Monday, 16 January 2017

Durham Run January 2017

It was time to do another University run up to Durham to take Daughter 1 back. Now astute readers may have noticed that I didn't do a Uni run in December. This was partly that both daughters wanted to come back on the same day and partly that they didn't actually have too much to bring back so in the end they both took the train. This time though, our eldest said that she had too much to take on the train and could I take her in the car? I was rather ambivalent about the prospect until I realised that there was still a Black Scoter up in Northumberland that needed seeing so I agreed to the trip. However in the days leading up to our departure the weather turned pretty horrible with an icy blast and really strong northerly winds and in those conditions I'd pretty much resigned myself to not bothering about the Scoter. Fortunately though this spell of winter passed through the country fairly quickly and the prospect for the weekend was for much more moderate conditions.

As usual we headed off shortly after 8 a.m. into relatively light traffic. There was a jack-knifed lorry on the M1 which added half an hour to our journey but somehow we made up for lost time and so it was that at around 12:15 p.m. we arrived in the small and picturesque city of Durham. This year my daughter had a nice room in castle itself that overlooks the cathedral which was all very characterful. We struggled up the hill and up the multitude of stairs to her room with her heavy bags full of text books before saying our goodbyes and I headed off. With another hour and a half of driving ahead of me up to north Northumberland and will only limited daylight I didn't really have time to linger.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and with the Scoter already having come through on RBA that morning whilst we were driving I was cautiously optimistic though my ETA there wasn't until after 2:30 so I wouldn't have much time left before it got dark. The bird had been reported regularly over the last couple of weeks right at the end of a long single track road at Beachcomer House so this is where I headed. I arrived on schedule and found somewhere to park. Then I put on all the clothing I could wear in order to keep out the cold and yomped off towards the sea. It was a lovely sunny afternoon though very cold indeed.

You can see how far away the surf is as well as how it blocks off all the sea behind it.

The problem I encountered was that the surf was a good several hundred yards away. What's more it was really huge surf and looking from my vantage point on top of the dunes, the waves were so large that it was almost impossible to see any of the sea behind the waves. What's more, there was lots of spray coming up to make the visibility rather poor so all in all it seemed an almost impossible task to find a single slightly different Scoter in amongst a large flock of Common Scoters. The subtleties of identification weren't actually the issue for me though - I couldn't see any Scoters at all! I wandered along the shore westwards spotting a large distant flock of Sanderling and Dunlin and finally seeing a couple of Scoter in flight though when they came down on the sea they disappeared completely.

In the end I gave it up as a hopeless task and headed back to the car, stopping to admire a flock of a couple of dozen Curlew in a field. I got back into the warmth of the car and headed off to my B&B for the evening which was fortunately no more than five minutes away. At the time of planning my trip I'd figured that I might well need extra time on Sunday morning to find the Scoter so had looked for a B&B as close as possible to the location. This turned out to be a huge, beautifully furnished house overlooking the Northumbrian countryside. It was full of period features and could easily have fitted into a Jane Austen novel of some sorts - it really was rather special! I spend a couple of hours relaxing in my room and catching up with news during which time I discovered that the RBA message on the Black Scoter today had actually reported the bird further north more or less opposite the golf club house. This could explain the problems that I'd been experiencing - perhaps the sea conditions were such that the flock had had to move location to somewhere calmer. So there might be hope for me tomorrow after all! Cheered by that thought, though rather kicking myself that I'd not checked the messages when I'd first arrived, I went out to get some food at a nearby pub and watched a bit of telly in the pub bar whilst I ate my Red Thai curry with chips on the side. All the dishes on the menu seemed to come with chips whether you wanted them or not but I found that I was more hungry than I thought and managed to eat most of them. Then it was back to my room for the night where I watched a bit more telly and then was asleep by 10:30.

I slept as well as can be expected when staying somewhere away from home for the first night and was awake before seven though it was still dark. I heard a flock of Pink-footed Geese calling in the darkness as I waited for it to get light. At eight I went down for my cooked breakfast and chatted with my hostess. It turned out that she was a hypnotherapist like myself and we talked shop for a while. Finally at a little after 8:45 I'd said my goodbyes, packed my things in the car and was heading once more back to Goswick.

In the light of the report of the bird by the golf club house, this morning I decided to park there first and then to work my way back along the beach towards it's former location, depending on what I found. As I was getting tooled up in the car park, three Pink-foots flew over, calling loudly. The first golfers were already out on the course despite drizzly (though the much milder) weather conditions this morning.


Three Pink-footed Geese flying overhead
I walked briskly along the path across the course and after five minutes I was on the sandy beach. I could immediately see that conditions were much calmer on the sea here and at least I could see the sea behind the waves. What's more, with the tide out the beach sloped much more steeply and by standing on top of the dunes one had a good vantage point. Looking to the south east I could see that the waves were much larger and more violent back where I'd been yesterday so clearly the prevailing conditions meant that for some reason it was too rough there.


You can actually see the sea here
A quick scan soon found me my first Scoters on the water so I could start my search for the elusive Black Scoter. More Scoter came in until I had a flock of about 500 right in front of me, a smaller flock of about 100 a bit further south east and another flock of about 100 several hundred yards further north west from where I was. I experimented with different vantage points: up on the dunes you have the best height but you were further away whereas on the beach you could get much closer but then the birds were hidden in the troughs for longer. I was just scoping away when a lady with a dog came up and asked me if I'd found the Black Scoter yet. It turned that she was there with her husband and their son and that they were looking from the top of the dunes a couple of hundred yards away. I went over to chat with them to see how they were getting on. It turned out that they'd been here yesterday too but hadn't had a confirmed view of it. We scoped the two nearest flocks for a while but as I'd already grilled these reasonably well I soon decided to go and try out the flock that was further north from where we were and so I set off. As I walked some news came in on the pager of a Black-throated Thrush near Old Moor RSPB in Yorkshire. That was most interesting! It would be pretty much on the way back home and given that it was five and a half hours to get back to Oxford I'd been thinking that I would need to stop off somewhere for a break. This could be the perfect opportunity. 

