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.

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