Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Sandwich Supper and a Wild Eagle Chase

It had been a good couple of weeks since my last excursion and I'd started to feel the urge to get out again. It being June of course there wasn't so much choice and normally at this time of year I have to turn to insects as the focus of my outings. However there was the small matter of the Short-toed Eagle down in Sussex which now looked very much like it was here for the summer despite my giving it every chance to leave before I went to see it. Now for some reason birds of prey don't really do it for me in the way that other species do. Me, I love warblers, waders, gulls and exotic colourful stuff like Rollers and Bee-eaters but BoPs (and geese) not so much really. Still, it would of course be a tick and it wasn't too far away. What's more I found out that there was a reasonable dragonfly site literally three minutes down the road. The combination of these factors in the end pushed me over the edge so it was that I planned to head out on Monday down to Ashdown Forest in Sussex to see what all the fuss was about. However, in an uncanny echo of my last trip, the night before a county Red Alert intervened. Whereas last time it involved a dawn raid on the day of my trip, at least this time it consisted of a mad post dinner dash to Farmoor.

I was lounging on the sofa, contemplating an evening of watching the Glastonbury highlights on telly when I got a call from Badger, the hub of all county birding information. It turned out that Dai John had found a couple of Sandwich Terns at Farmoor which were flying up and down the causeway. Now, regular readers will know that this is my county bogey bird. We get a few records at Farmoor every year but they are always fly-throughs so that unless you happen actually to be there they are impossible to twitch. I've lost count of the number of failed attempts that I've made to see this species in Oxon. It looked like I was going to have to add another sortie to that list. Still, nothing ventured. I checked in with my VLW who was less than impressed at the timing as I was supposed to be putting our son to bed. She reluctantly agreed to do it for me and I hastily got my stuff together and sped off.

A mere 35 minutes after having received the initial call I arrived in the Farmoor car park, sped up the bank and gave Dai a call to get the latests. Miraculously he said that they were still there, sitting on a buoy on F1 half way along the causeway! I had deliberately put on my trainers for this trip and I put them into use now, running as fast as my out of condition fitness would let me. I could see Dai and Dave Daniels in the distance and they appeared to be watching something. Spurred on I made it up to them and lo and behold there they were, a couple of Sandwich Terns not more that 75 yards from me. One was sitting on a buoy and the other was on a green barley bale. They both looked very settled like they were there for the evening. Dai and Dave soon departed and I took some digiscoped snaps and revelled in the triumph of finally having seen this elusive species in the county. After a quick fifteen minute photo shoot I too wandered back along the causeway at a more leisurely pace this time and drove back to Chateau Gnome a contented bunny.

At last!
The next day was Eagle day. It seemed like the Eagle was normally first seen at around 9:30 in the morning and whilst on paper it should only take a couple of hours to get down to Ashdown Forest, given the inevitable rush-hour traffic I decided to add on half an hour to the journey time. Thus it was that I left at 6:30 a.m. and steered the Gnome mobile into the torrent of commuting cars that was the motorway. There were the inevitable stops and starts when the traffic built up too much but eventually I was passed the worst and into the Sussex countryside, finally pulling up in the tranquillity of the Long car park as planned at around 9 a.m. Having done my research it seemed that usually the bird was first seen in this area before later moving on to the Gill's Lap area to hunt so this was what I planned to do as well. 

There were only a handful of cars in the car park and I wandered along the main track with not another person in sight. The habitat was classic sandy soil heathland with heather, gorse and a scattering of widely spaced pine trees with occasional denser copses. It's a shame that we don't have anything like this in Oxon. There were the usual bird species to look out for in this area and I'd soon added Tree Pipit and Stonechat to the day list. At the end of the track where it converged with a couple of others I found four other birders, staking out a view point. This turned out to be the spot where the Eagle was first twitched in Sussex and indeed I recognised it from the photos. One of the ladies there had seen it on Saturday from the same spot so this seemed like as good a spot as any. The ground fell away from us down to a clearing which looked like a good snake hunting area and one could cover a reasonable area of sky from this vantage point as well. Time passed and we watched a Whitethroat family, lots of Linnets coming and going, a Green Woodpecker family and listened to an insistently calling Goldcrest in the trees behind us. A Large Skipper or two would flutter about in grass nearby. All very idyllic but there was no Eagle. A Sparrowhawk taking to the air gave a brief flurry of excitement until it was properly scrutinised. Gradually the others left to try Gill's Lap until it was just me alone in these peaceful surroundings. After about an hour in total I too decided to try my luck at the other site. To be honest I wasn't holding out too much hope for today as the bird hadn't been reported since lunchtime the previous day, a suspiciously long absence all afternoon. It wouldn't surprise me if the bird had moved to one of its alternative sites again, as it had done before. Still it was nice to be out in the morning sunshine in the Sussex countryside and I wandered back to the car in good spirits meeting various other birders coming the other way, the next shift of Eagle hunters.

