Monday, 14 January 2019

Review of 2018

It's time for the obligatory review of the year. As usual I'm a bit late with it but I guess that's just me. In following with my usual format I'll be dividing the review up into various sections: patch birding, county birding, national birding and non-birding (plants and insects etc.). So without further ado let's start with the Patch

Patch Birding
I've already written a fairly comprehensive review of the year for my patch at Port Meadow here so this will just be an executive summary. Both nationally and on a county level, 2018 was a rather poor year, certainly in terms of the number of different species recorded and indeed the county only managed 205 last year compared to a more usual tally of 215 or more. On the Meadow we mustered 124 which is a bit below the usual 130 level that I consider to be a good total though our year lists are very much at the mercy of the vagaries of the flood levels each year so there is a lot of variation in this number and all things considered 124 wasn't too bad. We missed a number of common species which one might expect to get but then got a few rarer ones which one might not generally expect so on the whole it all balanced out.

In terms of the good birds for last year they included several Caspian Gulls, a couple of Iceland Gulls, a couple of Med. Gulls, a brace of Woodcock, an Avocet, a Sandwich Tern (only the third ever record on the Meadow, coming after one last year), a Red-necked Phalarope that was part of a great wader fall one evening in May, a Great White Egret and a Ring-necked Parakeet. By far the best bird of the year was the Phalarope which easily gets the Patch Bird of the Year Award. For more photos and videos of the Meadow highlights of the last year please visit the the Port Meadow Birding blog.

The Red-necked Phalarope - Patch Bird of the Year

Oxon County Birding
As I said above, the county year list last year was a very low total, in keeping with the poor numbers nationally. Still I personally managed a few county life ticks as well as one horrendous miss that will no doubt haunt me for years to come.

Things started well, way back in January of last year when a Green-winged Teal was found at Standlake at Pit 60. Whilst we'd had a couple of American Wigeon in the county since I've been birding it, this Yank ducky cousin had yet to appear so I was pleased to catch up with it during its brief stay.

Green-winged Teal, courtesy of Badger

Some bonus county Hawfinches (part of the mass invasion of last winter) nearby at Northmoor were also much appreciated

Northmoor Hawfinch

There then followed the whole debacle regarding "that Chiffchaff" - a would-be Iberian that turned out to be just an aberrant Chiffy. Whilst it was indeed an "educational" bird and I now know the three parts that go to make up a proper Iberian Chiffchaff song, the disappointment of having that rare county tick snatched away still smarts. To top it all the same day I also slogged over to Suffolk to dip the American Bittern after spending five hours staring in vain at a reedbed.

A trip to Farmoor to see a pair of Bonxies and to appreciated the subtle differences between Arctic and Common Terns was an enjoyable interlude.

There then followed a long lean period in the county and we had almost no decent birds in the autumn at all. Apart from one. Easily the star of the year, the wonderful Richard's Pipit at Woodway, was a real county Mega and made up for the otherwise barren second half of the year.

The Woodway Richard's Pipit, courtesy of Roger Wyatt

The most horrible grip-off of the year was being away down in Cornwall when a twitchable Roseate Tern was found at Farmoor. This species is single-observer seen at Farmoor every few years but to have a twitchable one is a rare event indeed and I think that it will be a long time before I get that one back.

So that was my Oxon county birding year. It only remains for me to post the traditional county review of the year video in case you'd not already seen it.

Cornwall County Birding
These day I am also running a Cornish county list as well as doing regular trips down there. This is all comprehensively covered in my Pendeen Birding blog but it's still worth looking back at what happened down in Cornwall last year.

The first trip was in February half term where it was typical winter fare with Iceland and Glaucous Gulls as well as an over-wintering Black Redstart. From a listing perspective I managed finally to get Marsh Tit on my list with a brief stop-off near Bodmin to Cardinham Woods.

Iceland Gull at Newlyn
In April we went down for.the Easter holiday in what was a very low key trip. The highlights were seeing the first spring migrants arriving, catching a few moths and a brief view of a Hoopoe right as we were about to leave.

Hoopoe record shot
We had our usual two weeks in August down in Cornwall which didn't yield a great deal in terms of birds. There was a Pectoral and a Wood Sandpiper at Drift Reservoir along with a Lesser Scaup (that was a Penwith tick). Talking of ticks I did finally get my first county Marsh Harrier at the same location. Of course, it being August I had to do some sea-watching and saw a nice variety of birds including some large Shearwaters though nothing particularly rare.

The drake Lesser Scaup at Drift
Come October, I was on stand-by to nip down in case something good turned up but in the end the only bird of particular note was of course the Grey Catbird which turned up a few days before the half term so in the end we decided to wait until then and go down en famille. It was a nervous few days but fortunately the birds stayed and I was able to add a third county tick (as well of course as a national lifer). Apart from that there was a Great White Egret, a Spoonbill and a Cattle Egret all at Hayle as well as a few Black Redstarts and a few Poms past Pendeen one stormy morning. All very quiet and if it hadn't been for the Catbird I'd have been frankly disappointed.

The Land's End Grey Catbird
So three county ticks for Cornwall which wasn't too bad, all things considered.

National Birding
Nationally it's been a poor year. Various pundits have been bemoaning the low number of species recorded in 2018 and this was certainly reflected in my unusually paltry tally for UK lifers which came in at a mere five, well below the 12+ that I've been getting the last few years. Of course there is the law of diminishing returns which is ever whittling away at what I still need but even so there seemed to be a real dearth of good twichables this last year. 

