Wednesday 28 September 2022

Unbelievable! Common Nighthawk! Wantage 26th September 2022

I was at work after an eventful and birding packed weekend when Mrs Caley and myself had finally seen a Wryneck, and a Grey Plover, this year but had failed to add a Kentish Plover to our year list. At around 11:25 my phone sprang into life announcing an incoming message on our local WhatsApp group stating quite simply; 'Standby, Common Nighthawk in Wantage, details to follow'. What? A Nighthawk in Oxon? I'd have fallen over if it wasn't for the fact that I shuffle around on my knees for a living!

Fifteen minutes later the details arrived in the same matter of factly way, ' Common Nighthawk on a garden fence, access arranged' and a historic twitch was on. I now had a choice to make. Did I play it cool and carry on working and go to see the bird later in the day or leave immediately? A BirdGuides alert regarding the Nighthawk a few minutes later made that decision easy. I dropped everything, hurriedly tidied tools up and left for home after texting Mrs Caley and telling her to get her boots on. With the news going national it was now a race against time to get to Wantage before hundreds of fellow twitchers got there. I couldn't waste the head start that being in Oxon lent me!

Unfortunately I was working in the north-west corner of Oxfordshire and just about as far from Wantage that I could be and still be in the same county. I also had to drive home and collect Mrs Caley and my birding kit. I'd still make it to Wantage by one o'clock which should ensure that I'd arrive before the number at the twitch would be swelled by out-of-county birders. The amount of people that the Nighthawk would attract would be huge. At local rarities it always feels good to be close to the vanguard and to meet and greet fellow local birders and join in the excitement with the birders you know well.

Mrs Caley with me, I hit the road trying hard not to drive too fast. The car was very low on fuel too but I had just enough to make the trip. I'd worry about refuelling after seeing the bird. At just before one o'clock we turned into the street where the Common Nighthawk was reported to be and were surprised to see just Jason stood in the front garden of the house that had the bird on its fence. Where was everyone else? My mind flashed back to the Oriental Turtle Dove twitch in Chipping Norton where we all queued up to gain access to a birders kitchen to see the bird. But here there was no queue, in fact we couldn't see any other birders. I was about to wind the window down and ask Jason what was going on, when I noticed about thirty people lined up on a cut-de-sac next to the house. They were all looking at something which obviously had to be the bird.

We parked at the first available opportunity and quickly grabbed the binoculars and camera, and made our way to the others. I exchanged brief greetings with people I knew and I asked where was it, and was told, 'There, on the fence!'. Incredibly, sat on an ordinary looking close-boarded fence was a very extraordinary bird, the Common Nighthawk. I took a few record shots. Of course I did. Except these weren't my usual record shots, the bird was only fifteen metres away. Gobsmacked for a few moments, I regained my composure, made sure that my wife was enjoying the bird and took a few more shots.

Most of Oxon's finest had made it there before me but that didn't matter, the prize was the same for all of us. Except for me it was an extra special prize since the superb Common Nighthawk was the 400th bird species that I've seen in Britain. Since I had added Great and Balearic Shearwaters to my life list in Cornwall a fortnight before I had been wondering what would be the most likely addition to bring up the milestone. I never imagined that it would be a spectacular and mega-rare bird like a Common Nighthawk!

To the untrained eye a Common Nighthawk looks like the more familiar Nightjar, a bird that incidentally breeds just a few miles away from Wantage over the border in Berkshire (we Oxon birders should be thankful that Wantage is now placed in Oxfordshire and not in Berkshire as it has been in the past) and which we've already seen this year. In fact the owner of the fence thought he had a Nightjar and related that fact to Ian Lewington, Oxon's bird recorder, when he called him early that morning. Ian thought that it would be worth following up, and thank goodness he did! When he saw the bird he was staggered to discover it was a Common Nighthawk, the North American cousin of our Nightjar, and very rarely encountered on this side of the pond. 

The Nighthawk on the fence was just the 26th of its kind to be seen in Britain. Most of those had been seen on Scilly and of the dozen that hadn't, very few were twitchable and apart from one in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago, during the pandemic and lockdowns, almost all had been seen flying around at dusk and hardly ever observed at rest. This really was a monumental event in birdwatching in this country. Nightjar and Nighthawk are very similar both sporting a cryptic plumage of greys and browns which lends to great camouflage when roosting in their preferred habitats of heathland and forests. The main difference is that the Nighthawk has a forked tail and longer blackish wings. Neither of which were very evident when viewing the resting bird that still sat on the top rail of the fence. Ian however, has great skills and a vast knowledge of birds so was able to identify the bird whereas many others, me included, would likely have passed the bird off as a Nightjar.

In turn I chatted to friends, gratefully received congratulations for reaching 400, and took more photos, lots more photos even though most were almost identical. Except they weren't. The Nighthawk was actually almost constantly on the move, shuffling from side to side and ruffling feathers presumably to gain a more comfortable position. It frequently opened and closed its eyes and often strained its head and neck upwards to observe the sky above it. 

