it was lost in the wind and still nothing happened. One gave up but the other gave it one more try, walking slowly and deliberately along the same course as before, persistently shaking the vegetation with his foot. Almost towards the end, near to the track the PG Tips flew out. It was very quick but I clearly saw the dark graduated tail, streaked upper parts and rusty coloured rump. It flew over the track, perched briefly on a wooden post and promptly dived into a small area of reeds immediately on the other side of the track. Those of us who had been paying attention saw it, those who had been idling did not. 

I had done it. Just. Hardly the best views but enough. 

Maybe I will get lucky and see one better when I go to Shetland next month. Dream on!

Pandemonium ensued as everyone rushed from the seawall, thirty or so metres down to the reedy area into which the warbler had disappeared. Surrounded on three sides, as people crammed around to try and catch a glimpse, the warbler remained resolutely invisible. You could hardly blame it.

The two local birders went in to the reeds to try and flush it again but it was uncooperative. A Dunnock caused mild panic as it was flushed from the reeds but then nothing more happened, the excitement dimmed and everyone resigned themselves to standing around and hoping once more. Others wandered through nearby ditches in case it had slipped away there but there was no more sign of the warbler. (In fact it was never seen again that day.

I stood for forty five minutes with my fellow birders then called Peter who told me he had just arrived at nearby Hunstanton so I advised him of events here but to forget about the PG Tips and I would meet him in the car park by the road and we could go on to see the Arctic Warbler in Wells Woods as I knew exactly where it was. Peter willingly accepted this as an Arctic Warbler would be a new bird for him. Re-assuringly, unlike the ever elusive PG Tips, the Arctic Warbler was from all accounts very co-operative and showing itself well to one and all.

I left the crowd, glad to get away. Although I like twitching this was not  to my taste as here were far too many people trying to see something that was very hard to see in a very restrictive space. 

I wandered up the track to the road, met Peter and we went in his car to Wells Woods. A short walk of half a mile westwards took us to where the Arctic Warbler was being admired by twenty or so birders and photographers as it fed in a group of five or six Silver Birches right by the track through the woods.

Arctic Warbler

It was no easy task to locate it in the trees as the myriad tiny green leaves of the birch trees regularly shook in the strong gusts of wind, creating a confusing multitudinous movement of shimmering leaves in the sunlight and effectively disguising the warbler's movements through the trees. Eventually, as my tired eyes adjusted, the warbler became more obvious and we followed it as it moved around feeding, always high up amongst the leaves. Compared to our smaller Common Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers its movements were slower and more considered, even sluggish and it would spend periods of several seconds just looking around before moving. This meant that we would lose sight of it as it remained immobile in the leaves but eventually when it moved it would be re-located. 

A Yellow browed Warbler called from nearby but no one seemed concerned, too busy watching the Arctic Warbler, which was understandable.

A member of a group called Leaf Warblers, the Arctic Warbler is robust and compact looking with a thick bill, large head and short tail creating a distinctive profile. Its colouration is relatively bright, being a pleasant combination of bright moss green upperparts and off white underparts, with a well patterned head showing a distinct supercilium, white eye ring and dark eye stripe. The wings show a prominent pale wing bar where the pale tips of the greater coverts combine to form a line. On closer inspection the off white underparts have a yellow suffusion from the throat onto the breast. It is a very pretty bird and although up to eight occur annually, it is still relatively rare in Britain with 348 records up to and including 2015.

Their breeding range is northern Eurasia,  stretching from  northern Scandinavia east to northern Russia, northeast Siberia and northeast China. It normally winters in southeast Asia, the East Indies and The Phillipines.

So a very good bird to see and a great way to round off a day of conflicting emotions for me. We both watched the Arctic Warbler for at least an hour and once happy with our photos, from which to record this moment of triumph, we departed back to Peter's car.

Watching the Arctic Warbler 
We celebrated with a traditional birders supper of Fish and Chips in Wells and then Peter gave me a lift back to my car at Burnham Overy Staithe and we individually set about the long haul for home.

