Thursday, 23 February 2017

Cornwall for February Half Term 2017

Once more a compilation of my Pendeen Birding posts from a recent trip down to Cornwall

12th February - Back Down Via Bodmin
We're back down in Cornwall, for our usual half-term visit. Traditionally, this is a time for us to check how the cottage is surviving the onslaught of the winter weather and to start doing some interior decorating for the coming season. With our two eldest daughters now at university it was just my VLW and our ten year old son accompanying me on the journey down on Sunday. I'd initially been somewhat reluctant to come down as I have so much work on but the more I thought about it the more I realised that actually I really needed a break so it was with a sense of optimism I loaded up the car ready for the long slog south west.

We set off at around 11 a.m. and only stopped briefly at the Bodmin turn-off to look for a Waxwing that had been reported yesterday as coming to Crab Apples in a garden. Normally en famille I wouldn't bother trying to persuade the rest of them to make a detour on the way down but as this bird had been reported literally no more than a couple of minutes off the A30 they were happy enough for a bijou stopette. I'd spent no more than a few minutes peering into the gardens by the side of the road before a lady came out of a house and told me that it had been her who'd reported the bird yesterday but that there'd been no sign of it at all today. Disappointing but at least good to know so I thanked her and we continued on our journey down, arriving at some time after 3 p.m. for our traditional tea and shop in Sainsbury's before heading over to boot up the cottage. It was nearly dark by the time we arrived at Pendeen and the only bird I came across was a distantly cronking Raven. We unloaded the car and hurried inside to shelter from the freezing north easterly wind that chilled to the bone. Fortunately the forecast was for much warmer weather for the rest of the week as the cottage was unpleasantly cold in these conditions. We ate a hearty meal to warm up and then pootled about the cottage in the evening before retiring to bed early.

13th February - Pendeen & Hayle
We all decided to have a bit of a lie in this morning after our long journey down so it wasn't until mid morning that we'd fully surfaced. There were really strong winds forecast for today though fortunately with much warmer temperatures which should just touch double figures at their peak today - such a contrast from yesterday! We started off by doing a thorough inspection of the cottage and compiling a list of all the things that needed to be done. My VLW then went about doing some general cleaning whilst I got distracted by a whole succession of work-related phone and Skype calls which kept me busy until lunch time. The only Pendeen birds that I spotted was a single Raven and a single Chough. The sea was quiet with just a few Gannets hunting in the bay just west of the Watch.

After lunch we decided to head over to Hayle. My VLW wanted to explore the antique shops there and I was keen to take a look at the estuary. So we stopped off at the causeway bridge and parted company; whilst she and our son walked onwards towards the town I set up my scope and started to grill the estuary. My main interest in this location was that an Avocet had been reported there for the last week or so. "So what?" I hear you cry but actually down in the Penwith peninsular, this is actually quite an uncommon bird and it's one that, embarassingly, I still needed for Cornwall. As additional inducement a Green-winged Teal was about and had been seen that morning as well as a Glaucous Gull that in fact had been reported less than an hour ago so there were plenty of other birds to look for.

I started from the causeway bridge and soon found a trio of Mediterranean Gulls loafing nearby though there were only half a dozen or so Teal to be seen and there was no sign of the American visitor in amongst them.

Loafing Med Gulls
Along the river there was a single drake Goosander and the usual Redshank and Curlew and a whole mass of distant large Gulls. Now, one of my  favourite winter birding activities is grilling a large gull flock -  it's what I spend most of my time doing down on my Port Meadow patch back in Oxford. So in the scope-shaking wind I carefully went through each and every one. I couldn't turn up the Glauc though I did manage a couple of adult Yellow-legged Gulls which are probably actually rarer down here than the white-winger I was looking for. Over on the other side of the river there was what was almost certainly the near-resident adult Ring-billed Gull though given the distance I wasn't 100% certain. There was also a Pipit buzzing around with a rasping call that frustratingly would never actually settle for me to get a view. Later in the evening a Water Pipit was reported there and thinking about it, that would fit with what I'd seen and heard. After a while I'd satisfied myself that I'd searched the area thoroughly and decided to head over to Ryan's Field.