Back to matters in hand and I eventually reached the other flock and climbed up the dunes to get a good look. I started working my way through the flock but in the rather gloomy light it was very hard to make out the yellow on the drake birds' bills. A Red-breasted Merganser next to the flock made a welcome distraction as I was grilling the flock. One drake caught my eye, partially as it was a little way away from the flock but also partially that there was something a bit different about it. I eventually realised that the reason why it stood out was that it had a much stockier neck than the other birds and then I remembered that this was indeed an identifying feature of the Black Scoter. Could this be it? I scoped the bill carefully, it turned its head and the light caught it just enough to make out a big round orange ball on its beak. This wasn't the narrow orange strip that you see on a head-on Common, this was the real deal. Bingo - I'd done it! I was so relieved to have found it! However, given that time was marching on I decided not to linger any longer but at once started to head back down the beach: at the very least I had to tell the others where to look. When I got back to where they'd been I discovered that they were now hundreds of yards along the beach in the opposite direction and walking further away. So I submitted the news to RBA which I presumed they'd eventually get and was just about to turn off along the path when in the distance they turned around. So I waved my arms and pointed north along the beach. They seemed to get the message because they started to come back and five minutes later I was able to tell them what I'd found. They were suitably grateful and headed off to see it whilst I headed back to the car.

Back in the comfort of my car I started to get to grips with the Black-throated Thrush situation. This would make a spectacular bonus bird if this were to come off but I'd never been to Old Moor RSPB before so wouldn't know where to go. The bird turned out to be at somewhere called Adwick upon Dearne near Doncaster and there was a postcode on RBA so with nothing more to go on I put it in the Sat Nav just in case. I decided that I would wait to see how much more news there was of the bird as I drove southwards though as I needed to stop somewhere anyway it would have to be pretty negative for me not to try for it. With the plan made, I made a mental note of which junction I needed to turn off the A1(M). Then I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed back on the long slog southwards.

The journey back down the country was uneventful. The Black Scoter came up on RBA as still present at the same location that I'd seen it so my companions on the beach had clearly managed to find it. This was also an added confirmation of my ID though I was confident about what I'd seen this morning. As I drove news came through regularly about the Thrush so it looked like it was game-on on that front. As I got closer to my turn-off the news started to dry up though with about twenty minutes to go until the exit it came through again and so I headed off the motorway at junction 37 and fired up the Sat Nav at the first traffic light. It seemed a rather tortuous trip through various housing estates and then back out into open fields. I was just starting to doubt the Sat Nav's abilities when, fifteen minutes after turning off the motorway, suddenly I was turning off into Harlington Road where apparently I needed to look out for a car park by the River Dearne. However, I'd gone no more than 250 yards along the road when, with no river in sight I came upon the exciting sight of a line of twitchers all peering over a hedge and looking intently through their scopes.

This must be the spot!
I screeched to a halt, and joined the line which was surprisingly small, consisting of only a dozen or so birders. It turned out that the bird was in a field of Rape that sloped down for about 250 yards to a line of trees.


I was trying to work out whether anyone was actually on the bird when someone called out directions to a flock of thrushes in a tree at the far end of the field. I found the tree and there was the bird, half way up the left-hand side, distant but clearly distinguishable from the accompanying Redwings. I was just reaching for my digiscoping gear when it flew down into the far end of the field whereupon it proceeded to work its way across the ground, feeding away on hidden invertebrates. Although it was a good 200 yards away I managed some digiscoped record shots.



Being a female, it was a remarkably non-descript bird. Whilst the heavy streaking of its front together with the pale markings around its throat reminded me of the Beeley Dusky Thrush, it lacked the prominent supercilium of that species and its back was a dull grey brown colour. I watched it work its way back and forth for about ten minutes, thanking my stars that it had all been so easy. Later back home and going through the RBA message I realised that the last preceding message had actually said that it's had flown off so I guess that this relatively small party had been looking for it and had just managed to find it in this new location when I'd rocked up. My timing couldn't have been better!

With the Thrush in the bag and more twitchers coming up the hill all the time to try and see the bird I decided not to linger. As an added incentive my VLW had texted me asking me to pick up a few provisions so I headed back to the Gnome mobile and on the way back to the motorway I stopped at a supermarket for the shopping. Then it was back onto the motorway for the final two and a half hours slog back to Oxford. The traffic got progressively heavier as the day progressed and was quite busy on the M40 so I took it easy and eventually at around 5:30 I was pulling into the drive of Casa Gnome, a tired but very happy bunny. I had my usual celebratory cup of tea and as I caught up on the news from the family I reflected that it had been a very successful day. I'd managed to find my difficult Scoter and had lucked-in on a wonderful bonus thrush. Especially given the run-around that the North Wales bird had apparently been giving people I considered myself really lucky to have rocked up at the perfect time for an instant tick - it's great when birding works out like that! So that was 2017 off to a great start - I wonder what will be next.