So what were these five birds then? The first came in April when I had to do a Durham run. Our eldest daughter would have normally taken the train back up but as it was nearly the end of the academic year and indeed the end of her time altogether at Durham it was decided that it would be useful for me to come up and to bring some of her stuff back home with me as next time it was going to be her graduation and my VLW would be in the car with me and there'd be less room. I took the opportunity to push on over the border to Musselburgh where I managed to snaffle the American White-winged Scoter that was over-wintering there. With a bonus Ring-necked Duck in a park in Edinburgh it was a nice little trip north of the border.

The American White-winged Scoter courtesy of Ian Andrews (c)
The second lifer has a distinct whiff of plastic about it, being the Marbled Duck at Grimley GP's in Worcs. As it's not an official BOU tick it's probably best to draw a swift veil over it. It wasn't until September that I managed to bag my next one in the form of an obliging Ortolan Bunting that hung around near Cosham in Hants one weekend. A quick dash down south soon had it in the bag.

Cosham Ortolan Bunting

October brought another rare Bunting in the form of a Rustic Bunting in the unusual location of Wanstead Flats in north London. A dash around the M25 proved successful and that was the second rare Bunting of the year for me.

Wanstead Rustic Bunting

The last of the five was the Cornish Grey Catbird that I've already mentioned above. In terms of national Bird of the Year it has to be the Grey Catbird in terms of rarity value and also because of the excitement in hoping it would stay long enough for me to see it and the relief at finally doing so.

It's been a rather low key year on the non-birding front as well. I've been on a few orchid trips and a few odonata trips but not very many. In June I made a another attempt at seeing the Fen Orchids at Kenfig NR in Wales and this time, with some local help, I was successful.

Fen Orchids at Kenfig

I also managed to catch up with Musk Orchids and Burnt-tip Orchids this summer, the latter after not finding them the previous year.

Musk Orchid at Noar Hill

Burnt-tip Orchid at Ladle Hill

On the Odonata front, I only made a couple of trips this year but I managed to see the last two rare Emerald Damselflies that I still needed to see in England, namely Southern and Scarce Emeralds. The former turned up at an unlikely location near Beaconsfield whereas for the latter I went to a well established spot on Canvey Island where there were also loads of Southern Migrant Hawker

Southern Emerald

Scarce Emerald
So in conclusion it was a rather low key year but I still managed to see some interesting stuff. I'm rather hoping that the dramatic drop in the number of national UK life ticks will turn out to be just temporary but I fear that it's going to be the new normal as I knock on the door of a BOU tally of around 400 (my Gnome Rarities Committee total is a bit higher than that). I wonder what 2019 will bring.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Woodway Richard's Pipit

After a lunch at Browns restaurant with my VLW and an old Uni friend, I was winding down for the weekend on a Friday afternoon when at around 3 pm I got a Badger text "Richard's Pipit, Downs, Woodway, found by RW". "Bugger!" I thought. Richard's Pipit was so rare in the county that basically you had to go for it but it was also one of those species that could be really hard to twitch. Pipits can of course be rather mobile things and the Downs is such a vast area that it could be almost impossible to see. Still, as I said, basically you had to go for it so I got my gear together, told my VLW I was off on another county wild goose chase and set off. Of course Friday afternoon is absolutely the worst time to try and get out of Oxford. I normally budget on 10 minute from my house to the ring road but today it was chocker everywhere and it was a good 30 minutes today. Whilst in a jam on the Abingdon Road I called up RW to get the latest news. I was fully expecting to hear a "currently being looked for" reply but instead to my amazement he told me that he was still watching it in a field and that other county birders were now starting to arrive. In addition he helpfully told me exactly where to turn off the main road in Blewbury (opposite the garage) and where to park. Armed with the fact that the bird was still there I allowed myself a small glimmer of hope as I finally got to the ring road and fought my way onto the maelstrom that was the A34 on a Friday afternoon. To add an extra frisson to proceedings, my petrol warning light had just come on. However, I wasn't going to waste time filling up now and decided to chance it until the return journey. Finally I was at the Didcot turn-off and eventually, still in heavy traffic, heading east through the various downland villages of West Hagbourne, Upton and eventually Blewbury. There was the garage and I turned off and sped up Wooodway Road. Half way up I caught up with a guy on a moped with an L plate, cruising along at a steady 10 miles an hour in the middle of the road. Now had it been me, I'd have moved to one side to let me pass, but no he chugged along all the way until finally he turned off. Beyond the last house I saw the familiar face of PL walking up the track so I offered him a lift and we negotiated the last few hundred bumpy yards before dumping the car with several others and got our gear out. I was all ready to hurry on up the track when PL looked behind us and said "there they are". Thank goodness I'd not gone tearing off in the wrong direction! Whilst PL coolly sauntered over towards the rest of the group I broke into a trot, arriving breathless to plead "tell me it's still there!" and fortunately, it was. Someone kindly gave me a view through their scope and after an agonising 30 seconds up popped the distinctive head of a Richard's Pipit from the long grass and I could finally relax.

A welcome sight - county twitchers watching the Richard's Pipit

After that I could recover my composure, set up my scope and get directions for the bird for myself. It was looking very calm and settled, working its way through some long grass in a large field just after the last house on the road before the landscape changed into the wide gallops of the proper downs itself. Fortunately the field was fairly uniform and there weren't any hidden dips into which the bird cold disappear. However, It was often hidden from view by the tall grass and was moving constantly so it was easy enough to lose track of. Of course I tried digiscoping it but my battery died before I could take a shot. So instead I had to resort to using my macro moth camera held up to the lens to try and take some photos. Given the constant movement of the bird it was very hard to get a successful shot off but eventually I managed a couple of record shots. RW showed me a couple of absolutely stunning back of the camera photos of the bird that left me drooling.

