Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Out for a Duck 20th January 2018

On the 4th December 2017 myself and my birding buddy Clackers went to see a confiding Black Guillemot at Eastbourne in East Sussex and on the way back we diverted to Pagham Harbour at the other end of the county, in what is West Sussex, to try and see a Long tailed Duck that was to be found on a small area of water called Honer Reservoir.

Honer Reservoir is not to be found on the map as it is not a brick built structure but a large rectangular area excavated in the ground and lined with some sort of material to keep the water from draining away. Presumably its purpose is to collect water to irrigate the large surrounding farm fields that stretch in all directions about it. Its name comes from the nearby Honer Farm.

To get to it requires about a two mile walk, first along the North Wall of Pagham Harbour, then across a large grass field protected at both ends by a stile and then another mile or so walk along a narrow road that runs between farm fields, before the reservoir is found by the road, immediately next to a footpath running east 

Clackers and myself walked to the reservoir and found nothing on the water but a few Coots and one Common Pochard, which with no further hesitation flew off. The Long tailed Duck had been reported there in the morning but it had gone. We thought no more about it and cursed our misfortune.

Two days ago I saw on Twitter, a lovely picture of the same Long tailed Duck on, you guessed it, Honer Reservoir. In the intervening six weeks or so the duck had apparently been an almost permanent resident on the tiny reservoir.

I resolved to go and see it as Pagham Harbour is a good day out in anybody's book and I welcome any opportunity to return to my former haunts in Sussex 

As my wife was going to meet a friend in London I had the day to myself so made a plan to go to Pagham very early on Saturday morning and arrive there at first light before the area got too crowded with birders, walkers and other weekend visitors. I need not have worried, for neglecting to check the forecast I did not note that the weather prediction for Saturday in the southern half of England was dire. Rain and low cloud was the prediction for the whole of the morning, possibly all day.

The awful reality manifested itself as I drove away from my home at 5am with small drops of rain appearing on the windscreen and by the time I was half way down the dreaded A34, heading south, it was full on rain that was splattering the windscreen. The M27 Motorway was a miasma of spray and blurred red and white lights. I was tired from my trip to Norfolk yesterday and my spirits low but a stubborn resolve kept me going. I was up and about and there was no point in going back. I could bird in the rain. True it would be uncomfortable and miserable but there was nothing I could do to change things.

Turning off the main road I noted that the rain was lighter than before and by the time I was parking in the narrow and still dark lane that led to the footpath out onto Pagham's North Wall it had all but stopped. Although it was dawn the light was appalling due to the low rain clouds and I had plenty of time to get all my wet weather clothing on before setting off on the long trudge to Honer Reservoir. Needless to say there was not a sign of anyone. I was well and truly on my own. It was 7.30am.

Fortune favours the brave, or in this case foolhardy, it is said and I noted that the rain had definitely ceased. Maybe the weather front had passed through earlier than predicted or maybe it was just luck but it was definitely not raining. It was very wet underfoot, muddy too, drear and miserable and the walk out along the North Wall was certainly not one to contemplate if depressed. To my left vast banks of wet, grey and glistening tidal mud had been revealed by the rapidly receding tide and to my right the marshy pools and reeds seemed diminished from the onslaught of rain during the night.

A party of Mute Swans on one of the marsh pools, swam closer together,  grunting as if inwardly snorting air, unsure about my indistinct profile walking the footpath in the still half light of early morning. They  took off with that same lack of grace that one observes as a jumbo jet rises from the runway. Just after lifting off they slid sideways as well as forward as they sought uplift but finally they were under way  and forming up with necks strung out and wings singing they swept up and away under a sky still sullied by dark grey clouds. Two Black Swans remained on the water, a surprising and exotic presence.

I crossed the first stile, currently marooned by surrounding flood water, with difficulty, and set out over the vast waterlogged grass field in front of me, making for the stile on the far side and having to make several detours around large areas of standing water where the field was so waterlogged the ground could  not absorb anymore water. It was hard going but I pressed on and gained, via the stile, the secure metalled surface of the single track road leading from Honer Farm to the reservoir that bore its name. I was now in a landscape of brown earth, and grey sky, as if the rain had drained all colour from it, leaving just a post rain dullness and dispiriting wetness. It was still, the wind having dropped as the front moved on and it was as if everything was held in abeyance awaiting a change, a metaphorical holding of meteorological breath.

I walked the wet road, as Lapwings, their dark upperbody plumage burnished green and making them invisible against the dark ploughed earth, rose with peevish reedy calls and were betrayed by the stark contrast of their black and white underwings. I heard a car coming  down the winding lane. Too fast. I stepped onto the grass verge as it careered round a bend in the road to be confronted by my presence, suddenly and  unexpectedly visible. It did not slow, spraying my wet weather clothing from the roadside puddles it trashed, contemptuous of my being out in such weather at such an early hour. 

