Sunday, 29 September 2019

A Tricky One!, 25th September 2019

This is the way we do it, the way we roll and mainly because I'm a bit mental (Mrs Caley just goes along with it to keep me a little bit sane). I keep tabs on the bird news to see what birds are out there and those that  we may go to see on my days off. Now that we are firmly ensconced in building our largest ever year list, we still have a slight hope of reaching 300 species, any birds not yet seen are given priority, providing they are within reasonable reach of North Oxfordshire, our day trip to Cornwall recently for the Brown Booby will definitely be a one off. Two birds had been seen early last week that were attractive year ticks, a Grey Phalarope in Kent and a Spotted Crake in Somerset. We plumped for the Crake, slightly closer to home but mainly because we thought that it would offer our only chance of seeing one whereas there would hopefully be other, more local, chances to get the Phalarope when the storms hit in early October. Having said that we have usually seen Grey Phalaropes by now so I'm a little bit anxious that we may have missed our inland opportunity for this year. 

Anyway this is how our outward journey went. We left home at around 07:30 travelled about 5 miles and collectively thought, "what's the point in driving so far?", so pulled up in a lay-by and discussed other options. The decision was made to visit some local sites to see if we could find our own birds. First stop would be Boddington reservoir just north of Banbury where with a bit of luck you can still find Willow Tits, a bird that is on our year list after seeing a couple in Northumberland in February but one that I still need a good photo of. We stopped at Reg's cafe in Banbury for breakfast and while there noticed that the Grey Phalarope had been seen in Birchington, Kent again. We like trips to the seaside so changed our minds once more and hit the M40 and headed off to see the Phalarope. On joining the M25 and its usual crawling traffic we began to rue our decision. Then Mrs Caley said "you'll never guess what but the Spotted Crake has been showing this morning right in front of the hide at Greylake in Somerset"! I tapped Greylake back into the SatNav and the difference in estimated travelling times between the two target birds was less than twenty minutes but Kent was still closer. However I looked at the traffic in front of us and the warning of further queues along the motorway, thought "what the heck" and turned onto the M3 and set course for Somerset once again! Almost two hours later after crossing the country east to west on the A303 we arrived in the carpark at Greylake. That is how we do it and how we managed to turn a two hour trip into one of over four hours!

We had seen a Spotted Crake at Greylake before and quite by accident too. In October 2009 we had been on our way to Cornwall for a weeks holiday and had decided to visit the RSPB reserve just to check it out. As we walked into the reserve we passed a small freshly dug pond which had very sparse bank side vegetation (in contrast, these days the pond is lined with lush reed growth). A birder coming back the other way had said to us "it's still there". Problem was we had no idea what "it" was since in those days we weren't quite as well genned up as we are now! Then we had seen what he meant when a Spotted Crake almost ran between our legs as it crossed the path! At that time it was one of the most confiding birds that we'd ever seen but, of course, I didn't own a camera back then. 

So here we were again but this time we were armed with the knowledge that this Spotted Crake was showing in front of the lookout hide. We joined another six birders in the hide and I asked when and where the Crake had shown. Apparently we had just missed the bird by around fifteen minutes when it had walked across the mud between two stands of reeds but would most definitely still be in the left hand clump since it hadn't been seen to come out. But then another birder said that the Spotted Crake had "flown" backwards and forwards between the two reedbeds. I inquired if she had been sure that it was the Crake since other birders had said it had "walked" and she told me "yes, you could tell by the beak what it was". Okay, now I was slightly confused but at least the bird had to be in the reedbed on the left. My research into the bird had turned up a couple of photos, via Twitter, that showed the Crake out on mud on the right hand side of the right hand reedbed and nothing to indicate that it favoured other areas. The assembled were quite sure though that it was in the left hand reeds.

The reedbed, I first saw the Spotted Crake at the far bank to the right.
To cut a long, and very boring, story short, I spent the next three and a half hours scrutinising every part of that reedbed to no avail, the only excitement being provided by a Water Rail that flew first into the right hand reeds and then back again. The first pass was greeted by a "there it is" cry from the said lady and her partner but unfortunately for them I had captured the Water Rail during its flight on my camera so they had to back down and I was now fairly sure that they hadn't seen the Spotted Crake at all. 

