Razorbill ii, the final chapter.

I spent today doing all the things I should have been doing yesterday, before, courtesy of Richard Mays and Dave Cox, the Razorbill stopped play. Early afternoon I was stocking up on lens cloths at Focus Optics when I received a call from Mark Baynes to tell me that he and Robert Warner-Pask had just found the corpse in Biggin Bay. It appears the life just ebbed out of it, for it looks in death much as it did on the final day of its life. Rigor having set in, it appears to have floated round the reservoir like a tragic rubber duck for some considerable time. Apparently Rob was adamant it was a dead parrot but Mark half-expected to find on closer inspection that it had not yet quite gorn orf to meet its maker. A fisherman reported that it floated past him from the west and who knows what people might have made of it had they seen it from the far side, a distance of getting on for 2 km.

It was unsurprisingly easy to feel the birds keel and I imagine it was underweight and probably starved to death.  It also seems likely that it was beyond recovery when it arrived. Steve Haynes, the current county recorder, has tracked down two records dated pre 1904, both of which were ‘taken for preservation’ (The Birds of Warwickshire by CA.Norris refers to one at Harborne 25/07/1890 per John Judge). Both John and Mark posed the question ‘would anyone want the corpse?’. The old school natural historian in me felt that it should go to Warwick Museum so I called a friend at the ecology deptartment in the council and got a number for Jon Radley. Mark spoke to him and though he is a geologist he immediately got it and agreed that the museum should try to acquire the bird, though the remaining hurdle is for them to find the funds to pay for the taxidermy. Meanwhile poor old Mrs B has a Razorbill in the freezer.

Photo by Mark Baynes

The Draycote stealth hurricane.

I leave for Madagascar on Saturday and finished the bulk of my writing commitments early this month so as to buy myself a little time which I then threw away searching for Hawfinches. I am thus ill-prepared and increasingly nervous about the forthcoming trip. I spent yesterday editing some work and today was lined for trip preparation, which would be executed with military precision. That was until John Judge rang up as I finished my breakfast with the news that a Razorbill had been found at Draycote.

Razorbill, Draycote Water.

I am not entirely sure of the status of Razorbill in Warwickshire but it is apparently the first West Midlands regional record since 1953. The bill shows it to be an adult bird and it appeared not to be in too bad condition, diving repeatedly, though it was not seen with any fish whilst I was there. It was windy last night but  I wouldn’t have thought it all that strong a blow, which made this occurrence all the more remarkable. As was what happened next. Nobody went beyond the Razorbill, which was ranging just a couple of hundred metres or so, with the result that nobody had seen a Grey Phalarope between Farborough Spit and Toft, leaving it to be found by a regular who takes a keen interest but is not really a birder as such.

Grey Phalarope, Draycote Water.

Grey Phalarope, Draycote Water.

Meanwhile, John Barnett, who you may remember from my last post, was back on Napton Hill and finding a ringtail Hen Harrier which circled low over the same grassy area next to the church where we saw the Hawfinches last week before drifting W. Apparently the Razorbill was still present at 16.00 but heading towards Farborough Spit!

In an invasion, run for the hills.

I don’t remember the year but I remember the rest of the date, 25/09. I was guiding on the old ferry which used to run from Pylmouth to Santander and just a few hours out from the Spanish port on the return leg I picked up a passerine, a long way off but flying towards us at a reasonable height. Flying straight at us there was precious little to indicate its identity but a little while before it reached our bow the game was finally up, Hawfinch!  It carried on over the bridge leaving me somewhat shocked. For one thing I thought of the species as a late migrant, typically occurring on passage in the UK from mid-October to early-November. On the continent however they can begin wandering from late August and the peak migration period is from mid-September to early-November. For another thing I knew nothing of Hawfinch movements really and had assumed the small number of migrants occurring in the UK in autumn were overshoots of some kind. In a way they are. European populations of Hawfinch exhibit varying levels of migratory behaviour, some are sedentary, some move locally and some are partial-migrants. The principal wintering area for birds breeding in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland is NE Spain, SE France, N and C Italy, with smaller numbers on some Mediterranean islands. There is evidence from ringing recoveries that wintering site fidelity is low, which, combined with the fact that numbers vary from year to year, suggests movements are often linked to food availability. For example, in years when the crop in S Sweden has been poor Hawfinch numbers in Finland, Denmark and Switzerland have been high. Presumably the small number of Hawfinches that turn up on Scilly every autumn and the lone bird we saw steadily beating its way across the Bay of Biscay represent the westernmost flank of a passage of birds that should really be heading S on the other side of the North Sea.