The best I could manage with my crappy camera held to the scope
Whilst watching the bird I chatted away with the dozen or so other county birders there. RW was joking that this wasn't even a self-found county tick as he'd found the first one back in the autumn of 2002 - one of the perks of having the Downs as a patch I guess! Apart from that one (which stayed about a week), there has been a single-observer record at Otmoor (by PB) in September 2008 on the Pill Ground at Otmoor which I remember looking for the next day, dragging my then two year old son in his pushchair through the mist and bog in a vain search for it. There was also a single observer record from PC in April 2017 at Lollingdon Hill which stayed all of 15 minutes. So this bird was only the fourth county record and only the second twitchable one, with the last being 16 years ago. That's how rare this bird was in an Oxon context. Chatting with the others, it was a county tick for a most of them, some of them even county elders in the upper echelons of county listing.

The sun had already set from where we were all standing by the time I'd arrived at around 4pm and after a while I started to get cold. With a bit of work to finish off that I'd dropped in pursuit of this bird I decided to head back and offered PL, who was also leaving, a lift back to his car. We returned to the Gnome Mobile discover that he'd left the passenger side door open in his haste to go and see the bird! Proper hard core twitchers us! I dropped him off and headed at a much more leisurely pace back towards Oxford, first of course stopping off to get some fuel for the car. There was the inevitable fight with the traffic to get back into Oxford but I didn't mind. I'd manage to see a county Mega and all was well with the world.

Absolutely stunning photos of the bird courtesy of Roger Wyatt

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Half Term Holiday in Cornwall

Another compilation of posts from my Cornish Pendeen Birding blog of our annual October half-term holiday. This time a certain Catbird was an added incentive to go down there!

20th October, Back Down & Treeve Moor
This autumn, I've been very much keeping a keen eye on goings on down in my beloved Cornwall. From afar it looked like it was quite a reasonable autumn with lots of good second tier rarities, certainly a lot better than last year, but somehow lacking the Killer Rare that would tempt me down. My plan was that without something special to force me down, I would come for the Half Term  holiday with my VLW and our son L (with our two grown-up daughters now doing their own thing these days). Of course earlier this week we got the Mother of All Rares, in the form of the Grey Catbird, found at Treeve Moor and only the second for the country. What to do? It seemed a bit excessive to come down on Wednesday for it and return only to come down again at the weekend for the holiday so I decided to tough it out and hope that it stuck around until the weekend. Fortunately, it duly obliged, no doubt in no hurry after its epic Atlantic journey to venture forth over the sea again. So it was that this morning at around 9 a.m. myself and  L (with my VLW away for the weekend and due to come down separately on Monday) set off from Oxford on a gloriously sunny and calm day for the long slog down to the South West. Fortunately the reassuring "still present" message had already come out and so it was with some optimism that I navigated the miles with Radio Four for company to help while away the time. Finally at around 1 pm we arrived at Penzance and some twenty minutes later or so we were pulling up in the car park field next to Treeve Moor where I hurriedly tooled up.

Over the last few days RBA messages for the bird all but dried up in the afternoon so I was expecting that it might well become more skulking at that time and was prepared for a bit of a wait but when I asked some departing birders they reassured me that they'd seen it about half a dozen times in an hour and a half - most  encouraging! They also explained that there were two options for viewing: from the car park field side where you had the strong sunlight in your favour behind you, or the Moor side where you were looking into the sun. They said that it had moved about a bit and often perched up quite nicely so I shouldn't have any trouble. Armed with this information in view of the light I decided to try the car park field side where the majority of other birders were. I went over to join them with L reluctantly in tow and settled down to wait. This waiting went on for some time and after  about an  hour I started to get rather restless. There were a couple of Stonechat flitting about, a soaring Buzzard, a fly-over calling Chough and a few Mipits but that was about it. Finally there seemed to be some movement to one end of the hedge over which we were viewing. It turned out that someone had heard it call and shortly after that I got a brief glimpse of its tail as it ducked back down into a ditch. A technical tick but not very satisfactory. Back to waiting. 

Birders on the car park field side
After a while the half a dozen birders on the far side (compared to about four times that number on our side) starting staring intently at something close by them - they were clearly on the bird which seemed to be deep in cover though. This went on for some time until eventually myself and one or two other (but still surprisingly few) birders decided to make the few minutes walk back to the road and down to the other side. Here I got the tail end of what they were watching as the bird flew out of a nearby bush and back down into the ditch. At least on this side it was much closer, being only 20 yards or so away compared to much further on the far side. So now that was two brief glimpses but still nothing better. L was starting to get restless so I had to appease him with the promise of take-away for dinner that evening. A red Darter species flew by with seemingly a lot of red on its wings though in flight it was impossible to be sure that it was a Red-veined rather than a Common. The birder next to me, who turned out to be a fellow insect enthusiast and I then got talking about odonata, butterflies and all sorts of other diversions from birding during the lean summer months. He told me that he was now into bees and wasps though I told him that I'd taken a look but when it gets to the stage where you need a microscope or a dissecting knife to ID something, then that was a step too far for me.

After another fifteen minutes or so I heard the Catbird "meow" again and suddenly there it was, out in the open on top of the scrub and calling away. At last! I whipped out the trusty super zoom and rattled off some shots - into the light of course but nice and close. After about a minute or so it dropped back down into the ditch again. 

