Average Birding

Spotted: Crake

Another weekend rolls around. Spotted Crake fever is still in full flow. Can we get to one before they all disappear?

Pronoun guidance: AB1 foolishly leaves the scope at home. This post covers the events of October 7th, 2018.

Spotted: Crakes

BirdGuides is awash with Crakes during the week, although the Willen Lake bird, in Milton Keynes, appears to have moved on. If we're interested, we'll have to make our way to Wilstone reservoir, in the productive birding county of Hertfordshire.

To my chagrin, this looks like a walk up and then back down the wildlife black hole that is the Grand Union Canal. At least for Ring Ouzel the outbound half was the Ridgeway, and the canal formed part of a circuit. October is once again feeling very summery; perhaps a picnic in the sunshine will make up for the dreary route.

I make a bold choice to abandon the scope in favour of lighter equipment (and more food/water). This turns out well to start with - it is remarkably hot, and both AB2 and I shed multiple layers into a backpack that just wouldn't fit into the scope bag.

Spotty at best: Nature in the canal

The canal is, typically, bereft of interest. A couple of coots panic at the sign of humans. A small flock of finches makes an appearance where the towpath switches sides at a lovely old bridge. The Grand Junction Arms reeks deliciously of chips, and we only just manage to not stop there.

At this point the tree cover of the canal withdraws. The amount of wildlife doesn't change much, but there is at least a horizon to scan, which yields a couple of Red Kites. A friendly Grey Heron poses for some photographs. We reach Tring Reservoirs Nature Reserve and things get even better - tons of wildfowl, albeit not much of it particularly interesting, despite some strong staring at. Warnings of Blue-green algae (we struggle to calibrate our fear meters) are pockmarked around any paths down to the water's edge.

Reflection of a Heron.
Reflection of a Heron.

We cross the causeway between the two main reservoirs, risk life and limb crossing Tringford road, then set up for a picnic alongside the last branch of reservoir. It's suitably tranquil, but a bit insect-ridden. We wonder out loud whether it is safe for us to eat sandwiches in a blue-green algae area. This discussion lasts as long as it takes us to realise we are too hungry to care.

We're not far away now - just a couple of road sections and a short track across a field, and we'll be at Wilstone reservoir's Cemetery Corner, where our Crake has been spotted. The soundtrack, in my head, immediately switches to Pantera's "Cemetery Gates".

Spotted: Birders

We walk North-West along the reservoir's North-East side (the reservoir is a rhombus with N/E/S/W corners). Conditions are not ideal. The reedbed, which stretches from the Eastern corner, is almost due South from where we are; the sun is in the South-West. A recipe for sore eyes. In addition, a firm breeze is blowing from the North, which, when the sun goes in, reduces the temperature to somewhere below pleasant. Worst of all, only two birders other than us are present, and they haven't seen anything.

Patience is going to be required. Goddamnit, it's another bloody twitch! And, frankly, leaving the telescope behind has now proven to be an idiotic decision; if I had to classify the difficulty of finding this bird, it's beyond even finding Jack Snipe from the tower hide at Barnes WWT.

Our little group quickly starts to swell and soon we hit double figures, and we're up to four scopes, two of which are serious Swarovski affairs. Both AB2 and I persist with binoculars; I try various poses (sitting on the reservoir embankment's edge, lying completely prone, a one knee flat yoga position that shall remain nameless (unkempt donkey?)) to lessen the effects of the wind and the light.

Spotted: Jack Snipe

One chap intermittently makes excited noises for three or four minutes. Everyone is too polite to enquire as to why, but tries to decipher the source from his directions. Now, directing folks along a reedbed edge is not simple, but this man has a talent for total opacity. He could be describing almost any five metre stretch of it from the level of detail we're getting. "Behind that Black-headed Gull, and then left, behind a Coot". Well, yes, great. There are ten to a hundred of both of those species floating around. Could you try a different landmark, perhaps?

We eventually discover he has found not Spotted Crake but Jack Snipe - worth a look for sheer scarcity purposes, but not a tick (it's been on the list since the end of March). The group gets back to the serious work of finding the Crake. Much chat circulates about its size and identifying characteristics. A buff tail is about the only thing everyone can agree on.

Weather: Spots of sunshine

AB2, remarkably, is enjoying this experience immensely. I suspect some of the enjoyment may have come from observing my transformation into full-on twitch mode. Humph. It could also be the weather: the interrupted sunshine means her instant-burn complexion is safe without continuous application of sunscreen, and it's neither too warm or too cold.

Spotted: Crake

A further half hour or so of staring passes, and then a different person starts to get excited. Their directions are much better, and before I know it I catch the most fleeting glimpse of a buff tail I expect I will ever encounter, as the crake scurries back into the reedbed having spent a precious moment or two visible on the edge.

Wow. That's a lot of work for not a lot of bird. We hang about a bit in the hope of seeing a bit more, and eventually the bird improves from 'elusive' to 'showing abysmally', making a few scurries along the front of the reed bed, and offering occasional occluded views a foot or two within it. One of the better equipped scopes is generously leant out for general use and that improves things, but I still come away with little lasting impression other than that brief buff flourish.

We debate the relative pros and cons of walking back versus ordering a taxi. Before too long we're on the train home, not quite victorious, but certainly successful.