Tuesday 24 December 2019

Brightening the Winter Gloom

I really don't keep abreast of rare bird news these days, but Twitter lets me know at least some of what's going on. For example, there is currently a Little Whimbrel (or Little Curlew, in new money) in Holland - the first for the country - and a Little Bustard nearby. In Norfolk a male Eastern Yellow Wagtail is drawing admirers from afar, and in Bedfordshire a photogenic Black-throated Thrush ditto. And there will be other birds like this out there, but as yet undiscovered.

Which is why now is good time to put on your winter woolies and go find stuff.

I've usually done okay in winter (when not phasing) and quite enjoy the challenge. This is where my interest in gulls comes in handy of course (because in winter they're everywhere) and a willingness to dabble in niche interests sometimes, which for me right now is Chiffchaff minutiae. And today it was a Chiffy hunt that reminded me of another valuable principle of winter birding: wherever birds congregate is always worth a careful looking-at. Across the road from Colyton WTW is a large field with stubbly weedy stuff in it. It's wet, and ankle-deep mud in places, but there is allegedly a footpath across it, so some access is permissable. Today, finally, I made an effort for Water Pipit; I think up to three have been seen here. Well, I found several Skylarks, a decent flock of Linnets, some Meadow Pipits and - at last - a single Water Pipit. Working the habbo was tricky, and all sorts could have been hiding in the vegetation. There is obviously plenty of food, because the birds seem to love it. The Water Pipit was as flighty as they usually are and did a bunk across the road. So I headed over to track it down again...

Now this field is immediately N of Colyton WTW, and has some newly-sprouting crop in it, winter wheat possibly. Because I was after the Water Pipit I looked properly for a change, and noticed that it too was busy with birds. Eventually I found the Water Pipit...

Water Pipit. Typically shy, and a right pig to photograph.

Keeping the Water Pipit company were several Meadow Pipits, 60+ Pied Wagtails and at one point a sizeable flock of Redwings. A quiet little bell was going off in my memory somewhere, and suddenly it came to me: in the past I've seen winter White Wagtails in this field. So I searched very carefully through all the alba wags, and lo-and-behold, I came across a solitary White Wagtail. I tried for a photo, but lost it, so shall just mention that it had an entirely grey crown (no evident black at all) and a clear grey rump, concolourous with the upperparts. Altogether a very neat, clean bird.

So, success in the birdy fields, but what about the Chiffy hunt? Not so good. Again, loads of Chiffs leaping out of the hedge at regular intervals, but just one unconfirmed glimpse of a pale bird. To be honest though, I did get a bit sidetracked by the adjacent pipits and wagtails.

An Axe patch post wouldn't be complete without the estuary getting a mention, so...

There was a Common Sandpiper near the tramsheds, but who cares about that when the river is crawling with gulls?! And it was! Best by far was a near-adult Yellow-legged Gull which led me a right merry dance, but eventually showed well for both Ian McLean and me. Unfortunately it was distant, and with a heavy shower approaching fast I didn't even try to get a photo. No sign of it post-rain.

One last look at the river mid-afternoon...

Oh yes! An absolutely stonking 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull. In truth I have seen very few winter YLGs on the Axe, so two in a day is unprecedented. It loitered for a while. A few shots...

Oof! You beauty! 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull.
This and the shot above were taken in sunshine, so are a bit more contrasty than I'd like.
Flatter light for these two, and both have other species in shot so you can get some idea of the shade of grey on the YLG's upperparts. In life it was slightly darker than the Common Gull, and considerably more so than the BHG.

I do understand that some readers of this blog would rather stick needles in their eyes than examine gulls in any way whatsoever, let alone closely, so I shan't dwell on this too much, but... It occurs to me that there may also be one or two who would like to know why exactly this bird is a Yellow-legged Gull, rather than one of the myriad common-or-garden Herring Gulls which litter the Axe. So I'll try and remember to annotate one of these photos with some helpful words to that end, and post it in due course.

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