Tuesday, 11 September 2012

More vigil than twitch

Juvenile Baillon's Crake at Rainham Marshes RSPB today. Wandering vagrant or British bird, born and bred?
With news breaking late in the season that up to nine singing Baillon's Crakes had been found in Britain this summer (see Birdwatch 243: 60-61), every patchworker worth their salt has been checking suitable habitat for this species, which has hitherto had the cachet of being a true 'mega'. In the Birdwatch office, such is its desirability that we even fantasised about finding one at Rainham Marshes RSPB, my own patch and a regular stomping ground for two more of the team.

Well, in the end the honours fell to a former rather than current Birdwatch team member. Marianne Taylor was at Rainham last Friday afternoon (7th) when she located Porzana pusilla; her account of discovering London's bird of the year will be in the next issue of her old magazine. Only a handful of regulars saw it before dark, and then news was released widely that evening. Large numbers of birders were expected at dawn, so as a Volunteer Bird Recorder at the reserve I was on site by 05:30 and took up position in the Butts Hide with the first early-rising visitors and fellow VBR Ruth Barnes.

Dawn mists rising at Rainham Marshes, with east London's industrial skyline behind.
The nervous anticipation of whether or not a mega-rarity has overnighted is not a pleasant sensation, so we began searching for it even though the pre-dawn murk hampered the task. But scanning along the edge of the rushes in the gloom, I picked up what looked like a pale motionless 'blob' just off the ground. Getting the scope on it and zooming in, the blob lifted its head and looked around - Baillon's! I called it out and some of the replies were almost disbelieving, but there it was, now moving left through the edge of the rushes.

The Tower Butts Hide at Rainham has been almost permanently occupied during opening hours since Saturday morning, with visitors from far and wide attempting to see the bird.
We all watched as the light slowly brightened, and I guess the bird was in full view for perhaps 35 minutes or so before moving right into a hidden channel and becoming more elusive. Birders were still arriving constantly and we managed to get many of them straight onto it (with the notable exception of Hawky, who missed it by minutes and spent another 15 or so hours on three visits over the weekend before finally connecting). Thereafter, the crake went AWOL, not to be seen again that day nor the following morning until just before 10:00. I volunteered on Sunday too and again on Tuesday, when I took these record shots when the bird showed briefly mid-morning (in contrast to the Aquatic Warbler reported by two observers the previous day in the same location).

A record shot of the bird on the move as it breaks cover and heads into the water ...
... and then swims in the open for a short distance before sheltering once more among the rushes.
This was a tick that even the most veteran of London listers needed, given that the previous two records in the capital date from the 19th century (1871 and 1894). While I was there many of them succeeded in nailing it, albeit with some effort. Less twitch and more vigil it may have been, but ultimately this cracking crake was well worth the wait.

Watching the watchers from across the reserve.


  1. Nice pics. Hawky luckily saw it on his 2nd visit. It took me 3 visits and have seen it again since on my 4th visit.

  2. Hi Martin,thanks for the nice comments. I saw Hawky leave after about four hours on Sunday - said he couldn't stay only longer - but subsequently the bird showed again, so I guess he returned to the site and got it third time. I've managed it twice out of three visits - will be back for more if it stays!



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