Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Drilling, Dipping and Ticking

We've got the builders in at the moment re-doing our downstairs shower room and also treating all the long outstanding damp problems that tend to come with an old Victorian house. This has involved a fair amount of heavy duty drilling to chip off old render and to dig up the floor of the shower room etc. Since I work from home I soon found that I couldn't really concentrate with such a racket going on all day so have decided that on days when there's serious drilling going on, that I will beat a retreat from the sanctuary of my office and instead go out and have a day's birding.

The first time was a couple of weeks ago and no doubt you can guess from the fact that I haven't blogged about it until now, sadly it didn't go too well. Now as regular readers know, I don't tend to like long distance twitching as a rule: it's a long way to go if you don't end up seeing your bird. I have in the past made exceptions for really good birds that were long stayers or highly likely to be seen but in general the two hour guideline works well for me. However I was sorely tempted by the Terek Sandpiper up at Covenham Reservoir in Lincolnshire and the previous day it had been showing well all day. Therefore on the day of my first "escape the drilling" outing when it was reported again first thing in the morning I assumed that it would be pretty much a "sure thing" for all of that day as well. Therefore I set off on the three hour journey to Covenham with a high degree of optimism. I even got a re-assuring "showing well" text part way through the trip and when another text came through just before I arrived I assumed that it too would be carrying good news. Pulling up in the car park I checked the message just to be sure and let out a howl of disappointment. It had last been seen about an hour ago when it had flown off! There were a bunch of disconsolate birders around the reservoir, mainly consisting of late-comers such as myself and the story was all the same though the reason for its departure seemed to vary. Some blamed pushy photographers, others said that a low fly-past by the RAF put it up. Either way it didn't really matter, it was gone and I had dipped. I did a complete walk around the reservoir (à la Wickster) just to stretch my legs and to check that it wasn't hiding anywhere else but apart from a couple of Common Sandpipers and several Wall Brown butterflies there was nothing of note. I ate my lunch in the car park slowly in case it was refound elsewhere in the vicinity but with no news of it eventually I had to concede defeat and made the long slog back home, with nothing to show for my efforts apart from a nasty dip and a feeling of great disappointment. Of course I know that dipping is all part of birding and I've done my fair share of it but I generally try to minimise it as much as possible by only going for birds that I have a good chance of seeing so I definitely wasn't a happy bunny.

The next batch of drilling was due to occur on Monday so naturally I looked around for something good to see. The Ross's Gull at Bowling Green Marsh RSPB, near Topsham in Devon looked a likely candidate: although it had only been identified on the Friday it had apparently been around for nine days before that (I don't really know what those Devon birders have been playing at ;-) ) and had still been around on the Sunday so it seemed a good bet. The only issue with it was that it would often spend a lot of time on the estuary, only coming back to the marsh at high tide or to roost. Fortunately high tide wasn't until 10 am on Monday so an early start should ensure that I got there in time to see it. I was up at around 5:45 a.m. and out of the house by 6:30 arriving shortly after 9 a.m. as expected. I even managed to find a parking spot just at the top of the road down to the marsh where I tooled up and hurried down to the hide. There I was greeted with a view of a large pool with a reedbed at the back and a bunch of loafing Black-headed Gulls.

Bowling Green Marsh RSPB - the view from the hide

It turned out that the bird was there (hurray!) but it was currently hidden (boo!). Someone tried to get me on it but at that instant something spooked the flock and they all went up. This actually turned out to be a good thing as the bird was very easy to pick out in flight. Its small size, with the distinctive dark extended central tail feather and W pattern across its wings all meant that it really stood out. I watched it as the gulls swirled around for some minutes before they all settled again, this time with the Ross's Gull in plain view. I quickly rattled off some digiscoped shots though the light was rather poor.

Three shots of the Ross's Gull
I'd spent no more that a couple of minutes shooting off photos when they all went up again and the Ross's Gull moved off to the left of the hide where the view was very restricted. I settled myself down to wait for it to return and in the mean time took stock of my surroundings. There were between 50 and 100 Black-headed Gulls milling around with a couple of Med Gulls, the odd Common Gull and a single Herring Gull in amongst them. Over to the right in a pool were three Little Egrets and a Grey Heron. Various Shelduck were also around as well as a smattering of ducks. 

