That Rough-legged Buzzard time again – 27th Oct

Being free of work commitments this week I was pleased to accept an invite from Ewan and Clackers to go with them to see one of this autumn’s crop of Rough-legged Buzzard. Our bird was at Holland Haven Country Park just east of Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. So at just after 6am I was collected at home by the fabled black Audi and off we sped.

On arrival around three hours later we headed for a bird hide that is actually two shipping containers stacked on top of one another, to scan an area of coastal grazing marsh beyond which is a golf course. The Clackmeister quickly located the Rough-leg, an attractively pale and creamy-toned juvenile perched on a fence post between those two areas. Ewan at once rushed off to get closer but I lingered to scope the bird adequately at that range. It was already clear that we were in for much more satisfying views of this species than my last encounter at Braughing, Herts in November 2014.

Holland Haven: the RLB is perched on the third fence post from the left

Holland Haven Country Park: the RLB is perched on the third fence post from the left

Eventually Clackers and I walked to join Ewan and several other birders and photographers who were watching this raptor and hoping it would fly across the marsh towards them. We learned that it moves around this site a lot offering close views at times. For the next couple of hours the Rough-legged Buzzard tantalised its audience by moving right a few or several posts at a time along a fence to the rear of the grazing marsh, always watching the ground before it intently and turning its head on a 180 degree axis like an owl. At one point it swooped onto and caught a large looking vole, then eventually it flew all the way left again to start anew. My digiscoped images (below) show how this bird was seen at that range.

rough-legged buzzard.1501 holland haven

At this point I left the group to walk a little closer, then the RLB seemingly tired of its ground searching and took to the air, flying towards the sea. I saw all the other birders follow at once then it hovered, as RLBs do right above two photographers who were stationed on the sea wall. “Some jammy sods have all the luck,” I thought, but when I got over there the RLB flew towards me and hovered again quite close. I had not witnessed this diagnostic behaviour before and the day’s experience was improving all the time. An excited jogger asked if the bird was a Buzzard or a Kestrel and was clearly impressed.

Hovering Rough-legged Buzzard

Hovering Rough-legged Buzzard

Ewan and I then walked back towards the container hide to which Clackers had already gone, locating the RLB again at closer range. First one then two Short-eared Owl suddenly appeared at this point quartering the marsh. Earlier a fly through ring-tailed Hen Harrier had enhanced the morning’s entertainment, and I also gained an unusually close view of a Woodcock upon first walking away from the hide. Purple Sandpiper were being reported on the beach but when we went to look the tide was in.

To quote the Helm Guide To Bird Identification, a typical view of RLB is of a large, pale buzzard hovering over coastal fields and marshes, with ponderous wing beats or hanging motionless, the tail twisted and turned like a Kite’s. The species is slightly larger, longer-winged and sturdier than a Common Buzzard; pale headed with a clear cut black and white tail and black belly patches. All these diagnostics were plain to see today and like the Lincs Red-footed Falcon that I observed at length in August, this Rough-legged Buzzard offered excellent value.

Black-necked Grebes in the sunset – 25th Oct

For the past week a pair of rather dapper Black-necked Grebe have been attracting some attention in Oxfordshire’s Vale of the White Horse, on an isolated flooded pit below the chalk cut figure that gives the locality its name. There not being much else of avian interest in the county at the moment I have visited this site on each of the last two afternoons, yesterday in rain and today as the light was failing. So to mark the end of English summer time for another year I present two more of those photographs that look like paintings that I rather like to indulge in now and again. I do not get on with the dark season at all and hence am heading off to Morocco very shortly for an early winter break – watch this space!

Black-necked Grebe at Fuller's Earth Pit, Baulking, south Oxon

Black-necked Grebe at Fuller’s Earth Pit, Baulking, Oxon

black-necked grebe.1502 baulking

Semipalmated Sandpiper at Slimbridge WWT, Glos – 3rd Oct

This was my second record of another vagrant north-American wader. Today’s bird had been a high-tide visitor at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge reserve for most of the past week. Semipalmated Sandpiper resembles Little Stint but is a shade larger with a slightly heavier bill and subtle plumage differences. I had observed one nicely at Keyhaven, Hants in September 2013, a bird that had flown when other Oxonbirders visited the next day.

Saturdays being my only available time for birding with present work commitments, I am reasoning that anything worth seeing is worth going for. On checking RBA at 7am my eye was caught by two rarities in north Norfolk: Blyth’s Pipit, a lifer; and Marsh Sandpiper, a potential British list addition. I fired off a couple of texts seeking company then eventually made it as far as the car inside which my satnav had been seeking a valid signal. 160 miles! No way: too far, too risky and as I was unlikely to get to Norfolk much before 1pm, too potentially hectic.

2013 Semipalmated Sandpiper at Keyhaven

2013 Semipalmated Sandpiper at Keyhaven

I resigned myself to a day spent locally but on reaching the car park at Otmoor received a reply from Andy. Both Norfolk birds were no longer there but he was tempted by the Slimbridge Semipal, having missed that Keyhaven bird. Here was an acceptable day out for both of us so we met and headed west, arriving on site shortly before midday.

Slimbridge is of course a zoo, but beyond the captive wildfowl pens, play areas and other visitor facilities lies the Zeiss Hide that overlooks marshes adjoining the Severn estuary. On our arrival this facility was bulging with birders three lines deep, all scanning a distant assemblage of wildfowl and waders amongst which somewhere was concealed the star visitor. My own experience of Slimbridge is that anything reported on RBA is invariably distant, and my distaste for observing birds at that range is well known in the Oxon birding community. This was clearly a bird to let others find for me.

View from the Zeiss Hide ... it's out there somewhere

View from the Zeiss Hide … it’s out there somewhere

Murmured directions were issuing from up and down the hide and I got onto the birds being discussed several times. But it was plain there was no true consensus as to which of many small waders the Semipal was, that question being confused by the presence of an adult and a juvenile Little Stint. Numbers inside the hide thinned nicely after quite a few people ticked what some who remained agreed had been a Dunlin moving left. Then the bird now thought to be the Semipal went out of view, prompting a frustrating wait. Things had been much easier than this at Keyhaven two years ago.

Andy muttered how this was a typical Slimbridge experience: distant bird, disagreement over ID and that he had sworn never to come here again after we had both dipped on an even more distant Buff-breasted Sandpiper a couple of years ago. If looks could kill from the reserve warden who was standing nearby, I would have had to drive home myself in my companion’s car! I also agreed entirely with his sentiments.

Slimbridge Semipalmated Sandpiper (centre) behind Teal and between Lapwings c Andrew Last

Slimbridge Semipalmated Sandpiper (centre) behind Teal and between Lapwings © Andrew Last

Eventually the Semipalmated Sandpiper emerged into full view, with far fewer birds present to pick it out from and much more manageable numbers of birders in the hide. Andy was now satisfied this was the same bird we had seen earlier before the Dunlin confusion, and that we were indeed observing the Nearctic wader we had come to see. Mission accomplished!

For a close-up image of today’s bird captured by one of the Slimbridge wardens see here