The vehicle and its unknown driver raced onwards and away, the noise immediately muffled by the contours of the land and the air was still once again. Red legged Partridges, their calls grating out from dank hedgerows, let me know I was not alone in this vast sodden landscape of flooded fields and stick bare hawthorn hedges, harbouring just the occasional Great and Blue Tit that seemed almost as surprised as me that they were sharing such desolation.

I reached the small reservoir, its presence indicated by a rising shallow bank of grass by the muddy tractor churned footpath, the ruts having collected water. The reservoir was protected by a line of recently planted hawthorn saplings on the bank, a natural barrier but just in case there was a barbed wire fence at the top as an additional deterrent. 

Honer Reservoir
The wet rutted footpath by the reservoir
I stood at one corner of the reservoir and surveyed the dull grey water reflecting a sky now visibly lightening  as the dark rain clouds dispersed and found a few Coots and a couple of immature Tufted Ducks. There was no sign of the Long tailed Duck  until it surfaced on the opposite side of the reservoir. A messily marbled brown and white duck with a broad stubby duck's bill and a prominent pink band across it, signifying it was an immature male. The white areas of its plumage made it hard to distinguish its form against the water from a distance. It soon dived again and remained under the water for a long time, far longer than any other diving duck. This capacity to remain submerged for long periods is well known to birders and I was not particularly taken by surprise as time passed with no sign of it until there it was again, low in the water, before quickly submerging once more for another inordinately long period.

I moved round the reservoir to get closer and took some pictures of it when it surfaced. It knew of my presence for there was no cover but it was no more troubled than to swim gently away from the bank and then just sit on the water regarding me and resolutely remaining on the water's surface, suspending its diving for food. So relaxed it closed an eye. When I moved off it returned to its diving and I left it, making my way back down the wet road to Honer Farm. 

I passed a very large muddy field, too wet to be ploughed, which still held the random stalks and mushy stems of some crop long since harvested. Many Pied Wagtails were feeding in the field, finding I  know not what, but whatever it was they wanted it badly and after initially moving away flew back across the field, flying just above the earth, calling cheerily, immediately they realised I was no threat to them. There must have been in excess of a hundred and they were not alone. A small flock of Reed Buntings flew to the security of the bare hawthorns forming a vestigial hedge by the road, flirting their white outer tail feathers in anxiety and Yellowhammers, very much in the minority, chizzed in alarm from the same hedgerow. A male Yellowhammer's bright yellow head was a solitary and startling splash of  colour, a counterpoint to the camouflaging black and greys of the wagtail's plumage and streaked browns of the buntings. Out on the far edge of the field was a stretch of flood water and two Common Redshank had temporarily commandeered the flood, to stand asleep in the water on scarlet legs that supported their grey bodies with bills tucked into their back feathers, secure in the distance between me on the road and they on the flood.

I returned to the North Wall, just as a huge flock of Lapwing, roused from the fields  slowly crossed the sky and came over the footpath in a straggling hologram, flying on rounded paddle shaped wings, the tips broad rather than pointed and showered down onto the saltmarsh where they would feel secure.

A bachelor party of Teal had replaced the swans on the same marsh pool I had passed earlier. Swimming around and displaying frantically to a nearby female, jerking their heads down in an exaggerated bow as their tails went up, creating little splashes of water as they did so and calling their curious melodic and cricket like chirruping whistle.

I had met no one and the tide was now fully out but a main channel of gun metal coloured water remained, running out to the sea, bisecting the exposed saltmarsh. The edge of this channel was littered with the resting bodies of Teal and Wigeon. The male Teal is the most demure and perfectly proportioned of ducks, compact and beautifully patterned. Many just stood quietly, content and replete but another pair fed quietly by the muddy shore where some Wigeon also rested, the males occasionally letting out a clear melodic whistle of alarm that rang out in the stillness. 

Eurasian Teal
Eurasian Wigeon
A Grey Plover and a Common Redshank cased the exposed mud for worms, their elegant, delicately proportioned feet made obtuse and ugly by the glutinous mud stuck to their soles.

Grey Plover

Common Redshank
The quiet and a lack of human presence was almost unique for this popular spot and was immensely satisfying. For one time only the North Wall and its currently unsullied wildness was mine and mine alone.
Pagham North Wall
Just down the lane from where the car was parked is Pagham Village and humanity but we were worlds apart just now. The wild cry of a Curlew came from far out on the saltmarsh from a place I would never know

It was only nine am and all was still as it began to rain again.

