Saturday, 2 May 2015

Paying Homage to the Hudwit

Whilst I'd been away on my long Scottish birding trip fairly recently, I'd found that far from sating my thirst for birding adventure, instead it had only left me wanting more. Thus when on Saturday morning news broke of a Hudsonian Godwit down in Somerset at Meare Heath NR my interest was very much piqued. Of course Saturday is a bad day for me: I had the weekly family food shop to do and a series of DIY tasks lined up for the weekend. Still, if it stuck around then it would make a nice little target for an outing on Monday, usually the most convenient day for me. Sadly, late afternoon the bird flew off with part of the Black-tailed Godwit flock there and wasn't seen again for the rest of the day, nor for the following day. "Oh well, that's that", I mused and thought no more about it.

Well, I say I thought about it no more but actually it did prompt me to do some reading up on the species which isn't one that had ever crossed my radar before, chiefly because the last record in this country was over thirty years ago. It turns out that this Nearctic species breeds in north west Canada and Alaska, including along the Hudson Bay. Before migrating they gather in Hudson Bay (hence the name) and James Bay (the southern end of Hudson Bay) and then embark on an epic migration down to South America where they spend the winter. In terms of identifying them, they are similar to Black-tailed Godwits though with diagnostic black underwing coverts as well as a fainter white wing bar. So, at least now I knew a bit more about them. I switched on my RBA text alert service for this species on the off chance that it should turn up again and left it at that.

Several days passed with no more news and then on Wednesday afternoon it turned up again. Should I drop everything and go I pondered? I had quite a bit of work that I wanted to get finished that afternoon as well as an important economic news release to watch that evening. In the end I decided to leave it until the next day. Predictably that evening it flew off again with a sub-set of the Blackwit flock and wasn't seen again for the rest of the day. Given how it had been several days before it had turned up again last time I decided to postpone my trip the next day and instead to wait on news. So I went about my usual business in the morning until at some time after 9 a.m. it came up on the pager as back again. Game on! I hurriedly got together my stuff, made a packed lunch and shoved everything into the Gnome mobile. I had enough petrol to get there so pointed the car down the Botley Road towards the A420. This is where it all went a bit pear-shaped. The A420 road was blocked off completely at the roundabout with a diversion in place which cost me about 15 minutes to get back on track. Further down the 420 at Farindon there were single-file traffic lights and another queue which fortunately only took about 10 minutes though I could see the queue backing up for miles in the other direction and made a mental note to come back a different way. Given that in the past the bird usually stayed for most of the day before it would fly off I ought to have been reasonably calm about it all but I couldn't help be a bit on edge least I got the dreaded news that it had flown off before I got there.

Talking about getting news en route I should mention a new discovery I made. There is this problem when you're driving on your own to see a bird and then an RBA text comes through with news on it. It is of course dangerous to try to read it though I must confess to having done it in the past. What I really needed was for my iPhone to speak the text to me so I didn't have to take my eyes off the road. Well, a bit of Googling and I found out how to do it (see here).  After setting this up then as each text came through all I had to do was to touch the message and it would read it out to me, something that's easy to do whilst keeping my eyes on the road. A real help, in my opinion. Anyway, fortunately the message were all positive and once onto the motorway I started to relax a bit and to get back into the groove of driving to the South West that was so familiar to me from my trips to Cornwall. I made up some of my lost time and so it was that in under two and a half hours I found myself turning in to the spanking new huge (though nearly full) car park at Ashcott Corner. I was familiar with the spot as I'd been here twice before (though to the Ham Wall side) for the Pie-billed Grebe and the breeding Little Bitterns. Whom should I see just as I turned in but Keith Clack and the Witney posse, indulging in some post-twitch snackery. It turned out that they'd come first thing on spec as they were going out for a day's birding anyway and thought that it might as well be here as anywhere else. Of course when the bird had turned up again they'd been right on the spot. I didn't chat long with them as I was keen to see the bird myself before it flew off again so I hurried off to find somewhere to park and to get tooled up. Then it was a rapid yomp the quarter of a mile down the path to the relatively modest twitch line of perhaps a couple of hundred birders. Just as I approached I saw a flock of birds all fly up briefly and I sprinted the last 30 yards though fortunately they'd settled down again and were still there. I then walked along the line asking if anyone had the bird though quite a few of the people at the start of the line didn't. Eventually I found someone who had it in his scope and I took a quick peek and then I could relax finally. I got my scope out and after a bit of help managed to get on the bird itself which was fast asleep in amongst a flock of over 100 Black-tailed Godwits.

The wader scrape: sadly the flock was near the back of the pool
Once one got one's eye in it was relatively easy to pick out being much darker than the other birds with dark barring on its belly and very dark wings. It's neck was barred and it had a little rufous cap on its head. When it occasionally got it's bill out for a preen this was long and slightly more up-curved that its Palearctic cousins. I busied myself with taking some digiscoped shots though sadly the flock were right at the back of the pool, the bird was asleep the whole time and there was a crippling heat haze which meant that all my shots were absolute rubbish.

The best photo I could manage in the circumstances
As I stood and waited for some kind of movement from the Hudwit, there was plenty else to watch. A Great White Egret flew over, a Bittern flapped off from the reedbeds, there were hawking Marsh Harriers behind us and several Hobbies overhead. In amongst the Blackwits were a Ruff and a Dunlin and in the reeds Reed and Sedge Warblers could be heard singing away and there were plenty of Blackcaps and Garden Warblers warbling in the hedgerows. In the water-filled ditch in front off us were shoals of Rudd which would occasionally be attacked by a large Pike which would send fish and water flying everywhere. All in all it was a very pleasant pastoral scene. Talking of Bitterns, an RSPB chappy there said that there were over 40 males in the Avalon Marshes area, and apparently it was one of the top spots in the whole country for this species.

Of course with such a crowd there I was bound to bump into some people I knew and sure enough I soon came across Peter Law and also my good Cornish friends Phil and Hilary ("P&H", ) who'd come up for the Hudwit but also to meet up with a friend for a spot of local birding and butterflying. Whilst there P&H also met up with Mark Cocker (a tick for me) whom they knew from a recent crossing on the Scillonian. They'd not brought their scopes so I let them use mine but Phil had brought some image stablisation binoculars - not something that I'd come across before but they were pretty impressive. They were larger and bulkier than normal bins but gave you 15x magnification and there was a magic button which switched on the image stabilisation which meant that you could actually see properly whilst holding them. I was most impressed as you can hear from the sound track to the video below (which is of course otherwise sadly a bunch of hazy crap).

Time passed. I went to get my lunch from the car and came back to find there'd been no change at all.
P&H went off with their friend and the rest of us hung around in the sunshine though with a rather stiff breeze taking the edge off what would otherwise be lovely weather. I really wanted to see these famous black underwings though so far it had resolutely been just about the only Godwit not at least to have the occasional wing stretch. I didn't have unlimited time: there was of course a price to pay for this visit in the form of yet another trip to Ikea and I didn't want to get stuck in the rush hour traffic. I'd mentally given myself until about 3 pm and it was just before then that finally the birds seemed all to wake up and then they had a little fly around where suddenly the Hudwit stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the flock.

Of course I wasn't able to photograph the birds in flight so here's a great shot by David Carr (c)
which clearly shows just how striking the bird is in flight compared to the Black-tailed Godwits

At last I'd seen what I'd been waiting for so it was time to head on back to the car. On the way back Peter and I managed to spot what was for me at least, my first Odonatae of the year in the form of a Hairy Dragonfly and a Large Red Damselfly. Nice! Then it was back to the car and back on the road. I knew the way to the Bristol Ikea from previous visits and when I arrived it was mercifully empty (there's nothing quite so hellish as a visit to Ikea when it's really packed). I quickly picked up the items I was after which were picture frames for my VLW's art as she was exhibiting for Art Weeks next week in Oxford (do come and visit if you want, she's at location 238 in the Jericho area). Next it was time for a quick tea and cake in the café before hitting the road again. Fortunately the traffic wasn't too bad and I remembered to go on the A34 which was fine as well. I arrived back early evening for a celebratory cup of tea and something to eat. It had been a very successful trip to see a genuine UK Mega and naturally I basked in the warm comforting glow of a successful twitch.

On other days the birds had been much closer on the scrape and the conditions less hazy. Here's one
of the best photos of the Hudwit that I've seen, taken by Gareth Jones (c). See his great blog here

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