Apparently the bird had also performed a couple of about turns so the early arrivals had seen it from both sides. For the first half hour we had only seen it facing to the right. A squall of wet weather stirred the Nighthawk into a bit more action and it actually stretched a wing out, I missed that moment with the camera of course, which exhibited the narrow white stripe across the wing that further distinguishes it from the Nightjar. At least I managed to react quickly enough to secure a few frames of the notched tail and of the bird having a good shake at the rain spattered upon it.

While the rain fell, quite heavily for a few minutes, we huddled under a tree and had an excited chinwag with our Otmoor mates, Bark, Pete, Oz, and Steve, all people whom we hadn't seen for a while because, owing to our dream of reaching another milestone, namely 300 species in this calendar year, we had hardly been out and about in our home county and instead had been travelling far and wide in search of year list additions. The Nighthawk was our 281st species so far in 2022, not too shabby for landlocked birders such as ourselves. It would be a close call if we were to achieve our aim but we have a good chance of getting there and bonus birds like the Nighthawk are just what we need to help us on our way. The bird itself even obliged me with a turn to the left!

The sunshine returned and the Nighthawk was cast in all its glory again. In good light it appeared very greyish but it certainly wasn't drab, not with its fantastic array of mottled and barred feathers. When the sky darkened the greys changed more to browns. Other folk managed to get shots of the Nighthawk yawning when it showed off the huge pinkish gape that allows it to catch flying moths and the like when hawking in flight. I'd even seen a few photos of the Nighthawks tiny feet. But I was more than happy with the images that now fill my own portfolio.

With more and more twitchers arriving every minute we decided that our time was up. We'd stayed for almost an hour during which time we'd studied and photographed the bird well enough. The bird wouldn't be going anywhere unless it was flushed which seemed unlikely so all those that made it before it got dark would get their tick too. I felt for some of my friends that were tied up at work and would have to go through the agony of having to stress over the bird until they were free to go. I felt bad for those people I knew that couldn't make it because they were elsewhere, including some very high Oxon listers who had gone to Shetland and Scilly at just the wrong time. After staying put all day the Nighthawk left the fence at five to seven just as dusk fell and flew high and handsomely to the South. As expected it wasn't seen on the subsequent day. I wish the bird safe travels and hope it somehow survives.

As we left we caught up quickly with Ian, Jason, Ewan (see his excellent account of the bird and the day at Black Audi Birding) and Adam, who between them had organised a collection to benefit local charities, and also marshalled the twitch extremely well. Other friends of ours had also joined in the fun, albeit brief chats with most but it was good to see Mark P, Adrian, Jeff, Simon N & Simon B there. By way of a tweet or two I urged a few more mates to get to Wantage as soon as they could, the Nighthawk was a bird not to be missed. I also got the chance to thank the householder for allowing us all to enjoy the bird, and for not moving his car which was parked directly underneath the bird. 

What a bird and what a day! The Nighthawk deserved all of the superlatives and exclamations that were thrown in its direction. Unbelievable, no, but in fact, totally believable, I know because I saw it with my own eyes!

Year List addition;

281) Common Nighthawk

Wednesday 7 September 2022

A Plover-ly Pair! Cleeve Common 6th September 2022

I wanted to go up to Cleeve Common, on the top of Cleeve Hill and overlooking Cheltenham, the evening before but was deterred by the threat of some serious downpours. By parallel reasoning I decided that the forecast wet weather would likely ensure that the pair of Dotterel that had been found earlier in the day would stay overnight. Thanks to intrepid birders like my friend Simon, who went and looked for, and re-found, the Dotterel at first light the following morning that prophecy was proved correct. It's not often I get even a fifty-fifty choice right so I was feeling pretty smug when I shared the news with Mrs Caley. I finished work early and was home mid-afternoon, and it was straight in the car, even though there had been no updates on the birds status since lunchtime. We parked up at just before four o'clock and made the trek across the hill to the 'lone tree'. Between the carpark and the tree we met nobody so we didn't know whether the birds were still around or not but I felt confident since there was no reason for the birds to depart.

On reaching the tree, on the other side of the ridge we could finally see the few birders that were on site and fortunately they were all watching something, at fairly close range too, which had to be the pair of Dotterel. We tracked towards the spot making sure we kept beyond the line of sight. I expected to see the two birds doing what Dotterel do, that is running around capturing small invertebrates and the like, but I couldn't see anything. Maybe I'd come across a group of botanists but they don't tend to have massive long lenses attached to their cameras and I knew a couple of the chaps anyway. I scanned the ground knowing that the Dotterel would be close but it still took me while before I found the adult male of the pair secreted on a bare patch of ground around twenty metres from where I stood.

The travelling companion of the male Dotterel, a juvenile bird, was harder to spot as it lay on the grass in what constitutes the rough of the golf course that the birders, and us now, were unknowingly, at the time, stood and sat on. It was the juvenile bird that I really wanted to see. I hadn't seen a juvenile Dotterel for over twenty years since finding two in Cornwall while walking across a field on the way to twitch a Surf Scoter at Helston Loe Pool and thus I was keen to gain images of one. Most of our Dotterel sightings have been made in the early summer in Scotland, an undertaking that takes great effort because you have to be near or at the top of a mountain to see them, and when only adult birds are present. Like the male, the juvenile was snoozing.