Sunday, 8 January 2017

Review of 2016

So it's that time of year once again, time to look back over the last year of Gnome Birding and to reflect on the highs and lows. Certainly by all measures nationally it was a pretty amazing year with a record-breaking number of species seen in the country and with a whole heap of national firsts, including some rather contentious firsts for the country such as the Dalmation Pelican, the Purple Swamphen and the Lammergeir. For this personal review as usual I will divide things up into three categories: Patch birding on Port Meadow, county birding (Oxon and Cornwall) and national birding.

Port Meadow Patch Birding
As far Port Meadow is concerned it was a good solid year. I've written a comprehensive review here but to summarise, we had a reasonable year list total of 133 and the highlight birds were a Spoonbill (seen as a fly-over by one person), a Yellow-browed Warbler (also seen by just one person), a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that I enjoyed excellent views of for about five minutes and a Sandwich Tern which roosted one evening on the Meadow. This last species is only the second ever record on the Meadow, with the last one being back in 1995. There was also an epic fall of waders in May with 66 birds of 9 species all brought down by drizzly weather conditions - it really was spectacular! On the Port Meadow blog I awarded the Bird of the Year award to the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

This was far rarer than either Spoonbill or Yellow-browed Warbler on the patch

Oxon County Birding
It was I think a rather mediocre year in Oxon county birding. The year list total was 211 which was a bit down on previous years and personally I only had one county tick which was the long-staying Purple Heron. There were some frustrating near misses such as the Golden Oriel seen at dawn at the Wittenham Clumps by a lucky few observers though sadly was nowhere to be found when all the county birders turned up. So the Purple Heron was definitely the highlight of the Oxon birding year for me as it was also a personal lifer as well. As usual I did a photo montage of the county birding year set to inappropriately heavy music. For those who haven't seen it yet, here it is again.



Cornwall County Listing
These days I also have my Cornish list to contend with. Whereas with Oxon I'm there almost all the time, with Kernow I'm only there a few weeks a year. Nevertheless my Cornish list surpassed my Oxfordshire one several years ago and continues to move ahead. This year I managed five Cornish ticks: Barnacle Goose, Dalmation Pelican, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Cattle Egret and Franklin's Gull. The Cornish Bird of the Year has to be the Cattle Egret as it was a great self-found on my Pendeen Patch.

The Pendeen Cattle Egret

National Birding
I've been chipping away at my national life list with excursions regularly throughout the year. As usual my twitching distance has been fairly limited though my old rule of two hours has long since fallen by the wayside. My Uni runs up to Durham brought a few good sightings this year though they're starting to tail off now as my eldest daughter sometimes uses the train these days. Apart from these long university trips, I still don't like going too far for a bird unless there's a really good chance of seeing it. In passing, during the year I amassed a year list total of 198 without making any effort on it at all.

Kicking off in January on a Durham run I managed finally to tick a personal sea watching bogey bird with Little Auk though the views were all too brief. The long boring month of February was enlivened by the Wiltshire Hooded Merganser which I went for as a bit of an insurance tick, having the dodgy Radipole bird already on my list. This Corsham bird was duly accepted by the powers that be so it was worth the trip. Talking of listing authorities I'm increasingly inclined to move away from the standard authorities and instead to making my own mind up on what I'm going to count. I'm aware that if one wants to do comparative listing then you need a single standard but I generally only list for myself so the Gnome Rarities Committee (GRC) tends to make a few decisions that rather go against the grain of conventional thinking. As an aside, I'm also increasingly attracted to sub-species (which seem to be being split quite rapidly anyway) and for example am thinking of splitting the likes of Eastern Black Redstart and American Black Tern.

The Corsham Hooded Merganser

On my March Durham run, amongst other things I managed to see the Demoiselle Crane up in the Lake District. This species has yet to make it onto any official lists due to the high number of captive birds and even the GRC is still thinking about this one. That same trip also got me a nice over-wintering Hoopoe, some Hartlepool Shorelarks and a Penduline Tit in Cleveland.

Penuline Tit at Saltholme in Cleveland

After that it got rather quiet for a couple of months. I horribly dipped the Broad-billed Sandpiper at the Goldcliff pools near Newport in April, going there "en route" from a trip up to Durham. That trip was very stressful for all sorts of reasons. June was a better month with a successful twitch of the Titchwell Great Knot and then a revenge trip back to Goldcliff where I managed to get the Broad-billed Sandpiper on my list. I also had another Durham trip which was successful on the butterfly front (see later) but where I managed to dip a whole host of birds that I'd lined up including Roseate Tern, King Eider and Woodchat Strike and in the end only connecting with a Bonaparte's Gull at the end of the day. Fortunately none of those birds were lifers but it can be very frustrating when nothing really works out.

The Titchwell Great Knot actually showed far better than this photo suggests

July brought me another long-overdue tick when I caught up with the Collard Pratincole at Ham Wall in Somerset. August was a productive month with a mad dash over to Suffolk for the Western Purple Swamphen (GRC-accepted already) where I managed to get it at last light on the Friday night before it disappeared overnight. That was incredibly lucky as it would have been horrible to have arrived too late to see it and to then have dipped the next morning.



August also saw a family holiday in Cornwall where I finally caught up with the controversial Dalmation Pelican (also GRC-accepted) as well as adding the Hudsonian Whimbrel to my Cornish list.

It took a number of attempts to get the Hudsonian Whimbrel

September was very quiet with no major excursions but the start of October was another Durham trip to Spurn where I finally managed to get another sea watching bogye bird, namely Long-tailed Skua on my list. I also had a failed trip to Norfolk where I dipped Radde's Warbler though had a Great Grey Shrike and Olive-backed Pipit as compensation. After that was a trip back to Spurn to pay homage to the amazing Siberian Accentor that was part of an unprecedented invasion in this country. I was really lucky when a bonus Isabelline Wheatear was found right next door the same day.

