Tuesday 21 November 2023

Doing The Pallid Swift / Canvasback Double

I'd been feeling "twitchy" for a while and with my VLW due to go up to the Lake District for a week to visit her family this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to scratch that itch. In terms of what was on offer, the nearest bird was the controversial Canvasback as Abberton Reservoir in Essex. There was also a long-staying Pallid Swift at Winterton-on-Sea on the east coast of Norfolk but that was about three and a half hours away which was a bit beyond my usual twitching comfort zone. I refer to the Canvasback as "controversial": PL and I were due to head off to Abberton a week or so ago when news broke that two years ago six of this species were dumped by a wildfowl collector in a Suffolk gravel pit some fifty miles from Abberton. Whats more, whilst there haven't been any official reports of them since then, one of the six turned up at the original pit a week or so after the Abberton bird was first found. This fact certainly cast some serious shade on the credentials of the Abberton bird, enough to cancel our original sortie. Still, my need for a good twitch meant that my tolerance for distance and plasticness had increased so I decided on an uncharacteristically early departure from Casa Gnome at 5am to get to Winterton nice and early for the Swift. After that, going back via Abberton would be a nice bonus bird should I have the time and feel so inclined.

In the event, I slept rather poorly and woke up far too early. This at least meant that there was no trouble about getting up and I was breakfasted and out the door at 5 a.m. . Others have blogged about the pleasure of night time twitch driving but this was a new phenomenon for me. Heading off into the darkness, trying to clear the sleepiness from my head I certainly enjoyed the empty roads that were around at that time of morning. Indeed, the lack of traffic knocked a good 20 minutes off the ETA so that the Sat Nav was saying only 3 hours and 10 minutes to Winterton. With Radio 4 murmuring away for company I enjoyed the solitude of the journey. As I entered Norfolk the first fingers of dawn started to encourage me onwards towards my goal. At around 7:30 a.m. news broke of the Swift being "still present" on RBA so I felt that I was in with a good chance. The RBA reports were generally rather occasional each day and I didn't know if this reflected the actual number of sightings or not and with heavy rain forecast for the afternoon, I was somewhat nervously about how easy it might actually be to connect. So I sped on in a state of some nervous excitment. Right towards the end as I turned off into a side road I spotted a nice flock of Pink-footed Geese by the roadside - a very welcome year tick for an inland county birder!

Winterton Church

I arrived just after 8am as the Sat Nav had predicted and parked up by the famous church that was so often featured in RBA reports. A birder was walking back to his car at this point so I eagerly enquired about the situation. "Oh it's showing every few minutes or so just up there by the village green" - I needed no further incentive! I threw on my coat, grabbed my bins and sped up the road to join the throng. The village green turned out just to be a small grassy area, more like a large roundabout than a village green! There were a bit more than a dozen people there standing around in a relaxed manner and searching the skies for the Swift. Seeing as how I'd not yet seen it, in contrast to the mood of everyone else, I was still nervous to connect. After about 15 minutes of no sightings I spotted a birder in front of me watching something intently through his bins. Following his gaze I spotted the Swift hawking low over the rooftops to the south of us. Result! After about 30 seconds it disappeared but now that I'd seen it I could relax. First I went back to the car to get the rest of my stuff that I hadn't bothered with in my initial hurry: so walking boots on, and my scarf/snood for warmth in the chilly breeze and my backpack with flask and snacks. Then it was back to the green where I soon saw the bird again. 

Winterton village green, looking back towards the church

In fact it turned out that the bird was showing every 10 minutes or so throughout the time that I was there. For a while it moved up towards the church area but was generally always to the south of the road and often low over the rooftops. Given the time of year, I wonder if the warmth of the houses was attracted the insects more which in turn attracts the Swift. At least it seemed to be finding plenty to eat. I chatted with a couple up from Cornwall for a few days about Cornwall and birding in general. I wandered about, enjoying periodic views of the Pallid Swift and generally feeling contented. After a while the bird got much closer and gave point blank overhead views as I stood on the village green. It  was a real treat to see and I couldn't get better views of a Pallid Swift.

In general, watching the bird and comparing it mentally to Common Swift I could appreciate the broader wings and the slower wing beats. The eye mask and large white throat were only really visible when it was right overhead though I guess a good photo could pick out these features from more of a distance. With just my superzoom camera I didn't even attempt it but instead enjoyed watching the bird's aerial antics. 

A cracking photo of the bird courtesy of Nick Truby of Old Caley's Diary

After an hour I felt I'd had enough so drove the short distance down to the beach to stare at the sea while I had a cup of tea from my flask. Mentally I'd left things open in my head as to whether I'd try for the Canvasback or not depending on how quickly I saw the Swift. As it had turned out, it had been far easier than I had feared so with it still being so early I had plenty of time for the Canvasback as well if I wanted. I checked RBA: no news on it so far. I decided to have some more tea and then to make my decision. 

