Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sandpipers, Rain, and Reptiles

The weather played a prominent role this week.  On Sunday it was the Birdclub trip to Snettisham, the driver had caught a cold, and as my dormouse survey was cancelled so I found myself at the wheel.  I persuaded them that we ought to go to Frampton Marsh instead to either avoid the rain for longer or at least have less far to drive back in it if it did come hard!
We had a great day at Frampton, a couple of little stints were year ticks for many, and a bird I have decided is one of my favourites was also there, curlew sandpiper.  Five or six of these little darlings were dotted around in amongst the ubiquitous dunlins, and that is part of their appeal.  They are not so rare that they are hardly ever seen, but unusual enough to make their appearance anywhere a notable event.  After all there is no point having a favourite bird that you hardly ever see, nor one that you see every time you step out of the front door, making it wholly unremarkable.  So the curlew sandpiper fits nicely into those parameters, and also has more qualities that make it a great bird.
Firstly is that it requires a hearty bit of searching and identifying.  Whereas say a black-winged stilt is clearly a black-winged stilt from four miles away, through a pair of 1920s opera glasses, a curlew sandpiper needs to be picked out with attention to detail.  It will usually be in with a flock of dunlin, of which there may be several hundred of all ages, sizes and stages of moults from summer to winter plumage.  The curlew sandpiper is a shade larger than a dunlin, and a more elegant bird with slightly longer legs and a more evenly downcurved bill.  Its plumage is similar but more cleaner cut and usually carrying a dapple of buff on the breast.  It thus takes a bit of seeking out among the massed throngs of dunlin but once found the observer can delight in its subtle beauty.
The curlew sandpiper does have a glorious chestnut red breeding plumage which we sadly never see in Britain.  It breeds in the tundra of Arctic Siberia but at least it blesses us with its presence twice a year, being a double passage migrant.  It calls in during Spring and again in Autumn but the numbers are skewed heavily to the latter season.  Adults constituting the first wave between July and August, then the more buffy-coloured juveniles from August to September. The last stragglers will have passed through before Bonfire Night, leaving us to our dark northern winter.  In April the first returners will delight some local patcher with their churrip churrip call, a very enviable tick!
Besides the curlew sandpipers we also found a fine pair of scaup, counted up to five hundred black-tailed godwits, saw as many little egrets in one place as we probably had all year, and one of us even found a young guillemot in the marsh!  This seemed to be a young bird, exhausted and having a break from battling the elements.  It was a great day and I have never left Frampton feeling disappointed, it always delights in one way or another!
Back to work on Monday and the rain lashed down, not exactly perfect for reptile surveying.  A slight lull allowed a bit of progress but a young grass snake was the only discovery.  On Tuesday it was rain-free but also proved to be reptile-free too.  Much of the ground was sodden and any reptiles presumably moved to drier spots.  Passing Whitacre Heath on the way home we called in to see if the lakes that had dried out in the summer had got any water in them now.  The answer is that the entire reserve is almost now one giant lake!  The Main Pool had no water left in it at all by June, now it has but no waterfowl.  I wonder if this is because all the fish and aquatic invertebrates obviously died out when it dried out?  Maybe it will take time before the waterbirds come back, if it does not dry out again next summer of course......
A dead mole was lying by a path, presumably having drowned.  This led to some hilarity, placing it up a tree to amaze some passer by.   As I write the weather forecast says even more rain is coming tomorrow, how is that possible?  The heavens must be empty, its all down here!  I think the curlew sandpipers have got it right for this time of year, just pass on through, see you next Spring, what a fine idea!

The rare tree mole
Tree mole, very rare.

This raging stream used to be the path!
Under that stream is a path!

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