Siberian Accentor at Easington

My annual October Cornwall trip was rather a low key affair with the Cattle Egret and a Franklin's Gull the highlights. There was nothing of note in November at all but December really came up with the goods with a couple of Mega thrushes. The first was the Dusky Thrush at Beeley in Derbyshire which I managed good views of though the huge crowd somewhat spoilt the experience.

The Beeley Dusky Thrush

Then in the last few days of the year an amazing Blue Rock Thrush was found at Stow-on-the-Wold just over the county border in Goucestershire. There seems to be some debate on the provenance of this bird though the GRC are happy to accept it.

The Blue Rock Thrush

Finally, on the last day of the year with just a few hours of daylight left, I managed to see the Mousehole Eastern Black Redstart, a lovely bird and a great way to end the year.

Mousehole Eastern Black Redstart, soon to be split?

So there you are, a pretty good national year. The coveted national bird of the year award has to go to the Siberian Accentor because it just summed up what an amazing birding year 2016 was.

Insects
Regular readers will know that I while away the summer months with plants and insects and this year was no exception. This year I was determined to finish off my UK butterfly list which had been languishing near the finish line for some years now. With a concerted effort I managed Swallowtail at Strumpshaw Fen, Mountain Ringlet at Irton Fell, Heath Fritillary and East Blean Woods, and finally Lulworth Skipper at Durlston CP, thereby completing the set.


Swallowtail
Mountain Ringlet

Heath Fritillary

Lulworth Skipper


I also made a real effort with my Odonata list and nearly got there, at least as far as non-Scottish ones are concerned. I made trips for Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly, Southern Migrant Hawker and Scarce Emerald (though in the end I'm not sure that I got the latter so I'm not counting it), Common Hawker and finally Willow Emerald. Just left on my list now are a confirmed sighting of Scarce Emerald, Southern Emerald and the two Scottish ones, namely Azure Hawker and Northern Blue Damselfly.

Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly
Southern Migrant Hawker

Common Hawker

Willow Emerald


My mothing this year was rather low key and half-hearted. I always have problems with my rather urban garden setting and with the poor weather this year was worse than usual so I more or less gave up by the early autumn. That's not to say that I'm not going to carry on for next year but it will perhaps be more in the background than before. 

I did go and twitch this Clepsis dumicolana - a new immigrant from abroad that had formed a colony outside a house in Longwick Bucks

Plants
As my mothing interest has waned so my interest in plants has grown. Looking out for interesting plants has become a regular part of any outing that I go on, especially in the summer months and I expect to do more of this next year as well as going on dedicated botanising trips rather than just doing it en passant.

I enjoyed finding this Alpine Lady's Mantle on top of a 3000 foot mountain in Scotland

Looking Ahead
So there you have it, a good year of chasing after birds, insects and plants and then blogging about it. For 2017 expect more of the same though with less butterflies (as I've done them now). In my sights I now have 400 for my BOU UK list (with some GRC additions) though if I decide to split loads more things then I'm already there. Finally I'd like to wish a belated Happy New Year to all my readers and here's to a bird-filled 2017!

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

New Year in Cornwall

Another compilation of posts from my sister blog at Pendeen Birding

31st December - Mousehole
We decided as a family to head back down to our beloved Cornwall to see the New Year in and we'd invited my VLW's two brothers to join us as well. As the previous day we all had a family party to attend just over the border in Warwickshire it made sense for them all to come back to our place in Oxford for the night before we all headed off to the South West the next day. Our intention was to leave for Cornwall at 9 a.m. the next day but with the usual inertia that accompanies a large group it wasn't until after 9:30 that we finally left. Mercifully the traffic was light and we made good progress arriving at Penzance in just over four hours as usual. There was some quite heated debate in our car about what to do when we got there. I had pointed out that as we only had two or three hours of daylight left and that we were only down for a few days then it made sense to go and do something first and then get the shopping in once it got dark. I proposed Mousehole as an option, partly as we all like pootling around there and of course partly so that I could get to see the Eastern Black Redstart that had been lingering there the past couple of weeks. Eventually this was agreed and we headed off there, deciding to bite the bullet and park in the Rock Pool café car park to save time. The other car with my two brothers-in-law were only a few minutes behind us so whilst the others waited for them to arrive, I headed down to the shoreline beneath the café to look for the bird with L our ten year old son in tow. I explained to him what I was looking for but initially couldn't see it at all. Suddenly L exclaimed "there it is, there  it is!" and pointed on the beach though as hard as I tried I couldn't see where he was pointing until a small bird flew up and over the low cliff there into a garden. I hadn't really got anything on it as it flew so quizzed L closely as his knowledge of birds is vague to say the least but he seemed convinced. I left him scrambling around on the rocks and headed further along until I reached the boulders along the foot of the harbour car park which I scoured carefully. I knew that the bird had occasionally been seen along the southern quay instead but I didn't have time to check there now and had to hope that it was still somewhere between the north quay and the café though there'd been no report on it on RBA at all today.

