Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Easington Excellence

Any birder with even the most tenuous connection to the birding grapevine must know of the unprecedented arrival of Siberian Accentors to western Europe. Up until a couple of weeks ago this was a very rare visitor to Europe and indeed had yet to grace our shores at all but with several dozen having been reported across northern Europe it was only a matter of time before a first for Britain was found. Predictably, this did indeed happen with a two day stayer up in Shetland but to all intents and purposes it might as well have been on the moon for the likelihood of my twitching it. However, the obsessive few who successfully twitched the bird had scarcely arrived back home before another was found on Thursday afternoon at Easington, near Spurn in the East Riding of Yorkshire. This was tricky for me - at about four hours it's just a bit too far for me to twitch though I must admit that since doing my Uni runs up to Durham I'm less put off by this distance. I got a call from Badger that afternoon asking me whether I'd like to join a car load of Oxon's finest who were heading up there for first light the next morning. I mulled it over - not having to drive would be a great relief but the middle of the night start was rather off-putting (I'm such a wuss when it comes to twitching). In the end my keenness to see a first for Britain overcame my fondness for sleep and I said yes though when talking it over with my VLW it soon because clear that she was less than happy with my heading off all day once again having already been away at the start of the week in Norfolk. Explaining how it was the October peak season of a near record-breakingly good year didn't seem to cut it and in the end I had to duck out of the trip. I enviously followed events on social media from afar the next day though I must admit that the pictures of the vast hoards there for first light seemed most off-putting - that kind of mass birding really doesn't appeal to me at all. Over the weekend several more were found up in the North East and I had everything crossed that one would be found closer to Oxford that I could have a go for the next week. Come Sunday afternoon and the only reliable one seemed to be the Easington bird and so, despite the distance, I decided to have a go for it on Monday. As it seemed to be pretty predictable I decided to wait and go on news - whilst it would make for a long day, it would remove the need for overnight accommodation and the stress about worrying if the bird was going to depart overnight.

Monday duly arrived and as usual, my excitement at the prospect of my trip meant that I awoke earlier than I would have liked. Still, by 7 a.m. I was up, dressed and breakfasted and waiting on news. Sure enough a tweet on Twitter at shortly after 7:15 gave the green light on the trip and after doing a bit of last minute chores I was in the Gnome mobile and heading off on the familiar trip to the North East. The traffic was reasonable, the sun was shining and with Radio 4 to occupy me, the miles slipped by. I wasn't particularly expecting any more RBA updates en route - the pattern seemed to be only to get a few throughout the day, partly as the phone signal is so poor in the general area but from previous performance it seemed to be that once it had been seen, it would be around all day. In three and a quarter hours I was at Hull and then into the slow back-roads of the hinterland heading eastwards. I'm starting to get familiar with the sequence of villages that you pass through on this route: Keyingham, Ottringham, Patrington, Welwick and Skeffling before finally seeing the large, rather unsightly Easington gas terminal buildings in the distance. Normally at the T-junction it's a right-turn for Spurn but this time it was left for the gas terminal. There were quite a few cars parked up at the side of the road and I carefully parked up, tooled up and hurried towards Vicars Lane. This was the moment of truth: three days of fretting, four hours driving (well 3.75 to be precise) and it all came down to what I would find around the corner. 

The news was bad (-ish)! The bird had been all morning but hadn't been seen for half an hour. Apparently rather than loitering in the old car park of the Old School where it had been giving crippling views down to a few metres, recently it had taken to working its way along under the metal fence of the gas terminal works where it was much more hidden and that's where it had been so far today. However, with its current absence, a few later-comers such as myself were morosely searching around and scoping the large strip of wasteland in front of the fence whilst those who'd already seen it were hanging around chatting or looking through their photos on the back of the camera. Several Chiffchaffs were flitting about as well as a couple or Robins and with every movement there was a flutter of excitement - could this be it? With it only having disappeared for half an hour I was still fairly optimistic and sure enough within about twenty minutes or so a group of birders at the far end of the fence had found it again and I hurried over to see it. Finally there it was,  an exotic looking Dunnock with striking head markings creeping around under the fence and working its way through the weeds, feeding very actively. I won't bother to describe it as I'm sure everyone has seen enough Siberian Accentor porn on the internet now to last a lifetime but it was a very pleasing bird to the eye and actually, somehow it skulking around and giving tantalising views seemed more appropriate for such a rarity rather than it parading itself on the car park in a rather demeaning manner as it had done previously. I started taking snaps through the rather narrow gaps in the fence the best I could.

Yet more Siberian Accentor porn

There were relatively modest numbers today in contrast to the hoards on Friday morning

The bird liked to feed at the back of the weedy area right under the metal fence
As I was papping the Accentor, I overhead a birder nearby talking about a Wheatear. I wondered what he was going on about and so whipped out my RBA app to check on the news. Whilst the signal is very poor in this area fortunately it was just good enough to get the latest news and blow me, there in red was the news "Isabelline Wheatear, Easington"! I hastily asked the nearby birder for details and was told that it was just the other side of the village on the beach down Seaside Road. With the main target already in the bag, I decided to head off immediately to have a look for the Wheatear and then to return for seconds of the Accentor afterwards. I hurried back to the car and drove the couple of minutes through the village where, instead of following the road around to the right towards Kilnsea I turned off left down Seaside Road. With lots of cars on the sides of the road there was the usual gamble about how far down the road you park - do you take the first place that you see or try for one nearer? In the end I got it about right and the road turned out not to be very long anyway. I changed into my walking boots, grabbed some food to eat en route and yomped off down the road. 

I turned right at the end of the road by the beach and could see the twitch line in the distance. A few minutes later I'd joined them and was watching the distant Wheatear in a freshly tilled field. Unfortunately viewing conditions were less than ideal as it was very sunny (which made for rather "contrasty" views) and there was a very blustery wind (which shook the scope a lot). Mentally I went through what I could remember about Isabelline Wheatear and how to tell it apart from Northern. I remembered the upright stance and this certainly had that. There was also the supercilium which on a Northern extends well beyond the eye whereas on Isabelline it's more confined to in front of the eye. On this bird the super was rather poorly defined so it was hard to tell but it certainly wasn't as strong as on a Northern. A neighbouring birder helpfully chimed in that there was the lack of contrast between the colour on the coverts and the back but in the end I resorted to my trusty Collins app where I learnt that the black on the tail is much more extensive than on Northern and this was by far the most obvious feature, with there being noticeably more black on this bird. With a couple of Northern Wheatears also in the same field it was very useful to compare. I busied myself trying to digiscope in the difficult conditions though the harsh lighting made everything blow out despite turning down the exposure. 

A rather overblown Wheatear. You can see the extent of the black on the tail though

Blurry flight shot - again showing the extent of the black on the tail

After a while it flew over our heads and down to a pool on the beach where it proceeded to have a good wash before heading back onto the field to carry on feeding. As more and more people started arriving I decided that I'd had my fill and headed back towards the car and drove back to the first site for seconds of the Accentor. This was still working its way up and down the fence line and was just as hidden as ever. I took a few more shots and then pondered what to do. 

