Tuesday 14 November 2023

A Big Little Surprise! 8th November 2023

Birding throws up unexpected surprises on a regular basis, whether that's finding an unusual bird in your garden or a scarce species on your local patch, or a rare bird being discovered nationally that can then be added to your life list. On Monday a lucky birdwatcher photographed a bird that he didn't recognise at Linford Lakes nature reserve on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. He posted a photo of the bird that he spotted creeping through a reedbed on a local FaceBook page asking for identification. Amazingly the bird was a Little Crake, never before recorded in Buckinghamshire, a national rarity, and not on the Old Caley list!

The identification wasn't established until after dark so there was no chance for anyone else to see the Little Crake that day but eager local Bucks birders were on site at first light on Tuesday morning. The Crake was seen almost immediately and a major twitch was in full swing. However, there were problems. Linford Lakes is a permit holder only reserve so access is limited. Even though I'd heard of the reserve, I had never been there. The reserve is managed by The Parks Trust and a meeting between them and eminent local birders established that for the rest of Tuesday and the following day that non-permit holders would be allowed to enter after making a minimum donation of five pounds. The only proviso was that volunteers would be required to man the gates and the hide from where the Little Crake could be seen. The twitchers grapevine was alive with the details and by mid-morning birders were arriving to see the bird. By all accounts the Little Crake showed superbly well in bright sunshine throughout the day.

As for myself, I was watching developments with much interest. Primarily because I hadn't seen the species before of course, but also because I didn't want to pass up such a good bird locally. Although I live in Oxfordshire, the Buckinghamshire border is as close as six miles from my house so a lot of the county birding sites are nearer to me than many Oxon ones. Linford Lakes is only twenty-five miles from my house, only marginally further away than Farmoor. I was at work on Tuesday morning although I wasn't doing much, but irritatingly I had to wait for an important delivery that I needed for the job. By a stroke of luck, without knowing about the bird, I had ordered the delivery for pre-midday but that wishful thinking hadn't allowed for my own rich vein of luck which, so it seems, is rarely classed as good when it comes to birding (obviously it's not that bad but quite often appears to be, especially at crucial moments). So I was still waiting for the pallet load of adhesive at half past one. I buckled, complained to the company that I'd made the order with, and left site so that I could get home and drive to Milton Keynes before the afternoon was spent. As I drove out of the tiny lane that serviced the site the delivery lorry drove up the other way. Offloading took another forty-five minutes because the lorry was too large to get all the way up the lane and the materials had to be "dumped" about two hundred metres away. I then had to load the bags, ten at time, into my van and transport them to the job site. By the time I'd finished I was done in and it was too late to go for the Little Crake because it'd be dark by the time I'd get there!

I was at work again on the Wednesday morning and the Crake was still present. However, thanks to the weather, I had a slice of good fortune for a change as well. Normally I work indoors but this job was outside on a patio and overnight rain had flooded it so I had the perfect excuse to head home. I collected Mrs Caley and drove straight out to Linford Lakes. I was lucky again when we managed to take one of the last places in the small carpark and thus saved ourselves an extra half mile walk to the reserve. By eleven o'clock we had taken our places in the rammed "Otter Hide" from where the bird had been seen. On our walk to the hide a chap coming the other way had told us that the Crake was showing well. By the time we got there, five minutes later, it had disappeared. That is much more typical of the Old Caley luck.

I managed to lever Mrs Caley into a decent spot by one of the windows but I had to peer over and around several heads and shoulders to view any part of the reserve. Directly in front of the inverted L-shaped hide, which allowed for a view over two different sections of the lake, was a small strip of reeds, maybe five metres wide to the right and five times that on the left. We waited and I inquired where the Little Crake had last been seen. The reedbed gave way to a finger of the lake which was enclosed further out by what is known as "The Bund", a long and wider strip of reeds. The Crake had been seen crossing a gap in the reeds on the bund about fifty metres away. I hadn't brought my scope with me but could comfortably see a Moorhen in the same general area so should be alright if the target bird reappeared there. The Little Crake had thankfully been seen heading left through the reeds. This was crucial because the day before it had adopted a "circuit" whereby it would navigate out to the bund from right next to the hide and then make the return journey. The best views were obviously obtained when it appeared in front of the hide. The Little Crakes travels took around a couple of hours so supposing it was on its return leg, it should appear in a nearer spot some time over the next hour or so. Thirty collective minds willed that to happen.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

For forty minutes we saw nothing bar a whole load of wet weather. A few people left, having already seen the Crake earlier, so I had managed to grab Mrs Caley a seat at a window so she was comfy. You have to look after your wife. I was still standing however, so my own views were still limited. Hence I was leaving a lot of the actual birdwatching to Mrs Caley and the others in the hide who had ringside seats. One of the chaps had a thermal imager as well and it was he who announced, 'The Crake is out' and, 'In the same place as before but further left'. Everybody awoke from various states of torpor at that news, and excitedly tried to "get on the bird". The momentary panic as people try to see the bird can be excruciating and there are many cries of, 'Where?', 'I can't see it' and , 'Exactly where the hell is it'. Pleas become more frantic as time goes on. I've learned to scan and listen carefully to the instructions being dealt out. The most important thing is to look where the person who called it is looking. Some people just don't get that and randomly look this way and that with no idea where the bird might be. Stay calm. It works, sometimes. So my first ever view of a Little Crake was of a diminutive bird, maybe a quarter of the size of the Moorhen seen earlier, scurrying quickly and deftly across flattened reed stems in the left hand corner of the bund. Unfortunately Mrs Caley had missed it. I couldn't photograph the bird because I'd have had to decapitate the bloke in front of me to do so.