Having drawn a blank on the outward journey I turned at the harbour wall and started to head back. I'd just left the car park when something small, and reddish with a quivering red tail flew down onto the path right in front of me. It was the bird of course which showed remarkably well down to a few metres though in the horribly gloomy weather it was hard to get the camera to focus at all. It soon went back to feeding on the rocks and along the strand line and I eventually managed to get some shots off. It was truly a delightful bird - one that I've been coveting from afar for some time now, what with the one at Cleveland and then the one at Tewkesbury Abbey that I would have gone for had it stayed one more day. In fact I do wonder if this is not the same bird as the Gloucestershire one which has moved as far down south as it was able to go and finding a nice sheltered beach spot has elected to stay. I showed a photo to L who assured me that that had been the bird that he'd seen so there's some hope for his birding prowess after all.



In the end the only photos that came out were when it was perching on a favoured rock

I was soon called away from my appreciation of this eastern gem by a phone call saying that the others had arrived and that they were all in the café now so I went to join them. Unfortunatley it was rather busy there today so the service was a bit slow and they never actually cleared our table of the previous occupants' stuff but we were thirsty after our long drive down and didn't really mind.

They have cute little milk bottles for your milk at the café

After our refreshment we headed back down to the footpath and walked along to the harbour. I tried to show them the bird but there was no sign of it as we walked past its favoured spot. In the town we wandered around peering in the shops and the children all bought tiny pewter mice from a little shop on the southern side. We noticed that the harbour itself was closed with a series of wooden planks along the narrow harbour entrance keeping it all clear of boats so that their Christmas light display could be installed. It all looked very impressive so as it got to dusk we hung around to see if they would light it up but in the end it got rather dark and started to get cold without any sign of the lights so we reluctantly headed back to the car. This time the bird was back on display and I showed it to the others though the light was pretty terrible by now.

Mousehole cat, asleep in a shop


Our next stop was over to Sainsburys for our shopping. Whilst the others went inside I took L over to Marazion beach for some reconnaisance work. The previous time that we'd been down we'd seen in the New Year there on the beach but I'd read that loads of spratts had been washed up on the beach (creating a bit of a gull feeding frenzy in the process) so we were a bit worried that it might be rather smelly. L and I wandered around on the beach a bit but we couldn't actually find any spratts so I guess that the gulls had cleaned it all up though there was a distinct fishy aroma which wasn't normally there. Just as I got back to the car four Grey Herons flew over us and then westwards along the beach. We headed back to Sainsburys where I filled the car up with petrol and then we picked the others up  before heading over the hill towards Pendeen to open up the cottage. It's always with some nervousness that I first approach the cottage each time as in past visits sometimes something has gone wrong, either the heating or the electrics or something. This time the only issue was our outside light which seemed to have been knocked off the wall. Thinking about it later, it was probably our neighbour who'd helpfully put up some tower scaffolding there and the blowing wind had probably done the rest. Anyway, the cottage was looking fine and we busied ourselves with unpacking and getting a meal together.

After dinner we had to plan what to do and once more there was a certain amount of inertia involved. Eventaully we agreed on driving over to Mousehole again to see the harbour lights before heading back to the cottage to see in the New Year, perhaps  with a glass of champagne down on the beach at Boat Cove if we felt adventurous enough. The Mousehole lights turned out to be pretty impressive and we wandered around admiring them for some time. The others went into the Ship Inn to sample some of the local ale though L wasn't keen to go in (there was a rather loud band playing) so in the end I stayed outside with him whilst he played on the beach. The others soon came out again suitably refreshed and we headed back to the car and home to the cottage.


The Mousehole Christmas lights

Arriving back, the wind had strengthened notably and in the end the lure of the warm cottage proved too much and our beach plans were shelved. We saw in the New Year watching Jules Holland on the TV whilst sipping champagne before heading to bed.



1st January - Marazion & St Ives
Firstly a Happy New Year to all my readers!

After our late night yesterday seeing the year in we were in no hurry to get up. Eventually we'd all surfaced and found that unfortunately the weather was, as forecast, drizzly and extremely windy. With no prospect of it changing all day, in the end we decided to head over to Marazion. This is often our go-to location choice in bad weather and as one member of our party had never been over to St Michael's Mount before, it seemed like a good idea. For my own part I was keen to catch up with all the gull action that I'd read about on the beach there: over the last few days at Marazion there'd been a first winter Ring-billed Gull, an adult Iceland Gull, a first winter Caspian Gull as well as a possible American Herring Gull all frequenting the beach. However, from what I'd read there were so many gulls swirling about mopping up the stranded sprats that it was rather hard work to find things in amongst the maelstrom. The Caspian Gull was the real prize for me as this is a really rare bird down in Cornwall, far more so than Ring-billed Gull for example, and what's more it would be a personal Cornish tick. It's rather strange that they're so rare in Cornwall as back in Oxford I regularly find them in amongst the gull roost on my patch and indeed found half a dozen or so just in December in what was a particularly good month for them locally.

We arrived at the Station Inn car park to find that the near gale-force north easterly wind was almost as strong on this side of the peninsula as it had been back at Pendeen. I spotted three birders scoping the gulls from the car park, doing their best to shelter in amongst the cars so whilst the others got ready to head off on their walk I headed over to enquire as to what they'd found. The trio turned out to be MA, JR and another birder whom I didn't recognise. They reported that there'd been no sign of the Ring-billed nor the Iceland Gull but fortunately one of them had the Caspian Gull in his scope and I was able to score an easy and much appreciated tick thanks to a quick peek. I headed back to the car to see the others off and to get my gear together but in that time the entire gull flock went up and once I started scanning the Caspian was no where to be found.

