Sunday, 10 May 2015

No Bluethroat but a fantastic day at Amwell!

Amwell Nature Reserve - 14th April 15

Weather: Slightly cool and misty early on, breaking out to sunny, blue skies all day. Very hot.

Birds Total: 53
Plus: Bank Vole; Fox; Grey Squirrel; Muntjac; Rabbit; Weasel.
Plus: Brimstone, Common Blue, Large White, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Small White, Speckled Wood butterflies.
Plus: 7-spot Ladybird; Alderfly; Bee-fly; Bluebottle; Buff-tailed Bumble Bee; Hoverfly; Midge; Pond Skater.
Plus: Daffodils; Hawthorn; Lesser Celandine.

Well, what a day it was.

I had intended to visit Fishers Green today as I was due to visit Amwell tomorrow with my friend, Barry. But news came through that a Bluethroat had been seen late afternoon the day before. Now, I wouldn't call myself a 'Twitcher' by any means and so I don't chase single birds. BUT I have never seen a Bluethroat and, seeing as how it had visited one of my local patches, I felt I had to at least show willing. After all, if I went to Fishers Green and the bird turned up again at Amwell I would be kicking myself.

So, even though I knew that I would be visiting Amwell again the next day, I made the decision to, well, twitch. And, just to make things interesting, I arose early and caught the first train out. If I failed to spot the bird, then at least I could say to myself that I had tried my best.

And so I found myself walking up the trail towards the Watchpoint just before 6am. Dawn was just rising. I hadn't seen her for quite some time. It was still slightly chilly and I had dressed down. I was praying that Carol had called the weather correctly today, otherwise I would be frozen before too long. As I walked along the trail I could see heavy duty mist rising from the canal.

There is something peculiarly satisfying about being up this early. For one thing, I was entertained by a lovely dawn chorus. But if I thought that I would be the first customer at the Bluethroat Spotting Terminal I was sadly mistaken. Eight other people were already there, Scopes and Bins being swept back and forth, across the lake, all searching for the first glimpse of a 'mega'.

I recognised a few familiar faces, most notably a guy I met up with on my Ethiopian trip. Most of them looked around at me and I didn't even have to ask the question - their looks said it all: no sign yet.

Where's that bloody Bluethroat?
So I took my place and joined in the game. A ninth optic forever scanning left to right and back again. The bird had been seen in the reeds just in front of the Watchpoint and so we devoured each individual reed stem in the long time-honoured tradition of 'twitching'.

Only I soon got bored, scanning 'my' patch of reed-bed. So I began sweeping the lake for anything else on offer. The mist over Great Hardmead Lake was even higher and thicker than the mist on the canal and it was fairly difficult to make any meaningful IDs. My eyes may have had a few problems but my ears eagerly took up the challenge.

I could hear Redshank yodelling to each other; Geese honking; Teal whistling; Coot pinging; Lapwings pee-witting and then there were the Warblers. Cetti's and Chiffchaff of course, but today they were joined by Sedge Warbler and Blackcap. I had to bite the bullet again and try and concentrate on remembering how a Sedgie song differed from a Reedie.

But even all this cacophony of song wasn't enough to completely drown out the incessant, raucous screams of all the Gulls that were out there. If the Bluethroat was still asleep after all this then it must be wearing ear-plugs. I could have done with a pair myself.

I started scanning 'my' patch of reed-bed again. The mist was starting to make me shiver. I thought about retrieving my magic scarf, but I didn't want the others to think I was a wimp, so I just zipped up my fleece and gritted my teeth. My nice warm bed was now but a mere, snug memory.

I looked at my comrades in the great game of Twitch or Dip Out. Most were still scanning 'their' patch. Some were quietly talking to each other, trying to pass the time until either the bird appeared, which would have got the blood flowing or until the sun rose higher in the sky, bringing a little warmth.

The mist started to clear a little, enabling me to pick out certain birds. The Redshank could be seen, wandering the shoreline; Lapwing started to go up, displaying and then a Kingfisher flashed past, left to right, landing in a distant tree. The 'white ghosts' I had seen ominously wandering around the lake suddenly turned into Little Egrets.

The sun got higher, now starting to shine directly into our faces, unimpeded by any cloud layers. My patch of reed remained steadfastly still with not even a breeze to move it. I idly glanced to my left, towards the James Hide. Suddenly a bright browny-orange shape started to move between the logs and the grasses. It stopped and looked up towards us, gauging our reaction. Freddie the Fox decided it wasn't worth the risk of walking past us and so turned and walked back the way he had come.

I had been standing there for an hour now, every now and then jumping from one foot to the other, trying to stave off the urge to grab my magic scarf. Still no Bluethroat. I was starting to think that the bird had flown. But then I remembered the other mega that had recently arrived. A pair of Black-necked Grebes had been reported a few days earlier.

To hell with 'my' patch of reed-bed, I thought. I began eagerly scanning the lake to my right, searching for any Grebe-like floating objects. I soon picked them up, in close proximity to each other. Well, with the help of the guy to my right, who had a Scope. They were a bit too far out, in the remaining mist, to get a really good view. But at least I had 'twitched' something.

Just then, my mate Ron turned up, a big grin on his face. No, it hasn't shown yet, I told him. Ever the optimist, he pointed out that the day was still young. He could be right, if it was a teenage bird, it would probably still be in bed.