A Stonechat on the track from the Long car park
A short 10 minute drive over to Gill's Lap found a very different picture from the calmness of the Long car park area. There were about 30 birders dotted about the place and there seemed also to be some kind of hiking jamboree taking place (perhaps Duke of Edinburgh) with scores of teenagers with huge backpacks either arriving or departing constantly. The word from the birders there was that there'd been no sign of the Eagle at all. I set up my scope overlooking the valley and got out some food to munch on. I soon discovered from a plaque there that this whole area was the inspiration for A.A Milne's Whinny the Pooh books and that many of the places in his books were based on sites in the area. For example, the wood to the left (actually called the 500 Acre Wood) was renamed the 100 Akre Wood and the valley that we were overlooking was the basis for Eeyore's Gloomy Place. As there was no sign of the Eagle, the sun had now gone in and it was in fact threatening to rain, I could well concur with this name. 

Eeyore's Gloomy place (and mine too!)
After a while of seeing precious little at all I decided to give up for now and instead head a couple of minutes up the road to the Sussex Wildlife Trust Old Lodge reserve. After all if the Eagle came up on the pager I could be back there in a very short space of time. So this is what I did. The Old Lodge turned out to be a great little reserve, set on a hillside it encompassed the basic heathland terrain in miniature. There was plenty of bird life about with trilling Woodlarks, a singing Yellowhammer by the car park and plenty of Tree Pipits. My main interest here was dragonflies, specifically Golden-ringed Dragonflies which love this sort of habitat and acid soil environment. I followed the path downwards and eventually came to a small stream at the bottom of a rather steep valley. Here there were a series of three small pools which all looked great. The only problem was the weather: it had rather clouded over and got a bit cooler, not ideal for dragonflies. Still I thought that I'd have a good look around.

Old Lodge Pool
At first I couldn't find anything of note but gradually I started to pick out Common Blue Damselflies resting in the foliage and I also found a single Large Red. Suddenly a large dragonfly zoomed into view and made a couple of very fast circuits of the pool. Wow betide anything flying about there - it would have soon been snapped up by this Large Emperor as it checked out the margins. A short while later another large dragonfly made an appearance and it too did a couple of quick circuits. However this one was clearly a Golden-ringed Dragonfly, there was no mistaking the gold rings, nor the slightly waisted look that marked it out as a male. Sadly it soon shot off again. At least I'd manage to see this lovely dragon, which is not to be found in Oxon at all.

After a while I started to wander up the hill to check out some more pools higher up. On the way I found more Tree Pipits, saw a couple of Crossbills fly over, saw a family of Woodlarks and a family of Common Redstarts. All good stuff. The pools turned out to be completely deserted. Even though it was clouding over more and more I decided on one more quick check of the original stream and pools though this time I found nothing apart from a few more Damselflies. As it started to rain I hurried back up the hill towards the car park. There it was a quick drive back to Gill's Lap where I soon discovered that I'd not missed anything at all. I positioned the car so I could overlook the valley through the windscreen and sat there munching on a sandwich. It was by now fairly clear to me that the Eagle wasn't going to show. A chap next to me postulated that it might be in hiding due to the gloomy weather as all the snakes would be hidden. However, first thing this morning it had been bright enough so I didn't quite buy his theory and was starting to think more and more that it had re-located again.

As I was now feeling a bit sleepy I decided on a final quick walk to stretch my legs. Accordingly I went down into Eeyore's Gloomy place where I was told there were a couple of small pools. I duly found these though apart from resting Damsels there was nothing else of note. On the way back I snapped this yellow flower which is a Bog Asphodel. I get the feeling that I'm going to start getting into flowers over the coming years. It has a sense of inevitability about it.

Bog Asphodel
Back in the car I'd decided that I'd had enough. I wanted to get home before the evening rush hour started anyway so I headed off. There were a couple of moments of excitement when my RBA text service which had been depressingly silent on the Eagle all day suddenly sprang to life. The first message was a "no sign all day" message that someone had put out for Gill's Lap. The second one was a "I've been watching the Eagle for the last hour and a half here in the New Forest" message. I cursed the b*stard observer out loud from within the confines of my car. Why could he not have put out the message when he first found it? Anyway it would have been too far to have gone all the way to the New Forest even if he had done so as I had to be back home in good time to take my daughter to her martial arts lesson. Oh well, it was just one of those things - my suspicions about the eagle re-locating had sadly proved correct.

As I drove home I contemplated my day out. I'd visited some nice habitat that I don't often get to see, seen all the local specialities that one might expect and I'd even managed to see a Golden-ringed Dragonfly in less than ideal weather conditions. Surprisingly I wasn't too upset about the Eagle. I may even get another crack at it at some point should it stay for the rest of the summer.

Who needs a mega Eagle anyway when you can have this!

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