The other three birders had had enough of the biting wind and headed off and I was left to try and find a sheltered vantage point from which to view the birds. In the end I went down below the car park to  the bottom of the wall where it was much calmer and more sheltered. There were loads of gulls on the beach in several large flocks with hundreds if not thousands more dotted about on the various rocks in the bay. With the large numbers of people out for their New Years Day walks on the beach the gulls were continually being put up so it was a case of rapidly scanning the flocks each time they formed before they went up again.

Gulls on the beach...
...before being put up by a dog
My first Med Gull of the year
I managed to find a first winter Mediterranean Gull in amongst the Black-headed Gulls - it's always nice to see them and made for a nice year tick. Another birder came over who turned out to be a local that I didn't know and who was keen to see the Caspian though he didn't have a scope with him so he was giving himself a pretty hard task. We worked the flocks together and after a while I managed to turn up a second winter Yellow-legged Gull. Now back home in Oxford these are really common and on a typical evening grilling the patch gull roost at this time of year I would expect to find several of these but down here in Cornwall they're much rarer. In fact I've only seen this species once before today so I was pleased to turn one up. Predictably it didn't hang around too long before the flock went up again but I was able to get some video footage of it.

Some rather wind-shaken footage of the Yellow-legged Gull


After a while I had had enough of grilling the gulls and went back to the car to warm up. Shortly after I got a phone call from the other party saying that they would very much appreciate a lift back from Marazion as on the return leg they were now walking into the wind and they were all feeling cold. Having already scored my Cornish tick I was happy to oblige and headed off to pick them up. 

Our next stop, given the dodgy weather, was to be St Ives where some members of the party wanted to indulge in a spot of shopping. Now I'm not a great fan of shopping personally so after we'd arrived and got some pasties for lunch I headed over to the island to take a look at the sea. With a north easterly wind the waves were quite spectacular and I spent some time revelling in the excitement of it all. I did spot a pod of ten or so cetaceans which I think are Porpoises though I am happy to be corrected on this.

The Porpoises - you may wish to turn down your volume to avoid the wind noise


In due course I rendezvous'd back with the others and we headed back to the car and home to a hearty stew supper that we'd left cooking in our slow cooker back at the cottage - just what you need on a windy January day! Then we passed the evening watching TV and chatting before heading off to bed. Given the poor weather and the fact that I'd only had a limited time to do some birding I was more than pleased with today's results.


Winter Heliotrope in flower on the path down to the town from the leisure centre car park


2nd January - Trevilley to Porthgwarra

The forecast for today was for bright sunshine though still a reasonably brisk north easterly wind and this was indeed what we awoke to. In the improved conditions I did actually have a brief wander around the Pendeen area first thing and came up with a Raven, one or more heard-only Chough, a few Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Auks moving on the sea and best of all a Merlin which whizzed down the coast path and landed on a distant wall.

Singing Pendeen Great Tit

Back at base, given the sunny conditions we thought that we'd go for a decent walk today and with  the prevailing wind direction we decided to head to the south coast where we hoped that we would get some shelter. We decided in the end to head to Trevilley and from there walk down to Nanjizal beach and on to Porthgwarra where we hoped that the café might be open, before returning back to where we'd come from via a slightly different route. We stopped off in St Just for some pasties and then parked up just on the entrance road to Trevilley and headed off. With a Little Bunting and some Lapland Buntings having been reported in the stubble fields I kept my eyes open but there was so much cover that it would require many hours of tramping around to uncover anything there and just passing through as I was all I could turn up was a flock of about 100 Linnets and a few Skylarks. Out on the moor iotself there were at least six Stonechats and a few Meadow Pipits but in general it was very quiet. Sadly the café was shut, which we'd half expected anyway and on the return leg we decided to go across the moor and up past Higher Bosistow and along the footpath across the fields back towards Trevilley. Again, not much was seen on the bird front but in the sunshine it was a very pleasant walk indeed.

There were plenty of Corn Marigolds in the fields near Trevilley


3rd January - Back Home
It was time to leave already. Frustratingly the weather this morning was absolutely divine with bright sunshine and not a breath of wind. I must admit that I tarried a while as I carried stuff out to the car just in order to enjoy the weather and scenery. There was the usual Raven and I saw a couple of Chough this morning as well as a couple of Buzzards.

I usually take photos of the Raven which likes to sit on this wall but today there was a Buzzard there
My two brothers-in-law were up and off reasonably early but as usual it took our family some time to get sorted and so we didn't finally leave until after midday. Then we had some recycling to drop off, petrol to buy and sandwiches for the journey. Finally at after 1 p.m. were were properly on the way and after a long but uneventful journey were back home late afternoon to say hello two our two cats which were both very pleased to see us again.

Pendeen Song Thrush

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Rocking it in Stow

I'd more or less mentally shut up shop for the 2016 birding year. It had been a great year and I was starting to think about my end of year review and my bird of the year awards and I certainly wasn't expecting to make any more sorties before the New Year. However, on Tuesday afternoon news broke of a male Blue Rock Thrush in Stow-on-the-Wold - a tantalisingly short distance from Casa Gnome. Initially the news was no more than the fact that someone had posted an ID query on Twitter about a strange bird in their garden and the location hadn't been disclosed. However, when you dangle a carrot such as this before the twitching community it doesn't take much to bring out a twitcher's inner detective and by late afternoon someone had Googled the name of the Twitter poster to get their postcode and then had scoured the area until they'd turned the bird up. There was a bit of controversy on Bird Forum (see here) about the fact that the location had been posted on RBA without any prior consultation but with the genie out of the bottle there wasn't anything to be done except to plan my trip the next day.

