Monday, 23 November 2020

No Prize Winning Radde's Photo But Some Terrific Support Acts Ease The Pain! 5-10th October 2020

A bird that has long been on my radar is the Radde's Warbler, a scarce but regular migrant encountered in the autumn around the coastal regions of the UK but, owing to its skulking habits, it's a difficult bird to observe. I've never even had the opportunity to twitch one before since none have been on offer whilst I've been on holidays to Suffolk or Cornwall before. The Radde's Warbler is a Chiffchaff sized bird with similar plain plumage. It is very similar to the Dusky warbler, another rare visitor to the UK. Both Radde's and Dusky Warblers are usually discovered courtesy of expert birders hearing the loud 'chacking' call of both species. Once seen then they are reasonably distinctive from other Warblers in having very plain brown plumage tones combined with a distinct buff coloured supercilium and pale brown legs. They are nervous birds and flick their wings and tails continually. They also shun the limelight and are rarely encountered away from dense cover.

On Sunday the 4th October a Radde's Warbler had actually been found inland alongside a river not far from Peterborough. Such a finding was a chance too good to pass up and Peakirk is only a mere hour and forty minutes drive from home so after finishing work early on Monday I collected Mrs Caley and headed out there, arriving on site a little after one o'clock. The Radde's had been seen a few times in the morning so we knew it was still there. There were around twenty or so other twitchers present including our good friend Alan, the excellent warden of our local Bicester Wetlands Reserve, who had actually been to Southwold on the Suffolk coast earlier that morning looking for another Radde's Warbler but with no success had then diverted to Peakirk on the way home to try for the bird there. Initial news from the other birders wasn't encouraging, the Radde's had not been seen for at least three hours and then it had been seen to fly away from the riverside vegetation, crossing over the embankment road and disappearing into a thick hedge. It was that hedge that held everyone's attention.

For the next two hours we watched for any movement in the hedge with very little activity from any birds bar a few Great and Blue Tits. I saw a Chiffchaff at the top of a small tree which caused a momentary flutter of excitement but other than that this seemed to be a twitch too far. Then a chap noticed some movement low down in the hedge. We all watched that part of the hedge intently for a few minutes and then interest waned again. Most people wandered off but I and one other chap remained focussed on the bramble. Then we had our moment of luck, a small brown bird flitted from one low twig to another and then a few seconds later shifted along a branch at the front of the hedge and was gone. It all looked good for the Radde's but our view of it had been for just a couple of seconds. Obviously Radde's Warbler would be a lifer for me but Mrs Caley had missed it and I wasn't satisfied that I could tick it based on the brief and poor view that I had. We drove home completely frustrated.

Radde's Warbler (courtesy of Richard Willison)

I don't lack patience or willingness so with a fine weather forecast for Wednesday morning, and knowing that the Radde's warbler had still been present on Tuesday, I encouraged Mrs Caley to accompany me on another tilt at the bird. There were fewer birders there at first light and focus was now back on the bank side reeds and brambles where the bird had been seen the day before. I saw a nice photo on Twitter taken by Will Bowell of the bird so my appetite was renewed afresh. 

The other twitchers were lined up, evenly spaced out as todays standards demand, so if the Radde's appeared then it should be seen by somebody, particularly in view of the extremely good light of the early morning. A small brownish bird appeared in a small indent in the weeds next to the water, but looked far too rufous coloured. I fired off a few shots in any case, just in case, but as I had initially thought the bird was a Wren so the burst of excitement dissipated in an instant. It was another half hour before another bird appeared, remarkably almost on the same perch too but again it just didn't look right and it turned out to be a Cetti's Warbler, nice to see but not what we were hoping for. Two hours later with nothing more than common species to entertain us, we left still lacking that clinching view of a Radde's Warbler. Needless to say the bird was seen again later that afternoon, and well at that.

Cetti's warbler

Fortunately there was a year tick on offer, and, by courtesy of a small diversion, on our way home too. Borough Hill on the outskirts of Daventry is a place that I'd been intending to visit for some time since it's a good spot to watch Short-eared Owls in the winter. On the top of the hill sits a complex of buildings that houses a section of the BBC, and a huge tall transmitter aerial commands the very top. A first winter Black Redstart had first been found frequenting the area around ten days before but had seemingly disappeared. Then as we waited in vain for the Radde's Warbler to appear a message had come through that the Black Redstart had been seen again on the eastern perimeter fence.

