Tuesday, 25 June 2019

An Elusive Little B*stard

Any birder with their finger anywhere remotely near the pulse of UK birding would no doubt be aware of the amazing find of a Little Bustard at Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire on Sunday. Now this species is pretty rare in the UK: apart from a flurry of four records in 2014/15 (of which only one Yorkshire record was twitchable) you have to go back to 2002 for the next one on the Scillies. What's more this was a splendid male complete with full black head, rather than the more usual drab immature "female types" that often stray into our country in their youthful ignorance So all in all, definitely a bird to try to see if at all possible.

Now, Slimbridge is very much within my twitching radius and indeed at under an hour and a half's drive I'm prepared to go on fairly speculative twitches there at the drop of a hat. So had it been a weekday's find then I'd have been all over it but weekends are generally not so easy for me as I usually have family stuff to do. In this case more so than usual as it was my son's 13th birthday so there was no question of making a sortie of any kind. Still, it was very much one to mark down as a "go for it on news" the next day.

The next day dawned and at 7 am there was indeed news of it still being present. Due to pre-opening access only being offered in hourly increments I felt that there wasn't actually much point in heading off immediately and in any event I just wanted to make sure that it was being reported at regular intervals as it had been the previous day. So I held off and for a while it seemed that my suspicions might have been justified as there was no news on it again for an hour and a half. However at 8:45 a.m. news came through again of it being seen on and off so I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed west along the A40.

The journey was uneventful and I arrived at Slimbridge at around 10:15, got tooled up and yomped off on the long slog out past the construction site that used to be the Holden Tower, on to the Summer Walkway towards Middle Point and the Dumbles. I could see the large crowd in the distance and as I got closer they all seemed to be looking at something intently. "This should be fairly straight-forward" I mused as I hurried to join the throng. 

The twitch line. At a peak it was at least double this number!

Once installed and upon asking my neighbour it turned out that things weren't quite as straight-forward as I'd been hoping: the bird was proving rather elusive but was very occasionally being seen right at the back of the very long grass. The trick was to catch it as it popped its head up out of the grass briefly, though this was easier said than done. My neighbour directed me to a distant patch of grass between two wooden posts and bounded at the front by a patch of thistles. "Keep looking in there and you'll see it eventually" he told me. I looked away at the wrong moment for he said "Oh, it showed really well there" but I didn't see it. Sadly after that it didn't show again in that area and my neighbour, after apparently four hours of no more than such glimpses, had had enough and decided to leave.

The Twitch Vista - just a vast expanse of extremely tall grass!

Gradually the ranks of the twitch line swelled as more hopeful birders joined in, all straining to see this elusive bird. Given how long the line was, it was quite hard to tell whether someone further along was on the bird or just giving directions to the right patch of grass to look at. Quite a while later there was a definite and clear sighting that was had by some others in a completely different place though by the time I'd worked out where they were looking it had gone again. How frustrating!

It was starting to get very hot and muggy and as it was now more than two hours since I'd arrived and I'd still not managed to see it, I was starting to get very disconsolate. As there seemed to be more possible sightings coming from further along the line I opted for a change of location to see if it would improve my luck. More people came and people who'd been there longer and who'd seen the bird, started to leave. One new arrival kept claiming that he could see something in the grass though none of the rest of us could despite looking through his scope. After a long while where he said "I think I can see it flapping its wings", he then finally announced that actually it was just a flower that he was looking at! Someone else thought he saw something in the grass elsewhere only to change his mind - grass blindness was definite setting in!

By now it was more than three hours since I'd arrived. I was starting to think about at what point I would have to throw in the towel. There was not much else to look at: quite a few Skylarks were buzzing about and in the distance there were lots of Crows. Over on the estuary itself there were plenty of bids though the haze was so heavy that it was very hard to make out what they were apart from the largest ones which included some Barnacle Geese, lots of Shelduck and a Heron or two. An Oystercatcher landed quite close and nosed about in the grass near us - if only the Little B*stard would do the same! A new batch of birders arrived around me and somehow their fresh keenness lifted my mood a little. In addition, a bit of a breeze had sprung up and it wasn't quite so oppressively hot any more. I girded my loins and went back to ceaselessly scanning the sea of grass for something birdlike.

Finally there seemed to be a change in the chatter further down the line: the tone was more urgent and excited - could this be the news we'd been waiting for? I headed a few yards down to get the instructions: "between the third and fourth post to the right of the large dead log, not counting the post in front of the log itself". I hurried back to my scope, passed the instructions on the rest of my birding neighbours and we scanned the area. "Blimey, there it actually is!" we all exclaimed more or less at once as the much sought after black head of the male Little Bustard stood out from the grass. Relief flooded over me and also over much of the rest of the twitch line, judging by the change in the sound of the chatter all around me, all at once jovial and upbeat now that the tension had been released.

A far better view of the bird than we had, taken by Andy Jourdan (c) the previous evening (from the RBA website)
It wasn't exactly a crippling view - at this distance and in the haze I didn't even attempt to reach for my digiscoping gear but at least you could clearly see what it was.Thank heavens it was a male bird as the black head stood out nicely and you could often make out the white bands on the neck as well. It seemed to be fairly faithful to the area right at the back between the two posts and as this distance was less than a scope's width it was fairly straight-forward to keep track of the bird. At regular intervals the head would disappear but then re-appeared a short distance away so you could follow its progress as it moved about. We all watched it in this way for a good twenty minutes. Everyone was managing to see it apart from our flower stringer chap who was really struggling. One of the others who cued up his scope so it was pointed at the right spot politely suggested that he might wish to clean his lens as it was filthy. Eventually he thought that he might have seen it though he didn't sound entirely convinced.  For my part I was just mightily relieved to have seen the bird and indeed to have been able to watch it for about twenty minutes. Accordingly after it disappeared for longer than it usually did I decided that it was time for me to head off as well. 

I wandered happily back towards the centre and thence to the car.  Here I hungrily demolished the snacks I'd brought with me - I'd not brought a proper packed lunch as I'd not thought that I'd be away for as long as it had actually taken in the end. Finally I fired up the Gnome mobile, cranked the air conditions up to 11 to counteract the muggy conditions and pointed the car in the direction of home. There was some entertaining programs on Radio 4 to keep me amused on the journey and so I arrived back in the bosom of my family just before 4 pm, feeling happy and looking forward to a well-earned celebratory cup of tea after finally gaining my first UK lifer of the year.

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