Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Up with the American Horned Lark, Staines reservoirs 27th January

Following on from our excellent day out in Gloucestershire the day before, we got the shopping done early and drove the reasonably short distance to Staines reservoirs on the edge of Heathrow Airport to see a potential mega in the shape of an American Horned Lark. I say potential since it isn't yet regarded as a full species but merely as a subspecies of our own Shorelark but that could change in the future since there are considerable differences between the two.

   The reservoir itself is a bleak affair and makes our local Farmoor look much better! There are two reservoirs, north and south basin, and they are divided by a central causeway in much the same fashion as Farmoor. The major differences here are that the causeway is bordered by a metal fence running along its full length (and perimeter too) and also that the embankment is much steeper and plunges down to the water some 20 metres below. Never again will I complain about the low water levels at Farmoor. I guess the reason is that Staines reservoirs are much bigger and deeper and that water levels are actually rather low but it does rather add to the spartan appearance. The reservoirs are hemmed in by urban sprawl as well further adding to its "cold" and unwelcoming appeal. Add into the equation the really bitter wind that was blowing across the waters and you began to wonder why any bird had chosen to pitch up in a place like this. Or indeed why anybody would choose to bird here. But that's just what the American Horned Lark had done and we, along with hundreds of other birders, were very grateful that it had. And very grateful to the birder(s) that had found the lark in the first place!

   The bird was easy to find owing to the fact that there were already a score or more birders stood with optics and cameras pointed down the southern embankment. Some of Oxfordshires finest were leaving just as we arrived too (hello Pete, Steve and Oz). We made our way to join the throng and immediately latched on to a smallish predominately brown and white bird that was shuffling along the weedy edge to the concrete embankment. The female bird was obviously seeking out sustenance by finding windblown seeds and insects amongst the grass and small plants that grew there. The lark would investigate a weed or two then either shuffle across to the next plant or, sometimes, would run at some speed across the bare ground to reach the next piece of meagre cover.  But the lark was more than just a little brown job, on closer inspection the overall plumage was more a beautiful mix of taupe and warm browns. The face was boldly marked with a black band running from the bill, below and past the eye to the neck. The throat was a very pale yellow.

   At times the bird was just 20 feet or so away but at one point joined a pied wagtail at the waters edge. As mentioned it often ran at some speed when on the bare concrete to hunch behind small sprigs of vegetation. But its favoured spot was higher up the embankment wall in the grasses and plants where it fed at some leisure. 

   After half an hour or so and with nothing much else (other than goldeneye, wigeon and teal) to see on either basin we made our way back to the car passing newly arriving birders as we went. We stopped at one stage to admire some huge aeroplanes that were taking off from Heathrow and wondering how they manage to get off the ground. The new double decker airbuses seem to take ages to get truly airborne. Our plans to visit Sonning on the way home were scuppered by some inclement weather (we've always been a bit fair weathered) and we headed home for a restful afternoon of photograph editing!

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