In Warwickshire the species is not known to breed and is, essentially, fantastically rare. Along with most people I first got to see it in the county when a small group turned up in the car park at Draycote Water during the last influx and magically hung around for several weeks. I saw just one other locally, prior to the current invasion. Leaving my car at Napton-on-the-Hill  to begin a visible migration watch on 14/10/09 I slammed the door shut flushing a Hawfinch out of the tall deciduous trees along the N boundary of the churchyard. I first began to wonder if something might be going on this autumn when one was ringed at Portland at the beginning of October, by which time birds were already on Scilly. It soon became clear this was more than a small flurry of arrivals, but busy and still fighting a chest infection I twice set my alarm for visible migration watches only to jib out and go back to sleep. I finally forced myself to the Meon Hill area on ‘the day the world stood still’, otherwise known as 16/10, when the strong SW winds that constituted the death throes of Hurricane Ophelia whipped a cloud of Saharan dust across the country with a variety of profoundly weird consequences. Passage was good with pulses of Common Starlings due W along the Cotswold Scarp totalling 550 in three hours and a steady stream of Chaffinches crossing the adjacent plain and climbing the gulley to the W of Colemans Hill, perhaps to get some wind underneath them and gain some lift? After a couple of hours I picked up two short-tailed, front-end heavy finches the identity of which was quickly confirmed as Hawfinch when they passed on my side of the gulley and continued towards Hidcote. I was particularly pleased to see some here, along the flight line Eric Simms first identified in the 1940’s. Two days later l tried Napton-on-the-Hill, a singleton having been seen in the churchyard on 08/10 and two landing briefly there on 17/10. At dawn there were hardly any birds present and I was surprised to discover newly arrived thrushes when I returned towards mid-morning. A funeral was being held so I dropped down in to the Leam Valley finding 3 Common Stonechats in the field margins N of Lower Shuckburgh. Around 14.45 and back in the churchyard I set about checking the Yew trees. On my fourth lap around one of them there were two explosive, ‘Tzick’ notes from the other side of the tree. Typically made by Hawfinch when taking off, especially when spooked, this call has been described, quite splendidly in my opinion, as resembling the sound made by an ice pick glancing off hard rock. I could not find the culprit and the next day I determined not to repeat the performance but to do a proper visible migration watch off the N side of the hill. This was less than successful and I packed it up after an hour or so but could not resist one last look in the churchyard where John Barnett was in residence. I had not seen John for years and after a half-hour of chatting the cloud base lifted a little and birds started passing over the church. Whilst Chris Matthews stayed put, John and I decided to head back to the slope and crossing the grass area N of the church we didn’t have to look up far to find the Hawfinches whose continuous contact calls had just become audible  as they broke the treeline to the NE and flew towards us. There were seven in the group and they made straight for a tall tree on the E side of the churchyard, only to fool around in the air above it with just one landing briefly before the entire group dropped out of sight towards the village. A single bird then flew back N across the hill a minute or so later. We saw no more that day and the following day was again bittersweet when a group of three followed the same line towards the same tree just as Theo de Clermont was driving over the crown of the hill, but again failed to settle. There were none on 22/10 and I couldn’t get out on 23/10 but Steve Haynes saw 14 at Hartshill Hayes that day and a further seven were recorded at Fillongley. These and eight at Sutton Park were all single groups, mirroring the Napton sightings in that extended watches yielded just one flock, unlike some sites, particularly those in the Chilterns where there have been multiple sightings in a day. The passage of migrants along the Chilterns seems to exceed that along the Cotswolds and I get the impression that these hills have witnessed the strongest movement of Hawfinches in the entire country over the last two weeks or so.

The current theory is that the storm edges that clipped us, whirling through in an anti-clockwise direction, pushed Hawfinches out of central Europe. This seems likely, though food availability may have influenced the numbers involved. I have no idea what, if any, hypothesis was forwarded for the last invasion. I recall being told that birds trapped on Lundy had very long primaries, suggesting an eastern origin. One thing I do know is that these two are the only big Hawfinch invasions I can remember (though I’m damned if I can remember what year the other one occurred) in the last 37 years.

