I’ve spoken about this before, but I’m just not a twitcher. Chasing numbers for a list doesn’t, to me, feel like you are really watching birds, and hammering a private plane from the Scillies to Shetland to tick off two birds in two days feels environmentally questionable to say the least. So when I get a rarity, it tends to be close, or coincidental.
Such was the case this week when a trip to RSPB Blacktoft Sands was planned, then we discovered there was lots of excitement about a Spotted Crake. But we’ll come back to that.
Blacktoft is tucked on the banks of the Ouse, just before it and the Trent merge and form the Humber. Despite the name suggesting sandy flats, the habitat is predominantly reed-bed, and it’s good home for breeding Marsh Harriers, warblers, Bearded Tits and Bitterns. It’s also starting to fill up at this time of year with various waders and wildfowl.
I should at this point apologise, as the quality of pictures in this post won’t be great. I had an accident in the first hide we visited, and knocked my camera to the floor, breaking the lens. That. Added to light that never quite managed to be coming in right made for some gloomy and slightly fuzzy pictures!
Picnic muggers were out in force around the carpark, including blackbirds, tree sparrows, chaffinches, and a baby robin that nearly got into the car at one point.
What was notable was how many birds that are often skulking and elusive, such as Water Rail and Snipe, made a decent appearance. Not dramatic in the case of the Water Rail, but standing there a while. Snipe are birds I mostly encounter as they burst out of a patch of undergrowth in a whirl of feathers and noise. So to see around ten across the reserve out in the open was great.
Waders are a brilliant example of evolution, and studying their body shape can tell us how they feed. Most work off a smiliar body shape, but as you look at the various waders here look at the variation in size and length of bill and legs. Long legs? Wade out into the water. Long bill? Probe deep into the mud. A snipe’s bill may look a little comical, but it is a brilliant adaptation to allow it to get invertebrates from deep in the mud.
The rail didn’t come much out of his reed-bed, but you can clearly see him here.
I knew Green Sandpiper was prevalent here at the moment, but I wasn’t sure how distinctive they would be. As it turned out, they are easily separated in the way the white of the breast comes to a sharp line here:
By contrast, with the Common Sandpiper, the white curves up around the shoulder of the wing as you can see here in a picture from a couple of years back:
Whereas a Greenshank’s legs are quite drab and unremarkable. It’s the only thing that is though, as the markings on the rest of the bird are quite beautiful, from the scalloped greys of the back through the delicate markings around the head and eye.
Incidentally, ‘shank’ comes from Germanic roots in Old English and just means ‘legs’.
There were plenty of Black-Tailed Godwits around too, and they are another really striking wader, tall and elegant.
We did pretty well for birds of prey too, with Buzzards and Kestrels drifting around, and a Marsh Harrier making a distant, languorous pass over the reeds.
At the other end of the speed spectrum, a Hobby made a dive on a flock of Ruff, Lapwing, and Godwit. It was through and gone before anyone in the hide could react, yet was entirely unsuccessful. The birds scattered, and the section of the reserve was quiet for the next five to ten minutes.
Once settled back down, there were plenty of Ruff to be seen. At this time of year the variation in plumage can kid you into thinking there are multiople species present.
There were also a fair few Little Grebe about, some still feeding young.
Flitting about the reedbeds were smaller birds like Pied and Yellow Wagtails, plus at least one Bearded Tit showing in the distance.
There were mammals out and about too, including a fox using the reedbeds to try stalk a few gadwall and mallard. Sadly no moment of drama unfurled and he disappeared back into the stems.
In a field of more than 20 Curlew, two hares were also active. While rabbits are definitely ‘bunnies’, being slightly cute and vacant-looking, I doubt anyone could call a hare a bunny. Hares look tall, elegant and serious. They don’t hop around, they stride, or they run. When they sit, they sit with an erect and noble bearing.
All that was slightly undone by one of these hares who stretched out, lay down, and then rolled over a couple of times. So, maybe slightly ‘bunny’ after all.
Also worth noting the Koniks, used to manage the section of the reserve where the Curlews were thriving. Their grazing creates a habitat for nesting birds and various insects.
There are four Koniks (or Konik Ponies) here, and they are a really interesting horse that will get their own post later in the week. They deserve it (you can now read it here). They are pretty close to the wild horses that used to roam Europe.
Not so many insects about, though a few Peacock butterflies and the odd Meadow Brown were spotted. However, this Longhorn Beetle was enjoying the nectar of the Cow Parsley.
All of which brings us to the ‘highlight’ of the day. I saved the Spotted Crake for last, not because it was the most beautiful or vivacious. Far from it, it is a pretty dull grey-brown, and basically just skulked about the reeds. It’s last because it was the last bird we saw. On our way out, not having seen it originally, we popped back in on the off-chance. Only to be told “Yeah, it was just out but it’s gone again”. Happily, five minutes later it did another little trot across the water, the first Spotted Crake I’ve ever seen.
As with the Pied Billed Grebe a few years back, I find myself wondering if anyone who came just for the one bird ultimately found it underwhelming? As an interesting new spot in a generally lovely day out, it’s great. As the centrepiece to the day? Some of those more ‘common’ waders would have stood out.
In case you are interested, these are all the bird species seen in the day: