Thursday 3 April 2014

On good form(osa)

Lest further proof were needed that my family comes before birding (apparently, there are still some doubters out there), I must start by pointing out that I did not ditch Claire on Mother's Day to twitch the Baikal Teal in Cambridgeshire. And she's not even my Mother. Having spent the weekend tending to her every need it was back to work on Monday, followed by further slaving away on Tuesday, before I could book a day's leave yesterday in the hope of catching up with the Teal.
Drake Baikal Teal Anas formosa. It was like a composite of the best bits of a load of other good birds: elongated scapulars like a Garganey; the vertical white stripe on the fore-flank like a Green-winged Teal...
...and the long white crown stripes meeting at the back of the head like a Cream-coloured Courser. As for the teardrop below the eye, it's just pure Alice Cooper.
Jol Mitchell had agreed to co-pilot and we arrived at Fen Drayton RSPB shortly after 0800. Jol and I have a (so far) successful record of twitching together but a more neurotic and indecisive pair you would struggle to meet. So between us we proceeded to doubt and double doubt our perfectly clear site directions and the obvious brown signs pointing us to the reserve. Based on a Google Map we had convinced ourselves we needed to be heading down a road called 'The Busway'. It was a good job we didn't find it and try to drive along it as we may have found ourselves splatted by one of Cambridge's guided buses which were hurtling down their dedicated track at quite a lick.
The Baikal Teal was with a small flock of Common Teal and Wigeon, without which it's origin would undoubtedly be more suspect. Here with a Wigeon....

...and here with a Teal for comparison. A few decades ago Baikal Teal was thought to be heading for extinction, and while the population is still vulnerable to a variety of threats, it is growing rapidly.
On finding the right car park, we set off on the 20 minute hike to Moore Lake. While it was a longish walk by comparison to, say, going to the loo at home, it was flat and mostly on a massively over-engineered cycle path (complete with built in floor-level solar powered lights). So it was quite a shock that a steady stream of birders later followed us into the hide puffing and complaining about what a slog it was. Even allowing for Saharan smog, it did suggest that some of our brethren need to get a bit more exercise.
Not quite as pretty: Egyptian Geese at Fen Drayton
Baikal Teal was not the only tick at Fen Drayton for some birders - many had not seen a guided busway before either. At first it looks like a road but with all the flexibility and cars removed; but think of it like a cheap railway with rolling stock that can be used anywhere and it makes more sense. Trust me, in a previous life I was a columnist for a niche publication called Tramways and Urban Transit. I kid you not.
When we were a few hundred yards from the hide where the Baikal Teal had been seen consistently since Saturday, the pager delivered some unwelcome news: 'No sign of Baikal Teal...' Having convinced Jol I was not playing a sick April Fool joke, we carried on to the hide feeling pretty crestfallen. On arrival, the door opened, and a lady birder beamed at us: 'it's still here!'. I could have kissed her, and seconds later we were scoping one of the most exquisite ducks you could hope to see.
Just time on the way home to twitch a Red-breasted Goose at Stanpit Marsh - our second rare and stunning wildfowl of the day.
Stock Dove, Stanpit Marsh: best of British among the glamorous foreigners.
It was a particularly sweet moment as Baikal Teal was the 2nd of 3 birds which I missed whilst out of action before Christmas but have since caught up with. Only Orphean Warbler left to complete the grip-back hat-trick...

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