Catbird porn
That was good enough for me and much to L's relief we finally headed back to the car. Then it was time to set off for the cottage, stopping off at St. Just first for some provisions. Then it was time to open up the cottage and for me to catch up on some well-earned tea drinking whilst admiring the scenery which was looking absolutely stunning in the amazing light. Three Wheatears were in the horse paddock field, always a pleasure to watch. There were also a dozen or so butterflies all nectaring away on some Michaelmas Daisies in the same field. As well as lots of Red Admirals there were several Peacocks, a Small Tortoiseshell and a Small Copper that came to sun itself on the wall.

Small Copper
After a while of chilling out in this way it was time to go and get the take-away. We headed back up the road to St. Just where in the end we just got some chips before driving down to Cape Cornwall to eat them whilst watching the sun set. All very nice! Then it was back to the cottage to settle in for the evening. I put on the moth light but in the clear conditions it had got rather cold now and I didn't hold out much hope. After a long day it was soon time to turn in for the evening.

21st October: Pendeen, Land's End, Carn Gloose & Marazion
I woke up far too early this morning, no doubt excited at the prospect of doing my Pendeen rounds once more. I was out shortly after first light where despite the lack of wind there was mercifully not too much of the dreaded Pendeen fog. Indeed it had been a very clear night last night and I did wonder about whether this might lead to a bit of a clear-out. As I started my rounds it did certainly seem to be very quiet. One of the Wheatears was still about first thing though it too soon departed. There was quite a bit of movement overhead with a steady passage of Chaffinch all morning interspersed with the odd Skylark. Apart from that it was pretty much just the usual stuff. There was no sign of the Black Redstart down by the lighthouse nor of the Yellow-browed Warbler up at Calartha. The only point of note was an interesting pale warbler half way up the valley by the S-bend Sallows that I never managed to get a proper look at. Perhaps one that got away. Up at Calartha I met up with a couple of birders, DH and SH who turned out to be friends of TM. We got chatting as you do and walked down the road again together. They went off to look for cetaceans for a while and later reported a couple of Blue-finned Tuna from the cliff top by the cottages.
Early morning Wheatear
Back at the cottage I had breakfast and waited to see what news came in. A Dusky Warbler found by MW at PG at the Coastguard lookout was too far and given the all the Cat Birders who'd be out and about, would probably be too crowded. Instead I opted for a report of a Rosefinch at Land's End car park though it was probably going to be a hiding to nothing. I have a rule of thumb that at least half of all initial Cornish reports turn out never to be seen again and the Land's End Sallows are very hard to bird. Still, L was happy to be left alone for a couple of hours and it wasn't too far away so off I set. There I found, as predicted. that there had been no news so I had a little wander around though apart from quite a few Siskins flyin over there was little of note. I bumped into P&H who reported a Black Redstart at the complex so I went for a look but couldn't find it. Soon it was time to head back to the cottage, stopping off at St Just to pick up provisions for lunch.

After lunch I'd promised L that we could do something that he wanted and he'd opted for the classic tea at Jordans café at Marazion. As this would involve very little exercise on his part at all I suggested that we first went for a little explore along the Carn Gloose road to look for Vagrant Emperors though when we got there it was rather overcast and breezy. Another birder who'd been there over an hour had reported no Emperors so we just did a quick zip round (3 Stonechats and a Kestrel) and headed off to Marazion.

After the usual tea in the car looking out at the sea (you can get more British than that!) we went for a walk along the beach towards the Red River mouth and back along the road. I had a quick scan over the Marsh as we went though there was little to report apart from a singing Cetti's Warbler. Then it was back to the car and off home to the cottage.

Marazion Buzzard

22nd October, Hayle
It was forecast to be windy today and indeed I woke up to a strong north easterly blow. In fact outside it felt stronger than forecast and I hurried around the lower part of my rounds to no avail at all with just a few Mipits being blow hither and thither for my troubles. 

Actually I was feeling a bit under the weather myself so decided to take it easy today. Also, in this  wind  there was little point in bashing the bushes - it would be impossible to see anything anyway. So whilst L stayed at the cottage and amused himself I decided to head over to Hayle where I could sit in the hide out of the wind, hopefully watching the Great White Egret and Spoonbill that had been frequenting Ryan's Field the last few days. I arrived to find that this pair were obligingly indeed doing just that and in fact they posed together quite nicely on one of the islands.

Great White Egret and Spoonbill posing together
Having so easily seen my target birds I decided to pop over to the causeway to see what was about. I always like the Hayle estuary as there are so many birds to sift through: it's the perfect antidote to staring at birdless Sallows for hours at a time, as is so often the case with Cornish birding. There were reasonable numbers of Teal and Wigeon, a few dozen Redshank, good numbers of Lapwing, the usual Curlew and a few Golden Plover. I looked through the smaller gulls for Meds but they were all Black-headed. I was starting to think about heading back when I spotted a familiar face a few yards away. It was a fellow Oxon birder who, like me, comes down to Cornwall regularly. We chatted away as we scanned the flocks. Suddenly I spotted a relatively small white Egret fly in and land. However, rather than it being the Little I was expecting it turned out to be a Cattle Egret instead. Very nice! 

A bonus Cattle Egret
However, after a quick wash and rush up, it stayed no more than a couple of minutes before flying up again and heading off low towards St Erth. I expect that it's in the same cattle fields over there where they over-wintered last year. Very pleased with my bonus find, I put the word out on RBA (not that anyone would be able to twitch it), said goodbye to my companion and then headed back to the car and then to Pendeen. A very successful trip with all three of the rarer "big white birds" in one go!

