Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Soaking for a Secretive Savi's

This week for the third week on the trot I found myself available on the Tuesday and headed north into the fens. A couple of weeks back I played a blinder and got lucky at Wicken. Last week (sorry, no blog update but see pic below) I had a nice day out with my first turtle doves (a pair) and garganey (2 pairs) of the year, and best of all, a pair of black-necked grebes in potential breeding habitat. This week I thought I'd twitch the Lakenheath Savi's via the Ouse Washes where I was hoping the wet weather might have grounded some good waders.

On the approach road to the Ouse Washes a yellow wag with a very odd, rasping call caused me to stop the car. I had a brief distant view of the bird in my scope and I think it looked a 'normal' bird - certainly not one of the dark-headed forms, some of which (in the east) can emit rather similar calls to this. But apparently our yellow wags can come out with some odd calls, particularly when looking for a mate, and I think this is the most likely explanation.

On the washes themselves, the highlight was provided by a single sanderling with a 40-strong flock of tundra ringed plovers. Although tundrae birds make up the vast majority of passage ringed plovers in this part of the world I've only ever once before noticed one next to a local breeder. On this occasion at least one such local breeder had joined the flock and I was pleased to see that yes, there is a distinct difference, the Tundra birds being around 10-20% smaller and darker too, with perhaps a more olive (less buff) tone to the upperparts. Unfortunately they were too distant for photos which would have otherwise provided a nice comparison, so I've included here a rather poor shot taken a few years ago of the two forms side by side. I'll have to keep an eye on ringed plovers to see if I can illustrate the comparison better in future. Smaller still were the pair of little ringed plovers, which vigorously defended their territory against any stray passers by.

ringed plovers, The Mullet (Ireland). Presumed tundrae bird on the right is visibly smaller & darker

But time was running out so it was on to Lakenheath for that elusive Locustella, the Savi's warbler that had been present now several days. My track record with this species before now hasn't been good. My first attempt (as a 15 year old in 1990) was for a bird in Norfolk later re-identified as an unstreaked grasshopper warbler (though the apparent good song was never fully explained...), the second bird I went for was OK but a little distant, the third drew a complete blank and the fourth provided a valuable 'heard' Norfolk tick (completing my 5-strong Locustella set for that county) but didn't show itself. This year I realised I'd only ever seen just one good one, rather distantly, and it had been over 20 years ago. So when one turned up in May just 40 minutes from home, I was keen to see it.

When I visited late afternoon it was still very wet. The wind was light to moderate and few birds were singing. Not ideal! But the bird did start up literally as I arrived and within 35 minutes I'd nailed it in a small bush, giving forth its characteristic reeling song, gropper-like but distinctly lower-pitched. I got most of the dozen or so people present onto it before it flew. Over the next couple of hours it sang regularly and showed a few times, mainly in flight. Then at around 7.45pm it returned to the the same spot in that same bush – bingo! There were only 4 people left by then and it was difficult getting a view of the bird which was well concealed. Eventually I found an angle that gave me a view of roughly half the bird and was thankful for that! I left fairly satisfied, though pretty drenched having waited nearly 3 hours mostly in the rain, collecting a couple of groppers (one of which showed quite well) on my way back to the car. 

The star of he show - Savi's warbler

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