Wednesday 26 April 2023

A Nightingale Bonanza! 22nd April 2023

Every year we look forward to hearing Nightingales sing. Listening to their rich and varied song is definitely one of the avian delights of the spring.

We used to have Nightingales in a woodland close to home in North Oxfordshire but sadly they've been absent for some years now owing to range contraction. There may be a pair or two still clinging on in the out of bounds MOD areas locally but they will also succumb soon because of the mass sell-off of the old depot to make room for yet more housing (or rather to garner more unneeded cash for our poor off rich folk and government). So these days we have to travel into a neighbouring county for our Nightingale fix, and to places where they are still present in good numbers. Whereas we used to travel north eastwards to Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire the numbers of Nightingales there are falling too so for the last few years our destination has been Berkshire and the woods and commons in the Kennet valley where good numbers of singing males survive still. Apparently Nightingales are fussy birds preferring richly vegetated scrubby ground with lots of nettles and bramble thickets for feeding and safe nesting. The explosion in the Deer population has often been blamed for the decline in Nightingale numbers but I think the contraction is far more likely to have been driven because of the (supposedly) insatiable demand for more housing which impacts massively on the habitat that the Nightingales prefer. Where better to stick another thousand houses, four thousand people, two thousand cars and another few thousand cats and dogs than on what appears to be an untidy wasteland around a load of old gravel pit workings. Unfortunately birds and other wildlife don't often get a look in and are largely ignored.

Nightingale "day" for us was always around St. George's Day but recently we've noticed that they return a week or so earlier. Last year we got our fix on the 16 April (see here) but although we saw a few, there was little singing and it seemed that the birds were still "settling in". So this year we held off until Saturday before taking the hour drive to a favourite spot of ours, and it was a fine sunny morning which is always a bonus. We could hear a Nightingale in full song as soon as we opened the car doors. The bird was joined in song by another as we geared up. Both birds were fairly close by too so it shouldn't take long to pin one of them down. But as anybody who has listened to Nightingales will know, locating the actual bird can be extremely difficult owing to the birds preference to sing while remaining concealed in a dense bush or thicket. Typically as we began our walk both birds had stopped performing but one of them started singing again as we neared a gate that allowed for a better view into the understory. The bird wasn't particularly close but incredibly was in full view and we couldn't believe our luck in finding it so quickly. It had taken us less than five minutes to add the species to our year list.

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

We walked to a territory that we discovered last year. The Nightingale there favours a dense bramble entangled bush that sits between two paths. We found the bird twelve months ago because it was the only one singing full pelt, and this time it (I like to think it was the same bird returning) was again singing heartily. We spent a good hour trying to pin it down last year with only brief flight views of it for the most part. And once again, this bird proved hard to actually see despite it singing almost constantly. A couple of times we were duped by a Cetti's Warbler which shouted it's own staccato rhythm from within the same bush. When the Cetti's broke cover I followed it and quickly fired off some shots, thinking wrongly that it was the Nightingale. Of course I knew that it wasn't, the two birds are completely different shades of brown for one thing and a Nightingale is a size or two larger, but when a bird flies rapidly out of dense cover it's a natural reaction to follow it. It's always good to see a Cetti's in any event.

Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)

We concentrated on studying the bramble thicket knowing that the Nightingale was in it somewhere. After a while we worked out the bird's routine and began to pick it out within the foliage. It favoured a certain perch from which to belt out its song but that position was obscured by many twigs and leaves. Sometimes the only visible sign of it was the quivering of its tail or pulsating of the throat as it sang. It was hard work trying to get a view of it and even harder to gain any images.

However, I noticed that whenever somebody approached the Nightingale territory from one of the two paths then it would shift right to the opposite edge of the bushes and show in a slightly less densely vegetated area. So we set up our stall on the opposite path and waited for someone to walk past, and when they did we took our chance and finally had a decent view of the bird which, although sensitive enough to the passer-by to move its own position, carried on singing regardless so we always knew it was still there.

That bird was taking too much time to see, and there were only a few other folk walking around to entice it out of its hiding place so we decided to give up on it and go back to the road and try to find the other singing birds again. We could hear at least two Nightingales as we walked and the bird we saw earlier was still in the same area as before. We were around fifty metres away from our parked car and soon found the original bird again although it was a way into the wood and it wasn't easy to find a camera line through the leaves and branches. 