My grateful thanks to Stuart Piner of Rare Bird Alert for the images of the PG Tips

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

An Oxford Osprey 17th September 2017

I left my house in the dark at 5am on a Sunday morning for a rendezvous with an Osprey. I had been asked to keep the location secret so as not to attract too many visitors and potential disturbance to this coveted migrant raptor. I also had to be there by dawn as the show only lasted for the first two hours after dawn. It would all be over by 9am at the latest.

One hour later I arrived at my destination and drove down a narrow track between some small lakes and parked off the track  below some trees. The sky was just turning a pale shade of grey as the dawn reluctantly rose on a wet and dank landscape, the trees still dripping from a night of light rain and the ground underfoot wet, muddy and with the first leaves of autumn already fallen.

I walked along the rutted track, slip slided on the wet mud and around deep puddles, then up and over an earth mound to descend the other side to a small reed fringed lake guarded by large trees on three sides. I stood by the still waters of the lake as slowly, ever so slowly the growing light revealed the far bank of the lake and the trees became defined in both shape and detail rather than just amorphous dark lumps silhouetted in the half light.

It was still, not a breath of wind troubled the leaves of the trees or waters of the lake. Now light enough to see every detail of the landscape around me. I could see the inverted images of the reeds and trees perfectly reflected in the mirror surface of the lake. It was absolutely quiet, a Sunday quiet. The air was damp with moisture. A Muntjac barked nearby, a sudden staccato sound, its loudness accentuated by the still air. Its unexpectedness  startled me until I realised what it was.

I had been told that if I waited by the shallow waters of the lake I could be assured that an Osprey would come to fish here, as it had been doing for almost two weeks now. It was a young bird, raised this year, maybe in Scotland and was now making its first long journey to southern Africa where it would remain for the whole of next year, not returning to breed until its third year. Multiple hazards faced it before it could make the return journey and it would be a tough existence but then only the strongest survive to breed and pass on their genes. Nature does not indulge in sentiment.

At just before 6.30 the reason to keep company with the dawn  arrived, sweeping in from behind me and not that high, flying around the lake to land near the top of a large Ash tree overlooking one end of the small lake. In the sky, with minimal light to define its plumage it was just a large dark, long winged raptor but on landing in the tree I could see its white underparts as a distinct white slash of colour against the pervading green of the Ash leaves. I trained my telescope on it and the whole bird came to life in the scope's magnification as its structure and feathering was clearly revealed.

Ospreys are magnificent. Large birds of prey with a combination of white underparts and dark brown upperparts, a white head and bands of black encasing their eyes of fierce yellow, that stare out on the world, whilst white feathered legs and black talons are the tools with which it ekes out its living, catching fish. They are spectacular in both appearance and behaviour and as they eat live fish they have to indulge in dramatic dives into water to seize an unsuspecting fish swimming near the surface. The dives are not subtle but entail either  hovering and circling over water or a glide from a vantage point, in both cases leading to a violent collision with the water, legs and feet extended out in front, creating a huge splash as the bird literally crash lands on the water and often is briefly totally submerged before the huge wings lift it and its prey from the water. Not all their dives are successful and certainly young birds more often miss their target and return to the air with empty talons. But they are nothing if not persistent and will continue to survey their chosen stretch of water for a victim until they are eventually successful.

Ospreys have a cosmopolitan distribution being found on all Continents apart from Antarctica and, after the Peregrine are the most widely distributed raptor in the world with a population estimated at 460,000 individuals. Some populations are migratory such as those in Britain whilst others are sedentary such as in Australia.

