Saturday 28 November 2020

A Phalarope Kind of Day, Pennington Marshes, Sunday 11th October 2020

While we toiled away in Southwold the previous day looking for the elusive Radde's warbler, I made regular checks, as I always do, of the bird news services. A report of a rare wading bird from North America, seen on the South coast, made me rather rue my decision to head out East even though the Radde's Warbler was a life tick and I had seen the species of wader in question before. Photos of the bird began filtering onto social media and revealed that people were getting point blank views of the bird. We would just have to get up early on the Sunday morning and go to see it for ourselves.

We had seen a Wilson's Phalarope once before, a breeding plumaged male that had incredibly pitched up at a recently excavated lagoon at Hillesden near Buckingham, and at just ten miles from our home is one of the rarest birds that we've seen locally. Wilson's Phalaropes breed in North-west America and Canada so that individual on the 27th and 28th May in 2006 was way off course. Two weeks ago a Wilson's Phalarope had been found at the WWT reserve of Martin Mere in Lancashire and we had made plans to go and see that but, after staying for a few days, it predictably disappeared just before the weekend. The bird then found at Pennington Marshes in Hampshire a week later was probably the same bird relocating southwards.

An early start was required. I had never visited Pennington Marshes before but research had shown that the parking area closest to the Fishtail Lagoon, where the Wilson's Phalarope was residing, was very small and I wanted to be sure of grabbing a space. My decision to get there as soon as we could, proved worthwhile as I just about managed to wedge my car into the last tiny space. At seven-thirty the narrow access lane and carpark were already busy, we were definitely not the only folk wanting to see the Phalarope. 

We made our way across a grassy field towards the sea wall and could see a lot of other birders in the distance. There was an added bonus to twitching the Wilson's Phalarope too, in the form of two Grey Phalaropes that were also on site and we came to them first. The Grey Phalaropes were feeding in a cutting that ran alongside the lagoon. As per usual they were incredibly obliging and were giving superb close views as they dynamically worked their way up and down the stream. This morning was beautiful too, warm sunshine bathed us in bright clear light, even I should be capable of taking some decent photos in such conditions, mmm maybe not! Double checking that my camera had a battery installed, after my cock-up of the previous morning, I took a few initial record shots and then settled down to take a few more.

Grey Phalaropes

The Grey Phalaropes weren't gaining much attention since most birders and toggers were stationed further along the sea wall where the Wilson's Phalarope must be. I had a quick look at the watchers, some were stood up on the embankment overlooking the lagoon, others were stood on a track right next to the reedy edge of the water. None were watching anything but instead were chatting amongst themselves and comparing back of the camera photos. I deduced therefore that the Wilson's Phalarope was currently off view, it was probably hidden in the thickly vegetated strip next to the track, so played it cool and spent another ten minutes to watch and photograph the two clockwork toy-like Grey Phalaropes.

Grey Phalaropes as they are called, are actually correctly named as Red Phalaropes because when in breeding plumage they are decked in brick-red colours. I've never seen a breeding plumaged Red Phalarope, birds in such condition are rare in the UK, and so know them as Grey Phalaropes. We've seen many before, including one at our local Bicester Wetland Reserve a couple of years ago, but never tire of watching them. Last year when compiling our "big year list" we had to travel down to Stanpit Marsh in Dorset to get our Grey Phalarope fix since none turned up locally at all (read here). The two that we watched now ratcheted our year list for 2020 up to 224, last year the Stanpit Marsh bird made it 268, a testimony to the difficulties imposed by the lockdown travelling restrictions of earlier and our lack of any birding holidays this year. At least with yesterdays birds in Suffolk and these Phalaropes today, we were still adding birds in spite of missing out on our fortnight in Cornwall.

We joined the throng alongside the Fishtail Lagoon, presumably so named because of its shape, waiting for the reappearance of the Wilson's Phalarope. A chap told me that it was indeed concealed within the dense reeds but had, amazingly, been showing right at the edge of the water and views were from just a few feet. All Phalarope species seem to be unwary and not at all frightened by people, because they breed in the Arctic I suppose they've never encountered any humans before so haven't learned to mistrust us. They may have already learned though that the Sparrowhawk that bombed past spelt danger and perhaps that was why it had decided to take cover for a while.