Water Rail
It was nearly four o'clock and I did a general scan of the whole area once more. To my astonishment I saw the Spotted Crake right on the far side of the cut that formed the main scrape. "It's on the far bank!" I said aloud for Mrs Caley's and the others benefit and repeated in answer to the expected "where?", "there on the far bank". As I said it the second time the Crake took fight and headed towards the left hand reedbed and disappeared behind it. Luckily one chap had been quick enough to see it fly off but sadly Mrs Caley had missed it. Not surprisingly missing the bird after waiting for almost four hours completely dispirited my wife and despondency set in immediately. I felt awful that I had seen it and she hadn't, it means as much to me that she sees the bird as it does that I do. I hadn't had the time to grab a photo either so it was an unsatisfactory outcome to say the least.

Another half hour passed and despite constant willing from me the Spotted Crake did not reappear from the reedbed. I had a feeling that eventually the Crake would retrace its own outward journey that it made just before we arrived and it would be just a matter of waiting but Mrs Caley had other ideas, she was fed up and wanted to go home and I couldn't blame her. We left and contemplated on a difficult birding day when for the second time in a week a twitch for a Crake species just hadn't worked out. All I had to show for my efforts was the Water Rail and a Cetti's Warbler in addition to the five second view of the target bird.

Cetti's Warbler
I'm not personally blessed with many endearing qualities but what I do have, when I choose to engage them, is patience and determination and I wasn't ready to give up just yet but I had to try to convince Mrs Caley to give it another go. We did drive away from Greylake and I filled the car with diesel ready for the drive home. Then I got to work and explained to Mrs Caley that the Spotted Crake had been showing best in the early morning and late afternoon and that we should really go back and give it another try. After all what was the point in returning home empty handed until it was dark? And so it was that we went back to Greylake and made our way back to the hide.

On our way we met a couple of the birders that had been in the hide with us earlier and they said that just after we left the Spotted Crake had indeed returned to the other reedbed and showed reasonably well but had since disappeared again. Just typical really and the news made Mrs Caley feel even worse! The only other people in the hide now it was almost six o'clock in the evening were the couple who misidentified the Water Rail earlier but they were looking out in the other direction and not seemingly interested in finding the Spotted Crake. To their credit though they said that they had tried to catch up with us when the Crake reappeared after we left but we'd already driven off. 

We sat at the window nearest to the reeds on the right where the photos had been taken of the bird on the previous day and unbelievably within seconds the Spotted Crake appeared right at the edge of the reeds! All we had needed to do was turn up late in the afternoon and not at midday! Note made for the future. Now we had both seen the bird, the Spotted Crake became bird number #267 on the Old Caley year list.

Spotted Crake, Greylake Somerset, 25/09/2019
I related the fact that we were year listing to the other couple and proudly boasted that we'd now seen 267 this year. Their reply stunned me, "oh, we're on 307"! "What?, How? You must have been all over the country then and to Shetland and other offshore islands?" I blurted out. "No, not really just lucky to live in Scotland" was their answer. They then regaled us with tales of their own exploits including finding four Capercaillies in a tree together and finding the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Farlington in a blinding rain storm in a different area from where everybody else had. Some folk are just very lucky I guess.

I zoned the other couple out and left Mrs Caley to play the diplomat. Diplomacy is not one of my few qualities but I do possess a very unhealthy level of cynicism. I was far more interested in the Spotted Crake which was now slowly emerging from the cover of the reeds. This was the sixth that I've seen, the most recent of which was a well watched and very showy bird at Slimbridge in 2016. Spotted Crakes are birds of reedbeds and they are normally very skulking by nature but on passage in the autumn can venture out into the open as this one was finally doing.

I used all of my telepathic powers to urge the Spotted Crake out of the cover of the reeds and into open space. Maybe the bird had been reticent earlier on because of the noise and kerfuffle that a number of people make when camped in a small hide together. Now the only sounds were the clicking of my camera as the four of us watched the bird very boldly stride out onto the mud and begin feeding on the many flies attracted by the decaying plant matter.

Usually I'd be delighted to have the chance to take photos of a scarce bird from only five metres away and indeed I was, but of course with it now being after six the light was beginning to fail and, while I don't like to use that old Toggers excuse of "the light was bad", I had to ramp up the ISO on the camera to a high level in order to get a fast enough shutter speed leading to the inevitable trade off in image sharpness and over grainy final images. But I was more than pleased to get some frames after the time and effort we'd invested in seeing the Crake.

Today had been our thirty-second wedding anniversary too and the Spotted Crake joined an illustrious list of "Anniversary birds" such as Pallid Harrier, Red-necked Phalarope and, funnily enough, the Slimbridge Spotted Crake. Tough going at times but we made it the end, not the marriage that's always been sweet, but the days birding!

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