The Nightingale was singing in tandem with another bird that appeared to be near the car. For a while it was like "duelling banjos" with each bird taking turns to shout. The bird we were tracking was slowly nearing the other and we followed. The wood was less dense at this point with just a few large trees growing over many slender saplings that reached for the light above. It was quite easy to pinpoint the Nightingale whenever it stopped and sang and I took many photos. For the first ninety minutes of the session, I took maybe thirty frames. Now I was probably shooting that many every minute or two.

And then our luck really improved. The two singing birds had encroached close enough to each other for sparring to take place. We saw one bird chase the other through the trees, over our car and into the bushes on the other side of the path. I saw it perch up briefly on a low branch and then another Nightingale ousted it back over to the trees right by the car, and where we now stood. This bird, presumably "our" bird from before then perched less than twenty feet away and went into full song mode and stayed singing for a good five minutes or so. This was a full territorial dispute between two (or maybe even three) birds.

For the next fifteen minutes or so the singing, and seemingly victorious Nightingale remained in the trees above our car. The photo opportunities were endless. These were the best and closest views that we'd had since a time when Nightingales were more numerous and far more showy, and when we used to visit Paxton Pits to see them.

The Nightingale was also catching flies, snatching them almost between phrases. A telegraph pole festooned with barbed wire became a focus of its attention and the Nightingale spent quite a bit of time there hunting out its lunch. We were secreted behind our car and the bird was apparently oblivious of our presence. Having a mirrorless and silent camera was also undoubtedly a big aid in us staying unobtrusive. 

The Nightingale continued to sing as well, usually in competition with the bird on the opposite side of the road. We couldn't see that one so stayed focused on the bird in front of us, and why not, one should never look a gift Nightingale in the beak!

The Nightingale gave us one more prolonged view when it hopped onto a loftier branch almost directly over our heads, showing so closely that we could see every shudder of its body made with the effort of pouring forth its song. It was incredible to witness the bird at such close quarters.

Finally the bird gave up and returned to the wood. My arms were aching from holding the camera aloft for so long. Not that I was complaining. It had been inexperience that would likely never be bettered.

Year List addition;

198) Nightingale

Monday 24 April 2023

Feathers in February 2023 Part 1

Variety is often touted as the spice of life and in the middle weeks of February Mrs Caley and myself certainly mixed up the birding as we sought to see as many interesting species as we could. This is a brief summary of some of those trips.

Monday 10 April 2023

Double Crown! Night Herons at Ossett, West Yorkshire, Saturday 8 April 2023

The first Night Heron that we ever saw was at WWT Slimbridge. We had to climb aboard a Land Train, a trailer pulled behind a tractor, and were taken out to a far flung spot on the reserve to a nettle filled ditch. There we disembarked and were directed to an area of the overgrown water course and told that the bird was in there somewhere. Four hours later we glimpsed a tip of the bill and then an eye as the Heron moved ever so slightly in the vegetation. And that was it!

Our next encounter with a Night Heron was of one flying out of its roost just as darkness descended one evening in Cornwall. The name Night Heron is given because generally the species are active at night and tend to roost in thick vegetation or trees during the day. Our next view came near Nuneaton with a bird that was well secreted in trees about four hundred metres away at Seeswood Pool. Our best view of the species had been of one in a park in the centre of Cheltenham in August 2019, when we finally saw the whole bird in the early morning light. Over the past twenty years or so we had dipped quite a few Night Herons too proving how hit and miss it can be when trying to see what is a generally secretive and elusive bird.

Roll on to last Thursday when photographs emerged of a Black-crowned Night Heron seen on the River Calder near Ossett in West Yorkshire. There had been some other reports of the species through the preceding few days from other places in the UK so it seemed as if there was a bit of an influx of the birds. On Friday the original finder and poster of the Night Heron posted more photos on BirdGuides, but this time mentioned there were two birds involved. Local birders investigated and corroborated the sightings on Friday evening, sending the WhatsApp chatter into overdrive. Night Herons showing really well was unusual and the fact that they were was of great interest.

