Friday 28 September 2018

Harrier harried Harrier. WWT Welney, 25th September 2018

It was wedding anniversary day in the Old Caley household, 31 years of married bliss! So what better to do than sneak a day off from the toil and plan a birding day out. There are lots of good birds around at this time of year so choosing a target wasn't easy but I settled for a tilt at a rare species of raptor that had been found at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk which isn't too far away from home. 

Getting to Welney was arduous though to say the least, the drive taking us almost 3 hours! It used to take just over half of that! We have some serious traffic issues in this country, and I realise that by being on the road that we are contributing to the problem, but it really does need a solution before the country's roads achieve gridlock. Surely all of the house building in rural areas is the main problem since the people moving out of the cities to live in the countryside are still having to travel back into the cities for work. The only "quiet" days on the roads now are at weekends when people are at home. Enough of my poor grasp of politics and on with the birding though.

We arrived, eventually, at Welney and were greeted by a fine Tree Sparrow singing from the visitor centre roof. We have very few Tree Sparrows left locally, I must try to find some in Oxfordshire again, so it's always good to see them on our travels.

Tree Sparrow
A breakfast and coffee had been well earned after the tortuous drive and we relaxed while watching a multitude of Swallows buzzing around outside. A bird that I've never really managed to get a decent shot off and there was no chance of that here since the full sun was straight at us. A major reason I'd selected Welney instead of another site near Royston that held another of the target bird was because I knew that the sun would be at our backs for the whole day since all of the hides at the reserve face to the west and it was a fine sunny day!

The Lyle Hide was favoured because it "juts" out a bit into the surrounding reeds and wet marsh, although this year the only water visible was contained in a few pools. Normally, by this time of year, the entire area would be under water now but the very dry summer has had a marked effect upon the Fens just as it has back home. We passed the Alder tree, where a few years ago we had stood for almost 5 hours waiting for a fine male Bluethroat to emerge and, when it did, was only seen by us since everyone else that day had given up and gone home. 

male "white-spotted" Bluethroat, WWT Welney, 19th April 2011
The hide was already fairly full with fellow birders who had obviously come to see the same star bird as us. All benches were taken so we took up a standing position at the northern corner and stared out excitedly through the windows. The pool just outside held Common Teal, Mallard and a few Black-headed Gulls but there was little else of interest. I was told that somebody else had reported a Jack Snipe earlier but there was no further sign of it. After 20 minutes of being (not) entertained by the "hide bore", who managed to talk above everybody else and relate every bit of info imaginable about cameras, lenses and their use in every possible situation without ever actually teaching me anything new or even remotely interesting, the shout came up "Harrier flying in from the right". I quickly got my binoculars onto the bird and sure enough it was the Pallid Harrier that we'd travelled to see! I do like easy twitches! I moved so that I could get a clear view and managed just 3 shots with the camera before the bird dropped down and appeared to land hidden in the reeds. The best of the images is shown below, in the other 2 the bird was obscured by a gate! A blurry record shot on a par with my only other photo of a Pallid Harrier that we saw in Sussex several years ago! 

record shot of the Pallid Harrier
At least the chap with the info and loudhailer voice now imparted some helpful news when he proclaimed, "that's exactly what the Harrier did yesterday" (you mean he's there everyday?), that is that it flew in from the right and landed in the reeds. The day before the Pallid Harrier, which is a juvenile female, had emerged from its resting spot just an hour or so later and was then seen frequently throughout the rest of the day so I was hopeful that the pattern would be repeated. Mrs Caley had also missed the bird so I was eager for it to come out again so that she would see it. The bird had been seen at 11:10 and in the next half hour not much happened save for a pair of Kestrels hunting in the area where the Pallid had landed. A warden came into the hide and explained that the cattle, that were in the enclosure in front of the hide, had to be moved to new pastures and he apologetically said that he hoped it wouldn't interfere with the birding since they have to use motorbikes to achieve the task. Most of us present rather wished that it would disturb a particular bird so that we'd get to see it again! The whole process of moving the cattle took less than 5 minutes and hardly a feather was fluttered. Back to the waiting!

The warden on his "Cowazaki"! (....I'll get my coat)
Around midday there was a flurry of activity when first a pair of Cranes flew in with their single offspring and landed out on the Fen. They were followed by a group of 6 Whooper Swans which had possibly just arrived from their breeding grounds to their winter staging area. They were followed by another group of 13 and then by another 5. By the time we left we had counted 78 in total although some had flown off again.

Crane family, juvenile on the left 

returning Whooper Swans
A female Marsh Harrier was next to appear. By now Mrs Caley had found a seat and I had relocated away to the other end of the hide and furthest away from the pool, mainly to put distance between me and the camera nerd, grumpy git that I am (my apologies to the chap, it's more about me than him, hides are not my bag etc). Naturally the Marsh Harrier, another bird that I'd never ever really got a good photo of, decided to hunt low over the margin of the pool, next to which I had been stood but now couldn't see much of at all! It did, however, reappear reasonably close to my side of the hide a little while later enabling me to get some better frames but still "not quite there". Other Marsh Harriers were patrolling the area but none of them ventured anywhere near the resting Pallid Harrier, if indeed the rarer bird was still there since it could have stole away by flying low along one of the many channels that intersect the reedbeds.

female Marsh Harrier
Whooper Swans continued flying in, honking incessantly to each other, maybe suggesting "we're back, we're back" and "when's dinner time and where's the potatoes?". They are extremely well looked after by the WWT. I checked in on my wife (some anniversary, eh babe?) and took some photos of the Swans as they flew into the pool and landed.

