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!

Gloucestershire 26th January Part 2


We drove to nearby Frampton-on Severn where I knew a tawny owl had a roost site (having seen photos of it on social media). After some detective work and helped by Mike at the aforementioned Glosterbirder website I knew exactly which tree the owl was usually in. After parking the car it took 5 minutes to locate the tree and sure enough the tawny owl (female I think owing to the rufous brown colour) was sat in the opening to a hole snoozing away despite the attention of several jackdaws close by. The owl was unruffled and slept peacefully on as I manoeuvred for the best position in which to take photos from. There was an annoying twig obscuring the bird but I wasn't bothered since it is always nice to see owls. This tawny was my third species of owl in just over a week following on from the little and barn owls seen recently (Owling about at work! 17-21 January 2018). 

   After a bite to eat and a half of local bitter in the excellent and "proper pub", The Three Horseshoes, we headed off to spend a couple of hours at WWT Slimbridge which was as busy as always (Friday afternoons are not the best time to visit!) but we made the most of it. The hides were mostly full but we managed to find some room to look out onto the Rushy Pen and I instantly spotted the two little stints that I knew had been present for some time. Pretty good views of this diminutive wader too. 

little stint
   I also spotted a ruff amongst the lapwings and of course there were Bewick's swans too. Of the duck species, the pintails were the most striking and nice to see close up (unlike at Otmoor!).

male pintail

female pintail


   We moved off to view the Tack Piece and marvelled at the amount of birds there! There must have been several thousand golden plover (a favourite of Mrs Caley's), at least as many lapwing, over a hundred dunlin, lots of curlews, redshanks and many more ruff. A spotted redshank was stood asleep amongst the throng too. At intervals the whole mass of birds would take to the air but only once did we see a raptor and that was a buzzard which didn't appear to interested in chasing anything. There were also hundreds of wigeon (I couldn't find the reported Chiloe x Eurasian wigeon hybrid), lots of shelducks, several hundred tufted ducks, more pintails, over a thousand teal, a few shoveler and some pochards. Not forgetting the ubiquitous moorhen and coots.

golden plover

Bewick's swan



spotted redshank, redshank & ruff


   Best though were 6 white-fronted geese, 3 of which landed and bathed then preened right in front of our vantage point. A welcome addition to the year list (which as you know already, I don't keep). We also witnessed a fly past by a kingfisher, which whistled away excitedly as it passed (but as normal didn't stop).

white-fronted goose (& Bewick's swan)

   With an hour or so of daylight left we wandered towards the other side of the reserve stopping to take in some of the captive species. I particularly like drake smew so idled for a while taking some shots of a couple of males that were have a spruce up in the pond. This particular enclosure also has goldeneye, eider and scaup of various species (including lesser scaup which reminded me ruefully of the hybrid scaup at Farmoor) and is always a place I stop and admire. I know they don't count on any lists but it's well worth watching such familiar (and some unfamiliar) species up close (rather than down the barrel of a scope at 100 yards away!).

male smew

male lesser scaup
   A stop was also made at the wader enclosure. This pen of captive wading birds has avocets, redshanks, ruff and a pair of black-winged stilts. I took photos of the stilts, since the only images that I have are of distant ones from Lakenheath last summer, and I may rekindle my drawing hobby one day!

black-winged stilt

   The last half hour or so was spent at the South Lake where we had good views of an Oystercatcher and some common snipe. There were also a large number of gulls here getting ready to roost for the night. The black-headed gulls in particular cut handsome figures in the late afternoon sunshine.


black-headed gull

   The only slight regret was that I had forgotten all about a red-breasted goose (which is another species still absent from my life list that I don't keep) that was with the barnacle goose flock by the Zeiss hide. But opinion is divided as to whether its a truly wild bird anyway. There remains the problem of places like Slimbridge in where the line is drawn between genuine wild birds and stray or feral birds that attach themselves to wild populations.

   In conclusion we had a really enjoyable day, a long awaited addition to the life list and some other good birds seen too! A note on the photos; the extender remained on the camera all day since I decided that practice in it's use is needed!