Friday, 29 August 2014

One Dunlin Flying.... (reprise)

Nordic Adventures Part 3

The Knots had finally arrived and the pages of our notebooks were starting to fill up with numbers, colours, letters and codes. As we had been concerned with the lack of data collected due to the tardy Knots we really went for it when we had birds to study. We even went “flagging” (looking for colour ringed birds to read the 3 letter code on the flag) at high tide when the birds were roosting. The chances of collecting a decent number of sightings of flagged birds at roost was slim but we wanted as many records as we could muster.

There are a number of regular roost sites that are easily observed so as the tide covered the flats on Lille Porsanger we would make our way to one of the best, the muddy puddles and rocky pools of  Viednes. It is impossible to get lost on the way to Viednes, even for the most directionally challenged. There is only one road in Lille Porsanger and it leads to and terminates at Viednes.

As you would expect for a place so remote there is little for the casual visitor to Viednes. There is a shop with fairly limited opening hours and an even more limited range of goods for sale.

This year I saw a sign for an internet café but never actually found the café itself.

There are a couple of farms and a scattering of wooden dwellings. A causeway sweeps across the bay to a small harbour where fishing boats land catches of cod and hang them out to dry. Before the road was built a boat was the only way in or out of this far flung outpost of civilisation.

For birdwatchers in general and Knot watchers in particular Viednes is a super place. The muddy pools created by the building of the causeway are a magnet for passing migrant birds. On these puddles I have seen Wood Sandpipers, Ringed and Golden Plovers, Temminck’s Stint and an Avocet. The latter causing quite a stir as it is a really rarity this far north.

As the pools deepen and merge into a shallow tidal bay there are a network of rocky banks. These are clearly man made as they are in straight lines and some join and bisect to make square and rectangular pools at high water, although I have no idea what their true purpose is, it is on these rocky shelves that the Knot roost at high tide.

It is here that we have arrived on a sunny morning, having come straight here from our base. A forty minute drive seemed like a long way the first time we did it 3 years ago but we have settled into a Finnmark groove and time and distance mean less and less with each passing day.

The birds were well settled and almost all were sleeping with terracotta coloured heads stowed under speckled wing. A few were preening themselves and one was having a wash. First thing we did was count them, twice to get an accurate figure. All three observers counted and compared results to get a really good estimate of numbers. We then scanned all the legs on show for coloured rings.

In a feeding flock this is actually quite easy, the birds are mobile and many can be checked for rings. At roost though it is a much trickier affair. The birds often roost on one leg and can remain motionless for long periods of time.

We decided to have a go, mindful not to disturb the flock. We were keen for data but not to the detriment of our subject.

From the bankside we slowly made our way to the shore. This was tricky as the snow had drifted up along the incline of the bank and was quite deep in places. You could quite easily sink waist deep in snow. Once on the rocky shore we started to creep closer to the birds along the exposed tops of the rocks, each taking a different path. We would take tow steps then wait for a few minutes scanning the flock to see if they ahd seen us and what their reaction was. If we felt we were starting to make them nervous then we would abort the mission and wait for the tide to drop and observe them whilst feeding.

Our progress was so slow and so stealthy that the birds remained totally calm and unruffled while we got within range to read the 3 letter code embossed on the yellow flagged ring on their left tibea.

I took another step and stopped. I adjusted the tripod and scanned the flock again. There is a flagged bird and a Dutch ringed bird (a combination of an unmarked flag and 4 coloured rings) in the flock but I can’t read the letters on our Norwegian bird or all of the colours on the Dutch bird. Hmmm… I will have to wait.

I have no problem with waiting. I like the standing around looking at the flock. I never get bored. In my mind I thought silly thoughts, made lists of things to do. I looked at the scenery, counted clouds. Think. Wait. I noticed other stuff. Like the fact there are no Common Gulls here today when yesterday there were dozens. The flock of Snow Buntings were still on the same field. A blue car trundled its way along the road to the village, tyres crunching through the loose gravel. A Redwing was starting to si…

Boom! From nowhere a Peregine swooped in. It came from over my right shoulder, nearly silent, I’m sure I detected a sort of hiss from its swept back wings slicing through the air. Far too quick for me to swing the camera to my eye and try and take its picture as it hits the Knot.

The roosting birds exploded from the rocks with a panicked chorus of metallic clucks and started to take evasive action. Too late for one individual, the Peregrine had it, neck easily snapped with a quick twist of the head. The hunter adjusted its prey in yellow talons for a comfortable carry and flew off across the bay towards to low cliffs around the headland from the harbour.

The frightened birds continued to fly at speed around the bay. Once they were feeling safe again the circled the bay, gained height with each lap and called constantly - like a tribute to the lost flock member. Eventually they returned to the roost. They came in and flitted about the rocks reorganising themselves ready to sleep again. While they were doing this I managed to find the ringed birds, read the flag and photographed the Dutch bird. I scribbled to sightings in my notebook and looking around I saw the others doing likewise. Traumatic for the Knots but more sightings for researchers.

We decided that the birds had had enough drama for one morning so we retreated back to the snowy bank to reflect on more adventures with Knots.

Fast forward to the date of this post, I am sitting at the computer as the rain ruins another summer day looking through some pictures from the Norway trip. I reach the photos that you have just seen and I remember watching the drama at Viednes. What you have just read is what I remember. I started to look for the pictures to illustrate this post and when I was working a few up to present here I noticed something in the flock that had escaped me on the day. An individual from a species I have been spending some time with recently on the muddy banks of the Dee.

With the terrified flock was a single Dunlin. Just one.

One Dunlin flying.

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