Friday, 18 September 2020

Lucky Lifer! But If Only I Had Realised Sooner! Slimbridge WWT, 15th August 2020

I find a rare bird and then…..Forget all about it!

We hadn't been to Slimbridge since February this year, for a large part of spring the WWT reserve was closed to visitors anyway owing to the Covid crisis, and we were keen to spend a few hours there despite the ongoing restrictions that were in place. During the week another of my favourite wading birds, a Wood Sandpiper, had been spotted there as well as other good birds including a couple of Cattle Egrets, and a Spotted Redshank. To visit Slimbridge at the moment you have to book online and reserve a place, whether paid up members or not. I only booked our places at seven o'clock on the Saturday morning and we left home an hour or so later for the seventy-five minute drive. What a moment of inspiration that proved to be!

We duly passed through the Covid check in procedure and made our way directly to the Hogarth Hide overlooking a section of the South Lake where I knew the Wood Sandpiper had been seen on the previous few days. We were delighted to see the grounds and pathways devoid of people and crowds and thought; this would be good, we're the only birders here! Of course we weren't and our bubble was burst when we neared the hide and found four other folks, including our friend Clive, waiting patiently to enter. The Hogarth Hide which usually accommodates around twenty birders was now limited to just four at any one time and there were already that many inside. The couple in line at numbers three and four decided quite quickly that they had waited long enough and left saying they'd come back later when less busy. If only they knew what would unfold during the day. We took their places in the queue and wiled away the time chatting to Clive and his partner about birds and photography. After fifteen minutes they got their chance when two birders left the hide. Apparently the Wood Sandpiper was still showing occasionally according to one of the leavers so at least we knew that we had something to wait on for. A trifle deviously perhaps, I stuck my head through the door to see what the situation inside was like and almost straight away another incumbent, hopefully I hadn't made him feel uncomfortable, left leaving a space. Considering that Mrs Caley and I are as one I decided that we'd both go in and take the place, so we were in, and only after about twenty-five minutes of waiting which seemed like a decent result.

Looking out of our window from the hide, the South Lake was on our left and contained the main Black-tailed Godwit flock, Ruff, Lapwing and lots of Gulls, while to our right was a narrow and shallow channel which is where I expected the Wood Sandpiper to be. Initially though, there were just a few Green Sandpipers feeding at the edge of the muddy scrape. As we talked about recent birding trips and highlights with Clive, the Wood Sandpiper walked into view right at the end of the channel. Even though it wasn't our first of the year, we had seen one on Otmoor back in the Lockdown period, it was still an exciting bird to see. This bird was a juvenile and a very bright and fresh individual to boot, contrasting with the much darker plumage of the Green Sandpipers. I took a few record shots of the bird and then studied it through the scope. That was when the real story of the day started.

Wood Sandpiper
Behind the Wood Sandpiper a Wagtail had emerged from behind the reeds. I gave the Wagtail a cursory look and thought to myself, "That looks a bit odd", and mused over what it could be. I knew it wasn't a juvenile Pied Wagtail because of the clean pale throat, so initially passed it over to Yellow Wagtail territory but still had doubts. In truth I didn't know what it was for sure. I took a couple of record shots of the bird and made a note to look it up when I got a chance later in the morning, maybe when we went for a coffee. My big mistake was concentrating on the Wood Sandpiper, which had reappeared again. I guess my attention was focussed solely on the Sandpiper because that was the bird that had filled my thoughts as I planned this day out and while I had waited to gain entry to the hide. It did however, show a failing on my part, because I didn't allow myself to register and concentrate on the other bird barring a quick non-appraisal. I heard Clive mutter something like, "We'll come back later when hopefully the Woody will be closer" and was vaguely aware of him and his partner leaving. He had obviously also not paid much, if any, attention to the Wagtail. Another couple joined us in the hide, they asked if the Wood Sandpiper was present, but it had once again disappeared behind the reeds. The Wagtail had also disappeared, and it never came back in the next hour or so that we remained in the hide.

