Wednesday 29 November 2023

Pallor & Waxy; Friday 17th November 2023

I had long wanted to see a Pallid Swift and yet had never quite managed to. Actually once upon a time, in April 2000, while waiting up in the gods at The Camp Nou for a Barcelona v Chelsea European Cup quarter final tie to kick off, I had probably seen hundreds of them but unfortunately the myriad of Swifts that dive-bombed around my head and absolutely bamboozled my boozed up brain merely got classified as "Swifts" and I never assigned them to species since I was there for a football match and I was definitely not in the birding zone that evening. The game itself was memorable for Chelsea getting hammered but only after we'd been cheated out of it (a recurring theme when playing against Barcelona).

So more than twenty years later I still hadn't seen a "real" identifiable Pallid Swift and most definitely hadn't seen one in the UK. Swifts of all varieties are highly mobile birds so catching up with the rarer species, that is all except our regular breeding Common Swifts, is difficult. They can be there one minute and miles away the next so twitching any individual birds is never going to be easy. Luckily some birds do get to be a little bit more predictable and especially when encountered "out of season". All European Swift species winter in Africa south of the Sahara and our own Common Swifts are early departures from the British skies, usually disappearing during August. So any Swift that's observed later in the autumn always deserves greater scrutiny and recently research has proven that many of the really late observations, such as the one that had been seen at Winterton-on-sea in Norfolk the week before, are more likely to be Pallids rather than Commons. Luckily the Swift in question had taken to roosting on the village church and had stayed in the area for all week. Identity had been well and truly established on review of photographs.

My first chance to go and attempt to see the bird would be on the Friday provided it stayed. The Pallid Swift had shown well for most of the week and crucially was seen and reported as going to roost in the late afternoon on most days. If the bird was there as it was going dark then it would almost certainly be there the following morning. Typically on the Thursday afternoon it was last reported just after midday but the weather wasn't good so it was likely it was still at the church, just that nobody was daft enough to be out in the rain looking for it. 

My own trip to see the Swift was put into doubt more by my own deteriorating health. Nothing serious but I would turn out to be ill enough to lay me low for a while. Mrs Caley had already suffered a nasty bout of the flu two weeks before but had valiantly soldiered on for long enough to twitch a local Purple Heron and had been feeling much better when we connected with the Little Crake nine days ago (read here). On Wednesday my brother, and work colleague, had reported in sick. In fact he had tested positive for Covid, which came as a surprise since I hadn't realised that Covid was still a thing. His health didn't improve and I told him to stay off work until clear again. By Thursday he was feeling pretty bad with a very sore throat amongst other ailments. I feared the worse and sure enough while I was at work on Thursday the tell tale signs that I was also going down with illness began to show themselves. Flus, colds and the rest always manifest themselves with a dry and itchy sore throat and I was soon sucking one soothing honey drenched sugary lozenge after another while I toiled away grouting a couple of bathrooms. By the time I got home I was beginning to feel more than a bit rough. Mrs Caley remarked on how pale I looked. Pallid, you could say. I hit the paracetamol and retired to bed vowing to hit the road early the next morning and grab the Swift before I was unable to. My sleep ended early when I awoke with the shivering and sweating cycle of the onset of flu. Man-sized of course!

Mrs Caley was up and ready to get going at four o'clock. Try as I might I couldn't jump straight out of bed, despite being awake for most of the night. I deliberated for a while as to whether or not I had the energy to even fall out of bed but eventually decided that feeling sick was no good, this was my chance to get the Pallid Swift that I'd wanted for so long, I was unlikely to feel any better the next day or the day after that, so the effort had to be made. A top-up on the medicines, and importantly a negative Covid test result, and we left just before six. All was fine until we reached the St Neots bypass and found the A428 road to Cambridge closed. I'm not overly familiar with the road network in those parts but knew enough to pick out a diversion helped by the locals who obviously did know by following anyone who looked like they knew where they were going, "The Dirk Gently Approach" penned by Douglas Adams in his books, "Following somebody may not get you to where you want to go but it's sure to be interesting wherever you end up". Not that somebody's driveway on a new housing estate on the outskirts of town would likely be very exciting at just past seven in the morning. The trip got worse again when a lorry had come to grief on a soft verge on a minor road presumably because the driver had tried to avoid an equally sized vehicle coming in the opposite direction because the main road was shut both ways. That created quite a queue as did the solid traffic getting stuck through the small villages owing to parked cars and road priorities creating bottlenecks. By the time we had rejoined the main road we had lost thirty-five minutes, but that wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

The rest of the journey passed without further ado. We found a surprisingly good microwaved takeaway breakfast roll on the way which helped appease the hunger gods. The headache, dry throat and generally feeling rotten gang however, were absolutely not having any amount of mollycoddling. Pills, soothing sweets, drinks were all rejected by the devil of all bugs that was coursing through me. The prospect of a successful twitch was all that kept me going.

We arrived at Winterton at around quarter past nine. The morning had dawned gloomy with drizzle hanging in the air, which did nothing to help me feel any better. Our friend Kev had seen the Swift on the Wednesday and had advised that the best place to park was at the cricket ground carpark about a hundred yards from the church, which towers above the village. We know Winterton and the area around it reasonably well having twitched a few decent birds in the past nearby, most notably a Desert Wheatear just up the coast on a freezing cold January day just before all the Covid fuss started (read here). We exited the car and togged up. Just binoculars and camera would be needed for the Swift, trying to follow such a bird with a scope is hopeless unless it's miles away. I looked upwards as we walked towards the church and the first thing I saw was a Swift! Obviously it had to be the Pallid Swift as well since there had been no reports of any other Swifts in the area, or even in the country. Some twitches are easy. I needed a better view though, and some photos. Photographing Swifts is one of my most favourite of all birdy things to do, despite it being a really hard sport. The Pallid Swift flew over our heads again. I didn't feel great but seeing the bird so easily helped to take my mind off of things.

We walked into the churchyard choosing to seek out the wider views of the cemetery area at the back. I was surprised to see only one other birder present. We had a brief chat, while I kept a considerate distance away. I was finding that the fresh air was helping to clear my head and at that point, fuelled by the excitement of seeing the Swift, I wasn't feeling too bad. It took around five minutes before the Pallid Swift appeared again flying low over the adjoining allotments. Our view was frequently obscured by the trees and houses that surrounded the church grounds but every so often the Swift would fly over us or right past. It was flying at some speed of course but was pretty low down so, provided that I could get my act together, I should be able to get some decent photos. I struggled a bit to begin with though, the trees and buildings were fooling the camera and the grey light made exposing the images tricky. As with most Swift sessions, unless the sun is out and there's blue sky, trial and error is required to get the "over" exposure set correctly. Greyish birds against grey backgrounds are always hard to photograph. Eventually I managed to get a few passable shots. Photos that you could actually identify the bird as a Pallid Swift from anyway. Just.

Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus)

It was clear to us that standing in the churchyard wasn't the best place to be, those pesky trees were getting in the way far too often and besides the Pallid Swift appeared to be favouring the area back towards the car. So when it had gone "missing" for fifteen minutes we returned to the car and walked out onto the recreation ground. There was no sign of the Swift there either so we chose to sit on one of the benches that overlooked the cricket square and chatted to a constant stream of locals, all of whom were interested in the celebrity bird, and said hello to their many dogs. It had been almost forty-five minutes since we'd last the Swift when Mrs Caley announced that it was flying over the allotments at the furthest end of the park. That gave me the impetus for me to drag my aching body against its will up off the bench and walk across to the roped off cricket square. From there I was far better placed to get improved photos of the Swift when it flew towards me a minute or so later. My camera settings were more suitable for the conditions so the images were an upgrade on before but still not quite what I was hoping for.

Some of the meanings of the expression of Pallid are, "pale" or "insipid, lacking vigour", both of which could have been applied to myself as I wandered around that cricket pitch willing the Swift to fly past. In terms of the bird it is the paleness of its appearance compared to the Common Swift that lent the Pallid denominator to its name. In real terms though there isn't an excessive difference between the two birds, both are overall grey-brown birds but the Pallid Swift has a paler throat and forehead and a darker mask around the eyes. The body feathers are also pale fringed which in better light do indeed make the bird appear paler, and therefore more pallid. We were suddenly blessed with a break in the clouds and the sun temporarily shone threw with some intensity. As luck would have it the Swift suddenly appeared above the trees to my right and passed right into the shaft of sunlight. I had a chance and for once, I absolutely nailed it!

I had a single image that showed all of the vital identification pointers perfectly. For a few moments my own increasing pallor and sick feeling was forgotten. The bird made a few more passes and the sun put in further appearances but I never quite emulated that wonder moment from a few minutes before. There were some more pleasing images though and I was very happy with them. Mention should be made of the lopsided tail feathers of the Swift. The right side of the tail was being regenerated. Maybe that regrowth was the reason for the extended stay that the bird had made in Norfolk, although it clearly didn't stop the bird from being able to fly in true Swift fashion.

When the bird appeared to fly further away to the south just before eleven o'clock, we decided that a coffee was required. The village hosts a really nice cafe so we found a table away from the other guests and enjoyed a fine coffee and a local Norfolk pasty, which right at that moment easily surpassed any Cornish version of the delicacy. A pasty for a pasty!