I saw a local nearby and wandered over to ask him what was about on the radio. This turned out to be a couple of Dusky Warblers and an Olive-backed Pipit down on the Point, the Pallas' still at the Kew Villas area, Shorelarks still at the car park by the Bluebell Café and the Bean Geese in the overflow parking field from the weekend's twitch. I asked about Radde's Warblers and he said that none had been reported today though apparently one had been seen by the village pond yesterday evening. I asked for details about where this was (opposite the Driftwood caravan site apparently) before thanking him and heading off.

Returning to the Gnome mobile, I first headed just to the other side of the village where the overflow car park was (now shut as it had got waterlogged). There I met another birder who told me that unfortunately the geese had flown off. No point in wasting time here then so I headed down the road towards Kilnsea scouring the fields on both sides for geese. I could see the Wheatear twitch on the far side of the fields on one side but there were few birds in the fields apart from pigeons and gulls. I arrived at the Driftwood caravan site, parked up and decided to give the pond a good grilling. It looked like a perfect spot, being reasonably sheltered from the strong wind with lots of cover for a Radde's to creep around in. I gave it a good twenty minutes but all I saw was a Goldcrest, a Blackcap and several thrushes. 

The village pond
I next headed the short distance up to the Crown and Anchor where I parked in the layby opposite the pub and contemplated my next move whilst I ate the remains of my lunch. Out on the estuary there was a flock of five nearby Brent Geese and the usual smattering of waders. It's such a lovely peaceful place here, it really gets under your skin.

Brent Goose

I wandered around the corner and found a small twitch staring up into the trees opposite the front of Cliff Farm. A Yellow-browed Warbler and a Pallas' Warbler turned out to the object of their interest. I decided to have a little wander around and had a quick look around the churchyard and Church Field but there was nothing of note. In the end I decided to wander along the Canal Scrape where another Radde's Warbler had been reported all day yesterday to see what I could turn up. It was very exposed along the ridge but just as I was approaching the start of the Canal proper another birder popped up out of the ditch. He'd apparently spent the last half an hour looking for the Radde's but had no luck. As he headed off I went to take a look where he'd been standing and found a nice sheltered spot which had clearly been well trampled so was obviously the Radde's spot. Down in this hollow one could view the reeds and the sheltered side of the hedge so I decided to stake out this spot. I gave it a good half an hour if not more but apart from a couple of Goldcrests, a Blackbird and a Reed Bunting there was nothing of note. So I gave up and headed back towards the road. 

A Reed Bunting in deep shade
The twitch group there had got larger and the Pallas' was on show, enabling me to year-tick this species on a brief view. As time was marching on I decided to head on down to the Bluebell Café car park to check out the Shore Larks whilst I was in the area. Here a small group were watching the two larks which were hunkered down on a small ridge at the end of the area behind the parking area. One boso photographer had decided that it would be a good idea to get really close and whilst he was tucked well down and not disturbing the birds when he moved to get up the birds flushed and flew a short distance away onto the beach. I really can't understand this sort of behaviour by photographers - so selfish! Anyway, the birds flying off was my cue to leave.

Half-hidden Shore Lark

Back at the car I pondered my next move. Time was marching on and I was now thinking of heading for home. Still on the cards were these elusive Bean Geese which had now been reported in a field near Easington gas terminal and a Siberian Stonechat up along the north coast though when I checked on the Sat Nav it told me that it would take a whole hour to get there so I quickly dropped that idea. Instead I decided to head off for home, keeping an eye out for the Geese as I went. Predictably there was no sign of them though I later found out that actually they were to the north of Easington so I'd gone the wrong way to see them. No matter. I headed contentedly back through the villages, admiring the combination of stormy clouds and late afternoon sun that made for a most interesting landscape. I hit the Hull rush hour which was rather tedious but eventually I was through it and back on the nice and empty M62 that was bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun. With the radio for company I made steady progress and I decided not to be put off by the "45 minute delay" signs for further ahead on the M1 south. I stopped at my "usual" M&S for my gluten free sandwich on the way down and by the time I was back on the road again the delay signs had gone. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I arrived back at Casa Gnome at around half past eight, tired but very contented after what had been a most successful day. Not only had I seen a first for Britain I'd also lucked in on another Mega in the form of an Isabelline Wheatear which was a new bird for me. I sipped my celebratory tea and caught up on the day's news with my VLW. It had been a grand day out indeed!

My obligatory estuary shot

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Not Getting Raddical in Norfolk

Regular readers will know that I usually head down to Cornwall at this time of year. Last year I held fire until there was something really good to tempt me with an Alpine Swift finally tipping the balance. This year once again I was hanging back to see how things were panning out and certainly so far it's been a bit so-so down there. For sure there have been Wrynecks and Yellow-broweds as usual but as I've got more experienced they no longer have quite the wow factor that they once did for me. My VLW and I discussed our plans and we decided that we'd probably head down to Cornwall for half term at the end of the month and with one trip down there already planned I therefore decided that unless something pretty good turned up, I'd stay here and perhaps make a few sorties elsewhere should I be so tempted. 

With this all decided, I was biding my time here in Oxford and keeping an eye on national bird news. Things were really hot up in the north east and I'm really kicking myself for not making the long slog up to Bempton in Yorkshire for the Eastern Crowned Warbler together with a supporting cast of Arctic and Greenish Warblers. It's just such a long way though that in the end I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. But thinking about this had rather got me in the mood for an outing so when a Radde's Warbler starting being reported regularly in north Norfolk at Holkham I starting to think about a trip over there instead. Now Radde's can be really skulky buggers and by all accounts this was an extreme example with "tho elusive" tacked on to every RBA message but it was being reported several times every day so in the end I decided that it would probably be OK and, rather at the last minute, I put together a plan, booking some very cheap last minute accommodation and setting off on Monday night after dinner. I was familiar with the route and it passed smoothly enough and finally I turned off the A148 into some minor back roads as I approached the village of Langham where I was staying for the night. As I drove along I was surprised to find a small covey of Red-legged Partridges in the middle of the road, obviously enjoying the comparative warmth of the road surface in the cold night. I found the village and managed to locate the accommodation area despite the lack of instructions on my booking e-mail. My property was one of these unmanned ones where you have a key code to let you in. There was only one other car there and I soon found the occupants trying but failing to get into what I thought was my room. They then headed across the courtyard where they managed to get in there but I was having no luck with my key code at all so in the end I rang the emergency number and someone tried to talk me through it though it just wouldn't work so eventually they put me in another room. This turned out to be a  very spartan affair with just a simple double bed, a TV, two towels, a kettle, two mugs and a spoon. There weren't even any tea bags or milk and the bathroom had no soap or anything. Still it was a bed for the night and what else did you expect for just £20 so after giving my VLW a ring to let her know that I'd arrived safely I was soon sound asleep.