We parked up at the very convenient parking area which is only a few metres from the summit and walked up hill. It was, as expected, quite windy at the top but on a clear day such as this, the views were commanding. We found our way around to the eastern flank and gazed at the tall metal fence and predictably saw no birds. A chap carrying a camera attached to a heavyweight lens and tripod walked up and I inquired whether he'd seen the Black Redstart. His reply, largely indecipherable owing to a very broad Brummie accent and the wind snatching his words from his mouth and dumping them somewhere else in Northamptonshire, baffled me somewhat since instead of news of the Black Redstart I learned the whereabouts of several Stonechats,  which were very easy to photograph apparently. I pushed him again for details of the Black Redstart and was told, 'oh that, it was sat in that bush right there earlier on but I think the Stonechats are better'. Each to their own I guess, after all juvenile Black Redstarts are quite dull to look at aren't they? Well, no they're not actually.

We spotted some of the Stonechats but didn't bother too much with them. My attention was focussed entirely on the compound and the buildings within. Knowing a bit about the habits of Black Redstarts I studied the roof areas and likely perches that the bird would use to launch itself from in pursuit of its insect prey. A couple of minutes later I saw it stood at the edge of the closest flat roof. I love birds that "save the day".

first winter Black Redstart

We sidled up closer to the fence and sat on one of the old concrete plinths that litter the hill. The Black Redstart was very active and would fly out from various perches but always returned to the same roof and a light fixed to the building below it. It was quite happy until a Pied Wagtail arrived and bullied it off the roof. 

We went for a wander around the perimeter and noticed the Black Redstart perched on the fence again but some way off. A small group of Meadow Pipits flew up the hill and settled for a while. The Stonechats were entertaining another photographer, who again appeared to be ignoring the scarcer bird. I never took a single photo of any of the Stonechats, perhaps I was missing something. On the northern flank of the hill is a vast swathe of rough grassland, presumably the area where the Short-eared Owls hunt when present later in the year. The grassland is interspersed with many tangles of brambles and it seemed as if every patch had a Stonechat or two standing sentinel. The whole area looked ripe for a Wryneck although I couldn't recall any having been reported from here. Daventry Country Park, where we saw our first ever Red-rumped Swallow many years ago and more recently a Grey Phalarope, lies a few miles to the north but is hidden by surrounding woodland. It appears that the Daventry area has much to offer the birdwatcher.

We returned the way we had come, already satisfied that we had added our 221st species to the year list, a decent effort considering we'd missed out on holidays so far this year. We were due to head to Cornwall in a few days time and would have been hopeful of adding a few more species when down there but sadly had to cancel the trip because of personal reasons. As we neared the concrete block where we had watched the Black Redstart from earlier, we were disappointed to see that the seat was occupied. Not too upset though since it was the Black Redstart that was stood on it! We'd have to stay standing this time as we were treated to cracking views of the bird. I realised that maybe earlier on we had inadvertently taken its favourite spot.

Fully happy with our views we made our way down the hill again, some very dark and foreboding clouds were gathering and heading our way. On the way I stopped momentarily to watch the antics of a couple of Carrion Crows that were stripping acorns from an oak tree and then flying out onto the grassy slopes and caching them fo later in the winter when food is short. Corvids are very smart. The rain began to fall as we left.

Carrion Crow

Far from satisfied with our split second view of the Radde's Warbler, probably, on Monday, I decided that we needed to try and see another. So on Saturday morning we headed to Southwold ourselves since the Radde's Warbler there had been seen virtually every day and some really good images of it had surfaced online. I hadn't yet added the bird to my life list, or by extension the year list, because I couldn't be a hundred per cent sure that we had seen the one at Peakirk, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to claim identification if I'd seen it on my own. 