The Wagtail
Now the learned and expert birders amongst you will have identified the Wagtail in my photo above and will be screaming its identity at their screens. Many will probably be shouting things like, "Amateur" and "Call yourself a birder" but in my meagre defence I had no previous experience whatsoever of the bird that would turn out later to be the latest addition to my life list. The worst thing I did was to file the bird away for later instead of checking it out there and then. Normally I write my blogs in sequential order of the day but for this one we'll leapfrog forward to the afternoon just as I'd arrived back at home, when I received a message from my mate Justin. He had seen a photo that I'd tweeted out of the Wood Sandpiper, which as I'll come to, showed really well later, and asked "Did you see the Citrine Wagtail as well?" What! I blurted out. A horrible sinking feeling erupted in my stomach, I had been to Slimbridge and missed a lifer. Cue howls of despair. Then, and only then, I remembered the Wagtail that I'd seen at 10:25 that morning. I had been swept through the day watching and taking photos of the Wood Sandpiper and other birds, and had completely forgotten about the "funny" Wagtail that I'd seen. I quickly checked Twitter and saw a beautiful photo of the juvenile Citrine Wagtail, when it reappeared it had been much closer to the hide, taken by a birder who obviously possessed far greater ID skills than me. With trembling hands I uploaded my photos to my laptop and anxiously, with fingers crossed, looked at my photos. The few images that I had taken, had to be of the same bird surely, how had I not realised? To be sure I sent one of my photos to Justin and he agreed it was the Citrine Wagtail but suggested, to be really sure, to send it on to Mike King, the Glosterbirder, who also corroborated the sighting.

Citrine Wagtail, courtesy of Paul Masters
I was asked, as the "finder" of the Citrine Wagtail, which I believe was the first ever seen in Gloucestershire, to submit details of the sighting to the county recorder which I duly did that evening but, because I am honest, I stated that I couldn't really claim it as mine even if I was the first to see it,  since crucially I hadn't confirmed the birds true identity. The fact remained though that Mrs Caley and myself were the first people to notice the Wagtail, the chap that identified it later that morning saw it well over an hour after us. It felt like a hollow victory though and where I should have felt incredibly elated, instead I felt more than a bit deflated. When will I ever get good at this game? Of course, while watching birds is easy, identifying them isn't that straightforward at times since so many look similar to each other. A really good birder will have lots of experience of seeing rare birds either in the UK at places like Shetland and Scilly or gained from birding holidays abroad. We have very little of that experience and I am blatantly still short on birding skills. But I do learn and I am now scrutinising every Wagtail that I see and I now know how to separate a juvenile Citrine Wagtail from the rest!

Citrine Wagtail & Wood Sandpiper (proof that I had noticed the Wagtail since that is in better focus!)

Stuff that I do know!

So back to the events of the day. After the Wood Sandpiper and Citrine Wagtail had disappeared we were entertained by around seven Green Sandpipers. At first they fed at the end of the channel where we'd seen the other two birds and were too distant for good views and photos but after a while a couple of them ventured along the muddy edge and came towards us in the hide. Every time a different bird emerged from around the hidden corner the end of the channel the other birders would ask, "Is that the Wood Sandpiper?". Obviously that bird had captivated a lot of folks interest. But for half an hour or so it was just Green Sandpipers, and a Ruff, that showed and there was no sign of the Wood Sandpiper at all. I waited until one of the Green Sandpipers made it almost to the pool in front of the hide before taking photos.

Green Sandpiper
A Ruff had appeared at the end of the channel and followed the path trod by the Green Sandpipers, arriving right in front of the hide a few minutes later. After advising the other couple that it still wasn't the Wood Sandpiper, if only the Citrine Wagtail had appeared then I may have looked at that a bit more carefully if asked for its identity, I again waited until the Ruff was in decent range before firing the camera. I have learned these days that it isn't worth wasting memory card space on familiar birds on distant views, unless I need a record shot for this blog, and to wait for better photographic opportunities.

After almost half an hour after we'd first seen it, the Wood Sandpiper reappeared and our hide companions finally had their wishes fulfilled, it was after all, a lifer for them. I reminisced on times when reasonably common migrant birds were life ticks for me too, not realising at that stage that I'd already scored my own life tick just half an hour before! I took another couple of record shots of the Wood Sandpiper just in case the distant view was as good as I got.

Wood Sandpiper
We were to be extremely fortunate though. The other birders having secured their first ever Wood Sandpiper, left for a celebratory coffee and surprisingly nobody took their places in the hides. I was so intrigued I went for a look outside and there was indeed nobody waiting to come in so, very unexpectedly, we now had the entire hide to ourselves. I rejoined Mrs Caley at the window but the Wood Sandpiper had once again gone out of view. Shortly afterwards though I saw it fly on to the opposite bank of the channel, the first bird that had done that since we arrived. It was now at about half the distance away and was walking towards us, whilst feeding, and getting closer all the time. 

