Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Martin Mania at Chesterfield

Birders with their finger on the national bird news pulse will no doubt be aware of the Crag Martin currently in residence at Chesterfield in north Derbyshire. Found last week flying around the wonderful crooked spire of St. Mary's Church by a local birder checking out the Peregrines there, it led many birders on a merry dance of unpredictability last week. It was first found on the Monday, was seen regularly on and off on Tuesday around the spire before disappearing on Wednesday. In fact I'd been on stand-by on Wednesday morning to go for it on news but never got the green light. Things got a big vague over Thursday with some possible sightings which were then proven to be an aircraft (??) but it was back on Friday for much of the morning. In general it had a pattern of turning up mid morning at the spire and hanging around until early afternoon when it would suddenly disappear again. No one knew where it went to until Saturday afternoon when someone spotted it flying around the football stadium during a game. It turned out to be roosting in the shelter of the stadium roof (sensible bird!) and on Sunday morning birders there were able to watch it from first light for a couple of hours before it headed off to the spire where it stayed for it's usual late morning/early afternoon stint before it returned to the stadium again to roost.

An amazing shot of the bird taken over the weekend by Alan Lewis (c)
With the puzzle of it's routine now seemingly solved, a Monday sortie for it seemed like a good idea to me. I pondered what the best approach was: I could just set off at around 8 a.m. to catch the main showing at the spire though this would miss out on the most reliable chance of seeing the bird leaving the roost. Alternatively I could set off in the dark in order to be there for first light at the stadium though in general I hate doing this as I never sleep well if I have to get up at stupid o'clock and the tiredness ends up detracting from the whole experience. In the end I opted to go up on Sunday night and to find a local B&B to stay in - lazy I know as it's only a two hour journey (mere bagatelle to a hard-core twitcher) but it was nice to break up the journey and I should be able to enjoy the whole experience a lot more this way. I set off at around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evening and enjoyed the wonderful emptiness of the roads at this time of night as I sped northwards. The journey was uneventful and a couple of hours later I found myself on the bypass around Chesterfield, admiring the views of the flood-lit spire as I went past. I'd booked myself into a little pub in a residential area just a few minutes from the football stadium though sadly the place turned out to be rather run-down. The Sunday night pub quiz was going on with a loud P.A. system blasting away directly underneath my room until about 11:30 p.m. so I wasn't able to get to sleep until then. The lack of double glazing on the windows meant that the noise of the rush hour traffic which seemed to start at around 5:30 a.m. woke me and I didn't go back to sleep after that. Still, at least I could rest in my bed and in due course I showered, dressed and was out the door and heading over the to stadium some time after 7 a.m. 

I parked up in the large Tescos car park and strolled the few yards to the stadium where a few birders were already gathered. One could view into the ground in the gaps between the stands and I busied myself with looking under the rafters with another birder to see if there was any sign of it. No luck at the south east corner so I wandered over to the south west corner where a "Hello Adam" got my attention. It turned out to be Ewan Urquhart (see his great Black Audi Birding blog), who'd driven up from Oxfordshire that morning (he's more hardcore than me of course!) and we chatted away as we scanned the birds that were starting to fly around now as it got light. A few flocks of Redwings went over, there were quite a few Starlings perched up on floodlights and a Sparrowhawk went by. I was in a fairly optimistic mood about the whole situation after yesterday's showing and felt confident that any moment now the Martin would appear. It would be a UK tick for me though it turned out that Ewan had found what had been just the second for Britain down at Beachy Head many moons ago. 

Time passed and then just before 8 a.m. one of us spotted a lone birder standing at the north east corner of the stadium who was gesticulating and pointing strongly over to the west. We following his direction and there was the Crag Martin! It was hawking away near some Poplar trees on the other side of the road: unmistakably a Hirundine though much chunkier than any House Martin could be - I'd seen one before in France so knew what they looked like. We watched it for all of thirty seconds, trying to give directions to some birders next to us who'd not got on it yet. Suddenly it flew behind the Poplar trees and was gone. We fully expected it to return and so wandered over towards the west side to see if we could pick it up but there was no sign of it. I sent out a Tweet to RBA about the news so far as I knew that people would be wanting to know what was going on. We hung around for about twenty minutes just to see if it would return then Ewan suggested heading over to the spire where it had probably gone. From my journey yesterday and my pre-trip research I knew exactly where to go and so Ewan followed me into the maelstrom of the Chesterfield rush hour traffic and some fifteen minutes later we pulled up at what was by now (from the large numbers of photos that I'd seen on the net) the very familiar sight of the crooked spire.

The famous crooked spire of St. Mary's Chesterfield
There were a few birders there who reported that there was no sign of it so far so we settled down to wait, either for it to show up here or for news of its return at the stadium. Ewan went off to score some hot drinks and doughnuts and we admired the spire which was indeed very impressive. This location was much more picturesque than the stadium and would afford lovely close views of the Martin should it put in an appearance. Ewan spotted a skein of Pink-footed Geese going over in the distance and a Kestrel came and settled on a vent hole near the top of the spire.

Kestrel cubby hole
Several birders whom Ewan had met on some of his recent long-distance twitches (the Wilson's Warbler twitch and his Chestnut Bunting dip) were there, including a Scottish birder from Glasgow who'd dipped the Martin on Wednesday and who'd been unable to make first light this morning as he'd been tied up the previous evening. What's more he had to get back soon for a night shift that evening so he didn't have long and he was fretting about the absence of the bird. Ewan and I chatted away amiably, Ewan telling some great birding tales which had us both in stitches and in the sunshine the time passed pleasantly enough. 

Twitchers waiting in the car park
Ewan was thinking of heading on to catch up with a Pomarine Skua that was feeding on a gull carcass up near Morcambe Bay after this and I was originally intending to head home for lunch so, with a sighting already in the bag, we weren't going to give it too long. As we waited I messed about on Twitter posting news (or lack thereof) and a photo of the spire, reporting my Re-tweets and Likes to Ewan. He gave me a lot of good-natured stick about this accusing me of being a total Twitter Tart and promising a scathing write-up on his blog (I await with trepidation!). Ewan's Glasgow pal had to leave, totally gutted to have dipped yet again. Eventually at midday, some four hours after our brief sighting,  Ewan decided to head off for his Skua and I decided to head home. 

There was this wonderful wooden bee sculpture in the churchyard
About an hour into my journey the bird came on RBA as showing again and I did briefly contemplate turning around though I was already half way home and frankly by now I just wanted to get back so instead I continued homewards, arriving back at Casa Gnome at 2 p.m. where I had some welcome lunch, a cup of tea and then a nap to catch up on my disrupted sleep. It was just as well that I didn't turn around as I later discovered that it had shown for all of ten minutes by the spire and then that was it until last light when it put in a two minute showing at the stadium before roosting under the east stand. So it had been very uncooperative today with just a few minutes worth of views all day.

Reflecting on my day, it would of course have been fantastic to have seen the bird up close by the spire but at least I'd seen it which by all accounts was no mean feat. Chatting to other birders there, quite a few had already dipped this bird and apparently a couple of Oxon birders had dipped last week as well so I considered myself lucky to have seen it at all. My thoughts went out to the poor Glasgow birder who would have been on his way home again when he would have got the news of the bird showing at the spire. Birding can be a cruel game though fortunately the birding gods had seen fit to bestow at least a modest blessing on me today. Should the bird become more reliable then I won't rule out a second helping though for now I was content to rest easy and bask in the warm glow of my shiny new UK tick.


JRandSue said...

Fantastic Tick,fantastic capture.

Adam Hartley (Gnome) said...

Thanks John, though unfortunately the photo wasn't mine