The Radde's Warbler had been first sighted on the previous Saturday, the same day as another scarce bird and potential life tick, a Rustic Bunting, had been found nearby. Although tempted by the Bunting we had decided not to travel owing to the horrible heavy rain affected day which would inevitably lead to treacherous driving conditions. After regretting not taking the plunge that day we had headed out to Southwold on the Sunday morning, which was just as wet, but had turned back for home after just a few miles since the roads were almost impassable with major flooding. Seeing a very unhappy driver wading away from her car after she'd slid into a rain filled ditch after hitting a deep puddle, proved to be the turning point. There would be another Rustic Bunting one day in the future and we'd like to be alive to see it. This Saturday was gloomy once more but it was only a fine drizzle that we drove through and the roads were far safer.

We pulled into the harbour carpark just after nine o'clock and the Radde's had already been reported so we were more than hopeful that we'd get a confirmed tick this time. A short walk through the nearby campsite brought us to a muddy track which was gingerly negotiated in order to join another half dozen birders who were stood next to a small fenced off pond. I spoke to a birder at our end of the line and she told us that the Radde's Warbler had been showing really well in a small patch of brambles and that it was still in there. The bramble patch was only a few feet away and I was concerned that everybody was stood too close to it. But we were the newcomers so we  stood, slightly further away, and studied the tangle of branches and rank grasses along with the others. 

Within seconds we had our turn of good luck when the Radde's Warbler emerged at the far side of the bramble and then flew the short distance to the fence that surrounded the pond. In that moment I saw the pronounced supercilium, plain brownish tones to the plumage and crucially, for separation from the very similar Dusky warbler, the peachy coloured vent area. The bird perched on a reed stem just inside the fence and flicked its tail, I aimed the camera ready for my moment of glory and then, nothing happened, my camera was dead! In an instant my absolute elation turned to abject despair when I realised that the day before I had removed the battery from the camera to recharge it and had neglected to replace it, and the spares were sat in my pocket. By the time I had put one into the camera the bird had gone. Ah bugger, as unlucky Alf would say. I was truly gutted. Mrs Caley asked if I had got a photo, sadly not, I replied. Only now have I recovered enough from the agony to reveal the real reason why I failed to get any images. For the next five hours that we spent looking for the Radde's, it never showed as well again although we did get a couple more brief glimpses. At least I could now count it as a lifer though and our year list notched up to 222.

Radde's Warbler, Southwold (courtesy of Jonathan Farooqi)

After giving up on the Radde's and with me still trying to suppress my immense irritation at committing such a basic error we retreated back to the car for lunch and a takeaway coffee from the kiosk. Takeaway drinks are not really my cup of tea, see what I did there, but it was now raining steadily again and the temperature had dropped considerably so we were in need of warming up. As we ate and drank we watched a troop of Turnstones scuttle along the harbour wall in front of our car and I remembered that a Purple Sandpiper had been reported at the harbour mouth the day before. Shame I couldn't remember a battery so readily, eh? Mrs Caley wisely chose to stay in the dry car while I decided to venture out to see if I could cheer myself up by finding the rock loving Purple Sandpiper which would be new for the year. Turnstones were very much in evidence with several groups dotted along the harbour walls and a few were darting about in the carpark itself. At the very end of the harbour there is a mollusc and seaweed encrusted concrete groyne that serves as protection to the harbour mouth. The path leads down to within ten metres or so of this groyne. At the very end of the groyne, as close to the open sea as it could be, stood the Purple Sandpiper, my 223rd species of the year. With a battery now firmly in place within the camera again, I secured a couple of record shots.

Purple Sandpiper

I phoned Mrs Caley and suggested to her that she abandon the warm car and join me for a look at the Purple Sandpiper. The rain had eased off anyway. While waiting for her I took some photos of some of the Turnstones that were gracing the rocks immediately next to the path. I see Turnstones annually at Farmoor but they somehow seemed more "authentic" here right next to the sea. Turnstones, like the Purple Sandpipers, are true rock specialists and investigate every crack in the rocks in search of their marine foodstuffs.


I checked several times to make sure that the Purple Sandpiper was still on the groyne, it was, so that when Mrs Caley finally made it to the end of the pier I was able to show her the bird straight away. Almost immediately the Purple Sandpiper, obviously taking pity on me for my shortcomings of earlier, decided to join the Turnstones on the rocks just metres away. We now had unrivalled views of one of my favourite wading birds.