The one that nearly got away – and the one that probably has.

On 20/09, Nina, the new warden at Draycote Water found a strange wader on the boulders near the Valve Tower. She called Bob Hazell who went out to have a look and John Judge happened to turn up as the suspicion it was a Purple Sandpiper was confirmed. I was just leaving the flat so I quickly stuck the news on Twitter and scrambled. The bird either had one eye, or one eye closed and seemed rather lethargic, spending a good deal of it’s time asleep. The dull evening light combined with the distance put paid to the chances of good photographs and the best of my efforts are reproduced below for no other reason than the rarity of the occurrence, this being the first record of the species at Draycote since 2009.

1st W Purple Sandpiper, Draycote Water.

The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic was, as so often, the most detailed source of information I could find. It confirmed that adults have a worn wing by late summer, lacking the whitish fringes to the coverts and tips to the primaries shown by this bird. Though there are some retained juvenile scapulars, the rounded dark centres to the upper rows and broad, diffuse breast streaking are second generation feathers and the bird is essentially in first winter plumage.

1st W Purple Sandpiper, Draycote Water.

John then found an adult Mediterranean Gull in the roost and between us we pulled out four Caspian Gulls, two first and two second winter birds. I am still trying to shake off a chest infection I have had since the Bird Fair and hardly been out but did spend Friday searching for a bird of John’s. The reason he and I were meeting at the roost on Thursday was that he has twice heard a tern-like call over his house only to look up and see what appeared to be Black-headed Gulls. When he first texted me about this John had listened to calls on Xeno Canto (I am currently unable to post ‘live’ links) and thought it sounded like Bonaparte’s Gull. This immediately made sense to me as I heard Bonaparte’s Gull for the first time this spring (the long-staying bird at Farmoor), called it tern-like and remarked on the fact that it was not a sound you would walk past. I tried a number of areas around that end of town and ended up doing the pool at Newton where I was pleased to find a group of seven Black-tailed Godwits. I suspect the gull may have been spending time in the quarry behind the cement works at Lawford, which is inaccessible and I think the best chance for finding it would be in the Draycote roost. I tried it again on the Friday night and again drew a blank. The roost is comparatively manageable at the moment but a lot of birds come in after dark. There was no sign of the sandpiper on Friday so it was either stronger than it looked and moved off early in the morning, or fell foul of the Weasels and Mink that haunt the stonework in search of Bank Voles.

Something and nothing.

With gales forecast at the coast last week and westerly winds set to swing north west I thought we might finally be in for some half-decent birding at Draycote as it has generally been pretty good for vagrant seabirds, within a West Midlands context. In the event we got nothing, an Ad. and Juv. Arctic Tern being the only arrivals to come in with the weather.

Juv. Arctic Tern, Draycote Water.

Juv. Arctic Tern, Draycote Water.

To be entirely fair the only birds the blow really did bring in to the Midlands were Grey Phalaropes which, for the most part, fell to our south and west. That is a really good bird though and there were quite a few of them. I had been predicting a Sabine’s Gull would turn up in the region somewhere and just one did. It was found at Daventry Reservoir which is just to the north-east of the ridge separating the Upper Leam from the upper reaches of the Cherwell. From my flat it can barely be five miles, which you might think a good reason to go and see it. You would be right, but I was that demoralised I didn’t really want to on day one. I cracked on the afternoon of day two however as the bird was hanging around on the shoreline at extremely close range. Along with a lot of other people this is my favourite gull species and aside from two adults which could be ‘breaded in’ at St Ives after the legendary 1982 seawatch there, the closest I have ever got to one.  That gale brought two Leach’s Petrels to Draycote, but then it was far more powerful than last week’s.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Ospreys have been seen at Draycote every week since the end of July and there have been at least two individuals involved, the bird seen on 13-14/09 having paler secondaries and underwing-coverts and having dropped a primary on the left wing, whereas the bird I last saw there on 21/08 and which had probably been present for around three weeks had a missing primary on the right wing. That is pretty much it in recent weeks, though Dunlin and Common ringed Plover are present daily and Little Ringed Plover, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank and Ruff have all put in appearances. The peak count of Yellow-legged Gulls in the roost thus far was 38 on 30/08 and there are still excellent opportunities to study juveniles in the daytime, though I have not managed any good photos this season. So far there have been just two Caspian Gulls.

It’s been emotional.