Now my camera arm took over and over the next fifteen minutes I rattled off nearly two hundred frames as the bird eventually reached the pool by the hide and fed alongside the Ruff and a couple of Green Sandpipers. Maybe the birds just needed the quietness of the now silent hide to gain the confidence to be more daring. I stopped taking photos and watched the Wood Sandpiper, which was providing my best ever views of the species, even eclipsing those of a close up and sleepy bird that we saw at Frampton Marsh after the Birdfair a couple of years ago.

Wood Sandpipers are small but longish-legged waders that elegantly pick their way through shallow water and muddy margins. They are quite brightly coloured birds for the family group with a prominent supercilium and spotting to the upper parts. The legs are yellowish and it sports a finely barred tail. Wood Sandpipers are slightly smaller than a Green Sandpiper, and are more rakish than that bird, but a trifle bigger than a Common Sandpiper, owing to its longer legs and more upright gait. It's a size down from a Redshank but one up from the smaller waders such as Dunlin. As I willed the Wood Sandpiper on it just crept closer and closer so that in the end I was gaining full frame images. 

Our fun was finally brought to an abrupt halt when we were joined in the hide by a young couple with two very young children. Children are obviously exempt from the four in a hide rule it would seem. To their credit it wasn't them making a racket but more their parents who loudly kept them in check. The birds were aware in an instant at the increased noise, looking alarmed, and then as soon as one of the newcomers reached one of the hide windows, the Wood Sandpiper and its mates all flew off towards the main lake. The inevitable question followed, "What's about?", "Nothing much really" was my reply.

We left and went for our coffee and after having queued for nearly fifteen minutes all thoughts of the Wagtail were well and truly removed from my mind. I checked through the Wood Sandpiper photos and tweeted one out but, because the best shots came later, I never scrolled back far enough to get a memory trigger of the Wagtail. The coffee was good, even if it was taken next to the adventure playground which was absolutely rammed with noisy youngsters and even noisier parents. It seemed to me that out of hundreds of visitors to Slimbridge that day, only a very small proportion were birdwatchers, proving that the WWT's success doesn't actually depend on the bird loving public but more with engaging and entertaining Millennials and their offspring.

On our way to the coffee stop I had stopped to watch a Moorhen lovingly tend to a chick, feeding it small morsels of food. All chicks of the Rail and Crake family have faces that only a mother could love. Most are shaggily coated and a few have sparse head feathering. They all have oversize feet and long legs, necessary of course for adaptation in their watery homes. Moorhens are everywhere at Slimbridge, seemingly in every stream and even helping the Wood Pigeons and Mallards hoover up spilt seed dropped by the many visitors to the "zoo" side of the site.

After the coffee we spent a bit of time in the Zeiss Hide which looks out over a shallow scrape towards the River Severn beyond. Unfortunately the scrape is a long way out and views of everything tends to be distant. I had heard that there were a couple of Garganey out there somewhere but I couldn't find them despite much scoping of the likely areas. Amongst the masses of Redshanks I found a family of five Avocets and a couple of Greenshanks. Ducks included Gadwall, Shelduck and Shoveler but were mainly Teal. On the grassy area there were a flock of Barnacle Goose and the Bar-headed Goose that we'd seen back in February was still with them. The highlight though was provided by a pair of Common Cranes that flew past distantly.

Common Cranes
Just as we elected to leave the hide, one of the Garganey swam out from the rushes at the side of the scrape so that was added to the day list which by Slimbridge standards was, well, slim so far really. We headed back to the South Lake but this time to the Discovery Hide since we knew that the Hogarth Hide would be busy still and besides we'd already nailed the Wood Sandpiper. To our surprise the Discovery Hide was empty except for one rather obnoxious chap who spent most of his time complaining about just about everything because he couldn't quite get the photos that he wanted. I sometimes wonder why some folk bother taking photos of birds since they hardly ever appear to be satisfied and complain constantly. I'll admit that there are times when I'm dissatisfied with my efforts but with me using less expensive kit I am also more easily pleased. At one point as a pair of juvenile Little Ringed Plovers bathed in front of the hide, I heard him say, "Get out of the way you Moorhen motherf****r". All for the love of birds? I think not. From where we'd sat there was no such interference from other birds, there wouldn't be anyway since we love them all, and we watched the two Plovers enjoy their baths.