Monday, 22 January 2018

A Hume's Warbler in Norfolk 19th January 2017

Friday was predicted to be cold, very cold but sunny. My attention had been drawn to a rare vagrant, a Hume's Leaf Warbler, spending the last fourteen days in and around an isolated single storey home called Shangri-la-Chalet at Waxham on the Norfolk coast.

This particular Hume's Leaf Warbler had first been found on 5th January when it had been identified as a Yellow browed Warbler, this species being a close congener, but was re-identified as a Hume's Leaf Warbler the next day. Hume's Leaf Warbler is a bit of a birder's bird and it is hardly surprising that the original finder plumped for the relatively commoner Yellow browed Warbler, as this species, another vagrant from the east, has of late years been occurring in increasing numbers in Britain in autumn and isolated individuals have even been found in winter, such as in Sussex and even in my own county of Oxfordshire this winter.

The name Hume's Leaf Warbler commemorates Allan Octavian Hume, a British civil servant and ornithologist who was based in India. There have been one hundred and thirty nine Hume's Leaf Warblers identified in Britain up to the end of 2016, at an average rate of five per year and increasing. The peak of arrivals have been in late October and especially November, later than Yellow browed Warblers and predominantly on the east coast. Not including this bird, ten have been found in Britain in January. The shortest stay was of just fourteen days and the longest one, found on 2nd January 1995 at Great Yarmouth, again in Norfolk, remained for 117 days. Another was found at Fairlop Waters on the Essex/London boundary on 11th January 2004 which remained until the 25th of April and even commenced singing towards the end of its stay. The same bird was thought to have been seen singing at the Brent Reservoir in London on 1st of May that year

It is always a source of amazement to me that such a tiny scrap of life weighing no more than a few grammes can tough it out in a British winter, especially one such as we are currently experiencingHume's Leaf Warbler is one of the smallest of a group of tiny warblers predominantly green above and dull white below, colloquially grouped as 'leaf warblers', and it is only slightly larger than a Goldcrest. It is prone to vagrancy into western Europe in late autumn which means when it does arrive here it is at least 3000km west of its normal wintering areas. Its normal breeding range is mountain forests from the Altai Mountains to western Mongolia, southwards through the Tien Shan and Pamirs to northeast Afghanistan, the northwestern Himalayas and the mountains of northwest China reaching altitudes of 3500m above sea level. They migrate in autumn over the Himalayas to spend the winter in northern India, ranging east to western Bengal and southern Afghanistan.

Hume's Leaf Warbler has only comparatively recently been split into a separate species (1997) from the very similar looking Yellow browed Warbler, based on differences in morphology, song and call and molecular characteristics. Compared to a Yellow browed Warbler its plumage is a markedly duller, subdued version of the brighter coloured Yellow browed Warbler. Seen in the field it looks a greyer green on its upperparts and dull greyish white on its underparts and it has only one prominent wing bar, again duller and buff rather than yellow, and just an impression of a second shorter wing bar.  Its legs and bill are also darker.

By far the best way to identify it, however, is to hear its call which is markedly different from that of a Yellow browed Warbler, being a strong disyllabic tsu-weet and shorter and lower in pitch than that of a Yellow browed Warbler.

To have the opportunity to hopefully see my third Hume's Leaf Warbler in Britain and in the fair county of Norfolk on a sunny day in winter was just too good an opportunity to forgo so I gave Moth, one of my birding friends a call, as he does not work on a Friday, and suggested a jaunt to Norfolk which he readily accepted.

At 6.30 on a cold dark morning in Oxfordshire we set a course for the east and Norfolk. Being a weekday we were soon amongst the craziness of commuting traffic but with just a few minor hold ups we were soon traversing the roads of Nelson's  County in bright sunshine. The sun at this time of year was so low in the sky that it was blinding and necessitated the donning of my Raybans but all was well as we headed for Waxham. We turned off the helter skelter of the main road to Great Yarmouth and found ourselves winding a course on quieter roads through the hinterland of this part of Norfolk. Leaving one final small village, the Norfolk I love materialised, as we found ourselves driving through the wide open spaces of Horsey Levels with the gentle rise of the dunes way off to our right and dank, cold looking fallow fields of plough or grass to our left. The ditches around the fields were marked by stands of beige coloured, stiff reed stems acting almost as a fence or blinds, one such reed filled ditch shielding our road. We stopped at a gap created by a field gate to admire a herd of well over a hundred Whooper Swans with a few Mute Swans amongst them, their plumage enhanced to almost dazzling whiteness by the sun and then, further down the road, another large field of grass contained a huge flock of Pink footed Geese, so many that the green of the grass was almost hidden by their close packed clay brown bodies.We stopped and immediately a thousand necks shot up as the whole flock became alert. In situations like this it would be wonderful, although admittedly fanciful, to be able to communicate our good intentions, that they were quite safe and would not be shot at but some of my fellow humans still find entertainment by killing such beautiful birds so they are right to be wary. Their's is a dangerous existence made unnecessarily worse by my human selfishness in trying to kill them in the name of relaxation and sport. They have as much right to inhabit this world as do we.

With such philosophical meanderings being mulled over in my head we proceeded past Horsey Mill and wended our way down a long, straight and empty road below huge open skies of blue, following the Satnav's directions. I could see what looked, very much like Shangri-la-Chalet, off to our right and we duly turned up a very narrow, wet and muddy lane, passing an old disused church, to park in a sea of mud and puddles.We could see a small huddle of birders walking up a footpath that passed by the fence guarding the large garden of the upmarket looking chalet. The birders were obviously intent on following presumably the Hume's Leaf Warbler.

The Footpath running past the garden of Shangri-la-Chalet
on the left to turn at a right angle in front of the distant bushes
We donned wellingtons and warm clothing, hung cameras and bins from our bodies and set off in pursuit of the birders. Anything less like Shangri La at this moment would be hard to imagine as although sunny it was bitterly cold as the wind from the north came across a large fallow field unhindered, to blow through the bare twigs of the hedgerows and over the landscape of winter.

The warbler was feeding below and in front of the bushes and trees on the bank
The chalet itself looked like a holiday home and was extensive with a large garden around which ran a footpath both to the back and front. We followed the footpath to where four or five birders were standing looking across to the back of the garden at some bushes and small trees growing on a sloping bank that continued east towards Horsey. I assumed they had seen the warbler fly to where they were looking but it soon became apparent that no one knew where the warbler was and they were just standing staring hopefully. A couple of Blackbirds were plucking berries from an ivied stump, a Wren flew across the garden and a large skein of Pink footed Geese straggled across the sky in the distance as we waited.

Half an hour passed as I became increasingly frustrated and downcast at the complete lack of anything that would give us hope of finding the warbler. Yesterday it had been reported as 'showing well' so why was it not so today? A photographer, toting a huge lens came along the footpath from where it turned at a right angle and ran under the bank towards Horsey. I enquired whether he had seen the warbler and he replied that yes he had but it was being very elusive and hard to see let alone photograph. He suggested we try where he had just walked from as the warbler seemed to prefer there to the immediate surrounds of Shangri-la-Chalet.

A man with a lurcher then walked around the path behind the back of the chalet. We eventually got talking and he was a local birder and informed us that we were looking in the wrong place and would not see the warbler where we were standing. He told us the warbler was hard to locate and the best strategy was to wait for it to call as then you could at least have an approximate idea of its location. He told us that it mainly fed very low to the ground and even on it, underneath the bright green leaves of emerging Alexanders, an umbelliferous plant which carpeted the bank under the small trees and bushes. As a consequence the warbler was very hard to see and follow as it never really stopped moving for an instant and being so tiny was often hidden below the leaves. I had imagined the warbler would be feeding higher in trees or bushes and not on or near to the ground, so at least we could forget about any trees or bushes and concentrate on the Alexanders.

Note the pale indistinct central crown stripe which can
sometimes be seen on this species and its close cousin
the Yellow browed Warbler
We followed him along the footpath as we all looked and listened for the warbler and then we parted. Moth and myself wandered slightly disconsolately, it has to be said, back and fore for the next forty or so minutes wistfully looking at a bright green carpet of emerging Alexanders that were most definitely, currently not hiding a Hume's Leaf Warbler.

At some juncture I turned to look across the fallow field and back to where the path went past the chalet and saw a huddle of birders and some walkers who had just passed us clustered around the man with the lurcher. All were looking up into a tree that overhung the footpath. It was obvious they were looking at the warbler judging by their excited demeanour.

Moth and myself hurried back along the few hundred metres of footpath to join them and looking up into the canopy of the tree I saw the tiny outline of the warbler flitting amongst the close packed twigs and branches of the tree. It was only a shape and silhouette as it constantly moved around and looking from below all you could see was its off white undersides. I was anxious for Moth to see it as it would be a lifer for him but it was very elusive and the views even if you got one could hardly be called satisfactory. Then it flew a long way back to the bank with the Alexanders. We followed, just five of us now plus the man with the lurcher. We demurred to him as this was his local territory so we respected his rights to lead and dutifully followed him. The warbler when we relocated it was feeding on or very low to the ground but for the most part was invisible and only showed itself very briefly when it noticed us and flew away in alarm, uttering its distinctive and diagnostic call, before disappearing under the Alexanders once again. We followed as this process was regularly repeated. For long periods it was out of view and we sometimes thought we may have missed it moving to another area but then it would re-appear from where it had disappeared and fly off, calling. This went on for some time as it worked its way along the bank and then something changed.