Ten minutes later a birder stood a short way to our left indicated that the Wilson's Phalarope had emerged and was feeding in the relatively open channels again. This started a mini-stampede of over zealous birders and toggers all desperate to get their photos. Social distancing, whether agreed with or not, was forgotten about in the haste and quest to take the closest and best vantage points. Mrs Caley very wisely remained away from the gaggle and watched the bird through her bins. I naturally wanted my photos too but thought it better to walk past the unruly rabble and wait further along the lagoon for the Phalarope to reach me. I did take a few initial images as I passed though, and the bird was so close they could hardly be deemed record shots!

Wilson's Phalarope

I had selected a more open tract of water to wait by and sure enough the Wilson's Phalarope duly meandered into it. Now I had prime position and, trying my best to ignore the others that were gathering around me, I rattled off frame after frame. Unfortunately as my results would prove later, despite realising that the Phalarope's very bright white and grey plumage would blow out the exposure, I failed to reduce the camera's exposure by enough stops so too many of my photos were sub-standard. Eventually, hopefully, I'll get my act together and I recalled that memorable quote by the great guitarist BB King who when asked 'why did he practice so much?', replied "because one day I'll get it right". We'll see.

The Wilson's Phalarope was feeding voraciously, nimbly picking small insects, of which there seemed to be many, from the weedy stems. To that aim the bird would stretch forward and secure its food with the very tip of its long bill before deftly dispatching the victim. I moved again, along the bank a bit more to the next open spot of water since the Phalarope was slowly drifting that way.

For a few brief moments I had the Wilson's Phalarope all to myself as it swam out into the open area in front of me. Most of the other birders/toggers were too busy looking at the incredible shots that they'd already taken. I took advantage of the temporary lull in activity by kneeling down and thus getting closer to the water surface. I was treated to the most extraordinary close views of the swimming bird. It was bliss, until somebody, part of the new scrum that had formed behind me, trod on my foot. That was enough for me, I just didn't want to be part of the almost hysterical behaviour taking place amongst some of the folk who had just arrived. As I walked away I felt sorry for the bird and also a little bit guilty that I had been part of the harassment that it was having to endure, even though I was sure to always give the Phalarope space and let the bird come to me. To be fair the bird didn't appear to be bothered by the attention that it was getting but the poor behaviour of a few was irritating and I found it embarrassing.

I was further irritated when I reviewed my photos at home later in the day and realised my error in not adjusting the exposure enough. I had captured some images of the Phalarope snaring insects and they would have been brilliant, apart from the fact that they were completely ruined by over exposure. The latest blunder in a long series of photography mishaps recently.

I had spent less than twenty minutes in the company of the Wilson's Phalarope. I was glad though to get away from the crowds and take respite. Twitching is becoming more frenetic with most folk present wanting to gain photos and not, it seems, always caring for the subject or for anyone else that is there. It's a really big problem when the target bird is giving close up views. That may be an over statement of the real situation but that's how it appears to me. Now that Mrs Caley and I were on our own we took time to look at some of the other birds that were on the reserve. We found a Grey Plover, on the salt marsh, new for the year and number 226 on that list. A female Goosander was in the channel just offshore. The Lagoon had Pintail, Shoveler and Teal.

Grey Plover


Pintail & Wigeon

We were back with one of the Grey Phalarope's again and I couldn't resist taking more images. We sat at the end of the channel and waited for the bird to swim towards us. This time there was no madness taking place around me and I happily "filled my boots".

When the Grey Phalarope swam away back down the channel we moved as if to leave but then I just had to stop and take even more photos. The Wilson's Phalarope was definitely the star bird of the day but for my money the Grey Phalaropes are nicer and I could happily have stayed all day with them. They are such captivating and attractive little birds and their hyperactive manner make them most endearing and enjoyable to watch.