Looking back from the beach towards Winterton

I was just finishing my second cup when the "still present" news broke. That made my mind up and I set the Sat Nav for Abberton, some two hours away and headed off. In the event, the journey was rather troublesome. One of the key roads was suddenly closed and necessitated a diversion. Myself and a whole bunch of other cars headed off down some minor side road only to grind to a halt suddenly. It turned out the road ahead was closed due to flooding and so a whole bunch of us were trapped on a single track road. Having been in this situation beore, I know that you can all get stuck if you're not too careful so in the end I walked back along the line to report what was going on and people started to turn around from the back so in the end we were all able to get out. Having made it back onto the main road there seemed to be more issues up ahead as Google kept changing its mind about the route. There must have been at least a dozen corrections which I had to accept or reject. Finally, it ended up taking me through Colchester itself as the bypass was jammed. Eventually, at just after midday I finally arrived at the Layer de la Haye causeway which is where the Canvasback was hanging out today. I tooled up and hurried up the causeway steps to the long line of scopes all trained out onto the water. This was when the fun and games began!

Abberton Reservoir

It turned out to be very windy up on the causeway which meant that there was a lot of scope shakage. The birds were also very distant. There were about five hundred Pochard all milling about in the distance. They would frequently start swimming around frentically and diving every few seconds. Trying to pick out a bird with a subtly longer all black bill under such conditions was not easy. It was being called by birders in the line but in the wind and standing at the end of the line as I was, it was hard to hear them. Fortunately someone close to me seemed to be very good at picking it out and after a while the person next to them left so I was able to stand next to him. He was very helpful and tried to get me on the bird. The trouble was that there were so few landmarks to use. Things like "in front of the Goldeneye" or "next to the Goosander" were only so helpful as you had to find the other bird first before it moved and then try to latch on to the Canvasback before it dived. The best way was to wait until it was in an obvious place, so "right at the front of the flock" or "right at the back". In this way I managed one decent view for a second or so before it dived. At last I'd seen it!

There then followed a good period of not seeing it at all. I've found previously (e.g. the Redcar King Eider) that with the scope shaking around it's almost impossible to pick out subtle details at range. Back then the solution had been to get in the car, where the shelter there had enable me to find my target. However, that wasn't an option today. The birds were rather flighty and would occasionally fly up only to come down again, though each time this happened some of the flock flew off elsewhere. Would the Canvasback still be there or had it left? After one of these fly arounds a good chunk of the flock left but the remainder settle much closer and were much easier to scan. Then at last, everything aligned. The Canvasback became the "right-hand most bird of the flock". That was easy to find and I got onto it quickly. What's more, it swam around for a while without diving so I was at last able fully to appreciate it in all its glory. I'm sure that readers are familiar with the subtle differences between drake Canvasbacks and Pochard but suffice to say that with good views the different profile shape of the bill and the all back bill were distinctive enough. The paleness of the back was noticeable though didn't really stand out from the flock as the lightness of the ducks varied so much according to the angle they were being viewed at.  

A cracking couple of photos of the bird taken by Neil Bramwell

After my prolonged views suddenly the whole flock took flight and most of them sped off back to the other causeway at Layer Breton. That was the show over and most of the birders packed up and left at that point. I headed back to the car for some more tea and a chance to eat my packed lunch. Then it was time for the long slog back home. It was some two and a half hours back but the early start was starting to take its toll. Along the A12 I had a long call on my handfree set-up with my eldest daughter to pass some of the time but once on the M25 I needed my full concentration in the heavier traffic. A stop off at the Beaconsfield services on the M40 for more tea was enough to perk me up again and I made it back home by about 4pm tired but very happy with my double twitch day.


Appendix -The Countability of the Canvasback

It will be interesting to see what the BOURC decide about the provenance of this bird. In its favour we have:

  • Arrived at the perfect time of year;
  • It's been a great autumn for Nearctic vagrants;
  • Fully winged and unringed on both legs (I've seen the photos on X);
  • Associating with a suitable attractor species and behaving in a wild manner (so not swimming right by the edge and coming to bread!).

Against it we have:

  • The 6 birds that were released a couple of years ago
  • The fact that one of these 6 turned up within a week of this bird
  • The general paucity of Canvasback records - with so few the odds of a given bird being an escapee rather than a vagrant, are much greater.

However, regarding the previously released birds, apparently, only 3 remain which are all still at the original site and are all pinioned (not just clipped). This bird had a full and complete wing set. So, assuming all 6 were pinioned then this bird can't be one of them. That only leaves the possibility that these original 6 might have bred free flying offspring though there have not been any other records in the ensuing two years. All it all it looks reasonably hopeful.

In the end of course, it's up to the indivudal to decide what to put on their list. As I've said before, the BOURC has a thankless task in trying to evaluate the credentials of wildfowl in particular but, after their rejection of the Farmoor Falcated Duck, I rather lost my faith in them and tend to make up my own mind these days. As I have hinted before, my personal listing is done in layers. I have a strict BOU list and then on top of that are various layers ranging from subspecies that haven't been split yet (Eastern Black Redstart, American Horned Lark, Azorean Gull etc), things which haven't been accepted to the British list yet (Pied Crow etc), things which were release scheme birds (Lammergeier etc) and things which were deemed to be escapes or not proven to be vagrants (Marbled Duck, Falcated Duck etc). Finally I even have a layer of subspecies as you never know when these might be split (e.g. Taiga and Tundar Bean Goose which got split a while back). Anyway, this multilayered approach means that I can count all sorts of things at least at some level and it keeps me amused. And that, at the end of the day, is the whole point of this hobby!

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