Our preliminary plans for the Easter Saturday had been to travel into Surrey and try for a long staying Great Grey Shrike but the chance of seeing not one but two Night Herons was too good an opportunity to pass up so we rose early and hit the A43 and M1 north for the two and half hour journey. I knew that our good friends and eager year listers, Kev and Kyle would be going too and that they'd keep us informed of developments once they got there although in truth we'd only be half an hour or so behind so we'd be totally committed anyway. We were halfway there when confirmation was received that the birds were still present so it would hopefully be a wise decision to change our plans.

Parking was easy on the road by an industrial site. We crossed the river via a footbridge and headed north along a good track. We noted our first House Martin of the year high overhead along with several Sand Martins. All was good and easy going until we spotted a barrier ahead. In an effort to stop motorcyclists from tearing up and down the riverbank, a farmer had towed an tanker trailer into position and jammed it up against the fence that safeguarded a railway. This left a very narrow gap to squeeze through and an awkward climb up and over the towing bar. I just about made it through by breathing in, a lot, but still managed somehow to decouple my camera and lens while doing so. Luckily the camera wedged in against the trailer and didn't fall to the ground. Between me and another chap we helped Mrs Caley through as well. I paused to regain some composure after discovering the trailer had tried to steal my trousers from me during the crossing. I also wondered how some of the even heftier birders than myself got through that obstacle. Unfortunately the wife of the chap who helped push Mrs Caley through was too elderly and infirm to be able to get through. I felt awful for her and offered her a piggy back but she, probably wisely, declined. We could now see the twitchers ahead and a quick scan of the trees on the opposite bank even revealed one of the Night Herons (on the extreme right, above the plastic, in the photo below).

By the time we arrived at the riverside, I of course already knew where one of the Night Herons was so instantly got about securing some record shots. Next I set up the scope for Mrs Caley and then greeted our mates and congratulated them on their lifer. Then it was a quick scour of the river bank for the other Heron which soon revealed itself. Fifteen minutes after arriving and parking, and both of the Night Herons were in the bag!

Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Attending a twitch always generates the same gamut of emotions but there are of course two possible outcomes. There is the nervous anxiety of wondering whether the bird will still be there or not, the excitement as you make your way to the bird, more anxiety because of the fear the bird will disappear before you get there, increased tension as you try to get on the bird and then either great relief when you spot the target or extreme disappointment some hours later when it's obvious that you're not going to see it. Once the bird has been seen then it's time to relax and take things more leisurely, watch the bird and look for the best photographic opportunities. This was an easy twitch and the outcome wasn't ever in doubt. The Night Herons were easy subjects, they moved slowly and offered multiple chances at grabbing decent shots and views.

The two birds hadn't chosen a particularly picturesque stretch of the River Calder. No that that was their fault. This section of the Calder was strewn with rubbish, presumably from a waste disposal centre on the other side of the river. There was plastic snagged on the branches of overhanging trees and more plastic in the shape of bottles and more washed up on the banks. I wondered as the birds picked their way through the flotsam if the river is subject to regular clean-ups by the adjacent businesses where the rubbish originates from, and my guess is probably not. The amount of rubbish that lines our roads and rivers and just about everywhere else these days is reaching astronomical proportions. It's a relatively recent development too, when I was younger the country was a far cleaner place. The Night Herons of course, weren't bothered and picked their way nimbly through the detritus.

Black-crowned Night Herons are birds that breed mainly in Mediterranean countries after wintering in Africa. Any Night Herons that are seen in Britain are overshoot migrants, and these two were probably helped here, along with several other species recently like the unprecedented influx of Alpine Swifts, by the strong southerly airflow of the past month. These two Night Herons were adults, stocky birds with blue-grey back and heads (looks darker at distance) and clean whitish under parts. Each bird sported white plumes on the back of the head. One bird had three of the extravagant extra feathers while the other appeared to just have the one which was also noticeably shorter. Apparently females have shorter plume feathers than males and also fewer of them so these two birds could be a potential breeding pair.

The bird, with the more elaborate plumes, that had been stood on a riverside tree branch decided it would investigate the river more closely so dropped down to the bank. When in stealth mode all Herons move with much deliberation and these Night Herons are no different. The bird we watched in Cheltenham back in 2019 stood stock still for almost forty minutes before suddenly darting forward to snare a fishy morsel. These two birds were as patient but to my knowledge didn't catch any food while we were there so would need to be.