We'd been there for maybe ten minutes during which time I'd had a chat with Lee, before the birds showed any sign of waking up. There are only so many images you can take of sleeping birds since there'd be no variation in the shots at all. Now the eyes of both birds were open and there was a prospect of getting some action.

A few minutes later and the birds were on their feet and looking lively. Lee had said that the birds would come really close when feeding and I wondered how much closer they could possibly get since they were no more than ten metres away anyway. That question was answered by the adult bird which instantly began walking towards us and soon halved the initial separation distance. The juvenile was slightly more reticent but was still far from shy. I know from experience of watching Dotterel on the Scottish high tops that if you sit still then they will probably come right up to you and so it was that these birds did. It highly likely that the juvenile bird at least had never seen people before so I guess that they've not come to mistrust us yet.

I was lucky to capture the moment when the adult bird did a little jump and fly. The motion blur of the wings caused by a low shutter speed owing to the overcast conditions added to the ambience. Mostly, even though Dotterel are powerful fliers and migrate great distances, the birds preferred to walk and run in their hunt for food, a habit inherent to all Plover species. Because the wind was blowing from behind us, both Dotterel were largely facing us too which helped me with gaining good and interesting images.

I lay prone on the grass, slightly mindful that I might be inviting some unwelcome guests in the shape of ticks which I understand are very prevalent this summer, and there are a lot of sheep on the common. I'm usually mad for ticks but much prefer the kind that get added to my year or life lists. Dotterel wouldn't be a year tick since we saw a lone female on Carn ban Mor in June. That sighting was a mere flyover and offered us scant reward for the effort we made to make it to the plateau for the second time that holiday. So to now watch the two birds at such close quarters was perfect compensation.

Our friends, Paul and Jules from Somerset arrived and we caught up with them as the Dotterel continued to perform. They brought a little bit of sun with them too and the common was bathed in rich light for a few minutes. This helped really bring the colours of the adult male to the fore. Bear in mind too that in Dotterel, the female is the more brightly coloured and better marked bird so this male was supposedly the dowdier of the species. As fine as he looked too! In contrast to normal practise amongst birds, it is the male Dotterel that are solely responsible for the upbringing of the young so there was a distinct possibility that the juvenile was one of his own offspring.

The adult male bird was moulting, a plumage state that I'd never seen before either. The transition would eventually lead to the adult looking much more aligned to the plumage exhibited by the juvenile. For now though it was the wing and mantle feathers that were being toned down for the colder months when all Dotterel regardless of sex revert to a mainly grey and buff plumage and males and females can't be distinguished by brightness of colour or by more pronounced markings.

Dotterel tend to choose places of higher altitude in which to breed and when migrating and Cleeve Hill certainly fits the bill as a decent staging ground for them. We have, however, seen a few in the spring in cultivated fields in flat pastoral country. Dotterel are rarely alone when they migrate, and can travel in  groups or 'trips' when many of the species going together. Having said that the most I've ever seen together is a paltry four on migration! We did manage to see eight feeding on the same plateau in Scotland once so larger trips do obviously occur.

We'd been watching the Dotterel for almost forty-five minutes when, in response to a golf ball whizzing over head, they suddenly took off and flew to the top of the ridge behind us. I fired off shots at will at the fleeing birds without having time to focus correctly. By some minor miracle a few were almost sharp too. The golfer, who thankfully was extremely good at the game and not a hacker like I used to be, walked across to us and told us that we were all taking a huge risk by being in the middle of the fairway of the thirteenth hole. Until that point I hadn't even realised that it was a 'working' course. Now that I looked around me, I registered that of course it was a golf course! The Dotterel had captivated me so much that I'd been blind to the dangers. I've been hit by a golf ball before and it hurts. A lot!

Now we knew that we shouldn't be on the course, although usually the middle of a fairway is the safer place to be, well it was when I use to play the game, I decided that we'd seen enough and had had fine views already that wouldn't be bettered so we may as well get out of there. As we walked away one of the birders who had stayed on shouted in our direction, 'There's a harrier flying' and pointed past us back towards the radio masts and the carpark. I turned in time to see a bird of prey just disappearing over the ridge. I wouldn't have any idea what it was but the chap shouted again, 'Hen Harrier'. Rather flippantly I dismissed it because we'd already seen a couple of them this year so it wasn't needed for the year list and besides we'd essentially missed it anyway. I noticed afterwards that after photos of the bird had been posted online, presumably the other birder had been much sharper than I was, that there was some discussion of it being a juvenile Pallid Harrier, a species I've only seen twice before. I will be watching the ensuing discussion of its identity eagerly to see the outcome. If it is proven to be a Pallid Harrier then it may just find its way onto my year list, especially if I'm closing in on the Big Year target!