The Purple Sandpiper further spoiled us, and just us since there was nobody else to be seen anywhere nearby, by then taking a prolonged bath in a shallow puddle contained on the top of one of the rocks. We watched enthralled at our private viewing of the bird ducking under the water, shaking off its wings and a final wing stretch and jumping flap. I put the camera into overdrive.

After the bath was done with, the Purple Sandpiper stood and preened at length giving me some superb poses. The little smasher even performed the extraordinary feat of rynchokinesis, the mechanics of which allow long-billed birds to manipulate their upper mandibles and bend them upwards.

Mrs Caley returned to the car while I continued to photograph the Purple Sandpiper. Almost as soon as my wife left though the Purple Sandpiper did as well, flying back to the groyne first and then, while calling shrilly, flying further away beyond the opposite wall of the harbour which proved to be bad news for two birders who were just coming out to see it. They had failed to see the Radde's too so they were, on balance, having a much worse a day than me.

With the exit of the Purple Sandpiper I too decided to head back to the car in readiness for the drive home. I stopped to take some shots of Turnstones bathing in some of the large puddles that were dotted around the carpark. Bathing is a big part of a birds daily routine and seabirds clearly enjoy using freshwater puddles to cleanse themselves. It's always a pleasure to watch that pleasure.

We drove home happy that we had secured our life tick and with our exceptional views of the Purple Sandpiper and Turnstones but my awful cock-up with the battery would haunt me for a few days yet. I'm eagerly looking forward to my next chance at photographing a Radde's Warbler and a chance to set the record straight.

My thanks to Jonathan and Richard for the use of the excellent Radde's Warbler photos.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Anniversary Delight! Westhay Moor, 25th September 2020

comes around once a year and I always know how to show Mrs Caley a good time by taking her out birding on the 25th. This year we chose a trip down to the wilds of the Somerset Levels and to Westhay Moor Nature Reserve. A Spotted Crake had been seen fairly regularly over the past week at the Island Hide there and we thought that we'd have the chance of adding that species to our flimsy year list. Spotted Crakes are skulking and secretive inhabitants of reedbeds, of which there are lots at Westhay, so are never easy to see and can take a lot of time and patient waiting before getting a view. We had travelled to see a Spotted Crake in Somerset last year, also on our anniversary, at the nearby Greylake Reserve, which had entailed an almost all day vigil, combined with our devastating secret weapon of feigning to leave (in fact we did but returned a short time later) and then sneaking back in order to fool the bird into thinking we'd left, before it put in an appearance. That day is written up here.

Spotted Crake, Greylake, 25/09/2019

Unfortunately as we trundled down the M5, the weather forecast that had promised intermittent rain early on and strong winds later had been accurate. It would definitely not be a good day for seeing a Spotted Crake which would likely stay well hidden and comfy inside the reedbed. We were greeted at Westhay Moor by a lack of car parking since the carpark was in the throes of being renovated so had to station the car on the approach road. At least the workmen present would be deterrent to any thieves in the area, which sadly prey at isolated spots like Westhay Moor. We walked into the reserve and were amazed at the difference a year or two makes. Our last visit here had been at the end of 2017 when we had spent a wonderful frosty and clear day, once the fog had lifted, encountering many fabulous birds, especially a beautiful pair of Bearded Tits and a multitude of Water Rails, written up here. Bearded Tits would be part of our agenda on this visit too but to begin with I was mindful only of seeing the Spotted Crake even the though the moustached bandits of the reeds were also still needed for the year list. But the long Lockdown period had taken its toll here as it has done elsewhere, furloughing of staff during the growing season and the interruption of maintenance had resulted in almost jungle type conditions around the reserve. The reeds and vegetation were so high that there was no way of seeing into many of the small ponds that sit either side of the entrance track. Hence when we heard some Bearded Tits pinging away close by, we just couldn't find a place where we could see them from.