Historically, mainly due to Victorian egg collecting and hunting, Ospreys were extinct in Ireland by 1800 and England by 1842. In Scotland they survived longer until 1916 but then no more were seen until 1954 when Scandinavian birds re-colonised Scotland naturally and a pair have been breeding annually since 1959 at the RSPB's famous reserve at Loch Garten  and despite the desperate attempts of egg collectors, including trying to saw down the nesting tree in the 1960's, have remained an iconic and popular tourist attraction to this day, being visited by over 2 million visitors since 1959. The 1950's and 1960's saw another threat to the Ospreys in the form of organochlorine pesticides but once these were banned in the 1970's and nests were protected round the clock from egg collectors the population slowly increased, so that by 1991 the number of pairs had increased to 71 and in 2011 the RSPB estimated that there were between 250-300 pairs nesting in Britain. Since 1999 they re-commenced breeding in England in the Lake District and famously at Rutland Water in The Midlands. They have, since 2011, also commenced re-colonising Wales.

This rising population of Ospreys has significantly increased the chances of anyone encountering this beautiful and spectacular bird on any reasonable sized expanse of water as they migrate to and from Africa. On our own Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire they are a regular passage migrant in both Spring and Autumn, stopping off to help themselves to a meal of trout. Thames Water have even erected two nesting platforms at the reservoir, similar to those at Rutland Water, in the hope of enticing them to eventually breed. Occasionally, such as at Blenheim Lake and at Radley this year, they turn up at other locations much to local birders delight and it is always a significant event to see one as they pass through the County.

The Osprey I was looking at in my scope could be identified as a juvenile by the fact the brown feather coverts on its upper wings had each feather tipped with orange buff so  each feather tip joined to create a 'string of pearls' effect of orange buff lines across the wings.The barring on its tail was another indication it was a juvenile.

The Osprey sat in a tree whilst its glaring yellow eyes surveyed the lake. Its head and neck shimmied in a snake like dance as it adjusted its line of sight. I of course could see nothing in the lake but the Osprey's sight, infinitely superior to mine, missed nothing.

Fifteen minutes passed and it launched its first sortie down onto the lake, dropping in a long glide and then levelling out with white feathered legs and black talons lowered to grab the targetted fish. It hit the water with some force, creating a whirl of disturbed water, spray and sound on the lake's previously untroubled surface and briefly held itself afloat with horizontal wings before rising, unsuccessful in its attack, to fly back to its favourite perch. 

Two Grey Herons arrived, their heads sunk into their convoluted neck, with stick thin legs projecting behind their tails, their compressed, gaunt bodies held aloft on broad grey wings, looking preposterous. Locals, not used to this transient interloper on their secluded fishing grounds  they were disturbed by the Osprey's presence and one set about letting the Osprey know, flying up to it and mildly threatening it with extended neck and formidable bill. The Osprey responded with open beak and wings held half spread. The Heron, its bluff called, thought better of it and with a loud explosive squawk of exasperation and defiance departed for quieter fishing.

Thrice more the Osprey attempted to snatch a fish from the water and each time the ensuing splash and spray of its violent immersion failed to be successful. On its last sortie it returned to its perch as before but then maybe recognised that this was not to be its morning here and  moved on towards the nearby Thames.

It was over and the Osprey, from all previous reports was unlikely to return. Maybe it would tomorrow. I left the lake to a pair of Mute Swans, floating once more on a lake that was serene and still.

It was as if nothing had happened in the last two hours.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

A Double Yankee at Lodmoor 13th September 2017

September for me is shaping up to be a productive month for seeing good, by which I mean unusual, birds in Britain. So far there has been a Yellow Warbler at Portland in Dorset which I narrowly missed, causing much heartache, but  I have seen a Woodchat Shrike, Baird's Sandpiper, American Redstart and Grey Phalarope this month to compensate for the disappointment of missing the Yellow Warbler.

Meeting Peter, yesterday, at Grimsbury Reservoir on his way to see the Grey Phalarope, he enquired if I would be interested in going to Lodmoor RSPB near Weymouth in Dorset, as two rare North American waders, probably displaced by the recent hurricanes on the other side of the Atlantic, were currently on view there.

I was not going to turn down the tempting possibility of enjoying a double dose of major rarities so we agreed to meet the next morning at his house in Garsington at 9am and drive to Lodmoor. I negotiated the rush hour and school run traffic from my home to Peter's and we duly set off in Peter's car on schedule for a three hour drive to Lodmoor.

