Friday, 22 November 2013

Wow, what a day!

Today was a bit of a landmark for me when it comes to wildlife watching- I got some good luck! I would even say excellent luck. It involved a very special bird that I had never seen before, and set off today to the New Forest to look for. I had seen several reports of this bird in the past few days on the Hampshire bird news website in a specific part of the Forest, so I went there, and it turned out to be a very boggy part so I had to pick my way across very carefully, which was fun, especially as the soles of my walking boots were starting to flap. And as well as being a bog this was also heathland, which means I went from being surrounded by birds on the neighbouring farmland (House Sparrows, Starlings, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Pied Wagtails, a Grey Wagtail, Bullfinches...heaven!) to being surrounded birds, because heathland is like that. And the 2 Meadow Pipits that flew by weren't what I was looking for. And I tend to consider my luck when it comes to birds to be in the region of fair to poor, so I wasn't all that hopeful about finding the bird. I'm setting the scene with this stuff just to show you what a surprise it was that....

...Suddenly, what I thought for half a moment was a Magpie flapped across the path, with rounded wings and a long-ish tail, to land at the top of a tree. It was the bird I was hoping to see: a Great Grey Shrike! Its black bandit mask and big beak and bold grey and white body were just as perfect as I had hoped! It was absolutely beautiful. And what a chance that it just so happened to be in front of me at that precise moment as I picked my way across the bog! It could have been anywhere, but it was there, in front of my eyes. I watched it as it flew from tree to tree, always easy to spot when it landed because it perched openly, and its white front was easy to see from a distance. Its tail was longer than I'd expected, and I certainly wasn't expecting to see it hover for a moment, but apparently Great Grey Shrikes do that! Shrikes are carnivores so maybe it helps them see their prey. I was able to watch it for a full 5 minutes before losing sight of it. Magical.

After that excitement I still had the whole afternoon left, so I decided to try out a nature reserve that was in the area, Blashford Lakes. I'd never been before, but upon arriving and looking out onto the large, wildfowl covered pool, practically the first thing I saw was a gorgeous drake Goldeneye! This was not something I expected to be able to find in Hampshire. And then, among a roost of Teal, I noticed a larger duck with its dark green head under its wing, with a completely white body apart from a black stripe on its side- a male Goosander! Both of these are ducks that I have seen very few times in full drake plumage, and ducks I rarely see in the county ever (actually the Goldeneye was a first for my Hampshire list, and the Goosander the first since I was about 12 or something). But it seemed that Blashford Lakes was a bit of a hotspot for Goosanders, later there was a group of about 10 with a good mixture of drakes and ducks, and there is a hide on the reserve named after them!

Walking to the other side of the reserve and entering another hide which was packed out with people, I was immediately urged to look into a spot of reeds just in front of the hide where these was a little clearing. And there, almost larger than life, was a Bittern! I say that because it was bigger than I expected. I've seen a Bittern once before, a couple of winters ago at RSPB Dungeness, Kent, and it was flying along in the distance and looked like a Grey Heron, only with a shorter neck and brown wings. But now I was looking at this wonderfully charismatic bird about 5 metres away! It had such beautiful feathers and lovely long black streaks under its huge eyes that I had never noticed in pictures before. Its funny how you can see a bird in pictures a million times and its only when you see it in real life that you notice these things about it, like when I noticed the shrike's long tail that I never noticed in pictures.

The Bittern moved very slowly like Grey Herons do when they hunt, only it was slooooowly stalking through reeds instead of on water. It could pull in its neck so it barely seemed to have one, and then extend it out in a weird bend almost like a snake. I didn't see it actively hunting, just going about in its slow, incredibly camouflaged Bitternish way. It took a very small drink from a puddle of water and then slowly, slowly drew its way out of sight, becoming so camouflaged behind the reeds that you couldn't notice the moment when it was truly gone. I watched the lake for a while (and it was very well stocked with waterfowl: there were Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Shoveler, Wigeon Great Crested Grebe, Coot and Moorhen though oddly no Mallards), and then looked back at the reeds and the Bittern was there again! It had sneaked back into view without anyone noticing, and it delighted viewers for a little longer before sloooowly moving out of sight again. Bitterns are so, so elusive that I knew these close views were extremely lucky, and I may never see a Bittern this well again. What a time to not have my sketchbook on me, honestly! I suspect it helped that, unlike most hides, the windows in this one did not open. I think if they had, the sounds of even quiet talking and banging of the windows being opened might have made the Bittern too wary of ever being close to the hide. As it was, someone banged the door a little too loud at one point and I saw its head jerk in reaction. I got the impression of a bird that is 100% aware of its surroundings at all times.

My day of new things was not quite over- later I went to try out a different hide on the same large lagoon I was looking at when I first arrived, and while marveling at how much there was to see (an even greater array of waterfowl than before, plus a single Green Sandpiper and a Kingfisher whizzing about), I became aware from talk at the other end of the hide that there was a Red-crested Pochard somewhere in that huge array of ducks. This is a duck that's a vagrant to Britain from the Continent, with a few turning up each year, and the drake is very pretty with a fantastic, orange head that seems to glow extra bright in the sun. (and it was very sunny. Did I mention that the weather was perfect too?) This duck also has a special significance for me, which I will explain in a moment.

Now, this is a bit taboo as birdwatching is a sharing hobby and people like to help out, but I like to find birds by myself if possible (I show them to others though! But when it comes to finding birds I'm shy and also proud, and want to learn by myself. ^^) So I started scanning the ducks without asking the guys who had found the Red-crested Pochard whereabouts it was. I was looking out for that bright orange head, but in the late afternoon sunshine, the chestnut heads of all the drake Wigeon looked bright orange, so I kept thinking I'd found it when I hadn't and getting excited too soon. I also tried to look for the far plainer duck pochard, because I didn't even know if it was a duck or a drake I was looking for! And most of the ducks were too far away to see well enough with just binoculars.

I really, really wanted to see the Red-breasted Pochard because back when I was a really young wildlife watcher, about 8 or so, I was walking in a little village quite near my town when I came across a little pond that had ducks in it. But they weren't your bog-standard Mallards of farmyard ducks- they were a lovely pair of Tufted Duck (one of my favourite ducks back then) and a pair of Red-crested Pochard, a duck that wasn't even in my parents' bird book! (it only covered Britain.) I was convinced I had found my first rarity. It wasn't until many years later that I realised that I had, in fact, found someone's very small ornamental wildfowl collection. The fact that the ducks could be approached as easily as duckpond ducks, and the fact that they were arranged very neatly into pairs, were signs  that would never have fooled a more experienced birdwatcher even for a moment, but I was overjoyed at the time, and to this day old 'tick-lists' of mine from ages ago include the Red-crested Pochard when they shouldn't. The difference between truly wild vagrants, feral birds, escapes and just plain ornamental collections, when it comes to wildfowl is something every beginner needs to learn at their own pace, and I wouldn't be surprised if other birdwatchers have similar stories from when they first started out.

So, I wanted to see the Red-crested Pochard because seeing it would finally 'finish the job', as it were, and make those old tick-lists finally true. But I wasn't having any luck at all on my own. So finally, I bit the bullet and asked the guys who had found the pochard for help. A few minutes later they had re-found the bird, got their telescopes on it for me and let me take a look. And there it was: a fine drake with that bright, orange head glowing in the sun. The job was finished, and my day had included 2 'firsts' (the shrike and the pochard), 5 firsts for the year (the shrike, the pochard, the Bittern, the Goldeneye and the Goosander), and 4 firsts for the county (the shrike, the pochard, the Bittern and the Goldeneye). I was exhausted, but elated! I can tell you I never expected any of that when I set off this morning!

Quick note: I saw some really interesting fungi today which I was going to write about in this post, but its getting late and I'm starting a new job tomorrow so I need to get to bed. I will write about them tomorrow!

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