Thursday, 13 September 2012

Rainham Crake

I still maintain that I'm not much of a twitcher, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Don't get me wrong, I like seeing rare birds and am prepared to travel a moderate distance to do so (hence my two hour rule) but I don't like dipping (hence my bedded down & predictable rule) so I'm fairly fussy as to what I'll go and see. The lack of many birds fulfilling these requirements over the summer meant that I was rather starved of twitching action and despite my successful Dowitcher twitch last week I was still hungry for more. Therefore when a juvenile Baillon's Crake appeared on the radar at Rainham Marshes (within my two hour rule) I watched developments with a keen interest. It certainly seemed to be well established and was being seen each day but from reading up on the Bird Forum thread the views were difficult to come by to say the least. It was skulking away deep in a reed bed and people were getting occasional glimpses through gaps in the reeds but these were fleeting and few other people were getting onto it. On some days it might come out fully, often at dawn or dusk but often it would not break cover and apparently many people had put in large numbers of hours over several days without any success. All in all it wasn't an ideal twitchable candidate for me but somehow reading all the reports had got to me and I decided that I would like to have a crack at it despite these drawbacks. To add to the uncertainty there was the additional random factor of when the reserve would open: official opening hours were 09:30 am to 5pm though they'd opened early and stayed open late over the weekend when it was first found. Despite the official opening time often a volunteer would come in early and open up which made it all rather difficult to know what time to turn up. I decided to aim for 08:30 so I wouldn't have to hang around too long in case there was no early opening but I would get a bit of a head start if there was. Thus it was that, after a fitful night's sleep spent anticipating the alarm clock, I found myself leaving the house at 6:30 am and headed off into the rush hour traffic towards Rainham.

I arrived on time having managed to survive the M25 in rush hour. There were more than a dozen or so cars in the car park when I pulled up so clearly others had had the same idea of gambling on an early start. The first thing I noticed was this cheeky fox hanging around in the car park bold as brass though he sloped off as other cars started arriving.

He appears to have a bit of a sore on his hind leg but could move perfectly well

By the Visitor Centre I met up with Howard (the warden) who's been doing sterling work ensuring that visiting twitchers had maximum access to the bird where possible. He informed me that the bird had been seen today and the reserve was already open. I got directions to the hide from him and set off on the twenty minute hike to the hide which was on the main loop in the North West corner (about as far as possible from the Visitor Centre). En route I heard a Yellow Wagtail but apart from that there was little of note. I arrived at the hide to find twenty or so birders already inside and the prime right-hand side area already taken up though I did manage to get a seat at the left-hand end and so settled down for what I anticipated would be a long wait. Apparently the bird had been seen first thing when the hide was opened up at 6am but not since. There were a couple of familiar faces in the hide: Phil Woollen (whom I'd met at Lodmoor last week) was there again down from Cheshire for the morning, and Sean Foote, a moth expert who sorts me out on the Bird Forum Moth ID forum with my ID problems.

The view from the hide. The nearest "island" of reeds on
 the right-hand side is the one that the Crake favours

I passed the time scanning the front of the reeds from my vantage point and taking periodic breaks in order to stare out into the distance at nothing in particular. It was a lovely sunny morning though with a bit of a nip in the air and it was very pleasant to sit in the sun waiting for some Crake action.

A Common Darter settled in front of the hide as a welcome
 distraction from scanning the reeds

After getting on for about three quarters of an hour of this suddenly someone at the right-hand end called out that they'd seen the Crake. Despite this, as predicted it was nigh on impossible to get onto it even if one went to stand behind them. The general tactics seemed to be to focus on a gap in the reeds and wait for it to pass it so even if it was called out by the time everyone else came over it had already gone. Nevertheless a few more people started seeing it and eventually it broke cover and had a good preen out in the open for several minutes enabling everyone to see it. I'd moved from my original spot to get a better view so didn't have my cameras with me for when it emerged so I didn't get to take any footage. Below instead are some excerpts from others who'd managed to capture it on film.

 Top drawer (or should that be shelf) crake porn taken that evening
courtesy of Jonathan Lethbridge (c) (see his great blog here)...