We watched the two birds at length, Mrs Caley through the scope while I explored every angle to get different shots with the camera. There was a moment of jeopardy when a Mink was spotted running along the bank, behind one of the Night Herons and within a few feet of it. The Night Heron was well aware of it of course but just stood there looking alert but relatively unalarmed and made no move to exit the potential danger zone. A minute or so later there was a commotion in the raft of debris next to the Heron and suddenly a Moorhen exploded out of it and scuttled away over the river, presumably it must have come close to being a Mink's breakfast. We'd go on to see the Mink a few more times during the morning but unfortunately it eluded my camera lens.

After the initial hazy start to the morning the sun had burst forth and the light became much brighter. The Night Herons were largely in the shade of the opposite bank and vegetation though resulting in low shutter speeds but with views like I was getting I wouldn't dare complain about that. If I couldn't fill my boots here then I never would.

One of the Herons, maybe disturbed by the Mink or maybe by an over eager photographer who scrambled down the riverbank in front of us, fluttered up into a small bank side tree. I was too slow to capture it in flight, I'm still struggling with the slight delay that my Canon R7 has in "firing up", so only managed to get a view of its as it landed. 

A few minutes later it would readjust its position again and fly once more. I was quicker the second time around but still didn't quite get any top grade photos. Perhaps I should have ramped up the ISO on the camera to get faster shutter speeds but I prefer less grainy images. At least the blur in the wing motion represents the movement.

For a moment the two Night Herons appeared to be interested in each other when one "chased" the other through the trees. Well, the "chaser" was interested in the other but the love wasn't returned since the recipient of the attention clearly wasn't gripped by the attention at all and kept the other at wings reach. I can work out which of the birds was the potential male of the two. Not only had I seen two Night Herons  in the same place but now I had some images to prove they were together.

With the warming of the day, the Night herons appeared to be less interested in finding food and with the potential love cooled, both retreated into the higher branches of the trees. They kept close company, but not too close, one in one tree, the other in a small bush about twenty metres away. Both presented ample and superb opportunities for photography, it was just necessary to manoeuvre in order to get the clearest views through the branches. In the bright sunshine the grey of the back and head feathers transformed into lush slate blues and greens.

The most distinctive characteristic of the Night Herons other than the usual Heron features such as the long bill and long legs was the bright red eyes which stare piercingly back at you. It would have been easy to spend much longer taking more and more photos of the birds but after an hour or so of the birds showing so openly there were signs that the birds were becoming restless of being in many spotlights and were retreating back into some privacy in the tree foliage. We took that as a sign to leave them to it.

The squeeze through the tanker trailer didn't seem as bad on the way out, mainly because we elected to remove all optical equipment before breathing in and climbing over it. We had other plans, not least to find somewhere nice for a coffee and breakfast. We found a decent little cafe in Methley just a few miles from our intended destination and second place to visit for the day, the RSPB reserve at St. Aidan's, a few miles from Leeds. The site was formerly a massive open cast coal mine which has now been restored to a natural wetland reserve. It is famous for being home to a number of pairs of breeding Black-necked Grebes. We have visited the reserve a few times over the years, usually to twitch, and with very mixed results. We dipped a Franklins Gull in May 2021 but made up for it by scoring with a very rare Long-toed Stint in October the same year. Last year we travelled to twitch an extremely showy Spotted Crake but in the four hours we spent there, we only had a two-second view. The huge mining machine that sits next to the visitor centre is home to a pair of Little Owls which we had seen on each of our previous visits.

To cut a long story of a long walk short, we didn't fare too well in the warm sunshine. We only saw one Black-necked Grebe and it was very distant so the hoped for photos didn't materialise. Apart from a brief flight view of a Bittern (new for the year) we didn't see anything of note. Even the Little Owls were absent, apparently having been disturbed by some workmen checking the mining machine over just before we arrived. The only photos I took were of a fine male Reed Bunting and a couple of the lovely Stock Doves that also nest on the mining relic.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

But we drove home happy. Who wouldn't be delighted after having seen two fantastic Black-crowned Night Herons?

Year List additions;

185) House Martin, 186) Black-crowned Night Heron, 187) Bittern