"We're back!"
A good size flock of Lapwing were being, or so it seemed, marshalled by a Common Buzzard. In reality I guess they were all just sharing the same airspace for a moment since neither appeared unduly concerned with the other.

Common Buzzard & Lapwing
The female Marsh Harrier made another close pass of the hide presenting me with another chance to add to my portfolio. The results suggest that these particular birds are hard to capture with the camera or maybe I'm just useless. Perhaps I should have listened harder to the chap at the other end of the hide instead of "switching off".

Another raptor passed reasonably close by the hide, this time a Kestrel and a multitude of Black-headed Gulls had appeared and were presumably catching flying insects that had taken to the air now the day had warmed up. Some of the Whooper Swans noisily departed to the west leaving just a few relaxing on the pool.


Whooper Swans heading off to the fields
Then at almost two o'clock it happened! A Marsh Harrier appeared in the general area where the Pallid had presumably settled earlier. It flew right over the exact spot where it had landed and thankfully the Pallid flew up, unsettled and harassed by its bigger cousin. Thank goodness for that Marsh Harrier! This time it was in full view for everybody and the sense of relief within the hide was palpable. The Pallid Harrier continued to be chased and bothered by the Marsh Harrier and strove to escape by gaining height. We were now getting great views, distant yes, but terrific nonetheless and sustained since the Pallid harrier was now soaring around trying to put distance between it and the Marsh Harrier. A couple of times the larger bird succeeded in getting close to the Pallid but it was quite easily outstripped  by the more agile flyer. The Pallid Harrier was on view for probably about 3 minutes before it drifted high and out of view. It did fly back a few minutes later though and proceeded to land in exactly the same spot where it had been before. I wondered whether there was a corpse in that spot that the Pallid Harrier was feasting on since it had not seemed interested in hunting at all.
Pallid & Marsh Harrier. I love that Marsh Harrier!

We had been rewarded by waiting patiently for almost 3 hours with a sighting of a beautiful bird of prey and much better views than we'd had on the Sussex downs previously. The juvenile Pallid is a stunning orangey colour underneath and sports a prominent white rump (in keeping with most female Harrier species). Equally striking are the whitish eye patches which look like a pair of headlights as can be seen in the photo below. This particular bird appeared to be moulting a couple of tail feathers which may account for its prolonged stay.

Those "headlight" eye patches.
Since the Pallid Harrier had "gone to ground" again there seemed little point in hanging around any longer particularly when thinking about the trip back so we headed back to the cafe for another coffee. I took some shots of one of the Swallows on the way back and actually got a couple of "keepers" for a change too!

I finished the day off by taking a few images of the Tree Sparrows that were visiting the feeders provided, along with their larger and more common House Sparrow cousins, which provided a nice bit of symmetry to the days proceedings.

Tree Sparrow

Monday 24 September 2018

Full of hope for a Grey Friday! 21st September 2018

See what I did there? Well tried to anyway....full of hope....phalarope....see? I'll get my coat.....again.....doh!

The previous few days had seen an almost nationwide invasion of Grey Phalaropes, even across the Midlands (except Oxfordshire of course). The recent stormy weather had blown lots of these elegant little wading birds, mainly juveniles, off their migration routes along the west coast and into inland reservoirs and lakes. Phalaropes are well known for being fearless, since where they've come from there are very few humans, and therefore readily approachable and thus give great photographic opportunities.

I had gone years without ever seeing a Grey Phalarope until one turned up at Farmoor a couple of years ago, that was quickly followed by two more at the same site and then by another at Grimsbury last year and even another at my local wetlands reserve in Bicester. After finishing work early I gathered Mrs Caley from home and headed to Boddington reservoir where a Grey Phalarope had been reported that morning. We arrived at the north east corner of the reservoir, where the bird was purported to be, and walked out into a near gale force headwind and tried to steady the bins in order to scrutinise the near shore. Apart from a Little Egret and some Black-headed Gulls that were in danger of being blown away there was nothing and I wondered how such a small bird as a Phalarope would even want to be in such a place in those conditions. Except of course that Phalaropes are generally breeding birds of the high arctic and spend a lot of their time at sea in the winter so they are quite happy in such brutal weather. The phone sprung into life and the incoming message informed me that the report of a Grey Phalarope at Boddington was erroneous! That would explain then why I couldn't find it! But no worries since one had also been called as being present in the north eastern corner of Daventry Country Park reservoir..... ahh I see what happened there. 