...and here's some video taken by Sean Foote (c) of the bird when it was out in the open

Relief inside the packed Tower Butts Hide shortly after the bird had shown

After a few minutes the bird returned to the reeds and went back to skulking mode. There was palpable relief in the hide after it's showing and I too felt elated actually to have seen it so well and so quickly it being only about 10am now. I knew that I wouldn't get better views than I'd had so there seemed little point in hanging around for more occasional glimpses and I decided to head off back to the car. As I walked back there was a steady stream of birders heading towards the Tower Butt hide, presumably encouraged by the reports of it showing again.

Back at the car I considered my options. Having negotiated a full day pass from my VLW for birding it seemed rather a pity to return home so soon. Instead I thought that I might head home "via" the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire where there had been some good birds reported recently including a White-rumped Sandpiper. As you may be starting to appreciate, my idea of things being "on the way" is quite flexible! It would take a little over two hours to get there, I could spend a couple of hours there birding, two hours to get home and I would be back in time for dinner. That sounded like a plan. I therefore set the Gnome Mobile co-ordinates for the Ouse Washes and duly set off in the direction of the M11. It's always interesting when you hit Cambridgeshire as to just how flat the countryside is. Miles and miles of farmland with long straight roads going through them. It does almost remind me of driving through America on holiday a couple of years ago though there everything is on an altogether different scale. Anyway, the roads got progressively smaller as I neared my destination and the last couple of miles were little more than a bumpy track. Suddenly I turned a corner and there was the Old Bedford River and shortly thereafter the RSPB car park. I parked up, crossed the bridge over the river and headed towards the Kingfisher Hide to take a look.

 The Ouse Washes RSPB Hides Map

The view from Kingfisher Hide looking out over the Washes 
with the River Delph in the foreground

The basic layout was the Old Bedford River, then the Old Bedford River Bank (a large raised bank) which overlooked the River Delph and the Ouse Washes flood plain which in turn was bounded by the New Bedford River (or "Hundred Foot Drain") on the far side. In the distance were some reedbeds but close in the Washes were wonderfully flooded but showing plenty of mud and were teeming with birds. There were a series of fields with hides stationed at intervals along the Bank. The Kingfisher Hide overlooked the main hotspot for waders but the Grose Hide overlooked the area which was more favoured by the ducks. I started at the Kingfisher Hide which was half full when I arrived. I asked about the White-rumped Sandpiper and apprently it had been seen early that morning but not since and no one there had been able to find it. After a while one chap did pipe up that he thought he had it though he seemed incapable of giving directions of any kind. He then lost it but a short while later claimed to have it again in his scope. As he wasn't very forthcoming with directions I went over to get a bearing as to where he was looking and then asked if I could take a quick look in his scope. Disappointingly it turned out just to be a Curlew Sandpiper that he was looking at. There were loads of good waders about: plenty of Greenshank, Ruff, Dunlin and Ringed Plover, a couple of Curlew Sandpiper, two Green Sandpipers and one Spotted Redshank. On the egret front there were loads of Little Egrets, one Great White Egret right at the back in the reedbed, one Spoonbill feeding away in the pool and an immature Glossy Ibis kicking about. Occasionally a Marsh Harrier or a Hobby would go over and all the birds would go up. The second time this happened a lot of the small waders went of somewhere else so there was clearly another spot where they were at least resting if not actually feeding and this may have accounted for the lack of the White-rumped Sandiper. On the River Delph at the front there were a couple of Kingfishers zipping about as well as some Coots and very noisy Little Grebes. All in all it was a fabulous spot with all sorts of great birds to look at, definitely worth a visit despite the non-appearance of the vagrant Sandpiper. I even bumped into David Cudden and his wife in the hide: he's an Oxford birder who contributes photos to the Oxon Bird Log that I run with Jason Coppock - it's a small world.

Digiscoped Glossy Ibis...

...and some video of the Spoonbill

Anyway, time was marching on so I went back to the car and set the co-ordinates for home. An uneventful couple of hours later I was back home with the family, drinking a long-overdue cup of tea, hearing how everyone else's day had been and basking in the warm glow of a Grand Day's Birding and a successfully-twitched Mega.

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