Monday, 21 June 2010

Fenland Frolics

God June's been boring! Even though I know to expect it to be a poor month it's been so quiet in Oxon that I've not been out birding anywhere apart from to check what's left of the Port Meadow floods. Actually, one of the things that I enjoy about patch birding is that one can appreciate the subtle changes, the little things that occur on the patch and I have been enjoying seeing the various fledglings flitting their way around Burgess Field and the arrival of the juvenile black-headed gulls on the remains of the floods. Apart from these small nuggets it's been quite frankly dull. I have to confess that I've even been flirting with macro photography in the garden: taking extreme close-ups of various flies and insects and even a snail! I know that some people are really into this sort of thing but If I'm honest it just doesn't really do it for me and I can't actually see myself getting the "Collins Guide to Flies" and trying to identify them all. I was going to publish my efforts on this blog but fortunately you are spared this tedium (for this time at least) as I am able to report on a trip that I made yesterday to Cambridgeshire.

Given how quiet it was I'd been keeping an eye out for something of interest within striking range to go and see: I felt that I'd left a respectable amount of time since my last excursion and I'd been dutifully doing my chores in order to replenish my brownie points so I was now in stand-by mode. There is currently very little about in the country and I'm sure that keen birders are already one step ahead of me in realising that I must have gone for the Berry Fen blue-winged teal and this is indeed what had grabbed my attention. Having originally been found at Fen Drayton it then relocated to Berry Fen where it had been seen every day for the last four days. Whilst this wasn't quite a "long stayer" that I usual look for it, given the circumstances it was good enough. I wasn't able to do my usual "dawn raid" as I now have work commitments first thing in the morning so I set off at around 9am for Cambridgeshire arriving on schedule a bit before 11am at Bluntisham where I parked next to what was obviously another birder's car by the gate. As I got my gear together I could hear a purring turtle dove calling nearby.

It had not been at all clear from the maps or directions exactly where to go: the OS maps don't actually show the fen at all and the pager directions had been less than clear. Accordingly I set off and soon found the fen but on the north side of it where there was no clear spot for scanning the water. I eventually found a vantage point but realised that I was looking into the sun and so it was all rather difficult. I could see no sign of the teal but I did spot the other birder who was on the opposite side of the fen where the viewing must have been easier. As I was having no luck on my side I decided to head over to where he was and some ten minutes later I found the path along the southern side of the reserve which was clearly the proper point from which to view and the light was so much better from this side.

Berry Fen with Bluntisham church in the distance

During this time another couple of birders had arrived so we walked around together scanning as we went. There was a thick block of trees between the Great Ouse and the path from which various warblers, including a cetti's were singing. In the centre of the fen itself the commonest birds were coots though there was at least one pair of little grebes who could be heard whinnying away periodically. There were at least half a dozen pairs of redshank, a pair of oystercatchers, a pair of ringed plover and several lapwings around the place so it was obviously a key habitat for breeding waders. Most of the ducks appeared to be hanging out at the south west corner so we headed in this direction. As we did so distant male marsh harrier was seen quartering over a neighbouring field. Whilst we were waiting for the teal to appear a yellow wagtail and a common tern both flew over. In the far corner the moulting drake garganey was found, doing what garganey's do which is dabbling away just below the water so that their head is usually submerged. This makes them very difficult to photograph and one just has to keep one's finger pressed down on the shutter and hope that you get the shot when it's head pops out for a while.

As you can see I was only partially successful with my garganey shot but given the heat haze and the distance it wasn't too bad

There was also a lone little egret which was more cooperative on the photo front

A couple more birders soon arrived including someone I knew from Oxon (it's a small world). It was actually he who eventually found the blue-winged teal, tucked up asleep in the long grass on the far bank with a bunch of other sleeping ducks: it was only when it put its head up that it was finally spotted. It eventually woke up and started some vigorous preening though it remained hidden in deep grass the whole time so my digiscoping shots were of record shot quality only.

The drake blue-winged teal skulking in the long grass

I also took some video of the bird preening. I've muted the sound as it's just me chatting to a birder about taking videograbs.