The forecast was for fog for much of the county in the morning and also unfortunately for Stow as well which is just over the border in Gloucestershire. With that in mind, and also not wanting to have endure the inevitable dawn hoards I decided to play it cool and to aim to arrive late morning when the sun would have had a chance to burn off the fog and when numbers would have calmed down. After all, since the bird had apparently already been there for more than a week before being identified I wasn't particularly worried about it disappearing. I followed on-line as the dawn arrivals connected and photos on Twitter seemed to reveal a first-light crowd of more than 100 birders, all crammed into a small space so I was thankful to have given that a miss. At around 10 a.m. I started to think about heading over there and began to get my gear packed into the Gnome mobile. I was all set to head off when my VLW pointed out that news had just broken of a fatal accident on the A40, which was the route I was going to take. With the road closed both ways I decided to go via Chipping Norton instead and thanked the stars (and my VLW) for having learnt about the news just in time. So instead I headed off along the misty and frosty Oxfordshire roads, passing a couple of minor accidents along the way, testament to the treacherous conditions. Some three quarters of an hour later I arrived in Stow and tried to get into the closest car par only to find that it was full of twitchers so I headed back to a residential side road that was well away from the twitch area, got tooled up and dressed up in my warm gear to keep out the near zero temperatures and hurried over to Fishers Close, where the bird was located. There was a steady stream of birders coming the other way though numbers weren't too huge. 

I arrived at the Close to find no more than a dozen or so birders all scoping something which of course turned out to be the Blue Rock Thrush itself, conveniently perching on the top of a chimney pot of a more distant house. I quickly got my scope out and enjoyed my first views of this Mega rarity. 

Blue Rock Thrush on a chimney pot
After a few minutes it flew down into the garden behind the house and I could relax and go and explore a bit. I soon found the area which overlooked the original finder's garden and which I recognised from the photos that morning. Judging from the RBA reports and what I'd read on Bird Forum I had been expecting only occasional views but from talking to people who were already there it seemed that the bird was often on view and that one never had to wait more than fifteen or twenty minutes for a sighting and this did in fact prove to be the case. 

I'd been a bit surprised at the location this normally mountain-dwelling species had chosen, namely a residential housing estate.  On doing a bit of reading it turned out that it liked what seemed to be similar habitat to Black Redstarts and apparently it wasn't too unusual for them to be seen in villages though of course they should be much further south and east than this one was. It certainly treated the surrounding houses like some cliffs, often perching on them to survey the scene before nipping down to lower levels to feed. It seemed to have a bit of a circuit which included the original garden as well as quite a few rooftops on the surrounding houses. This made for nice easy viewing though in the bright sunlight it did make for difficult photography. In fact the best views of it were when it was low down in the deep shade in the garden. Then one could appreciate the deep indigo blue colour and make out the vermiculations on the plumage that I naively thought marked it out as a first winter male though apparently it's actually an adult (see here). The rest of the time against a bright sky it appeared almost black though with a very distinctive jizz that immediately marked it out as something special.

In the shade it was possible to appreciate the subtle plumage details


It's more usual roof-top pose
Over the course of about an hour and a half I took a number of photos as it appeared and disappeared though much of them ended up being the same silhouette on a roof top which only has limited photographic appeal. The number of twitchers ebbed and flowed though there were never more than about forty during the time that I was there.

Twitch Shot
Given the rarity of the bird and it's close proximity to God's Own County I was very much expecting to bump into other Oxon birders and sure enough I met up with Peter Law, Wayne and Julie Bull and also Keith and Shirley Clack. Given how well the bird was performing there was a nice relaxed atmosphere and much chatting was had.

Birders selfie: from left to right: Wayne, Julie, Peter and myself
Eventually I felt that I'd had my fill and wandered back to the Gnome mobile, de-tooled, had a celebratory mince pie to keep my energy up and then headed back home to Oxford for a late lunch. What a nice finale to what has been a special birding year.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Dusky Delights in Derbyshire

A little over a month ago there was quite a kerfuffle when a non birder in Northumberland photographed a bird that he didn't recognise and posted it on an internet forum to be identified. Amazingly it turned out to be an Eyebrowed Thrush, a quite extraordinary bird to just chance upon though sadly it was never seen again. A month later on Sunday Rachel Jones innocently posted pictures of three birds that she'd photographed in her Derbyshire garden and didn't recognise. To put things in perspective, two of the species were Starling and Blackbird so she was very much a beginner but amazingly the third bird turned out to be a Dusky Thrush, a massive UK rarity. In due course the location was revealed to be the small village of Beeley near Chesterfield in Derbyshire and so next morning the vanguard of keenest twitchers were there and duly managed to find the bird which was then reported throughout the rest of Monday. Being only some two and a half hours away, this bird was very much on my twitching radar and having missed the only other proper twitchable one at Margate a few years back I was keen to go and pay my respects. It was being reported fairly regularly throughout the day though by all accounts was rather mobile, moving between a number of different sites in the village so a certain amount of persistence and luck were going to be necessary. I had mentally pencilled in later in the week to go but on Tuesday I hit a quiet patch at work and was all set to head off when some family duties came up and I had to postpone my trip. So instead I elected to go on news on Wednesday morning when as an added bonus the weather would be much milder than the the rather chilly snap we were presently enduring.