A distant mass of gulls, all asking for a good grilling

Here I met a couple of birders, a rather senior lady and a young lad who told me that the Avocet had been there behind the island a short while ago but unfortunately it was now nowhere to be seen. The lady then asked me to take a look at an Egret at the next pool which she was wondering about so I went to look though it turned out just to be a Little Egret. Back at the main pool there were plenty of Lapwings, a single Shelduck and a few Wigeon but little else so I decided to walk back to the main road to see if the Avocet might be out of sight behind one of the islands. Out of the shelter of the hide the wind did it's best to hinder me scanning the area with my bins but eventually I spotted the Avocet as it swam out from the island area. Relieved, I took a few record snaps of it as well as a Black-tailed Godwit that happened to be within range before crossing the road once more to see if anything new had come in on the main estuary. 

Black-tailed Godwit

On the estuary there were now 17 Dunlin within view which hadn't been there before, as well as a Bar-tailed Godwit but nothing else so I headed back to the Ryan's Field hide in order to get out of the wind. Back there the Avocet was now actually pretty close in front of the hide so I busied mysef with taken some better photo's..

Avocet photos

Given the very poor light conditions there was no point in trying too hard with the photos and I soon gave up. I felt that I'd covered the whole area well enough now and with time marching on it was time to rendezvous with the others So I gave them a call and as they'd finished as well I picked them up a short while later in the town centre before heading back towards Penzance. We made a quick detour down to St Erth to look for the long-staying Cattle Egret though whilst we could find half a dozen or so of his commoner cousins there was no sign of the star bird himself.

Back in PZ we stopped in at Sainsbury's for a welcome cup of tea as well as a chance to buy the things for the cottage that we'd decided we needed from this morning's stock-take. Then it was back to the cottage for a meal and a chance to put our feet up after a long but productive day.

14th February - Marazion, Penzance & Mousehole
I didn't sleep that well last night: for some reason I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the end it took a couple of hours and finally a quickly-downed large glass of wine to get back to sleep. Once I was finally back under I was dead to the world and I slept through our alarm this morning. The reason for the alarm was that we needed an early start as we were going  to head up-county to meet my VLW's niece who'd just had her second daughter. Finally awake, there was just time for a quick wash and breakfast before heading out. Whilst getting ready, I did grab a few moments to stare out of the window at the glorious weather to see what bird life there was this morning. There was a lovely flock of 30 or so Linnets in the field next to the cottage and the two Ravens were back on their favourite perch by the stone wall. 

Local Linnets

By 9:30 we were off and on the road only to receive a text that the niece was running a bit behind and could we make it a bit later? As it turned out this suited us well as we could then pop in to the Cambourne B&Q en route to pick up a few things that we needed for the cottage. As I have blogged about before, it's a crying shame that the PZ B&Q closed - there's now no where local to source things like this any more and we now need to grab opportunities like this at Cambourne when we can. We got most of what we were looking for there and then headed on to meet up with the new family member who seemed a bonnie wee girl and we passed a pleasant couple of hours making her acquaintence.

By the time we left it was getting on for lunch time so we decided to pick up some sandwichess on the way back and to head over to Marazion beach to eat them. We did nip into St Erth as we passed in order to have another go at the Cattle Egret but once again all I could find were its commoner cousins. Marazion was gorgeous and bathed in beautiful sunshine and we passed a pleasant hour or so munching on our food and messing about on the beach. There was a nice flock of 100 or so Sanderling, looking for all the world like little clockwork toys as they ran about on the beach. I didn't bother scanning the sea as at this timeof day I would have been staring straight into the sun from this vantage point.

Marazion Sanderling

Next my VLW wanted to pick up a few things in PZ so we parked up near the bus station and I scanned from there (as it was a better angle for the sun) whilst our son L clambered about on the rocks. There wasn't much to see and the best I could manage was the usual drake Eider, one Guillemot and a couple of Razorbills as well as a couple of Rock Pipits in amongst the rocks. My VLW returned to report that most of the shops that she wanted to visit seemed to be closed already, some sort of local early closing "dreckly" concept I  suppose.