As usual I awoke earlier than I planned and eventually got up at around 6 a.m. and was out the door by 6:30 heading out on the thirty minute drive over to Holkham. Once again there were lots of sleepy birds on the roads and I had to drive carefully through the half light to avoid hitting them. Passing through one village I surprised a Tawny Owl which flapped off in a huff. I eventually arrived at Lady Anne's Drive and parked up, paying the extortionate £6.50 for a day's parking there. There were a couple of other birders there as well and we soon found that we were all there for the Radde's. One of them was a local and knew the area well though he hadn't actually tried to see this bird before so didn't have any detailed knowledge about the twitch area itself. As we headed off we enjoyed views of a Barn Owl hunting over a neighbouring field and a Cetti's Warbler heralded the start of another day with its strident song. It was a walk of about half an hour along the track bordering the pine forest to the famous "crossroads" and then a short distance beyond that to where we found what was the Radde's reedbed. This turned out to be longer than I was anticipating and brought up the question of whether there was a hot spot area that should be watched or whether it could be anywhere with the reedbed. Without any knowledge about this the three of us just did the best we could. The problem was that the reeds very dense so it was hard to see anything moving in them at all and anything that was feeding at the top of them would be hard to see due to their height. We listened carefully and heard the occasional "tack" though so many things could be making that sound and anyway Radde's to my ear make more of a squeaky wader-like call than a Dusky-esque "tack". Time passed and there were some dark juvenile Chiffies working their way along the tops of the reeds which kept us on our toes but apart from regularly hearing Yellow-browed Warblers calling in the trees there was little reward for our vigil

More people started arriving until there were perhaps a dozen of us there. One chap suddenly claimed that he'd seen it and took a few photos which he showed me. Whilst it was a warbler they were of such poor quality that it could have been almost anything. He said though "that it was definitely a Radde's, it had a good black eye-stripe" which somewhat surprised me. I've had experience in the past at Porthgwarra of someone claiming a Radde's and I, along with several other people, traipsed over to take a look only to find a very pale northern Willow Warbler?!?! People often seem to focus in on the strangest features for this species. Now if he'd said "definitely a Radde's, it was a deep chocolate colour with a really strong supercilium" then I'd have been more impressed, but who knows what he saw. Anyway, the upshot of this was that all the assembled birders then focused right in on the tiny bit of reeds where he'd seen it and left the rest of it uncovered. I too watched the area for a while before trying to cover the rest of the reedbed single handed. The "finder" soon left and other people gradually drifted away. By about 11 a.m. I too had had enough and was developing "reed blindness" so I decided to head off on a walk to stretch my legs. With a Great Grey Shrike having been reported over in the dunes between the west end of Holkham pines and the Burnham Overy boardwalk this would make a nice little diversion as well as giving me a decent walk and chance to explore the area further. It was very pleasant walking through the woods, listening out for occasional Yellow-browed. On my journey a very close but hidden Cetti's Warbler attracted the interest of a pair of birders and a couple of locals were chatting about the comparative lack of Rares given the great prevailing easterlies. Eventually I was out of the pines and into the dunes.

Rainbow over the dunes

The weather had suddenly got very warm and as I was well dressed up as protection from the dawn cold I was now feeling rather hot and I had to take off several layers. I wandered over to a neighbouring peak where I could see several people scanning the landscape, no doubt searching for the Shrike so I went to join them. More people arrived including someone who recognised me from one of my blogs and it was he who managed to find the Shrike - perched on top of a distant Hawthorn. It stayed there for a few minutes in the obliging way that Shrikes do before flying off to a more distant tree. 

The obliging Great Grey Shrike
Pleased at having finally seen something of interest I pondered what to do next. News came through on RBA of an Olive-backed Pipit still present at Wells this morning. "Hmmm, that might be worth seeing" I thought and decided to head back to towards the car and to think about it en route. I stopped off at the reedbed for another brief watch though I was now the only person there and I soon gave up my half-hearted attempted. I met another birder and we got chatting as we walked back. He was a local so I quizzed him on where at Wells the OBP might be and how long it would take to walk there from where we were. The answer was a good half an hour to get there from Lady Anne's Drive and then there would be a long slog back as well so in the end I decided to take the car and to drive over there. Having been given detailed instructions on where to park and where to go, I headed off on the few minutes drive to Wells.

I parked up in the large car park and headed through the kissing gate where a couple of returning birders soon directed me along the path where apparently "there would be a load of people who would soon sort me out". This sounded rather promising so I hurried on to find a gathering of about a couple of dozen birders all staking out a tiny bit of scrub.

The Olive-backed Pipit was somewhere in there!
Disappointingly it turned out that rather than the bird being on show and being grilled at close quarters by one and all, instead it had last been seen an hour and a half ago before going to ground somewhere in this tiny area that we were all watching. I joined the vigil though I jokingly said to my neighbour that after that length of time really someone should just walk across so that we could all see it. However, we never needed to resort to this as within five minutes suddenly a bird flew up from the grass in front of us and over our heads into the wood behind us. With a pipity jizz, pale finely-streaked underside and a darkish back it was clearly the bird but to my amazement the assembled birders watched it fly off and then went back to grilling the grass! Over the next ten minutes though the penny gradually dropped and one by one they all started to drift away.

I meanwhile decided to have an explore of the area just to acquaint myself of this famous birding location. The Dell itself turned out to be a large clear area surrounded by a steep bank and lots of mostly Silver Birch trees. The centre was a bit marshy with some reeds in places and the remains of what would have been some rather nice flowers a couple of months earlier with now just a few Knapweeds and some Selfheal still clinging on. It looked like a great spot and I wandered around the edge grilling the trees and turned up a Chiffy for my troubles.
The famous Dell at Wells Wood
I explored the environs a bit more but with time marching on and having already seen the birding highlight of the area, albeit only briefly, I headed back towards the car. I passed on my parking ticket to someone else who'd just arrived, de-tooled and "headed out on the highway, looking for adventure..." or, more accurately, headed home carefully whilst trying to fight off my tiredness.