After that we had a rather quiet day pootling around at Pendeen before  heading over the hill to PZ late afternoon to rendezvous with my VLW who was coming down today on the train having been away for the weekend with friends. After her arrival we headed over to Sainsbury's for a cup of tea and then some shopping before heading back to the cottage for the evening.

23rd October, Pendeen & Kenidjack
Toward we were back to relatively calm conditions again though what wind there was was still from the north, thereby knocking a few degrees off the temperature. Still it was full of optimism that I went out on my rounds today. However, that turned out to be unjustified as Pendeen was remarkably birdless. I searched quite hard in the usual places but to no avail. I even tried the Manor Farm loop where in the Sallows I had an exciting encounter with a Sparrowhawk that crashed into the the Sallow I was standing in front of, knocking out a few of  the birds, before chasing one of them hell for leather around the back and out of sight - I never got to see the outcome of this chase. Up at Calartha I met with local birder PC. I'd know for a while that he'd moved to Pendeen but had not actually had a chance to meet with him until now. He'd seen nothing either so we went our separate ways, me back to the cottage to get on with the day. We spent the rest of the morning in the cottage, taking an inventory of what DIY tasks needed doing (fighting the relentless onslaught of damp, as always). Then we had an early lunch before setting out for the afternoon. Our plan was to head over to Kenidjack, walk around to Cape Cornwall then back to St Just for tea and then back to the car. 

As we walked down the valley I couldn't help but marvel at the contrast between all the fantastic cover here compared to the sparse habitat down at Pendeen. Whilst the other two yomped on ahead I lingered, grilling all the likely spots for sprites. Sadly, it seemed as empty here as at Pendeen. 

We ended up walking right down to the end of the valley, thinking that we could walk across the beach to the Cape but the tide was in so we had to retrace our steps. Back at the last house we met JS & E and stopped for a chat. As we talked a mixed flock was moving through the Sallows and I spotted a Yellow-browed in amongst them - my first of the trip down here. We watched it flitting through the Sallows for a while but then as we were running late we bade the others farewell and hurried across the stream and up the hill. I could hear the Yellow-browed calling from across the valley as I climbed the far side. 

Pink Sorrel
As time was marching on we decided to turn left at the top and head back towards Boscean and then down to the car where we then drove the short distance to St Just for our tea. We tried out a new café today which we all rather liked. Then  it was back to the cottage for the evening.

Rusty-dot Pearl - a migrant moth

24th & 25th October, Pendeen
A very quiet day today. I did my rounds as usual with virtually nothing to show for my efforts apart from a few fly-over Skylarks. There was nothing else of note at all - my Pendeen rounds are proving depressingly unproductive. After that it was time to start some DIY activities which occupied the rest of the morning. 

In the afternoon we went out to buy a few things that we decided we needed on the back of our morning efforts and then we went off to the Tremenheere sculpture park for tea. On the way back we stopped off at Gulval church yard for a look around. It was a lovely piece of habitat with all sorts of interesting plants and trees there. I wonder if anyone checks it out regularly. Then it was shopping at Sainsbury's and back home. Whilst out, news had come out on the pager of a Black Redstart at Pendeen lighthouse so I went for a stroll down there to see if I could find it. It turned out to be right on the cliffs on the north west corner where it was feeding away on what was a nice sun trap in the company of a Wheatear.

The Black Redstart on the cliff

The Wheatear at the top of the cliff
Pleased finally to have seen something of note at Pendeen I headed back to the cottage for the evening.

The next day in view of the poor local birding I treated myself to a bit of a lie in before venturing out at around 9 a.m. Down at the lighthouse I found the Black Redstart was this time in the complex itself and that it had picked up a companion, also  a female/first-winter bird. The Wheatear was also still about within the complex but that was about it. I met PC on my rounds again who'd also seen very little.

One of two Black Redstarts this morning

..and a pair of Stonechats offered some photographic interest
After that  it was more DIY in the cottage. In the afternoon a sudden work emergency had me stuck to the computer whilst the others went to Geevor for tea. Apart from a brief birdless walk down to Boat Cove that was it.

26th October, Pendeen Sea-watch & a Troubled Journey Home
With the weather forecast to deteriorate over the weekend, we decided to head back on the Friday. However, with a strong north westerly wind forecast it seemed rude not to pop down to the Watch first thing to try out the sea for a bit. I wasn't in a particular hurry and didn't arrive until 8:40 a.m. where to my surprise I found that I had the place to myself. Too late in the season I guess for the hardcore locals but as a visitor, I had to take my chances when I could get them. The wind turned out to be a bit more northerly than expected and it was hard to find somewhere sheltered and in the end, instead of the usual spot in the corner where everyone sits I opted for a corner further east where a small "step" in the wall offered a bit of a corner to hide behind. 

White horses on a stormy Pendeen sea

Having got myself set up, I was no more than five minutes in, noting a constant passage of Auks and Kittiwakes, when the big lumbering shape of a Bonxie hove into view. It's always nice to get the first notable bird of the session under ones belt and I watched with satisfaction as it passed by fairly close in. Some fifteen minutes later I spotted something else: it seemed to be shearing away and in the first instance I was therefore thinking Shearwater but on closer inspection turned out to be an adult pale-phase Skua. It's jizz was clearly too light for a Pom and I just managed to make out a breast band and the extended tail and concluded that it was an Arctic.