It was very windy, a remnant of the gales of last night, but mild and not unpleasant in the sunshine as we left the car by the northern boundary of Lodmoor Reserve and took to the footpath winding round its perimeter. Following the path as it meandered through reeds and bushes we eventually came to a small knot of birders who were looking out over a shallow lagoon and some muddy scrapes bordered on the far side by reeds and sedge. 

Lodmoor RSPB - looking southeast
It took all of a few seconds to locate the juvenile Stilt Sandpiper, feeding energetically, probing its long bill in the shallow water and mud right up to its forehead, in search of food. In some respects its rapid feeding motion with its bill held vertically resembled a dowitcher's  similarly energetic probing action but the sandpiper's long, pale yellow legs and slim, elongated build imparted an elegance to its form quite unlike any dowitcher, as it waded, often belly deep, back and fore in the water. A Common Redshank initially kept it company and the larger, bulkier form of the Common Redshank only served to emphasise the Stilt Sandpiper's delicate and graceful movements.

Common Redshank and Stilt Sandpiper
Plumage wise it showed a marked greyish tinge, intermixed with brown on its upperparts  and the brown and white fringes to its upperpart feathers created a distinct scalloped look as well as forming two distinct white lines either side of its mantle. The underparts were off white, the breast heavily streaked brown with some streaking extending onto its pale flanks. Very noticeable were the broad and quite long, white supercilia  running from in front of the eyes to the rear of its ear coverts. The bill was long and black and very slightly decurved at the tip giving it a faint droopy look .When it flew its feet stuck out well beyond the tail and it displayed a prominent white rump but no really discernible wing bar.

Stilt Sandpiper-juvenile
This bird was our priority, as Peter had never seen one before, so it was both a lifer and a UK tick for him, putting his British List at 338 and we were gratified that it had taken so little time and effort to find it. Would that it was always this easy! 

Peter - happy to have added one more species to his lifelist

Size comparison! Canada Goose, Mediterranean Gull and Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper in flight
This was my first encounter with a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper in Britain, having seen two adults in previous years, one of which, by sheer coincidence, was here at Lodmoor. To date there have been just 33 accepted records of this wader in Britain and 16 in Ireland so presumably, with the formal acceptance of this bird at Lodmoor, the total will rise to 34 in Britain.

Stilt Sandpipers breed from northern Alaska to the west side of Hudson Bay and migrate to spend the winter anywhere from central Mexico to southern South America and occasionally a few will remain in the southernmost states of the USA.

We watched it for half an hour or so and then headed for our other American wader target, the diminutive, as its name suggests, Least Sandpiper. This very rare Nearctic wader was originally identified as a juvenile Little Stint but this error was, happily, soon rectified. The Least Sandpiper proved slightly harder to find as it had flown off from its usual place by 'The Bandstand' and we had to make a long walk almost to the south eastern end of the reserve to locate it. 

On the way we stopped to look over the expanse of shallow flashes, muddy strands and reed beds of the reserve. There was plenty of birdlife but it was mostly dominated by Canada Geese, those chavs of the birdworld,  Mallards and various gulls, none of which are the most inspiring of birds and certainly not what one would come to such a well known and illustrious reserve to see. However, in amongst them, were other species that were more acceptable such as good numbers of Black tailed Godwits, occasional Common Redshanks, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, a scattering of Little Egrets and joy of joys a much larger white egret that could only be one thing, and it was, a Great White Egret, which confirmed its identity by turning its head to reveal a golden yellow bill.

Great White Egret
Another good bird to see and although now breeding in Somerset it is still quite scarce elsewhere. A Kingfisher flashed past, a horizontal lightening bolt, gone in a blur of electric blue, its loud piping whistle fading into distance while Teal, the males yet to acquire their breeding finery filtered muddy water through their bills.

