Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Baillon’s Crake, Rainham Marshes RSPB, London – Sunday 12th September 2012

Baillon's Crake, Rainham Marshes RSPB, London -
Sunday 9th September 2012 (photo: John Foster)

Yes, another twitch. I don’t even feel ashamed to admit it now, I’m too far gone…

Sunday 12th was another nice, warm sunny day and I intended to spend the day in Cleveland, check out the Baird’s Sandpiper on Seaton Snook and "do" Saltholme RSPB. I’d had a lie-in because the previous day had been a long one, and the Airedale Otters bat walk went on til late. I set off around 10:00 for the Northeast, but soon came home after realising I’d forgotten my phone (and spilling coffee in the car while looking for my phone …grrr).

While refilling my flask, a message from BirdGuides came through saying the Baillon’s Crake in London was showing again, and showing well too. I’d written this bird off in terms of trying to see it: a long drive was needed just for the slim chance of seeing a bird that seemed to show only in the early morning, and only then for an all-too-brief moment. Too much of a gamble, I reckoned. But, when this message arrived, I’m afraid my inner twitcher took hold…

…so, I arrived at Rainham Marshes RSPB around 15:00, with the sun beaming and a bit of a breeze blowing. Someone shouted from the visitor centre that the Baillon’s was showing now, so I hooked up with a local birder and we power-walked round to the Shooting Butts Hide.

And what a lovely nice big hide it is too, and full to the rafters with birders and their gear. The more eyes looking the better, I say. The bird had shown a few times apparently, but few people in the hide were getting on to it. Sounded like this was going to be a challenge.

Not long after arriving I bumped into my friend John Foster, who’d been in the hide during the 15:00 showing, but he hadn’t got on to the bird. John had to leave before seeing it, but came back twice over the next couple of days and got decent views, and even the photo above. Nice work, John, and thanks for letting me use it. You can find more of John’s photos here and read his blog here.

There were few birds to be seen apart from Little Grebes and feisty Coots, with Little Egrets and a Peregrine further out over the reserve. Everyone’s concentration was focused on the long grass at the back of the first channel of water’s in front of the hide.

At one point, probably around 18:00, I saw a small rail/crake species fly out from the back of the grassy area and land on the far bank (further back and to the left of the red generator, for anyone who’s been to the hide). At least, I think that’s what it was. No one else said anything, and I was too timid to pipe up. And when someone called out “Baillon’s!” and pointed to the near shore, I dismissed this earlier sighting altogether.

I rushed down the right-hand end of the hide, and standing on tip toes, using two blokes in front of me as arm rests, I got on to it. Yes, sideways on, just a few inches into the grass, a rich brown crake with strong white spotting. Result! Okay, I didn’t cover myself with glory in the melee, and the views weren’t great, but it was the bird all right.

But the best views were yet to come. At around 19:15, as the light faded and we were reminded the hide would shut in 15 minutes, a young guy picked it the Baillon’s again, halfway up a thick blade of grass some ten metres from the last sighting. It wasn’t possible to see all of the bird at one time, but by moving along the hide it was possible to see just about the whole thing.

What first struck was it was remarkably small, and it obviously wasn’t weighing down the grass it was perched on. The grey face and bill were clear from my initial vantage point, and through my scope I could just make out the eye, looking red-brown. The under parts were also grey with some speckling on the breast and barring on the flanks. The upper parts were more obscured, but the chestnut brown down the nape and mantle was clear, as well as some of the white spotting and streaking I’d seen during the earlier sighting. A great bird to see and learn from.

Interestingly, a two-bird theory has developed online after apparent differences were noticed in photographs of the bird(s). This is something I though might be possible, even before I’d seen what looked like two separate birds. With evidence of breeding from several sites across the UK this summer, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise that birds bred at Rainham. Apparently, Marsh Frogs, which are present at Rainham, have a very similar call to Baillon’s Crake. So if any were heard calling in this obscure corner of the reserve late at night, they may have been disregarded. Hopefully these will be the first of many.

Finally, I must say a big thank you to the staff and volunteers at Rainham for their generosity and hard work for opening the reserve early and until late so that twitchers like me had a chance to see this bird. Special thanks to warden Howard Vaughan, who implored me to run to the hide when I arrived ("Go, go, go!"), and who waved us off with a smile as we all left happy in the dark. Cheers.

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