Wednesday morning, before it was even properly light, the bird was reported again on Twitter as still being present so it was that a little after 8 a.m. I set off. According to the RAC web-site there were two routes which took the same amount of time: either M6 Toll and A38/A6 or up the M1 and then across at Chesterfield (where the famous Crag Martin had been located). In the end I opted for the first route and duly set off. The weather was rather murky and gloomy though the car thermometer reported a balmy 10 degrees outside as I negotiated the tail end of the commuter traffic whilst circumnavigating Birmingham. After Derby, the roads were slower and I was forced to crawl along at 40 mph along the Derwent river valley though regular views of old mill buildings gave a nice historic context to the region. Finally after about two and a half hours of travelling I turned off the main road and was soon pulling up at Beeley, a very picturesque village just into the Peak District National Park.

The village was quite a sight to behold with birders to be seen absolutely everywhere. Many were heading back down the hill, relaxing and chatting after having seen the bird whereas others who'd yet to see it were hurrying up the road, driven on by a mixture of the same excitement and anxiety that I was feeling. A car was leaving just as I arrived so I nipped into their parking spot just outside the pub, got tooled up and headed off up the hill after the other yet-to-see-its. I'd only gone a few yards when I saw the familiar faces of Ewan and Clackers, looking contentedly over their photos on the back of their cameras and clearly about to call it a day. They showed me some suitably gripping BOC shots and told me that the best tactic was to wait at the orchard by Dukes Barn rather than running around after every reported sighting. With the bird yet to be seen by myself I didn't linger but said goodbye and hurried on.

The whole village was absolutely heaving with birders, they were everywhere you looked. Twitching with big crowds is very much not my cup of tea but I did my best to ignore the hoards and to focus on the task in hand, namely locating a rather small bird somewhere in a fair sized village with lots of hiding places. As usual I'd done as much pre-trip research as possible and so knew where many of the locations were where it was often seen. The key spots seemed to be: the gardens and hedges next to the small playing field off Chapel Hill, the small orchard in the centre of the village next to the Dukes Barn activity centre and another orchard a bit further down School Lane. From what I'd read it was generally understood that the best location was the Dukes Barn orchard and as Ewan and Keith had backed this up that's where I headed. The orchard turned out to be a rather modest affair with just a few apple trees in it and a couple of rather cramped viewing points, either side of an adjoining building. I chose to stand at the first gap near the entrance whereas others were standing at the second gap by the rear car park where a number of canoes seemed to be stacked. Fortunately, some people in front of me decided to leave after a while as they'd already seen the bird so I was able to get a front row spot as we waited. There were lots of thrushes flying around overhead, mostly Redwings, and a Blackbird would pop down into the orchard periodically. A Nuthatch and a Coal Tit were two other regular visitors to the orchard but that was about it. Still, the weather was nice and mild and there wasn't too much inane conversation going on as we waited in quiet expectation for an appearance by the star bird.

The Duke's Barn orchard
After about three quarters of an hour of waiting I looked over to the other orchard watching group and noticed a certain change in demeanour. There was clearly something going on with people excitedly looking through the hedge behind the wall there. Could they be on the bird? Somehow the way the people were behaving didn't seem to suggest that they could actually see it though something was certainly afoot. Suddenly, without anyone actually saying anything, there seemed to be a determined movement away from the orchard area and off own the road. Without quite knowing what was going on I decided to follow and hastily gathered together my gear and hurried off down the road. The direction of travel was through the village and down Pig Lane where at the end I found a gathering of birders all focusing on a field in front of them. Someone was saying that he had the bird in his scope and I quickly took my turn at having a peak through it so I could finally see it and relax somewhat. Yes, there it was sitting in a Hawthorn bush on the far side of the field though the scope was slightly out of focus for me so it wasn't a great view. More and more people were arriving all the time and it was becoming quite crowded so I looked around and realised that there was a nice vantage point in a field next to the path where a few other birders had already gone. I made my way through the crowd and over into this field where I was able to set up with an unobstructed view of the hedgerow on the other side. I soon had the bird in my scope and was able to take it in in all its thrushy loveliness.




The bird was a bit larger than the accompanying Redwings and without the rakish jizz of that species. A mid brown colour on the back with reddish tones in the flight feathers, a striking white supercilium that flared out wider beyond the eye, a large white throat area and strong black speckling on the breast over a whitish ground colour, it really was a lovely looking thrush. I busied myself with my digiscoping, alternating between photos and video for all of the twenty minutes that it was on view.

Some video footage of the Dusky Thrush


Thinking about it, the location that it had chosen was actually a pretty good one from the point of view of accommodating the hoards of birders as there was enough room so that everyone (I estimated that there were about 400 people there) could watch it in relative comfort without getting in each others' way. Eventually it took off and flew back towards the village and that was my cue (and everyone else's there) to leave.

Just some of the twitchers all watching the Dusky Thrush

I felt that I'd had good enough views of the bird to start thinking about heading back home now but first I went back to the Dukes Barn area for a celebratory cup of tea and a chance to make a donation in their collection bucket. The Dukes Barn is an outdoor activity centre that relies entirely on donations and I felt that it was a good idea for sake of the reputation of the twitching community that they should be supported for offering their car park and grounds up for the use of visiting birders. I had a quick tour around the rest of the village just so that I could see the other favoured sites for myself. I'd already explored the village on Streetview as part of my preparations so felt that I knew it quite well already but it was good to see these sites in the flesh.

The second orchard site - at the bottom of School Lane
The playing field site off Chapel Hill
Finally it was back to the car where I had my packed lunch and then fired up the Gnome mobile. I decided to head back via the alternative route on the M1 just for a bit of variety. The journey back was uneventful but with the absence of a dangling new tick carrot to keep me excited, I felt more tired and had to concentrate to keep awake. Back home I had my usual celebratory cup of tea and the chance to bask in the warm glow yet another mega rare tick in what has been a truly memorable birding year.