A smart juvenile Oystercatcher had been probing for food on the bank between the channel and the lagoon all morning so I thought it would be rude not to gain a photo or two. We consider Oystercatchers to be plain black and white birds but when the sun shines, that body plumage shines a radiant set of browns and glossy purples. Plus there is that big red bill, albeit short and a bit dull on this young bird.


Of course while watching the Oystercatcher it was impossible not to be distracted by the Grey Phalarope once more. The persistent tugging on my sleeve was my wife's final resort, and demand, to get me to leave!

We walked back the long way around the field which I know by my research holds Dartford Warblers in the scattered gorse bushes. We didn't see any on this occasion but did spot a number of Chiffchaffs at the reedy edge of the sea wall and a small group of Bearded Tits fluttered past. Cetti's warblers exploded into song in many places  We will certainly have to visit this exciting reserve again, probably in the spring when it should be alive with recently returned migrant breeders as well as those special resident species.


The worst part of the day was trying to extricate ourselves and our car from the carpark and the narrow lane. Birders, as well as locals out to walk the dog or just exercising, were arriving all the time and parking had become problematic. I had to back up into passing places as much as I could drive forwards to allow other drivers to pass and the whole access road was getting close to gridlock because of ill judged parking on bends and in some of the passing spots. I dreaded the mess that must have been building up at the actual carpark itself where there were no spaces to either park or turn around in. The Wilson's Phalarope had certainly aroused a lot of interest. When I finally emerged back into the village, I was a relieved man.

Our weekend birding had been a terrific one, with a confirmed lifer in the Southwold Radde's Warbler, just our second record of the fabulous Wilson's Phalarope plus fantastic views of other wading birds such as Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Grey phalarope. Definitely well worth leaving home for.

Monday 23 November 2020

No Prize Winning Radde's Photo But Some Terrific Support Acts Ease The Pain! 5-10th October 2020

A bird that has long been on my radar is the Radde's Warbler, a scarce but regular migrant encountered in the autumn around the coastal regions of the UK but, owing to its skulking habits, it's a difficult bird to observe. I've never even had the opportunity to twitch one before since none have been on offer whilst I've been on holidays to Suffolk or Cornwall before. The Radde's Warbler is a Chiffchaff sized bird with similar plain plumage. It is very similar to the Dusky warbler, another rare visitor to the UK. Both Radde's and Dusky Warblers are usually discovered courtesy of expert birders hearing the loud 'chacking' call of both species. Once seen then they are reasonably distinctive from other Warblers in having very plain brown plumage tones combined with a distinct buff coloured supercilium and pale brown legs. They are nervous birds and flick their wings and tails continually. They also shun the limelight and are rarely encountered away from dense cover.

On Sunday the 4th October a Radde's Warbler had actually been found inland alongside a river not far from Peterborough. Such a finding was a chance too good to pass up and Peakirk is only a mere hour and forty minutes drive from home so after finishing work early on Monday I collected Mrs Caley and headed out there, arriving on site a little after one o'clock. The Radde's had been seen a few times in the morning so we knew it was still there. There were around twenty or so other twitchers present including our good friend Alan, the excellent warden of our local Bicester Wetlands Reserve, who had actually been to Southwold on the Suffolk coast earlier that morning looking for another Radde's Warbler but with no success had then diverted to Peakirk on the way home to try for the bird there. Initial news from the other birders wasn't encouraging, the Radde's had not been seen for at least three hours and then it had been seen to fly away from the riverside vegetation, crossing over the embankment road and disappearing into a thick hedge. It was that hedge that held everyone's attention.