I have no clue as to why or for what reason but it appeared to decide that it no longer viewed us as a threat and commenced to ignore our presence and slowly and methodically work its way back along the bank, no longer indulging in an escape flight from one point to another. We quietly followed as it periodically appeared and disappeared amongst the Alexander leaves, scuttling and hopping about on the sandy earth, methodically searching the undersides of the leaves, nooks and crannies in the sandy soil under branches and through the dead stems and twiggy detritus strewn on the bank. Its change in behaviour made it much easier to locate and you could actually follow its progress through the leaves now. Getting a picture was still a lottery as it was virtually constantly on the move, never still for more than a few seconds, but because it was methodically moving in one direction we could anticipate where it would emerge into an area that was almost bare of leaves, more exposed and that was not obscured by twigs and the low branches of the trees and bushes growing on the bank. Somehow, utilising this strategy, we both managed to get passable images. 

What it was finding to eat I have no idea, presumably ants, minute invertebrates and spider's eggs and other  such minutiae but it certainly seemed a tough existence on the cold, wind exposed bank although it was obviously finding enough to survive on, at least up to now.

We watched and followed it for another thirty minutes and then departed leaving just one person tracking its progress through the leaves. These were easily the best views I have had of a Hume's Leaf Warbler and I just hope it manages to keep body and soul together through these winter months and provides as much delight to other birders who come to see it, as it did to us today.

Sadly there was no sign of the warbler on Saturday or since

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Hawfinches of Northmoor 18th January 2018

This autumn and winter has seen an unprecedented invasion of Hawfinches, principally into England. These birds are assumed to have come from northern Europe where their normal winter food crop has failed. Oxfordshire has had its fair share of these visitors, the majority in places they have not been seen before or if they have, only irregularly, and now in mid winter, the birds seem to be settling down in particular areas where they have found a regular food supply.

Many have found churchyard Yews (a form of conifer) to be ideal and the 13th century Church of St Denys at Northmoor, in my county of Oxfordshire, has been hosting in excess of twenty Hawfinches which are finding the Yews in the churchyard and nearby very much to their liking. Some excellent photos on the Oxon Bird Log  web site of these Hawfinches persuaded me that it would definitely be worth a look.

The Church of St Denys Northmoor Oxfordshire
Today I had a morning meeting in Oxford but was free by noon. It was but a short car journey to Northmoor where I intended to see if I  too could could see the Hawfinches in the churchyard Yews and maybe get a photo or two.

Northmoor is the quintessential, small, picture postcard rural village located down a winding narrow country lane near the River Thames, with the focal point being the picturesque church and suitably venerable houses around about it. I parked my car carefully so as not to upset any of the residents and made my way into the churchyard. It was a cold and somewhat windy day but the sun mostly shone as I wandered around the small churchyard carefully avoiding the ancient gravestones and checking the Yew trees. I was not alone as four or five other birders were also looking but there was little sign of  any Hawfinches. in fact there were none and eventually I graduated towards one side of the churchyard where there was a boundary hedge and joined another birder standing there looking at a tall Yew, the tallest in the churchyard and growing next to an even taller bare branched tree. He told me that he had seen  some Hawfinches in the Yew about thirty minutes ago but he was unsure if any were there at the moment.

Views of The Churchyard
Hawfinches are Britain's largest native finch. A substantial, almost hulking brute of a finch, this impression imparted by their huge head and bill and short tail which gives them a compact, stout bodied, almost top heavy appearance. Naturally you would assume such a robust looking bird to be bold and assertive but quite the opposite is the reality. They are inveterately shy and retiring, secreting themselves, in this case, out of sight in the evergreen foliage where they silently feed on the Yew berries and seeds. The dark, evergreen density of a Yew tree's branches are heaven sent to a Hawfinch as they can disappear into the security of the dark depths and invariably they remain totally silent whilst they feed. If you did not know they were around you would never know by just casually looking at the Yew.

But stand for a while, often quite a while, and eventually they give themselves away as they pop up every so often to check on their surroundings and that all is secure, and then their head and part of their body will become briefly visible before, re-assured, they retreat back into cover and invisibility. Alternatively you can wait, again often for some time, for them to fly in from wherever they have been feeding elsewhere, when they will often land at the highest point available, in the tallest tree, and sit for some time checking that all is safe before descending to their favourite Yew to feed.

I stood with  the other birder for some time and finally we got lucky and three Hawfinches briefly showed themselves at the top of the Yew but always partially concealed in the cover of the branches. Then, as if by magic, they just melted into invisibility although we did not see them fly off. I walked to the other side of the tree and across the narrow lane to check that side of the tree. Some movements in the top of the tree got my pulse racing but they were not Hawfinches but four or five Greenfinches which themselves are now rapidly becoming scarce, so decimated has their population become by the awful parasitic disease Trichomonosis  that they are so susceptible to. They used to be a common and very welcome visitor to my bird feeders but now I never see them.