Tolcarne Eider

Next it was on to Newlyn where she had a few more shops to visit. I did a flying stop at Jubilee Pool to check the Battery Rock beach where there was a nice little mixed flock of Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Turnstone but sadly no Purple Sandpipers. At Newlyn we parked up at the Tolcarne Inn and whilst my VLW pootled about in the shops, L and I went to look at the harbour. There were almost no gulls about at all though L very much enjoyed looking at all the ships and has now decided that he's going to buy himself one when he's grown up

Newlyn Turnstones enjoying some spilt food

Finally with time marching on it was over to Mousehole for the Rock Pool Café. More precisely, the other two went to the café whilst I joined the small party of St Clement's Island gull roost watchers in the car park. There was MA, ME, MJS and RV, the latter being a young lad who told me that he read my blog (nice to meet you!). It was really slow going with the roost this evening and I was soon longing for the other two to come back from their post-café walk into the town so that I could get out of what had suddenly become rather biting cold. Just before they returned I managed salvage something from the session when I found the first winter Iceland Gull on the rock. I was just getting the others onto it when my party returned so I took a quick bit of record-shot video and then went to join them in the sanctuary of the car.

Then it was back home to the warmth of the cottage for a bite to eat and a chance to put our feet up in front of the telly. It had been a very relaxing day with remarkably little DIY at all. My VLW and I both remarked that it seems rather strange just to be down here enjoying ourselves rather than rushing about doing various tasks but I'm sure that we'll get used to it. The weather is forecast to be pretty reasonable tomorrow as well so I suspect that there might well be more time spent outdoors enjoying ourselves. Long may it continue!

15th February - Hayle & Pendeen
Once again I managed to have a rather poor night's sleep. I was woken up by a passing rain shower in the night and somehow couldn't get back to sleep again for several hours so once more I was rather tired when I finally got up this morning. My VLW had also had a poor night and was still dead to the world when I awoke so I tip-toed about the cottage until she was awake. 

We didn't really have a plan for today except that Badger, my birding chum from Oxon and partner in crime for the running of the Oxon Birding Blog, was down in Kernow with his VLW and we'd made a tentative arrangement to meet up at the Hayle estuary. Once my VLW was awake I checked that this was OK with her and having been given the green light, I hastily got ready and set off for our 10 a.m. rendezvous at Hayle. The weather was absolutely gorgeous down by the estuary with bright sunshine and very little wind. We started off at Ryan's Field where the long-staying Spoonbill was tucked up asleep though he did lift his head once long enough for me to take his photo.

There were the usual Med Gulls, a flock of 50 or so Golden Plover, the roosting Avocet and right at the back was the Water Pipit that I'd sort of seen last time. Badger is a master of the video and spent some time taking some footage for what will no doubt be an excellent montage in due course. After we'd both had our fill we wandered over to the causeway where Badger almost immediately picked out the Green-winged Teal, in amongst his Eurasian cousins by the bank of the river.

The Green-winged Teal

We soon started grilling the gulls, looking for one of several rarer gulls that had been frequenting the estuary of late, namely a Caspian Gull, the Ring-billed Gull and an Iceland Gull. In the bright sunshine it was hard work as all the colours were bleached out and it was difficult discerning the different shades of grey. Badger and I spent some time debating a distant gull which in then end we decided was just a Common Gull rather than the RBG. Gull numbers were lower than last time I was here and it didn't take long to work through them all though with a steady coming and going of birds one had to keep re-scanning regularly. Eventually I picked up the Iceland Gull quite close in in front of us. It had a good wash and brush up before having a brief loaf on the estuary until eventually it flew off in the general direction of Helston, one of its other regular loafing spots.

The Iceland Gull - better views than yesterday at Mousehole!

There were good numbers of Dunlin on the estuary today with a flock of at least 100 birds along with a scattering of Barwits, a few Shelduck and a single Grey Plover. It was very peaceful sifting through all the birds and we whiled away the time together until I felt that I should probably be heading back. So I bade Badger farewell and headed back towards the car park. I was nearly back at the hide when I heard a Crest calling in the scrub. Expecting a Goldcrest I lifted my bins to find a lovely Firecrest in front of me. I followed it through the scrub for a short while before I lost it somewhere. I gave Badger a call to let him know but for some reason he wasn't answering his phone so I went back to tell him personally in case he was interested. Then it was back to the car and off towards PZ. I did nip into St Erth for one last try for the Cattle Egret but there was only one Little on display so I officially gave up on the bird - it is now dead to me.