It is less than 10 miles between the two reservoirs so we were parked up and walking out along the dam end of Daventry reservoir less than 20 minutes later. It was every bit as breezy and the water was lapping wildly at the boulders that form the walls of the dam. The north eastern corner was right at the far end and we could see another couple scanning the area with a scope so I assumed that they'd be on the bird. Wrong assumption since they hadn't found it at all despite looking for over half an hour. I'd left my scope in the car but had made many scans of my own with the binoculars but hadn't located the bird either. Mrs Caley spotted it though, that's my girl, right in amongst the froth and foam at the shoreline. It was tricky to see as it hopped around from one piece of floating vegetation to another and often swam in the frothy water looking for food. For such a small creature, Phalaropes are roughly the size of a Sparrow but much more dainty, it seemed hardly troubled at all by the turbulent water and rode the waves expertly, it was quite at home. The other couple hadn't found it since they were looking too far away! The juvenile Grey Phalarope was only 30 feet away and I helped them by focussing their scope on the right place since it was the first of the species they'd ever seen.

Tricky to see in the frothy water

I left Mrs Caley chatting away to the other birders, safely ensconced on a seat and made for a slightly more sheltered spot in amongst the boulders where I could hopefully steady the camera and get some better shots. The Phalarope was working its way along the shoreline and would soon be just 20 feet or so away. However the wind was still blowing a hoolie, holding the camera still was very difficult and to make things worse I was looking almost directly into the afternoon sunshine which meant that the bird would be backlit. But at least the bird was reasonably close.

Since cracking full portrait shots were out of the question I concentrated on watching the waif as it meandered along the rocky bank. It was happy in or out of the water, in fact I reckon it actually enjoyed swimming and was frequently riding the crest of a wave (you must be able to see what I did there?!). It was the swimming action that I tried to capture and began watching for the waves and then shooting rapidly as they reached the Phalarope. It was never once beached by any of them but just swam confidently forward and bobbed up and down like a small motorised rubber duck.

After a few minutes the Phalarope, harrassed by an accompanying Black-headed Gull took first a short flight of a few feet and then a slightly longer one by which it ended up right in front of Mrs Caley's vantage point. Some dames get all the luck! Well she met me once, right? Alright, I never said it was all good luck did I?! This time the Grey Phalarope swam right out in cleaner water but was always within a few feet of the rocks and after another couple of minutes jumped out onto one of the rocks.

A quick preen and brush up (for the bird, not me) and then it flew back to its original place to resume feeding once more. I decided that we'd leave it to it and talked Mrs Caley into visiting Napton reservoir where 2 more juvenile Grey Phalaropes had been seen. Napton is only about 9 miles from Daventry so we would be there in less than 20 minutes too. We'd been to Napton reservoir before, last year, looking for some very elusive Bearded Tits, so I knew the layout. The shallow muddy part of the site, where the Phalaropes would be, is at the south eastern corner which meant that the afternoon sun would be at our backs which is always better for photography and would also be more sheltered from the wind. The car park is right next to the embankment so we were soon heading towards the place where the birds would be. There was only one other birder/togger present too so it would be a nice relaxing little session. I scanned the area from afar and sure enough found both birds easily but they both looked to be some way out from the bank. It was clear that the two birds were at different stages of moult with one being having many more grey feathers on the back than the other.

I asked the other chap present whether either of the Grey Phalaropes had been any closer and just as he replied "no, not really", one flew on to the mud about 30 feet away and began working its way even closer to us. Before it could get really close though it was scared off by a juvenile Grey Heron which landed by the reedbed. It wasn't long though before the other bird worked its way back towards us and allowed some better views although still not really close.

Every so often one of the birds would take flight disturbed by the heron or by one of the many coots that shared the muddy margins. I was lucky enough to capture some nice action shots of one of them.

We watched both birds at length work up and down the muddy edge to the reedbed. The water was almost dead flat calm in such a contrast to the conditions at Daventry and I felt that the Phalarope over there was having a rough old time compared to these two. This pair were absolutely lording it up! At one point both birds were in reasonably close proximity to our position, one swimming in deeper water and the other wading through the gloop. They never got very close to each other though which I found interesting preferring to remain at much more than arms length. If they did get too close to each other then angry sounding warning calls were uttered by both birds.

Despite the strong sunlight I failed to gain many decent shots of these birds. In my defence they are small and at some distance but I love watching them anyway. They are a real treat to see each autumn. After the birds had once more flown back to the furthest area of mud we left for home. As we passed the turn for Grimsbury reservoir in Banbury (another of our local BOS reserves) I jokingly suggested going in for a look to see if a Grey Phalarope had turned up there but had to agree with Mrs Caley that we'd already had a good day so drove straight past. Halfway down the motorway a message came through that a Grey Phalarope had indeed been found there! So we did have one in Oxon! There were also 3 at a reservoir near Stratford and another at Charlecote Park National Trust (couldn't go there since I am very anti the NT on account of their conflicting wildlife policies). That's 8 Grey Phalaropes within a 20 square mile block. A proper good Grey Friday, amazing!

"That's all folks"!