Black tailed Godwit-juveniles
We walked on in search of the Least Sandpiper and came to three birders looking out over another area of shallow flashes and mud. They quickly pointed out the Least Sandpiper to us, feeding on an expanse of wet mud  in the company of a couple of Ringed Plovers. Least Sandpipers really are small and are in fact the smallest of all the stints and marginally the smallest wader in the world. So tiny was it and feeding, as it was in the expanse of mud, often made it hard to locate as it fed, creeping about on bent legs picking at invisible morsels in the mud. 

The Least Sandpiper- so small it was virtually invisible on its muddy margin
It was a juvenile with brown upperparts, the feathers looking bright with their rufous fringes and white lines either side of its mantle. Its breast was washed with buff, streaked darker. It remained always too distant for my camera to do it any justice but through the greater magnification of my scope I could see its bill was short and black. Its legs also looked black but this  impression was created by the black mud adhering to them and when it turned I could see the normal greenish yellow colouration on the rear of its legs where the soft mud had not adhered.

Least Sandpipers are common in North America, breeding from western Alaska to Newfoundland.They spend their winter in the southern USA and also further south in the tropics of mainland South America and the West Indies. There are 37 records of this diminutive sandpiper in Britain and 13 in Ireland. This individual at Lodmoor will bring the total to 38 recorded in Britain.

We watched it off and on as it furtively crept around, but forever moving further away, seeming to feel secure in the company of the two Ringed Plovers. A much larger wader, vigorously probing its bill into the water was feeding closer to us. All over a plain dull brown with darker feather centres, its only colourful feature was a distinctive pink base to its long bill. It was a Bar tailed Godwit.

Bar tailed Godwit
A Little Egret previously unseen as it fed in a deep channel emerged to wander over a bank to another channel where the gusting wind caught the plumes of its white plumage, turning its sleek form into a wind tossed unkemptness. Unfazed by this benign assault the egret carried on with its fishing while its plumes whirled in disarray about its body, forever at the whims of the gusting wind.

Little Egret
Reluctantly accepting that we were unlikely to get any closer views of the Least Sandpiper we decided to walk back to get some more views of the Stilt Sandpiper. There were a few birders still watching and it had not moved away from its favoured flash of water in our absence. 

It was now sharing its company with a Black tailed Godwit but after thirty minutes took fright, flew up and after flying in a circle over the flashes settled closer to us on a muddy bank where it joined company with a juvenile Knot. The latter looking dumpy and almost clumsy in comparison to the sandpiper. Nevertheless they followed each other around the mud, occasionally interacting with mild aggression before they were once more frightened by something not apparent to us and flew off fast and high towards the other end of the reserve.

Stilt Sandpiper and Knot-both juveniles
So our day at Lodmoor reached its natural conclusion. A quick glance at the mud for one final check revealed that the Stilt Sandpiper had not returned but now there was a juvenile Mediterrranean Gull standing there, its plumage a mixture of scaly brown juvenile feathering being replaced by the grey of its first winter plumage. 

Mediterranean Gull-juvenile
It was soon driven off by an aggressive Herring Gull and then every bird rose as a  Marsh Harrier, gold of head and dark chocolate brown of body, wings and tail rode the wind currents across the reeds on the further shore.

For an alternative account of this day out see here

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Grimsbury Grey Phalarope 12th September 2017

Grimsbury Reservoir lies on the outskirts of Banbury, just in Oxfordshire. It can hardly be called attractive as it is a small body of water surrounded by mainly concrete  with the town of Banbury, Industrial Estates and the ever busy M40 Motorway close by its perimeters. There is a constant background roar of traffic noise from the roads and occasionally interesting and not unpleasant smells come from the former Kraft Foods factory nearby, if the wind is coming from that direction.

Yesterday, however, a little bit of avian glamour and foreign mystique came to grace the reservoir's unforgiving concrete shores in the form of a juvenile Grey Phalarope. Strong gale force south westerlies brought quite a number of storm driven Grey Phalaropes to various inland waterbodies yesterday, places they would not normally frequent. Usually when this occurs in Oxfordshire it is Farmoor Reservoir, a much larger body of water, which receives them but this time it was Grimsbury's turn and a just reward for the almost constant watch kept on it by Gareth and John.