Avocet and Green-winged Teal

In PZ I nipped into Sainsbury's for some provisions and then headed back over the hill to Pendeen. I was just walking back to the cottage when I put up something which flew over my head and over the rooftops behind me. In the bright sunshine I caught a good look at a bright red tail, black body with some white in the wings - it could only be a male Black Redstart. I had a quick look around the other (sheltered) side of the cottages but it was almost certainly hiding in one of the gardens there out of sight and I had to leave it.

The rest of the day was spent in pootling around the cottage doing DIY tasks  as well as having a catch-up nap. I did manage to see the Black Redstart again briefly but properly this time. It was a cracking full adult male - I'd love to get a decent photo, perhaps tomorrow if there's less wind. Apart from that there were two Chough and the usual two Raven, a flock of Linnets again and a Kestrel but that was it. As usual we vegged out in front of the telly in the evening before turning in. It had been a good day's birding: I'd managed to catch up with some more of the long-staying Hayle birds and had turned up a Firecrest and a Black Redstart of my own. Not bad for February!

16th February - Pendeen
I don't know what it is about the cottage but for some reason I seem to struggle with sleep when I'm down here. After last night's problems, predictably I awoke in the middle of the night again. This time, however, rather than lying in bed fretting I got up immediately and went to another room where I did a good session of EFT. For those of you not familiar with this, it stands for Emotional Freedom Technique and is a weird process of self-tapping whilst saying positive things (see the web-site for more details). My VLW swears by it and used it to cure a severe bout of insomnia last year and I've now taken to using it in all sorts of situations with great affect - it really is quite amazing! After about half an hour of tapping out all aspects of my insomnia that I could think of I came back to bed and was soon fast asleep.

After our usual morning cup of tea in bed whilst putting the world to rights we decided on a local Pendeen day today as there were some DIY tasks that needed doing; we'd also arranged to meet up with our handyman at the cottage early afternoon so we couldn't stray too far today anyway. I started off doing the initial preparation for a part of our bedroom that needed re-painting and then whilst that was going off I went out for a little walk around Pendeen. There were the usual two Ravens and pair of Chough and various other bits and bobs but nothing particularly out of the ordinary and I didn't see my Black Redstart. Still it was nice to be wandering about the place re-acquainting myself with its various nooks and crannies.

The two Pendeen Chough
Back at the cottage I did a little bit of office work until lunch and then we met up with our handyman to discuss some jobs that we wanted doing. After that I did the next layer of preparation on my painting and then we decided to head out for an afternoon walk. Just as we were getting ready the Black Redstart appeared in the field next to our cottage and I did my best to take a photo though it was rather distant.

This photo doesn't really do justice to what was a great looking bird
As it was getting late we opted for the usual loop down to Geevor then up into Pendeen and back down to our cottage. We normally stop off at Heathers Tea Shop on this route but a bit of Googling seemed to indicate that it wasn't presently open so we went for the Geevor café instead, managing to get there just in time for a quick tea before it closed for the day. In Pendeen we discovered that Heathers had closed for good and was up for sale. A sad day indeed!

A sad day as Heathers was much loved by visiting birders
We wandered back to the cottage as the light started to fade and I did a bit more of my painting work before heading back into Pendeen. I'd been contacted by a reader of my blog who also was a birder with a cottage in Pendeen who'd suggested a drink in the North Inn. One aspect of birding that I always like is how you can meet with a total stranger and have loads to talk about and we passed a very pleasant time supping our beer and regaling each other with our birding tales. Then it was back home for dinner and time to put our feet up in front of the telly after what had been a low key but productive day.

17th February - Back Home
It was time to head back home already: my VLW's mother was rather poorly so we were going to head home early so that my VLW might go to visit here on Sunday. Therefore we got up and spent a good couple of hours packing up the cottage and getting ready to depart. I kept an eye out for interesting birds during this process but the only thing of interest that I saw was one of the Ravens and there was no sign of the Black Redstart. I don't know where this bird is hanging out but it's somewhere quite well hidden as even on days when I see it, it's only very occasionally. One of the coastguard cottage gardens I suspect.