For the next two hours we watched for any movement in the hedge with very little activity from any birds bar a few Great and Blue Tits. I saw a Chiffchaff at the top of a small tree which caused a momentary flutter of excitement but other than that this seemed to be a twitch too far. Then a chap noticed some movement low down in the hedge. We all watched that part of the hedge intently for a few minutes and then interest waned again. Most people wandered off but I and one other chap remained focussed on the bramble. Then we had our moment of luck, a small brown bird flitted from one low twig to another and then a few seconds later shifted along a branch at the front of the hedge and was gone. It all looked good for the Radde's but our view of it had been for just a couple of seconds. Obviously Radde's Warbler would be a lifer for me but Mrs Caley had missed it and I wasn't satisfied that I could tick it based on the brief and poor view that I had. We drove home completely frustrated.

Radde's Warbler (courtesy of Richard Willison)

I don't lack patience or willingness so with a fine weather forecast for Wednesday morning, and knowing that the Radde's warbler had still been present on Tuesday, I encouraged Mrs Caley to accompany me on another tilt at the bird. There were fewer birders there at first light and focus was now back on the bank side reeds and brambles where the bird had been seen the day before. I saw a nice photo on Twitter taken by Will Bowell of the bird so my appetite was renewed afresh. 

The other twitchers were lined up, evenly spaced out as todays standards demand, so if the Radde's appeared then it should be seen by somebody, particularly in view of the extremely good light of the early morning. A small brownish bird appeared in a small indent in the weeds next to the water, but looked far too rufous coloured. I fired off a few shots in any case, just in case, but as I had initially thought the bird was a Wren so the burst of excitement dissipated in an instant. It was another half hour before another bird appeared, remarkably almost on the same perch too but again it just didn't look right and it turned out to be a Cetti's Warbler, nice to see but not what we were hoping for. Two hours later with nothing more than common species to entertain us, we left still lacking that clinching view of a Radde's Warbler. Needless to say the bird was seen again later that afternoon, and well at that.

Cetti's warbler

Fortunately there was a year tick on offer, and, by courtesy of a small diversion, on our way home too. Borough Hill on the outskirts of Daventry is a place that I'd been intending to visit for some time since it's a good spot to watch Short-eared Owls in the winter. On the top of the hill sits a complex of buildings that houses a section of the BBC, and a huge tall transmitter aerial commands the very top. A first winter Black Redstart had first been found frequenting the area around ten days before but had seemingly disappeared. Then as we waited in vain for the Radde's Warbler to appear a message had come through that the Black Redstart had been seen again on the eastern perimeter fence.

We parked up at the very convenient parking area which is only a few metres from the summit and walked up hill. It was, as expected, quite windy at the top but on a clear day such as this, the views were commanding. We found our way around to the eastern flank and gazed at the tall metal fence and predictably saw no birds. A chap carrying a camera attached to a heavyweight lens and tripod walked up and I inquired whether he'd seen the Black Redstart. His reply, largely indecipherable owing to a very broad Brummie accent and the wind snatching his words from his mouth and dumping them somewhere else in Northamptonshire, baffled me somewhat since instead of news of the Black Redstart I learned the whereabouts of several Stonechats,  which were very easy to photograph apparently. I pushed him again for details of the Black Redstart and was told, 'oh that, it was sat in that bush right there earlier on but I think the Stonechats are better'. Each to their own I guess, after all juvenile Black Redstarts are quite dull to look at aren't they? Well, no they're not actually.

We spotted some of the Stonechats but didn't bother too much with them. My attention was focussed entirely on the compound and the buildings within. Knowing a bit about the habits of Black Redstarts I studied the roof areas and likely perches that the bird would use to launch itself from in pursuit of its insect prey. A couple of minutes later I saw it stood at the edge of the closest flat roof. I love birds that "save the day".

first winter Black Redstart

We sidled up closer to the fence and sat on one of the old concrete plinths that litter the hill. The Black Redstart was very active and would fly out from various perches but always returned to the same roof and a light fixed to the building below it. It was quite happy until a Pied Wagtail arrived and bullied it off the roof. 