As I carried on looking into the deepest and the densest foliage a beautiful, pale orange brown head  and huge bill bordered by a dove grey neck materialised above the green. It was a male Hawfinch. The gusting wind was moving the branches so much that he appeared and disappeared as the branch he was feeding on swayed up and down and was concealed by the movements of other branches in front of it. One glorious, brief, seconds only view revealed his whole head and upper body and then he was gone and I saw him no more.

I walked back into the churchyard and found I was now alone. I commenced a vigil by the bordering hedgerow as a succession of little old ladies, each being towed along  by a small  dog passed by me on the narrow path. One stopped to chat to me asking 'Are they still here?' I answered in  the affirmative and she went on to tell me that she had one in her garden the other day. 'It looked like a giant budgie' she told me.
Great Tits, Blue Tits, Long tailed Tits came  and went along the hedge as did another party of four Greenfinches in the tall, bare branched tree but of Hawfinches there was not a sign. I stood now in the lee of the ancient church wall to get out of the cold wind and surveyed the bare tree next to the Yew. Nothing. Fifteen minutes later and about to leave I saw three birds fly in and land at the very top of the tree. Bulky and pale, their profile was utterly distinctive. Hawfinches! They flew down to the adjacent Yew, flashing white wing bars and a broad white band at the tip of their tail and clung briefly on the very tips of the Yew's branches. This was my moment and I managed a few shots of a male before he hid inside the Yew's encompassing thick foliage. More Hawfinches flew in, another five, and I moved back to my original position by the hedge in anticipation of seeing them in the Yew.

Five minutes passed but all I saw were brief silhouetted movements inside the top of the Yew and then a sudden loud noise caused the Hawfinches to explode from the tree and at least twenty flew out, flashing pale undersides and wing bars in the sunlight,  hurtling in a loose flock out and away over the surrounding fields. At a maximum I had seen eight, maybe nine Hawfinches arrive but here were many more. Enigmatic is only the word to describe this finch. How did the others get there?Were they already in the tree and had I missed them despite looking intently countless times? I will never know but it certainly was a thrill to see so many of this elusive finch, if even so briefly

I waited another forty minutes but they never returned and at at four o clock I left the quiet churchyard to head for home.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Four Days on Fuerteventura 11th January 2018

Day Four

So our last full day of birding on Fuerteventura dawned. Last night over dinner we discussed what we would do today. There had been two long staying Hoopoe Larks, a major rarity on Fuerteventura, residing on the furthest southwest point of the island at a remote spot called Punta Pesebre. Although they had not been reported for some time, someone claimed to have seen them a day or so ago although the report was not verified. As Badger had never seen a Hoopoe Lark we decided to take a chance and try to see them as there had also been a report from there of another rarity, a female Desert Wheatear, but again that was a few days ago and no further information had been forthcoming since our arrival on the island.

It was a long but pleasant drive on modern new roads that were relatively free of traffic as far as Morro Jable, a large town by the sea with huge hotel complexes set on the coast before the town and others forming a massive backdrop to the seafront, while the whole seafront itself had that bright busy air of cafe life and boutique shops and even encompassed an open air market. 

A section of Morro Jable seafront
We drove down the wide boulevard with statuesque palms spaced evenly alongside, passing between the hotels and the seafront and then drove out of the town, climbing into the surrounding hills and moving from a tarmac road to an unsurfaced track that wound upwards in sinuous curves following the contours of the rising slope. It was truly spectacular on a day that sparkled in full sunshine.

To our left was a wide expanse of barren plain sloping down to the sea cliffs and the huge expanse of the Atlantic whilst to our right the land rose upwards into towering mountain tops and as we slowly ascended, the panorama became ever more rugged and spectacular. There were very few cars on the road but Badger noticed that we only had a quarter tank left of fuel. We were in a quandary as we did not know if there were any more petrol stations on the route to Punta Pesebre. We consulted the map and it certainly looked like there were no  more towns between us and Punta Pesebre, not even the occasional small village.

We could not take the risk of running out of fuel and so returned to Morro Jable to fill up the tank. This took a little time as we searched for a garage in the town but eventually we found one and all was well. We set off again and followed the now familiar dirt road as it wound ever onwards towards the end of the island. 

The unsurfaced road to Punta Pesebre through Jandia National Park
We were in Jandia National Park and from afar we could see the lighthouse that marked the furthest southern point of the island. Just a few kilometres west of there, along the coast, was Punta Pesebre.

We followed the stony dusty track out to the Punta Pesebre which, when  we arrived, we had entirely to ourselves An insignificant signboard was all that marked the point but this was the correct spot for the Hoopoe Larks, assuming they were there, as it was confirmed by the Google Maps app on my phone.

