Friday, 10 May 2019

The Only Way is Essex for a Lifer! 25th April 2019

Ortolan Bunting, Courtesy of Jim Hutchins
An opportunity presented itself to twitch a bird that I've longed to see for a fair few years now, namely an Ortolan Bunting that had been found close to Abberton Reservoir near Colchester in Essex. For people like us living in Oxfordshire any excursion eastwards on a week day involves navigating London bound traffic so a day out in that direction can be an ordeal. So we waited on news that the Ortolan was still present before undertaking the journey which would give the rush hour(s) traffic a chance to die down a bit. 

While waiting for updates we popped into the BBOWT reserve at nearby Calvert to see if the pair of Black-necked Grebes were still present so that Mrs Caley could add them to her year list, I had seen them the day before since I was working nearby. The Grebes were indeed still there and I took a few quick record shots. 

Black-necked Grebe
Still without an update on the Ortolan we decided it would be prudent to continue travelling east, we took a big detour around the north Buckinghamshire countryside in order to avoid Aylesbury, and reach Wilstone reservoir near Tring where a Black Tern, not yet on our year list, had been seen. It was raining as we climbed the steps to the reservoir and try as hard as I might I couldn't find the Black Tern so maybe it had moved on. We returned to the car, now at a bit of a loss, and made tentative plans to visit BBOWT's flagship reserve at College Lakes while we waited for news on the Ortolan. As I fired up the car the message came through that the target bird was still present in the same place so we were on our way to deepest Essex!

With it now being mid morning the morning rush was well over and we sailed trouble free along the M25 and A12. The last leg of the journey was slower since every farmer, tandem bicyclist. horseman and horsewoman decided that it'd be a good time to go out on the minor roads and thus get in our way! But we still managed to pull into the Billett's Farm car park just before midday and within just a couple of minutes were looking at our first ever Ortolan Bunting, nudging me one closer to 400 species seen in the UK and on to 196 for the year.

Ortolan Bunting, Abberton Reservoir, 25/04/2019
The bird was feeding alone in short grass next to an accumulation of broken down farm machinery. I was expecting a rich and brightly coloured bird so was a little bit underwhelmed by a much more subdued plumaged bird although the yellowish throat and eye ring were evident enough. Perhaps this was a first summer male and had not quite attained full breeding plumage yet. In any event the Ortolan would do well to remain in the UK and stay away from France where, despite it being illegal practise, many are still eaten by (disgusting) wealthy folk (including allegedly a past president) as a delicacy. How anyone could take delight from partaking in such an awful custom is beyond me entirely and any pleasure obtained must be very guilty indeed.

We watched the Ortolan for a few minutes until it disappeared into the farmyard junk. We needed a comfort break and a coffee so headed the short way to the Essex Wildlife Trust on the other side of the reservoir. From the windows there we could see large numbers of Terns feeding over the water and a regular assured us that there were a few Black Terns amongst them, giving us an opportunity to add those to our year list once we'd finished with our lunch. In the car park I set up the scope and after a bit of searching locked onto a Black Tern way out in the middle of the reservoir. Not the best views we've ever had of them but the year list notched up to 197.

We intended to go back and have another look at the Ortolan Bunting but first stopped on the Layer de la Haye Causeway to see what might be around. Long-tailed Ducks and a Ring-necked Duck had been reported there in recent days but there was no sign of either for us. I scanned the larger part of the reservoir and found at least 5 Black Terns amongst the plethora of Common Terns and Gulls. The Terns were too far out to attempt any photography so I turned my attention to the spit of land that juts out into the reservoir. There were sleeping Teal and Mallards and then I got a very welcome surprise when I spotted 3 Whimbrel also resting on the grassy bank. Whimbrel are a bird that captivate me every time I see them, perhaps because they are so few and far between in landlocked Oxfordshire and when they do turn up nearer to home I always seem to miss them. The Whimbrel were a long way out but I managed a record shot and the year list counter went up to a 198.