We went for a wander around the perimeter and noticed the Black Redstart perched on the fence again but some way off. A small group of Meadow Pipits flew up the hill and settled for a while. The Stonechats were entertaining another photographer, who again appeared to be ignoring the scarcer bird. I never took a single photo of any of the Stonechats, perhaps I was missing something. On the northern flank of the hill is a vast swathe of rough grassland, presumably the area where the Short-eared Owls hunt when present later in the year. The grassland is interspersed with many tangles of brambles and it seemed as if every patch had a Stonechat or two standing sentinel. The whole area looked ripe for a Wryneck although I couldn't recall any having been reported from here. Daventry Country Park, where we saw our first ever Red-rumped Swallow many years ago and more recently a Grey Phalarope, lies a few miles to the north but is hidden by surrounding woodland. It appears that the Daventry area has much to offer the birdwatcher.

We returned the way we had come, already satisfied that we had added our 221st species to the year list, a decent effort considering we'd missed out on holidays so far this year. We were due to head to Cornwall in a few days time and would have been hopeful of adding a few more species when down there but sadly had to cancel the trip because of personal reasons. As we neared the concrete block where we had watched the Black Redstart from earlier, we were disappointed to see that the seat was occupied. Not too upset though since it was the Black Redstart that was stood on it! We'd have to stay standing this time as we were treated to cracking views of the bird. I realised that maybe earlier on we had inadvertently taken its favourite spot.

Fully happy with our views we made our way down the hill again, some very dark and foreboding clouds were gathering and heading our way. On the way I stopped momentarily to watch the antics of a couple of Carrion Crows that were stripping acorns from an oak tree and then flying out onto the grassy slopes and caching them fo later in the winter when food is short. Corvids are very smart. The rain began to fall as we left.

Carrion Crow

Far from satisfied with our split second view of the Radde's Warbler, probably, on Monday, I decided that we needed to try and see another. So on Saturday morning we headed to Southwold ourselves since the Radde's Warbler there had been seen virtually every day and some really good images of it had surfaced online. I hadn't yet added the bird to my life list, or by extension the year list, because I couldn't be a hundred per cent sure that we had seen the one at Peakirk, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to claim identification if I'd seen it on my own. 

The Radde's Warbler had been first sighted on the previous Saturday, the same day as another scarce bird and potential life tick, a Rustic Bunting, had been found nearby. Although tempted by the Bunting we had decided not to travel owing to the horrible heavy rain affected day which would inevitably lead to treacherous driving conditions. After regretting not taking the plunge that day we had headed out to Southwold on the Sunday morning, which was just as wet, but had turned back for home after just a few miles since the roads were almost impassable with major flooding. Seeing a very unhappy driver wading away from her car after she'd slid into a rain filled ditch after hitting a deep puddle, proved to be the turning point. There would be another Rustic Bunting one day in the future and we'd like to be alive to see it. This Saturday was gloomy once more but it was only a fine drizzle that we drove through and the roads were far safer.

We pulled into the harbour carpark just after nine o'clock and the Radde's had already been reported so we were more than hopeful that we'd get a confirmed tick this time. A short walk through the nearby campsite brought us to a muddy track which was gingerly negotiated in order to join another half dozen birders who were stood next to a small fenced off pond. I spoke to a birder at our end of the line and she told us that the Radde's Warbler had been showing really well in a small patch of brambles and that it was still in there. The bramble patch was only a few feet away and I was concerned that everybody was stood too close to it. But we were the newcomers so we  stood, slightly further away, and studied the tangle of branches and rank grasses along with the others. 

Within seconds we had our turn of good luck when the Radde's Warbler emerged at the far side of the bramble and then flew the short distance to the fence that surrounded the pond. In that moment I saw the pronounced supercilium, plain brownish tones to the plumage and crucially, for separation from the very similar Dusky warbler, the peachy coloured vent area. The bird perched on a reed stem just inside the fence and flicked its tail, I aimed the camera ready for my moment of glory and then, nothing happened, my camera was dead! In an instant my absolute elation turned to abject despair when I realised that the day before I had removed the battery from the camera to recharge it and had neglected to replace it, and the spares were sat in my pocket. By the time I had put one into the camera the bird had gone. Ah bugger, as unlucky Alf would say. I was truly gutted. Mrs Caley asked if I had got a photo, sadly not, I replied. Only now have I recovered enough from the agony to reveal the real reason why I failed to get any images. For the next five hours that we spent looking for the Radde's, it never showed as well again although we did get a couple more brief glimpses. At least I could now count it as a lifer though and our year list notched up to 222.