Eventually I decided to move on, though on the way back to the car I stopped to look at a seal which was loafing around on the river bank just a few yards from the path and which seemed unperturbed by the people close by.

The loafing seal, a long way from the sea though apparently it's not that uncommon for seals to be seen in the Great Ouse

Naturally enough, I'd endeavoured to find a second bird to see whilst in the area and my attention had been drawn to several recent accounts in the birding blogosphere of trips to see corncrakes where they've been re-introduced at an RSPB reserve in Cambridgeshire. The corncrake scheme has been running for a few years now with successful breeding and they are finding unringed birds on the reserve so either the offspring of the breeding birds are returning the next year or the introduced birds are attracting other birds to the area - probably a bit of both. Accordingly I headed off to this location from Berry Fen though it took longer than anticipated and I didn't arrive there until about 2:30 pm. After some research on the internet and from piecing together what I'd read on other blogs I realised that one actually needed to access the reserve (which I'm not going to name though it's fairly easy to find out for oneself) from the west end along a very long straight track that bisects the reserve. This area is out of bounds during the winter months when the duck and waders are present but it seems to be ok to visit it during the summer months.

The long straight track across the reserve

I didn't have a great deal of experience with corncrakes and in fact had never even heard one. I was expecting that they were like quail in calling mainly at dusk but thought that I'd have a go anyway seeing as I was in the area. However I wasn't holding out much hope as I started walking along the track listening out intently for the tell-tale call. There was long grass on either side with ditches running alongside the track and also ditches periodically running at right angles to the road across the fields. There were quite a few meadow pipits doing their song flight and several sedge warblers and reed buntings around. I also saw a distant male marsh harrier and a single hobby. Interestingly enough there'd been no hobbies at Berry Fen at all which was unusual: you'd have thought that there would have been loads of them there as there'd been so many dragonflies about.

It was quite a hot day and in the mid afternoon sun I was starting to get hot and sweaty and my hay fever was starting to play up a bit. I was just wondering how far along the track I should go when I heard the distinctive "crex crex" call which seemed to be quite close by. I crept closer and as I could hear some rustling noises close by I moved towards the ditch by the road. At that moment a corncrake flew out of the ditch some ten yards away and landed again in the same ditch about thirty yards further down. Result! I'd been hoping just to hear these secretive birds and actually to have seen one was a real bonus - I was most chuffed. There was never going to be a chance for a photo so I turned round and headed back to the car. Most pleased with my fenland outing, I headed back for home arriving less than two hours later.

I think that these might have been the pens which are used to aclimatise the corncrake chicks before they are released. I believe that the chicks themselves are reared at Pensthorpe.

Two year ticks and in fact life ticks for me as well as a most welcome respite from the tedium of the June doldrums. I know that the teal is supposed to have a metal ring on its leg and so is possibly an escapee but I've heard reports of it being suitably wary and I'm generally quite tolerant of this sort of thing on my personal list and don't always rely on a committee of wise birders to tell me what I am allowed to tick. With the corncrake there is the usual question of what to do about release scheme birds. Once again I'm pretty tolerant: after all none of the Oxon birders have problems with ticking red kites which were all re-introduced very successfully in the Chilterns. White-tailed sea eagles are another example of successfully re-introduced birds that everyone happily ticks. One could argue that once a scheme has been running successfully for long enough then the birds become tickable but then you have to ask how long is this and when do you know when you're allowed to tick it? My approach is simple: I'll happily tick a re-introduced bird as long as it's actually in the wild (i.e. not in a pen!) and if I've had to make a bit of an effort to see it! For example, I have a release scheme great bustard on my list which I know doesn't count for much compared to a genuine wild bird but at some point I hope that the Salisbury colony will become established enough for birders in general to be happy to tick them. Anyway, my life list is so low that I can't afford to be too fussy with my ticks!

National Year List 2010
180 BLUE-WINGED TEAL 21/06 Berry Fen, Cambridgeshire (LIFER)
181 corncrake 21/06 Cambridgeshire (LIFER)

No comments: