Friday, 9 October 2015


Regular readers will know that I'm not one for "drop everything & go" twitching - unless it's within the county and it's a county tick. Anything further afield I'll usually wait to see how twitchable and reliable it is in order to minimise the horror that is dipping. However, when a Little Crake came on RBA this morning for some reason I was tempted. Perhaps it was that I'd had another frustrating morning with the markets or maybe my successful Spurn trip had whet my appetite for more birding action. Perhaps it was the crippling photos on Twitter of the whole of the Slimbridge work team watching it as it paraded about at point blank range, or maybe it was just that the weather looked nice and as it was relatively close to get to it wouldn't be such a devastating blow should I dip it. Whatever it was, within half an hour I'd made a packed lunch and was out of the door on the familiar route to Slimbridge some ninety minutes away. As I drove along in the warm autumn sunshine I couldn't quite believe that I was doing this. I felt sure that a frustrating few hours of staring vainly at some reeds would await me when I arrived. Still, I'd gone for it now though ominous absence of any RBA updates gave me a sinking feeling of impending dippage. Once I was on the M5 suddenly I got a whole wave of RBA and Twitter updates though so I guess that there was a log jam in the system somewhere. Anyway it appeared to be game-on still and I sped along with that usual combination of excitement and fear that is so characteristic of twitching. Frustratingly right at end, the swing bridge over the Goucester & Sharpness Canal was up for a boat to pass through - the first time that this has happened to me in all my time visiting. I could only wait impatiently whilst the boat chugged through slowly, then it was a dash along the last mile to the car park, a rapid tooling-up and a jog to the entrance desk. For the first time ever they wanted some other ID along with my WWT membership card (apparently there'd been a lot of fraudulent usage) so there were more delays. Anyway, ID done I was free to hurry along to the Rushy Pen hide next to the In Focus shop where the Crake was supposed to be.

I arrived to find a relatively modest twenty or so birders in the hide and news that the Crake was still there but had just ducked behind a tree stump. A minute or so later I spotted it working its way very rapidly along the far side of the scrape ...and relax! It worked its way surprisingly quickly along the shore, stopping to pick at things along the way. A birder next to me seemed to be struggling to get on it so in the end I got it in his scope for him. At another tree stump it stopped for a wash and brush up and was stationary for long enough for me to attempt a digiscoped record shot.

My humble digiscoped efforts

I must admit that I'd had to look up Little Crake when the news broke to see what one looked liked compared to Spotted and Baillon's Crake with which I was more familiar. As a juvenile it had the characteristic pale face and breast and a strikingly long primary projection. I could also make out the hint of red at the base of the bill that would go on to become a distinct red blotch in adulthood. Actually in juvenile plumage it was the most distinctive out of all the Crakes and certainly far easier to identify than as an adult where, for a male at least, only the red bill base and the primary projection separate it from Baillon's. I know that size is a hard thing to judge for an isolated bird but it looked bigger to me that I was expecting for something called "Little". After a few minutes of preening it ducked around the corner and the next thing it had gone up over the bank behind the scrape and out of sight into the ditch along the fence border. It had been on show for a total of about five minutes since I'd arrived. 

Having had immediately success I didn't feel the need to hang around until it re-appeared and decided to have a look at some of the other hides first - after all I could soon hurry back should it come out again. Now, whilst I don't really year list, I do keep a tally and I must admit that I'd started looking to see what I hadn't yet seen this year so a chance to mop up a few geese wouldn't go amiss. My first port of call therefore was to the Holden Tower hide which overlooks the Dumbles and the Severn Estuary. Here there was a large flock of a couple of hundred Barnacle Geese and Greylags all grazing away on the grass. As I searched through them all I turned up a few White-fronted Geese which were a nice year tick.

Barnacle Geese
In the distance I spotted half a dozen Common Cranes - from the Slimbridge release scheme no doubt but it was the first time that I'd actually seen them in the flesh. It's great to see that this conservation project is going so well and I understand that one chick has been raised this year for the first time.

Slimbridge Release Scheme Cranes
Over towards the estuary I spotted a distant Peregrine sitting on a pole, probably digesting a meal judging by its rather plump appearance.

Distant Peregrine
After the delights of the Holden tower I wandered over to the other end of the reserve to the Zeiss Hide to see if any of the waders were roosting there yet. A Semi-P Sandpiper has of late been in amongst the Dunlin that come in to roost at high tide though from various blog accounts that I've read the views have been distant and it has been difficult to ID. The hide turned out to be almost deserted and there were just a few Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank and half a dozen Dunlin on show - no year tick there then.

Having checked out the other hides I made my way back towards the Rushy Pen hide, munching on my packed lunch as I went. Back there, the hide had filled up almost to capacity now though apparently there'd been no further sign of the star Crake. I didn't really feel like staking out the ditch in a cramped hide and decided instead to quit whilst I was ahead. So I ambled back to the car and set off back for home with Radio Four to keep me company. As I drove I contemplated what I fine line there sometimes is between success and failure in this twitching game. Last time I'd been at Slimbridge I'd dipped the Purple Heron by leaving the hide five minutes too early. This time I'd managed to see the Crake, by a margin of five minutes again and as I write this now I can report that the bird wasn't seen again that day at all so I'd succeeded by the skin of my teeth! Such small margins can mean the difference between success and failure. As my VLW says "it's a stupid hobby".

What the bird looks like close up, courtesy of James Lees, the Slimbridge warden & finder (c)

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