On the way back I had to endure various gripping messages from RBA including an Arctic Warbler and a Radde's Warbler both at the Dell as well as the wretched Radde's at Holkham again. I must admit that I swore long and profusely at that last one though when I got back home and was able to scrutinise the messages more closely it turned out that the message said "100 yards east of the crossroads" so either the location had been mis-reported or the bird had moved. What's more, both the Dell Arctic and Radde's were only posted once so given the number of birders who were crawling all over the area looking for the Pipit either one or two of them had got lucky or just plain "trigger happy" and I suspect that had I stayed (not that that had really been an option) I'd have not seen either bird. In the end I was rather philosophical about it all. The Holkham Radde's was clearly a right bugger to see and there was a limit to how long I was going to stare at some reedbeds for a brief and poor glimpse of a bird even if it would have been a new one for me. In fact I'd been chatting at the OBP twitch to a birder who told me that he'd spent six hours the previous day at the Holkham site for three seconds of views of the Radde's - that's elusive by any standards! In the end, despite disappointment over my main target, I'd managed to see a Grey Grey Shrike and an Olive-backed Pipit by way of compensation and had also had a chance to acquaint myself with an area of north Norfolk that I'd not visited previously which I was pleased to have done. No doubt I'll eventually see a Radde's and it had been a nice enough day out so I still allowed myself a celebratory cup of tea on my return to Casa Gnome.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Durham October 2016

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, it's now Uni Run season and with now two daughters to move about to various parts of the country this was a busy time of the year. The start of the autumn term up in the North East has in the past always been the highlight of my Uni Run season and up until now I've always (i.e. both previous times) gone to the Spurn peninsula where I've enjoyed birds such as the juvenile Masked Shrike, Richards Pipit, Little Bunting, Citrine Wagail and Pied Wheatear. Could this run of good birding continue for a third year? The week leading up to our departure looked anything but promising with prevailing south westerly winds killing all the action along the east coast. I did remind myself that last year there has been nothing of note in the preceding week only for a bunch of eastern goodies to make landfall on the day of my trip. Fortunately, at the weekend when we were scheduled to go, the forecast was for the winds to change round and indeed Sunday was going to be a strong northerly. "Now, why should this be of interest?" I hear you ask. Well, for sea watching of course. Apparently on the east cost a northerly wind is what you want and this would be a chance for me to have my first go at a proper autumn east coast sea-watch. Now, I don't get many opportunities for sea watching (hitherto they've mostly been down in Cornwall) and because of this there have been a couple of the relatively common sea birds that I'd yet to see. I finally managed to see my first Little Auk at the start of the year thanks to a session at Whitburn but there was still Long-tailed Skua (the rarest of our four Skua species and particularly uncommon down in Cornwall) which had remained obstinately elusive. September was their peak autumn passage month but as it was only just the start of October surely this would present a good opportunity. Anyway, with nothing else in that part of the country to tempt me it seemed as good a plan as any so it was that on Friday I booked somewhere to stay on the peninsula for my trip. Sadly my two usual accommodation locations, namely the famous Kilnsea Crown & Anchor pub and also Westmere Farm, were both fully booked so in the end I found a nice Air Bn'B location at Patrington, 15 minutes drive away from the Point. With that all sorted it was then a matter of cajoling my daughter to finish her packing ready for our departure on Saturday morning.

Saturday duly arrived and the weather forecast was unchanged. There was no great urgency in our departure so it was a little after 9 a.m. by the time we finally sallied forth from Casa Gnome on the familiar slog north. Sadly we ran into difficulties almost immediately with much of the M40 being very slow moving all the way up to the M42. There was no obvious reason for this but it was a frustrating start to our journey. After that things moved more smoothly and we listened to Graham Norton waffling away on Radio 2 for much of the journey as we made our way northwards. Just as we were coming up to the Durham turn-off on the motorway news came through on RBA of a Solitary Sandpiper in Lincolnshire. Bingo! This could be just what I needed and mentally I started to work out the best way there after dropping off my daughter. However, when at a traffic light I had a chance to check the details it turned out that this sighting was two week old so it was back to my original plans. 

As it was freshers week at Durham there was a long queue of traffic entering the city but we soon turned off and made our way down picturesque side streets to where she was staying with her friends for this week until she was allowed access to her room in college. We'd soon unloaded the car and I had a reviving cup of tea whilst she caught up on news. I checked my RBA app - still nothing of note at all so I decided to stick with my original plan and head on down to Spurn. I said my goodbyes to my daughter and was soon heading back southwards on the motorway. It's a long old slog down to Spurn and having done four hours of driving already I was feeling quite tired but I found a good play on Radio 4 which kept me entranced and the miles gradually slipped away. Unlike last year there was no en route breaking Mega rarity news to get the pulses racing and I made steady progress past Hull and through the various villages that precede Spurn Point. Eventually at around 5 p.m. I turned the corner at the Crown and Anchor pub and drove down the familiar road to the Bluebell Café. It's funny, this is only the third time that I'd been here but I felt like a seasoned visitor. I felt knew where everything was and how things worked though of course compared to many people I'm still a complete newbie here. I stopped by the toilets next to the café in order to use the facilities and as I was coming out I met a birder. I asked him what was about and he filled me in though it was nothing new at all that hadn't been on RBA already: a Crane had been seen in flight over Easington, a Wryneck was there as well and a Richard's Pipit had flow over the Warren early afternoon. Apparently, according to the short wave radio network, the sea watching was starting to pick up so he was heading over to take a look. This all tied in with my plans anyway so I too drove the short distance down the road to park up near the YWT reserve sign and to get tooled up. As I was getting ready I looked over towards the sea watching hut which is on the low ridge that runs down the seaward side and I could see a large crowd of people all around the hut. In my relative inexperience I'd never seen it like this before - it was exciting!

I hurried over there to find that the hut itself was of course full and with all the most sheltered outside spots already taken in the end I settled on a plastic chair on front of the hide alongside a seasoned local. The advantage of sitting in front of the hide was that you could at least hear the calls from within the hut where all the locals were. This is often a big issue for me when sea watching: my hearing is not what it used to be and in windy conditions I often can't hear the calls as birds are found so I was pleased to be "in the loop". It was clear that conditions were good: birds were being called every minute or so and it was a constant stream of good stuff. Sooty Shearwaters were on the move in good numbers and there was lots of Skuas going by. What's more the great advantage of sea watching at Spurn is the large number of markers that you have when calling out a bird's location. For a start there was the off-shore wind farm and its associated sub station. The turbines were grouped together with singles at the ends, then two's and three's with a few lots of five in the middle - the "north fives", the "middle five" or "close five" (as they were closely spaced) and the "south fives", before getting into the "fours". Further south there were three or four reference-point tankers of different colours so if people felt so inclined they could tell you exactly where any bird was.

"The Fives"
The fact that we were so low down also meant that issues about how far away a bird was was less important. In Cornwall, where you're watching from a cliff you can easily miss a bird if you're not looking far enough out but here you could see everything within one scope's view. The only downside was that lots of the birds were really far away - I mean often little more than dots. Yet somehow the seasoned pro's at Spurn could differentiate between a Pom and an Arctic even at that range. I'm not sure exactly how far away the birds were but a bit of Googling revealed that the turbines themselves were a good five miles away. Anyway, I did my best to keep up and we managed to see Bonxies, Poms and Arctics in good numbers as well as plenty of Sooties and the odd Manxie or two. On one occasion the local next to me picked out and called a small Skua species that I managed to get on to as well. He confided to me that whilst he couldn't say for certain, he felt that it was probably a Long-tailed. Gradually it started to get dark and I was really feeling cold by now, having been sitting in the wind for about an hour and a half. It had been a great session though apparently I'd missed the best bird, a juvenile Sabine's Gull, which had gone through before I'd arrived. With the forecast for even stronger winds tomorrow I felt quite optimistic that I would get my target bird tomorrow so I walked briskly back to the Gnome mobile (in order to warm up) and headed back towards Kilnsea to look for some food.

