Tuesday, 9 April 2013

A rush of blood

I was out of county on Saturday on family business when two parties of Stone Curlews turned up on the West Dorset coast, and while I expected them to move on overnight, Sunday morning provided a slim chance to get this species on my Dorset list. I went for the pair at West Bexington which had shown well the previous evening, and eventually saw them in a stubble field with the help of the finder Alan Barrett and his fellow patch watcher Mike Morse. The birds were quite distant, but Mike had managed to check a colour ring combination which later revealed that at least one of them bred in neighbouring Wiltshire.

Skylark, Aust Warth
The plan for the rest of the day was to catch up with some other locally rare and scarce birds: Garganey at Radipole, Spoonbill at Lodmoor and Great Grey Shrike at Morden Bog. But then the pager reported a Killdeer in Lancashire. It is one of the iron laws of nature that a good bird will turn up just after my holiday comes to an end, but I thought I might have the jump on this one: it was just before 1100, and I reckoned I could be at the Killdeer site by 1530. Maps and crisp packets, along with reason and judgement, were swept off the dashboard and replaced with a satnav, which I set for Longridge and headed north.

Distant Stone Curlews at West Bexington, Dorset

A while later the pager reported that the bird had flown, but I ploughed on, and half an hour later it was back. I found myself uttering an involuntary 'Come on!'. Another half an hour and it was gone again, so it was clearly not a settled individual. At times like this, decisive action is required, so I pulled into the services on the M5 to procrastinate.

Short-eared Owl, Aust Warth
This second negative report saw my adrenaline levels plummet, the rush slowed and after a reflective cup of coffee I concluded that I might as well dip on Twite at nearby Aust Warth and save a tank of fuel as dip on Killdeer in Lancashire. So dip on Twite I did, and for a couple of hours. It was still a good decision as the Killdeer was not seen again all day, and at least there were Short-eared Owls to enjoy at Aust.
Shoveler, Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset
So with two sets of plans for the day not quite coming off, it was time for plan C: return home via the Somerset levels and try to photograph the long-staying Pied-billed Grebe. This was a bit more successful - the bird came quite close, albeit in poor light.

Pied-billed Grebe, Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset
More impressively, it repeatedly gave its distinctive call, a resonant yodel, puffing out a throat sac which seemed to double the thickness of its neck in the process.

The Pied-billed Grebe puffing its throat out and giving a haunting call
If the Little Bitterns return to breed on neighbouring Loxton Marsh this spring, you might be able to hear their distant dog-like booming at the same time as a Pied-billed Grebe calling - a collectors item for the sound recordists out there.

When wary, the Grebe would lie low in the water and not dive but submerge like a submarine with the body held horizontal - an interesting bit of behaviour
The penalty for all this tarting around was to miss a Red-throated Diver, one of my favourite birds, at home on Swineham Gravel Pits. While still present yesterday afternoon, it had gone by the time I got there at dusk, though a Barn Owl, a Marsh Harrier and a ringtail Hen Harrier were some consolation.

Me and the 'Peat Moor' centre on the Somerset Levels: made for each other
And so it was back to work today, secure in the knowledge that a full diary and an even fuller in-tray will prevent any further rushes of blood to the head, at least until the weekend.

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