The minutes ticked by. Soon it was after eight. Some of the workers had grudgingly left, to be replaced by late arrivals, all asking the same question. They were all answered by a sad shake of the head. The noise level on the lake and the Watchpoint rose an octave. First two, then four Oystercatchers 'peeped' their arrival, landing on the island.

With the departure of the last of the mist and the sun now reaching a respectable level, the birds started to go about their morning rituals. Ron and I had had enough and he informed me of a pair of nesting Nuthatches over the railway line, near the road. So we set off to find them. Personally, I was glad to be doing something, other than sweeping my Bins back and forth, robot-like, for a bird that had probably departed.

Before long, we were looking up at the nest-hole which was soon being mobbed by both parents, feeding their young. It was a welcome sight, which was soon added to by the appearances of Chiffchaff and Song Thrush, amongst others. We had also seen our first butterflies of the day, a Peacock and a Brimstone.

From here we walked down to the Gladwin Hide, via a quick check at the Watchpoint. More people had turned up. There were now more optics here than at a Canon Sale.

On the way down to the Hide, we could see the Black-necked Grebes, a little nearer here. Both were still in tight formation, their synchronized diving a thing of beauty to behold.

From the Hide itself we could only see the usual Geese and Coot out on the Scrape. The Goldeneye had finally departed for their breeding grounds back East. But then we could hear the rasping call of a nearby Sedge Warbler. We quickly located it to our right and watched as it steadily climbed a sturdy reed, able to hold its' weight. But, seemingly every time we raised our cameras to get a shot, it dived back down in to the densest part of reed-bed.

After a frustrating period of watching it do this continuously, we decided to concede defeat and head off. Another quick look at the BNGs and a fleeting show of a Blackcap and we were back at the Watchpoint. Still no joy. But we did see a pair of Little Ringed Plover and pair of Common Tern, another first of the season.

We headed off into the Wood to try our luck. More butterflies here, including my first Blue of the season, a Common. Further in and another first, a Speckled Wood appeared. That was after we had spotted a Treecreeper, a bird that Ron had been after for a while. Chiffchaffs seemed more numerous here, singing out their highly recognisable song. A Green Woodpecker sounded off somewhere in the distance.

We dallied around the Bittern Pool before entering and sitting down in the James Hide. Not too much action here, but the feeders were full and were doing steady business. Mainly Tits and Reed Buntings but then a Marsh Tit appeared, rushing in, grabbing a few seeds and rushing off, as if it were in a race to be somewhere.

Looking down I spotted a Bank Vole, also seemingly on a mad-cap mission. These guys only have two speeds - dead stop or 100mph. A Cetti's kept sounding off out to our left, but never appeared. Herons, Egrets and the odd Buzzard appeared in the now, deep, blue skies above.

I checked the time. Wow, it wasn't even 10am yet. Normally the time I arrived at the Watchpoint. So much seemed to have already taken place. I felt another sense of satisfaction, of having already achieved so much, so soon. Then I realised that I still had to get through the rest of the day!

Heading off towards the White Hide, we stopped at the area that 'Ratty' was now frequenting. But, apparently, not today. He must have had an email from the Bluethroat. We gave him about 10 minutes before heading off to the Hide. This Hide too, was empty. Looking out gave us a nice, sunny, panoramic view of the Lake but, unfortunately, not too many close-in birds.

Redshank tantalised us by flying close, but not close enough. A lone Snipe did though and we watched as its' long bill delved into muddy crevices, allowing a few modest shots. Then another pair of Redshank, out to our right, started to sing out, with the male flapping its' wings, behind the female. I had witnessed this display before and knew what to expect. So did the female and she duly presented herself and the grateful male climbed aboard. The deed done, both birds shook their wings out and carried on feeding. Their version of the post-coital Woodbine, I guess.

The excitement over we decided to walk back to try and locate the Water Vole again. But, again, the Bluethroat jungle drums must have warned it to stay hidden. The only thing of note around here was a close-up scene of a Cootlet in a nest, poking its' little hairy, red head out.

From here, we strolled down towards the Dragonfly Trail. By the twin lagoons we found an obliging Great Crested Grebe quite close, before it got nervous and swam off. It looked as if the Bullfinches had got the email from the Bluethroat as well, as they too were absent.

Just before we arrived at the Dragonfly Trail I spotted a little Weasel dash across the path. Unfortunately, Ron missed it. Looking out over the fields of the Trail itself, we could see that the Feeders here were empty, with just a pair of Pheasants, trying valiantly to peck up the last of the seed.

Ron decided to head off at this point, making me promise to text him should the errant Bluethroat make an appearance. I headed back and sat in the James Hide again, seeing pretty much the same thing as before.

Finally, back at the Watchpoint, while I was waiting in vain for the hoped-for star-bird of the day, a Muntjac appeared out to the left, while a few Swallows flew past, high up and slightly behind us. Yet another first of the season. A pair of Redshank then walked up fairly close, while a pair of Oystercatchers noisily peeped their return, announcing that, they at least, were still around, even if the Bluethroat wasn't. They'd obviously not received the email.

But, by now, I was starting to flag. Amazingly, I had done a ten hour stint and so I wearily headed off home. But not before hearing a lone Ring-necked Parakeet screeching out, somewhere high in the trees over the canal.

So, a twitching failure, no Bluethroat. Confirming my belief in not chasing single birds. But, all in all, a highly entertaining day out. A high birding total, with some great spots, including many seasonal firsts. Lots of butterflies, more and more insects appearing and what was probably a record number of people around the Reserve, certainly the most I've ever seen.

'Twitchers: High-voltage people who create their own weather.'

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