The Crown and Anchor had a sign outside that they were only serving pre-ordered food that night which was no good at all. The next village (Easington) had one almost completely deserted pub in it but they weren't serving on a Saturday night. After striking out twice I decided to head back to Patrington where my Air Bn'B location was in order to ask my landlord's advice on where to eat. So it was that some fifteen minutes later I pulled up at an attractive Georgian property on the main road through the village and met my landlord. The house turned out to be an amazing hotch-potch of styles. Almost "shabby chic" with bare boards and old painted furniture but with so much furniture crammed into what was quite a small house that I didn't know where to look next. There were lots of amazing features and the kitchen was wonderfully eclectic. As a gardener, my landlord made a living selling dried flowers and there were hanging up everywhere over the ceiling. It was all most striking!

The characterful kitchen - you can see the dried flowers hanging from the ceiling

Anyway, my host recommended the Station Hotel, just five minutes up the road which even did gluten free food (which sadly is a necessity for me these day). He even phoned ahead to check that they could fit me in and booked me a table for me - so helpful! The food turned out to be really tasty and I enjoyed a drop of Black Sheep, a local bitter, which went down very well. Whilst there I met a couple of visiting birders who'd sat next to me at the sea watching hut and who were now on their way back to Derbyshire so we chatted whilst we ate. Watching distant dots over the sea wasn't really their thing and we debated the pro's and con's of sea watching. Soon we went out separate ways and I headed back to my lodgings for the night. Even though it was still only just gone nine o'clock I was so tired that I went to sleep, dreaming of distant bird dots against a backdrop of white wind turbines and ships.

My stylish high-frame bed

The next morning I awoke just before 6 a.m. as intended and after dressing and having breakfast with my landlord down in his kitchen I packed and was soon back on the road to Spurn Point. My plan was to get there at around 7 a.m. as it was getting light and whilst I more or less managed this, it turned out that everyone else had got there much sooner and the hut was completely full and there were a couple of dozen birders dotted around the hut as well, mostly to the leeward side of the hut. In the end I sat in front of the hut with a few other people though the wind was much much stronger and blowing just east of north so I got the full brunt of it. Fortunately, I'd learnt from yesterday's experience and had put on every bit of clothing that I'd brought with me on the trip so I was better prepared. 

It turned out to be a similar experience to yesterday afternoon though in the increased wind I found it very hard to hear what people were saying in the hut at all. One of the young locals was sitting next to me and occasionally I asked him what had been said. The action was steady but not quite as fast as yesterday evening. Sooties were the most numerous good bird and a Balearic Shearwater went by but I couldn't hear where it was and couldn't get on it myself. Part of the problem was that in the wind my scope was shaking quite a lot so that it was hard to make things out. Various Skuas were going by though in smaller numbers than yesterday, some of which I managed to get on but all in all it was rather hard work in the conditions. As the wind moved around to a more easterly direction it was blowing more and more straight into us at the front of the hut. The local next to me gave up after a while, the wind proving too much for him and I too eventually had enough and moved around to the leeward side of the hut. There I found a small free standing space to occupy where mercifully it was more sheltered. Fortunately they also had the flap open on that side of the hut so that there could be some communication and so it was easier to hear. The nice thing about being on this side of the hut was that you could hear the birds behind you and it was comforting to listen to the regular chirps of the Tree Sparrows in the bushes by the old observatory. A flock of three Redwings (my first of the autumn) came in off the sea and landed in the bushes behind us briefly before moving on.

Sea watchers - after the crowds had thinned out
After a while I realised that the chap sitting in a chair in front of me seemed to know what he was talking about. I find that as a comparative novice at sea watching, it's always worth working out who knows what they're doing and this chap was calling out some good stuff. After a while I finally heard from him those words that I was waiting for "possible Long-tailed Skua heading south" though he was a bit vague on directions despite some prompting from me so I wasn't able to get on it before it passed. How frustrating! Still, it was an encouraging development. Less than five minutes later and he called again "Long-tailed Skua heading south" - no possible this time so he must have been pretty sure. This time the location was more clear and just as it passed the last of the turbines south I got on it. Bingo - Long-tailed Skua in the bag! It was going at quite a pace and a few moments later it was gone but still I'd seen it clearly. Now all the frustration and shivering in the wind was forgotten and I was a happy bunny.

Gradually the wind was dying down and with it were the birds. People started to leave until eventually there were only a couple of people in the hut and I went in to join them. I carried on for five minutes or so but when "Yellow-browed Warbler at the Canal Hedge" came on someone's radio I decided that I'd had enough of watching distant specks on the sea and also that I need to do some walking to warm up and stretch my legs before my mammoth drive home that afternoon so I headed off to see if I could find it. The Canal runs along the estuary side of the Triangle from near the entrance gate back up to Cliff Farm which is opposite the Crown and Anchor. I'd never actually walked very far along this way so it would be a perfect opportunity to stretch my legs and to see if I could year-tick a Yellow-browed. I asked everyone I met whether they knew anything about it but no one did. Someone told me that a second bird had been reported at Cliff Farm and that that one might be easier to get so I wandered all the way up there. A few people were staring into the garden of the house there but no one had seen it for a little while. I too stared in a half-hearted fashion for a short time though I soon got bored and headed back the way I came. Back at the southern end of the Triangle I found some people who'd seen the original bird over in the scrub south of the Canal Scrape hide and after a little while I managed to see it as it moved its way along the bushes there. A wheezing call alerted us to a Brambling which had just flown in off the sea and it came down to land on a fence post in front of us though it moved on again before I could get my camera out. Time was marching on and my thoughts were now turning towards my long drive home so I started to head back to the car, hearing a Lesser Redpoll go over and seeing a flock of three more Brambling as I went.