The Little Crake became the 422nd bird on my UK life list and the 309th for this calendar year. I needed far better views though so wasn't ready to leave, unlike a chap who had been sat just to my right and two places away from Mrs Caley. As he stood up I took his place. I now had a perfect view but it was out to the right and the bird was out to the left. To see that part of the reedbed I still had to look between the heads of my wife and the man sat next to her who had commanded the best seat in the house, the one at the corner which had great views in both directions. Birding from hides can be great, especially in poor weather or when birds are difficult to approach otherwise, but when they are full to the rafters, the shelters can become uncomfortable and birding becomes awkward, but we were all in the same boat and being there offered the only chance of seeing the Crake. For another twenty minutes I squinted best I could through the small window offered to me. Many folk in the hide, myself included, had begun to speculate that the Little Crake would slowly work its way around the waterside edge of the reeds and back to the hide. On the closest, and opposite, side of the small bay that the Crake had appeared in, there was a small section, maybe five feet across where the reeds had been flattened. This small gap gave an opportunity to see the bird should it make its way back towards the hide. And that is exactly what it did!

It was the chap in the corner seat that spotted it first. The Crake sped across the gap and I just caught sight of it as it exited stage right. Fortunately the bird retraced its steps slightly and reappeared in the same gap moments later and actually stayed in view for a few seconds allowing just about everybody to gain a decent view. I fired off a few shots with the camera. The resulting images weren't great, not even good, in fact they were awful but they constituted the first images I'd ever taken of a Little Crake!

Little Crake (Porzana parva)

Now we all began willing the Little Crake to continue on its journey around the reedbed and closer to us. There was another potential place to see it about thirty metres further to the right where there was a "hole" in the reeds. I pointed it out to the rest. We started to guess how long it would take to get there, a minute, five minutes, maybe longer and so on. But it wasn't long at all before someone announced that it had reached the predicted spot. Now we all got a really good look at the bird as it crept slowly but purposefully through the vegetation. Little Crakes are small, barely Dunlin sized, but are very capable of picking their way easily through the reed stems. They have long legs with huge feet which are used to grasp onto the plants. They also swim readily between the reeds. At times this bird appeared as if it could literally walk on the water. It was chasing small morsels of food, presumably small water insects and flies, so would often move quickly when needed and make erratic movements, often doubling back a few feet to garner another tit-bit. I trained the camera at the small clearings in the reeds and fired off shots whenever the Crake darted into one. Occasionally I got lucky and managed to get the whole bird into frame but for the most part, most of the bird would be obscured behind a reed or leaf.

It was clear that the Crake was eventually going to appear right in front of the hide and luckily (I was definitely in clover) I had a great seat from which to watch it. I was able to track it almost continually as it made its way along the waters edge. The reeds however, largely obscured the bird as it travelled and trying to get clear photos of the whole bird was difficult, nigh on impossible. There always seemed to be something in the way, and the bird also had a habit of turning its back to us. The feeding habit of dipping its head towards the water also meant that more often than not, the head and bill would be the part most obscured. The vegetation also made focusing the camera tricky, so I decided to change to manual focus. That way the reeds couldn't defeat the autofocus. I like photos of the Little Crake "in habitat" anyway because creeping through reeds is exactly what the bird did.

From the rear the Crake was pretty well camouflaged in shades of brown and beige. The back patterns were not dissimilar to those of a Jack Snipe. But there was no careful and ponderous bobbing up and down from the Crake. When it moved it did so quickly and nimbly. Also, of course, the Little Crake doesn't sport the long bill of a Snipe. Its face was white which contrasted with the brown of its cap when seen from front on. The red eyes were surrounded by a black smudge, which made it look like it was wearing heavy mascara. The bill was yellowish-green and relatively short. It was the long greenish legs and feet which were most evident, and the Crake showed great agility in using those to get around in what must seem like a waterlogged forest to a bird so small.

The reeds thinned out in front of the hide and from where I sat, extended no more than twenty feet away from it. So the closer the Little Crake came to our position, then we had better and clearer views of it. Eventually it had to emerge into clear water, where it either had to use flattened platforms of reeds to walk upon or swim between stems of vegetation. To see such a bird as well as we did was definitely one of those wow moments that come along only now and again. Crakes of all varieties are skulking birds and rarely venture out of cover so this really was an awesome and memorable experience.

In all, I took over eight hundred photos of the Little Crake. Some were binned on the spot, many were out of focus, a lot had just a fraction of the bird showing. Later on at home when reviewing on the laptop it was incredible just how many images had the head of the bird missing or had just a rear view of it. And yet the Crake had been in view almost continually for forty minutes. It was only when it got to right by the hide that it couldn't hide any longer and finally gave up those clear and outstanding views. I was absolutely delighted and after initial fears that this would be another underwhelming life tick, was thrilled to get such a great sighting. The Little Crake will be a bird I'll never forget.

When the Crake disappeared amongst reeds to the far right of the hide, everybody decided that the display was over. Some left, others including me took a quick review of photos taken and many delighted conversations took place. Those still in the hide, including my good friend Bryan and myself, were all left to rue dropping our guard though when a few moments later the Crake flew back across the front of the hide, briefly landed and then scarpered back into the sanctuary of the thicker reedbed. Capturing some flight shots would have been truly amazing. Sadly nobody did.

Being given the chance of seeing the Little Crake was all made possible by the unselfish actions of many Bucks birders who gave up their own time to marshal the carpark and the hide to ensure many birders could enjoy the bird. The donations given by the grateful birders have amounted to a tidy sum too, money that can now be used to develop the site for birders to enjoy further. I'd like to thank each and every one of those folk that helped make this such a memorable twitch.

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