As we neared the Island Hide, we realised that we could have driven further down the track since there were several cars parked there, so unlike that visit in December 2017, when we had the whole reserve to ourselves, we'd have company today. A boardwalk connects the track to the Island Hide and I could see some birders stood about halfway along it. They appeared to be waiting for something so I naively thought that it was there that the Spotted Crake had been seen from. But as I approached the other birders, all armed with very impressive camera kits, the penny dropped and I remembered that in September and October, Bearded Tits readily accept grit left for them on the boardwalk and that Westhay Moor is one of the best places to get close up views of them, which in turn attracts photographers who are eager to secure frame filling photos. The others had congregated where the boardwalk cut through a small open area in the reeds, presumably hopeful of getting those classic Bearded Tit clinging to reed stems shots as the birds go to and fro. Conditions definitely wouldn't be conducive to gaining such images though since the wind had picked up to almost gale force strength and the reeds were being bent double. Any birds would either be keeping low down in the reeds to feed or would be clinging on to much sturdier perches.

I chatted to a chap who confirmed it was the Beardies that they were waiting for but up to that point there hadn't been any come to the grit that was laid out out on the planks just ahead of us. I told him that we'd just heard some that appeared to be heading this way. Interestingly he told us that the Bearded Tits are quite regimented in the timing of their visits and would generally appear around eight o'clock and then stay in the vicinity for just an hour or so. It was now 08:45 so the Beardies were overdue. All thoughts of the Spotted Crake had been momentarily forgotten as we joined in the wait for the Bearded Tits to arrive.

Without me noticing, at just before nine o'clock, some Beardies had arrived. I only became aware when the chap nearest to the grit pile started taking photos. The part of the boardwalk where the grit had been laid out was shrouded in shade and, despite the colourful plumage of the birds, they were difficult to pick out with the naked eye even though we were within twenty feet of them. Through the binoculars though, they were an absolute feast to the eyes!

There were a maximum of four birds on view, but going by the excited calling emanating from the reeds there must have been many more, and there was definitely a well established pecking order since a dominant male would chase all the other birds away except for one of the females. The Bearded Tits took the grit quite readily since it is a vital requirement of all seed eating birds to eat it because it aids in the digestion of the hard seeds. A small patch of the boardwalk was illuminated by the sunlight that had eased through the clouds and I waited until a fine male Bearded Tit had landed in it.

There wasn't too much room on the boardwalk, it's only a few feet wide and such a restrictive space would normally pose problems with photographers jostling for the best spot. On this occasion however, I have to say that the four chaps and one lady were incredibly amiable and actually beckoned for Mrs Caley to take the prime place from which to view the birds. I'm used to being on my knees at work so was happy to kneel here too so that folk stood behind weren't hindered by having to peer around my bulk. It was all rather pleasant, the sun was shining and the Bearded Tits kept coming to the grit!

The strong wind had indeed put paid to getting any of the classic Bearded Tit poses straddling reed stems or hanging upside down as they selected seeds from the reed heads so all photos would have to be taken of birds actually on the boardwalk. I'm not a big fan of photos of birds stood in their food, or grit in this case, so concentrated on capturing the birds as they perched briefly on the wooden railing either on their way to the grit or after they'd taken it. The male Bearded Tit has to be one of our most striking birds.

The female by contrast is much plainer bird but in my opinion, equally as beautiful. She lacks the blue-grey head and Zapata moustache of the male but still has the piercing eye and yellow bill plus lovely shades of buff and orange plumage. 

Bearded Tits have ridiculously small and short wings which look as if they are totally inadequate to sustain any type of flight especially so when combined with the long tail. Apart from that small conical shaped bill they are very similar in shape and structure as the Budgies that I so lovingly keep at home. On the contrary though, Bearded Tits are fully capable of flying and are famous for taking irruptive and dispersal flights in the autumn when juvenile birds suddenly leave their natal areas and search for new reedbeds to colonise. After a couple of false starts recently at Otmoor back home in Oxfordshire when Beardies have landed but sadly rapidly disappeared again, I'm forever hopeful that some of the dispersed birds will one day stay to breed in the extensive reedbeds there and brighten up the local birdwatching.