Punta Pesebre is a location that I can only describe as being a place of beautiful desolation encompassed by a wild and rugged juxtaposition of land and sea. The huge blue swell of the Atlantic pounded into the shore under the low cliffs, as great white crested waves rose up and rolled in swollen terrifying force towards the point. I become enervated in locations such as this where the elemental forces, untramelled by human interference take on a force and energy entirely unknown in more prosaic areas. I want to shout into the wind and yell to the sky above the roaring sea  as if becoming raw and elemental myself, throwing off  the restrictions and petty conventions of my human existence.

Punta Pesebre
The sun bore down dazzlingly white, the sky was blue and the wind beat against our bodies as we looked out onto the endless motion of the sea. A pure white seabird, tiny against the sea's heaving backdrop, lifted on the wind and we had seen our first and only Sandwich Tern. Away to the north the coastline consisted of huge mountains and cliffs, frilled at their base by white surf and that became hazed and indistinct with distance, while behind us lay a huge expanse of stony sandy desert with  many low growing knee high bushes of some hardy shrub growing all over it. This was where the Hoopoe Larks had been seen. It was daunting as the area to be searched was huge but we separated and quartered the ground as comprehensively as we could. It seemed to go on forever with the sun blinding as it reflected from the sand and stones but we persisted, undaunted. 

Hoopoe Lark habitat Punta Pesebre
After an hour and a half we had to concede the birds were probably not here.  Badger however redeemed the situation by finding not the Hoopoe Larks but the female Desert Wheatear,  well inland from the track on which we had left the car and flying from low bush to low bush, using them as a vantage point to pick off prey from the ground. Its plumage almost matched the sandy terrain but was a more richer, golden colour. It was confiding to a degree and allowed me to approach quite closely but eventually tired of my presence and flew a good distance from me.

Female Desert Wheatear
We gave ourselves another half an hour of searching and then finally conceded defeat as far as the Hoopoe Larks were concerned. We were pretty certain they were not around as we had covered a very large area searching for them but there is always that small percentage of doubt. But we had done our best and could do no more and were content with our efforts.

Subsequent reports  by other birders after we had returned to Britain proved we were wrong about the larks. It seemed it was just luck if they could be found in the vast plain they were inhabiting with some birders being successful while others, such as ourselves, were not.)

So now we made the long journey back to Morro Jable, passing back through the spectacular scenery of Jandia National Park, home to the highest mountain on Fuerteventura, Pico de la Zarza at 807m. Thank heavens this area, declared a National Park in 1987, has been saved for posterity. It really is the most wonderful place.

As we proceeded back down the boulevard along Morro Jable seafront we decided to park and check out the wide expanse of dry bushes that separated the seafront promenade from the beach itself. There had been a report of Plain Swifts from here so there was a chance that they might still be around.

We got out of the car and watched two Gannets cruise past the beach. We crossed the road onto a grassed area and found three swifts flying low over what looked like a dry saltmarsh beyond. The problem is that both Pallid and Plain Swifts are present on Fuerteventura and in the strong sunlight it was very difficult to discern which species they were. In the end we settled for Pallid Swift which is by far the more usual swift found on the island. Just as we were watching the swifts some raucous cries came from the palms spaced along the seafront and a party of Monk Parakeets left a palm and swooped low and fast towards us as we arrived in a small play and seating area, adjacent to a long wooden boardwalk leading down to the beach.

Yes I know that the parakeets may have been introduced some time in the past and are not truly native but to all extents and purposes they are living wild, are very pretty birds and highly entertaining, as all psitticines are. They are very tame and people both local and visiting come to feed them sunflower seeds and peanuts. To feel their sharp claws grasping your skin and the gentle weight of their bodies on your arm is a charming and almost unique experience. What better way to introduce someone to birds, be they child or adult, than allowing them the experience of these parrots clambering up your arm totally trusting of your good intentions.

Monk Parakeets
Both Badger and myself indulged in the Monk Parakeet experience and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Spanish Sparrows helped themselves to left over sunflower seeds on the ground and another Berthelot's Pipit joined the throng of parakeets and feral pigeons at our feet.

Male Spanish Sparrow
After about an hour we decided to move on but the swifts were troubling us and after about 10km driving out of the town we turned back to see if we could make a positive identification of the swifts. Sadly, having parked the car roughly where we had before, we found the swifts had departed. So we would never know for certain what they were although I believe they were Pallid Swifts.

Crossing the grassed area we noticed a huge mounted skeleton of a whale and at first I assumed it was either a sculpture or an imitation but a display board informed us it was the genuine skeleton of a Sperm Whale that had washed up on the beach. 