I just love the landscapes that you get at Spurn
Back at the car I de-tooled and started to think about lunch. Normally I'd stop at any convenience store for some crappy sandwich but these weren't likely to be gluten free so I had to think more carefully. I knew that M&S did gluten free stuff and in the end I decided that I would set off and see if I could find a store at one of the local petrol stations. I headed off, though soon had to stop somewhere to take off several layers of cloths as I was still all dressed up for my sea watching and in the car I was far too hot. There seemed to be no M&S stores at all before Hull - I did try a Co-op but they had nothing gluten free. In the end I just kept going, joining the motorway on the west side of Hull and heading southwards. Finally at mid afternoon I came across the first M&S services and I was able to stop for my sandwich. The M42 south (which I normally take) was closed for refurbishment this weekend so I ended up staying on the M1 all the way down to where it joins the A43. There were various jams and slow patches on the way so it all took longer than it should but with the radio for company and the comforting glow of a successful morning's birding I didn't really mind. Finally at around 6 p.m. I was back home at Casa Gnome where I indulged in my traditional post-trip celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up on news from my VLW. It had been a long but very enjoyable weekend away.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Earlswood Emeralds

Regular readers will remember how on my way back from the Friday night Purple Swamp Monster dash to Minsmere I tried for but failed to see Willow Emerald damselfly at Alton Water in Suffolk. Now this species flies until at least the end of September so in principle I had time for another go but in truth the prospect of slogging all the way over there again was too much so I was resigned to leaving it until next season now. However, I recently discovered in the excellent Facebook group "UK Dragonflies and Damselflies" that there was a large colony in Surrey on the lakes on Earlswood Common which would be only about an hour and a quarter away. So, armed with some detailed instructions on where to look courtesy of some kind people from the Facebook group, I took advantage of the relatively nice window of weather on Wednesday and set off shortly after 9 a.m.. The journey was uneventful and so at around 10:30 I pulled up in the car park and got ready. There were two lakes there, the lower one by the car park was relatively open with few bank-side trees whereas the further upper lake was densely surrounded by overhanging trees on three sides and this was where the damselflies liked to hang out because of their breeding habits. Willow Emerald lay their eggs in the stems of trees that overhang still or slow moving water with the trees developing distinctive galls as a result. The eggs overwinter and then hatch in the spring whereupon the larvae drop down into the water to complete their life cycle within just three months. So dense overhanging bank-side vegetation was ideal for them.

I'd been given some specific instructions on the hot-spot area to look for them so I wandered over there, scouring the trees as I went. It was still relatively early though and most of the lake was surrounded in deep shade so it seemed a near impossible task to pick anything out as I went. The hot-spot consisted of a single Oak tree which I soon found but it too was in deep shade by the lake side. So I moved around to the far side which was by the edge of a gold course and therefore not being shaded by any other trees. Here this side of the tree was bathed in lovely golden sunshine. I scanned up the tree and found several Hornet Mimic Hoverflies before catching a glimpse of a flying Damselfly - that had to be one! Eventually I picked one out sunning itself on the top of a leaf and took a record shot photo.

My first Willow Emerald
With the target already successfully acquired my next task was to try and get some decent photos. Near the Oak tree there were some Brambles and some smaller trees including an Elder Tree and some small Willows. I scoured this area carefully and soon found another one. This was much easier to photograph and I settled on this area as the place to watch. I would regular see one flitting about, surprisingly ephemeral and difficult to see but if you kept your eye on it you could see where it landed and I was able to get some decent shots.

After a while I decided to explore the other side of the upper lake to see if I could find any away from this hot spot. I found the same problem as before: the bank-side vegetation was so thick that it was impossible to see much at all. The lake-facing sides of the overhanging trees along the north shore were bathed in lovely sunlight and I'm sure that there were loads of Willow Emeralds three but it was just impossible to see them - perhaps I needed to hire one of the boats there. On the south side of the lake I met a man with binoculars who asked me what I'd seen. I explained that I was actually looking for Willow Emeralds and he got quite interested. Like me, he was a birder who did Dragons and Damsels in the summer and although he didn't have long in the end his interested was piqued enough to follow me back around to the hot spot where I tried to pick one out for him. Sadly, at the age of eighty his eye sight wasn't so good but in the end I found a nice close one for him to see and he left very content.

Time was marching on for me too so I decided to head back. With the sun now higher, there was one spot on the south east shore which the sunlight was now reaching and I did indeed manage to find a Willow Emerald there. Out by the southern shore there were several Migrant Hawkers and Common Darters about and I even found a few Common Darters back at the lower lake. Very pleased with my trip, I climbed back into the Gnome mobile and set off for home, arriving back in time for lunch.

Willow Emerald is rapidly colonising westwards and has indeed been discovered in several new inland sites already this year. I'm sure that it won't take too long before it reaches Oxfordshire but in the mean time this was a very convenient location with which to acquaint myself with these delicate little insects.

There wasn't much to report on the botany front. I did find this Pickerel Weed, a garden escape, by the lake side.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Chasing Welsh Dragons

As Autumn approaches, at this time of year I start to think about the University run and what to do on the way back. Actually this year I had not one but two of them to think about as our younger daughter was now also starting her Psychology course at Swansea University. Whilst the Durham trip has various obvious appeals in terms of east coast birding in the autumn, I wasn't so sure what south Wales was going to have to offer me. With the Wales trip now upon us and with the weather forecast at the start of the week looking rather uninspiring I was at a bit of a loss to know what to do. Fortunately the forecast improved so that there was now the promise of bright sunshine and with that my thoughts turned to dragonflies. Regular readers know that I had a failed attempt at seeing Moorland Hawker (I refuse to call it "Common" as it's anything but that) earlier in the year in the New Forest. A bit of random Googling revealed that there was an excellent site for this species on the Gower Peninsula no more than half an hour or so from Swansea so I resolved to give it a go. I did a bit of pre-trip research and contacted the county recorder there to get some more info and suitable prep'ed up I waited for the Friday excursion.

Friday duly came and I woke up far too early at 5 a.m. I've been having problems about waking too early quite a bit of late, mostly to do with work which is rather busy at present but I also seem to suffer from Pre-trip Early Waking Syndrome whereby I often wake up far too early whenever I'm going on a trip of some kind. Anyway, it couldn't be helped and my daughter and I got the car packed and set off into the busy rush hour traffic along the familiar route westwards. Actually the traffic wasn't too bad and we made steady progress. Once over the border into Wales I started to explain to my long-suffering daughter how I thought the Welsh place names were pronounced, having read a book on it once. To her credit she put up with my nonsense with good grace. The two and a half hour journey passed smoothly enough and just as the scenery started to get more interesting with the first sign of some mountains we were pulling off the motorway towards Swansea or Abertawe as they like to call it in Wales ("Aber" meaning "mouth of the river" in the same way as "Inver" does in Scotland and Tawe being the name of the river that flows into the sea there). My daughter had never actually been to Swansea before and I got the impression that the rather industrial landscape that we first went through wasn't so far overly impressing her. We crawled through the traffic along the main drag looking out for glimpses of the sea but that too was apparently "the wrong colour" (she's been rather spoilt by the beautiful coastal scenery of Cornwall I feel). Anyway, finally we turned off the main road and up the hill towards the student village that was to be her home for the next term. There an efficient army of people marshalled us through the induction process and we drove past row upon row of purpose-built student house until we found her one. There were countless other cars dropping off students so we had to park a little way away and make several arduous trips to unload the car but eventually all her stuff was piled up in her modern but clean and functional room and we said our goodbye's. I'd already been through this with Daughter no. 1 but I still felt quite emotional about it all. I left her to sort out her room and I headed back to the car.