Initially I had intended to do the "Pallid Double". There is a Pallid Harrier frequenting the salt marshes of the north Norfolk coast and I harboured a desire to add that to our year list since we had neglected to get it earlier in the year. However, there was no way that I was up to walking very far in my present condition so I postponed that particular quest. For now anyway. I reckon we'd try for the Harrier in a few weeks time. So, as an alternative and because I felt buoyed a little by the caffeine and stodge shot provided by the cafe, we chose to go and see some showy Waxwings at Wiveton near the birding Mecca of Cley-next-the-sea. As we drove across the top of Norfolk, remarking how quiet the roads were in comparison to the hectic traffic of the summer, the clouds parted and dissolved into nothing, and the sun burst through, this time to stay, for a while at least. We already had Waxwings on our year list courtesy of a couple of very showy birds in Bedfordshire during March (read here) but who doesn't love Waxwings? We certainly do. And so did half of the birders and toggers in Norfolk judging by the amount of cars parked in the small village carpark and the line of folk stood by the gates to the yard of the pub. At least we wouldn't have to look too hard for the birds.

There were seven Waxwings visiting a Whitebeam bush that was actually in the garden of the house next-door but which had branches overhanging the roof of one of the pub's outbuildings. It was difficult to get a view of the bush because of the crowd of folk already in situ so to begin with I had to wait for a gap to appear. Waxwing twitches are often busy affairs and I'm not always a big fan of the jostling and noise associated with them. Luckily the birds themselves are not often fazed by it all and just go about their berry-munching business as if nobody was there at all. However, this particular crowd were particularly annoying. Waxwings are often referred to as "Waxy's" but apparently "waxy" can also be a term applied to a person who is irritable and bad-tempered. I can be that at the best of times, but on that afternoon with my head beginning to pound once again, then I was definitely waxy. Very waxy. A couple of folk were doing my head in so I went for a sit down on the village green seat. It was more me than them though. I was best out of the way for a while.

The crowd eased off a little bit and Mrs Caley and I found a place by the gate. Three of the Waxwings flew down out of an adjacent tall tree and began wolfing down the berries of the Whitebeam. Incredibly my heart wasn't really in it but I pointed the camera at the birds for a while. Without sounding like one of those toggers who complain about so many things not being right for "good photography", the setting was a bit "messy", too many branches getting in the way and the sun was creating annoying shadows. But again, I think that was just more about me on that particular day. It's hard to be patient when feeling rough. I stopped taking photos and watched the antics of the birds.

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

A chap wanting to get even closer disturbed the Waxwings and they flew back to the tree. That led to a few grumbles amongst the assembled and a couple of toggers fired off a couple of derogatory comments towards the poor old boy who had wanted a better view. Maybe if folk at the front of these type of gatherings were a bit more accommodating towards others then these flashpoints could be avoided. It was too much for me to handle, for once I had no fight in me, so I suggested to Mrs Caley that we go and get a drink in the pub and sit in the rear garden where we could have our own private viewing of the Waxwings. With the mortgage arranged for the purchase of two coffees, we sat down at a table only around twenty feet away from the tree. Our view was now uninterrupted and we were able to enjoy the drinks while having private access to a single Waxwing that chose the berries on a branch directly in front of where we sat.

We'd been spotted by other folk of course and soon the pub garden was filling up with other birders keen to get their own views of the Waxwings. Unfortunately the outbuildings underneath the Whitebeam tree became extremely busy with staff seemingly making an endless beeline for them. That packed the birds off again and in fact we watched them fly off northwards. It was time to go. The Waxwings weren't reported again that day.

The drive home was absolute torture. Friday afternoon's are the worse time of the week to be driving anywhere. Half the country seem to be out in their cars on a Friday afternoon. We intended to stop at "La Hogue", where there is a terrific farm shop and cafe for a coffee and sumptuous cheesecake but by the time we'd reached the A11 I was running a temperature and just wanted to get home. The A428 was still closed because of the accident that morning but rather than navigate the back roads in the dark, I thought I'd use the A14 and A1 to get back to St Neots. The A14 was incredibly busy with endless lines of thunderous great trucks taking up the inside two lanes. The A14 in these parts has been upgraded and is nice and new but completely befuddles my cars SatNav that thought I was driving over fields. It felt like I was too. There is no southbound A1 exit either so I had to go north and double back at the first available exit. On the slip road back onto the A1 southbound a very unfriendly and stupid truck driver tried his hardest to wipe us off the face of the earth. I'm still shaking now.

Glad to be home, I went straight to bed and remained there for pretty much the next four days. The bout of man flu was the worst I've ever experienced in all my years. My throat was so sore that sleeping, eating and drinking was virtually impossible. By Sunday I was threatening to call for an ambulance so that I'd be able to get some antibiotics. But I have the best nursemaid in the world and Mrs Caley managed to keep me alive. The tried and trusted "Night Nurse" medication eventually had an effect and by Tuesday I was groggily up and about again, and finally went back to work on Thursday. By Saturday I was back birding!

Year List addition;

311) Pallid Swift

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