Saturday, 27 January 2018

Stroke(s) of luck! Richard's Pipit, Gloucestershire, 26th January Part 1


  For somebody that has been birding seriously for over 20 years now, I have a few quite glaring omissions on my British list (that I don't keep by the way). My life list total is rather held back though, by not being an all out mad twitcher preferring instead to bird reasonably locally or whilst on holiday. For example I have yet to see a glaucous gull despite several near misses. Neither have I seen a buff-breasted sandpiper which always seem to see me coming and disappear as I approach. Another bird that I've spent time trying to see more than once (more than six times in fact) over the years is a Richard's pipit. My trip down to Gloucestershire on Friday was an attempt to at least right the last of these and catch up with a "bogey" bird!

   Mrs Caley and I had tried in vain before to see Richard's pipit in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cornwall (several times) and had been wondering if we'd ever see one. We've stood by a rotting pile of manure for hours once because the "bird always comes back to it". It didn't! We've watched a short grassy field by the cycle track at Sennen all afternoon because the "bird favours the shed roof  to catch insects on". It didn't that day! But one thing you do learn as a birder is that patience and persistence do pay off eventually so when I heard news of an adult Richard's pipit residing by the river Severn in deepest Gloucestershire for the second consecutive winter the decision was made to make the effort and nail the bugger!

   So, with a(nother) sneaky day off work, we found ourselves parking up in the small village of Arlingham not far from the WWT mecca of Slimbridge (which we'd get to later in the day) and trying to make sense of the OS map and directions to the where the pipit was reported to be. Our first stroke of luck was donning our brand new pairs of "Muck boots" wellingtons that we'd treated ourselves to at Christmas. This was to be their first outing and are we glad that we had them! Without the wellies we would never had made it out to the edge of the Severn since the path to it was a quagmire! It took us half an hour sloshing, wading and sliding through deep puddles and mud until we reached a less than friendly Alpaca that stood guard to the field where the Richard's pipit was supposed to feed. On the way there we had met another birder returning from the area and he informed us that in the hour he had been there he had not seen the bird. Typical! In fact he ruefully shared with us the news that he had now been three times and had not seen the pipit on either attempt! Not the most encouraging of news. Our second stroke of luck though was that I had a good feeling about things and felt sure that I would see the bird! So we kept wallowing our way through the swamp towards our target. 

   There is a single spindly hawthorn bush in a narrow strip of rough weedy grasses between the river wall and the river itself and the bird chooses to feed there. If not found at that spot it is usually close by in adjacent fields (according to the reports on the excellent Glosterbirder website). There wasn't another soul to be seen in any direction so if we were going to see the pipit then we were going to have find it ourselves. I kind of like it that way anyway, feeling it's always much better to find and identify birds yourself than to be shown a bird. That way you remember salient features and behaviour of the bird better and are more prepared for identifying birds in the future. So I set about scanning through the long grass and came up with absolutely nothing! Mmm not a good start. The only birds that I could see were a few black-headed gulls on the river and a flock of fieldfares in some trees further inland away from the river. The river wall was even muddier than the walk to it thanks to  a herd of cows (or elephants) that had churned it up as badly as a tractor and plough would. So we walked at the bottom of the embankment taking care to stop and scan the grasses so as not to disturb any birds that may be lurking in them by blundering straight into them. We needn't have worried since the grassy strip around the hawthorn tree was devoid of all birdlife. We rested next to a barbed wire fence (it is surprising just how hard it is walking through 6 inches of squelching mud) and discussed our next move. A couple of days previously the pipit had been seen in the field that we'd first come through (the one that had the Alpaca as guard) so maybe we'd have to retrace our steps and look more closely there. Firstly though and our third (and biggest) stroke of luck, I decided to scan the (short cropped) grass field to the west of our position and almost instantly noticed three small brown birds feeding about 100 yards away. I set the scope up and locked on to one of the birds and, with the fourth stroke of luck, saw a pipit that had a very clear and striking pale eye-stripe. "I've got it!", I announced jubilantly to Mrs Caley. To be sure I then examined the other two birds and was disappointed to see two similar looking and similar sized birds. Disappointed because all the literature that I'd read said that a Richard's pipit was much bigger than a meadow pipit! Almost skylark sized in fact.. So I looked carefully through the eyepiece again at all of the three birds and it dawned on me. Of course, the other two birds were skylarks!
The Richard's pipit (centre) flanked by the two skylarks

  We edged a bit nearer to the birds and I fired off a few record shots and then crept a bit nearer still. At about 50 yards away we had crippling views of our first ever Richard's pipit and another birding hoodoo was well and truly laid to rest! Only problem was the bird was still  a bit too far for my 400mm lens' reach. A fifth stroke of luck came in the form of my 1.4 converter which, for once, I had with me (instead of it being left in the car or at home)! So I now had a 560mm lens which enabled me to get some better shots without getting any nearer to the bird. I haven't used the extender that often but I am learning slowly how to use it and practice will make perfect (almost).

   Richard's pipit when seen well are more "wagtail" like than anything else. Long legged and long tailed it put us in mind of juvenile yellow wagtails that we'd seen in the autumn. It was however very pipit like in appearance being predominately streaked brown with that striking pale supercilium and equally striking pale under parts. The bill was very strong and big (for a pipit) and the black eye stood out. It fed like most pipits, deliberately pecking away at seeds and small invertebrates hidden in the short turf and didn't dart around like a wagtail would. It was keeping loose company with the two skylarks. We watched it for around half an hour never getting too close (we wouldn't have been able to anyway what with no cover to use). A couple of times it flew up with the skylarks and relocated a few yards further up the field but carried on feeding seemingly oblivious to our presence. Once, when in flight, you could hear the characteristic"shreee" call which (when learned apparently) is a vital tool in identifying Richard's pipit's flying over at migration hotspots. Just once and only for a few seconds it was joined by three meadow pipits and then the size difference and different jizz could be ascertained. Just as we spotted some more birders struggling along the muddy track in the distance the pipit suddenly flew up and over the river wall and disappeared. We couldn't find it again. Our news was shared with the arriving birders and having wished them luck, we returned to the car but via a different route that thankfully wasn't quite as muddy! We met some of the other birders back at the parking area and they had had no luck. I believe that we were the only people to see the Richard's pipit that day! Lucky indeed!

(to be continued.....)


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