Saturday, 22 September 2012

A Baillon's Crake brings in the Autumn Equinox.

Where was I this morning?

Thirteen years ago I spent ten hours trying to see a Baillon's Crake in Kent. I saw it for maybe half a second as it darted across a gap in some dense rushes. Luckily it was spring time and the sun was shining.
I did return three days later, in the evening, and had it walking around at the base of my feet.

But this secretive and diminutive member of the crake family has been almost impossible to catch up with in this country since then.

But this year something extraordinary happened. An influx of Baillon's Crakes into the near continent coincided with a national night-time survey of Spotted Crakes. The males of both these species sing (if that's the right word) at night. Spotted Crake is a rare breeder in large areas of reedbed, Baillon's Crake is a very rare visitor to these shores at all and has only bred once to anyone's knowledge.

Well, it's a bit of a long story, but all those pairs of trained ears out in those marshes at night time eventually revealed the presence of at least NINE singing male Baillon's Crakes in the country. This was remarkable news. But still this didn't make it easy to see one. The Conservation bodies kept stum. The most determined got to see one in controversial circumstances in Wales. There was belated news of another walking around in full view of the car park on another Welsh nature reserve. One was close to me, over the border in Cambridgeshire, but even the chance to hear it singing was only open to the select few.
But then, just as I was preparing for my mammoth drive to South Uist two weeks ago, the pager mega'd with news of a juvenile bird in front of one of the hides at Rainham Marshes RSPB on the shores of The Thames. It was very elusive, but did tend to be seen just after dawn each day.

This was sure to be a popular bird and so it was.
So this morning I was finally tempted to make the pilgrimage down to London and pay homage to the bird. I met my old friend who had driven down from Scotland at four in the morning and by quarter to six we were near the front of a line of cars waiting for the gates of the reserve to open. Two weeks after its discovery, this bird could still attract a decent crowd of birders at six in the morning, many returning after unsuccessful previous attempts.
A twenty minute yomp to the Shooting Butts Hide (I didn't name it!) and we waited for the bird to duly appear. I waited for the sunrise too.

Saturday 22nd September 2012
Autumn Equinox
Sunrise over Rainham Marshes

This Water Rail put in an appearance early on.
Of course, this bird wouldn't stay on this reserve for ever and last night was the coldest of the autumn so far. The change in overnight temperatures recently would be activating its instincts to move on. And there was an amazingly clear sky last night, perfect for navigating by the stars.
But we needn't have worried. We didn't have to wait for too long before somebody at the left hand end of the hide caught sight of the bird working its way through and along the waterside vegetation. But could I get on the bird? I kept following the directions - "above the right hand coot" - "down from the third pylon" - "right at the top of the reeds". What they should have said was "Right where the sun is rising so brightly that you can't see a thing from where you're sitting!"

Anyway, after a slightly anxious minute or so I could see the bird picking its way along a line of flattened vegetation. It was tiny, but a real character, reaching its long neck up occasinally to feed and treading along the stems with its long legs and giant feet. Luckily it stayed out in the open for most of the time we were there and after quite a while we were very happy with our views. News of a Yellow-browed Warbler at the other end of the reserve was our excuse to leave, though we never did see it.

By 11 o'clock I was back on the farm in Lincolnshire feeling more than ready for another trip. At this time of year I get very twitchy, as they say.

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