A Great White Egret recently spent a few weeks in south Warwickshire, the initial discovery made by a birder who does not live in the county and was visiting somebody at Walton Hall where the bird had taken up residence in a section of diverted river bent in to service as a makeshift moat, or ornamental lake. I had an interest as it is a locality I very occasionally check and so far as I knew I was pretty much unique in that regard. I popped over with Dan Watson on 11/07 and spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the sunshine there with Gus Ariss two days later (these two having tracked down the locality from the initial report).

Great White Egret, Walton Hall.

Great White Egret, Walton Hall.

I remember (just about) driving an 1100 cc Mk 2 Ford Escort all the way to Dolgellau in 1982 to see my first Great White Egret, which was a big rarity in the UK in those days. Now it breeds in Britain and there are a handful of records a year in Warwickshire where I have even been fortunate enough to find one. I also recall hot-footing it to Thrapston in neighbouring Northamptonshire to see my first Little Egret. They now breed in my home county and are present at Draycote Water all year round in numbers varying from a couple to the low teens.

Little Egret, Toft Farm.

Little Egret, Draycote Water.

I still regard these species as exotic and it recently struck me that I mourn the loss of what I regard as ‘traditional’ British birds far more than I enjoy the appearance of newcomers. It also struck me when considering recent colonists that I have a very snooty attitude, shared by many birders, to reintroductions and I positively loathe feral populations like the apparently ever-expanding cohorts of Greylag Geese with which I must now contend in the Leam Valley. One bird which recolonized Warwickshire in recent years and which I do love having around is Common Raven. When I was at school this was a bird I only encountered in the Black Mountains and once I left and began my twitching career one I most often met with along the wild and rugged Cornish coast. I will I think, forever associate those glorious kronking sounds with the most ‘wild’ of places and have a soft spot for the raven as a result.

Common Ravens ‘tumbling’ over Napton-on-the Hill.

Common Raven, Napton-on-the Hill.

Common Raven, Napton-on-the Hill.

They are widespread in Warwickshire and even nest in my landlord’s garden but they are recent arrivals, as are the Common Buzzards and Common Polecats which I also thought of as denizens of the Welsh borders and both of which are now resident in the Upper Leam. Yet whilst I like seeing them I do not have quite the same affection for the Red Kites which joined the aforementioned species in crossing Offas Dyke. Except of course they didn’t and therein lies the source of my favouritism, the kites were reintroduced and due to the snootiness about reintroduced animals I conceded to feeling earlier I don’t regard them in quite the same way as the others which made it here under their own steam.

Red Kite, Shipston-on-Stour.

This attitude is illogical, they are all conservation success stories and there are far too few of those to be getting all superior about any of them really. Not only that but I am entirely inconsistent with my prejudice. I don’t really feel the same way about Little Owls though their ancestors were originally released from the collection of Lord Lilford on to his estate  near Oundle in Northamptonshire. I began my birding life in that county and grew up with the Little Owl which, unlike the Greylag or Ring-necked Parakeet (the latter of which is still mercifully rare in Warwickshire) just ‘feels’ like a ‘regular bird’.

Little Owl, Upper Leam Valley.

That though is the point I make here, birding, God help us, is an emotional business. I simply hate the fact of losing species. It pains me that European Turtle Dove has almost gone, not just from the Leam Valley but from the country and that Corn Bunting and Grey Partridge appear to be following a similar trajectory to the vanishing point.

European Turtle Dove, Upper Leam Valley.

There was an old man in my childhood village who remembered Corncrake (a species for which a reintroduction programme has now been established on the Nene Washes) breeding around there, I would listen to him talk about that often and the entire notion had me spellbound. It is in part that same romance of the past which drives me in to hellish tracts of rainforest in search of birds so hard to see it feels like a ghost hunt. These are often, though not always it should be recognised, species whose entire global range has been reduced to a handful of surviving fragments of a habitat which would once have covered thousands of square miles. They probably have one foot in the grave and making contact with them has a resonance stretching back across time to the initial discovery of the animal by someone who may well have been honoured in the species name.  It also reaches forwards across time as a function of the powerful knowledge that future generations may be denied the opportunity you currently enjoy. It is worth taking some time to think about what makes you tick? You may be surprised at some of the answers.

Rufous-crowned Pittasoma, endemic to the Chocó rainforest of NW Ecuador and SW Colombia. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.