Sperm Whale skeleton
Badger on the Boardwalk
This time we walked down the long wooden boardwalk as two Cattle Egrets were hunting lizards and insects in the saltmarsh by the boardwalk. We followed them as they assiduously checked each and every clump of vegetation and one finally caught a lizard which, with some difficulty, it swallowed whole, the unfortunate reptile distending the egret's neck as it slipped down.

Cattle Egret
Perhaps the most entertaining thing were the ridiculously tame and abundant Barbary Ground Squirrels, who obviously knew tourists were a soft touch for food and would approach you with careless abandon in the hope of some tit bit. They are not unattractive  and have the same superficial appeal as our Grey Squirrels but, like them, they are an introduced species, not native and are a threat to cultivation and the island's native fauna. They have colonised the whole of Fuerteventura, the entire population apparently deriving from two animals brought to the island as pets and released in 1965.

Barbary Ground Squirrel
Badger had a field day attracting them to his phone and getting all sorts of comical close ups as the inquisitive beasts snuffled around his phone and feet.

We had to go as there was one more really good area to check on our route home, called Costa Calma. There is a Facebook page called Rare Birds of the Canary Islands and we used this to alert us to any good birds that had been found on Fuerteventura. Today, someone posted a report of a Little Bunting and an Olive backed Pipit in 'Costa Calma Park.' We had little idea where this was as all the trip reports we had read referred to 'Costa Calma Forest' which runs along each side of the main road and is pretty obvious as it is the only extensive area of green for miles or should I say kilometres. It can hardly be called a forest either as it is just a strip of woodland no more than fifty metres wide on either side of the road and runs for approximately one kilometre.

Unsure of what to make of this we followed our instincts and found ourselves parking by the woodland on the southern side of the road. It was pot luck if we were in the right place or we were not. There was only one way to find out. Leave the car and start birding!

The woodland consisted of pines, palms and exotic shrubs such as bougainevillea, artificially watered to maintain it.There were tarmac paths to which most people kept but as birders we walked through  and under the trees as this is where the birds were most likely to be, due to the regular disturbance from people out for a stroll or using the woodland as a shortcut to a nearby shopping centre or housing.

Palms and Bougainevillea in Costa Calma Woodlands
Some Goldfinches were twittering in one of the trees and I found a couple moving near the top of a tree. Badger had wandered further and told me he had flushed a Song Thrush.These were the first of either species we had seen on this trip. I saw another small bird fly up from the ground under some pines but could not re-find it to identify. Some Linnets flew over calling but that was about it.

Badger, further down the woodland path, encountered two German birders who told him they had seen a Blackcap but also, and much more interesting, a Little Bunting and an Olive backed Pipit. They told us that they had seen these two birds in an area of close growing pines, where it was darkest, so we made our way back to the pines that consisted of a number of parallel and closely planted rows, their foliage intermeshing to create a gloomy understorey. I walked between two rows of the pines and five small birds, all the same size, flew up from under one of the trees just ahead of me. I alerted Badger and we waited for the five birds to descend but after fifteen minutes when they still had not re-appeared Badger went for a closer look and found a Little Bunting sitting motionless in a tangle of twigs and needles below the canopy of one of the pines. It was directly above where the five birds had flown up from and one had to assume that the other four were also Little Buntings and were also hidden in the foliage, as a few days prior five Little Buntings had been reported from here.

Badger went back for my camera and his video that we had left in the car while I maintained a vigil, trusting the Little Buntings would soon descend to the ground. On Badger's return, when we checked if the Little Bunting was still there we found it had disappeared. They had given us the slip and we never saw them again despite extensive checking.

We carried on 'walking the wood' finding at least two, possibly three Hoopoes, vigorously probing for prey around the bases of the trees and shrubs. 

We separated again and in an open area under a small tree Badger flushed three Olive backed Pipits. He called me to join him and we waited for the pipits to drop down from the tree they supposedly flew up into but they did not re-appear. Tired of waiting we moved along a little way and flushed two Olive backed Pipits which promptly shot back up into another tree!

We could hear them calling and one even descended again but just as it did a passer by spooked it and it flew back into the tree and that was the last we saw of them too.

There were at least half a dozen Chiffchaffs flitting around and I heard one singing which confirmed its identity as a Common Chiffchaff. We also heard but did not see a Blackcap, warbling a quiet sub song to itself in the trees.

We remained here until almost dusk and then set off for our accommodation at La Piramide. We treated ourselves to another Chinese meal in the huge complex of hotels apartments and restaurants, cleared the car in readiness for returning it tomorrow and then it was bed for the last time in Fuerteventura.

Tomorrow morning we were going home and back to the cold and grey skies of Britain. It had been a great four days but all good things come to an end and we were left with the distinct impression that Fuerteventura was a very good birding destination indeed and had a great potential for turning up some really rare birds.

The End