Much closer to the embankment was a pair of Little Ringed Plover that fed in the weedy edge. These gave us great close views, better by some distance than we get at our local reserve. They shared the concrete edge with a pair of resting Common Terns and a few Pied wagtails.

Little Ringed Plover
Common Tern
There was a lot of excitement amidst a few birders stood on the other side of the road and I heard "Little Gull" called several times. I turned my attention towards them and followed the direction where the birders were looking and also followed the shouted instructions, "going right...dipping to the high" and so on but couldn't see anything other than Black-headed Gulls. I crossed the road and looked from a much closer vantage point but still I could only see the Black-headed Gulls and a few Common Terns despite the same chap calling the "Little Gull" continuously. When I asked him to point out the smaller Gull he replied that "it had disappeared and that he couldn't see it now". I left him to it, the cynic in me wondering that maybe he had got over excited and been mistaken.

Back at the farm there was no immediate sign of the Ortolan Bunting but other folk assembled there were trained on a Yellow Wagtail in the field on the northern side of the track. This turned out to be a "Channel" Wagtail, the hybrid produced by the interbreeding of the nominate flavissima (Blue-headed) with our own flava subspecies. We've seen a few of these "Channel" Wagtails now, they are delightful little birds. The Wagtail rewarded its admirers by flying into a small garden where it afforded some really nice views.

"Channel" Wagtail
The Ortolan had reappeared, this time on the roof of one of the barns. The bird was now easy to see and we had great scope views but it was really just a little of reach for my lens and the day was a bit dull to get the full benefit of attaching the converter, although that didn't stop me trying of course. The Ortolan was catching flies and other insects that must have been attracted to the warmer roof tiles. It frequently disappeared from view by ducking into a weed filled gutter often emerging to stand lookout from the gutter rim.

The Ortolan flew off out of sight so we diverted our intent back to the "Channel" Wagtail again and I took a few shots of it flying low to the ground. There were "normal" Yellow Wagtails here too.

"Channel" Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
While in the visitor centre at lunch I had a moment of inspiration when I looked at a map on the wall. I already knew that there was a famous site for Nightingales in Essex at Fingringhoe Wick but until I looked at that map I didn't realise that it was only 7 miles from Abberton. No brainer then to take the 15 minute drive over to the EWT's sister reserve situated on the marshy edge of the river Colne. We played it cool by taking in another coffee first and inquired of the helpful volunteer staff where the best place to look for the Nightingales would be. They replied that basically the Nightingales were everywhere, 16 had been counted that morning, but the best place was probably at the picnic area just a hundred yards away. We made our way towards there and could indeed hear a Nightingale singing just yards out from the visitor centre but that was well hidden so we carried on. Well before the picnic tables I could hear another Nightingale singing heartily and this time I spied it perched up openly in a twiggy tree that was yet to sport many leaves. Approaching boldly to the tree the bird was totally unperturbed and continued belting out its glorious refrain as I began taking frame after frame of photos.

After the bird had flown to another perch in its territory I realised that the extender was still attached to the lens, normally not a good thing but this time it had probably worked in my favour since the light had been good enough now the sun had come out. We followed the song around to the wood yard just 50 yards or so away and spotted the same Nightingale (or another) singing away from another small tree. It was in direct competition with at least 2 others in a very small area. A friend of mine had told me that Fingringhoe Wick was a top spot for Nightingales and he certainly hadn't lied!

Of course, Nightingales are not always so showy and some take a bit of finding when they sing hidden in the undergrowth and scrubby bushes.

We had only an hour on site but had seen or heard at least 8 different Nightingales, some out in plain view others completely hidden, as well as many other birds such as Lesser Whitethroat and Cuckoo. Bearing in mind that a regular place that we traditionally visit, Paxton Pits, has experienced a major decline in our most famous of songbirds, we made a note to have a day out to Fingringhoe Wick again next year. It is well worth visiting to hear those Nightingales which had made it 199 on that year list. I wonder what bird would become the 200th!

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