DB and her family arrived and went to settle in the more traditional viewing spot. I went over to say hello and to check out the wind there but decided that it was still winder than where I was so I returned to my spot. A little while later I picked up a dark-phase Sku. With it's wide "arm" and powerful purposeful flight it could only be a Pom. I watched it as it flew west only to discover that it was with a couple of pale-phased birds as well. Very nice! After they passed I went over to the other party who'd also seen them and we all agreed on Pom as the ID. After that it went rather quiet and I left some time after 10:15 a.m. All in all, not a bad way to end the holiday's birding.

Back at the cottage there was much to do in preparation for our departure which, as always, took far longer than you'd think so it wasn't until after midday that we were on our way. We'd just stopped off at Hayle for our sandwiches and were settling down for the long slog up the A30 when there was a loud bang under the bonnet and a warning message came on the display. After that, the car had little power and no acceleration - it had clearly gone into "lock-down" power limiter mode which it "helpfully" does when something goes wrong. We limped on in this way so that I might assess how easy it would be to get home in this state but it clearly was going to be too much so we pulled in at the services by the St. Agnes turn-off and I called our roadside rescue service. After an hour we were picked up and relayed to a Volvo dealership in Truro. After having described the problem, they reckoned that it might be the turbo charge pipe. Given that the workshop had nothing else to do that afternoon they said that they could take a look to see if they could patch it up. After a lot of waiting around (thank heavens I had my book with me) we were told that they'd manage to sort it out enough to get home. So it was that some time after 5 pm were were finally back on the road and working our way through the Truro rush hour. Fortunately once finally back on the A30 the traffic was fairly light and eventually at around 9:30 in the evening we were back home again. Not exactly the end to our holiday that we were hoping for but at least we were back safely in one piece.

As a memento of the wonderful Catbird, here is an exquisite photo of it taken by Dennis Morrison (c)
Taken from his RBA Gallery here

Friday, 19 October 2018

Getting Rustic in Wanstead

After a year and particularly an autumn that everyone has been complaining about as unusually poor on the twitching and rarities front, suddenly in the last couple of weeks thinks have kicked off big time. With rares (and indeed firsts for Britain in the form of a White-rumped Swift up in Yorkshire) landing everywhere I had definitely been woken from my twitchless torpor and was keeping a keen eye on my RBA app for something appropriate to go for. The Grey Catbird down in Cornwall very nearly tempted me but it was just a bit too far, especially since I was going to be down there at the weekend anyway for a family half term holiday, so instead I decided to hang on and hope that it stayed long enough for me to see it. However, when on Tuesday evening a Rustic Bunting was found at Wanstead Flats in London this certainly piqued my interest being well within my preferred (though these days not very strict) two hour travel limit. Accordingly I decided to wait on news the next morning.

The next day it was reported just after 8 a.m. and then again at around 10. That was good enough for me but unfortunately a bit of unfinished work kept me at my desk for longer than I would have wanted so it wasn't until around 11 that I finally left. There was no further news until I hit the M25 where the dreaded "no further sign by 11:30" was reported. What to do? Recalling that I was faced with the same dilemma last time when I successfully twitched the Hampshire Ortolan, I declined the option to turn back immediately. My thinking was that by heading on to the site at the very least it would offer those already there a chance to refind it and if there was still no sign then I could fairly quickly give up and head back home. Mentally I downgraded my expectations on this twitch and soldiered on through the heavy traffic.

By the time I got to the M11 there was a "still seen at 11:32 though elusive" message. Perhaps there was hope yet! I negotiated the rather heavy traffic and shortly after 12:30 pulled up in the main car park on Wansted Flats. This was not a location that I'd been to before though I knew of it from the bloggings and photos of Mr. Jonathan Lethbridge, the Wanstead Birder. It turned out to be a large flat scrubby area plonked in the middle of a sea of Victorian housing. I could see how this might attract birds: in the ocean of concrete that is London this would be an attractive island of green. I tooled up and spotting some some milling birders in the general direction I was expecting, I hurried off to join them.

Wanstead Flats - offering welcome relief from the concrete for vagrant buntings
After a brisk five minute walk I asked the first birder I met what the situation was. He explained how the bird had been feeding in the area of burnt gorse for a while before suddenly flying all the way over to the car park, then back to here and then off towards some trees a good distance away. "No one really knows where it is at all" he concluded gloomily, thereby confirming my fears for this twitch. I soon met up with PL (I would have been surprised had he not been here, frankly) and also SJ who had twitched by train. They had arrived a good half hour before me and sadly had not seen the bird at all. We all milled around for a bit and then I decided to have a wander around to see if I could find it. To the raucous accompaniment of the resident Ring-necked Parakeets I wandered around scouring the scorched earth for Buntings. I'd been no more than a few minutes on my circuit when I noticed a change in the demeanour of some of the birders who were no longer milling but instead were actively scouring a burnt clump of gorse. I started to hurry over as a call from PL confirmed that it had been seen. It turned out that it had flown in calling and had landed in the aforementioned clump where it was presently lost to view. The assembled birders gradually worked their way around the clump, looking for that angle which would reveal the bird when it flew up into a branch and someone called it. I hurried over and got my first glimpse of it, with it's back to me, for a few seconds before it flew off a short distance. We all followed it as it made a couple of hops like this before settling in a patch by a couple of trees. There it flitted down to feed (it may have been seeded here) and back up into the tree several times before having a good preen and generally offering great views. Naturally I had a go at some digiscoping but the results were largely of record shot quality.

The bright light made things rather contrasty (hence the poor photos) though it was easy enough to see the diagnostic rusty flanks that made it a Rustic as well as the other more subtle features that marked it out from your common or garden Reed. After perhaps ten minutes of this it then flew a relatively short distance and landed in another clump out of sight. "Good enough for me" I thought and the Oxon crew took the liberty of some high fiving and indulged in some relaxed post-tick banter.