Little Ringed Plovers
Lots of Black-tailed Godwits use the South Lake for feeding and also for resting. I studied a fraction of them and noticed a male Ruff with remnants of its breeding finery. Ruff are fascinating birds, the males join up in a communal lek in the summer when they compete for the attention of the females. The males sport long neck feathers, the ruff, and equally impressive plumes on their heads. The colour of the breeding feathers varies with each bird, some wear black, others shades of brown and orange and, in the case of this particular Ruff, white. Ruff are among the most variable of all birds, adult males looking very little like the juvenile seen earlier in the day.

Ruff & Black-tailed Godwits
A few of the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the slightly deeper water right in front of the hide, too deep for our friend I imagine since it hid most of the Godwits legs, and they gave outstanding views and photographic opportunities. Slimbridge is an excellent place to see wading birds close up and to photograph, hence its popularity. Just seems a shame that some folk can't or won't enjoy the place. 

Black-tailed Godwit
I could see that Mrs Caley was becoming annoyed at the irksome Togger so after taking a few more images of the now preening Little Ringed Plovers, we left. On our way out I heard a grumble behind me, "Didn't think you'd ever leave, I can get to the windows now". Well, excuse me! Offensive behaviour appears to be a thing these days and not just amongst the young. Luckily I am calmer in my old age so we continued on our way through the door.

We took a look out from the Rushy Hide on our way to the gate but the expected glut of birds weren't there. The same was true of the outlook from the other hides nearby, where vegetation had grown to an extent that there was no open leads of water in front of the hides. With staff furloughed during Lockdown I guess that non-essential tasks like grass trimming had been understandably shelved for the summer. I think we'll all be glad when normality resumes in our lives, if it ever can. At least the birds continue their own lives unaffected by the new problems in the Human world.

Misty morning, Muswell Hill, so it's back to Farmoor again!

Sunday morning was spent ambling around Farmoor in the warm sunshine. We had initially gone up to our local migration "hotspot" at Muswell Hill but at the top it was thick fog! Visibility was down to just a few metres and we couldn't even see the sheep bleating away in the field by the road. After a bird free ten minutes we thought it would be better to try Farmoor instead. Unfortunately the foggy weather on Muswell Hill translated into the dreaded windless and still conditions at Farmoor, the worst state for attracting birds to the reservoir. It was almost certain that there'd be nothing much of note to see.

The Grey Heron was still stood sentinel at the marina. There is a glut of small fry around the reservoir at the moment and many birds are taking advantage of the bounty. The Heron must have fed already though and was digesting its meal. Resting in warm morning sunshine after a fine breakfast is a pleasure shared by many creatures including me!

Grey Heron
Coots congregate at this time of the year and can be anywhere around the reservoirs depending on the wind direction. They feed on weed and the wind moves the water which moves the weed around. On this still day they were mostly stood on the embankment of F2 and I estimated there were around two hundred and fifty altogether. Counts of up to five hundred have been recorded recently.

A few of the hundreds of Coots
A Dunlin sped past but too quickly for me to react. I was actually surprised to see it considering the conditions but less surprised that we didn't find it anywhere along the causeway, it must have flown straight through. A late Common Tern flew over the causeway just ahead.

Common Tern
Warm weather creates a bloom in harmful algae at the reservoirs which then depletes the oxygen levels in the water. Many fish then die, my garden pond suffers similar problems when it's hot, and some of the birds can be affected too, particularly Gulls that feed on Trout carcasses. A stricken Yellow-legged Gull sadly lay in the edge of F1, clearly sickened by something and appearing to be in the death throes. It was a shame to see such a fabulous bird in that state but I feared it was too far gone to be saved. I intended to tell the ranger about it when I returned to the marina later but the Gull had gone when we walked back up the causeway later. Hopefully it had managed to revive although I very much doubted that had happened.

stricken Yellow-legged Gull
With not much happening I took a few obligatory shots of a passing Cormorant. On days like this the Cormorants do at least provide interest, whether watching them hunt fish or just idle languidly on the rafts.

It was becoming busy once again around the reservoirs with lots of folk out for a Sunday stroll and that signalled time for us to head home. The last bird that I took notice of was a Carrion Crow that appeared to be hunting Crane Flies or the like on the grassy banks by the waterworks complex, providing a different setting to the usual concrete walls and embankments.

Carrion Crow