Anyway, we were on the road by about 11:30 and after the usual stop-offs to dump the recycling, to fill up with petrol and to buy some sandwiches for lunch we were finally properly off some time after midday. As I drove I reflected on the trip: it had been a nice, albeit rather low key visit but then in February that was only to be expected really. I'd got my Avocet Cornish tick and had caught up with the Green-winged Teal, the Spoonbill, the Iceland Gull and the Water Pipit all at Hayle. I'd also found a Firecrest there and a local Black Redstart at Pendeen. We'd enjoyed some remarkably good weather this week which had really helped to make for a very pleasant few days away - I think that our experience would have been very different had there been torrential rain and gales all week.

We arrived back home at Casa Gnome later afternoon after an uneventful journey where our two cats were very pleased to see us once more.

I'll leave you with some Danish Scurvy grass - just coming into flower at Pendeen

Monday, 23 January 2017

Local Birds for Local People

After what was a rather poor year in the county last year with only one county tick (Purple Heron) and very little in the way of good birds, this year has got off to a flying start. It all started when three Cattle Egrets were found frequenting a pig field near Middleton Stoney. I don't know quite how they were found as it's really not an obvious birding spot but they seemed to like it as they've been around for a while. So on the 9th January and with not much else to do I thought that I'd go and pay my respects. I turned up late morning on a grey though rather mild day and slogged for half a mile along a really muddy footpath to find a few county birders holed up in a gap in the hedge and scoping the neighbouring pig field. Only two of the Egrets were on view when I arrived and one of them soon disappeared over a ridge to a hidden lower part of the field. They were rather distant and in the poor light my digiscoped photos are little more than record shots. Still it was nice that Oxon was finally getting in on the action in what has proved to be a bonanza autumn and winter for this species which has invaded the country in large numbers.

On the way back I decided to make a detour to Marston to catch up with the half a dozen or so Waxwings which had been present since the previous day. I'm always happy to make a bit of an effort for this charismatic species and as these were in Oxford itself, it wasn't too far out of my way at all. They were immediately on view when I arrived and I took a few snaps with my super-zoom camera though the light conditions were appalling. After only a few minutes they flew off again and I took this as my cue to leave as well.

After that little flurry of local activity it was back to wait and see mode in the county. Fortunately we didn't have to wait too long before our esteemed county recorder, Ian Lewington, manage to turn up a Little Bunting in a rather unlikely location in some farmland at Over Norton. This is a real county Mega with the last one having been seen no less than twenty eight years ago! It was found on Sunday afternoon and Badger put out a local "heads up" text though details of the location and access arrangements weren't released until after dark. The next morning the keenest of the county birders were there at first light whereas I decided to play it cool, partly as there was a forecast for thick fog that morning and partially because I had work commitments. Mid morning, after a reassuring "still present" text from Badger, I headed off towards Chipping Norton and parked up "creatively" near the roundabout, before donning every item of clothing that I could wear and still be able to move in order to keep out the bone-chilling cold, and then yomping off along the footpath.

After a few minutes walking I came upon the usual local suspects all staking out a fifty yard stretch of the footpath which apparently had been well seeded by the local farmer and to which birds were regularly coming down. There was a moderate mix of Reed Buntings, Chaffinches and Yellowhammers with one Linnet and on one occasion even a Brambling (the king of finches!). A couple of Ravens were "cronking" away nearby, making a welcome distraction whilst we all waited for the star of the show to make another appearance.

Actually my first Yellowhammer of the year
I was told that the bird had been seen about half a dozen times so far that morning but in the end we had wait for getting on for an hour before someone finally picked it out at the far end of the viewable area of footpath. Thereafter it showed periodically in this distant location, usually for a relatively short period of time before finally putting in a prolonged performance for several minutes. 

Well satisfied with my views and having had enough of the cold at that point I decided to head back to the car before driving back to Casa Gnome, basking in the warm glow of a shiny new county tick.

A fantastic photo of a great little bird courtesy of Terry Sherlock (c)

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.

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.

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

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!