A few seconds of video of the Rustic Bunting

Having seen the bird relatively quickly I decided not to hang around but to head back as I had more work to finish off. Accordingly I had a quick half-hearted and fruitless wander around the clump where it had appeared to go down in before heading back to the car and de-tooling. I then headed off via a little detour to a petrol station that I'd noticed on Google maps from the night before when doing my pre trip research. Then it was back into the maelstrom of London traffic and the M25 and M40 where I arrived back just before 4 pm for my post twitch celebratory cup of tea.

By far the best photo that I've seen of this bird, taken by Anthony Williams (c).
Taken from the photographer's RBA Gallery here

On my way to the Bunting I did just nip in to Wolvercote where Steve Goddard had kindly
kept a Clifden Nonpareil for me. A much prized species amongst moth'ers I was very
pleased to see this rather battered specimen

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Rainy Wales

In recent years at this time of years my birding pulses would be quickening at the prospect of the next great Uni Run up to Durham to take Daughter 1 back up to the North East for the start of her next term. Sadly now that she has finished there, those trips to places like Spurn are no longer going to be an annual event. Daughter 2 is still at Uni in her final year but sadly Swansea doesn't offer quite the same birding opportunities that Durham does and each trip I rather struggle to find much of interest to stop off at on the way back. This year I had been intending to pay another visit to the Common Hawkers on the Gower Peninsular but with the forecast for torrential rain all day I had to shelve that idea. Instead, given the recent wreck of Grey Phalaropes that have been blown ashore all around the area I thought that this would probably be the most interesting opportunity for this part of the country. There were no shortage of them to pick from in Glamorgan with at least four different locations sporting this diminutive wader but in the end I chose a pair at Pilning Wetlands, by New Passage in Gloucestershire, partly because it was the shortest detour off the way back but also partly that I'd always wanted to visit this area and have always enjoyed the landscape along the River Severn whenever I'd seen it: somehow there's a rather eery and bleak feel to this sort of place which I really like. So that was the plan.

We headed off from Oxford just after 9 am and soon hit the wall of rain. In horrible driving conditions, and fighting hard to concentrate after a poor night's sleep we headed west until we reached Swansea itself where a horrendous traffic jam due to some road works and some really poor traffic light coordination (I was stuck waiting to move for twelve consecutive traffic light cycles as there was just no way to get across a busy junction) after an hour and a quarter in the jam we finally made it to D2's new student digs. They were suitably horrible and run down though she had a lovely large room at the top of the house which was well-appointed with a fabulous view overlooking the city and the sea beyond. Having unloaded her stuff we said our goodbyes and I headed back, choosing this time to keep well away from the city centre and to head out of the city by another route.

Back on the motorway, it was continuous rain all the way as I headed back east. I had half a mind to abandon my plan to stop off but I was curious at least to see New Passage and the river so I made my way over the river via the old Severn bridge on the M48 and then turned southwards towards New Passage that lies underneath where the new bridge crosses the river. There I parked up, donned all my waterproof clothing (realising at this point that I'd forgotten my waterproof trousers - Doh!) and headed off towards the Severn Way, the path that runs along the bank of the river. I was soon crossing The Pill (a small tidal stream that flows out into the river here) and then walking the short distance along the Severn Way towards the Pilning Wetlands area. To the river side of the path was flooded grassland that was full of Canada Geese, Mallards and Teal as well as a few Lapwings and Meadow Pipits. It very much reminded me of Port Meadow in winter time back home.

Looking back towards the new bridge in the gloom

Looking north from New Passage towards the old bridge and Old Passage

After no more than a couple of hundred yards I arrived at the Wetlands which consisted of a series of scrapes and shallow lakes on the inland side of the path. The first one hosted a few dozen Black-headed Gulls, some Black-tailed Godwits, a few Redshank and a single Green Sandpiper.The second scrape held half a dozen Moorhens and the two Phalaropes, an adult and a first winter, both feeding away frantically with their clockwork toy action as they do. In the on-going rain I didn't really fancy doing much digiscoping but did take a quick bit of footage for the record.

The adult Grey Phalarope, the younger bird being out of view at the time

Beyond this was another deeper lake with a flock of several dozen Hirundines, mostly Swallows with a few House Martins, all hawking away madly in the rain. I searched through them carefully for something rarer but there was nothing of note. I spent some time taking in all the gloomy but very atmospheric landscape. What a great patch this would make I mused though realised that I couldn't live so close to the motorway: the constant roar of traffic would drive you mad after a while. After a while the lack of waterproof trousers started to get to me and I headed back to the Gnome mobile, got out of my waterproofs and cranked the heating up to 11 to dry off. I then headed back onto the rainy motorway and made my way back home to Casa Gnome where I collapsed on the sofa with a hot cup of tea and one of our two cats sitting on my lap. It had been a long and extremely wet day out.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Hang up the Bunting for the Ortolan