An eruption of the pinging calls, likened by some guidebooks to the 'pching, pching' of an old fashioned cash register, had all of us looking hopefully at the reeds and some stunted trees that grew out of the water. Six Beardies, an equal split of males and females alighted in one of the trees and offered us some decent views and photo opportunities although the harsh sunlight shining straight at us didn't delight our fellow watchers. For my part, considering how I lack many skills when armed with my camera, I was just happy to get some different shots and I liked the way that the birds, trees and even the spiders webs were given a halo by the strong backlighting.

I was anticipating that the Bearded Tits would suddenly take flight and would be ready. Alas, when they did take to the air and fly right past at close range, I had neglected to change my camera setting from a single focus point to a cluster and hence the camera failed to lock onto any of them! I am very definitely a muppet sometimes and it was yet another illustration of why I'm just not cutting it at the top end of photography. Maybe next time I will remember to prepare properly.

So it was back to another short stint at capturing images of the Bearded Tits attending the grit. At least the birds continued to pose readily. After a while, with so many images already obtained, I decided just to watch the birds for a while.

When a couple of other birders arrived to watch the Bearded Tits, we made room for them and decided that it was time for us to at least have a cursory look for the Spotted Crake, even though we knew it hadn't been seen for a couple of days. We thought that maybe with it being a special day that we might just be lucky. Looking out from the hide soon ended such absurd notions however, since the wind seemed even stronger away from the relative shelter of the boardwalk and the water levels had risen with the overnight rain so that there was none of the exposed mud that a Spotted Crake would need. I remembered that a Purple Heron had also been seen recently from the hide so we stayed for twenty minutes on the very off chance that that bird would put in an appearance but, of course, it didn't. We left the hide and found just the two latecomers still there. The Bearded Tits had left and the keen photographers had left shortly after. The show was over for another day.

We had a couple of other target birds in mind for the rest of the day and, with it being a Friday, we were keen not to be too late in hitting the motorway home. First though we headed to a tea room where we've enjoyed rustic food, drink and charm in the past. Unfortunately though the fare being offered was take away only, a massive drawback of the Lockdown era, and I dislike drinking my coffee from a plastic container just as much as I detest drinking my beer from a plastic "glass". It just doesn't taste the same and good coffee is like good beer, where you drink it and what you drink it out off is a big part of the pleasure. So we drove on.

We stopped off at the nearby Cheddar reservoir, a vast concrete bowl of water, akin to our own local featureless water body at Farmoor. If the wind was strong at Westhay then here it was blowing a proper hoolie and standing up and walking into it was a formidable task. We had come to see a Red-necked Grebe, not required for our year list since we had already seen one earlier in the year at Rutland, but which I'd seen some nice photos of so it seemed as if the bird showed well. After a scan of the reservoir I saw that most of the birds were sheltering at the slightly more placid northern end so we began walking towards them. Halfway there Mrs Caley suddenly pulled up in agony, the pain in her leg from the previous weekend had manifested itself again. My wife could barely move and I had visions of having to carry her back to the car. We sat on the wall giving her time to ease her leg and chatted to a birder who had walked by. I inquired as to the Red-necked Grebe and he said that he'd not seen it despite searching for it for nearly two hours! To that end I satisfied myself with scope views of a male Red-crested Pochard, unusual for these parts apparently. 

We inched our way back towards the car, Mrs Caley was suffering with every step and the quarter mile walk was painstakingly slow but necessary. Our frequent stops meant that I could scan the reservoir often and on one I suddenly noticed the Red-necked Grebe amongst the waves and troughs right out in the middle of the reservoir. Fortunately the chap we had spoken to hadn't moved far either, so was still within hailing distance, and I was able to get him on the bird that he'd travelled specially from the West Midlands to see. I stupidly tried to gain a record shot of the Grebe which was probably two hundred metres away. I'm very lucky that cameras don't need expensive rolls of film nowadays.

Red-necked Grebe, Cheddar reservoir 25/09/2020

Our day curtailed because of Mrs Caley's poor leg, presumably caused by a muscle strain, we nevertheless drove home happy enough with our views of the Bearded Tits, bird number 220 for the year. I eagerly look forward to the day, which must surely come soon, when we can watch such beauties again nearer to home at Otmoor.