Radde's Warbler, Southwold (courtesy of Jonathan Farooqi)

After giving up on the Radde's and with me still trying to suppress my immense irritation at committing such a basic error we retreated back to the car for lunch and a takeaway coffee from the kiosk. Takeaway drinks are not really my cup of tea, see what I did there, but it was now raining steadily again and the temperature had dropped considerably so we were in need of warming up. As we ate and drank we watched a troop of Turnstones scuttle along the harbour wall in front of our car and I remembered that a Purple Sandpiper had been reported at the harbour mouth the day before. Shame I couldn't remember a battery so readily, eh? Mrs Caley wisely chose to stay in the dry car while I decided to venture out to see if I could cheer myself up by finding the rock loving Purple Sandpiper which would be new for the year. Turnstones were very much in evidence with several groups dotted along the harbour walls and a few were darting about in the carpark itself. At the very end of the harbour there is a mollusc and seaweed encrusted concrete groyne that serves as protection to the harbour mouth. The path leads down to within ten metres or so of this groyne. At the very end of the groyne, as close to the open sea as it could be, stood the Purple Sandpiper, my 223rd species of the year. With a battery now firmly in place within the camera again, I secured a couple of record shots.

Purple Sandpiper

I phoned Mrs Caley and suggested to her that she abandon the warm car and join me for a look at the Purple Sandpiper. The rain had eased off anyway. While waiting for her I took some photos of some of the Turnstones that were gracing the rocks immediately next to the path. I see Turnstones annually at Farmoor but they somehow seemed more "authentic" here right next to the sea. Turnstones, like the Purple Sandpipers, are true rock specialists and investigate every crack in the rocks in search of their marine foodstuffs.


I checked several times to make sure that the Purple Sandpiper was still on the groyne, it was, so that when Mrs Caley finally made it to the end of the pier I was able to show her the bird straight away. Almost immediately the Purple Sandpiper, obviously taking pity on me for my shortcomings of earlier, decided to join the Turnstones on the rocks just metres away. We now had unrivalled views of one of my favourite wading birds.

The Purple Sandpiper further spoiled us, and just us since there was nobody else to be seen anywhere nearby, by then taking a prolonged bath in a shallow puddle contained on the top of one of the rocks. We watched enthralled at our private viewing of the bird ducking under the water, shaking off its wings and a final wing stretch and jumping flap. I put the camera into overdrive.

After the bath was done with, the Purple Sandpiper stood and preened at length giving me some superb poses. The little smasher even performed the extraordinary feat of rynchokinesis, the mechanics of which allow long-billed birds to manipulate their upper mandibles and bend them upwards.

Mrs Caley returned to the car while I continued to photograph the Purple Sandpiper. Almost as soon as my wife left though the Purple Sandpiper did as well, flying back to the groyne first and then, while calling shrilly, flying further away beyond the opposite wall of the harbour which proved to be bad news for two birders who were just coming out to see it. They had failed to see the Radde's too so they were, on balance, having a much worse a day than me.

With the exit of the Purple Sandpiper I too decided to head back to the car in readiness for the drive home. I stopped to take some shots of Turnstones bathing in some of the large puddles that were dotted around the carpark. Bathing is a big part of a birds daily routine and seabirds clearly enjoy using freshwater puddles to cleanse themselves. It's always a pleasure to watch that pleasure.

We drove home happy that we had secured our life tick and with our exceptional views of the Purple Sandpiper and Turnstones but my awful cock-up with the battery would haunt me for a few days yet. I'm eagerly looking forward to my next chance at photographing a Radde's Warbler and a chance to set the record straight.

My thanks to Jonathan and Richard for the use of the excellent Radde's Warbler photos.