These storm driven phalaropes, so far inland, must be glad of a suitable place to put down and rest. Although they are miles off course from their normal oceanic habitat, the next best thing are large and open bodies of water such as Grimsbury and Farmoor Reservoirs. Normally they should be heading far out to sea where they will lead a pelagic existence  in tropical seas off West and South Africa, not coming to land until they return to their breeding grounds in the Arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. 

Storm driven Grey Phalaropes in Oxfordshire and elsewhere are usually ridiculously tame and allow one to approach them closely. Although these storm driven birds are generally encountered singly Grey Phalaropes are gregarious for most of the year and often migrate in flocks.

Knowing that I had a golden opportunity to see another confiding Grey Phalarope in Oxfordshire and only thirty minutes drive from my home, it was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I made the short journey to Grimsbury Reservoir this morning and parking the car just off the busy ring road, walked along the edge of the reservoir to find it. There was only one other birder present this morning, while yesterday its arrival managed to attract as many as eighteen people. This was quite a good number for Grimsbury and I am sure others will visit, if it remains, which they often do for some days even weeks.

Grimsbury Reservoir - Kraft Foods in the background!
I found the phalarope feeding along the shoreline at the far end of the reservoir and doing what all Grey Phalaropes do, swimming close to the shore and picking items from the surface of the water. However, unlike most other Grey Phalaropes I have encountered locally it also showed a predilection for walking on the concrete edge where it met the water. This was unusual as mainly they prefer to swim when looking for food.

Note the lobed toes

It was an opportune chance to study its highly adapted feet which have grey toes each fringed with a number of lobes, somewhat similar to those of a Coot and doubtless an adaptation to allow it to swim freely when out at sea and on its migrations over the sea. It did feel extraordinary to see the lobed grey feet so well as it alternated between feeding on land and feeding on the water and at one point it stopped to rest, squatting with its head sunk into its shoulders and facing out over the water. Could it still be tired or unwell from having to deal with the strong winds that had blown it so far off course?

The adapted feet and toes can be seen through the clear water

The plumage of this bird was very well advanced into its first winter plumage of all grey upperparts and white underparts with a white head sporting a square black patch behind the eye. Often they do not reach this advanced stage until late October. Evidence of its age were the presence on its wings of at least one un-moulted brown tertial, possibly more and some brown wing coverts, which was the sum of all that remained of its juvenile plumage. 

I watched it for almost and hour as it fed along the shoreline and then left it in the sun and still actively feeding on the water.

Grey Phalaropes are the most oceanic of all  phalaropes, migrating via sea routes to their winter quarters. They only occur inland when blown there by very strong winds. There is some uncertainty about where exactly they winter at sea but it is becoming evident that major concentrations occur where ocean currents converge, causing upwellings of plankton off western Africa and western South America. They also often feed around groups of whales. There is evidence that North American populations also head for the seas off Western Africa to spend the winter. When North Atlantic populations are migrating from their breeding areas they usually by-pass the North Sea heading out into the Atlantic but gales coming in from the Atlantic can drive numbers onto the coasts of Britain and Ireland and a number end up far inland. 

This was undoubtedly the fate of this Grey Phalarope. Let us hope it survives and remains at Grimsbury Reservoir for a few more days. Looking at the weather forecast for tonight and tomorrow it would be wise to do so!

The exceptionally high winds of the night of 12/13th September resulted in another two Grey Phalaropes being found in Oxfordshire the following day, the 13th September. One at Sonning Eye and the other, unsurprisingly, at Farmoor Reservoir. In fact storm driven Grey Phalaropes were being reported from all over England with an amazing eight at Abbotsbury in Dorset.

A fourth Grey Phalarope was found at Bicester Wetlands Reserve on 18th September