My dragon site was a place called Broad Pool (located here), in the Cefn Bryn area (Cefn meaning "rear" or "ridge" and Bryn meaning "hill"), which is a central strip of moorland running up the middle of the Gower peninsula. The pool was at the start of the moorland area and after a drive of a little less than half an hour I arrived. I parked up on the side of the road and as it was past 1 p.m. already I decided to have my lunch first. The weather was nice and sunny as forecast though there was a stiff breeze blowing and I did wonder whether it might be too windy for any dragons to be flying but I needed have worried as I saw a couple hunting along the edge of the pool just whilst I ate my sandwiches.

Broad Pool
Suitably refreshed I got tooled up and decided to explore around the main pool first. I headed over to the upwind side where the bank-side vegetation offered some shelter on the surface of the water and where perhaps there might be some lurking insects. As good as this theory was there was nothing to be seen apart from a small patch of Fringed Water-lily which I'd read about as part of my trip preparation. Apparently this had at one stage completely overrun the pool and had had to be managed. Also present was some White Water-lily and various usual marginal plants.

Fringed Water-lily - not looking its best at this time of year
Having explored half the main pool shore-line without seeing any dragonflies at all I decided to head off to one of the numerous satellite ponds that were scattered about around the main pool. From my previous experience in the New Forest I knew how problematic it could be trying to find small heathland pools in terrain like this because you can't see them at all until you're right upon them. Fortunately however I'd already loaded up a map of the area into my phone Google Maps app and as there was a reasonable 4G signal I could track where I was in relation to the pools so it was really straight-forward to navigate around. I headed off due North to the largest satellite pool which I soon found.

One of the satellite ponds
To my excitement I immediately spotted a Hawker hawking away over this pool. Now, having only previously seen Moorland Hawker on one occasion down in Cornwall back when I was a beginner at dragonfly ID and which I'd only retrospectively identified, I was keen to see how I'd get on now that I was much more experienced. I'm pleased to report that I was immediately able to tell that it was a Moorland. For a start the long thin yellow ante-humeral (shoulder) stripes really stood out and it's jizz was very different. It was much more "in-your-face", being very inquisitive (even more so than a Southern) and would often fly really close to me. It was constantly on patrol, never once stopping as it endlessly did circuits of its pool and a smaller one nearby. On a few occasions another male Moorland would appear and there would immediately be a loud clash of wings as the interloper was quickly seen off the premises. 

I spent quite some time trying to get some photographs but I was armed only with my superzoom bridge camera which is very bad at flight shots so it was largely a fruitless effort. I tried a bit of video as well as staking out one spot on its circuit with the focus pre-set but all to no avail. In the end I did somehow manage to fluke one half-decent shot and in the circumstance I was more than happy with this.

Moorland Hawker - the one flight shot that came out
Pleased with having had such good success, after a while I headed back to the main pool where I did a bit more botanising though of course at this time of year there were few flowers about and it was all about leave shapes. In passing I saw a couple more Moorland Hawkers as well as a smaller Darter species that I couldn't get a decent view of.

Ivy-leaved Crowsfoot
Time was marching on and having finished at Broad Pool I pondered what to do. I was feeling really tired from my early waking and somehow hadn't managed to shake it off all day. Still, it seemed a shame to head home so soon and I had prepared an optional bonus exploration of a nearby salt marsh where a couple of Lapland Bunting had been reported recently. After weighting it up, in the end I decided to take a  quick look at this second site before heading home. Now the exact location was a bit vague but it seemed like an interesting little spot so whilst I wasn't holding out great hopes of actually finding the birds at least it would be a different bit of habitat to explore and there were bound to be some interesting plants to look at. So I duly set off for Landimore, a small village some twenty minutes away on the north coast of the Gower peninsula.

I'd done some pre-trip research and had found a bridleway which gave access to a track along the edge of the salt marsh and thought that this was probably the spot that was mentioned in the reports. I parked up and, still feeling very tired, walked the short distance down through a flock of sheep and onto the salt marsh. This turned out to be a large flat expanse extending almost as far as one could see with the sea a long way in the distance. The nearer region consisted of grass and lots of Rushes but in the distance it was all very close-cropped grass and very flat. It was rather all striking.

Looking towards Weobly Castle
Looking out across the extensive salt marsh - it's actually very close-cropped grass all the way out
I'd read that the Lap Bunts had been seen "at the start of the track" with Linnets and there was a spot where a stream ran out over the path where Linnets were coming down to drink regularly but despite waiting quite a while I couldn't see any other birds in amongst them. I wandered along the track some way towards Weobly Castle though there didn't seem to be any obvious spot where one might find a Lapland Bunting. There was of course the vast expanse of the Llanrhidian Marsh out there where a Bunting could easily hide unseen so it was a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack task. There were lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits and out on the marsh were a few distant gulls but little else of note. Still, I rummaged amongst the plants there and came up with some interesting salt marsh specialities. There were lots of gone-over Sea Aster and I found a few things that I didn't recognise so there was something of interest to keep me occupied. I even ventured a bit out onto the marsh to see what it was like and the ground turned out to be very firm with this very close-cropped grass - not at all the boggy terrain that I was expecting.

One of the Glasswort's, I'm not sure which one
Sea Milkwort
A rather tired specimen of Sea Wormwood
I was starting to feel increasingly tired now so despite the lack of any Bunting sightings I decided that it was best to head back to car and to set off for home. I steered the car along the minor roads back up to the M4 and joined maelstrom of the rush hour traffic. Actually, apart from slowing to a stand-still on a couple of occasions it wasn't too bad and the main problem was my increasing tiredness. I really had to focus hard on staying awake and did even contemplate having to stop for a power nap. In the end I perked up and the rest of the journey was uneventful. I made it back to the bosom of my remaining family, now with one less daughter, at a little after 7 p.m., exhausted but still pleased with my first Uni-run excursion to Wales.

Monday, 19 September 2016

A Wander Around Farmoor

When there are no flood waters on my beloved local patch at Port Meadow the birding gets rather tough. It's the waters which are the main draw for birds so in their absence there's not a lot to see and whilst I still make the effort to go out regularly and check it, in truth it can get rather samey and if I don't add a bit of variety to my routine it can "do my head in" after a while. Anyway, so a couple of weeks ago I decided for a change to have a wander around Farmoor Reservoir. This site is probably the top site in the county for birds: it regularly tops the county site year list league table (Port Meadow usually manages to come third, which I think is a great achievement given it's relatively small size and it's proximity to the city) and has an impressive historic rarity list. Whilst there were no proper Rares there to tempt me on this occasion there were a couple of rarer Grebes on offer in the form of a juvenile Red-necked Grebe and an adult Black-necked Grebe. In addition with a juvenile Black Tern to be seen there seemed plenty on offer. So it was that mid morning on a Monday I set off on the short drive to the reservoir.