Eventually the Ross's Gull flew back in. I picked it up in flight just before it settled on the shoreline. People were just trying to get on it when when suddenly all the gulls including the Ross's flew up as a Peregrine spooked the flock. We watched as the birds flew off to the right and down into the hidden River Clyst behind the reeds and out of sight. 

Shortly afterwards, Phil and Hilary (or "P&H" as they are known), my chums from Cornwall turned up. They'd come up for the day from the far south west in order to try and see the Ross's Gull. Naturally they were disappointed to hear that it had just been spooked by a falcon but settled down to wait for its return. In the mean time we caught up on news and they filled me in on all the Cornish gossip.

Time passed and gradually the hide started to empty. I was carefully grilling all birds that flew in, trying to pick out the Ross's as it came back. Suddenly I picked out a large white incoming bird with a huge spoon-like bill. "Spoonbill" I called out to the hide, and sure enough it was a 1st summer Spoonbill which settled in front of the reedbed. I took a few shots but it was rather distant.

Distant Spoonbill
Time wore on, I got bored with watching the Spoonbill and there was still no sign of the Ross's Gull. Most of the Black-headed Gulls had returned by now and were one again loafing by the main pool. After a while P&H, who it turned out knew the area pretty well as they had friends who lived in Exeter, decided to go for a walk along Goat Walk - a narrow raised path just at the end of the lane by the river Exe where you could look out towards Turf on the other side of the river. I decided to join them just to stretch my legs if nothing else. We found that the river was still pretty high despite it being nearly two hours after high tide though there was a stretch of exposed mud in the distance. On it we found a bunch of Oystercatchers, a few Black-headed Gulls a couple of Whimbrel and a family of Shelduck including nearly a dozen ducklings though sadly there was no sign of the Ross's. P&H decided that they would head off into town for some shopping and to get a bite to eat and then come back later for the evening roost which apparently the Ross's Gull had been attending faithfully for a while. I elected to head back to the hide to finish off my packed lunch and then to decide what to do. 

Back in the hide I'd just settled down to eat my sandwiches when the Spoonbill, which was still there, flew up and landed in one of the small pools to the right of the hide that was just by the roadside and which could be viewed through a gap in the hedge. There were only four of us left in the hide: one chap who'd got the high tide time wrong and was cursing his luck for missing the Ross's and two others who came with me to look at the Spoony. Fortunately the Spoonbill seemed quite unperturbed by us peering at it through the hedge and we were treated to what were for me easily my closest ever views of a Spoonbill, only some twenty five or so yards away. I busied myself with trying to digiscope it though frankly it was a little too close!

Close up Spoonbill
After a while I'd had my fill of crippling Spoonbill views and went back to the hide to finish my lunch. It was now about 1:30 and according to the pager there was nothing else around of note apart from a Greenish Warbler in Somerset which had deteriorated into "no further sign". With nothing else to tempt me if I set off now I'd be back home in time for an afternoon cup of tea with my VLW. So this is what I decided to do.

I wish that I could write that the journey home was uneventful but unfortunately half way up the M5 the car in front of me hit some debris which it kicked up into my path. It must have ruptured my radiator as five minutes later the warning lights went on on the dashboard and my temperature dial went off the scale. Fortunately I was subscribed to a car rescue package so I pulled over and called up the relevant people. There then followed a long wait for the car to be picked and taken somewhere safe for assessment. I was then relayed to a service station where after another long wait a second relay team took me home. I arrived back very tired at 8:30 in the evening some four and a half hours later that anticipated and with the headache of a possible large repair bill to worry about. Still at least I'd had a grand day out and had managed to see a rare Arctic Gull. I sent an enquiring text to P&H about whether they'd managed to see the bird in the end and fortunately it turned out that it had come in to roost at 8:55 in the evening, though apparently it was the only bird there and it decided not to linger but at least they got to see it. 

So there you are, a good day out tempered by some car problems. Sadly there is no further drilling scheduled for our works but at least I got a couple of good outings from it and I even managed to tick a cracking Ross's Gull.

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