I've been playing a bit of a game with myself over this autumn passage season: if something comes up on the pager that I "need" and I were hypothetically to drop everything and go for it then would I have got it? The rules are simple, I allow myself 15 minutes or so from actually seeing the news to "get ready", I then allow the usual length of time to get to the location and if there is subsequently some positive news on the bird then I assume that I would have got it. This armchair twitching is a way of playing along (a bit like Fantasy League Football) when in practice I'm too busy or it's too far for me to contemplate going for a bird in real life. One of the reasons for playing this is that there are certain relatively common species which somehow still elude me and I was wanting to know if I really dedicated my autumn exclusively to birding then how many of them could I finally get? One such species on my list is Ortolan Bunting. Whilst this species is reported every autumn in reasonable numbers it's actually remarkably hard to twitch. A good proportion of the reports are fly-overs which are of course no good at all and in fact some are recorded during the night and identified by sonogram the next day. What's more, occasional birds that are actually seen on the ground seem often not to stick around and in my twitching game, despite this being a really good autumn for them, there have been a whole series of misses. In fact, there's only been one occasion where I would have connected: had I dropped everything to head off to Spurn one morning then I would have got a pair which stayed around in the stubble field north of Clubleys Field near the Warren a while ago. Since then there was a promising report of three birds in a stubble field in Sussex that I hypothetically dipped on so it was proving really hard to get this bird. 

Finally on Friday something more promising turned up: a bird north of Cosham in Hampshire actually proved to be a "game tick" as it was found mid afternoon and then stuck around for the rest of the day, even "showing well". Could this actually be one of those rare Ortonlans that stick around? The next morning it was report again at first light and then again forty five minutes later. Now whilst normally I wouldn't be able to contemplate a weekend twitch, it so happened that my VLW was presently away looking after her ageing mother and would not be arriving back until later on in the day. This meant that I was left looking after our twelve year old son L with help from one of our grown-up daughters who'd not yet gone back to Uni for the autumn term. Fortunately she wasn't due in work until mid morning so it would mean that L would only on his own for a couple of hours were I to have a crack at this bird. He seemed happy about it so it was that shortly after 8 am I was in the Gnome mobile and heading off down the A34 towards the south coast.

There was no news either way on the journey until I hit the M3/M27 junction where negative news came out (present till 8 a.m. when it flew off and no further sign by 8:45 a.m.). What to do? I did seriously contemplate turning around at this point and heading back for home. However it was only another twenty minutes or so to the actual site and I felt that at the very least I'd like to see the field in which an Ortolan Bunting had been. A bit strange I know but it would be a chance to see a part of the country that I wasn't so familiar with and to stretch my legs before the slog back home. I accordingly headed on towards Portsmouth and was rewarded for this choice when no more than ten minutes later a "still present" message came up! "Wow, I might actually get to see this bird!" I thought as I quickened my pace. My turn-off came soon enough and I navigated my way through the suburbs of Cosham before the Sat Nav took me on a steep road up to the hills that tower over this area that make up the Ports Down area. Turning down a narrow road I was greeted with the familiar sights of cars parked everywhere that a car could reasonably be squeezed in. This was clearly the spot! I added my car to the collection, got tooled up and hurried down the hill to a bend in the road where there was a gathering of about thirty or so birders all standing in the corner of a field. A quick enquiry revealed that the bird had last been seen about fifteen minutes ago before flying down into the stubble in the field in which we stood though in the long grass and stubble it was completely hidden from view. At the very least we ought to see it fly out I thought though I have seen birds do disappearing acts in situations like this before so nothing was certain. I found a position in the twitch line and waited.

More people arrived and joined the throng, all intently watching the field and the favoured Hawthorn bush in the corner where it liked to perch. PL from Oxon arrived shortly after me - to be honest I'd been half expecting him as he and I have similar twitch distance limits and are not a million miles apart in terms of what we still need to see. We chatted away quietly as we waited. 

Some of the twitchers, watching the favoured Hawthorn bush (under the pylon) expectantly

Gradually I started to get impatient and not a little bit worried. It had been getting on for three quarters of an hour now with no luck. A very distant Bunting had appears on some telegraph wires in the next field which had got some members of the crowd rather excited and in the haze and because of the distance it wasn't so easy to see what it was. I could tell that it wasn't an Ortolan as it had a noticeable supercilium and eventually the consensus was reached that it was a female Reed Bunting. A few Chiffies were flicking around in the hedgerows, Wood Pigeons and the occasional Stock Dove were flying over and a Sparrowhawk quartered over the fields before disappearing. Eventually a young man made his way down the twitch line asking if people might mind if a bijou flushette were organised as it had been getting on for an hour now. Of course no one minded as we all wanted to see the bird. So a party of a few birders headed off around to the far hedge and slowly and gradually worked their way down towards the area where the bird was seen. "This was where we discover that the bird has done a disappearing act" I worried, but I needn't have done as soon after a shout went up as the bird flew back up into its favourite bush. Here it sat contentedly enough having a good preen and giving really great views to the assembled crowd. I clicked away with my digiscoping gear though conditions were rather hazy and very contrasty so it wasn't that easy.

It was a great opportunity to view this species at close quarters and the almost comically large yellow moustachial stripes were clearly visible as was the pale yellow eye ring. It had quite a long jizz to it (as many Bunting species often do) and from behind the plain grey rump was clearly visible. I couldn't really hope for much better views of this species and I greedily drank it all in.

 The bird sat happily enough for quite some time and with my son in mind, I decided that I'd had my fill and chose to head off back home. According to PL a little while later it flew back down into the field so was none the worse for being nudged up into the tree. Meanwhile I headed back though the traffic, which had been light on the way down, had got a lot worse with a jam where the two M27's merged with the M3 and another one near Newbury thanks to a county show. What's more getting into Oxford was the usual nightmare that it is on a Saturday so the whole return journey took forty five minutes more than it should have done. Still I was back in time for lunch and L, who'd done his homework and then spent the entire rest of the morning gaming was happy enough. It had been a successful twitch and this hard to get species was finally in the bag.