The weather was pleasantly sunny with a gentle breeze as I got ready and made my way up the bank towards the reservoir. There I met with a couple of returning birders who informed me that the two Grebes were still present over by the "bus shelter" in the south west corner of F2 (the larger of the two reservoirs) and that the Black Tern was hanging out in the north east corner of F2. I decided to start off with the Tern and to walk the length of the causeway and all the way around F2 thereby as a bonus getting a good walk in. The Tern was on view almost immediately working its way back and forth across the corner of the reservoir though for some reason as soon as I got my camera ready to try and take a shot it decided that it had had enough and headed off up the causeway. I decided to wander off in pursuit, passing en route the long-staying moulting drake Pochard that was holed up in amongst the boats.

The drake Pochard, looking rather bored
As I wandered along the causeway I did the usual zig-zag to check the shoreline on either side and I was rewarded for my efforts with a juvenile Ringed Plover though nothing else apart from a few Pied Wagtails. I came across the Black Tern again though it moved off towards the centre of the reservoir before I could get too close. There were quite a few Yellow-legged Gulls of various ages dotted about the centre of the reservoir and towards the western end of the causeway I came across a fine specimen standing on top of one of the buoys.

Yellow-legged Gull

As I wandered along the west shore of F2 I scanned the fence-line for chats but there were none today. The west shore-line itself was comparatively empty of birds but as I approached the south west corner bird numbers started to increase and I soon came across the Red-necked Grebe though it was having a power nap at the time and wasn't looking very photogenic. So I went on another twenty or thirty yards to near a pontoon where the very showy Black-necked Grebe was hanging out. It was having lots of success catching Sticklebacks and was happy to have its photo taken.

The Black-necked Grebe
After a while I went back to the Red-necked Grebe which was now at least awake though by no means as showy as it's Black-necked Cousin.

The more shy Red-necked Grebe
There was also a few Little Grebes about as usual. Now, I don't do proper national year listing at all but I do happen to keep a record of what I've seen and remarkably this was actually the first of this species that I'd come across this year - quite an achievement! In fact that was also true of the Pochard that I'd seen earlier: clearly I need to make more of an effort to get out to gravel-pit or reservoir locations during my birding year.

A Dabchick year tick!
Continuing my journey back towards the eastern side of the reservoir, all the fly fishermen seemed to be congregated down in this corner. I had a narrow escape when one of them starting casting just as I was walking behind him but fortunately he didn't snag me and I yelled out to stop him in mid flow. There were quite a few Migrant Hawker dragonflies along the shore, hunting near the trees though none would settle for a photo. I kept scanning the trees and bushes along the shore, hoping for some warbler action but there was not luck. Back by the car park shore a trio of Common Sandpipers were bobbing their way along the shoreline - always a pleasure to see.

Three Common Sandpipers
I headed back to the car in a contented frame of mind and headed back for home. It had been a very pleasant stroll around Farmoor - I really should do it more often!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Port Meadow - Marshworts & Wagtails

I don't usually blog about my local patch, Port Meadow, within the confines of my Gnome's Birding Diary, chiefly as I have a dedicated blog for that already. However, occasionally there will be things that occur on the Patch which might be of interest to my wider readership and so it is on this occasion with some rare plant news and also a comparatively interesting bird. So with apologies to those who've already read about this on the other blog, here it is again in more detail.

It all started on Saturday morning for the annual Port Meadow Creeping Marshwort survey. My botanist readers will know that Apium repens is a rare UK plant that is only found at Port Meadow. Well, I say only but actually the species guardian Judy Webb was so concerned about it's plight that a second back-up colony was established at another location nearby and in fact it's now doing much better at the back-up location than the original site. The trouble with Creeping Marshwort is that it is highly specialised. It's a pioneer plant, being the first to re-colonise mud banks after floods and relying on its low profile (it's "creeping" nature) to out-survive grazing by livestock which therefore will eat comparatively more of its competitor plants. So, it needs a flood meadow that is reasonably heavily grazed which is why it is to be found at Port Meadow. However, apparently, variations in how much flooding there is and how much grazing there is can make big differences to its survival rate each year. Somehow, despite past year-long floods and prolonged droughts, it still clings on in the Meadow though apparently it isn't doing that well in Europe either. As a matter of interest, due to it's pioneering nature, it moves around a lot and so isn't always found in the same place.

I met up with Judy Webb and one other botanist at the bottom of Walton Well Road at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. Judy had brought along sample leaves of Creeping Marshwort as well as that look-alike Fools Watercress and she warned us that some of the Yellow-cresses can also look very similar. Having done this search previously, I knew just how tricky it can be though if I'm careful enough I like to think that I can generally pick out the genuine article. We started at the southern end and worked our way northwards. Predictably, because of its roaming nature it was no longer in many of the spots where it was usually found though some stronghold areas were still good. We even found one plant that was flowering.

The one flowering specimen

If you get your eye in then you can pick out the distinctive leaf shape.

Showing its creeping runners off to good affect here
The livestock showed a keen interest in undertakings!

There are lots of specialist plants on the Meadow that I'm pretty used to these days but I don't come across Marsh Arrowgrass so often
Whilst we searched diligently away I kept hearing the calling of Yellow Wagtails in amongst the livestock which is quite usual at this time of year. In fact, in the absence of any flood water, this is about the only bird life there is on the Meadow at present! I happened to spot one of them which was an adult female but seemed to have a very blue head and a clean white throat and which therefore had me thinking about female Blue-headed Wagtail. So after the end of the survey I said my farewells to Judy and headed back towards the cattle to see if I could get a photo. However try as I might, I couldn't get one before the weather started to close in and with a thunderstorm threatening I beat a hasty retreat.

The next day I went out again for a quick search for the Wagtail. There were loads of Yellow Wagtails dotted about in amongst the extensive cattle herd which must be well over fifty animals. It was hard work searching through them all as, unusually, many were hanging out in amongst the thicker grasses and thistle where they couldn't easily be seen on the ground. I did hear a different sounding call a couple of times: much more buzzy, bi-syllabic and pipit-like but I could never pin it down. Eventually, hunger started to get the better of me and I started to head back home, scanning through the straggler cows as I did so. As I went I spotted up a nice Wheatear, not such a common bird on the Meadow so I'm always pleased to see one. Suddenly I heard the call again and there was my bird! I whipped out my superzoom and started to pap away as best I could and fortunately this time the bird remained on show long enough for me to capture a few record shots. 

The Blue-headed Wagtail in the bag at last!

On the screen it looked reasonable though there was just a hint of yellow in the supercilium that I was a bit concerned about so I sent my shots to Ian Lewington who confirmed it as a genuine female Blue-headed Wagtail. Get in! So a nice weekend of botanising and birding on my local patch. Whilst it's hard work without the flood waters which make it the birdy place that it normally is, there's still something of interest to be seen there.